Title: Chaotic Terrain
Author: Candle Beck
Spoilers: Through 'Galileo,' major ones for 'In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts I and II'
Archive: Sure, just let me know, please
Disclaimer: The characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe. No money is being made off this story.
Summary: Lessons in astronomy.
Chaotic Terrain by Candle Beck
There was a quiet rain, and there was Josh. There was a highway sign flashing the word `Repent,' and there was Josh. There was a map in a subway tunnel that didn't make any sense, and there was Josh. There was a low train whistle in Sam's head, and there was Josh.
* * *
There was a man in Sam's office from NASA, and he was talking about the moons of Jupiter. "We are becoming more and more convinced that Europa is the most likely place to find extraterrestrial life in the solar system."
Sam wasn't really listening. His mind was ricocheting around, caroming between the AMA speech he was writing, and the education initiatives package they were putting together, and the jackass who'd cut him off on Penn that morning, and the trembling uncertainty in Josh's eyes, and skyscrapers.
". . . there's evidence of a liquid ocean under the chaotic terrain—"
Sam's head snapped up, and for a second the front window of his office looked like a shattered windshield, a spiderweb of broken glass. "I'm sorry, what did you just say?"
The man from NASA was half-startled by the sudden interruption, his eyebrows twitching. "We think that there's a liquid ocean under the frozen surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, which raises the possibility of life originating in deep sea vents—"
Sam shook his head, raising a hand to stop the man. "No, no, the—the chaotic terrain? Is that what you called . . . is that what you said?"
The man nodded, flipping through the report he'd brought with him. Sam had a copy on his desk, but he didn't look down at it. "Yes, that's the term used to describe the frozen ice crust that coats Europa. It's an active surface, with striations similar to those found in the Arctic and Antarctic. Due to the likely presence of an ocean beneath it, the crust is unstable, structurally complex, with moving ice flows."
"And you call it a chaotic terrain," Sam finished.
The man blinked, looked a little bit like a fish. "Yes. Is that . . . did you have a question about it?"
Sam shrugged, and noticed that his hands were shivering, even though it wasn't cold in his office. "I just . . . I didn't realize you called it that."
In Sam's mind, a voice that sounded like the President was saying, `Ocean of Storms. Tranquility base. Sea of Rains. Elysium Planitia.' The names of the universe were split between catastrophe and paradise. Sam tasted metal in his mouth, like the barrel of a gun.
The man from NASA continued, his words earnest and imploring, "Most of this information is very new, coming from the past fifteen years or so. The original Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989, has been invaluable in studying Jupiter and its moons. We have a wealth of knowledge today we couldn't conceive of even twenty years ago. If we're serious about searching for life on other planets, if we're serious about advancing our understanding of the universe, NASA needs the funds to do it. We need to implement new programs, new explorations, we need to go . . . go farther." The man sat back, as if his solicitation had taken more out of him than he had expected. Sam wondered if he'd meant `farther' or `further,' because one meant distance and the other meant everything else, and people were always mixing them up.
It was dusk outside, the sky bruised, the stars emerging carefully, random and cold. Sam didn't know how much longer he could go on, feeling wrecked like this.
"Look, you're preaching to the choir, you know, and we'll certainly be talking about it around here. I mean, we just landed Galileo V on Mars, it took three days before we could get the thing to actually send us back a signal, we're not the ones who are gonna be putting you guys in a stranglehold."
The last time Sam had said `Galileo V,' his voice had been simple and beautiful, touching the words with hope, and all the promises of space. He wasn't saying it right now, though, his voice was as dark as a shadow.
Josh came into the Communications bullpen, and Sam found that he couldn't tear his eyes away from him. Josh was talking to Cathy, and even in his office, even through the window and shut door that muted the conversation, Sam could see the broken line of Josh's shoulders, the tense harsh fog that he carried with him like other men carried the scent of cologne. Watching Josh was like watching a solar eclipse, something impossible and unreal, something indescribably moving, something that would blind you if you weren't careful.
Sam felt cement under his palms, scraping the pads of his fingers, and he looked down, was vaguely surprised to see his hands resting on the smooth paper that covered his desk.
The man from NASA sighed, a resigned smile on his face. Sam knew NASA's optimism had been siphoned from them after thirty years of declining budgets and an increasing lack of interest. They'd heard too many false promises from too many different administrations. All they wanted to do was look at the stars and answer the questions that came from stark ebony skies, but there was no money to be made in that, and no one cared. "Well, anyway, thank you for talking with me. The new Jupiter probe, it . . . it has incredible potential, Mr. Seaborn. It could be a remarkable voyage."
Sam rose to shake hands with the man from NASA, thinking about life starting deep underwater, in places where there was no light, no heat.
Josh had left the bullpen, but Sam could still see his ghost, like a faded photograph, like one image superimposed over another, like the face on Mars that couldn't be seen if you didn't look at it just right. Even though watching Josh move around outside his office, watching him move like there were snapped pieces of wood where his bones had been, made Sam feel like pressing his fingers into his eyes until everything went black, Sam missed being able to see his friend, missed being sure of where Josh was. When Sam couldn't see Josh, it was like he'd crashed in the desert, like the shuttle had lifted off the moon without him and left him alone, with no air to breathe and no way to get home.
The man from NASA let Sam's office door slam behind him and it sounded like a gunshot.
* * *
Later, Sam went to Josh's office.
There was a sky outside the windows of the White House that was the darkest thing Sam had ever seen. And there was Josh.
Josh was reading a report from the National Education Association, both his elbows up on the desk, his hands buried in his hair. The pose made him look like he was on the edge of a breakdown, like he was holding his head together with all his power, but Sam was pretty sure that it was just the most comfortable way for him to study the pages spread before him. There was a wash of light from the desk lamp, Josh cast in strange soft shadows. The night over Josh's shoulder was thick and as black as wet coal.
Sam rapped his knuckles twice on Josh's open door to let him know he was there. Donna had gone home, along with most everyone else, and everything was silent and still around them.
"Hey," Sam said when Josh looked up.
Josh had always been able to manage a small salutatory smile for Sam, even in the midst of their worst times, even during the campaign when they had lost five primaries in succession early in the season, and their offices had felt like death row, everyone secretly sure that Bartlet was doomed, plummeting, spiraling helplessly and irrevocably downward, taking all of them with him. But Josh didn't smile now, it was like he couldn't, just raised his eyes to Sam's in exhaustion.
There had been a warm night in Virginia, and Josh had fallen, and nobody had been there to catch him, and Sam didn't have any idea how to make it right again.
"What's going on?" Josh asked, like Sam wasn't allowed to just come by to say hi anymore, like there always had to be a reason despite the fact that their lives had gone aimless and futile.
"I had that meeting with the NASA guy," Sam replied, coming in to sit in front of Josh's desk. Josh rested his forearms on top of the report he'd been reading, and Sam tried to remember the last time he'd heard Josh laugh.
The night before, in Sam's apartment, with rain coming down outside, Josh had made sounds that Sam had never heard before, never in all their years together, through all the things they'd been to each other, sounds like Sam's mouth on his skin was blistering, sounds that broke against the roof and cracked the windows, but he hadn't laughed.
"Right, right, about the . . . what was that about, again?" Josh asked, and Sam thought that there had been a time when Josh wouldn't have needed to ask that question, when he would have known the course of Sam's day better than he knew the course of his own.
Sam propped his foot up on his knee and clutched his ankle, willing his fingers to be still. He wanted to stand, cross to Josh's desk, lean over, run his hand through Josh's hair, but the span between him and the other man was farther than the distance between the Earth and the nearest star, it was an unthinkable gulf.
"Jupiter, mainly. Its satellites, Io, Europa, the possibility of aliens, that sort of stuff."
"Danger, danger, Sam Seaborn," Josh joked, and his smile was weak, terribly sad.
"Basically," Sam said, like there was nothing wrong, like he hadn't fallen asleep with his fingers spread on Josh's bare ribs the night before, like he hadn't woken up with his hand cold and marked by the light of the moon.
There was a moment of silence, and Sam could sense Josh getting anxious and unsteady, and there had been a time when they'd been able to be together without speaking for hours, perfectly comfortable in each other's company. Sam rushed to fill the void, saying, "You know what they call the surface of Europa?"
Josh looked at him without interest. "The surface of Europa?"
"Yeah, it's one of Jupiter's moons."
Josh said with a slight, rough edge of impatience, "I know what it is, Sam, I was saying, they needed to come up with something more complicated than just `the surface of Europa'?"
Sam bit the inside of his mouth, feeling warped and bitter, but he kept his voice light, "Yeah, you know how NASA is with the naming of things."
The smile on Josh's face was a tad softer as he replied, "I do know that, yes," and Sam knew they were thinking of the same night, the night only a few weeks ago when they had attempted to reach a shuttle in space, and kept falling back to Earth, and kept trying until they had got it right.
Sam wanted to keep that sweet, true smile on Josh's face forever, but he had forgotten how. He pressed his thumb into the hard bump of his ankle, feeling the bone shift. "They call it a chaotic terrain."
Josh made a small half-snorting noise. "That's pretty good. But couldn't we use the same name for California along the fault line?"
Sam thought that they could use the same name for everything that had happened since the shattering moment in Rosslyn when the bullets had crashed in and fragmented their lives, because nothing was stable anymore, the world had been upended and disintegrated.
Proxima Centauri, in the Alpha Centauri system, was the closest star to Earth, and it was still 4.22 light years away. Most stars were so far that by the time their light got to Earth, no one could be sure they were even still in existence. The universe was expanding, everything was getting bigger, the stars were fleeing, the already unfathomable distances between galaxies were increasing. Even the night sky was running from Sam, and he wanted to hold onto Josh with all the strength in his body, so that wherever they were going, they would go together.
On Josh's chest there was a supernova, a violent red scar exploding over his heart, and for a month now, Sam had spent every moment he could trying to lick it away.
Josh was looking at him, his eyebrows tilted upwards, and Sam realized he'd let his mind wander. He spoke quickly, trying to recapture some of their old, instinctive banter. "You knock California for earthquakes when you grew up in Connecticut? I'm sorry, is that a nor'easter I hear crippling New England?"
Smirking dimly, Josh replied, "At least there's no chance of my hometown becoming an island tomorrow."
"In my hometown it's seventy degrees in February, and in the past twenty seasons, only one San Diego Padres home game has been rained out. That happen an awful lot at Fenway?" Sam shot back, but it felt forced and dull, like they were trying too hard.
Josh sighed absently, the sound solemn and hollow. "Yeah," he said, disconnecting from the conversation. He gazed down at the work still on his desk, looking so tired Sam was afraid he might just fall over. "Listen, I got this stuff . . ." Josh trailed off, his meaning clear.
Sam stood, saying quickly, "Sure, yeah. I was just, you know, stopping in." Josh nodded, his eyes demolished.
There was a bruise on Sam's shoulder, under the collar of his shirt, staining his body like a bad omen, and Sam's fingers had always fit perfectly into the trenches of Josh's ribs. There were more stars in the sky than anyone could ever count, and the night before, the salt of Josh's skin had been trembling on Sam's tongue.
All Sam had wanted to do for months now was wrap his arms around Josh and hang onto him, because Josh was falling through the cracks, Sam had lost him somewhere in the crowd in Rosslyn, Sam had taken his eyes off Josh for a split second and hadn't been able to find him since.
Josh had shown up at his front door a month ago, only a day or two after coming back to work, still working half-days, sent home at lunch by Leo despite his fervent protests, Josh had stood on Sam's doorstep and raised his fierce eyes, those eyes Sam knew better than his own, and Sam had not been able to turn him away. They'd watched the day's recaps on CNN and ESPN, and part of a movie from ninety years ago with Buster Keaton in it, and Sam had been in the middle of a rambling monologue about the influence of silent comedians on modern cinema, jittery and awkward, when Josh's hand had slid up the track of Sam's spine and cupped the back of his neck.
Sam had jumped, then froze, turning to stare at Josh, who looked back at him with dark, endless eyes. "Um . . . what's happening now?" Sam had asked, shaken and unsettled, Josh's hand feeling like the steadiest thing in the world.
Josh said slowly, "This . . . this is nothing new, Sam."
It wasn't, either. They'd been crashing into each other for years, collisions that ended up with them twined together at the end of the night, a string of beds from New York City to California imprinted with the shapes of their two bodies, damp and moving sweetly against each other.
The first time Sam had kissed Josh, he'd almost missed his mouth entirely, just catching the corner of it, because Josh had been turning to look at a lightning storm when Sam leaned in. It turned out not to matter, because ten clumsy, embarrassed minutes later Josh had taken Sam's head in both his hands, covering Sam's ears so that all he could hear was rushing static, and pulled him close, kissing him firm and sure, his fingers snaking through Sam's hair, both of them falling to the thin carpet of Sam's cheap law-student apartment, and Sam had learned Josh's body by the strobing flashes of the sky, that night in the middle of a torrential spring.
Sam had trained himself not to think too much about the thing between him and Josh, the way they never really talked about it until Sam was hiking up Josh's shirt and skidding his palms along his chest, the way Josh said Sam's name in his sleep, sometimes said it backwards like a code, the way Josh knew the spot on Sam's neck that would make the other man shiver, the way Sam had traced the words of the First Amendment on Josh's stomach with his tongue, both of them giggling like crazy, heady and light-hearted, the clear, stunned expression on Josh's face when Sam was inside him, the way Sam kissed Josh and it would feel like the sky was falling.
It did him no good to analyze what was happening between them, and it would do neither of them any good if Sam admitted, to Josh or himself, that sometimes those dazzling, surreal moments were all he lived for.
In his apartment, though, with Josh's hand on his neck, Sam was stuttering and unsure, and he whispered, "It's not like it was before. You're . . . after what's happened . . ."
Josh had drawn him closer, tilting his head to press his lips just under Sam's ear. "I'm the same. It's okay, Sam, nothing's changed." And then Josh had kissed him, long and deep and low, and Sam had let himself believe him, had decided that Josh was probably right, it was okay, there was nothing to worry about.
There was a moment, however, when Sam had been dragging Josh's shirt over his shoulders, and had felt a chill on his left side, where Josh's fingers had been, and he realized that Josh had moved his hand to cover the ragged, spreading scar on his chest, Josh's head down, his face darkened by a flush. Sam had tugged Josh's hand away, ran his fingers over the flaw, bent down to kiss it, and Josh had gasped, his hand finding the back of Sam's head. Sam hated that scar like he'd never hated anything in all his life, couldn't understand what it was doing interrupting Josh's pale, perfect skin. He loved the body the scar was corrupting, though, so all he could do was shove away his memories of how the scar had come to be and kiss Josh until neither of them could think about anything anymore.
Since Josh had come to him that night, something had been different between them. They'd been rougher, faster, less tender with each other. Sam had tried to be careful with Josh, gentle and slow, but Josh hadn't wanted that, and sometimes his eyes flashed angry and devastated in the middle of the night, terrifying Sam. And no matter how tightly he enveloped Josh when they were drifting off to sleep, Josh always moved away before morning, clinging to the very edge of the mattress, his shoulder battling gravity, his face strained and agitated in his dreams, and if they had stayed over at Sam's place, Josh was always gone by dawn.
Josh was splintering slowly on the inside, and Sam's heart was broken, and Sam had no idea how to fix either of them.
The earth was slowing down, getting colder and darker, and someday there would be nothing but a black hole where the planet used to be.
Now, standing in the no-man's land between Josh's desk and the door, Sam asked hesitantly, "Are you . . . are you coming over tonight?"
Josh looked up at him and Sam could see the collapse in his face, wracking through his form. Sam was feeling his cheekbone pressed on concrete, deafened by the echoing explosions of two guns.
"I don't think so, Sam," Josh said, gesturing vaguely to the papers on his desk. Josh's hand was trembling and Sam knew for sure that they were all alone in the universe.
Because he felt like he was about to start sobbing, Sam nodded jerkily and spun on his heel, leaving Josh in the whispering darkness of his office.
* * *
In his own office, Sam turned his chair to face the window, his back to the door, and stared for a long time out at the night, trying hard not to think about Josh, or Rosslyn, or how his life was in pieces at his feet. His hands were screwed up into fists and pressed to his knees, the bones of his knuckles cracking.
The moon was full, but it was just a dead rock, floating cold and silent out in empty space. The stars were like pinpricks, already extinct. They could travel space and expand the boundaries of their world farther and further than anyone had ever dreamed, but what did it matter if Sam couldn't save Josh from the destruction that was stalking all of them?
Sam looked at the sky until he wasn't sure if the inky black that filled his eyes was the night or just his vision failing, and he was doing everything wrong, and he had never been so far away from everything that mattered.
Sam thought that there would be a winter, and then a spring, and if one didn't break him, the other would. There would be green days when he would have faith again, but they wouldn't last. There would be gray rain and sleet and hail and hurricanes, and Sam would be ripped apart by the storm. There would be years like a ball of string unraveling, and there would be another President, another person sitting in his office. There would be hope and failure and disaster and desire and misery and laughter and ruined first impressions and broken promises and lousy autumn days and Sam's heart would be shattered a thousand times more. There would be moments when he would feel like running, moments when he would feel like flying, moments when he would feel like weeping, moments when he wouldn't want to be alive to feel anything at all. There would be dark blue nights when nothing would stand still, and Sam would reach out for help and his fingers would close on nothing but air. There would be new stars born even as the old ones died, and the planets would keep moving farther away from the sun.
And through it all, there would be Josh. Josh as constant as the morning star, as uncertain as a windstorm. Wherever they ended up, be it together or apart, Sam knew he would never get shook of Josh, Josh and his wounded fire eyes, Josh and his imperfect form, Josh and his demons, Josh and his nightmares, his shuddering hands, Josh who lived inside Sam like a second heartbeat.
Sam didn't know anything, but he knew that Josh was a chaotic terrain, Josh had an ocean beneath his surface, and Sam would be forever lost at sea.
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