Title: Define Your Terms
Author: Candle Beck
Spoilers: Nary a one.
Archive: Drop me a line, let me know where.
Disclaimer: Characters herein depicted belong to Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford, and Rob Lowe. No money is being made off this story.
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Summary: It is very complicated inside Josh's head.
Define Your Terms by Candle Beck
Josh was standing on the sidewalk and thinking that he had nothing to lose.
Which was ridiculous, because he *did* have stuff to lose, he had absolutely everything to lose. He could lose his job, his credibility, his mother's love, Leo's respect, his friends. He could lose Sam.
But it was on a loop in his head, it was a broken record. `Nothing to lose. Nothing to lose. Nothing to lose.' And he couldn't convince himself that it wasn't true.
Josh thought that he was probably at the end of his rope. He was pretty sure that he had hit rock bottom. He thought that maybe that should upset him a little more than it did. It probably shouldn't make him feel quite as excited, anticipation zinging along the surface of his skin.
Sam had once said to him, "Define your terms, Josh," during an argument about flag burning and campaign finance reform, which frustrated the hell out of him at the time, because how do you define `honor'? How do you define `freedom'? How do you define `justice'? How do you define `truth'?
And these things should be set in stone, they should be ingrained in the minds of every person in the country, but the one thing Josh had learned in all his years was that nothing in politics is absolute. There is no single definition of *anything* that you can get 280 million people to agree with. You could put `Water is wet,' on a ballot, and some obnoxious little anti-water coalition somewhere would gang up and vote nay on it.
But Josh tried to define his terms, he honestly did. Because Sam was right, Sam knew what he was talking about. Sam knew that language had power, and that words, if wielded correctly, could change the course of history, could reroute rivers and pull the moon down from the sky. And the first step of life-altering rhetoric is to define your terms.
Josh's life had been altered. And his terms were in shambles.
`End of his rope,' but that didn't mean he was without options. `Desperate,' but that didn't mean he was scrambling. `At rock bottom,' but that didn't mean he didn't have a ways to fall yet.
`Nothing to lose.'
And that didn't mean he wasn't ready to lose it all.
Contradictions. Sam hated contradictions. They killed a speech, they ripped the audience right out of it, they invalidated all that had come before and all that would follow.
Josh was feeling very contrary.
He jogged up the five flights of stairs to Sam's apartment, even though there was an elevator. His heart was pounding like crazy from the run and his breath was hot in his chest.
"What the fuck are you doing, man?" Josh mumbled to himself, his face broke open in a brilliant wedge of a grin, and he thought probably he looked pretty nuts, right about now.
He banged on Sam's door, the flat side of his fist, the heel of his hand making the wood shake. Sam had a nice place, a doorman named Jack, great sweeping windows, a lobby with fake marble pillars swirling up to the ceiling. Sam's door read 5E in burnished copper letters, nicked dents along the edges, and his next-door neighbor was an eighty-four year old woman named Eva who thought Josh and Sam were brothers.
Josh thought that if he and Sam were brothers, it would basically be the only way to make this stranger than it was.
He didn't hear Sam coming, just all of a sudden the door swinging open, and he nearly took Sam upside the forehead with his raised fist.
Sam ducked out of the way and then blinked at Josh. "Hey?" he said with confusion evident in his tone.
But Josh, who was five stories away from a steady heart rate and half a city away from any possible inhibitions, had never been less confused in his life.
"Sam," he said, beaming. "Sam, Sam, Sam," liking the feel of the man's name on his tongue, liking the sly breathy nature of it, the way it leant itself ideally to whispers and secrets and things too perfect to be spoken about in polite company.
"Yes, that's my name. Well done. What are you doing here?" Sam asked, hinking his eyebrows up questioningly.
Josh arrowed the other man with a finger. "That, right there, is an excellent question. That is the kind of question I was asking myself a second ago, and you know what the answer was?"
Sam had possibly never been more baffled than he was at that moment. "Um, no. No, I don't. Josh, are you drunk?"
Josh shook his head, still with that lunatic smile on his face, and swept into the apartment, calling over his shoulder, "No, Sam, I am not drunk. I am, however, high on life, which I thought was just something the Republicans made up as a half-assed attempt to keep kids off drugs, but it turns out they had it pretty dead on."
Josh spun on his heel, watching Sam come into the room, tilting against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. "Okay, you're not drunk. But you're talking about Republicans in a tone that sounds suspiciously complimentary, and it's really kind of freaking me out. So, what are you doing here?"
Josh laughed. "Sam, I've got nothing to lose. I'm at the end of my rope, which is, conveniently, also rock bottom."
Sam was beginning to look concerned, but tried to stay flippant, "And yet you've managed to hang onto your good mood. What's going on, man?"
There was all this stuff happening in Josh's chest, and Sam was wearing a thin white T-shirt rubbed almost transparent at the shoulders. Josh thought that shirt would probably feel like silk under his fingers.
"Sam. I don't know how long this is going to last, and usually I wait it out, I wait until the . . . the immediate nature of it dies down a bit, because I'm not stupid, and you're not stupid, and this, it's just so epically stupid, and I always find a way to talk myself out of it. But you know what? Fuck it. Because I've been doing that for way too long, and I know what happens when I don't say anything, when I just let it go away, and goddamn it, I want to see what happens if I just, you know, go with it. Say it out loud."
Sam spoke slowly, clearly not trusting Josh even a little bit, "Say what out loud?"
Josh tossed his face up, feeling like the light of the moon was falling down on him, even though it was just Sam's ceiling, little nubby bits of plaster and lighting fixtures. "I pretty much love you, is the thing. I'm pretty much crazy about you, and I pretty much have been for years now. I've spent an incredible amount of time trying to talk myself out of being in love with you, and you know what? That's not actually something you can do. Did you know that? Because I didn't know that. I fell like a ton of bricks, man, and now I can never go back again."
Josh took a breath, a great pull of air, filling him up like courage, and he lowered his eyes to Sam's again. Sam was staring at him like Josh had just sprouted a second head, and Josh almost laughed, the shock was so comically perfect. "Did you really not know that?" Josh asked, and when Sam shook his head mutely, Josh continued, "Guess I got a better poker face than you thought, huh?"
Define your terms. `Knocked on your ass.' That would be Sam right about now.
`Delirious.' That would be Josh.
"Josh . . ." Sam began, his eyes scattered with a wicked clamor of emotions and ideas. "I don't . . . I'm not really sure what you're asking of me, here."
Josh rolled his eyes, feeling like he was floating about three feet off the carpet. "Who's asking? I'm *telling* you, Sam. You don't have to do anything, I just wanted you to know. Because there's been times, there's been these times when all the good in me was you, and this thing I've been keeping a secret for all these years was the only thing I was sure of. And I, I don't know, I just, sometimes this has been the biggest thing in my life, and it always seemed so strange that I never talked to you about it. Because I talk to you about everything, you know? Especially since you *are* the thing, it was really weird that I had never brought it up before."
Sam looked like he wasn't at all comfortable, here in his own apartment. He kept making these little half steps, cut-off jerks of motion, as if he was torn between standing in one place and pacing, wearing a track in the carpet. Or maybe just taking off. But Sam didn't run away. Running away, that was Josh's thing. Had been Josh's thing.
Because things were changing now. Everything was going to be different after this night, and either Josh would never have to run again, or he would have to run until his heart exploded in his chest. But maybe it wouldn't even be that dramatic. Hearts exploding in chests, what was that? That didn't happen. Maybe Sam would just ask him quietly to leave, and they would come to work the next morning the same as they always did, maybe they would talk about it, maybe they wouldn't, maybe it would hang up in the pauses of their conversations, words bitten back during moments of silence. And it wouldn't be anything so terrible. No great tragedy. It would just be what it was, and they wouldn't be able to define it, maybe, but that wouldn't bother Josh too much. Josh had never been any good at defining things, anyway. Sam, though, Sam would be driven crazy if he couldn't put words to this, if he couldn't pull it around to some neat conclusion, if he couldn't tie the knot and then step back and say, done.
Josh played a different game. His was politics of force, politics of will, and that was basically what this was, wasn't it? He was trying to will Sam into loving him, and that was another thing you couldn't actually do. Like all those old stories, Arabian Nights, three wishes, you could wish for anything, but you couldn't bring back the dead, and you couldn't make anybody fall in love with you.
Love's something else, it's on another level. Love's the same as death. It's forever and there's nothing you can do to change the course of it.
But Josh was going to try. Because, hell, he had nothing to lose.
Josh grinned at Sam, and Sam looked disconcerted. Sam finally pushed some movement into himself and strode halfway across the room, going over to stand by the bookshelf, but that just made him look more out of place, Sam fiddling with the random knickknacks, the rubber school- bus-yellow Buddha smiling beatifically that Josh had gotten him in a tacky gift shop in Oregon, the pewter dishes that his family had been passing down for generations, the first-edition leather-bound books, all stately and grand, the blown glass vase from Venice, with its twisting eruptions of colors and forms, bursts of sinews and arching stem-like veins.
When Sam spoke, he kept his eyes fixed intently on his copy of "Great Expectations," the brown spine and brittle yellowed pages, the book twice as old as both of them put together. "Shouldn't you be more, like, uncertain? I mean, I think it's, you know, I think it's great that you're feeling so confident or whatever, because usually you're kind of . . . well, kind of a mess of neuroses at this point. And this is different than if you were saying it to a woman. Or anyone else, really. There's, it's, there's more on the line this time, right? Because, you're . . . you're saying it to me. Shouldn't you be scared?"
Josh shook his head, his heart still pounding hard, his body flickering, trembling, something that felt an awful lot like joy. Or panic. Maybe an indefinable term. "Scared? No. No, man, no. No room for that in me right now. Sometimes you stop caring what's going to happen, you know? Probably, in a little while, half-hour or so, it'll hit me, I'll come back down and maybe I'll be scared then, maybe regretful, maybe appalled by what I've said here, but right now, Sam, right at this moment, it's just you and me, and I've finally told you the last thing that you need to know about me, and the most important thing, and I've honestly never been farther away from fear in my life. It's . . . it's really something, Sam. I've never felt like I do right now, and it's amazing."
Sam put his hands up and scrubbed his palms hard across his face, like he was trying to shake a bad dream. When he took his hands away, his eyes lit the room, gleaming. Sam said, his voice low and edging sad, "I don't think I've ever felt that way before."
"Oh, you gotta, man. Seriously. I highly recommend it. It's wonderful."
Josh was finding himself unable to stop beaming at the other man, his mind and heart a rollick, a ducking spinning dancing flying clash of emotion. It was all colors and lights inside him, and Christ, but it was something.
Picking up an antique ballpoint pen, placing it back down, putting his hands on his hips, dropping them back to his sides, cocking his head one way, then the other, his fingers drumming on his legs, nervous, Sam asked, "So what happens now?"
Josh shrugged, having not thought past getting to Sam, telling Sam, having not even considered where they would go from here. "Hell if I know. You either say, `Damn, Josh, I've been waiting five years for you to tell me that,' and then I come over there and kiss you like the world's going to end tomorrow, or you tell me you love me as a friend, but you're sorry, no more than that, and I go home, and maybe the world does end tomorrow. Or you hit me. Which would be pretty funny, if only in a bad soap opera sort of way. But you're not really the hitting type, so I'm not too worried."
Sam finally snuck a small, secretive smile onto his face, raising his eyes slowly so that the blue flooded the room, flooded all through Josh, and Sam said softly, "Damn, Josh, I've been waiting five years for you to tell me that."
Josh blinked. Wait wait wait. What? Wonder, possibility, miracle . . . revelation. World coming to an end. Really? Mind gone stuttering, jigsawed, in pieces. Like a telegram or something. Stop. Bad metaphor. Feeling undefined. Was this . . . ? Something building up in his throat, in his chest, like if he opened up his mouth, it would come pouring out in a stream of light.
Breathe, Josh. For Christ's sake, breathe.
Then he saw Sam smirking quietly at him, and his frantic mind died down, and Josh said, "Oh, what, you're gonna make fun of me now?"
Sam shrugged, "You're not really giving me a lot of other options over here."
Josh laughed, because it had been a good joke, it had been the kind of joke that would scatter-bomb through a person and heal the rifts in your heart. The best kind of joke, because even when it turned out to be in jest, at least you had that one moment where you believed it, believed that your dream was coming true.
One moment, and more than most people ever get. So go ahead and be flip, make jokes, don't worry about bad taste or making a mockery of the situation. Make me believe.
"Sam, you've got all the options. I'm the one out on a limb here. You can decide you love me, or you can decide this is interesting and let's discuss it some more, or you can decide that I've rent the fabric of the universe and you can never trust me again, you can kick me out or ask me to stay, you can do anything."
Sam considered that for a second, then nodded to himself, as if coming to terms with something, and he moved forward, with purpose this time, clear certain strides, sitting on the couch, leveling a gaze up at Josh. "Sit down."
Josh, not one to argue with the man he loved, plopped down, and they sat there next to each other.
Sam studied Josh carefully, like Josh was a scientific artifact or some Impressionist masterpiece that deserved only the most intent of concentration. Josh began to feel a little unsettled by the intricate appraisal. Sam was searching his face, and Josh felt like sticking out his tongue, bugging his eyes, blowing out his cheeks like a chipmunk, monkey-faced, as if he was eight years old again, mugging at his sister, trying to make her laugh, staring contests in the backseat of the family station wagon.
"You look the same," Sam finally declared.
Josh looked down at his hands, right there on the ends of his arms where they always were. He stretched out his legs and made sure his feet were there too. He crossed his eyes to see the stub of his nose, blurry and pink. He looked at Sam. "Yeah, pretty much the same. You expected different?"
Sam pulled his lower lip in between his teeth, and Josh wanted to kiss the hell out of him. He held back, though. Patience, this was a good attribute. Self-restraint. Respect for Sam's fragile state of mind. These were all good things to have. Sam should recognize all these good things. Then Sam would love him.
Complicated look on Sam's face, a million things happening at once. Sam said, "Seems like . . . like you should look different. Something this immense, shouldn't it leave its marks on your face? Your eyes? Shouldn't I be able to see it? Because you're a different person than you were yesterday, but you look just the same."
Josh was feeling self-conscious. He tugged on his ear, harrumphed to clear his throat. "I'm the same guy. The exact same guy. I'm more Josh than you've ever known before, actually. Because this was here yesterday, it was here a year ago, five years ago, it's always been here. It's just . . . out, now, if you'll excuse the pun. This is a big sudden thing to you, but for me, it's just the way it's always been."
Sam nodded, accepting that. There were thin traced lines around Sam's mouth, bracketing, but they didn't make him look old. Same as the way laughter crinkled up the corners of his eyes, just making him look kind and brilliant. Making him look like what he was. Kind and brilliant.
When Josh had first met Sam, he had almost felt sorry for the man, who had to carry around that stunning face, that perfect body, those firework blue eyes. Who could ever live up to that sort of beauty? Sam, who looked like a promise, a dream, must be forever disappointing people, because how could his mind and his heart and his soul ever be as striking and pure and magnificent as the form that housed them?
And then Josh had gotten to know Sam, had learned the poetry in his hands and the ideals that burned in him like ether, and Josh was astounded to realize that this dazzling man's intelligence and humor and goodness were infinitely better than his looks, infinitely better than anything anyone might have expected.
Right about now, Sam looked like everything Josh had ever wished to find.
Sam said carefully, "So you're still Josh. Even more Josh, the concept of which would be enough to scare the pants off most of the federal government, who already think you're more than enough Josh as you are."
That was . . . convoluted. Especially coming from Sam, who knew better than anyone how to baffle an audience with some tangling, preposition-strained paragraph, but never failed to follow it up with something simple and straightforward, hammering his point home.
Josh nodded. "Yeah. More Josh." Saying his own name in the third person like that was getting weird, like he was talking about someone else entirely.
Sam's eyes flared with sincerity, and he said, his voice urging Josh to believe him, "I do love you as a friend, Josh."
Ah, yes, of course. The inevitable end. It didn't hurt yet, but it would.
Josh swallowed, nodded, smiled. "I know."
And then Sam did something unexpected.
He lifted his hand, slowly, slowly, and cupped Josh's face. He stroked his thumb along the ridge of Josh's eyebrow, tweaked his nose. The palm of Sam's hand graced across Josh's cheek, warm. Josh blinked. Sam stilled his hand and looked right into Josh's eyes, and Josh was falling, falling.
Sam said, "Maybe not just as a friend."
Sam tilted forward, his hand sneaking, curving around the back of Josh's head, smoothing though his hair, Sam was pulling him closer, and Josh had never fallen as far as this before.
Sam pressed his lips to Josh's, the uncertain first fumble, the awkward moment when it seemed like their mouths wouldn't fit, they were incompatible, it was too strange, it was six hundred miles beyond too strange. Then Sam shifted slightly, opening just a bit, positioning, and there was a quick spark, an exploding star in the night, and oh, yes. There it was. That's how you do it. A little gasp of realization from both of them, their breath colliding, and then Josh was kissing Sam, kissing him right, kissing him like something meant to be, and this thing, this kissing Sam thing, this was possibly the best thing that had ever happened ever.
When they pulled away, Josh licked his lips. Sam saw it and smiled. Josh's hand was pressed high, way high up on Sam's chest, just below his throat, feeling one of Sam's collarbones with his thumb and the other with his fingers, too far to feel the beat of Sam's heart, just that solid flat plane, moving up and down as Sam breathed.
Josh realized he was looking for the changes in Sam, same as Sam had searched him a moment ago, looking for the evidence, but it was just Sam. Same as always. Even more Sam.
"So this means . . . ?" Josh asked, wanting to kiss Sam again, wanting to slide his hand down.
Sam shrugged, the movement jostling Josh's hand. "You made a good case. So I decided to give it a try."
Josh repeated, "A try."
Sam nodded, his eyes shading. Sam was still pretty confused, Josh could tell. "I mean, I don't know if I'm, you know, like you are with me, I don't know if that's really it. It might just, it's maybe that you're Josh, and you've always known better than me where we're going. Where we should be going."
All right. So. This was Sam trusting him, this was Sam expecting him to show them the way. But Josh didn't know where they were going. Maybe he should tell Sam that, maybe he should disabuse the other man of this notion that Josh had any clue what was happening right now.
Instead, Josh said, "So, this is like, what, an experiment for you? Testing me out, seeing how you like it?" Oh, but that sounded too harsh. That sounded bitter, like Josh was angry at being used by Sam. He hurried ahead before Sam could counter, "'Cause, I mean, that's not a problem or anything. Test me out, by all means. Seriously, Sam. I'm fine with it. Really."
Go ahead, Sam. Play around with it, pretend it's a game. It's not serious for you, you know it is for me, that's okay. That's just fine. Use me. You decide it's too weird, you decide you don't like it, you can get rid of me, I won't hang on, I won't try and keep you. Even if it only lasts a day, a week, even if you sleep on it tonight and tell me tomorrow it's a terrible, terrible idea, it'll be good enough for me. An hour, a day, a week. It'll be enough. Then you can break my heart.
Sam put his hands up on Josh's shoulders and Sam wouldn't lie to him, because Sam didn't know how to lie. "I can't tell you that I love you like you love me, Josh. Because I don't think I do, not yet. But maybe I will someday. And we've got to start somewhere, you know?"
Sam and his inability to lie. Which meant that everything Sam said was the truth. Which meant that there might be a day, a sun-struck day, a day in the middle of a rainstorm or in the eye of a hurricane, a day of fire or flood, a natural-disaster day, a spring day, summer day, fall day, winter day, a snow day, an election day, a Game 7 of the World Series day, a day that could take place at night, a day when the world was ending or being created anew, there might be a day when Sam came to Josh and told Josh that he loved him, and if Josh got to spend the days between this day and that one with Sam, then that would like having known it the whole time. That would be like having Sam's love for all the days before Sam actually gave it to him.
This, right here. Define it. Find the term. Hope? Maybe. Never been much of an optimist, but . . .yeah, maybe.
Josh grinned, and Sam grinned back. They were two grinning fools. And this was still an epically stupid idea. And that wasn't really something Josh cared about anymore.
Josh said, his voice too high and light with excitement. "Yeah. We'll start here. And we'll see where we go."
Sam nodded, his eyes shining, and there were things Josh had been sure of, there were things he had bet his life on, there were things he had bet *Sam's* life on, because Sam trusted him, even when Josh didn't trust himself, and Sam had always believed that Josh would be able to show them the right way to go.
Josh would be able to show them the way home.
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