Title: Things To Do In Cleveland When You're Overcoming Denial
Author: Candle Beck
Archive: Feel free, but let me know, please
Disclaimer: Characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe (except Todd Eisen, he be mine)
Summary: Things are said, mistakes are made, but it all works out in the end.
Things To Do In Cleveland When You're Overcoming Denial by Candle Beck
It had been between them for years, this thing taking up space like a third person, so that sometimes when their infuriating, circular arguments reached a hopeless stalemate, Sam felt like throwing up his hands and saying, "Well, to hell with it, Josh, let's just ask the unresolved sexual tension to be the deciding vote, what do you say?"
It was there in the way they unconsciously swayed towards each other when they talked, like there was some specific Josh-gravity that only affected Sam, and vice-versa. It was there in the way Sam followed Josh with his eyes, tracking him across rooms, watching the light move over his shoulders and skim around his outline, making him glow in the warm gold afternoon. It was there in the way Sam had thrown away a life to follow a stunning grin, and neither of them had really expected him to do that until the moment their shoes hit the New York sidewalk and they were both laughing way too hard to think. It was there in the way Sam would collapse into a chair in whatever hotel suite had become their latest war room, and Josh, without thinking or breaking off his bright spill of conversation, would shove the papers and detritus on the coffee table off to the side, clearing a place for Sam to prop up his feet. It was there in the way Josh had to swallow three or four times and catch his breath after seeing Sam come in from a storm, as if Sam glittering with raindrops sparkling in his hair like diamonds had robbed Josh of oxygen, his eyes huge, unable to speak. It was there in the way Sam found his mind wandering while watching Josh sleep on buses, all folded over in his seat like a rag doll, his forehead creased like he was planning and strategizing even in his dreams, Sam thinking idly that you could get stuck in Josh's tangled crash of curls, you could lose your keys in there. It was there in the way that sometimes their two pairs of eyes would slam together from across a room, and it would be like lightning had struck them both, making them jerk and shiver, making them electric.
But then would come the times when Josh wouldn't look at him for weeks, wouldn't clap him on the shoulder or bring him coffee in the morning without Sam having to ask, and Sam would begin to doubt his own existence, and he wondered when he had started to need Josh to make him feel real. Sometimes Sam was sure that it was all in his head, that their invisible triplet was just wistful thinking, a figment of Sam's imagination, a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep, and living off caffeine and aspirin, and the way Josh grinned at him when Sam quoted Thomas Jefferson at three in the morning.
It made the campaign a minefield, every day was like playing Russian roulette with his better judgment.
Sam was never sure what would be worse, for him to be alone in this, for him to be the only one who was occasionally driven mad with the desire to throw Josh against a wall and shatter them both, or for Josh to be feeling the same way, and the two of them being too obtuse to do anything about it.
It wasn't until they met with Todd Eisen in Cleveland that it came to a head. Eisen was the representative from the Gay Rights Coalition, and was meeting with them to discuss the speech the governor would be giving at city hall the next night. Eisen was small and young, not yet thirty with stylishly-cut short brown hair and freckles scattered across his face like a Little Leaguer. Sam knew he was gay, would have known even if Eisen hadn't come from the GRC, but couldn't pinpoint where his knowledge came from. There were no stereotypes to blame, no lisp or limp wrists or flighty tones, Eisen just carried a simple, unashamed aura about him, not bothering to hide or flaunt his sexuality, making it as unquestioned an aspect of himself as his dark eyes and quick smile.
Eisen offered some remarks his office had put together for the event, but the language was far too radical for the campaign strategy Bartlet's staff had formulated for the Midwest.
Josh took one look at the few paragraphs Eisen had brought with him and scoffed. "I don't think so, man," he said dismissively, looking to hand the typewritten pages right back. Sam interrupted his hand, shooting Josh a brief glare at his hastiness. Upon scanning Eisen's proposal, however, Sam knew Josh was right, there was no way Bartlet's speech would be amended to include this. "I will start my presidency with the promise that no anachronistic religious prejudices will remain law in this country . . . no governing body will claim to have the authority to define what love is . . . no narrow-minded bigots will occupy positions of power over the citizens of America." Ludicrous, Sam thought.
"It's ludicrous, Todd," Josh said, and Sam started, unsettled by the idea that Josh could read his mind.
"What do you mean?" Eisen asked, genuinely confused and on the edge of being righteously indignant. Sam leapt into the conversation, sensing that Josh was about to say something they would all regret.
"Well, for one thing, I'm not sure if there's such thing as a bigot who's not narrow-minded. For another, in all likelihood, anachronistic religious prejudices will remain law in this country, at least at the local and state levels, and the governor isn't wild about making promises he can't keep."
Sam handed the sheaf of paper back to Eisen apologetically, the young man darting an accusatory look between the two of them. Josh was leaning back against the desk, his arms folded across his chest. Sam was standing, because he had sixteen other things to do before he could even think about sitting down. Their temporary campaign headquarters sprawled around them like the ruins of a city after a war, all flurries of paper and half-unpacked boxes and the evidence of a mass of people living day-to-day, suitcases and duffle bags littering the floor, Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming and congealing on every available surface, the walls covered in printouts of polling results and hastily affixed `Bartlet for America' posters hanging crookedly, one stubborn pushpin away from floating lazily to the floor.
"I thought things were going to be different with Bartlet," Eisen spit out. "I thought maybe you guys might be the ones who would live up to your rhetoric, instead of turning into hypocrites the day after inauguration."
Josh opened his mouth, his eyebrows clenching down in anger, and Sam sighed inwardly as he hurried to speak before his friend could effectively sever all the ties between the gay rights lobby and Bartlet. Or, possibly, between the gay rights lobby and the entire Democratic party. Sam had no doubt that Josh had such destructive ability within him, and as the campaign wore through the late spring and early summer, it was falling more and more often to Sam to rein in Josh's increasingly-volatile temper.
"No one has any intention of turning into anything the day after inauguration," Sam said mildly. "We'd just like to get to the day after inauguration, and these kind of remarks are not the way to do it. You're going to have to trust us on this one, now is not the time for this sort of thing."
Eisen snorted, standing to shove his speech back into his briefcase. Sam and Josh exchanged an exasperated look over his bent head. Did Eisen really think he was the first person to have his ideas shot down by the campaign staff? Christ, thought Sam, he's acting like we just killed his puppy.
"I just thought I'd get a little more consideration," Eisen muttered, and Sam had to bite back a giggle as the thought went through his head that the word for Eisen's attitude at the moment was `miffed'. Terribly and dreadfully miffed, Sam's treacherous mind elaborated, and he brought a hand up to his mouth to cover a smile. "Especially from the two of you," Eisen continued, and suddenly laughing was the last thing Sam felt like doing.
Josh whipped a look over at Sam, his eyebrows shooting up, and then they both turned their attention back to Eisen. "Hey!" Josh said too loud, stopping the other man before he could reach the door. Eisen jumped and cast a look over his shoulder at the two staffers. Josh glared at him, "What do you mean, especially from us two?"
Eisen turned back around and doubt began to creep into his face and voice. He clutched his briefcase with two hands, like it would protect him from the famously intense wrath of Josh Lyman. "Um, well . . . I mean, your, your situation. The . . . thing between you both. I figured that's why I was meeting with you two instead of Toby or CJ. Because . . . you know."
Sam was flabbergasted, his jaw hanging open like its hinge was busted. "Our situation?" he managed to say, his voice squeaky.
"Yeah, you know, you and Josh, how you're—" and suddenly Eisen's eyes went huge and wide, realization clicking into his brain almost audibly, and he blushed such a dark red that the freckles on his cheeks and nose disappeared, and he began to stammer, mortified. "Oh my God, you're not. I'm sorry, I thought—never mind, forget it, I just . . . we see you two together all the time, in the papers and at the governor's events, we just . . . over at the GRC, we were sure . . . God, I'm such an idiot."
Sam couldn't think of a single response, and sketching a look over at Josh, he could tell the problem was mutual. Eisen raised a hand as if to ward off an attack. "You know what, I'm gonna go. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything . . . or anything. I-I'm sorry we couldn't come together on the speech. Um . . . yeah. I'm gonna go." Eisen made good on his words and hightailed it out of the shambles of the campaign office, beating a path through the piles of paper and exhausted bodies of the staffers.
After a long, stunned moment, Sam joked weakly with amusement forced into his voice, "Well, I guess we're an open secret now."
Josh jerked, glancing over at his friend with disbelief in his eyes. "I wasn't even aware we were a closed secret," he replied, and then wrenched himself up to stride out of the office, hollering for someone to get him the data from Chicago.
Sam let himself fall back into the chair behind him, pushing his fingers into his forehead and trying to rub away his exhaustion and what had just happened. Apparently this thing between him and Josh wasn't purely in his mind, apparently it was obvious enough that strangers from the GRC could pick up on it after seeing their pictures in the paper a few times. But Josh's response, that expression of shock and devastation, had hit Sam deep. Was it such a tragedy for Josh to find out that some people mistakenly thought they were a couple?
"Fuck," Sam whispered angrily, and he wasn't sure if he was more upset at Eisen, Josh, or himself for ever having imagined that Josh might have wanted something more with him than this baffling, heartrending friendship of theirs.
* * *
That night, Sam was in his hotel room, futilely trying to infuse the governor's speech with some sense of purpose, or, lacking that, simply a pulse. The television was flickering with the vivid reds and blues of an Indians game, and the sky outside Sam's window was foggy with clouds, the stars lost. The Indians were down by nine runs in the eighth, the crowd at Jacobs Field had been trickling out for three innings, like blood seeping slowly from a wound. There was a ninety percent chance of rain, and Sam was feeling useless, like there was nothing he would ever be able to do right.
There was a sudden clattering at his door, and Sam jumped, his pen gouging an ugly, surprised gash through half a paragraph.
Swearing, frustrated and in a sick, black mood, Sam tossed his draft of the speech onto the thin scuffed carpet and rose to answer the door. Josh was standing there, his hands shoved in his pants pockets, his face angled downwards, shadows catching up under his eyes and where his tie had been pulled down, his shirt collar thumbed open. He walked in without meeting Sam's eyes, and Sam was immediately irritated beyond reason at him.
"Well, hey there, good buddy, how's your day, how's your night, how's your life?" Sam said with sharp, brittle sarcasm. Josh might have flinched at Sam's tone, but Sam wasn't sure. It was getting harder and harder for him to read Josh, like Josh was getting better at throwing up walls and burying away his emotions. It made Sam think of how when he'd been three, his babysitter had taught him Spanish, the two of them chattering merrily for a whole year of sunny afternoons, but then the babysitter had moved away, and by the time he started kindergarten, Sam had forgotten all of the language he had once been fluent in, lost it like spare change through a hole in the pocket of a raincoat.
"I wanted to see how you were coming on the thing for tomorrow," Josh said tonelessly, standing by the bed and staring blankly at the television. Top of the eighth and the new Indians pitcher had already walked two. The Jake was looking like a tomb, the diehard fans looking sillier and stupider than ever as the sky gathered thick and gray above them.
Sam had changed into jeans and a T-shirt to work on the speech, but Josh had come from a late meeting with the governor and Leo, only managing to get rid of his suit coat and loosen his tie, looking disheveled and crumpled, standing there in Sam's hotel room. Sam caught himself watching the light curls of hair brushing at the nape of Josh's neck and dragged his eyes away, cursing himself.
"The thing for tomorrow is going just fine, thanks for asking," Sam said shortly, crossing his arms on his chest and glaring at Josh. "As much as I do appreciate the concerned co-worker routine, it's really not necessary. I'm fine, the thing is fine, everything's fantastic. So, you know, feel free to leave me to my fineness."
Josh sighed, shooting a quick look over at his friend and swallowing hard. Sam watched the bob of his throat and hated that he wanted to feel the movement under his tongue. "I . . . I also wanted to make sure that you were okay with what happened this afternoon. The-the Eisen thing." Josh was staring miserably down at his shoes and Sam wanted to hit him, wanted to shake him out of his staunch and determined denial, wanted to force him to admit the existence of this thing between them, wanted to bruise and warp Josh's face until Sam wouldn't want him anymore, wouldn't be driven crazy by the twitch of Josh's mouth, the flash of his eyes, the smooth perfect lines of his jaw.
"Why in the world wouldn't I be okay with the Eisen thing, Josh?" Sam asked with mock confusion, the sound of his words harshly bright, like blinding light spearing off shards of glass.
Josh refused to bring his eyes up to meet Sam's. "Just . . . you know, the guy got the wrong impression, I didn't want you to be . . . weirded out. Nobody else thinks . . . thinks that, he just got it wrong, is all."
At once, Sam was so tired he wanted to cry. Tired of the campaign, tired of the string of bare, airless hotel rooms that he inhabited like a ghost, tired of forcing words through his pen onto paper like building castles out of ash, tired of being with Josh every day and not being able to touch him beyond the congratulatory slap on the back, the occasional, safe, regular-straight-guy one-armed hugs that would keep them above suspicion, tired of the fact that they weren't actually doing anything for anyone to be suspicious of, tired most of all of battering into submission the invisible, demanding tension that lived in the spaces between their two bodies, unacknowledged and yet constantly there, on the tip of Sam's tongue, in the corner of his eye, just around the edges of his consciousness.
Sam strode over to Josh, letting his anger wash over him, choosing rage as preferable to collapse. "Bullshit," he said without preamble. Josh's eyes widened, the ring of white visible all the way around his irises, the profanity no doubt sounding as strange to his ears as it did to Sam's mouth. "You're not upset because Eisen got the wrong impression, you're upset because he got the right impression, and he had the balls to say it out loud, which is more than you've ever been able to do."
Josh took a shocked, stumbling step backwards, his legs hitting the chair behind him, and his eyes were gawking at Sam, so big they looked like they were about to drop right out of their sockets.
"What-what are you saying?" he stuttered.
Sam wasn't thinking, it had all gone red behind his vision, and he was reaching out, grabbing Josh by the shoulders, pulling him close, their bodies slamming against each other like a thunderclap, and then Sam was crushing his mouth to Josh's, and everything that had been building up between them came pouring out, pure light and heat and Sam knew that if they hadn't been insane before, they surely were now, and there was no way they could survive this with their minds and hearts intact, they would need all the luck in the universe to survive this at all.
Sam moved his hands up to Josh's head, cupping his face, and opened Josh's mouth with his tongue, delving after the taste he had been chasing for the past decade. Josh groaned into Sam's mouth, and Sam's fingers were twisting in Josh's hair. Kissing Josh was something sweet and perfect, it was more than Sam had ever imagined.
Suddenly Josh's hands slapped onto Sam's chest and shoved him backwards, hard. Sam went flailing, off-balance and flying, falling onto his back on the bed that was thankfully behind him. Sam sprawled, skidding on the loose bedcovers, and gaped up at Josh. Josh was flushed and breathing harsh and ragged, staring down at Sam like he'd never seen him before in his life. Sam tried to say the man's name, but his mouth seemed broken, like it had found its true purpose in kissing Josh, and now would never be good for anything else ever again.
But then Josh was clenching his hands, his eyes blazing, and then he was saying, his voice hoarse, "Goddamnit. Goddamnit." and then he was crawling on top of Sam and falling into him, kissing him, hopeless and blind, sparking that liquid desperation between them, and then they were surrounding each other, wrapped so tight that Sam couldn't tell where one ended and the other began, and then Josh's mouth was attached to Sam's neck, and Sam's T-shirt was torn, the rough collar chafing a red line on his skin, and then Josh's fingers were on his stomach, and then Sam was laughing, crazy and delighted and feeling like he was gliding about fifteen feet above the ground.
Josh's hands were on the fly of Sam's jeans, the buttons popping open one by one, sounding like fingersnaps, and Josh was still wearing his tie, the end of it brushing on Sam's chest. Sam pulled Josh to him, kissed him deep and long, drawing Josh's tie from around his neck, making short work of his shirt, and with their mouths a centimeter apart, Sam whispered, "Maybe . . . naked time starts now?"
Josh grinned against Sam's cheek and a laugh rippled out of him like water, and he said, "Yes. By all means. Naked time. Immediately and without delay."
Sam laughed, tossing his head back, and Josh took advantage of his position to run his tongue along Sam's throat. "Both immediately and without delay?" Sam asked, sliding his hands up Josh's shoulders into his hair, his eyes glittering.
"You wanna correct my redundancies or you wanna lose your pants?" Josh growled, his teeth on the pulse in Sam's neck.
"Can't I do both?" Sam wondered, but anything else he might have said ended in a gasp as Josh swept down and took Sam's nipple in his mouth, nosing his way through the jagged rip in Sam's T-shirt, his hands closing like parentheses around Sam's hips, and Sam knew that the impression of Josh's fingers on his skin would be there for the rest of his life.
Then they were rolling across the bed, breathing hard into each other's lungs, and everything was spinning, and it was bright and clear and magnificent, the immense thing between them becoming an immense thing within them both, and Sam wasn't sure if he was laughing or crying, he just knew that the same sound was coming out of Josh, and they were more one than two, there in that hotel room in Cleveland, there in the late spring.
* * *
Sam felt like the sun was in his eyes, but it was still nighttime, so it must have just been Josh. He blinked and yawned, and felt the steady weight of Josh's head on his bare chest, rising and falling gently as he breathed, Josh's hair brushing lightly against Sam's chin.
"I'm thinking we gotta send Todd Eisen a muffin basket," he said. Josh's thumb was tracing along Sam's appendicitis scar, drawing a small skinny line of warmth back and forth across Sam's stomach.
Josh smiled, and Sam felt the hook of his mouth against his skin. "It's weird that he knew; how did he know before I knew?" Josh wondered, his breath falling softly.
Sam skimmed his fingers down Josh's shoulder. "You knew. In your own Josh-type way, you knew. It was just . . . a lot to deal with, I guess."
Josh turned his head, propping his chin up on Sam's chest to look at the other man, his eyes exhausted and peaceful. "I'm dealing now, though. I'm finding that dealing with this is fast becoming one of my favorite things in the world," he said, his voice serious despite the grin that quirked his mouth.
Bending down, Sam kissed him sweetly, unable to keep from smiling against Josh's lips. "That's the best news I've heard in about a decade."
Josh fit himself neatly into Sam, his arm curving over his friend, his hand tucked warmly under the other man's body, resting for a long moment, and Sam thought he had fallen asleep when the feather-light breath of Josh's whisper drifted across his skin: "Best news I've heard in about forever."
Sam held onto Josh, trying hard not to cry, and everything had gone beautiful and soft.
On the forgotten television, the Cleveland Indians had scored ten runs in the last two innings to win the game, and out the dark window, the thick clouds were blowing away, the crow-black sky dawning pure and pricked with gleaming silver, the American night showing through clean and clear, and Josh and Sam were falling asleep together, and it wasn't raining, not anywhere in the world.
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