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James wakes up feeling like shit. It's summer, so this is not as big an inconvenience as it would be during the season when there are games to miss, but on the other hand, it's summer.

The start of summer, too, when he hasn't progressed to the stage where he's bored and just wanting to be playing again, but actually has plans to, like, sleep in and visit people and go out drinking without worrying about games and other awesome shit like that.

He groans and then immediately regrets it, the noise scraping at his raw throat, and tries to remember whether he has tissues in the house. Or a thermometer. Or Gatorade. Or food.

"Fuck," he says, and gets up to pull on a pair of sweats and a hoodie.

It's already pretty warm out, but he feels kind of cold. That can't be good.

He makes it across the street, wiping pathetically at his nose with the end of his sleeve, and stumbles into Paulie's kitchen, where Paulie is leaning against the counter with a mug of coffee in one hand, the newspaper in the other. He's wearing his glasses, and there's a second mug waiting on the counter for James. Also a bagel. James loves Paulie.

Paulie glances up over the paper and frowns, eyes roving James' face. "You okay?" he says.

James coughs and sniffs at the same time in answer. It sounds gross even to him.

"You're sick," says Paulie, folding the paper in half and setting it down.

"No shit," croaks James.

Paulie shoots him a look and snatches James' coffee away just as he's reaching for it. James opens his mouth indignantly, but then Paulie replaces it with a bottle of Gatorade.

"Oh," says James, blinking. "Thanks."

Paulie rolls his eyes. "You shouldn't even be up," he says, stepping around the counter to press the back of his hand against James' forehead. James bites down on his lip, because he may be sick, but he's not dead, and Paulie is touching him, which James has been having a lot of-- of thoughts about recently. Or okay, for a while now. Possibly since they first met, whatever. Paulie's hand feels really nice, anyway, cool and soothing. James has to forcibly hold back an unhappy noise when he pulls it away. "You have a temperature," he adds.

James just says, "Ugh," and sinks down onto one of the barstools.

Paulie sighs. "Seriously," he says. "You should go back to bed."

"I think I need to go to the store first," mumbles James.

"Seriously?" says Paulie. "Now is when you decide to start buying groceries like a normal person?"

"Well," says James, "I'm out of Gatorade. And tissues. And food." He ducks his head. "And I think if I go back to bed I'm not gonna make it back here until I'm better, so I need to shop."

"God, Nealer," says Paulie, exasperated.

"Sorry," says James, not entirely sure what he's apologising for, apart from maybe just being a bit of a failure at life in general, and possibly an unwelcome burden on Paulie besides.

"Shut up," says Paulie, huffing out a breath. "And just go sleep in the spare bed. I have stuff."

James blinks at him. "I don't wanna get you sick," he says.

Paulie rolls his eyes. "I'll be fine, season's over," he says. "Besides, you know I eat better than you. Maybe if you let me feed you kale you wouldn't be sick right now."

"Fuck off," says James, and then dissolves into a coughing fit that leaves his chest sore and his face drenched in sweat, gasping for air. "Fuck, fucking hell, that hurt."

"Bed," says Paulie sharply. "Now." He grabs James around the elbow and hauls him towards the spare bedroom, pushing him onto the mattress. He disappears while James crawls miserably under the covers, but when he comes back he's got another bottle of Gatorade and some water, plus a box of tissues and some DayQuil. "I'm going to the store," he says, measuring out the DayQuil carefully. "You need something for your throat, I think. Don't try to do anything apart from sleep while I'm gone. You should probably go to the doctor."

James groans. "'M fine, just gotta rest," he says. He basically never wants to move, ever. Paulie's spare bed is about a hundred times more comfortable than James' own, which doesn't seem fair, and he's got everything he needs here, including Paulie.

Paulie hums doubtfully. "We'll see," he says. Then his hand is on James' forehead again, cool and perfect, and he's passing the DayQuil to James with the other.

James swallows it obediently, chasing it with some more Gatorade, and then he slumps back against the pillows, utterly spent. "Thanks," he mumbles, sniffing.

The corner of Paulie's mouth twitches. "Go to sleep, James," he says. "I'll be back soon."

 

James isn't sure how long he sleeps, but when he wakes up the light is different, a little darker and more orange, so he guesses it's crossed into afternoon. His throat is parched and painful, and he reaches for the water on his bedside table, groaning pitifully.

Paulie sticks his head around the door as he's setting the bottle back down.

"Hey," he says. "You're up."

James blows his nose instead of answering.

"You sound good," says Paulie, his mouth twisting.

James tries to glare at him. Possibly it's not hugely effective; it feels more like a squint.

Paulie laughs quietly and steps into the room. "How's your fever?" he says.

"Burnin' up for you, baby," mumbles James, leaning back against the pillows.

"Well, your jokes are still as bad as ever," says Paulie, feeling his forehead. "You hungry?"

James hums. He isn't exactly hungry, but there's a gnawing emptiness in his stomach that suggests he should probably try eating something. Hopefully it stays down.

"Okay, hang on," says Paulie, and disappears again. James tries not to feel too disappointed.

He comes back with a bowl and a spoon, and James blinks at it when he passes it over.

"You made soup?" he says stupidly.

"It's good for you," says Paulie, which isn't really an answer.

You're good for me, James wants to say. God, his fever must be bad. He swallows a mouthful.

"'S good," he says. "Seriously, homemade?"

Paulie shrugs. "My mom's recipe," he says. "It's not hard or anything."

He sits down on the edge of the mattress.

"Thanks," says James.

Paulie just lifts a shoulder. "I got you some stuff for your throat," he says.

James kind of wants to kiss him. That would be gross for Paulie, though, and probably unwelcome besides, so he just knocks his knee against Paulie and smiles.

"Wanna watch some TV?" he says.

"Sure," says Paulie. He hesitates a moment, then shifts to scoot up the bed beside James.

He turns the TV onto some cooking show, absently rearranging James' pillows while he eats. When he's done James sets the bowl on the bedside table and leans back, sighing.

"Okay?" says Paulie quietly.

"Don't think I'm gonna throw up," says James.

"Ringing endorsement," says Paulie with a smile. "I'll pass that on to mom."

"Mmm, you should," mumbles James. "She raised you good."

Paulie doesn't say anything, and James closes his eyes.

He's totally delirious, he can't be blamed.

He feels pretty spectacularly shitty. His head weighs about ten tons and he can't breathe through his nose. His throat feels like it's been scraped raw with sandpaper and his chest aches whenever he has to cough. Paulie is warm beside him, though, and the sound from the TV is low and soothing. The bed is insanely comfortable, and James feels himself drifting, not quite ready to fall asleep just yet but not completely awake either. It's a combination of all of it, plus the fuzzy, not-quite-clear fog of his thoughts, that makes him list towards Paulie, winding up pressed against his side, sliding down the sheets a little, cheek resting against Paulie's chest.

Paulie just lifts an arm to accommodate him better, letting James tuck up against his side and curl a hand in the front of his sweater. When James finally does drift off, it's to the steady rise and fall of Paulie's breaths through his chest, the safe, solid weight of him.

 

He wakes to someone shaking him, and pulls away instinctively, shoving his head under a pillow.

Only then he can't breathe, trying to inhale through his nose and choking on the lack of air, and emerges hacking, hunched over and aching. Fuck, that hurts.

"Jesus Christ, James," says Paulie, the hand that was shaking his shoulder sliding down to rub slow circles between his shoulder blades. "Deep breaths, come on."

James squeezes his eyes shut, which have been tearing up from the force of the coughs, and tries to focus in on the steady pressure of Paulie's hand on his back.

It helps, and eventually he can draw breath through his mouth without choking.

"Good," says Paulie softly. "Sorry, you can go back to sleep in a minute, I just think you should take some of the throat medicine. You definitely sound like you need it."

"Yeah," says James, smiling weakly.

He takes the little medicine cup Paulie holds out and tips it back, wincing at the taste.

"Here," says Paulie, exchanging the empty cup for a bottle of Gatorade.

James chugs half the bottle and then slumps back, groaning. "I want to die," he says.

"Don't be a diva, dumbass," says Paulie, rolling his eyes.

"Diva?" says James, raising an eyebrow.

Paulie shrugs. "It kinda suits you, you gotta admit."

James glares at him.

Paulie chuckles quietly, reaching out to feel James' forehead. "Sometimes you freak out over dumb things," he says. "And sometimes you freak out about things that aren't dumb but then get kinda over-invested in freaking out and can't stop until you do something really dumb. And sometimes you're a little bit dramatic about things that maybe don't warrant it."

"I don't-- I-- shut up," says James, and Paulie laughs again, carding his fingers through James' sweaty hair. James would argue, but he doesn't have the energy, and also it's possible that maybe Paulie is right, about some of it at least. He remembers when he'd thought Paulie might be leaving Pittsburgh, even though he wishes he didn't. There'd been a regrettable amount of alcohol involved, and he has a vague if horrifying recollection of actual tears in front of Geno, and Geno fireman-carrying him into Paulie's house at four in the morning. That had happened after he'd thrown up in Paulie's front garden. He'd slept on the bathroom floor, even though Paulie had tried to force him into the spare bed, but James hadn't wanted to ruin any of Paulie's stuff, and also had had vague ambitions of locking himself in the bathroom forever. He'd also said a lot of dumb things, like, so many dumb things, stuff like, "I want you to be happy, but I want you to be happy here with me," and, "I'll learn to cook, what if I make breakfast for you instead," and, "I'm just sad because you're Paulie and there aren't anymore Paulies in Pittsburgh and even if there were they wouldn't be my Paulie and that would suck because I kinda like you a lot."

Jesus Christ. Paulie didn't ever bring it up, thank God, and James is grateful for that as he shoves the whole awful mess of memories aside and remembers that Paulie is here now, and that's all that matters. Also that he's totally wrong about James being so dramatic.

"'M not a drama queen," he mumbles.

"I said dramatic, not drama queen, but whatever fits," says Paulie amusedly.

"Not dramatic either," says James.

Paulie raises an eyebrow. "Paulie," he says, in an awful imitation of James' voice and James' Canadian accent, "Paulie, I need you to make me breakfast because last time I tried to make it myself I nearly burned down my house, and I paid a lot of money for that house."

"Well, it's true," says James.

"You burnt the toast," says Paulie. "You set off a smoke alarm. There was no actual fire."

"There could've been," mutters James. "Are you saying you think I'm fit to make my own breakfast?"

"God no," says Paulie. "I'm saying you're being dramatic about not being fit to make your own breakfast."

"You're not even making sense," says James huffily.

"Uh huh," says Paulie. "Paulie, I'm going to die of a head cold."

"Fuck you, it hurts," says James, making pathetic eyes at Paulie.

Paulie snorts, but his fingers are still rubbing James' scalp, so whatever, he's totally on James' side. "I know," he says quietly. "You wanna go back to sleep?"

James hums, pushing his head into Paulie's fingers. "Only if you keep doing that."

"Demanding," murmurs Paulie, but his lips are ticked upwards in a soft smile, and his eyes are warm, so James just settles down and catches the hem of Paulie's t-shirt in his hand, keeping him there as he closes his eyes and lets himself drift off, Paulie's fingers in his hair.

 

He wakes again sometime after it's gotten dark, chugs down a bowl of soup and half a bottle of Gatorade, lets Paulie dose him up on NyQuil, and then passes out again.

Paulie says, "Don't die while I'm sleeping, okay? Just-- cough really loud if you need anything."

James bats a hand at him and drifts off.

 

He sleeps through the night, apart from one time after midnight when he wakes himself up from coughing so hard, and Paulie is there in about ten seconds flat, sleep-rumpled and shirtless, guiding James so he's curled forward with Paulie's hand warm and steady on his back.

"Here," he says softly, when the coughing has subsided and James is just trying to resupply his lungs with enough air to stop himself from passing out, and also groaning a little over how much his everything aches from the force of the coughs. Paulie passes him another dose of the throat medicine. "It's been five hours since the NyQuil, you can have this."

James swallows it obediently, then presses his damp forehead to Paulie's shoulder.

"Hey," says Paulie gently, still rubbing his back.

"Don't go," mumbles James pathetically. He barely knows what's happening right now, but he knows he doesn't want Paulie to go away. James feels better when he's around.

"Okay," says Paulie. "Go back to sleep. I'll stay here."

 

When he wakes for real in the morning Paulie's still there, pressed close against James' back with an arm around his waist. It's stupidly nice, and somehow easier to keep his breathing steady, not dissolve into coughing again. He's still fever-cold, too, and Paulie is warm and bare-skinned behind him, his nose nudging against James' damp hairline, stubble scratching James' skin.

James sighs and then sniffs, wishing he could breathe properly because sometimes it's hard to just breathe around Paulie anyway. Paulie stirs, blunt fingernails scratching lightly at James' belly, and says, voice sleep rough, "How're you feeling, Nealer?"

James thinks about it for a moment. "Shitty," he says. "Maybe not as shitty as yesterday. Not sure yet."

Paulie hums. "Feel up to a shower?"

James could definitely go for a shower. He feels kind of gross, too much clammy sweat piled up, plus all the other questionable sick-person substances. He says as much.

Paulie laughs. "Plus you smell," he says, pulling away and stretching.

"Thanks," says James, rolling onto his back. "I'm sick."

"No excuses for poor hygiene, Nealer," says Paulie, grinning at him.

"Ugh, fuck off," says James, sitting up.

He hopes his spare toothbrush is still in Paulie's bathroom. His mouth feels foul.

Paulie climbs out of bed, patting James' head absently as he does, and disappears, only to come back with a pair of neatly folded sweatpants and a sweatshirt that actually belongs to James, folded just as precisely. He dumps both on James' lap, and James blinks, running his thumb over the collar of the sweatshirt.

"You left it here," says Paulie. "I'm gonna get some breakfast. Come to the kitchen when you're done."

"Yeah," says James stupidly. "Yeah, sure."

 

"You look cleaner," says Paulie when James shuffles into the kitchen. He pushes a bottle of Gatorade and a bowl of oatmeal across the counter. "Still shitty, though."

"Thanks." James shrugs. "My head still feels like it's full of cotton wool."

Paulie tilts his head. "I thought it was always like that."

"Ha ha," says James, throwing him a look. Paulie's mouth twitches into a smirk.

"I'm gonna take you to the doctor if you have another hour-long coughing attack like yesterday."

James' mouth is full of oatmeal, so he doesn't answer. When he swallows he says, "Do you want me to-- I can go home, just take the medicine and maybe some Gatorade, hole up 'til I'm better. I haven't coughed too much today, it's probably starting to go away."

"Don't be stupid," says Paulie. "You've managed a shower without braining yourself so far. Hardly a ringing endorsement of good health." He pauses, then adds, "Well, I guess it could be, for-- "

"Oh, shut up," says James. "Fine, I'll stay." It's not like it's a hardship or anything. Not like he was secretly hoping Paulie would say something exactly along those lines.

Paulie grins at him. "Wanna watch some TV?"

"Couch this time?"

"Sure," says Paulie, taking James' empty bowl.

 

It's almost lunchtime by the time James slumps sideways across the couch, probably squashing Paulie but too out of it to really care. It's still hard to breathe and Paulie's warmth makes him feel better, his hand on James' back stalling most of the residual coughing fits before they get too bad.

Still, it's only been a day, and every now and then the air catches the wrong way going down James' throat and he collapses into painful hacking, trying to groan miserably through the noise. "You sure you don't wanna see the doctor?" Paulie says, when James coughs for a minute straight, curling into a foetal position, trying to make himself smaller so there's less of him to ache.

"I think it's getting better," says James, eyes watering. "Didn't last as long as yesterday."

Paulie hums, hand moving absently on James' shoulder. "Okay," he says. "But let's get you some more medicine. You wanna eat some lunch?"

"Soup?" says James hopefully, making big eyes at Paulie.

Paulie snorts. "Lucky you're sick, you mooch," he says, tugging James' hair.

"You let me mooch when I'm not sick," James points out.

"Only breakfast," says Paulie. "I draw the line at anything after midday."

"Bullshit, you'd still feed me," says James confidently.

Paulie rolls his eyes. "I'd make you pay for takeout," he says.

"Still counts," says James. He'd be happy to pay for takeout twice every goddamn day if it meant he could eat it here with Paulie. He probably shouldn't say that, though.

Paulie just shakes his head, shoving James off him so he can stand and disappear into the kitchen. "I want coffee!" James calls after him with his dumb sandpaper voice. He coughs a little, wincing. Fuck, that hurts. "Can I have coffee yet? I'm totally feeling better."

"You can have it black," Paulie calls back. "Dairy is bad when you're congested."

James makes a face. He takes his coffee with cream and sugar, so that's a no. Damn it.

"I hate you," he says miserably.

"No, you don't," says Paulie easily.

"No, I don't," agrees James quietly, sighing.

 

After lunch-- Paulie feeds him soup and a sandwich made with soft bread and piled full of enough healthy things that it has no right being as delicious as it is-- James sacks out on the couch, dead to the world. The TV is still on, and he vaguely registers Paulie lifting and then resettling his legs at the other end of the couch, but he feels so disconnected from the rest of his body and also everything in general, and just passes the fuck out with his face mashed into a pillow, neck twisted enough that he can breathe.

He's dizzy and disoriented when Paulie wakes him for dinner, one hand squeezing his shoulder, the other pressing a fresh bottle of Gatorade to his chest. James groans and grabs it gratefully, chugging half at once and closing his eyes until his head is spinning a little less.

"How're you doing?" says Paulie. "I made risotto for dinner, if you're hungry."

James hums. He could eat. Paulie nods and heads into the kitchen, and James wonders vaguely how he managed to communicate that without speaking, and how Paulie got it.

He feels better once he's eaten, clearer and steadier. It's not quite so difficult to breathe and he managed an entire meal without choking or nearly coughing up a lung.

The throat medicine definitely seems to be working. Thank God for Paulie; if it were up to James he probably would've stuck to NyQuil and suffered a lot longer for his laziness.

"Think I'm on the mend," he groans, stretching hugely.

"Yeah?" says Paulie, looking pleased. "That's good, Nealer. You're not off the hook on the medicine, though. You know like ninety per cent of people stop taking medication way before they should."

"So in other words, you think ninety per cent of people are morons," says James.

Paulie just shrugs, smirking.

"Asshole," says James fondly.

"You know you would've," says Paulie.

"Shut up," says James with as much dignity as he can muster.

Paulie laughs, elbowing him gently. "Lucky you have me to stop you being dumb."

James snorts, but when Paulie gets up to get the medicine, he says, "I know," softly.

 

They're halfway through a rerun of Masterchef when James says, "Can we go outside?"

Paulie blinks. "Sure," he says. "Need some air?"

James nods. "Stretch my legs a bit," he adds, standing.

Paulie hands him a bottle of water and a pocket pack of tissues before they head outside.

"Thanks," says James, laughing quietly.

They wander around the block, Paulie's hands in his pockets and his eyes sharp on James.

James swallows mouthfuls of water every few feet obediently, and he does need the tissues, which even he wouldn't have predicted but Paulie clearly did.

It wears him out more than he's okay with, but the fresh air feels good in his lungs and his limbs are looser when they're back inside Paulie's place. James yawns and says, "I'm gonna get into bed. Come watch TV with me?" He widens his eyes beseechingly.

Paulie snorts out a laugh.

 

He's alone in bed when he wakes the next morning, although the sheets are warm and rumpled on the other side, and he has vague memories of stirring during the night with another body solid and warm alongside his own. His head is still kind of fuzzy and off-kilter, but by the time he's stumbled to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face, and made it down to the couch to take stock, James realises he's actually feeling much better. The persistent itch in his throat is mostly gone and he can breathe through his nose again, which feels like heaven.

He's good enough that he could probably go back to his place or even start doing some of the less demanding things he had planned for his first week of summer, so he's not sure why, when Paulie asks how he's feeling, he shrugs and says, layering on the patheticness, "Been better."

Paulie just clicks his tongue and presses his hand to James' forehead, swiping his thumb over James' temple, and says, "Tea?"

James wrinkles his nose, but says, "Sure, whatever," which makes Paulie roll his eyes fondly.

He disappears into the kitchen, and James frowns to himself, once the warmth, literal and otherwise, from Paulie's touch has faded. He's not sure why he lied; him taking advantage of Paulie's-- well, of his everything, his house and his superior cooking skills and his endless supply of surprisingly delicious boutique coffee, has always been a thing, even if it's actually only partly because James' fridge is full of nothing but beer and questionable takeout. It's not like Paulie's going to kick him out because he's feeling better.

Just that it's been kind of nice, this, having an excuse for more, for Paulie reaching out to touch him with gentle hands and indulging him easily when all he wants to do is curl up next to Paulie and press into his solidness.

It's not like he doesn't always, but generally James holds back as much as he can, because he's pathetic enough already without adding his whole thing for Paulie into the equation, and whenever he tries to sprawl too wide across Paulie's couch Paulie will kick or shove him aside to make room, and yeah, that's nice too, but just...maybe sometimes he wants this, Paulie soft and accommodating, lending his limbs and his heat for James to lean on, no questions or weird looks. No having to explain the terrifying fullness-- rightness-- that wells up inside him whenever Paulie is around.

James pushes those thoughts away for now, anyway, and dozes on the couch with the hiss of the frying pan and the murmur of the morning news blanketing him, soft and comfortable. He jerks awake when Paulie comes back in, carrying tea and plates, and James stares blankly at the French Toast before he makes a dumb noise of appreciation and grabs his fork. Paulie laughs quietly, picking up his own.

"You never make French Toast," he says with his mouth full.

"That's not true," says Paulie, nudging the maple syrup across the coffee table.

James hums in acquiescence, swallows, and says, "Okay, but you hardly ever make it."

Paulie shrugs. "Season's over, you're sick. Call it a treat."

"Like a dog?" says James, smirking at him. "Made it through the season, took my medicine, so I get French Toast?"

Paulie rolls his eyes. "Nealer, if I was waiting for you to be as well behaved as a dog, I'd be waiting a long time, and I'd never get to eat French Toast."

James kicks his calf, grinning when Paulie laughs, then sticks another forkful of toast into his mouth and says, "Whatever, I don't even care, 's fucking good."

They hang around on the couch, dirty plates and mugs piled up on the table, because Paulie wants to watch the news, and James wants to sit with Paulie.

James gets up eventually, when Paulie is absorbed in some story about trees, to wash the dishes and rummage around in the kitchen for his medicine. It's not much, but it makes him feel a little bit better. He dries off the last mug and sets it in its place in the cupboard, then tips back a shot of the throat medicine and calls out, "I'm taking my medicine, mom, do I get another treat?"

"Not 'til you shower," Paulie shouts back.

"Rude," says James, shuffling back to the couch and cuffing the back of Paulie's head.

Paulie just shrugs, tipping a grin up at him.

"How're the trees?" says James.

"Fascinating," says Paulie. "You should watch, you have trees in Canada."

"Pretty sure there's trees in Minnesota too," says James. "Think I might've even seen some in Pittsburgh, now I think about it."

Paulie smirks. "Right, but Canada's all trees. I read the brochure."

"We have moose," says James with dignity. "And Tim Hortons."

Paulie grins at him. "Wow, Nealer. Sounds like a real cultural hot spot."

"Fuck you," says James. "Just like Minnesota, right?"

Paulie elbows him. "You like Minnesota," he says. "I know, I took you there."

"It's okay," says James, shrugging. He doesn't say, yeah, I loved it, because I love you, and also your family is kind of awesome, because that might freak Paulie out. "You'd like Canada too, if you actually came home with me sometime. My mom thinks you don't like her."

Paulie's face is kind of hilarious, a mix of contrite and outraged and guilty. "I like your mom better than you," he says, frowning. "Guess I'll have to come up sometime."

"Sweet," says James. "I'll introduce you to the mooses."

"Moose," says Paulie absently, looking back at the TV with a small smile.

"Huh?" says James.

"Moose is the plural of moose, not mooses," says Paulie. "You suck at being Canadian."

"Yeah, well, you just suck," says James. "Also, I'm googling that."

Paulie rolls his eyes. "Go shower," he says. "You smell like sick person."

"Fine, fine," says James with a huff. "Guess it'll help."

Paulie hums, stretching. James tries not to look at his bare stomach where his t-shirt is riding up, and fails completely. "I'm gonna go do some errands," Paulie says. "Try not to die, okay?"

"Can't promise anything," says James, heading for the bathroom.

He jerks off in the shower, thinking about Paulie, of course, and it's good, too good, the flashes of his face and his bare skin and thinking about Paulie naked and wet where James is standing now, maybe jerking himself off too, slick hands wrapped around his cock. He comes hard, shaking and a little guilty; usually he saves it for his own shower, his own space, and the headiness of doing it where he can smell Paulie's soap, where he knows Paulie showers, is awesome and terrible and too much. He groans, cleaning up and shutting off the water, towelling himself off while he tries not to think about it, which leads him to thinking about food instead, and then whether Paulie's making anything for lunch, and fuck, damn it, his friends are right, he's a ridiculous caricature of a human being, and kind of a failure in general.

It's not a quick shower, and by the time he manages to dress himself, still slow with the residual aches of the illness, Paulie is back from his errands, getting lunch together in the kitchen.

"Hey," says James, shuffling in and sniffing deeply.

He's got a whole new appreciation for the awesomeness of an unblocked nose.

Paulie must realise, because he grins and says, "Feeling better?"

James hums. "I can breathe," he says. "It's awesome."

"It's pretty good, yeah," agrees Paulie, chuckling. "Omelettes?"

"Like I'm gonna say no," says James.

Paulie nods, poking the frying pan with a spatula. "Take some more medicine," he says.

James groans, because that shit tastes foul and he's more akin to being picky when he's not dying quite as bad, but Paulie shoots him a stern look, so he grabs the medicine and tips back a shot, grimacing. "Happy now?" he says. "Am I allowed to eat lunch?"

"Stop complaining, it's for your own good," says Paulie.

"Yeah, yeah," says James, and then ruins it by coughing.

Paulie smirks at him.

"Whatever, omelettes would've worked just as good," says James.

"They really wouldn't," says Paulie. "Actually, since they're full of cheese, maybe you shouldn't have any. You're still coughing and I told you dairy's no good for that."

"I will fight you," says James, glaring.

Paulie sighs loudly, biting down on a grin. "Fine," he says. "Wouldn't wanna hurt your ego."

"I could take you," says James, and then coughs again, fuck his traitorous throat.

"Uh huh," says Paulie, amused. "Save it 'til it's a fair fight, yeah?"

"Ugh," says James, and steals a pepper from the chopping board.

 

He hangs around through the afternoon, even though he really is feeling good enough to strike out on his own again. The tickling in his throat is the only thing still lingering, besides the faint allover ache that's always left after a shitty cold, and even that's not as bad, no more painful coughing fits or hacking up gross substances. His nose is still a little runny, but not actually blocked, and that's pretty much a clean bill of health as far as James is concerned.

He wonders absently how long he would've been sick if Paulie hadn't been around to help; he's not sure, but it'd probably have been a lot longer than three days.

Sometimes his life skills apall even him.

The bottom line is he should go home, but when they're done with lunch Paulie throws a blanket at him and tugs James' feet onto his lap, flicking the TV on and settling back, and well, James can't really bring himself to move, then, not when Paulie has a warm hand curled over his ankle and the blanket winds up spread over both their legs, soft and heavy like James feels.

He manages to drift off again, and when he wakes in the darkening evening Paulie is leaning over him with a hand on his shoulder, smiling softly. "Hey," he says.

"Hey," says James, blinking. "Shit, what time's it?"

"I know you measure time by food," says Paulie, "So, nearly dinner time."

James sits up abruptly. He'd definitely meant to get out of Paulie's hair by now.

"You okay?" says Paulie, straightening.

"Yeah," says James, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

He should go. He has to go; he's hung around long enough letting Paulie take care of him, and Paulie's definitely going to notice that he's better, and then James will have no excuse, because there's only so much 'I'm a human disaster who burns water' he can fall back on before it starts to look weird, even with the added grace time from being sick. He does have a phone and enough money to pay for takeout, after all. Shit, if he really put his mind to it he could probably manage a salad or something without accidentally cutting off a limb.

It's not that he couldn't survive on his own, albeit a lot less smoothly than he does with Paulie's help, it's just that he really doesn't want to. It's awful and pathetic, and most of the time he hangs around way longer than would really be acceptable for normal people, and has to fall back far too often on the excuse of food and proper household amenities to cover up the way he's really just lingering like a pathetic, lovesick teenager.

It's just fucking lucky he's such a general disaster that he can actually make that excuse fly to begin with.

God, he's so bad at being a functioning human, it's not even funny.

It's just, sometimes forcing himself to cross the street back to his empty house when Paulie is right here feels so wrong and stupid and pointless, and he's never been that great at making rational decisions. Having to do what he knows he should when most of him so badly wants the exact opposite is depressingly difficult. Doing the right thing shouldn't be this hard. Only, well, it's Paulie, and that pretty much explains it as far as James is concerned, explains why he hangs around so long trying to build up any sort of motivation to leave.

Right now, though, he definitely has to go before he loses all conviction and winds up embarrassing himself as hardcore as that time with Geno and the maybe-trade. He doesn't want to test whether Paulie will ignore it a second-time round.

He's not sure he's ready for Paulie's reaction or-- or rejection, if he knew how fine the line is between the way things are now and James just holing up on any spare surface with his own supply of beer and three week-old takeout and never leaving again.

"You want dinner?" says Paulie.

"I-- nah," says James, stretching and standing. "Nah, I'm gonna head home. Think I've pushed your luck enough with this cold. I'll take the last of my germs with me, yeah?"

"Okay," says Paulie slowly. "You sure? Do you even have food over there?"

James waves a hand. "I'm good," he says. "I'll probably just crash. I'll see you, okay?"

He books it back across the street before Paulie can even answer.

It's not until he's inside his house that he realises he didn't even thank Paulie, fuck. The guy goes out of his way to get James medicine and cook for him and share a fucking bed with him while he's gross and sick, and James can't even remember to say thank you.

His mom would be horrified.

He pulls his phone out of his hoodie pocket and taps out thanks for everything btw.

And then, i appreciate it i know you didnt have to.

And then, seriously.

He crawls kind of miserably into bed and turns on the TV, shoving his phone under a pillow.

It's maybe twenty minutes before Paulie replies with, for fuck's sake nealer.

James stares at his phone, unsure what that's supposed to mean, until he hears Paulie letting himself into James' place with the spare key James gave him (damn it).

"James?" he calls.

"In here," says James with resignation, sitting up and pushing the covers to his knees.

Paulie comes into his room and throws a bag down onto his bed, frowning at him. "What the hell was that?" he says, folding his arms. "You didn't even bring your medicine, dumbass."

"Oh," says James, scrubbing the back of his neck. "Uh, right, sorry. I just didn't wanna mooch off you anymore, I guess. I know I've been kind of a pain."

Paulie gives him a blank look. "You mooch all the time. You're always a pain."

"Wow, thanks," says James, huffing.

Paulie smirks. "I don't actually care, Nealer," he says.

James sighs and picks at a loose thread in his sweatpants, and doesn't look at Paulie when he says, "Right, but that's-- sometimes I just have to make myself get out because if I don't I probably won't ever leave." He shrugs, smiling wry and self-deprecating.

Whatever, Paulie knows he's kind of a disaster.

Paulie laughs and says, "My cooking isn't that great, you know."

"No," mumbles James, still not looking at him, "But you are."

There's a very long silence.

"Nealer," says Paulie quietly, eventually. "Hey, look at me."

James sets his shoulders and tips his head up.

Paulie-- well, he doesn't look freaked out, which is good, but he's also just staring at James, still and serious and assessing, and it's a little bit terrifying. "Um," says James.

Paulie lets out a breath and rolls his eyes, and then he leans down and presses his mouth to James', firm and not hesitant at all, cupping his jaw with one rough, solid palm.

James blinks, going hot all over, and brings his hands up to fist in the front of Paulie's sweater in case he decides to pull away. He doesn't, just shifts so he's kneeling on the mattress and nudges his nose against James' cheek, parting his lips a little, making the kiss softer and wetter all at once. James opens up for him straight away, because there was never any doubt he'd do anything else, and Paulie smiles, swiping a thumb over James' cheek and licking into his mouth.

"Fuck," mumbles James, clenching his fists and kissing Paulie harder, making it faster, a little more desperate, messy and sloppy, stubble scraping and a hint of teeth. Paulie's a really fucking good kisser, of course he is, dragging his teeth over James' bottom lip and soothing the sting with his tongue, and then he licks back inside, hands holding James' head angled where he wants it, taking control of the pace again, slowing James down but kissing him deep, no-nonsense.

When he pulls back he doesn't go further than resting his forehead against James', thumbing the corner of James' mouth as he catches his breath. "You're a moron, Nealer," he says.

"Yeah, I know," says James. "Fuck, Paulie. Is this-- can I-- really?"

Paulie rolls his eyes. "Moron," he repeats, and kisses James again, insistent this time, like he's proving a point, pushing forward until James is on his back and gasping, clutching Paulie's weight between his spread legs and arching up into his hard, solid warmth.

"Oh, shit," breathes James, when Paulie detours down to kiss his neck, sucking lightly and then harder when James just stretches in invitation, the tingling, fizzy pleasure-pain making his dick twitch, swelling and dampening. He presses up against Paulie again, trying to rub off against him, stupid and messy and ungraceful, but too desperate to stop. He doesn't think Paulie minds; he's still sucking distractingly on James' neck, and his dick is lined up hard alongside James', and he knows James is an all-over-the-place semi-disaster. He's here anyway.

Paulie hums against his skin, rolling his hips hard, oh God, that feels fucking good. "Like this?"

"Yes," groans James. "Wait, no-- less pants. Wait, shit, I'm still kinda sick."

Paulie draws back to look at him. God, he's flushed and a little damp at the temples, lips slick, and his hair is a mess. James wants to do things to him. Wants everything.

"You're right," says Paulie after a moment. "Maybe we should stop. Too strenuous for you."

"Fuck you, I meant I don't wanna get you sick," says James, tugging on his shirt and glaring.

Paulie chuckles, ducking in to kiss the corner of his mouth. "If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen, Nealer," he says. "I shared a bed with your gross germs. That ship has sailed."

"I guess," says James. And then, "Okay, yeah, awesome, fuck it. Let's do this."

Paulie blinks at him, then bursts out laughing. James catches his blinding smile before he ducks his head to chuckle against the side of James' neck, shaking his head.

"What?" says James, poking his sides. "What?"

"Nothing," says Paulie, lifting his head again. "You're a disaster, is all. I don't know why I like you so much."

"But you do," says James softly. It comes out sounding more like a question than he'd maybe like.

"Yeah," says Paulie, leaning close and kissing him once, twice, smiling, eyes creased. "I do."

 

When James comes, groaning, breath stuttering, he starts coughing and can't stop.

Paulie follows right after with his eyes already creased up, somehow amused and worried and blissed-out all at once. He doesn't stop laughing, because he's an asshole, but he's James' favourite asshole in the world, so it's still pretty much perfect.