written as a Secret Santa gift in 2018 for gryffin
“That’s it. Just one more.”
Summoning all the strength he had left, Marcus managed to get the bar up before letting it fall into the bar catches above him and on either side of his head on the weight bench.
“That was excellent, man. You’ve earned a breather,” said his trainer, Troy, pulling his hands back now that the weights were secure and Marcus didn’t need to be spotted.
Thank God. Of the ‘push to failure’ mentality, Troy didn’t often give him a moment to breathe and collect himself, but Marcus was relieved to take it this time. His breaths were heavy, rapid. His body felt just about ready to give out on him. And his arms had been shaking pretty badly on that last one. Marcus hadn’t been sure he’d get that last press in and had been mentally cursing for agreeing to add that extra ten pounds on this morning. In the end, though, that extra weight had made it feel even sweeter when he’d succeeded… just like Troy said he would when they started, damn him.
“All right,” Troy said, removing the extra weights from the bar. He swiped his arm across his face absentmindedly and stepped back, looking at the arrangement. He nodded in satisfaction. “One more round.”
“Noooo!” Marcus groaned.
“Oh, I’m sorry, that wasn’t up for debate. Which one of us is the fitness trainer here?”
Grumbling, “You are.”
“That’s right. And which one of us is paying to get more upper-body strength?”
“I am,” he sighed. This gym membership and sessions with Troy twice a week weren’t exactly cheap either. Troy was one of the best trainers in the city, and Marcus had been grateful to get a spot as one of his clients. Troy promised results as long as you did what he told you to do and gave it your all. Not to mention the fact that he was drop-dead handsome. He was an intimidating bronze god with dusky gray-blue eyes and dark brown hair in a textured crop. Marcus wasn’t at all ashamed of the massive crush he had on the man, though he assumed every one of Troy’s clients probably felt the same way.
“Then listen to your trainer. Stop complaining and get your hands on that bar. Now.”
Marcus obeyed. He gripped the bar again, looking up at it and then looking up at the upside-down Troy taking up his position at the head of the bench again. “I want to see smooth, controlled movements. I know you’re tired, but that’s no excuse to get sloppy. Get sloppy, get hurt. Remember no jerky motions when you straighten up and keep those elbows tucked on the way down.”
“Got it,” Marcus promised him.
“You can do this.” The certainty in his trainer’s voice filled Marcus with a much-needed rush of confidence. Troy wouldn’t say that if he didn’t mean it. Marcus could do this. Marcus would do this. He adjusted his grip, making sure his pinky was on the ring mark of the bar, making sure his wrists were straight, making sure his thumb was on the correct side. After taking a deep breath, he unracked the bar by carefully straightening his arms and moving it so it was above his shoulders.
Then he bent his arms, lowering the bar to his mid-chest. Gathering his strength, he pressed the bar back up until his arms were straight again. He could feel the muscles in his arms straining, but he felt safe enough with the weight above him as long as he kept his arms locked at the elbows.
“That was one. I only need four more from you.”
“Don’t think… I can do any more…” Marcus gasped. “My arms… too weak… shaking…”
“I’ve seen worse. I know you can do this. You’re getting stronger every time you work out. Just get it over with, and then we’ll move on to something different.”
Marcus had no doubt that Troy’s ‘something different’ really meant ‘something brutally worse.’ It was planks, probably, or maybe box jumps. Marcus wondered not for the first time why he was even doing this. It was six in the morning—a time when most people are still fast asleep or just sitting down for coffee and breakfast—and here he was sweating and straining at the gym, being tortured by a trainer until his body completely gave out.
But he thought of those tight abs he admired. He thought of the round biceps he wanted. He thought about burning off every damn calorie of that pasta dish he’d had for dinner the night before. If he could start his day off by giving his body every advantage, it would only mean good things to come.
Assuming, naturally, that he did not die during this workout. As he bent his elbows, lowering the bar toward his chest again, he wasn’t so sure he would get through this alive. His left arm trembled badly and his right hand’s grip slipped just a little, trying to compensate. He looked back, expecting to see Troy’s hands there, ready to catch the bar if he couldn’t hang on so the weight wouldn’t come crashing down, crushing Marcus’ neck and windpipe. But his spotter wasn’t there anymore. Troy had stepped back so Marcus couldn’t see him.
Suddenly alarmed, pure panic helped him straighten his arms again. He angled them back and just managed to get the bar into the catches, letting the metal rack cradle the weight safely. Breathing deeply, trying to control his racing heartbeat, Marcus tilted his head back to see what Troy was up to. The fact that he hadn’t called Marcus out for giving up after just two reps wasn’t a good sign.
Troy stood back further than he should have been, but he still had his arms outstretched, as if he thought he was within range of grabbing the bar if needed as a spotter. He had his head turned to the side, though, angled slightly toward his shoulder. His mouth was open. His eyes were closed. His chest was rising and falling with shallow, quick breaths. And his nostrils were flaring. All of this, Marcus saw upside-down and from below. And none of it made sense. “What the hell, Troy?”
Startled, Troy blinked. He scrubbed the back of his hand and his wrist at his nose and inhaled sharply. “Shit, sorry, man. Felt like I was gonna sneeze.”
Marcus raised his eyebrows. “You get that distracted when you have to sneeze?”
“Woke up with this annoying little tickle in the back of my nose. Couldn’t shake it. And, for a second there, I thought I was finally going to sneeze and get rid of it. But…” He rubbed his hand back and forth over his nose. “The damn thing’s still there. I just want one good, strong sneeze to make this tickle go away. ”
A sneeze. Troy was this preoccupied over what was just a sneeze. Marcus didn’t exactly feel sympathetic. “Yeah, well, I could’ve hurt myself just now. My arm gave out.”
“I’m so sorry,” Troy repeated. “It won’t happen again.”
But from his spot lying on his back on the bench, he could see Troy’s nostrils flaring again already. He really did have to sneeze badly. And it really was really bothering him. “You’re right, it’s not. I’m done with the bench press for the day.” After inching down the bench, he swung his leg around to the other side and sat up. He looked over at Troy—right side-up this time—whose eyes were already closing again. Finally. Once the guy sneezed, all this unnecessary drama would be over. Marcus watched as Troy wound up for it, licking his lips, squaring off in a stable stance, lifting his hand in front of his face, preparing himself like an athlete before a major competition.
“ih! nhehhh! HIH!”
But then he froze, his whole body going still except for his twitching nostrils. This lasted a few seconds, then his whole body relaxed, almost melting into a slump. Almost. Even frustrated and compromised, though, Troy was still fit. “Went away again. Damn,” he mumbled, scrubbing at his nose. “I just need to sneeze and get it over with. I know it’s gonna be massive when it comes out after all this.” He shrugged and gave one more swipe at his nose for good measure. “Is anyone over by the wall?”
Marcus had to stand and turn to see that corner of the gym. He was tempted to say that yes, someone was. He knew this meant he’d be working on the roller, and that was more discomfort than he really wanted after a near death experience so early in the morning. But the gym was almost deserted this time of morning, and lying wasn’t going to get him anywhere with Troy. “No.”
“Excellent. Foam roller it is, then. Let’s go.”
The wall by the dumbbell stand, medicine balls, and foam rollers was covered by a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Certainly the idea was to allow you to check and make sure your form was right as you were working out. But Marcus had always found it intimidating. There was nowhere to hide. Everyone could see the ugly, grimacing faces he made when he did an especially strenuous exercise. And he didn’t dare roll his eyes at an instruction or Troy was sure to see.
At least, that was the case on a normal day. Troy seemed more distracted than ever now, raising his hand and rubbing his nose every few seconds. Marcus got to work anyway, palms on the floor, legs stretched out beneath him, foam roller attacking his calves from below as he rolled himself backward and forward. When he was done with that, he waited for instructions from Troy. But Troy wasn’t even looking at him. His eyes looked glassy, unfocused. His tongue rested on his bottom teeth, his whole face went slack. Marcus switched to working the fronts of his thighs, this time face down toward the mat, pulling himself forward and back again with his arms. But he broke proper form in order to keep an eye on Troy the entire time.
Troy’s breath quickened to shallow little gasps and his eyelids fell shut. The corners of his mouth turned down. And then, suddenly, Marcus could actually hear the sneeze coming on. “N’hih! yeh-hehhhhh…” Troy turned, his intention being to give himself a bit of privacy as he sneezed. But with the mirror there, Marcus got an even clearer look at his face. His nose twitched desperately, his eyes squeezed shut even tighter, and his whole body hunched forward. “hehh-IHHHHTChhooo! Huh-huh-huh-IHHTSHuhhhh! Uh… sniff!” He grabbed the bottom of his tank top, pulled it up, and tented it over his nose, squeezing and wiping.
When he did this, Marcus was treated to a view of the man’s six pack abs. They were enviable but also made him look dead sexy. They took Marcus’ breath away for a full second. And he wanted to look around to see if anyone else in the gym had noticed them, to see if anyone else was eyeing his trainer, but he also didn’t want to take his eyes off them.
Sniffing, Troy pulled his top back down into place and let out a loud sigh of relief. “Those’ve been building all morning! Feels good getting ‘em out finally.” He sniffed again. “Now, where were we?”
“Just finished my third set.”
Troy narrowed his eyes. “Nice try. I wasn’t sneezing for that long.”
“I mean, my second set.”
“That’s better. Go on then.”
But Marcus didn’t. There was a faraway look in Troy’s eyes; his trainer was distracted yet again. Then his eyes closed completely. He lifted the neck of his tank top up this time to catch his sneeze. “Hnnn-IHKShooo! HET’Choo!” As Marcus was treated to another spectacular view of Troy’s abs, Troy wiped his nose. When he seemed satisfied his nose was dry, he let go of his shirt, letting it fall back into place, grimacing for a second at the wetness against his skin.
“Bless you. Hey, are you all right?”
Troy nodded but more-so to himself, as though he hadn’t really even registered the question.
“Only you’ve been sneezing a lot this morning. Is it allergies?”
The more direct question seemed to jostle Troy out of his own thoughts. “Oh. No, it’s not. I’m not allergic to anything.” He narrowed his eyes at Marcus. “I don’t see you working your IT band. Why is that?”
With a sigh, Marcus straightened his arm with his palm flat on the mat, tucked the roller beneath the side of his thigh, and used his foot to roll his body from side to side over the roller. He felt where his muscles were tightest and worked the strong foam harder there. But he didn’t stop thinking about those sneezes. He liked solving these kinds of puzzles. “Maybe… maybe it’s something new at the gym? A new laundry detergent they’re using on the towels or a new cleaning product for the mats here?”
Troy shook his head. “But I woke up with my nose tickling. I hadn’t made it to the gym yet. And, no, I haven’t made any changes at home lately. Switch sides.”
Happily, Marcus stopped rolling, even though he knew the respite was short-lived. He flipped to his other side, got into position, and started working his body over the form roller, sliding it along his thigh, using his bodyweight to press down so the roller dug into his muscles. Sometimes it felt good, like a massage. But most times it hit the sensitive band in his leg, making him grit his teeth.
After a couple minutes, Marcus felt like he had worked it enough, but Troy hadn’t told him to stop. In the mirror’s reflection, he only saw the back of Troy’s head. Deciding to stop, Marcus leaned back, looking up to see Troy with his thumb and index finger tightly pinching his nose. His face was contorted, as if fighting something, with his brow furrowed, his lips pressed tightly together, and his eyes closed. It was a fight he was losing. “eh!” The gasp escaped him and his mouth dropped open again. “nehhh-IHHtshooo!” He lowered his hand, considering it hadn’t done what he’d meant it to do anyway, and then his nostrils flared widely. He pulled the neck of his tank top up again, sneezing into it. “Heh-IHDSHhhh! Ehhptshooo! Urgh…” He made a face as he lowered the neck of his tank. Then he pulled the shirt off over his head in one graceful movement. He balled it up and tossed it over to the wall where his water bottle was.
With Troy’s chest fully on display now, Marcus tried not to stare. But it was almost impossible to look away. He saw every move Troy made, from the rubs of his knuckles beneath his nose to the quiet sniffs that made his nostrils flare and made his perfect chest rise and fall. Marcus was about to suggest they cut their training session short today so Troy could get a handle on whatever was going on with him, when Troy sneezed again.
This time, he quickly cupped his hand to his face, covering his nose and mouth. “hahh-DDSHhuhhhhhh! Ugh… oh d’no.” He looked around and then gave a desperately wet sniffle. But the gym didn’t exactly have tissue boxes out for use the way it had towels and Lysol wipes for equipment. His gaze fell upon the check-in desk on the far side of the room. “Be right back,” he said snuffily before heading over.
Marcus saw him approach the large, wooden desk where a twink sat, apparently involved in a series of text messages. Marcus spoke from behind his cupped hand, gesturing with his other. The guy didn’t even look up from his phone as he tilted his head in one direction. Troy reached over the counter, found the tissue box, and pulled a tissue out. He quickly blew his nose, and dropped the tissue in the bin beside the desk. Then Troy returned, apparently ready to resume the session as if none of that had just happened, as if Marcus hadn’t seen a thing.
But Marcus had most definitely seen it all, and what had started as curiosity was now progressing to concern. “Maybe we should stop for the day,” he suggested. “I’ve worked out enough.”
“Oh no,” Troy shook his head. “You paid for this week’s sessions already. We’re only half done today. Sniff! I need you to sniff grab the sniff medicine ball and sniff sniff sniff get into… a low… a low squah-squat-hah-hah-DIHHHShooooo! EHHYShhhhhhh!” With his hand clamped over the lower half of his face, he reddened slightly and hurried back to the check-in desk. When he returned, he had the tissue box tucked under his arm and a knuckle tucked under his tickling nose. “I, ah… sniff! I… sniff! Sniff! SNIFF!” He stopped trying to speak, pulled a tissue from the box, and blew his nose into it.
Marcus sighed and patted the mat beside him. Accepting the invitation, Troy sat down about a foot or two away, matching Marcus’ body position. They sat with their legs out in in front of them, bent knees raised, hands back behind them and flat against the mat. “Hey,” Marcus said softly. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but I think you’re coming down with a cold.”
Troy definitely didn’t want to hear it. “That’s impossible. Sniff! I don’t get colds.”
“Troy, everybody gets colds.”
“Well I don’t. I take a multivitamin every day, an extra dose of Vitamin C on top of that, and Echinacea on top of that. I haven’t sniff, sniff caught a cold since I was a little kid. My body is a perfect hehh perfect specihhhh-specihhhhh…” Quickly, he pulled a tissue out of the box that sat now on the mat beside him and pressed it to his face just in time. “Nnihhhh-HIJJShhhhhhhh!” He was looking a whole lot less intimidating now. In fact, he was starting to look pretty miserable.
“Bless you, man.”
“Nehhh,” Troy shook his head again fervently. “Not done yehhhh ehhhh ehh EH- HEHTCHOO!” The sneeze snapped him forward, bare chest crashing into the fronts of his thighs, throwing him off balance. He wobbled and sniffled as he straightened back up. He seemed glad of the tissue, rubbing and scrubbing at his nose and giving little snuffly blows into it. “Ugh sorry. Sniff! Now my nose won’t stop running.”
“Mmm,” Marcus nodded thoughtfully. “Got a headache?”
“Just a little one. It’s probably because I didn’t have the best sleep last night. Kept tossing and turning. Or maybe because I’ve been dialing back on the coffee lately and my body’s not used to a different level of caffeine.”
“Or because you’re coming down with a cold.”
“But I don’t…” He trailed off, suddenly looking again like he was about to sneeze. After a few moments he just sniffed hard, but he didn’t finish what he was going to say. He wouldn’t look at Marcus, though, just stared at the spot on his legs where his shorts ended.
“The average person catches between two to four colds annually,” Marcus said. “One was bound to slip past your defenses sooner or later, especially this time of year.”
There was a lull between them as the realization sunk in for Troy. He continued to sniff and rub at his nose. Troy plucked two more tissues from the box, blew his nose into them to clear it, and then cleared his throat. “I don’t know what to do,” he said softly so that only Marcus could hear him. “I haven’t had a cold since I was, like, five. Do I cancel the rest of the day’s training sessions and go home? I don’t feel that bad. It’s just the sneezing.”
“And runny nose. And headache. And… how’s your throat feel?”
“Okay,” he replied.
“Well, that’s good at least.”
“Sniff! I mean, it’s a little sore and scratchy and hurts when I swallow, but that’s all.”
That was all? Marcus smiled. “Cancel today’s sessions. Cancel this whole week’s sessions. Go home and rest.”
“But… but I… I… I nnghehhh… ehhh-Hehhhh…” He bunched the tissues under his nose and curled into himself, his muscular arms hugging his legs, his face hiding behind his biceps. “HUHHHTchoooo! HEHTchoo!”
“If you don’t stay home, you’re going to spread your germs around and half the gym will catch your cold. The guy on the rowing machine…” Marcus jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, gesturing to the only other guy in the room at the moment. “That twink on desk duty…” Marcus waved his hand in the direction of the check-in desk. “All your valued, devoted, handsome clients…” Marcus clapped a hand to his chest with a laugh.
Troy smiled a little at this as well. “Sniff! Handsome?”
“Are you saying I’m not handsome?” He tried to sound shocked and indignant, but his laughter betrayed him.
Troy shook his head, still smiling. His gaze left his legs and fell on Marcus for a not-so-subtle onceover. “M’not saying that at all, actually.” He looked back at his lap, at the tissues clutched in his hand. He sniffed again, shoulders rising and falling. “Got any other tips? I don’t even know what to take for this.”
“Sounds like you could use a trainer.”
“What?” he laughed.
“Someone to show you the ropes. Someone to make sure you have the right food, the right medicine, the right tissues, everything you need to get better.”
“Are there wrong tissues then?”
Marcus reached over and inspected the box Troy had appropriated from the check-in desk. He felt one of the tissues, rubbing it between his fingers as he evaluated them. “These aren’t too bad right now, but pretty soon they’re going to feel like sandpaper against your sore nose. When you’ve got a head cold, you need something softer and gentler.”
Sniffling again, Troy plucked the tissue Marcus had been feeling out of the box. He rubbed it between his fingers as well, considering. Then, probably deciding it was better than nothing, he covered his nose and mouth with it. “hahhh nngahhh ahhh AHHHUShooo! HEHTTChoo!” He bunched all his used tissues up in his fist when he was done with them as his gym shorts didn’t have pockets, but he couldn’t hold too many more.
Marcus took a couple tissues out of the box, spread them out on his palm, and held them out to Troy. “Here, give me those. I’ll toss them for you.” Troy hesitated. “C’mon, I could use the exercise.” Troy considered for a moment then cautiously placed his balled-up, used tissues into Marcus’ outstretched hand. Marcus got up and tossed them into the bin beside the water cooler. When he returned, he sat down in front of Troy, closer this time, the toes of his sneakers right up against the toes of Troy’s. “So, what do you say we switch roles? I’ll be your trainer until you get a handle on this.”
For the first time since Marcus had met him, Troy’s body language exuded insecurity, vulnerability. He bit his lower lip and sniffled uncertainly.
“I can provide references if you want.”
Troy looked up at this, confused. “References?”
But Marcus just nodded casually. “Sure. I get ill myself from time to time, of course. But I’ve also nursed three—no, make that four—boyfriends through colds or flus. And, besides, I’m a doctor.”
Troy’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. “You are?”
“Yep. I’m at a little family practice in South Chesterton.”
“Shit. That’s, like, fifty minutes away. Sniff! What are you doing working out here then?”
Marcus lifted one of his feet and tapped the toe of his shoe against Troy’s. “Because you’re here. And you’re the best.”
Troy ducked his head and squeezed his arm around his legs as his body shook with a sudden, strong, uncovered “HEYYITCHAHH! Urgh… sniff! Sniff!”
“At least, you are when you’re well. Today you’re a little bit of a distracted mess, aren’t you? But, believe me, I’ve seen worse. You can get through this, Troy.”
His shoulders rose and fell as he made anon-committal noise something between a grunt and a sob. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Marcus was silent. He let the question hang there until Troy lifted his head again and saw that Marcus had his hand out, an offering of assistance. Marcus kept his hand extended as he rose to his feet. It hung there in the air between them, awkward but generous. Finally, Troy reached up and took it. Marcus pulled him up easily. Maybe he was stronger than he’d thought after all. They grabbed their water bottles, towels, and Troy’s discarded shirt. Then they headed to the locker room.