This night had been months in the making. Alexander and Leo, two exquisitely gorgeous men by most people's standards, had been flirting on and off for ages. Leo, a confident free spirit, had been convinced until fairly recently that Alexander would forever stay in the closet, what with his career and his reputation. Alexander had known for a long time that Leo was on to him, but until recently, he'd thought his entire world would crumble if he dared to take the plunge and really assume his preferences. It had been Leo that had decided him, blond, beautiful Leo with his china blue eyes and his easy, seductive smile, so hard to refuse, so hard to resist. The speed with which the man could go from Lascivious Tease to Innocent Blond Angel never ceased to amaze Alexander.
They'd gotten to know each other, talked at length on a number of occasions, even had dinner a few times. Alexander had known for a long time that Leo was out to seduce him, but he'd always held back, trying in his own way to come to terms with his emotions. He'd had men before, a few meaningless flings that hadn't been much more than one-night stands, but Leo was of an entirely different breed. And tonight, strangely enough, events had come to a head and conspired to bring them together at last through the twisted manipulations of Charlotte Katz.
Barriers were being broken, exploding outwards. It was time for Alexander to stop being a coat hanger once and for all. He could stay buried deep in the closet forever if he chose to, but was it what he really wanted? He would be denying himself so much if he chose that route. And a big part of what he would be missing out on was standing right next to him, shivering, on his doorstep.
"I'm glad you decided to come back to mine," Alexander said, fumbling with his keys to try and find the one that would fit the lock to his front door.
"And I'm glad you're happy to have me here," Leo answered with a small hint of mischief.
Alexander gave him a look of mock exasperation. "As if I'm ever unhappy to have you around, sugar?"
Leo eyed him silently. For all his sincerity, Alexander's nervousness was apparent. The clumsy movements of his carefully manicured hands and the edgy looks he sometimes cast Leo when he thought the other wasn't looking betrayed him. For Alexander however, habit was stronger than emotion, for all that Leo could discern hints of diffidence, his veneer never really cracked. He remained in control, keeping Leo at a distance and treating him with the marked politeness a host owes a guest even in spite of the promises he'd been making earlier on that evening.
"I know," Leo said, suppressing an ill-timed urge to yawn. "Not that I'll be much fun tonight, I'm afraid..."
The night they'd just enjoyed together, along with some other friends, had been exciting and eventful to say the least. They'd drank, danced and flirted copiously, and everyone had been having a fantastic time until Leo had come upon the man his friend Theo had pulled, David, in the toilets at the end of the evening. He'd been shocked and disgusted to find David being spit roasted by two strangers even while hopeful Theo was waiting for him near the exit. Upon seeing this, Leo had backed away and reported to Theo that the man was simply gone, but the truth festered inside him. For once, he felt utterly sickened by the superficial and capricious nature of the queer scene. For all his apparent rigidity and complexities, Alexander was a decent bloke, and totally outside Canal's Street shallow reality. Leo knew he'd only come with them tonight to see him, and felt a surge of satisfaction. The very fact that Alexander was non-scene added to his already considerable appeal.
"Don't worry about it," Alexander showed him a triumphant flash of perfectly straight white teeth as he finally found the key to the door. "Besides, at three in the morning, I'm a bit knackered myself! I'm not as used to these crazy hours as you are, you know."
"Who do you think you're kidding? You're only four years older than I am, and I've a job too! It's nice to live a little on weekends, y'know."
Alexander wisely refrained from replying that working in a nursery amongst flowers did not qualify as a job in his eyes, knowing this would only spark an argument he and Leo had had many times before.
"Like I don't usually live on weekends, Leo. You do realize there is a whole world outside of Canal Street, don't you? But I have to admit tonight was great, even though I'm dead tired. Must be those four extra years. Still, it's not like you look all that bright eyed and bushy tailed either right now."
"I'm just knackered," Leo said, his eyes darting away.
For once, Alexander allowed his insecurities to shine through. "Is it because you don't want to stay the night with me?"
At this, Leo had to smile. Alexander was a silly rabbit indeed if he believed in what he'd just asked! To tell the truth, though Leo was very much excited at the thought that Alexander and he might finally connect, he was feeling downright lousy. Added to the emotional turmoil brought on by the conclusion to their night clubbing was the nasty cold he'd been experiencing, and said cold seemed to be getting worse by the hour.
"'Course I do, you twat," he answered in a playful tone that took the sting out of his words, "Like I'd even be here right now if I didn't. It's just that I... I just... I..."
Leo paused as if searching for words, feeling the tickle at the back of his nose that had been present all night suddenly come to life again. For a fleeting moment, Leo thought it might go away and let him be, but he quickly revised his opinion. It was swiftly inflating, teasing him mercilessly. He brought a hand up to his nose and gave it a vigorous rub, but it really didn't help, and he had no choice but to give in.
"Haesshoo!... Sorry. I'm not just tired, it's this cold, it's rea-... really... ruh-hesshooo!... getting me down," he finished, looking away.
Leo sniffed heavily, cursing the sensitive, finely shaped nose that had been plaguing him from the very start of the evening. He hated having to sneeze in front of Alexander, calm, composed Alexander who seemed to always be so in control. If Alexander was steadfast and gathered, Leo was a creature of whimsical emotion, unapologetic yet at times vaguely self-conscious. Tonight was one of those times; Leo felt like the outcome of this night would determine what was going to be between Alexander and himself. There was no way he could let his nose ruin things for them, not now, not after all this time.
"I know how you feel," Alexander drew one large hand admiringly down Leo's well muscled ack in a smooth stroking motion. "Let's get inside, and I'll take care of you."
"Okay dad," Leo replied, tongue in cheek, as they stepped inside. Alexander was only slightly older than he was, and Leo really didn't want him acting paternal.
"Don't give me that, you're ill, not your fault. Just make yourself at home, I'll go..."
Alexander's voice tapered off as he made his way into his bedroom, leaving Leo alone in the lounge for a moment whilst he went to remove his blazer and tie. Looking around, Leo admired the finely decorated room, very masculine, a touch too perfect to belong to a straight bloke. All in shades of deep blue and off white, the room was tastefully furnished with dark wooden shelves and tables, a few classic paintings by artists whom Leo, knowing Alexander's liking for art, took to be rising stars. Two heavy sofas were lined up against one wall, facing a gigantic television set, and plants and elegant ornaments were stylishly scattered across the room in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
"Nice flat," Leo called in Alexander's general direction.
Hearing no answer, he sighed softly and made his way to one of the sofas. Finding the remote control poised on one corner of the low table in front of him, he used it to turn on the television, keeping the sound on mute. He stared distractedly at the screen where a late night movie rerun was showing on Sky One, rubbing gently at his nose and wondering what tonight was going to turn into. As he was doing this, a tickling feeling rose up in the back of his nasal passages so subtly that it took a few moments for him to notice it.
Damn it, not again, Leo thought as his breath began to hitch. Then, he realised that in a sense, luck was on his side. If he could get rid of the impending sneeze while Alexander was still out of the room, so much the better. He sat unmoving, slightly hunched forward, looking like a flesh and blood version of Rodin's The Thinker, and willed the sneeze to come out. Leo felt the tickle teasing him, seeming to move from one side to the other, expanding and receding as his gorgeous nostrils flared and his blue eyes half-shut expectantly.
"Oh come on," he whispered, breathing shallowly, trying to make the tickle grow into a full-blown sneeze.
He remained poised on the edge of a sneeze for a few moments, his features slack, eyes closed as his nostrils flared wider and wider. The urge grew and grew, expanding torturously until Leo wondered if the inside of his nose would dissolve from the moist intensity of it. His brow was creased in concentration and he was totally unaware of Alexander's return until he felt the man's warm hand brush his shoulder.
Leo jumped, looking up. This break in his Zen-like trance seemed to trip a switch inside his nose, for immediately, the sneeze that had previously refused to come out suddenly attacked with a vengeance, forcing it's way out of his tired nose with such force that Alexander actually took a step backwards.
So much for not sneezing in front of Alexander! Even though it was embarrassing, the sneeze felt absolutely fantastic, and Leo sighed in relief to have it over with at long last. Opening his eyes, he saw a few droplets of spray hanging before him and immediately swatted at them, cheeks reddening. Bloody cold...
"Sorry 'bout that, I just needed to sneeze."
"No problem," Alexander replied mildly, looking closely at Leo. "Are you sure you're all right darling? You're looking a bit pale."
That was a polite understatement. Leo's normally vibrant complexion was waxy, and his normally sparkling blue eyes were looking only tired and glazed, surrounded by shadows. He gave a weak sounding cough before replying.
"I've felt better, "Leo began, his tone betraying the awkwardness he suddenly felt. "Look, I know this will sound ungrateful, but maybe I'd better just go home. I'm sure you don't want to spend the whole night listening to me cough and sneeze. You're probably expecting more, but I'm really shattered, not feeling too well, and I could use some rest, I just... reeah-...really need to huh... Hehsshoo!"
That sneeze quite aptly summed up the essence of Leo's discomfort. He was feeling ill and miserable, and only wanted to be left to suffer through this terrible cold in peace, without feeling like he was being observed or like his weaknesses were being weighed. Leaving had occurred to him as an option not because he wanted to run from the other man - nothing could be further from the truth -, but because it was the clearest way to salvage his pride. His flatmate Clara would think nothing of his sniffles and sneezes; her own would probably dwarf them! Though on second thought, going home alone meant going out into the cold night air again... And leaving gorgeous, tender, caring Alexander... What should he do?
His inclinations were vacillating between one option and the other until finally, Leo thought perhaps he'd done wrong to mention going home at all. Would Alexander really let him go?
Seeing Leo like this made Alexander grow soft. For all his outward hardness, he thought the world of the fine boned blond man sitting in front of him, and at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to scoop him up in his arms and hold him. As if to counterbalance this uncharacteristic tenderness that threatened to overwhelm him, Alexander mustered his best stern, not-to-be-contradicted expression.
"There's no way I'm letting you out of here at this hour, feeling like you do. For God's sake Leo, if you could just see yourself! Come on, let's get you out of those clothes, into a hot shower and then on to a warm bed."
Alexander hesitated for a moment, a smile playing on his lips as he tried to decide whether suggesting his own bed instead of the one in the guestroom would be too forward at this point. Sod it, he thought, realizing that he could probably do whatever he felt like doing; Leo seemed to be in no state to offer much protest.
"I'll bring an extra quilt into the bedroom and turn up the heating, and then we can both get a good night's sleep," he continued, proud of himself for so neatly solving the bedroom dilemma.
"All right, you win. Thank you," Leo said rather tonelessly, looking as if he were struggling with another sneeze. "I'm really sorry I'm such a mess, I swear, it's not-... HASSHOO!... *sniff* it's not-"
"Stop it," Alexander cut him off, his tone laced with affection. "Come on, let's go."
He leaned next to Leo, helping him up. The latter murmured thanks, doing his best to hide the twinge of exasperation he felt at having Alexander attempt to mother him. It was out of character, and part of what Leo admired in Alexander was his independent demeanour and debonair strength. To have him taking care of him like a nursemaid - or, worse, like his mother - made Leo uncomfortable, as much because it dissolved some of his illusions regarding Alexander as because it played up his own temporary weakness. He didn't want Alexander to view him as a sick little boy, or indeed any kind of little boy. Though he might have less money and a less imposing physique, Leo was just as much capable of being the man in charge as Alexander was.
Then, a rueful smile came to replace the burgeoning scowl on Leo's face when he realised how silly he was being. So Alexander wanted to take care of him right now, so what? He was ill, and he was feeling weak. One night wouldn't sum up a whole relationship, if indeed a relationship officially developed. If Alexander wanted to pamper him, so be it, Leo reflected. In truth, he was feeling rotten enough to need a bit of taking care of, and his flatmate Clara's absence, there could hardly be a better substitute than this caring, sexy raven-haired businessman.
"Alexander, quit it! I'm fine, really!" Leo just couldn't help bursting out laughing at his partner's antics.
Said laughter promptly degenerated in a coughing fit that doubled Leo over for a moment before he could properly catch his breath. Then, he inhaled deeply, and lay back on the mountain of pillows he was propped up against. Alexander had really gone all out: he'd provided Leo with a steaming cup of Lemsip, set up a radiator safely close to his side of the bed, helped him undress and shower, supplied the extra quilt as promised, fluffed his pillows and now, the man was returning from the bathroom with a jar of Vicks VapoRub. This over-the-top display of attention charmed and amused Leo in equal proportions, as did the caring and worried look on Alexander's handsome face. His eyes were serious, a troubled glint flaring up in their chestnut depths, and his gorgeous lips were pressed tightly together in a straight, thin line.
"Well, you are looking better," Alexander informed him staunchly, looking vaguely ridiculous as he stood there, clad only in navy pyjama bottoms, hands on his hips like a patient nanny, "but a bit of this can't hurt."
"Not Vicks, please!" Leo said, a touch petulantly, the picture of a sick child. "My mum used to always rub that on my chest every time I had a cold when I was younger. Said it helped coughing and congestion, but it made me sneeze like crazy."
Alexander smiled slyly, and to Leo, that smile looked vaguely dangerous. There was no question as to which of the two men was in charge here, and the one in power would definitely make use of his authority.
"But did it help congestion and coughing?"
"Yeah," Leo admitted grudgingly, suddenly breaking out in an irrepressible and irresistible naughty boy grin.
Alexander smiled back, and approached him with the VapoRub. God he loved Leo when he was like this! It was that smile, that sexy, seductive, slightly wicked grin that made him look like an angel about to play a prank. Alexander just wanted to reach out, ruffle his hair and pull Leo to him when he smiled like that, and on this occasion, he had the luxury of doing so.
"You are so gorgeous," he said softly,
Alexander pressed his nose into his companion's still shower-damp hair, breathing in the scent of him. Leo smelled like the soap that had replaced the smoke-and-pub smell of their night out, but underneath it was his own particular aroma. For some reason, it always made Alexander smile, reminding him of sunshine and summer, of lazy sexy days, of brilliant skies and laughter. If the theories about pheromones and individual scents being responsible for human physical attraction were true, then Alexander knew he'd found his match in Leo.
He was still lost his scent-induced reverie when Leo surprised him by jerking violently next to him, propelled forward by the force of a loud, irrepressible sneeze that exploded like a cherry bomb in the room's cosy silence.
"Bless you. Right, so let's get some Vicks on that sexy chest of yours."
Leo groaned, but pushed down the covers obligingly, revealing smooth, unbroken golden skin that wasn't furred in the least.
"Is that natural?" Alexander inquired with a grin as he uncapped the jar he held.
"Yeah," Leo laughed, "I'd never wax. Ouch!"
"Hmmm," Alexander remained sceptical, but still retained his smile. The man look great, so he wasn't complaining.
His deft fingers promptly dipped into the jar's mentholated, vaguely greasy mixture and scooped some of it out.
"It's a good thing my nose is totally stuffed; I hate the smell of that!"
"It'll do you a world of good," Alexander replied knowingly.
"It'll make me sneeze," Leo replied.
"And you'll be able to breathe after. Funny how earlier you were telling me I acted like an old man. Now who's being a brat?"
Leo laughed, and then coughed. Alexander put down the jar as Leo's fit tapered off, and used his Vick's free hand to get the box of tissues on the night table nearer to Leo.
"Might need those, just in case," he said warmly.
"Good idea. Right then, lay it on me," Leo adopted a martyred saint stance, all languid limbs and pitiful upturned eyes, indicating Alexander's handful of Vicks. His display of pathos was broken when unexpectedly, the ointment's potent vapours reached from Alexander's hand and into his nose, forcing Leo to turn asides with an unexpected "Hah-esshh!"
Leo looked back towards Alexander and smiled sheepishly. "Told you."
"Not a problem," Alexander replied, his coral lips stretching into an easy smile.
Alexander had always thought there was something uniquely appealing about a man sneezing. It was the strength of it, the raw, uncontrolled release of power that burst through whether or not it was timely. For some reason, Alexander always loved seeing a man in a position of authority, someone strong and in control, bent over double by a forceful sneeze. Those explosive, irrepressible sneezes got the better of even the strongest, most iron-willed men, and made them vulnerable for a moment. Leo wasn't that hard, in reality, and wasn't afraid to be himself and show whatever emotion he happened to be feeling at any particular moment, but there was still something charming about the way he sneezed, about how he seemed to not quite want to, but still have to submit. Did Vicks VapoRub really make him sneeze his head off?
Time to find out.
Leo gasped as Alexander's small handful of cold VapoRub came in contact with his feverishly warm skin, and the latter observed in wonder as tiny goose bumps appeared on Leo's golden chest.
"Cold!" Leo yelped.
"Shhh. It'll warm up. Just sit there and breathe, hon."
Leo was about to sarcastically reply that doing this could prove difficult due to his current state of congestion, but then thought the better of it. Alexander was trying his hardest to be nice to him; the least he could do was comply and be grateful. The Vicks made him nervous though. Leo hadn't been lying; it had been years since he'd last used the stuff, but he still remembered how it had triggered off spectacular fits of sneezing within his sensitive nose as a child, which even his mother had found impressive, if rather disquieting. The thought of experiencing something like that in front of Alexander was making him more than just a little bit uneasy.
Just like earlier, he didn't like the thought of totally losing control in front of Alexander. Also, sneezing out copious amounts of cold-induced fluids just wasn't sexy, period, but especially not in front of a man you were hoping to start a relationship with. For a moment, Leo was completely boggled by the idea that he was in this situation at all. At the very start of the evening, he'd not had any sort of relationship going with Alexander, and now... They were in bed together, the two of them clad only in pyjama bottoms, and he was getting his chest rubbed down with Vicks? They looked like a married couple, and they weren't even definitely dating yet! Leo was so amazed, and pleased, that he almost burst out laughing.
His train of thought was cut off, however, by the fast acting vapours that were drifting upwards from his chest. Alexander's strong, skilled fingers were still massaging the ointment into his skin, longer and with more tenderness than was strictly necessary. Leo could feel the menthol and eucalyptus haze rising up into his nostrils, and he visualised them as curled tendrils craftily weaving their way into his nose and down into his lungs. Leo could practically feel his passages expanding and relaxing because of the soothing action, yet even as he felt his congestion beginning to break up, he felt a tickle rise in the back of his nose.
He lay completely still and tried to concentrate on Alexander's hand's circular motions. The VapoRub vapours, however, weren't letting him be. With every circle of Alexander's palm, more of it seemed to get into his nose, feeding the slowly expanding urge to sneeze like a slowly spreading fire. Leo tried holding his breath for a little bit, but doing that actually intensified the itch. He sniffed heavily and decided it was time to blow his nose. Perhaps that would do the trick!
"Sorry, can I just...?" Leo grabbed a tissue with his right hand and drew it to his face.
"It's working, isn't it?" Alexander asked, smiling with a hint of pride.
"Yeah, it... Huh... Heatchoo!... it is."
A sneeze had escaped him, and in order to prevent more from following, Leo promptly gave his nose a good, long blow. He was amazed and frankly embarrassed at the amount of congestion the ointment had actually cleared. Still, he darted a glance at Alexander and, reading no disapproval there, decided that he might as well finish what he'd started. By the time he was done clearing his nose, Leo had used up three tissues.
"Ugh. That was sexy, wasn't it?"
"Don't worry about it babe. It just means the stuff is working, right?"
"Right," Leo said glumly, wishing his first night in Alexander's home could have been of a different nature.
"Then just keep breathing for a while longer. We can go to bed after, if you like."
Had Alexander been reading his thoughts, or was that last sentence only a double-entendre in his own mind? Leo smiled wanly and breathed in deeply, following Alexander's advice. His congestion was now mostly broken up, and he could breathe with relative ease. It felt wonderful, but at the same time, it allowed more of the menthol and eucalyptus vapours to reach the tender membranes inside his nose. As he kept breathing, Leo realised that the urge to sneeze was coming back and fast.
His inhalations began to get irregular, and against his will, his eyes became heavy lidded. Leo tried to fight it, but it very quickly became overwhelming. Alexander couldn't help but notice something was afoot and observed his partner, fascinated. The look on his face was unmistakable, a tense expression of increasingly intense agony just barely held at bay. He watched Leo's upper lip struggle fiercely not to curl upward even as his eyes became slits, and his delicately formed nostrils flared wildly. His breathing was very shallow as he valiantly struggled to fight the urge down.
It wasn't an easy battle. The tickling in the back of his nose now brought back memories of some of his worse childhood colds, where the Vicks had teased him into paroxysms of sneezing. Leo felt the current tickle grow and grow, until it finally reached proportions so monstrous that it seemed to dwarf those childhood memories of sneezing fits past. The all-encompassing itch crept around, seemingly extending to the very back of his head, teasing him mercilessly, weaving its way back and forth until he thought he was going to go insane. His lips parted and before he could stop it, he gave a few gasps, face contorting dramatically, sounding increasingly desperate.
"Alexander, I'm... Huh... I'm really gonna-... Huh-Hah-huh... gonna sn-heeeeh... Huuuhhh... Haah-uhhhh..."
"It's okay," Alexander murmured, "you can sneeze babe."
Was there a hint of desire in his statement? Leo didn't require permission. In fact, even had it been forbidden, he still couldn't have stopped the upcoming onslaught. Even though he was still reticent at the idea of completely losing control in front of Alexander, he didn't have much of a choice in the matter. The best thing to have done would have been to refuse the Vicks rub point blank, and it was much, much too late for that.
His inhalations grew louder, progressing to almost staccato exclamations as Leo prepared to give in and sneeze. He was so wound up at this point that all he could do was make a mad grab for the tissues and prepare for the inevitable.
And then, after what seemed like an eternity of agonised waiting, the tickling crystallised into a sharp point in the back of his nose, all the vapours he'd been inhaling seeming to coalesce into a single spot where they exploded like a supernova, forcing Leo to launch into a sneezing fit the likes of which he'd never experience both in length and in volume.
"Huh!... Huh-uhhh!... Heh!... Heh-he-heh!... HEATCHOOO!... Hah... HAH-TCHOOO! HAATCHOO!... HEATCHAAA.... HEATCHAAA.... HEETCHOO!... HATCHEAAA!... Oh... Huh-huh-HUTCHOOO!..."
Even as he struggled to keep the tissue in front of his desperately seizing nose, visible spray was discharged in the air in front of him as Leo's well-muscled body pitched forward again and again with violent, unstoppable, sneezes, that grew increasingly louder and more desperate.
"HEATCHH!... HAATSHOO!... Hah-HURCSHOO!... Heh-HEATCHOO!... HEATCHHH!... HEAHTCHOO!... Huh-HESSHOO!..."
Alexander watched transfixed. He'd never seen anything like Leo's losing battle in his life and just could not tear himself away. He didn't quite know what to do except keep on staring, though for some inexplicable reason, he felt the urge to reach out and touch the convulsing man. He didn't quite dare, however, and merely sat next to Leo as the latter's head snapped forward involuntarily with every massive sneeze.
"HEATSHOO!... HEAHTSHOO!... HAATSHOO!... Ah-HAATSHOO!... ATSHHOO!... HEATCHH!... Heh-HEATCHH!... Huh... Huh-SHOO!... Huh... Cshoo!... Huh-uh... Uh... Hhhh...."
As Leo's cathartic attack was winding down, Alexander snapped out of his trance and at last reached out. He placed a gentle hand on the other's arm and stroked it, even as he reached with the other for the tissue box. Grabbing two, he brought them to Leo's nose and held them there.
"Blow," he said, gently.
Leo did as he was told. At the moment, he was breathing heavily, feeling so exhausted he was worried about passing out. He didn't have the strength to refuse Alexander's attentions and, even though he hated to admit it, he was grateful to have someone taking care of him. Even if that someone was a man he'd been trying to seduce for months and was desperate to impress.
"Thanks," Leo whispered when he was done.
"Welcome. Now wait here for just a minute," Alexander told him, sliding off the bed and getting to his feet.
Like I'm in any shape to go anywhere, even if I wanted to, Leo thought wryly. He closed his eyes and reclined against the pillows, sighing deeply. When Alexander returned, he was already drifting off to sleep. He drew a sharp breath and winced when something hot and wet came in contact with his skin.
"After having seen what that stuff does to you darling, I thought it might be best not to leave it there all night," Alexander's deep, honeyed voice sounded close to his ear.
The moist warmth turned out to be a washcloth, which Alexander used to lovingly wash away the VapoRub. Leo smiled gratefully, and extended a languid hand to grasp the other's wrist.
"You know, I..." he paused suddenly, not sure how he wanted to end his sentence.
You know I'm glad you're taking care of me? You know I'm grateful, but you don't have to do this? You know I'm glad things between us are working out? You know, I hope you don't think I'm the world's biggest twat? You know, it might sound stupid but I sort of love you? So many possibilities, all of them true... Just thinking about it all, Leo felt more tired than ever.
"What?" Alexander asked, smiling softly.
"Nothing. I just wanted to say thanks."
"Pleasure, babe," Alexander said, sensing he'd missed something. He leaned down to kiss the top of Leo's golden head, running fingers through his partner's sunny locks, once again breathing in the summery scent of him.
He finished his cleansing and then went to put the washcloth back in the bathroom. When he returned, Leo was already sleeping, his face smooth, relaxed and innocent enough to kiss. Alexander couldn't resist; he crawled in right next to him, enfolded him in his strong arms and lightly kissed Leo's warm, parted lips before turning off the lights.
Alexander felt the sleeping Leo's limbs reaching out for him as he cuddled up to sleep next to him, and the profound joy he felt surprised him with its intensity. He felt at once incredibly happy to have the other here with him at last, and very foolish for having wasted so much time. How would things turn out between them? Alexander was still contemplating a myriad of possibilities when sleep enfolded him in its starry velvet folds.
It was late in the afternoon when Alexander returned from the city centre, his arms filled with bags from Martin the newsagent, Boots the chemist and Blockbuster's videos.
"Okay, I rented Wilde and 200 Cigarettes, I wasn't sure what you'd..."
Alexander stopped in the doorway of the living room when he saw how deeply the other was sleeping, and then when he heard Leo breathing, a deep vertical crease of concern appeared between Alexander's dark, impeccably groomed eyebrows. Although he was propped on a heap of cushions like a sick young prince, Leo's cold had obviously settled in his chest, and his breathing sounded as though it was coming from underwater. Alexander put his bags down and watched Leo sleeping, his head resting on his arm, snuffling into the pillows like a little boy.
Alexander sat on the couch next to him and smoothed back Leo's loose, damp blonde hair from his face, which was smoothed out with deep sleep, making him look naked and vulnerable. He was breathing thickly, half-snoring through his stuffy nose, his eyelids were stained a delicate purple and his nostrils looked red and sore. The navy blue velvet embroidered cushions which supported his strongly muscled, but somehow fragile-looking body, and the screwed-up wads of tissue surrounding him, were pungent with the thick scents of menthol eucalyptus, peppermint and wintergreen. Alexander could even smell his lover's fever- a sour, fiery kind of heat- as he leaned over and kissed him gently on the overheated, tightly drawn skin of his forehead, so fine and pale it seemed to lace over the blue veins at his temples. Leo's eyes blinked open, and he focused on Alexander through a blur of drowsiness.
"Hi," he whispered hoarsely. "Sorry. Can't believe I nodded off there. Seems like I've done nothing but sleep since I got here last night, eh?"
He gave a deep, wet cough and tried to sit up straight, which he did with an intense, feverish concentration. Leo was wearing a white T-shirt and a pair of Alexander's black pyjama trousers. He looked somehow younger, the size of his fever-bulging eyes emphasised by the darkness surrounding them.
"How are you feeling? Any better?"
Leo gave him a sleepy smile. "A little." His face, which had been regaining its colour earlier that day, had a pallor about it which Alexander didn't like.
"You've really got a temperature."
"I know. It's down from earlier, though. I thought I was just going to burn up, but I felt a little better after a nap..."
"You should relax, then. Just cuddle down and go back to sleep. How about some tea first, though?"
Leo smiled. His throat was raw, ticklish and dry, and he was desperate for something hot to drink. "Could you?... Cheers."
He nestled back down into the cushions, feeling the fragile sleep of the fevered lap at him like waves of hot dark water. But something wouldn't let him sleep again. He let out a harsh, frustrated sigh, too tired to raise his head from the cushions, when he realised that he was feeling the threatening beginnings of a particularly powerful sneeze unfolding.
Unlike the night before, Leo hadn't really been sneezing all that much since he'd first awakened, around midday. The cold seemed to have migrated from his irritated nose down into his chest where it lay in wait, periodically coaxing him into a dangerous sounding coughing fit. So far, he'd just been feeling drowsy and sluggish, but Leo got the feeling that he was about to make up for that now as a strong, irritating tickle filled his nose.
He lay there, kept in the dusky limbo between awake and asleep by the maddening itchy feeling that played ever-so-gently with the insides of his inflamed nose. He desperately didn't want to start sneezing again, especially not after that horrendous scene from last night with the Vick's. Just thinking about that made Leo shiver, as much from his fever as from embarrassment. He blushed at the very thought of ever sneezing again in front of Alexander, who always seemed so composed, so perfect...so he decided to try and get it out before the other returned from the kitchen.
Taking deep breaths in through his nose seemed to bring the tickle a tiny bit closer to a sneeze, but just as he was hovering on the verge Alexander came back with the peppermint tea. Leo sighed, exhausted, sat up again and struggled to stay awake, now fighting to hold back the urge to put a finger under his nose in an attempt to suppress the ever-so-slowly growing urge to sneeze. Not just a regular, surprised-sounding sneeze, but one of the agonisingly tickly sneezing fits that he only ever got in the height of summer, and which exhausted him with their volcanic force.
"Anything else I can get you?" Alexander asked.
Blearily, Leo looked at him through watery eyes as he sipped his tea, feeling sure that he was about to sneeze and wishing that Alexander would leave. "Oh, no. Thanks. I don't want you going to any more trouble, honey."
"Sure?" Alexander gently, tentatively, stroked Leo's cheek. "How about some aspirin for that fever? I was just in Boots, and I got a bunch of meds for you."
Leo shook his head as he laid his cup of tea on the book he'd been vainly trying to read, sniffling in an attempt to suppress the sneeze, although it intensified the tickle by about a thousand instead. The persistent tickle made his finely formed nostrils quiver, making them expand until, to the carefully observant Alexander, they seemed reach the size of two pence coins.
Even though he felt the sneeze rushing up into his nose, Leo still tried valiantly to scramble out the sentence he'd been thinking of. "To be honest, this makes me- it makes me-" he choked, and then gave up, "sorry, I'm going to-heahchhh!"
Leo's hand rushed up to his nose, trying to contain a prodigious amount of spray. In the summer when he had attacks of hay fever his sneezes were usually quick and quite light with the help of antihistamine, but whenever he had a cold, his sneezes dismayed him, they were so very wet and messy. God, that was a relief, Leo thought- for a second. The remnants of mucus in his not-quite-cleared nose triggered another irresistible urge to sneeze as soon as he tried to get his breath back.
He looked up and saw Alexander mutely holding out a fresh box of tissues, but couldn't speak, knowing he wasn't quite finished- although he did try to warn Alexander, holding up one hand while the other was held under his furiously protesting, twitching nose. Leo's nostrils expanded widely and his upper lip curled up a tiny bit towards his nose, distorting his handsome face into a mask of intense discomfort.
"I'm... gon- ... gonna-..." His eyes creased up totally and he gasped out, "sne... snee... sneezeagainnaahhhSSSHHHOO!!!"
He moaned theatrically, picked a tissue from the box and wiped his nose, wanting to give it a powerful blow instead, but feeling too shy for no valid reason.
"As I was saying, it makes me a little...uncomfortable."
"Bless you," Alexander said, starting to unpack his shopping bags. "How's the tea?"
He swallowed. "Lovely, thanks. What have you got there? More tissues?"
"Well, you've sneezed your way through a whole box already, and if you're going to be here a while, I thought I'd better get enough for tomorrow..."
Leo looked down at his hands as Alexander left some lozenges and cough syrup on the table by the couch, next to the tissues, so that Leo could reach them if he happened to get a tickle in his throat.
"You warm enough?" he asked. "It's a bit chilly in here."
"I'm fine." Leo was still looking down at his hands.
"What is it?"
"I'm not used to being looked after," Leo said frankly. "Alexander, stop worrying. You're so nice to care about me, but-" he paused, the expression on his face switching from involved to distant as he felt an ominous twinge somewhere in the very back of his left nostril. Leo sniffed as his nose began to drip, feeling the itch deepen dramatically into a burning sensation. His lips pursed slightly and his eyebrows drew down, giving him the look of somebody concentrating very hard on a problem.
Reaching quickly for a tissue, Alexander, transfixed, watched Leo's face transform into a typical, classic I'm-going-to-sneeze expression. Wrinkles appeared in the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezed tightly shut and he let out a heavy, wet, laboured-sounding "Haiiihhh-SHOOO!" which seemed to shake his whole body in a light spasm.
"Uhhh," he exhaled shortly and sharply, rubbing a wrist under his nose.
Alexander handed him a tissue, dark eyes full of an unaccustomed concern, while Leo tried to press on with his argument, dabbing gently at his tender, reddened nose with the corner of a Kleenex.
"It's really just a cold, and you'll be damned lucky if I've not given it to you to you yet. What I'm trying to say is, thanks a lot for caring for me and all, but I'll go home if you want. I'm pretty bad company, and I don't know how Clara feels about me leaving her-"
"Didn't she say she'd call her sister to look after her?" Alexander was suddenly filled with a raw sense of worry. He wanted Leo here, wanted to look after him for at least another night. This wasn't like him at all. Considering that, he was even more worried.
Leo fixed cynical china-blue eyes on Alexander. "Alex, I presume you know Clara. I've been living with her for two years. You've met her on a number of occasions. You don't think she actually did that?"
Alexander knew he couldn't argue. Leo and Clara were inseparable.
"I'm sure Alice or Maggie would have come over before now. And even if they haven't, maybe she does want some time on her own. You know how Clara is."
"No one wants to be on their own when they're ill. She needs looking after."
Alexander stroked the back of Leo's neck soothingly, not quite managing to suppress a cynical smile. "And you don't, sugar?"
"Well, maybe Clara and I can count each other's sneezes or something. Speaking of which, I'm gonna-"
His whole body was trembling as he focused on the burning pressure in his nose. Alexander, desperate to comfort him somehow, moved his hand up from Leo's neck to his hair, marvelling again at it's finesse, a natural shade of spun gold blonde that would have made Rapunzel's eyes shine. He watched his solid, olive-tan hand move through Leo's thick hair as Leo inhaled shakily several times, on the verge of a tremendous sneeze. His entire face seemed to droop, jaw going slack as his mouth opened a little, and his well defined eyebrows joined in the centre of his forehead, arching upwards. His head moved up a little in preparation, and then jerked forward as he let out an enormous "HAESHHOOOO!" reminiscent of the ones that had doubled him over the night before.
He miserably rubbed his runny nose with a tissue, feeling and looking pathetic, not to mention excruciatingly shy about letting his nose get the best of him in front of Alexander yet again. "I should be going," he said hoarsely. The sneezes were scraping his throat raw.
Feeling far more hurt than he knew he should have, Alexander walked over to the window. "Well, if you really want to, I'll call you a cab. Why should I take care of you, if you don't even enjoy it?"
"Oh, I do, but... it makes me feel so ungrateful..." Leo's faintly marked eyebrows raised violently, then came back down, giving his usually composed face a look of helpless discomfort. His eyes turned to slits- opened a little- then squeezed tightly shut again as his head slowly, uncontrollably raised up from the pillows. Almost immediately, his head drew down again- he clapped a hand to his mouth, but a visible spray still jetted from his nostrils as he sneezed,
"HahahSSHOO!...excuse me...just thinking how nice this all is. And yesterday when you... I'm just not sure I-I-"
His eyes closed and his expression changed to one of pained acceptance as the remains of the itch in his nose rapidly blossomed into a sneeze, giving him just enough time to snuffle,
"I- I'm going to sneeze!" Then he raised his head, "Hahhh-AHH-" and immediately jerked it down again with a huge, "HAHISHSHOO!"
God, that one felt so good! As soon as that final, wrenching sneeze was out of him, Leo relaxed- his nose was no longer quite so tickly, and he felt almost as though the urge had passed completely.
He sniffed, and took a deep breath, waiting. When he was finally sure that he could speak without another sneeze exploding from him he looked up at Alexander with dazed, damp eyes. "Sorry. My nose is just so tickly! What I was trying to say was," he said finally, holding a finger under his nose as a precaution, "that this must be a real inconvenience. Believe me, I'm old enough to know what a one-night-stand is. I don't usually move in on the couch the day after."
Alexander didn't know whether to grin or grimace- his mouth became a tight, determined line. When he finally spoke, it was with more than a trace of anger. "You thought it was a one-night-stand?"
Leo shrugged, wondering how badly he had put his foot in his mouth. Still, he felt he had a right to express his doubts. "I'd rather it wasn't. But I know what's going on here."
"You're not giving me much evidence of that," Alexander said dryly.
"Aren't I? It seems like we've been playing a game forever, you and me. You'll never come out, Alexander, and I can't play that game, pretending to be someone's 'girlfriend' hidden away in a closet. You should know by now that I'm not like that. I've heard about those flings you've had, the others, how it always turned out..."
Alexander clasped his hand to his forehead. "I am going to kill Charlotte Katz!"
Leo laughed. "Forget about it. It's OK."
"No it isn't." Alexander summoned up all the reserves of courage he had. Gently, he knelt behind the arm of the couch where his friend rested, put his hand between Leo's shoulder blades and stroked his broad, dance-muscled back. "Please, Leo. Stay here."
Leo sniffed, looking down at his hands. "Why?"
"Because I didn't spend the whole of last year trying to get you in here, just to kick you out the next day! I might be four years older than you, but I've realized you didn't take as long as I did to grow up in a number of ways. I've changed Leo... I'd really hoped you'd noticed."
Leo grinned, the same irresistible, wicked, sunshine smile that never failed to make Alexander's heart skip a beat. "I know. For months I've been trying to seduce you, Alexander Edwards, and you have to wait till I'm dying." He struck a Camille pose, then settled back on his cushions, swabbing his sore nose with a wringing-wet tissue. "God, I can hardly breathe. I feel absolutely dreadful."
"Oh, I know." Alexander gently laid a hand on his hair, rubbing its softness between his fingers. "But you're not dying, you little drama queen." Leo responded to the delicious touch of the man's long fingers, his head leaning back slightly and his eyes closing in pleasure.
"Just don't get the VapoRub out..." Leo sighed lazily. Had he been a cat, his purr would have been deafening right at that moment.
"Leo," Alexander said softly, and then he was silent for a long time.
"What?" his new lover asked sleepily.
"I'm not going to say the L word."
"Good," Leo said, yawning, allowing his eyes to close.
Alexander stroked his forehead. "But I think... I think I probably will."