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(even a small love)

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Josh always had this odd look in his eyes, whenever he thought that he was in love.

Sam was well-acquainted with this look, this strange gleam to his eyes that would flare up. He had seen it in a hundred rooms and dinner parties and conservations to a hundred different people over the years of knowing him. Josh had this constant need to win and conquer, to work and work until he burnt out like a comet; so it was strange to think that, out of anyone in the office, he had the highest proclivity for infatuation.  They were traits that somehow didn't seem to go together. This brazenness paired with incredible vulnerability.

Josh would dive headfirst into stuff, then be disappointed with the results. Or, alternatively, go through the motions of a relationship whilst being wholly absorbed in his work. In college, a time where everyone had yet to iron out their more prominent flaws, he almost forgot his girlfriend's name. It was an awkward evening where Sam could barely look at him, feeling the girl's (Casey's) disappointment at the back of his throat while they talked.

But when Donna, from Wisconsin, fresh out of education and out of a breakup, breezed into Josh's office and basically employed herself, Sam would remember a... seismic shift. Something in his best friend that felt far more present and real than anything he had seen before. There was no look to it- it simply was.

The two of them casually reaching out to one another in the bull pen, light hands across the back as a guide, the fixing of collars, sharing of drinks. Neither of them had seemed to notice just how casually intimate they were with one another. Like it was the most natural thing in the world to have your assistant lean her head on your shoulder in the cab after a long day back from some committee meeting, you being as still as possible so as not to wake her.

It was strange to think that, out of anyone in the office, Josh was the one who had the highest propensity for love.

Sam thought about this when Josh burst into his office like he was being chased. He knew what had happened almost immediately.

"I need to speak with you." Josh's voice was harsh, yet barely above a whisper. "Not here, in my office."

***

They passed Donna as they walked around the bull pen. She was busy eating lunch, but still glanced up and did a little half-wave at Sam when they passed, smiling. Sam would call her one of his best friends, and was humbled with the knowledge that she probably wouldn't say the same.

Josh locked the door behind him with a dull click. He walked into the centre of the room with the gravitas of someone who was about to disclose a national emergency that was just on the precipice of breaking out to the public. Without ceremony he rolled up his sleeve and, sure enough, there was the mark on the inside of his arm. A soft, intricate looking thing- a gossamer-like brightness, something resembling scar tissue. So unassuming, so easily hidden, but unmistakeable. It always left Sam feeling a little breathless every time he saw one. An unchanging, celestial law of nature, older than humanity itself, yet still so...

"If you wax poetic on this, I will throw you out of that window."

He sighed. "I'm a speechwriter to the President of the United States. Waxing poetic is kind of my whole thing."

Josh covered it again with his shirt sleeve feverishly and began to pace. Sam suddenly recognized why lovesick was a term.

"Who have I had skin to skin contact with, for the first time, in the past twenty four hours?" Josh asked, mostly to himself. Many an epidemiologist probably had the exact same thoughts, but with slightly different sentiment.

"D-"

"It's not Donna."

"Why not Donna?"

"Because me and Donna have touched before, surely." Josh replied, his face flushing. "She's been here for a year and a half."

"You sure? Direct skin contact? Maybe clothes or hair or repression got in the way a couple times."

"It has to be someone I've met for the first time yester-"

He stopped.

"What?" Sam asked.

"Am I..." his voice deadened as the reality of the situation began to dawn on him. "Am I in love with the former governor of New Jersey. We shook hands and everything."

"Paul? That guy's married with three kids. Happily married. I never really pegged you as a homewrecker, Josh."

He scrubbed the back of his neck worriedly. "Could it have been the barista this morning? I don't remember whether she touched my hand while she was giving me my coffee. Oh god, I can't marry a barista."

"That's narrow minded of you. A buddy of mine from high school married an astrophysicist from handing her her change at Walmart."

"You cannot tell CJ. Don't tell anyone."

"Why CJ specifically? It might even be her. Maybe you brushed past her in the corridor or something."

"Because if she finds out I have the mark, she'll go and tell the press, and it'll be like.... the Crucible set in a Mardi Gras. You know how weird they get about the whole soulmate thing." Josh was quiet for a moment. "It's not you, is it?"

"What?"

"They don't have to be romantic Sam, you know that." he said quietly, nodding to the sleeve of his jacket. "Have you checked?"

Sam was oddly touched. He checked his arm. "Nope. Still nothing."

Josh sighed. "One down, I guess."

"You still haven't ruled out CJ."

"Don't even joke about that. And don't... do whatever it is you're doing right now."

"Smiling?"

"You've never smiled at me like that before."

"Josh it's-" now it was Sam's turn to find words. "This is huge! It's a big chapter of your life starting!"

"Nothing has changed. I don't want anything to change. I was fine being-"

"Undetermined?"

"Yes! It's the... the predestination of it all. That I've found my soulmate, that's it. That's the only person for me, and I've met them already. There will be no more what ifs or alternatives. This is... all that there is."

He stared around the providence of his office with empty eyes. They sat in silence together for a while, the finality of Josh's words hitting them.

Josh had always, secretly, been terrified of chaos. That tiny test tube of smallpox that could be dropped in Times Square at random and destroy civilisations, ripping through a populace like that shred of metal ripping through his heart, ripping through his psyche, such random chains of events that can set someone spiralling into madness, into the side of a mountain, into the side of his hand striking through the windowpane. Sam had a secret theory that Josh originally went into law for the concreteness of it all. A set of rules and events to hurl yourself around, to be enigmatic within. It was a set of ideals that stated this is right and this is wrong, something he couldn't waver from. He was far too scared to do otherwise.

"It doesn't have to be. Not if you don't want it to." Sam replied quietly.

"How do you mean?"

"Just because someone isn't your soulmate doesn't mean they're not of any importance to you. Just because your mark's appeared doesn't mean that your life has suddenly been robbed of any spontaneity. There are different kinds of love out there, Josh. Just because one version of it magically shows up on your arm doesn't discount the... the lifeblood of the rest of them. Your soulmate is out there, but so are a lot of other meaningful people and conversations and experiences that you haven't had yet. Nothing's changed. You still have the exact same potential to both love by a multitude of people, and be loved by them in turn."

And nothing had changed. Sam was still by his side, Donna was still typing up an itinerary for him just a few meters away. Everything was still at once elemental and profound, mark or otherwise. Josh didn't need a celestial sign from the heavens on his arm to wax lyrical about his assistant in the dead of night when him and Sam were both drunk and crashed at each other's places- he didn't need a mark for when CJ would make a big show about stealing the window seat on airplanes, when they both knew she was doing him a favour. Declarations of love, however small, were still as commonplace as ever.

Sam met his eyes. He was grinning at him like they used to do across classrooms in college.

"I'm going to throw you out of that window now."

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy set in a Mardi Gras would have been a better analogy anyway."

"Thank you." replied Josh.  

They both knew he meant it in more ways than one.

***

It was one of those rare, planet-aligning evenings where the whole group had finished work early. There were no current events, no unaccounted-for missiles or embassy crises or nationwide scandals; or any other cavalcade of unforeseen circumstances that would appear on their desks or walk into their offices at the most inopportune of times. It was simply a Friday night, and the air was cold and clear.

Donna loved that Josh always sat next to her. It was hardly a romantic situation, here with all of them crammed into one large booth at the corner of the bar, with their legs and arms touching and some slow, nondescript bedroom pop playing on the tinny speakers. But all the same, it was difficult to not have the nostalgic feeling of a high school romance; not to feel familiarity at the warmth that radiated from his skin whenever they sat close, really close. Glancing at his profile when years before, she would stare up at her bedroom ceiling after school, and wonder if anything at all would happen to her.

He would stare at her eyes, her mouth, her hands, while she talked. He was arguing with CJ at the moment- gesticulating wildly about something that wouldn't matter in a month or so- but he would glance over to her intermittently, seeking her approval. On evenings like this, Donna and CJ's eyes would meet, in a sort of 'you seeing this?' kind of way, but they had never discussed it. It seemed to be one of those things where if you mentioned it, it would evaporate into thin air. Neither of them wanted that.

Josh was really in his element now. "-I'm just saying, I don't think the future-as the Senator so eloquently put it- is in a single direction."

She plays with the catch on her bracelet and wondered if it isn't.

He went up to the bar to order her a drink, but forgot by the time he got there. He asked in sign language what drink she wanted, and she replied in turn. Because they both knew that they were getting quick lessons from Joey and Kenny when they could spare the time, but for some reason she never taught them together. Toby would roll his eyes when he caught them signing from across the bar, and mutter darkly about how her and Josh could possibly get any more synergetic. Donna sighed dreamily and say that she had a few ideas in mind, and Sam would look away, smiling.

It had gotten much colder when they walked back out of the bar a few hours later. "I think the marks are comforting, as a concept." she said to no one in particular.

Josh tried to sound natural beside her. "Oh?"

"It's... a reminder."

"Of what? That there's someone out there who thinks that I'm as handsome and clever as I think I am?"

"A reminder that, no matter what you'll do, you'll never lose the propensity to be loved."

That floored him, somewhat. Suddenly he felt like crying at the thought she might not have the mark when his was branded onto his skin."Yeah. That too."

It was so easy to be with her like this. Walking behind the others from a bar, holding hands under the pretence of not wanting to slip on the ice- an excuse already forgotten between the two of them. He had given her his jacket when they left, and neither of them minded that he never got it back. Destined to hang on the back of her bedroom door like some strange afterimage of him, for her to look at and think maybe, maybe.

Donna maintained some order in his frenzied life; no one understood him better, and the efficiency- clairvoyance almost- with which she anticipated his requirements and outflanked his changes of mind never ceased to gratify and amaze him. He did not like to think he was known so well- but it felt less painful if it was her. If it was always her, even after all this time.

That night, when Donna would step out of the shower smelling of elderflower and bergamot and the heat rising from her skin, she would notice in the mirror that the mark had appeared on her arm.

Donna would take the towel, yell into it briefly without knowing why, then carry on getting dressed.