Swollen and itchy from head to toe, Alfred couldn’t be mentally kicking himself any harder if he tried. What’s usually a routine chore has landed him miles away from where he wants to be: on his sixth (seventh?) date with his new boyfriend, Matthew.
Sort of boyfriend, anyway — because while it’s pretty obvious to all and sundry that neither of them are seeing anyone else, it’s only been a month and a half since Alfred drummed up the courage to ask the blonde Canadian out to dinner. There’s also the fact that they’ve yet to actually discuss it past mutual agreements (yeah, I like being around you too), awkwardly worded text messages (hey so when can we bang? hang. i meant hang. crap.), and tipsy confessions (I really wanna kiss you, if that’s okay?).
It’s cool, though. He’s not trying to rush it.
Alfred groans, his skin tingling painfully as he stretches over to reach the bedside table and pluck his mobile from it. If only he’d been paying attention to the tree he had been pruning; now he has to call Matt and try to explain, through puffy lips, why he’s staying in the hospital overnight and not on his way to Susanna’s Modern Tiki Lounge.
At least dialing the Canadian is easy, given that he’s the last five entries in Alfred’s call history. The phone rings twice before Matthew answers.
“Al! Hey! Where are you?”
The soft tenor of Matt’s voice is nearly drowned out by the cringe-worthy volume of his background and Al groans again, inwardly this time. Of course Matt would already be there, waiting for him. The lounge sounds lively too; he can hear music and the people singing along, sprinkled through with whoops and cheers. It only makes him feel worse that he’s in no condition to be there with the blonde.
“Hey Matt, I can’t come, I— I’m, uh, at the hospital ‘cause—”
"Hospital?" Matthew gasps sharply, cutting Alfred off mid-slurred-sentence. "Oh my god, hold on."
Alfred can tell the moment Matt swaps the ambience of the noisy lounge for the relative silence of an early summer evening. He's grateful for it, since the pounding in his head dies down as the music does, though the change does nothing to quell the way his chest tightens at the thinly-veiled panic in Matthew's voice.
"What happened? Where are you?"
“I’m at Receiving, and I’m okay, really,” Alfred says, laughing in a way he hopes comes out reassuringly despite its raspiness. “I had a run-in with a wasp’s nest earlier and they’re keeping me overnight, just in case.”
“Oh.” Matthew’s sigh of relief is audible across the line. Then, “Still, what room are you in? I’m coming to see you.”
“H174— what? No, you don’t—” Alfred halts midway with a squeak, his lips, cheeks, and throat beginning to ache and itch anew. He’s trying to swallow the itch away as Matthew says, amusement creeping into his tone,
“Too late, already on my way. I’ll even bring you a burger, alright?”
That has Al nearly dropping his phone in surprise; and he’s not sure what surprises him more: that Matt wants to come and see him like this, or that he’s so adamant about doing it. So he concedes, because — besides the butterflies fluttering in his belly and his arms itching from his palms to his elbows — a burger sounds really, really good. A burger with...
“Can it have extra pickles?”
Alfred grins as Matthew laughs.
He's still grinning when Matt arrives, announcing himself with a light knock on the door jamb, a fast-food bag cradled in one arm.
"Hey you," Al greets, scooting up into a sitting position. The room suddenly feels warmer with Matthew's presence in it; warmer still when Matt bridges the distance between them, pulling a chair to the edge of Al's bed. "You look great."
Alfred isn't saying that reflexively, either; clad in only a simple button-down shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, and dark denim, he's left wondering how Matthew manages to be so casual and so alluring simultaneously.
"You're not looking half-bad yourself," the blonde responds, flushing red under Al's compliment. Most people look terrible under harsh, fluorescent hospital lights; not Matt.
"Yeah, right," Alfred snorts, amused, letting Matt drop a burger, wrapped and still warm, into his hands. He waits until Matthew’s seated again before he peels the crinkly wrapper away, despite the loud, immediate protest from his stomach. “It’s just the Canadian in you, you can’t help but say polite stuff.”
“Really,” Matt says sincerely amidst a mouthful of fries, ignoring Al’s playful jab at his nationality. “I’ve seen way worse. I grew up on a farm, remember?”
“Mmhmm,” Alfred hums around bites of his burger. Unable to open his mouth wide, he takes smaller bites than he normally would; more of the condiments still wind up on his mouth, rather than in it.
He can’t help being messy with his lips swollen as they are, but he’s a touch embarrassed nonetheless, growing more so when Matthew leans forward spontaneously to dab at a streak of ketchup near his chin.
Al swallows, feeling his nose redden. “Hey…,”
“Here,” Matthew says mildly, offering Al the napkin. Matt’s smile is warm and fond, reflected in bright violet eyes, and Al pauses mid-reach as if suspended by it, his heart skipping a beat — or two — or three—
They’re both startled by a sharp knock on the door, followed by a deep, feminine voice Alfred recognizes as the head nurse. “Visiting hours are almost up, hun,” she says, poking her head into the room to be sure she’d been heard.
After an awkward exchange of glances between the three of them, Matthew’s response of, “Guess I’d better get going, then, eh?” is enough to send her on her way. Al nods and, just like that, whatever that moment had been is gone. Left behind as Al wipes his mouth is a fluttering he hopes he isn’t alone in feeling.
Suddenly, the reality of spending the rest of the night alone here is less than appealing, yet Al doesn’t let it creep into his voice. “Thanks for stopping by,” he says, looking up at Matt as he stands. “I totally owe you one for the burger, it was great.”
Then, as an afterthought, “And sorry I messed up our date.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Matt replies softly, shaking his head, drawing Alfred’s eye with the way his blonde curls bounce around his ears.
That seems like it should be it, but Matthew doesn’t move and Alfred doesn’t say anything— though he thinks he should, because they’re openly staring at each other now, the reluctance to part stretching between them like something out of a cliché romance novel.
“Um, so…,” Al starts, trailing. “I’ll see you later?”
Al’s words work as though breaking a spell that had fallen over them, prompting Matthew to look away briefly and cough, embarrassed. “Yeah, of course,” Matt says, lips twisting into a wry smile. “How about breakfast tomorrow, since you owe me?”
Alfred’s only half-relieved to feel like he’s back in familiar territory with Matt. It means everything’s normal.
It also means everything’s not.