At least he was man enough to recognize "bottom" when he came crashing into it. He leaned his forehead against her door, his hand hovering inches away from the doorbell, thoroughly incapable of ringing it at the moment. He coughed and considered what led up to this awful moment. First, he had moved in with Ashley. Then, she kicked him out when she found out he had kissed Sharon. And now he was on Sharon's doorstep looking for a place to stay. The events, he tried to tell himself, only looked horrible and stupid because he was sick. The last few days were not, he tried to convince himself, completely horrible and stupid. And Sharon was too nice to slam the door in his face if he rang the doorbell.
Of course she was. That was why her nickname was "Shredder" - because she was so nice. This was the girl who actually hung a frat boy out of a second story window for hurting one of her friends. The one who insisted her family crest read, "Taketh no shit." Why wouldn't she be good about letting him stay until he was back on his feet?
Everything being all perfectly screwed up aside, of course.
The door swung in suddenly and he was very nearly knocked off his feet. A firm hand kept his body from dropping - the hand in question being Sharon's. He looked up at her and tried to say something even approximating a greeting, but to his surprise, nothing came to him beyond a terribly shuddery, itchy feeling. "ETCH - shhh, eshhh," he sneezed twice, and then looked up at her. He sniffed, shivering.
"Jesus H. Blithering Christ, Richard, you look like something the cat tossed up," she intoned, but not in an unfriendly way. He took that as a good sign.
"How'd you know I was at the door?" he asked, and then stifled a sneeze against his knuckle. It hurt like hell doing that, but he didn't want to seem too pathetic. He sniffed and stared at her. She seemed to be holding back a smile.
She shook her head, slowly, then pointed. "I saw your car outside. Honey...you left your lights on."
He looked back at his car - he had. His eyes widened in surprise and he quickly turned to get back to the car to shut them off. As he ran, Sharon stood in the doorway, watching him, and then she looked down at the duffel bag he'd left on her porch. She didn't need a degree in astrophysics to sort this one out-he was looking to crash with her. She had several reasons for not wanting him to do that. But all the same, she picked the duffel bag up and brought it inside.
She continued standing in the doorway until his return and then said, "Come on inside. It's freezing out here, you're soaked...and you're sick, aren't you?"
He hardly needed to answer that, but nodded, his hand held up to his nose and his eyes squeezed tight. It was a damn stuck sneeze. He tried to breathe slowly in and out of his nostrils, which usually eventually knocked one out. She watched him with something close to amusement as he struggled with his nose. "Uh...huh. Uh. Mnnn. SNHKT!" It sounded wet, strong, but completely squelched. She wondered that he didn't blow his eardrums out doing that. Feeling a wave of sympathy, she sighed.
"Richard, you look like you could use a shower, and, you know, to change your clothes and everything. I took your bag...we'll talk when you're done," she said, quietly. He picked up his bag, and then looked at her questioningly. He couldn't make anything out of the expression she wore, and so he went upstairs. She followed him with her eyes, and then sank into the nearest chair, coming close to flinching when she heard him let loose with a series of sneezes after he'd closed the bathroom door.
It didn't help at all that he turned her on in this condition. It certainly didn't help that she knew she was in love with him, and had been for a very long time. She heard him turn the water for his shower on and roused herself out of the chair. She went to the dining room to check her hair in the mirror and get a good look at herself-not bad, considering she hadn't been expecting company. She fluffed the dark amber waves with her fingers trying to make some semblance of style out of it, and then momentarily thought about getting her purse and just throwing on a little make-up. As if that wouldn't be a totally noticeable thing, she reminded herself, putting on a face at eight o'clock in the evening to go nowhere in particular. Instead, she picked up a tissue from the box on the dining room table and rubbed it on her forehead - just enough to tone down the shine. Satisfied that she didn't seem completely undesirable to a man who was more or less indifferent to her at best and probably too sick to care, she went into the kitchen to put on some hot water. She wasn't about to discuss his wildly unfortunate love life with him without strong coffee in her system, and she imagined he'd also want some. After getting out two mugs and the jar of instant, she sat down at the kitchen table watching the blue flicker of the burner and jonesed for a cigarette while preparing herself to say supportive things.
That took some doing. It was getting harder and harder for her to be supportive of him when his taste in women struck her as...well, sucking entirely. He seemed to go from bad relationship to worse with hopeless optimism, absolutely wasted on girls who she never could see the appeal of. And she, invariably, best friend and "voice of reason", ended up being the unhappy sounding board. To make matters worse, she very vaguely recalled getting physical with him during their last bull-and-beer session - playful wrestling that turned into a kiss. She wanted to avoid him. She needed to avoid him. And, of course, she couldn't.
The kettle whistled at about the same time as she heard Richard coming down the stairs. She got up to turn it off, and then looked into the dining room to observe him fighting with the tissue box with one hand while holding his nose with the other. "Eh...SNIFF! EH..."
She reached over to the offending tissue box and pulled on it, forcing it to give up the fistful of tissues he was looking for. "HA-mmffft. Mmmmft. Shhht," he sneezed into them, thoroughly burying his face so that hardly any sound escaped. She stared at him, heart pounding, inexplicably entranced by the display. Sneezes, for whatever reason, always held a strange charm for her. Given that he, also, was strangely charming to her, she found his sneezes leaving her speechless. He blew, a long, genuinely wet sound, and wiped, and then stared at the tissues with a touch of disgust. "Ugh...damn I hate being sick."
"Trash can's in the kitchen. I was just getting hot water for coffee-want some? It's instant."
"Sure," he answered, not moving. She turned to make it, but out of the corner of her eye caught him stopping to look at himself in the mirror, and wryly considered that he'd had his face in the mirror in the upstairs bathroom not five minutes before to comb his hair. She wondered if that was vanity-or something else. She poured, and then he asked, "How sick do I look?"
She gave him a critical look. Bad enough, but still wonderfully attractive. His nose was red. His usually fair skin seemed pale, and there were dark hollows underneath his ice-blue eyes. Although his hair looked neat, he hadn't bothered to shave, leaving coal-black stubble marking his chin. And his light-blue jeans hung low on his hips as if they were a size or two too big, but she imagined that he chose them for comfort's sake, rather than that he'd lost any weight. Although she was supposed to be judging him on the basis of whether or not he looked relatively awful, she thought he looked awfully sexy for being sick. Slowly, she responded.
"Well, you don't look like you're dying. Do you have a fever?"
"Not that I'd noticed."
She nodded, sagely. "Sore throat at all?"
"A little." He rubbed at his throat, self-consciously.
"And you're sneezing a lot, apparently. Well, a head cold, obviously...but you never can tell. You might have a touch of something else."
"Really?" he asked, with interest.
"Hypochondriasis," she answered, slowly accenting the syllables. Her eyes sparkled, and Richard buried his face in the non-tissue-bearing hand. She had him.
He looked at the smirk playing on her lips and wondered why he never noticed Sharon's mouth before-beyond as a lethal weapon. But her dimpled smile suddenly seemed...pretty: all rosebud lips and naughty intent. He tried to shake the sensation of wanting to go to her and kiss her, but another sensation came over him-the need to sneeze. He sunk his nostrils into the sodden tissues and tried as best he could to squelch the sound of them. "MMftt...mmnnnchh...NNNNGCH!" He thankfully took the fresh tissues she handed him. "Thangs..." and blew.
"Golly...gee...whillikers," she slowly marveled. "That sounds..." The sentiment evaporated as she turned around. "Well, shouldn't let the coffee get cold-cold coffee depresses me, and I suppose I should ask why you're here. Ashley...didn't work out?"
He winced, trying to blow out the last of the sneezy feeling. His sinuses were beginning to ache. He began to speak, and then felt it creep up on him again. "Well...AH!" He breathed, waiting for it to pass. He shook his head, and then followed her into the kitchen, where he took up a mug and then took a seat. He held up the wet tissues and she, intuiting his intention, lifted the lid to the trashcan. They went in.
"Three-pointer from that distance," she commented, grinning. She picked up her coffee mug and took the seat opposite him.
"She kicked me out," he said, matter of factly.
She waited, biting her tongue. There was more to it. There would have to have been an argument-possibly of operatic proportions-over something he did or did not do. She sipped at her coffee. Either he would spill the story, or he wouldn't, but in any case she wasn't about to ask. When it seemed that he wasn't going to say anything, she simply repeated, "She kicked you out?"
He nodded and rubbed his face, careful of the area around his nose. He felt tired, and didn't even know where to begin. He certainly couldn't tell her that she was the reason he was here-whether he should or he shouldn't didn't seem as important as * couldn't * tell her. He shuddered as his fingers worked the area between his cheekbones and nose-the pressure made his nose itchy and suddenly watery. He got up suddenly. "Need more tissues," he explained, and went back to the dining room.
"Just...bring the whole box in, then," she called after him, rolling her eyes. He wouldn't be practical enough to think of that one on his own. She listened to him blow and cough, and he came back in with the box. He set them down with an odd look on his face. She simply raised her eyebrow.
"I guess...I got on her nerves," he said at length. We didn't have that much in common...and it came to a head." His eyes didn't meet hers. Looking for neutral territory, he settled on the box of tissues and looked at them. For lack of anything else to do, he pulled out another tissue, and blew his nose, uncomfortably. She simply watched him, silently simmering. He glanced up, and noticed the change on her face-he'd seen it before on occasion. He nearly shrank in his seat at what was about to come.
"So she...threw you out, in sleeting rain...when you're sick...because you got on her nerves?" Sharon demanded, self-control gone. "That's...it's..." she sputtered, and then, completely shut up. It was very little of her damn business, was what it was. She looked at him, and couldn't figure out what she wanted to say. She wanted to trash the other girl, but found it impossible. Instead, she could only look at Richard, and he did seem tired. Usually, he never hesitated to mention the details, or wonder aloud what he had done. But he was so quiet this time that it made her wonder if he wasn't really hurting. She wanted to take him in her arms and just hold him, but they had never really had that type of relationship. "And that was it," she then said, quietly.
"That was it," he said, wondering where the emotion went. One of the reasons he usually came to Sharon was because she could make him laugh over his failures-sarcastically skewering his girlfriends, roasting them over the flaming coals of his heartbreak and serving them up well-done. Their eyes met, briefly, and then he looked away. Maybe it was wrong to talk with her, of all people, about it.
"Well that sucks," she said finally. She took a good-sized swallow of coffee, then made a face. "This could stand to be warmed up," she said, standing up. "You haven't touched yours."
"I could stand something stronger."
Without a word, she opened the cabinet under the sink and brought out the Old Granddad. She picked up her mug and then his, and spilled out their contents, rinsing them in the sink. As she carefully dosed the mugs with a double-shot each, she noticed the struggling look come over his face. Fascinated, she stared.
"Eh...eh...SNIFF...eh," he started, and then shook his head. He balled the tissue in his hand, and reached for another. He concentrated on breathing slowly through his nose, and barely could.
Sharon set the mugs on the table and asked, breathlessly, "Are you all right?"
He stood, still shaking his head as if trying to clear it. "MMMmmmmnnno. Feels like...I've got to...eh...sneeze, but can't." He sniffled, and she noticed the look of pain that crossed his face when he did.
"Your face hurts?" she asked, and then she went to him, touching his face. Her hands were cool, and he closed his eyes, nodding. Her being close to him felt wonderful, and he appreciated the soft touch of her fingers. He let her touch him, and then she felt around that sensitive area that he'd noticed before. He flinched. "Sinus infection, maybe," she commented. He rolled his eyes with them still closed-god, she never did get over dropping out of pre-med. And then he felt them coming.
He tried to step back before he got her, but then she touched the side of his nose with her thumb. "ETTCHSHOOO! SHOO!" he sneezed, more or less in her face. He raised his hand to his face. "ETSHISH! ETSH!"
She dove for tissues, laughing, and wiped off her hands and face, which were sprayed, before yanking out another fistful for him. He took them, horrified at actually sneezing on her like that. "Yikes," she commented, smiling. "I could have used a little warning," she said, and then noticed the look on his face. He looked miserable. She giggled, still dabbing at her face. "Please. It could've been worse. I've seen you...throw up before, for Christ's sake. I can deal with a little sneezing. Richard?" she asked, seeing the serious look still on his face. She touched his face again, this time a little more gently. "What's wrong?"
The look of concern in her eyes completely undid him. Whoever said blue wasn't a warm color never saw eyes like hers, and he leaned forward, and kissed her. Her lips parted, in surprise at first, and then he could feel her whole body soften into it. He was holding her, and she put her arms around him, and it felt perfect-one hundred percent perfectly wrong. She was a woman after all-he told himself. They do that nursing thing. His being sick probably made her just go soft. He broke the kiss and took a deep breath.
"What did I..."
"You kissed me," she said, with a touch of heat. "That's what. You are just acting...so weird," she said. She couldn't understand how he could do that, kiss her and then back off. If he wanted her, that would be one thing, and if he didn't, she would cope, but this...was too damn much. "Look, I don't know what you want me to say..."
"Sorry?" she asked, incredulously.
He saw the anger and hurt in her eyes, and knew that he'd gone too far. She probably felt like he'd taken advantage of her. The only thing that remained was to excuse himself from the room as quickly as he could in order to let her defuse.
"I don't know where my head is...I know I shouldn't have kissed you like that. It was wrong, and I'm not thinking straight. I should just...go to bed before I do anything else..." He stepped backwards, away from her, unable to look at her face.
She worked her lips, unable to make a sound. She'd known him ten years and had never seen him so...mental. It was as if kissing her was the absolutely worst thing he could think of doing, and seeing the effect it had on him tied her stomach in knots. She genuinely didn't know what to say, and looking at him didn't help matters. She couldn't even be sure that what she felt was rejection.
"Did you...put your things in the guest room?" she asked, once she could speak. He nodded and turned, saying, "Good night," over his shoulder as he left the room.
She stared at the table, numbly unsure of what to do. She continued staring until she realized what she was staring at-a wad of used tissues, and the two mugs. Something needed to be done about that. She swept up the tissues in one hand and tossed them into the trash, and then stared a little more at the mugs. One might throw out coffee, particularly cold coffee. One was never to waste liquor. She poured the contents of one mug into the other, and put the empty one into the sink. She then lifted up the full mug and the tissue box. She carried the box to the dining room table where she set it down, and then carried the mug up with her to her room after she'd turned out the lights.
The liquor was * not * going to any waste.
Once in her room, she undressed and stood in her panties, considering her options with the mug in hand. She took a sip from it, and realized with some surprise that the drink was nearly gone, so she drained it and set it down. Usually, she would just pull on shorts and a tee shirt to sleep in, but she didn't feel like wearing those. She opened a drawer and pulled out a white nightgown, a negligee actually, that she rarely wore. She really hadn't had anyone to wear it * for * lately, but on the whole, she thought she might just wear it for herself. She slipped it on over her head, and then surveyed herself in the mirror on the closet door before she slipped under the covers.
"Well, fine. If he doesn't want me..." She didn't finish her thought. She didn't want to. She turned off the light, and wondered what he was doing in the other room.
He stared at the darkened ceiling, coughing and wondering why he had to act like an idiot. Realizing that lying on his back was part of the problem, he rolled on his side, and, no longer coughing, still wondered why he had acted like an idiot. He'd only thought about her constantly for the past week or so. Thinking about her had only thoroughly ended his relationship with Ashley-well, that and the fact that she was a spoiled little Daddy's girl with little actual emotional depth. He didn't know what he'd do if his behavior wrecked his friendship with Sharon.
He sat up and turned the light on. She'd come upstairs, and he could hear her in the next room, undressing. He squeezed his eyes shut, surprised at the effect this had on him-he was becoming hard. He'd seen her as a huge tomboy, as a drinking buddy, and almost as one of the guys for so long that he hadn't given much thought to what she'd look like. Of course, he'd noticed that she was stacked, he was only human. But what she would actually look like...or feel like...
"Enough of that," he said quietly. Neither his imagination nor his erection were listening. He reached down into the boxers he'd put on for bed and curled his fingers around his member, and then rolled his eyes. Getting kicked out was bad. Sleeping under a friend's roof was...not much better. Jerking off because he couldn't tell her how he felt...ah, he just kept hitting new levels. And then, feeling a tickle come on, he pulled his hand out of his boxers. "Great," he muttered before they hit.
Sharon stiffened underneath the covers at the sound. She wondered if he'd be doing that all night, and wondered if she could sleep at all if he would be. As he sneezed, she began to feel a familiar tingle, and groaned. It was one thing that he was under the same roof with her, another that he excited her as it was, but listening to him in the next room like that was unbearable. She reached her hand under her nightgown and curled her thumb around the edge of her panties, and then gave them a tug, slipping them off. She sat up and flicked on the table lamp, and neatly shot the panties into the open hamper.
"Easy three-pointer," she murmured, and then touched herself. She was damp, and she ached. She felt strange doing it with him just in the next room, but she found that she didn't actually care how strange it was-without some release, she'd just explode. Her fingers were just about to explore her pubis when she was startled silly by a knock on the door.
Her heart did a strange stutter before beating normally. She pulled the nightgown down to a decent level and the covers up to her waist. Of course, Rich would have to want something now, at the most inconvenient time. It took her a moment of self-collection before answering.
"What is it?"
"Can I come in?"
She had to think about that. She wasn't sure that she needed to see him just then, but she certainly wondered what he had to say that was so important that he needed to say it just then. Swallowing and hoping that her voice would sound normal, she answered.
He opened the door and just stood inside it for a moment. He was barechested and he had pulled on a pair of jogging pants. It was all she could do to keep from gaping at him; it was the unformed part of her fantasy materializing all at once. He shivered, and she got up from the bed.
"Hey," she said, reaching for an afghan that she had draped over a chair near her bed. "Don't stand there shivering. You should have put on a shirt or something..." And then she noticed that he was staring at her. Following his eyes to her breasts, she realized exactly what he was staring at. Backlit by the bedside lamp, her nightgown was as good as transparent. She blushed, and looked away as she handed the afghan to him, and he took it, wrapping it around his shoulders. She went back to the bed, easing herself under the covers, and then patted for him to sit on the bed. He was still staring and pretending not to, but he sat.
"I don't know if I should have come here," he began.
"You needed somewhere to stay. We've been friends...like, forever," she answered, but he stopped her from going on.
"That's part of the problem...I..." His face changed, nostrils flaring slightly. He shook his head and continued. "I've been thinking about...heh..." He put up his hand. The sneezes weren't going to let him finish. She leaned forward and put her finger under his nose.
"You've been thinking about me?" she asked, and he nodded before sneezing against her hand. The spray tickled her fingers and his look was one of shock. It was so silly and interesting that she took his face between her hands and kissed him. He broke it off.
"Not...ah...en...heheh...tirely done," he managed, before another came. "HETSH!" He growled. "I wish I could just explain what I feel without...sneezing on you," he said in exasperation.
"I don't really mind, so long as you just say it," she said, in a quiet voice.
"You don't really mind..." he began, his train of thought momentarily derailed. But then he looked at the way she was looking at him, her arm still around him. "I love you," he finally said. "I'm in love with you, and I'm going to ruin things with you and ESHISH! You're going to hate me forever."
The way he said it was so certain and perfectly screwed up that she nearly laughed, but she didn't.
"I think you must be feverish," she said, feeling his forehead somberly. Her eyes met his, and his misery was plainly felt. "Talking about loving me, and ruining it, and me hating you forever." He stirred like he was about to get up, but she was damned if she'd let him. "You aren't going to do any such thing. I'm not going to let you ruin things with me."
"Because you're going to throw me out of your bedroom," he whispered hoarsely. His eyes began to water, and she realized she couldn't just leave him on the hook like this.
She touched his face again and kissed him gently. "No. I'm going to hold on to you because I care about you too much to watch you screw up another relationship. I'm sorry, but you're staying in this one. Living with me will be difficult, but you've done stranger things." He stared at her, dumbstruck. She tried to look serious. She failed. He still looked at her as if he didn't quite understand. She rolled her eyes. "I love you, too," she whispered in his ear. "Deal with that."
He wrapped his arms around her then, tightly. It was exactly what he wanted to hear. He buried his face into her soft waves, but an unruly curl played havoc with his already-irritated nose. He squeezed her a bit tighter, trying to rub his nose into submission.
"Richard...what?" she breathed, ribs beginning to feel pinched.
"Going to...to...aheh...ah...to sneeze again."
She began to understand when her ears were treated to a royal work-up of gasps and she could actually feel him tremble, slightly. He held her to him with one arm and then covered his face with the hand of the other. She braced herself.
"Heh...eheh...sniff...eehhyeh...hee-ATCH!! ATCHOO! HETCH! HESHOO! HESHEE!" She could feel the strong sneezes pushing him tighter against her, and a thrill went through her. His body rocked with them, until the fit was over. He released her and sank to lie down next to her, gasping and sniffling.
"Wow," she commented, once she thought he was done. "Do that again."
He sniffled some more and then laughed, but another sneeze took him by surprise. "I jusd bight do that. I didn'd want to sneeze on you again." He rubbed his face and wished for tissues. She rolled on top of him, pinning him down. She took hold of each wrist and leaned her face down to his.
"That's very thoughtful of you." She kissed him deeply, and then rubbed noses with him.
"Don't," he pleaded, eyes widening. She drew her head back, and then got what she half-expected she would. "HEE-AH-ESHHHH! HESHOOO!" She took them full in the face, unable and not completely willing to let go of his wrists in time. She let him go once he'd finished, wondering what possessed her to do such a thing.
He lay his head back. "Oh god. Get me tissues, would you?" he asked. She nodded and got off of him, turning before she slipped into the master bathroom to watching him blinking and holding his hand to his nose. He seemed absolutely adorable to her that way. She snapped the roll of toilet paper off the rack and came back in with it, steadily unrolling a strip around her hand. He reached out for the roll, but she pulled off the wad she'd gathered instead, holding it out. As if it were perfectly natural to do so, he buried his nose into it and blew while she held it in one hand, and placed the roll on the bedside table with the other. Her eyes widened at not even having to ask. When finished, he looked up at her.
"You know, I * can * blow my own nose," he said, with a touch of mock irritation.
"I'm sure you can undress yourself, too," she responded, grinning.
"You're going to make a sick man get naked in a chilly room?"
Her response to that was to turn around. She balled the tissue slightly and aimed it for the wastebasket in the bathroom. She missed. "Your percentage still sucks from behind the free throw line," he commented. She stuck her tongue out at him, and then removed her nightgown, which she then tossed into the hamper.
"I'm still good for the easy...lay...up. Get naked, sick man. I'll find something to cover you with."
He simply stared at her naked form, speechless. She put her hands on her hips, letting him look at her. When he didn't move or speak, she could feel a chill come over her.
"Well?" she asked, half-afraid that he was changing his mind.
"I am feverish...and dreaming."
The words absolutely pleased her. She went over to the bed and leaned over him, letting her hand smooth over his face and hair, and then kissed him. His hand cupped her breast, squeezing it gently. She lay her hand over his, and when they paused to breathe, she sighed, "Feels like you're dreaming?"
He nodded. "Only...Sharon?"
She only needed to look into his eyes to know what he was about to say. She could read the dark circles, and the touch of disappointment-he was tired, and for that matter, the liquor she had was making her head spin-much as she wanted to make love to him, she also didn't want to rush anything. She kissed him again. "In the morning?"
She climbed into the bed next to him, and then turned out the light. Before settling into her arms, he turned his head away and sneezed a few times, nearly shaking the bed.
"Bless you," she said, letting him arrange himself against her. She kissed his forehead and then his lips.
"I'm probably contagious," he said, glumly.
"Then I guess I'm already screwed," she replied, squeezing him. He kissed her, and let his hands play over her naked skin, amazed at how unscrewed-up it felt to be sleeping with his best friend. But it had been a strange evening, and sleep, they did.