Second in my 'Strokes' introductory series, after “Sweetie's Story”
If you want to
I can save you
I can take you away from here
~All You Wanted, Michelle Branch
The snow was thick, but ten times worse for the wind which roared and pushed from every feasible direction. It was a relief to say the least to step into the club and out of the elements. He shook a bit like a dog might, brushing melting snow from his black coat and hat. The club was nearly silent, and well lit, two things it was only in the afternoon. He made a visual survey of the tracks of lights as he headed across the dance floor and up to the stairs and the office.
“Turbo!” Came a familiar voice, and he found himself caught and squeezed in a tight hug by one of the club's two owners. “Ah, you're all wet,” he observed, stepping back, flicking his hands to dry them.
“Yes, I think it's still snowing out, Nik,” he answered in his normal sarcastic tone. “Things tend to get wet when it snows.” He backed off as well, rubbing at his nose. It had been running from the cold, and though the rest of him seemed to have adjusted all right, his nose was still running a little. Of course it had been all morning, even without the cold temperatures.
Nik narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Where'sth your sthcarf, Turbo?”
With a shrug and absolutely no intention to talk about that subject, “Dunno, really.” He gave a strong sniff. “So who's up tonight?” He knew of course, but wanted to change the subject.
“That electronic group…” Nik leaned against his desk, shuffling around papers to find the schedule.
“The Sex Tigers,” he said, rolling his eyes. It was always The Sex Tigers, like clockwork, every time he, well, every time he lost his scarf. Not that he didn't like The Sex Tigers. On the contrary, they were always fun. Especially when they brought along their own dancers. Nik finally found the sheet and handed it over. It seemed the standard thing, set-up at , sound check at seven, opening at eight, first set at nine, second set at More lists ran through his head. Lights, configuration, timings, confetti. He scanned the sets of songs. Yes, confetti. Lots of confetti. “Looks good.” He sniffled again, rubbing a bent index finger under his nose. “I'm going to go grab a coffee and some lunch before they get here to set up. Want anything?”
Nik shook his head. “Al forcthed sthome lunch on me before I left, but thank you anyway. Julesth!”
Julia had just walked in, followed closely by Robert, both of whom had a stack of small papers, corresponding to their driving charges the night before. Jules and Nik were in discussion, and he took that opportunity to head out. Robert grabbed him as he passed, looking confused and a bit punchy, the way Robert always looked. “Hey, where's your scarf, Turbo?”
He gave another shrug. “I guess I must have lost it.”
“It's cold out there, you know,” Robert said, tilting his head towards the dance floor though probably meant to be gesturing towards the far door.
“Yeah, I know,” he replied, pulling his coat closed and slipping his hands into his pockets. He headed out of the office, backing into the door to open it, headed back down the stairs, across the dance floor, through the door and out into the blizzard once again. Weather like this, assuming it kept up through the night, meant two possible outcomes. One, either there would be a dreadful number of first-timers coming in off the streets from the cold as sensible clientele stayed at home. Or two, only the most faithful regulars would show up tonight. He was silently debating which of the two was more likely and trying to draw direct relationships with the distance in front of his face he could see his hand, when he sneezed.
It wasn't a regular sneeze, not simply one of those 'nose running from the cold' sorts of sneezes, or one of the 'just had to sneeze' variety that you shrug off and not worry about. No, it was vicious and wet and shook his whole body. It might have dislodged his scarf if he'd been wearing it. “hehTCHUSHH!” The side of his gloved hand grazed his nose, wiping roughly. Gladly, he ducked into the coffee shop around the corner.
“Mornin' Turbo!” called a young woman from behind the counter with a streak of pink in her hair and gold hoops dangling from one ear. “What can I getcha?”
He stamped his feet on the mat and scrubbed his nose dry. The smell of leather from his gloves remained in his nostrils for a moment as he readjusted to the warmth. Then he raised a hand in greeting, appreciating her use of 'morning' even though it was well past two in the afternoon. “I'll, ah, have the usual with a cup of cream of mushroom soup also.” Soup was the best medicine for his money. Soup could fix anything. He pulled out a twenty, and got little back in the way of change, especially after a whole dollar bill was dropped in the tip jar. The usual was sealed and double-bagged for extra warmth. Today the bags consisted of the soup, some oatmeal cookies, and a veggie sandwich with normal lettuce, tomato and cucumbers but also with spouts and avocado and their special house sauce. He had an almond mocha as well which he took a few scalding hot sips from before braving the cold outdoors again. He knew the coffee clutched in one hand, and probably the soup in the bags in his other, would be cooled by the time he got back to the club, but it didn't matter.
Lunch was unimportant. A few favorable tastes to fill the hunger and prevent him from collapsing until dinnertime was all lunch was good for. The coffee was just for comfort, to have something in his hands to keep them from shaking, to have something to occupy himself as others ran around messing up his orders. “Honey, I'm home,” he called, entering the club once more to find the band and their groupies moving in their things. “Your second set's too ambitious,” he said, spotting the lead singer. He took a seat at one of the dozens of empty tables to spread his lunch out. “Cut off the last three songs and save them for your encore.”
The band did not seem too happy about that call. “Look. We were trying for—“
“Cut off the last three songs,” he stated again. “Save them for your encore.” And he took a sip of warm coffee. He would not budge on the matter, even if he'd felt in a less stubborn mood. While the band set up, he started his food, nursing the soup slowly, but throwing the end of the sandwich away uneaten from his fullness. He had told himself not to eat the cookies during the meal but he rarely listened to his own advice in such matters.
The door opened with a burst of cold air, and in walked Dominic. “It's a little early for you to be here, isn't it?” he asked the man who was still brushing snow off himself. With a check to his watch, he confirmed that it was only a bit after three.
“I guess so. I had the brilliant idea of getting the taxes done early this year. You know Nik's crap with numbers. So I just wanted to come in for some… papers…” he paused, looking down at the man. “Turbo, where's your scarf?”
With a shrug, and his head turned back down towards the coffee, which remained of his lunch. “I must have misplaced it. I'm sure it will turn up.” He moved his cup around in a circle, mixing the contents, looking thoughtful, hoping his message would be interpreted properly.
“But, it's your scarf. You're never without it, unless—“
He looked up, narrowing his eyes. “Drop it, Sweetie. It's just a scarf.” At that moment, the tickle in his nose acted up again. Quickly, he turned and cupped one hand over nose and mouth. “huhTUCHHH!”
Dominic's eyes showed only concern. “You coming down with something?” He bent over, and instead of feeling the man's forehead, pressed his cheek to forehead instead. His hand gently stroked the back of the man's neck. “You're warm.” He readjusted the man's beret as he pulled back and straightened. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a small jar, tapped two pills out into his palm, and handed them over.
“Aspirin,” Dominic said with a smile, turning the bottle so it could be read. “I've had a headache all morning thanks to these damn taxes.” He pushed his hand closer. “Go on, take 'em.”
He accepted them hesitantly, but popped them in and ushered them down with a gulp of cold coffee. “Thanks, Sweetie.” He sniffled, trying desperately to change the subject. “How, uh, how is Jamie?”
Dominic's face broke into a wide grin. The sort of grin one gives when a thought is so amazingly pleasing that the emotion cannot be contained and the grin has no choice but to show. “Tired out.”
He coughed with a surprise laugh. “Is he coming tonight?” Immediately he knew he should have rethought the phrasing of that one. He was never at the top of his game without his scarf, though, so it wasn't too surprising.
“Morning, and,” joked Dominic crudely. “But yeah, you'll see him tonight at the club. It's damn cold out, but he'll be here.” Then, thoughtfully, “Is Nik expecting a small crowd?”
“Dunno.” There was a loud noise from the performance area and Dominic rose. “I'd better go look after them. Thanks, uh, for the,” he gestured loosely towards his head and Dominic gave a nod. Taking his coffee along, he headed over to talk with the band about the setup and to coordinate the dancers' positions.
He was starting to feel worse as the afternoon slowly progressed. By the time he had finished mapping out the dancer stations and revised the list of things to do for the twentieth time, he was feeling miserable. Shivering in his tight black turtleneck as he walked around testing the lights, he sneezed again. It was just as forceful as before, but he shook a little more at it. “huhTUHSHHHHH!” Rubbing at his nose, he ducked into the bathroom. The bathroom that was used as a bathroom, as opposed to the bathroom which had other uses. After going through a few handfuls of toilet paper, he emerged, looking beat.
“Turbo!” Dominic spotted him and called him over with a wave. He headed over, rubbing the back of his neck and trying to look more awake. It was only four and the day had only just begun. Dominic sighed and drew him into an unexpected hug, rubbing one hand up and down the back of his head. Fingers digging into the shoulder-length brown hair. “I want you to go home and have a rest.”
He shook his head. That wasn't possible. “I have a whole list of things to do…” he sniffled wetly, wishing he'd brought a few squares of toilet paper back with him to keep his nose from running.
Dominic gently eased the list out of his hand. “I'll take care of it. You go home and take care of yourself.” He broke the hug to walk over and collect the man's gloves and jacket for him.
Robert came through the back door, keys jingling in his hand. “Hey, Sweetie. Is he coming or what?”
“He's coming,” Dominic called back with a smile. Then, risking being labeled as making two bad, similar sexual jokes in one afternoon, added, “Didn't know you were the impatient type when it came to coming, Robert.” Turning back, he pulled off his own scarf and wrapped it around the man's neck. Against an outfit which was all black, the lime green and sky blue striped scarf stood out strongly. Kindly, “You needed a splash of color now and again. Especially as your face is so pale. Have a rest, and you'll feel much better when you get back tonight.”
He thought of protesting, but it seemed Dominic had trapped him well. And the warmth the scarf brought was more than welcomed. “Thanks, Sweetie,” he said, with another light sniffle and a rub at his nose. He gestured towards the list on the table. “Call me if you need clarification… it needs to be followed to the letter…”
“I've got it,” Dominic laughed, pushing him towards the door.
“Maybe I should just stay. What if something happens—”
Dominic turned him around and grabbed his shoulders firmly. When he spoke, his voice was soft but commanding. “Look. I know you try to play the brooding artist, especially when you get sick, but I know better. From experience. You just want someone to take care of you. You need to get a boy, Turbo.”
A shrug neither denied nor corroborated this. But a pitiful sniff from his runny nose fell on the side of corroboration. He would absolutely never admit it, however.
Offering over a tissue, Dominic continued, “And since you're alone at present, I'm stepping up and making sure you get home all right to take it easy for a few hours at least. So I'll see you back here around seven-thirty?”
He nodded in confirmation and headed out into the cold with Robert holding the door open for him. It was only a short walk over to one of the limousines, and he was very thankful that the heater worked so well. It blasted warm air as Robert started the car up, looking over at the passenger seat. “You still cold?” he asked as his passenger vigorously rubbed his hands together.
With another nod, “I'll warm up, though.”
“Doubtful,” Robert replied, still watching him. “Sweetie said you weren't feeling very well.”
He rolled his eyes. “Does the whole damn club have to know when I come down with a case of the sneezes?”
“Yup,” Robert said with a smile, watching the man's nose twitch. “We plan on inviting some columnists over to do a story on it, and maybe buy some time to announce it on the top porno sites. We want to make sure everyone hears that you've come down with a widdle cold in your nosey.” He directed a punch into the man's arm. Then he softened with rarely-displayed sympathy. “Tissues are in the glove compartment.”
Though he rolled his eyes, he still went for them, taking out a few and rubbing his nose. It wasn't long into the drive before he needed to use them, and they were certainly preferable to toilet paper. “huhTCHH! hihTCHHH!” He sighed and blew his nose a little, looking at Robert out of the corner of his eye. “What?” he asked to Robert's snide smirk. Self-consciously he began playing with the end of Dominic's scarf, braiding the little tassels, twisting them, smoothing them out straight again.
“Oh, nothing,” he said with a grin as they turned onto the right street. “Just wondering which one of your many tricks might have given you that cold.” This elicited another eye roll. Shortly after, the limo was double parked outside the apartment building. “I'll pick you up at seven-thirty?”
He nodded and quickly left the limo before he was forced to endure any further insulting jokes. His apartment was on the fourth floor, and he was out of breath by the time he had made it to level two. He was nearly crawling up the final set of stairs before staggering in to his place.
It was sparse and simple, but with a minimalist style. He had contributed to the décor in more ways than simply buying pieces. The few pieces of art on the walls were his creations, the pottery on the top of the bookshelf was his and he had a few books in it as well. But he walked past all that this time, straight into the bedroom. He stripped off his coat and the scarf that wasn't his. Off with the gloves and the black shoes. Down with the navy blue comforter and sheets. And within seconds he was warm and comfortable in bed. Well, close to comfortable. The damned tickle in his nose saw to that.
“huh…huh-TUCHHH! hihTUTCHHH!” The tissue box beside his bed was nearly empty from such frequent use. He took one of the tissues and buried his nose in it miserably. Then he pulled the covers up over his head and closed his eyes. Remarkably, thanks to fatigue and a touch of depression, he fell asleep easily.
But he found himself being shaken awake not long after. He pushed away the covers, emerging from beneath them, finding what was once warm to now be stiflingly hot. Robert was at the side of his bed, his arm outstretched. With a groan, “It can't be seven-thirty already.”
“It's not,” Robert replied, pulling the blankets down. “It's seven-forty.”
Comprehension dawned on his face. “Sev… shit!” There was no time to change. He pulled on his things, stuffed the few remaining tissues he had into his pocket, and followed Robert out to the car at a jog, leaving behind the scarf that wasn't his.
He nearly rolled out of the limousine before it came to a complete stop, and darted into the club through the side door, Robert's laughter following him in. He was accosted by both Nik and Dominic upon entering, and they forced a clipboard, headset, and coffee at him. There were three minutes until the start, according to his watch. The crowd was sparse but excited.
He started to adjust the headset, when he felt another sneeze coming on. He managed to hold everything with one hand as he fell back against the wall and pulled a tissue from his pocket. “heh… huh-TSHHH! huh-TUCHHHH! UHSHHH!” He sniffled into the tissue and waited for his head to stop pounding from the force of it all before recomposing himself.
He sniffed hard to clear his nose and began talking. “Corey? You and the other Tigers ready?” Briefly listening to the affirmation, he then raised his eyes to Dominic. “Lights set for the entrance? Sound check went all right? Dancers in place?”
“Everything's fine, Turbo,” Dominic assured him, gesturing towards the list. “Everything's taken care of.”
That, of course, remained to be seen. He made sure the headset was on with a tap to it. But he nodded and waved his hand. “All right then. Everyone take your spots… cue the lights… and…” Everything worked with a routine that had been perfected over a half dozen years, and yet seemed as fresh and new as though it had been the first time. The crowd seemed to eat it up, dancing madly in time to the beats. He knew it wouldn't be long until the magic of the music died down for the middle of the set and the patrons began hitting on the dancers or going for drinks at the bar. But right now, right at the beginning, things were magical. Strobe lights flashed across the dance floor while multi-colored ones blinked across the band, making the whole place light up with smiles and twinkles in eyes and every form of anticipation seemed born again just because the band was starting to play.
He was halfway up the stairs, leaning on the railing beside one of the club's enforcer's. He sighed and looked it all over, once in a while barking cues to the others over the headset. Much of it was computerized now, and there wasn't need to direct as constantly as there once had been. But it was hard not to want to make it as perfect as it could be. “Now everyone's set for the second number?” he asked, pressing his hand to the earpiece to be able to hear the answer more clearly.
“All set. No need to worry, Turbo,” came the staticy reply on the headset.
With a smile, he nodded. “Good. Just give me a buzz if you need something. And don't mind if I suddenly sneeze. I think I've come down with a cold.”
There was a laugh, “Yeah, we heard.” He looked across the room, craning his neck to look at the sound station. Squinting, he could make out his chief technician waving at him, then pointing towards Dominic.
“I should have known,” he groaned. He exchanged a humorous look with the security guard and clapped him on the back as he made his way up to Nik's office to check out things on the monitors. Nik's office was dark, and probably so for a reason. There was a large one-way mirror and a set of monitors showing every inch of the club. And on the couch lay Nick and some half-dressed man who was one of the club's regulars. “Don't mind me,” he said, averting his eyes and crossing over to examine the monitors. Everything seemed to pretty much be in order throughout the club. The music and lights were wonderfully in synch. The dancers were gyrating in strategically placed positions on platforms around the floor.
“Nah, I'm sthorry,” Nik said, giving the man a hard kiss then sitting up. “Turbo, have you met Blue Eyes here?”
He smiled and gave a wave. “I've seen you around the club a few times.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the man said. He sat up and pulled his shirt back down as Nik buttoned his fly for him. “I think I've seen you, too.” He tucked his shirt into his jeans. “Where's your scarf?”
He rolled his eyes, sniffling. Even complete strangers noticed. “Lost it,” he muttered. He set his coffee and clipboard down on Nik's desk and pulled a tissue out from the box there. “heh-huh-TSCHHH! Huh-TSHUHH!”
“You look beat,” Nik said. He scooted over beside Blue Eyes and patted the spot on the couch beside him. “Come on, sthit down and relaxth a little while.”
Shaking his head, “The moment I sit down and rest I'll fall asleep again. I need to keep working.” Even as he said it, his body complained to him, telling him to lie down on the couch. Nik would cover him with a blanket and pet his head and the show would go on without him. He could lie there feeling miserable and bemoaning his own stupidity. But he didn't want that. He wanted to do his job. If he'd wanted to shirk responsibilities he would have stayed in bed when Robert came to pick him up.
So, instead, he studied the monitors. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, even if the place was a bit busier than normal. The Sex Tigers went from one song to the other seamlessly and even he had nothing to complain about where the sound and the lights were concerned. He found his eyes drawn to the dancers more often than anything else, watching the muscular, godlike bodies moving in time to the beats.
Now that Nik's private time had been ruined, one of the security guards joined them in the office. He nodded to them both then watched the monitors closely for anything suspicious. Meanwhile Nik straightened up the couch. The guard, whose name currently escaped memory, let his gaze stray from the monitors to the man beside him. “Hey, aren't you usually wearing a scarf?”
“Nothing gets by you, does it?” Then, chuckling, “Except maybe for that chicken at .”
The guard looked over. “What? Where?”
He pointed at the right-hand monitor. “Right there.”
The guard leaned in for a closer look. “You think so? Doesn't look so young to me.” He had the tone of someone who didn't like being told how to do his job, but also someone relieved that something like this hadn't gone unnoticed. The club's clientele were strictly scrutinized.
Nodding, “Absolutely. Looks nervous, too. He could probably use some watching.” It was too cold to turn him out into the snow for just being there, but it wouldn't do to have a hawk swoop down and grab at him, either. If he felt better, he'd have intervened on the kid's behalf, but his head was swimming, his body was aching, and his nose was tickling. Much as he needed to keep busy, he wouldn't have minded someone swooping in to take care of him right about now.
Nik, who'd crossed over and was watching the monitors too, placed one arm around each set of shoulders. “I'll take care of him. I think Rich isth on the floor. He'sth good at thisth sthort of thing.” Nik hurried over to his desk to make a call down to security on the dance floor.
“hehh-TCHHHH! Huhh-TCHUHH!” Rubbing his nose and shaking his head, he repeated to himself that he needed to stay busy. Even if he did feel miserable, he still felt restless. “I think I'll go make the rounds downstairs.”
“Sure Turbo,” the guard said, scanning the floor again but keeping an eye on the previously identified young man just in case.
Being back down on the floor felt slightly better than standing in Nik's stuffy office, even if it meant people seeing him sniffling or looking at him funny. He stood alone towards the back of the club, making sure his headset was off every time he felt another sneeze brewing. The Sex Tigers were doing a phenomenal job and when the glittery confetti was released over the main portion of the dance floor, the crowd reacted with delight. Wishing something would go wrong- even something miniscule- just so that he was needed, he was mildly disappointed when everything went on without a hitch. Looked like they really could all get it together without him there.
Suddenly he felt something wrap around his neck from behind and pull him back a step. It felt familiar. He looked down to see his own thick, black, cashmere scarf wrapped around his neck. He bent his head and nuzzled his cheek against it affectionately. Then he cast a glance over his shoulder and lips caught his cheek in a kiss before he could pull away. They took a few more steps back, finding a dark patch of wall where, even with the hundreds of dancing men about them, they could feel as though they were alone with each other. After the headset was slipped off, they really were cut off from everyone else.
“You look surprised to see me, Timothy. You didn't expect me to return your scarf?”
A sheepish smile and an innocent shrug followed. He looked up into the tall blond man's deep blue eyes. “Honestly, no, Rupe.” He couldn't even count how many scarves he'd lost in this manner.
“You thought it would take me longer to escape, then? I admit you tied me pretty tightly to the headboard with your scarf but not that tightly.” Then Rupert tightened his own grip on the scarf around Timothy's neck, causing the man to cough. “Certainly nothing I wasn't begging for, after all.”
Timothy gave another shrug as the scarf loosened again. “Well, there's begging and there's begging…”
“Not with me,” Rupert said, shaking his bright, blond-haired head. “When I say I don't mind, I really don't mind. When I say I want it harder, I really want it harder. And when I say I enjoyed myself, I mean I enjoyed it. In fact, I mean that I want to do it again. All of it.”
He moved in for another kiss, but Timothy put a hand in between the two faces. “Wait,” he said. “I've come down with a cold.” He gave a nervous laugh. In the past, the few men who were all right with his thing for bondage usually never made it past his colds. And he really did seem to catch a cold practically the day after. It was as though his body wanted to test all the potentials out properly. He looked critically at Rupert, gauging his reaction.
“What are you doing here, then? Shouldn't you be at home resting?” He did not look disgusted this time either. He looked concerned.
In his hand, a voice spoke on the headset. Timothy nodded towards it. “I've got a job to do. Can't exactly make it on my art alone like some people.”
Rupert leaned even closer. “You know what one of the best things about being an artist is?”
Up to that point, the adrenaline had prevented him from sneezing. But now the need was back. He raised his arm and buried his nose into the crook. “hehhh-Shooff! Huh-Shuhffff!” Then he shook his head, sniffling, and noticed the man still had not fled.
Instead, he was grinning. And moving closer. Too close. Timothy pushed in protest but Rupert would not be denied. Lips met lips in reassurance and passion. When Rupert pulled back, he still wore the grin. “One of the best things is being able to take days off without losing money or calling into work. So I can take sick days any time I like when I don't feel just right or when someone I care about needs a little extra care and attention from me.”
With a sniff, weakly, “Rupe…”
Shaking his head and grinning, Rupert would not be denied. “We've known each other for weeks and I haven't been scared away yet. And I know it's not exactly in your nature to relinquish your control. But give it up, Timothy. Just let me take you away from here and care for you.” He waited a beat then, “Yeah?”
With a deep breath, and a glance towards the stage where The Sex Tigers were still performing flawlessly, he finally nodded. A few more sneezes delayed his verbal agreement, however. “hehTShhh! hehh-TShooo! ehh-TSHHH! Sniff! Yeah. Just give me a minute to tell them I'm taking off.”
Rupert grabbed the headset and switched it on. “Hey, anybody listening?” There was a moment of static, during which Timothy silently protested its use. He hit Rupert's arm, but Rupert only smiled and licked his lips to indicate he liked it. Finally there was an answer and Rupert continued. “Great. Well, Ti—”
“Turbo!” Timothy hissed in reminder. Nik's nicknames were admittedly confusing to newcomers to their circle.
Quickly correcting himself, “Turbo's not feeling well and is heading home for the rest of the night. Is that all right or will things fall to pieces without him here?”
Timothy recognized Dominic's voice on the other end of the headset, even at a distance. “Tell him to take a couple days and we hope he feels better. And tell him we're glad he found his scarf. He'll need it. The snow is really coming down out there.”
Rupert wrapped his arms around Timothy from the side and held the man close, acting as another layer against the snow. And Timothy found himself leaning into Rupert and letting himself go.
So lonely inside
So busy out there
And all you wanted
was somebody who cares
~All You Wanted, Michelle Branch