by VATERGrrl
Rating: PG
Fandom: Original
Author's Notes: The line "Do you remember the ring?" is taken from Anna Russell's delightful recitation of Wagner's Ring cycle - well worth listening to, if you get the chance.

"I cad't believe thad happed." I stared into the milky depths of my double latte, feeling my face burn with remembered embarrassment. Technically speaking, my face could well have been flushed from fever, but I wanted to think about that even less than the spectacle I'd made of myself during Cory and Lynn's wedding ceremony.

"Nobody noticed," Heather offered loyally, pushing a new stack of paper napkins toward me. When I dipped my head down to pinch a napkin around my runny nose, she brushed the back of her hand against my forehead. To outsiders, it probably appeared that she was more than a little sweet on me, a cute maid of honor/best man pairing. I knew, however, that she was trying to determine just how high my fever was, and I resisted the urge to press against her cool hand and absorb that sub-zero relief.

"Yeah, ride." I leaned back against the high backrest of the café booth, keeping the napkin firmly clutched around my nose. The proprietor had scored some sort of a bargain when a local Catholic church had closed shop, and the booths were all made from recycled pews. I didn't attend church except for weddings, funerals, and, on occasion, holiday services of one kind or another, so the seating only made me uncomfortably aware of my inappropriate outburst only an hour earlier.

I had remained quiet as long as possible, standing still and posture-perfect next to Cory as he watched his shy, radiant bride-to-be walk up the aisle beside both her father and mother. When Cor had stepped down to claim his bride, exchanging a handshake with David Carlson and giving Joanne Carlson a kiss on the cheek, I'd ventured a snuffle, figuring anyone in the audience who could hear would just chalk it up to my being a big schmaltz ball and not a desperate attempt to get my nose to stop running.

Once the pastor had welcomed everyone to the church and made the preliminary noises about love and commitment, she announced a series of readings which Cory and Lynn had put into the ceremony themselves. For a couple of scientists, their choices in literature and popular culture had been surprisingly sharp and, to my horror, lengthy. While a few of the wedding guests stood to read poetry, song lyrics, or a passage from Karl Marx, I struggled against an increasingly urgent need to sneeze, at first repeating to myself, "Not here, not now." When the power of that mantra dwindled, I moved into recalling, silently, the first part of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." It was hardly romantic stuff, fear in a handful of dust and whatnot, but it kept the tickles at bay fairly well.

Indeed, it kept me so well occupied that the pastor had to repeat my name twice before I realized I was being asked to do something.

"Huh? Wha?"

That was the first laugh I got, even from the lady pastor, who composed herself in an instant. "Do you remember the ring?"

"Oh, uhb, yes, the rig." I dug around in my pants pocket and came up with the small velvet box Cory had handed me earlier. I hadn't bothered to take the rings out of their slots, for fear I'd lose the small golden circles, and now I had to pry them out with clumsy fingers, my vision blurred by moisture that had everything to do with the effort of fighting back a sneeze and not much to do with emotion.

"Here y'go." I kept my words to a minimum - each one I uttered seemed the perfect opportunity for my control to slip and a sneeze to rip out. Once I'd forked over the rings, I closed up the box and tucked it back away, hazarding a quick pinch at my nose and an accompanying sniffle before I dropped my hand back down to my side as formality dictated.

The pastor yammered on for a few minutes about the sanctity and beauty of marriage, long minutes during which the minor relief I'd achieved by sniffling evaporated completely, leaving me once more struggling against a maddening, swirling, escalating itch. Had I my druthers, I'd have gladly slunk off to some remote corner - Siberia, preferably - and let lose with a series of "utch-shooo!" roars that would have caused frightened caribou to stampede and permafrost to crack open. Unfortunately, my only option was to try to pretend that I was not sweltering in my starched penguin suit and spit-shined black dress shoes, that I was paying attention to every carefully planned moment of the wedding, and, most emphatically, that I did not have a burgeoning, ready-to-erupt-like-Mount-Saint-Helens cold.

In my defense, I managed to hold out until just a moment before the nice lady minister got to the all-important words, the "I now pronounce you," part. However, just as she began to say that she had been empowered by the state of Washington with certain inalienable rights and so on and so forth, I felt time slow down to an infinitesimal crawl, the sort of thing that you see happening in movies just before someone is about to be shot or struck by a car or something and the hero is just then arriving on the scene, yelling out a name while leaping through five or six interlocked frames toward the bad guy. In my case, there was no gun, no prolonged but silently mouthed scream of warning, only a slow pivot to my right, away from everyone else in the bridal party, and a dip of my hand into the outer breast pocket of my tux to pull out the handkerchief that had, until then, served only a decorative purpose.

With as much self-possession as I could muster, I lifted the cloth, still tightly folded, to my nose, and stifled five times in a row. Unfortunately for me, I was a lousy stifler, and though I tried my best, my sneezes came out sounding distinctly like a curse, the muffling pressure of my hand transforming each into a "shttt!" that made me flush scarlet in the silence of the sanctuary.

The silence lasted a full minute longer, even after I'd pressed the handkerchief discretely to my watering eyes and under my nose, then tucked it back away, cleared my throat, and nodded to the pastor that, hey, why not, let's get this show back on the road. She cleared her throat and, with a gravitas I assumed came from years of such calamities at various formal ceremonies, plunged bravely on. "I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss each other."

Cory and Lynn wasted no time in following the pastor's order, possibly fearing that I'd start sneezing again before they had a chance to kiss and sanctify their marriage. The applause was as thunderous as I'd feared my sneezing was going to be, maybe even louder still, and when I dared to look over at Heather, my cheeks still burning with embarrassment, I would swear she mouthed something distinctly unholy.

Recalling that scene from the relative safety of the wedding reception, my cheeks flared anew, and I snatched up another napkin, on the pretense of needing to blow my nose, to cover my face from view. When I crumpled up the napkin and added it to the small pile on the table between us, Heather touched my cheek again, and her fingers felt even cooler and more comforting than during her previous caress.

"How'd your hads get so cold?" I hoped she would keep her fingers against my cheek, and she indulged me by placing both hands around my face, first cupping my cheeks and chin, then moving up to press my forehead.

"When you started spiking a fever." Heather dragged her fingers apart for a moment, replacing them with her lips at my forehead, and I could not help letting out a little sigh at such sweet contact. "Damn, but you're burning up."

I sniffled again, tried not to think of how much I wanted to crawl under our table, curl up and go to sleep. As Cory's best man, I had obligations, and I'd be damned if I was going to crap out on them. To buoy myself, I tried for a bit of humor. "I'b jusd a hugga hugga burdid love for you, baby."

It took a long moment before Heather smiled, though that smile was restrained by what I could tell was her worry. "To..."

"Thag yuh, thag yuh very buch." The slightest scolding from her would topple the house of cards I was trying to create, and she seemed to sense that as she backed away from me and forced another smile.

"Could you ged be aduther glass of water?" I pointed in the direction of my empty glass, the remaining ice cubes slowly melting into a pool at the bottom.

"Sure." Heather picked up the glass, careful to wrap a clean napkin around it so that she might avoid my germs from where I'd clutched it, and wandered off in the direction of the open bar area. "Open bar" was probably a misnomer, since the café didn't serve alcohol, but the proprietor had built a long countertop of light brown oak five feet opposite a bank of espresso machines, then shoved four tall bar stools underneath. The effect was upscale diner, and I'd often seen the regular habitués pressed up against the counter, a few with waistbands pulled up so high that their belt buckles scraped the underside when they scooted out to pay for their cups of tea or Sunday brunch meals.

I took advantage of the sudden alone time by using the last three napkins on the table, one after another, to clear out my congested yet runny nose. The two conditions seemed to me to be antithetical, but my nose had failed to get that memo, and was keeping me both busy and frustrated. Fortunately, all the blowing made it a lot easier to breathe, and to talk without sounding like I was speaking from under a bucket.

"Hey, T!" While Heather was busy getting my water glass refilled, Cory and Lynn wandered up to our table, their hands firmly interlocked. I pushed myself up to a standing position in order to be polite, and Cory took it as an invitation to let go of his wife's hand and give me a bear hug. "We would have been here sooner, but we had to go around and thank everyone else for showing up. Took for-ev-er." He drew out the word into three distinct syllables, making it sound as if it had been an around-the-world crusade, rather than a quick meet and greet.

"Yeah, I know, the two of you would probably like to get the hell out of here and go home so you can - ah, read a nice book." I might have said more in another setting, but with Lynn looking so innocent and virginal in her white gown, and standing right next to her new husband, I switched to an all-ages-friendly response.

"Yes, like the Kama Sutra."

At first, I didn't quite believe that Lynn had said what I thought I'd heard. But when I looked at her face, radiant and beaming and maybe even a little naughty, I began to laugh, cupping my hand hard over my mouth when my sore throat turned it into a cough.

"Sorry," I rasped out once the fit had died down. "I was just waiting on Heather to bring me - oh, hey, there you are."

Heather smiled at both Cory and Lynn, pausing to admire Lynn's wedding band before giving me back my now-full water glass. I chugged the ice water down, trying but probably failing to look cool and disinterested while doing it.

"Gotta get ready to deliver that speech you wanted. Can't do it justice with a dry mouth, right?" I dragged the back of my right hand across my lips, the ice cubes rattling around in the bottom of the glass I still held. I was sorely tempted to swipe the condensation-studded wall of the tumbler against my forehead, but set the glass down on the table behind me instead.

"You don't have to do this." Cory saw straight through my shtick, my rusted armor of defensive humor, and scowled. It was the first time I'd seen him look even remotely unhappy since the wedding ceremony had begun, and I had to swallow back a rising sense of shame which had compounded my free-floating embarrassment. The last thing I wanted to do was to cause him any worry on what was supposed to be one of the happiest and proudest days of his life.

Rather than give in to shame and avert my gaze, I forced myself to straighten my shoulders, smile, and stare right back at him. "Sorry, CJ, you're not going to talk me out of this. I've waited -" I paused, counted the number of years we'd known each other on my fingers, gave up after I hit ten. "Well, a long time. And now I get to rake you over the coals."

"I thought I told you to give the best man's toast, not a roast." Cory pronounced the two words carefully for my benefit.

"Aw, nuts." I scuffed my index finger under my nose, sniffled as quietly as I could. "Here I had this great speech all written up in my head, and now it's shot to hell." When I had to sniffle yet again, then a third time, I had to admit that my half-assed attempts to keep my nose from running were proving their worthlessness, and I grudgingly pulled the handkerchief back out of my breast pocket.

My body, in its infinite wisdom, seemed to accept the mere presence of that white cloth as a flag of surrender, and even as I lifted my hands up, I felt the pressure of all the sneezes I'd managed to hold back during the ceremony rushing forward to be released.

"Uh, you muhhh-might wadt to -" I didn't get the time I'd wanted to ask politely for Cory, Lynn and Heather to step away from my oncoming cloud of contagion, but after the first "Huh-ishkhooo! Ish-hooo! Ish-hkkkk!" combination stormed out, I was reasonably sure that the trio had made a wise retreat.

I hazarded another sniffle, hoping that might send my sneezing into retreat as well, but that wasn't my sort of luck. "Huhh-ushoo! Ushchhh! Huhchhhh!" Heat rose up into my face yet again, and this time, I truly could not tell if it was due to the exertion of sneezing or if I was glowing red from embarrassment.

"Maybe you should sit down." Lynn's voice was quiet but commanding, and I didn't resist terribly much when I felt Cory's hand on my shoulder, pulling me back toward the booth. I plunked down onto the pew obediently, rotating my body so that I could rest my elbows on the table.

"Huh-tshhh!" My head flopped forward with the last sneeze, and my elbows jarred against the table's surface. "Ow."

Cor seemed to misinterpret the source of my pain, asking, "Is your nose bleeding? Or did you just break the damned thing?"

"Dough, add dough." I cleared my throat slowly, sounding like a failing car engine in the middle of a Western New York winter, then pinched the damp handkerchief I held around my nose and blew a few times until I determined my speech wouldn't be completely unintelligible.

"Tell you what. Let me go splash some water on my face, powder my nose, and then I'll tell your guests the awful truth about you."

"Which would be?" Cory looked skeptical, one blond eyebrow rising while the other wrinkled downward.

I held out for as long as possible before answering, taking my time in pocketing my handkerchief and then rubbing my hands together with undiminished glee. Once I figured I'd left the sword of Damocles dangling long enough over his head, I smiled and got up from the booth again, intent on running back to the gents.

"Absolutely nothing."

I felt the air behind me swirl as Cory reached out to swat at my shoulder, but even with my cold wearing me down, I was still fast enough to outpace his reach. The bathroom was, praise be, empty when I got there, and I ran cool water into the sink, pulling the elastic band from my ponytail and allowing my long hair to spill over my shoulders. Once the sink was full, I dipped my hands in carefully and then let most of the water run off, leaving only the barest sheen on my face when I pressed my palms to my cheeks and not risking dripping water onto the collar of my black woolen tux.

I didn't bother pulling my hair back into a ponytail when I left the bathroom, preferring the freedom of it unbound. I did, however, bother to dig out the blue bandanna Cory had given me earlier, and placed it rakishly in my breast pocket, leaving a quarter of it hanging strategically in case a quick grab-and-muffle was necessary. My cold was, I could tell, getting worse, not better, but I was determined that if I was going to be embarrassed a third time that day, standing up in front of people I didn't know, it would be due to my words, and not my nose.

"Ladies and gentlemen..."

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