Author: Jackie Thomas
Date: August 2001
Rating: NC - 17, for m/m sex and suicide references. But blink and you’ll miss both of these.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Feedback appreciated
Archive: All yours
Disclaimer: All theirs
Spoilers: Everything up to ‘Midterms’. Josh is just back to work after the shooting.
Apologies: To anyone who knows anything about navigating by the stars.
Summary: He still had moments, even now, when he could taste the pavement in his mouth, when the sound of shattering glass rang in his ears, when every kid in a baseball cap concealed a gun and every building a gunman.
Wayfinding by Jackie Thomas
Sam: Also, that bright star in the northern sky is Polaris.
Toby: So what?
Sam: I'm using celestial navigation.
Toby: Hey, Galileo, get off at the next exit and turn the car around.
Josh had pressed his forehead hard against Sam’s shoulder. It was as if he were trying to leave an indent there as they stood together in the dim light of one star. That had been in a different time in a different hotel and it was just one of a possible fifty-seven navigational stars.
Sam was woken from a dreamless sleep by a blast of music from the next room. Once awake, it took him a while to remember that he was in a hotel, longer to figure out which of the three he had slept in that week it was. He lay then, with his eyes open, listening to the unintelligible burble of a far off sports commentator. He rubbed his shoulder.
Finding the T-shirt and boxers he had discarded sometime during the night in the airless room he got up and knocked on the door that linked the adjoining rooms. Josh opened it seconds later. He was wide-awake and still dressed, though his suit jacket was in a crumpled heap on the bed and his shirt hung loosely. He was holding a report, a European Union publication judging by its blue binding. His eyes were bright with exhaustion.
“Man, I’m sorry.” Josh grabbed the remote and switched the television off. “I didn’t realise it was loud.”
Sam peered passed him into the room. With laptop on the floor and papers across every surface it had become a small-scale version of Josh’s office, or at least the aftermath of a war. He blinked sleepily. “Josh, what are you doing?”
“I’m…Bilateral Trade Relations.” Josh held up the report for inspection; a circle of yellow stars, one for each country of the union. “Bananas.”
“Its 3am. You’ve got a fourteen-hour day tomorrow. Go to sleep.”
“Okay,” Josh grinned.
“I’m fine, Sam.”
“I know, but you shouldn’t be…Why are you awake, actually?”
Josh rolled the report into a tube and peered into it. “I haven’t been sleeping too well lately, that’s all.”
“Did you tell your doctor?” Sam came into the room and closed the door. He was amazed that Josh had disclosed this much, he hadn’t been admitting to anything lately. Josh rested his chin on the tube.
“Yeah, he gave me those.” Josh nodded at a bottle of pills on the night table. “But they’re not working.”
“Did you tell him that?”
“He increased the dose but that didn’t work either.”
“Quit it Sam. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to keep taking more and more.” Josh rolled the report into a tighter tube.
“So what does that do?” Sam had located a faint sweet smell in the room to a bottle of brandy open on the chest of drawers and a glass, half empty by its side.
Josh let the tube unravel in his hands. “Sometimes a drink helps.”
“You know what you’re doing then?”
“Well, now you’re giving me the drug-squad face… I realise I’m developing an alcohol habit in order to avoid developing a drug habit.” Josh sat down on the edge of the bed and pushed his hand through his hair. He suddenly looked years older. “I’m not thinking logically lately.”
Sam swept some papers aside and sat on a chair. “When did you last sleep?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Josh shut his eyes. “The flight West.”
“That was,” Sam added up. “Four days ago, Jesus.”
“I can sleep on aeroplanes, I don’t know why. Before that I can’t remember the last time…”
“God, how are you even…?” Sam so badly wanted to help. Nothing he had done so far had helped. He watched Josh open his eyes and look at him as if he had just noticed him in the room.
"Do you believe in Karma?" Josh asked, continuing a conversation they hadn’t been having.
"As in reincarnation? Or as in the refreshing juice drink?"
Josh smiled. "As in retribution, redressing the balance."
"No I don't," he said. "Things don't happen for a reason, things just happen."
Josh looked at him curiously. "How long have you believed that?" Sam hadn't been conscious of believing it at all until now and now he was certain of it.
Josh, in a most un-Joshlike way, had been circling around the meaning of life a lot lately. Sam cast him a worried glance. “This isn’t String Theory again is it? Because my head’s still spinning from the last time you explained it to me.”
“No. Sam, its…” Josh struggled to express an idea through an exhausted fog. “It’s the thing we used to learn. You know, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. I’m going crazy here.”
"Are you saying that you were shot as a punishment for something?” The idea dismayed him, he couldn't allow him to think that. "Josh?"
"No, that's not it, not that exactly. I’m thinking about Joanie, you know, she died." Then Josh stopped abruptly and made a dismissive gesture with a reconstituted EU tube.
“You’re thinking about your sister?” Of course, he would be and Sam was reminded of a different time in a different hotel room. “Is it like it was in California? Are you dreaming about your sister?”
“Yeah. No. Forget it Sam.”
It had been after his father died and Josh had come back on the campaign a few days after the funeral. Too soon, but he was breezing through, seemingly unaffected.
Sam could barely remember what town they were in but the meetings had run late and they had to stay on an extra night. The hotel hadn’t been able to accommodate them all in separate rooms and in the reallocation it had inevitably fallen to Josh and Sam to share a twin-bedded room.
He remembered a warm California night and falling asleep while Josh read by the light of a desk lamp. He woke again in the early hours of the morning to find the balcony doors were open and Josh’s bed showing signs of having been slept in.
He got out of bed and went outside. He found Josh there, standing by the rail, staring out into the darkness. There were few stars visible that night through the haze of pollution but Polaris was as bright and as solitary as a portent.
“I woke you,” Josh said not looking at him.
“Are you OK? Can’t you sleep?” Sam had asked and Josh hadn’t replied. “Josh?”
When Josh didn’t move or speak, Sam went to him and put a hand on his arm, quietly saying his name. In a quick, unexpected half-turn Josh had put his head on Sam’s shoulder and Sam, surprised by the odd gesture, had put an arm around him and pulled him a little closer.
Sam felt the brush of Josh’s hair against his neck and wanted to stay this way until whatever moment this was had passed. But Josh soon pulled away.
“I’m just…” he was going inside and hurriedly getting dressed. “It was just a dumb dream. My dad, my sister. I’m going for a walk.”
“You want me to come with?”
“No, I’m fine,” he said and was gone, leaving Sam to try to identify the sudden sense of loss he felt as the few stars drifted in cloud.
From then on, just having Josh’s hand on his shoulder if they met accidentally in the West Wing could bring a smile to his face. Sometimes just knowing he was in the same building was enough. If he ever let himself analyse it, which he did only occasionally, he would admit he had shared the most intimate moment of his life with him. It hadn’t been sexual, he hadn’t even dared use two arms to comfort him, but still, he had never felt so joined up to someone else.
But it was easy enough not to explore that, he didn’t have to deal with it. Didn’t have to deal with it, that is, until he was standing rooted to the spot in a hospital waiting room. His mind filled with broken images of space shuttles floating silently in starless space, of crashing F1-17s, of a pilot injured in a white expanse of desert, of the time that Josh had put his arms around him in a Gage Whitney Pace office. Certain that if he had just kept hold of him when he had the chance they wouldn’t be so lost now.
Anyway that was a lesson he had learnt well and, as he figured he had already pissed Josh off, he had nothing to lose.
“I can stay if you want.”
“Sam…” Josh said warily.
“No, no I’m just thinking. Maybe you can sleep on aeroplanes because you’re not on your own. So maybe if I stayed you could…I don’t know, it might help.” He was being practical Sam, earnest Sam. Maybe he was overdoing it. He knew he couldn’t say that he was as certain as he was of anything that if he could just hold Josh through the night he would be able to rest. If Josh could just know he was there should anything happen.
Josh seemed to notice the EU report in his hand and he slid it across the bed. He sighed and massaged the top of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut as he did so.
“I don’t think so Sam,” he said.
Everything used to speed up when Josh was in the room, he had that whirlwind quality about him. Now everything slowed down and this was a thing which knocked Sam off his axis. Another thing.
He watched the yellow stars on the EU report until they seemed to spin in lazy circles. Sam used to think he could navigate by the stars. If he ever needed to he could find his way. But these days he wasn’t so sure, these days he was often lost. He could pinpoint this feeling to the moment when they had all hit the ground to the sound of gunfire. When all he saw were stars exploding and he couldn’t find Josh.
He still had moments, even now, when he could taste the pavement in his mouth, when the sound of shattering glass rang in his ears, when every kid in a baseball cap concealed a gun and every building a gunman. In another life he would have sought Josh out during such moments. An ‘I’m just stretching my legs,’ and Josh wouldn’t mind him tagging along for a while, absorbing his careless strength. But Josh couldn’t help him now and also refused his help.
Celestial Navigation comes down to locating an unknown point by reference to a known one, a celestial body. Not just the Pole Star, there are fifty-seven bright stars that can be used for navigational purposes. Sam could name them A to Z, Acamar, Achernar, Acrux. But these days he didn’t think he could find even one of them. These days all of the known points were drifting away from him.
“Hey, anyone home there?” Josh asked. “What are you stressing about?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Banana wars.”
Josh looked at him questioningly. “Don’t worry, I got it covered.”
But Sam wasn’t sure he believed him. “I mean it Josh, I’ll stay here with you. I’ll even do one of my speeches, that normally does the trick.”
“Sam, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, really, but there’s even less chance of me sleeping with you flapping around all night like a Princeton-educated mother hen.”
Sam smiled at the image and accepted defeat. “OK, suit yourself, I’m going,” he said. “I’ll try not to let all your pacing and moaning keep me awake.”
Josh looked as though he might stop him but then he just joked. “I’ll try to keep it down.”
“I’m next door Josh,” said Sam. And Josh nodded and let him leave.
Josh was on the point of looking ill the next day and Sam knew he wasn’t the only one to notice. Toby and Leo were too careful of him, not picking him up on his momentary lapses of attention. CJ called him gentle names and didn’t tease, while Donna was beside herself watching the tremors in his hand when he reached for a glass or a file, watching him fail to eat any of the food she made sure was put in front of him.
It was a tense and difficult day but it wasn’t until the early evening that the cracks became visible through a small but nonetheless painful incident which took place at a meeting with the Governor at his mansion.
The President was seated with Leo and the Governor while himself, Josh and Toby stood behind in their customary places along with some of the Governor’s staff. It had already been a long meeting and showed no sign of ending when Josh fell asleep.
Sam first noticed Leo glaring significantly at him, conveying fury in an almost imperceptible nod of his head. Eventually he gathered that Leo was actually looking at Josh and when he turned he saw that Josh, standing with his hands behind his back, had his eyes closed and had started to tilt forward. Sam and Toby caught his arms before he fell any further and Josh woke with a start drawing the attention of the President and the Governor. He looked around and seeing all of the eyes in the room on him he walked out.
“Stay!” Toby hissed when Sam started to go after him.
Afterwards, when the meeting finished, Josh wasn’t around. Leo questioned Sam about how Josh was coping and wondered out loud about insisting he took more sick leave. Finally, Leo told Sam to skip the dinner and go and find him and he headed back to the hotel.
“Come on in Sam,” said Josh when he tapped on his door, evidently expecting him.
Josh was lying on the bed propped up by pillows while Abbot and Costello fell about silently on the muted television. He had showered and changed into shorts and a T-shirt. He smiled an embarrassed smile.
“Well,” he said. “That could have gone better.”
“You think?” Sam came in and closed the door behind him. “Hey, its us on TV,” he said, recalling an ancient Leo name for them.
“I thought that. Except they’re a model of competent professionalism compared to me.”
“Yeah, but you’d look better in a pith helmet.”
Sam sat on the other side of the bed. He had stopped at a Deli on the way to pick up a couple of sandwiches and he started opening boxes. “I brought supper,” he said.
“How come you didn’t stay for the dinner?” Josh eyed the food disinterestedly.
“Leo sent me to find you.”
“He’s pissed huh?”
“But he should be pissed.”
“Give yourself a break Josh. Everyone in that room knows what happened to you.” Josh looked as if he were going to argue but decided it wasn’t worth it and went back to staring at the television. Sam followed his gaze. “Leo might want you to take more sick leave,” he said. “And maybe it would be good to have a couple of weeks off, you could relax.”
Josh turned to Sam and said quietly. “I can’t stay home on my own anymore. I can’t do it.”
“Okay,” Sam said, picking up the urgency concealed in the remark. He covered Josh’s hand with his own to try and reassure him but Josh immediately pulled away. Sam hesitated, at a loss as to what to do with his hand next. “I can talk to Leo. Why don’t I talk to Leo?”
“No, don’t do that,” Josh snapped. “How’s it going to look if I can’t even speak for myself?”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. You know, maybe I should go, I think I’m making this worse.”
“No,” Josh said quickly. “Don’t go Sam. I’m just screwing up here in the many different ways open to me. Just treat everything I say as the ramblings of a lunatic.”
Sam watched him for a moment and remembered that the North Star isn’t truly north but under a degree off and you have to allow for that when you’re navigating. Then he knew what to do. “Okay, you carry on enjoying yourself,” he said. “I’m just going to eat this sandwich and watch this fine movie. Featuring us in…us in the Foreign Legion.” He pulled off his shoes, stretched his legs out on the bed and loosened his tie. Josh watched, a small smile playing at his lips.
“You mean you’re not going to interrogate me on my mental state?”
“My sleeping or eating habits?”
“My interesting new obsessions?”
“No, you’re completely on your own. So don’t come to me with your problems.” Josh smiled and seemed genuinely relieved.
They passed the evening together, eating, watching the President shaking hands with the Governor on TV and developing a banana strategy which involved going to Brussels and pretending to be Canadian. Then later, when conversation slowed, they started to watch a movie.
Although Sam had made up his mind to stay awake with Josh, all night if necessary, the movie combined with Josh’s unusual quietness sent him to sleep. He dreamed of trails of flames from a shooting star and then woke to find Josh fast asleep and lying in his arms.
Josh was lying with his upper body across Sam’s, his head on his chest, a hand clasping his shoulder. Sam’s arms encircled Josh in just the way he had longed to hold him since the day he came out of surgery. They had folded up together in sleep in just the way Josh would never have allowed had he been awake.
Sam panicked. He tried to untangle himself from Josh without disturbing him but he began to wake up. He muttered half-formed, anxious words and pulled Sam back to him, momentarily gripping the cloth of his shirt to stop him trying to free himself again.
So Sam gave up and held Josh a little closer. Closing his eyes he allowed himself to inhale Josh’s scents of soap and perspiration and others less easy to identify. His hands exploring the surprisingly muscular contours of his arms, learning the angles of each of his vertebrae and the way his hair curled into the nape of his neck. He adjusted his breathing to the gradual easing of Josh’s and slipped into a dream of the White House in flames, the fire raging with the force of fifty-seven stars.
It was the telephone ringing that next woke them both. Woke them at the appallingly late hour of 9am still curled tightly together. They lay unmoving for just a moment and then Josh broke away to answer the phone while Sam blinked awake.
“Yeah…hi Leo. What time is it? No way. No…I overslept. I’m okay…I’m absolutely fine. I’ll be right down. No I don’t know where Sam is, if I see him I’ll…”
Sam started to get up, looking around for his glasses, aching from being slept on. He wished he had brushed his teeth the night before and he wished he had changed out of his suit. Mostly he wished Josh would look at him but he didn’t. Still, he reminded himself, it had been a spectacularly successful night.
“You OK?” he asked.
“Yeah, you know, we better move,” Josh replied, disappearing into his bathroom leaving Sam standing in the middle of the room with a familiar sensation of emptiness. This time though, in the harsh daylight, all the stars had been switched off and he could hardly even find his way next door.
Josh and Sam missed all their breakfast meetings and only just made the flight to the last state in the tour. But no one said anything, not even to Sam, not even Toby. There just appeared to be a genuine pleasure and relief that Josh was so much back to his old self. And he did seem a thousand times better, all unquenchable energy, opinions and mad hair. But he didn’t speak to, or even look at, Sam for the entire day and though he had known enough to expect this Sam couldn’t help but be devastated. For the first time since Rosslyn he forgot to be simply grateful that Josh still lived.
They reached the hotel where they were to spend the last night of the tour before noon. Sam was once again allotted a room adjoining Josh’s and he began to suspect other forces were at work. Specifically Donna and Margaret who were responsible for arranging accommodation. He wondered if he should tell them he was unlikely to be of much more use to Josh.
Public events arranged for the afternoon and evening kept them busy so that they didn’t get back to the hotel until after midnight. Josh and Leo were talking intently in the hotel bar when Sam finally turned in.
He slept almost immediately but woke later, unaware of the time, with the strong sense he was no longer alone in the room. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw a figure standing next to his bed, his head bowed, his arms unengaged at his side.
He pulled back the covers and waited for Josh to get in. It never occurred to him to be surprised when he did and the cotton of Josh’s shirt was smooth against his bare skin and the buckle of Josh’s belt pressed into his side.
Josh silently covered Sam’s body with his own, his hands gripped Sam’s shoulders and his head pushed into his neck. There was nothing gentle about the way Josh clung to him, the way the weight of his body constricted Sam’s breathing, or the way he seemed to be trying to bury himself inside him.
The immediate result was that Sam’s body began to respond to the sudden contact in a way neither of them could avoid noticing. Josh eventually raised his head and pressed it to Sam’s shoulder. Then when they were breathing identical breaths Josh moved down Sam’s body, transferring his grip to Sam’s wrists when he reached for Josh’s hair. Josh, with his urgent mouth joined them together so completely that Sam couldn’t think of himself as anything but a fragment finally mended.
Then Josh went back to clinging to Sam, this time pulling Sam to face him, a knee between his legs in a tangle of trouser, arms locked around him. He held on as if he would fall to his death if he let go and Sam wrapped his arms around Josh and held him with equal force feeling nothing but an instinct to protect his own.
They slept that way and in his dreams Sam heard the crackling of short-circuiting wires and saw flames circling the bed.
When Sam’s morning call came through at 5am the room was still in darkness and a map of stars was just visible through a gap in the curtain. Josh was out of the bed before Sam had put the phone down. He sat silently on the edge of it, staring down at the floor. Sam sat up and moved closer. He watched him for a moment and laid his hand on Josh’s back.
“Look at me,” he said. He didn’t believe either of them would survive Josh walking out on him one more time. “Please Josh.”
Josh did finally turn and tired brown eyes wandered over him. Then Josh slowly traced a finger along a bruise that had formed where he had gripped Sam’s arm during the night.
“Oh Jesus, I hurt you.”
“No, you didn’t. You didn’t.” Josh stared at Sam, an appraising gaze.
“Two nights ago I woke you on purpose. Did you know that?” Sam shook his head. “Another night on my own, not sleeping, I wouldn’t have had the sense not to swallow all of my sleeping tablets. The only rational thing I could do was turn up the volume on my TV.”
Sam realised he had stopped breathing. “Josh you don’t go through this stuff alone. You should have let me stay.”
“By then I was okay. I felt like an idiot. I mean I am an idiot. But you helped me anyway. Just by…just by standing there sleepy eyed and messy haired.” Josh let his hand slip down to hold Sam’s. “You’ve been getting some mixed signals lately. Huh Sam?”
He leaned in then and their lips met in the softest of kisses and the world whirled to a halt and all the stars collided.
Then Josh dropped his head and said. “Oh Sam.” But his words were choked by a sob and Sam let his fingers comb gently through Josh’s hair.
“Its okay,” he whispered.
“I don’t think it is. I mean it really isn’t. But I just want, the whole time, to be with you because you’re the only place I feel safe and then I can’t have you around because I can’t stand feeling anything anymore.”
“Josh, its okay.”
“Joanie died,” he said in a harsh whisper. “She died and I survived. Then that bullet couldn’t have been better aimed and somehow I’m still alive. I keep waiting for the price to be paid for that, waiting for it to happen and now every time I close my eyes they’re dragging you dead out of a burning building.”
“Its not how it works Josh.”
Josh laughed desperately. “I even know that but I can’t stop believing it. And now I find that the only thing that can stop those dreams is sleeping next to you. These last two nights I’ve dreamt about nothing at all.”
Sam shivered. “These last two nights all I’ve dreamt about is fire. It’s been so strange.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Then Josh shook his head.
“Sometimes I think none of this is happening. I’m still sitting against a wall outside the Newseum trying to breathe. If I close my eyes, it’ll be over. Sometimes I think the universe is trying to squeeze me out because I should have died years ago in a house fire. Are you getting exactly how screwed up I am?”
“You’re fine Josh, you’re perfect.” Sam rested his forehead against Josh’s and brushed away a tear that had strayed across his cheek. He wasn’t sure if it was his or Josh’s. “Look, if I’ve learnt one thing through all of this, its that I can’t do without you.”
“Sam, I’m no use to you.”
“Ssh ssh. I’m going to take over from here, you see. I’m going to…” his voice caught. “I’m going to keep you safe Josh. I’m going to hold you when you sleep and I’m going to dream your fire dreams for you. I know longitude and I know latitude and I’m not letting anything squeeze you out of anywhere.”
“You’re as crazy as I am Sam,” Josh said softly. “So I guess you can do all of those things.”
Sam kissed Josh’s forehead. “There isn’t much I couldn’t do for a blow job, anyway.”
Josh’s astonished laugh disappeared into another sob. Sam pulled Josh to him holding him tightly, murmuring reassurances, feeling him almost fall apart in his hands.
Josh’s sobs were abruptly swallowed but Sam held him and stroked his hair until he stopped shaking, until his breathing became more regular. Then Sam leaned back against the pillows and Josh lay with his head pressed to Sam’s chest, utterly still, hardly seeming to even breathe.
Daylight angled its way in and phones and cellphones in their two rooms began to scream unanswered. Eventually there was a knock at Josh’s door and Donna calling his name followed by a knock at Sam’s door.
“Hey Donna,” Sam called.
“Sam! Where’s Josh?”
“He’s here with me.”
“Thank God. Leo’s been making CJ phone and there’s this big, round ball of crossness downstairs goes by the name of Toby. I think you missed another thing.”
“Yeah, I know, it doesn’t matter.”
“Right, I’ll just tell Toby that, shall I? Anyway, are you guys coming down? We gotta move in like ten seconds.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean? Is Josh all right?”
“Not really. Look Donna, tell Leo and Toby that me and Josh are taking a week off, maybe two.” Josh moved in his arms and he soothed him back down again.
There was a pause. “Omigod Sam. OK, I’ll tell them.” Another pause. “Do you want me to book you a flight or something?”
“Nah, thanks Donna, we’ll find our own way.”
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