Title: Keep Looking
Author: Candle Beck
Rated: Fairly strong R.
Spoilers: Through `Crackpots and These Women,' also anything that happened chronologically before then but which the show did not reveal until later.
Archive: By all means, but let me know, please.
Disclaimer: Characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe. Lyrics referenced and quoted are by Tom Waits (ps, everybody, go out and buy a Tom Waits album. Now, go out and buy three more.) `Ave Maria' is by Franz Schubert. The Latin is from the prayer by the same name. No money is being made off this story.
Note: Also posted on the Sam_n_Josh list.
Summary: Josh didn't like that this was happening to him. He didn't know how to stop it.
Keep Looking by Candle Beck
It was snowing and Sam's hands were shaking.
That was how Josh thought about what had happened, small bursts of memory like light, singular images coming unbidden in the night, startling him in traffic on his drive home, catching him off-guard at work.
He would raise his head from some budget report, lift his fingers to rub across his eyes, and when he pulled his hands away, the setting sun would spear into the corners of his vision and he would turn to look at the November twilight, spreading through the crooked black tree branches like amber, like whiskey, and without warning an unmistakable picture would crash into his mind, and a voice would tell him with quiet certainty, "The car was blue and there was frost on the windshield. There was a yellow flyer on a telephone pole, half of it ripped away by the storm. There was no moon, though you kept looking for one. It was snowing and Sam's hands were shaking."
Josh didn't like that this was happening to him. He didn't know how to stop it.
* * *
After chili with the President, Josh went back to his office to do some work for the upcoming census. Twelve pages into research on the benefits of sampling over the door-to-door headcount, and Sam was standing in the doorway.
There was a light on in the bullpen behind Sam, and it backlit him, made him blurry and golden around the edges, so that Josh felt like he had to squint to see him, like maybe Sam was out of focus.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm doing this thing-census thing."
"I thought that was Toby."
"It's both of us. I'm just doing some prep stuff."
"You know it's not gonna be Janice Willis on Commerce anymore."
"Yeah, Sam, I kinda figured by the way she, you know, died."
"I'm saying, it's going to be her husband now. Joe, Jack, something like that. He teaches middle school, and he's the third swing vote on sampling now."
"I tell you something, if my eighth grade teacher ever had any impact on the national government, I think I'd move to Switzerland."
Sam grinned, the flash of his teeth sharp in the shadows of the office. Josh let the sampling report fall closed on his desk and stretched backwards, pulling his arms over his head, hearing his spine crack and wincing.
Sam lifted his eyebrow at the sound and said, "Well, I was going to ask you to come out for a drink, but I see now that you are old and arthritic, and probably not able to keep up with the young folk anymore."
Josh scowled. "I don't know about the young folk, but I can certainly keep up with you and your California-wine-cooler-drinking . . . escapades."
His friend laughed out loud, the echo bounding through the silent halls. "Escapades, now? That sounds like fun. Come on, I want to see if I can catch Toby and CJ. Maybe Charlie, too." Sam paused, thinking. "If I bring my boss, are tequila shots tax-deductible?"
Josh smirked, liking the way Sam's crisp white shirt outlined him against the dark wall. "That's the American dream, I think." He looked down at the sheaf of papers on his desk and sighed. "I don't- this isn't the best night for me. I gotta finish this and then get started on the budget, and there's, there's this thing . . ." His voice drained away, forgetting what he was going to say, an orchestra swelling in his head, a voice soaring in exquisite Latin.
"Yeah." He came back to himself to see Sam studying him closely. Josh was unsettled by how blue Sam's eyes were in the dim room. 'There's no light hitting his face,' he thought. 'How can they be that bright without any light hitting them?'
"You kinda trailed off there."
Josh ran his hand through his hair and ghosted a smile across his face. "Sorry, long day. What I was saying, I was-I've got this stuff, and, you know, I'm just beat. Another night, though. Go out with Toby and CJ and Charlie. Declare the bar tab on your tax return. Have a good time."
Sam leaned against the doorjamb in melodramatic exasperation. "Come on, man, come out with us! You couldn't get properly drunk at the President's chili thing, you should do it now! This census thing can wait, and God knows you're gonna be talking way more about the budget in the next two weeks than you could ever want to, so you should just call it a day. It's almost midnight anyway, no one expects you to pull an all-nighter on this stuff."
Josh smiled in spite of himself. Sam was standing in his doorway with a grin tugging at his mouth, and on his desk were thousands of words about population increase and freakishly esoteric budget riders. Josh was having trouble remembering why he was even debating between the two.
He stood and pulled his coat off the hook, saying, "Yeah, okay. Tax- deductible debauchery. I'm so on board."
Sam grinned in victory and clapped Josh on the arm as the other man joined him at the doorway. Josh turned to look back over his office, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Sam asked, "Okay?" and Josh replied in the affirmative.
Just before they moved out of the office, Sam paused and tilted his head at a sweet, subtle angle. Peering over Josh's shoulder, he said simply, "It's starting to snow." Josh realized suddenly that Sam's hand was still on his arm, a shy weight through his sleeve, and as he looked at his friend, he thought for a moment that he could see the falling snow reflecting in Sam's eyes, soft and vast and white.
* * *
CJ and Toby begged off, claiming exhaustion, and Charlie had already gone home to his sister, so Josh and Sam set out alone into the frozen night. The snow was coming down fiercely, big thick flakes that carpeted the roofs of parked cars and sat heavy on the thin, trembling naked branches of the winter trees.
Driving to the bar, they talked about the President's chili and about the `vibe' Josh had picked up on between Charlie and Zoey ("He kept calling her `ma'am,' Josh, that's not exactly flirt talk. And never say `vibe' again, please."), and their respective Big Block of Cheese Days. Occasionally, a rogue thought would skitter through Josh's head, something about small pox or nuclear war or fire. Once or twice, the strains of a violin arched through his brain. As he stared out the windshield at the city slowly being blanketed, muffled, slipped away for the winter, his mind's eye showed him the incomplete grin of an eight-year old girl, a charred, endless expanse of earth, a hotel room in Illinois, a teddy bear rubbed bald with velvety paws, a mother on her knees beside an obscenely tiny grave.
He shut these things out, not wishing to have them intrude on his night, not wanting to bring his convoluted history into this warm happy car, where Sam was smiling and laughing, not wanting to introduce his dark, broken soul into this safe, snow-filled time.
They had to park far off from the bar, and as they stepped out into the weather, their four or five block walk through the growing storm became an epic journey, infusing them with grandeur, prompting them to call bold, sweeping proclamations in which they exalted their stunning hardiness and altogether adventurous spirits.
"Like Lewis and Clark, we shall be unafraid of nature and all that it might wreak upon us!" Sam claimed, his voice deep and joyfully echoing.
Josh picked up the theme. "Like Cortez and DeSoto, braving the wilderness, walking lands unseen by human eyes!"
"Conquering the jungles, forging new paths, mapping a new world!" Sam slung an arm around Josh's shoulders and stretched his other hand out with fingers spread wide, as if he was surveying the wide world, the infinite curved horizon. "Look ahead, young Lyman, our future awaits us! For we are explorers, we are brave and true, we are moving forward because we cannot move back. Whatever awaits us, we shall face it with strength and courage! Like Magellan and Amerigo Vespucci!"
Josh hooked his arm around Sam's waist and kicked his way through the beginnings of a snow bank. He laughed, taken with the image of him and Sam, standing proud on the prow of a wooden ship, setting off for places unknown to the known world, setting off despite maps that read, `Here there be monsters,' driven only by the curiosity of their hearts, the possibilities of their imaginations, and the intense and unique human need to explore, to go farther. "Like Dr. Livingston, and . . . um, that guy that found him in Africa."
Sam tossed his head back and laughed. "Yes! That guy! I love that guy! This is why we're a team, my friend, your brilliant mind and my quick wit. Like Armstrong and Aldrin!"
Josh was running out of explorers. "Like . . . Butch and Sundance?"
Sam snorted. "More like Laurel and Hardy, at this point." He let go of Josh's shoulder to scoop some snow off a mailbox and pack it into a ball.
Josh turned up his coat collar against the wind and said, "Yeah, I think we're a little too sober to be comparing ourselves so enthusiastically to pioneers and astronauts. And don't throw that at me."
Sam mocked a look of exaggerated innocence at him and stepped off the curb to wait for the crosswalk light to change. Sam always did that, standing in the street to wait for the green, abandoning the sidewalk to be a foot farther along his way. Josh used to wonder if it was something he had picked up from living in New York City, the world capital of aggressive pedestrians, but had decided that it was just Sam, eager to get where he was going, eager to be even a foot closer to his destination.
Sam's gloved hands shaped the snowball carefully, with the intricate attention paid to the task that could only come from someone who'd grown up in Orange County. Snow was still novel to Sam, more of an exciting gift from the sky than an irritation that slowed traffic and mandated the shoveling of driveways.
Once, in their first winter in DC, Josh had caught Sam outside a restaurant with his head tilted way far back, his mouth open, trying to catch snowflakes on his tongue. Josh had teased him mercilessly about it for the next week, but for months afterwards, Josh would secretly call up the image, again see Sam looking devastatingly young and purely happy, his hair brushing dark on his temples, his glasses glinting in the pale metallic glow of streetlight, his face turned up to the sky, trying to catch snowflakes on his tongue.
Sam squinted through the fluttering storm, weighing his snowball carefully in his palm. "Do you think I could hit that stop sign?" he asked, pointing with his other hand.
Josh turned to see where Sam was pointing, and immediately felt an explosion of cold burst against the back of his head. He spun back around to find Sam bent over a parked car, giggling hysterically.
"Oh, man. Oh, man, that was perfect. Seriously. I have never been as happy as I am right now. Oh, Josh, the-the look on your face, oh, man."
Josh briskly shook the remains of the snowball out of his hair and smiled wickedly at his friend. "You enjoy it, Sam. By all means, have a laugh. But make no mistake, there will be retribution, and it will be magnificent, and you will regret having ever crossed me. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but make no mistake about it-you will be dealt with."
Sam straightened and ruffled a hand through Josh's hair, getting the last of the snow. "I am making no mistake. I live in fear of your revenge. Come on, though, let's get to the alcohol part of the evening."
Josh tucked away his plans for getting even, and crossed the street, the next few hours of his life seeming decadently uncomplicated, no world crises, no furious congressmen to placate or votes to win, nothing more than just a bar, a drink, the snow, and Sam.
* * *
Several pints of beer behind him, and Josh was wandering a delicate line between giddy and morose. He and Sam were in a back booth at the bar, watching politicians and aides and interns moving through the smoky room.
"So, yeah, now I've got this totally illogical fear that the UFO coming in off the Pacific is gonna, like, vaporize my hometown," Sam was saying.
Sam's tie was pulled down and his top button undone. Josh's mind was just foggy enough to make his eyes watch the small triangle of skin revealed at the base of Sam's neck move with the man's words. Sam's eyes were clear, and he wasn't wearing his glasses.
"Sam," Josh said, then stopped, puzzled, wondering what he had been intending to say. Sam looked at him questioningly, his eyebrows hooking gracefully upwards. Josh tried it again, "Sam, you're, you're like an advertiser's dream. Yeah? Advertiser's dream." Josh nodded, pleased with himself, until he saw the look of absolute bafflement on Sam's face. "No, it's like, you know, this, this guy . . . UFO guy? He says, `Sam, there's UFOs,' and you go, `Okay, UFO guy, there's UFOs.' But, like, there aren't really UFOs, you know? It's like, you're that . . . um, that thing." Josh frowned, looked down at the table, combing through his cluttered mind for the word he was looking for. Stumbling upon it, he smacked his open palm on the table and said too loud, "Suggestible! That's what-that's the thing. You are suggestible. Yeah, pretty sure that's what it is."
Sam grinned, a silly, charming grin, a well-on-the-way-to-being-drunk- and-enjoying-the-trip grin.
"And thus I am an advertiser's dream," he said, his voice careful around the edges of words as it always was when he'd been drinking, heading off slurs and lisps before they could sneak into his voice.
Josh nodded, his head feeling loose on his neck. "Yes, thus." He liked the way Sam used complex syntax even when drunk, clauses and twisting prepositional phrases and SAT vocabulary words snaking through his conversation. For some reason, Josh was vaguely proud that Sam was smarter than him, the same way he was inexplicably proud when he saw heads turn as Sam walked by, Sam himself always oblivious to the effect that his unearthly bone structure and oceanic eyes had on other people. Josh was proud of Sam's existence, proud that he was friends with this remarkable man.
Sam leaned back in the booth, idly tracing patterns in the condensation that coated his glass. "So how was your day? You looked a little . . . spaced out. I mean, more than usual."
Josh's fingers closed on the scarred wood of the table, clinging to it, feeling the slight give. Sam was looking at him with calm, interested eyes. Josh thought about the face of the man from the NSC. He couldn't remember the man's name, just his blank, emotionless expression. He remembered looking down at the card, the card that would have saved him from being a martyr, a casualty statistic, a name on a wall, and he remembered Leo making him understand that which he hadn't wanted to know. He remembered his own jagged, brief laugh of realization, and he remembered sliding the card into his wallet and feeling immediately like a criminal, like he'd done something which he would have to run from for the rest of his life.
Later, when he'd stupidly brought up the card in Sam's office, and had seen the innocent look on his friend's face, when Josh had known suddenly and absolutely that there was no card in Sam's wallet, no free ticket from catastrophe, something wild and dark ran through him. Something hard like guilt and terror pressed up against his eyes, and Josh had felt frantic with the thought that this was all wrong, this wasn't how it was supposed to be. Sam was the good one, the smart one, the one who believed in what they were doing. Sam was the one who grounded them when they were untethered, held them up when they were falling, showed them the way home when they were lost. Sam was the one who should be saved, Sam who was everything Josh was not.
Josh had been terrified that the error would be realized, that Leo and the nameless NSC man would pull him into some abandoned office and say, `We're sorry, but there's been a mistake. We don't want you, why would we want you? Give us the card, it belongs to someone else now.' He was terrified that if that happened, he would sigh with relief, would rip the wallet out of his pocket, rip the card from its place, pushing it away from himself, content because things made sense again, the world had righted itself. Josh tried not to think about what that might mean.
He realized Sam was still watching him, a tuft of hair poking out over his right ear. He coughed, drummed his hands on the table. "Um, my day was okay. You know. Cheese stuff."
Sam lifted his beer to his mouth and took a drink, and when he set it down again, he kept his fingers lightly on the elbow of the glass handle. "Where did you disappear to after the press conference prep? I came by to see if you wanted to grab some lunch, and Donna said you'd taken off."
Josh swallowed hard. He didn't want to lie to Sam. He wasn't really in the state of mind where he could have convincingly lied to Sam, if he ever could. "I went-there's this guy I see sometimes. I mean, not so much since we've been in office, but still, sometimes I . . . I go to see him. Stanley, I should say. His name is Stanley." Josh was picking at the table with his nails, worrying a small splinter from the surface. He studiously avoided Sam's eyes, Sam's strange eyes that were bright with no illumination.
When Josh didn't continue, Sam asked, "Is this guy your drug dealer or something? I'm not saying that's not something we couldn't deal with . . ." he trailed off, then said, "I think I just lost myself in a maze of double negatives."
An instinctive smirk rose to Josh's lips. He reminded himself that this was still just Sam, Sam who knew him as well as anyone, Sam who had seen at least some of what Josh tried so desperately to hide from the world, Sam who had never, for reasons passing understanding, fled from Josh in the face of all his weaknesses and flaws.
Josh went on, "Stanley, he's . . . it's a-well, a therapy type thing, I guess."
He stole a look up at Sam, who caught the uncertainty in his eyes. Sam leaned forward, one arm up on the table. "Josh, a few weeks ago I told you that I'd slept with a call girl. You really think I'm gonna get all judgmental about you seeing a psychiatrist? Hell, sometimes I think seeing a shrink should be a prerequisite for our jobs."
Josh smiled. Still Sam, he thought, still just Sam. He took a breath, though, because it was one thing to be seeing a therapist, and another thing entirely to be seeing one for the reasons Josh did.
Over the wandering noise of the bar patrons, a man was singing with a graveyard voice, singing about broken hearts and trains and wounds that will never heal. Josh was thinking of his father's wide, contagious laughter, and his sister swinging on a frayed rope, her skinny brown legs kicking up against a restless autumn sky, and a rainstorm falling on a concrete city, and his own hand spread out on a brick wall, in some alley somewhere in America, and how it had seemed that if he took his hand away, he would have collapsed and never gotten up again.
"Sam," he said, his voice shuddering slightly. "I'm not . . . sometimes I'm not okay. A lot of the time, really. I mean, I get lost. I lose track of myself, sometimes. I can't-I can't always figure out what I'm doing, if it's the right thing, if . . . if this is the way it's supposed to be. The way I'm supposed to be." He stared down at his hands miserably. There were initials carved in the wood next to his glass, someone named D.R. and someone named C.M., who had once been enough in love that they'd scarred a bar table to make it that much more certain.
"Josh." Sam's voice was quiet, unwavering, and it drew Josh's eyes up like a physical force. Sam was watching him, and Josh caught his breath, because Sam looked perfect in that moment, all pure blue eyes and dark hair and clean hollows, his white shirt brushing his neck, the shadows of his collarbone barely visible, and Josh was without warning undone by the sudden need to know what Sam's skin tasted like. It was desire that hit him like a train.
Josh pulled his shoulders up and shook his head, banishing the random urge. Too much beer, he thought. It's just Sam, don't forget it's just Sam.
"Josh, why did this come up today? All this stuff, I mean, whatever you went to Stanley about. Did something happen?" Sam was concerned, Sam wasn't disappointed in him, wasn't thrown off by what Josh had said. Sam was something solid in a room that drifted in smoke and dissembling. The man on the bar's speakers ripped words out like they were flesh and blood, the agony and exhilaration of it hanging up in the rafters, dragging along Josh's heart. The man sang, "And I'm so sorry for what I've done. And I'm out here on my own." In Josh's mind, a woman sang with unbearable passion, "Ora pro nobis peccatoribus. Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae." The words were mysteriously, heartbreakingly beautiful, beautiful like words had no right to be.
Josh sighed, putting his elbows on the table and resting his head in his hands. He thought of telling CJ about the NSC card earlier, in his dark office with the haunting music all around him. He thought about all the simple, banal ways that the world could end. "They gave me this card. Leo and this man from the NSC, this morning in my office. I was . . . that's what I was trying to talk to you about earlier. I shouldn't have said anything, I probably shouldn't say anything now, but I, you know, I don't really care anymore. It was a card with instructions about what to do in case of a nuclear attack, where to go, like that. They wanted me with the President, but not you, or CJ, or Donna, or anybody. I didn't . . . I didn't like having the card, I didn't want to think about it." He scrubbed his hands across his face and pressed his fists into his eyes. When he spoke again, it was just more than a whisper. "I gave it back. At the President's chili thing, I told them I couldn't keep it. I didn't want to be the one to be saved. Not if you . . . you and everyone else weren't. Not if I had to leave you behind." He rasped out a brief humorless laugh. "I mean, who am I, you know? What have I ever done that would merit my survival if the world ended?"
It was too much, it was more than Sam had asked for, and Josh didn't want to look up.
Sam's hands crept into his vision, his pale writer's fingers searching out Josh's. Josh jerked his hands away, but raised his head. There was something sharp in Sam's face, a set to his eyebrows and a hardness in the line of his jaw. When he spoke, his voice was low and determined. "Listen, I won't hear you talking like that. I know you got this . . . thing inside you that makes you doubt yourself, doubt your worth, and you blame yourself for what's happened to your family, and the stuff that goes on in your head, but you're too smart to believe it, and I'm too smart to let you say it. Goddamnit, Josh, you're, you're so much more, you're . . . goddamnit." Sam didn't finish his thought, and he set his palms against his eyes.
Josh didn't know what to make of the fact that Sam, who lived for words, breathed in language like oxygen, couldn't think of how to express what he meant. "Sam . . ." he began, unsure of what he intended to say, and his voice broke on the brief syllable, and he was embarrassed because Sam's name hadn't ever caught in his throat that badly before. Sam's name was more like a sigh, a sweet exhalation of breath, than anything that should fall crippled from the air like that.
Sam suddenly swept his hands from his face and sat up straight, arrowing Josh with a steady gaze. "Are we about done here, do you think?"
Josh dropped his eyes to his half-drunk glass of beer, momentarily confused by the shift in the conversation. "Uh, yeah, yeah. Sure."
Sam stood out of the booth, dragging his gray wool coat with him. "Good. Let's go, then."
When Josh stood up, dizziness rushed over him, and he stumbled back on his heel, one arm going out to steady himself on the first concrete thing in his radius, which happened to be Sam. Josh looked at his hand braced on Sam's chest, feeling the life under Sam's shirt. The rest of the bar swam around him, the colors smearing. Everything was an abstract painting, and Josh couldn't figure out what the picture was supposed to represent.
Sam picked Josh's hand off his chest and moved it down. For a spare moment they were standing in this bar near the Hill, holding hands, and the world was still. Then Sam let him go to slip his arm through the sleeve of his coat, and Josh tried to brush it off with a smile, but it hung on his face weakly, and he knew that he looked like he was about to cry. He thought it was strange that he could look like that when he didn't feel like crying, but then he remembered that he never cried, not anymore, not even when he wanted to.
They moved to the front of the bar and stepped out into the blizzard.
Sam held the door open for Josh and paused for a second, Josh on the sidewalk, the noise and music from inside spilling out onto the frozen street. When Sam let the door swing shut, the night was immediately deafened, cold and dumb, the thick powder up to their ankles.
There were no cars out driving, only those that had been parked before the storm had started, and halfway across a crosswalk, Josh stopped in the middle of the road and craned his head way back. The stars, hard and crystalline through the scraps of clouds, blinked at him. Sam got to the opposite curb, and called to him, "You still got a little ways to go there, man!"
Josh breathed in and the air was icy in his lungs. "I can't find the moon, Sam. I can't see it."
Sam came back into the street and took hold of Josh's elbow, leading him back onto the sidewalk, making Josh feel like a second-grader who needed a crossing-guard to help him get home. Sam got him to the curb and then stepped back, putting his hands in his pockets. He slanted a quick look up at the sky, then said, "I don't think there's a moon tonight, Josh."
Josh shook his head and stared upwards, snow falling on his cheeks and nose and eyes, wriggling beneath the collar of his coat to shiver down his back. "There's always a moon, Sam. It's just . . . I can't see it. It's still there, though, right?"
Sam leaned against the wall of a building, under a dark green awning, and answered quietly, "Sure it's still there."
Josh laughed once, the sound broken and desolate. "My . . . my sister thought that when they landed on the moon in '69, we'd be able to see them from our backyard. And I was just a kid, you know, so I believed her. We stood . . . we were standing and looking, but we couldn't see anything, it was just the moon, just like always. So Joanie said we should climb a tree, and get closer, and then we'd see them. So . . . so we climbed this tree, and I was trying to climb higher than her, climb faster, so I could see them first, and . . . and she held onto my shoe and said, `This is good, this is far enough.' I was a branch above her, and she was just hanging onto my foot, not pulling it, just holding. And we could see the sky through the leaves, we could see the moon. I kept asking her where the astronauts were, if she could see them. And she just . . . put her fingers around my ankle and said, `Keep looking. Keep looking.'"
Josh was suddenly inexpressibly tired, and he fell against a blue car with frost on the windshield. He pressed his hand on the car's hood, watching it sink into the layer of snow, feeling his fingers numb and freeze. "It was a beautiful moon that night, Sam. It was July, the moon was so pale and the sky was this . . . this violet, this dark violet, and I was thinking how pretty it must have been to be up in that sky, in the middle of all that." Josh felt something twist in his chest, and he half-sobbed, his eyes dry, and covered his face with his frozen hands.
"Ah, God, I'm such a mess. I'm so fucked up, Sam, I don't know what to do."
Sam came to him, stood a half a foot in front of him. Josh reached out and clung to Sam's lapels, crumpling them in his fists. He didn't pull Sam towards him, because he could breathe easier just linked to him like that, his hands and Sam's coat, close enough for their puffed breath to swarm together between them, unable to tell which clouds came from whose lungs.
"You don't have to do this alone, you know," Sam whispered to him. Josh lifted his head. There was a telephone pole with a yellow flyer on it, half of it torn away by the storm, and it angled a shadow across Sam's face, making his eyes look hooded and intent. There were snowflakes in Sam's eyelashes, so that when he blinked, they trembled. "You can . . . you don't need to take all this on by yourself. I'm here, Josh, you know."
Josh knew. Sam was always there, in the corner of his mind, in the tracks of his memory, right there close enough to touch.
Josh was all at once overcome with gratefulness for Sam, and he tugged him a bit closer, curling his fingers deeper into the soft wool of Sam's coat.
Sam began to raise his hands, to rest them in the bends of Josh's elbows and Josh saw that they were shaking. Josh began to babble quietly to his friend, "Your hands, Sam, your hands. Are you . . . you're cold, Sam, don't be cold."
Sam mumbled, "I'm not that cold," but Josh was already taking his hands, rubbing them clumsily between his own, blowing on them, his head bent down studiously. Then he pulled Sam closer and looped Sam's hands around his own waist, under his coat.
"There, that'll . . . to warm you up." Sam's hands rested lightly, his fingers curved on Josh's sides. Sam's eyes were wider than Josh had ever seen them, deep and dark, dark blue. Josh put his hands back on the front of Sam's coat, hooking one fingertip loosely in a buttonhole. There was a buzzing in his head, a low thrum that beat along with the pulse in his ears. Josh felt short of breath, and Sam's face was so close to him.
"There's snow in your hair," Josh whispered. Then his hands were sliding up to Sam's shoulders, drifting around the back of his neck. Sam breathed out, low like a sigh.
Then Josh was leaning forward, angling his mouth towards Sam's, and then he was kissing Sam, there in the snow, lost in the weather.
Sam opened his mouth just a bit, and Josh thought he might say something to stop Josh, push him away, so Josh slipped his tongue between Sam's lips to make sure it didn't happen. Sam made a sound like a groan, way down in his throat, and then he was kissing Josh fiercely, desperately. His hands linked at the small of Josh's back and they were pressed against each other from knee to shoulder, and a disjointed thought sprang through Josh's head, `Sam's not cold, not cold at all, he's warm, Christ, he's so warm.'
Sam's mouth was deep and sweet, and Josh was having trouble staying on his feet. He wanted to crawl inside Sam's body, live inside that heat, that fatal softness. They broke apart for a half a moment, both of them panting, and then Sam dragged them back together, gasping, "More, more," and Josh thought he had never heard anything as wonderful as that.
Josh threaded his fingers through Sam's short hair, damp with the snow, and held Sam's head in his hands, keeping him still so that he could taste more of him.
When the need for oxygen overcame him again, Josh dropped his mouth to Sam's neck. He dipped his tongue into the cup of Sam's collarbone, searching under the loose collar of his shirt, and then ran his lips along the line of his friend's throat and nibbled at the skin, sucking hard on one spot that made Sam moan out loud, which turned Josh on more than he'd thought possible.
Sam suddenly put his hands on Josh's shoulders and shoved him away, putting an arm's length of space between them. Josh stared at him, shocked and on the edge of being demolished, but Sam only gripped Josh's arm and said, "Not here, n-not here."
In a split second, Josh was against him again, burrowing his nose against Sam's neck, breathing him in, his hands swift and searching in the fabric of Sam's shirt. Josh pressed his eyes into the crook of Sam's shoulder and asked, "Where?" Josh's fingers brushed against Sam's nipple through his rumpled shirt and Sam cried out, throwing his head backwards to let Josh bite along the soft underside of his jaw.
Sam pulled him away again, and his eyes burned at Josh, who saw a million possible decisions scatter across his friend's face in a hurricane of emotion. Sam jerked his head to the left and then right, scanning down the street, and then turned the full panicked force of his gaze back on Josh. Josh almost took a step back, blown away by the passion scrawled across Sam's face and shuddering all through his body. "My place," Sam said clearly, and Josh grinned magnificently, in pure joy, and Sam mirrored it back at him.
Then they were heading through the storm to Sam's car, almost running, the snow bursting from in front of their shoes, and Josh was laughing, laughing up at the drenched moonless sky.
* * *
In Sam's apartment, they were stumbling, loose and wild, trying not to lose contact with each other as they frantically tried to lose contact with their clothes. Josh's overcoat and suit jacket were shoved off before they had even gotten all the way inside, so that when Sam tried to shut the door, it caught up in the pile of fabric. Josh chuckled, and Sam bent down, keeping one hand flat on Josh's chest, and cleared the doorway, slamming the door shut, then slamming Josh against it.
Sam held his lips a fraction of an inch away from Josh's, pinning him down by his shoulders. Josh whimpered and tried to chase Sam's mouth down with his own, but Sam dodged him, taking Josh's ear between his teeth, tugging gently before releasing to say, "You laughing at me?"
Josh shook his head, half-crazy with passion, and mumbled, "No, never, never. Not laughing at you, Sam, laughing, um, near you, right next to you, in your general direction, God, do something, please."
Sam relented and sealed their mouths together again, and Josh wondered idly if it would be physically possible to never stop kissing Sam, and then all thought was obliterated by Sam's hands creeping under his T-shirt and running along his ribs and stomach.
They were in Sam's bedroom without Josh even noticing that they'd moved through the apartment, and then they were on the bed, stripped down to T-shirts and pants. Sam straddled Josh, his knees on either side of the other man's legs, and when Sam straightened to kneel on the bed, Josh propped himself up on his elbows to watch Sam skimming off his T-shirt, and for one endless second Sam's arms were up over his head, tangled in the shirt, his long torso stretched out, and his body was lit by the mellow gold light from a streetlamp outside the bedroom window. Josh couldn't blink, couldn't speak, could only stare, utterly awestruck by the man in front of him. He raised one hand, wanting nothing but to touch Sam, and his fingers shook so violently they drummed against Sam's chest, skittered across his warm skin.
After that, Josh's perception of things began to fracture, images coming to him like reflections of a shattered mirror, littered on a concrete sidewalk.
Sam's hand on his bare shoulder, his thumb against the pulse in Josh's neck. Josh's tongue tracing the line of Sam's hip, following it downward. The strange feel of Sam's leg hair, somehow coarse and soft at the same time, pressing against Josh's sides. Spanning his hands on Sam's chest, feeling the sure weight of him, feeling blistered by the heat of him. The way Sam gasped his name, his voice high and cracking, sounding like the gale wind as it pounded the windows. Sam's palms, firm and sure, turning him over. Josh's foot twisted in the forgotten bedsheets, so when he tried to roll across the bed, he nearly sprained his ankle. Sam laughing, breathless and happy, his lips on Josh's stomach. Grabbing Sam, frenzied, kissing him wildly, sweeping his tongue through the inside of his mouth, feeling like he would die if he couldn't get closer to Sam, feeling like he would die if he could. Not caring about anything else, waiting for the world to end. Sam's shoulders arcing off the bed, his head pressed down hard, keening sounds coming from so far inside him. Watching the shadows of his fingers drafting across Sam's ribs, painting him with traveling darkness. Sam's smooth skin stretching over hard bone. How hot Sam's mouth was, how wet, how perfect. The feel of Sam's forearm wrapped around his chest from behind as Sam breathed out carefully against the back of his neck and then bit his shoulder. The aching slowness, the flawless rhythm, Sam's fingers knotted in his tattered hair. The taste of Sam, the taste of himself in Sam's mouth, the sweat trembling on both their bodies. Shards of light patterning the bed. A siren going by in the night, the spiraling sound of it taking up residence in Josh's heart as his hand ran down the knobby path of Sam's spine. A single thought slamming into his mind, knocking him senseless, then circling, repeating, chanting over and over again-`This is all I want to do, this is the only place I want to be.'
* * *
In the morning, the sun flooded the room stark and white, reflecting off the snow outside. Josh blinked and snuffled, feeling his nose pressed up against something warm and softly unyielding. When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring at Sam's side, less than an inch away from his face. Slowly, painstakingly slowly, he raised his head off the bed. His arm was resting on Sam's stomach, his thumb in the dip at the base of Sam's sternum, his fingers lined gently on Sam's lowest rib. Floating rib, his mind provided, the two bottom ones float.
Josh's head throbbed, but not as badly as he had feared. He stared at Sam sleeping and his throat closed with something that was either tenderness or despair. One of Sam's arms was tossed backwards, and his head was turned to the side on the pillow, his eyelashes feathering against his cheek with his dreams, his hair sooty and tousled. His face was calm and peaceful, his mouth easy, his forehead smooth and unlined. Josh wanted to touch Sam's lips, see if they were as soft as they looked, but he buried the thought away. Sam's other arm was flung down, his hand spread on Josh's shoulder.
All Josh wanted was to lie back down, draw Sam closer and go back to sleep. His head beat with pain, and his eyes felt hot and scratchy. He carefully pulled himself out from under Sam's hand, lifting his arm from Sam's body and extracting himself from the bed.
He dressed quickly, silently, in Sam's living room, dragging his clothes together from where they were strewn around the apartment. He winced when his keys fell out of his jacket pocket, terrified that the clink of metal on the wood floor would wake Sam. He froze, heard Sam murmur in his sleep from the bedroom, then continued dressing when he was sure he was safe from being caught. He didn't bother to analyze what it was he was afraid of being caught for.
When he was fully dressed in yesterday's clothes, he was pulled back to the doorway of Sam's bedroom despite his inner resolve to leave immediately. Sam had turned onto his side, his arm bent and his hand curled around the space where Josh had been. There was a thin, perplexed line pressed between his eyebrows, and Josh felt like his heart was breaking.
"I'm sorry," he said too low to even hear his own words, and then left.
The blank white slate of the morning was like an indictment, the undisturbed plane of snow on the sidewalk in front of Sam's building just one more thing that Josh could ruin. He walked to the metro, the sky hard and frigid blue. He wished that he had driven his own car to Sam's, because he was trembling on the edge of collapse, and he didn't want it to happen on the Washington subway system.
Half a block away and he missed Sam with an ache that was like a physical thing, something so much larger than him that he was shaken to the bone by it.
* * *
It took Sam a week.
Josh avoided him at the office, ducking his confused looks during staff meetings, trying not to notice when confused shifted to wounded, then desolate, then angry. He had Donna run interference whenever Sam came by to ask if Josh was busy, if he had a minute, he obsessively checked caller ID on his cell and house phones, not answering any of Sam's numbers, not answering any number he didn't recognize, just to be sure. He worked fourteen, sixteen, eighteen hour days, there when Sam came in, there when he left, so that they wouldn't run into each other in the hallways or parking lot. Josh's life became not-Sam: not seeing Sam, not talking to Sam, not thinking about Sam, although he didn't have much luck on the last.
The night with Sam, the night of the blizzard, haunted Josh with vivid slides of memory, sinking into his bloodstream, taking up the place of air in his lungs. Sam's face, Sam's flashing eyes, Sam's mouth, Sam's unrealistically talented tongue, Sam's fingers, Sam's body, the way Sam had moved under him, the way Sam had cried out Josh's name, the way Sam had fallen forward, wrapping himself around Josh and rolling them both across the bed, the way Sam had pressed his hand to Josh's heart and clung to his hips. The way Josh had reached out in the night and found Sam's warmth, and Sam had turned, and smiled, and drew Josh to him, tucking him against the curve of his form, and Josh might have cried then, might have wept, and Sam might have licked his tears away and kissed his eyelids and said to him with absolute certainty, "It's okay. You're okay. It's going to be all right. Swear to God, Josh, it's going to be all right." Josh had never been safe like he was safe with Sam, and he had believed him. Sam's voice spoke for the President, spoke of country and honor and possibility. Sam never lied, the truth was his first language, and he told Josh that it would be all right, and Josh had believed him.
It wasn't all right, though. It was light-years away from all right, and getting farther away every time Josh skated his eyes away from Sam's, every time he saw Sam coming towards him down the hall and veered in a different direction, every time he heard Sam at his apartment door, calling Josh's name till he was hoarse, banging on the wood at three in the morning, and Josh never let him in, and Josh never slept, not anymore, not without being awakened an hour later by his traitorous dreams, sitting bolt upright, panting and hard, wanting Sam so badly it ripped him down the middle, tore out his heart, left him hollow and exhausted and so scared.
The city was covered in snow, still too cold outside for a thaw, and each day that the snow didn't melt, it got dirtier and grayer, huddled against the curbs, clinging to the sides of buildings. The grates in the sidewalks bellowed steam, people appearing from the fog as if by magic, and Josh felt like a ghost, like someone less than real. Josh had never minded Washington's schizophrenic weather, liking the thirty degree changes in temperature that happened overnight. He liked the cold season because the summer was so unbearable, thick and oppressive with the damp heat, and because on random days in November or February, in the midst of endless frozen skies and cashmere scarves, a morning would dawn that would be absolutely perfect, a California spring day in the middle of an East Coast winter, and it would be so unexpected and extravagantly beautiful. But now, only a few days past the first snowfall, he was already sick of the cold, sick of the ice, and he wanted to see the sun and a blue sky, he wanted to be warm again.
In Josh's mind, the simple voice reminded him, "There was light from the streetlamp and Sam was taking off his shirt. You tripped over a curb on the way to Sam's car because you were watching him move, and he was grinning at you. It was snowing and Sam's hands were shaking."
Josh was falling apart.
Sam finally snapped a week after the storm. Josh heard him in the bullpen, heard Donna relay the message that Josh was busy, heard Sam say, "I've got to see him, Donna," heard Donna try to protest, and then Sam was in the doorway, and it was too late.
Sam swung the door shut before Donna could get in the way of it. Josh felt panic rising in his throat and said quickly, "Sam, I'm really kind of in the middle of something-" the words tumbling out of his mouth too fast.
Sam glared at him and Josh hated that dark look on his friend's face. "We're talking about this, Josh, and we're talking about this here and now, because you wouldn't allow it to be any other time." Sam was pale, with hectic spots of color playing high on his cheeks, and there were circles under his eyes, like bruises, and Josh wondered if he'd been sleeping.
Josh swallowed hard and clenched his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palms, trying not to see Sam's shirt shift with his movements, trying not to meet Sam's eyes, knowing he would be undone if he saw that eerie young blueness. "Look," he began, but Sam cut him off.
"Shut up, Josh. Seriously, just, just shut up." Sam had taken the chair in front of Josh's desk, but now he got up to pace. Restrained anger tinged his voice, barely held back. "This-it's a thing that happened, and you're . . . you're just handling it so badly, man."
That was almost funny, and Josh rasped out a short, ugly laugh. "So what else is new?" he said, but Sam looked as far away from being amused as Josh had ever seen him.
"Josh, I swear to God, if you don't shut up-" Sam didn't finish the threat, but Josh was already reeling backwards, because in his head he heard Sam saying, "Swear to God, Josh, it's going to be all right," and Josh felt completely wrecked, because he was so far away from the place where he had believed Sam when he'd said that, so far away from the time when he'd lain in Sam's arms and was home.
"I don't understand this, Josh, I don't get why you're doing this. It's weird, I see that it's weird. I mean, it doesn't have to be, and I don't know why you chose to make it this way when it could have been something else, something better, but even granting that it's weird, you're . . . you're just going about this all wrong."
Sam's tone cracked from angry to sad, and Josh had to hang onto his desk to keep from going to him, throwing his arms around him, apologizing until he lost his voice, swearing that he would never leave again.
Sam sat down again, looking totally defeated, and sighed, looking away from Josh, out the window and saying quietly, "I'm . . . I'm sorry, I guess." Then his mouth closed down in that hard way that meant he was clenching his teeth, the muscle in his jaw tensing, and he shook his head viciously. "No, I'm not. I'm not fucking sorry that it happened, and I hate that you're sorry it happened, and I hate what you're doing to me, I hate that I lied about it just now to try and make it better, I hate feeling this way, I can't stand it."
Sam was killing him. Josh was so tired, and he could still taste Sam on his tongue, still smell his skin. Every word Sam said gathered into this dense thing that squeezed Josh's chest, the pressure getting bigger and bigger until he vanished under it. Josh wanted to get up, run away, run out into the beaten city, run until his body gave up and he collapsed, run until he wouldn't know about any of this anymore. He knew there was nothing he could do, because it wasn't Sam he wanted to escape from, it was himself. Josh wanted to outrun his own decrepit soul, his corrupted memory, his wicked mind. Josh didn't want to live inside his own skin anymore. He didn't want to be around to see what would happen next, because no good could ever come from anything he did.
Josh had felt like this only once before. That time, he had been sitting in the back of an ambulance, terribly small and disappearing in a fireman's huge coat, his face dark with soot, his eyes staring enormous and vacant at the black street. None of the police or firemen would look at him, they all hurried back and forth and yelled strange things in scarred voices. He had looked up and seen his parents' car skidding to a stop halfway down the block, and he had watched them standing there in the hopeless night like they were carved out of stone, his mother's hand raised to her mouth, his father shaky with disbelief. Then his parents had been shoving their way through the pajamed knot of neighbors, rushing towards Josh, and he hadn't wanted them to touch him, hadn't wanted to feel their arms around him, because he knew that the next thing to come after, "Josh, thank God, thank God you're okay," would be, "Where's Joanie?" and Josh was doing everything he could to keep from thinking about that question. His father had scooped him up, even though he was really too big to be carried anymore, and Josh had let his arms fall over his father's strong shoulders, his hands tunneled in the coat's sleeves. Josh had watched his home burning, the anarchic charcoal storm and the lunatic, gleeful flames, and the sight was insufferably terrible and magnificent, cruel and overwhelmingly beautiful, and he wished he hadn't seen the smoke from the kitchen, wished he hadn't remembered to crawl to the door, test the doorknob with his hand, all the fire-safety cartoons so perfectly recalled. He was too young, watching the holocaust of his life disappear into the tragic sky, and he wished he hadn't done everything right. He wished he hadn't run out of the house.
Now it was happening again, that ungodly regret that made him feel like he had just leapt off a skyscraper, realized too late that jumping was a mistake, after gravity had seized him, and he was plummeting, falling so fast, and there was no way to go back.
Josh wanted to be anywhere in all the world that wasn't sitting in his office, listening to Sam tell him all the things he already knew about himself. He knew that whatever came next would be worse than what had already happened, the way that he had known hearing his parents ask, "Where's Joanie?" would be worse than burning alive. He couldn't imagine feeling any more obliterated than he already did, but he knew it was coming, he knew Sam had that apocalyptic power over him, and all he wanted to do was stop, freeze in midair, but time didn't work that way, and neither did gravity, and there was nothing he could do.
"I never thought you'd leave like that. I never thought you'd do this to me, Josh."
Sam being disillusioned by him, dismayed by the ten years too late recognition of the kind of man Josh really was, Sam looking at him like maybe his heart had been broken, that wasn't something that Josh was prepared to deal with.
Josh had to speak then, had to crowd the air with words of his own so that Sam couldn't say anything else.
"I-I didn't mean for this to happen," he said helplessly. And somehow that was the wrong thing, that didn't help at all. Sam's mouth curled bitterly, and he said with harsh sarcasm, "Yeah, I figured. Even if I hadn't, you've certainly made it crystal clear with how you've been treating me for the past week."
Sam was up again, his anger making him restless, savage and predatory, not content to remain in one place. "It did happen, though, Josh, and lest we forget, you kissed me, it's not like I held you down and forced you to sleep with me and then demanded that you pretend I don't exist afterwards."
Josh wanted to make some joke about Sam's use of the word `lest,' some small jibe about living in an Elizabethan play, but he knew he wasn't allowed to anymore. Josh took a pen in his hand to have something to fiddle with. Sam dropped back into the chair, like his legs had given out. "That's not-I didn't mean the . . . the kiss, the thing . . . that's not what I wanted to say." Josh's head felt full of cotton, he couldn't think of the right words. "I meant, this week, the way it's been, I didn't mean for that to happen."
He sighed, his eyes trained stubbornly on the blackboard over Sam's shoulder. There were votes tallied there, support and opposition for the budget, split into committees with arrows offshooting to interest groups that held sway over certain congressmen. Josh read Senator Ward's name under the nays, and he thought idly that they could dangle the Judicial Committee seat that was coming open in the next cycle, knowing that Ward had clerked for the Supreme Court during law school, had pushed for circuit court reforms early in his career. He wanted to scribble a note about it, but he couldn't do it now, not with Sam there in front of him.
"You've got to believe me, Sam, this isn't how I wanted this to go, I wanted to talk to you, explain it, I just . . . I couldn't find the words, I couldn't look at you, because you look . . . even now you look, you're just, I can't take it."
Sam was bent over, his elbows on his knees. His hands hung bonelessly and they weren't shaking. Josh could see the curve of his back, delicate and calm, sloping downwards. He wanted to rest his fingers in the notches of Sam's spine.
"Listen, if you think what happened was a bad idea-" Sam closed his hands into fists, shook his head, a joyless phantom smile making him look even sadder. "Okay, so it probably was a bad idea. It's probably the stupidest thing either of us have done, in terms of working here. Stupider than me and Laurie, stupider than you calling Mary Marsh's God a tax cheat on national television."
Josh dropped the pen and spread his fingers out on the desk. His left thumb rested on a Treasury report, and he felt the sharp edge of the page, wondered how easy it would be to slice his skin open. "It's not that, it's not . . . Yeah, probably it's not the best of ideas for two of the President's senior staff to be involved in something like . . . like this. But that's not why, it's not because you're a guy and I'm a guy and some people, like Mary Marsh and her Al Capone deity, might not like to see it. But I don't care. I know that might be hard to believe, especially coming from me, but I really don't care, Sam, I promise, it's not that."
Sam was looking at him and Josh had to look back, an invisible string stretching between them, holding them in sync. "Then what is it, Josh?"
Josh wished he could steady his voice and clear his head, but it was like snow was falling behind his eyes, making everything vague and uncertain. "It's that . . . I can't do this." Sam's face fell for a fraction of a second, and then he tightened his jaw and Josh saw him carefully compose himself, blanking his expression, shoving the brief pain down. Josh felt like he had just punched Sam in the face, and it was something he never thought he'd ever feel. Josh didn't think the words existed that could fix this. He felt dull and useless, barely alive.
"It's not just you. I just, I keep ruining things. The only things I've ever been any good at are this job and being your friend, okay. That's it, Sam, that's all. Every time I've ever tried to start something with someone, every time I tried for something more, it always gets wrecked, and it's always all my fault. I didn't want to do that to you, I didn't want you to have to see what . . . what happens to me in these situations."
The sun through the window shafted down, casting Sam in a trapezoid of light, the rays catching up on his cheekbones, gleaming off the metal of his glasses. His eyes were so blue Josh felt singed by them. "Josh, you can't . . . you can't, like, pre-empt disaster by creating another disaster first. You can't avoid hurting me by hurting me. That doesn't make any sense."
Josh was weak with exhaustion and all the fierce clawing things that scraped away inside him. He crossed his arms on the desk and lowered his head, resting his forehead on his wrists, stacked on top of each other, the rounded bones digging against his skull. He spoke staring into the dark cavern, his voice muffled and shattered. "It would be so much worse, though, Sam. This-I know how bad it is right now, but if we took this further, it would be so awful. I would . . . I can't do anything right, but at least I can keep from doing this to you. I won't destroy you like I've destroyed myself."
There was a slight scrape as Sam pushed his chair back and stood, the tap of his shoes as he came to stand over Josh. Sam's hand was in Josh's hair, and he was tugging Josh's head up, his fingers tangling in Josh's curls. Josh looked up at him and Sam's eyes were kind and wise, and he didn't move his hand.
"You gotta stop doing this, you know. You gotta stop thinking you know what's best for me. You can't, you can't just tell me you're an asshole and then think that makes it okay for you to act like an asshole. I know you're an asshole, it's not like that's a state secret. I knew it ten years ago, I knew it a week ago when I took you home with me, and although I know it a little better now than I did then, I wasn't oblivious, you know. I knew what I was doing, I knew who I was doing it with."
Sam carded his fingers through Josh's hair and then rested his knuckles lightly on his friend's cheekbone. Josh wanted to close his eyes and turn his face towards Sam's hand, but he knew that if he did that he would break down, falling to pieces at Sam's feet.
Sam brushed his thumb across the tender, insomnia-dark skin under Josh's eye, as if he was wiping away a tear, and said, "If I'm gonna get hurt by you, I want it to be worth it. One night isn't enough."
Josh shook his head, his heart feeling rickety and old. "I'm no good, Sam. No good for you, no good for anyone. I can barely even stand myself, how can I ask you to? You don't know how bad it could be, I can't let you risk it," he finished, his voice falling off a cliff at the end of the sentence.
Sam moved his hand over Josh's face, tracing the slope of his cheek, the line of his jaw, running his thumb down the track of his throat. It felt inhumanly good, and Josh found himself swaying towards Sam, wanting to bury his head in Sam's stomach, wrap his arms around Sam's waist, squeeze all the air out of Sam's body, crush them together until they became one. Sam's fingers closed on Josh's shirt collar, tugging at it gently. "It's my risk to take, Josh."
And Josh was completely undone.
He choked back a sob, and raised his hand, hesitantly, leaving it floating in the air for doubtful second before he hooked his fingers in Sam's belt, just hanging onto him. They were still for a moment, and Josh could hear his heart beating, for the first time in what felt like years. He felt pulled out of the ashes. Restored.
After a long, quiet moment, Sam sighed and moved his arm from where it rested in the curve of Josh's shoulder to look at his watch. "I've got Jameson from Oversight in five minutes."
Josh was bereft when Sam stepped away from him. "O-okay."
Sam was gone and Josh was well on his way back to being miserable when Sam suddenly reappeared, swinging through the doorway, saying impulsively, "Meet me tonight."
Josh stood behind his desk without thinking about what it was in Sam's face that brought him to his feet. "Where?" he asked, and thought that Sam could say the Amazon jungle, the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the far side of Mars, and Josh would find some way to get there to see him.
Sam thought for a moment, then replied, "The river. Down past the canal. Midnight?" Josh nodded mutely, his mouth dry. Sam said, "The river," again, and then left for good.
Josh sank back down in his chair and had utterly no idea what he'd gotten himself and Sam into.
* * *
At midnight, Josh was pacing along the wooden dock that ran along the banks of the Potomac, south of Georgetown. `The river' could only mean one place in the city, this stretch of water that he and Sam had haunted when they were younger and burned with idealism and possibility so bright that Josh was sometimes surprised when he looked at his skin and couldn't see the marks that their hope seemed to have seared into him. They would stay up all night, watching the water run by, dangling their legs off the dock, unconcerned if their feet got wet, because they wore cheap thrift-store sneakers back then, not patent leather business shoes. They would talk until their throats were raw, about the things they were going to see, the people they would know, the good they would do. They would talk about a politician who would be the real thing and occasionally Josh would sling his arm around Sam's shoulders, in the unselfconscious manner of young men becoming close friends. Sam would correct Josh's grammar and Josh would tease Sam for being such a nerd. They would laugh so hard together, in glassy stunning fours in the morning, holding each other up, their heads aching, all flooded through with the moment's happiness, those moments when they were young and brilliant and everything lay before them.
There was a string of posh `harbor-side' restaurants, despite the noticeable absence of a harbor, that offered outdoor dining in the spring and summer, but the weather had chased off business, and the riverside was deserted. There was snow on the wide plazas behind Josh, filling the ornate stone fountains that spread out between the office buildings. The planks of the wooden sidewalk had been cleared and salted, the boards warped and dark from the winter's abuse. The river had big chunks of gray ice clinging to the concrete banks, and the water was as black as the sky, streaked with the orange and yellow lights from across the way in Virginia.
Josh saw Sam coming from way far off, and watched him cut swiftly through the drifting mist coming off the river.
Sam stopped in front of him and they stood for a moment, looking at each other. There was snow stacked in peaked caps on the tri-globed streetlights behind them, hazing the frigid night with a yellow glow. Down the river, the Kennedy Center gleamed, its walls square panels of warmth, its lines straight and even. There were a few ducks in the water, paddling anxiously in the cold. Josh was always surprised to see ducks in the winter, always expecting them to have fled south, but they hung through the weather like everyone else, tougher than people thought.
Josh couldn't look at Sam anymore. The sweet paths of his face made Josh's breath falter, made his self-destructive mind imagine a world where Josh would never be allowed to touch Sam again, a world where Josh would be adrift and alone, reaching out his hand and finding only air in the places where Sam used to be.
Josh turned to face the water, the colors flattened on the current. In the long ebony sweep of the sky, the stars were silver, peppered like scars.
"Just . . . just like old times, huh?" Josh said lamely. Sam was still staring at the side of Josh's face. Josh could feel his gaze, electric and blue, that flawless hue that always made Josh think of California.
"Not quite," Sam replied mildly. Josh wanted to shift forward in time, just a half an hour or so, so that he could see how this would turn out. He wanted to close in on himself, hide from what Sam might say. Sam would leave him, Josh was sure. Despite what Sam had said in the office that afternoon, Josh knew that he couldn't inflict himself on his friend. Josh was a disaster, a model of self-sabotage, and Sam was far too smart not to see that.
Drawing in a breath, Josh spilled words out, rambling, his voice flickering like a dying flame, "Listen, Sam, I don't want you to feel bad. I mean, I'll be okay. Well, not okay, but okay for me. I don't want you to think that you're, like, beholden to me because of what happened. I won't break or anything." He would break, though, he was already in pieces. He felt dismantled, bankrupt and decimated. He was lying to Sam, because he didn't want Sam to stay with him out of pity, he didn't want Sam to stay with him at all, he wanted to warn Sam away, get Sam as far away from him as possible, before Josh could do any more damage.
"Josh, what the hell are you talking about?" Sam asked simply. Josh forgot his vow not to look at Sam and shot his eyes over in surprise. Sam gazed back at him, outwardly calm, but Josh could feel the tension strumming out of him.
"I'm-what do you mean? I'm saying, you, you don't need to think that I won't be able to get over you, you don't need to worry about me. I don't want you to think that you owe me anything, because you don't. You don't."
Sam's hands were in his pockets, his breath coming in short puffs. "Why would I want you to get over me?"
Josh had had far too little sleep to be dealing with a conversation like this. He pressed the heel of his palm against the ridge of his eyebrow, his thumb tapping out a rhythm on his temple. He felt surreal. "You-you gotta stop saying things like that. If, you know, if we're gonna move past this, you can't say things like that to me."
A plane headed for National Airport battered the sky over their heads, making Josh think of air raids, firebombings, a city under siege. Sam followed it with his eyes, and Josh remembered, long ago, somewhere in the flat midst of Missouri, Sam enthusiastically explaining to him that Bernoulli's Effect wasn't real, that what kept planes in the air was nothing more complicated than Newton's Laws, equal and opposite reactions, Sam making little visual aids out of diner napkins and toothpicks.
Still watching the plane, Sam asked, in the same infuriating unperturbed tone, "Why would we want to move past this?"
"Sam!" Josh half-yelled, his cry bounding around the bleached cement and shimmering water. "Seriously, you can't . . . I'm not going to be able to do this if you keep saying stuff like that!"
When Sam answered, his voice was clipped, chopping out words. "Listen, Josh, just because you've convinced yourself that this is some earth-shatteringly awful turn of events, and that we've effectively killed anything good between us, that doesn't mean you can make me believe it, too."
Josh opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He had no idea what he would possibly say. Sam continued, his eyes focused far away across the river, his voice falling soft. "You don't want to be with me, fine. You want to say you were drunk and that you're not really attracted to me, fine, although we both know that's crap. But I won't let you tell me that it's for my own good. I'm not going to let you take this incredible thing that's happened and chalk it up as another example of your own masochism. I absolutely refuse to be the next step along your path to self-destruction."
Josh found that if he kept his eyes on the checkered patterns of lights in the Virginia office buildings, he didn't feel quite so much like the earth was about to tip over, send him crashing into the water. He tried to make his voice strong, strong like the marble of the monuments, strong like Sam, but it came out small and far too young. "Sam, we can't . . . you know we can't do this. It's too much, I've done too much to you already. You have to let me stop this now."
"You always assume the worst, Josh, why is that?" Sam wondered. His words were hushed and curious, but there was a line of steel running through them. "You're so . . . you're so fucking blind sometimes, you know that?" Josh knew. He closed his eyes so that there would at least be a reason for his sightlessness. "I mean, you go through all this saying you don't want to hurt me, but you can't see, you don't get it-this hurts me. Seeing you tear yourself apart, seeing you think you don't deserve happiness, seeing you intentionally wreck things between us because you've got this preconceived notion that nothing good in your life can ever last, and better that it dies by your own hand than by something as of yet unnamed-that kills me, man."
Sam sighed, the sound of it distant and sad. Josh couldn't stop himself from looking at him. Josh's eyes felt too big, like there was too much light and color in the world and it was all pouring in at once. Sam was standing with his head leaned back, searching the wind- torn sky. Josh thought he was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Sam spoke without looking over at Josh, his eyes wandering among the stars, "I mean, can you . . . can you just not damn us, not yet? We've barely even begun, you know, and maybe we'll be better at this than you expect. You've got to let us try, at least. You have to give us a chance. Please." Sam's voice collapsed on the last word, the plea bleeding out of him.
Josh's throat caved in, his heart all disintegrated, and his reply was barely louder than the rustling dash of the water in front of them, "How do you know that everything won't go wrong?"
Sam slowly shifted to face Josh, saying quietly, "I don't. But I . . . I still believe."
Josh felt a small warmth expanding in his chest, spreading outwards, until he was wide open, breathing in the whole world. Sam believed in whatever was happening between the two of them, Sam was afraid but moving forward anyway. Sam had always been braver, and stronger, and more sure of himself. Sam let blind faith into his heart, the way Josh never could. Sam had faith in his country, and the power of his words, and the good that could be done. And, unbelievably, inexplicably, miraculously, Sam had faith in Josh. Josh let that thought rush through him, let it find its way naturally through his veins to his heart, nestling deeply inside him, settling in his blood and bones.
Sam had faith in Josh.
Josh was scared to death, and it was the best he had ever felt in his life.
Josh reached out, his hand finding Sam's arm. He braceleted his fingers around Sam's wrist, heard Sam exhale a sweet fall of air, like he was finally at peace. He counted out Sam's pulse, and thought that if all the happiness he was ever allowed was to stand here next to Sam, holding onto his wrist, then that would be good enough.
Josh and Sam watched the night embracing their city, and it felt like everything had been revealed to them, and the awesome force of it knocked the wind out of their lungs.
Josh was so terribly moved, and he asked, "What do you think is going to happen, Sam?"
Sam moved closer to him, and the skin of Sam's wrist was smooth and perfect under Josh's fingertips. "I don't know," he replied, his voice sounding like a prayer. "I don't know."
They stood together, and before them, over the river, the moon was rising.
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