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Close Quarters

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The coughing starts in the middle of the orchestra bit. One minute, Dean’s holding nonchalantly to the mic stand, waiting with mock exasperation for his partner to finish conducting the pianist in a tinkling interlude. The next, he’s buried his mouth in the crook of his elbow. He coughs once, twice, certain he’s cleared it. Jerry’s watching him. Dean raises an eyebrow – Go on – and they swing back into the act. The audience is none the wiser. Dean coughs again in the middle of his second verse; Jerry covers it by screeching at the pianist: “When’s the last time you dusted these keys?”

Dean makes it to the end of his verse and steps back to let Jerry sing. Dean’s sweating, loosens his tie. He clamps his handkerchief over his mouth and hacks, hoping it’s quiet enough. One of the trombonists glances at him; Dean waves his hand, shoves the handkerchief back in his pocket. Then he turns to his partner. The song’s almost over, and Dean strolls to the microphone, clears his throat, and joins Jerry for the final line. Thankfully, his voice bears out. The audience claps and whistles. Dean feels Jerry’s hand on the small of his back. He responds with his own on the nape of Jerry’s neck, stroking lightly. Then they move apart, the orchestra strikes up for a big finish. The boys fall in step and, in perfect unison, dance offstage.

Hidden in the wings, Jerry looks at Dean. “You’re sick,” he says simply.

“Dry throat, that’s all,” Dean says. A dancer hurries past, and he catches her arm. “Sorry, honey,” he says, and favours her with a charming grin. “Could you grab me a glass of water real quick?”

“Sure, Dino.” She beams and disappears into the shadows.

Dean turns back to Jerry; there’s an odd expression on his face.

“What?” Dean asks.

Jerry shakes his head. He reaches out his long fingers and touches Dean’s forehead, strokes his cheek.

“You are sick,” he says. His fingers linger on Dean’s jaw.

“I’ll be fine,” Dean says, but Jerry’s hand is still on him. Dean tilts his head, watches the Adam’s apple in Jerry’s scrawny neck bob.

The tick-tack of high heels approaches, and Jerry snatches back his hand. Dean wonders at this but turns to the dancer as she reappears. “Thanks,” he says, winking. She flushes, touches his arm. Dean watches her walk away and thinks maybe he’ll see her later. Then he’s coughing again.

“Jeez, Paul.” Jerry thumps his back. “Think you can do the next show?”

Dean shrugs him off. “I’m fine,” he manages, and then drains the cold glass. He sets it on the floor and takes Jerry’s arm. “C’mon.”

They run onstage; probably the audience didn’t notice the musical interlude was longer than usual. Jerry thanks them, hopes they’ll come to see the show again. Both men take their final bow, and then they’re backstage once more.

“You can’t go out.” Jerry’s touching him again, hands on his head. “You’re burning up!”

“What’s this?” Dick has joined them. He studies Dean closely.

“Dean’s sick,” Jerry says. “I’ll let ’em know we can’t do the next show.”

“What, are you crazy?” Dean shakes his head, won’t admit how it makes the room spin. “Just gimme an aspirin, an upper, something. I’ll do the next show.”

“You sure, Dean?” Dick frowns. “You look a little pale.”

“Just get me an aspirin, will ya?”

Dick throws up his hands – he knows when he’s been beat – and hurries off to get the pills. Jerry, however, stands firm.

“Paul, listen—”

“Jer, trust me, all right?”

“I do, Paul, but—”

“Then listen.” Gently, he holds Jerry’s neck. “I’ll be all right. Just lemme do the show, and then we’ll see how I feel for tomorrow. Okay?”

Jerry peers into his face. “You really think you’re not sick?”

“Naw, just a sore throat, a headache. I’ll be fine after an aspirin.”

Something twinkles in Jerry’s eyes, something Dean knows he should be able to read. Maybe I really am sick, he thinks.

“Okay, Paul.” Jerry smiles. “I trust you.”

Dean takes two aspirin, washes them down with a gulp of water, though he might as well not bother for all the good it does; his throat scratches and burns, and he won’t speak before the next show. When it’s time, and the band strikes up, and Jerry steps out to introduce his partner, Dean throws back two more pills, swallows them dry.

Somehow, he makes it. They dance off to thunderous applause and wait a moment in the wings to catch their breaths. Dean doubles over, panting, wheezing, coughing into his handkerchief. Jerry touches his back; Dean can feel his hand tremble.

“Jesus Christ, Paul.”

He waves him away. “Fine, fine, let’s just get out there.”

They run out, they bow. Jerry begins to speak, to close off the act. Dean hangs back, handkerchief at the ready. He holds in the worst of it, clears his throat intermittently against the back of his hand. His head swims; he can barely hear how his partner ends the show, just sees him point from himself to Dean, look over his shoulder. Hurry up, for Christ’s sake. Suddenly, he thinks he’s going to faint.

Then the crowd is cheering. Jerry beckons. On legs like leaden jelly, he fairly staggers downstage, hoping no one notices. No one, that is, except Jerry, who notices everything, always. It’s a little scary, just how much he notices. Scary, but exciting too, Dean thinks. Electric. Right now, though, he’s the furthest thing from excited.

Whatever it is, Jer, whatever you want, do it quick.

He’s holding out his hand, smiling. Dean smiles back, takes the proffered hand. They shake. Then that glint returns to Jerry’s eye, and Dean finally realises what it means. He wonders how he could have ever doubted.

Yanking his arm, Jerry lunges. He grabs his face with his free hand and slams his mouth into Dean’s. Their lips and teeth mash and scrape together. Dean’s knees buckle, as they must to sell the bit, but in his sickly fugue it’s more real now that it has been before. Christ, Jer, he thinks, I’ll fall! His ears ring with the screaming delight of the crowd, and in the midst of his delirium – I gotta push him off or pull away that’s the bit that’s the act push him off and wipe my mouth – he feels the kiss shift and deepen and holy shit he throws Jerry off him, all but staggers upstage, wiping his mouth and staring bug-eyed at his partner.

Jerry’s skipping away, swinging his arms in girlish glee. He swoons into Dick’s waiting arms. The audience eats it up, and once Dean’s recovered enough, he and Jerry wish them a good night, hope to see them again, and run offstage.

In the dressing room, Jerry is practically vibrating. He bounces and zigzags and spins like a dynamo, face flushed, chest heaving. Dean wipes his mouth, his face, his mouth again, trying not to think about what Jerry just did. As he takes off his tux, he starts coughing again, hides it in the crook of his elbow. He takes another aspirin as Dick walks through the door, holding a large ceramic mug.

“Can’t believe you made it,” he says, slapping Dean on the back. He turns to Jerry. “No way he can do tomorrow’s shows.”

“I’m with you,” he says, calming down enough to regard his partner with serious concern.

“We gotta contract,” Dean wheezes.

“Who cares? We do another show like that, I’m gonna be back to a single!” He touches Dean’s shoulder. “I’ll get us out of it.”

“How?”

“You let the Jew handle that,” he says proudly.

Dean shakes his head. This kid, nine years younger, skinny and gangling, but so sure of himself in matters of business. How did he get like that? They look at each other, Dean already stripped to his waist, Jerry still dressed but his bow tie lost and his shirt open at the neck. Jerry reaches out to touch his face, press the back of his hand to his forehead. He stays silent, but Dean sees real fear in his eyes.

He wants to reassure him but can’t think what to say.

Then the kid smiles. “You’re shvitzing,” he declares, winks at Dick, and then he’s gone.

“Here.” Dick holds out the mug. Dean takes it; it’s warm and smells of lemons. “Should help your throat, but looks like you may need something a little stronger.”

Dean thanks him, sips the sweet and sour drink. It goes a little way to soothing the burn in his throat. He moans softly.

“Nice, huh? Just honey and lemon in water, but works wonders.” Dean leans against the desk, lights a cigarette. Then he chuckles. “Boy, Jerry almost knocked you over at the end there.”

“Hm.” Dean sips again, sets down the mug. “Sometimes I wish he’d warn me.”

Warn you?” Dick looks incredulous. “I figured even when you improvise, you always know.”

“Well…” Dean thinks about this. He leans back, sniffs mightily, spits into a tissue. “Yeah,” he agrees. “We know. I can’t explain it.” He pauses. “But sometimes we just… throw things in. You think I knew he was gonna kiss me the first time?”

Dick laughs. “Oh, yeah, I can see that conversation right now.”

Dean shakes his head. “Right? Asking my permission for that? No. Jerry just did it.” He shrugs. “I don’t mind. But sometimes…” He struggles for the words, coughs into his handkerchief. Picking up the mug again, he says, “I know when he’s gonna do it. But not… how he’s gonna do it. I don’t know if that makes sense.” He sips slowly.

Then Dick giggles. The fella giggles.

“What? What’d I say?”

“Dino, did…” But he’s gone, collapsed into unrestrained glee.

“Dick, what—” Dean’s throat contracts; he coughs and hacks into his handkerchief, so hard and so long he worries he might rupture something. When it passes, he checks the white cotton, convinced he’ll find blood. It’s clean. He stuffs it away and looks back at Dick, who’s barely under control.

“Well? Wanna share it?”

“Dino, did” – he swallows laughter – “did Jerry put his tongue in your mouth?”

Chapter Text

The ride back to the hotel is quiet, tense, not least because Dean's even less of a conversationalist than usual. Dick rides with them, sits opposite in the limo, eyes flicking between them. If Jerry notices, he doesn't say anything, just stares into space, gnawing his fingernail, glancing worriedly at his partner every time he muffles a cough against the back of his hand. Dean doesn't look at him - can't, won't, leans his head against the glass and prays for death. His hand grows hot and clammy in his partner's grip but he says nothing.

Did Jerry put his tongue in your mouth?

He wants to slam his head against the window. No, first he wants to slam Dick's head against the window. Then his own. Then maybe Dick's again for good measure. Wipe that shit-eating grin off his face. Knock that sly suggestive glint out his eye.

You wanna say somethin', Dick?

And the horror on the bandleader's face, colour draining. Dean's fingers itch. Maybe Jerry senses something; he strokes along his thumb, squeezes lightly, and Dean wishes they were alone. The kid wants to sit close. Dean can tell, can practically feel him vibrate, anxious at the little distance between them, just a seat, with their hands tangled sweaty together on the leather. But he's a good boy; he gives his partner as much space as he can handle. Dean inhales - maybe he means to speak - but the coughing starts again; he practically shoves his handkerchief into his mouth. Jerry's concern beats heavily on the back of his head. Kid, please, he thinks. Please.

He closes his eyes.

Back in the dressing room, Dick's mouth dropped open. He stammered, floundered. Dean got a kind of pleasure from it. He almost wanted Dick to push his luck, see what happened. Just try it. But then the kid came back, wiping his hands. "All done, bubbe," he said, patting Dean's cheek, a little gentler than he might have usually. Then to Dick, "We'll make up the shows." Dean tried to protest - he could do it, or Jerry could handle the final shows alone; he's done it before, though Dean wouldn't bring that up for anything - but his throat had other ideas, strangled the words, left them to die in a dry, hacking heap. Jerry stroked his back, exchanged glances with Dick, who bowed out; Dean saw the relief cross his face before the door clicked shut.

Jerry held him. "My poor bubbe," he said in his ear. Dean felt his joking tone falter, said nothing. He let the kid nuzzle and stroke, and then gently moved away, going back to the rapidly cooling mug. It wasn't so soothing now, left a bad taste in the back of his throat, but he drained it, grimaced, wiped his face with the handkerchief. Then he looked up at his pale, drawn face in the mirror.

"Don't worry, Paul." The kid came up behind him, rested his chin on his shoulder. Their eyes met in the glass. "Everything's all right." He dipped his mouth to Dean's neck. "Lemme look after you now, okay?"

he feels the kiss shift and deepen—

Dean made a noise in the back of his throat.

"Paul?" Watching him in the mirror, concern knotting his brow. "What's wrong?"

—his tongue in your mouth?

Gently, slowly, Dean moved away again. He stroked Jerry's wrist as he went, to let him know they were all right, they were still friends. "Jer..."

"Mm?" Maybe he wasn't getting the message. Maybe he didn't care. Either way, he'd come close again, and slipped his fingers into the damp hair behind Dean's ear. He smoothed and stroked, and smiled secretly when Dean couldn't keep back a soft moan. "You like that, bubbe?"

"Jerry, stop a second."

Jerry stopped. He took back his hand and shoved it in his pocket, smiling. Like a good boy.

Dean coughed again, tried to get the words straight. "Jer... Why'd you do that?"

"Do what?" Batting his eyelashes.

"Why'd ya... kiss me like that? Onstage like that?"

Jerry flinched. Dean wanted to hug him, take it back, let him do it again. But he stood firm - as firm as he could with that threatening tickle in his throat.

"O-oh." Jerry laughed. "That. You didn't like it?"

"Jerry."

He glanced at the floor. "What's the problem, Paul?"

He sighed. "You'll get sick, Jer. You can't do things like that, all right?"

Jerry lit up. "Why, Mr Martin, whatever do you mean? How could I possibly get sick when you assured me - when you gave me your solemn vow - that you weren't sick?"

Dean stared at him.

"Of course," he went on, "I never would have done such a thing had I known."

"You son of a bitch."

Jerry cackled and threw himself at Dean. "My mother always said I shouldn't trust a Catholic." He kissed him soundly on the cheek.

"Fuck you, Jer."

"My dear partner." He hugged him hard. "I would be happy to oblige." Dancing away from Dean's swipe. "Gotta be quicker than that, ya schmuck!" Slipping under Dean's arm, he put on an announcer's voice. "Kid Crochett takes a real pasting from Super Jew." He leaped on to the couch. "Looks like the Italian's past his prime, but— gah!"

Dean caught him, lifted him easily and held him tight against his chest. "Finished?"

"Lemme go, ya greaseball." Wriggling, squirming for freedom - but Dean saw the colour high in his cheeks, felt the jerky rise and fall of his lungs.

Dean could feel a cough building. "You'll be a good boy?"

"Mm-mm. Promise."

"Well, all right, then." He let him go, let him kiss his cheek and watched him collapse, giggling, on to the couch. Then the cough came, and fear flickered on the kid's face.

"Oh, Paul."

He waved him off, the topic closed.

Now the limo pulls up outside the hotel, and Dean nearly falls out. He spits into the street, muttering, cursing, stumbling up the steps. Jerry's holding his elbow, not quite steering. Dean can hear him talking to the doorman, to Dick, can't make out the words, wants to peels off the tux he's already been out of once tonight and leave each piece in the foyer, wants to curl up on the cool floor and sleep for a year. Maybe he wants Jerry to lie down with him. Maybe that's okay. But it's a lot to think about now, and first he needs to get out of these clothes.

"We'll get you outta them, don't worry, bubbe."

Did he say that out loud? Did he say the part about wanting to lie down with the kid? Ah, fuck it. Who cares anyway? Jerry's holding his arm, leading him up one, two, three flights of stairs, and Dean thinks he's telling him thanks, telling him not to worry so much, and he thinks the kid might have tears in his eyes, and it's a safe bet, so common, but it's sad, always so sad, and Dean wants to hug him, but he's already falling on to the bed. He stares at the ceiling, at Jerry and Dick in the doorway. He tunes in, focuses:

"Go on, Dick, we're all right now."

And Dick hesitating, standing like he's forgotten how to do it right while Jerry opens the window, gets it just so.

"Dick, don't gimme that look." Dean's speaking. How is he still speaking? "Don't worry about it."

"Dino, I wasn't trying—"

"I know that." He struggles to sit, feels the kid beside him, behind him on the bed. "Chrissake, I know that. Go on, get outta here." He doesn't want to look at him anymore, and Dick's happy to go.

They're alone again, the door closed, the window spilling cool night air into the room. Dean sighs. His collar's strangling him. Something's tugging at his tux tie, working the top buttons free, sliding his jacket away. He sighs again, leans against the kid.

"Lemme help, Paul."

And Jerry's crawling off the bed, crouching in front of his partner to work his feet out of his shoes and socks. Dean watches him, dazed. Imagines the kid working on his vest, his belt. Not sick enough, not far gone enough for that, Christ, not that.

"Jer."

"It's okay, Paul, I'll—"

"Jer, stop."

Jerry stops. He chews his lips and stands a little sheepishly in front of him.

"I'm all right, Jer."

"But I—"

"Go on, Jer." Sending him away. And he'll go, like a good boy. But Dean hates it. Always hates it. And when Jerry's sick next, when he has another anxious spell and has to rest, Dean will come and undress him, soothe him, and he knows how good that it is for Jerry. He wants to let the kid return the favour. But he thinks about those slender fingers and almost screams. "Go on, Jer." Quieter now, kinder he hopes. And Jerry smiles, sits close on the bed, and nudges Dean's nose with his own.

"Lemme just once, Paul." But he's already doing it. And Dean waits and waits - it's closed and sweet, no teasing tongue like last time. Joking or not, the kid knows when to hold back. Sometimes.

Dean chuckles when the kid's mouth goes away. "Now you really will get sick." He rests his forehead on Jerry's shoulder. Bony, skinny. Needs to eat more. He'll tell him tomorrow. "Crazy boy," he whispers. Coughs. Apologises.

Jerry shrugs. "Cough all you want. Blow your nose on my shirt cuff even." And then, softer, hopeful, breaking his heart: "Want I should stay?"

Yes. "'Sall right." Stay. "Go on. Go to bed, Jer."

Jerry doesn't move. Dean thinks he might stay anyway. But no. He listens. He stands and strokes Dean's hair, then drops a kiss on his clammy brow. "I'm across the hall."

Dean knows. He watches the kid go, returns lethargically the cute little wave. Then he's alone. Somehow he's out of his clothes and curled up naked on the mattress, fancy sheets be damned. He coughs weakly, groans, shoves a pillow over his face. It's too hot, then, and he throws it into a corner. He ought to force himself up, into the bathroom for a cool shower. He imagines the kid climbing in after him and drifts to sleep with that sweet-scary picture flickering in his mind.

Chapter Text

It’s gone noon when the kid knocks on his door. Dean’s been up since eight, restless, lazy, managed a shower around nine but not much else. Pacing, coughing. Stir crazy. Impossible, he knows, only a few hours indoors, but nothing holds his focus; he keeps glancing at the clock, only seconds passing each time. He pulls on a robe and breaks out in a sweat, shoves it in a corner and sits by the window, shivering. All the time coughing pathetically. He could get dressed, go out – at least across the hall – but thoughts of having to walk anywhere send him back to bed, exhausted, too weary to sleep. Then the knocking, and it shocks him into a brief, dry fit swallowed by his handkerchief.

He opens the door. Jerry smiles at him, dressed: a paisley tie and clean white shirt beneath the bluish jacket. Dean is struck briefly by the fact that he looks quite handsome. He considers telling him, pictures the kid’s blush, his not-quite-exaggerated delight, and says nothing. Two paper bags nestle under his arms, and with his hands otherwise occupied, he greets his partner with a furtive little kiss on the cheek. Dean can see he’d rather throw himself into his arms but instead slips past into the room. Dean catches him from behind, pulls his friend close and holds him awhile.

“Miss me, bubbe?” Joking. Almost.

“Hm.”

Hugging. Just hugging. The kid’s arms are pinned by his body, the bags. Dean knows he prefers to be held anyway. And maybe it’s better for him. Maybe it’s better if his hands can’t go places they shouldn’t. Dean’s glad he put on shorts earlier, but after six years or so the kid’s stopped showing he cares. Dean remembers how once Jerry climbed on to a hotel bed beside him clad in sweet plaid pyjamas, how his eyes widened – excited, embarrassed – and he plucked at the covers, Lemme see, lemme see!, and Dean wouldn’t, but held him anyway, held him close until the kid stopped trembling, until he turned in his arms and nudged closer.

“Want we should stay like this all day?”

Dean laughs and lets him go, turns to cough into the crook of his elbow.

“No, wait.”

Dean waits. Jerry puts down the bags, wraps his arms around Dean’s waist and squeezes. He feels the kid’s mouth on his neck.

“All right, Jer.” Whispering, he coaxes his little partner back, just to look at him.

Then Jerry’s outside again, crouching, picking up two paper cups and kicking the door shut. Locking it.

Dean sits on the bed, legs crossed. He fingers curiously the large paper bags, catches the scent of pastrami on rye. Jerry hands him a cup. It’s warm and sweet – not coffee, lighter; it slips down nicely. He licks his lips and watches his partner buzz around the room in shirtsleeves, rolled up over knobby elbows, close the window (“It’s chilly in here, boy!”), fold the robe on to the chair, and then lay out the sandwiches. There’s also a small box of fruit, strawberries, raspberries, and it’s a lovely thing. Dean wants to start with those, but lets the kid finish his nursemaid bit. Jerry smiles at him.

“Lunch first,” he says. “Then we’ll do Doctors and Nurses.” He touches the tip of his tongue to his lip and smooths his hair.

Dean chuckles. It’s easier now but still a little ticklish. After a bite of pastrami, he goes back to his cup. He eats slow, watching the kid make a methodical demolition of the meat he once claimed “killed more of my people than that greasy-haired schmuck on the continent”. Dean can half-believe it, watching him now, but hopes he can handle a little more.

“Paul?”

Dean’s holding out the remaining half of his sandwich.

“But you’re sick, you gotta eat.”

“I don’t want it.”

“But Paul—”

“You’re too skinny,” he says, and the kid shifts on the mattress. “C’mon, Jer, humour me.”

Jerry sighs. “The things I do for love.” And Dean laughs as the last half of the sandwich disappears down his boy’s throat. Dean’s started on the fruits, so sweet and fresh his eyes itch, but maybe it’s just because he’s sick.

Jerry watches. Dean can feel him track the fruits he takes from the punnet to his lips. It’s a strange feeling, having the kid’s eyes on him like this. Not unpleasant. Dean coughs against the back of his hand and then tosses a raspberry into the air and catches it in his mouth. A neat little gesture. Easy. Jerry waits a second and then, casually, achingly sweet, he copies it.

They look at each other, chewing. Smiling. Then they look away.

Dean rolls a raspberry between his fingers and raises an eyebrow. Jerry nods eagerly, and when Dean lets fly, the kid catches it neatly in his mouth. He grins. Dean tries another, and again, and then feels a little punchy and throws too hard, too fast, but the kid’s keyed up, determined, and he stretches, tips back, back, too far—

Dean seizes his tie. They’re suspended that way for a moment; somewhere, the little fruit drops to the floor with a whisper. Then Dean’s hauling Jerry forward, slow, slow. The kid’s giggling, uncertain. Dean holds his arms. Strokes. Jerry catches his breath, looks at Dean through his eyelashes. Dean thinks distractedly that if Jerry were a girl, and if this were a movie, as leading man he’d have to kiss him now. He could do it anyway. Jerry’s eyes widen, soften, and Dean wonders for the tenth, twentieth, fiftieth time if the kid can read his mind. Really read it. For real, comes the Idiot’s phantom voice.

Solo un ragazzo, he thinks. Reminds himself. Non capisce. Si fida di te. Non rovinarlo.

Dean smiles gently at him. Then he looks at the punnet.

Three left.

He picks up a particularly sweet-looking strawberry and turns back to his partner. Jerry straightens. “Do it nice, Dean,” he says and opens his mouth, eyes closed, serene. Dean considers this, pictures himself gently slotting the fruit between his friend’s lips. Wonders if his friend’s lips taste more of strawberries or raspberries, or if the pastrami might still beat all. He shakes his head. He shuts one eye and lines up the shot. Readies once, twice… and then bounces the fruit off his partner’s forehead.

Gah!” Jerry pouts, crosses his arms. “What was that for?”

“Aw, c’mon, Jer.”

“Do it for real, Dean.” Climbing, pitching, the nine-year-old emergent.

“All right, all right.”

And Jerry shuffles closer, leans forward and closes his eyes. His sweet little mouth drops open. Christ, Dino. He shakes his head and coughs. Then he’s lining up again, aiming… and bouncing it off Jerry’s nose.

Dean.” Whining almost, showing his teeth. He hits him, one hard smack on the shoulder. Dean laughs and briefly loses himself to a dry heaving cough. Jerry watches him closely, touches his arm. Then they’re back again, performing.

“Don’t joke around.”

“Who’s joking?” Dean says, and then: “You’re too far away.” Their knees touching. “C’mere.” And he pulls the kid gently by his elbow so he’s almost in his lap and slips the last strawberry between his slightly parted lips. He holds it by the stalk, waiting. Jerry’s hand is braced high up on his thigh. His other rests on Dean’s wrist. He’s so close Dean can hardly see him; he’s eyes and a mouth, a suggestion of a face. Then his teeth close. Pinkish juice trickles over Dean’s thumb. He swallows. Jerry swallows. Dean leans forward to lick the juice before it drips. Keen little puffs of air brush his top lip.

Ah, he thinks. Leading man or no, he won’t have to do the kissing. If he stays this close the kid will do it for him and wouldn’t that be something. Nothing new, nothing strange there. Jerry likes to kiss him. And Dean doesn’t mind it so much. Most of the time. There’s a spot on his neck Jerry likes, and Dean’s pretty fond of it too; and sometimes he’ll stroke lightly at the base of Dean’s skull and he’ll see stars. It wasn’t always like that. Before they were partners, Dean was better, stronger. He’d stand firm in dark hotel rooms or empty train stations, shadowy corners backstage, let the kid peck once and pull away. Then came the act, those first shows. And after that, something shifted. In Chicago, something inside him buckled and weakened, when Jerry told him the truth.

Now Jerry tells him the truth every day.

So why not let him kiss you? Like last night, before he went to bed. Soft and sweet. A little sad. Closed. Like friends, if friends can kiss like that. And Dean doesn’t have to do a thing, just maybe tell him everything’s okay, or rub his back through his shirt, and then not through his shirt. If it goes on too long and the kid gets carried away, no one has to get mad. They’ll just go back a few minutes. Maybe Dean can hunt for those errant strawberries while Jerry gets himself under control. Maybe Jerry will bray in his Idiot voice something outrageous, and they’ll fall about laughing like mischievous schoolboys.

Jerry says his name. Asking.

And Dean tosses the little piece of greenery into the punnet with the others. He feels the shuddering sigh as Jerry’s whole body relaxes. Relief, maybe. Then the kid’s buzzing around again, collecting the refuse from their lunch and shoving it into the trash. He comes back all business, pouring out the contents of the second paper bag and laying it out on the mattress, babbling, explaining himself.

“There was a lotta stuff, Paul, I didn’t know what to get, so I just grabbed a little of everything.”

“Christ, Jer, d’you buy the whole drugstore?”

“You wanna get better or not?”

Dean’s shuffled back to sit against the headboard. He stares incredulous at the veritable trove that covers the bed. Jerry picks up boxes, little jars, scans them, sniffs some, makes piles of yeses, noes and maybes, talking all the time:

“These are for fever, you gotta fever? Here, lemme feel. Mm, well, not too bad I guess, but take one anyway. I’ll get you a glass of water. Oh! And this stuff, this is good stuff. For your chest when you go to bed. I guess maybe you can have it awake, too, but asleep it’s better. Smells like shit and never washes off but it works. And I got you some aspirin, of course, and these lozenges, too, for the sore throat you take ’em. Oh, and there’s—”

“Jer?”

“I know.” He’s staring at the boxes and jars and tins, scratching his face. “I got carried away maybe.”

“Jer.”

Jerry looks at him, at the small tin in his hand. Dean raises an eyebrow. And the kid goes red as a lobster.

“Oh! Oh, Paul, I—”

“You know, Jer, nice boys keep these in the car.”

Even redder now, if possible: “Jesus, Paul, I was just grabbin’ whatever they had, I wasn’t thinking!”

Dean’s chuckling, giggling, giddy with cold and the sheer sweetness of his partner’s embarrassment.

“Oh, God, stop!” Jerry moans, clutches his head. “Give it here, lemme put it away.”

“What? But, Jer, you bought it for me.” Holding it out of reach. Being an asshole, really, but Christ, it's so easy.

“Please, Paul, don’t make fun of me.” He grabs for it, misses. “Paul, c’mon!” He lunges, sprawls on the mattress.

Dean knuckles the top of his head.

“’Sall right kid, I’ll keep hold of ’em.” He tosses them casually into the bedside drawer. “I’m too sick for that anyway.”

Jerry sighs and stares morosely at the ceiling. “Well, when you’re better maybe.”

Dean raises an eyebrow.

He blanches. “I mean, you know – when you feel better and, and – oy vey iz mir, can we change the subject?”

“Hm.” Dean nods and ruminates on this. In the silence, he pops one of the fever tablets on to the back of his tongue and swallows it with the water Jerry brought him. Dean can picture the kid in the drugstore, flapping around, arms overflowing with remedies. He thinks about that little tin. I wasn’t thinking, he said. But thinking enough to go to the modest cabinet and select something, not just frantically grab from the shelves. Thinking about what?

Thinking about me.

Dean strokes his friend’s head. “Why’d you buy ’em, Jer?”

He covers his face and groans. “God, you know why.”

Don’t make him say it. “I don’t know, Jer,” he says, teasing. “You bring me all these things to help. What’re they for?”

Jerry peeks at him through his fingers. Dean sees the uncertainty flicker in his eyes and gives him a small smile. It’s all right, he thinks, just in case the kid can hear. Take the out, kid.

“Dean Martin, you don’t know what they’re for? You? You don’t know what they’re for. Jesus, there must be hundreds of little Dinos runnin’ around.” He laughs to himself. “Well, of course, Catholics—”

Dean kicks him.

Abused! That’s what I am, like a dog I am.”

“Dogs are cuter.”

“Ain’t I cute, Dean?”

“Who says you ain’t?”

And it’s a mistake, but a nice one, because Jerry leaps at him and licks his face. Dean cries out, tries to fend him off, succeeds only in letting the kid fall between his legs. He’s barking and lapping, and Dean’s laughing, coughing, trying to push him off. Boxes and jars and tins spill onto the floor or get crushed as they tangle together. And Dean must really be sick, or maybe he’s just too happy to care, because the kid gets the upper hand easily. Flushed and delirious, he straddles his partner, sitting pretty on his thighs.

“Teach you ta mess wit’ me,” he declares, pinning his arms above his head.

Dean pouts. “Don’t ya like me anymore?”

Jerry blinks, and in his own legitimate voice says, “Do I really sound like that?”

“I’d say it’s a pretty fair impression.” He coughs a little. “I know my partner.”

“How’d you put up with it?” A shadow flickers on his features, and Dean needs desperately for it to clear.

“There are perks,” he says, and without thinking moves his hips. Doesn’t mean it. Not like that. Just wants to move, settle. Regrets it. Immediately. He feels the kid twitch, jerk. Go back, he tells himself. Just one minute, go back a minute, get outta this.

“Paul.” Soft. Scared.

“What?” Nothing, it was nothing, it’s all right, we’re all—

“Want I should show you what they’re for?” He’s trembling, so young and sweet and nervous, as he slides a hand down the side of Dean’s shorts.

The door knocks.

The hand hisses out again like it’s been burned – and he’s a character, low voice, hunched, mistrustful pout in place. “Who’s that?”

“Fellas, you in there?”

“Just Dick, Jer.” He’s stroking the kid’s side. Why’s he doing that? “It’s all right.”

“We’re busy,” the kid screeches. “Come back when ya got a warrant!” He turns shining eyes on Dean.

Jer.”

The kid deflates. Then he smiles weakly. “Paul, I… I don’t know—”

Shhhh.” It’s hard to comfort him like this. If the kid would move back a little, Dean could sit up and hold him. But he’s not ready yet; Dean can see he’s got himself in a situation and wants to let him sort that out first. So instead he holds his hand – the one that wasn’t down his shorts a couple seconds ago. “It’s all right, Jer.”

“I got carried away,” he whispers, and he laughs softly. “I forgot…” He shakes his head.

What did he forget? “Don’t worry, Jer.” He calls out, “Just a sec, Dick.” Then softer, “All right to move now?”

Jerry nods, cheeks flushed. He climbs off carefully and sits a minute on the edge of the bed, chewing his fingernail, eyes tightly shut. Dean wants to stroke his back but knows it won’t help right now. Later, he thinks, touch him later, and shoves it away. He sits up and tries to organise the mess they’ve made. He doesn’t look at the kid, wants him to have a little privacy.

Then the bed creaks, and Dean can relax against the headboard, sipping water and watching his partner let Dick through the door at last. And he’s nice and polite and greets him, but then he opens the window, pulls a pack of cigarettes from his discarded jacket and smokes in silence, staring out with glassy eyes. Dick’s saying… something. Dean doesn’t know. But he’s responding anyway, sort of. Offering a little. He’s sick; he figures he can get away with it now.

He keeps looking at the kid. Checking. With his sleeves rolled up that way and the tie gone – When’d he take off the tie? – he looks older. And that word from earlier crosses his mind again. Handsome, he thinks. Kid looks handsome.

Dick’s still talking: “…see if there was anything I could do, that’s all.”

“We’re doing just fine without you, thank you very much.” Jerry looks at them, hand on hip, right arm crooked and smoke drifting delicately from the cigarette end, ring finger of his right hand smoothing an eyebrow. He’s doing a bit, a little feminine, a little queer. Something in between. Something Dean never has a word for. Easy. Fluid. Like another language. One Dean understands but only speaks brokenly, like everything else. He thinks the kid wants to teach him. Sometimes he thinks he might let him.

“Point of fact,” the kid goes on, picking a speck of tobacco from the end of his tongue, “I almost got to second base.”

Dick almost has a heart attack, while Dean throws caution and an impending coughing fit to the wind in order to tackle his cackling partner.