Sweetie's Story

First in my 'Strokes' introductory series

“If you feel like leaving,

I’m not gonna make you stay.”

~Escape, Enrique Iglesias

He found his feet matching the strong, rhythmic beat as he made his way straight across the dance floor. He was heading to the back, despite the overwhelming urge to throw himself at any number of the eligible bachelors surrounding him. Tight leather pants. Flashes of the strobe light. Dog collars with spikes. Smoke hanging about in the air. Glittery, sequined shirts. He couldn’t resist reaching out casually and squeezing a familiar butt cheek as he reached the back wall. Spinning around, he opened the bathroom door by backing into it, giving himself a good glimpse of the club’s occupants and a chance to wink at the owner of the fine fondled ass.

The music was loud for just a second, but otherwise muffled once the bathroom door had swung shut. The sound of sobs, however, was loud enough to draw him straight past the first divider to the counter and mirror section of the room. It had once been a women’s restroom, but as so few women populated the club and many of its patrons were just as inclined to apply makeup in front of the mirrors, the now unisex restroom was still in partial use at least. “He’sth not fucking coming.”

He stared into the mirror, his back to the man, but meeting his eyes through the reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. The man lay on the counter, in a half-fetal position, arms clasped to his chest, hair rumpled, face pale as snow. Softly and without cursing this time, “And you should be in bed, Sthweetie.”

The man sniffled and shook his head. Shivering, he tried drawing his body parts in more. “I’m fine. I’m not as sick as I look.” He rubbed his nose on his shoulder and closed his eyes.

“Right, and I’m Cher.” He was tall, lanky, and used the gym to pick up guys rather than pick up weights. His hair was blonde, and stuck straight up an inch from the top of his head. He wore purple contacts to match purple stretch pants and a black top which hung off him in the proper revealing places. But he was certainly no Cher. “Besthidesth, if you’re even half asth sthick asth you look, you should sthtill be in bed.”

The man began his protest with a shake of the head, which was quickly defeated when a sneeze approached him. His nose twitched, his nostrils flared with an intake of breath, and his fist raised to his nose. “ep-ehshhh! ihhshh! ehshuhhh!” A wet sniffle followed, and a soft moan as he rubbed at his growingly tender nose.

“That’sth it. I’m getting Robert to drive you home.”

“No!” Then man sat up, back against the mirror, still rubbing at his nose. “I don’t want Robert. Get Julia.”

With a sigh, “Julia’sth driving a client home right now. Robert’sth justht out there waiting.”

Shaking his head. ”I don’t want to deal with Robert’s shit tonight. I’ll wait for Julia.” Preparing to wait right there, he lay back down. Sniffling, curled, shivering. He pulled into himself more as his breath caught. “eh…

“You gonna sthneezthe again?”

He nodded, mouth hanging open. “heh-ihhhshh! Ehshhh!” After sitting back up, he hopped down and ducked into one of the bathroom stalls. There was the sound of nose blowing, some coughing, and then he returned with a stream of toilet paper. Looking up into the man’s pretty-boy face, “Look, I’b dot that sig, really.” He wiped his nose and blew again. The end of the stream of toilet paper was then used to wipe his eyes and dry his cheeks.

“Hmm,” the man who still wasn’t Cher replied, unconvinced, and wrapped his arm around the man’s shoulders. “You want I should get you a drink?” Anything was better than lying on the bathroom counter sobbing.

“No. The loud music and the smoke gave me a headache already.” He reached one hand up to rest on the bathroom counter, steadying himself and preparing to jump up again.

Trying again, “At leastht wait in the officthe, then? Little warmer, nicther chairsth, better view?”

His face was pensive, and as his nose twitched again with oncoming sneeze, he finished off the toilet paper with another blow. Tossing it into the trashcan for a perfect two-pointer, he gave in. “‘Kay, Nik.”

Nik led the man back out into the music and darkness. The beat was so loud it shook the floor and pounded in their chests. The dancers were no more than hot, sweaty bodies. The empty mugs of finished drinks littered the highboy tables between the bar and the dance floor. And all the while, Nik kept his eye on the man he was escorting, who was keeping an eye out for the man who wasn’t fucking coming.

The office was up a short flight of stairs, encased in black lights and one-way glass, looking out over the entire club. Along one wall were security camera monitors hooked up to VCRs. Nik directed the man to a cushy seat before the desk and took a spot by the window, standing to look over the floor. ”Been a quiet night.” He waved at a familiar bedfellow through the mirror, knowing full well he couldn’t be seen. Many would call him a scarlet woman, but many knew him only from the club. And who wanted to dance at a gay club that didn’t have a rather flamboyant, showy host to play with? After all, Nik rhymes with….

ehhshhh! ihh…ihhh-heshhh! IHshhh!” He flopped forward in the chair weakly, hand cupped over mouth and nose.

“Poor baby,” Nik cooed, turning, pacing to his desk drawer and from it tossing a small cubic box of tissues to him. “I forgot how you you alwaysth get thisth bad when you have a rotten break up.”

“We’re dot broked ub,” he snuffled, missing the box, recovering it from the floor by the chair, and helping himself to a tissue. “But it’s dever felt this bad before.” He blew his nose copiously and, sniffling, looked up at Nik. “Not that I’m that sick.”

“Stho you sthay.” He paced the room on the other side, looking at the television monitors rather than out the mirror. His eyes were focused, but his thoughts elsewhere, so much so that he nearly missed Julia’s arrival through the back entrance where they parked. “Julia’sth here and on her way up,” he announced, looking down at the man who had since fallen asleep in the chair.

“Poor baby,” came Nik’s whispered refrain. He strode over, squatted down, and put both hands on the man’s thigh. “Wake up, Sthweetie.” He nudged a bit until the man woke with a cough and a look of mild embarrassment. “Julia’sth on her way up. Can you sthand or do you need help?”

He shook his head as he raised a hand and scrubbed a tear that ran down his cheek. “I can stand, thanks.”

Just the same, Nik helped him up and gave him a kiss on the cheek for the good effort. In through the office door walked Julia, a tall, leggy, raven-haired woman with brilliantly red lips and clad in a black, shiny, plastic uniform. “Drove the cute bastard home.” She traded a check for a chocolate mint that resided in a bowl on the edge of Nik’s desk. “He’s brushed his teeth and slithered under the covers by now, the dear.”

With his hand on the small of the man’s back, Nik pushed him closer to the door. “You mind dropping him off at home?”

With a soft laugh, she shook her head. “Course not. Come on, Sweetie.” She wriggled her fingers into the man’s hand as children do to lead each other across a meadow or upstairs to see a new toy.

Nik gracefully took the tissue box back, behind his back, so as to spare a little more embarrassment and snuck a few clean tissues into the man’s pocket in the process. “I think there’sth sthome cold medicthine in the bathroom cabinet, but check the date firstht. And have Auntie get you another blanket from the closthet if you get cold,” he whispered, leaning into the man’s ear with soft, soothing words.

The man, sniffling, whispered back, “And if he shows up you’ll…?”

“You pager will know it insthtantly. But he’sth not fucking coming.” Not tonight, at least.

The man nodded back and let himself get pulled out the office, down the stairs, and back across the dance floor to the alley exit. Robert wasn’t near his car. Instead, he was squatting down with his hand on the back of a kneeling patron who was demonstrating that he’d had too much to drink. Robert looked up to wink at them as they passed, but was distracted from throwing sarcastic comments by some inebriated groans and the need to mumble a few comforting comments back.Beter the patron do it there than inside the limo.

They walked quickly past, and Julia slid into the driver’s seat of her limo, reaching over to the other side to unlock the passenger-side door and flick the handle to just open it, being as helpful as her arms could be across the wide seat. She gave him a warm smile as he climbed in, rubbing his arms from the chilly early spring air. “Need to pick up anything on the way home? Milk? Toilet paper? Coffee?”

He shook his head, buckling in and settling in against the smooth black leather seats. “Nah, just home…” he rubbed a twitching, tickling nose and gave a last look at the club as they backed out of the alleyway and sped past it. No one waiting outside, no one walking to the door. With another sniff he rubbed his palm against his nose. Still not enough to quench the sneezey sensation. Trying to sound casual about the impending need, “Hey, Jules, you got any tissues?”

She paused a moment, hands busy in the middle of a turn, mind temporarily occupied with switching off the turn signal manually as the left one had broken years back. “Tissues…” she thought out loud. “Try the glove co; should be unlocked. Otherwise they may have been left in back.” She flipped two switches next to the radio simultaneously and the light in the back lit as well as the window lowered between the front seat and rest of the limo.

He took a glance in back, thinking one of these nights he might see someone hiding out back there and give him a heart attack. But everything looked straight, neat, and in its place. From the micro fridge to the shelf of DVDs. So he tried the glove compartment, to find a large box staring back at him. Jackpot. He left it open as he took a few and held them up to his face expectantly. He paused, breathing suddenly becoming uncontrolled and erratic. Then finally, “eh-IHHshhh! ehh-ehshhh! Iheshh!” He folded and rubbed the tissues against his nose, wiping as gently as he could.

“Gesundheit, Sweetie.” She reached over and took the box out for him, then shut the glove compartment. “Safer that way, you know.” She flipped the switches from before back to the off position. “Feeling a little under the weather I take it?”

He nodded, sniffling. “Just a little.” He sounded a bit congested again, so he gave his nose as quiet a blow as he could muster in the silent car.

As if reading his mind, she flipped on the radio, keeping it inoffensively quiet, but just enough to cover the sounds of his sniffles. They were buzzing along on the expressway now, quickly approaching the exit. As he sniffled into another tissue, he found himself wishing for once he lived closer to downtown. “ehsh-ushh! Ihshhh!

“Gesundheit,” she repeated, spinning around the exit ramp and taking a right at the bottom. “You know,” she paused to buzz the gate to open and start up the private drive, “a long, hot shower would help that congestion.”

He nodded, shutting the tissue box back into the glove compartment.

She typed the gate code in, drove around the circular driveway, and pulled up to the front of the house. “You want me to come in and make some tea for you, Sweetie?” She reached over, brushing the hair out of his eyes with a soft, sympathetic touch.

He shook his head and bit his lip. “No,” he squeaked out, quickly unfastening his seatbelt and sliding out of the car before the tears began again. “Thanks.” He wanted to say more, but the hot tears were already building up, and his nose was tingling again. He shut the door and walked up to the doorway, fumbling with his keys in his pocket and finding the tissues Nik had placed there for him. He gripped both as he headed in. He raised a hand to Julia from the lit doorway, because she had waited to make sure he got in all right before heading back to the club.

Sobbing again, he headed straight through the left wing sitting room and up the stairs toward his bedroom. He was halfway upstairs when his grip tightened on the banister he was using for support, and his sobs slowed. He froze on a step, holding his hand with the tissues up to his face, just inches away. “eh-HEHshhh! Heh-Ihshhh! Heh-EhSheshh!” He sniffled, paused, and then bent forward with a final, “eh-IHHshuhh!” He got to the top and just stood there for a moment, wiping his nose miserably. He leaned against the wall, careful not to knock down any of the framed pictures that littered the hallway. With a sigh and a harsh cough, he headed back downstairs.

There were two blinking lights awaiting him in the kitchen, and he tapped the button by the telephone as he entered, hoping and dreading at the same time. The hiss of water from the sink covered the beep of the machine but the voice could still be made out in the message. “Hey guys, it’s Coyote. I’m playing a gig in Northern Virginia this weekend and looking for a place to stay. Give me a call back if you’ve got room. My—” He pressed the skip button and leaned against the counter, gulping down the ice water with particular attention to soothing the back of his throat. The second beep seemed to echo in the large room, off the metal stoves and other appliances. ”Hey Nik, Tony here. I’ll go ahead and try your cell unless you get this in the next twenty seconds or however long it takes for—” He skipped that as well, knowing how Tony from the used bookstore could talk about virtually nothing for an hour if you let him. Besides, he wasn’t going to hear anything once he started sneezing again. “ehh—” he panted, leaning on the counter, closing his eyes. “ehh-IHHHshhh! Heh-Ehshhh! hishh!” He felt hot, dizzy, chilly, stuffy, and all he could think of was the fact that his pager would not be going off tonight.

He dumped the empty glass into one side of the sink and made his way back up the stairs. Each stair seemed harder and harder to climb. And by the time he had reached the top, he was in tears once again. His bed called loudly from down the hall, but he was sure a shower would help. With the amount of energy he had left, he settled for a few splashes of water in the face and on his chest and using the toilet.

His room was really starting to look like that of a pitiful sick person, with empty glasses, clothes all about, and tissues lining the night stand. He’d mumbled something to Auntie Al about not bothering to clean it when he had heard the vacuum that morning, and was beginning to regret the choice. Still, his bed was familiar and seemed to call out to him with a soft mattress and warm blankets with a secure, comforting embrace. He slipped out of the rest of his clothes, changed boxers, and crawled under the sheer curtain surrounding the bed and under the covers. He stashed his pager under his pillow to be sure to hear and feel it going off then closed his eyes.

As sniffled into one pillow, he grabbed another and clutching it to his stomach. He inhaled its scent deeply and though it had taken less than that for him to cry earlier, he was sobbing again already. Hard, full sobs that accomplished nothing but made his stomach feel better. It was harder to think about the present or the future when one is busy crying about the past. The tears made his nose run all the more, and he reached over for another tissue, holding it to his nose as he hugged the pillow tighter and brought his legs up to spoon it instinctively. A mess. He felt a mess, and he was sure he looked it, too. But as he sneezed again “ehh-Ihshhhh! Ihh…ihh-Hushhh!” and his head pounded for the rush the sneezes had caused in his sinuses, the only way out of it that he could see was to fall asleep. Maybe he’d wake up looking like his own pretty boy self.

~ * ~

Toby rushed up the stairs, beating Nik’s quiet walk, and burst through the open doorway. He scampered to the bed and lept upon it, stretching himself out, belly-up in want at the bottom of the bed. Nik peeked in, seeing eyes fluttering open and a stretch approaching. “Good morning,” he spoke softly, soothingly. ”Sthorry to wake you up. I only wanted to give you…” Nik extended a flower and a note it came with.

He might have leapt with joy at the sight if he hadn’t already known they were from Nik. But it was typical routine to wake to a fresh flower on his nightstand and a ‘Good morning, have a good day,” note beside it. He looked down at his waker, and Toby stared back with big, black, sorrowful eyes. He’d heard most dogs were good at telling when someone felt miserable, but Toby had always had a special knack for it. He sat up and reached down, patting the chocolate Labrador’s head, and scratching behind one ear. But he pulled back his hand and paused a moment, covering his nose and mouth with his other hand. “heh-EMPHSHHHH! Eh-eh-HEMCHUHH!” The dog, startled by the nose and violent rocking of the bed, jumped off and dashed back out the door. Falling back against his pillow, he groaned. Even the dog didn’t want to be around him like this. His eyes felt heavy, sore, dry. His nose continued to tickle. His head pounded and his throat felt raw.

The flower was a white iris, like that of the painting that hung in the drawing room downstairs. Perhaps a subtle hint that he should pull himself out of his misery and go downstairs. Nik pulled back the sheer along one side of the bed and settled down on the edge of the high bed. He placed the flower and small note that read, “Feel better, Sweetie” on the nightstand; the flower vase had been there so long it had probably attached itself to the piece of furniture. Nik now held out a glass of water, which looked very inviting, and a small bottle of pills, which didn’t.

“I dod’t wadt to tage adythig,” he snuffled, burying his face into his pillow and shutting his eyes tightly.

“It’sth justht two little pillsth. They’ll help your headache at leastht, lower your fever a bit.” He reached over and felt the man’s forehead with the back of his palm, gaining just a brief feel as the man pulled away from him in annoyance. With over, wiping what he could reach of the man’s nose for him. “Fine, but you are eating brunch. Auntie’sth making your favorite blueberry French toastht and freshly squeezthed orangejuicthe.” His voice turned less insistent as a sigh, he set the glass and bottle down on the nightstand as well. “What, you want to make yourself feel asth bad physthically asth you do mentally? You’re trying to sthtay mistherable?”

He squeezed the pillow tighter against him but made no reply to the obviously accurate rhetorical questions. He sneezed again, “ehh-Ihhshhh! ehh-Chishh!” weakly, shivering afterwards and sniffling.

Nik took out a few tissues and reached he leaned over and kissed the man’s cheek. “There are a lot of people who want to sthee you well and happy again. You justh call down to the kitchen on the intercom if you need anything, all right?”

He nodded, sniffling, just wishing he’d go and spare him further dealings with humanity for the time being. He didn’t want to be made to feel better. He didn’t want to be around upbeat Nik who was making him feel a little better. He didn’t want to admit all this was his fault, his doing. His watch read 1:30, which was the latest he’d woken up in a long while. He’d gone to bed early, as well, but he still felt exhausted.

He trudged out of bed, shivering as he met the air conditioning without the warm comforter on top of him. He acknowledged that it was probably not this cold in reality, but his fever made him feel hot and chilled and not at all right. So he grabbed his bathrobe as he walked down the hall to the bathroom. His head pounded along with his heart, and he could feel it pulsing in his temples and at the base of his neck. After using the toilet and washing his hands, he took a peek at the medicine cabinet. Staring black at him was a package of cold medicine. According to the date stamped on the box, it still had a year and a half of good use to it. Standing, sniffling, he debated taking some of it. But as he caught his face in the mirror’s reflection, he realized how terrible he looked. And it certainly wasn’t going to be something like medicine that would make him feel better. He sat down on the toilet seat, his hand on his forehead as he let the pounding die down. His nose began to tickle again, and this time he was without the energy or time to reach over to the other side of the sink for the tissues. “ehh…heh…ihh…” he could feel it coming; it just wouldn’t come out. “ehhh…eh-eh-eh…” He wavered, waiting for it to strike. “eh-HETSHHH! Ehh-Ihhshhhh!Heshh!” Now he did pull himself up and take a few tissues. He rubbed, and gave his nose a good blow, feeling somewhat clearer, though his head pounded again angrily.

On the way back to the bedroom, he ducked into another room, dark and cave-like. There were no real lights, only small red, green and orange dots speckling the shelves and floor, indicating that the electronics were on. “Good morning,” he spoke out loud and one of the monitors zipped to life, casting a soft blue glow over the room.

“Voice print match. Good afternoon, Sir,” an electronic voice answered him. A beautiful classic instrumental version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody began playing in the background. “You have fifty-eight new e-mails. Would you like the weather or hockey scores first?”

“No,” he answered with a yawn, plopping himself down on the cushy desk chair in front of the monitor and reclined a bit, propping his feet up on the desk beside the keyboard. “The e-mail, please. And turn on screens five and six for me.” Around the room, two more monitors flipped on, glowing in monochrome green. He skimmed his e-mails, finding none from anyone he really wished or needed to talk to. He padded across the room and gazed at the other monitors a moment. “Amount of processing devoted to these calculations?” he asked, leaning closer and tracing his finger along the line graph on one of them.

“Sixty-seven percent currently. Ninety-two percent average since program was begun two days, nineteen hours, twenty-two minutes and forty seconds ago,” the voice replied.

“Good,” he said. “Please turn them off now.” He hesitated, drawn to the computer, but also back to a warm bed. He sniffled and clamped his hand over the lower half of his face again. “eh-Heshh! Ehh-Ihhshhhh!” he sneezed, fishing out a tissue from his pocket and wiping his nose again.

“Bless you!” the computer responded.

With a chuckle, “Who programmed you to say that?”

“You did, Sir. Standard politeness subroutine twenty-four.”

Nodding, “Well, sniffle, thank you then. Sniff! Sniff!

“Pardon? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

With the tissue lifted to his nose, he tried again. “I said thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

With another soft chuckle, he spoke up, “I’m going back to bed. I’ll do work later.”

“Goodnight, Sir. Sleep well.” And it shut itself back off, music and all, leaving the room in near pitch-blackness, aside from the few small lights of color on the varied devices.

As he closed the door on his way out and headed back to his bedroom, he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Shedding his bathrobe with a shiver, he sunk back into bed beneath his covers. He sniffled, pulling the tissue box into bed with him. “ehh…heh-Ihhshhh! ihhHeshh! Ehh-IHHshhh!

“Bless you, Sweetie,” came the voice of an older man from the doorway.

Blowing his nose, he looked up to see Auntie Al there with a tray of food. He beckoned the man to him with one hand as he finished blowing.

Auntie Al walked in and set the tray down on the man’s desk. He then circled the bed, pulling the sheer curtain back, twisting and tying it to each bedpost. Then he recovered the tray and settled on the edge of the opened bed. “Brought you some brunch. And you’re to eat at least a little of it.” He leaned in and whispered, “Nik wants to see the orange juice gone and at least four pieces of toast eaten. But if you only feel up to a little I’ll fake the rest for you, as long as you eat some.” He smiled, reaching over and plumping a pillow up against the headboard. “Can you sit up for me?”

He pulled himself to sit up, sniffled, and accepted the tray. He certainly wasn’t the least bit hungry, but Auntie Al was being extra nice, even for Auntie Al who had nice as his prodominant personality trait. So he picked at his food and drank a little orange juice despite the sharp pain in his throat. He choked down some of the melon balls and even managed to nibble at a piece of French toast. “S’yummy,” he commented to Auntie Al before a swallow. “Wish I were hungrier.”

Auntie Al nodded, smiling. “Just eat what you can.” Al was not his real name; everyone had a nickname in their house. But Auntie Al’s had come about because of his resemblance in looks and kindness to the butler in the Batman series. He was older than anyone else there, hitting fifty-four this year. His gray hair was always in perfect order, perhaps he woke up like that or perhaps he spent time making it so, but he always looked the same. Same endearing wrinkles, same gentle eyes, same hair and same outfit. He wore slacks and black shoes almost all the time, but his shirt varied depending on the occasion. To relax out by the pool, he wore a striped t-shirt, while to do some chores around the house in spring he wore a short-sleeved dress shirt. In winter and fall it was a long sleeved button-down or a sweater. To cook, he’d usually wear nothing but an apron, slacks, and his undershirt, revealing a tattoo on his left bicep, the story behind which he never told. It had been great fun the last ten years to guess at it, and so far they’d not guessed it properly. Almost everyone knew about the one on his right bicep, however. “Finished?” Auntie Al asked based on the pause in eating.

Shaking his head, he reached over and procured a tissue. “No… have to…” he stopped, eyes closing. “ehh-Emphshh! Ihh-Hehshhh!” sneezed to his side, away from the food and away from Auntie Al, more importantly. “‘Scuse be,” he snuffled, giving his nose a quick rub and blow.

“Bless you again,” he stole a piece of toast and took a few bites. “Have you taken anything for that sniffle?”

He shook his head. “No,” he felt as if he were answering the question for the hundredth time. “I’m not really that sick.”

Nodding, “Have you taken anything for the heartache, then?”

With another shake of his head, “No,” he spat pointedly, losing patience. This time he took a last painful sip of orange juice and rejected the rest, pushing the tray away. “Done.” He wiggled back under the covers before he could be stopped or have Auntie Al protest.

Auntie Al collected the tray, setting it back down on the desk. “Is there anything I can get you, then? Television guide, turn on the music, a nice cup of tea, anything?”

He shook his head, sinking back into misery. He didn’t want anything, especially anything of the sort that might possibly cheer him up.

“All right, then.” Auntie Al bent over him in bed, kissing his forehead. “Call me if you need me, Sweetie. I’ll be cleaning in the left wing downstairs until dinnertime. Sounds like we might have a Coyote back in our midst soon, so I’m clearing a little space for his equipment.” Auntie Al pulled the blankets up to his chin and tucked around them, giving the man small hugs as he did so.

“Thanks, Auntie Al,” he mumbled, the food having made him somewhat sleepy again.

The man patted him gently and, taking the tray with him, headed out. “That’s what I’m here for.”

~ * ~

He didn’t sleep long at all. In fact, it was just a few hours until he woke of his own accord, sniffling and feeling rather dismal. There was no warm body beside him. And the familiar smell of the pillow was overwhelming, even with his nose as stuffed-up as it was. That gentle mix of sweat, shampoo and cologne was all he wanted to breathe for the rest of his life. He’d done everything right this time… and it still hadn’t worked. Tears began to flow again, making his body shake and his breath catch. He rolled over, coughing, ignoring the pillow, clutching his stomach, feeling sick. His headache was overpowering, and the medicine sat just out of reach on the nightstand. He closed his eyes, ignoring it as well. Nothing would make him feel better right now.

Eventually, his crying backed down from sobs to just a few tears. He purposely slowed his breathing, trying to calm himself. And when he managed this, his head began to hurt just a little less. He thought he might try to fall back to sleep again.

But before he had the chance, his nose had other plans. It tickled, and he wiggled his nose, reaching back over for the box he found he’d rolled over while sleeping. It was squashed, but the tissues themselves were undamaged. So he took a few, sniffling and drying his face as he waited for the sneezes to build up. It certainly didn’t take long before “ehh…ih-heh-EHSHHH! ehhKeshhh! ihhshhh! ehhhhshh! ehhhShhh!” he sneezed, head pounding, face burning. He shivered and pulled a blanket up to his chest but unbuttoned his shirt a little to let air in.

“Sthweetie?” came a hesitant call from the doorway.

He sat up, hand to head, trying to hide a sudden onslaught of sniffles behind a crumpled tissue. ”Nik, hey. Time to go to the club already? I can be ready in five. Ehhh-ehmpshhh! Maybe ten.” He threw back the covers and met a strong, violent shiver.

Nik glided over quickly, a hand on the man’s chest, pulling the blankets up again. “Actually, I’m not leaving for another hour. It’sth sthtill early yet.” He paused, looking the man over a moment before saying softly, “Damn, you look terrible.”

He moaned, hand to forehead, turning into his pillow as the room and Nik spun about him.

“Hey, no, it’sth okay…” he reached out and lay his palm flat against the hot forehead. “Shhh, calm down, all right?”

He sniffled, nodding, a few tears escaping down his cheek but otherwise still composed.

Nik pulled a comb out of his back pocket and set to work on what hair wasn’t currently mashed into the pillow. “I’ll get you a washcloth to clean your facthe. Can you sthtop crying long enough to talk?”

“Yeah,” he managed, swallowing tears hard. He turned his head and pulled both elbows underneath him, propping himself up just a little off the bed. “Sorry.”

Nik nodded that it was all right and straightened the man’s hair out a bit. “Okay, Sthweetie. Now, I want you to sthtay in bed tonight. I don’t want you coming to the club. You’re ill, and you really look it.” He paused, looking him over, buttoning the top button of his shirt. He ducked out a moment to get a washcloth from the bathroom.

It was lukewarm and soothing to his tired, tear-stained face. But it made him feel exponentially better, to the point that he actually reached over to the glass on the nightstand and took a few sips of water. His eyes hurt and head still pounded. In fact, his throat was still scratchy and his head congested and his stomach still hurting. But for some reason he did feel much better. “Nik, what’s the matter?” Why all this trouble to make him presentable? And as he looked into Nik’s now green eyes, he felt a surge rush through him. He could feel the answer. Excited, he sat up a little more, rubbing his nose with the side of his hand.”Nik?”

Nik nodded. “You’ve got a visthitor downsthtairsth who wantsth to sthee you. I told him you might be asthleep but he sthat right down and sthaid he’d wait asth long asth it took.”

The man’s eyes widened. “I’ll see him, yes, please send him up!”

With a smile, “Now don’t get too excthited, Sthweetie. I don’t want you passthing out before he can even get upsthtairsth.”

He agreed, trying to calm down. But his heart was speeding, and his head thumping in pain to match. He sniffled and blew his nose again. It wasn’t particularly clear, but mabe it would hold off for a little while at least.

The footsteps were soft but hauntingly familiar as they made their way up the nearby stairs, down the hall, and into the bedroom. They stopped a foot from the bed. A hand reached out to a bedpost to steady himself as a shaky voice spoke. “I got a call… said you were really sick and I, uh,” a broken-into sheepish smile, “I might have gotten a speeding ticket from racing over here.”

The man gave a laugh, feeling the need to burst into tears again but restraining himself. He wanted to blurt out any number of things. He wanted to plead, to beg, to lavish all the love in his heart upon him. But he remained silent, aside from slight sniffle.

His voice went back to soft and worried, “Look… Dominic, I’m sorry.” He sighed, looking down at his feet. “I’m sorry I got scared. I’m sorry I ran. That I didn’t call, that I didn’t come by the club, that I didn’t come over sooner.”

The man, Dominic, swallowed hard, and padded the other side of his bed, the side with the pillow, in invitation. “Come and sit down, Jamie?” He quickly pushed the tissue box out of the way and placed the pillow back in its proper position to make room.

Jamie nodded and walked over, sliding onto the bed and lying down to face him. They were only a foot away; it was almost painful to be so close without touching. Jamie reached out and took Dom’s hand in his. “I know I was a bastard… but I don’t want to lose you.”

Dominic smiled, rubbing his nose a little with his other hand. “And why’s that?”

Softly, blushing a little, “Because I love you.”

Dominic broke his grasp and reached out with both arms, pulling Jamie to him in a warm, tight hug. “There,” he said with a reassuring squeeze. “Finally. Was that really so hard?”

They both laughed and pulled back out of the hug. Jamie, a red-haired, freckle-faced man roughly six years Dom’s junior, shook his head. “Hey, are you all right? I mean, I know you’re sick, but you really dodn’t look so good.” He reached over and put his hand on Dom’s cheek, then felt his forehead. “Jesus, you’re burning up!”

Dominic gave a weak smile, reaching out for the tissues again. “You think I’m Jesus, and still I’m the sick... one…?” He trailed off, nose twitching. He turned his head, directing himself toward a tissue in his hand. “ehh-IHHshhh! Ihshhh! Eh-hehshhh!” He sniffled and gave an embarrassed blow or two. “‘Scuse me,” he mumbled, throwing the tissues onto his nightstand.

Jamie leaned over him, chests brushing, reaching out with one hand. He pulled back with the bottle of pain medication and the glass of water held by the rim. “When was the last time you took some of this?”

Dom shook his head. “Haven’t taken it at all. I didn’t really feel like feel… feeling better.” His breath caught again. “ehhh…” He reached over and brought a few more tissues to his nose. “Sorry, I… ihh…ehh-heh-EHSHH! EhUshh! ehh-Ihhhshhh! Ehshhhh!

“G’bless you.” Jamie shook two pills out for him to take and handed them over with the water. “Will you take some now, then?” Nodding, Dominic popped the pills in and gulped down the water. “There we are. Look, are you going to be all right? Should I call your doctor roommate to come over?”

“I’ll be ok now, my love.” He had to admit that had such a lovely ring to it. He sniffled and closed his eyes, holding back more tears, these being happy ones. “Just a bad cold now,” he admitted.

Jamie nodded and still gave a soft kiss to his lips. “Good, ‘cause I want my pretty boy looking pretty again soon so we can go out dancing at your club.” He eased the man to turn over to his stomach and then sat beside him, reaching out to massage gently at first, then more substantially.

Dominic, face in the pillow, nodded. “I only own half of it.” He sniffled and yawned, then looked back with one eye at Jamie at his side. “But I’ll go dancing with you any time.” He sniffled, looking desperate for a tissue for a moment. But Jamie held one ready, up to his face. “ehh-Ihhshhh! eh-Cheshhh! Heh-Ehhhshh!” Jamie took a new tissue and wiped his nose for him.

“G’bless again. Just feel better, Sweetie, okay?” he was the one to plead.

Nodding, “Already feeling better.” The medicine was starting to kick in, he could feel. His stomach felt fine, and he was sleepy again. He wondered if Jamie would mind if he took a short nap.

“You look tired. Please take a nap.” Jamie tugged the covers up to his shoulders, tucking them beneath his chin as he turned to his side. He pushed the dark strands of hair from his hot forehead and ran two fingers gently up and down the soft, pale cheek. “I’ll be right here when you wake, I promise.”

With a peaceful smile, the man closed his soft brown eyes and let himself drift off to sleep again, this time feeling remarkably better and on his way to slowly recovering.

“You can run, you can hide,

but you can’t escape my love.”

~Escape, Enrique Iglesias