She had to cancel.
Maddie kind of hated herself in that moment, staring down at her phone. She really didn't want to cancel, but her supervisor asked her to come in three hours early Friday morning, and she really couldn't afford to lose sleep that night.
It had been a long week since Saturday, the last time she'd seen Howie. They'd texted, every day. He'd even called her a few times when he had downtime at work, and it had been good.
But it wasn't the same as seeing him, and she felt serious anxiety about sending this text. First of all, she felt pretty shitty that it would be a text, but she only had a few minutes left on her break, and she refused to wait even later to tell him she was cancelling. She wasn't going to make him wait until the last second.
She sighed, finally typing the words.
Please don't hate me. (Maddie)
I have to work three hours earlier than originally planned (Maddie)
Tomorrow night? (Maddie)
She waited in tense silence, until the clock turned, and she went back inside, realizing she'd have to wait on his reply. She didn't know if he'd read it; she'd disabled read receipts a long time ago for obvious reasons with Doug, but now she was tempted to turn them back on for Howie. But no. She wasn't going to let herself go there. That was a toxic impulse, and she refused to give into temptation.
Her phone finally buzzed a few minutes later, and she hesitantly pulled it from her pocket, not sure what to expect. Of course he would be nice about it, but she knew she'd be able to read his disappointment in whatever he texted.
Hey, no worries. Can't say you didn't warn me (Howie)
I'm getting dinner with my family Friday, or I'd say yes in a heartbeat (Howie)
She sighed, knowing that this was fine. He loved his family, who could complain about that? Besides, he'd been so kind about her own cancellation.
Of course, we can work something out (Maddie)
Her good mood didn't last long after that however. She was quiet for most of her shift, feeling guilty that the last two times she'd seen him he'd had to drive clear across town for her five minute break. He worked the night shift Saturday, while she worked the morning.
She was going to try and see him, bring him a coffee, or some sort of snack. He'd made the journey to see her twice, wasn't it time for her to reciprocate? Besides, then Buck might stop worrying about them so much.
Yes. She'd drop in Saturday.
Saturday night came, and Maddie changed out of her nurse scrubs into jeans, sandals, and a white shirt. She looked at her hair in the bathroom mirror at the hospital and sighed. She'd done it in two braids this morning, and it looked nowhere near as it had at the beginning of the day, with tendrils and curls escaping all over the place. She didn't really have time to fix it; she'd placed an order for Indian and the time was nearing.
She hoped Howie liked Indian; she hoped he hadn't already eaten. Worse case scenario was that she'd also bought herself lunch for tomorrow, she told herself, trying to believe it. She really didn't want this gesture to fall flat. What if they were busy? What if she made a total fool of herself? What if they weren't there and it was hours before they came back? Should she wait? Should she text Buck now to feel it out?
She sighed, leaving the bathroom with a nervous pit of stress in her stomach. She really wanted to make this work, she really wanted to make Howie as happy as he'd made her the last time he'd dropped in.
So she was just going. If he wasn't there, she could at least leave half the food for him. Yes. That was a good plan.
The nervous stress in her stomach kept needling her the whole drive. Every second sat in traffic made her more anxiety, sending pinpricks of anxiety everywhere on her body. She just wanted to see him; she knew that the anxiety would dissipate the instant she saw his smile, but at the same time, she was so nervous that she was dreading seeing him. A huge part of her almost wished he wouldn't be there so she could just ditch the food and send him a cute text. It would be so much less real, so much less stress if he wasn't there.
It would be better...right?
And yet the bigger part of her just really wanted to see him. There was a palpable ache; one that if she pressed her ribs it pinched even more.
Damn it, maybe part of this was just hunger. The food was scenting her car, making her stomach growl.
Howie hadn't texted as much as usual today; surely that meant he was busy. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel as the last light before the 118 turned green. She was fine, she was okay. She could do this, right?
She pulled in, seeing Howie's car in the parking lot. That meant nothing; she could see Buck's too.
She grabbed the food, forcing her breath in and out. In. One two three four five. Out. One two three…
Her brain froze, as a fire truck tore out of the front of the building, siren screaming; an ambulance followed.
That meant Howie had literally just left, she'd just missed him.
She stood there in the parking lot for a second, and forced her breath to start again. This was fine. She'd leave the food, and she'd go.
She took another moment to steady herself, and walked into the open front of the firehouse. It looked so open when it was missing two vehicles. Maddie headed for the stairs, knowing the kitchen was up there. She'd just leave it there with a note.
"Maddie?" She looked up, and...Eddie? Was standing at the top of the stairs.
"Hey," she said, trying to figure out words. "I just wanted to drop something off."
"For Buck?" Eddie said. "I can put it in the fridge for you, and make sure no one else touches it."
"No, for Howie-I mean, Chimney," she stammered.
"Oh, then he's right here," Eddie said, and Maddie whirled around to see Howie jogging up the stairs behind her.
"Sorry," he said, lightly panting. "I saw you in the parking lot, and I tried to catch up."
Eddie had disappeared, and Maddie stared at the man now standing in front of her.
"Hi," she said, and held out the food in an awkward, straightforward motion. "I saw the ambulance leave, I assumed you went with it."
"Hen's training a new guy, and Martin is there," Howie shrugged. "I'll be on the next one if we get another call."
Maddie nodded, unsure of what to say.
"So," Howie said, stepping forward to take the bag. "Is this lunch?"
"I thought we could grab a bite, if you had a minute," she said, tucking her hair behind her ears. Now that she was here, she really didn't know what to say. She kind of just wanted to fall into a pit in the floor, let it swallow her up.
"That would be great," Howie said, gently cupping her elbow to guide her to the kitchen.
Maddie felt her whole body tense at the touch, and Howie immediately moved his hand away. "I'm sorry," she began, as he said the same words.
"Again, I shouldn't have assumed you'd be comfortable with that," he hurried to say. "It was my bad."
"No, I was," she said in a rush. "Comfortable. It just took me by surprise."
Howie's eyes met hers, and the tension had returned. She slowly reached her hand out, let it brush against his. The feeling made her want to close her eyes, and just breathe this in. She slowly slid her fingers between his, and Howie clasped tight, his eyes shining as he looked at her.
"So," he said, his voice oddly strained. "Lunch?"
"Yeah," she said, almost a whisper. "I got Indian, I hope you like that."
"I do," he said, and led her to the kitchen.
Maddie spent their whole meal waiting for the bell to ring, but somehow, they made it through without an interruption. Howie told stories from his workweek, and Maddie did the same. She had a warm glow in her stomach, and their hands lay next to each other on the table; sometimes he gently touched the back of her hand with his, but he didn't take it in his again.
She kind of wanted him to, but she also knew it would reignite every feeling she'd had when she'd first seen him tonight, and she needed to cool off a little.
Howie walked her out to her car, and all she could think about was the night of Buck's party.
Had that really been just two weeks ago? It felt like a lifetime.
She leaned against her car, looking up at the night sky. She knew she needed to be getting home; she still had work in the morning. Howie braced one hand against her car door, gazing at her. She wasn't sure who moved first, but they were kissing, and it was just as good as it had been two weeks ago.
His lips moved against hers, and his hand came to cup the back of her head; hold her steady. His other hand danced at the small of her back; not quite touching, but present.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, just holding him to her, as the kiss deepened.
She really didn't want this moment to end.
Howie pulled away, breathing hard, and he smiled at her. "That went well," he joked. "Um, I need to get back, but I wish I could stand out here all night."
"Me too," she said. "I mean, I have to get home, and get to sleep but…" She licked her lips. "I just want to stay here with you."
"Maybe next week," he said. "We really need to find time for that date."
He waved, and started back inside. Maddie stood at her car, silently begging that he'd turn around, come back for one more kiss, but he only turned around once he'd reached the building; he raised his hand in a wave, and she waved back. She pressed her fingers against her lips after he'd disappeared from view, and she'd never wanted to be able to time travel as much as she did in that moment.