Title: Five Months
Author: Candle Beck
Spoilers: Through "Manchester."
Archive: Sure, let me know where it's going.
Disclaimer: Characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford, and Rob Lowe. No money is being made off this story.
Feedback: By all means.
Summary: And Sam reminded himself again that this was a different world, and one that had always felt like home to him.
Five Months by Candle Beck
Sam was making scrambled eggs and it had been five months.
He grated cheese and chopped up tomatoes into chunks with sharp corners and ripe curved edges. There was the crackle of the eggs on the stove, the switch-pop of frying food, and Sam idly poked at the yellow mess in the pan with a spatula, sucking some tomato juice off his thumb.
Sam heard the rustle of blankets being tossed back in the bedroom, the thumps of bare feet on wood floor, then a pause before the shower sputtered on. It was five-thirty in the morning, which meant, in their insane lives, that they were running late, and Sam hoped that Josh wouldn't take too long in the shower, because he had left his car at work, and needed to drive in with the other man.
That was already longer than nearly all the girlfriends Sam had had in his life, longer than every single one of Josh's abortive attempts at forging a relationship with another person. Longer than Mandy, even if you added up all the on-again-off-again, two-steps- forward-three-steps-back installments of their time together, the endless mutually-destructive cycle from which they had been unable to tear themselves free during the campaign. Longer than Katie, the girl with coconut-brown eyes and a tough right hook like an Irish brawler, who had enthralled Josh during his second year of law school, and was the first girl he ever told he loved, but Katie had only lasted through midterms, until Josh's life crashed in on him as it had a tendency to do, making him intolerable to be around, and Katie of the keen eyes and bruised knuckles had proved not to be the rescuing kind.
No one had ever been able to stand being with Josh for five months before, and there was a string, a litany, a phone book of women who would concur that anyone who had managed such a feat deserved a medal, if not a national holiday declared in their honor.
But Sam wasn't thinking about the five months or comparable situations or either of their pasts. Sam was thinking about whether or not he needed to buy more cracked pepper, and the meeting on the Hill he had that afternoon. Sam's freshly-washed, uncombed hair was sticking up in water-black spikes, his neck a bit stiff from sleeping on Josh's arm instead of his pillow, and he rubbed at the tight muscles.
The eggs were done, the tomatoes and cheese mixed in, and the coffee was ready. Josh emerged from the bedroom in his slacks and T- shirt, his hair wet and plastered down.
"Thought we were having waffles," he mumbled as he slid past Sam on his way to the coffee pot.
Sam scooped out equal portions onto two plates, clattering the pan into the sink, and carried their breakfast over to the table. "Ginger stole my waffle iron."
Josh half-turned from the counter to cock his eyebrows skeptically at Sam. Sam admitted, "Well, maybe not so much stole as borrowed. I still don't have much hope of ever seeing it again, though."
Josh brought over two cups, steaming, thin white trails swirling upwards like cigarette smoke. One of the mugs had the DNC logo on it. The other one said "Hard Rock Café, Hong Kong," because Sam would have felt intensely stupid buying one of those Hard Rock T- shirts that everyone wears, but he still needed a souvenir, because how often do you get to eat a hamburger in Hong Kong under the autographed eyes of John Lennon and Eric Clapton?
They settled into breakfast, trading sections of the paper back and forth, News, World, Metro, neither of them taking the comics page, though they both took surreptitious looks at Doonesbury while they sipped their coffee.
"I think maybe . . ." Josh began, half-reading, finishing the article before looking up and saying decisively, "Yeah. O'Malley's gone `round the bend."
Sam tilted forward, trying to catch a glimpse of what Josh had been looking at. "Was there ever a time when Robert O'Malley was, you know, in front of the bend?"
Josh smirked. "Not that I can recall. This, though, might have him reaching new heights."
Taking the paper from in front of Josh, Sam scanned it quickly, finding the congressman's name under a headline that read, "House vote on health care spurs controversy." Seeing what Josh was talking about, Sam angled the paper down to meet the other man's eyes, "He called the American Association of Pediatricians communists?"
Josh took a slow drink of coffee, the tips of his fingers turning red from the warmth of the mug, quoting from memory in his broad sportscaster voice, "`The AAP has a plan for this country that is remarkably reminiscent of how children were cared for under the regimes of the Soviet Union.'" Josh tapped his bare foot against the legs of the kitchen table, saying with a tic in his smile, "It appears that, yes, he may have called the American Association of Pediatricians communists."
Sam spread butter on a piece of toast, saying with good- humored sarcasm, "Oh, to be that man's communications director for a day." He ate most of the toast, handing the v-shaped handle of crust over to Josh, who took it without looking up from the paper, gnawing absently.
"I schedule time every morning to thank God that he's not a Democrat," Josh replied, already absorbed in something else, crumbs falling to the linoleum.
Sam got up to clear the table, saying over his shoulder, "Hey, are you going to have our position on 451 by three o'clock?"
The sink was gleaming silver, and the dish soap smelled like lemons. There were broken egg shells clogging up the garbage disposal, and Sam stabbed them down with a fork, the hungry crunch of the machinery.
Josh said something, but Sam couldn't hear him over the rush of water and whir of the pipes. He shut off the faucet and flicked off the disposal and turned, leaning back against the counter, feeling the line of it pressing just above his waist. "What?"
Josh looked up, his brow tightening slightly. "I said that, not having the ability to see the future, I cannot tell you whether or not we will have a position on 451 by three o'clock."
Sam picked up a dishcloth, pulling it through his fingers. "There's no chance of an educated guess?"
Standing, Josh came to the sink, a few inches away from Sam, leaning around him to dump half his mug of coffee in the sink, his shoulder up against Sam's chest, letting Sam feel the clinging dampness of his skin through the thin cotton.
Pulling back, Josh replied, "By two-thirty, I should have an educated guess for you. Before then, no soap. And buy some cream, willya? Driving me crazy with this black coffee nonsense."
Sam didn't mention that the cream was in the blue-and-white bear-shaped ceramic thing from a quaint tourist hamlet on the coast of Maine that his grandmother had, for reasons passing understanding, given him as a Christmas present one year. Josh thought the bear was for honey, despite the three times he had tried to pour it on his toast and been surprised to find fresh cream dousing out. The location of breakfast condiments was not the kind of thing to which Josh tended to dedicate his memory.
Five months and Josh still didn't know where Sam kept his cream. Which would have made Sam feel better about the whole thing, would have stilled his fears that they had passed the point of no return, but Sam wasn't thinking about the five months. Sam was remembering the look on Josh's face when he had poured cream onto his toast, the widening blink of his eyes, the skinny lines tracing his brows in consternation, and how Josh had asked, half-laughing at himself, "Would you like some creamed toast, Sam? Just made it now."
Sam didn't even know what creamed toast was. But Josh had smiled at him, imprinting the nagging familiar name in his mind, and later that day, Sam had looked up `creamed toast' on the internet, and told Josh the recipe's preparation and origins, and Josh had laughed and said, "Okay, you being enough of a nerd to find that out actually makes me feel better about accidentally pouring cream on my toast."
Josh went back into the bedroom to put on his shirt. Josh had three shirts at Sam's place, replaced by new ones in an unsteady rotation, and Sam had five at Josh's, because Sam hated to wear the same shirt two days in a row.
That's how Josh figured out about Sam's dad, seeing Sam in the same shirt as the day before, wrinkled and stale, immediately knowing that something was wrong. Josh was hopelessly, unapologetically self- absorbed most of the time, but not when it mattered most.
"Sam, can I borrow one of your ties?" Josh called.
Sam came into the doorway, leaning a shoulder against the jamb, watching Josh stand there with his shirt half-buttoned, one sock on, the other dangling from his hand like a dog's tongue. "Thought you kept a couple in the office."
Josh shrugged, "There was this coffee . . . incident. Coffee disaster. I can never wear any of those ties again."
Josh hopped around on one foot, trying to pull on the second sock, making the whole floor vibrate. Sam, thinking about angry downstairs neighbors and reprimands from his landlord, came over and shoved him lightly, pushing him to sit on the bed.
Sam pulled two ties from his closet and tossed one to the other man. The tie slithered down Josh's chest and draped across his knee, the ends brushing the floor.
Sam sat down next to Josh, knees knocking together, and yawned, his jaw pulling wide. They'd gotten in way past midnight the night before. Sam's whole body was tingly with exhaustion, his vision fuzzy, his mind only just beginning to sharpen with his first shot of caffeine.
Josh said, "I can count your fillings when you do that."
Sam leaned back on his hands, his shoulders twisting, and asked, "How many are there?"
Rolling his eyes, turning to face the other man, Josh replied, "I didn't actually count them, Sam, I just said I could. If I, you know, wanted to."
"Why would you ever want to?"
"I don't. And that's why I didn't. And this whole conversation is mind-boggling."
Closing his eyes, Sam let himself fall back on the bed, spreading his arms way out like he was making snow angels. He spoke to the ceiling, blind, "Everything is mind-boggling at six in the morning."
There was a dip, a push down on the mattress next to him, and Sam opened his eyes to see Josh looming over him, looking disembodied, balancing carefully on one arm. Josh said, a little quirk of a smile making him look mysterious, "You're mind-boggling twenty-four hours a day. You think you'd be used to it by now."
Josh leaned down and sealed their mouths together, tasting like coffee and toothpaste, a weird combination, but Sam was sleepy and Josh's mouth was warm, and he kissed him back until the conflicting tastes faded away and left him with nothing but soft and wet and sweet, his hand messing up Josh's slow-drying curls, Josh hanging onto his ear for some reason, his fingers gently tugging.
Josh pulled away, standing up, slapping Sam on the knee. "Come on. Gonna be late."
On their way out the door, Sam caught sight of a wedged section of the paper, sticking out from under a pile of newsprint, a triangle of the sports page, and in the corner there were the previous day's ball scores, Yankees over Orioles, Cubs over Cardinals, some pitcher did something in California, some hitter did something else in New England.
Sam remembered, suddenly, spring training, way back in March. Drinking beer with Josh and listening to a broadcast on ESPN Radio from Vero Beach, the day slow and long and lazy, baseball before the summer heat, when every team had the same chance to go all the way, and no one could say what might happen.
Sam had nodded off sometime between the sixth and seventh innings, and when he woke up, something had changed, shifted, and Josh was looking at him, the same as Josh had always looked at him, except this subtle alteration, this twitch of the molecules in the atmosphere, made Josh's eyes darker and more intent, and Sam wasn't surprised when Josh leaned over and kissed him, and he wasn't surprised when he kissed Josh back, wasn't surprised when they tumbled to the floor, wasn't surprised to find himself pulling Josh's shirt off him with buttons popping and flipping across the carpet like tiddlywinks. He had been a little surprised to find his fingers shaking, his breath hitching when Josh licked down the line of his chest, because it had seemed that his body was taking this much more seriously than his mind. He had been a little surprised to feel Josh's teeth against his neck and stomach, a little surprised to find how perfectly the jutting bones of Josh's hips fit into the cups of his palms, but in general, it hadn't seemed so strange.
Sometimes Sam thought that maybe when he had drifted off between the sixth and seventh innings that day, he had woken up in a whole new world, a different dimension, close enough to the one he came from to appear the same, but with something slightly off-kilter about it, so that this immense, irreconcilable thing between him and Josh, which should have been unbearably bizarre, seemed like nothing out of the ordinary, nothing worth the kind of devout introspection and analysis that they awarded everything.
And now the newspaper was talking about pennant races and the playoffs, now the summer was almost over, and for the first time, Sam realized that it had been five months, and that knowledge surprised him more than anything that had happened so far.
* * *
Sam thought about the five months all day.
Staff meeting. Meeting with the speechwriters. Meeting that mainly consisted of Toby harping about the deplorable lack of proper punctuation in the Dear Colleagues that circulated Congress. Lunch, turkey sandwich and a bag of chips at his desk. Meeting on the Hill. Meeting with CJ about how to leak their position on 451, which Josh and Leo had finally hammered out. Bagel and coffee in the mess. Another staff meeting, with the president.
All the while, a constant beat in the back of his mind, `Five months. Five months. Five months.' So that when Ed and Larry asked how long they had to prepare the briefing on the FEC case before the Supreme Court, Sam had blinked and stared blankly, because the only period of time that could occupy his mind was that same five months.
One hundred and fifty days. Twenty weeks. Almost half a year. Most of the baseball season. Sam finally stopped himself before he started working out the hours, the minutes, the seconds, because, frankly, obsessing over something like this wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.
Sam and Josh had been together for five months.
But together wasn't really it, was it. It wasn't like they were dating, it wasn't like they held hands and went to the mall on Saturdays to pick out two hundred count Egyptian cotton sheet sets, arguing over solid cornflower blue versus thin gray pinstripes. It wasn't like they went to the movies and watched with Josh's arm tossed around Sam's shoulders, sharing a thing of popcorn and nudging elbows, the armrest pushed up between them. It wasn't like Josh knew where Sam kept his cream.
Sam searched for another word, another phrase, to describe what had been happening between them for five months. He distractedly scribbled things in the margins of a briefing book, little scrawled words cramped in by the text, which he knew he wouldn't be able to decipher two days from now.
For five months, every day or so, they would go to one of their apartments after leaving work, together or separately, and they would let what happened happen. They would trip over the coffee table and slam their shoulders into walls on the way to the bedroom, occupied with each other and not the logistics of moving through space.
They would laugh a lot, and tell the stories behind the childhood scars on their stomachs and knees, and sometimes they would sleep with their limbs tossed over the other's body, knotted, and sometimes they would sleep rolled away from each other, when it was too hot to be wrapped up together, or when their elbows got wedged in uncomfortably, or when one of their arms got slung over the other's throat, cutting off oxygen. They would wake up and make breakfast, talking about the day ahead and the days behind. Sometimes Sam would have to be up all night writing a speech, and he would do it right there in bed with Josh asleep next to him, Sam's legs up under the sheets, a legal pad balanced on his knees, and when Sam couldn't think of how to articulate what he wanted to say, he would let his eyes wander over Josh's face and body, all the stress smoothed out of him, and eventually the right word would come.
They didn't talk about it much, not compared to how much they talked about the budget or the Republicans or who Donna was dating. They didn't really share secret-lover looks in the office, didn't have coded phrases to hash out when they would meet up after work, never asked for anything except to occasionally fall asleep next to each other, and wake up together the next morning.
When things got bad, Sam's dad, the MS, Mrs. Landingham, re- election, Josh's broken life and the patchwork stitching with which he tried to knit himself back together, they had turned to this thing of theirs, tasting tears in the complicated mix of their kisses, swallowing the choked-off words from the other's mouth, holding themselves together by holding onto each other, and when the nightmares and the fear and the uncertainty had finally faded back down, they were left with what they had started with, and that had been enough. More than enough.
And the strangest thing about it was that it had never really seemed that strange.
But how to define it. How to describe it, even if just to himself. Sam read over what he had stream-of-consciousness chicken- scratched in the margin: `Killing time. Taking comfort. Friends with benefits. Loneliness. Reassurance. Better two than one.' None of these really fit, none of these worked.
Five months ago, the world had become a different place, but it had still felt like home.
That was as good as anything else, he supposed.
Sam sighed and tossed the briefing book down on his desk. It skidded a little bit, knocked two pens onto the floor, making a little X-marks-the-spot on the carpet.
* * *
That night, having gotten off fairly early due to their string of late nights and pre-dawn arrivals, Sam and Josh were walking around Capitol Hill, after eating dinner in the vaulted enormity of Union Station.
It was an utterly windless night, the hold-your-breath break of seasons between late summer and early fall, the air so still that the congressional interns smoking on their front porches could blow perfect smoke rings, pale circles rising smooth and round like soap bubbles.
In front of a blue house on East Capitol, across from the Folger's Shakespeare Library, a kid was practicing lighting a match with one hand, bending the match over, fitting it against the stripe on the backside of the book, snapping his fingers, striking the match-head across with his thumb, missing the first couple of times, just a weak guttering spark, before he finally got it, a bright sulfur burst of orange and yellow and white and blue, the kid making a sound of triumph, and then suddenly the whole book flared in his hand, the flickering chain-reaction of all the matches igniting, sounding like a clothespinned playing card whipping around a bicycle wheel, fwisk- whap, and for a second he was holding fire in his palm, before he quickly dropped the flaming thing and tipped a Coke can to waterfall quenching soda onto the tiny bonfire on the stones, his friends laughing, teasing him, calling him `Flame-boy.'
Josh studied the tangle of interns, crowding on the red brick path in front of the house. "I swear, younger every year," he said, sighing.
Sam rolled his eyes, having heard this before. "Yes, them younger, not you older. That's definitely what's happening."
They walked down by the Supreme Court, the mammoth white pillars, all lit up by floodlights, raising their hands to the security guard who patrolled the high marble steps, getting a flashlight salute in return, hail-fellow-well-met.
There was a period of silence, comfortable and easy, and then Sam said, not looking at Josh, but at the great dome of the Capitol, rising against the sky, "It's been five months, you know."
Josh didn't say anything right away, and Sam turned. Josh was standing with his hands in his pockets, his face tilted up, watching the bats wink around in the lights that washed the beautiful building. Josh's collar was turned up, despite the lack of a chill, cutting a diagonal line that bisected his jaw, so Sam couldn't see his mouth.
"Five months, Josh," Sam said again, to impress upon Josh how very odd this was.
Josh shifted to face him, drawing his eyes down on a clear path from the statue of Freedom to Sam. Josh's eyes were quiet, unperturbed. "I know."
Sam blinked. Josh was somehow not playing fair. Josh was the one who got freaked out about this sort of stuff, Josh was the one who should have been distracted all day, mulling over the span of their time together, trying to figure out what it meant, what *they* meant.
Sam decided to pick a little bit more, maybe Josh just hadn't felt the full impact of it yet. "That's longer than any relationship you've ever been in."
Low blow. Sam winced as the words left his mouth, already regretting them. What good would it do either of them to point out that this thing, which both of them refused to take seriously, was the longest Josh had ever committed himself to anything?
Sam scuffed the ground with his foot, looking down, his eyebrows pinched together, trying to work out an apology.
But Josh put his hand on Sam's arm and Sam raised his head. Josh's eyes were bright as the light-flushed ivory of the architecture around them, and Josh said, "This is the longest I've ever wanted to be in a relationship with anyone."
Cars drove past, sweeping them with illumination, punching out their shadows on the sidewalk, long tree-stem legs, shadow-puppet silhouettes on the wall behind them.
Sam looked down at Josh's hand on his arm, Josh's fingers curled around his elbow, nestling in the hollow of the crook, and then looked up at Josh, who should be freaking out, but wasn't, who should have heard `five months' and run for the hills, but hadn't.
"Good," Sam said, feeling the bend of a smile begin to creep onto his face.
Josh watched him, carefully taking his hand off Sam's arm, before he said with nonchalance struggling to hold in his voice, "You've had longer relationships, though. How long were you with Lisa?"
Josh didn't often bring her up, and hearing her name from his mouth was disconcerting. Sam shrugged, buried his hands in his pockets. "Thirteen, fourteen months. Something like that."
Josh nodded, considering this seriously, looking back towards the postcard-view of the Capitol in front of them, Washington D.C. at night, the uncomplicated majesty of the most epic symbol of democracy. He spoke without even glancing at Sam, "So, nine more months. Then I'll be your longest, too."
Sam was shocked, struck dumb on his feet, openly staring at Josh, unable to believe that the other man had just made . . . something that sounded like a promise? This was not what Sam had expected, not from his friend who eschewed vows of commitment, who didn't trust anyone other than himself to remain constant for more than a few weeks at a time, who often didn't even trust himself to remain constant for that long.
Sam reminded himself that this was not the world that he had once known, and that he should not be surprised by anything that happened here.
There was a police car rushing by, its lights whisking, staccato red-blue-red-blue, its siren silent, like a movie with the volume cut off. Sam moved a step closer to Josh, turning so that their shoulders brushed, the fabric-softened planes of their bodies pressing together, and Sam replied, gazing up at the Capitol, "Yeah. Nine more months and this will be the longest for either of us."
Nine more months. Sam had been baffled by five months all day long, but for some reason, the idea of nine more months, a whole school year of time, seemed inevitable, seemed wonderfully simple, something he could do blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back, something that would come as natural to him as breathing.
He snuck a look over at Josh and saw that the other man was grinning, his eyes shining, his face broke open in an expression of true joy, as if the Capitol was a thing of such magnificent beauty that it had busted into his heart, like amazement, like love.
Sam turned his face up to the Capitol dome, the line of his arm running edge-for-edge, muscle-for-muscle, down the line of Josh's, and Sam grinned too, feeling airless and stunningly optimistic.
And Sam reminded himself again that this was a different world, and one that had always felt like home to him.
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