Anthony & Eryn


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Anthony leaned back against the counter with a sigh. He'd been on shift at Kinko's nearly four hours, with another three hours to go, and he didn't think he was going to make it. He'd woken up that morning with a sore throat and a slight cough, but had decided he needed the money too badly to call in sick. Now, his head was pounding, his body achy, and - to put it bluntly - he felt like shit. 

Taking this job hadn't been the smartest thing he'd ever done: he made 6 bucks an hour to stand around all day shoving paper through a copy machine. All that money for college down the drain. And this job was not helping him save up for grad school, either. He closed his eyes as a burst of pain throbbed in his head.

Eryn closed the door to the stock room and crossed to him. Her brow furrowed with concern as he erupted in a harsh fit of coughing, bracing himself against to the counter for support as it tore through his chest. The coughs were forceful, and she could hear the congestion in his lungs. 

"Anthony," she said gently, putting one hand reassuringly on his arm. "Go home. You sound absolutely awful." 

He sniffled, the congestion thickening in his head and making his thoughts fuzzy. His chest felt tight, and it hurt from coughing. She noticed that he shivered slightly in the cool air. As tempting as the thought of his warm bed was, the thought of walking into his empty apartment made him rather want to stay at work, even feeling as miserable as he did. Going home would make him feel depressed on top of feeling ill... 

The previous week had been absolute hell. He'd gotten a phone call from his parents saying that his grandfather had died. The funeral had been a nightmare, with his parents in the middle of their divorce and his sister shutting everyone out. When he got home, he found his girlfriend had walked out on him. Their relationship had been nothing but pretense for a couple of months, with numerous fights and very little affection. Now he was sick. 

They say bad things always come in threes, and he firmly believed it. For the past few days, being at home alone just made him think about everything that had happened, and so he had asked for extra hours at work so he wouldn't have time to think... so that he wouldn't have time to cry. He still hadn't cried. He felt the pain like a stone in his chest, drowning in his unshed tears. More than anything, he didn't want to go to his apartment. He still hadn't gotten used to coming in the door with only cold silence to welcome him home. 

"No," he said, his voice deepened from illness and raw around the edges. "I'll be okay." 

Eryn's blue eyes narrowed, and she extended a slim hand to place on his forehead. Her touch was soft and cool, and Anthony found his eyes sliding closed in spite of himself. It was the first tenderness anyone had shown him in a very long time, and he was surprised at how much his heart ached for it. She moved her fingers to rest on his cheek, still gauging. Pulling her hand away, she noticed how his shoulders slumped weakly, and his face tightened as he swallowed down a visibly painful throat. 

"You have a fever," she murmured, her voice as soothing to his ears as her fingers had been to his face. "Anthony," She used her voice to bring his eyes to hers. "I get off in an hour. And when I do, I'm taking you home. Dave should be here by then, and he'll just have to take over for the both of us." She glanced out the window, seeing the torrential downpour that thundered against the pavement. "I highly doubt we'll be swamped on a day like this." She cracked a grin. "Unless, of course, it's with a flash flood. It won't be with customers." 

He gave her a weak smile. It had been common knowledge for a few months now that Eryn was sweet on him. She was pretty, with soft blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and the sweetest smile he'd ever seen. That basically summed up her personality, too: sweet. With a quick wit, and a big heart. He had to admit to himself that secretly he was very attracted to her. But he'd been seeing someone, and he wasn't the type to mess around. Not even in fun. She had sensed this, as she seemed to always sense things about people, and hadn't ever openly flirted with him. They were just friends. But he still knew her feelings by how attentive she was to his moods, how she listened to him in conversation, and how she did whatever she could to help him with his jobs at work. And, of course, there was the gossip. If the other things didn't clue him in, he couldn't avoid the other employees' gossip. 

A sensation in his nose brought his thoughts back to his body, and he struggled briefly not to sneeze. At last, however, it was too much for him, and he folded his body over with a harsh "EEETTSCCHOO!" 

"Bless you!" she offered, taking some tissues from the box under the counter and handing them to him. 

He nodded his thanks, blowing his nose wearily and looking the worse for wear. For the next hour, she listened to him alternate between wet, harsh sneezing and violent coughing fits, both of which left him pale and gasping for breath. He looked as if his muscles were sore - making the slow, lethargic movements of someone who was feeling absolutely miserable. 

Dave walked in five minutes late, and found Eryn standing there with her hands on her hips, tapping one foot impatiently. 

"You're late," she snapped. Her anxiety for Anthony was beginning to wear on her patience.
"Sorry," he mumbled, wondering what had gotten into her. 

Pulling on her jacket and grabbing her purse, she started explaining, "Dave, Anthony's sick and I'm taking him home. It'll be just you for about an hour, and then Maria is scheduled to come in. I don't think you'll be rushed, not with this storm."

Dave was definitely not happy, but his protests were cut off by a sharp look from Eryn. Damn, he thought. That girl may be sugar-coated, but underneath was red hot steel.

She helped Anthony into his jacket, feeling his shoulders trembling a little as he continued to shiver. They went out back, she making him wait under the awning while she ran out to her truck, jacket draped over her head against the pelting rain. She pulled up as close to the awning as she could get, unlocked the passenger door, and gestured for him to get in. 

"What about my car?" he asked, a little dazed.

"You'll be back. It's not going anywhere," she replied, pulling him gently into the seat. "Put your seatbelt on." 

As they pulled out of the parking lot, she stole a glance at him out of the corner of her eye. He had slumped against the door, leaning his head against the glass, eyes closed. His face looked pale, with a slight flush to his cheeks that was the visible evidence of his fever. 
"Now, don't fall asleep on me, bud," she warned. "You have to tell me how to get to your place." 

He gave her directions, mumbling and without opening his eyes, and then almost immediately dropped off to sleep. She found his apartment building fairly easily, pulled into his parking space, and turned off the engine. He didn't stir, his soft, even breaths making small clouds of fog on the window. 

"Anthony?" she called softly, not wanting to startle him. She put one hand on his arm, squeezing gently. "Hey, we're here." 

His eyes slid open sleepily, and he lifted his heavy head from where it had rested against the cool glass. He felt a slim but firm arm slide around his waist, and let himself be helped from the truck and up the stairs to his apartment. 

He fumbled with the keys before finally getting the door unlocked and stumbling inside. Part of his mind was very embarrassed that Eryn was seeing his place as messy as it was... he just hadn't found the time or the energy to clean it. Clothes were strewn all over, with dirty dishes piled in the sink and the pantry all but bare. Fast food bags were stuffed down the overflowing trashcan, and regardless of all the mess the whole place felt very empty, and very cold. In spite of himself, he felt tears spring to his eyes, and he fought to keep control. 
Eryn felt him tense beneath her hands, and sensed what he was feeling. She had known that he was going through a rough time, though he hadn't told her exactly what was going on. The state of his apartment was evidence enough that his girlfriend was no longer part of the picture, though from her impression of their relationship over the past few weeks she doubted that was all that was bothering him. She steered him down a hallway that she hoped led to a bedroom, and was relieved to find that, indeed, it did. She pushed him to the bed, taking in the rumpled sheets, the piles of clothing, and one side of the closet noticeably empty. 

He sat down on it hard, letting out a ragged sigh that immediately turned into a bout of coughing. Eryn sat beside him, bracing his back until it passed, leaving him even paler than before (if that was possible) and wheezing, trying to catch his breath. 

"That doesn't sound good," she said, smoothing his long brown hair out of his eyes. "Do you want something to drink? Juice? Water?"

"Water," he croaked, giving a few more coughs into his clenched fist. "I'm out of juice." His voice was thick and husky, both from being sick and from pent-up emotions. 

She squeezed his arm, whispering softly, "I'll be right back." 

She went to the kitchen and filled a glass with ice and water. It was one of the last three glasses he had clean. She went back to the bedroom to find he'd changed into a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt, and was lying down on the bed, curled up with his eyes closed tight. 

"Here," she crooned, sitting carefully on the bed and holding out the glass. 

He opened his eyes sluggishly, and she could see they were red-rimmed and glassy, as if he had been fighting back tears. He struggled to sit up, and gulped the water, his eyes closed as the cool liquid lessened the fire in his throat. She sat by silently, rubbing her hand on his back. 

Inhaling sharply, he exploded with three wet sneezes that shook the bed. "HehhHEEIISSHOO! IIISHHOO! HEP-CCHHOOO!" When he finished, he set the glass on the nightstand and hung his head, his shoulders falling wearily. Without speaking, she moved instinctively to kneel behind him on the bed and started to rub his shoulders, feeling his tense muscles relaxing slightly under her strong hands. 

His chest still felt tight, though at this point he could not have said whether it was because he was sick, or because her hands on his shoulders was the best thing he had felt in a long, long time. Her smooth, rhythmic movements felt like the gentle rocking of the sea, and he felt his eyelids growing heavy. He let out another sigh, though this one was quite different: long, and full of relief at the tenderness and comfort. 

She felt him relaxing, and moved her body up as he fell back a bit, until he leaned against her. He sniffled weakly, letting another tired-sounding "heh-SHOO!" escape. She fetched the tissue box from the nightstand, and he blew his nose several times in an attempt to clear it. She wrapped her arms around his chest, and gave him a reassuring squeeze. Without thinking, she swept her lips down, planting a soft kiss in his hair. Then, she guided him back down to the bed, and drew the covers over him. 

"Eryn?" he whispered as she turned to crawl off the other side of the bed. 


His voice was hoarse, with a vulnerability that made her heart catch in her throat. "Stay with me." She froze, looking at him with wide eyes. He swallowed, then added a small,"Please?"

"Sure," she breathed, moving to sit beside him so her back was against the headboard. 

She started running her hand through his hair, loving the silky feeling of it between her fingers. He sighed again, feeling the softness of the bed and the gentle touch of her fingers lull him into sweet oblivion. Soon he was asleep.

Cold. He was so very cold. He shook and shivered, pulling the blankets closer around in a vain attempt to get warm. His limbs quaked and his teeth chattered violently. 

"Hehh... EEHTTCHOO!" Fumbling at his nose, he snuffled helplessly as his nose tickled. "EETCCHH! EEHSHHOO!" He moaned softly, his entire body aching.

Then, suddenly, he was burning up. Sweating. God, why was it so hot? He pushed the covers off, moving restlessly in the scorching heat. He coughed, feeling a sick burning in his chest and a raw fire in his throat.

But soon he was back to shivering again. His body couldn't seem to make up its mind. God, he was so thirsty. His head was pounding, his arms and legs feeling as if they were made of wood. He was trapped in that fog-filled place between sleep and waking, where nightmares roamed through cloudy thoughts. 

Dark, swirling images raced through his mind - his parents' angry whispers to each other in the funeral parlor, his girlfriend's cold voice on his answering machine, the sight of the flower-laden coffin as it was slowly lowered down. His heart pounded with fear. A constant sound, like rain, filled his ears. It seemed to seep through his head until the rain filled his eyes. It slid down his pain-filled throat until it pooled in his chest, causing the tightness to nearly choke him. Suddenly there was a crash of thunder that shook the apartment, and he woke up with a cry, tears streaming down his cheeks, panting hard. 

"Anthony?" came a soft, distant voice in the darkness.

He was almost too overcome to notice, until he felt soft, gentle hands on him, and the floodgates swung open wide as he started sobbing. 

Eryn didn't know what was going on, but she pulled his shaking body to her, wrapping her arms around him, and started to stroke his hair and his back, whispering softly, "It's okay... Shh... It's okay..." over and over. 

The back of his neck was so hot, and when she moved her fingers to his damp cheek, she found that there it was the same. God, he was burning up! She felt his arms slip clumsily around her and tighten, his whole body trembling as it was wracked with his heart wrenching sobs. They sat there for a long while as he cried, she trying not to think about how high his fever was and rocking him gently, murmuring softly into his ear to calm him down. He cried harder than he ever had before, pouring out all his grief, loneliness, and frustration into his voice. The sobs tore at his sore throat, scraping it raw, his whole body shaking with the violent emotions. Only her soft voice in his ear helped him to keep from drowning. Her voice was his lifeline in the storm.

After a while, his sobs became less harsh, his shoulders hitching a little as he tried to calm his breathing. It was only then that he noticed how tightly he was holding onto her. He felt how near she was, how warm and soft and strong, and he drank in her presence like sweet wine. She felt him do it, and noticed how he seemed to draw strength from her being there, and her heart jumped. She waited until she felt he was calmer, then pulled back a little to push the hair away from his face. Again, she felt the heat radiating off of his body.

"Anthony?" she murmured softly. He loved the way she said his name. "You're fever's gone up." 

Then, he felt her lips being pressed to his forehead. They felt like soft, cool rose petals. He basked in the tenderness of the brief kiss, its sweetness melting the tightness in his chest, even after she had pulled away. 

"Sweetie, do you have any medicine?"

He sat there for a moment, still shaking a little in the aftermath. "Huh?" he whispered, wincing as his throat protested. His fevered brain did not quite understanding what she was asking him. 

"Do you have any Tylenol? Aspirin? Something to make your fever go down?" she continued patiently, still stroking his face, gently wiping the tears away.

"Oh..." he tried to catch the thoughts that were racing through his head like unruly children. "Um, in the bathroom." 

She made a move to get off the bed, but his arms tightened around her. "Wait..." His voice broke on the word. He rested his head against her shoulder and took a deep breath before trying to continue. "Please... wait." He couldn't seem to make his throat work. All he knew was that he didn't want to leave the protective circle of her arms. Not yet.

She gave him an understanding squeeze, and held him a little longer, rubbing her hand gently on his back. He gave a couple of weak coughs. She felt it as he leaned into her, and felt his vulnerability and his need for the comfort and compassion that he had been without for so long. It nearly broke her heart. 

When she felt he was ready, she pulled away, taking his hot face in her hand. 

"I'll be right back," she said reassuringly, and he let her go then. 

He leaned back against the headboard, still shivering slightly. As he drew his legs up to conserve warmth, some dim portion of his mind could hear her running water in the bathroom, but all it registered was that she was no longer near him. He could feel the grief rising in a great tide surrounding the bed, threatening to swamp him all over again. 

"Eryn?" he called hoarsely, a note of desperation in his voice. Almost immediately, he started coughing. And he couldn't seem to stop.

She padded quickly back into the bedroom, two Tylenol, some cough medicine, and a glass of water in her hands. 

"Yeah," she breathed, sitting down beside him. "I'm here." 

She saw his shoulders start to relax. The grateful look in his eyes was what she imagined a child would give his mother after she chased away a nightmare. His coughing sounded painful. 

"Here," she said, handing him the water. "This should help," and she pressed the Tylenol into his hand. 

He tilted his head back as he gulped down the water, exposing his lean, muscular throat. She found herself staring at it, and she had to shake herself a little to keep from slipping into her usual dreamy thoughts. After all, he'd just gotten over a relationship, and the one thing she didn't want to be was a rebound. She'd learned that the hard way. 

He finished and set the water down on the nightstand, breathing hard. She got him to take some of the cough medicine, then got up to refill the glass. She brought a cool washcloth back with her, and took his chin in her hands. She started sponging down his face and his neck, watching as his eyes closed, his shoulders relaxed, and his breathing eased. 

"Eryn?" he said.

"Mmhm?" she answered, not meeting his eyes.

He caught hold of one of her hands mid-stroke. "Thank you," he said, his fever-bright eyes piercing deep into her own. 

Her breath caught in her throat. She took his hand in hers and gave it a little squeeze, smiling. 

"My pleasure."

he helped him to lie down, still running the cool cloth over his hot skin. After a few moments, she started humming quietly. Her clear voice and cool, gentle touch chased away the last of the demons, and soon he was asleep again, the first deep, restful sleep he'd had in weeks.

The next morning, he woke up feeling quite a bit better. His nose was tickly, his throat still a little scratchy, and his body felt like it'd been run over by a freight train, but his head felt ten times better than it had the day before. And, more importantly, so did his heart. 

He swung his legs out of bed, squinting his eyes against the bright sunlight streaming through the open blinds. The light triggered the tickle inside his nose, and he erupted in a fit of wet sneezes. 

"Hehhh... ehhh... EEHH-IISHOO!... HEHHISSHOO! HEHHSHOO!... EEEHSHOO! Huhhh... UUHSSHOO!" God, his nose! He rubbed at it frantically with his fist, then pinched it shut, trying to squelch the tickles. "MMMPPPSHOO! HEHHHMMMP!" That just made his sinuses ache. And still, he kept sneezing. "HEHHISHHO!" He pulled out some tissues, blowing his nose fiercely as tears slid down his cheeks. "AASHHOO!... HAH-SHOO!" Finally, he was able to stop. 

He shook his head, trying to catch his breath. Giving his nose a few more blows, he wiped it clean and opened his eyes. It took a moment for him to focus, but when his vision panned the room, he had to blink a couple of times to believe it. 

Everything was clean. 

All the clothes had been washed and put away, the empty side of the closet filled with his shirts and slacks, neatly hung. He got up, and shuffled into the main room, taking in everything with wide eyes. The furniture had been cleaned of all the piles of clothing and garbage. Even the kitchen was spotless, with everything washed and put back into place. When he walked to the fridge to get some ice water, he noticed that someone had done some shopping. Bread on the counter, cans of soup in the cabinet. He even had orange juice. 

There was a sound at the door, and turned around to see Eryn walking towards him in a different change of clothes, another bag of groceries under her arm. Although she didn't look like she'd slept much, he thought she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. 

"Hey," she said. "You're up." She set the bag down on the counter and crossed to him, concern lighting up her face. "How are you feeling?" she said, laying a soft hand on his cheek. 

"Better," he said, taking her hand in his. "I can't believe you did this," he continued, his eyes roaming over the kitchen. There was a different feel to his entire apartment. It was as if someone had opened a window and chased out all the cold that had made him feel so lonely, so trapped.

"Oh," she replied, blushing. "Well, you can't possibly expect to get better with the place looking like it did before. A veritable breeding ground for germs." She smiled shyly, pushing her hair behind her ear. 

"Yeah," he smiled. He took her other hand. "I don't know how to thank you for..." Something caught in his throat again. "... for everything."

"You're welcome," she said, blushing deeper, but still smiling. 

"How... how did you possibly do all this?" he asked, still incredulous. 

"Oh... you know," she said, crossing and pulling out bananas and oranges from the bag on the counter. "You fell asleep again, and I..." Her voice became small, and she glanced at him. "Well, I sat with you for a little while. Then I started picking everything up. Actually, I had started doing it the first time you fell asleep, and just finished it later. It wasn't that hard..." 

She trailed off as she felt him come up behind her and put his arms around her waist. He leaned his head against hers, and gave her a small squeeze. She put her hands over his, then turned around to face him.

"Anthony," she began. "There's... there's something I want to ask you." She looked down at his hands clasped in hers. "Last night, during the storm..."

"Yeah," he interrupted softly, also looking at their hands, his chest tightening again. He knew she would ask about the nightmare... And she had every reason to. But he didn't think he could deal with it right now. The chill that had almost left him started to creep back, causing him to shiver slightly.

"If you don't want to talk about it, that's okay," she added breathlessly.

"Um," he swallowed hard. He had to breathe a few times to clear the tears that were welling up in his eyes. There was so much he wanted to tell her... he needed to tell her. But for some reason he just couldn't get the words out. "Maybe later, okay?."

"Okay," she said quickly. "That's fine." She squeezed his hands again, then looked up into his face. Suddenly, she wrapped her arms around him, and pulled him to her. He held her, closing his eyes and feeling her warm tenderness dissipate the tightness and the chills like the sun to a dense fog. They held each other for a few moments, then she felt him tense, and before he could stop himself, he sprayed her with a harsh, wet sneeze. 

"Oh!" he exclaimed, pulling away from her. "I'm so sorry, Eryn!"

She pulled away with a caress to his face, giving him a warm smile. "We'd better get you back to bed. You've still got a fever." 

She tucked him in, setting a big glass of juice on the nightstand. In spite of how much better he looked this morning, he was still a little sluggish, eyes red-rimmed with illness and emotion. She sat by him, smoothing the hair back from his face. "Do you need anything else?"

"Yeah," he whispered, looking nervous all of a sudden. "Will you... will you stay with me?..." He paused, looking embarrassed. "I mean, again?... Still?"

"Sure," she replied, rescuing him from his nervous babbling, and finding this time it was so much easier than the first time he'd asked her. She continued to sit beside him, running her fingers through his hair. 

He looked at her, then looked away, blushing. "No, I mean... Here." He laid one hand on the bed beside him. "With me."

Her heart started racing. She didn't understand exactly what he was asking her, and she didn't feel like she could handle either answer if she asked. So, she just slid wordlessly into bed beside him, waiting for him to make the first move. 

There was a nervous pause. Then, he moved so that he was lying against her, and put his head on her shoulder. He slid his arms around her, closed his eyes, and breathed a deep sigh of contentment. She smiled, and wrapped her arms protectively around his shoulders, giving him another reassuring squeeze. 

"Don't worry," she whispered, planting a soft kiss on his cheek. "I'm not going anywhere."