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The Best Idea Ever

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The Best Idea Ever
by Candle Beck

August in Washington and it was unacceptably hot.

Everywhere in the city, people wilted in the heavy wet air. College kids wandered around the boiling streets in cutoff jeans with their flip-flops smacking the asphalt, lucky 19-year olds being baked brown by the sun. The businessmen glared jealously, their long trousers and collared shirts plastered like gloves to their sticky skin. Rotund Midwestern tourists strolled by in white shorts and pastel-patterned vacation shirts, with shuttered black cameras pulling on straps around their necks, squinting as sweat rolled down their sunburned foreheads to sting in their eyes. Misplaced natives of the West Coast sprawled out shirtless atop brightly colored beach towels spread on the scorched grass, their eyes closed, their faces tilted up towards the flat blue sheet of the sky, letting the heat settle into the cups and dented lines of their bodies, homesick and dreaming of the ocean.

It was ninety-five to a hundred degrees every day, matched by the dense Southern humidity, which smothered the capital like thick, soaked cotton, so solid and palpable it seemed as if you should be able to lean a shoulder against it and rest your weight on it, as easily as you would a brick wall. Around the marble edges of the monuments and the Capitol building, the air shimmered, the merciless summer sun reflecting hard and ivory-bright off the bleached stone.

The air-conditioning in Josh's townhouse had chosen the day before the heat wave to die a whining, breezeless death. His landlord was on vacation and unable to do anything except frustrate Josh in absentia. The neat coincidence of the air-conditioning's demise, his landlord's disappearance and the arrival of the sub- tropic temperatures that barreled through the city like an invading army, all three misfortunes happening within two days, struck Josh as suspicious. It was as if forces were aligning against him, some spooky alliance with control over the weather, household appliances, and Mr. Camanetti's vacation schedule. Josh could picture the collaborators cackling wickedly as they devised the strategies of their master plan-to drive Josh insane with the heat, and then beat the hell out of him with pillowcases full of doorknobs. (The doorknobs part of the plan was, admittedly, pretty much just speculation, but it seemed to complement the twisted sadistic psyches of whatever power had saunarized his house.)

Josh kept all the lights out, trying to force some cool, dusty atmosphere into the dim rooms, but all he accomplished was being both hot and in the dark, marked with bruises on his shins and knees from the tumultuous relationship he was having with his coffee table, which he could swear was snickering as Josh limped away from his latest run-in with the devious piece of hand-carved mahogany.

Sitting despondently on the tile floor of his kitchen, rubbing his abused leg, sweltering and under attack by his furniture, Josh tried to silver-line his situation, noting optimistically to himself that by living in the dark, and without the expensive all- hours drone of the air-conditioner, he was doubtless saving heaps on his electric bill.

Josh sighed, and got up to totally negate his admirable (albeit unplanned) energy conservation efforts by standing in front of the glorious arctic wedge of the open refrigerator door for most of an hour, one arm lined atop the hollowed ranks of the egg compartment, nestling his head between the stacks of plastic ice-cube trays in the freezer, fully aware that he probably looked like some lunatic who believed in the intellect-expanding benefits of freezing one's brain.

When Josh finally closed the refrigerator, his cheekbones numb and the skin of his arms washed even paler by the white fluorescent light, and moved back into the living room, he found to his dismay that his television reception had gone out. The Anti-Josh Alliance was apparently having success enlisting new recruits.

No TV, too dark to read, too early to go to sleep, too hot to go outside, too many inanimate objects plotting his downfall to stay in the house-Josh defined an impasse.

Behind his back, he heard the refrigerator cough metallically, rattling and shuddering fiercely, and it was with a total lack of surprise that Josh turned and watched the slow, melodramatic final spasms that wracked the machine until it gave up the ghost and sank into a dull, stupid silence. The refrigerator squatted stolidly, seeming to glare sullenly at its owner, clearly laying the blame for its untimely descent into scrap metal on Josh's hour-long escape into the icebox's cool blue depths.

Josh could almost sense the stock of pop-sicles, ice-cream, and cold beer, which he had laid in the day before, as they began to go south inside the useless refrigerator. The idea of having to clean up the eventual sticky puddles of melted frozen food, having to clean up the mess in a refrigerator that didn't even work anymore, was enough to make Josh concede the day's battle to the enemy, accepting that he had been overpowered, and reconciling himself to suffer the night through in the blistering temperatures of his home.

Josh took a beer from the fridge while it was still cold and flopped bonelessly onto his sofa. He stared disconsolately at his own reflection in the dark glass of the TV screen, then at the motionless air-conditioner in his window, the flat metal panels almost sizzling, and he lifted his bottle in a mock salute to the persistence with which his house had forced the suffocating weather upon him, and the remarkable totality of the goal, the assault not complete until Josh was left in the Amazonian heat, in the shadowy dark, in maddening boredom, in pain from his barked shins, with his frozen food going bad, nothing to do but sit and drink and try to think of what exactly he had done to piss God off this much, what offense he had committed to deserve this intricately creative punishment.

The origin of his bad karma eluded him, although he did resolve to be nicer to Donna, just in case she had hexed him or something.

Josh kicked his bare feet up on the coffee table (stubbing his big toe hard on the table's lip), and said out loud to the room in general, his voice deep with a newly-invented tone of long- suffering bravado, "Must have been born under a bad sign, that's the only explanation. Cursed by the stars from the first moment of my life, it's gonna be rotten luck and bad hoodoo from here on out." Josh said `hoodoo' into the dim room again, liking the sound of it.

He nodded, looked out the window at the heavy golden summer moon, and repeated abstractly, "Born under a bad sign," as his rotten luck and bad hoodoo settled in around him for the night.

* * *

The White House, mercifully, had air-conditioning that worked (asking the leader of the free world to go without the miracle of climate-control during the DC summers would doubtless lead to the collapse of civilization), and as Josh came in the next morning, earlier than usual, he pondered whether he could convince Leo to let him move into his office until the heat wave passed. The idea of living out the season in the West Wing started out as a joke in his mind, a nonsense impulse that he would tell Sam about, and Sam would smirk at the picture of Josh brushing his teeth in the men's bathroom and wandering through the bullpen in his pajamas. As Josh thought back to the condition of his house, however, the notion began to gain seriousness.

He recalled his stifling, restless night, how he'd changed his sweat-drenched T-shirt and boxers three times before finally abandoning the illusion of modesty, stripping naked, trying desperately not to imagine how his mother would disapprove of her son sleeping in the buff. Even with all the covers flung off, his bed seemed to absorb and radiate heat, making him feel like he was lying on a hot water bottle, and he eventually moved onto the tile floor of the kitchen, the hardest yet coolest surface in the house. A night of tossing and turning on the stony plane, still too overheated and awkward to get any deep sleep, and Josh awoke far too early in the morning with fresh bruises on his side from banging into the sturdy wooden legs of the kitchen table, and all his sharp bones, his shoulder-blades and elbows and hips and ribs, aching from grinding against the tile all night long.

The wretchedly uncomfortable night gave much credence in Josh's mind to the whim of leaving his house to stew without him for a month or two while he took up residence in the White House (plus, he would have the coolest mailing address in the world).

Josh arrived at his side of the building, saw that he'd beaten Donna in, which was unsurprising, given the early hour. He swung through his door, loving the crisp cold breeze that wandered by, and began to go over the basic logistics of his white-columned, best-security-system-in-the-world, air-conditioned dream.

First snag was that Josh had no couch in his office, and knew from experience that sleeping at his desk was good for neither his back nor the important government documents he invariably ended up drooling on. Having the Secretary of the Interior jovially comparing the dribbling marks on a report (and former pillow) from Josh's office to the soggy, gnawed ears of his four-year old son's favorite stuffed rabbit was hardly conducive to the kind of professional, sophisticated image Josh tried to project.

CJ had a couch, but she also had a bad habit of rousing Josh by clamping onto his ear and hauling him upright, whenever she caught him sleeping at inopportune times or in unsuitable places. Josh had learned his lesson early and well, during the campaign, when he had drifted off in a Detroit pub after two pints, pleasantly hazy and fuzzily tired, the waxed stretch of the wood bar looking soft and inviting. He'd bundled his arms into a makeshift pillow and snugged his head into the nest, sighing contentedly, and it never occurred to him that the bar of a still very-much-so-open tavern might not be the best place to bed down for the night. He had barely begun to wander off into a foggy doze, just starting to breathe deep and slow, when suddenly a sharp, narrow vise took hold of his right ear and jerked him unceremoniously out of his lovely cave and easy drowse. Josh had yelped and bolted up on his bar stool, gaping startled and hurt at CJ, who glared back, admonishing him caustically, "I'm thinking that a newspaper printing a photograph of Bartlet's senior political director passed out on a bar would probably not make a very good impression on, you know, everybody in the country." On the other side of CJ, Toby was chuckling quietly, his hands wrapped around his glass. Josh blushed, feeling like a fourteen year old at a frat party. He rubbed his ear and scowled, arguing, "I wasn't passed out, I just put my head down for a minute. There a law against that or something?" CJ sighed, half-turned to roll her eyes at Toby, then patted Josh on the shoulder, saying mildly, "I swear, Josh, you're the only person I know who can turn two drinks into a lost weekend. It's almost like a talent." Toby snorted, "Yeah, come see the performance of the amazing human lightweight, eighth wonder of the world." They'd all cracked up at that, even Josh giggling uncontrollably, almost sliding off his stool, catching himself at the last second, his barely-avoided journey to the floor setting off a fresh string of laughter.

CJ kept the ear-grab as her preferred method to return Josh to consciousness, despite numerous comparisons of her to a 19th century schoolmarm, and Josh soon avoided like the plague any situation that might lead to him falling asleep in an inappropriate place while CJ and her pinching fingers were within a hundred mile radius.

Even if he got CJ's permission to bunk on her couch, he still didn't trust her not to appoint herself his alarm clock, waking him up every morning in her unique way, until the day when his much- beleaguered ear would finally follow Van Gogh's example and take leave of his head, yanked off like an apple from a tree by CJ's gracefully thin, surprisingly strong arm.

Leo had a couch, but the idea of sleeping in his boss's office made Josh squirm anxiously, feeling all of ten years old, envisioning thousands of ways he could humiliate himself in front of the man he respected more than pretty much everyone else on the planet. What if he talked in his sleep, said something idiotic or embarrassingly private? What if he flung his arm out unconsciously and swept one of Leo's fragile vases off an end-table, toppling it to explode on the floor, smashing to powder the perfect foreign porcelain, exquisite and no thicker than a nickel? Good God, what if he drooled on Leo's stately, elegant leather couch? If that ever happened, Josh would have to find himself a deep hole, a mineshaft, carve out a new home in the coal and granite, rather than ever look Leo in the eye again after such a catastrophe.

Toby had a couch too (Josh realized that everyone on the senior staff had a couch in their office except for Sam and himself, but decided not to take offense, instead resolving to ask Sam to form a couchless club with him, something to the effect of, `The People- With-Couches-Smell Club'). Toby would probably claim not to give a damn if Josh ended up sleeping in a gutter, would probably forfeit his couch with an impatient wave of his hand and an annoyed, "What the hell do I care?" but Josh knew that Toby's supposed indifference would evaporate the first time the older man got stuck on the wording of a speech, and began to eye Josh as a more satisfying target than the wall for the frustrated pegs of his little rubber ball.

Regardless, Toby's couch was the most promising of the selection, unless he wanted to curl up like an old dog on the Presidential seal of the carpet. Josh headed over to Communications, finding Toby's office dark and empty.

Sam was next door, though, the desk lamp glowing soft and yellow, striping through the blinds of the glass window that faced the bullpen. Sam was scribbling on a legal pad, beating out a swift tattoo on the surface of the desk with his pen as he read over his work, his lips moving faintly, his eyebrows pulling down in displeasure a moment before he briskly scratched out whatever line or phrase had struck him with disfavor. Josh watched as Sam worked out a new chain of words to replace the ones he had discarded. Sam moved his head in a hesitant, considering manner, turning his eyes up to the ceiling of his office and murmuring softly to himself. Sam paused for a half a moment, and then he dropped his head back down, grinning slightly, his pen dashing across the pad, moving nimbly and with bright confidence.

Josh smiled, liking seeing his friend write words that would be spoken by the president of the country. Josh was glad that Sam was here on this simmering morning, because Sam more than anyone else would understand his plight.

Josh moved to the doorway of Sam's office, tilting his shoulder against the jamb. Out Sam's window, the trees and shrubbery of the North Lawn sagged under the early morning heat, looking like melted green wax. Sam was engrossed in his speech, his head bent down, his hair a clean dark halo, and he didn't seem to notice that Josh had come in.

Leaning against the doorframe, Josh marveled at how cool Sam looked, how fresh and uncluttered, his hair not stiff with dried sweat, his face not flushed by the sun, Sam blissfully unperturbed by the weather, as if the city wasn't firmly in the smothering grip of the huge hot fist of summer, as if Sam moved in his own calm, airy cloud, as if Sam was able to carry the perfect California days of his childhood with him wherever he went.

Josh broke the gentle quiet of Sam's office, saying without preamble, "My house has turned against me."

Sam lifted his face smooth and quick, startled but not so much so that it made him clumsy and awkward. Sam crooked a smile at Josh, greeting him easily without actually saying the words.

Sam took his glasses off to focus on his friend. The frames ruffed through Sam's hair, leaving a feathery wedge sticking out from the side of his head, making him look mussed and young.

Josh saw Sam's face go quizzical as he considered Josh's non sequitur, shifting his mind to try and find his bearings in the abrupt conversation. "Your house . . . I'm sorry, what are you talking about?"

Josh came in and took the chair in front of Sam's desk. "My house, Sam, you remember my house," he said pedantically. "That place where I keep all my stuff? It's got, like, a roof and windows and everything." He waved his hand in front of him, abstractly sketching a vague shape in the air, a dubious suggestion of his home.

Sam rolled his eyes at Josh's entirely useless explanation and replied, "Yes, thank you. I am familiar with your house. I am, however, not so much remembering it as a sentient being with the emotional capacity to regard you as an enemy."

The other man spread his hands wide in exaggerated incredulity. "And yet that's exactly what has happened. I'm surprised as you are, believe me."

After a moment of attempting to reconcile what Josh was saying into some comprehensible form, Sam gave up and asked, "Seriously, what the hell are you talking about?"

Josh leaned forward, his gaze intent and earnest. "Sam, there is a conspiracy working for my ruination."

"A conspiracy," Sam repeated flatly.

Josh nodded, eager to relate his sorry circumstances to his friend and enlist Sam and his considerable talents as an ally. "Yes. A large-scale, well-managed, possibly internationally- based organization which could, even at this very moment, be devising their next fiendish plot against me."

Sam looked at Josh like he was waiting for a punchline, then asked, with seemingly ingenuous curiosity, "Who composes this ring of master criminals, I wonder?"

With an absolutely straight face, Josh answered, "My air- conditioner, my television, my refrigerator, my coffee table, my landlord, and the weather. And that's just so far. The group keeps getting bigger, they must have a really effective recruitment strategy."

Sam nodded slowly, as if in deep thought, then said in a deadpan, "Wow."

"What?"

"You've really kind of gone off the deep end, here."

"Sam!" Josh cried in frustration as Sam let amusement brighten his face, smirking at his friend.

"Oh, come on! You tell me that your coffee table and the weather have ganged up with a bunch of other scheming inanimate objects in order to torment you, you really expect me to let an opening like that go by?"

Josh leaned back in his chair, regarding Sam coolly. "I'm not sensing a whole lot of support from you right now."

Sam grinned. "That is a shrewd and accurate observation."

Josh scowled across the desk briefly, mentally kicking Sam out of his couchless club. Josh filed away Sam's mocking of his misfortune, making a note to get revenge at some point, and doubled his efforts to convince the other man of the reality of the Anti-Josh Alliance, determined to make Sam appreciate the gravity of the situation.

"This is serious, Sam. It's ninety-five degrees in my living room, I can't watch CNN or SportsCenter, I can't keep anything cold to drink, and that damn coffee table is aiming to kill me in my sleep! A little compassion wouldn't be, like, totally out of line."

Sam, visibly tamping down his mirth, humored Josh, sobering his expression and trying to infuse genuine concern into his eyes. The pretense of heartfelt interest and empathy was fairly convincing, except for the suppressed laughter crinkling at the corners of Sam's eyes, and the occasional twitch of his lips reigning in a grin.

"What exactly did you do to incur the wrath of your appliances?"

Josh shrugged, "That is a true mystery. I mean, I'm always yelling and cursing at them-"

"That's not specific to the stuff in your house," Sam interrupted. "You vent quite a lot of frustration at the coffee maker here, you know. After we lost the vote on S.R. 153, you were so upset, you ended up viciously insulting the poor thing's mother, which was a little strange."

Josh half-smiled bashfully, blushing a bit, "So, you, ah, heard me that time?"

"I think the majority of the greater metropolitan area heard you that time."

Josh winced at the reminder of his embarrassingly nonsensical temper, cocking his head to the side with a slight look of self- deprecation of his face, acknowledging his rather ridiculous tendency to target his anger at blameless devices, or Donna's roommate's cats, or the infuriating trees with their stupid leafy branches.

Josh continued, "Okay, but me ranting at my stuff is nothing new, I've been doing that for years. Why would they wait till now to get back at me?" He cupped his chin and tapped his finger against his cheekbone, musing, "I knew I shouldn't have called my toaster a communist last week. That was probably the final straw."

Sam struggled to remain composed, but Josh's concerted, sincere determination to find a logical explanation for an absurd turn of events, his stubborn lack of irony and steadfast refusal to recognize the preposterousness of what he was saying, entertained Sam to no end, and he had to fight hard to keep a grin from sparking across his face, or laughter from slipping imprudently out of him.

"You called your toaster a communist?" he asked, his tone and expression remaining mild with enormous effort.

Sighing, Josh nodded, shrugging, "Yeah, something about the way it kept burning my toast-I knew it was looking to instigate a revolution."

That was almost too much, and Sam hid his escaping giggle by faking a quick cough, holding his hand over his mouth for a moment to cover his persistent quirking grin.

Having regained a measure of control, Sam looked at Josh with his best imitation of studious attention. "So, what . . . what's your strategy for fighting this . . . confederacy?" Sam inquired, barely holding back a snicker.

Josh, still oblivious to Sam's trammeled merriment, outlined his proposition without a hint of self-consciousness. "I was actually thinking of maybe just staying in the office until stuff blows over. You know, because it's cool here and there are three TVs in every room. You think Toby would mind me crashing on his couch?"

Sam arched an eyebrow. "You really want to sleep in Toby's office? I only share one wall with the guy, and sometimes it's still too much aggravation. If you can stand him as a roommate-" Sam shrugged-"You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din." At that moment, the man in question materialized in the doorway, his suit jacket already peeled off and thrown over his arm, a reassuringly familiar expression of grumpy irritation coloring his features.

"It's a little early in the morning to be reciting Kipling, Sam," Toby said by way of salutation.

"I thought that was Cary Grant," Josh said artlessly. Sam and Toby both turned incredulous stares on him, and Josh sensed that he had just revealed the vast and untapped depths of his ignorance. He said defensively, "What?" glaring at the two speechwriters, daring them correct him.

Toby just shook his head and returned his attention to his deputy. "I need the draft of the ALF-CIO speech by noon."

Sam nodded, slipping his glasses back on as he scanned over what he had been writing when Josh had come in. "You'll have it." Toby made a small noise of acknowledgement, his mind already on the next five things he had to do that day, and moved to go into his own office.

Sam shot Josh a what-are-you-waiting-for look, and Josh spoke up quickly, his hesitantly questioning voice stopping Toby at the door. "Um, Toby? Do you think I could maybe . . . uh, sleep on your couch for a couple of days?" Saying it out loud made Josh feel more than a little foolish, like he was a kid too scared of the dark to sleep alone in his own room.

Toby regarded Josh with the vague aura of constant annoyance that was so effective in unsettling legislators and bureaucrats. Josh resisted his urge to fidget like a third grader in the principal's office under the impatient gaze. "What am I, running a flophouse now?"

Sam muffled a laugh, and Josh began to spill out his explanation, "You see, there's this conspiracy in my house. Sam says it might be because I got into a fight with the coffee maker and called its mother a dirty name, but there's also a possibility that the communists are to blame, and-"

"Yeah, you know what? I don't actually care," Toby said, cutting him off brusquely. Josh sat back, vaguely affronted, but knew not to take Toby's discontent personally. Toby continued, "You wanna crash on my couch, feel free, but be warned that the second you begin to snore, I'll duct tape your nose and mouth shut."

Josh blinked. "But then I wouldn't be able to breathe."

Toby tilted his head in sarcastic realization, said, "Really? That's interesting," then left Sam's office without another word.

Josh, thoroughly unsettled, looked at Sam wide-eyed. "Okay, now I'm a little scared."

Sam nodded, "I would think so."

Josh sighed, rising to let Sam get back to work. "I'm gonna go see if the Lincoln Bedroom is available," he said as a farewell.

Sam was already engrossing himself in his speech, sinking swiftly back into his writing, and he replied distractedly, "Yeah, good luck with that."

Josh paused at the doorway, feeling like there was something he was forgetting to say, but having no idea what it might be. Sam was tilted back in his chair, the legal pad resting on his raised knee, and the immutable August sun poured through the window behind him, washing him with bright yellow light. Josh watched him for a minute, his mind quiet, and then came back to himself, like he had been snapped out of a trance.

Josh shook his head to clear it and headed back to his office, leaving Sam behind in the beaming flash of morning.

* * *

Arriving home that night, Josh eased open his front door slowly, fearing a booby trap of some kind. He gingerly poked his head in and scanned the room, half-expecting to see all his furniture lined up in military ranks, awaiting the order to attack. Everything was in its place, though, the air-conditioner still dummied up, the television still a blank sightless black eye.

Josh crept cautiously in, and gently placed his backpack on the floor. The stuffy heat swallowed him up, clung to him as he moved, the air dense and hard to breathe in.

A brief trip to the kitchen resulted in nothing more than a futile glower into the dark, stale recesses of the refrigerator, which was beginning to reek to high heaven. "I hate you so much," Josh told it, too lethargic and exhausted to put much rancor into the words. He did kick half-heartedly at the door of a bottom cabinet, trying to muster up some righteous anger, which would at least be more interesting than being bored and meekly submissive. The impact of Josh's shoe clapped the cabinet door open, and there was a drawn- out creak as the metal hinges bent slowly, and then snapped off, the cabinet door breaking loose and falling like a drawbridge to the kitchen floor.

Josh looked down at the rectangle of wood, and the uncovered cabinet, the tin cans of soup and vegetables looking weirdly naked and vulnerable without the door to hide them. "That's just excellent," Josh remarked, his voice dull and dispirited.

He went back into the living room, fed up with the world in general. After guardedly testing the stereo, wary of everything, and ascertaining that it, miraculously, remained functioning, Josh scrolled down the band until he found a baseball broadcast, the Mets and the Marlins.

Josh lay down on the floor in the middle of his living room, his perspective all skewed and cartoonish, the coffee table and bookshelf looming hugely over him. With nothing working right, with his life whacked out of orbit, all Josh wanted to do was lie on the ground with his eyes closed and listen to baseball in the shadows of his untrustworthy home.

Josh fully expected the stereo reception to fuzz away to static at any moment, or a satellite to crash down through his roof, or a pack of wild dogs to burst in through his front door, but at that moment, with his demands decimated by circumstance, Josh had all he required, and he rested, simply content, determined to enjoy it for as long as it lasted.

Josh drifted off, floating hazily through the singed air, loose and random, daydreaming about Fenway Park, and palm trees, and constructing neat red and blue card houses on a thin motel room carpet, and silver-framed glasses, and cherry-bright cars. He was jostled awake an unknown amount of time later by a hand lightly poking at his shoulder, a well-known voice softly calling his name.

Groggily, Josh clambered up towards full awareness, like crawling through warm molasses, languor trying to drag him back down. He got his eyes halfway open, his eyelids feeling sticky, and gazed blearily up at his waker. Josh smiled charmingly, and said with drowsy affection, "Hey, look, it's Sam."

Sam, crouching beside him, his hand still on Josh's shoulder, grinned and nodded, "Indeed it is. What's going on?"

Josh flagged his hand lazily in the general direction of the stereo. "I'm lying on the floor and listening to baseball."

Settling to sit cross-legged beside his friend, Sam replied, "I can see that, yes." Sam reached behind him to dig into the brown paper grocery bag he'd brought with him. "I brought you some cold beer and soda. There's Fudge-sicles too, but I don't think they survived the trip from the supermarket to here." Sam withdrew his hand and licked at the melted chocolate confection smeared on his fingers.

Peering around at all the paralyzed, silent contraptions which were dotted uselessly about Josh's apartment, Sam pulled his shirt away from his body and flapped it a few times, creating a weak breeze across his chest. "It really is insanely hot in here," he commented.

Josh nodded, the back of his head sliding on the carpet. "Told you," he mumbled, wanting one of the beers Sam had brought but far too heavy with inertia to do anything about it. "Now you see how my house is against me." Josh's eyes flickered open, his forehead creasing in sudden puzzlement. "Wait a minute. This is my house."

Sam gave Josh a questioning look. "Yeah, I recognized it by its roof and windows and everything," he cracked.

Josh narrowed a suspicious gaze at the man above him. "How'd you get into my house?"

Rolling his eyes, Sam said patiently, "I'm pretty sure it had something to do with a door."

Josh considered this for a moment, then stated with bemusement lining his voice, "That door was locked."

Sam shrugged, rummaging through the bag again, pulling out two chilled beers as he answered, "Not five minutes ago, it wasn't. Maybe your lock's broken."

Josh sighed resignedly, and said with a tone of Zen-like acceptance, "That would not surprise me even a little bit."

Handing Josh a beer, Sam stretched out next to his friend, both of them gazing pacifically up at the ceiling. "Who's playing?" Sam asked as the game slipped back into their perception.

"Mets and Marlins," Josh replied, a yawn swelling the last word.

"What kind of name is `Marlins' for a baseball team, anyway?" Sam wondered, a hint of derision tingeing his voice. "Is it supposed to be intimidating? How exactly does a big fish inspire fear in the opposition? What, they're gonna beat you to death with their fins?"

Josh smiled, glad that Sam had come over to bring him beer and make fun of the names of baseball teams. "I don't know. But at least a marlin is a physical creature that is easily defined. What the hell is a Dodger supposed to be?"

Sam replied cheerfully, "The name comes from the old Brooklyn fans having to dodge trolley cars to get to the games at Ebbets Field."

Josh swiveled his head to the side to shoot Sam a disbelieving look. "I didn't think you'd actually have an answer to that."

Turning his own head to face his friend, Sam defended the immense store of utterly superfluous trivia that had been accumulated for years by his inner nerd. "You asked."

Josh snorted. "Yeah, rhetorically, I asked."

They fell into a companionable silence, the play-by-play floating down to them. Josh rested his drink on his stomach, pressing a wet circle in his shirt, and watched the illumination of car headlights driving past splash across the ceiling. There was a double play, and a sacrifice bunt, and a beach ball on the field, and a monstrous blast that slammed into the padded center field wall, about a foot short of a home run. Sam breathed evenly and calm, and Josh knew that if he looked over at his friend, Sam would look back and smile, and that was a good thing to think about.

Josh felt at peace.

Exhaustion was tugging at him again, the irresistible slide into a kind, whimsical doze, and he thought fuzzily that he should really thank Sam before he nodded off, thank him for coming over with cold drinks. His sleep-drunk words were slow and trailed prematurely into unconsciousness, so that all Josh managed to say was, "Thank you, Sam . . ." before he crashed into oblivion.

* * *

A while later, Josh was drawn out of a strange dream, something about light falling in stunning geometric shapes, triangles and trapezoids and parallelograms streaking down from the sun. He was being awakened by hands tugging at his dress shirt, the wrinkled- soft fabric pulling lightly across his skin.

Leisurely surfacing from his nap, Josh rested serenely for a moment, listening to the gentle cotton rustle, the delicate plucking motion of the hands on his chest soothing him. He let thoughts tumble through his mind like brittle autumn leaves, felt his shoulder- blades lined straight on the even horizontal plane of the wooden floorboards, felt the cloud of invisible heat sink over him again, and it took him a while to wonder who was doing what to his shirt.

Josh craned his head up to peer down his body. Sam had his hands on the buttons of Josh's pale blue shirt, trying to work them through their stubborn holes, his fingers drawing and fumbling, like he was trying to crack a safe, a look of child-like concentration on his face, the tip of his tongue caught between his lips.

Josh lifted his arm to rub a fist across his eyes, and Sam looked up at him, his hands going still on Josh's chest. Sam's eyes were sleepily blurred and steady, colored boyish serge blue.

"What's happening?" Josh asked amiably, his tone simple and untroubled. For some reason, it didn't seem strange to be awakened by Sam unbuttoning his shirt. Josh felt quiet inside himself, hushed and swept free of all his fears and concerns, and the gentle weight of Sam's hands on his body didn't unsettle him at all.

"You were pulling at your shirt in your sleep, making these noises, all restless," Sam replied, his voice a breath above a whisper, like something you'd hear in a church. He ducked his eyes down to study his thumb tracing the threaded path of a seam. "I thought maybe you'd be more comfortable with it off. Maybe."

Josh realized that his skin was glossed with a thin sheen of clean sweat, his dress shirt damp at the collar and the cuffs, his clothes suddenly heavy and cloying, the heat making him claustrophobic.

"Yeah, good thinking, you're a smart one," Josh mumbled. Sam smiled slight and young, his face scattered with shadows, like torn shreds of rain-white clouds strewn across a shuddering, kaleidoscopic sky.

Sam drew Josh into a sitting position, and then there was an impossibly baffling interval in which they were both rummaging after the buttons, ransacking the fabric of Josh's shirt, and it seemed like there were more than just their four hands at work, because they kept tumbling across one another, tangling together in elaborate knots of fingers and wrists and forearms, and Josh kept laughing, breathless and confused and happy, his mind all cluttered.

In the end, they succeeded in getting all the buttons undone, and dragging the shirt off of Josh's arms without dislocating either of his shoulders, which seemed like quite an accomplishment at the time. Freed of the wilted starched collar and long sleeves that had molded to his arms like cellophane, peeled down to his white cotton undershirt, which was worn as thin as silk, Josh felt seven hundred times better suited to deal with the scalding temperatures.

Josh made incoherent sounds of satisfaction and gratitude, his charming nonsensical rambling broken up by epic yawns. Sam smiled at Josh, terribly fond of his rumpled, sleepy friend, endeared to his chaotic mess of hair, his fine eyes made heavy by exhaustion, the straight lines of his arms running delicately out from his T- shirt's sleeves, the flawless curve of his cheek, the clumsily sweet babble falling like rain from his lips.

Josh was still mumbling and yawning when he felt the light pressure of five fingertips settle on his chest, gently nudging him. Josh obediently let himself be guided back down by Sam, sighing as his spine settled against the floorboards again. Lying there, Josh was just about to drift his way into the flowing world between sleep and waking, where dreams and memories twined together like ivy, when he suddenly realized that Sam's hand was still resting on his stomach.

Raising his head again, pulling one eyelid up like a shade so he could peek out with the minimum of effort, Josh saw Sam staring down at his own hand interrupting the smooth, unmarked stretch of cotton, as if transfixed. Some corner of his brain reminded Josh that it should feel weird to have Sam's hand lying there like an island in between Josh's ribs and the waist of his pants, Sam's hand which was long and thin-fingered, the shape of it outlined through Josh's shirt by the low pressure, the tingling awareness of their nerves that the only thing separating them from touching skin to skin was a layer of fabric as thin as cobwebs. But it didn't feel weird, not really. It felt . . . normal. Inevitable.

"What are you doing?" Josh wondered softly, nothing but innocent curiosity in his voice. Sam flicked his eyes up to Josh's, uncertainty etched on his face like hieroglyphics.

"I . . . I'm not sure," Sam replied, faltering, his fingers trembling. Sam's eyes were overly bright, gleaming like pilot lights on a stove, and wiry adrenaline shivered through his body.

For some reason, Sam's inability to answer didn't trouble Josh at all. He nodded blearily, saying, "Okay," and giving Sam tousled, trusting smile before he dropped his head back down.

Josh was sure of Sam, his certainty of Sam was a clear white field in his heart. Josh knew Sam like the back of his hand, having at some point memorized the other man during all the years they'd spent ducking in and out of each other's lives like hurricanes, both of them natural disasters that arrived by train, by taxicab, by subway, quick and sharp and catastrophic. The course of their friendship was littered across continents, tangled up in telephone lines, all caught up and dizzy with arguments and triumphs and betrayals and laughter and the moments when they were struggling down sleek hallways side by side, utterly insane with exhaustion, stumbling and crashing into each other, their shoulders braced together, propping them both up, forming a bridge of their two bodies.

Josh had forever existed in a treacherous, unclear world, always doubting himself, and the men he put in power, and the work he tried to convince himself was righteous, and the ground beneath his feet. One thing he had never questioned, though, one thing he knew with effortless and unwavering confidence, was that wherever he found himself, whatever path his life took, however far away he was from where he wished himself to be, he knew that somewhere in his future would come the day when he and Sam would collide into each other again, knocking each other off balance, and Josh would again find himself lost and joyous in the storm.

Slowly, glacially slowly, with a nervous hesitation that Josh could feel strumming through his shirt, Sam began to move his hand. He drew his thumb along the ridge at the base of Josh's ribs, then skirted lightly down Josh's side, his clever fingers fluttering, playing the long line of Josh's body like a piano. Sam skimmed the heel of his palm across the top of Josh's belt, rucking up his T- shirt a bit, revealing a ribbon of flawless white-washed skin, a hint of the shadows at Josh's hip.

Sam touched Josh reverently, like Josh was a miracle, Sam's eyes wide and awed. Sam was stunned to find himself watching his own fingers trace spirals on the clean bare skin of Josh's stomach, amazed to see his other hand gliding up to join its partner in exploring the perfect unmapped frontier of Josh's body. Sam was baffled, having a hard time grasping that this was actually happening, this was actually him feeling the sigh tremor through Josh's form like a small earthquake, these were actually his hands bracketing Josh's hips, cupping the protruding bone in his palms, his thumbs edging Josh's T-shirt up, forcing himself to keep a deliberate, unfrenzied pace, his mouth dry as he watched the strip of naked skin grow by centimeters. Sam couldn't believe this was real, couldn't believe that he was touching Josh and Josh was shuddering beneath his hands.

Josh had lost himself, distracted and adrift in the hazes of his mind, feeling jerked out of his orbit and left to wander aimlessly through the sparkling abyss. The only thing he was aware of were Sam's hands making their way across his body, and he was so intently aware of those hands that he would forget to breathe, his mind too obsessively focused on what Sam was doing to remember to let out the air that had caught in his lungs when Sam had first brushed the rough tips of his fingers against Josh's bare stomach. Sam's hands left seared trails in their wake, paths of humming nerves, his fingers dragging four parallel streaks of raw desperate heat across Josh's side. Josh was bordering on delirious, clenching his fists then releasing then clenching, again and again, pressing his knuckles into the rug, careening with suicidal speed towards the point where he would cease to care about consequences or common sense or the edges of friendship, the point where everything in the world would vanish except for Sam.

Sam smoothed his hands along Josh's bare sides, and then paused, dashing his eyes swiftly up to Josh's face. Josh's eyes were closed and his shoulders were hovering off the ground, tense and trembling, the fair arch of his throat cutting through the dark.

Swallowing hard, Sam skittered his gaze away from Josh, terrified by the immense force of emotion that battered through him at the mere sight of his friend's rapt expression, the muscles strung tight in Josh's shoulders and neck, Josh's teeth trapping his bottom lip, the rafting shadows that whispered under the shelf of Josh's jaw, all of it making Sam feel giddy, relentlessly close to losing his mind.

To keep from looking at Josh again, Sam dropped his head down fast, without thinking, and pressed his mouth to Josh's stomach.

Josh gasped, his hips jerking upwards involuntarily. Sam fastened his hands on Josh's sides and held him down, keeping him still. The skin under Sam's lips was as soft as rain-damp grass in early spring, as smooth as marble, glowing pale as a fingerprint, and the heat of Josh's body pulsed out, the full warmth surrounding them both, making them radiant and luminescent from the inside.

Sam nibbled his way carefully along, circumnavigating Josh's belly button twice before he relented to the wordless pleading gibberish that scattered from the other man's mouth, dipping his tongue into Josh's navel, then scraping his teeth against the tender flesh that made a gentle sloping valley just below.

Sam's hands were up under Josh's T-shirt, on his ribs, stumbling blindly across his torso, and Sam's mouth was on the hard bone of Josh's hip, branding him through his clothes. There were crashing streaks of light exploding behind Josh's eyelids, like a meteor shower, like glittering stars falling to the earth.

Sam walked his fingers up the ladder of Josh's ribs and Josh could feel his panicked, overwhelmed nerves jerking, knew that Sam would be able feel the violent spasms under his fingertips, on his lips, soothed away by his tongue. Sam's fingers found Josh's nipple and ran across it, reading him like Braille. Josh groaned, felt Sam grinning against his stomach at the sound.

Closing his fingers on the tight nub, Sam tugged, and Josh banged his head back against the carpet at the fierce spark that shot through him. Sam was licking his way along the stretch of Josh's waist, happily murmuring to himself as his hand continued to wreak havoc on Josh's self-control.

Josh was too hot to still be alive, he expected to burst into flame at any moment, his whole body strumming with the insanity of what was happening.

In the midst of the chaos of Sam's hands and Sam's mouth, a perfectly articulate, ridiculously surreal thought leapt into Josh's head, as clear as a freshly-washed pane of glass: `I just let Sam Seaborn get to second-base on the first date.'

A startled laugh exploded out of Josh without warning, his own mind catching him off-guard. He tried to clamp down on the outburst, embarrassed by its suddenness and disconcerting volume, but he only managed to half-way convert it into a lame string of throat- clearings.

Sam jerked at the abrupt cackle, then froze, his hands pressed flat to Josh's chest, his mouth hovering a centimeter above Josh's stomach. Sam stared at Josh, who was still trying to smother his unruly, delirious giggles. "Wh-what . . . what?" Sam stuttered, the murky beginnings of disaster starting to creep into his eyes.

Josh tried to catch his breath, but then another wickedly sharp thought lit like a flashbulb in his mind: `He's never gonna buy the cow if he can get the milk for free,' and Josh would have howled with laughter, hysterical in all senses of the word, if he hadn't gotten his hand up to barricade his mouth just in the nick of time, sputtering and coughing as he shoved the careless peals down, lightheaded and with his stomach aching.

By the time he had at least some marginal control over himself, Sam had pulled away, straightening and staring off into the pitch-black corner formed by the bookcase and wall. Josh pushed himself up on his elbows and a thin silvery giggle slipped out of him. Josh tried to be serious and reassuring, but his voice wavered, and his mouth twitched, and it was clear he was about two seconds away from crowing with unstoppable mirth again.

"Sam . . . it's-it's noth . . . ing," he managed to get out, clinging to the remaining shreds of his restraint. "I just . . . there was this . . . it's, you know, it's weird, is all."

Sam's face drew tight, and he blinked fast, beginning to nod foolishly, his head bobbing up and down compulsively, making Josh dizzy. Josh was looking at Sam's profile, his friend's face haunted by shadows. Sam wouldn't turn his head, wouldn't look over at him, which confused Josh.

Sam spoke haltingly, each word ripped painfully out. "Yeah- yeah . . . you're . . . I know you're right. I-I'm sorry . . . I shouldn't have . . . I'm so sorry."

Bewildered, Josh stared at the other man. Sam was running his hands nervously across his clothes, disheveling himself. Sam looked around the room miserably, stretching out his arm to drag his shoes across the floor towards him.

Josh watched him, his confusion growing as dense as the humidity that pressed down on them, pinning them to the carpet. Is Sam leaving? he wondered helplessly, not understanding anything. Sam was trying to unknot his shoelace, but his hands were stuttering and useless. Josh caught a skewed sideways glimpse of Sam's eyes, which shone hard like blue crystal, glinting, fear and humiliation and aching sadness warring there.

"What . . . what do you mean? Where are you going?" Josh asked, completely baffled. How had he gotten here to this unfathomable, circuitous moment, how had this mystifying interval evolved from the slow, sleepy heat of Sam's marvelous hands? Josh felt like he had stumbled through a rip in the fabric of reality, suddenly and irrevocably straying into another dimension, where nothing was familiar, nothing made sense, and he couldn't find his way back again.

Sam clenched his hands around his own ankles, his knees folded protectively against his chest, and he spoke staring straight down, his eyes vacant and his voice dull. "You're right, it's weird. I shouldn't have touched you, I shouldn't . . . I don't know what I was thinking, I'm sorry. I didn't . . . I w-won't . . ." Sam's monotone plummeted downwards as he trailed off, and he pressed his chin hard to his knees.

Josh levered himself up further, his eyebrows high in disbelief. Sam shrank away as Josh came closer. The air between them shook with the rainforest temperatures and the jarring, explosive tension. Josh wanted to laugh at the absurdity of Sam's misunderstanding, and the ridiculous argument that threatened to flood the room and the hot summer night.

"Sam, that's not . . . I didn't mean weird as in bad, I . . . I didn't mean you should stop, for Christ's sake!" Josh half-cried, frustrated and trying not to make a joke at Sam's expense.

Josh reached out for Sam, his hand hovering like a bird, but Sam pulled away, shaking his head, his eyes screwed shut. Sam responded with his voice buried way down deep in his throat, his words low and fast, like he was as much trying to convince himself as he was trying to convince Josh, "No, you were right. It's . . . it's such a bad idea, it would mess everything up. It was j-just stupid . . . so fucking stupid."

Sam's face was wrenched in self-disgust, and all Josh wanted to do was press his palms against Sam's skin. But Sam wouldn't look at him, all closed up inside his body, his shoulders pulled inward, curving his back like a shell, his pain practically throbbing out of him.

Josh couldn't think of the words if he couldn't see Sam's eyes, and Sam was so far away from him. Josh's hands reached out again, but the wince of Sam's body made his hands falter, jittering in the air, and Josh was at once irritated and fed up with this favorite defense mechanism of Sam's, his removal of himself from Josh, both physically and emotionally.

"Sam, could you . . . could you, you know, look at me," Josh begun, but Sam turned his face away, and Josh felt a burst of impatience, sitting up full to grasp Sam's upper arm with his hands, holding tight as Sam tried to pull away.

"Would you come up here for like five seconds, please?" Josh said recklessly, pulling Sam towards him, tilting backwards as he did.

And it seemed that Josh didn't know his own strength, because instead of just tugging Sam closer, he was hauling the other man up and over, dragging Sam out of his center of gravity, one of Sam's arms flinging out in a futile effort to regain his equilibrium, and Sam's momentum sent him sprawling, both of them toppling over, and somehow Sam ended up spread out on top of Josh, draping over the other man's body.

They both paused for a moment, startled and taking stock of their new positions, their breaths held as they anticipated the flare of any delayed pain from an errant elbow or knee, but there was none, the sudden thump of Sam flopping across Josh having been remarkably accomplished with no permanent injuries.

Sam was notched easily against Josh's body, their ribs fitting together like puzzle pieces, their legs interwoven haphazardly, knees knocking lightly against each other. Sam's nose was less than four inches away from Josh's, his shallow breath falling on Josh's lips.

Josh blinked, and Sam looked down at him with an identical expression of surprise on his face. Josh waited for panic and apprehension to flood over him, for the alien-feel of being flattened by Sam's weight to overwhelm him with anxiety, for his body to instinctively balk, recoiling fiercely, throwing Sam off, fleeing from this bizarre, unsettling moment in time.

But Josh found himself unshaken and calm, free of distress and unease, like Sam lying on top of him on his living room floor was the most natural thing in the world.

Josh said simply, "Hi, Sam," and it sounded the same as it had for the past decade, comfortable and casual and warm.

Sam was staring down at him, breathing short and quick, his eyes huge. "Hi, Josh," he whispered back. Sam looked astonished, like the sky had just changed color.

Josh smiled, slow and deep, and he could feel Sam's chest hitch as his breath flagged, seeing the clear, cataclysmic intent in Josh's eyes.

Josh raised his head deliberately, feeling Sam's breath rush across his cheek, and took Sam's ear in his teeth. Sam gasped, his shuddering hands coming up to cling to Josh's shoulders, trying in vain to steady himself. Josh traced the delicate ridge of Sam's ear with his tongue, tugged at the impossibly soft lobe, then nibbled along Sam's jaw, scraping his teeth against the pulse in Sam's throat. Sam moaned, his head thrown back, his face pulled smooth with desire and intense concentration. Josh had one hand twisted in the fabric of Sam's shirt, the other cupped at the nape of Sam's neck. Josh skimmed his fingers through the short hair at the base of Sam's skull, damp and thick with sweat, darkened as black as tar in the dim light, and Josh wanted to lick perspiration off Sam's stomach.

They began to shift then, their bodies pushing and grinding with aching slowness, unconscious and blind and needy, searching desperately. Their hips locked together suddenly, air bursting out of both of them simultaneously, and then they were moving as one, linked and indivisible, falling into a rhythm like the tides. Question and response. Advance and recede. Ebb and flow. Like this thing happening between them was as intrinsic and normal as the current of the sea, like they were being controlled by the moon.

Josh has his mouth on Sam's collarbone, sucking hard, and he could feel their hearts rattling against each other through the rickety cages of their chests. Sam tangled his fingers in Josh's hair and tried to push him away, but Josh growled and tugged himself back into place. Sam groaned, as much in frustration as need, and shoved ineffectually at Josh's shoulders and head.

"Wait . . . wait," Sam panted, his voice high and reedy. Josh ignored him, dragging his tongue up Sam's throat, feeling the low rumble of Sam speaking vibrate against his lips. Sam, ever- determined despite Josh's resistance, spoke disjointedly, his words broken up by gasps and keening moans, struggling not to be distracted by Josh's best efforts to make him witless.

"This . . . we can't . . . isn't-isn't this w-weird? Christ. Um. Bad idea, it's a . . . ah . . . a bad idea."

Josh rolled his eyes, craning upwards to press a scorching kiss to the tender, elegant skin just under Sam's ear. "Well, Sam," he said conversationally, like his mouth on Sam's body was routine and unremarkable, "you've always been weird. And this-" Josh thrust upwards, and Sam cried out, his eyes fluttering shut and his hands clenching in Josh's hair, "this is a very, very good idea."

Josh wanted to rip Sam's shirt off his body, his impatience with the thin fabric suddenly maddening, and he was yanking crossly at the wrinkled cloth, a steady litany of aggrieved curses accompanying his efforts.

Suddenly, Sam tightened his grip on Josh's head and lugged him up so that they were face to face again. Sam clamped his hands to Josh's shoulders, pushing him flat against the floor, and Josh stared up at Sam, his whole body twitching under the other man's, his heart slamming fiercely inside him.

Sam gazed down, his face and neck scored with razor burn, beads of sweat dotting his brow, his hair screwed up, lunatic and rummaged like soft grass, his eyes gone all forever blue. Josh swallowed hard, and forgot to blink.

"A good idea?" Sam asked quietly, skepticism tingeing his voice.

Josh knew that Sam wanted assurance that this night, if it happened, wouldn't ruin things between them, wouldn't make them awkward and regretful in the morning. It was a legitimate question, and Josh tried to give it serious consideration, but he couldn't find uncertainty or fear anywhere inside him. It was Sam, Sam his own personal natural disaster, Sam who brought him cold drinks when his air-conditioner was broken, Sam who had always managed to find him, no matter how lost he got, Sam who was his constant, his anchor, and if there ever came a day when Josh looked up and couldn't see Sam, he would be no less surprised and heartbroken than if the moon had disappeared from the inky curve of the night sky.

Josh had never believed in much, but he believed in Sam, unquestioningly and without pause, and he knew, with complete and absolute certainty, that Sam would never give Josh cause to doubt him.

Josh nodded carefully, his eyes steady and unclouded, and he replied, a shiver rushing through his body and voice, "A wonderful idea, Sam."

A quick smile sparked across Sam's face, and Josh's heart felt like a balloon, full of air and wandering lost way up in a sky so blue it would change the color of your eyes.

Then Sam put his hand on Josh's face, ran his fingers over Josh's eyelids, swept across Josh's cheek, skimmed down the slope of Josh's nose, traced Josh's lips with his thumb. Josh hummed, murmuring into Sam's hand, trying to follow where it moved, wanting to burrow his face in the smooth cup of Sam's palm.

Sam stilled his hand's restless search, placing his fingertips in the shallow dent of Josh's temple, rustling the wisps of hair, his thumb settling easily on the line of Josh's jaw. Sam looked down at Josh for a moment, his eyes calm and perfect.

Lazily, Sam let a tender, hushed smile slope across his face, and then he was tilting forward, and Josh had enough time to think fleetingly, helplessly, `my god, how is it not illegal for him to be that beautiful?' before Sam's mouth was on his and Josh lost the ability for coherent thought.

Sam was slow and deep and devastatingly passionate as he sank down against Josh, his hand stroking into Josh's hair, his body molding to the other man's. Josh's lips parted, partly as instinct and partly because he gasped, and then Sam's tongue was there, tasting him and stealing the air out of his lungs.

Josh had his hands up under Sam's shirt, fingers spread wide on the smooth shifting plane of Sam's back, and Sam was tugging on his hair, and Josh could feel every inch of Sam's body against him, and Sam was sucking hard on his tongue, and Josh was going insane.

For some reason, when Josh kissed Sam it made him think that it was raining outside.

It made him think of lightning and being killed by the forces of nature.

Sam's mouth was the hottest thing in the world, and Josh was certain that Sam was leaving a trail of third-degree burns behind him as he licked down Josh's throat. Sam raked his teeth across Josh's neck, and Josh cried out, the broken vibration buzzing against Sam's lips, and Josh knotted his hands impatiently in Sam's short hair and jerked his head back up so that they could fuse their mouths together again, and Josh could let himself plummet into that perfect, addictive darkness, that magnificent wet depth.

Josh couldn't for the life of him remember why he had never kissed Sam before, couldn't for the life of him ever imagine stopping.

Sam drew his hand down Josh's chest, wedging it between the tight crush of their bodies, and Josh groaned, arcing up into the other man. Sam lowered his head to drag his tongue wickedly across the hard stub of Josh's nipple through his thin shirt, and Sam's hand was attacking Josh's belt buckle. Josh was pulling Sam's shirt over his head, then he was fastening his mouth to Sam's bare shoulder, mindless and frantic, licking sweat out of Sam's collarbone, peppering the gentle crook of Sam's neck with small nibbling bites. Sam's skin tasted impossibly good, like sun and memory and the ocean, and Josh wanted to drink in all of him, feeling like Sam was water and he was dying of thirst.

Sam's hand was on Josh's stomach, and Josh hooked his ankle around the back of Sam's knee, locking them together. Josh's face was buried in Sam's neck and Sam's whole body was shaking. Wrapped around each other, they began to move, gasping, jagged bolts of emotion tearing through them, the two of them throwing off sparks into the dark room.

Mumbling nonsense exhortations, Sam pulled Josh's head up and crushed their mouths together, and Josh kissed him back frantically, wanting to consume Sam, wanting to be consumed, not coming up for air until they were both seared and scarred for life.

Sam's hands began to move faster, swiftly shedding Josh of his clothes, pressing random, fierce kisses to Josh's shoulders and chest and stomach, then ripping off his own, and Josh felt delirious.

When they were both naked and trembling uncontrollably, Josh tried to pull Sam down on top of him, panting and needy, his eyes half-lidded and unfocused, but Sam held himself a few inches away, his hands on either side of Josh's head, not moving.

Josh groaned, his voice cracking, and raised his wild hungry gaze to Sam's face.

And felt the wind knocked out of him, felt his heart catch and stumble, felt his mind buckle and stall, felt his jaw drop and mouth go dry, because Josh had never seen anyone look like Sam looked in that moment, and he was overcome. Sam was staring down at him, his face staggered, scrawled with an expression of revelation so absolute that just seeing it threw Josh violently off-balance. Sam's eyes blazed neon blue, so bright it hurt Josh to look at them, but he couldn't tear himself away.

The enormity of what they were about to do, what they had already done, poured out of Sam's stunned face, the emotion pure and complete, like an unfiltered white light that scoured the room. Josh was blinded, couldn't see anything but Sam, Sam and his eyes like lanterns in a forest.

Terrified and exhilarated and hopeless and undone and reborn and embracing annihilation and shocked way down to their bones, Josh and Sam stared at each other, seeing every rollicking fear and spiraling, hysterical desire that flooded from the other's face, and they couldn't summon the breath to speak, and everything was coming to them at once.

Finally, Josh lifted a hand, trembling like a windowpane in a howling tempestuous wind, and slid his fingers down Sam's cheek, closing his eyes briefly to just touch Sam, feeling like a bomb had detonated in his chest. Sam sighed, the sound miraculous and inexplicable and sad, and Sam was kissing him again before he could open his eyes, and Josh let himself fall.

They rolled across the floor, moving against each other, and above them, the ceiling started to swerve, the sky falling, the world coming to an end, and they missed it all, unable to take their eyes off each other.

Josh's last thought before he gave up rational contemplation all together was that Sam must be a tornado, he must have the power to snatch houses off the ground, and tear trees out by the root, and swirl whole lakes up into the clouds, Sam must be an act of God that could alter the shape of the landscape, because Josh had never been so demolished and blown away as he was that night.

* * *

Josh awoke to Sam freaking out.

He could tell before he even opened his eyes, could hear Sam's fingers drumming on the carpet near Josh's head, could feel the tension beating out of him.

Josh sighed inwardly, wondered how badly Sam had psyched himself out. Josh made a production of stretching languidly and yawning, giving Sam plenty of time to prepare for the discussion that was unavoidable.

Josh was lying on his side, and when he blinked his eyes open, he saw Sam lying on his back beside him, staring up at the ceiling, emitting a remarkably intense aura of panic for someone not moving or speaking.

It was still dark out the window, but the heat was already crowding into the room, greedy and taking up space between them like a physical being. Josh was parched, his mouth sticky and his throat arid. The muscles in his lower back throbbed, and his jaw ached. There were bruises in the shape of fingerprints on his hips, and his mouth felt swollen, his eyes rough and gritty. He was sweaty and rank, hungry and still tired. His world had been upturned, his life drastically, irrevocably different from the night before. He couldn't think straight, his mind flitted around like a moth. He'd been ripped apart, scraped out, dismantled and then put back together haphazardly and without any design, and now it was like his parts didn't fit quite right, like his limbs were hanging loose and might fall off at any moment.

All in all, he really felt quite fantastic.

He cuffed Sam on the shoulder, getting him to face him. Josh grinned broadly at his friend, seeing the dark marks adorning Sam's neck and shoulders, souvenirs of Josh's mouth and teeth, and Josh tried to think of the last time he'd given or received a hickey, concluding that it hadn't been since prom, junior year, in the back of the limo with Karen DiSorna. Josh was feeling young and invincible.

Sam tried to smile back at him, but it was a sickly attempt, and he soon turned his eyes back to the ceiling, a furrow digging between his eyebrows, looking forlorn and disturbed, not at home in the world any more.

Josh rolled his eyes, feeling too good to let Sam flipping out bother him. "So, that was new," he said impishly, quirking his eyebrow.

Sam started at the sound of Josh's voice, his hands jolting off the floor. He skittered a quick look at his friend then went back to his resolute study of the ceiling. "Uh, yeah. Yeah. New," he replied, his voice hoarse and uneven.

Josh decided the best way to snap Sam out of this fugue was force the issue (he was also finding it unexpectedly difficult to keep his hands off the other man), so he scooted close and tossed his arm over Sam's chest, nuzzling his head against Sam's shoulder, sighing contentedly and pressing a kiss to the flushed skin of Sam's collarbone.

Sam jerked instinctively at Josh's first touch, wincing and trying to escape, his body withdrawing, but Josh hooked his arm around Sam's side and held him firmly in place. Sam raised his hands in alarm, flattening his palms on Josh's shoulders and attempting to shove him away, but Josh refused to be moved.

"J-Josh, what're . . . what're you doing, man?" Sam asked, all high and breaking.

"Using you as a pillow," Josh mumbled into Sam's warm body, breathing in deep. Sam was tense underneath him, wires pulled taut in his muscles, and he kept trying to push Josh off, his hands prodding ineffectually, his agitation growing every second.

"Um, don't. Josh, get . . . get off. Come on. Um. Off. Please?"

"How is it possible that the United States government pays you to write speeches for a living? I've got houseplants more articulate than you," Josh chastised lazily, idly sketching loops and swirls on Sam's side with his fingertips.

Sam drew in a hitching breath, and Josh didn't have to look up to know that his eyes were darting around like a scared rabbit, searching for a way out, frantic and distraught.

"No, n-no, seriously, get off. I--you gotta get off. I don't . . . get off!" Sam was getting more worked up, his voice rising, his hands jabbing at Josh's shoulders more insistently, his body beginning to shudder, and Josh decided to put an end to this.

In one swift movement, he levered himself up, twisting to hover over Sam, his hands nailing Sam's shoulders to the floor to keep the man from rolling away. Josh fixed his eyes on Sam's intently, unwaveringly, forcing the other man to meet his gaze. Sam's eyes were flashing, racing and ducking across everything in his range of sight.

"Sam." The steel in Josh's voice left Sam no option other than staring up at him and listening to what he would say. "You need to knock it off. And you need to do it five minutes ago."

Sam was shaking his head before Josh had gotten the first sentence out, compulsively denying and refusing, flopping back and forth like a beached fish. "I'm not . . . I'm not doing an-anything, I'm fine, we're fine, just let me up, come on, let me up," he rambled out, begging Josh.

Josh moved his hands from Sam's shoulders and framed Sam's face with them. He held Sam steady, keeping him from squirreling away, then leaned down and sealed their mouths together. Josh kissed him thoroughly, deep and tender, intending to dispel any misgivings Sam might have by driving him senseless. Josh was fully confident that he could inspire such an effect in his friend, if he put his mind to it.

Sam's body stiffened briefly at the first touch of Josh's lips to his, his muscles tightening in preparation of bucking violently and dislodging his assaulter, but Josh drew Sam's lower lip in between his teeth and then swept his tongue through Sam's mouth, abruptly turning the kiss into something fast and hard and dirty, and Sam groaned, his hands shifting from pushing at Josh to clinging to him, bringing their bodies flush together, and Sam was kissing Josh like the world was ending, pouring everything out in one desperate, wrenching, scorching, pleading, fiercely gentle kiss.

When Josh pulled away, he had to take a moment to regain his composure, feeling like he might have been driven a little senseless by Sam, which certainly hadn't been part of the game plan.

After a few careful, measured breaths, Josh eyed Sam, who rested passively beneath him. "Okay?" Josh asked warily.

Sam smiled beatifically and nodded dreamily. "Yeah, okay. Sorry about that."

"S'okay," Josh said happily, settling back down against Sam, feeling giddy and joyful when Sam cautiously slid his arm around Josh, brushing a hand through Josh's mop of soft, unwashed corkscrews that rustled on Sam's chest.

They were still for a moment, getting used to this new development, this lying in each other's arms on the floor, both deciding that it appealed to them greatly.

Sam broke the silence, "So, this is a little weird."

Josh chuckled, poking Sam lightly with his finger, "I'd like it noted for the record that when I made that exact same observation last night, you were halfway to Baltimore before I could get you to calm down."

Sam angled a look down at his friend, saying with a tilt of his eyebrow, "You'd like it noted for the record? I'm sorry, did you hire a stenographer while I wasn't paying attention?"

Josh scowled good-naturedly. "No. Smartass."

They were quiet again, both smirking at the other, then Sam said, "So, weird."

Josh nodded agreeably, his cheek stroking on Sam's chest. "A bit weird, yeah."

"A distinct theme of weird," Sam declared.

Josh rolled his eyes. "Shall we discuss the weird, or just continue reaffirming its existence?"

"Oh, let's discuss it, by all means," Sam said enthusiastically. Josh looked at him askance, tipping his head at an odd angle to cock his eyebrow at Sam, silently questioning his eagerness. Sam shrugged at the scrutiny, the motion jostling Josh, saying defensively, "I don't know, just seems like the thing to do. Like we should know where we stand before we decide what to do next."

Josh tapped out some Morse code on Sam's ribs, watching the sky through the window over their heads. He wondered how much time they had until the sun came up. He tried to picture what Sam would look like in the full light of day, if Josh would still be able to see the bruised stains that his mouth had imprinted in Sam's skin. "So, where do we stand?" he asked, trying not to hold his breath.

Sam's fingers in Josh's hair slowed, became thoughtful and hypothetical. "Well, I mean, I guess we could . . . if we wanted to say it was just a one-time thing-" and Josh's heart crushed a bit in his chest, making it hard for him to breathe-"We weren't really drinking that much, but I suppose we could blame it on the weather. You know. How people go a little crazy in the heat, crime rates go up and riots and stuff like that. So. We could . . . we could say that."

Josh couldn't tell whether Sam's apprehensive proposal was him trying to predict what he thought Josh was going to want, or if blaming it on the weather was really how Sam wanted to handle it.

Frankly surprised that he could force the words out of himself, feeling rusty and feeble, Josh asked haltingly, "Is . . . is that what you want to do?"

Sam tugged Josh's head out a bit so Sam could tilt his face to look down at the other man, saying earnestly, "Is that what you want to do?"

Josh closed his eyes, rasping out a mirthless laugh. He didn't want to look at Sam, not if Sam was going to be staring at him with his flawless eyes. "I would have thought that one of the benefits of not being involved with a woman would be avoiding these kinds of conversations."

Hearing Sam's snort of laughter, Josh shifted back down to rest his head on Sam's chest and stare down the length of his body. When Sam spoke, he could hear it rumbling hollowly beneath his ear. "Would it . . . would it be an impossible thing for me to ask you to . . . um. Hell." Sam blew out an explosive breath in frustration.

Josh skated his hand across Sam's stomach, concentrating hard on the feel of the man's skin, trying to sound casual, "Ask me to what?"

There was a long moment, and Josh had to tighten his jaw and squeeze his eyes shut to keep from turning to Sam. Sam ghosted his palm over Josh's shoulder, and said with not even the slightest tint of optimism in his voice, "Would it be terrible if I asked you to . . . maybe . . . not say it's a one-night thing? Maybe have it be . . . more?"

Josh swiveled his head so sharply he almost broke something, and gaped at Sam, who smiled with sad resignation, and said, "Yeah, I know. Bad idea. After the way I was last night, and this morning, I shouldn't have expected any different. I acted like an idiot, there's no reason why you should want to continue this with me." Sam sighed, pulled his eyes away from Josh, and his hand on Josh's back was shaking as he stared away at nothing, trying to keep his face still.

Josh was floored, flabbergasted by information coming from all sides. Sam wanted to continue with him, and Sam somehow thought that Josh would turn him down? His mouth hanging open, speechless, Josh just processed it all for a moment, then he gathered his senses together and grinned, ecstatic as his life fell into place.

"Sam," he said, trying to sound composed and sober. Sam made a non-committal grunt in response, refusing to turn his head. Josh, exasperated and joyous, reached over to take firm hold of the other man's chin, pulling him around so that they were face-to-face. Looking into Sam's heartbroken eyes, Josh realized with a shock that he was about to give Sam one of the best moments of his life. Josh blinked, and swallowed, suddenly nervous, scared he would mess up the responsibility.

But Sam had despair bleeding out of him, and Josh didn't care about the cosmic or karmic ramifications anymore, he just wanted to take that look from out of Sam's eyes.

"You know what your problem is?" Josh said quietly, bringing his hand up to curve around the back of Sam's neck. Sam, wide-eyed, shook his head wordlessly. Josh pulled Sam's face down, whispering, "You never listen."

And then Josh kissed Sam as softly and sweetly as he could, feeling like this was a dream, or a memory, or maybe the place he had been looking for his entire life.

Sam wouldn't let him pull away, keeping Josh close, staring down into his face with disbelief and the possibility of a miracle shading his eyes. Josh reached up his hand and ran it down the side of Sam's face. "I told you it's not a bad idea. I told you it's a wonderful idea." Josh grinned, silly and brilliant. "It's the best idea ever."

Sam held him for a few dazed moments, hectically scanning Josh's face for the slightest hint of derision or insincerity. Josh beamed at him. The miracle washed into Sam's eyes, and he threw back his head and laughed, the sound young and marvelous. Josh hugged him tight, feeling the relief and delight ripple through Sam's body.

At some point, Sam laughing turned into Sam smothering Josh with kisses, and that lasted until they were both breathless and woozy, their heads swimming. They rested together, and it was simple and felt like home.

Josh gazed around his apartment, bleary and thankful, the world looking more beautiful than it ever had before. He felt the day's rising temperatures begin to pool on his skin, felt the sweat begin to slick across both their bodies, and cast an eye towards his busted air-conditioner and television, feeling no malice or frustration towards the disrepair, his heart gone all cool and serene.

Josh found himself wishing, improbably and unexpectedly, that the forces aligned against him would never give up their siege, that his house would fall to pieces around him, that the heat wave would never break, that the sky would never be anything other than endlessly, overwhelmingly blue, that the sun would forever drench the world with this heroic, epic heat and light, that the summer would never end, that he would be allowed to stay in his dilapidated home for the rest of time, sunburned and lying on the floor, curled around Sam, talking about baseball and learning the tastes hidden in every corner of their bodies.

The sun was rising, the pale watery light washing in through the window, coloring the shadows like ash, making Josh and Sam indistinguishable wrapped up in each other. Sam had faded off to sleep, and Josh slowly trailed his thumb down the line in the center of Sam's sternum, traced it onto his stomach, where it followed a sparse arrow of hair downwards. Josh watched his hand moving on Sam with intense concentration, and something akin to amazement. Josh left his fingers slightly bent and resting on Sam's stomach, and craned up to place a chaste kiss on Sam's cheek. Sam's mouth crooked slightly in his sleep, a faint, lovely smile that drifted across Sam's face like waves breaking on the shore.

Josh decided that he probably hadn't been born under a bad sign, after all.

He nestled back down, unerringly finding the place where he fit perfectly against Sam's body, and there was Sam's hand stroking unconsciously down Josh's shoulder, and there was Josh turning his face into Sam's chest and trying to get lost within the other man, and there was the sun coming up, there was the new day stealing closer to meet them, and there was Josh grinning against Sam's skin, and blinking back tears, and there was the last thought that scattered through Josh's mind before he crashed into sleep: "The best idea ever."

THE END