What would you do with me? Mesmerised by the intensity of Raj's gaze, Howard froze, one hand still buried in his friend's hair. Unthinkingly, he dropped his voice a pitch down, and murmured, 'What wouldn't I do with you?'
Raj squeaked in pleasure and for Howard, reality kicked in swiftly. He could feel the water cooling around him and was suddenly horribly conscious that he was sitting in the bath, clothes on the far side of the room, and flirting with his best friend. What did I just say to him? I'm never gonna to live this down. Maybe I could emigrate someplace, get a new name, new friends, new life. He could feel his own heartbeat loud in his ears.
'Raj', he said cautiously, 'I didn't...I mean, we do do loads of things together...but I don't think you and me...' he let his words trail off, uncertain how to articulate the terrible problem. He tried again. 'You don't really think I'm attractive attractive, right? I mean, for a guy. As a guy.'
The room was so quiet that he heard Raj swallow convulsively. Unable to meet his eyes, Raj reddened, lowered his head, and nodded.
'Raj...you know I'm not... I mean, I like girls.' By now Raj seemed close to tears, unable to say a word. Howard tried again. 'You'll always be my best friend, right?'
For some reason, this made matters worse. Raj sprang to his feet and bolted for the door. Oh shoot! No you don't, not like this...Howard lunged after him and caught his wrist, dragged halfway out the tub as Raj towed him a couple of paces.
'C'mon Raj, stay here –'
Luckily, Raj stopped after a couple of strides, realising that Howard really wasn't going to let go of him. Howard let go of his arm with some relief and wriggled back into a comfortable position as Raj sat down on the floor on the far side of the room.
'Are you ok?' Raj stared across at the wall, seemingly determined not to look down at Howard.
'Yeah; I'm fine.' He shivered as the cool air of Leonard's apartment dried his chest and shoulders. Another wave of tiredness hit him and it would have been a relief to drop onto Raj's warm shoulder again and go to sleep.
'Throw me that towel, Raj?'
Closing his eyes completely, Raj retrieved the towel and passed it to him. Howard wrapped it around his upper body and leaned along the edge of the tub.
He sighed and forced himself to stay awake and untangle the problem. 'Raj, you can open your eyes. This is crazy – it's just me.'
Raj obediently opened his eyes.
'Ok, so... where did this come from? We've known each other for...how long? And you've never said anything like this before.'
Raj dropped his gaze and fiddled with the cuff of his shirt. 'Well, there was that night the heat went out in the Arctic...and tonight....tonight I thought...I just wanted to...hold onto you.' He made a spirited attempt at getting away again but Howard had locked an iron grip on his wrist.
'I kinda liked the holding part', he admitted, reluctantly.
For the first time since the awkward conversation had started, Raj smiled fleetingly. 'Howard, I swear, you are just like a cat.'
He grinned back, delighted that their friendship wasn't in ruins. 'You're like a dog, you know? In a good way. ' So faithful. The tiredness washed over him again and he lost the thread of what he was saying. 'Raj, can we...talk about this again? When we've both, y'know, slept on it.'
He rested his head on his arms and looked up at Raj. 'But maybe we could do the holding thing now?' he added hopefully.
The next few hours passed in a blur as he slipped between half-waking and sleeping. He was vaguely aware of Raj alternately coaxing and bullying him out of the bath and into Leonard's spare clothes, and later, somewhere a long way off, Sheldon complaining vociferously against a chatter of machine gun fire and raised voices, as he sprawled against Raj, trying to find a comfortable spot. He dreamed of stumbling into another room and lying down, only hearing his friends chatter quietly around him.
He snapped awake, staring blindly into space. Sheldon was shaking his shoulder, hard, holding out a cell phone which screeched his name. Unable to move for a moment, he lay still, trying to work out what was happening. Leonard and Penny were protesting about something, and the yellow and grey blur in front of him resolved itself into Raj, dancing in front of Sheldon, trying to block him.
Sheldon thrust the phone into his hand and he took it, mumbling 'Wha'?'
'Did I teach you to answer your own mother like that? Did I? You say "Yes, Ma" like a good boy!'
'Yes, Ma', he echoed obediently. Still dazed, he looked around, finally realising why the couch seemed wrong and he asked out loud, 'How'd I end up at Penny's?'
The screeching reached an unearthly pitch and he held the phone at arm's length. A prolonged period of silence fell over the room as the phone shrieked instructions, observation, and commands, finally ending with, 'You got that? Right now!'
'Yes, Ma.' He set the phone down and looked up sheepishly. 'I guess I have to go home now, sorry.'
'We heard', Leonard offered sympathetically.
'Everything', Sheldon added. 'If it's any consolation, some things sounded very unlikely.'
'I'm on your couch.' Howard looked up at Penny. 'I don't know how, but...thanks!' This is going to make a great fantasy. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the idea that, just for the night, he would have preferred to stay on Raj's.
Raj drove him home. Left to himself, Raj may have preferred to stay silent, but Howard was feeling a little more awake as the cold night air hit him and was in the mood to chatter.
'So, what'd I miss tonight? Y'all play some HALO? Slow down, Raj, the lights are red.' He looked out the window, distracted for a second. 'There's a new frozen yogurt place; we should totally go there. I heard it's great. How did I end up on Penny's couch?'
The streetlights set dancing patterns on the wet road and Raj narrowed his eyes against the lights. 'You kept falling asleep and sliding down along the couch and Leonard and I had to stop Sheldon sitting on you', he explained. 'I'm sorry. It was hard for me to hold you up. Then Penny came over – she is a wonderful girl, is she not? – and we went to her apartment and watched a movie while you were asleep. I believe Sheldon stayed back and played HALO online. We got pizza but we couldn't wake you up at all, sorry. And you have two strikes from Sheldon for lying in his spot. Sorry. Leonard is going to negotiate a rebate for you at the next house meeting on the grounds of extenuating circumstances.'
Howard rolled his eyes. 'Raj, you don't have to keep saying sorry. You haven't done anything wrong.' He forced the exasperation out of his voice. 'You were great to me tonight', he said sincerely. 'Really. Thanks.'
Raj turned into Howard's road. 'So will you do me a favour, Howard?'
'Sure, anything for you.'
Raj pulled up at the kerb and turned to face Howard properly. 'I want you to forget everything I said to you tonight', he said seriously.
'I...can't do that.' Rain drummed against the roof of the car. Howard shifted about in his seat. 'See, Raj, it wasn't so weird. I mean, there were things that...I liked too.' He looked up at the house and saw a curtain twitch at a window. 'I gotta go; she stares at me if I stay in a car too long. But I'll see you again tomorrow, right? Can I get a lift to work?'
'Really?' Raj sounded hopeful. 'You won't want to rest?'
'Raj, not only is my demented mother in the house but also her four oldest friends. Trust me - the only rest I got tonight was with you.' He slipped out of the car and waved to Raj.
As he reached the front door, it was yanked open from within.
'Where have you been tonight; coming back at this time and keeping your poor mother up with the worry?'
'Hi, Mrs Cohen. Sorry I'm late back.' Howard ducked past, trying to hide the stitched cut on his cheek and make a break for his room. He made it halfway up the stairs before he was summoned back with a shout from the living room.
'Howuud? You get in here, right now.'
The chorus of shrieks which arose from the living room when he looked around the door set the neighbourhood dogs barking madly. Howard escaped to the kitchen and hastily stole the last cup of coffee in the pot. His mother followed, protesting all the time, catching his chin to turn the cut to the light. Howard slipped clear and stooped over the fridge instead.
'I'm fine, Ma. It's not that bad. I'll sort the scooter out tomorrow.'
'Get out of the way, Howard; I'll make you a sandwich. And what was so important tonight – ', she waved the breadknife dangerously, 'that you couldn't call you own mother?'
'Didn't want to worry you', Howard lied glibly. The phone rang suddenly but neither of them made a move to answer it.
'You didn't want to worry me?' she screeched. 'You were sitting in hospital and you didn't want to worry me?' She narrowed her eyes. 'You were ashamed. That's why you never tell me anything.' She thrust a sandwich at him.
Howard considered throwing it right back. As he hesitated, a phone was thrust into his hand for the second time that night.
'Jacob from your work for you. Says there's an emergency!'
Howard took the phone, confused. 'Jacob?'
'It's me, Raj', Raj hissed. 'I could hear the shouting a block away. I just thought I'd give you a way out.' He hesitated. 'If you wanted one', he added shyly. 'You can say there's a problem at work or just stand there now and tell me how to fix something. Make it up. If you want to get out, I can pick you up at the end of the street. If you don't want to...' he trailed off apologetically.
You called a houseful of women just to rescue me? Awww Raj. The thought warmed his heart.
'I'd better get in at once', he declared firmly. 'This could take all night to fix. See you where you said.'
Putting the phone down, he turned to the assembled houseful of curious and furious women.
'I have to get into work. It's an emergency. I'll get the bus.'
Swinging his backpack up again, he limped to the front door. He didn't think he would make it, but at the last minute there was a distracting shriek of:
'You're letting that boy go out without a yarmulke? What kind of a bad Jew you raisin' here Rebekah?'
Howard escaped amidst the chain reaction of arguments. Fortunately, Raj was waiting where he said he would, and Howard dropped into his car again, gratefully, shaking the rain out of his hair.
'You just saved my life, Raj. I don't know what I'd do without you.'
Raj looked down, embarrassed. 'You're my friend.'
Howard realised that he was still holding the sandwich and attacked it ravenously. 'You know', he said between bites, 'there's no one like you. I mean, that was really brave, calling my house.' He finished it off and decided to be brave himself. 'I think...maybe you and me...?'
Raj favoured him with a very warm smile. 'We could try?'
They didn't speak again until Raj let them into his apartment. Raj shuffled nervously from foot to foot.
'You want to take the bed?' he offered awkwardly.
'Thanks.' Howard dragged himself into the bedroom and flopped down gratefully, stretching out along the bed. Raj took a blanket and pillow out of the cupboard and headed for the couch.
'Uh, Raj? You didn't mean alone did you?' He tried to shake the sudden disappointment.
Raj stood immobile, torn between hope and confusion.
Howard tried again. 'I mean, we can talk, right? It's nice just to talk to you.'
Raj lay down next to him, smiling, and Howard suddenly felt lightheaded with relief, confident of Raj's devotion.
'It's great to have someone attractive with me on a bed', he murmured seductively.
'Do you really think I'm attractive?'
'Sure!' Slightly nervous, he tried to make a joke of it. 'Look at you...all bright eyed and patient, and with all that soft fur.' He ruffled Raj's hair.
Raj rolled his eyes. 'You've just described a good-natured sheepdog, Howard.'
He laughed. 'I'll get you flowers tomorrow.' He looked sideways at Raj and realised he was pink with pleasure at the thought. 'Oh damn; I really will have to get you flowers tomorrow.'
Raj rolled over and smoothed out the pillow, hiding his face.
'You don't have to do that for me.'
He backtracked hastily. 'No, no – I will! Honestly, it's nothing. It's the least I can do for you.' He thought about it. 'What kind do you like best?'
'Raj picked at a loose thread, looking up through long lashes. 'Surprise me', he said shyly.
'Raj, saying "surprise me" is just asking for a comedy cactus with a ribbon round it.'
'What's a comedy cactus?' Raj asked suspiciously.
'It's like...one tall cactus and a couple of short cactuses on either side...' he broke off, laughing.
There was a short pause while Raj pictured the cactus in his mind. His eyes widened. 'If you get me that, I swear -' He broke off to think of a suitable punishment. 'I swear I'll tickle you to death', he promised solemnly.
'You wouldn't! I'm helpless.' He tensed, ready to roll away from an attack.
'And you always lose.' Raj pounced, lunging over him, and Howard curled up, laughing helplessly pre-emptively.
'No! No, no, no.'
The expected attack failed to materialise and he uncurled slightly, looking up. Raj was stretched over him on his hands and knees, grinning, but making no moves to attack.
'Not tonight. You're safe here.'
Howard nearly melted with gratitude, relaxing and stretching out again. Gee, I'm lucky it's Raj. I'd have tickled him to death. I've got to make myself a better person. Maybe I could add it as a New Year's resolution? He lay back and smiled up at Raj. Why's he leaning in? What the...oh, are we going to kiss now? Please let me not screw this up...Raj lowered himself down until their bodies were almost touching and Howard felt the heat between them. They were so close that he could feel Raj shaking nervously. Without thinking, he reached up and curled one hand in Raj's hair, murmuring 'Hey, it's ok...' Their lips touched for a second -
- and Raj jerked away, shrinking back to kneel at the end of the bed, covering his face with his hands. Howard lay back, stunned.
'Raj!' he moaned in exasperation. Damn! I thought that those "is she going to kiss me, oh no, she's gone" moments were just something girls did to me.
Raj made a high pitched noise in his throat, slid off the bed and disappeared into the main room.
'Raj? Get back here!'
There was no answer. Gimme a break here. He dragged himself off the bed and stumbled through to the main room, holding onto the bed, the door, the table. It was dark in there.
'Raj, where the hell are you?' Where the hell would he be? Let's try the couch. Limping over to the couch, he reached over and felt Raj's warm body, tense and tightly curled up.
It's a start. 'Raj, move over.' There was no answer.
'Come on, shift up. I want to sit down.' Raj silently moved up, making some space, and Howard dropped onto the couch, trying to think where to start.
'Did I do something wrong?' he asked tentatively.
Raj sat up straight, wringing his hands, and Howard immediately gripped his shoulder to stop him from jumping up again, determined not to spend the night chasing Raj around the apartment. The movement opened the floodgates.
'I'm taking advantage of you!' Raj wailed. He threw his hands in the air and Howard ducked swiftly to avoid them. 'You could never do something wrong. This is my fault! You wouldn't even think of this if you hadn't been hit by a car! This isn't right for you. You shouldn't be here with me; you could be out with the pretty girls.'
'Yeah, but...I've never met a girl who treated me better than you do', Howard said slowly. 'And the only lady who'd even give me houseroom tonight is my mother.' He hesitated, but some things were easier to say in the dark. 'I've been turned down by women with seeing-eye dogs before. But you like me...and, and I like you. I mean, I think you're a great person. And I didn't mean to say you looked like a sheepdog earlier. I'm...I'm not used to saying nice things to guys. I mean, you have got nice eyes.'
'Really?' Raj looked up at him, shyly.
'Raj wriggled around to face him properly. 'So, you want to, you know...?'
Howard licked his lips nervously. 'Yeah.'
They curled up close together, Howard wrapping one arm around Raj's shoulders and Raj lightly gripping Howard's t-shirt. Closing his eyes Howard leaned forward, feeling Raj do the same. Their first kiss was gentle and slow, but then gaining in confidence, they pressed in closer together in a fiercer, more passionate kiss. They pulled apart for a second to draw breath.
'You were right, you know', Howard whispered.
Raj leaned in again. 'I know.'