The scene in which he appeared at her doorstep had been playing on a loop in his head for the best part of an hour now. He had been whispering absentmindedly to himself the perfectly executed lines he would say once they met; some charming witticism that could make this situation any less weird. He stopped as soon as he noticed what he was doing.
This was weird, wasn't it? There was no real way to get past that fact. She had every right to slam the door in his face, of course. He wouldn't be annoyed at her if she did. It was when he saw the front door of her apartment building that he realized that he would have honestly braved pneumonia than make her uncomfortable.
He was drunk. Not embarrassingly drunk, he knew, but definitely drunk. He hoped maybe the 'dishevelled in kind of a sexy way' drunk: the kind that didn't lose agency, but just enough self-awareness to not care so much about a loosened tie or slightly ruffled hair, maybe a top button undone or something. Upon looking at himself in a parked car window, he was beginning to suspect that it was just the 'disheveled' part he had nailed. Leaving him out in the rain would definitely be understandable.
Josh loved the rain. Especially when it poured down like this. The quiet hum of it hitting the pavement was always soothing to him. He would have enjoyed how his breath was steaming in the wintry air (it shouldn't be this cold for February)-the kind of air where kids would pretend they were dragons or smoking cigars- if he wasn't so painfully, mind-numbingly cold. Josh had now been fully acquainted to the fact that there was infinitely more aesthetic enjoyment to the rain when he was listening to it tap against the windowpane, in the comfort and warmth of his own office, than to when he was stumbling through it on the street, trying to follow a half-remembered address with a body that seemed to lag a few seconds after his brain. He couldn't remember how long he had been walking for, but he knew with biological certainty that it had been for too long. He was so cold that every raindrop that hit his skin hurt.
But he didn't mind it so much, now that Donna had swung the door open on the second knock and was now standing in the doorway.
The moment had finally arrived, and for the life of him he couldn't think of what to say. It was as if the cold had frozen his jaw momentarily, all predetermined lines evaporating into the space between them. His teeth were chattering so hard he was scared he was centimeters away from biting his own tongue off, and his shirt was clinging uncomfortably to his back; but all he was aware of was how the warm glow from inside had cast a soft halo of light around Donna.
What was that Klimt painting- death looking upon a sea of gold and fabric?
"I t-totally get-t-it if you shut the d-door on me."
He knew that the drunkenness didn't quite explain why he felt so enraptured by his assistant at that moment in time.
"Josh? Are you alright?"
She was in tracksuit bottoms and an over sized t-shirt, with an innocuous baseball team logo plastered on the front. The concern on her face made his heart beat a little faster. Was it odd to have that kind of reaction?
He caught himself staring and looked away, down the street he had lurched down moments ago.
"I'm fine, I just..." A thought occurred to him. "Wow, so no q-question of where I've b-been, what I'm doing in front of your apartment at this hour, how I even know your ad-d-dress, just straight in with the 'are you alright?'"
"Are you annoyed by that?"
"No." he said. "no, it's uh, endearing. "
Endearing wasn't the right word.
He wasn't sure if he was imagining the guitar music in the distance, so soft he almost couldn't hear it. There couldn't have been buskers out at that hour, surely.
"Well, if you're interested, I know you took off early to meet with Sam and Toby, because Sam mentioned it before he left. And I gave you my address a few weeks ago, for that mailing thing the office implemented, remember? You made a joke about me living in 'the unfashionable part of town.'"
"I didn't hunt down your address from the mailing list, I just remembered you lived here." He waved it away with an aimless hand, trying to play off the rising levels of unease he felt. It really did look like he had to track her down. He did honestly just remember it.
"You still haven't answered my question."
"Are you alright? You're soaking." She gave him a quick once-over, the way she'd do before he rushed off to a meeting, to make sure nothing was out of place. "And swaying."
"My coat, I... left it somewhere, c-couldn't find it anywhere. Listen, I just need to borrow an umbrella or something, and I'll be on my way. Your ad-dress was the only one I could remember that was nearby, so I'm sorry if I'm off the mark here." It was hard to get the words across without them coming out in a rush of sounds, he had to focus on not getting caught on the consonants. He wished he would stop feeling so dizzy. Where did he put his coat? He had it on when he was walking to the bar.
"Come on inside, you're shivering."
"Are you sure? Do... do you actually want me to or are you just being polite?"
She laughed. "Yes Josh! I actually want you here!"
She took his hand and led him inside, stepping around him to close the door. He loved it when she took his hand, she did it so rarely.
He didn't realize how cold he really was until the chilblains started to gnaw at his hands. How long had he been out there for?
The hall was too small for both of them to be in there, but Josh waited for her to lead the way, up the stairs to her apartment. Donna went up the stairs in a light, practiced pattern- she knew which spaces didn't creak for each stair, whereas Josh made so much noise he was scared he was going to fall through the sanded wood.
"I'll see if there's a change of clothes for you somewhere, there's bound to be something."
"You really don't have to."
"No, I want to."
As soon as she opened the door to the apartment, a warm blast of heat greeted him, as well as a sugary-sweet smell to the air. He rubbed his arms for warmth, feeling himself relax a little more.
"Have you been baking?"
"Yeah, I was making a Victoria sponge." She seemed bashful to admit that.
"Aww." He grinned at her.
"You know when you just... something goes off in your brain that makes you immediately want to bake something?"
"Ah yes, the Betty Crocker sleeper agent. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has that. Why are you baking at this hour, though? Isn't it like, 2am or something?"
"Josh, it's 10pm."
He checked his watch. "Ah."
"I hope you realize that you're a huge lightweight."
"Hey! 10pm is also a weird time to bake. And I can drink with the best of them! with Toby, even. You know he drinks jack and cokes now?"
"Oh yeah? and what did you have?"
"You're adorable." Donna smiled.
"I resent that statement."
"You love it. Mind the cats, I'll be right back."
Donna disappeared up another flight of stairs on the landing. A black cat with bright amber eyes blinked passively up at him from the sofa as soon as he entered the living room; the quiet appraisal a cat gives to a stranger entering it's house. The gesture felt oddly human.
The living room itself was small, but cozy. The smallest wood burning stove in the world was on the opposite wall, with enormous mounds of firewood built up around it in neat piles. Framed posters of gaudy-looking 1950s romance films dotted across the walls: women being clasped in the arms of well dressed strangers and such. The TV faced the second hand sofas and a coffee table- the latter of which had a few scented candles and a book that was put face-down on its page, evidently in a hurry. The two sofas were draped in an array of homemade quilts and cushions, and when Josh made towards the closest one, a fluffy, expensive looking cat immediately hauled herself up to wind around his legs.
"You never told me you had cats." He tried to keep the distaste out of his tone.
"I don't, my roommate does."
The music had gotten louder. He was perplexed by that, until he noticed the vinyl player in the corner. It went nicely with the rain tapping on the windows. He nudged the cat away gently with his shoe and wandered back to the base of the staircase at the landing. "Is your roommate in?"
"She's in Toronto right now, won't be back for a few days. Ah!"
He heard the sound of something thudding to the floor, and a low curse.
"I'm fine, just dropped a book. Are these okay?"
She threw down a large cotton t-shirt, a pair of boxers and some pajama pants. They felt soft, and fresh out of the dryer.
"Why do you have boxers?"
"They're comfortable to wear around the house."
"Huh." He ran his thumb across the waistband absentmindedly. "Whatever floats your boat, I guess."
"You've never said 'floats your boat' before." she reappeared, looking down at him from the stairwell. He was struck by how the hair fell around her face at that angle. "Hey, did you know that in the English language alone there are at least twenty five thousand idiomatic expressions?"
From the corner of his eye, Josh noticed that the cats had followed him into the landing. Cats had a funny way of latching onto the people who had no real interest in them, and ignoring the ones who did.
"I'm sorry." he said softly. More softly than he had intended.
"I just- appeared at your doorstep and more or less forced you to-"
"Ah, bullshit, you never asked me to do anything, I'm offering." There was a gleam in her eye, in this lighting. "Would you have preferred it if I had just slammed the door in your face?"
"You wouldn't have had the moral high ground, at least."
"You can use the shower, if you want."
The shower sobered him up, stopped the room from spinning quite so much. He placed a hand on the cool tile wall to ground him, and let out a sigh as the steaming hot water hit his shoulders. It was a miracle he knew how to turn it on, let alone change the temperature. Not that he wanted to.
This wasn't weird. He was struck by how natural everything felt, showing up at Donna's door like that. She seemed surprised when he showed up, sure; but not uncomfortable. He thanked the stars for that.
Josh had never examined for a second how natural it felt to just be around Donna, and he preferred to leave it that way. Some things were put on the earth to be perpetually unexamined. Fuck Socrates, Josh would choose exile over hemlock any day.
Did that mean that Donna was Rome in this analogy? Is that really what he was doing?
More importantly, should he wash his hair?
Donna's shampoo smelled lovely, but he admitted it was a little unsettling. Now that he had used it, he felt like an apparition of her was nearby constantly; right behind him, or leaning towards him in the office, to point out an error somewhere in a document.
Josh took a moment to contemplate how strange the mind was. How it possessed the ability to process tiny, subconscious details about someone (how their hair smelled, the way they tilted their head), for seemingly no reason at all. Well, to remind you of them when they were gone, sure, but that seemed a little counterproductive. Why would your brain want to remember so much of someone when they were no longer there- what evolutionary purpose did that serve?
The pajamas he put on were soft and warm from being on the radiator in the bathroom, but they smelled unfamiliar. He carried the rest of his sodden clothes downstairs to put on the wooden clothes rack in front of the wood burner, which was blazing merrily.
"This isn't going to be like Misery, is it?"
He wandered to where Donna was and leaned against the kitchen door frame, watching her try and transfer a sponge cake from it's cake pan onto a cooling rack.
"I swear you just say random words sometimes, with the express purpose of watching me decipher them." she replied, not looking up at him.
"You know that film? The one with Kathy Bates?"
"Oh! Yeah, I've seen it."
"It starts with this woman finding a guy in a car crash and bringing him home to fix him up, and it's all nice, but then he realizes that he can't actually leave, because she's obsessed with him and doesn't want him to go."
"Well, when I start taking a sledgehammer to your ankles in the dead of night, you'll at least appreciate the homage to Stephen King. You know that story was like, a huge metaphor for his drug addiction, right?"
"I never knew that."
"And in the book, Annie chops off Paul's foot with an axe."
"See, now you appreciate my trivia."
"I always appreciate your trivia, Donna." he grinned.
"No you don't, you don't listen to them half the time." She said it in an almost matter of fact way.
"That's not true! And even if it was, it's only because you... infodump on me when I'm running to a meeting I'm ten minutes late for, or doing some other incredibly important stuff."
He paused. The last one she did was about the decline of Virginia bluebells- something about the soil erosion from the rain or surface runoff in certain areas. Perhaps they were her favorite flower.
"Did you think about Sam, walking here?"
That caught him off guard. "What?"
She talked as if it was the natural thread of conversation. Misery, to meetings, to Sam."I mean, with that woman. A photographer followed him to her apartment, then took a photo. Can't be good for public image, you being seen at your assistant's place in the dead of night." she replied, not unkindly.
"No, I didn't think of that. Don't worry, I'll flee the country and start a new life if we're on the front covers of all the newspapers tomorrow morning."
"I'll go with you."
That surprised him. "Of course. Okay."
They were quiet for a while, the matter somewhat settled. Josh sat on the counter, taking in everything around him, while Donna started dusting the cake with icing sugar.
The counter tops were wooden, with an assortment of kitchen appliances clustered together in a corner. A line of deep, bluish-green tiles ran in a line around the white kitchen. There were plants on top of the cupboards, ones with foliage that drifted down to eye level, so that you had to be careful not to get the leaves caught in the hinges when you opened or closed the doors. The cats were evidently not allowed in the kitchen, so they hovered in the doorway, their eyes flicking between Donna and him and meowing occasionally.
The air smelled sweet and warm, and Josh felt.. content. Quiet contentment. It was not a feeling he was used to, but he welcomed it nonetheless.
"I really appreciate the trivia. Every time. Even when I say I don't."
She smiled. "Thank you."
It was because of seeing Donna, he supposed. None of this would have felt quite the way it did if she wasn't there with him.
He didn't feel nearly as brave enough as he would have liked, but he wanted to try it anyway. "Listen, I... may be saying this because I've been drinking- and I want you never to repeat this to anyone." he waited for his thoughts to organize themselves. "I... never mind."
"Oh come on, you can't leave me hanging like that."
"No, it's stupid." He felt color rise to his face.
Every time he looked at her now, he was reminded of bluebells. Not one but thousands, a carpet of them across a forest floor in spring; with the sun shining through bright new leaves in the treetops overhead.
He exhaled, speaking slowly, so as not to slur. "I just- I really appreciate having you around. And, I feel like I don't really say that enough. I'm glad you stayed on after the campaign. You're not only a tremendous asset to the office, but..."
The silence was unbearable.
He cleared his throat. "You're a really good friend to me. It would kill me if you genuinely saw me as a shitty person. Because you are the exact, polar opposite." Josh laughed to himself a little. "God, there's a reason why it's Sam who writes the speeches and not-"
The hug came unexpectedly. One second Donna was across the kitchen from him, then when he looked away, he felt her arms around him; under his arms and curling up to the middle of his back. He always knew that he had a 'factory reset' reaction to pressure between his shoulder blades, but it was never quite so apparent until then. It was the calmest yet most alive he had possibly ever felt, despite being ashamed to admit it.
He was still sat on the counter while she was standing, so her head was able to rest squarely in the middle of his chest. Josh hoped she wouldn't be able to hear his heart trying to hammer out of his own ribcage. She probably could.
He wrapped his arms around her, one hand threaded lightly through her hair (how was her hair so soft?), the other across her shoulders, and he let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. His knees just barely touched either side of her hips.
Gently, very gently, he kissed the top of her head, then rested his chin there, staring but not seeing, intent on only feeling, to preserve the moment in amber. It still felt like the most natural thing in the world, going there and kissing the woman he did not fall in love with at first sight, but feeling the elemental pull of knowing, as soon as he saw her, that he would. He would fall in love with her. Perhaps he was to be proven correct. It certainly felt that way now.
They both knew that, if Donna were to raise her head and reach up to kiss him, he wouldn't draw away. They both knew that if Donna kissed Josh at any point at all, in the past or the foreseeable future, he would never draw away.
But she didn't. It was better that way, leaving that professional (and emotional) can of worms unopened. Buried, even. They were both exiled into a relationship comprised of largely unanswered what-ifs. And that was okay.
For the rest of the night, Josh and Donna were lying on the sofa together, wrapped in homemade quilts, watching laughably bad films and eating cake. And yes, at some point in the evening, Josh yelled at the roommates' cats as they disappeared down the fire escape, for jumping up onto the counter and eating a part of the cake while him and Donna weren't looking. The mock-outrage was mostly to make her laugh, and it definitely served its purpose there.
At some point in the night Josh took the roommates bed and went to sleep, turning the evening over in his mind until he sank into a happy, vignetted doze.
He didn't realize until the next morning, when the sun was shining through the blinds in dusty golden bars across the duvet and walls, that yesterday was Valentine's day.