The Perfect Night

He was affecting her, he could tell. In all the time they had been friends, he had seen something in her that was so vulnerable, so needing -- she tried not to show it, and it wasnít evident in her face. But there was some look deep in her eyes, some quality in her voice that convinced him of so much. . .

She was concerned and sympathetic, but distant. Seeing him like this was almost more than she could bear. She wanted so much to take care of him, to hold him and tell him it would be all right, but at the same time she was afraid, so very afraid of what was happening. For so long she had loved him, even before that other woman had come into the picture. But that was over and she was here now to help pick up the pieces . . . But wasnít it too soon? He was still so depressed that he actually got sick. Still, she reasoned, Iím here to help him feel better. And sheís not. And the look on his face told her so much, and she knew, absolutely knew that the feelings had always been there. . .

He sneezed as he closed the door behind her. She stiffened slightly, turned to face him, and forced a smile. "Bless you," she said softly.

"Thanks," he replied, sniffling. "Iíll be right back." He disappeared into the bathroom, and she could hear him blowing his nose. He came back out and gave her a weak smile. "I hate being sick," he told her.

She smiled back, relaxing a little. "You look pretty miserable. How bad do you feel?"

He shrugged. "Could be worse, I guess." His smile faded. "I canít imagine feeling much lower than this, though." He was talking about his failed relationship more than his illness. He had known right from the beginning that the relationship wouldnít last, and while he was afraid that his ex hadnít seen things the same way - in which case she was a lot worse off than he - his depression wasnít about this particular relationship. It was about not having yet found what he wanted, and with whom he wanted it, although the look in her eyes right now made him wonder if he had stumbled upon something he hadnít thought of before . . .

She knew, of course, that he wasnít just talking about his cold. "If you want to talk about it," she began.

"We both knew it wouldnít last," he interrupted. "I knew that I didnít have that passionate, all-consuming love with her. I knew this was coming. Iím more depressed about not having found what I want yet, not about anything I lost from this relationship."

She nodded. You could find it with me, she thought. "Iím here, if you ever do need to talk."

He smiled at her gratefully. "I know you are. Thanks." He turned his head away from her and sneezed again.

"Bless you." She watched him for a moment as he rubbed his nose and sniffled. She knew she should leave and let him rest, but she didnít want to. "I shouldnít keep you," she said softly. "You should be resting. So Iíll go ahead and give you these -" she held out the sheets of paper containing her poetry for him to read and critique "- but donít worry about those until youíre feeling better, and this." She opened her purse and pulled out a can of chicken noodle soup to hand to him. "And Iíll get out of here."

He began to laugh when he saw the soup, which immediately turned into harsh, rasping coughs. "Thanks," he gasped when he managed to get his breath under more control. He grinned at her disarmingly. God, even when he was sick and pale and red-nosed he was unbelievably appealing and sexy. "Not only did you not fix it, you bought the generic brand. You couldíve at least bought me some Campbellís," he joked.

She couldnít help grinning back. The soup had been an afterthought, a can that had been sitting in her cabinet for months, and she meant it as sort of a joke. "Hey, itís the thought that counts," she protested. "I donít have much time between school and work, and moneyís tight."

His smile became smaller and more thoughtful. "I know. That was sweet of you. Thanks." His eyes narrowed then, and he turned his face away, cupped his hand over his mouth and nose, and sneezed.

She couldnít look at him this time when she blessed him. This was too much. The temptation to wrap her arms around him and comfort him was way too strong -- she had to get out of there. "I really should go," she said again, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

He looked at her with concern. "Are you okay?"

Again, her smile was forced, as was her light tone of voice. And this time, she wasnít as convincing. "Of course."

He gazed at her for a moment longer. Seeing right through her act. "Whatís wrong?"

Tears rushed to her eyes. She tried to hide them. "Nothing. Donít worry about me, worry about you."

I am worried about you." His voice was soft, but firm. "I know youíve been depressed. I know youíre not telling me the whole reason why. And," he added, realizing it as he spoke, "Iím starting to suspect that it has something to do with me." He punctuated this with another stifled sneeze.

"Bless you," she whispered, and then to her horror her control slipped and a tear began to trickle down her cheek.

Hey," he said softly. He touched her arm. "Listen, you can talk to me if you need to, too. And you donít need to worry about me. I donít feel too bad. So stay. Talk."

She gave him a completely helpless look. She felt so exposed. How could she even begin to explain anything to him?

She couldnít, it turned out. She sobbed instead.

And found herself in his arms.

The connection felt almost magical. His embrace felt so natural, and without even thinking she snuggled into it, and cried into his shoulder. And then he knew, and she knew he knew.

The pulling away was mutual. She looked away from him and wiped at her eyes. Her humiliation was painful. She was afraid to look at him, terrified of his reaction to the knowledge of how she felt. He sneezed twice, and she didnít bother looking up, or blessing him. What was the point?

He watched her for a moment, rubbing his nose. Finally, he spoke, his voice gentle. "Iím sorry," he said softly.

She wasnít expecting an apology. She looked up, seeming paralyzed. "Sorry?" she repeated dumbly. "Sorry for what?"

"Sorry that I didnít realize this before. Sorry that I put you through it. I mean, God, all the time I was telling you details about our relationship - it must have been killing you. So Iím sorry."

She looked down at the floor. "How were you supposed to figure it out?" she whispered. "Thereís nothing for you to be sorry for."

He shrugged, and sniffed. "Well, maybe not for that. But I should be sorry for all the time I wasted. I should be sorry that it took me so long to do this." He leaned over and gently pressed his lips down on her cheek. She stared up at him, stunned. He chuckled softly, careful not to start coughing again. "If I wasnít worried that I would get you sick . . ." His voice trailed off.

She swallowed, feeling as if she was in a dream. "I wonít get sick," she said quietly. "And even if I do, I donít care."

He hesitated. He really didnít want her to get sick; she was sick so often anyway, working in a daycare center. But know that he knew how she felt, and how he felt, it was hard to resist the impulse, and she certainly wasnít resisting anything. So he leaned down and pressed his lips against hers.

The kiss was the sweetest thing she had ever experienced. She began to cry again, this time from the purest happiness she had ever felt. She was in heaven.

It was beautiful. Her hands crept up so her fingers could curl into his hair, and he loved every second of it. The kiss became more intense, until the back of her hand brushed against his cheek.

She pulled away abruptly. "Youíre burning up!" she cried, feeling suddenly guilty. She had almost forgotten that he was sick.

So had he, actually. Suddenly, he realized that his lightheadedness was not just from what was happening. He sneezed three times, barely having time to take a breath in between sneezes, which left him even more dizzy, and needing of a tissue. "Be right back," he said hastily, hurrying to the bathroom, leaving her wiping the last tears from her eyes.

He came back out after blowing his nose carrying the box of tissues. "Looks like you need a few of these, too," he said with a smile.

She laughed softly, took a tissue, and wiped her eyes with it. "So what do we do now?" she asked. She sat on the couch.

"Well," he began, not sure how to answer. He sat next to her. "I donít know." He thought for a moment. She had already been exposed to his cold, so it didnít really seem to matter how long she stayed - and he wanted her to stay. "You can stay as long as you want to," he told her shyly.

She smiled back just as shyly. "And you could probably use someone to take care of you right now."

He stifled a sneeze and grinned. "I wouldnít mind it," he said. "Of course, weíll have to talk about this eventually. . ."

"That can wait," she said softly. They kissed again, and she fantasized of the night they would spend together.

And this time, she knew, her fantasy would become reality.