A/N: Poor Tom isn’t feeling well in this one-off. He needs some TLC. Best of all, though she has a name, Paulina is not described. She can be who you want her to be. Soft, fluffy goodness.
Mild warning: A little graphic and a bit up there in the “Ew” department.
Tom held his head in his hand. His eyes swam, blurring the words on the pages he was supposed to be analyzing. It was day ten of this stubborn virus, and no end in sight, but he had no choice; he couldn’t miss another day of work. His lungs were tight and crowded. The constant coughing gave him a stabbing pain in his side. Slumped against his desk, he fought to stay awake.
It was a lazy afternoon on a Friday. Everyone had reached the point where they were no longer productive. Beyond Tom’s office, he heard Paulina burst into a hearty laughter with Simon. Tom was glad there were people were still in the department.
“No, that’s not what happened, you left out part of it!” Paulina hooted.
“I did not! What are you talking about?” Simon laughed. Simon was leaning against the doorframe of his office, and Paulina, his assistant, was sprawled lazily in her chair. The two of them were sharing some joke.
Tom decided to get up and see what all the laughter was about. But the second he stood up he felt dizzy. He inched his way painstakingly towards Paulina’s cubicle and came to rest against the tweed frame of Paulina’s office divider.
Immediately, Paulina swept Tom into the conversation.
“And then, there was this flash of light that filled the whole screen, and Simon says it was aliens, but I think it was something only the guy saw. What do you think?” she asked Tom. Her eyes were challenging him in a playful way, daring him to disagree with her.
“What movie is this?” Tom asked.
“Phenomenon. We both saw only the first half, and the station went out.” Being county dwellers, Simon and Paulina had no domestic cable and had to rely on primitive and temperamental antennae for television stations. However, Tom had rented the film some years before.
“I’ve seen it,” Tom said smugly.
“You did?” Simon cried. “Tell us then. Who’s right, me or the airhead over here?”
“Airhead?!” Paulina barked at Simon. “You’re the one who’s blonde!”
Tom started to laugh, but then coughed.
He tried to catch his breath, but couldn’t. His face turned purple. Cough, cough, cough. He felt Simon’s arm around his back. Paulina stood up and grabbed his shoulders as he tipped forward.
“Breathe, Tom!” she cried.
He shook his head. Can’t.
“Yes, you can!” she shouted. “Come on, do it! Force it!”
He opened his throat and scooped in a gulp of air. He gasped in two more breaths before more coughing started.
Hack hack hack.
“Simon, go get help!” Paulina said to him.
“Joelle used to be a nurse, go find her.”
Simon took off, long legs leaping, blonde hair flying.
Paulina helped pick Tom up off the floor and steered him into her desk chair. Tom’s face turned purple again as he ran out of breath.
“Through your nose. In. Come on now.” She kneeled in front of him and held his shoulders. Tom desperately tried to clamp his mouth shut and force air through his nostrils. They collapsed with a desperate intake of breath.
His throat spasmed, and the coughing began again, fast and furious. Then he felt a snap in his side and his body twisted. Agony. Phlegm trickled down the back of his throat. He gagged, choked, and before he could stop himself, he violently threw up all over himself, and Paulina.
“Whoop!” cried Paulina, falling backwards. She looked down at her shirt, and wiped her hands on the sleeves. She looked up at Tom, and could see how horrified he was. Her face softened. “Oh… uh, okay, okay… not a big deal.” She leaned forward, ripped off her soiled plaid shirt (she had on a white undershirt beneath), and wadded it up in a ball. She got back up on her knees and began mopping him up with a clean corner of the shirt. “There we go,” she said quietly. “No problem.”
Tom’s chest heaved, sending needles of pain through his ribs. He was horrified by what just happened, especially in front of Paulina — or all over Paulina, more to the point — and could say nothing. His eyes, already watery from coughing, pooled with tears. He blinked, and they ran down his hot face.
Paulina saw one of his tears fall, and she looked up at Tom. “Oh no, it’s okay,” she said softly. She reached over and pulled a tissue out of the box on her desk. She gently patted away Tom’s tears. “It’s alright, it really is. It happens. I just wish you’d told me you didn’t feel good.”
Tom looked away, feeling stupid.
Paulina stroked his arm. “I’m just glad you’re breathing again. I got so scared.”
Simon came back with Joelle in tow, and rounded the corner. “Here he — oh gross!” Simon said, recoiling.
Paulina laughed. “Some help you are.”
“What?” said Joelle. She saw what had happened. “Oh boy.” Joelle stepped over the bulk of the mess and around to where Tom was sitting. “How’re you doing?”
“Breathing better?” She looked in his eyes, pulled down the lower lid. Joelle took his wrist in her hand and pressed on the inside of it. She checked her watch.
When she let go of his hand, Paulina took it in both of hers.
Joelle cranked Paulina’s lamp around and turned it on, shining it in Tom’s face. “Open,” she commanded. Tom opened his mouth. Joelle looked inside. “Wow, pretty red in there. Don’t see any infection though. Deep breath?”
Tom inhaled and cried out.
“What hurts?” Paulina asked.
“My ribs,” Tom gasped. “Oh my God.”
“Hmmm…” said Joelle. “You might have cracked a rib with all that coughing.”
“Should I take him to the hospital?” Paulina asked.
Joelle shook her head. “They don’t do anything for cracked ribs. But he probably should go home. At least to clean up.” Joelle looked at Paulina. “Might not be such a bad idea for you too, Pauls.”
Tom felt humiliated. He didn’t move.
Joelle left, and Paulina got up on her feet. Unexpectedly, Paulina touched Tom’s shoulder and leaned in close. Tom felt her breath near his ear.
“You just rest here a second. I’ll get your coat out of your office, and we’ll go together, OK?”
He took in a breath, and a shot rang through his ribs.
After Paulina packed up her things (discreetly packing her soiled plaid shirt in a plastic bag), she brought Tom his coat and book bag.
“I’m going to take some work home, but Dan says you don’t have to,” she said. “Here, stand up, I’ll help you get your coat on.”
Tom tried to stand up, but even putting pressure on the arms of the chair to lift himself up was agonizing. The squeeze on his rib was excruciating. He whimpered.
Paulina dropped her bag and leaned forward. She put her foot on the chair’s base, and slid her arm around Tom’s back. He reached his arm around her neck and let her lift him up.
It was terrible. It hurt so badly. He cried, and it was real.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she soothed. “A little more, you’re alright.”
And then he was up on his feet. Standing was better.
“Let’s get you home; you need some rest,” Pauline said. “Come on.” She held him across his back, moving as slowly as he wanted, shuffling step after painful step, all the way out of the building.
Walking to the train station was murderous. A five-minute walk took them half an hour.
“We’ve missed the ten-thirty!” Tom moaned.
“So? We’ll be in plenty of time for the eleven o-five.” She paused to straighten his book bag. “Unless you feel like running.”
The 11:05 train was practically vacant, as it was an odd time in the morning, and commuters typically were going towards the city at this time of day, not away from it. So Paulina found a four-seater that was completely vacant for the two of them to sit in. Paulina helped Tom ease into his seat, and then sat down herself.
The train pulled out of the station and began its journey through the sunlit fall morning.
In the quiet, Tom spoke. “I’m so sorry I vomited on you.”
Paulina looked at him and smiled. “I wanted a day off anyhow.”
“Yeah but it’s still… unpleasant.”
She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. It got on my overshirt, which is safely in this bag, and clothes wash. No big deal.”
He sighed, and his rib stung. “Ow!” he cried.
“You okay?” Paulina asked.
He adjusted his seat and groaned.
Paulina shifted sideways. “Come here,” she said softly.
Tom leaned over and sank his head into her shoulder. With her free hand, Paulina reached over and stroked Tom’s side tenderly.
“It’s alright,” she whispered. “It’ll all be OK.”
With Paulina’s warm hand on his side, and her soft heavenly shoulder under his cheek, and the rocking of the train, Tom drifted off to sleep.
Paulina gently shook him awake.
“Hey Buddy. We’re almost at my stop.”
She helped him lift off her shoulder. “Hate to do this to you; this is the most relaxed I’ve seen you all morning.”
Tom sat up, feeling needles of pain rocket up his side. Ow, ow, ow!!! He couldn’t even take a deep breath to yawn.
“Are you going to be OK? I’m not sure you’re going to make it to your end of the county.”
“I don’t want to move!” Tom gasped.
Paulina bit her lip. “Hmmm… what if… you come back to my place with me? You could have a rest, and I could wash your shirt.”
Tom thought about it. The temptation was overwhelming, but he had to decide if he could really pull it off.
“Then,” Paulina continued, “I could drive you home at the time you normally get there, no one would suspect a thing.”
Yes. Yes, it would all work out. It had to.
“Alright,” Tom said.
Together they stepped slowly off the train, Paulina with her arm around Tom’s back to help him along.
The washing machined hummed and sloshed gently as Tom’s pants and shirt tumbled inside with Paulina’s. She had given him an old bathrobe to wear in the meantime, which, although purple, was long enough to at least reach his knees.
Tom drifted in an out of consciousness as he lay on Paulina’s couch. Across from him, she swung dreamily in her hammock (her substitute for a bed, she explained), one curvy, muscular leg drooped over one side, catching the carpet just long enough to keep the motion going. She was watching some bizarre English comedy show, which got a chuckle out of her every so often. The TV was on very low. Tom could not hear the jokes, just the soft hiss of the laughing audience.
The blanket under his cheek had a soft woolen smell to it, like it had been aired outside recently. He nuzzled it and sighed slightly, feeling a little sharp stab in his rib. Ouch! He winced slightly, drawing in a wet breath through his teeth.
The sound made Paulina glance over at him.
“Are you alright?”
He nodded and closed his eyes. His body was settling a bit, but he was still so very uncomfortable. He tried to turn himself over on his side, but it proved to be too agonizing, little zings of sharp pain zipping though his chest like needles.
“You know,” Paulina said slowly, “I’ve heard that motion is good for chronic pain. Things like backaches and colic and…. um, chest pains.”
He looked up at her and blinked. “What did you have in mind?”
She sat up slowly and rolled herself out of the hammock in one motion, and approached the couch. She slipped one hand beneath his shoulder, and the other she slid delicately behind his neck, touching him softly, as if she were afraid that he might break. “Easy now,” she whispered. “And up.”
Tom relaxed his muscles and let her do the work. He gasped sharply as she swept his body upright and his weight resettled on his spine, compressing his ribs. He began to pant.
“Okay, okay,” she said hastily. “Take it easy. It’s alright. Almost done.”
She slid her arm around his back and gently lifted Tom to his feet. With her other hand she swooped the blanket off the couch and fanned it around his shoulders. “Come on now,” she encouraged, shuffling him forward. “Walk a little. It’s not that far. You can do it.”
They made it across the cool basement floor to the hammock. Paulina hooked her leg over it and straddled the blue material. “Sit with me,” she said quietly. She held her arms up. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”
He crouched over, and gasped at the strain.
“It’s okay, relax, breathe.” Paulina eased Tom into the hammock and leaned back, causing Tom to roll gently into her. She pulled the blanket around him and smoothed it over his back.
The hammock started rocking. Tom melted into Paulina’s body. With every swing of the hammock, the pain shifted from one side of Tom’s body, then the other, and back again, until it finally went away. He leaned his head into her chest, feeling her breath on the top of his head.
His eyes closed.