She wasn't next to him in the bed.
That was the first thought, the second being, where was she? Her side of the bed seemed very empty with her not occupying it. He rolled over to look at the clock, coughing. Three a.m. She wasn't in the bathroom. He flicked the table lamp on and got out of bed, stretching and sniffling, and then grabbed a tissue to go in search of Sharon.
He didn't have too long a search. The light was on in the living room, and he could hear her moving. He paused at the top of the stairs and then sat down on them, watching her. She was delightfully undressed, and he wondered that she wasn't freezing, but then he realized she was doing something extremely odd - touching her toes. And from touching her toes, she walked with her fingers until she was on all fours, and slowly, she eased herself into a position where her pelvis touched the carpet, and her back arched - and then he heard the crack. The grimace on her face was a mixture of pain and relief as she rolled her head back, producing more audible sounds. He watched fascinated, heedless of the tickle building in his nose until he couldn't hold back.
"HASSSSSHHHH, Hashhooo," he sneezed into the tissue, and decided he might as well head down the rest of the stairs. Sharon stood, and looked guilty.
"So this is that solo naked Twister I've been hearing about."
"Well, at the advanced level, you don't even need the colored dots," she quipped. "I'm sorry, I guess I woke you."
"No, the empty bed woke me." He blew his nose quietly before asking, "Are you all right?"
"Just stiff. Go back to bed, I'll be up in a minute."
He crumpled the tissue and stuffed it into the pocket of his jogging pants, and then looked back up at her, frowning. "You're coming to bed. Now."
He went to her and wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her gently, and then let his hands glide over her naked back. They felt warm and strong, relaxing her instantly.
"Let me take care of you," he whispered, hoarsely. He cleared his throat, gently. "You've been taking care of me. I want to."
She sighed and tilted her face up to his. His mouth covered hers and they kissed deeply, but she could hear his breathing slightly labored with congestion. He broke off the kiss, rubbing his nose and sniffling. His eyelids twitched momentarily as she caressed his face with the back of her hand. "No," he breathed, before sneezing into the air, twice, "Ha-esh, esh." He sniffled some more, and she tensed, wondering if there would be another.
"You're still sick," she whispered.
He rubbed his nose again, and met her gaze. "Not too sick to make your back feel better. Or to make you relax. Or to lay in bed and hold you, right?"
"I guess not," she smiled, and let him take her by the hand and lead her back to the bedroom. Once there, he pulled all the covers back and let her get into the bed before him, gently coaxing her to lie on her stomach. He then shed the jogging pants he slept in and knelt on the mattress by her side, hands kneading her shoulders. He shivered in the slightly cool air, and Sharon felt the tremor.
He sighed before turning his head, "Huh-uh-HESSSHHH!" and sneezed violently.
"Baby, just lay with me and pull up those covers. I want your whole body touching me."
He reached down for the blankets and snuggled against her back, covering her with himself. One arm reached around her, and she let him take her hand, their fingers interlacing. His other arm snaked up under the pillow on which she lay her head, raising it just so and letting her settle back against his chest when she rolled to her side. He began to kiss her neck then, his lips warm and dry, his breath interspersed with sniffles.
"This is so perfect," she murmured. "I wish we'd..." she began, and let her voice trail off. Before the words were even said, she regretted them.
"Got together sooner?" Richard finished, still moving his lips from her neck to her face.
"Hmm," she agreed, almost wistfully. "But I'm also glad we didn't."
He smiled-more of a wince. "We'd have screwed it up."
She rolled towards him to look up into his face. "Maybe. Maybe not." She thought about it. "Neither of us are perfect. But the difference is - we * know * that."
"Well - you know everything about my relationships..." He paused, memories of pouring out his tales of thoroughly dashed love to her suddenly seeming very immediate. She never let on anything about her own affairs. The reason why was becoming apparent. "Sharon...you haven't..."
She squinted at him with a sarcastic look. "Compared myself to every woman you've ever been with and thought about my * obvious* superiority? Give me a break."
He groaned, laying his head down on her chest as she laughed at her own comment.
"You dnow perfeh-hec-EHESHH! Perfectly well what I bean," he said, raising his head, and barely catching the sneeze in his hand. She raised her hand to his face, nodding.
"Okay. Only lately, but I have. You have another one for me?" she smiled, looking at the contortions his eyes and nose were doing as he attempted to hold one back. He nodded and she reached over for the tissues, and then held the tissues in her hand before his face just as the sneeze overtook him. Even through the thin paper, she could feel the dampness of the spray, and then the warmth of his nose settling into the tissue. She began to wipe for him, but he shook his head and took the tissue from her, then giving a strong, wet-sounding blow.
"Ugh," he sighed when he finished. "Very romantic, isn't it?" He wadded up the tissue, and lobbed it onto the bedside table.
"My hand's still tingling," she said, and then caught his drift. She kissed him. "Call me crazy. There's room in my intimate moments for snot." She frowned. "Love is like sneezing. It's messy and often involves tissues."
He kissed her. "That came straight from the world's strangest fortune cookie."
"I think I want it as a cross-stitch over my bed." She yawned. "Unfortunately, I don't think it would all fit...sweetie, is there something you can do for me before I go back to sleep?" she grinned, feeling something hard and friendly in the vicinity of her thigh. She snuggled her leg up to what she felt, provoking a definite reaction.
"There certainly is," Richard replied, rolling on top of her. She put her arms around him, pulling him tightly to herself, and then kissed him deeply, probing his soft mouth with her tongue. He closed his mouth, gently pulling his face away from hers. "Can't breathe...though by dose..."
"Oh..." She kissed the side of his mouth and face, sliding her hands up behind his head to keep him from pulling back any further. "Poor nose."
"Don't even think of touching it - it's loaded," he cautioned, grinning. As if to prove his point, his eyelids were twitching again. "Mnnnn," he groaned. He breathed deeply then, once, twice, and then swallowed hard. "Hate it when I can't." He sniffed in, producing a liquid sound. "I mighd be glad I can'd." He closed his eyes.
"Want to try blowing your nose again?" she whispered. He nodded, and she reached for more tissues, stretching one arm over. She managed to shake a fistful out, and then held them to his face. He opened his eyes and was about to take then, but she shook her head. "No. Just...you know." He frowned, but closed his eyes again and blew. Her one hand held his head still as the other held the tissues, and when he opened his eyes again he noticed with some surprise the intent absorption in her face as she wiped the dampness from the edges of his nostrils. It was a mixture of tenderness and affection.
"You...um..." He wasn't sure what he wanted to tell her, so he simply let his eyes meet hers.
"Want you?" she finished, with a grin. "Now that you can semi-breathe?" She rubbed one leg up and down his thigh. "Although we could pull the whole box of tissues into bed with us." She tossed the soggy tissue to the bedside table. "If needed?"
"I don't think...eh-hah...ETCHSHISH!" He sniffed. "God...once I can breathe, I can sneeze." She looked at him ironically, raising an eyebrow, and he realized, stuffy, sneezing or otherwise, she wanted him. Immediately if not sooner. He kissed her, and then bent his head down to whisper in her ear. "I might just be sneezing all over you...all night. What would you say to that?"
"I'd wonder what good deed I did in a past life to earn such luck," she sighed, spreading her legs wider to let him enter her. He groaned as he did, gently holding her and softly kissing her.
"A past life?"
"Can't think of too many good deeds I've done lately."
He pressed his body against hers with a will and brushed her hair back from her face. "I might be able to."
She smiled up at him. "Don't count my good deeds before they're hatched. I do everything from naked self-interest. Or an interest in getting myself na..." She was interrupted by Richard sneezing again.
"ESHHHH! ESSHHHHOOO!" He sniffed in, harshly. "Oh, god, excuse me."
"From what?" Sharon asked distractedly. Her thighs clenched against him as he continued sniffling. "Oh... bless you, sweetie." She pecked him on the lips. "You said it yourself - I get a lot out of helping a sick friend... mm... need a tissue again?"
"Dnnooo, I... uh..." he reached over for a fistful before his head dipped down, "HASSHHHOOO!" and then he clamped them over his face. "Damn," he muttered before quietly blowing.
She gently clasped her hand over the hand that held the tissues. "You aren't very comfortable, are you?"
He sighed. "No. I'm just...sniffly," he admitted, hoarsely, his words muffled by the tissues.
"And sneezy, and sick, and it's three-thirty in the morning." She looked at him. His face half-covered with tissues, his eyes nearly shut, his hair tousled, and his body flush on top of her own, she imagined he was, give-or-take, the most sexy thing she'd seen in some time. But there was just no getting around it, if he didn't feel well, she didn't want him more uncomfortable. She squeezed him in her arms. "And I'm tired myself. We don't have to."
He finished wiping his nose and lowered the tissues. "But I want..." he looked at her, torn. He wanted to, he didn't want to, and he felt tired. He kissed her. "I want a lot of things."
"How about sleeping with me, just like this?" she asked.
He considered it. Nestled on top of her, in her arms, between her thighs. "I want that, too."
And with that, he turned off the light, and they stayed like that until the clock radio went off in the morning.
"You have to go to work?" he whined. He knew perfectly well he was whining, but she seemed to like it.
"They like to see me there. That way, they know I'm not prowling the streets looking for victims. Sometimes they let me write things. It's not a bad life, Richard."
"I still need looking after," he said, petulantly. He attempted coughing, which sounded a little too good for Sharon's comfort. "They'd understand."
She regarded him, coolly. "Pathetic, baby. Unless you can come down with some twenty-four hour kidney failure or something, I don't think they're buying the 'I have to stay home and nurse my sick boyfriend' excuse. Besides, you should unpack your stuff while I go and pretend to edit things. Maybe they'll make me go to a concert and criticize that for a change. Maybe a Yanni concert. Maybe I'll get a clear shot this time."
"I understand. Modern civilization is counting on you," he responded, gravely. "God speed." He commenced coughing again, this time for real.
"You aren't really that bad?" she asked, with some concern.
"No... no... go to work. I'll be okay. I'll sleep."
"You better," she said, with mock-sternness. "Do you want me to stop anywhere - need anything?"
"Rose hips and grapefruit juice." She rolled her eyes. Vitamin C was not a miracle cure for the sniffles. And then his eyes widened. "I... need you to go in town. I mean... to the office."
"*Your * office, you mean?" she said, grinning. "I was wondering - you haven't called in sick."
"I'm on vacation." She raised an eyebrow. "Of course I get sick on my vacation-time. Who doesn't? But there's something there - I'm working on. It's a green accordion file locked in my desk...I should have taken it Friday, but I had a lot --- ETSHHH, sniff, on my mind... and..."
"Locked...you have a key?"
He told her where it was on his key ring, trusting her to know where his keys were (which she did). And then she was off, for, as she put it, "Fun, adventure, the joy of sharpening pencils, and pay, not necessarily in that order."
She could barely keep focused while tackling the day's major issues (namely - "Why don't men like pink drinks with umbrellas?" and "Where have all the good Mexican joints gone, long time passing?"). For that reason, she jumped at the opportunity to blow personal hours at the first mention of - "Could you be coming down with something?" She disregarded the fact that all she was coming down with was an itch to go poking through Richard's drawers (at work, of course) and another case of the cigarette jones. To commemorate the occasion of taking hours, she reached into her purse for the Marlboro Gold soft pack - her totem link to the bygone era when smoking was less ugly habit, and more bitchin' status symbol. She paused outside the building to draw out a magic cancer wand in the vicinity of the potted shrubs - which seemed to thrive on the butts and filters which constituted a kind of mulch for them, when she saw a figure approaching her.
"Sharon!" the figure enunciated. She groaned. It was Arthur Schweitzer. Grass. Pollen. Ragweed. Not to mention perfume and certain detergents. He had come into her life at a time of moral depravity. She never could be too certain whose, exactly. He left under the sway of her...swaying him out the door. Violence had been involved, on her part. Philandering on his. And yet they had gotten together on torrid occasions involving mutual acquaintances, mind-searing boredom, and lack of decent things on television. He was unfortunately good-looking, had money, and sneezed like a dream.
She considered lighting up, heedless of his approach, but caution stayed her hand. Instead, she offered a half-hearted wave and smiled. "Artie! Sweetie! How've you been?"
"I've been better. You aren't still smoking * those * are you?" She grit her teeth, recalling how he'd tried to help her quit.
"Occasionally. How's..." She racked her brain for the name of the woman she knew he'd most recently been seeing socially. A mutual acquaintance...whose apartment they'd once utilized in an episode that involved potpourri and far too much Riesling and fondue. There was the possibility of unpleasantness, but they'd never been found out - "Ingrid," she managed, remembering.
"She dumped me. I'm too high maintenance," he smiled. His eyes sparkled, a shade of dark gray that could technically be called hazel if they only stayed that color. As he was wearing a grayish-blue shirt - they seemed more that color. And she noticed a few silvery strands in his hair, which could only be described as golden-brown - the effect could only be described as dignified and dashing all at once. Which disturbed her no end, as he had no business aging well. But of course, he would. "She decided that I should...do my own thing and she would do hers." He fixed her with a serious look. "How have * you * been, Sharon?"
She ignored the question. "What brings you here?"
He blinked, partially from catching the way she ignored the question, and partially from little bits of wetness that appeared in the corners of his eyes. She recalled, regretfully, that at one time she had found that pricelessly adorable.
"I was thinking of you," he said simply. And it sounded very truthful. In fact, it had to be truthful, even if it was a statement characterizing only the last twenty minutes' duration, because he was standing in front of her.
"You remember what we had, don't you?"
"Sex," she answered, automatically. Lots of sex, she could have said. Early spring, outdoors, picnics in the park, secluded areas amid flowering trees, his runny nose and gentle sneezes tickling her neck. Summer, windows open on the weekends as the neighbors mowed their lawns, blissfully balling on the kitchen floor when the sound of his wet sternutations made her quite forget that she had started out to make ice for the margaritas. Early fall, the brisk, cool mornings when he'd simply begin sneezing his head off for reasons she never quite matched up to the pollen count, and she would find herself swept away, trembling like a leaf in his arms and eventually falling like one. And the damnedest thing was - he knew all about her fetish because she'd told him. With his constant allergic reactions, she'd have felt nothing but guilt if she hadn't let him know how much he was turning her on.
The drawback, of course, was that he * knew * how much he was turning her on.
"It was more than sex, Sharon... you always seemed to... understand me."
Oh, she understood, all right. She knew about his infatuation with his cars, his stocks, his investments. She knew about the parties where more than one woman would give him an icy stare or knowing look, and she would realize it could have only meant sex.
"I've always liked you, Arthur. We've always been able to be friends." Her eyes pleaded with him to stop, but he'd already come closer. His lips were very close to her ear.
"We were more than friends."
"I'm seeing someone right now. And I'm very happy." She said it firmly, and she hoped, convincingly.
"Really," she replied. And, because she needed to say it to * someone *, she added. "You remember Richard?"
His face went blank for an instant, and then he leered. "He can't give you what I do...I've noticed the trees are just starting to bud. We could go for a drive... out to Nockamixon, out by the lake. I haven't gotten my shots for the year... hell, you know they never really take, anyway. When the dogwood comes in, I'm helpless."
She couldn't let her eyes meet his, and instead she focused on his lips. They were full for a man's lips, generous, and she recalled how soft they were.
"You do get so bad early in the year. All of those fits."
"Constant sneezing. And we've had a lot of rain so far, so you know it'll be bad." His eyes looked resigned. "I know I'll hate it...but you always know what to do to make me feel better."
"I do, don't I?" She though, briefly, about how it could be. A picnic table under the dropping petals, the gentle, warm sun peeking in between the leaves. And his nose, seizing, full, and spraying. He was moving in again, lips against her neck, and face burying itself in her hair. He knew perfectly well what he was doing, and so did she. But she'd abandoned wearing White Shoulders some time ago. Roughly about the time she stopped seeing him.
"What do I have to do to convince you?"
"I'm sorry. I've known Richard forever. We're...good for each other." She pushed Arthur away, gently. "I don't think you can convince me."
His finger curled over his lip in thought, but then he rubbed under his nose. She knew, or thought she knew how sensitive his nose really was. But perhaps she was wrong.
"Are you sure I can't?" he asked, his voice changing as he'd found the right touch to apply to himself. He trembled, and then closed his eyes as the sneezes came over him. His mouth hung open, and he breathed, a soft, sneezy locomotion, before they bubbled out of him.
"Utchhhhsshhhh-huh... utchhhhsshhh-huh... sniff.... ustchhhshhhh... huh... oh, god. I could really start again any minute." He rubbed his nose some more as she stood there, mesmerized. Did noses have a G-spot, or something? If so, perhaps she'd been wasting her time learning about the fine art of tissue manipulation, or the better uses of household fragrances. She watched him, but came to her senses abruptly. This display was too staged. He was taking advantage of her sensitive area, and she had cause enough to resent it.
Barely thinking of it, she lifted the cigarette to her lips, and lighted, with only the slightest inkling of why he'd been at pains to make her quit. And, as the tip glowed orange and his eye opened in something akin to shock, she recalled why - although not allergenic in an of itself, tobacco smoke was a fine irritant to a nose like this exquisite creature's. With no further need for thought, she dragged in deeper, and blew.
The puff of smoke seemed to expand in slow motion as they both stood, watching it. The blue-gray (not unlike his eyes, for that matter) tendrils grasped his nostrils with smoky fury, and his eyelids twitched with violence. He had time for one utterance before he was stricken with a pitiful fit.
"Fuck... uttcccchhhhuuuhhh, huh-utcchhhssshuuuuhhooo... uh-shhhhhooooooo, utcchhhhhhooooooo," he gasped out great, elongated, wet sneezes, and fumbled for a handkerchief. The convulsions of his nose almost served to hypnotize her, awesome as they were, doubling his body almost in half by their force, but she held firm. Wielding the cancer stick like the powerful talisman it could be, she marched to her car, firmly attached to the notion of picking up the important papers for her sweet boyfriend. Who was home sick. And who, she found herself firmly convinced, she genuinely loved.
Richard realized his mother loved him thoroughly and only wanted the best for him. He found this premise to be the only satisfactory reason for why she drove him periodically stark raving insane.
"Sharon - I've never really trusted the girl. She seems...flighty."
He pondered the word. In its archaism, it became meaningless. If meaningless, it waited only for someone like his mother to imbue it with meaning. Her meaning appeared to be - "unlike your mother in every way." He was uncertain that this was a bad thing. In retrospect, it was actually a good thing.
"She's my friend. I know the two of you got off on the wrong foot."
"She said that I was uptight. I've never been uptight. What does she mean by uptight?"
"Mom," he grated. "She has an eye for...I don't want to have this discussion with...sniff...you. She dnowes be...huh...uh...." He cupped his hand over the phone before sneezing, harshly. "ETCCCHHHOOO!" He breathed in and out a few times to clear his head. "Sorry."
"We'll talk later. You make sure you get your rest - and rose hips and grapefruit juice. Or orange juice. Just get some vitamin C in you, okay?"
"Will I get to see you and Sharon?"
He thought about it. Invite her over to Sharon's? He didn't feel up to that. Or have Sharon over to his mother's? Hardly neutral territory, and he'd an inkling how Sharon might behave in the event of feeling truly uncomfortable. Badly.
"We'll have dinner. Sobeplace dice... huh.... ah..." he cupped the phone receiver again. "Hassshhhoooo."
"Okay. I'll talk to you later, Richie. Take care."
"Okay, mom, bye."
He grabbed some tissues and blew his nose. Sharon and his mother. His mother and Sharon. Shredder versus the Dragon Lady - not that he considered his mom to be a dragon lady, but Sharon once called her that in the infamous "But lawyers are evil and you're so good at pictures. You're a damn artist..." speech.
And Sharon was right and his mom was wrong, and that meant Sharon was wrong in every way imaginable, per Mater Terribilis... again, a Sharonism. It dawned on him that the woman called him "Richie." He sneezed again, and again, and then gave the tissues their due. Then, threw them in the trash can - only a lay-up, when he heard the doorbell ring.
The sound surprised him - who'd be visiting? Someone for Sharon? Maybe it was a package in the mail. He'd yet to interfere with her postal deliveries. He wondered about the usual things - her utility bills, and what part he'd be chipping in, although, when he gave it thought, he *did * believe he made a little more than her, not that he'd given it thought before, but it only stood to reason...and god, but pseudoephedrine was great stuff for racing thoughts and run-on sentences... he peered out the window set into the door, and found himself looking a bit down.
It was Ashley. He opened the door, somewhat surprised.
"Ashley? What are you doing here?"
Her voice was hoarse and froggy when it came. "I camb because you still had sombore stuff at my place. I think I've caud your code, Richard." She held out a paper bag filled with a few books and CD's, and she looked terrible. Her skin was pasty-white, and her eyes looked too-large, like pools of syrup poured into cream, and her nose was terribly red. He stared for a moment, and then, unthinking, invited her in.
He took the bag from her, before speaking. "I'm sorry about you catching my cold... um... you really look..."
"Terrible. And you can blame your friend... I'b going to blame her for beig a carrier... or sobethig." At this revelation, she put her small, delicate hand to her nose, and clenched her eyelids tight. The world stopped, waiting for Ashley to sneeze. She breathed in, "Hah...uh," and winced before proceeding into, "Issssccchhhhoooo, Iscchhoooooo, Ischhhoooooo." He also winced, never having noticed before how breathtaking he found sneezes to be. He had to blame Sharon for that one, as well.
"Bless you," he said, once he could manage speech. "I'm sorry you aren't feeling well. But I don't know that..." He couldn't finish the sentence. This was Sharon's house. He didn't feel entirely right having Ashley there, of all places.
"Do you realize? She's... I bean, Richard, really... why her?"
He stared, amazed. "What?"
"She's very buch... like..." Ashley licked her dry lips, thinking of the words to describe her adversary. "She's budge..."
"Well, yeah..." he admitted. She was that, in her aging-jock, drinking-pal, sports fanatic way. Oh, and in her occasional desiring women kind of way. He didn't feel the need to tell Ashley that Sharon probably found her sexually interesting. "But I love her, Ashley. And you and I really aren't..."
Ashley raised her hand to her nose again. "ISH! ISHHHH! ISSSHHHHOOO! ISSHHH! Snifff. Baybe I'b too sig righd dnow to seem attragtive to you... bud I thought we had sobethig good, Richard."
It took him a moment to decipher what she'd said. "Too sick right now to seem..." Hardly - she seemed quite attractive with her forceful sneezing!
"Look, Ashley, go home. Drink some tea, get a hot bath in...don't do this," he urged. He resisted the urge to touch her, and, crazily, pondered whether or not a fetish could be contagious. Although he hadn't quite noticed it before, she had a fairly lovely feminine sneeze. But she stood there, not reaching for a tissue, or doing anything but looking at him with deeply forlorn eyes.
"She's my friend, and has been for years. Yes, we were good buh-huh... Hutchooooo! Don't you see? You are too young... and I... belong to someone else. I belong with her..." He rubbed his nose, which itched terribly just from watching her sneezing. "I bean... not too young... but... for be anyway. I bean... not so young. Still gorgeous. Huh... sniff... huh.... huh... HESHHHOOOO!!!" He sighed. He hadn't meant to call her gorgeous.
"I thig she's cobing home..." Richard managed, his voice getting thick. He saw a red car pulling up onto the street. Within an instant, she was coming in the front door.
"Richard! Ashley. How are you?" she asked, warmly.
"Sig with a code," Ashley answered, stuffily.
"So sorry to hear that. Oh, you brought more of Richard's things. Thank you!"
"I should go... bye... Richard," she said, briefly. And then she was gone.
Sharon looked at Richard with a dazed expression. "I think she came just to see me."
"Oh really?" Richard asked.
"She loves me."
"She came to ask why I was with *you *."
"And?" Sharon asked, curious.
"Well, she's gorgeous... bud... you... sniff... uh. Uh.... HESHHHOOOOO!"
"Mmmmm. What about me?"
"You're funny. And ridiculous. And... beautiful."
Sharon beamed. "So are you. Damn it. We're eating out tonight."
"But I'm sick."
Sharon smiled. "I know a place that's just like home for me. Please?"
And he nodded. Her catching him with Ashley there made him feel irrationally guilty. Why not go to some restaurant - sneezy though he was?