Unspoken Invitation'

Sneezy Kitten

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Natalie slunk quietly into the tavern, hoping her presence was unnoticed. Her skirts seemed heavy-laden with some liquid of sorts. Her staff glowed faintly, though not enough to attract attention. Her abundant ebony curls were tamed this evening, pulled back into a bun on the back of her head, though a few wayward tendrils had escaped to frame her pale face. Her eyes were dark, and the tip of her nose was pink, whether from the cold or from a good cry, it was hard to tell. She moved along the wall, an almost tangible cloud of paranoia surrounding her, then took a seat at the bar. Justin's presence registered in her mind and she looked over to him, first noticing his slightly disheveled appearance, then the fresh tear and wet-looking blood on his leg.

Justin nodded to Natalie, and gestured to the seat next to him, his eyes carefully and imperceptibly moving over her. He had so much practice in discreetly looking at people that she likely did not even notice his trying to gauge whether she was all right. He made no attempt to hide his puzzlement at her wet clothing. Then he offered a warm smile, seemingly heedless of his wound as he sipped his water. "Evening, Natalie."

She rose gingerly, her movements cautious merely because she was sore. She sat herself next to Justin, taking her staff with her and resting it in her lap. Natalie did not want it to be too far away from her, lest she need it. Her eyes flickered with something akin to platonic affection for him, then the dullness returned, covering her expression with a mask of silence. When she spoke, her words sounded strange and foreign. "Merry meet," she replied, her fingers idly stroking the wood of her staff and her voice slightly stuffy. A tiny black spider crawled up the leg of the stool and onto her lap, resting near her fingers, but she made no move to shoo it away.

Realizing that it was likely a touchy subject, Justin had a feeling that his instincts were right on this. He felt a bubble of anger build up inside him, which he quickly suppressed as he knew this had bothered her before. Attempting to think of something to say that wouldn't seem insinuating, he took another long sip of his water, feeling the coolness of the liquid put the final touches on quelling the almost burning rage. His lips curved up into a smile, unsure, but welcoming nonetheless as he hoped that she did not get offended by his words. "How are you tonight?" he asked.

Somehow knowing the question was coming, Natalie realized that he had taken special care in prepping his words so that they would not come across as upsetting or derogatory. Watching him as he sipped his water, she felt a sudden thirst and waved her free hand, a tall glass appearing on the bar top. It contained a strange bluish liquid and she seemed almost surprised at its contents, as though she had requested or expected something else. Taking the glass in her hand, she brought it to her slightly reddened nose and sniffed it experimentally, then took a small sip. She seemed to find it, if not tasty, at least tolerable, and opted to answer Justin's question truthfully.

"Wet," she answered dryly. 

As if to emphasize this, Natalie set her glass down on the bar top, moved her other hand to entice the spider's exit, and picked up a fold of her skirt. She rested her staff against the edge of the bar and used her other hand to squeeze a bit of water from the fabric of her dress, the drops falling to the floor with a soft plopping sound that could not be heard over the din of chatter from the other inhabitants. Then, she rested her hands in her lap and met Justin's gaze, her face expressionless. The spider, now on the floor, scurried into a crack in the wall and disappeared out of sight, and the blue liquid in her glass changed to a faintly greenish color and acquired a somewhat heavy scent reminiscent of poison.

Justin blinked a few times at the chimerical drink, his nose catching the odor of the greenish colored drink and wrinkling at it . He looked to Natalie, and tilted his head at her, deciding to take a slight risk. He knew that if he was right, then he would feel terrible for saying anything. Then again, perhaps it was better to get the discomfort out of the way. "So what happened to your clothes?"

She looked down at her hands, subconsciously twisting the silver Goddess ring on her left pinky finger, completely ignoring the liquid in the glass. She noted that somehow it was changing colors and scents, but she didn't have the energy to perform an Inquiry spell. Trying to diffuse the awkwardness with a bit of humor, she tilted her head upwards to meet his eyes. "Would you believe me if I told you I went swimming?" she asked, managing a small but genuine smile.

He smirked and gave a soft laugh and a nod. "Actually, I would," he replied. He noted that she seemed tired and made no attempt to hide his puzzlement. "So, what've you been up to today?" he inquired, mentally cursing himself for the potential offense that might be taken from that simple, seemingly harmless comment.  Running a hand through his tousled brown locks, he sighed even as he tried to smile, and waited for her response.

Choosing to answer his question, Natalie looked at the glass before speaking. "Playing Ophelia," she answered quietly. Then, she took her glass in one hand and eyed it. The liquid was still a greenish color and she sniffed it cautiously before taking a few sips. Her nose began to tickle with the beginnings of a sneeze but she quickly suppressed the feeling and concentrated instead on the liquid on the glass. Smears of paint seemed to slur in her vision and she bit down hard on her lip to clear her thoughts. Replacing the glass on the bar top, she nodded, as if to emphasise her previous statement.

Justin blinked at Natalie's response a few times before commenting. "I... see...." 

It became apparent that he had no idea what she meant, and worry began to creep back into his eyes. Natalie pondered her options. She could explain herself and risk his wrath, she could say nothing and let him ask, or she could tell him it meant something else. Thi last involved telling what would be an apparent lie, and would only aggravate him more. Sighing softly, she tapped the rim of the glass and smiled a bit as the liquid changed to a deep, dark crimson color, and acquired a heavy scent not unlike blood.

Raising his glass of water to his lips, he sipped silently, his chocolate-colored eyes scanning hers before setting his drink down and lowering his voice to a quiet, almost uncannily understanding whisper. "If you would rather not say, just tell me as much; I won't push you." 

Natalie shivered at the tone of his voice, reaching for the glass and taking a sip, not bothering to smell it. The bloodwyne slid down her throat reassuringly, though she half loved and half hated its peculiar taste. She pondered the intimacy in his voice and nodded. "It is only an expression. Do you not know of Ophelia?" she asked, rather surprised.  Using one slender hand to rub at her nose, she sniffled a few times, the sound rather wet and soft, as though a strong tickle plagued her nostrils.

Justin laughed slightly, worrying that he had completely misjudged the situation, having been worried that her former lover, Casen, had raped her again.  After his suicide and subsequent return through the Dark Arts, Casen constantly stalked Natalie, trying to use her body for his own pleasure as a punishment for withholding sex while they were together.  Justin seemed to relax slightly as he released he had been utterly paranoid and hopefully wrong, and shook his head slightly. "No, no.  I never have."

Natalie enjoyed the sound of his laughter, feeling as though it had been too long since she had shared the company of one who laughed so well and so often. Though he did not seem especially happy, and though the laugh seemed almost forced and rather mirthless, it was a laugh, and she felt slightly better upon hearing it. "Ophelia is a character in one of Shakespeare's plays. She slips into insanity after her former lover murders her father. She is locked up, but she steals the key and goes out to the lake, ostensibly to swim, but ends up drowning. It's not classified as suicide because she is a high borne lady, but...." Here she trailed off and let the sentence hang, then took another sip of her drink.

His eyes widened as he realized just what was being insinuated, and he could not help but wonder just how much of that related to her own life. He didn't dare ask, however; he didn't want to pry. "I... see.... Can I ask why? I mean...." Justin sighed softly, then continued. "I don't want to seem like I'm being rude, but..." he trailed off, and though he was doing an admirable job of controlling his anger, a hint of understandable irritation showed through the confused tone of his voice. "I can't understand why anyone would want to drown themselves."

Natalie laughed quietly but mirthlessly as well. "No, no. Not drowning myself. Swimming. I told you," she insisted, her voice almost a sing-song. "He saw me, and I thought I'd go for a swim in the river to escape him. Granted, the thought of staying in the river was very tempting, but it's not my style. I have not managed to escape the unjust wrath of the Hierarchy just to do their dirty work for them by ending my life. I have too much to live for," she admitted, her words a revelation even to herself. Drinking the last of her bloodwyne, Natalie rubbed her nose and set her glass back on the bar top, sniffling a bit. A few quick breaths escaped her parted lips before she sneezed wetly into the crook of her arm. "Iiih-ishhoo! Heh-tishho!"

Justin smiled, an actual warm, pleasant, and truly heartfelt smile as she spoke. "You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that," he answered, walking around the bar to obtain a box of tissues and extending it to Natalie. He bit his lip slightly, his smile faltering for a moment before he lowered his voice again, almost ashamed at having the gall to ask the question which played on his lips. "Did... he get to you again? Or did you manage to escape?"

Blinking softly, she rubbed her nose once more before accepting the box of tissues, taking one and bringing it to her nose, wiping gently, then setting it in her lap. After a few wet-sounding sniffles, she shivered a bit, her dress still soaked and her skin almost clammy by this point. Realizing that he had asked her a question, she shook her head a bit to clear it, then decided this could be taken for an answer, and so gave him a verbal response. "Not in that way," she confided, her voice a whisper. "Casen slapped me around a bit, but I managed to escape to the riverside." The band that held her hair in place seemed to slip, and the darkness of her ebony tresses came tumbling down around her shoulders like a waterfall of onyx.

He nodded slightly and put the two images together: a cold, and wet clothes. Mentally scolding himself for not paying attention, he let his attention be distracted for a moment by the falling hair, before turning his eyes back to meet Natalie's. "Well... do you not have something a little less wet to wear? Being sick can't be very fun for Goddesses. I know that I, as a human, don't enjoy being sick all that much." He gave a slight smirk at the last comment, as though it amused him for some unexplained reason.

She sniffled a bit, forgetting the nearby tissues and rubbing her nose with the back of her wrist. A tickle built, but she ignored it, concentrating on Justin's words. "I don't have a change of clothes with me. Maybe *sniff* there are clothes here, perhaps? I'm not very savvy in the ways of humans. And I've never had a cold before," she added, still sniffling intermittently. Her eyes closed ever so slightly and she took another few quick breaths, before turning to her side to sneeze, the sound wet and full. "Iiih, ihh... ihh-isshho! Hekisshoo! Ooh, *sniff* I'b sorry." She now sounded rather stuffy, and looked pitiful with her hair falling into her face from the force of the sneezes and her eyes red-rimmed.

Justin smiled softly. "Bless you, Natalie." He gave a light, half-felt laugh. "As for the clothes, that would be a problem. If there were clothes here, they'd be upstairs, in the rooms. And unfortunately I don't have a single coin of the local currency. The odds of me being able to book a room are rather poor." His thoughts wandered off, trying to think of some way to either obtain a change of clothes for Natalie, or obtain access to the rooms legally to try to find something suitable.

She tried to think this through, but her head was becoming increasingly heavier, almost in direct correlation with the increasing stuffiness of her nose. She slid a hand along her skirt until she found a small slit, then dipped her fingers into the pocket, pulling out a few gold coins. "Dee Hiarkey egwibbed be wid eduff buhdey do cubblede by bisshun here, beforr digs... wed wrog...." She hoped he understood the majority of her words, but realized that the coins would help to explain. There were more in that pocket, and several more in other pockets as well. It would be enough to get a room, she knew that much. Feeling very dizzy, she reached out to hand him the coins, then turned to the side and coughed weakly, her head spinning.

He nodded, and surprisingly understood every word she said... surprisingly for her, at least, as he knew he could hear through just about any accent - including sniffle. He hesitated to take the coins, before realizing that this was for her benefit, not his own, and she looked like she'd need the bed anyway. He took the coins and hurriedly obtained a set of room keys. She felt him take the coins from her hands and shivered as he disappeared. A series of coughs left her momentarily immobile, but she managed to recover just as he returned. 

It took Justin nothing more than a quick glance was all that was required to realize that Natalie was not going to be able to walk straight, if at all, and he made a quick decision. Throwing his gear onto his back again, he included the stick he always carried in the sheath of sorts on his back before standing and offering Natalie a hand. "Let's get you somewhere warmer, shall we?"

His words pierced through her foggy state and she tried to decipher them. Warmth. That sounded nice. She placed her hand in his, rising somewhat unsteadily and sniffling some, before pulling her hand away to rub her nose. A few short, wet sneezes overcame her and she tried as best as she could to stifle them against the fabric of her sleeve. "Iiihh... ihh-kisshh! Heh-isshho! Shoo! Hup-tisshho!" Almost losing her balance, she teetered there, reaching out for his hand but unable to find it.

Justin slipped the keys into his pocket as he took her hand, forcing his own to be steady despite the nervousness that he always felt when touching someone else. Carefully, he guided Natalie up the stairs, to room four as was labeled on the large tag hanging off the ring. He paused occasionally, when he thought that she was preparing to sneeze, taking extra care to ensure she didn't lose her balance. Entering the room, it appeared to be nothing particularly special: a large bed, with white sheets; a dresser; a bathroom. Comfortable, but not overly luxurious, fairly well chosen considering he had no idea how much money she had. "First things first," he murmured, leading her to the dresser. He looked away once there but still supported her. "Dry clothes."

Natalie leaned against the dresser for support, realizing what it was after a few moments and blinking in a futile attempt to clear her head. Opening drawers randomly, she found a cotton nightshift and a few undergarments. Certain that he was too much of a gentleman to watch her, she began to undress, her fingers fumbling as she tried to reach behind her and undo the buttons that ran from the back of her neck all the way to her waist. The task seemed hopeless and she paused to sneeze, not bothering to cover her mouth. "Ihh-isshooo! He-kisshh! Esshh!"

Looking away, Justin was close enough that his shoulder could be grabbed onto for support if needed. He was feeling extremely uncomfortable but hiding it expertly. He cringed slightly at the sound of her sneezes, feeling sorry for her predicament. "You okay, Natalie? That sounds pretty bad." His voice didn’t give away his discomfort, though if being close to anyone made him uncomfortable, the thought of being close to someone who was changing was... well, suffice it to say that it took all of his considerable willpower to not show how he was feeling.

Natalie shivered from the chill of being wet and from the effects of her burgeoning cold. She knew she looked and sounded pathetic, but she could not stop herself. "I cad ged da buddods ud-dud," she whined, her nose still incredibly stuffy. She punctuated this sentence with a few wet sniffles, then sneezed unexpectedly, the sound simultaneously  soft and harsh: "Heh-kisshh! Uh... ihhh... ishhsheeww! Hup-tishhoo!" Pausing to sniffle again, her eyes were now very watery from the continued sneezes, and the shapes in the room were a blur. She again realized how pitiful she sounded but was too exhausted to make an effort to control it.

Justin nodded slightly, still feeling sorry for her, and for a moment entertained thoughts of blow-drying her clothes in an attempt to avoid a situation that would make him uncomfortable. He had no idea what exactly she wore, nor how many layers. And above that, he was painfully aware that the layer of clothes closest to the skin was the one that would chill her most - for her to be this badly off, Natalie's clothing must have been soaked through. His hands shook slightly, but because his back was to her she didn't notice. 

His voice, however, trembled audibly. He thought he would sound like a complete macho man for offering, but he didn't care, not where a friend's health was concerned: "I could..." he began, suppressing a shudder that ran down his spine, "help, if you want."

She could not see his trembling but knew that he abhorred physical contact and already felt miserable for causing him to have to touch her by helping her up the stairs to the room. A rising guilty feeling crept over her and she hoped he was not too upset with her. The tone of his voice did nothing to allay her fears, as she realized he was most likely shuddering with disgust. However, she could not refuse his offer of help as she could barely see, let alone reach back and undo the twenty or thirty buttons that reached from the nape of her neck all the way down to her waist. Damn those stupid dresses, she thought to herself. Sniffling thickly, she managed a slight nod, then accompanies it by a plaintive request. "Blees?" Shivers wracked her body and she suppressed the urge to sneeze yet again, not wanting him to catch her cold. He had already mentioned how much he hated being sick, and she would never forgive herself if she brought him misery. Though she supposed just touching her was making him miserable enough.

He gave a slight grin as he moved behind her, and a slight laugh to match it. Quickly, and with hands that were carefully controlled to minimize the shaking, he undid the first few buttons. As those were open, he used his left hand to keep the back of her dress closed, using his right to undo the buttons one-handedly... something that he did remarkably well, considering the evident tremor. "You must have as impressive an immune system as I do if this is your first ever cold." The trembling nervousness in his voice lessened, though was not completely alleviated as he glanced down at the partially open-buttoned back of her clothing.

Natalie sniffled and rubbed her nose with the back of her wrist, suddenly remembering the Kleenexes and wishing she had some with her. His touch was not trembling, and would actually be rather enjoyable if she did not know that the contact was making him absolutely miserable. Reaching one hand back to hold her the opening closed, she sniffled once more. "I dig ids begus I'b disdragded by so bady oder digs," she managed through the stuffiness, thinking about Casen and the Hierarchy and her own struggles against herself. Yes, she had been very distracted as of late, and had not spent the proper amount of time in meditation to prevent just this sort of occurrence. "Dag yu," she added.

Smiling warmly, he nodded his head, moving again to where he could be used to stabilize herself should she feel the need, but again had his back to her so as to be proper. His nervousness had indeed died down, suppressed enough now that he might even be able to bring it completely under control... maybe... soon. "Any time," he replied. His voice, almost completely free of shaking, carried the same warm tone, rich with truthfulness.

She seeped up the warmth from his voice and knew that he was not merely saying it as others would, but that he truly meant it. She shivered again, not from the chill or from her head cold, but from the realization that he actually cared. Knowing he had turned around, even though her vision was still somewhat obscured by her watery eyes, she released the opening of her dress and slid it down her body, letting it fall to the floor in a wet pile of fabric. She did likewise with her underclothes, then quickly dressed herself in the warm things before the cold air of the room chilled her even more. Once she had done this, she bent down and gathered her wet things up in her arms. Then she stood there, somewhat uncertainly, before a series of wet sneezes took her over: "Heh-isshhoo! Hepchoo! Hekisshh! Ishhh!"

Justin reached over and grabbed the box of tissues off of the nightstand, holding it down and behind himself as he was still not entirely sure what state of dress (or undress, as the case may be) Natalie was in. He certainly didn't wish to find out in a potentially embarrassing manner.  He managed to locate her general position from the sound of the sneezes, and offered her the box of tissues. "You going to be ok?"

She blinked back the wateriness and saw the faint outline of the box. She took it from him.  “Dag yu,” she said through her sniffles, holding the box in one hand and taking several tissues from it with her other.  “Ib clohd dow,” she explained, letting him know that he could turn around without fear.  Bringing the tissues to her nose, she rubbed fiercely and sniffled more, the wet clothes still draped over her arm.  She spotted an empty chair and arranged the clothes on it, spreading them out so they would dry faster.  Setting the box of Kleenex on the nearby dresser, she sighed almost imperceptibly and felt a wave of weakness wash over her before three wet sneezes escaped from her soft lips.  “Ihhh… ihhtishhoo! Huptishhh! Heh… heh-issshhoo!” she sneezed, too exhausted to bother covering her mouth though a part of her knew she was spraying her germs around.

Justin murmured a blessing to her, then gave a soft sigh. He wrapped an arm around her waist and led her to the bed, gently forcing her to sit. He wanted to ensure that if all else failed, she would not fall to the floor if she blacked out.  His arm supported Natalie just enough to allow her to lay down unhindered, but Justin was ready to catch her should she fall.  Surprisingly, any nervousness had either been consciously suppressed or was gone.  With a warm smile, he used his other hand to pull back the sheets before gesturing.  “It's warmer in the bed... better for colds.”

Hearing his sigh, Natalie felt awful for inconveniencing him like this, knowing that he was probably very upset at having to touch her.  On the verge of tears for causing him so much discomfort, she blinked and laid down, a chill creeping over her body as she sniffled repeatedly, finally causing her sinuses to become unblocked.  “I’m sorry,” she began, her voice quavering.  “I didn’t… I mean… I know you don’t… It’s just that….”  She was unable to finish any of the sentences and could only lay there, feeling like a horrible person for doing this to him.  The tickle continued to irritate her cute nose and she rubbed two fingers across the tip in a valiant attempt to quell the sneezy feeling.

He smiled and pulled the soft, heavy (and therefore warm) covers over her.  “It’s all right, really.  Don’t worry about it.”  For once, despite the closeness, his voice actually had a confident tone to it, reassuring and pleasant.  “You’re right, I don’t feel particularly comfortable being close to people, but that doesn’t mean a thing.  You’re sick, and you need to lie down.  That’s all that matters.  You don’t honestly think that I could dislike someone for needing help, do you?”  He tilted his head slightly, his eyes quietly questioning.

Natalie sighed and snuggled under the covers, allowing a single teardrop to slip from her eye.  She noted the tone of his voice and took comfort in it, still not entirely sure that she had not just damaged him or upset him greatly.  “I’m fine,” she insisted.  “You don’t have to stay here and deal with me,” she added. Every fiber of her being wanted him to stay, but she knew he would want to leave, to get away from the germs, but especially to get away from the closeness.  “I’m not that sick,” she continued weakly, though she immediately contradicted herself by coughing a bit.

He raised an eyebrow and sat on the edge of the bed, his compassionate blue eyes meeting hers easily.  “Of course you aren’t.  If you were, you wouldn’t have made it up here, nor been able to stand long enough to change.”  He gave a soft laugh and shook his head.  “On the other hand, you aren’t exactly well.  You might have made it up here, but you didn’t look to be having an easy time of it.  As for me staying here or not… well, that’s entirely up to you.  If you feel you need to sleep, I’ll go.  I wouldn’t want to keep you up.  But I wouldn’t mind staying, if you prefer it.”

Sighing, she looked up at him, almost losing herself in the warmth of his gaze.  Her head still felt very foggy and achy, and her nose was red and now chapped for the use of the tissues.  “I’m not that sleepy, but you can go if you want.  I wouldn’t want you to stay around me very long; you might get sick, and then I’d feel even worse.”  Snuggling a bit more under the covers, she felt a few strands of hair fall across her cheek but was too weak to move a hand from the covers to tuck them back behind her ear.  Her eyes searched his before she looked away, sniffling, then sighed again.

He laughed.  “Don’t worry about me getting sick.  My immune system is almost impenetrable.  I get sick maybe once every year, if that… usually once every two.  And unlike you, I’m only human… sorta… kinda….”  He trailed off, unsure of what he was, then shook his head to rid himself of stray thoughts.  “At any rate, my well-being has little if anything to do with you being sick.  If I were to get sick soon, it would be because I’ve been sleeping outside in the wilderness for the last two weeks with a hammock and a wool blanket.”

She sniffled a bit more and nodded quietly.  “Okay then.  You won’t get sick.  Still, though, you shouldn’t be sleeping outside with only a wool blanket.”  Weakly dragging her hand out from under the covers, she tucked the strands of hair behind her ear and shivered a bit, then thought about his words and decided not to ask about the human issue. It might be a touchy one, and was certainly not her favorite topic, either.

Justin shrugged and gave a confident smile.  “I’ve made it this far without problem.”  He shifted his weight and felt the wound on his leg crack slightly. He winced in response.  “Well, mostly.  I’ve yet to find anything I couldn’t handle.  The cold really is the least of my problems right now.  It’s been over a month now, and I still haven’t found any answers as to what in the blue hell is happening to me, or why, or who’s behind it.”  He trailed off again as a sneezy look crossed her expression.  Natalie brought both hands to her face and cupped them over her nose and mouth before sneezing wetly into them.  “Ehh… ihh-tisshhh!  Heh, ehhh… ehhkisshhoo! Shooo!  Ep-tishhh!”

“Bless you, Natalie,” Justin whispered, bending down to kiss her forehead with his warm lips.  “I wish I could stay and take care of you, but unfortunately, I've got to leave.  The wolves will be getting up and I'd rather not fight with them for territory.”  He smirked softly at his poor attempt at humor and ran his fingers through the mop of hair on his head.

Wincing at his comment about the wolves, Natalie sighed softly.  “All right, then, Justin.  Please, take care.”  She immediately wished she could retract those words, not wanting to sound like a badgering mother or someone who was trying to be controlling.  Hoping he took them for what they were, words of friendship because she cared, she slipped back under the covers and extended one hand to touch his, risking the physical contact because she wanted to show him that she did actually care. 

Justin smirked softly, and took her hand for a moment, meeting her eyes with his.  “You too.  I'll be back to check on you tomorrow… you'd better be better by then,” he teased, then gave one last smile, before exiting the room quietly.

*          *            *

Justin entered the tavern slowly and awkwardly, his weight leaning heavily on the four-foot long stick he always held. The effort of carrying his rucksack and his bundle of sticks on his back showed quite plainly on his face as he moved over to the couch near the fireplace. He wasted no time in dropping his gear on the floor and collapsing loudly onto the cushions, his forehead gleaming with sweat and his cheeks flushed. He seemed to be breathing louder, with more difficulty, his eyes barely able to stay open as he lay on his back and attempted to make the room stop spinning.

Descending the stairway from the hallway that housed the rooms, Natalie rested her fingertips on the rail and sniffled wetly, still recovering from her cold though she had already checked out of the bedroom.  Her mass of curls was now braided in a single plait down the center of her back, obscuring the two dozen buttons of her dress. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but they had a determined look in them, as though she was not a victim but a survivor. The folds of her skirts swished almost noiselessly as she made her way further in, scanning the inhabitants for anyone she might know. Her eyes fell upon Justin and she bit down on her lower lip, a wave of concern washing over her. Afraid he had passed out or was in some sort of serious danger, she approached the couch and knelt on the floor beside him.

He breathed slowly, heavily, as he turned his head from his horizontal position to look at Natalie, though his eyes made it seem as though he was not really seeing anything, but simply staring off into the distance. His voice was slow, and sounded immensely controlled, the harsher tones being somewhat slurred.  “Hey, Natalie,” he whispered, managing a weak smile, though he obviously looked far from happy as he tried simply to keep conscious.  “Told you I'd come see you today.”  Oddly enough, the way his carefully controlled words formed “m's” made them sound more like “b's,” through his somewhat wet sounding breathing. This close, she could see that almost his entire face was flushed, particularly his nose. Raising himself slightly, he moved his head quickly to avoid hitting her with his loud, hacking cough.

Bending over his form, Natalie’s face was etched with worry.  Lowering her voice to just barely above a whisper, she placed one hand on his forehead to feel for his temperature, before speaking.  “Justin,” she murmured quietly, noticing that he was hot to the touch and his nose seemed rather irritated.  Realizing instantly what had happened, she winced and shook her head softly, bringing a hand to rub at her tickly nose. “I’m so, so sorry.  I thought you said…” she trailed off, deciding not to remind him of his insistence that he did not get sick.  “How long have you been feeling badly?” she asked, her voice laced with genuine concern and her dark eyes flickering with a sort of motherly attention which she promptly tried to hide.

He shook his head, trying not to let Natalie feel his burning hot skin.  “I'b ok,” he began, giving up the attempt to control his voice, as it took enough effort to simply breathe.  “I'b been worse. I'f known I bas gedding sick for a couble days now.  You're right; it's doo cold oudside.”  Again, he gave that weak smile, before bursting into coughs that sounded like they were tearing flesh from his throat with each one, muffled by the arm of the same sweatshirt he was wearing the day before.

Natalie listened to him quietly and removed her hand from his burning forehead, knowing he abhorred her touch. Hearing the change in his voice from a controlled normalcy to a stuffy wet-sound, she felt another wave of guilt wash over her body. If only she had told him to go away, if only she had not gotten so near to him, not allowed him to help her. She mentally cursed her weakness and rubbed a hand across her nose, still feeling a bit ill, herself, though nothing like how he seemed.  “No, you’re not okay,” she contradicted him, then paused.  “Even if you… yuh…. Ehh…. Ehh-isshooo!  Hep-tisshhoo!  Ihh… ihhkisshh!” she began, then interrupted herself with three soft but wet sneezes into the crook of her arm.  “Even if you have been worse, you sound bad enough now, and I knew it was too cold there,” she finished, her tone firm but gentle, as she listened to the wetness of his breathing with a sigh.

He blinked back the tears that came to his eyes from the loud, dry, hacking before closing them entirely. He was still overly irritated by the odd coldness in the room, despite the fact that he was sweating profusely.  “Don'd feel bad; you didn'd do abything wrong,” he insisted, shivering slightly, before leaning his weight onto one arm to rummage through his bag in search of his blanket, though his eyes were still mostly closed.

Somehow seeming to sense his intent, Natalie shook her head slightly. “I do feel bad,” she insisted. “I never meant to get you sick.” Her voice trembled a bit, but she willed herself to stay strong. Crying would not help anything, nor would it make him feel better. “You don’t look good at all,” she continued, knowing she was being less than tactful, but also knowing that he would most likely not care. Reaching into his bag and finding his blanket for him, she held it, pondering quietly. “You need to rest somewhere, and here is definitely not the place,” she observed, using the tip of her index finger to massage her tickly nose.

Justin frowned slightly, his face wrinkling up for a moment as he held his breath, body quieting and keeping motionless for a few seconds as he seemed to suppress something. He then opened his eyes and took the blanket carefully, trying to wrap it tightly around him but barely managing to drape it over himself before collapsing again.  “I'b ok. You didn'd get me sick, I bromise,” he maintained, giving her a slight scowl, though, at the mention of going somewhere else.  Again, he tried to rise and failed.  “I'b ok here, really. I jusd need to lay dowb for a day or so.”

She watched him silently for a moment, wondering if the suppression was a sneeze or perhaps another series of those awful-sounding coughs.  Secretly hoping it was the former rather than the latter, Natalie bit down on her lip and forced herself to pay mattention to the present.  Feeling him take the blanket from her, she placed one hand on her hip and shook her head as he tried unsuccessfully to cover himself. “No.” Her voice was ever firm, though still slightly stuffy, a testament to her lingering cold. “You are not okay. You are sick, and it is my fault. I already feel bad enough for exposing you to this dreadful cold,” she began, pausing to sniffle discretely. “I would never forgive myself if I didn’t help you the way you helped me,” she continued, again placing a hand on his forehead in the hope that he had cooled down.

Shaking his head, Justin did not try to get up this time before speaking, his nasal voice sounding almost demanding, though it was out of habit and not for an actual reason.  “Doh! I'b… I'b ok, and you did't gib me dis cold, Dadalie. I habn't been eating broberly, I'b been sleebing outside for weeks, and I'b been fighting and gedding hurt lots,” he explained, sniffling slightly, quietly, before rubbing a bit of runniness from his nose.  He again went to work on draping the blanket, this time managing to get it over his body, though not as tightly as he would prefer.

She moved back just a fraction at the tone of his voice, though it was not quite so upsetting as it might be had the sniffles and stuffiness not softened the insistence. Doing a bit of sniffling herself, she decided he was probably right about the conditions leading to his cold. “You shouldn’t have been sleeping outside like that,” she began, then sighed and dropped it, knowing that it was too late now, and it was not her job to berate him.  Not everyone had a place to sleep, she remembered guiltily, suddenly recalling her prep class before her mission here on earth as a Goddess, First Class. “Regardless,” she continued, rubbing at her nose, “You need to rest, and here is not the place.” She eyed the other inhabitants of the tavern somewhat uncertainly, then slipped a hand in her pocket to finger the abundance of gold coins that she had still not used for this mission.

Justin frowned again at the sound of coins being moved and shook his head vehemently.  “No, you don'd hab to spend boney on me. I dold you, I'll be fine,” he croaked, trying to laugh slightly, but failing.  He shuddered and suppressed something again, more visibly this time. His nose twitched slightly though, and he closed his eyes, looking like he was drifting off to sleep, though it was more like blacking out. 

Again shaking her head at his words, Natalie spoke softly but firmly. “You’re not fine, and you won’t be fine unless you get somewhere warmer and better for you,” she asserted, eyeing him quietly as he shuddered slightly. She wondered if he was suppressing the harsh coughs that seemed to plague him earlier; they did sound rather painful. A voice in her head suggested that the shudders might be stifled sneezes and the thought was almost enough to elicit a moan, though she quickly brought her attention back to the present.  Rather alarmed as Justin closed his eyes, she began to speak once more. “No, no. Don’t slip away. I’m going to get a room.” Walking towards the bar even as she finished her sentence, she conferred with the tender quietly and returned quickly with a room key. “Justin?” she asked almost rhetorically.

He sighed quietly, having temporarily fought off the void of his mind.  “I told you, I'b fine here.”  While he continually tried to convince Natalie of this, it seemed more and more like he was trying to convince himself instead.  His body took on an almost constant shiver, the sweat on his forehead forming into beads and sitting there, his hair damp and messy.  “So cold. By do dey keep it so cold in here?” he murmured.  Despite his obvious chill, he was still burning up, having not dropped a single degree from earlier.

Natalie bit down on her lower lip, both to hold back a soft moan from the endearing tone and stuffiness of Justin’s voice and from a strong concern for his well-being.  Knowing she would regret it, she decided to be insistent. “No, you’re not fine here,” she contradicted him, easing one hand between the couch and his back and guiding him into a sitting position. “Justin, you need some care. You… yuh… ihh… ittishhooo!  Ehh… eh-kisshhh! Eshhooo!  Huptcheeww! You know you would do the same for me; in fact, you did the same for me yesterday,” she reminded him, gathering up his bag and other various belongings. “You’ll feel better, trust me,” she stated, the tone of her voice revealing that the battle was over, and she had won. Taking his hand, she helped him to stand, catching his blanket before it fell.  “Come,” she instructed.

Sighing, Justin was as much forced as helped into a standing position, but didn't have the strength to both fight against it and stay conscious. He was still shaking, his clothes practically drenched with cold sweat, his eyes staring dead straight ahead. “I'b... I'b ok,” he tried to tell her, his voice faltering.  Again his entire face seemed to curl up upon itself as he stifled something again. Judging by the way he rubbed his nose with his sweater, it was most likely a sneeze.

Natalie did not bother to contradict him, knowing it would do no good.  Instead, she concentrated on supporting him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and holding his things in her free hand. Eyeing the nose-rubbing, she hoped the room would come with a few boxes of tissues and opted to wait until later to give him her lecture on the evils of stifling. Her entire body shivered at the possibility of another sneeze from him, though he likely did not notice in his feverish, shivering state. She just shook her head and led him up the stairs and down the hall, pausing to check the room key for the number.

Justin fell into silence, the trek to the room seeming to take forever to his barely-working muscles. The shaking of his body seemed more pronounced without the cover of the blanket and with the added exertion of walking. By the time he made it to the room, he had wiped sweat from his eyes several times, the droplets running down his face in little rivulets. Natalie inserted the key into the door marked with a large seven and heard a quiet click, then pushed the door open to reveal a small but rather quaint room containing a bed, a dresser, a nightstand, a chair, a closet, and a door that presumably led to a bathroom.  He noted the bed and all he seemed to think about at this point was dying for a few days or so as he dropped onto the covers face-first, softly enough not to hurt but heavily enough to show his extreme lack of energy.  

Natalie watched him fall onto the bed and suppressed the urge to sigh. She glanced around the room, then shut the door behind her, turning to rummage around in the dresser. “No,” she admonished him, “You are soaked with sweat, and you need to get into dry clothes before I let you get under the covers.” Her voice was calm but firm, leaving no room for disagreement or refusal. She walked to him and helped him turn so that his head was not buried in the blankets.  Giving him a few minutes to rest and catch his breath, she then eased him back up into a sitting position, leaving him there just long enough to bring him some spare clothes from the dresser. She set them on his lap and went into the bathroom to fill a glass with water for him.  A series of soft, half-muffled sneezes could be heard from beyond the bathroom door as Natalie still struggled with her own cold.  “Ehh… eh-kisshh!  Hep-tchooo! Huh… huh-eshhhoo! Eh-kisshhoo! Heptisshh!”

He blinked slowly at the clothes, as though they were alien objects, resisting the urge to close his eyes and fall back again. The room seemed to spin around him as blood rushed to his head from the rapid change of altitude, which again he fought, swaying just a tiny bit. With his mind as distracted as it was, he found it difficult to suppress his sneezes, which escaped with a light, wet tone into the air.  “Heh… hehCHOO! Huh… heh-ISSHH!”  He made no motion to get changed, still eyeing the clothes on his lap questioningly. His eyes showed the weariness that he had brought upon himself during the last few weeks.

Natalie emerged from the bathroom carrying a glass full of water and balancing a small basin, also filled with water, against her hip. She set the glass of water on the nightstand, rested the water-filled basin on the floor at the foot of the chair, then looked over to Justin and paused, realizing he had not moved. She looked from his eyes to the clothes and then back to his eyes, seeing that he was too weak to dress himself.  Approaching the bedside, she placed a hand on his forehead and found it hot to the touch, then rubbed his back lightly. “You need to get changed,” she murmured, unsure if she would have to help or not.

Nodding slowly and grabbing his stick, Justin put the clothing over his shoulder. He used the stick as something of a crutch, making his way to the bathroom and taking a full five minutes to change, at least. When he opened the door and exited, he wore a pair of grayish flannel pants, baggy and comfortable-looking, and a white shirt that was just as baggy as the pants. Again, he moved to the bed, and sat on the edge of it with his eyes trying to close. His balance was obviously off; that much was plain to see as he was walking, though he then carelessly let the stick fall to the floor, forgotten.

Wincing as she watched him sit on the bed, she noticed just how dizzy he seemed.  She placed a hand on his back and rubbed up and down his spine, her movements slow and deliberate. “Justin, how are you feeling?” she asked, her voice lined with worry and her eyes taking in his apparent weariness and lack of focus. She placed her free hand on his forehead once more, very thankful for her Goddess training in the care of humans. If only she could remember how fast their heartbeats were supposed to come. Her head hurt from trying to remember and she removed her hand, waiting for his answer.

Justin nodded, his eyes closing fully. “Cold, I'b bery cold,” he whispered in a scratchy voice.  His temperature had yet to drop, though thankfully it had not gone up much from the effort of walking around. Somewhat surprised by the feel of Natalie’s hands, but not pulling away, he gave a light sigh, followed by a barely muffled “Heh... hetCHOO!” into his cupped hands. The sneeze was wet and harsh, almost as grating as the coughs had seemed, bringing tears to his eyes with the way it tried to rip through his nose.

She listened to his words, realizing that she needed to get him under the covers.  Somewhat surprised that he did not pull away from her touch, she mainly attributed it to his state of ill health, deciding not to dwell on it too much. About to ask him to lie down, she halted her words at the sound of the sneeze, her entire body shivering. A flush crept over her face and she hoped he would not notice through the wateriness of his eyes.  “Bless you,” she whispered, her voice trembling a bit. Reaching over and grabbing a tissue from the box on the top of the dresser, she brought it to Justin’s nose and wiped gently. She then pulled the covers back and eased him into a horizontal position, allowing him to get comfortable before she drew the covers over him.

He looked more motionless than comfortable, though either seemed to be acceptable at that moment. Sniffling a bit at the feel of the tissue at his nose, he again attempted to stop the sneeze that wanted to build, managing to do so before laying down.  In a sudden surprise, the sneeze returned, forceful and wet, though it was channeled through his mouth and therefore less painful. “Heh… hehh… hehCHOO!”  After easing himself back down to the bed, he reached both hands behind his neck, trying to work the latch on the cord that held the dragon pendant.  He failed to find the catch, which had made its way to the front, and was resting next to the circle holding the small pewter dragon to the cord.

Natalie trembled quietly and took a few deep breaths to control her voice before offering a soft, “Bless you.” Reaching down to arrange the covers, she drew them up over his body, her fingers brushing up his legs and to his chest, where she stopped and tucked him in rather tightly, making it hard for him to move.  She noticed what he was trying to do and placed her hands atop his, guiding them to the clasp so he could undo it, helping him to make sure the pendant did not fall off as he unlatched it. Taking the necklace from his fingers, she set it on the nightstand next to the glass of water. She then seated herself on the edge of the bed, her fingers tracing over his cheeks, measuring the heat of his skin as her other hand rubbed inconspicuously at her slightly reddened nose.

His body continued to shake slightly as the sheets warmed from his body heat, dissipating the cold air that had been trapped underneath previously. Sweat still ran from his skin, running off of his forehead and catching in his hair. Somewhere in the back of Justin’s mind, beyond the Voices which still refused to go away, past the overwhelming sense of cold brought on by the initial shock of the sheets, he felt the necklace being removed from his neck and managed a subdued, “Thank you.”  His cheek pressed slightly against her fingers, appreciatively, though his skin had yet to cool down in the least.

She felt something inside of her ache at the sight of him so helpless, so weak and unable to resist her touches. “You’re welcome,” she replied, rising from the bed and disappearing into the bathroom, returning a moment later with several strips of fabric that appeared to be washcloths. She paused in the middle of the room and took a few shallow breaths, then turned to the side and sneezed freely, the spray visible in the dim light cast by the candles.  “Ihh…. Ihhhh… ittchooo!  Hup-tissshhh! Ishhhh!  Ishhhooo!”  With a few cursory rubs to her nose with her free hand, she sniffled and continued to the bed, a little embarrassed by her display.  Moving the basin from the foot of the chair to the seat, she perched on the edge of the bed, sliding the chair closer and dipping a cloth into the water, then wringing it out. Placing the cloth on his forehead, she gently dabbed, her other hand stroking his neck, her touch cool and dry.

Instead of his usual response of tensing up or pulling away, he actually seemed for once to be comforted by her touch, relaxing visibly. The shaking started to slowly fade as the sheets warmed, despite the fact that the shirt he had put on had managed to collect a rather large amount of sweat.  He felt far more tired than he had in a long while as he fought off an oncoming sneeze by squinting and massaging the tip of his nose with the back of his wrist.

Natalie somehow sensed that he was not pulling away, nor was he resenting her touch. Relieved that the shaking was reduced, she re-dipped the cloth into the water, again wringing it out, then bringing it back to his forehead and swabbing tenderly.  Taken by his immense vulnerability, she leaned down and placed a soft kiss on his cheek, then straightened, running her fingertips over his features, tracing the warmth of his cheeks, the curve of his lips, and the bridge of his nose.

Opening his eyes again, he looked up towards her, his eyes showing confusion within their tired depths. She registered the confusion in his eyes and was immediately repentant for caressing him, thinking that perhaps he was still a bit weary of her touch.  Unable to think of anything to talk about, Justin tried to say the first thing that came to mind -  “I'b sorry. I shouldn'... shou….” - when suddenly, sneezes erupted from his flaring red nostrils.  “HehCHOO! Heh… ihhh… Heh-isshh! Chhissshoo!” He sneezed uncovered, up into the air, narrowly missing Natalie’s fingers.  Following this with a series of sniffles, he reached out for the tissues, but found himself unable to grab them.  “I'b sorry aboud dis.”

Natalie’s thoughts were interrupted by the sneezes he emitted. Trembling quietly and just barely, barely able to keep a moan from escaping her lips, she soundlessly reached for the tissue box and withdrew a few. Bringing them to his nose and wiping ever so gently, she tried to avoid any chaffing as she rubbed. Finally confident that she could speak without betraying herself, she swallowed hard. “Blessings, and you don’t have to be sorry at all.  You can’t help it.”

Shaking his head slowly, he tried to find a way to defend himself, out of instinct, and found that he had none. His eyes closed once again, and he was forced to breath through his mouth as his nose was too plugged to be of use.  “Bud I don'd ged sick,” he whined, plainly irritated at himself, despite the fact that he could understand why.  “I shood be able to bead these things.” He took a moment, catching his breath before continuing.  “Id shouldn'd madder thad I'b gedding hurt so much, and thad I'b sleebing oudside. I can handle de cold, and I'b odly godden really hurd once.”

She tried very hard not to laugh at the adorableness of his words, coupled with the sweet, stuffy way he was talking. She dabbed at his nose again with the tissue, then paused, setting the washcloth on the chair and using her now-free hand to stroke his hair tenderly. “Sweetheart,” she began, then paused, feeling as though he might resent her use of the word, “I mean… well… it’s understandable. You’ve been sleeping outside, you’ve been injured, and it’s cold.  Your mind has been concentrating on other things, and it’s only natural that your health would take a backseat to more pressing matters.” Her voice was soothing and she continued to stroke his hair lightly, loving the way it felt between her fingers.

Justin shuddered, more angry now than irritated, though it was directed inwardly.  “Dose damned voices. I wish dey'd neber come to me. I wouldn'd hab to be sig.”  His breath stuttered lightly and he shook his head.  “Dey aren'd eben leabing be alone dow, when I'b sig,” he complained in that same stuffy voice, then frowned as the anger seemed to instantly drain from him, replaced by immense weariness.  He showed it outwardly with a large yawn accompanied with a loud, stuffy groan.

Natalie would ordinarily be afraid of his angry tone, but felt the anger diffuse a bit between his inability to speak clearly and the completely helpless position that he was now in. She touched her fingers to the side of his face as he spoke, her cool skin contrasting with the fieriness of his own. The yawn rather surprised her, but it was a pleasant surprise and she smiled to herself, her other hand resting on the covers atop his chest as she searched for words. “It’s okay to be sick,” she soothed, her voice gentle and relaxing, though still a bit stuffy. “The less you fight it, the sooner you can get well.  Let it take you over, let it leave you weak and vulnerable, and soon it will pass,” she advised, looking into his deep brown eyes, her own lit with care and kindness.

Blinking a few times, his eyes watered slightly.  “Bud I don'd ged sick. I jusd... don'd,” he tried again, sighing slightly, his form relaxing farther into the bed under the covers, trying to pull them around him more tightly.  “Maybe you're righd, bud I don'd like feeling like this.”  He tried to scowl but didn’t realize that he was managing just barely a slight pout.  “Id's all their fault. Id's the voices thad did this do me.” He nodded to this and attempted to laugh, but simply ended up coughing slightly, his head jerking forward a bit with each one.

Natalie shook her head slightly at his refusal to accept the situation, then watched as he seemed to slink lower beneath the bedcovers. She tucked them tightly around him, almost pinning him there, making movement nearly impossible. Wincing slightly at the rough sounds of his coughs, she rubbed his chest tenderly, as if to relax him and ease the pain.  “Shh… don’t try to talk, it will just make your throat hurt more,” she advised, then remembered the water.  “Would you like a drink?” she asked, not wanting to un-tuck him to get him into a sitting position, but knowing that his throat was probably very sore and also knowing that he needed lots of fluids.

Justin nodded slowly, and he realized that he felt terrible for putting her in a position like that, though honestly it was not as bad as he had imagined it would be, despite the being sick part.  “Blease. Dose coughs really do hurd a lot more den I'd like dem to,” he explained, sniffling a little and rubbing at his nose with the back of his wrist yet again.  He gave a soft laugh at his own words, trying to find a way to take his mind off of the burning sensation the coughs left in his throat and the incessant tickling that plagued his nose.

She smiled at the cuteness of his words and carefully un-tucked him, placing one hand at his back and the other on his chest, gently easing him into a sitting position, re-arranging the pillows so that he would be more comfortable. Taking the glass of water from the nightstand, she gave it to him but kept one hand on it, just in case he could not quite hold it. She used her other hand to smooth the covers over his body, stroking his legs through the blankets, trying to be a reassuring presence. “Here, drink this. It will help your throat feel better, and might even stop the coughing,” she instructed, her fingers still on the glass, for good measure.  Using her other hand to softly rub at her nose, she tried valiantly to hold back the sneezes that threatened to overcome her small frame, as she did not want to upset the glass.

“Maybe,” he replied dubiously, lifting the glass to his mouth and sipping at it slowly, taking deep breaths between each as his nose is all but useless. He tried desperately to hide the wince that contorted his face as she stroked his leg, her hand passing over spot on his leg that would have been beneath the rather obscene tear in the pants he had been wearing earlier. The contortion was quickly suppressed, however, and he resumed his drinking with a slight sniffle as he tried to free his nose from its self-imposed shackles.

Natalie was pleased with his drinking and hoped that the water was helping, though she realized it was rather slow going since he had to stop every few seconds to breathe through his mouth. Her own nose was only slightly stuffed, the sensation barely noticeable, and she was grateful that she was a quick healer, though a somewhat tickling feeling reminded her that she was not entirely well. Seeing the barely perceptible wince, she suddenly remembered the tears in his pants and knew there must be a wound (or several) beneath those tears. Quickly removing her hand from his legs, she shivered at the sound of his sniffle and apologized. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she mumbled, feeling as though he might rather just want her to go away at this point.

“Id's alright. Id was more surprise dan... den.…” he began, suddenly glad that she was holding the water, as he was forced forward violently, wracked with a loud, spraying sneeze.  “AATCHUU! den pain.”  He sniffled and rubbed his nose a bit embarrassedly, realizing that he almost sprayed her with the sneeze.  “I'b sorry dat I'b making you do dis when yor nod beeling well, Dadalie. Bud I do abbreciate you being here.”  He gave as much of a warming smile as he could; though it was not as much as he would have liked, it was the best he could muster under the circumstances.

Natalie flushed pink at the sound of the sneeze and bit down hard on her lower lip, the pain momentarily distracting her from the pleasurable shivers that raced down her spine. Willing her eyes to stay open, she breathed a few times through her mouth and tried to remember what he said after the sneeze, but could not. Something about… appreciation…. Yes, that was it. “I did appreciate you caring for me, Justin,” she responded, fairly confident that she remembered his comment.  Her cheeks were still tinged with a rose-color and she desperately hoped he would not notice; yet part of her desperately hoped he would.  Sniffling discretely, she could hold back the sneezes no longer and she shivered with each one she stifled them into the crook of her arm.  “Heh… ehh-ishhh!  Ihh… Ihh… ihh-mmmphh! Ehh-eemmphh!”

Blinking slowly, unsure of what made her think that he had asked a question, he decided to put it down to his voice being rather difficult to understand. Murmuring a blessing to her, he did, however, notice the flush of her skin, and he tilted his head at her slowly.  “Dadalie, are you sure you're ok? Id looks like you might be gedding hid wid dis sickness again,” he commented, taking another drink of his water and watching her closely despite the tired look in his eyes, worry showing through the sleep that was trying to creep into them.  “I don'd wand you gedding sick all ober again begause of me.”

She eyed the blinking and suddenly realized with a sinking feeling that she had not remembered his comment correctly. Unsure how exactly to respond, she was rescued by his words, then winced slightly as he asked if she was okay. Searching urgently for a way to explain the flush on her cheeks, she then heard his comment about being sick.  Knowing she could not allow him to think she was getting worse, or to feel bad for letting her care for him, she shook her head softly, answering his question in the negative. “No, no. I’m not sick. I mean, yes, I’m fine. I mean…” she stammered, then trailed off, feeling the flush return at her obvious inability to be coherent.

Justin laughed and felt it again degenerate into tiny coughs, as he sipped more of the water before trying to continue.  “Yor baging less sense than I ab, Dadalie.” She heard Justin’s laugh and froze, feeling as though he was laughing at her, and then relaxed slightly, realizing he was just laughing in general, and meant no harm. The amused smile on his face was proof enough that he meant it as no more than a joke; although he did pick up on what he assumed to be embarrassment, he said nothing, simply nodding.  “Iv you say so,” he answered, setting the glass of water down on the nightstand again and narrowing his eyes in disgust as he caught a glimpse of the shirt that he had put on, which was damp and sticking to his skin with sweat.

Hanging her head slightly at his appraisal of her babble, she sighed, then looked up and saw his expression, a faint smile of her own passing over her features as he let it go and set his water glass down. “Ugh... I look disgusding,” he complained, looking as if he wanted to say more, before a sneezy expression passed over his features. She followed his gaze to his shirt and shook her head slightly. “Soaked through again… there’s a fresh one in the drawer,” she offered, rising quickly to procure it, and bringing it back to the bed, setting it on her lap to await his response. “Unless, of course, you’d want to take a shower,” she mused aloud, remembering the bathroom, then wondering if he could even manage to get to the bathroom, let alone shower.

“I… hehCHOO! EhhTCHOO!” he sneezed, very wetly and half-covered with a hand, though some of the spray escaped and was visible even in the flickering candlelight. Natalie suppressed a moan, moving her hand to pinch at the soft skin of her forearm in an attempt to distract herself from the immense pleasure she was feeling. “Bless you, Justin,” she whispered almost hoarsely, the pink flush on her cheeks returning in full.  Trying to continue his sentence, Justin paused for a moment and tried to collect his thoughts, shaking his head slowly and giving a slight smirk at the idea of trying to stand up long enough for a shower, though a certain sense of longing for a good long shower under blazing hot water did rise powerfully to the surface of his thoughts.

“No. I couldn'd sday sdanding long enough. Tobborow,” he added, nodding a bit, looking fairly confident that he would be fine. Either he had managed to become very comfortable, or he was affected more than he thought by being sick, as he took off the shirt and threw it weakly in the general direction of the rest of his clothes.  “And don'd worry aboud another shirt; I'd only end ub soaking that one, and dey aren'd dat warm anyway,” he told Natalie as he slipped under the covers to escape the rising goose bumps.

Nodding slightly as he admitted that he could not stand up long enough for a shower, she then had a fleeting thought of helping him. She quickly pushed the thought aside and turned her attention back to the real world, watching as he removed his shirt. Her mouth formed an “o” shape at the sight of his chest, glistening from the sweat of his feverish state. Shaking her head as if to clear it, she miraculously recalled his words about the shirt and turned to set it beside the basin on the chair. Returning her gaze to him, she noticed he had slipped underneath the covers to ward off the chill. Tempted to ask him if he would like her help with a shower, she bit down on her tongue surreptitiously and settled for smoothing the covers over his body, taking special care to not touch his legs as she tucked him tightly in.

Justin sighed softly as he relaxed, soothed by both the warmth of the sheets and her actions, before looking up at Natalie and giving a short breath of a chuckle.  “Yeah, I'll ged a shower tobborow, long as I can ged myself there.”  He gave a slight smirk as he noted the way she was avoiding his leg and he found himself somewhat appreciative of that fact. It may have stopped bleeding sometime the day before, but it was still fairly tender.  “Bud where are you going do sleep?” he asked, lifting his head slightly and looking around. He was obviously feeling a bit better, as the sweat wasn’t pouring off of his forehead and he had some reasonable energy.  “Dere's no odder bed in this room and no couch eider, so I can'd jusd drag some covers to id.”

She smiled at his chuckles and words, taking it as a sign that he was feeling better, if only slightly. Considering his words, she also looked around the room, the lack of other sleeping places suddenly becoming painfully obvious. “First of all, even if there was a couch, there is no way I would let you move and ‘drag some covers to id.’ You are sick, and you need to be tucked into bed, just where you are,” she said with a smile. “But you’re right, there isn’t a couch.” She pondered this and looked from the room back to the bed, an intense longing creeping over her. The bed wasn’t that small; it was actually on the large side, but…. Here her thoughts stopped, as if frozen by the possibility.

He frowned slightly at her refusal to let him move as it conflicted with his upraising.  “Bud you paid for the roob, and I’b god no boney to bay you back wid. Id wouldn’d be fair for be do tag up de bed, when id's your money. You shouldn'd hab to bay for anodder roob on by account,” he insisted, his voice scratchy and stuffy.  He rubbed vigorously at his nose as if to alleviate a tickle, or perhaps to encourage a stuck sneeze.

Natalie eyed his frown and listened to his words, surprised at his chivalry though she should not have been. “You don’t have to pay me back.  If it bothers you that much, think about it like this: I paid for the room, and I’m letting you stay here with me because you’re my friend. As for the bed situation, it’s not that small…” she trailed off and didn’t finish the sentence, quite certain that he had followed her implications.

His eyes seemed to not respond with anything more than a questioning look, thoughts running through his head.  After considering for a moment, he gave a slight nod, then spoke.  “You’re righd, id’s nod, bud you’re jusd gedding over being sig, and you’d jusd ged sig all ober again,” he pointed out, inwardly surprised by his lack of intention to refuse.  He knew he had a good point: there was nothing like sleeping alongside a sick person to get sick, or at least he assumed, having never actually shared a bed before in his life.

Smiling slightly at his words, Natalie decided to bring science into the equation.  “I’ve already been sick with this. I have the antibodies to defend my immune system; I’ll be fine. Besides… there is nothing like sleeping next to someone who cares, when you are feeling sick,” she murmured, her mind remembering things with Darren before….  Shuddering slightly at the memory of his horrific death by her own hands in a tragic accident, she recalled herself to the present. “I completely understand if you want your space,” she offered. “I can always sleep in the chair; I’m good at sleeping upright,” she lied quietly, very much hoping that she would be allowed to snuggle close to him under the covers.

Justin laughed softly and gave a short shake of his head.  “No, ib you think you'll be ok, den I won'd asg you to sleep in a chair. If either of us should, id's me. I'b learned do sleeb in a lot of uncomfordable ways lately,” he added, flashing her a wry smile, as though that fact amused him. He shifted over slightly, giving room for her to crawl under the covers, while keeping his own tightly wrapped around himself to ward off the cold.

Incredibly surprised that he actually agreed, Natalie blinked slowly, as if to make sure she did not hear him wrong. As he scooted over, she realized he actually said she could sleep with him, and she looked from the bed to the dresser to the bathroom. “Let me change into something else,” she asked, walking to the dresser and pawing through the contents of a few of the drawers. Finding something to her satisfaction, she took the bundle of fabric into the bathroom and changed, emerging a few minutes later wearing a soft-looking nightgown. It was white in color and hung on her curves in a pleasing manner. Pausing at the bedside, she extinguished the lamp and crawled under the covers, her body brushing against his in the process.

He shivered slightly, though whether at the touch of cold air or at her body it was uncertain.  Considering the circumstances and the way he moved a bit closer to her once she had settled, the air was more likely. His eyes closed slowly, letting the tired feeling rush over his consciousness, moving quickly toward sleep.  “Good nighd, Dadalie,” he murmured. His voice was soft, actually relaxed for once, despite the inherent closeness of sleeping in the same bed.

Natalie felt him move a bit closer and was surprised by this, wondering if perhaps he was finally becoming comfortable with her touch. She decided that it was more likely that he was feverish and did not really know what he was doing. Choosing to take advantage of this, she moved a bit closer and placed one cool hand on his chest, a comforting gesture as she whispered back. “Good night, Justin.” She started to close her eyes, then left them open, watching him as she adjusted to the dark. Tracing one finger over his cheek, she marveled at the softness of his skin.

Justin took in a long breath at the feel of her touch on his chest and then let it out slowly, not pulling away in the least. He slipped off to sleep just after hearing her voice, her fingertips on his skin being the last thing he remembered before slipping off into the comfortable dark silence of his unconscious mind.