It was raining, and she was asking him a question. Somewhere in his mind, he knew this. But he really wasn't paying attention. He stood in the drizzle, his focus centered on the fact that he urgently, deeply, desperately... needed to sneeze.
"Ryan?" her eyebrow quirked in question. "Did you hear me?"
His eyes looked through her, glazed with a blank expression. His mouth was hanging open, anticipating what was to come. The tickle played with his nose, toyed with him, until he found that his only thoughts were, 'Come on, already. Please, please, please, just come on out. God, just... come on...'
"Are you okay?" she became concerned. "Ryan?"
"HerrRRUUSSHOOO!" She was answered by a wet blast smack dab in the face.
She recoiled. "Bless you!" she exclaimed, taking a moment to give him a surprised look.
He returned the look, his own surprise quickly colored red with embarrassment. "Oh god, Steph, I'm so sorry," he mumbled as he wiped his nose with his fist, looking sheepish. "What were you saying?"
Stephanie's eyes narrowed, analyzing the young man in front of her. His eyes held a dazed look, his nose pink, cheeks flushed, and his shoulders shivered slightly in the falling rain. She could tell he hadn't heard anything she had been saying, and for Ryan that was highly unusual. Of all the guys she knew, he was the one person who always took the time to listen to people, paying attention to all the details and offering caring and support when they needed it. He was usually very upbeat, joyful in his interactions with other people, and sensitive to what was happening around him. That was why he worked in a hospital. Today, though, he seemed unusually sluggish, unable to focus on anything, and, more than anything else (to put it bluntly), he looked like hell.
"Ryan?" she asked, putting a hand on his arm for emphasis. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."
Dull blue eyes closed, subtly muscled shoulders slumping as he gave a sigh of utter exhaustion. "I'm sorry, Steph. I've felt like shit all day, today." And indeed, he had. A dull headache throbbed in his skull, his throat stung, and his limbs felt heavy and numb. And if that weren't enough, every once in a while he was assailed by a brief, dizzying wave of nausea.
"You look it," she agreed, bringing a hand up to sweep the damp brown hair from his eyes and lay her fingers across his forehead. "Yeah, you have a fever," she murmured, his forehead burning underneath her skin.
Ryan swallowed, and made a face that let her know it hurt to do so. Almost imperceptibly, he started leaning into her cool hand as he let his body feel the comfort her gesture brought him.
"All right," she said, feeling a growing concern for him. "Let's take you home, okay?" Taking his arm, she turned to lead him toward her car.
"No," he protested weakly. "I'm due back in twenty minutes. I have to finish my shift."
She pursed her lips, determined not to let him spend the next four hours traipsing around the hospital. "I'm sorry, Dr. Tanner, but it looks like you have now become the patient." And she continued her gentle tugging. "You're not going to do anyone any good today, so you might as well go home and take care of yourself." Actually, Ryan was just a med student, but she liked to tease him about being 'Dr. Tanner.'
He gave into her then, knowing she was right. She put her arm around his waist, guiding him gently as he gave another wet "EEHHKKISSHOO!" into his fist. Shivering as he felt a chill seep into his aching body, he stumbled a little as she led the way to her Jeep, and crawled gratefully into the passenger seat.
She glanced at him as she pulled her seatbelt on and started the engine. He was sitting almost on his side, his head curled against the cool glass, wet and still shivering, his eyes closed, sniffling softly. Pulling out of the hospital, her eyebrows drew together in a worried expression. She had just started seeing Ryan about a month ago. They had met while working together at the hospital - he in the ER and she in lab - and had been friends for several months. Finally, a month ago, he'd appeared one day at the end of her shift with a red rose and two tickets to a concert, a band they both liked. As they'd walked out of the club that night, fingers entwined, ears ringing from the intense volume of the speakers, he'd pulled her to the side of the crowd, cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her. They'd been out once or twice a week ever since, freely admitting that they were crazy about each other.
She pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building and turned off the car, announcing to him, "Ryan, sweetie, we're there. Come on."
He didn't stir. She could see his chest rising and falling with deep, even breaths. He'd fallen asleep right there in the passenger seat. Warm fingers squeezed at her heart, and a sympathetic smile pulled at her mouth. He looked so cute - his lashes barely visible on his smooth cheek, his pink lips parted, breathing softly.
Leaning over, she ran her hand over his head and said a little louder, "Ryan? Come on, wake up, baby."
He stirred then, turning his head to the front and blinking a few times as his clouded thoughts tried to arrange themselves inside his head. He gave a sudden inhale before bursting forth with a quick, harsh, "EEH-GGGSHOOU!" as she got out and went around to help him out of the car. It took him a few seconds to figure out where they were. She opened his door for him, taking his arm, and he whispered hoarsely, "This is your apartment."
"Yes it is," she agreed, helping the dazed young man to his feet and closing the car door behind him.
He swallowed, feeling a shooting, painful fire in his throat that caused him to wince. "Why?" was all he managed to get out.
Taking him in the front door and starting up the stairs, she answered, "Your keys are back in your locker, sweetie. Besides, I highly doubt you want to go back and have to spend time being sick in that filthy rat hole you live in. Am I right?" She flashed him a teasing smile. He valiantly tried to return it, but was only able to give a tired nod, his feet finding each stair by feel alone as the shivering and aches from his illness made his body go into autopilot. But his nose was tickling.
"Huhh... huhhuhhuhh... ihh ihh..." the tingling started his nose twitching, his face contorting as he struggled to work the sneezy sensation out of his quivering nostrils.
She let him lean against the wall as she fumbled with the keys to her door. "Are you okay?" she asked him for the third time, noticing his discomfort, and the noises he was making concerned her that he might be hyperventilating.
"Heaheah... id's... hah... by doze... hah hah... sdeeze... is... haaaahh... sduck..." She watched as he brought his fist up to scrub at his reddening nose, his whole face scrunched up in a helpless expression of discomfort. But she managed to get the door open just as the ferocious "HERRRUSSHOOOO!!" burst forth. It snapped his body forward, wrenching out of him almost painfully. Three more sneezes exploded out of him as he stood there hunched over. "EhhKKCHHOO! ahh... haahTTCHOO!... heahHEAASCCHHUH!" Then, he slumped back against the wall, exhausted from the effort and breathing hard. Taking a moment, she smoothed his ear-length brown hair back from his pale face in a tender gesture of comfort, before pulling him inside.
Helping him to the couch, she directed, "Go ahead and get out of those wet clothes," as she continued on into her bedroom, only half catching the puzzled expression he gave her. When she returned a few moments later carrying a large pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt, she found him still looking confused.
"Sweetie," she said, sitting down next to him and starting to pull off his scrubs. "You're soaked, and you're shivering." She slipped the warm t-shirt that she had just pulled from the dryer over his chilly skin, and deposited the sweat pants in his lap. "I'll be right back," she added with a kiss to his forehead, and got up to go into the kitchen.
He could still see her through the doorway, pulling out a hot pot and filling it with water from the sink. She wasn't looking at him, discreetly giving him privacy to change his pants. Lord... that T-shirt was the best thing he had ever felt. It was all he could do not to just close his eyes and bask in the warmth as it calmed his shaking shoulders. But his legs were still chilled, so he quickly stripped off the damp cotton trousers and slipped into the warm sweat pants, sloppily letting his wet clothes fall in heap on the floor. He had only a moment to close his eyes and elicit a deep sigh of relief... before he started to cough, harsh and desperate. His chest ached with each spasm as it shook him. Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, he brought his fist to cover his mouth while his other hand massaged his chest, trying to soothe the tight feeling inside it.
When he was finished, he continued to sit with his eyes closed, taking cautious breaths that wheezed slightly, trying to keep from launching into another fit. God, he felt absolutely awful.
He felt her hand on his back, and opened his eyes to find her holding out a steaming mug of something to him. Taking it gingerly, he held it in his cold hands, letting the warmth seep into his fingers, being careful not to spill it as she sat next to him.
"You sound terrible," she said. She was never one to mince words.
He smiled weakly, turning away as he tried to stifle a few more coughs that threatened to overtake him. They fought their way out, tearing through his chest and raking his already-irritated throat until all he could see in his vision was a wash of red. She inched closer to him, one hand rubbing his back comfortingly as he succumbed to the fit, the other taking the cup from him and holding it away so he wouldn't spill the hot liquid on himself. When it left him, breathless, with tears in his eyes from the force of the coughing, she placed the cup back in his hands and told him, "Drink. It'll help your throat."
Indeed, it did. Something mediciny - he could taste it - but the warm liquid penetrated the chill from the inside, chasing away the last of the shivers. It soothed both his chest and his throat, calming the screaming nerves that cried out to let his brain know he was experiencing pain. He sighed, his eyes closing and leaning towards her gratefully.
"Thanks Steph," he whispered. He wanted to tell her how good it felt to be in the warm shirt and sweats, the liquid helping to ease his throat and quiet his coughing. He wanted to say 'thank you so much for taking care of me,' but all he could manage was a hoarse, "It's better."
She understood, still rubbing his back as he sipped at the warm mug. "It's TheraFlu," she said, indicating the cup. "I'll bet that's probably what you've got. What do you think?" He nodded. "Well, let's get you into bed," she added, starting to rise from the couch.
She was surprised to hear a cracked laugh. Turning, she saw the same wry smile that had made her fall for him all those months before. "Already?" he croaked, his eyes shining with mischief. "Will you still respect me in the morning?"
"You devil," she replied, laughing.
Hauling him to his feet, she shoved him in the direction of her bedroom. Contrary to the popular dating practices of her generation, they had not slept together. The only time it had ever come up was three months before they ever went on their first date, in a random conversation at the hospital's lab. They had both expressed that they didn't think it was a good idea to sleep with someone until you had known them at least a year, whether or not you had been dating them that long... and it depended on how you felt about them, etc. etc. From the then until now, they had not spoken of it again, though God knows she had definitely thought about it from time to time. She found Ryan extremely attractive: with his baby blue eyes, floppy brown hair, lean, muscled form, and warm, boyish smile. Oh yes, she had definitely thought about it.
A strangled sound from Ryan brought her out of her reverie. He had stopped in the hallway, right in front of her bedroom door, his shoulders heaving. "Ryan?" she asked, wondering if he was going to be sick or something, if he was feeling nauseous.
He couldn't reply, the urgency of his nose taking precedence over speech. Turning halfway, he held out the cup in one of his shaking hands, the other currently engaged in fanning the air in front of his face, trying to encourage the sneeze to escape his helpless nose. She took the cup quickly, realizing he would probably be launching another violent sneeze and not wanting him to spill the still-hot beverage.
Good Lord, his nose tingled! He could feel the sensitive membranes vibrating with the desire to expel the germs that tickled them, involuntarily causing him to hitch and gasp and wheeze as the urge gathered strength. Glimpsing her worried expression through his tearing eyes, he tried to reassure her.
"Haah... godda... hahhahha... sdheeze, hagid... Hohh... hah, hah... id's," he sniffled thickly. "Godda be ha... HAhh... big wod..." His eyes squelched shut as he was catapulted forward with a mighty, "HUUHHKKSCCCHH!!," the thick spray shooting out from his lips like a geyser.
Steph turned and ducked into the bathroom for some tissues, hearing the loud, wrenching volley of sneezes continue behind her.
"Hiiihh-HEHKKSSHOO!... hahh...GGSSCHH!... HUHGGSSCHH!... Heaheah IITKSSCHOO!"
She emerged with a large handful, taking him by the wrist and pressing them into his hand; she knew with his eyes shut so tight he wouldn't be able to see to take them from her.
He pulled them to his face, catching a final "HAHKKSCHOO!" in them, immediately using the rest of the air in his lungs to give several forceful blows, wrinkling his forehead with the effort. Finishing, he wiped his red nose roughly to rid it of the last of the mess, and his red-rimmed eyes looked up to give her the most tired, ill, pitiful, helpless expression that she had ever seen. It told her that this usually virile, strong, independent young man that she cared for deeply was feeling ab - so - lutely miserable, achy, and ill, wanting desperately for someone to take care of him. It nearly broke her heart.
She went up to him and folded her arms around his shoulders in a tender embrace. Seeking comfort, he allowed his head to fall to her shoulder and crept his arms around her waist, sniffling weakly and letting out an exhausted sigh. She rubbed his back, giving him a gentle squeeze as he leaned into her.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," she whispered. "I know you feel awful."
She heard him give another tired sniffle, and then felt a feeble nod. They stayed like that for a little bit, she rubbing his back and letting him take comfort from the warmth of her arms, until she felt a small shiver pass through his body.
"Okay," she crooned, giving him a final squeeze. "Let's get you into a warm bed."
Allowing her to lead him to her bed, he waited until she pulled back the covers before lowering himself onto it. She went back to the bathroom where she had left the steaming cup of TheraFlu, making him drink as much of the now-cooling liquid as he could, before letting him settle down and pulling the covers up around his shoulders.
"I'm going to get the thermometer, baby. Try not to fall asleep until afterwards, okay?" she gave him a sympathetic smile.
He nodded, closing his eyes and letting the soft warmth of the blankets start to soothe away the aches in his body. Swallowing, he felt lancing pain in his throat, and made a mental note not to do that again.
She returned after a moment, sliding the thermometer under his tongue and pushing the electronic button to start it. While she waited for it to take the reading, she changed into pajama pants and a soft t-shirt herself, and crawled up to sit next to him on the bed, leaning her back against the headboard. When the beep sounded, she slid it out and brought it up to look at the digital screen.
"101.2," she said softly. "That's not good, Ry."
He didn't open his eyes, but he groaned and whispered back, "I know," wincing as the words rasped at his throat. He rolled over, his head coming to rest on her soft stomach, and wrapped his arms around her waist.
Steph was a little surprised by this. Ryan had always been accepting of the little gestures of affection she'd displayed towards him, but neither one of them were very big on overt displays of it. Holding hands, hugs, and brief kisses were about the extent of the physical affection they'd engaged in. She'd always heard about how needy guys get when they're sick, but she'd never really put much stock in it. Still, his action caused a swell of maternal instinct in her, and she put her arms around his shoulders and brought her lips down to plant a soft kiss in his hair.
He buried his face in her stomach, unable to resist the overwhelming feeling of misery that welled up inside him. His head hurt, his throat hurt, he couldn't breathe, his limbs ached, and he felt hot and cold at the same time. His chest was starting to tighten ominously, letting him know that the illness gripped his lungs, and that same nausea continued to roil in his stomach, though it was a little less after the warm liquid and the soft bed.
His parents had died in a car crash a few years ago, and ever since he'd been filled with this almost unbearable ache inside. He tried to hide it with laughter and brave smiles, but nothing ever really eased it. At least, not until he'd met Steph. She made him feel happy deep down where he had thought he would never feel happiness again. It was hard for him to admit, but slowly he was becoming to realize that he wasn't as self-reliant as he had thought he was. He needed someone. More importantly, he needed her. Right now he couldn't explain where the feeling came from - and, to be honest, at the moment he didn't care - but all he wanted was to be held. By her.
She complied, not knowing his exact thoughts but getting the general idea. Murmuring quiet nothings to him, she kept one arm around him while the other hand stroked his hair, his neck, and his back, lulling him to sleep. When she felt his breathing was deep and even, she carefully reached over him for the book on her nightstand, settling back to hold him and let him hold her while he slept...
There was something heavy on top of her. As her consciousness sharpened, she remembered where she was and who it was, and opened her eyes. She must have fallen asleep; the book lay open on the bed next to her relaxed hand. Ryan still lay across her, breathing deeply, but she became aware that she was damp. Gently placing a hand on his head, she found him hot and sweaty, his fever most definitely up from before. She eased him off of her, noticing as he curled around the extra pillow with a small whimper, and slipped out to get the aspirin from her medicine cabinet. No, she stopped herself. Ryan can't take aspirin: it tended to aggravate his mild asthma and gave him headaches. Ibuprofen, then.
She returned with the ibuprofen and a glass of water. Shaking him gently to wake him, she said softly but firmly, "Ryan? Sweetie, wake up. I think you're fever's gone up."
He came to groggily, and she took in his glazed eyes, pale face, and flushed cheeks. He struggled to sit up and leaned back against the headboard, his whole body stiffening as he launched into a vicious coughing fit. She watched as he brought his legs up, leaning his head down between them and resting his arms on his knees as the coughs shook his whole frame, deep and wet. They rattled in his chest like thunder.
He was definitely worse.
"Here, baby," she lulled as the coughing tapered off. "Let's take your temp again and then you can have some water."
He let her slip the instrument in his mouth again, sitting patiently until it sounded. 102. She sighed, shaking her head.
"It's too high, Ry," she told him, passing him two ibuprofen and the glass of water. "I'm going to call Mike and see if he can give you something for it. I'll be right back."
For some reason, she had a hard time pulling herself from the bedside, but she managed to do so and took the phone from the nightstand into the hallway to call their friend Mike down at the hospital pharmacy.
"Hello?" the baritone voice sounded musical on the line.
"Hey Mike, it's Steph."
"Hi, Steph. How are you? Hey, do you know where Ryan is? He never came back to finish his shift..."
"Yeah, Mike, I'm sorry. I meant to call and got distracted. Ryan's pretty sick. That's actually why I called... I think he's either got the flu or some kind of infection. His fever's up to 102 and he's got a bad cough. It sounds like he's got congestion in his lungs, and he's been having sweats and chills. Have you got anything I can come pick up for him?"
"Hmm... let me take a look." There was a pause, and Steph took the opportunity to peek in the crack in the door at Ryan. He was lying down again, curled on his side, with his back to her. "Does he have any other symptoms? Other than the fever, chills, and cough?"
"Yeah. Sneezing, and I think his throat hurts pretty bad. He's probably nauseous. But the fever is what really worries me."
"Yeah, I think I've got a couple of options. Ryan has asthma, right?"
"Kind of. It's very mild - I don't think he gets attacks, really. Just tightness and a little short of breath if he's physically exerted or if he takes aspirin." She tried to remember what little she knew from the short time she had known him. "I'm sure it's not helping to have all that congestion in his chest."
"Okay, this one's out. Do you know if he's allergic to any medication?"
That had her stymied. She didn't think so, but the situation really hadn't arisen where that kind of information would have come up. "Hang on, Mike. I'll ask him."
She stepped softly in the door and back over to the bed, holding the phone to her shoulder to cover the mouthpiece. Placing a hand on Ryan's prone form, she asked gently, "Ryan, honey, are you allergic to any medications? Do you know?"
He turned toward her slightly, still not opening his eyes, and shook his head 'no.'
"Okay," she squeezed his shoulder. "Go on back to sleep." Bringing the phone back to her ear, she told him, "He said no."
"Great! I'll give him something for the fever and congestion, and also some syrup for his sore throat and cough. I could give him something for the sneezing but it might make him more nauseous. It should be ready in about twenty minutes or so."
"Thank you so much, Mike. I'll come right down and pick them up." She clicked the phone off with a sigh of relief.
She changed into a pair of jeans and tennis shoes, and refilled the glass of water on the nightstand. As she picked up her purse and slung it over her shoulder, she went back to the bed and smoothed the sweat-plastered hair back from Ryan's fiery skin.
"I'll be right back, sweetie. I'm going to go get your medicine. Is there anything else you want?"
He rolled on his back to look at her, bringing a hand up out of the covers to press his palm to his nose and make an upward swipe at it, sniffling with difficulty. "I dingk I deed a dissue," he said, his voice thick and sounding like someone had scraped his vocal chords against an old-fashioned washboard.
She brought the box back from the bathroom and handed him a few, placing the box in easy reach of the bed. Kissing his forehead as he gingerly blew his raw nose, she winced at the heat coming off his body. Poor guy, she thought. He's burning up. "I'll be back soon," she assured him. And she left, closing the door softly behind her.
Ryan sat up with his back against the headboard and made a valiant attempt to inhale through his nose. No luck. It was almost completely blocked, and any attempt he made at breathing through it just sent an uncomfortable tingle through his nasal passages, threatening to vault him into a ferocious sneeze at any second. He tried breathing through his mouth to stop the sensation. It wasn't working.
"Heah... heaheaheah... IISHOO!..." He grabbed a tissue, catching the next "uhhCHOO!..." He blew his nose, but still felt another. God, he hated that helpless, tingly, irritated feeling! "AaahhSHOO!!" OHhhh. It felt sooo gooood to sneeze that out... "Hiih-IISHOO! Ah." Blowing again, he resigned himself to the idea that his sneezes weren't going to stop anytime soon, as his nostrils continued to flare and his shoulders continued to bounce with his shuddering breaths. "EEIIISHOO!... HAAASHOO! Hah... EHPTCHOO! Heh, HEHPCHOO!... EeeehhhhIIISHOO! Hah... ahh... AAASHOOO!"
Each sneeze scraped another layer off his throat, causing blinding pain to shoot through it and into his chest. Finally, he was able to stop, his throat screaming, tears running down his cheeks in pain and frustration. He reached for the glass of water, letting its sweet relief wash over his throat. God, he wished Steph were here. More than anything he wanted her arms around him as he suffered through this miserable situation. Her touch was cool and soothing, and somehow it seemed to make him feel better, even if it couldn't stop his sneezing or quiet his coughing. Her warm arms did help keep the chills away, and her cool fingers felt wonderful on his hot face. More than anything else, though, her soft voice filled his heart and made him not feel so alone.
Finishing the water, he found his thirst had not abated. He realized dimly through the fever that his sweating had probably dehydrated him, and that he needed to be drinking more fluids. Pushing the blankets back, a violent shiver passed through his body as the cool air hit his skin. He got shakily to his feet, and managed to make his way to the bathroom to fill up the glass of water. He drank it down right there, holding onto the counter with one hand for support. He filled it again, and drank nearly half of it before he started to feel dizzy, the subtle nausea that had been in the back of everything else growing suddenly in an overwhelming tide.
He felt sick. He felt very, very sick.
The glass hit the counter with a clink as he dropped to his knees over the toilet, clutching his stomach as it spasmed, and he retched. Again, and again. His vision was snowy, and his head reeling. Finally, he was left leaning against the bathtub, shaking with a cold, clammy sensation that tingled his skin, and weak. He leaned his forehead against the cool porcelain of the bathtub's ledge, and closed his eyes.
Wretched was the only appropriate word for how he felt at the moment. And yet, it didn't even begin to describe exactly how horrible. He drew his knees up to his chest, hugging them to him with his arms to conserve warmth as he started trembling. Even if tried, he couldn't make it back to the bed on his own. He didn't even think he could stand up. He needed Steph. His head swam and his stomach was still doing sommer saults. Without warning, that deep feeling of loneliness washed over him, gripping his heart and causing it to pang with a hollow ache. His fevered mind kept repeating one phrase over and over... 'I'm alone... I'm alone... I'm alone...' Tears started pouring down his cheeks. He buried his face in his chest, and wept.
Steph had jumped in the car and driven like a bat out of hell down to the hospital. Thank goodness it was only a five minute drive from her apartment. Mike had gotten the medicine together sooner than he'd promised, and had it in a bag on the counter waiting for her. She threw him a quick thanks, snatching it up and calling over her shoulder for him to put it on her account, along with two more boxes of tissues. Then, she was out the door and on her way home.
She arrived only about twenty minutes after she'd left, and she was grateful that she didn't have to leave Ryan alone for very long. She pulled out the instructions for the medicines, reading them as she walked down the short hallway to her bedroom.
Opening the door, she glanced at the bed and stopped short.
It was empty.
Placing the sack of meds on the nightstand, she walked back down the hall, wondering if he might be in the kitchen getting some juice, or in the bathroom...
She found him curled up by the tub, arms around his knees with his head down, silent sobs wracking his muscular body. Rushing to his side, she placed her hands on his head and arm, asking urgently, "Ryan! Ry, what's wrong? Are you hurt?" Maybe he'd fallen... There was a slight smell to the room, and she knew without looking that he had been sick. She couldn't believe she'd walked by the open door and not seen him inside on the floor. She'd been too busy reading the damn instructions...
Hearing her voice, feeling her touch, he pulled his head up, tears streaming down his cheeks. Seeing her beautiful, concerned face, his eyes got a look of unfathomable relief, and he leaned gratefully into her waiting arms.
Pulling him close, she felt his arms go around her as he continued to shake and sob, though not as hard as before. The jag seemed to be calming down, and soon it left him. Though he still clung to her and gave one or two hitching breaths every few seconds or so, she nonetheless felt him sigh and grow heavy against her as his body relaxed.
She continued to hold him for a few moments, stroking his hair, his arms, and his back, saying softly, "Shh. It's okay. I'm here. You're okay, Ry. Shh. It's okay..." When his body had stopped quivering, and his breathing had almost returned to normal, she pulled him away from her to look into his face. "Are you okay, sweetie?" she asked, her eyes filled with deep caring and concern.
A pained expression crossed his face, not knowing through the haze in his mind how to explain to her why he had been crying. "I'm sorry..." he started.
But she cut him off. "You don't need to be sorry for anything, Ry," she whispered fervently, taking his chin in her hand and looking deep into his eyes. "It's okay."
And she leaned in to drop a sweet kiss on his forehead, trying not to think about how hot it was. He looked awful: dark circles had formed under his beautiful eyes, his hair matted and still damp with sweat, and his skin was ghastly pale. She could see the beginning signs of dehydration - his eyes were glazed, his hands shaking slightly, and his lips were cracking from lack of moisture.
"Come on, baby," she murmured, supporting most of his weight as she got him to his feet. "We need to get you back in bed. Mike gave me some medicine for you, and I bet that after you take it and sleep for a few hours, you're going to feel a helluva lot better."
He didn't speak, but his hand came up to where hers rested on his shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. She put her arm around his back and led him back to the bedroom. He sat down on the bed and immediately started coughing as she moved about - rearranged the sheets, filled another glass of water, and got him a new, clean t-shirt. His cough sounded horrible, wracking and wet. With each wheezing gasp, his chest tightened. Each cough seared his chest with pain, and his eyes teared again with the force of the fit. He found himself wishing he still kept an inhaler around as the tightness and wheezing intensified. Mike hadn't included one in the package. When he got control, rubbing his aching chest, she had him swallow two of the pills for the fever and take a couple spoonfuls of the syrup for his throat. He lay back down, and she went to the kitchen to get a pitcher of water to keep in the bedroom and also a deep plastic pan in case he was sick again. On her way back, she stopped briefly to clean up the bathroom, then headed back to care for her sick boyfriend...
The presence of that word in her mind stopped her cold. They hadn't ever referred to each other as such. She didn't know why she would find it odd. It wasn't that she minded the idea... quite the opposite. She felt a rush of feeling in her heart for him as she thought of him at the hospital, on their first date, having lunch together, and yes even tonight as he was so very sick.
Entering her bedroom timidly, she found his fever-bright eyes on her, his breath still wheezing slightly in his chest. She put both pillows under his head, propping him up to ease his breathing, and got another two from her closet for herself. She placed the items within reach of the bed, and then sat down next to him, putting her hand out to stroke his cheek.
"Hey," she whispered.
"Hey," he whispered back, closing his eyes and immersing himself in the comfort of her touch.
She wanted to ask him if he felt better, but she knew the medicine would take longer to work and that it would be premature to ask. She wanted to tell him that she... she what? That she was worried about him? He knew that by the intense look on her face. If not that, then what? What did she want to tell him?
"Steph?" he whispered, his voice nearly gone after that violent coughing fit.
"Mmhm?" she asked, looking into his eyes and trying to say without words that she would get him anything he needed, do anything he asked.
"Would," he swallowed painfully, trying to make his throat work. "Would you stay with me?" His voice was small, like someone asking for something they hoped for with all their strength and at the same time were terrified of being refused.
The smile broke across her face, radiant as the dawn. "Sure, sweetie. I would love to." There. She almost said it.
Crawling under the covers with him, she settled back against the headboard, lower this time so she could sleep more comfortably, and opened her arms to him. He snuggled into her embrace, his head resting on her chest. Once he'd settled, she squeezed him comfortingly and begun to rub his back again. She felt him give a shuddering sigh, and then he melted into her, his arms tightening instinctively about her to keep that which was precious to him nearer. After only a few moments, he was again asleep.
Sometime soon after that, she extricated herself from his embrace and took a shower. She also ate a sandwich, watched part of a movie, and did the dishes. By the time she finished, it was nearly midnight and he'd been asleep for almost three hours. Curling up in bed next to him, she allowed herself to drift off, knowing that if he awoke and needed her, she would be there.
He slept for nearly twelve hours.
He felt the first sensations dimly, through a haze of sleep. Pulling himself to consciousness, he sat up groggily, bringing one hand up to scrub viciously at his nose. But it didn't abate. Instead, the urge grew until he could only cup his hands in front of his face, and wait.
"Hah hah hah-AAASHOOO!! AA-IIISSHOO!… IIISHOOO!… Hehhehh... EEHSHOO."
The door opened softly, and Steph poked her head inside. "Hey, you're awake." She crossed to him, snatching the tissue box and depositing it in his lap as she sat on the bed beside him.
"AAhh... haah haaah.... IIH IIIHHHH....." His eyes squeezed shut, his whole body tensing with the oncoming sneeze. "Heah heah heah... eee... eee....eeeEHHHSHOOOO!!" Taking a wad of tissues, he took a deep breath and gave several mighty blows, trying to get rid of the congestion that had accumulated while he slept.
"Good gracious!" she commented as he finished. "I bet that felt good, huh?" He nodded, acknowledging that it had indeed felt very good. "How are you feeling?"
He quickly took assessment. His headache was gone, replaced by a slight far-less-annoying fuzzy feeling. The congestion in his chest was nearly gone, and his throat felt worlds better than it had the night before. His nose was still stuffed-up and prickly, but he was honest when he replied, "Much better."
A look of immense relief washed over her face. "Good!" she breathed. "However, it's time for another dose of medicine."
He nodded, and she started handing him the pills, and pouring the spoonfuls. When finished, he made a face from the nasty-tasting syrup and asked, "How often do I have to take that stuff?"
Reading the label, she replied, "The pills for fever, once every four hours for the next three to four days. You were supposed to have two more doses up to now, but I couldn't bear to wake you. And sleep seems to have done you good, so I guess it's okay. The syrup should be every four hours, too, or 'as needed,' whatever that means."
Ryan nodded, looking fidgety. After a minute, he looked at her and asked, "Can I get up? Maybe go watch TV or something?" rather like a ten year-old who is stuck inside on a rainy day.
Steph smiled. "Sure," she said as she helped him up, following him into the living room with a pillow, blanket, and his medicine.
"Are you hungry?" she asked after depositing him on the couch.
He was. She made him some soup and he ate every last bit of it before lying down to watch Die Hard. She had again called the hospital to tell them that she would come in for her shift later that evening, but that Ryan wouldn't be back for a few days. Everyone there knew that he had a very strong work ethic - and that she would have a hard time keeping him from coming back too soon once he was feeling better. They knew her, as well, and didn't worry about him.
After Die Hard he became engrossed in some game on ESPN. She left to do her shift in the lab, telling him where the cups were for water and juice, and telling him what time to take his meds. She made a mental note to call him at the right time, just in case he fell asleep.
Work was uneventful. Prescriptions filled, tests run on blood and urine samples, x-rays… She remembered to call Ryan and reminded him to take his medicine. After that, there was a sudden flood of samples to test as a busload of people came through the ER. By the end of the night, she found herself glad she was going home to Ryan.
And also filled with wonder at the thought.
She slipped quietly through the door, and noticed the apartment was quiet. Tiptoeing to the couch, she found it rumpled, but empty. So, she dropped her purse and jacket over the back of it, and then ambled down the hall.
Ryan was curled up in her bed again, fast asleep. Gently checking his forehead, she found his fever definitely down, though he was still a little warm. She showered, changed into her pajamas, and slipped into bed beside him, spooning his body with her own. She felt him instinctively move back to settle against her, a small, contented, "Mmhm," escaping his throat. A smile curved her lips. She draped an arm about his waist, and quickly fell asleep.
She awoke the next morning to find him still in her arms, though sometime in the night he had turned over so that his head lay on the pillow beside her, his breathing soft against her cheek, his arm about her waist. The smile returned, and she brought her hand up to run her fingers through his bed-rumpled hair. Leaning forward, she kissed him on the lips, softly, tenderly, sweetly. He stirred, stretching a little bit and opening his beautiful if sleepy blue eyes to look into her face.
"Morning," he mumbled with a smile, his voice deepened with sleep.
"Hey, baby," she replied softly, giving him another one of those soft, sweet kisses. This time, he responded, both by pulling her closer to him and moving his lips in perfect harmony to hers. When their lips parted company, he sighed deeply, and continued to hold her close, leaning his forehead against her cheek. She noticed he felt much, much cooler.
"I think your fever broke," she commented, turning to kiss his forehead discerningly with her lips.
He simply nodded, enjoying the comforting feel of her too much to make any more of a response. She nuzzled him lovingly, feeling him drink in her presence like sweet wine.
Suddenly, she felt him tense under her hands, and he gave a gasp and released two quick sneezes, "IIH-TTCHEW! ISSHOO!" into her chest.
"Bless you," she murmured, feeling overwhelmed by his nearness, his body, this man that she…
That lay in her arms.
He sniffled a couple of times, then stilled. After a moment, he brought his face up to look into her eyes. He looked at her with such intensity that she found herself growing nervous.
Blinking at him, "What?" she asked, feeling strangely unsettled, like something was about to happen.
He continued to look at her, his eyes tracing the curves of her face, as if he was memorizing every detail, as if he was looking at some great work of art he thought he'd never have a chance to see again. Then, his eyes found hers again, and he whispered passionately:
"I love you."
Her breath caught in her throat, and tears sprang to her eyes. Without even thinking, she replied.
"I love you, too."
And she did.