Oh God... Bless you (1)


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Chapter One- Friday, 1.30 p.m


'They say sneezes represent bad spirits entering your body. And 'gesundheit' means 'may your spirits protect you' in German or something like that. I say it means: 'sneezing is some weird thing God made, but since I love you, God bless you.' I like sneezing. It feels good. But you know what? It feels even better when someone cares enough to say 'bless you' afterwards.'

Excerpt from the essay 'Sneezes,' by Mary J. Kim 1997. Thanks to Tarotgal for linking it to her site. 


'Ms. Johnson?'

Clara woke, covered in sweat. 

She'd been having that dream again, and through her slow waking she could feel the warm wind, the roughness of the rock digging into her feet, the eye-aching brightness of the sea below her. Clara could see the cloudless, Bible-picture blue sky as she struggled to open her eyes. The ticking sound, now ebbing, had split her head as she slept, telling her she'd have to jump, and then the ground fell away like the final fuck-you ending of a computer game. The bright blue sky and the falling earth swapped places, but she never landed. She just woke to daylight behind her eyelids and some stranger shaking her shoulder.

She realised- the information trickling slowly through her cold-sodden brain- that she had her head on a pile of papers. 

That she had passed out at her desk, in her room next to the office of the Dragon Lady, otherwise known as Charlotte Katz. 

And that Gemma, her unbelievably gorgeous, queer-as-a-three-dollar-bill trainee, was staring down at her, valiantly fighting back a smile. 

'Fuck,' she said indistinctly, raising her head from the desk and feeling like a seven-stone weakling hoisting a barbell. 'How long I been out for?'

Gemma laughed musically. 'Couple of minutes. I tried knocking on the door, but you were dead to the world. Just be grateful that She isn't in from lunch yet.' 

Clara yawned and rubbed her eyes. 'Screw Her. I got enough blackmail material on that woman to keep me working for her till the crack of doom. If I should want to.'

Gemma- marvelling secretly at how much stronger Clara's Jamaican accent was when she wasn't quite awake- perched on the desk next to her, swinging her legs like a little girl. 'Can I get you a coffee? You look, um...'

'Like hammered shit?' Clara offered, yawning again. That had been the first time she'd slept in a week, aided by the cold pills Leo had stuffed her with that morning at breakfast, and even though she hadn't meant to sleep, her brief nap had done nothing to ease her bone-aching tiredness. Her eyes had felt awful all day, so gritty and painful it felt like they'd been sandblasted. They just wouldn't focus, and no matter how many times she cleaned her glasses, every word she tried to read blurred into fuzz. She'd been sneezing incessantly all morning, which made her vision swim, her nose stream and her head feel as if it was about to explode. No wonder Gemma thought she looked pitiful. 

'Tired,' Gemma said, smiling. 'Very tired.' 

'I am. Thanks, love, coffee would be perfect.'

With bleary, miserable eyes, she watched Gemma jump off the desk and bounce energetically to the coffee machine. Nothing had helped this week- not drinking herself into an almost-coma of Morgan's Spiced with her sisters, not indulging in Old Movie therapy with Leo, not even work, her number-one pacifier, had managed to block out how god-awful she felt. 

Charlotte Katz had managed to ruin her life a spectacular amount of times since she was a fresh-faced undergrad with her hair in dreads, and now she was almost thirty, she was sick to death of being in love with this long, tall, lesbian kiss of death. Now, all she had to do was find out what the hell she was meant to do about it, and life would stop being so damn hard. Probably. 

Gemma brought the coffee and sat down opposite Clara. 'Have you eaten?' she asked, startling the older woman with this sudden, unexpected display of maternal concern. 

'No.' Clara rubbed the swollen glands in her throat, wincing. 'Don't feel much like it.' She lit a cigarette instead. 

'That can't help,' Gemma scolded. 'It's taking you forever to shake that cold, without you renouncing sleep and having a packet of cigarettes for every meal.' 

Clara gave her a heavy-lidded, sleepy-eyed stare that told Gemma clearly that she was overstepping the line. The twisting halo of blue smoke surrounding her gave Clara the look of an obeah woman staring out from her fire; her broad, dark features looked washed out and grey, her nose and the soft flesh under her eyes were swollen up and reddened, but her black eyes were clear as rain. It was obvious that she had a nasty cold, but she wasn't going to let Gemma argue with her. She'd sat there all morning through the mercifully few meetings she'd had, scarcely able to scramble out a sentence without a sneeze, but when Alexander had stopped by to ask how her cold was, she'd still met him with a stare of total incomprehension, told him icily, 'Fine,' and went back to work.

Gemma scowled mutinously for a moment, but kept quiet. There was a lot she could have said, although she promised herself every morning that she'd keep it all battened down behind her D-girl smile. Seeing her usually capable boss so fragile and unsteady each day helped to keep her words in check, her voice polite and sometimes even tender, her crude retorts concerning Ms. Katz muttered to the secretaries, but sometimes- often- Gemma wanted nothing more than to reach across that desk, grab Clara by her skinny suit-jacketed shoulders and give her a good shake. Or a good seeing-to.

'It's just a sniffle,' Clara muttered. 

'Oh, I see. God forbid you should ever get really sick.' 

Clara's nose wrinkled up suddenly as if in response to Gemma's veiled complaint, as she registered a horribly persistent-feeling little tickle in the very back of her right nostril, quickly spreading throughout her nose like a prickly blush, seizing the muscles of her eyes, nose and mouth in a fraction of a second as she took in the brief, catalytic gulp of air which sent her over the edge of that stretched, waiting, itchy-nosed discomfort and into a great, intense, spraying sneeze which rasped at her sore throat and left her poor head reeling. 


Gemma half-smiled, half-frowned as her plucked black brows creased into a concerned V. 'Bless you.' 

Although her tone remained dispassionate, she felt a tremulous silver line of excitement rise in her from the heavy wetness of her mouth to the secret contours of her cunt, binding these raw-tender zones with an exquisite, slightly fearful passion. 

Clara sniffed, blushing furiously. 'Sduck up od be,' she murmured indistinctly, and sniffed again, rubbing her nose on her wrist. 

Snuffling, she leaned back in her chair, gazing intently at her new trainee. 

Damn, she was gorgeous. Alexander was the one who'd started calling her Winona- or, when he was feeling annoying, Winny- and the name had stuck. Gemma's eyes looked as though they held all of the darkness in her face, which was so fragile and pale it seemed to have been whittled out of soap, a sharp contrast against her anthracite hair, pure light-reflecting black, as though it had been varnished on like a Victorian doll's. Close-cropped to her finely formed skull, it accentuated the deceptive fragility of her face. Even in the most comfortable, multi-purpose, chilling-out sitcom babe clothes she had managed to dig up, Gemma still resembled an off-duty, slightly butch vampire sex goddess. Even her friends tended to grab locks of her cropped black hair to see if it was a wig, lick their fingers and rub the coffee-dark beauty-spot on her right cheek, check her eyeballs for coloured lenses, stroke the dark slashes of her brows as if they were nervous pets. 

In spite of her tendency to look as though she'd stepped out of a Love and Rockets comic without bothering to colour herself in, Gemma still had a hardcore of devotees who couldn't get enough of the slices of her smile she handed out with ribbons on them. If you walk like you've got diamonds growing in your back yard, Gemma knew, it's amazing how much you can get away with, and how often you can get what you want. 

Sniffing loudly, as if to illustrate her annoyance, Clara scraped her loose hair behind her ears as she stared down at her papers. Gemma knew she was being dismissed, but she couldn't stop looking at Clara, feeling achingly affectionate towards her boss- this handsome, once powerful-looking woman, muscular, capable, sharply dressed, and rendered helpless by what seemed to be a truly miserable cold. 

If I was just a little closer to her, Gemma thought, I could gently smooth that hair away from her face, sit next to her on the arm of her chair and silently tie it up. If I was her mother, I could cover her runny nose with a clean hanky and instruct her to blow, stand over her to make sure she took her medicine. If I was her sister, I could rub the tension out of her back and shoulders, and if I was her lover, I could ease her out of her jacket, make her a hot drink, coo and cluck over her cold and tuck her up warm in bed...

Bed. Gemma almost physically shook herself. So much for tenderness, she told herself sternly. Just do your job and behave yourself, bitch- your ulterior motives are showing. 

Clara picked up her mug of coffee and cradled it, feeling warmth flood through the aching joints of her hands. She coughed- her throat was tickly, too- and cleared her throat painfully. 

'You're sweet to worry,' she said, after a while. 'But you don't want to get involved any more than you already are.'

'I'm not involved in this at all, Ms. Johnson. I just work for the two of you.' 

Clara raised one eyebrow, sucking deeply on her cigarette and remembering Ruth's face, eyes feverish, cheeks blotchy, smile screaming 'I just got shagged.' Her hand in Gemma's. Gemma remained poker-faced until Clara let up and offered her a slight smile. 

'You're something, all right, Gemma.' 

Gemma dipped her head, acknowledging the compliment. 'I'm all that and a packet of crisps, Ms. Johnson.' 

Clara sipped her coffee, gratefully feeling the hot drink slip soothingly down her raw throat. 

Gemma let her eyes drift to the fingers that gripped the coffee mug- long and elegant, the hands you might find on a nightclub piano player, their cropped nails reminding Gemma of Clara's convenient orientation. Oh, she might pretend to be straight, there might be interchangeable Richard Gere lookalikes called Tom, Rick and Steve wandering in and out of the office to take her to lunch at Norwegian Blue, buy her Etta James records and wreak havoc with her biological clock, but the one thing that really put fire in Clara's eyes was Charlotte Katz. 

Gemma had seen how Clara and Charlotte were together, like two miraculous musical instruments, every facet of their bodies- tongues, fingers, lips, hands- working together, playing together, as they flirted in the corridors, creating a brazen, intoxicating, teasing symphony that Gemma loved to watch. They were like a long-term couple, knowing the geography of each other's hot-spots and weak spots, and sometimes like two sex-starved teens, lash-fluttering and lip-licking at each other on their coffee breaks. 

Or they had been. 

Since Monday, they'd both been staunchly pretending that they'd never met before in their lives, addressing each other so frequently and disarmingly as 'Ms. Johnson,' and 'Ms. Katz,' that Gemma had adopted their formal method of address without thinking- even though she had been originally meant to address them like this, it was sometimes hard to adopt that tone with a woman who was still ignoring you for having fucked her girlfriend in the chill-out room of Cruz 101. The only reason that Gemma was still working under Clara- Charlotte, needless to say, wanted her fired, if not dead- was because Charlotte and Clara had conveniently forgotten everything that had happened to the two of them before the previous Monday, including their most recent attempt at lesbian cottaging. And apart from PR-lust and poverty, the only reason Gemma was still working for Clara was because she wanted to rip her clothes off and shag her senseless on the office floor. 

She'd always though Clara Johnson was beautiful, but God, the woman was so uptight! Then Gemma had seen her off-duty, falling apart, drinking like a fish, eyes red and damp from crying, and- she almost shivered at the memory- sneezing. 

Her boss's very existence had always had a bad effect on Gemma. She made Gemma want to tell her the foulest jokes she could, to see if she could coax out that rich, dirty laugh of Clara's which made her feel like she'd just been presented with an award. Since Friday night, she'd had strange and perverse desires to watch Clara dressing in the morning, her usually composed face sleepy and pillow-creased, her perfectly arranged hair tangled, her eyes naked and blinking in the sun. Apart from her clearly defined opinions, Clara gave the impression of someone who was trying their damnedest not to be a human being- but all that had been shattered. By a prosaic sneezing fit last Friday in that Indian restaurant in Rusholme. 

A beautiful, dramatic sneezing fit which left the seat of Gemma's chair with a clearly defined wet spot on its dark red velvet- but a sneezing fit, nonetheless. And now she was crazy about Clara. Gemma adored wild women, and Clara was careless, sexy and crazy, wound tight as a spring, stubborn, opinionated and forever after a fight. She had no conscience and no guilt, was as shameless as death, and could talk anyone into following her with her love-me smile. She could sing like an angel, fix cars, drink a pint (of anything) in one, and tell the dirtiest jokes without breaking a smile while everyone around her cracked up. But now she just looked pathetic, like whatever was holding her up had suddenly snapped. 

As ever, Clara was sharply dressed in a long, black, well-cut waistcoat that emphasised her fragile, handspan waist and a pair of baggy pinstripe trousers that came low on her slender hips. Her hair was sleekly styled and her makeup- a few hours earlier- had clearly been worthy of an Ebony cover, but now her eyes were so swollen and heavy-lidded they seemed crocodilian, eyeballs shot with pure veins of red, her generous, sharply-cut mouth sagging. Her cheeks were the ashy, drained colour that they only ever were in January, as though the colour had been partially sucked from them.Gemma was just trying to think of something else to say to this sniffling, tired-eyed, taciturn woman who didn't, at that moment, look like much of an object of desire, when Charlotte Katz swept in. 

Charlotte Katz was good at sweeping into places. And flouncing, and slinking, and gliding. Her speciality was, and had always been, entrances, but in all probability, Charlotte Katz had never actually walked anywhere. A huge bouquet of red roses, misted with baby's breath, aided the sweeping entrance. Gemma estimated two dozen blooms, thick, dark and luscious as the pile on antique velvet curtains.

'They're from Ruth. Aren't they gorgeous?' she cooed over the substantial bundle in her arms, not really looking at either Clara or Gemma, though she snapped at the latter, 'Gemma, can you excuse us a minute?'

As Gemma walked, in a rather too leisurely manner, to the door, she heard the unmistakable click of Clara's lighter. Her boss wasn't happy. 

Gemma decided- until further orders were received from the Bitch Queen- to remain outside the door. 

Alexander Edwards, in one of his usual perfectly tailored ensembles, cast a momentary curious glance at her as he ushered an interested-looking bloke in a Yoji suit, complete with telltale enamel AIDS ribbon on the lapel, towards the door. 'I'm very excited,' he purred. 'Listen, I don't mean at all that you should rush, but the sooner we get that signature the better for everyone. You will talk about it with Dane, won't you? OK, then. Ciao...'

He turned back to her as the man left, casting a wistful look at the backside of Alex's pinstriped trousers. Alexander made a face at Gemma, exaggeratedly mouthing 'Ciao,' while rolling his eyes to heaven, and smiling back at the 'wanker' gesture she saluted him with in response. 

'Bloody hell,' he said, raking a hand through his hair, which stubbornly refused to budge- Gemma noticed with some amusement that Leo hadn't yet coaxed him into abandoning the gelled Ken Doll look. 'Why is it the minute you settle down with someone, the whole world's after your arse?'

Gemma smiled. 'Wouldn't know. Never tried it...settling down, that is.' 

Alexander cast a pointed glance at the door. 'I take it you've been dismissed.' 

'Charlotte's doing her Joan Crawford routine. Shouldn't take too long.'

He shook his head. 'And how are you getting on with Clara?'

'Miss Johnson regrets she's unable to lunch today.' 

'That's a damn shame.' He fixed her with a glance that would have had any non-lesbian dissolving into a molten puddle from the underwear down. 'For both of you.' 

It was always too much to expect that Alexander would miss something. 

'She's not interested,' Gemma said feebly.

Alexander shrugged serenely. 'Right now, Clara doesn't know what she's interested in. Give her time, babe.'

'Time?' Gemma's eyes widened until she looked like the girl in the Maybelline mascara commercial. 'You're kidding, Alex. I don't do 'time.' 

He gave her his patented Older Brother look, the one he still occasionally used on Charlotte. 

'Your loss,' he said evenly. 

She couldn't really think of anything to say to that. 

Both of them stood there, listening and studiously pretending they weren't. 

Clara glared at the roses Charlotte held. 'You mind taking them somewhere else?'

Charlotte's face remained like alabaster. 'They offend you?'

'Not me particularly,' said Clara shortly, 'My sinuses.'

'Oh.' Charlotte feigned surprise. 'I'd forgotten about that.' 

'You've got one fuck of a short memory,' Clara replied, her voice toneless as she gently rubbed her nose- a slight, ticklish urge had started in the back of her right nostril, but she wasn't sure whether this had to do with the flowers, or if it was just another perk of her messy, snuffly, near-constant cold. 

Charlotte, she noticed to her chagrin, made no gesture toward shifting the satanic blooms, and actually sat down opposite Clara, still cradling them. The rich petals seemed to mock her bleary eyes as she blew smoke at them, as though trying to ward off the effect that roses always had on her nose. 

Clara was still scowling at the bouquet. 'Rather generic for Miss Ruth.'

Charlotte smiled triumphantly, raising the glossy, cellophane-crackling bundle to her pale cheek, the dark, soft, blood-red petals mirroring the richness of her pouted, painted lips. 'But they suit me.' 

'I'd always thought a Venus Fly Trap would be more your thing.'

Clara almost groaned as she felt a pinprick in the very back of her nose. Slightly irritated, she ignored it and waited for it to die down, but the tiny tickle quickly built up into an insurmountable urge to sneeze. She hoped against hope that the urge flaring her nostrils would pass without incident, but she wasn't all that confident that it would. 

Clara was lousy at stifling her sneezes, and no one in the office knew better than Charlotte that when she started looking like she did at that moment- glazed, dazed, nostrils widening second by second- the only thing to do was rush to get her a tissue, on the off-chance that blowing her nose might prevent one of those great roaring splashy explosions that could be heard two floors down; or, for the fainthearted, just to duck.

Charlotte, who was not one of the fainthearted, yawned exaggeratedly, pretending to ignore Clara's obvious discomfort. 

'And you'd be the fly, I suppose? Clara- this wounded pose looks as right on you as a pink frilly dress, and you know it. I never thought you, of all people, would start acting like I led you on. You know you wanted it as much as I did.' 

Clara gently rubbed her nose, but it didn't get rid of the irritating, persistent tickle. She wished she were on her own, able at least to try to deal with the urge to sneeze by prospecting in her nostrils with a finger, trying to extinguish that horrible, burning itch. 

Her mouth had dropped open, her eyes were heavy-lidded and her nostrils were slowly widening as the sneeze took control of them. She rubbed her nose violently with her hand in a circular motion, trying desperately to get at that tickle. She was damned if she was going to sneeze in front of Charlotte- not now. 

Charlotte affected another yawn. 'I might be a smutty old dyke, love, but this isn't some sort of Victorian sin-and-redemption story. You knew what you were doing.'

Clara sniffled- the roses were making it even harder for her to think. She swallowed hard, immediately wanting to give in to the burn that had now spread to both nostrils. She took a series of shuddering breaths, and then the urge went away enough to allow her to speak. 

'You're right, I did. But you didn't have to say you loved me.' 

'I do,' Charlotte said, her immense blue eyes free of guile and guilt. 'And I love Ruth too.' 

Clara wondered, not for the first time, how the fuck she was supposed to sort her life out when she was having a non-monogamous relationship with the Red Queen. She remembered how Charlotte's moral Never-Never-Land had fascinated her as a student- and how, now, it just bored the tits off her. 

'You're too old for threesomes.' 

'And you're too old to want one.' 

'Believe me, I don't.' 

Clara's head was feeling hot and crammed, her sinuses burning. Their raw, tender membranes, already inflamed by her cold, the dust in the office, the smoke from her cigarette and her intense need to sneeze, were irritated by the roses, and she was doing her best to control the tickle in her nose when, inhaling a great blast of Charlotte's strong, heady, saffron perfume as her lover leant forward to get a good look at her contorting, sneeze-tortured face, her large, extremely sensitive nose started itching like crazy. She rubbed it violently, thoroughly irritated, but determined not to sneeze. 

'And don't look at me like that!' she exploded furiously, taking in the hunger in Charlotte's eyes. 'Damn it, Char, you can't always have your cake and eat it- huh...aahh-HEH-SHOOOO!' 

The sneezes that surprised Clara always had the quality of shouts- like she was yelling them with all the force of her full, rich orator's voice. It seemed as though she was dramatically declaring how much her nose tickled, rather than following that tickle through to its logical conclusion. 

'Bless you, love,' Charlotte cooed. 'My, that is a nasty cold. Or is something getting up that beautiful red nose of yours?'

'Oh God,' said Alexander, whose eyes had taken on a dreamy, unselfconscious cast. 'They're not doing that again, are they?' 

Gemma, who'd been holding herself ramrod-straight against the wall 
praying that Alexander wouldn't notice her efforts to keep from reacting to that beautiful sneeze, snapped out of it and demanded, 'What?'

'Nothing,' he said too quickly. 'Umm...coke. I meant doing coke. Always does that to her. I mean. Jesus, this is early in the day even for Charlotte. Er. Gotta go.' 

Frustrated with herself, Clara rubbed her nose on her wrist, sniffling pitifully and fighting the urge to lob her overflowing ashtray at Charlotte's head. 

In spite of the momentary relief of that great sneeze, her nose was tickling more and more insistently. She thought about giving it a good rub, but knew it could make the urge even stronger. She swallowed hard, and tried sniffing as quietly as she could to stop the itch. Clara's dark eyes blinked rapidly and her nostrils began flaring and quivering as she concentrated harder and harder on holding back the sneeze that was threatening to come out. She didn't have a tissue and she just knew that her nose was about to start running like crazy. A sneeze, on top of all that, would be messy, if not disastrous.

'And- since we've started using clichés here- why can't I have my cake and eat it?' Charlotte purred. Even through Clara's watering eyes, she noticed that Charlotte was nudging the lush heads of the roses closer and closer to her- their wrappings crackled against her desk as Charlotte got comfortable, staring directly at Clara's flaring nostrils. 'In fact, isn't that what I'm doing?'

'Bitch,' Clara managed, before bending double over her desk in a violent, explosive fit of sneezes, which echoed down the hall like high-school cherry bombs, making Gemma curse herself for not being there to witness what Charlotte was so obviously enjoying. 'aahhhSHOO! AhhhhITSCCHHSHOO! Ahhh...heahhhh...TSHOO! ohh....eahh-ehhhSHEEEOO! Uuhhh- ahhhSHOO! AhhhhCHEEOO!'

Charlotte sat back in her chair and stole a cigarette from Clara's pack. 'Bless you again.' 

She watched as Clara, her nose now streaming, fumbled urgently and fruitlessly in her pockets for a tissue, and felt a strange surge of love on top of her ulterior motives- Clara was so scatty, so sweet sometimes, that Charlotte almost offered her one. But she didn't. It negated the point of what she was doing somehow, and Charlotte prided herself on sticking to her plans.

Clara sniffed, violently rubbing her nose, as Charlotte lit the cigarette. She stared up at Charlotte, and noticed how fantastic she looked, as usual. The incredible, muscled columns of her legs were delineated by exquisite sheer silk stockings, which showed off the delicate black scorpion tattoo on her ankle, and crossed so that one skinny, fetishistic black chrome-heel was directly in Clara's line of vision. She was wearing a tiny Ungaro skirt, but had taken off her jacket, and the exaggerated hourglass of her torso was stiffened by a black, bolt-stiff waistcoat which looked, on Charlotte's hourglass figure, like a tightly laced corset, its buttons straining over her proudly DD breasts, so soft-looking in comparison to the heavy dark wool that they seemed to froth over the waistcoat's brutal fastenings like sea-foam. Charlotte's aristocratic white arms were so heavily layered with black leather and beaten silver cuffs that she appeared to be wearing handless gloves all the way to the elbow, and her fingers were stacked with her most outrageous rings. Ironed black hair swept her soap-white shoulders like a silk mantilla, and her face was a Hollywood mask reading 'Impress me,' a stylised poster-girl pose emphasised by the cigarette in her free hand, tilted insouciantly up to her Valentine-heart lips. 

'You still look,' she said teasingly, 'like you might have to sneeze, honey.' 

Clara made a small, 'uhhhh,' sound and sniffed heavily, which didn't seem to help- she frowned, and her dark eyes dropped slowly closed as she struggled against the smoke that irritated her nostrils. Charlotte licked her dry, salt-corroded lips and knotted her fingers tightly and sweatily together, fighting a seemingly insurmountable urge to reach across and kiss Clara on the twitching tip of her nose, feel one of her great sneezes bellow out of her and lightly spray her face like an all-encompassing kiss. 

Clara's hand was waving frantically under her nose like a palmleaf fan, and her eyes were closed like she was praying the sneeze won't come as her nostrils flared again... 

Charlotte didn't kiss her. Instead, she blew a perfect smoke ring, directly at her contorting face. 


Clara's head jolted forward, one loosely cupped hand only just managing to cover her mouth. A heavy wet spray enveloped the already hazy air around her.

'We can't go on like this,' Charlotte said, and then laughed dirtily. 'Sorry. Talk about clichés...' 

'It's true, though.' Clara opened her mouth slightly and tried breathing that way. She brought up her hand to rub at her nose quickly, sniffing as she did so. 

Composure, she told herself. Dignity. Her lips had parted slightly, and she was breathing deeply as the perfume and pollen relentlessly wafted into the receptive chambers of her nostrils, and tickled. 

'Tickle' wasn't even an appropriate word- she felt as though someone was jabbing the sensitive core of her nose with a sharpened point, and her throat was starting to seize up in protest. Another few seconds and she'd be gasping helplessly, head pounding, unable to think about anything but how much she wanted to sneeze. She sniffed, which made the itch about ten times worse but didn't quite bring her to crisis point yet. Grimly, Clara held on.

'We should talk about things this weekend. When you get back from Leeds.' 

Feeling wonderfully sadistic, Charlotte found herself wondering how long Clara could hold out. It didn't seem likely that it could be much longer, as her nose suddenly twitched violently and began to run. Charlotte pretended not to notice, focusing on Clara's watering, blinking eyes. 

Clara rubbed at her nose again, sniffing very wetly and wincing a little. 'Good idea. Let's have lunch on Monday. Now get those fucking flowers out of my office.' 

'Good idea,' Charlotte said, caressing the shiny wrap of her bouquet. 

'They are having a rather spectacular effect on your nose, aren't they? I am sorry.'

'If you were ever sorry for anything-' 

Clara held a finger beneath her nose, wriggling her nose like a rabbit as she struggled to suppress the sneeze, but all the tickles in her nose and throat built up and multiplied like bubbles in a shaken bottle of soda, bursting against the dams she tried to create with her fingers- she absolutely had to let them out, or she was going to explode. Resigned, she drew in a deep breath...


'Feel better?' Charlotte asked solicitously. 

'Fuck you.' Clara exhaled shakily, then inhaled sharply. She tried to disguise it by clearing her throat, struggling to suppress another oncoming sneeze.

Charlotte got up, clutching her flowers. 'All right, all right.' 

She stopped, and stood for a moment in the doorway. 'Clara, you've got to chill out. This isn't worthy of you.'

'You want to know something, Char?' Clara managed, holding a finger under her nose. 'Nothing to do with you is.'

Charlotte half-smiled. 'Maybe so.' 

Clara, her eyes streaming with the urge to explode, stared beseechingly at her. 'Please,' she said, almost choking on her words. 'Get the fuck out of here.'

Charlotte did something entirely unexpected. She nodded and left. 

Clara dimly heard her ex-lover's long, needle-pointed chrome heels clicking down the corridor as she lurched forward, hands clapped to her nose, bending over the desk as she let loose a fusillade of sneezes. She knew she didn't have a tissue, but she didn't care- even though she could feel her nose beginning to stream again, she just had to get that dreadful pollen out of her sensitive, cold-tickled nostrils. 

'haahh-IaaaiihhhhhCHSHHOO! HahhCHSHOO! Haaaihhh....IIAAAHHHSHOO! Hahhh-hupTISHOOO! heeeahTISHHHOOOO!'

'Bless you, Ms. Johnson.'

Her nose sore, runny and still tickling madly, Clara stared up at Gemma, who extended a generous handful of Kleenex in her direction. 

'Thagks,' she muttered, holding the tissues to her nose to catch the explosions she felt building, even though they were about as much use as a paper hat in a thunderstorm. 'I...I'm sorry, hon, but I...eAASHHOOO!...those flowers...ehKSCHHH!...uhh... really- huhuuhh- made me...made me want to- ehhh-ehh...ehh ehh-EHHHSHHOOOO!...uhhh...sneeze.'

'Really?' Gemma asked dryly. 

Clara glared at her and sniffed, trying vainly to speak. 'Look, I...IhhhSHOO!' 

'Bless you.' 

Clara blew her nose violently and looked up at Gemma, her eyes dizzy and spacey, as though she'd startled herself with the force of the blow. 'I was meaning to talk to you anyway. Sit down.' 

Gemma complied, smoothing her soft grey skirt over her knees as she looked questioningly at Clara. 'I didn't know you had hay fever, Ms. Johnson.' 

'I don't,' Clara said stuffily. 'I just can't stand roses. Or rather, my nose can't. And Charlotte knows that.' Her huge black Egyptian-outlined eyes squinched tightly shut as she scrunched up her nose, which was still itching insistently. 'It's gonna take me forever to...to get rihhhh- rid of all this pollen...iiiEEHHHSHHEWWW!' 

Gemma raised an eyebrow involuntarily, wondering if Charlotte was just a sadist, or if she actually shared one of Gemma's favourite weaknesses. 

Clara cleared her throat and sniffed heavily. 'Right. Is tonight going to be your first Industry thing?' 

'Officially, yes.' Gemma smoothed back her hair. 'But I really don't think you should worry. I can flirt, lie and give rim-jobs even better than Ms. Katz.' 

Clara smiled wearily. 'I doubt that.' Then she scowled, made a soft moaning sound and furiously rubbed her quivery nose against her balled fist. 'Sorry. I think I've gotta sneehhh...sneeze-EEEEHIHHSHHHOOO!' 

'Whoa,' Clara said, looking at once impressed and faint. 'Ahh. I think that was it.' She gave her nose another blow, turning the tissues to indefinable mulch in her strong fingers. 

'Bless you.' 

Clara made a dismissive gesture with her hand. 'Gemma, if I were you I wouldn't bother blessing me every time. You're gonna wear yourself out.' 

'And you're not?' Gemma shook her head. 'Ms. Johnson, you look about to drop. To be honest, I'm worried about how you're going to handle tonight.' 

Clara sniffed. 'I'll be fine. I'll take a nap. Get loaded on Night Nurse. Something. Ohh...hang on, I...I think I hahh-haahhhhh...huhehhhhh...' Clara's harsh, quavering breathing was interspersed with light sniffles. She looked as though she was concentrating very hard, but when her eyes opened again they creased up in discomfort and she stared upward, her finger held against her expanding nostrils. Her mouth also creased, her fleshy lower lip buckled like she was a little kid about to cry, nostrils ridiculously distended, eyes hot and watery. 'Hah...hahhh...HAAHHHH...' Her head slowly tilted back, and one of her large, eloquent hands spread in front of her face like a shield to catch the sneeze. Her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her eyebrows crashed down over them, forming creases in her brow and the bridge of her nose, as she let out a huge, throaty, 'HahISHHOOOOO!' 

Her head rushed down to meet her hand, but the sneeze came with a great cloud of spray that she only partially managed to smother with her widely spread fingers.

'Mind if I bless you?'

Clara scowled. 'I'd rather you just ignored me, hon.' 

Gemma didn't bother telling her that the chances of that were Kate Moss slim. 'Whatever.' She got up from the chair and paused in the doorway, as Charlotte had done. 'Need anything?'

Clara sniffled miserably. 'Apart from a few days of total oblivion, not really. Thanks. I'll pick you up from your place at about seven...'

'We could go straight from work,' Gemma said, with that casual air that had got her most of what she wanted in the past. 'To my flat, that is. I've got to get some things packed, and I could make you something to eat before we go.'

Clara was lighting another cigarette, and she grinned through the smoke. 'Gemma, you're such a feeder.' 

'It's sympathy,' said Gemma cheekily. 'From one oral compulsive to another.'

Clara arched an eyebrow. 

Gemma remained poker-faced. 'I meant the cigarettes.' 

'You don't smoke.'

'Details.' Gemma lolled against the doorway. 'You coming to my place or not?'

Clara smiled properly for what felt like the first time that day. Even her eyes felt different, suddenly- like they were really open. 'You're pushy.'

'You need pushing.' 

'Maybe I do,' Clara conceded. 'All right, then. Thanks.' 

Clara's reddened eyes still had a slitted, watery look about them, and her nostrils, which were almost too wide at the best of times, stretched outward. A defined wrinkle appeared in the bridge of her nose as her mouth fell slowly open. It happened quickly, this one- her eyes rolled up, her head moved back, back, back- and through the hazy smoke Gemma watched her mouth and nostrils grow unbelievably wide, tensing to build and expel a huge, wet, masculine-sounding sneeze.


'Bless you, Ms. Johnson,' said Gemma, and left, dizzy with what she'd just asked- and received in reply. Debating the diplomacy of what her best friend Jeremy called a 'tactical wank,' in the toilets, she decided instead that she'd maintain her mounting state of arousal, no matter how extreme it got...who knew what might happen?

Who knew, indeed. 

She bumped into Charlotte outside the door; literally colliding with the cage of her narrow, bony hips.

Charlotte had clearly been eavesdropping- not wanting to miss one flirtatious comment, the silence which could contain a kiss, or- more likely- a single one of those thunderous sneezes. As she was almost a foot taller than Gemma, Charlotte's face hovered above the younger woman's head like a great, fabulous papier-mache carnival mask. Gemma noticed the fading flush on those high, cloudy-ice cheekbones, a slight softening of that chiselled, mannequin's face which branded Charlotte as human- scarlet letters of desire melted in the fading blotches that stained her whiteness. 

Gemma made no secret of her scepticism, staring at Charlotte with an expression that many women had slapped her for. 'Anything you need, Ms. Katz?'

Charlotte's smile didn't even crease the kohl-outlined lids of her eyes. 'Your resignation would be nice.'

'Wouldn't it, though?' Gemma yawned ostentatiously. 'Although you won't get it, for as long as your friend wants to keep me here.' 

'Ms. Johnson and I are not friends.' Charlotte was still smiling fixedly.

'I know,' Gemma said pointedly.

Charlotte's face instantly blanched back to its normal shade, although her blue eyes still flared and flickered like gas jets. 'Who the hell do you think you are?' she hissed. 

'Your competition.'

It had finally been said. As if she was relieved to hear it- which, in a way, she was- the fury began to trickle out of Charlotte's face, draining out of it like sand from a tipped-up hourglass. She looked confused, like a woman who had been shocked out of a drunken or drug-induced surge of power, but her voice was still chilly and tight. 

'Hardly.' Charlotte gutturally cleared her throat. 

Gemma wondered whether the slight hint of glottal European in Charlotte's voice was another ice-queen put-on, or whether she'd actually succeeded in scratching the surface of Charlotte's cut glass Kensington drawl. 

No one ever asked Charlotte where she was from, who her people were, and when asked the provenance of her strange looks she just said 'Lady Clairol, darling,' or made some grating joke about her mother's sex life, but she always sounded vaguely Teutonic when she was angry- just as Clara exploded into screechy patois when excited. Words the two of them had forgotten swum up in their speech- the dead language of dead lives- and the other workers in the office, all resolutely British, raised their eyebrows and said nothing. Usually. 

Charlotte swallowed and carried on in a more overstated impression of the Queen than usual, her plush mouth forming exaggerated fish-shapes as though Gemma had only just learnt to lip-read. 'Clara, in case you don't know, has a very short attention span. Shorter, even, than mine. You'll stop interesting her soon, and then, believe me, she'll have very little patience with your incompetence- and nobody here's going to take your side, you stuck-up little bitch.' 

'I'm overqualified and you know it. You hired me in the first place. I wonder why,' Gemma deadpanned. 'I mean- all I do is make coffee and stick things in the shredder, and I've got a BA in computer science.' 

'Computer science,' Charlotte sighed world-wearily. 'There's a novel degree these days. Jesus. Name me a famous computer scientist.'

'Bill Gates?' Gemma offered. 'Alan Turing?'

'Alan Turing?' Charlotte laughed nastily. 'If he'd had your work ethic, we'd all be speaking German.'

She turned on her spiky chrome-heel- Gemma couldn't help but look to see if she'd burned a pinhole in the carpet- and readied herself to make her exit, when Gemma asked, 'And does that gorgeous girlfriend of yours ever come by the office these days?'

Charlotte, her back to Gemma, froze.

'I'm sure she used to,' Gemma said quietly. 'I wonder why you're keeping her away.' 

She expected- wanted- Charlotte to whip around, lose her cool, start screaming like a banshee. Instead, she just stared. Always pale, her skin was now translucent. The very walls around her seemed to draw in their breath and hold it for a long, long moment. Charlotte brought her fingers to her full lips as though to hold back the urge to vomit. 'That,' she said, her accent wavering through her voice like a scarf in the wind, 'is- is-'

For once, she didn't finish. With all the drama and furious grace gone from her walk, she lurched back into her office on her impractical heels, and shut the door. 

Chapter Two- Friday, 5.30 p.m

Coming out of the building, Gemma watched Clara, standing outside the car, shielding her waning cigarette from the brutal wind with her hands. 

Although oddly and uncharacteristically nervous, she felt brave enough to smile at Clara, who rewarded her with an enormous melon-slice of a grin. She was cheering up a little, thank God, although she responded to Gemma's polite, 'How's your cold, Ms. Johnson?' with her usual defensive paranoia. 'Gemma, I'm fine. I wish you'd stop worrying so...so much-huhhhh... huUREESSHHOOO!' 

Clara sneezed so violently that the force of her sneeze thrust her head and shoulders forward, bending her at the waist. Her cupped hands followed her head, catching the sneeze as it left her nostrils. Droplets of spray escaped through the gaps between her fingers.

'Are you even taking anything for that?' Gemma demanded

'No,' Clara sighed, climbing into the car. 

'Well, you should.' Gemma walked round to her side and got in. 'You look bloody awful.'

'Thank you so much.' Clara's dark skin, even in the dim light of the car, looked ashen, but her eyes glowed, a deep, glass-bright black. Gemma could tell that she had a fever. 

As they pulled off, Clara offered her the cigarette packet. 'Can I corrupt you, Gemma?'

'As always. Cheers.' Gemma took a fag and smoked it inexpertly, browning the tip. 'Is tonight really going to be that bad?'

'Not if you get off on having your tongue in a lot of rectums at once.' 

'Well, it sounds like a challenge anyway.'

Clara sniffed and cleared her throat. 'That much is true. It's this way, right?'

It was a chilly, damp day, and Clara was muffled up against the cold- in all her years in England, she had never become accustomed to the chill, and on days like this she favoured brightly coloured scarves and gloves. Clara sniffed hard and swiped at her runny nose with one mittened hand, like a child. Clara resembled a little girl with a bad case of the sniffles, and Gemma could just tell that she didn't have anything to wipe her nose with.

She was wearing a long, thick coat in dark greyish-brown tweed. The material of the coat, which was soft as cashmere with age, pungent with hair oil and smoke, looked as though it could have been expensive some time before its owner died in World War II and it had made the rounds of the rummage sales ever since, before protecting ClaraMae Johnson from the terrible English cold.

Surprisingly, Clara looked beautiful. Her locks were loose and wild, trickling almost to her shoulders. Clara had lost five pounds from subsisting entirely on clear soup and rosehip tea for a week, which she couldn't really afford to do- she was already painfully thin, her cheekbones protruding, sharp as razors, ready to slice that delectable dark flesh. She seemed almost malnourished as she shivered like a skinny tree in the wind. Her eyes were as beautiful as ever, her reddened nose painfully vulnerable-looking, her soft, wide mouth concentrated on making sweet love to her cigarette. 

'You don't have to cook,' she said after a while. 'I really don't think I feel like eating.'

'I've got this divine chocolate ice-cream,' Gemma said excitedly. 'You could manage some of that.'

'Chocolate and fags. We might as well be miserable Bridget Jones types together.'

'Count me out,' Gemma said too quickly. 'I saw that movie and there weren't any lesbian orgies.' 

Clara sighed. 'Not everyone's like you, Gemma. We don't all see what we want and go for it.' 

'That's everyone else's problem.' 

'You do know that you're the only woman to get into Ruth's pants since she got together with Char?' 

'Well, she was going for what she wanted too. About time, really.' 

Discomfort crossed Clara's animated face, as her nostrils started to twitch. Her face screwed up as she closed her eyes, obviously fighting a sneeze.

'Are you all right?' Gemma asked, her voice tender with concern.

Breath hitching, Clara searched frantically in her pockets, squinting all the while at the road ahead. 'Gemma,' she managed desperately. 'Tissue?' 

Gemma fumbled in the pocket of her coat, and passed Clara a handful of Kleenex. Clara pressed them to her nose, took a deep breath, and let out a gigantic, bellowing sneeze.

Gemma exclaimed, 'Bless you!'

Clara blew her nose dramatically and wiped her dripping eyes. She would never think of owning a handkerchief, as it was too damn permanent. 

She was the kind of person who always used tissues and never seemed to have any, but had to snuffle and wipe her nose on her sleeve like a child. 'Did you say Northfield Crescent?'


'Oh.' Clara spotted the street-sign through running eyes, parked, and the two of them laboriously climbed the many stairs to Gemma's apartment, the air thick and choking with the intrusive reek of burned curry. As they made their way up to the top floor, Clara sneezed violently three times, unable to find the tissues which she'd stuffed in her sleeve, so she smothered them in the crook of her elbow, the thick tweed horribly abrading her sore, wet, sensitive nostrils. Then, stopping on Gemma's landing, she remembered the tissues, and feeling an uprising sneeze about to burst in her nose, she frantically rifled through both sleeves of her coat. Gemma, pretending to look for the key on the jangling, crammed ring in her hand, waited patiently for the tickle in Clara's nose to come to its explosive fruition. 

Sniffing loudly, her face screwed up, Clara rooted around, delicately plucked out a crumpled tissue and rubbed her nose ineffectually with it in an attempt to suppress the sneeze; it was a funny, old-ladyish gesture, crabby and endearing. She groaned softly and whispered to Gemma, 'Oh God- here it comes.' 

Then her tearing eyes squeezed tightly shut, she breathed in deeply and then managed to stifle half a sneeze against the tissue, although Clara's sneezes were never that easily suppressed, and the follow-through was especially explosive- 


'Bless you.' Gemma patted her lightly on the back, lingering there a little too long for the gesture to be perfunctory and meaningless. 

'Come on, get inside and we'll get you warmed up.' 

But the apartment was as cold as the stairwell, and Clara couldn't help a shiver. 

'Sorry. The heating costs a bloody mint,' Gemma said, taking off her coat. 'I'll just go and turn it on. Sit down. Relax.' 

Clara sat on the couch, holding her coat tightly around her and letting her teeth chatter. Her hands and face felt like frozen stone. 

Gemma walked back into the room, easing off her jacket, and looked at her affectionately. 'God, Ms. Johnson, you're such a sissy.' 

She gave Clara a brief kiss on the nose. Her green blouse was open in a sharp V at the neck, revealing a scallop of black lace, and she smelt strongly of CK Be. Clara had always been irritated by the smell of perfume, and her raw nostrils reacted sharply, itching and twitching. 

'I'm not a sissy!' Clara denied sharply. 'It's just that Manchester in the middle of winter is not my natural environment.'

'Shall I make us some coffee?'

Clara nodded gratefully, rubbing her nose against her wrist to quell the beginnings of a sneezy sensation. 'That would be nice...' 

She felt herself relaxing a little as the roomed warm up, and Gemma pottered around in the kitchen nook. Clara smiled when the girl put on the knowledgeable-about-music record du jour- Bessie Jones singing 'Sometimes.' It wasn't the first time Clara had been treated to this track by people Gemma's age trying to impress her, but she had always loved the song without question, so she sank back into the couch, stealing glances at Gemma as she bowed over the cafetiere, looking from that distance like a Chinese girl at some stylised tea-ceremony. 

'Any warmer?' Gemma asked.

'Lovely. Thanks.' Clara sniffed quickly a few times, looking intent, seeming as though she was waiting for something. Then she rubbed her nose, sighing deeply. She couldn't quite get comfortable- the tickle in her nose, little although it was, didn't seem to be going- it had taken up root in the very back of her nose, irritating her already inflamed nasal passages, starting a slow-burning itch right where she couldn't reach to extinguish it. 

Taking in a shuddering, uncertain breath, she reached for the disintegrating Kleenex in the sleeve of her coat and managed to scramble out the damp wad just in time to catch a big wet sneeze. 'HuhrrESSSSCHHEWWWW!' 

Gemma almost dropped a coffee cup. 

'Sorry. Didn't have much time to warn you there.' Clara sniffed. 

The tissues, already soggy, had been completely annihilated. She balled them up and tossed them in a thankfully close wastepaper basket.Gemma grinned at her. 'I'm getting used to it. But warnings are always good.' (Not least because they turned her on immeasurably).

She came across, sat down next to Clara and handed her the coffee, brewed sweet and strong. The cup steamed white-hot in her hands, and the flavour was strong and full-bodied, crammed with the essence of a million juicy freshly-roasted beans. 

'Umm, this is good,' she said appreciatively. 'Just what I needed. Thanks.'

'Considering that your blood is probably fifty per cent caffeine,' 

Gemma said, 'I suppose I should take that as a compliment. You really need a good sleep, Ms. Johnson. You're losing your sense of humour. First sign of madness, you know.'

Although she was trying to savour it like a connoisseur, Clara downed a third of the coffee and felt instantly better. She slowly unwound, feeling as though her blood was growing warmer and slowing down. 

The winter light in the room was a heavy, waxy yellow. She let out an uncontrollable yawn. 

'Oh, 'scuse me, honey.' 

'You really are tired, aren't you? Maybe the caffeine'll wake you up.'

'Maybe you'll have to spike my coffee.' She stifled a cough.

Gemma grinned mischievously. 'Do you want me to? I'm sure that would be fun.'

'Don't tempt me.' 

The hot, damp aroma rising from the coffee was clearing the stuffiness in Clara's sinuses better than sauna steam. However, her nose was running even harder now, and she had to keep snuffling. 

Gemma sat down beside Clara and began to rub her icy fingers. 'Cold hands,' she whispered. 

Gemma's hands felt so warm and dry that they could have been just taken out of the oven, and slowly her movements grew more relaxed, stroking Clara's long, beautiful, piano-player's hands instead of rubbing them, leaving tickly little trails which would have turned Clara on if she hadn't been so sleepy- the sudden heat in the room made her feel drowsy, and she was losing the battle to stay awake. 

It touched Gemma deeply to see her powerful, aloof boss snuffling and yawning like a stuffy-nosed five-year-old in a Calpol ad. 

'Hey, don't go to sleep on me,' Gemma said gently. 'We've got a long night ahead of us.' Her black, silky hair swept Clara's cheek as she leaned in to caress the other woman's thin, fragile wrists, and Clara's sneezy-feeling nose was filled with Gemma's strong, dry, spicy scent. 

Her nose began to tickle and at first, she dismissed it. As it slowly built, she became increasingly concerned. She tried distracting herself by listening to Gemma's soothing voice talking about a transsexual glam rock movie she'd just seen with Jeremy- very up itself, but, you know, earnest? Clara nodded politely but the urge lingered in the back of her nose, making her feel as if she had to give a great big sneeze. She gave a sudden, soft sniff, her delicate red-rimmed nostrils contracting and flaring a little.

'You're sure you're all right?' Gemma asked warmly, her strongly scented hair trailing over Clara's tortured, twitching nose as she spoke. 

They were close enough to kiss. 

But Clara's nostrils were flaring in and out in an even rhythm as she started pulling in harsh, shuddery breaths, her mouth opened slightly, her chin dented and trembling.

'Gemma...' Clara began. The sneeze almost came out, and now her nose itched so badly she could barely breathe for fear of letting it go. 'I...um. I ehhh...ahhh-'

'Hmm?' Gemma murmured, playfulness spiking her voice, and Clara knew she wanted to flirt. 

'I have to...to...' she snatched back her hands, making Gemma release her warm hold on her, and cupped them over her nose just in time to catch a large, wet sneeze.

'EhhhIHSHEOO!' She scrubbed sheepishly at her nostrils. 'Sorry,' she muttered. 'Couldn't help it...'

'Bless you. Why do you hate having the sneezes so much, Ms Johnson? I saw you trying to hold that one in.'

Clara glared at her, as she suffered with her runny nose. 'I was just a little embarrassed.' Her nose wrinkled suddenly as she felt another tickle, and she almost groaned, but instead she choked out, 'I look- awful- when I sneeze.'

'No you don't,' Gemma said, smiling. 'I'm sure you could never look awful.'

'You're about to find out,' Clara said, her eyes half-closed and her nostrils trembling. Her face drooped and her dark eyes looked upwards. There was a helplessly worried look on her face as a sneeze came, built, and escalated to scrunch her face. Clara's face relaxed from its irritated grimace into a slack, surrendering mask as she took a deep, gusty breath in, and then she lifted her head up even further, eyes squeezed tightly shut, nostrils flared to enormous black circles. 

Then, shocked, she felt Gemma playfully gripping her hands. She squirmed, trying to get away from Gemma's surprisingly strong hold so she could gently rub a finger under her nose- she felt like that might do it- she really thought that might hold it off-

'Let it out, Clara,' Gemma whispered.

It was too much. Her heavy perfume, her grip and, most of all, her acquiescence, made Clara's nose tickle so strongly that she couldn't begin to stop the sneeze. Clara took in a quick breath through her nose, releasing a powerful, 'ah-ISSSHOOOO!' right in Gemma's face, catching her in the spray, as Gemma was still holding her hands. 

Gemma let go of her hands, grinning and pantomiming wiping her face. 'Bless you!' 

'Sorry,' Clara whispered hoarsely. 

Gemma thought how absolutely vulnerable her tough, butch boss looked. She couldn't help but marvel at the sight of this handsome, healthy, powerful-looking young woman, muscular and sharply dressed, rendered helpless by what seemed to be a truly miserable cold, and all she could think about was how much she wanted to hold her. 

She kissed Clara comfortingly on the cheek, all the while thinking about the effect that her perfume had obviously had on poor Clara's sensitive nose- wafting insistently into her wide, inviting nostrils, hopefully tickling her into a frenzy of roof-raising sneezes.

It worked. Clara covered her nose at once, feeling another sneeze coming on. 


Her face grew blank for a second. 

'Whoa,' she said softly. 'This is- gonna be big.' She ducked away from Gemma and let loose with a forceful but short, 'Ahhh... Ahhh... Ah-SHOO!' Before she could even raise up from her slightly hunched position her nostrils flared again but she managed to hold her head up, her watering eyes opening a little, trying with the little control she had to stave it off. It was still in there, but with a little determination she could- no- she felt it right in the back of her throat, mouth opening wide, eyebrows furrowed- she was frowning, her hand trying to reach in time, then her head rushing down to meet her hand- 'Ah-uhh-AH-ISSSHOO!' 

'Bless you,' Gemma chuckled, laughing at the frustrated expression on her face. Gemma couldn't believe that Clara didn't have a handkerchief, no tissue to wipe her helplessly running nose with. 

Watching her capable, ultra-dignified manager sniff, snuffle, and wipe her nose with her fingers, she refrained from getting Clara a tissue, even though it was obvious that the poor thing desperately wanted one. 

Clara sniffed, her eyes watering from the force. 'What's so funny?''Ms. Johnson, you look so cute when you sneeze!' 

Clara fixed her with a stare that would have subdued any woman but Gemma. 'Gemma. Do. Not. Call. Me. Cute.'

'I'm sorry.' Gemma laid a cold hand on Clara's forehead. 'Mmm, you've got a fever.'

'Oh, God, don't even say that.' Clara sighed gently, and then suddenly her big dark eyes widened in panic, and her eyes closed as though she was praying. Her mouth contorted into a pained grimace and her narrowed, concentrating gaze rolled slowly up towards the ceiling and her brows meeting, forming a deeply defined crease in the centre, and her upper lip rolled back, revealing the top row of her white teeth. Her cheeks were flushed with embarrassment and exertion as she held a long, ink-stained finger beneath her damp, twitchy nostrils, which were flaring in and out like a pair of bellows 

'I- I'm gonna- I'm gonna-' she took a deep gasp that sounded almost like a scream, 'sneeze!' She clapped her hands over her nose and- 'HaaaaaEISSSHHOOO!'

It was wet, full, and so violent that it bent her double. Without a tissue to catch it, she copiously sprayed her cupped hands, which she wiped on the knees of her trousers while she hoped Gemma wasn't looking. 

She was.

Gemma stroked the back of Clara's neck soothingly. 'Bless you. Was that it?'

'Yeah...I think so...' Clara snuffled, struggling to keep her eyes open- she'd been tired and under the weather all day, and slowly, in the warmth and cosiness of the room, soothed by Gemma's solicitous, tactile comfort, she felt herself losing the battle and slipping into a doze. 

She was surprised at herself for being so relaxed around this strange, mercurial, beautiful lesbian. For the past few nights, she and Leo had slept in the same bed, as he could always tell when she needed that kind of mute, solid comfort. But even though she had known and loved him for years, she hadn't slept. At nights, no matter how doped-up or drunk she managed to get, she sighed, kicked and thrashed, battling the blankets and ending up with her bony arms and legs tangled up in them hopelessly. Leo was nice about it, never complained if she kicked him, and spent most of the night easing the bed cover back over them in a settling cloud of cotton. And now, here she was, on the couch of someone she wanted to look good for- not much chance of that, of course- and unable to stay awake.

Gemma saw Clara's rapidly closing eyelids. She heaved a deep sigh, her concern for Clara's health outweighing her personal need to get laid. 'Poor baby,' she whispered. 'Lie down.'

Clara did, curling up on the couch. She murmured, 'Could you wake me in half an hour? I'm so sorry...this is the first time I've felt like sleeping for weeks...'

'I'll try to take it as a compliment. I'll load the car up and choose an outfit for tonight- you get a little sleep.' 

Gemma covered her with the warm woollen Mexican blanket which had previously been draped over the armchair, and gently brushed a kiss on Clara's cheek. 

Exhausted, Clara allowed her eyes to close. 

When Clara woke up, she still felt a little drowsy. The apartment was deliciously warm and Gemma had tucked a plump pillow beneath her head, even thinking to sprinkle it with eucalyptus oil to clear Clara's stuffy nose. Happily informing her how loudly she had snored, Gemma snuggled up to her beneath the blanket. Although closeness to other women, particularly gorgeous little dykes, usually made Clara twitchy and apprehensive, she interpreted Gemma's cuddles as what they were, an innocent, almost childlike way of showing affection, a way of letting Clara know she wanted to make her feel better. Gemma had changed out of her suit into criminally tight blue Levis and a clingy turquoise top that made her look about thirteen. 

Her big dark eyes sparkled brilliantly, still rimmed by work-mascara. She looked incredibly beautiful. 

They ate a supper of chicken soup and sandwiches in different sprawled positions beneath the blanket, talking about books, their friends, parties they'd recently been to and work. Charlotte and Ruth, for once, were forbidden topics.

With a fresh box of tissues in easy reach on the table by the couch, Clara had relaxed a little more about sneezing in front of Gemma- Gemma always blessed her, and Clara usually preferred to be ignored when she had the sneezes, but after a while she found it comforting. 

She and Gemma watched two ancient sit-com reruns, always laughing at the same time like they were reading cue cards. After a few programmes, both of them had begun to feel like it had always been like this. Gemma didn't have to say, 'I know, let's pretend we've been together for about two years, you just came in from work with a cold and I've got to look after you.' They both silently agreed this was how it would be. 

By the time they had to leave rolled around, both women were starting to think that the day might not be such a washout after all- and besides, Gemma thought as they hopped into the car, she was bound to pull at the party. If she could actually bear to be away from Clara Johnson and her rich, dramatic, juicy sneezes for longer than five minutes.

Three- Friday, 8 p.m

Clara blinked tired, dry, itchy eyes at a long, bright stretch of road, blazing ahead of her in the last of the evening's light. She slipped the car into fourth gear, sniffing, wishing she had a tissue and trying not to feel sorry for herself. After all, Gemma had offered to drive, although Clara had stubbornly declined. 

Now her little charge had dozed off in the passenger seat, her lean, boyish frame curled up in a tight ball, huddled in an immense black and white houndstooth coat which owned the concept of quirkiness and made her look even more like Winona Ryder. Her creamy cheeks, round as bubbles, her long lashes and damp, pouted, petal-like lips made her look like a sleepy child, her skin glowing like a sunned peach in the glare from the road, strands of black hair slanting over her creamy cheeks, shining with a bluish light. Sleeping, Gemma looked like one of those exquisite wax-faced Chinese baby dolls they sold in the Wing Fat Supermarket on Clayton Lane, so still and serene that Clara didn't have the heart to wake her, even though she knew Gemma was generally well-supplied with tissues; a useful aspect of the young woman that she'd associated with Charlotte Katz's practicality, but not- at least, not consciously- with that infamous creature's little peccadillo. Which was too bad, because she was missing out on a lot- and Kleenex was probably the least of it. 

Still, she was desperate to give her nose a good blow. Her breathing had clogged to a thick snuffle which was driving her crazy, and she was beginning to feel the slightest hint of a tickle in the back of her left nostril, which she could have blown out, or at least smothered, if she'd had a Kleenex. Instead, she had nothing but the raw, thick-pollened evening air, both hands on the wheel, and a tickly, twitchy nose which was beginning, inexorably slowly and annoyingly, to drip. 

Cautiously, Clara breathed in deeply through her nose, and regretted it instantly- her already large, irritated nostrils twitched violently, then began to flare in and out, their rhythmic motions completely beyond her control. Knowing that her nasal passages were so clogged that one of her violent, clear-the-room sneezes would result in an enormous explosion of snot, she didn't have a tissue, she had to concentrate on the road and she couldn't wake Gemma, Clara held a finger under her trembling nose, blinking through hot, irritated tears to try and read the road signs, attempting to unscramble her brain- which her cold seemed to have clogged up completely. Trying to suppress the sneeze made thinking even more difficult, demanding huge willpower and control. She switched tactics and pinched her nostrils between her thumb and forefinger, breathing in through her mouth, but the tickle still didn't go away. 

Gemma stirred and began to snore softly, her unconscious form radiating a comfortable peace- Clara didn't want to shatter it by giving into the urge to sneeze, knowing that Gemma was as tired as she was, and wouldn't thank her for blasting into her sleep simply because she was presently being plagued by one of the most irritating, unrelenting tickles she'd ever felt. Her strong dark eyebrows arched dramatically up her forehead as she took in a deep breath, and then swallowed. She tried hard to hold her breath. No good- it just made the need worse.

With her free hand, she rubbed uselessly under her itching nose, which was beginning to run in thick, warm streams down to her upper lip. Without thinking, Clara automatically sniffed the pendulous mucus back, which multiplied the intensity of the tickle by about a thousand, and made her eyelashes flutter violently as she concentrated on holding back. But how could she? Clara moaned softly in exasperation; her poor nose was on fire. The air was filled with smoke and Gemma pollen, the old seats of her beloved car sent up waves of dust any time Gemma moved, and even thinking about the thickness of that sunlit dust made her take in several deep, shuddery, desperate breaths-


\She wrestled to get the sneeze under control while concentrating on the road, knowing that a sneezing fit would be incredibly dangerous at this point. And she had no illusions- if she did let this one get the better of her, it would become a real fit. She could feel the sneezes in her nostrils, in her nasal passages, filling her mouth, nudging at the back of her throat, even convulsing in their slow, inexorable genesis in her lungs as her chest began to heave rhythmically. 

Her body told her in no uncertain terms- you have to sneeze, Clara, or you'll explode. 

Her mind, stubborn as ever, replied- I can't. 

But when Clara looked up at the sign for Leeds, her face slack with the struggle, enormous dark eyes tearing violently, eyebrows raised, her full lips hanging open a little, the sun suddenly struck her full in the face and she surrendered completely. 

Her face scrunched up tightly and she made small, anguished holding-back noises as she frantically ducked her head down to the hollow of her shoulder and smothered the sneeze in the fabric of her shirt.'huh...huh-huh-huh-HA-UNNGCKccssshhhh-'

Clara managed to stifle the sound in a wet, squinched-in mulch that soaked her shoulder in snot. 

Gemma stirred, but didn't wake up. Clara was glad she hadn't- Gemma was as tired as she was, and deserved a rest, but Clara, sniffling helplessly, longed to know if the girl had a tissue she could use- her nose felt so stuffy that she could hardly breathe. A strong, hot wave of self-pity engulfed her as she felt another sudden, burning twinge, which exploded in an enormous, throaty, wet sneeze before she could bring her hand up to her reddened, quivering nose. 


Spray splattered the windscreen and, to make matters worse, the road in front of her blurred into a waxy river of grey as her eyes started to stream, but she couldn't stop sneezing once she'd started. 

Giving up all hopes of preserving Gemma's sleep, at once tortured with remorse and overwhelmed with relief, Clara was forced to watch as the beautiful girl in the passenger seat stirred, frowned, mouthed something incomprehensible, scrunched up her fragile features and woke, staring at Clara with warm concern in her big black eyes as her boss sprayed sneeze after wet, tortured, uncontrollable sneeze. 

'Bless you, Ms. Johnson,' she said, through a yawn, as she watched her boss hunched over the wheel, eyes streaming, mouth trembling, trying to control herself long enough to hold off another sneezing fit. 

'Sorry,' Clara muttered stuffily. 'I hodestly could't helb id. I did'd wadt to wake you, but by dose was ticklig so buch-' she sniffed soddenly, 'thad I just had to sdeeze.' 

'Poor thing,' Gemma cooed, yawning delicately as she eased out of sleep, regretting the loss of her dream but anticipating another equally glorious experience, which she hoped reality might be kind enough to bestow upon her raging libido. She'd had a short but wonderful dream which involved herself, Clara, a lushly petalled rose garden and a convenient absence of clothing, which she blamed on the sun's insistent purifying heat which had settled itself on her eager, parted thighs with the warmth of a tempting hand as she slept. That core of heat between her legs had grown more intense and heavier to bear since waking, although the urgent juiciness of Clara's tremendous sneezes had reached her so deliciously in her dream- she wished that she could always be woken up so wonderfully- and she longed to see a repeat performance. Trying and failing to quench the wicked gleam in her eyes, she looked at her boss's seizing face and realised just how likely that was. 

Gemma rubbed her eyes with her fists, looking for all the world like a sleepy little girl in a sentimental Victorian illustration, none of her wicked thoughts showing on that pretty, whittled face. 

'I wonder what on earth we can do about those incredible sneezes of yours, Ms. Johnson.'

'Aihhh...uhhh- a tissue...' Clara furiously tried to rub the itch out of her nose by running it along her silky dark forearm, where her soft hairs tortured it further, 'would be a good start.' 

'Of course...' Gemma rifled in her granny bag and offered Clara a handful of wonderfully thick white man-size tissues. 'Knock yourself out.' 

Clara groaned as she buried her wriggling nose in them. 'Wish I could. But thagks, huddey, you're a lifesaver.' 

She blew her nose vehemently. The vibration of the blow cleared her nose but it made it itch horribly, and she sneezed with a muffled sound into the tissues. 

'Bless you.' Gemma's eyes were liquid with concern. 'I thought that might help.' 

'Id has.' Clara sniffed. 'Believe be, eddythig thad does'd idvolve be usig by shirt as a sdotrag cad odely be ad ibrovebedt.' 

She sighed as they entered a particularly clogged traffic jam, and drowsily rubbed her itchy eyes, which felt too big and hot for her head. Gemma offered Clara the bottle of mineral water she'd jammed down the side of the seat next to her. 'Won't do much for your nose,' she said apologetically, 'but you do need plenty of fluids. Are you sure you don't want me to take the wheel?'

'Absolutely.' Clara shot her an extremely dirty look, then she groaned softly in agony as another bright shaft of light penetrated the dust and slowly drying spray on the window, shining in her hot, fevered eyes and making her nose tingle dreadfully. Clara tried, with the little control she had left, to stave it off- but she had no chance. The sneeze rose up and increased in force, leaving her unable to do anything but gasp harshly, tears running from her eyes.

'Ms. Johnson, are you-' Gemma felt her throat drying, wondering how much more of these sublimely dramatic sneezes she could possibly witness without jumping her boss's bones. 

'haahh-hhahh...I goddah sduhhhh-sduhheeze...' 

Clara's head tilted back as she took in a deep breath which increased in pitch and frequency, before bending almost double with a shattering, throat-scraping, unrestrained, 'Ah...HAASHHOO!' 

She only just managed to get the tissues to her nose in time to cope with the thick darts of mucus that shot out of her clogged nostrils.

'Bless you,' said Gemma, thinking- with a disobedient thrill of anticipation- how much more often she would have to say that in the course of the evening. She shifted a little in her seat, the hot, swollen tenderness of her vaginal lobes making any posture uncomfortable, uneasily aware that she was wearing the Guess jeans she'd had since she was sixteen that she had to lie down to slide into. Gemma shunted forward in her seat, feeling the delicious friction of her jeans' ribbed frontal seam against her clit, and kept it there, pressing up against the hard, damp denim and wishing she had her hands there. She felt at once frustrated and guiltily pleasured as wetness began to drool from her cunt, moistening her lips.

'Sorry.' Clara blew her nose again, feeling a little more like she could breathe. She sighed with relief and satisfaction when she realised that she didn't have to sneeze again, although she had just reduced Gemma's tissues to a thick white sludge. 'I thigk baybe thad's id.' 

She turned her attention back to the road, glad that the sneezes seemed to have eased off. Blowing her nose seemed to have done the trick- perhaps she'd just had something tickly in it. She took a few deep, cautious breaths and relaxed.

'Good,' said Gemma, not entirely meaning it as she didn't imagine the rise of her arousal ebbing any time soon. 'That does sound like a rather nasty cold, though, Ms. Johnson.'

'I've had worse...' Clara's words were cut off by a big, gusty yawn. 

'Hell. That took be by surprise.'


'Just a little.' Covering her nose with her free hand, Clara suddenly gave a soft, exasperated moan. 'Uh-oh.'

'What is it? You OK?'

'By-by doze is juh-just a bit t...tickly...' Clara warned her, sounding a little choked.

Gemma groaned in sympathy- and anticipation- and plunged back into the recesses of her bag. 'I think I've got some more tissues in here...though really, we should make a quick stop at the next services. 

We're running desperately low and frankly-' she handed a second, smaller wad of Kleenex to her boss, 'I think that poor nose of yours, and probably the rest of you, is in dire need of some TLC.' 

Clara gasped shallowly, desperately trying to hold the sneeze back as she took the tissues. 'Thagks but I...I dod't...deed...' 

With a theatrical flourish, she held the tissues to her nose and took in a deep, gasping breath, then held it, waiting. Gemma watched her teary dark eyes shining, her nostrils flaring slightly. Clara frowned slightly and made a face, waiting with her customary impatience for the tickle to overwhelm her. 

'Here it cubs-' 

Her eyes closed, as though praying that it wouldn't come, and her lips pouted, parting slightly like she was about to be kissed. Her eyes opened again slightly, slitted like a cat's, her nostrils expanding and her full, lovely mouth dropping open even further as she furiously tried to keep the car in line.

'It's OK,' Gemma said. 'I'm watching the road.' She put her hands on the wheel. 'But go for it quickly.' 

'Ihhh...I'b tryig...'

Clara's eyes widened, creased and stared up, eyebrows forming a slight frown, mouth drawn up in a grimace, upper lip arching towards her nose, lower lip miserably creased, nose obviously tickling unbearably-

Then suddenly her face became calm again. 

'Did't wadt to cub out,' she said, a little surprised. 'I hate it whed it does thahahAHISHOOO!' 

As soon as Clara breathed in again, she let out a sneeze so violent that it compressed her body like a concertina, bringing her knees up, her head, shoulders and ropes of hair sharply arrowing forward, almost jolting her off the seat.

Gemma laughed and kept her hands on the wheel, though she added Clara's to hers, steadily holding them in place as though she was trying to teach her boss to drive. 

'Better?' she asked gently. 

Clara nodded vaguely.

'And Ms. Johnson, be honest. Do you still feel sneezy? Because if you do, I insist we pull over and swap places right now.' 

'No, I'm OK...' Looking tired and a little shaken, she removed one hand from the wheel, pushed back a mass of hair from her forehead, mopped her copiously sweating brow and then blew her nose. 'I think that was it. Whew! That was such a big tickle!' She shook her head, as though amazed that she could produce such an explosion, and yawned. She hoped the hotel had decent beds. She was sniffing constantly, which she could tell irritated Gemma, but she couldn't help it. Her sinuses felt as though they were filled with concrete.

'I'll drive the rest of the way if you like,' Gemma offered. 'Really. You need a nap. I'm worried about you.'

Clara ached to agree with her. She was so tired that she could barely see, and there was no way she could concentrate with such a nasty itch in her nose. 

'It's OK.' Damn! Angry with herself, she desperately attempted to rub her nose on her arm. 

'Whatever,' Gemma said calmly.

Clara shrugged her skinny little shoulders. 'Well, you dow, if you really wadt to...'

'I'd like to. Honest.' Gemma smiled to herself.

'Well...' Clara pretended to consider it. 

Gemma sighed inwardly and added, 'Please.'

'OK...what are you sbilig at?'

'Oh, nothing.'

Clara rubbed at her nose, sniffing very wetly and wincing a little, then, feeling another sneeze brewing in her nose, she let out a soft, exasperated moan. She began to open her mouth, completely overpowered. She was seemingly frozen for a moment, gasping, in complete agony. 

Then it exploded out of her, forcing her to drive blind for a few seconds. 

'Miss Johnson, this cold of yours is definitely getting worse,' 

Gemma said, her voice a loaded caress which Clara didn't pick up on, as she felt another sneeze coming- there was no way in hell she could see the road if this turned into a fit. So far her sneezes had come singly. A fit would be dangerous. 

Steering with one hand, she viciously rubbed her nose. 'It's all right. I'b fide.' Her voice was choked and breathless. She rubbed her nose again, breathing in deeply. 

'If you have to sneeze, tell me. Now.' 

Clara shook her head violently, eyes mostly closed, eyebrows raised, nostrils flaring and trembling slightly, mouth half-open. 'No, I...I-'

'I'm serious, this isn't safe,' Gemma said. 'You can't possibly drive like this.' Leaning over, she held the wheel again. 'OK, I've got you. Let it out.' 

Clara inhaled unsteadily, her eyes squeezed shut, her mouth opened, and she sneezed, 'Ah... ahaaahAHISSSSHHHOOO! HA-ISHOUH!' Holding her hands over her nose, bending over in a state of pure relief, she stopped for a breath, but her nose was still burning and 'Ah...Ashouh! AASSHHOO!' 

She opened her red, streaming eyes wearily and rubbed them and her sore nose with the back of her hand, looking unspeakably miserable. ''Scuse be. I cad't seeb to hode theb id todight.' 

'Is that it?' Gemma asked, letting her take the wheel again. 'If your nose is still a bit tickly, it's probably not a good idea to keep driving.'

'I's dot- I'b fide!' She craned her head, attempting to read the signs on the next junction. 

'Left,' Gemma said urgently.

'I dow,' Clara replied through clenched teeth, although her eyes were watering with the burning pressure of another sneeze- she was fighting it, scrunching her nose and pinching her nostrils, rubbing, trying to get at the tickle. Her eyes reflected the helpless agony she was going through as she desperately tried to concentrate on the road.

'Clara-' she heard Gemma say, and then registered dimly that the girl cut herself off, aware that she'd forgotten the 'Ms. Johnson,' for once. 

She felt it coming, but was determined not to sneeze again. She squinted her way through a haze of dust and light, the dusty, scented evening air making it harder to control the tickle which had suddenly spread to both nostrils, filled her mouth, her throat, her chest.

'You look like you're going to sneeze,' she heard Gemma say, her 

voice sounding oddly intimate, seeming to caress rather than reprimand her. 

The softness and receptivity in Gemma's voice made the itch in Clara's nostrils seem worse. 'I'b OK,' she managed, chokingly. 

'No you're not,' said Gemma. 'Shift over.' 

Suddenly, the girl was practically sitting in her lap, strong wrists holding her hands on the wheel, Gemma's leg deftly crossing over hers, one foot pressing the gas pedal down to stop the car from stalling. 

'There,' said the girl, smiling reassuringly at Clara. 'You're safe, Sneezy. I've got you.'

'There's dough deed-'

'I can tell you want to sneeze. It's written all over your face.' 

'I'm tryig- thuhhhh...tuh- tryig dot to-'

The girl's hot, sweet breath misted her neck as Clara fought back the sneezy feelings in her nose. 

'Why not?' Gemma purred laughingly. 'You know how good it's gonna feel.'

Expecting the tone of forbearance and irritation that had characterised Gemma's voice earlier, she was surprised to hear Gemma almost teasing her. Dimly, Clara realised that to reach the pedal, Gemma was almost straddling her leg, the plump, sensual contours of her sex exquisitely delineated by her jeans, fabric stretched tissue-thin by her difficult posture. Even through her stuffed sinuses Clara smelt the addictive tang of feminine musk that rose from that dark, denimed declivity. 

Gemma rested into her, almost snuggling, and laughed softly as she expertly held the wheel steady. 'Poor Ms. Johnson,' she teased. 

'Such a bad cold, and she won't even give in and sneeze. That's will-power for you.' 

Clara gulped. 'I...cad't, dot...dot like this...' 

She wasn't sure what she meant, and didn't have the presence of mind to work it out. 

'I think your poor nose wants to, though,' Gemma said in a low voice that lulled Clara into a sort of strange hypnotism. 'I think your nose tickles like crazy...does it?'

Clara nodded helplessly. 'Yeh...yes...'

'I think you need a tissue, then...what do you think?'

Clara nodded again, raising the pulped tissues to her trembling, twitching nostrils. 'I'b sorry about this Gemma, but could you...I....really...h-have to...to..t-to...'

The sneeze had almost come out, and now her nose itched so badly she could barely breathe for fear of letting it out. 

'It's OK,' Gemma whispered, her breath hot on Clara's ear. 'You're fine.' 

Her nostrils flared and fluttered, beyond her control as she took another long, shaky breath. Clara gasped, her face slackening and trembling, mouth frozen open. 'Ahhh, Ahhhh, AHHH- AAATSSHHOOO!'

'Good girl,' Gemma whispered, and- still under the spell of Clara's sneezes, not knowing or caring what she was doing- she kissed her.