TITLE: That Music
AUTHOR: Ellen Milholland
SERIES/SEQUEL: Sequel to 'People Living Brightly.'
SPOILERS: 18th and Potomac
ARCHIVE: Ask me first.
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimers apply.
SUMMARY: "He kisses her then, roughly and desperately, in relief, perhaps, or because of the pain, or because she is there and isn't as broken as he is."
She is awake at 3:20am, lying on her back, watching the light from the television screen move across the textured ceiling. Her legs are tangled in the crisp white sheets and stiff blue blankets, and she has the window open wide. A cool breeze blows through the room and lifts strands of her hair from the pillow, brushes across her forehead.
She has been waiting, waiting for him. She believes, deep down, that he will come for her tonight. There is no rationality to the belief, just the way his lips had been warm against her face, and the way he had touched his fingers to the small of her back as they'd left Baxter's.
The fact that he has never made a promise with his eyes that he hasn't kept.
But she has no idea of when he'll be finished, and so she waits, her body stretched tight with impatient energy. It had occurred to her around 2 o'clock that he might not be through tonight at all, that they might work all the way until morning, that the problems might be bigger than a few dark hours.
Even still, sleep hasn't come, and so she concentrates on the lights and the shadows in the room around her, the feel of the sheets beneath her bare shoulders, the tension in her neck. She cannot remember a time when the muscles in her back weren't twisted up into tiny, angry knots, and the pain makes her wince sometimes, even though she's on more ibuprofen than can possibly be healthy.
She concentrates on the feel of her pager, so still, against her stomach. She has learned, over the years, to sleep on her back in hotels where she doesn't have all the amenities of home. She has come to learn how she can hold the little pager against her skin all night, so she can be woken up at any time, if the need arises. And so now she lies still, waiting for it to vibrate against her navel. Waiting for him to come to her.
She manages to nod off past 3:45, her eyes drifting shut, and her hands, clenched into tight fists, relaxing against the bedclothes. She dreams some, dreams not of him but of children splashing silently in swimming pools and of starfish on long beaches and of sweet, ripe strawberries. Her dreams make as little sense as her life, and she jerks awake when she feels the little vibration against her skin.
She reads the display, and all it says is his name. It is enough, and so she pushes herself up, gets wearily to her feet, her movements and mind thick with lack of sleep. She unlocks the door, opens it and leaves it a little ajar, so that he can get in without knocking, goes back to sit in one of the stiff hotel chairs near the stunted hotel table.
There is a half finished can of Diet 7-Up and the remnants of the tomato sandwich she'd ordered from room service as she'd passed through the lobby hours before. She pushes them to the side, puts her feet up on the table. She's trying to look casual, and knows she's failing miserably.
Her back is to the door when it opens, but she is not surprised when the light turns on behind her, or when he brushes her face as he moves past her. She could feel the little movements he'd made as he'd locked the door, could feel the vibrations of his feet as he neared, could feel the little hop-step hesitation he'd made as he'd first seen her.
He is looking down at her, and he takes the soda can and drinks from it without asking. She just looks at him, her eyes tired and her lips dry. Just looks at him, as he tries to decide what to say, watching her, his face slack but his eyes wide and needing. And his hand trembles as he reaches out to touch her ankle.
That is the worst thing, that trembling, the thing that makes her palms sweat. That is the worst thing, because she cannot bring herself to believe that he is falling apart like this.
"Hi, Josh," she says.
"Hey," he replies, blinking slowly, his fingers touching her instep.
"How did it go?"
"Oh, just great. Really great." His lip curls into almost a grimace, bitter and ugly.
"That bad," she says, but it isn't really a question.
"Yes," he nods, and he brushes her knee before standing and walking towards the open window. His skin is starkly white against the perfect black backdrop of the night sky. He rests his hands against the window frame, and she can see him taking long, measured breaths.
"I couldn't really sleep," she says abruptly, because she cannot bear to watch him fight back tears like that, because she cannot bear to think that he is about to break down right in front of her. She can feel the numbers, horrible in her hands and in her mind, and she feels as if she has betrayed him somehow.
He turns to her, and his eyes are red. "Are you alright?"
"I was waiting for you." She speaks slowly and deliberately so that he can catch every word. His forehead furrows in concentration as he watches her mouth move.
"I... I'm sorry. For all of this. For dragging you into it."
"Josh, it's okay."
"God, I hate when people say that."
"Then it's not okay. But you have bigger problems than me."
"Yeah, maybe. Nothing that will matter in a few weeks, though."
"Do you really believe that?" He does not understand, and so she shakes her head and tries again. "Do you think--"
"You said it yourself, Joey. Nobody's going to vote for him," and she can tell that this is the worst possible defeat. He would've been able to take anything, anything at all, except losing reelection. He has become part of this Administration, this homogenizing, overwhelming force, and he forgets what he was outside of it.
"No, probably not," she agrees slowly, and then she stands and moves towards him on the balls of her feet. She is wearing wispy silk pajamas, a tank top that brushes her stomach as she walks, little shorts that cover only the tiniest amount of her flesh.
She is pale in the moonlight as she looks down at her own limbs, but her skin shines in contrast to the black silk.
She touches his back, runs a finger down his spine through his rumpled dress shirt. His head falls against his chest, and she touches the back of his neck.
He turns around slowly, and when he faces her, they are only millimeters apart. "I just... Mrs. Landingham died tonight."
She has never met the woman, but Mrs. Landingham is the stuff of White House mythology, with her cookies and her no-nonsense attitude and her endless well of strength. And so she says, "I'm sorry," and she means it.
He closes his eyes for a long time, and when he opens them, he is shaking his head. "I don't-- Joey, I--" And then he is putting his hand against her waist, fingering the edge of her tank top. "Let's not talk about this. I don't want to talk about this, anymore. I've spent the last seven hours dealing with death and reelection and I just--"
"Okay, Josh. What should we talk about?" she asks.
"Well, we could talk about you." He slips his hand beneath the thin silk, touching his fingers to the flesh at the top of her hip.
"Me?" Her throat is dry again.
"You," he nods. "Did you sleep at all?"
"A little while. I kept waking up. Dreams."
"Yeah, I know nightmares. Been having one myself, but I haven't managed to get to sleep, yet."
"You can sleep here," she says, and he spreads his fingers out against her back.
"Good." The ghost of a smile brushes against his mouth.
"You can do more than sleep here," she says, her eyes wide, reaching up to touch his face. Her fingers graze his cheeks, and his forehead, and his lips. He draws in a sharp breath and, his hand against her back, pulls her against him.
She can feel the way his whole body shudders just below his surface, and somewhere beneath that, she can feel the hummingbird flutter of his heart. Her knee touches his, his hands are tucked neatly in the even grooves of her ribs, her hands are against his face.
Their mouths are close together, and so they stand there, like that, the silk of her top bunching around his wrists and her fingers stroking his cheekbones, feeling the touch of the other's breath on their skin. He reeks of coffee and there is a tiny smudge of graphite on his chin like a wound.
And so she does what she can to heal him. She touches her mouth to the spot in not quite a kiss. But it is enough, and soon her tongue is carefully sliding along his teeth, and then he is sucking on her lower lip and she is pressing her hips against his.
She can't hear it, but she can feel the thrumming vibration of his moan, and then they are staring at one another, their lips touching but just barely, their mouths open. Her hands sign impatient little words at the nape of his neck.
He pushes her away, a little, so that she can see his face, and he begins to say something, but it gets lost as he drops his mouth to her shoulder. And so there are no words, not then, just the feeling of his lips against her skin, the flick of his tongue against her throat.
He touches the outside of her thigh, and she steps back so that she can see him. She signs his name; he licks his lips and stumbles as he spells through the words, "I want you," the final U lingering on his fore- and middle fingers.
And so she spells back to him, so slowly, "I know," biting her lip and hating the fact that her hands shake.
That is when he is against her, pulling off her top and letting her unfasten the buttons of his shirt. He's pushing her back onto the tangled pile of bedclothes, but then she's atop him, and her legs are straddling his hips, and she is looking down at him, and he is hard against her.
The lights are on, and he touches his hands to her breasts, dips a finger in her navel, walks his fingers down her leg. She cannot hear the rustle of the sheets, cannot hear the exact timbre of his voice, cannot hear her own ragged breath.
She cannot hear him as he begs, in a murmur, for her flesh against his. But there is that music, in the quivering of his hands on her arms, in the movement of his chest as he breathes, in the flicker of his eyelashes against her cheek as she leans down to kiss him. There is that music that he makes in the pit of her stomach and the burning in her lungs.
There is music in the tiny violence, the pull of his fingers in her hair as she slides down his body and helps him out of his pants, helps him into a condom, laps at the inside of his thigh. Music in the way his hands search for hers, in the way he rolls her onto her back, in the way he explains everything that hurts him with his mouth mumbling against her breasts and her stomach, with his shuddering breath hot against her legs as he pulls off her shorts.
And later, when he is pinning her hands to the sheets and she is unable to breathe, his mouth moves again and she can see him saying, "Please don't go." His eyes are open, and he repeats it over and over, staring into her face. She responds by arching her back, driving her hips against his, trembling.
He kisses her then, roughly and desperately, in relief, perhaps, or because of the pain, or because she is there and isn't as broken as he is. And that kiss, the bruising grasp of his hands on her wrists, his sweat, the cold night breeze, it is almost... it is almost music.
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