Title: What It Looks Like
Author: Candle Beck
Spoilers: Some from the `In the Shadow of Two Gunmen' flashback scenes.
Archive: For sure, just let me know.
Disclaimer: Characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Janel Moloney, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe. No money is being made off this story.
Summary: Everything came up blue.
Notes: I may have played with the timeline of the campaign just a tad, but go with me, it works.
What It Looks Like by Candle Beck
It was autumn the way autumn should be, the trees getting dimmer and more beautiful as they faded to dark oranges and deep reds and warm yellows. A rainstorm that had made a sport of blowing umbrellas inside out had whipped through a week ago, rushing away the heat and the humidity and washing everything clean for the new season, like a kid with his face scrubbed gleaming and pink for church.
Everything was fresh and novel, people emerging from the thick cage of summer, their steps falling lightly, their heads held up into the cool breeze, sentimentally looking forward to the winter, selective in their memories of sweet unfiltered snow and bundling up in wonderfully soft cashmere, hands clumsy and young encased in mittens, wool caps snug down over their ears, conveniently forgetting the bitter gray wind and impassable streets and the anachronistic pioneer struggle of sloughing down sidewalks packed knee-high with snow. Optimism and sheer air swept through the city, and it was a good time to be around.
One night in October, the sky gone crazy with stars and the searching fingers of spotlights from some carnival in Virginia, Sam and Josh were standing outside a bar downtown, looking in through the big plate glass windows at playoff baseball on the bar's television.
They'd been out there on the sidewalk for going on twenty minutes, talking and following the game. Josh felt faintly ridiculous, like they were a pair of Dickensian street urchins pressing their noses to the glass of some flickering tavern, peering in at the impossible luxury, their grubby hands wordlessly beseeching charity from the raucous patrons. They could have gone in, ordered drinks, watched the game properly, like normal people, but it was a magnificent night, the weather better on the street than it possibly could have been inside, and there was an unspoken agreement between the two men that this was all right, this was fine, they would continue loitering on the curb for as long as they pleased.
Sam had hopped up to sit on a metal newspaper box, kicking his legs and drumming his heels hollowly. Josh had pulled out a free DC Employment Guide from one of the other boxes and was alternating between reading the listings out loud and folding the pages into gray, floppy-winged paper airplanes, his fingers smeared with ink like he'd just had his prints taken down an the 16th Precinct.
"You could be a heavy equipment operator," Josh offered. "Look, free training, good benefits, medical, overtime. This is a good job, Sam, you should jump on it."
Sam leaned back on his arms, his hands twisted and braced on the strict square lip of the box. "Nah, I'd probably have to be in a union or something."
Josh shrugged. "So? You're union material. You try and hide it around Toby and them, but you can't fool me, I know you got a big red streak of socialist leanings running right through your liberal soul."
Grinning, Sam replied, "All right, Joe McCarthy, whatever you say. Besides, it's not the union itself, it's more that I'm, you know, kinda . . . scared of the Teamsters."
Josh laughed at Sam's bashful smile. "Scared of the Teamsters? What are you, eight years old?"
Sam leaned forward, his eyes going big and earnest as he defended himself. "Have you seen those guys? They're huge! Their arms are as thick as my chest! They could snap me like a twig!"
Josh rolled his eyes, sent the first plane of Employment Guide Air on its inaugural flight. "Sam, Zoey could snap you like a twig. Deanna already has snapped you like a twig, at least in the basketball sense of the phrase. In fact, now that I think of it, I feel fairly certain that you could be taken down by the daughters and little sisters of just about everyone we know."
The plane swooped into the street, coming to an excellent three-point landing in the middle of a manhole cover.
Sam narrowed his eyes in a pretense of offense, the corners of his mouth flicking slightly with a smile. "Just for that, I'm telling Donna that you spent all night littering without thought or concern for city ordinances."
"Paper airplanes are not littering, Sam. They are whimsical decoration that provide the city with a much-needed sense of childlike innocence. I should get some kind of commendation."
"They're dirty pieces of newspaper mucking up the street and you should be put on a highway somewhere picking up cans."
Slanting Sam a look, his eyebrows crooked upwards, Josh asked, "Did you just say, `mucking'?"
"It's a word!"
Josh snorted. "Yeah, if you're a seventy year old woman, it's a word." He flipped to the next page, looking for more amusing job opportunities. "Ooh, executive assistant! If you had that job, I'd get you flowers on Secretary Appreciation Day." He elbowed Sam encouragingly. "Eh? Flowers? Hard to pass up."
Squinting through the glass at the game, Sam responded with a smirk, "Aw, honey, you know you don't need an excuse to get me flowers." With Sam's eyes forward, he missed Josh's quick blush and the swift duck of his head. Sam continued, "What's with the Josh Lyman Employment Agency, anyway? You trying to get rid of me?" He thought for a moment, unease growing from his good humor. "Or maybe you know something I don't. That's it, isn't it? Toby said something to you about replacing me, didn't he? I knew I shouldn't have let Ed and Larry take that health care speech, they've gotten way too good, they make me look illiterate."
Sam's descent into paranoia, his mind shooting ahead to possible disaster at light-speed, amused Josh to no end, and he clapped Sam on the shoulder, reassuring him, "Take a breath, willya, Sam? You're making me dizzy. I'm just messing around, I like the visual of you in a hardhat or with a pen holding together your hairdo." Sam still looked a little cat-skittish, so Josh continued, "I'm pretty sure if we ever tried to replace you, Toby would secede his office from the Union. And if Ed and Larry are getting good, it's only because they've spent the past two years trying to write as much like you as possible."
Shifting Josh a soft, grateful smile, Sam reached out to pat his friend on the arm, saying, "Thanks, man. That's . . . you know, it's a good thing to hear."
Moved by an urge of sincerity on this perfect autumn night, Josh replied, his voice quiet and certain, "It's true, Sam. There's no way we'd be here without you. No way in the world I could do this without you."
Josh blinked, half-started at his own words, because he had meant to say that there was no way *they* could do this without Sam. There was a burst of light behind Josh's eyes for a moment, as if looking at Sam was the same as looking directly in the blare of headlights, making white spots explode beautifully in his mind.
Sam didn't seem to have noticed the slight (and decidedly non- Freudian, Josh assured himself) slip, saying, "Yeah," grinning at Josh in the light of the streetlamps, the harvest moon hanging huge over his head like an orange paper lantern.
Some of the ballgame's action caught Sam's eye, and he yelled suddenly, "No! What are you DOING?" His hand clenched on Josh's arm as a disgusted sigh blew from him, and he complained, staring through the window, his forehead tense and knotted in consternation, "What the hell is that, trying to score Mathis from first on a single? He doesn't have any legs, he's a catcher, for Pete's sake. It's like watching a steam locomotive, him chugging around the bases like that."
Josh grinned at Sam's assessment, and noticed that at some point his hand on Sam's shoulder had slid down to hook in the breast pocket of the man's overcoat.
There were three layers of fabric between Josh's fingers and Sam's heart, but Josh imagined that he could feel the calm beat despite that, the steady rhythm of Sam strong and mysterious in the cool unbreakable sidewalk night of autumn.
* * *
The next day their picture was in the paper.
Josh came in, feeling oddly light on his feet, striding through the flag-draped marble hallways of the White House smooth and even and excited, eager to move forward and get on to his day.
"Donna, Donnatella Moss, good morning," he greeted his assistant expansively. Donna brought her head up too fast, an uncharacteristically awkward gesture, and Josh could have sworn a light flush doused her features.
"Hi," she replied, seeming to want to say more, indecision scurrying across her face as she fell silent.
"`Hi?' That's all I get? `Hi'? I give you a high-quality full name greeting, I said your first name twice, as a matter of fact, and you give me two measly letters in return?"
Josh waited for Donna to shoot back with her sharp wit (a trait he secretly appreciated as much as her ability to keep a week's worth of meetings straight in her head). But Donna cut her eyes away, and Josh hesitated, vaguely off-balance, before brushing it off and entering his office.
Spotting something as he moved towards his chair, Josh called, "Donna, why is there a copy of the Washington Post Metro section on my desk?" There was no answer, and Josh assumed that she had gone to get coffee or something.
Moving close, though, he realized that it wasn't just the Metro section, it was the Metro section flipped open to a specific page, the 'Round-the-Town' glorified gossip page, with a Post-it note stuck right in the middle. Written on the Post-it were the three most ominous words Josh could think of: "SEE ME IMMEDIATELY," in CJ's handwriting, the letters slashed with anger, the spikes of the M's looking like daggers.
"Oh, hell," Josh said, feeling his chest tighten uncomfortably, already dreading whatever it was that CJ had written the note for, sensing that his day was going to be much less enjoyable than he had previously thought.
Peeling off the little yellow square, Josh glanced at the newspaper photo thus revealed, then looked up, blinking in incomprehension, before he executed an absolutely classic double take, his head snapping down, his eyes widening as he stared incredulously at the grainy print.
It was a picture of him and Sam, obviously taken the night before. Sam was sitting on the newspaper box, Josh standing close to him. The angle was such that Sam was facing the camera, Josh turned towards the viewer about three quarters, his face in profile, because he was smiling at Sam. He was smiling at Sam, his hand on the man's shoulder, and Sam's hand was placed lightly on Josh's arm. Josh identified the moment with perfect clarity, it was that sweet interval when Sam had looked down at Josh softly and said, "Thanks, man. That's . . . you know, it's a good thing to hear." Josh could tell because he remembered the look on Sam's face, he remembered it far too well.
Positioned as they were, the picture looked like nothing so much as if Sam and Josh were just pulling back from a kiss, or just about to lean in for one.
His mouth hanging open, Josh's eyes stuttered over the picture again and again, the words, `what the hell?' on a baffling loop in his mind, and then he finally read the caption at the bottom of the photo, and he was reminded for the millionth time that things can always get worse.
`With President Bartlet in Israel, senior White House staffers Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman share an intimate moment in downtown Washington.'
"Oh, God," Josh breathed out. "Oh, good and holy God." The photo was immediately branded into Josh's mind, and `what the hell?' had been replaced by a fragmented mess of the words in the caption: `senior White House staffers . . . intimate moment . . . President Bartlet . . . Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman . . . intimate moment.'
For a moment, Josh tried to spin, create reasonable doubt, find some other explanation. Maybe he was reading into it too closely, maybe he was seeing things that weren't there. Maybe everyone else would look at that photo and think nothing other than that he and Sam were good friends, maybe the Post hadn't meant to insinuate anything, maybe they had just thought it was a nice picture. God knows no one in the press had ever minded taking Sam's picture before, they had barely let the man blink during the campaign without popping a flashbulb in his eyes, maybe that was it, maybe . . .
But then Josh's eyes stumbled upon him and Sam again, saw their clear, rapt expressions, gazes twisting deeply together, saw the way the two of them looked like they were blind to the rest of the world, saw them looking at each other like they were in love, and even though Josh knew they weren't in love, knew there was no way they could ever be in love, he was unable to deny that there was no other possible explanation, that picture was utterly closed to interpretation.
And then his gaze was caught by the yellow Post-it note stuck on his desk beside the paper, and he read CJ's terse note again, and he sank down into his chair, shell-shocked, and he whispered, "Oh, God," a few more times, until he raised his head to see Donna standing in his doorway, looking like a still marble statue with furious betrayed eyes.
`Oh, this is just going to be more complicated than anything,' Josh thought, taking a brief moment to thank the heavens that Mandy no longer worked with them, before he croaked out, "Donna . . ."
Donna began rifling through the small stack of messages in her hands, her movements snapping harsh, biting off the words, "Senator Jackson had to reschedule the appropriations meeting, Saunders from the GAO needs to talk to you about the Texas trip, Molly O'Dell from Health and Human Services wants five minutes at some point in the next week." Donna made as if to leave, then spun back to aim her kill shot his way, "Oh, and CJ needs to see you immediately. But I see you already figured that out."
"Donna!" Josh hollered, his frustration and the way his life had spun out of control within the space of five minutes getting the best of him.
Donna returned to the doorway and glared at him, fierce and cold. Josh ripped through his mind to find the words to explain something he never thought he'd have to articulate. Jesus, his friendship with Sam wasn't something that needed to be proved, his friendship with Sam just was.
"Donna, it's not what it looks like," he managed to say, aware all the while of what a cliché it sounded like, briefly distracted by his capacity to be concerned about originality at a time like this.
"Oh, no?" Donna replied, her voice rich with sarcasm.
"No! Donna, of course not! You really think I would keep something like that from you? From everybody? I can't even keep my inability to hold my liquor from being common knowledge, how in the world would I go about concealing a secret relationship?"
Donna's face softened slightly, going past rage a bit towards consideration. "Doesn't `concealing' presuppose `secret'?" she asked, and Josh let a quick smile spark on his face, the warm expression feeling like it had been absent for about a decade, while probably it had been less than ten minutes.
Donna's face immediately closed up again as she remembered her anger, and she came in, closing the door behind her. "What the hell, Josh?" she asked quietly, asking the same question that had baffled him so infuriatingly a few minutes ago, steadying him with a gaze that waltzed between bemusement and outrage and something Josh half-recognized as her instinct to protect him from harm, an odd quirk of her personality that had always both annoyed Josh and endeared Donna to him.
"I don't know," he sighed, squinting at the picture as if he could blur it into something less damning. "Sam and I, we were over near the convention center last night, we were watching a baseball game from the sidewalk-"
"Why were you watching from the sidewalk?" Donna wondered, and Josh wanted to hug her for the simple, Josh-you're-crazy question, the kind of question she'd been asking him for years.
He tipped a half-smile at her, saying, "Big picture, Donna, big picture." She nodded, her attention zeroing in again.
Josh continued, "We were just talking, I was making paper airplanes, it was a totally normal night. This, this picture . . ." Josh heaved out another sigh, spreading his hand out on the newspaper, Sam's face peeking out at him fuzzily from between his fingers.
"This damn picture. They caught us in a moment, I guess. You know those moments when . . . when, like, the night is at its most beautiful, and you've just been quietly enjoying the other person's company without really realizing it, and everything kind of falls into place, and it's a moment of happiness that's just . . . so completely pure. And you want to hug strangers on the street, and you want to hug your friend who's right there beside you, so . . . so you do. Or you put your hand on his shoulder, and grin at him like an idiot. And he puts his hand on your arm and grins back." Josh had fallen into a slight reverie, remembering the moment, his eyes drifting wistful. The situation abruptly smashed him back into reality, and he finished bitterly, "And then the goddamn Post takes a picture of it and ruins both your careers. Like it's some kind of crime for two guys to smile at each other on the street."
Donna moved to sit in the chair in front of Josh's desk, and he exhaled an inward breath of relief, knowing that she believed him. "No one's career is ruined, Josh, don't be so melodramatic." Josh took the reproof with gratitude, one more sign that Donna wasn't going to punch him or throw coffee on him or anything.
"I mean, these things blow over," she said, her mind almost visibly switching over from being mad to figuring out how to solve this.
Josh pushed his hand through his hair and replied, "This isn't even one of those things. It shouldn't have to blow over, it shouldn't even be in the paper!"
Donna gave him a look and said, "But it is in the paper, Josh, and whining about that fact isn't going to help anyone."
Knowing she was right, Josh forced some calm into himself, leveling out his voice. "All right. Fine. No whining. Although I really think that if ever there was a time when I'm allowed to whine, it should be when the Washington Post implies that Sam and I are gay and sharing `intimate moments' on a sidewalk."
Donna's face twisted into an interesting expression that was caught between amusement and disgust. "God, the image," she deadpanned, and Josh laughed out loud.
He wanted to flip the paper closed, hide that picture, but his eyes kept being drawn back to it, drawn to the look on Sam's face, which was strange, because he never would have thought he would need a photograph, remembering it with such crystalline vision as he did.
"I guess I better go see CJ," he said, feeling like a kid about to go knock on the door of a neighbor's house whose window he had smacked a baseball through.
"I guess so," Donna agreed, sympathy and good wishes in her voice.
Josh wondered how far in the direction of Canada he could get before CJ caught him, then decided gloomily that he probably wouldn't make it out of the building.
He stood, trying to pull his shoulders up and not look so much like a condemned man, but Donna's face informed him that his attempt at composure and confidence was falling a little short of the mark.
Josh wanted to see Sam, suddenly and without warning, the urge rocketing through him. Sam would smile and roll his eyes and make a joke about the picture that would have the entire staff laughing, put all their minds at ease, Sam would be able to make this right, Sam could make anything right. But what if Sam was awkward and angry, what if he shifted his eyes away and wouldn't look at Josh, what if he blamed Josh for the picture, blamed Josh for all the pain and embarrassment that awaited them? What if Sam thought that the Post had seen something in Josh that he himself had not, what if Sam thought the newspaper's implication was what Josh really wanted, and shoved Josh away because of it? That idea made Josh flush, made his heart clench, made him feel like he was choking, suffocating. Shaking his head free of the cobwebs that smothered his mind, Josh moved to head out to CJ's office, but Donna hadn't opened the door.
"Josh . . ." she began, looking at him like she was trying to figure out how to say what she was thinking, looking like she was doing her best to avoid hurting him. "You know I believe you, right? Because maybe you would keep something like this a secret, but I know you wouldn't lie about it. You'd never do that."
"There's nothing to lie about, Donna," Josh said, feeling like he was repeating himself, speaking by rote.
"I know, I know. But . . . I wasn't angry because it's you and Sam, I was angry because I thought you'd hidden it from me."
Josh blinked, asked in disbelief, "Are you telling me that if I decide to sleep with Sam, I have your blessing, as long as I brief you first?"
Donna didn't fall for his sarcasm, saying with all seriousness, "No, Josh, I'm . . . I know you as well as anyone, and I know Sam, and I saw that picture, and I didn't even question it. It wasn't that shocking, it just seemed . . . right, somehow. Like it fit."
Josh felt like his eyes were about to drop right out of his head, if he didn't claw them out with his hands first. He said desperately, "Jesus Christ, Donna, don't say that, please, God, don't say that. Convincing everyone that this isn't what it looks like is going to be hard enough without having to convince myself too."
Her eyes big and earnestly blue, Donna asked, hushed, "Do you have to convince yourself, Josh?"
Josh put his palm against his forehead, twisting his wrist to press his thumb into his eye socket, making the pain a half a shade away from unbearable. He replied in a crooked whisper, "I don't need this right now."
Clearly sensing the truth in the words, Donna quickly left the office, her steps swift and apologetic, and after ten minutes of gathering his strength, Josh went to CJ's office.
* * *
"Well, well, well, if it isn't Don Juan Demarco, master of the double life."
Barely even through CJ's door, and Josh was once again regretting his decision to get out of bed that morning.
CJ whipped off her glasses and glared at him, that decimating look that left smoke trails in its wake. "It never ceases to amaze me, Josh, the astounding levels to which your stupidity can ascend."
Josh shut CJ's door behind him, knowing it was a futile gesture, aware that everyone on the Eastern Seaboard would know about this before lunchtime, regardless of how they tried to hush it up. "CJ, before you destroy me with your, you know, eyes of death, would you please let me explain?"
CJ let incredulity lace through her voice, firing back, "Explain? You would like to explain? I'm thinking that, in interest of your on-going physical well-being, you're going to want to apologize. I'm thinking you're going to want to be down on your knees begging my forgiveness."
Collapsing onto the couch, Josh half-yelled, "Apologize! CJ, I haven't done anything wrong!"
CJ made an impatient, distracted gesture, her hand clipping through the air. "Oh, of course not, Josh, of course in a perfect world no one would care that you're sleeping with a man, although they probably would still care that you're sleeping with a colleague, one to whom you are, by the way, superior!"
Josh slouched down, muttering, "Not feeling very superior right now."
"There's a reason for that," CJ shot, looking ready to set him on fire.
Flashing a hand through his hair, Josh argued, "And anyway, I'm not saying I haven't done anything wrong in the abstract sense, I'm saying I haven't done anything wrong because I haven't done anything! I'm not sleeping with a man, I'm not sleeping with Sam!"
CJ stabbed the newspaper on her desk and replied sharply, "The Washington Post would seem to disagree! Do you even get how much of a thing this is going to be? The president is in the middle of a historic Middle East peace summit, and I guarantee you that the only questions I'm going to get in the room today are going to be about your inability to keep your sex life out of the newspaper!"
Falling forward over his knees, Josh buried his face in his hands and whispered to himself, "I swear to God this isn't happening."
CJ's voice snuck through his fervent desire to block out the world, saying cleanly, "Trust me, Josh. It's happening."
Josh raised his head and pled what was swiftly becoming the motto of his life, "It's not what it looks like, CJ."
CJ's disbelief was like a storm in the room. "Really," she said flatly, her voice dry and bleeding skepticism.
"CJ!" Josh cried, frustrated beyond belief.
Leaning forward to skewer him with his gaze, CJ snapped back, "Don't give me that, Josh, don't try to play the wronged victim here." She pointed her finger at him, looking disturbingly like Josh's sixth-grade principal, who had kept Josh in a state of perpetual terror for a whole year. "And don't you dare lie to me, Joshua, because I'd really rather not have to beat you to death, but I'll do it if you lie to me about this."
Wanting to pull out his hair, Josh was incredulous at CJ's refusal to believe him. "CJ, what are you . . . come on! It's . . . it's Sam, for God's sake! It's me and Sam! Have you not met the two of us?"
CJ tilted back, keeping that cold stare on him, and her voice was quiet with a tight line of hostility running through it, growing as she spoke. "Yes, I've met you, Josh. I met you in New Hampshire, my first night on the campaign, and I thought you were too young and too loud and too smart. And then you ran off saying you were going to get someone who would win the campaign for us, and we all expected you to get an old law professor or some mentor you'd had from Congress. And instead you show up grinning like a maniac with this kid who looked like a GQ model, and all you said was, `This is Sam.' That's all you said for about a day, you know, `This is Sam,' introducing him to everybody four or five times, showing him off like he was some new toy of yours.
"So maybe it's not out of the realm of possibility that we might wonder about the two of you."
Josh was just gaping by this point, frankly stunned when he found himself able to form sentences that were anything resembling coherent. "I . . . you . . . you think I brought Sam on the campaign because . . . because we were . . . you really think I'd do that?"
CJ rolled her eyes. "Of course I don't think that now, of course I know you'd never bring in someone unqualified for personal reasons, you'd never jeopardize Bartlet like that. But how was I supposed to know that then? All I was going on was you taking off and coming back with a guy who walked out on a Gage Whitney Pace partnership because you showed up at his door."
Josh drew in a calming breath. `Focus, focus,' he coached himself. `Pull yourself together. You can explain this, just tell her the truth, that's all you can do. Regroup.'
He spoke slowly, with utter clarity. "CJ. It's not what it looks like. It never was. Sam and I are friends. We are . . . friends." That was as simple as he could put it, that was all he could say.
CJ was still giving him that look, a slightly cocked eyebrow evidencing that she hadn't yet been convinced.
Josh was suddenly so tired of all this, and his head was in his hands again as he spoke, staring blind down at the floor. "He's my best friend, CJ. I promised him I'd come and get him if I saw the real thing in New Hampshire, and . . . and I did. I saw the real thing, I had to come and get him. You can't break a promise to Sam, it'd be like . . . kicking a puppy. That's the reason I brought him on. The only reason."
Josh lifted his head, CJ's calm tone of acceptance surprising him as much as anything that had already happened. CJ was looking at him easy, the anger washed from her eyes, and Josh was thankful that the woman was smarter than he was, smart enough to hear the sincerity in his words.
He still had to confirm it, though, and repeated back to her, "All right?"
She rolled her eyes, the beginnings of a smile starting to creep back onto her face. "Yes, Josh, all right. I believe you, would you like it in writing?"
Josh let a smile of his own slip halfways into place, his flippancy returning like the second nature that it was. "Well, yeah, kind of. A CJ-signed affidavit of my heterosexuality, that's a once- in-a-lifetime offer."
CJ sparked a grin, and made a shooing gesture in his general direction. "Go back to work, smart guy. I'll write a short response for you to give later in the day, something to the effect of, `Sam and I have been friends for years, and any pair of good friends will have moments that, taken out of context, could be misconstrued by those with too much interest in the private lives of public servants, and too much time on their hands.'"
Josh nodded, his mind working over the words, liking the `public/private' turn of phrase, knowing it was the kind of response that would quell the fires and get everyone ready to move on. "That's pretty good. Doesn't really sound like me, though."
CJ replied caustically, "Oh, sorry. I'll slip in a reference to the president's secret plan to fight inflation, give it that Josh Lyman touch."
Josh stood, ready to leave, trying to take some cleansing breaths to prepare him for the rest of the day, a pessimistic little voice in his head reminding him that CJ and Donna were only the first two of the dozens of people he would have to face today, and the two that knew him best. He couldn't imagine what dealing with Toby was going to be like, was scared out of his skin about what Leo would say.
"Josh?" CJ said as he was at the door.
He turned back. "Yeah?"
She was looking at him with eyes bright with wisdom, and she said seriously, "Talk to Sam."
Josh blinked. "Why? He should be the one person in this building I don't have to explain this to."
CJ dismissed that with a snap of her eyebrows. "Whatever. Just talk to him. For once in your life, don't do the non- communicative guy thing, just talk to your friend."
Josh shrugged. "Okay."
CJ nodded, like she was drawing a line across an item on her mental to-do list. "Good."
Josh moved back to the door, and tossed over his shoulder in parting, "Bye, CJ."
"Bye, Josh," CJ replied back, shaking her head at his retreating form and saying to herself, "The things I go through for these stupid men . . ."
* * *
Josh didn't get to talk to Sam at work that day. After the metaphorical evisceration he'd received from Toby, the weird askance looks Leo kept shooting him as the older man stumbled through his `Yeah, I didn't believe it for a second, don't worry, you'll get through this,' routine, and the absolutely devastating one-liners that every assistant fired at him throughout the day, it was all Josh could do to barricade himself in his office and try not to imagine that he could here the frenzied shouting of the press corps through all the walls that separated them.
Josh caught a glimpse or two of Sam in the hallways, flashes of dark hair, the sharp white collar of Sam's shirt, the quick outline of his shadow slicing through a room. Josh knew he should call out to Sam, go over with an expression of exaggerated woe and moan satirically about their dire situation. Josh knew Sam had to be waiting for him to break the ice, start things on their way to being normal again, but all the things Josh had to say to Sam were caught up in his throat like cotton, and he knew he'd be stumbling and dumb if he had to meet Sam's eyes, those same eyes from the photo in the paper, which had made an perfect night somehow better, right before their lives changed forever.
He wasn't hiding, Josh told himself. He would talk to Sam eventually, if only because CJ would pretzel his spine if he didn't. He would talk to Sam, just not yet. He would wait for things to die down a little, wait for the tension to breathe out, wait until he could look at Sam without wanting to run away as fast as he could.
Upon arriving home that night, Josh found that he couldn't turn on the television, because all the news programs kept surprising him with the photo, still-framed in the corner of the screen over the anchor's left shoulder, some of them reporting it with a sardonic grin, some reading their copy with a `this is news?' tinge to their voices, others dead serious, as if it was a picture of Josh trying to kill Sam rather than just smile at him.
"You suck, Fox News," Josh said before clicking the TV off in disgust. The ensuing silence was spooky and Josh wished he lived in a less peaceful area of town, wanted to hear some car alarms or dogs barking, something.
The knock at his door made him start, and he shook his head at his jumpiness as he rose to answer it.
Josh crept up to the peep hole, keeping his steps quiet so that if his visitor turned out to be some enterprising tabloid reporter, he could steal away into the back of the apartment without giving away that he was home. Squinting through the tiny warped piece of glass, seeing that it was no reporter, Josh nevertheless sighed, resting his head briefly on the wood of the door, debating himself over whether he should just go with plan one and sneak away.
"I know you're there, Josh, I can see your feet under the door."
Josh grinned in spite of himself, and slid the chain lock off, pulling the door open.
Sam was standing there with his hands in his pockets, and after a day of seeing his friend over and over again in a photograph, but never close-up, Josh was struck by the knowledge that no picture could ever do Sam justice, it was a crime to try and represent Sam in such a cheap medium, without catching the shifting light glinting through his eyes, the shadows slipping like clouds over his cheekbones and in the smooth dips of his throat, the complex expression of exasperation, uncertainty and kind goodwill that made it impossible to look away from his face.
"You've been avoiding me," Sam said without preamble.
"I've been doing nothing of the sort!" Josh protested, immediately falling back into the old pattern of Sam-and-Josh banter, ridiculously grateful that Sam seemed at least civil, at least not in the mood to punch Josh in the head.
Sam stepped in, rolling his eyes at Josh as he replied, "Oh, sorry, you must have been struck by a temporary bout of deafness when I called to you in the parking lot on my way out."
Josh blushed, remembering clearly the high, questioning bound of Sam's voice echoing off the sleek lines of the government cars, remembering his flinch and the lock of his neck muscles as he held himself from turning around. "You . . . you called?" he said lamely, the lie a huge clunking thing in the quiet.
Sam hiked his eyebrows up, giving Josh a look of such disbelief that the other man could only shrug and grin apologetically.
Sighing, Sam fell onto the couch, stretching his arms over his head and yawning. "So, how was your day?" he asked ironically.
Josh chuffed a brief laugh, and went into the kitchen to get two beers. Coming back in, he flopped down next to Sam, though not too close, a good cushion and a half of space between the two of them. Sam's legs sprawled out, long and messy, his knee swinging, like he was unconsciously seeking out physical contact with the other man.
Letting out a massively deep groan, one which had been building throughout the day, Josh let his back sink into the couch, tension and paranoia and frustration bleeding out of him. "Ridiculous day," he declared, drawing out the `reeee.'
His head tilted back against the couch, his eyes closed, Sam smirked, and Josh tried not to watch the smooth pale column of his throat moving as he swallowed. "Yeah, I could actually have done without being asked about china patterns by every assistant in the office."
Josh sat up, saying, "They asked you about china patterns? I had to deal with really inappropriate comments about various sexual . . . accessories. They must like you better than me."
Sam smiled, rolled his head to the side. "I am pretty likeable." His eyes were calm and blue and considering, flickering as they drifted over Josh's face.
Unsettled by that even gaze like a young summer sky, Josh cleared his throat and turned away, facing the shuddered black television, staring at nothing as he replied vaguely, "Yeah."
Aware that the awkwardness was building like a thundercloud, Josh picked up the dangling end of the conversation, snapping the tempo a few notches higher, saying, "I swear, I reached my absolute paramount of persuasive ability, I must have come up with three thousand different ways to explain that it's not what it looks like."
Sam was quiet for a moment, and Josh snuck a look over at him, and got caught by Sam's eyes. Sam was looking at him, unblinking, with a question sneaking behind his expression. "Josh?"
"Yeah?" Josh replied, almost in a whisper.
A piece of Sam's hair brushed high and dark on his forehead, and he was still as he asked, "Why isn't it what it looks like?"
Josh blinked, started, almost spilled his beer. "Um, what?" he said hoarsely, his mind whirring, the gears clicking too fast for the thoughts to separate themselves into anything knowable.
Sam was still looking at him, his eyes motionless like a lake and totally unreadable. Josh began to stumble through an explanation, telling himself that Sam couldn't possibly mean what he seemed to mean. "I mean, it's not what it looks like because . . . it's not . . . um, what?"
Sam sighed, shifted away. Josh's gaze stayed locked on the side of his face, following the careful lines and shy planes. Sam spoke without looking back at Josh. "It just seems, you know, it just seems like we've been in this . . . this place for years now, we've been you and me for so long, and it's like . . . it's almost as if we've been waiting for something. Waiting to . . . move on? Waiting for something to give."
"Something to give," Josh echoed, his head a mess of images and possibilities.
Sam scrubbed a hand over his face and pressed his fingers into his eyes. His voice was low and hesitant, half-broke. "Yeah, like we're in limbo. Like we're heading towards something else, the two of us. Like we're gonna become something different. Something . . . new?"
Josh noticed his hand was shaking, and he felt as if his joints had all gone wooden. He blinked several times, like this was a dream that he could snap out of, like if he pinched himself he would awake in his own bed, safe from this strange unexpected place where Sam made him doubt his place in the world. "Sam, I . . . I don't know what to say."
"Josh, come one," Sam said, tipping his head to catch Josh with a you're-not-fooling-me look, his tone gentle, nudging, like there was a loose thread in Josh's mind, in Josh's heart, and Sam was intent on unraveling the other man, determined to see Josh undone.
"You know there's something here, don't you? You have to see it. No one could be that oblivious. It's in the air, it's . . . it's in between the things we say to each other, maybe. The Post, they weren't like, totally unfounded, thinking what they did, writing that caption. The picture . . . last night . . . maybe I was expecting you to . . ." and Sam blew out an exasperated breath, impatient at his own wordlessness. "I don't know, I don't know, I don't understand any of this, I don't know what we're doing, where we're going, I don't know if you think I'm crazy, or if you're gonna hit me now, I don't know anything."
Josh instinctively shifted to move closer to Sam, wanting to smooth a hand over his shoulder, but he knew this wasn't the time for easy gestures of friendship, this wasn't the time for anything easy. He tried to lighten the mood, replying, "Well, that's comforting, anyway. At least I'm not alone."
Sam let a ghost of a smile whisk across his face, but when he spoke his voice was solemn and near to a plea. "Josh, just tell me I'm not crazy, tell me I'm not the only one feeling this way."
Josh answered quietly, trying to stay serious, even though his whole being throbbed with the urge to make a joke and run away. "How are you feeling? You're kind of all over the place here, you know?"
Sam nodded, his eyes apologetic. "Yeah, I know. I don't mean to be, I'm trying to tell you, it's just . . ." he trailed off, his face tight with anger at himself, frustrated with his inability to say what he meant.
Josh felt the warm, protective dash of humor burst through him, and he let it come, knowing he couldn't hold it back any longer. "Have I rendered the physical manifestation of verbosity that is Sam Seaborn speechless? That's a feat of Herculean proportions, I feel so proud."
Rolling his eyes, Sam nevertheless looked slightly grateful at the deflating of tension. "Don't be cute, Josh. I swear, of everything right now, please don't be cute."
Josh lit a silly grin, answering, "It's not something I try to do, Sam, I'm just cute by nature, it's like instinct, it's really out of my contr—"
And then Sam kissed him.
Sam moved forward swift and clean, his hand rising to find the side of Josh's face, fingers sliding easily through the other man's hair, and he caught Josh's mouth in the middle of a word, the middle of a breath, the middle of a heartbeat, everything pausing for that brief endless moment that Josh had never seen coming.
`I must be completely blind,' he thought senselessly, and then just as quick as he had come, Sam was drawing away, pulling back to an inch away, three inches, a half a foot, Josh watching him go with rapt attention, like he was memorizing the path he would need to take to find Sam again. And God, but he wanted to find Sam again.
When Sam slipped his hand off Josh's face, Josh automatically swayed forward, closing half the distance between them before his mind kicked back in and he froze in place, his mouth hanging open, his gaze locked on Sam's face, his sparking cobalt eyes.
They were motionless and silent for a moment, just staring, something that was half shock and half revelation rollicking like fireworks between them.
Then Sam blinked, broke the trance, saying a little breathlessly, "That was mainly just to shut you up."
Josh faded back a bit, his voice contemplative as he responded, "Really."
Sam nodded, still looking at him like Josh was water and Sam was lost in the desert.
Josh cocked Sam a look. "Yeah, it didn't so much feel like that."
Sam shrugged, a light smile drifting over his features. "Well, I may have had some ulterior motives."
Josh didn't say anything, just sat there with a thoughtful look on his face, his mind unable to do anything except remind him what Sam had tasted like.
Sam pulled his eyes away from where they'd been fixed on Josh's mouth and began to talk too fast, words desperate with appeasement rambling out of him. "But that doesn't mean anything, that's not . . . I mean, you haven't said anything to make me think that my ulterior motives are a good idea, you haven't said anything." He swallowed hard. "So . . . so I think maybe I just made a big mistake, and if I have, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, it's nothing, if you think I'm an utter jerk now, I don't blame you, it's okay, it really is—"
"Sam." Josh stopped him dead, and the force of his voice drew Sam's eyes back irresistibly.
"What?" Sam asked, his face alight with doubt and fear and hope.
And then Josh was the one leaning forward, closing Sam's mouth with his own, breathing into him, through him, and it was sweet and true, and Josh knew that he'd finally found the place where he belonged.
When they pulled away, Sam's hand stayed twisted in the collar of Josh's shirt, and he wouldn't let them move more than a few inches apart. Sam stared at Josh baffled and asked again in amazement, "What?"
Josh grinned, and replied, "Turnabout's fair play, my friend."
Sam let a smile break onto his face like sunlight, and Josh's own grin was lost as Sam drew him close again, kissing the air out of his lungs and the sense out of his mind, and when they broke apart again, Sam said, "Yes. Turnabout. Excellent."
Josh rifled a hand through Sam's hair, grinning and repeated, "Excellent," as everything came up blue, like a perfect sky, like the center of a match flame, like a pure heart.
Everything came up blue, just like autumn.
* * *
The next day, there was a Post-it on the center of CJ's computer screen, a quick note dashed in Josh's small handwriting.
"CJ-- It seems to have become what it looks like. I know this makes it harder for you. Sorry about that." CJ rolled her eyes, then read the last line. "PS: It was your idea for us to talk about it. This is all clearly your fault."
CJ shook her head, and smiled gently in spite of herself, saying quietly with a laugh tracing her voice, "Stupid, stupid men."
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