Oh God... Bless you (2)


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Chapter Four- Saturday, 1 a.m

Gemma, well-dressed and well lubricated in every possible sense, walked into the hotel room and stood over Clara's sleeping body. Clara was lying propped up on a heap of pillows, her spare and slight body slumped in exhaustion, snoring lightly through her stuffy nose. 

She looked as though the weight of her exhaustion and illness had knocked her back onto the bed, forcing her eyes closed. It wasn't even that she looked peaceful, but Gemma was suddenly aware of how wound-tight Clara usually was. It was funny, seeing her so still, so rested. Her face seemed softened, childish, its angry adult lines of stress smoothed out by unconsciousness. 

Clara had bowed out of the party, sneezing uncontrollably and deliciously into a wad of paper napkins, only an hour before, but she looked as if she had been asleep for hours. 

Gemma shook her head sympathetically, and put down the crackling brown paper bag that filled her arms, bursting with essentials for Clara's cold- a fresh box of man-size tissues, rosehip and cinnamon tea, aspirins, orange juice, cough syrup and six mangoes- not actually essential, but Gemma had thought Clara might like them. 

As she turned over in bed, Clara murmured softly, in wordless, shapeless phrases. She sounded oddly oratory while talking to herself, as though concisely putting across a case at a meeting. 

Gemma took off her coat, momentarily feeling in the pocket for her little gift. The young Indian homeboy who'd served her had been so wide-eyed at the sight of Gemma in her slightly drunk, leggy, backless-gowned splendour that he had handed her a single, slightly crushed but gloriously fragrant red rose from the wilting display by the counter- a crazy, romantic gesture which had touched her, especially in her inebriated state. 

She fingered its bruised petals in her pocket, visualising its unrelenting beauty, as dark and velvety as one of Charlotte's romantic beauties- and, here, in the same room as Clara's susceptible, sneezy nose, as wicked. 

As if in response to her guilty thoughts, Clara's face screwed up like a cat's and she let loose with four slightly muted sneezes which surprisingly didn't wake her, though she made a soft moaning noise and rubbed her nose on her forearm. 

It had been a hard evening for her boss, Gemma knew. Usually purposeful and composed, she'd been a wreck at the party, networking from person to person only to hear another variation on 'Go to bed, Clara, you look fucking awful.' Clara had been all right, if a little jumpy since their kiss, as they'd finished their drive in weighty silence- Gemma, finally, at the wheel- but once they'd got to the hotel and checked into their room, she'd gone to pieces. 

Gemma, standing in the doorway with her bag and looking past Clara's sagging shoulder at their room, realised why. It was your average inoffensive inner-city hotel room, the walls painted an uneven, yogurt-like apricot, with two clashing prints- a soft, romantic Renoir and something vaguely Miro-like- on either wall. There were two armchairs, a collapsing dressing table, and two bedside tables. 

And one bed. 

Clara had sunk down on the white coverlet and rested her head in her hands. Gemma, humping their bags around to break up the silence, made a few half-hearted jokes about how she'd had better responses from women she had to share beds with, but got nothing in response. 

Clara looked as though she was going to cry. Instead, she'd launched into a real get-down Janis Joplin coughing jag, and once Gemma had finished patting her back and got her a glass of water from the bathroom, Clara wiped her eyes, swallowed several times and muttered something about how she should have remembered the bed situation. 

Charlotte, who had made the reservations, had planned to be in Gemma's place that night. 

There was nothing Gemma could really say to that, though she spent a brief moment wondering why, in hotel rooms, there was never really anything you could pick up and throw. 

Then- surprised at why on earth she cared- she'd suggested they meet Alex for a drink, which they'd had in the smoke-filled hotel bar before moving on to an equally dingy place down the road with the ridiculous name of Ye Olde Sportsman. Several pints of bitter, incalculable cigarettes and a fat one of chocolate Thai weed had mellowed Clara out, but they hadn't made her any happier, and meanwhile her incessant sneezes had inflamed Gemma to the point of spontaneous combustion. Gemma reached out and laid her hand on Clara's cheek. She was far 
too hot. Clara stirred against Gemma's cool hand, making a little crooning noise. 

A slow smile lit Gemma's face. 'There,' she whispered gently.

Clara's face screwed up a little in discomfort, but in a few seconds it seemed to relax again into its usual calm, delicate lines, so smooth her facial bones seemed to have been turned on a lathe. Her eyelids were almost black with tiredness, dark and bruised-looking, like the flesh of ruined plums, and the sooty shadows beneath her soft lashes spread to her cheekbones. 

Gemma threw herself heavily down into on the ancient blush-pink velvet chair by the bed, causing a great cloud of dust to rise from its mouldering threadbare cushions. Stirring, Clara took a deep breath through her nose, taking in a good-sized pinch of dust which immediately began to tickle the inside of her nose. Sucked deeply into her nasal passages, the dust began to prickle and burn. Even though she was still half-asleep, Clara felt her nostrils expanding and contracting, trying furiously to get rid of the irritant. Her large, extremely sensitive nose started itching like crazy, but she was feeling too tired and dozy to try to hold the sneeze off. Gemma took out her laptop and checked her emails, trying to hold back the temptation of a quick trip down her Favourites tab. Even Clara's strange little sleep-sneezes had inflamed her with lust, and the many G and T's she'd consumed throughout the dismal party had given her an even worse case of the horn. She debated the diplomacy of swinging her legs over the chair, nudging aside the abrasive lace at her crotch and having five minutes of pleasure before the boss woke up, but then she noticed that Clara's face was scrunching up promisingly. 

One bleary-looking eye fluttered open- she made a real effort to keep it so, and lost the battle, snuggling back down into the pillows, but her nostrils were flickering in and out, contracting delicately, then flaring again to an even larger size, distorting her beautiful face and making it look almost comical. 

She lifted her head slightly from the pillows and opened her big dark eyes, which already looked wet. Her mouth opened as if to say something, then shut abruptly as the sneeze spread into the back of her throat.

'Hey, love,' Gemma said. 'Good sleep?'

Clara's expressive face screwed up tightly and contorted into a dramatic grimace, eyes squeezed to agonised slits, dark slashes of eyebrows raising, nostrils flared hugely like a comedy mask. 

Then she relaxed, her dark, watery eyes looking upwards as she took a deep, gusty breath, rubbing her nose furiously. Her lips parted as she concentrated, taking deep rasping breaths as her strong nose wrinkled.

'Huh-Huh-HUh-HUH-HAH...HAISSHHOOOO!' A thick, wet spray, visible in the unforgiving light from the window, jetted from her nose and mouth. 

'Bloody hell,' Gemma said frankly. 'Bless you.' 

Clara groaned softly as she raised her head, the room seeming to tip violently and then right itself. 'Excuse me. Just got a little bit of a tickle.' 

She looked dreadful, ravaged by her cold. Her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, and her nose was swollen and chapped. Her clear, glowing skin was free of makeup, but shiny with some sweet lotion that smelled overpoweringly of coconuts, obscuring her genuine tang of darkness and spice. It brought out the reddish highlights that gleamed on her cheekbones, but unfortunately it also accentuated her nose, which was a harsh, inflamed red at the nostrils and shiny at the tip from constant blowing, wiping and rubbing. 

'Sounded like a big tickle to me.' Gemma aimed a butterfly kiss at the bridge of her nose, which set her off again- Clara froze, her nostrils flaring and her eyes creasing up slightly. Then she relaxed. 

'False alarm. Oh no, wait-' 

She took a deep, cautious breath in, nostrils expanding again slightly, her upper lip curving delicately up to her nose, her eyebrows raising dramatically and eyes squeezing a little narrower. 'Aaahh-' 

Her eyebrows met in the centre of her forehead. Head thrown back, mouth open wide enough to show a glimpse of white teeth, she held a finger beneath her quivering nostrils. 

'Let it out,' Gemma said, more than a hint of flirtation in her tone. 'We're not on the road now.' 

Clara's eyes shut tightly, her lips completely opened and she jerked forward, hand covering her mouth and nose, with an enormous, bellowing 'HaaaaaAAAA-TCSHHOOO!' 

Gemma patted her on the shoulder. 'Looked like you needed that.'

'I did!' Clara shook her head like a wet dog drying itself. 'I've never had to sneeze that badly. I hate how cold-sneezes drag themselves out like that!' 

Her face was soft-looking, hot, feverish and blurred, smeary with snot and perspiration. Her dark skin contrasted strongly with the fat white bedlinen- she looked small and delicate, unlike herself. 

Giant, fever-bright eyes burned out from her bony face. 

'How did we do?' Clara asked, predictably. 

Gemma plumped the pillows on the bed, propping Clara's skinny frame up on them. 'Fine. Alex is still schmoozing, but I had to get away from Will...he had his hands on my arse for the best part of the evening.' 

Clara grinned, coughing into her fist. 'I don't blame him. You look fantastic.' 

Even when she felt so miserable and cold-sodden, Gemma made her horny. The spark of lust in her crotch was inflamed yet further by this beautiful girl's solicitous concern and the sight of Gemma's smooth, sculptured, soap-white back as she shed her rain-damp coat, her delicate but strong-looking frame wrapped in a wisp of black Dior. 

'Thanks. Now, more importantly,' Gemma sat down next to Clara, placing warm hands on her back. 'How are you feeling?' 

Clara coughed and cleared her throat. 'Like three of the seven dwarves,' she said stuffily. 'Grumpy, Dopey and Sneezy.' 

Gemma put the swollen brown paper bag on the bed next to Clara. 

'Got you a get-well present from one of those Indian shops down the street.' 

Clara looked inside at the fat, freckled gold and red mangoes and her tired eyes lit up. 'Ummm. Gemma, I was craving these!' 

She grinned at the girl, face illuminated in the dusk by the gold light of the hotel sign, which ran down the window as though melting, stippled by the rain. The light threw orange crescents onto the irises of her eyes, floating like reflections of a harvest moon on dark water. It glowed in a gold flower on the curved shield of her cheek. 

Then she started to cough again, her slight frame shaking with the force, and Gemma got up, sat on the bed and began to slowly massage Clara's back to soothe her cough, gently stroking at the tension, whispering comfort.

Clara's cough eased slowly. 'Oh, that's it, you got it there. Thanks, that feels so good...' her sore, aching muscles gave into the pressure of Gemma's warm hands. 'Oh. Honey, how did you know my back hurt?'

'A wild guess.' Clara's skin was hot, every square inch packed dense with fever, radiating out to Gemma's fingertips, travelling through her bloodstream. She even smelled hot- a sweet, intense, dark fragrance, a secret tang of spice. She was clammy with sweat, which gleamed on her deep brown skin. Gemma wished her own hands- which were warm, though she can feel poor Clara shivering with a little chill as she touched her- could absorb her sour, burning heat like sponges.

When she felt Clara beginning to drowse and relax, she propped her up on the mountain of pillows she'd stolen from the hotel's linen closet, making sure that was a pillow supporting her neck and head, and one curving comfortingly into the small of her back. 

'This should feel better.' She stationed the box of man-size tissues she'd bought at the corner shop in Clara's lap. 'Now blow your nose, love, you sound like Daffy Duck.'

Clara obediently gave her nose a thorough, foghorning blow, which went some way towards clearing it. 

'This is so sweet of you, Gemma-' she yawned, balling up the tissue and slam-dunking it into the bin at the side of the bed which was filled with similar soaked wads, 'but really, I'm fine.' 

'You're not fine. You were sneezing in your sleep,' Gemma said teasingly. 

'I've never seen anyone do that.' 

'Really? I wonder why I didn't wake myself up.' 

'They were quite quiet little sneezes,' Gemma explained, gently touching Clara's nose with the tip of her index finger. 'For you, anyway. I think your poor nose is just getting tired.' 

'Certainly feels that way.' Clara smiled up at Gemma, although her nose wrinkled dramatically at the other woman's soft touch. Then her face screwed up and she motioned Gemma away frantically as she snatched a tissue from the box in her lap, pressing it tightly to her nose. 'Honey, I gotta...ahh-sneeze! hahh...hah...hah...' 

A longer pause than usual. 

She waited, thinking- OK, so I'm not. I'm cool. This is- 


There. Oh no, wait- 



The itch just kept getting worse, but the sneeze wouldn't come. 

Clara stared into the bright light of the lamp, her nostrils choked with dust and tender from the earlier wrenching sneezes, but she realised that the problem wasn't that the sneeze was too small. It was too big. 

'Huhuh... ahh... uh...' 

Her nostrils flared, her mouth opened as her head tilted back, her hand in front of her mouth. The feeling kept building. And building.

'Uhh... hhuuh... UUHH...' 

And then... nothing. Her mouth closed, her eyes opened, and her face took on a look of deep concentration and frustration. This was torture! Gemma found herself holding her hand to her mouth, biting lightly on the knuckle. This was too much. Watching Clara fight the torturous sensations in her nose, sugary silver lines of fission, jolts of electricity, ran straight to her eager, responsive pussy.

Clara's nostrils twitched violently, and suddenly it exploded out of her, bending her double. 'AAAHHH- Ahhh-AhhhHAHSHOOOO!'

'Feeling better after that?' Gemma asked, faintly amused as Clara sniffed and swiped at her nose with the tissue. 

'A little. But I think there's still one in there.' 

Rubbing miserably at her itchy nose, Clara sat up, folding her legs into a lotus position. Her hair was pulled back, making her look younger, her big, burning eyes swallowing up the stained skin around them. She looked painfully vulnerable, eyes burning out from their darkly stained rims, the bruised black swathes beneath her eyes suddenly apparent, her nose red and running pathetically.

Gemma, aching with sympathy, put her arm around Clara's shoulders. Clara's bony little frame stiffened immediately. 

'I could go for some TV,' she said, scrubbing at her nostrils with the base of her palm. 

Gemma took her dismissal calmly, going to the small hotel-room set and turning it on. When she returned to Clara's side with the remote control, she was careful to keep her distance, and she could almost feel Clara relax. 

A few moments later, as Gemma channel-surfed, Clara said, not looking at her, 'You can get under the covers if you like, you know. It's freezing in here.'

Gemma kicked off her shoes and slipped in next to Clara. 'Good point. Let's see. What have we got...' she flicked the remote. 'Yay, South Park!'

Clara groaned, rolling her eyes. 'I keep forgetting you're a child.' 

'Relax, Grandma. Oh look. Documentary about blues singers...that should be more your speed.' 

Clara sniffled wetly. 'Too hard to follow for me, I'm afraid. Right now I'm just concentrating on stopping my sinuses from exploding. Let's go for the crap cartoon.'

Gemma grinned. 'You love it.' She eyed the tea service at the side of the bed. 'And I bet you could go for a cup of tea with your puerile entertainment.' 

Clara nodded. 'That'd be wonderful, honey, thanks.' 

As Gemma made her the tea, Clara was struggling to stay awake in spite of the persistent tickle in her nose. She looked drowsy, vulnerable, her dark features soft and heavy as though tiredness had half-rubbed them out.

'All right, sleepy,' Gemma said gently, handing her the tea and slipping back into bed with her. 'Anything else I can get you?'

Blearily, Clara looked at her through watery eyes as she sipped her tea, feeling sure that she was about to sneeze. 'Oh, no. Thanks. I don't want you going to any more trouble.'

'Sure?' Gemma touched her friend's cheek. 'How about some aspirin? I bought some in case you needed it.'

Clara shook her head. 'To be honest, this makes me- it makes me- sorry, I'm going to- hah-chhh! hachoo!' she reached for another tissue and wiped her nose. 'A little uncomfortable.' 

Her sneezes, Gemma noticed, were surprisingly small and light, not- as was usually the case with Clara- involving her throat, chest, and pretty much everything else. Gemma wondered why they'd suddenly got so abrupt and nasal. Clara sounded ominously as though she was about to have a real, unappeasable sneezing fit, but she was fighting it, scrunching her face up in protest and bringing her hands up to her nose with a short, 'Huhhh-' before lowering them in relief as no sneeze came. 

'Is your tea OK?'

She swallowed. 'Wonderful, thanks. Feels nice to my throat.'

'That's good. You warm enough? Need any more blankets?'

'I'm fine.' Clara looked down at her hands.

'What is it?'

'I'm not used to being looked after,' Clara said frankly. 'Gemma, stop worrying. You're so nice to care about me, but-' her hand went to her nose again, 'hahhh-chhEEEOOO!- excuse me- I just have a cold, and I'm probably giving it to you. I mean, you can go back down to the bar if you want. I'm pretty bad company.' Her face contorted suddenly. 'Sorry, honey, I'm gonna sneeze-' She sneezed violently for a fourth time, 'iehhhSSHHHEWW!' and miserably rubbed her nose on her hand, reaching, with the other one, for a fresh tissue. 

'Fine. I'll leave you here on your own. Should I just get something for you to beat yourself up with?' Gemma slapped her forehead in exasperation. 'Ms. Johnson, you're crazy! Why should I take care of you, if you don't even enjoy it?'

Clara stared at her watery-eyed, over a knot of damp Kleenex. 'Oh, honey, I do, but...it makes me feel so ungrateful... hahISHoo!...excuse me...just thinking how nice this all is. To be in a warm bed with hot tea and with you here taking care of me. I'm just not sure I-I- I- I'm going to sneeze!-Ahhh-AHH-AHSHOO!'

Gemma frowned at the growing violence and frequency of her friend's sneezes. She'd been correct- Clara was about to launch into a serious sneezing fit. 'Are you all right?'

Clara nodded frantically, holding her cup tightly so as not to spill as another sneeze built up in her fragile body. 

'Ahhh... HuaAhHH...'

Gently, Gemma took it out of her hands and placed it on the bedside table. 

Clara, nodding her thanks, proceeded to let loose with a volley of wet, dramatic sneezes.

'HAHSSHOOO! I - ha-ISHooo! - I'm- uh...huh-ISHooo! ISHOOO!' Gasping with exertion, she fumbled in the box and pulled out a thick wad of Kleenex. 'Uhhh...' she sniffed, 'I have got to stop sneezing!'

Clara turned away from Gemma, cheeks blazing with exertion and embarrassment, and sneezed convulsively several times in a row, tears slowly streaming down her cheeks, soaking her way right through the tissues she held to her nose.

Gently, Gemma put her hand back between Clara's shoulder blades and stroked her back, not for the purpose of relieving the fit that had seized her, but just for a little comfort. 

Finally, Clara sniffed and opened her red, streaming eyes wearily. 

She wiped them, and her sore nose, with the back of her hand, looking miserable and exhausted, and mopped her forehead with a quick, mannish gesture. 

Before Gemma could say anything, she groaned softly and began fretfully rubbing at her nose again. She rubbed her nostrils vigorously, trying desperately to get at the tickle, but it was way too deep inside. 

Suddenly, it turned into a burning sensation, which reminded her of her mother's radioactively hot West Indian curries. She had always made Clara eat them when she showed signs of a cold, to loosen her congestion (which usually worked, as the stuff would have blasted holes in walls) but they were always packed with spices, and the hot, peppery fragrance had always got right up her nose and made her desperately want to sneeze. When they had company, Mrs. Johnson never let her youngest daughter eat anything spicy. When her face screwed up and she began to hitch in breath, her two older sisters and any visiting cousins would shriek in dramatic delight and throw themselves under the table on her sister Alice's scream of 'Down!' 

Their mother would wearily mutter, 'Don't be silly, you girls.' 

Then afterwards, looking wearily down at her sniffing, snotty-nosed 
daughter, she would inquire, 'Clara, can't you do something about that?'

She had never been able to. 

Perhaps she should have worked on that one. 

'Are you all right?' Gemma asked softly. She felt achingly protective, wanted to cool Clara's flushed face with damp flannels, hold a handkerchief to her runny nose.

'Got a tickle in my nose,' Clara said plaintively. 'Won't go ah...h...away.'

'I wish you'd stop trying to hold them in,' Gemma said, 'It's not good for you, Ms. Johnson. Didn't your mama tell you that?'

'My mama,' Clara said, her voice stretched tight, 'preferred that I try to act a little more ladylike. Which involved, among other things, not sneezing like a six-hundred-pound docker with chronic allergies.' 

'Well-' Gemma sat next to Clara on the bed, enthralled at her boss's attempts to quench the sneezy feelings in her nose, 'your mama's not here...' 

Clara's nose wriggled and her face contorted as she tried to hold back the powerful sneeze building up. 'You...you just said...that they were too big!'

'I didn't say any such thing,' Gemma said indignantly. 'I just said they weren't quiet, and frankly they aren't. There's nothing wrong with the way you sneeze. For a little woman like you, they're pretty damn impressive, that's all.'

She groaned softly and began fretfully rubbing at her nose again. 'But Gemma, this...this is gonna be huge. And they make my head hurt so...'

As Clara's face scrunched up and she recoiled to give yet another sneeze, Gemma quickly placed a finger below her trembling nose. 

It was a strange impulse, especially since she knew Clara hated to be touched, but it always worked with her sometime-lover Levonda's hay fever. 'Ahhhh-' Her whole body was tense, but she didn't push Gemma away. She gently rubbed Clara's nose, feeling her breaths as the sneeze came even harder. 'Ahhhh-aahhhh-' Gemma pressed harder and found that Clara let out a pleased, relieved sigh. She felt almost as relieved that Clara wasn't angry with her. 

'Thanks,' she whispered, as her eyes opened. She was flushed a deep red from exertion and embarrassment. 

'Are you okay, love?' Gemma asked, concerned. 'I'm sorry about that. You just looked like you were going to faint if you sneezed any more.

'You're right. They are a little...intense.' She looked shaken and tired.

'Glad I could help. You feeling better now?'

Clara nodded sleepily, stifling a yawn against her hand. Gemma gently stroked the back of her neck to soothe her into sleep. The dark skin on the back of Clara's neck seared her cool, dry fingers. 'Hey, you're very hot.' 

Gemma pushed the dark, hefty fringe of her locks out of the way and laid a hand on her feverish forehead. 'God, you're burning up!' 

Her raging heat shocked her, and yet she wasn't surprised. Clara's blood was always boiling, her hand when she took it like a hot water bottle. But this heat wasn't right, spoke of pain and sickness. 

The sweating curve of Clara's forehead burned her palm like a brand. Gemma's blue eyes were enormous with concern. 'Lie down. I think you need some sleep.'

Clara lay back down without protest, one arm clasping the blanket to her chest. Her huge eyes, like upturned black bowls of stars, were wet from discomfort rather than sadness, but she still looked pathetic. 

Gemma saw how incredibly miserable she looked, and gently pressed a cool hand to her cheek to comfort her. 'You must feel dreadful, you poor thing.'

Nobody had ever said anything like that to Clara. She cleared her aching throat to tell Gemma just what to do with herself, but couldn't. She had never had anyone speak to her so slowly and tenderly.

Gemma reached out and turned off Cartman and co. 'Do you want anything?'

The words pushed out from between her lips. 'I don't think I...I'll be able to sleep that's all. I mean I...' She stopped abruptly.

'What do you mean?' Gemma resisted the temptation to push the stray locks back from Clara's face.

'Nothing. I'm just- are you gonna go out?' She bit a fingernail.

'I was thinking about it...' Gemma had enough tact to try not to smile. 

'Do you want me to stay with you, then?'

Clara nodded slightly. Her head jarred. 'Crazy isn't it...I mean...I'm sorry.'

'That's fine,' Gemma said. 'Really, I was going to stay anyway. I know you're feeling lousy. I wouldn't dream of leaving you on your own unless you wanted me to.'

'You don't have to if you don't want to...I...'

'It's fine,' she interrupted again. 'Don't worry about it.'

'Don't just sit there,' Clara said sleepily. 'Feels too much like I'm being watched. Lie here. Cuddle up with me.'

Gemma, who had never been invited to share Clara's bed, hung back. 'I'll wait till you're asleep...'

Clara grinned at her. 'You think I'm gonna seduce you?' She rasped laughter. 'I know how I must look, I know you're not into me and believe me, I feel way too weak to jump your bones. I just want some sleep, honey. You can use me as a hot water bottle, hmm?'

Gemma lay down beside Clara and tucked them both in, kissing Clara lightly on the cheek. 'Night, Ms. Johnson.'

'It'll only take five minutes,' Clara murmured. As her eyes began to close, she felt rested, warmed, nourished, loved. 'You-' she yawned- 'you can go when I'm asleep.' 

Gemma's response was to put her arms around Clara, holding her hot, shivery little body close. 'I won't.'

Chapter Five- Saturday, 2. a.m

Clara woke at two to find Gemma dozing next to her, head on her shoulder, cuddled warmly into the curve of her hip, looking annoyingly healthy and peaceful with her lemon-meringue skin and sleepy-angel smile. Clara couldn't help but smile, gently tracing a warm line down her friend's child-smooth cheek. 

'I tired you out, hmm?' she said quietly, her deep voice cracked and husky. 'I told you- you should've left me alone. I'm a cranky bitch. I said, didn't I? Poor girl...' 

She covered Gemma's shoulders with the blanket, tucked her in carefully and then retreated back under the covers, staring with fevered eyes at the wall.

She felt terrible, with a pounding headache and a stuffy, streaming nose, her every joint feeling as though it had been soldered with iron, the pillow hot and sweaty against her fevered cheek. Clara's inflamed nose hurt a little when she reached to wipe it, though it ran too much for her not to. She did, and then groaned as she felt a twinge in her nose. 

'Fuck,' she mouthed, staring furiously at the ceiling, trying not to inhale until the twinge went away, knowing it wouldn't no matter how long she held her breath. Gemma sighed contentedly in her sleep and burrowed deeper into her pillow. I can't wake her, Clara thought frantically. She's been so sweet to me, she's tired, she needs her sleep... but I really have to sneeze... 

She pressed her sleek forearm to her nose, and rubbed it hard, but all it did was turn the tickling into an itch. Her nose was dreadfully blocked from sleeping, and she knew the resultant explosion would be messy and loud. Clara desperately tried to hold the sneeze back, but she was too weak not to let it take her over. She turned to the bedside table, noticed that the tissues had gone- there was nothing to muffle her runny, itchy, sneezy-feeling nose in- and almost in response, the tickling worsened. Her eyes began to squint, and she started taking in one big breath as her mouth opened wider. The itch began to spread from the pinpoint in the back of her nose to a broad fan-shape throughout. 

Her eyes began to water, her nostrils beginning to flare involuntarily into huge circles. Her mouth was open, her chin quivering, eyelids fluttering in response to the maddening tickle as her whole body began to shake with the intensity of the build-up. 

It built inexorably, 'ahhh... haahhhh... Ahhhh... Ahhh...' receded, leaving her eyes watering, 'Ahh... aah... ah...' then it filled her lungs, and she jerked up involuntarily from the pillows with a huge, wet, warning-less 'HAH-SSSHHOO!' spraying from her nostrils. 

Gemma woke with a start, realising she was practically wrapped around her boss. 'Oh God,' she said, rubbing her eyes. 'I didn't mean to...'

Clara, her nose now streaming messily, cut her short. 'Whadever, huddey, just please get be subthig to blow by doze with.'

Gemma gently touched her forehead. 'I left the tissues in the bathroom. Hold on a minute.' 

Clara's response was to let out a soft moan as she felt the urge grew larger and larger, building up in her nose. She tried stifling the sneeze by twitching and wiggling her nose up and down, from side to side. Her face contorted as she hoped to hold back the powerful sneeze building up. 'AAAHH... Ahhh.... aaaahh...' The pre-sneeze quieted down as Clara tried to rub her nose, but it wasn't enough, 'Ah...ahh... aaahh...AHHH...AHHHH...'

Just as the sneeze was about to explode from her mouth and nose, she felt Gemma's hand cover her face and her thumb and forefinger gently rubbing her nose, from the top of the bridge to the tip of her nose. The sneeze was instantly gone as she opened her eyes.

'Is that it?' Gemma asked. 

Clara nodded. 'How do you do that, Gemma? I can never stop myself.'

'I learnt it when I was a kid. Had to. When I get hay fever, I just sneeze my head off all day if I don't rub it like that.'

'I bet they're not as big as mine.' Clara sniffled. 'Or as messy. Gemma, I... Ihhh...' she held up her hand in warning as her expression changed from one of annoyance to helpless urgency, rubbing terribly at her poor sore nose. 'I think I... Ihhh... need a tissSHOOO!' 

Gemma chuckled, unable to help it. 'Good point. I'll go and get them.'

Clara groaned. 'Do you have to? My nose is just so tickly! If you don't help me out, I'm going to sneeze all night...' Her eyes were still slitted, her mouth open a little, her left eyebrow raised and her upper lip curving delicately upwards to the right. She was obviously fighting off another enormous sneeze already.

'Clara, I'm not going to rub your nose all night. And it's probably better that you don't hold them in. I'll be right back.'

She went to the bathroom and grabbed the tissues, hearing Clara's sneezes echo behind her. 

'Bless you!' Gemma came back in, clutching the tissues. 'Does that feel any better?' 

Clara was lying down, eyes half-closed, looking tired and miserable. 'I don't know...I still feel a bit sneezy.'

Gemma sat beside her friend and stroked her hair soothingly.

'Clara, you look dreadful,' she said softly.

Clara, sweating and chilled, closed her eyes. She didn't reply; she didn't feel like it. She was quite relieved that Gemma had dropped her formal 'Ms. Johnson,' address, which she thought was only her due, having sneezed all over the poor girl- but the tender familiarity in Gemma's voice made her almost angry. 

'I don't need this,' she wanted to scream, even though she did. Every fibre of her body did. 
She tried not to sniff although her nose was running dreadfully. 

Touching it would result in another sneeze, and her head felt so heavy and fragile that the idea of one of her great wrenching sneezes seemed unbearably painful.

'Clara?' Gemma watched as her lips parted slightly. She was breathing deeply and a little irregularly. 'Honey, do you think you're going to sneeze?'

Clara nodded miserably, half-opening slitted, watery eyes. Her nose wrinkled and expanded as Gemma frantically unwrapped the box of tissues and broke the seal on the lid. 

Clara's eyes began to squint, and she started taking in one big breath as her mouth opened wider. She was fighting it, scrunching her nose and pinching her nostrils with one hand.

'That's not good for you,' Gemma said. 

Clara sighed, took in a deep breath and, feeling the tickle recede a little for a moment, managed to choke out, 'Hon- this is gonna be such a big sneeze! Could you please rub my nose?' Clara's enormous dark eyes were pouring forth libations of hot, helpless tears as the tickle in her nose came right back, stronger than before, 'AHHHH...'

Again, Gemma gently massaged her nose, trying to rid Clara of the sneeze. 

'HAAA... HAaaa... ahhhh... ahhh... ah...ah...' The urge faded as she removed her hand from Clara's face, only to realize she stopped too soon, 'ahhh... ahhh... AAhhhh... AHHH... AHHH-ASHOOOO!'


Clara shook her head and gestured for the tissues, holding a hand to her nose. 'Ahh-ah-ASHOO! Fuck- sorry- I really gohh... gotta-aAAHHH...' 

Gemma pulled two tissues from the Kleenex box and offered them to Clara. Clara raised the tissues, now no more than a confetti-like pastel pulp, to her trembling, twitching nostrils, dabbing them ineffectually as they flared, as though to dam another sneeze back that way. It didn't work. The sneeze barrelled through her fragile frame, exploding from her nose and mouth with a volume and violence that made Gemma- who had thought she was used to Clara's massive, messy sneezes- start in surprise, dropping the box of Kleenex onto the hotel bedspread. 


'Bless you,' Gemma said, amazed, lying down next to her again. 

Clara recoiled, closing her streaming eyes- Gemma was too much for her, with her strong scent, her vibrant eyes, her intense warmth. She needed coolness and silence. She felt Gemma's warm touch, as she wiped Clara's nose for her with a soft tissue. Clara was amazed that she didn't tickle, especially as the inside of her nose felt like a mass of exposed, tingling nerves. 

Feeling guilty, she opened her eyes. 'Thagk you,' she croaked.

Gemma whispered, 'It's OK. Go to sleep now.' 

'I- hi cad't...I goddah sdeeze agaid....' She took in a deep, hitching only to find the tickly feeling that seized her nose disappear immediately, as Gemma's finger pressed up against her nostrils.

Clara opened her eyes and grinned, before settling back into a thin, feverish doze. She heard Gemma yawn, as though from a distance. 


'No, no...' Gemma snuggled into her. 


Gemma put her arms around her, her warmth instantly soothing and comforting Clara. 'Hmm?'

'Thagks,' Clara sniffed.

'Any time.'

Clara dozed off immediately, but Gemma lay there, feeling more awake than she'd ever been. The ache and emptiness in her pussy didn't help her sleeplessness. She hadn't touched herself all evening, but knew without touching that she'd be wet, slick and sensitive- even more so after that delicious experience. There was nothing Gemma got off on more than stifling women's sneezes for them; she was crazy about women who stifled, or tried to, hell-bent on being ladylike, and she loved the intimacy of holding off their sneezes, the build-up, the longing, the denial of release, like bringing them to the brink of orgasm and keeping them there. 

She told herself furiously to behave. The sleeping bundle of sniffles, sneezes and cold-germs snuggled into her didn't seem all that interested in orgasms. The trouble was that Gemma craved one. Or several. 

Clara solved part of her dilemma by rolling away, taking half of the duvet with her. 

'Hey,' Gemma said half-heartedly, but didn't bother to snatch her share of the covers back. She was too hot anyway. Far too hot. 

And she had to be touched- it was unbearable, this ache, this need...

She rolled over onto her side, and slowly- Gemma liked to tease herself as much as she liked to tease other women- slipped down her sheer, silvery stockings. Then, telling herself that Clara could wake up at any time, she wriggled out of the classic black lace thong that she always wore when trying to pull. Tucking it neatly away in her overnight bag at the side of the bed, she consoled herself that tonight wasn't everything, that she was going to seduce Clara some other time, when she was feeling a little better maybe, and that now she just desperately needed to touch herself before she could even think about sleeping. The need to come had spread throughout her body, an intense, wanting ache that coloured her blood, brought out hot, swampy sweat on her limbs and made her feel as though that throbbing, drumming core of heat in her pussy was the only thing that mattered. Even her heart beat faster in sympathy, or it could have been arousal- Gemma loved to think that she might get caught while pleasuring herself. She loved danger. Even before she cupped her cunt in one hand- as though reassuring it that it was going to be satisfied one way or another- she could smell the dusky richness of her musk rising, strong and powerful. Mixed guilt, fear and horniness made her shiver as she experimentally, gently, touched her clit and felt it spring into life, hard and swollen. I want it, she thought again and again. I want it, I want it, I want it...

Her whole body seemed to sigh with relief as she began to ease the throbbing ache that she felt in her fat, swollen-out labia. But she had to come. This was no time for leisurely pleasure...the muscles in her buttocks, in the back of her legs, tightened and released, her dry mouth and throat seemed to stretch as she buried her head in the pillow, biting on one finger to stifle her uncontrollable cries. Hearing her own suppressed, desperate whines and moans almost sent her over the edge.

She felt hot and wet and wonderful. Cramming her fingers into her cunt, she felt chamber after fleshy chamber open until her hand was almost swallowed, slicked with thick wetness, and then, riding her hand, she dared remove her stifling finger from her mouth and used it to touch her clit, first gently, then pounding mercilessly to ease the mounting ache, hardly aware that she was murmuring to herself, 'I wanna come...I...I wanna come...I have to...I have to...' 

And then she did. Her narrow, delicate hips thrusting forward, she dimly felt her hand deluged with wetness, her muscles contracting and relaxing beyond her control, the beautiful feeling of utter will-lessness dragging her under, leaving her gasping as she lay back on the pillows, dress rucked up to her waist. 

Clara stirred. As well she might. 

Slowly rising from the shallow waters of fever-sleep, she blinked once or twice and closed her eyes again, though to anyone more than half-awake who wasn't running a high temperature and doped up with cold-pills, it would have been screamingly obvious that her bed-partner had her knees drawn up and her hand between her legs. Wishing she could breathe properly through her clogged nose, which also blocked out the rich, wild aroma of Gemma's musk rising from the bedclothes she'd thrown off, Clara settled back down into the pillows and began to doze again. 

It didn't last this time, either. Clara was uncomfortably aware that the bed didn't feel still- that there was a small, shivering vibration, lighter and faster than her own pulse, coming from Gemma.

The bed creaked as Gemma turned over, opening her thighs wider. Clara felt Gemma freeze for a moment at the creak, and they both lay there, silent and listening. Feeling that some movement was called for, Clara rolled over onto her back, her eyes still tightly shut as she tried to go back to sleep. But she couldn't. For some reason, her heart was racing and her mouth dry, no matter how tightly shut her eyes were.

Then the motion began again for real- she felt Gemma's body rock back and forth in a slightly erratic rhythm, her neck curving back against the pillows. Then she heard how Gemma was breathing, in short, shallow gasps which grew deeper and deeper, and the heat and scent of Gemma's pleasure suddenly seemed to seep across the white sheets that divided them. Clara, realising finally that Gemma was actually pleasuring herself, so carried away that the bedframe was beginning to rattle, dimly remembered how she and Charlotte had politely ignored each other's midnight playings when they roomed together in college- for the first week, anyway.

Gemma's excitement passed to Clara like the office bug they'd shared- not through coughs and sneezes, but the quivering of the mattress, the creaking of the bedstead, the pungent and wonderful smell of Gemma's sex. Against her will, Clara started to get hot- inexorably, desire began to well up in her, and within seconds the thundering tattoo of her heart was competing with the twitching in her groin, turning her into one huge, responsive pulse. Hearing the soft, sweet sound of her lubricated fingers squishing against the swollen, slick tissues of her cunt, Clara realised just how gloriously wet and open Gemma was. She was close. She had to be.

Clara felt Gemma's hips rock and lift up from the mattress, and then, sensing Gemma's hesitancy, realised that the girl was actually fighting an orgasm- that this was going to be forceful, this was going to be loud, and yet she couldn't stop. The rhythm of Gemma's playing recommenced fitfully, then paused as she murmured something incomprehensible but delicious-sounding into the pillow, her need struggling against her fear of waking Clara. 

Clara smiled to herself. What a very, very considerate girl this was. 

Then her face screwed up as she regarded the ceiling with slitted eyes, and realised, with a queasy defeatism, that she was going to sneeze. She couldn't.

She felt Gemma rocking herself back down, or trying to- felt the heat of Gemma's need in her own sex, felt the need to explode not only filling her nose, rising in her throat, but taking control of her responsive, fever-hot pussy. Clara knew, though, that she couldn't move- couldn't open her eyes, couldn't raise her hands to her nose, couldn't stifle the uprushing sneeze against the pillow. 

What had Gemma said before- that she'd sneezed in her sleep? Had she really? 

Clara couldn't imagine it, but it was her only option-

Then she realised something else. 

Well, a lot of things, but they flooded into her head at once, so strong that her big, teary dark eyes almost flew open. 


Gemma standing in front of her desk, holding out tissues, saying, 'We could go straight from work.' 

The hunger in her eyes as Clara fought back her sneezes on her sofa. 

The way she'd slid into Clara's lap in the car, and the brief glimpse Clara had managed to get at her beautifully swollen labia in those ridiculously tight jeans...and how they had kissed. 

How she'd fussed and teased her earlier, 'I wish you'd stop trying to hold them in.' 

And she remembered Ruth, sniffling and sneezing so prettily over dinner last week, the way Charlotte had caught her sneezes in a tissue, and how Gemma had watched...

And how, later, Gemma had got her own way. Again. The flush on Ruth's cheeks. Their clasped hands. 

Clara smiled. She couldn't help it. 

And, feeling every vibration of Gemma's struggle with herself, she let it come. 'EeehhhhSHHHHEEOO!'

She actually heard Gemma moan, though she tried to stifle it in the pillow. In a few seconds, she sensed the unmistakable judder of Gemma's delicate hips as she came, less violently than the first time, but still powerfully. That sneeze had pushed her over the edge, but as the mind-filling pleasure ebbed away, Gemma froze in apprehension as she turned around and saw what she had half-expected to see- her boss, wide awake and raised up on one elbow, smiling a beautiful, expectant smile. 

'Well,' she said. 'Aren't you gonna say 'bless you?''

Chapter Six- Saturday, 2.34 a.m

Gemma, her usually flawless white-ice cheeks blazing a patchy red, hurriedly tugged down the hem of her fragile dress with sticky fingers, almost ripping the expensive fabric in her haste to cover herself up. Clara watched her lazily, a mild twitch of disappointment at the corner of her mouth as Gemma thrust the hem back down to her bare knees. When Gemma dared to look across at Clara again, her boss- deadpan- offered her a cigarette. 

Clara was touched by the way the girl smiled, almost as if she was about to burst into tears, her eyes blurred so they seemed almost all pupil, spreading drops of liquid jet. Gemma's cheeks were slowly fading back to their usual soft, pearly sheen, not a mark on them but a lingering kiss of heat on her cheekbones which even the coldest of showers couldn't have chilled away. 

God, she's so young, Clara thought, a deep ache in the centre of her chest. She's so fucking young.

Gemma raised herself up on her willowy elbows to take the cigarette. 

Her tousled hair fell in a black-silk pelt over her eyes, which looked even larger and shinier with arousal and unshed tears, luminous against the pallor of her cheeks. Her head sagged forward as though it was too heavy for the slender column that supported it. Clara concentrated on the shadow of Gemma's long dark lashes against the gently rounded curve of her cheek, trying to distract herself from the palpable pain and anger that radiated from her. She tried not to think that Gemma had never looked more beautiful.

'Thanks,' Gemma whispered and took the cigarette. 

Clara lit one for herself and lay back to savour it, but she exploded into a harsh fit of coughing the minute the first scratchy drag hit the back of her tender throat. 

'Fuck,' she said hoarsely, and then wrapped her lips around the filter again. 

Gemma regarded her sternly. 'You shouldn't be smoking, with that cold.' 

Clara said mildly, 'When you gotta, you gotta.'

Gemma threw her head back and laughed. 'And ain't that the truth.' She looked cautiously across at Clara. 'I thought you were asleep.' 

'I was.' Clara rolled over onto her back and Gemma watched the silver light from the hotel sign leaking through the curtains, snowing 

Clara's features as though they were some beautiful postcard mountain range, caressing the broad planes of her bones and adding a wicked little silver light to her almond-shaped eyes. Although maybe that light was there already. 

'I'm sorry,' Gemma said quietly.

Clara shook her head. 'You don't have to apologise.' 

'I just... you don't know how I needed that.'


The ache in Clara had spread its insinuating self from the hollow of her chest to the hollow of her pelvis. She knew just how much Gemma had needed that. 

She leaned up on the pillows, feeling hotter, dizzier and more light-headed than she had all night, and reached for a tissue from the box Gemma had kindly left next to her on the bedside table. Clara blew her nose so violently that her head spun for a moment, and when she breathed in again she was assaulted by the thick, musky scent that rose from the other girl. To her mingled appreciation and annoyance, she felt a trickle of wetness run from her own feverishly hot sex, down the tight seam between her clamped thighs. She took in another drag from her cigarette, desperate to block out that heady perfume, and the wicked, ticklish smoke drifted straight into the flared chambers of her wide nostrils, hitting their innermost sensitive core before she could even warn Gemma. 

She sneezed explosively three times, so quickly and heavily that she couldn't even begin to raise her hands to her nose and mouth, her head jolting back and forward with each build-up and release, great clouds of spray enveloping the air around her as the sneezes rushed gracelessly out. 'HehCHHHOOOO! Hhhhuhhh-huhISCHEWWWWW! EhSCHOOO!..uhh...'

Clara rubbed her nose, then her ravaged throat, and sniffed. 

Gemma tried to keep a poker-face, her brain still churning out scenarios to rationalise her behaviour- she'd been really turned on by some straight woman at the party, she was about to have her period and of course Clara knew how randy you felt then, she'd been having a dream about all three members of Destiny's Child and had no choice but to bring herself off afterwards...

She muttered a quick, expressionless 'Bless you.' 

Clara's eyes, watery but obviously amused, fixed her with a 'Who do you think you're kidding,' stare as she swiped at her streaming nose with the back of her hand. 

'Thank you,' she said throatily, and then leant back on her pillows. Their silence was only occasionally punctuated by Clara's sniffs, which grew slowly heavier and wetter, her left hand constantly attending to her nose, pressing her fingers against her nostrils as though she was trying to ease away the uprising tickle that way. 

After each deep sniff, her face contorted dangerously, but in a couple of seconds her forehead cleared again and she breathed in- slowly and laboriously, through her mouth, like a little kid with a blocked nose. 

A moment later, she had to sniff and Gemma watched her face seize and relax. She knew she shouldn't look but it was hard to take her eyes from Clara's face as it screwed up, a little more tightly each time, and settled down again. It wasn't exactly a build-up, but after the first few minutes of this her eyes began to water and she blinked rapidly, tears of irritation dribbling to her cheekbones, where they were quickly wiped away. 

Gemma saw the tiniest of twitches in Clara's poor red-edged nostrils. They flared a little, and then she relaxed, but Gemma glimpsed one finger hovering a few centimetres from her nose, which alerted her to the fact that Clara was a little concerned about the prodigious size of this particular tickle. Don't look, she told herself. You can't look. And then- fuck it, se knows already...

A few seconds rewarded her, as a genuine pre-sneeze expression drifted slowly over Clara's face. It wasn't the fully-stretched, mouth-wide, eyes-streaming kind of grimace that one would expect from someone who's really going to blow, but a slight frown of discomfort- the kind of concentrating, inward-turned look that you'd see on the face of a woman who'd only just registered that little speck of dust she'd inadvertently inhaled deeply into her nostril. 

Clara's wide, dark eyes narrowed suddenly, long black lashes flickering as though to mirror her irritation. Then, in a fraction of a second, her eyebrows slanted upwards as though she was considering something, meeting in the middle of her brow. Her generous, damp lips fell helplessly open, nostrils genuinely flaring like a racehorse's, her mouth opening a little more as though she was shaping an 'O' with her plushy lips. 

'Hhuhhhh...hhuhhhhh...' she breathed, eyes slowly flickering shut as she rubbed her nose furiously with her knuckles, shaking her head, as though frustrated with herself for having to do something so damn...human, Gemma supposed. 

Clara's expressive dark face screwed up tightly, then it relaxed into a slack, surrendering mask, dark, watery eyes still looking upwards as she took a deep, gusty breath. 

'Hhuhhhh...huhuhhhhhh...IKCSHOOOO!' Clara sneezed explosively, loudly enough to wake anyone in the rooms surrounding them through the rattling MDF walls. 'HurrrESCHEEEWWW! Eh... eh... HIEHSHEEEOO!'

For once, Gemma didn't bless her; she just stared at the wall, although the colour on her cheekbones deepened again. Clara, still looking strangely serene, just reached for a tissue and blew her nose with exaggerated gusto and volume, as though to emphasise the silence that had suffused the air around them. 

After a few spikily uncomfortable moments, Clara made an exaggerated wincing motion and knuckled her fist against the small of her back. 

'Damn,' she muttered, almost quietly enough to be ignored- but not quite. 

'You OK?' Gemma asked, her voice still chastened. 

'My back hurts a little.' Clara motioned behind her languidly, looking for a moment like a commanding Cleopatra, her dark, half-closed eyes daring Gemma to refuse. 'Could you give me one of those fantastic massages of yours?' 

'They don't work so well when you're sitting up like that.' Gemma cleared her throat. 'You want the full works?' 

Clara arched an eyebrow. 'Always.' 

'Then lie down on your stomach.'

Clara slowly got into position, pulling down her faded red T-shirt in a gesture towards modesty, managing for a fleeting second to cover her buttocks until she let her arms drop to her sides and the T-shirt rose up so high that it exposed a stripe of warm brown flesh, like rich, well-toned wood, that showed above her plain white panties. For all her enviable skinniness, Clara- like most Afro-Caribbean women- still had an arse you could stand a pint on.

Gemma realised she was mentally drifting into her friend Jeremy's lexicon, but still, she thought, what a divine arse- it was almost architectural, a pair of upright, sculptural, landmark curves, not like part of a body at all, especially Clara's slim, taut frame. 

'Take your shirt off.' 

The words exploded involuntarily from Gemma's mouth as quickly as one of Clara's surprised sneezes- she didn't think that she was going to say that until it was out. 

'Oh, of course,' Clara said, unfussed, and slipped it over her head, carelessly tossing the limp rag of well-worn cotton to the floor. 

Gemma caught only a glimpse of Clara's breasts- barely peach-sized but firm and insolently pert- before Clara settled back into the cushions with an almost post-coital sigh. Gemma fought the urge to slip her hands under the rack of Clara's ribs and touch that tempting softness, the surprising, vulnerable, feminine suggestions of abundance and sensuality against all Clara's taut brown muscle, caress their warm weight and cup the smooth, heavy heat of her breasts, feel Clara's nipples harden beneath her teasing fingers. 

Instead, Gemma began to navigate her boss's back, only dimly registering that Clara's muscles were hard as little rocky sea-creatures, like calcified coils beneath her fingers, her back mutely testifying to the strains of her life at work, her life with Charlotte. Her life without Charlotte. 

Fuck Charlotte, Gemma thought furiously, feeling Clara's shoulders- as though in response to her secret heresy- hunch into a brace of knots. 

'Relax,' she said softly, feeling anything but relaxed. 

'Hurts a little,' Clara murmured, her head buried in the cushions. 

'Oh, I'm sorry.' Gemma kneaded more gently. 'I can get a little rough.' If you want, she added mentally. 

'It's good, but you're not quite reaching where it aches.' 

'This isn't the best angle.'

'What would be the best angle?'

Shortly after college, Gemma had been a professional masseur for a while. True, the massage parlour she was working in specialised in ten-quid hand jobs, for which nearly all of her clients were grateful, but she'd come to see it as a great way to get women aroused. 

Her response to Clara's question wasn't strictly professional. 

But it was what Clara was hoping for. 

Gemma positioned herself delicately, one knee resting either side of the backs of Clara's smooth thighs, keeping herself balanced so that no part of her touched the other woman but her hands, on which she placed most of her weight. 

Clara moaned in response. Gemma, grateful that she couldn't be seen, rolled her eyes up to the ratty ceiling lamp, as though to express to it what she was thinking- Oh, that helps, Ms. Johnson. 

Furiously she concentrated on not letting herself settle. If she'd been in a different outfit- if just one of them had been fully clothed, for Christ's sake- she could just have balanced her pelvis gently against the incredible rise of Clara's butt and leaned in further. 

She just hoped she could keep in mind that she was in fact wearing a dress which had made something of a hole in her bank balance but which barely amounted to a fragile, flaunting wisp of black lace. And nothing else. If she leant into Clara now, the other woman would be sure to feel the soft, close-trimmed curls of her pubic hair, her heat which stubbornly refused to die down, her wetness.

As though Satan himself was feeding Clara her lines, she said clearly, turning her head to the side, 'Can you just do my shoulders again?'

Gemma mouthed, 'fuck,' and leant forward, still concentrating on bending so her pelvis didn't touch Clara.

'Umm, too hard.' 

'Christ, you're demanding,' said Gemma, and immediately bit her lip, although she could feel a wave of gravelly laughter course through Clara's body. 

'Sorry,' said her boss, though she didn't sound sorry at all. 

Gemma leant back a little more, still not trusting herself, and continued to rub Clara's back, hoping that her boss would drift off to sleep soon so she could touch herself again- maybe having the presence of mind to get to the bathroom first, this time. She felt Clara relaxing, heard her breathing, clogged to a snotty snuffle, grow slower and more regular, and when she kneaded away a particularly hard, tight knot of muscle, she felt Clara let out a great sigh of pleasure that came from some deep, vital part of her. 

But Clara wasn't sleepy, and Gemma could feel that too. She wondered if she was imagining the way that Clara's body seemed to be arching, rising up toward her, curving into the bowed shape of her hips and thighs like a drawn-back arrow, as though Clara were sensing her restlessness, seeking her heat, almost- but so far away from- appeasing the crushing urge of her need. 

'Don't hunch up like that,' Gemma said, trying her damnedest to sound stern and powerful. 'Lie straight.' 

Clara didn't respond. 

Then Gemma understood the source of this strange movement and sighed involuntarily- of course this arching-up wasn't a come-on. 

It was something worse. 

Clara was resting her head to the side, though still muffled in the cushions and almost hidden from Gemma by the fall of her hair. Gemma could see enough to realise that she was holding a finger up to her nose, valiantly trying the trick that Gemma had shown her earlier. 

'Sorry,' she said tightly. 'Ho- hold on a sec.' 

Clara took in a long, ragged breath, then snuffled thickly a few times as though trying to dam the sneeze back. She frantically ran through her strange, quirky little motions of stifling, which were already becoming familiar to Gemma- pressing one finger to her left nostril, then placing the finger under her nose, rubbing both nostrils, then pressing her finger to the right as though the tickle was spreading from one nostril to the other. 

Gemma carried on stroking her seized-up shoulders, feeling, through the tension, the trembling in her strong, wiry little body, what a big sneeze Clara was fighting. She wanted to tell her that she was fine, that she was going to feel so much better after she let it come, but Clara still valiantly tried to hold it back. She was practically shuddering with the effort against Gemma's hands. 

Gasping shallowly, shuddering with the intensity of the sneeze, she tried to warn Gemma. 

'I- hhi- ohh... sorry... got a sneeze up my nose...'

In this moment, her boss seemed so vulnerable, so utterly helpless that Gemma wanted to let her know she was OK, but she didn't know how, couldn't articulate anything she wanted to say. Then she felt Clara's shoulders seize up as she stifled with an expertise that Gemma grudgingly admired, head jolting forward a little against the pillow, fingers pinching the tip of her nose, making a slight suppressed-hiccup sound, 

'Hah... Hah-MMPH!...huhhhhh.' 

Gemma felt her take in a deep, relieved breath and then let out a long sigh. 'You know, that isn't good for you!' 

Clara sniffed. 'A lot of things aren't good for me.' 

Gemma bit her lip again, thinking- she knows. She's not stupid. Ruth at dinner last week- Clara at dinner last week- Charlotte with those roses- how come she's even letting me touch her? What the hell is this about? Clara was still sniffling. Gemma thought, sadistically, that her nose must really be running after that, and as if to confirm it 

Clara snuffled thickly and rubbed her nose against the pillow- not just to wipe it, but as though trying to rub away an itch. Little demon that she was, Gemma remembered how much sniffing irritated 

Clara's nose, as though notching up degrees towards a big sneeze, and she just carried on rubbing her boss's back, feigning calm though she felt as ready to explode as Clara clearly did. Gemma lightly stroked Clara's neck, as if to soothe her, although she knew her delicate, feathery touch mirrored the tickles that plagued her nostrils.

Clara practically writhed beneath her. 'You like this, don't you,' she said frankly, if indistinctly. Gemma froze, then Clara gave a little shivery laugh, her breath hot against Gemma's skin, as she amended, 'You like to see me suffer. What are you, paying me back for all that overtime?'

Gemma, practically chewing on her lip now, said nothing, thinking only- This woman is fucking with me. All she could think of was the feel of Clara, the look of her, the smell of her, that ripe sweet yeasty smell that rose from her skin, deepening into the rich, unmistakable tang of her wetness. Dimly, Gemma felt saliva flooding her mouth. 

Clara sniffled helplessly. 'And you're not even going to offer me a tissue...' her voice was trembling with suppressed laughter. 'That's not like you.' 

If she says one more thing like that, Gemma thought, I'm going to put these magic fingers of mine where she wants them, and see what she has to say then. See how she can tease me then, the little bitch. 

'Oh, I'm sorry,' Gemma said too sweetly. She leant forward- no longer caring about the shock of her wet heat against Clara's bare flesh- and gave her boss a supposedly innocent little kiss on the cheek, making sure a few strands of her hair lightly brushed her nostrils. 'I thought you liked to be ignored at times like this.' 

'You're not gonna do that,' Clara laughed, as she felt Gemma's weight slowly sink down on her back. 'Jesus, girl, you're all over me.' She laughed again, nervous but intoxicated, feeling Gemma's fingers- so near, and yet so far... 'You've been all over me all day.' Her voice was unbearably rich, coming from somewhere deep and real inside her. Gemma knew this was how Clara would sound while making love, wild and raw and passionate. 

'Oh, not all over you, surely,' Gemma teased, feeling her already swollen, sodden cunt moisten into a velvety river. A raw note of desire found its way into her teasing sing-song as she leaned in further, 'And I bet you still have to sneeze...'

Clara sniffed, her face contorting a little. 'Not really...' 

Her smell. So ripe, so rich. Overpowering. 

Gemma, in a warm, needy, erotic daze, deftly raised herself a little on her other arm as she slipped a hand between herself and Clara's body, her palm resting flatly on the warm curve of Clara's left buttock. Clara froze for a moment, although her breathing still came heavy and irregular as she tried to hold back the sneeze. 

'Not really,' Gemma repeated teasingly, feeling Clara tense, register the itch in her nose for real as Gemma kissed her other cheek, burying her twitching, seizing nose in her fragrant hair. 'What does 'not really' mean, Ms. Johnson?' 

'It means- ihh- it means-'

Gemma buried her nose in the fleshy nape of Clara's neck, taking in great gulps of the smoky, spicy scent of her, the creamy-smooth texture of her dusky skin, and nuzzled her softly, playfully, a gesture she could still get out of- if she wanted to... something she didn't have to follow up...

Fuck that. No. She wanted Clara so painfully, so badly she was almost panting, those terrible hungry-child noises in the back of her throat only dammed back by the thinnest of restraints, wanting to thrust her face between Clara's warm, damp thighs...

'Or did you want something else?' she whispered, her own voice deep in her throat, almost choking. 

Clara writhed beneath her. 'What?....no- I-'

'I think you do.' Gemma, as though conducting some kind of experiment, was tracing her fingertips up and down the cleft between Clara's spread thighs with agonising slowness. 

'What the hell are you doing?' Clara managed to get out, although she didn't stop rubbing her nose. She'd clearly been expecting this, which just made Gemma angrier. 

'Taking your temperature.' Gemma applied the pressure of her fingers a little harder. 'I heard somewhere that women are one degree hotter here than anywhere else.' She slipped her fingers inside the taut elastic at Clara's inner thigh. 'Although I think you might be a few more degrees hotter.' 

Clara was still fighting the urge to sneeze, her breaths coming hard, hot and ragged as Gemma's fingers entered the tight contours of her feverish wetness. Clara responded instantly, shivering with pleasure, as she arched and bucked again, her hot, fat-lipped cunt greedily swallowing Gemma's fingers. 

'Ohhh,' she moaned, writhing, her whole wet, open sex slicking the palm of Gemma's hand as she strained back, her voice interrupted with the jagged motions of her pleasure and the urges that still seized her nose. 'Oh, Gemma, you bitch, you dirty little bitch.' 

Gemma gasped, her throat painfully dry, almost shivering with relief and passion. 'Try and tell me you don't want it.'

She felt the pulse of arousal beating in her, swelling her clitoris, the vibration of arousal coursing through her like the beat of a tiny inner drum as she felt her clit begin to throb almost painfully. 

'No intention,' Clara murmured into the pillows, sinking back against Gemma's fingers with a long, contented, shivery sigh, her hips rolling easily backwards. 

Gemma rolled one finger insistently in the depths of Clara's wetness, the two surrounding fingers gently petting her swollen labia, stroking her coarse, close-clipped black hair. Gemma thought of how wonderfully abrasive that hair would be against her nose and mouth, and shuddered with anticipation. 

Clara sniffed suddenly and rubbed her nose in that itch-relieving motion against the pillow's rough white cotton. Saliva flooded Gemma's mouth as her fingers explored Clara, the heel of her palm resting against the other woman's fat, damp lips. The caresses went on and on, and Clara immediately took up the rhythm of Gemma's hand, thrusting rhythmically back and forth, but her breathing becoming less and less regular. Gemma felt her tense up again, and then, lying against her, she could almost feel the force of the sneeze barrel through Clara's body, rising up from her chest to explode out of her nose. 

She groaned, reaching to pinch her nose. 

From what Gemma could see of her profile, Clara's nostrils had grown African-mask enormous, and her whole face seemed stretched into a drastic, trembling grimace. 


'This what?' 

'This tuhhhhh...t-tickles...' she groaned. 'Gemma, I'm...I huh... I'm really... haaah...aahh...gonna-aahhhh....' 

Gently, Gemma added the other hand, sliding it in as Clara hunched up, her flat belly lifting off the mattress, and, with the soft tip of her finger, she gently touched the hardening cushion of flesh at the edge of Clara's cunt, feeling her muscles contract strongly.

Clara moaned, wriggling appreciatively against the new pressure. 'Ohhhh... Gemma, I'm gonna...'

Gemma dipped harder into her. 'I know, honey...'

'No you don't...I... hhi...'

Her dark eyes dropped slowly closed as she struggled and Gemma realised exactly what she was going to do. She smiled, licked her dry, salt-corroded lips and slid another finger into her swollen, receptive cunt, kissing her on the twitching tip of her nose. 

Clara finally surrendered. Her breath quickened, shortening from sighs and gasps to harsh little hitches, 'hah-hah-ah-hah... HAAHISSSSSHOOOO!' 

A great sneeze bellowed out of her, and the athletic muscles of her cunt clenched wonderfully with the force of the sneeze, tightly hugging Gemma's rigid fingers and then relaxing, endlessly soft and wet. 

'Oh,' Gemma moaned softly. 'That...that just felt so fucking sexy...' she took her hand from Clara's cunt and greedily, sensually licked each one of the fingers, enjoying the blatantly rich tang of her pussy. 'And you taste fabulous.'

'Then eat me,' Clara commanded, the layers of her voice stripped down to their essential core. 

That voice reached Gemma in her deepest centre. 

Gemma looked up into Clara's dark, lust-unfocused eyes, and where she usually would have teased and withheld, she found herself helping Clara wriggle out of her damp, sex-fragrant panties, and sliding down the bed to obey her boss's order. She felt drunker than she'd ever been in her life, stoned, stunned, and suddenly, inexplicably, afraid. 

Clara found herself making small, hungry noises in the back of her throat as, her hands in Gemma's glossy, silk-smooth hair, she actually pushed Gemma's head down to her pelvis. She needed it badly. Gemma's attention, her passion, her obvious desire had turned Clara on to the point of explosion, and that sneeze- well, that sneeze had felt good. She was used to Charlotte's little games and had obliged her from time to time with rolled-up tissues, de-budded Q-tips, the sneeze-provoking spices of her childhood- never roses, though. To induce the sneezes felt sexy and faintly satisfying, but in theory they weren't really uncontrollable. She was never conscious, when staring into Charlotte's hungry, receptive eyes, of really needing to sneeze- just wanting to. The difference was huge. 

And what she'd done to Gemma, just because she was desperate to ease that constant, annoying tickle in her nose- well, it had been spectacular, and Gemma wasn't the only one turned on. The urgent, desperate throbbing that hardened her clitoris made Clara believe that she must finally know what an erection felt like.

'It's never...' she murmured, but didn't finish. Her fingers tightened in Gemma's tousled hair. 

The sigh that escaped from Clara as Gemma's mouth found her most sensitive spot seemed to contain all her demons- she breathed them out as though they were alcohol fumes, and Gemma felt Clara relax entirely on the damp hotel sheets, every last one of her muscles feeling as though it was unknotting, unravelling, leaving her open and wet, partially sentient, every thought and impulse she had concentrated on her cunt and what Gemma was doing to it. The girl nudged languorously at Clara's labia with her tongue, and then teasingly licked her swollen, throbbing clit, making her moan. Clara's primal sex-sounds spiralled from her deep, stretched-back throat like a formless, extended blues holler as Gemma expertly found her way around her cunt, cupping it in her lips like a fragile fruit and probing its insides with her eager tongue. 

Clara had slept with a lot of men in her life- she'd had enough Toms, Ricks and Steves to fill a phone book, and she'd even once drunkenly rolled around with Leo- but, as far as women went, she'd remained faithful to Charlotte. No other woman's tongue had touched her there, and, stretching in ecstasy, Clara hazily realised that she had options. To say the least, it was a good feeling. 

A great feeling. 

The aching tingle at her clit began to ease, spreading through her in sweeping, steady waves. It felt as though there was no difference between her own flesh and Gemma's mouth, as though they had both become liquid, flowing into each other like rivers of melting metal, her cunt burning but half-liquefied, almost dissolving, Gemma's rigid, probing tongue the only thing solid about it, the centre around which she felt like her whole being was collapsing. 

Gemma kept moving, not allowing her to come immediately, sucking the flesh of her outer labia into her mouth, taking soft mouthfuls of Clara and then ever-so-gently applying her teeth, one minute taking her clitoris between her pursed lips, the next moving further down to make her shudder and moan helplessly, probing where even Charlotte hadn't managed to go in a single one of their hot, sporadic nights, entering her most secret, hidden places, leaving her helpless and bare, all her careful restraints shattered. Her body knew she was going to explode, but her mind was not quite conscious of the urge- she just felt sublimely pleasured. 

As Gemma licked her unceasingly, Clara started to drift in and out of consciousness, to have that recurring dream again, that vision- but this time she was not on the rocks. Not falling. She was in the sea already. No. She was the sea. Her whole body was fluid. Her orgasm was not even part of her any more, but gathering inexorably above her like storm-clouds over the sea, ready to break and strike her with a wrenching bolt of light, rip her in two. She was afraid. She was furious. She was ecstatic.

'I'm gonna come,' she whispered, aware that it sounded like the greatest understatement she'd ever uttered in her life. 

Gemma just sucked the hard, pulsating bud of Clara's clit up between her lips and teeth, and started doing something with her tongue that only serious devotion and years of practise at this particular art could possibly have achieved. 

The clouds burst, and she was deluged in rain, sweat, pleasure. 

'I'm drowning,' Clara said nonsensically to the ceiling, and came in an intense, powerful, screaming and laughing release. 

Outside herself completely now, she saw the wild, abandoned creature on the bed, moaning and cursing, her hips bucking violently, thrusting her cunt into this beautiful girl's face, the girl uncomplainingly giving and taking her lust, and wondered who the fuck she was- before her orgasm thrust her back into that body, making her aware of the clamour of her satisfied self, stunned at the pulsing, flawless fusion of herself and this strange, lovely creature, her body set free, one hand pressed heavily to her mouth as she tried to stifle the explosion of jubilant noise which rose again and again in her throat. 

She opened her eyes. 

The rain was over, the tides out, her fever still throbbing at her temples but her body feeling cleaned, new, purified. She was redeemed. 

Or, as Gemma, wiping her mouth, put it, 'Fucking hell, you needed that.' 

Clara- feeling free for the first time in months- just laughed.

Monday, 4.30 p.m

Clara was cooking. This surprised Gemma- she'd never visualised her well-groomed, tomboyish boss as she looked now, the sleeves of her faded red football sweatshirt rolled up, a pan of heavily steaming rice in her hand, shrouded in the thick wet steam and sniffling as it loosened the congestion in her stuffy nose, singing something soft and jazzy and moving from stove to sink in an easy, swinging rhythm which Gemma could tell she must have learned from her mother.

The tiny kitchen, shrunk by its dark, oppressive shade of gay-Edwardian English green and papered with black and white photos of Clara and Leo's idols- Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, and several pretty boys wearing ironic smiles and spandex, smelt absolutely delicious and Gemma, who'd been living on black coffee and cigarettes- Clara's brand- all day, suddenly felt an overpowering hunger. 

Clara stopped singing when she saw her, and gave Gemma a pleased but guided smile that slowly lit her huge dark eyes. 'Hey. What you doing here, honey?'

'Just came to see how you are. Your flatmate let me in.' Gemma looked from the kitchen door to the living room with its racks of labelled tapes hemming the walls. 'Nice place. Um. Nice windows.' 

Clara smiled but said nothing. She looked a lot better. Though still muffled up from the sharp-edged cold, a bit snuffly, and with a pronounced, chapped redness at her nose and lips, the dark shadows- and the haunted look- had gone from her eyes, making her naturally bony face look softer and more content. There was a curious, quiet heaviness about her, as though she wanted to say something but was keeping silent. 

'I just want to know, umm...' Gemma shifted her balance. 'Is this gonna get weird?' Clara let out a rich, deep-bellied gust of laughter. 'It is fucking weird,' she replied, with the scathing frankness that had been absent from her manner these past few weeks. 'Do you want a cup of tea?'

'Ehm, no thanks.' Gemma, wondering why she didn't feel uncomfortable, leaned against the door-frame, listening to the music playing in the living room. Knowing Clara's all-encompassing and occasionally obscure musical tastes, she was relieved to recognise the track- Roots Manuva's 'Swords in the Dirt.' 

'I made plenty,' Clara said, talking down into her slow-boiling pan of rice and peas. 'If you want some. The boys'll be happy to have someone else stay to dinner.' She sniffed heavily and brushed at her runny nose with her fingers.

'That'd be great. I'm starving.' 

'You came on a good night.' Clara was now talking to her pin-up of James Brown. 'Alex brought some of that Thai weed over. We were just gonna chill.' She reached for a sheet of kitchen roll and blew her nose, wiping away its runs.

'Sweet.' Gemma craned to get herself into Clara's line of vision. 'Feeling better?'

Clara looked up and smiled, and part of Gemma wished she hadn't- being full-frontally assaulted with one of Clara's rare smiles nearly always robbed her of her breath, and now she could do nothing but stare. 'A lot, honey, thank you.' 

'Charlotte was asking where you were.'

Clara shrugged off her ex-lover's name. 'I'm going in tomorrow.' 

She picked up a smouldering cigarette from a chipped yellow saucer at the side of the stove and sucked a last drag out of it, followed by a thick, throaty cough. 

'You shouldn't be smoking,' Gemma muttered.

'I know.' Clara picked up a decimated cigarette packet, took one and extended the pack to Gemma with a knowing smile on her face. Gemma took it, smiling back. 

'I don't know what I see in you,' Clara muttered grudgingly, filling 

Gemma with a sweet rush of excitement and relief. 'You're more like her than you know.'

Gemma didn't need to be told whom Clara was talking about. 

'And you're less like her than you know,' she said quietly.

Then they looked at each other for a while, smoking over a pan of boiling rice, saying nothing.

Gemma thought- Usually, I forget my lovers on the way to pick up breakfast, but I haven't stopped thinking about you all day. I don't know why I'm here. I don't know what you want to give me, who you're prepared to be for me. I'm lost.

Clara thought- I know you. I know your type. I've been your type. I know your agenda, your lines, your desires that drift away like smoke. I know you're bad for me and I think I love you. Can I admit this? Should I admit this? Dare I love you?

Gemma, not quite sure of what she was doing, reached into the pocket of her winter coat and pulled out the red rose the Indian boy had given her on Saturday night. It had remained remarkably fresh, its petals bruised and dark but still clinging together, as she extended it to Clara. She hoped she didn't have to explain this- it was just something they needed, a link from their night of lust to this ordered, early-evening kitchen, something to keep them airborne a while longer... Clara sceptically arched an eyebrow. 

'You know-' she started, but didn't finish. 

She just gave Gemma a wicked, indulgent smile, as she lifted the bloom to her nose.