TJ had been sober for forty-one days--a personal second-best since he finished high school--and he had gotten to the point where no one freaked out if he dawdled for an hour or so before he returned to the farm after his twice-weekly therapy appointment. He usually went shopping, because it was something to do that didn't require him to interact too much with other people and didn't make him feel too obviously, miserably alone. Mostly he picked up books, or DVDs to watch with Nana, since his wardrobe needs at the farm were pretty basic and all the actual necessities of life got delivered once a week.
Today he was just sitting in a bookstore coffee shop, killing time before he cracked and went to hide again. He'd cut off contact with all of his friends when he decided to stay at the farm instead of at Mama's in DC; he was trying to steer clear of Mama, Dad, and Douglas and everything they were involved with right now. It was the safe thing to do, but it meant he had basically no human contact outside of Nana, his therapist, and the part-time staff at the farm who were probably all reporting to his parents on his behavior. His therapist encouraged the dawdling thing; she said he had to learn how to operate in the world outside his family when he was sober.
So far he'd learned that it was pretty fucking boring, but on the other hand he'd decided he mostly didn't want to die and there was almost zero chance of him dying in a Barnes and Noble at three o'clock on a Tuesday. It was a tradeoff.
TJ was paging through a coffee-table book of Superman art when he caught sight of somebody approaching him out of the corner of his eye. He braced himself to get through the ensuing scene and then bolt. He could buy the book on Amazon and figure out a different place to hang out on Tuesdays from now on.
"Hey, sorry," the guy said, stopping well out of trying-to-touch-him range, which made TJ look up into a sharp-featured face that pinged something in his brain. Shaggy golden blond hair, arresting blue eyes--the guy was skinny and short, wearing an off-the-rack suit that cried out for tailoring, but there was something about him that riveted TJ's attention.
"You probably don't remember me," the guy said with an apologetic smile, "but my name is--"
"Stevie," TJ said as it dawned on him. It literally felt like the sun coming up, like waking up out of a long sleep, and TJ surged to his feet without thinking. "Oh my God, Stevie, I missed you so much."
Stevie looked startled, and then his apologetic smile widened into something unguarded. "I missed you too, Tommy."
He stepped closer, and TJ moved in for a hug, realizing even as he did that maybe he shouldn't--but if Stevie was here, if Stevie was approaching him in public, then it had to be all right. He had to know all the things everyone knew about TJ and not mind. Stevie hugged him back hard enough to make TJ's ribs ache, in fact, even though he felt smaller than Anne in TJ's arms. He'd always been one of the littlest kids in the class.
Stevie muttered, "God, Tommy, I really missed you," into TJ's shoulder.
"Me too, you have no idea," TJ said, forcing himself to step back. "Can you--are you here with someone? Can you sit a minute? Oh my God, Stevie, it's been forever, how..."
TJ couldn't even finish the question. How have you been? was the correct one, but somehow all he wanted to ask was How did you find me?
Like Stevie had come here for him on purpose. Like Thomas Hammond was so goddamn hard to find, even when he was more or less out of the public eye.
"Yeah, I can stay," Stevie said, just as the barista called out a black coffee. "Uh, let me just get that, I'll be right back."
TJ nodded and sank back into his seat without taking his eyes off Stevie. His shoulders were a little bit crooked like they'd always been, and TJ found himself scrutinizing Stevie's suit, wondering which pocket held an asthma inhaler. The teacher had always kept them for Stevie when they were at school; at Stevie's his mom had left an inhaler in his bedroom, and Tommy had known where to find it if Stevie needed it and knew to yell for Mrs. Rogers if Stevie had trouble breathing. On the rare occasions when he visited the governor's mansion Stevie had kept an inhaler in the front pocket of his overalls; the place was too big to rely on Tommy's mom or any of the staff getting to Stevie quickly enough.
Stevie hadn't been allowed to come over very often, which was fine with Tommy. He hadn't liked sharing Stevie with Dougie or his parents. He'd much preferred visiting the little apartment where Stevie and his mom lived without any staff or any nosy brothers. Stevie didn't even have a dad.
And then Tommy's dad had gotten elected president, and Tommy had moved in the middle of third grade from Raleigh to Washington. His parents had told him he needed to make new friends in his new city. They assured him that Stevie would make new friends in Raleigh. TJ remembered exchanging a few pencil-scrawled letters that winter, but they'd never seen each other again from the Friday before Inauguration Day 1991 until this summer Tuesday at the Crabtree Mall Barnes and Noble in 2012.
Stevie caught TJ staring when he turned around, but Stevie just smiled again, wider and happier than ever. He held TJ's gaze all the way as he wove through the cafe tables to where TJ was sitting with the cold dregs of his latte and his stack of coffee-table books.
"You a fan?" Stevie asked, nodding toward the Superman one as he sat down and took a sip of his coffee.
TJ smiled and shrugged. "Well, Superman. What's not to like, right?"
"I mean, as long as you stay away from the weirdly jingoistic arcs and any movie adaptation made since the eighties, nothing, really," Stevie said, his smile turning self-deprecating. "Y'know, if square-jawed burly guys in tights do it for you."
Stevie took a quick sip of coffee, then, like he was trying to cut himself off from saying anything else. TJ bit down on his lip and didn't let himself try to unravel whether that was an awkward acknowledgment of TJ's gayness or... something else.
"I never really had a crush on Superman," TJ volunteered, because Stevie had been probing for something in that neighborhood. "I spent too many of my formative years surrounded by indestructible guys who looked like Clark Kent. Can't resist a guy in a suit, you know?"
Stevie glanced down at himself and his self-deprecating smile just got more so. "I never could figure out how anybody didn't recognize Clark--I mean, maybe it's just all those years of figure drawing, but I can't believe anybody didn't see that he had Superman's body all the time. I'm sure the agents around you were like that, too."
TJ's smile turned a little stiff--he'd brought it up first and probably shouldn't have, but the instinct not to talk about his protective detail, and especially not any personal feelings he had about his protective detail, was still too firmly ingrained.
Stevie looked away like he'd caught TJ's flinch, his smile faltering a little, and TJ cursed himself. That almost certainly meant that Stevie had been flirting. Another memory popped into TJ's head and out of his mouth, like he was seven years old and didn't know better than to just say whatever he was thinking. He'd never had to watch his mouth with Stevie.
"Do you remember that game we used to play?"
Stevie looked up, blue eyes bright as they met TJ's, and TJ knew he remembered exactly what game TJ was asking about, and what TJ meant by bringing it up. TJ felt a little curl of warmth in his stomach at the knowledge that they were on the same page.
"We played a lot of games, Tommy. Memory, Connect Four, Hide and Don't Look for Dougie..."
TJ was startled into a laugh, and Stevie grinned at him again. "Oh shit, I forgot about that one, he stayed in that cupboard for like an hour, he was all proud of himself for winning."
And meanwhile Tommy and Stevie had been behind a pink silk sofa in one of the less-used formal parlors, playing Xs and Os, the one game they knew better than to let anyone catch them playing together. Some of the girls had invented that one when they were in first grade, and it had been all over the playground for about a month. Tommy and Stevie had kept playing it by themselves for a long time after.
"Well, it's true we didn't find him," Stevie said, almost smirking and definitely all grown up now.
"So, hey, speaking of guys in suits," TJ said, not fucking smooth in the slightest as he let Stevie see TJ looking him over. TJ knew this--even if the guy on the other end of the look was Stevie Rogers, and TJ had somehow managed to pick him up without even trying in a bookstore café in the middle of the afternoon while bewilderingly sober. TJ had just picked somebody up, and he knew how this went. He could do this.
He wasn't bored at all now.
Stevie didn't laugh out loud at him, but his eyes crinkled up in a smile.
"What's this for?" TJ asked, leaning forward and touching his knuckles to Stevie's lapel, just enough of a touch to suggest more. "You said you took art classes, you didn't end up selling out or something, did you?"
If he had sold out and this was the kind of suit he was buying, he hadn't gotten nearly as much as he was worth; even when they were kids, Stevie had loved art more than anything. Tommy had been the same way about music back then. They'd had all kinds of big plans for their future collaborations.
"Oh," Stevie said, and it was his turn to flinch a little. TJ drew back, dropping his hand to the table between them, but Stevie covered TJ's hand with his immediately, giving a little squeeze of his long fingers, the kind of touch TJ would expect from Nana.
"I'm in town to, uh, to visit my ma," Stevie said, and the falling tone of his voice left no doubt as to what kind of visit Stevie meant even before he added, "She's buried out at Raleigh Memorial."
"Oh, hell, Stevie," TJ said, turning his hand to hold Stevie's without thought. "Fuck, I'm so sorry, that's..."
TJ couldn't even speak, his throat closing up at the thought of Mrs. Rogers being dead. TJ found himself remembering her in a rush of images--her hands bandaging TJ's skinned knees, her voice explaining calmly to him what asthma was and how Stevie's inhaler helped when TJ sat by Stevie's side through an attack, the peanut butter sandwiches and carrot sticks he and Stevie ate for lunch at her kitchen table.
"Hey, no," Stevie said gently. "I'm sorry to spring that on you. It's been twelve years, I've made my peace with it. She's with Dad now."
TJ looked up, counting back. "Twelve years? Jesus, you were just a kid."
Stevie tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Senior year of high school. But I'd already gotten into art school, so it was just a few months of crashing at a group home before I turned eighteen and could go up to New York."
Stevie's birthday was the Fourth of July; fireworks always made TJ think of him for a second. He'd have aged out of foster care two months before school started, and God only knew what he'd done for the rest of that summer.
"Twelve years ago I was at fucking boarding school partying when I was supposed to be buckling down for my second try at a junior year," TJ said, watching Stevie's eyes for the judgment that had to be there somewhere. "Christ, Stevie, I wish I'd known. I could've hidden you in my bunk or something. The food wasn't bad, at least."
"I dunno that I would have done much better in your fancy boarding school than I did in the group home," Stevie said, smiling slightly, but his gaze stayed warm and his hand stayed wrapped around TJ's. "I wish you'd been in Raleigh with me, I could've helped you with your homework."
TJ gave a little laugh. Stevie had to know about Thomas Hammond, Troubled Party Boy. Everyone who even knew TJ's name knew that. "Homework wasn't really my problem, Stevie."
Stevie's smile was sad, and Stevie's eyes didn't waver. He was still holding TJ's hand. "No, I know. Homework was the part I could always help you with, though. At least when you weren't helping me."
TJ stared at Stevie. He remembered that, although he hadn't until Stevie said it. Tommy used to help Stevie with his homework whenever he'd been out sick for a while and needed to catch up--he had personally taught Stevie all about fractions and the water cycle--but there had been other times when Stevie had to help Tommy, even though Tommy had been right there next to him in school. Tommy never missed school. There was nothing wrong with him, except that sometimes he didn't hear what the teacher was saying, because....
"Hey," Stevie said, yanking TJ out of his thoughts. "I, uh, I haven't actually been to see my ma yet, I stopped for the coffee first. I know this is weird as hell, but--would you want to come with me?"
It should have been absurd, or morbid, or some kind of unthinkable--it was way off-script for any kind of hookup TJ had ever had--but TJ wanted to be wherever Stevie was. He especially wanted to be anywhere Stevie was and random bystanders with phones and Twitter apps weren't. And beyond that Mrs. Rogers was gone, and TJ was twelve years late paying his respects.
"Yeah," TJ said. "Please, yeah, I'd like that."
Stevie nodded and drank some more of his coffee, and TJ tried to sit still, be polite and patient. Stevie laughed into his cup and said, "Come on, let's get out of here."
TJ jumped up again, and this time Stevie's gaze raked down over him before he looked up and met TJ's eyes with a smile, so the hookup thing was still on, too, even if it was going to be weird. This was Stevie, of course hooking up with him was different than it was with anybody TJ hadn't been playing kissing games with when he was six years old.
TJ glanced down at himself as Stevie's gaze lingered. He was dressed aggressively casually--he was not trying to fucking impress his therapist--in sloppy old jeans and a comfy t-shirt. "Um. This is okay, right? She won't mind that I'm not dressed up?"
"She won't mind at all, Tommy," Stevie promised, standing up and reaching up to squeeze TJ's shoulder. "She always liked you. She thought you should've gotten more time to be a kid."
TJ looked away, because that--that sounded an awful lot like Stevie and Mrs. Rogers had talked about him after he moved away, maybe....
"We watched your interview, y'know," Stevie said, turning TJ toward the door, and TJ went where Stevie pushed him. "My ma and I. She already knew about me, but I officially told her that night. The next day I came out at school. Bi, not gay, because I had this whole thing with Peggy Carter in middle school that made that pretty clear to me, but it was still more than enough to make the rest of high school pretty exciting. There were a handful of us who were on Tommy's Team--"
TJ covered his face with his hands as they stepped out into the parking lot. He hadn't heard that particular phrase in a while, but every teenaged kid who came out for a few years after he did had declared themselves on his team, like he'd picked them for kickball. Like he would have picked anyone else to have to go through what he did, or to be what he was. Like he would have done that to Stevie, of all people.
Stevie just laughed. "It was good, though--I mean, I know it was probably awful for you. It was awful for all of us being out in 1997 in Raleigh, but we knew we weren't alone. It helped a lot, what you did. It helped a lot of kids. You helped me."
TJ looked over at Stevie and wanted to say--couldn't say--I wanted to die. I wanted to die before I came out and I wanted to die after.
"Yeah," TJ said instead, dredging up a smile. "The Secret Service let me read the letters from the kids who wrote to thank me. Some of them. I guess there were a lot."
Stevie's expression went weird, a kind of unhappy smile. He looked away as he said, "I wrote one of those. I guess I didn't make the cut. Probably sounded like a creep, asking if you remembered me."
TJ stopped dead in the parking lot. "You... seriously, you wrote to me? Back then?"
Stevie was squinting a little in the sunshine as he looked up at TJ. "Yeah, of course I did. You were my best friend when we were kids, and I missed you. Back then you and your family were in the news so much, it was almost like we were still in touch, you know? I knew all about what you were doing. After the interview I wrote to you to tell you how proud I was of you for coming out, and how I knew it was probably scary, and that I was there if you needed a friend."
Stevie hesitated a second and then added, "If it was cloudy where you were."
The only reason I wasn't trying to kill myself was that my detail wouldn't let me. TJ managed to bite back the words, but he grabbed Stevie and hugged him again, clinging.
"It was cloudy as hell," he said quietly.
That had been their code for all the times TJ couldn't pay attention in school, couldn't remember to eat at lunch if Stevie didn't prompt him to take every bite, couldn't do anything at recess but sit by the fence and let Stevie talk to him.
I have a cloud inside me, he'd told Stevie. God, they'd probably still been in first grade and he'd already been fucked up and needing to lean on someone else to get him through the day. And Stevie had remembered that all this time and still wanted--whatever Stevie wanted with him. TJ wasn't actually sure he was a good enough fuck to make all of that up to Stevie, but he could at least make a down payment.
Stevie's arms stayed around him, holding on tight, until a car beeped and TJ remembered they were standing in the middle of a mall parking lot.
"Jesus," he said shakily, letting Stevie drag him to one side so traffic could go by. "Sorry, I don't know what..."
Stevie squeezed one of his hands, and TJ could tell by the look on his face that he wasn't letting it go. But all he said was, "Why don't I drive? I can bring you back to your car after."
"Yeah," TJ said, looking around and trying to remember where the hell he'd even parked. "Yeah, sounds good."
Stevie turned away and towed TJ by the hand to a bright blue Honda, shiny and new-looking. It had New York plates and a rental company sticker on the bumper.
"You went back to the mother country, huh," TJ observed. Stevie had always been obstinately proud of being from Brooklyn, even though he'd been all of two years old when his dad died and his ma moved them to Raleigh for a fresh start. "Did you drive all the way down here from New York today?"
"I stopped in DC last night, crashed with an old friend," Stevie said, letting go of TJ's hand and giving him another little push toward the passenger side of the car. "I set my own schedule, so making the time is easy, but eight hours in the car in one day would wreck me for a week."
He knew he should be asking Stevie about New York, or about the kind of work he did where he got to set his own schedule, but TJ went wary and tense, and when they were both settled in the car he asked Stevie, almost casually, "What's your friend in DC do?"
Stevie flashed him a bright smile. "Don't worry, Tommy, he wears suits even less often than I do. He works at the VA--he does counseling for vets with PTSD. He went into the Air Force after 9/11, got into pararescue. Saved a lot of lives, and he still does."
That was actually kind of worse than finding out he was in politics or the press; TJ felt himself shrinking into his seat, just picturing the square-jawed burly pillar of perfection Stevie had spent last night with. His next attempt at casualness was even worse than the first, even though it was none of his goddamn business who Stevie slept with last night or tomorrow night. "So when you say old friend, you mean you guys are...?"
"We dated about ten years ago," Stevie said simply. "The first year I was in New York. Sam was already thinking about joining the military, which meant he couldn't be out, and it was really hard. I respected the choice he made, the sacrifices--I don't know if I wouldn't have done the same, if I thought being queer was the only thing keeping me from serving. But I couldn't live that way, and he understood that. And now he has an amazing and terrifying girlfriend and I am single and sometimes I sleep on his couch on my way down to Raleigh."
TJ ducked his head, feeling like an idiot for being so obvious, but Stevie just reached over and patted TJ's knee.
"I'm still friends with Peggy, too," Stevie went on. "I was definitely going to marry her when I was thirteen, and then her family moved back to England and now she does some kind of incredibly badass intelligence stuff she can't talk about. I've been lucky enough to know a lot of extraordinary people, Tommy, and I never want to let any of you go."
TJ looked over at that. "You can't--Stevie, you of all people know I'm only fucking famous because of who my parents are. You can't compare me to a--a war hero or a superspy or whatever other kind of perfect--"
"I never said any of you were perfect," Stevie interrupted. "And I definitely never said I cared about you being famous. I wish to God you hadn't been, Tommy. It would have been easier to find you on Facebook or something, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier on you. I've known you were special since I was five years old and you stepped in and charmed the pants off those first-graders who were pushing me around and made them leave me alone. You could have been friends with anybody, with everybody, but you picked me."
"Well, it's true I have excellent taste," TJ offered, smiling, and Stevie just rolled his eyes.
"And I can't think of anything more brave than coming out on national television--"
"It wasn't my choice," TJ said sharply, because he couldn't let Stevie of all people believe that that had been any kind of courage on his part. He'd barely made it out of sight of the cameras and his parents before he threw up, and his detail had taken mercy on him and kept that secret along with all the other ones.
"I wouldn't--if I'd had any kind of choice about it I'd probably still be in the closet, so don't think that that was some kind of noble thing I did. I'm glad somebody got some good out of it--I'm glad you did, Stevie--but don't give me any credit for it."
Stevie didn't say anything while he changed lanes twice, and TJ somehow wasn't surprised that he had kind of a lead foot. Sitting there in silence, it occurred to TJ that the last guy he'd told the truth about coming out had been Sean. TJ had been in love with him, and it had still been something he had to work up to confessing for days. With Stevie it was--not easy, exactly, but necessary in a way that meant he couldn't hesitate.
Stevie's hand was still on TJ's knee, and he squeezed gently. "You still did it, Tommy. You didn't want to, and it scared the hell out of you, but you did it. I was watching; I saw you do it. That's courage."
"I didn't have any choice," TJ repeated. "I was--I made a move on the boy I'd had a crush on all of freshman year, and instead of flipping out in a fucking normal way he started writing letters outing me to Republican senators. Every single one of them got a copy of the note I wrote to him. It was..." TJ winced, remembering all over again the sick, exposed horror of seeing that page covered with his own writing in his father's grip and knowing it wasn't even the only copy.
"One of them told my dad, but we had no idea how many more knew, how much of their staff knew, so--I'd been out to my parents for thirty seconds and suddenly I'm sitting there with Mama and Daddy and the press secretary and the director of communications and the agent in charge of our details and everybody's strategizing how I'm going to come out to stay ahead of the story and that's it. I just sat down in front of a camera and said my lines when they told me to."
"Jesus," Stevie said, and then, grimly, "you know, sometimes I'm really glad I will never have to decide whether to vote for your dad for anything."
TJ smiled tightly and ducked his head and didn't say, You've still got a shot at my mom.
"I mean, you get that that was bullshit, right?" Stevie went on, looking back and forth from the road ahead to TJ. "You were fifteen. The boy you had a crush on turned out to be a world-class homophobic bully and the adults around you should have protected you, not thrown you to the wolves. And I still think you were brave. You did it, and you survived it. You're still here."
TJ stopped smiling and didn't say, That wasn't my choice either.
He looked up instead, watched the suburban sprawl of northwest Raleigh going by, and changed the subject absolutely gracelessly. "So you don't have to wear suits and you're not working a 9 to 5--I'm guessing the art thing worked out?"
Stevie laughed a little, but he went with it. "Yeah, it actually did. I do a bunch of freelance stuff and I have this, uh, this webcomic that's gotten kind of a following. I'm paying the rent doing art, which I wouldn't ever have thought I could."
"Sure you thought you could," TJ said, turning his head to look straight at Stevie. No point pretending he wasn't interested, and it wasn't like he was going to salvage any dignity out of this. Stevie didn't seem to mind anyway. "We had it all planned out, don't you remember?"
Stevie smiled. "I remember we watched Fantasia enough times to kill two different video tapes. But I lost my composer, so there was a stretch there where I wasn't sure things were going to work out."
"You stuck with it, though," TJ said, and he didn't have to pretend to sound impressed. He didn't think it was just the afternoon light that made Stevie seem to glow golden. "You--God, you lost your mom, but you still stuck with it, put yourself through art school, everything. And look at you now."
Stevie smiled a little and shrugged, like he was nothing special. "What about you, do you still write music?"
TJ shook his head. "I hardly ever did, Stevie, just the kid stuff I did with you. I've--I've been playing more, lately, but that's all."
"Playing's good," Stevie said, and didn't push for anything more--probably because he was making the left turn into the cemetery.
Stevie drove past the church-like building and into the cemetery proper, parking on the side of the driveway. TJ got out when he turned off the car, and Stevie ducked into the backseat to come up with a bouquet of flowers, the stems wrapped in white. Stevie came around the car and took TJ's hand again with a determined look. TJ submitted to being led across the gentle green hillside to a particular stone-and-bronze rectangle like any other.
SARAH ROGERS, this one said. MOTHER. 1958-2000.
"Hi, Ma," Stevie said, in the same easy way he spoke to TJ. He didn't let go of TJ's hand as he knelt, and TJ followed him down. Stevie set down the flowers, and TJ noticed that the paper wrapped around the stems was really nice, and not anything a florist would use--drawing paper, secured by a row of raggedy-looking twist ties.
"I brought Tommy," Stevie said, swinging their hands a little between their bodies. "I thought you'd want to see him, so he can tell you what he's been up to since the last time you saw him."
"Oh, uh," TJ looked over at Stevie. "That's... a lot, I guess. I, uh..."
Stevie didn't actually start to laugh, just twitched a little. TJ did laugh, loud and startled, and shoved him with their joined hands. "What the hell, you jerk, what--"
Stevie was laughing too by then. He shoved back just as hard at TJ. "Well, I thought you might find it easier to talk to my ma, break the ice a little--"
TJ didn't think, just tackled Stevie flat on the grass like they were little kids, tugging his fingers free of Stevie's to give him a noogie and mostly just messing up his hair. Stevie squirmed under him, snatched a handful of grass and shoved it down the collar of TJ's shirt. TJ wriggled at the ticklish feel of the grass on his skin, and Stevie's hand caught the nape of his neck and squeezed a little bit, keeping him close.
TJ went still, looking down at Stevie looking up at him, sprawled out on the grass in the sunshine. "You're gonna wreck your suit," he said, his eyes locked on Stevie's, his voice sounding hoarse.
"Oh," Stevie said, and then, smiling a little, "X, X, X."
"You realize we are literally lying on your mother's grave," TJ pointed out. He glanced sideways at the headstone and the bouquet, and then looked the other way to see if anyone was watching. No one was; there was a cluster of people around a grave maybe fifty yards away, paying them no attention. The car and the curve of the hill blocked anyone else from seeing them.
"Ma wouldn't mind," Stevie said. "I told you, she liked you. But if you don't wanna take your turn..."
The whole point of the Xs and Os game was that it was a dare, as well as a memory game: you had to give up the demanded kisses and hugs on the spot and in the correct order. The fun of it was usually running up to some unsuspecting target and springing your list of Xs and Os on them. At school it had quickly evolved into a kind of tag with complex rules about when you could or could not be said to have fairly requested your Xs and Os.
But he and Stevie had never run away from each other. Tommy had started the game between them in the safe privacy of Stevie's bedroom, on a day when Stevie had been home sick. Tommy hadn't been able to think of another way to ask for a hug, to ask to be closer than sitting side by side reading a book. Kisses had been presses of pursed lips, weird and fascinating and grown up, fascinating because they were grown up, but they'd been little kids. TJ had never kissed Stevie Rogers for real, but Stevie had asked now, and TJ wasn't going to refuse.
"I'm just saying, people think I'm the freaky one," TJ said, smiling down at Stevie, shifting his weight a little to be sure he wasn't squishing him, which mostly just made the grass fall further down his back. TJ wrinkled his nose. "God, grass down my shirt. What the hell, Stevie."
"Maybe you should take it off, then," Stevie said, folding his arms behind his head. "I mean, stall as long as you want to, Tommy, I got all day."
TJ huffed and said, "O," and rolled onto his side, pulling Stevie with him so TJ could get his arms around him for a hug. Stevie's arms closed around his neck, and Stevie hugged him right back until TJ pulled away.
"X," TJ pronounced and smacked a loud, damp kiss against Stevie's left cheek, which made Stevie roll his eyes. He turned the other cheek, though, like a good Christian boy, for TJ to say, "X," again and kiss him there, too.
Cheek kisses did count, technically. That was how TJ had pulled off the only public instance of one boy springing Xs and Os on another without starting a fistfight: he'd run up to Dougie and demanded X-X-X-X-X. Dougie had laughed and said, "Okay, brother," and given him five showy kisses on the cheek. TJ hadn't known yet what it meant, but he'd known that he wanted a boy to be able to say that to another boy in the middle of the playground, and he'd wanted to be the boy who did it.
He'd also known he could only say it to Stevie in secret, but that secret had been out a long time now. Here in the middle of the cemetery on a sunny afternoon, in front of God and everyone--including Mrs. Rogers, who apparently wouldn't mind even if she were standing here in the flesh--TJ said, "X," one last time and lowered his mouth to Stevie's for their first real kiss.
It started the way they'd kissed as kids, just a dry press of lips, but even that made TJ shiver a little. When TJ's lips parted he didn't know if Stevie was following his lead or he was following Stevie's, but the kiss turned wet and open. It was still slow--not a filthy fast tongue-fuck, but breathing each other's breath, their mouths moving over each other with such care that TJ couldn't take it after a minute or two. He pulled away--all the way away, sitting up with a shaky laugh and looking anywhere but at Stevie. The kiss seemed to reverberate down his spine, and he felt shivery all over like he hadn't since he got out of the hospital.
"Jesus," TJ said, focusing on Mrs. Rogers's headstone for lack of anywhere else he dared to look. "And I'm a hundred percent fucking sober right now."
Stevie sat up in TJ's peripheral vision and scooted right over to sit next to him. TJ thought he should put his arm around Stevie--wanted to, didn't dare to somehow. He kept staring at the stone. 1958-2000. His own would have said 1982-2011, if. If.
"She was young," TJ said quietly. The last time he'd seen her she'd been barely older than he was now, and she'd been a mom, a grownup, taking care of him and Stevie, a point of certainty in their little kid world. Until she wasn't anymore. "How did it happen?"
Stevie sighed softly and leaned in against TJ, and TJ's arm went around him like a reflex. It felt good once it was there, easy and right, and Stevie snuggled closer to him, leaning his head lightly against TJ's shoulder.
"She got this drug-resistant pneumonia," Stevie said quietly. "Picked it up at the hospital, couldn't shake it."
TJ waited for Stevie to elaborate--that had to have been awful, it couldn't have been as simple as those brief, well-worn words--but instead the next thing Stevie said was, "What about you?"
Stevie swayed in the curve of TJ's arm, bumping his shoulder against TJ's side. "Obviously you didn't get quite this far," Stevie waved his free hand at his mother's headstone. "But from what I hear you got close. How did that happen?"
TJ should have deflected--he knew how to fucking deflect, he was a Hammond, after all. But he didn't talk to anybody these days except Nana and his therapist, and he was out of practice doing anything but telling the truth. Maybe he wanted Stevie to know, anyway, because he didn't really even hesitate.
Stevie's hand settled on TJ's knee again, but Stevie didn't pull away, didn't even pick his head up off TJ's shoulder. He didn't react like it wasn't a surprise at all. He reacted like it was exactly what he had bargained for.
"Which one are you ready to tell me about?" Stevie asked.
TJ snorted. "None of 'em. Cocaine. Carbon monoxide. I don't even remember most of the exciting parts."
"Sober, though, huh," Stevie said, still calmly, and TJ had to turn his head and press a hard kiss into Stevie's shaggy gold hair. Stevie raised a hand to the back of TJ's neck and held him there while he turned his head to kiss TJ properly, and the angle was awful but Stevie's mouth under his made TJ shiver like he was going to fall apart, like he'd never be able to hold together a shiny surface and deflect anything ever again.
Stevie let go and put his head back down on TJ's shoulder. "Sober how long?" Stevie inquired.
TJ wanted to say a month and a half or six weeks, but the truth fell out of his mouth in all its damningly exact detail. "Forty-one days."
Stevie squeezed his knee. "That's good, Tommy. I'm glad."
"I get therapy now and everything," TJ went on, because he wanted Stevie to be glad. He wanted Stevie to know that he wasn't a completely hopeless wreck, that he was going to pull himself together this time. He wasn't going to have to live in the safe exile of the farm forever. He might be all right going to New York someday, even.
Stevie pulled away slightly at that, actually looking TJ in the eye with an expression of relief that made TJ feel like he'd just leaped a motorcycle over a dozen flaming buses.
Stevie kissed him again, a quick touch, and he said, "I'm so fucking glad, Tommy--when I heard you'd tried to kill yourself, I--I couldn't stop reading all the articles about it, and all anyone talked about was you partying, you doing drugs, like that came out of nowhere, like--"
Stevie stopped, and TJ realized that he'd pulled away, that he was bracing himself.
The relief faded from Stevie's face, and Stevie took both of TJ's hands in his and looked down.
"I kept looking for it, in every article," Stevie said quietly. "I kept waiting to see it. I had it all written in my head. Thomas Hammond's lifelong struggle with depression... But it wasn't there."
TJ wanted to say, no, that wasn't it--that night he'd been depressed, sure, but he mostly--he was fine, he wasn't sad, he wasn't a sad person, he just--he just needed--
"And I started thinking maybe I was the only one who knew," Stevie went on steadily. "I started thinking maybe after you went off to the White House you never dared to tell anyone else about that cloud that was always inside you. And I got worried that maybe no one else saw it--maybe they just saw all the stuff you did to try to break through it and they didn't understand what you were fighting with."
TJ wanted to argue, wanted to deflect, wanted anything but Stevie seeing him right down to his bones. It was too late, though. Stevie had known TJ before TJ learned to hide the most important parts of himself from everyone. He'd never hidden anything from Stevie.
The best he could do was to say, "Were you so worried you came looking for me?"
It was Stevie's turn to look away, his cheeks going pink, and TJ barked a little laugh that didn't express half of what he felt, delight and relief and wild exhilaration.
"Oh my God, Stevie, it's been a couple years since I had a stalker! I'm so glad it was you."
Stevie started to laugh too, pink deepening to red on his cheeks and his shoulders hunching up. "Twitter does most of the stalking for me, I just have some Google searches on your name. And some tags bookmarked. You've been spotted in that coffee shop the last three Tuesdays running, so I figured I'd take a shot while I was in town."
"Good thing no one's too interested in me anymore if my cover's blown that bad," TJ said. "I'm gonna have to hang out somewhere else now."
Stevie nodded slightly and looked up cautiously at TJ through his hair, which was hanging down into his eyes.
"Don't worry," TJ said, leaning in to kiss Stevie's red cheek, fever-hot against his lips. "I'll send you some selfies to make up for all the creepshots you won't get on Twitter."
"You know it's definitely not stalking if you send the pictures to me yourself," Stevie said, slipping his arm around TJ.
"Yeah, well, I kind of have to report my stalkers to the police and my parents get all freaked out over it, so let's call you definitely not a stalker and avoid the whole thing," TJ muttered against Stevie's ear. "You're a nice boy, I know you're not gonna try to--"
TJ's phone chose that moment to start playing the theme from Golden Girls.
Stevie cracked up but didn't pull away, and TJ huffed and wiggled around to get his phone out of his pocket. "Sorry, it's my nana, I should take this."
Stevie waved a hand airily and TJ stayed right where he was, leaning into Stevie, as he answered the call. "Hey, Nana, what's up?"
"Sweetheart," she said. "I need you to laugh if you're in trouble, okay?"
TJ swallowed the instinctive urge to laugh at the instruction. Stevie--who was close enough to hear Nana's side of the conversation--had gone very still, and TJ tried to look around without being obvious, suddenly right back in the world of twice-yearly kidnapping protocol reviews from his detail. "Nana, I'm fine, what's going on? Are you--"
And then it caught up with him. TJ closed his eyes and dropped his arm from Stevie to cover his own face. "My phone and my car are both lo-jacked and when I didn't come home on time you saw that they were six miles apart and you're hoping I was kidnapped."
Stevie didn't say anything. His arm stayed around TJ.
"TJ," Nana said. "You know why I'm concerned."
"I know why you're concerned," TJ parroted back quietly, staring down at his own knees. "But I'm fine. I'm with--" a friend, but no, that would be the least reassuring thing he could say right now. "Do you remember Stevie Rogers? I don't know if you ever met him."
"Stevie Rogers your kindergarten sweetheart who you cried your heart out for the whole first year you lived in the White House?" Nana asked.
Stevie's shoulder jerked against his, so he'd definitely heard that.
TJ closed his eyes, but he was smiling a little. "Yeah, Nana, that Stevie Rogers. I ran into him in Raleigh and--I swear to you, I'm not even making this up--he told me his mom died twelve years ago and he was on his way to the cemetery to visit her grave. I came with him to pay my respects, okay?"
"Sure," Nana said, "and after that you're just going to go back to his place for a drink, and go with him to see some other friends of his, and--"
"Ma'am?" Stevie said, leaning in almost kissing-close, and startling Nana into silence.
TJ shifted away just enough to see Stevie's face, which was set in a mulish, irritated expression. He kept the phone close enough for Stevie to talk into.
"Ma'am, this is Steve Rogers, and I gotta tell you, I'm asthmatic, prone to heart arrhythmia, and I'd barely know where to buy drugs back in Brooklyn where I actually know people, let alone in Raleigh where I haven't lived for twelve years. Tommy's been very kind about keeping me company at the cemetery here, and I assure you I'm not about to lead him into a life of debauchery, but I do apologize if I've kept him out past his curfew."
Nana was silent for a second, and then she laughed. "That one's a keeper, TJ."
TJ grinned. "Yeah, well, we'll see, Nana. I'll be home soon, okay? I'll call. I'm fine."
"TJ, honey," his Nana said, and TJ ruthlessly hung up and pocketed his phone.
"So that was approximately as embarrassing as humanly possible," TJ said. "But, uh, thanks for sticking up for me?"
"Sorry," Stevie said, ducking his head. "I just--I know she knows you better than I do, but I didn't like her just--expecting all of that."
"I mean," TJ looked away. "She's probably not wrong, Stevie. If I'd run into somebody else today, I don't know."
"Good thing I was stalking you, then," Stevie said simply, swaying into him again.
"Yeah," TJ said. He had no idea how to make it sound as sincere as he meant it, aware of the near-miss like he'd just dodged a car accident by inches, like he'd felt the breeze of a freight train going by. "Good thing."
They sat a moment in silence, Stevie's words playing over in TJ's ears. After a while TJ said, "Steve, huh. I guess you're too old for Stevie."
Stevie shrugged. "You're still Tommy to me. You want me to call you TJ?"
"Nah," TJ said. "I got enough people who call me TJ. Not so many who call me Tommy."
"Same," Stevie said simply. "Come on, you want me to take you back to your car?"
TJ sighed. "Yeah, I guess."
He should have known reality would intrude, that he couldn't actually escape his safe little prison out at the farm long enough to do much of anything. Baby steps, anyway, right? At least he could get Stevie's phone number. They could stay in touch this time. He could have one friend who was safe, who wanted him to stay on track. Who knew him.
"I was thinking maybe I could stalk you all the way home," Stevie added. "I should apologize to your Nana for being so rude."
"Oh, God, yes," TJ said, straightening out of his slouch and grabbing at Stevie, who kind of threw himself at TJ and wound up straddling his lap, arms looped around TJ's neck. "Please tell me you would like to apologize to Nana in the form of staying all night and having breakfast with us in the morning."
Stevie was grinning as he ducked his head to kiss TJ, short little pecks that belied the very grownup pressure of Stevie's thighs around TJ's hips. "Well, if your guest room is going cheaper than that motel I was going to crash in..."
"Sorry, no guest room," TJ lied cheerfully. "My bed's pretty big, though, I bet we could share."
"Hmmm," Stevie said, and kind of spoiled the effect of pretending to consider it by giving TJ a long wet kiss before he said, "Breakfast included, huh?"
"I'm totally not a terrible cook," TJ lied again. "Breakfast'll be great. You don't wanna miss it."
Stevie's eyes were sparkling, bright blue and happy--happy with TJ, knowing all the worst things about him and happy anyway. Not because he was Thomas Hammond, not because he could brag about this on Twitter. Stevie was Tommy's, TJ's, fair and square and just for him.
"Yeah," Stevie said, and kissed TJ again. "Yeah, why not."
TJ laughed instead of listing reasons.
They got about five miles out of Raleigh before Stevie sped up and passed TJ. A second later TJ's phone rang with the generic ringtone--he hadn't had a chance to assign one to Stevie yet, just barely got his number programmed in before they got in their separate cars.
"Okay, a) you drive slower than my ma and she's been dead for twelve years," Stevie said, and TJ cracked up almost too much to hear what came next, "and b) I'm gonna get off the phone and pull up a GPS and still be less of a hazard than you staring at me in the rearview mirror, okay?"
"I can't help it, you make awesome faces," TJ said. "And you're so fucking pretty."
"How about you drive between the lines and keep your eyes front until we get to wherever we're going and then tell me how pretty I am," Stevie said. "Gimme the address."
Stevie recited it back after TJ rattled it off, and then said, "Try and keep up, okay?"
TJ sped up until he was more or less on Stevie's bumper, and Stevie hung up and flipped him off. TJ fell back to a safe distance while Stevie was fiddling with his phone, getting the map set, and then he had to stomp on the accelerator when Stevie took off.
Tailing Stevie certainly made the drive up to the farm more interesting than it usually was, to say nothing of faster. When they hit the dirt road TJ hit his horn once and pulled out around Stevie, both to lead the way on the unmarked roads and to make sure Stevie didn't try to take it faster than his little Honda could handle.
That meant TJ had a totally unobstructed view when they came around the corner to the road the farm was on and a black SUV came into view. It was parked a hundred yards ahead, fifty yards short of the lane into the farm, and TJ groaned at the sight. He glanced into his rearview mirror, looked ahead at the SUV again, and pulled over, still well away from the agents in the SUV.
Stevie pulled over right behind him. He was already out of the car, looking puzzled and a little worried, when TJ came back to meet him.
"So I probably should have called Nana back," TJ said. "Because it looks like she might have been trying to warn me that we have company."
Stevie's eyes widened a little, flicking over to the SUV. "Company like one of your parents, or company like the actual sitting president?"
"Oh, they'd have stopped us at the turn for the president," TJ said, remembering what the security procedures used to look like out here. "Also both of my parents hate him on a personal level--uh, don't tell anyone that, okay?--so I don't think he's getting invited out here anytime soon."
Stevie nodded thoughtfully. "So--your mom? Your dad? What do you think?"
TJ looked over at the SUV again. Nobody had gotten out yet, which on the one hand was because they'd recognized TJ, but on the other hand meant they weren't at their very most paranoid, with Stevie right there. "Mom, probably? But ever since the plane crash and Garcetti and everything the details have been more uptight than usual, so I don't know."
Stevie nodded. "So what do you want to do?"
TJ threw his hands up. "I wanna take you back to the farm and spend the rest of the day and all night in bed with you, but that's kind of shot, so--fuck my life, cockblocked by my mom and the fucking Secret Service--"
"Okay, hey, come on," Stevie caught TJ's gesticulating hands and held them. "We'll figure something out, Tommy. I'm not going back to Brooklyn before I've gotten you into bed, I promise."
TJ stopped, a sudden grin taking hold of his mouth as Stevie smiled at him, blushing a little. "Seriously?"
Stevie rolled his eyes. "I'm a city boy, I didn't follow you out here for the fresh air. Yeah. Now come on, we need to decide on our plan of attack, here. Tactical retreat to a hotel until your mom and her detail go away? Or frontal assault, roll on in there and make it work?"
TJ's hands squeezed a little on Stevie's. "I fucking hate sleeping in hotels, honestly," TJ said.
"Well, I don't know how much sleep you were planning on getting," Stevie said, smile curling into a smirk that TJ felt low in his gut. "But, yeah, come on. It's your home, you shouldn't let your mom dropping in chase you away, right?"
TJ nodded firmly. "Except--ugh, they're gonna want to clear you, which I am so sorry about. They probably won't be complete assholes about it, but I really hope you're as squeaky clean as you implied to my grandmother or it'll get sort of awkward. Which is fucking hilarious, when you're coming in with me, but they get all these ideas."
"Should be okay," Stevie said, but he got kind of a weird look on his face.
"Stevie? If it's a problem, we can take the fuck off, I don't care--"
Stevie shook his head quickly. "It's not, like--" Stevie took one hand away to push his hair back in a nervous gesture, and the pink of his cheeks was deepening. "I dunno, do you think background checking is going to include Googling my name?"
TJ raised his eyebrows. "They might, yeah. Stevie? Did you, like, go to some crazy protests or..."
"No, I mean--yeah, I was at Occupy and shit, but that's not actually in my first page of Google hits." Stevie took a deep breath and said, "Because the whole first page of Google hits is stuff about this webcomic I make, and, uh--one of the characters in the comic looks a lot like you."
TJ's mouth fell open and his grin was so wide it kind of hurt. "Seriously? Like how much like me?"
Stevie rolled his eyes. "Well, depending on my art skills and style over the years, more or less exactly like you, but he's usually wearing a mask, so people who don't know usually don't get it. I'm guessing anybody background checking me to see if I've been stalking you is going to notice, though."
"Is your comic about murdering the president?" TJ prodded, still grinning. He was in Stevie's comic; Stevie had been drawing pictures of him for God knew how long. Stevie liked him. "Does the character who looks like me spend a lot of time being tied up and tortured by a character who looks like you?"
Stevie was smiling now, too, but his cheeks were almost red, he was blushing so hard. "No, it's not about anything bad, it's--the guy who looks like you is a hero. He's had some really tough times but--he's a hero."
"Wait, does my guy wear tights?" TJ demanded, not letting himself think too much about what kind of tough times Stevie had been writing for some guy with his face.
Stevie started laughing. "No, that's my guy. Your guy has regular pants."
"Oh my God, so if I Google your name I get pictures of you in tights?" TJ reached for his phone, and Stevie grabbed at his hands, laughing, and there was a very familiar kind of throat-clearing noise to TJ's left.
TJ looked over at the black-suited agent. It wasn't one he recognized, so still no help on figuring out if he was on Mama's detail or Dad's.
"Mr. Hammond?" the agent said. "Were you and your friend planning to continue onto the property?"
"Yeah, in fact, we are," TJ said, slinging an arm around Stevie's shoulders. He could Google later. "This is Steve Rogers, I've known him since I was five. Do you need to fingerprint him or can we go in?"
"Mr. Rogers has already been cleared," the agent said, with the kind of expressionlessness that still felt like coming home to TJ. "Mrs. Barrish told us to expect him."
"Oh, hey, maybe Nana Googled you--" Stevie punched him in the ribs, and TJ yelped and shoved back, and the agent sounded the tiniest sliver amused when he said, "Gentlemen?"
"Come on, we're going in," TJ said, darting away from Stevie and getting the agent between them. Stevie glared; TJ stuck his tongue out. Stevie huffed and then blew him a kiss and went to get into his little Honda, and the agent, turning around, caught TJ blushing and staring after Stevie.
"Mr. Hammond," the agent said politely, and TJ nodded and went back to his own car to lead Stevie the last quarter mile, down to the lane and up the long winding drive, to park behind....
"Seriously?" TJ said, counting up the cars and SUVs and then leaning his forehead against the steering wheel. "Seriously, fuck my life."
He looked up at the tap on his window; it was Stevie, looking amused. "Come on, Tommy. We're going in."
TJ sighed and nodded and got out of the car.
"So, what are we looking at?" Stevie eyed the ground between them and the farmhouse with its wide, welcoming porch.
"My dad is definitely here," TJ sighed. "Both my parents, and Douglas, so probably Anne, and two details and, I don't know, maybe all their favorite staffers--there seriously actually might not be anywhere for you to sleep except my bed, if they're all planning on staying over."
"Okay," Stevie said calmly. "I'm not great with people's dads, and I'm probably going to be really bad with yours, but I'm good at moms and grandmothers, and I sort of remember Dougie--Douglas."
"Anne's his wife, they got married out here last month," TJ supplied. "She's nice."
"Taller than me?" Stevie asked, looking up at TJ with a crooked smile.
"Yeah," TJ said, smiling back.
Stevie shrugged. "So's everybody. Okay, so--who am I when we go in there?"
"Oh man, did you hit your head?" TJ couldn't help asking, just to get Stevie to shove him again. "I don't know--Nana's gonna have repeated that kindergarten sweetheart thing, and I'm not gonna lie about wanting to get into your pants. I guess you're my... date?"
"You sure know how to show a boy a good time," Stevie said, but this time when he reached out he took TJ's hand and tugged him into motion. TJ let Stevie tow him up the driveway, and only took the lead when they were close enough to the house for him to see Nana watching through one of the front windows--ugh, everyone else was probably right behind her. Mama and Dad would have refused to leave until TJ got there, with or without Stevie, and Douglas had probably stayed to run interference, so Anne would be stuck, too.
Stevie's hand squeezed tight on his, and Stevie said softly, "I've got your back, Tommy. It'll be fine."
TJ snorted, but he didn't break stride, leading Stevie up onto the porch and straight through the front door without pausing until he'd stepped into sight of all five members of his family, standing around faux-casually. He couldn't help checking their hands for glasses, wondering who was drinking what. There wasn't (supposed to be) any alcohol on the property; Nana was usually secretive enough about drinking that TJ could fail to notice, but with this many extra people in the house somebody was bound to be careless.
TJ's hand tightened harder on Stevie's as he said, "Oh my God, a surprise party! Is it my birthday or an intervention?"
Nana was already coming over to him. "It's what you get for hanging up on your grandmother," she informed him. "Just a family dinner, people like to see your face once in a while. Are you going to introduce me to your young man?"
"Nana, this is Steve Rogers; Steve, my grandmother, Margaret Barrish," TJ recited automatically, watching in his peripheral vision as the rest of his family drifted nonchalantly closer.
He wondered which one of his parents had thought it was a great idea to do this on a day when he'd had therapy; he was about 50/50 on spending the rest of the day after a therapy session hiding in bed or in the hayloft. Even before Stevie showed up today had been a relatively good day, but they couldn't have known that.
On the other hand, there was always the likelihood that they'd had no idea this was a therapy day. It was probably just the day they happened to be able to get away from DC. Just because they'd come to visit him didn't mean any of this actually revolved around him, after all.
Stevie's hand tightened hard on his, and TJ jerked out of his thoughts in time to smile wider for his parents and say, "Mom, Dad, you remember Steve Rogers, from elementary school? Steve, my parents."
"Ma'am, Sir," Stevie said, offering his hand to each of them to shake without loosening his left-handed grip on TJ. "It's been a long time."
"We were so sorry to hear about your mother," Mama said, and TJ almost couldn't hear the calculation behind the degree of warmth there.
"It was a long time ago," Stevie said, smiling politely. "And if I hadn't been visiting her today I wouldn't have run into TJ, so I guess she's still looking out for me."
"That sounds more like she was looking after TJ," his dad said, hearty and cheerful, and Stevie's grip on TJ's hand tightened just a little more.
"Both of us, maybe," TJ said, just as Douglas walked over and pressed a drink into his hand. It turned out to be perfectly virginal Cherry Coke, but it gave him something to do with the hand that wasn't holding on tight to Stevie, and getting Stevie a drink kept the conversation safely neutral for another solid minute.
TJ got a reprieve when Stevie turned to him and said, "Sorry--where's the bathroom?"
"I'll show you," TJ said immediately, jumping up and making a break for it. It wasn't actually hard to find--just down the main hallway, opposite the kitchen--but TJ would take any excuse to get out of the living room right now.
"Sorry," he whispered outside the bathroom door. "Stevie, I'm so sorry--"
"It's fine," Stevie said. "I'm just pleased with myself for not getting into a political argument with either of your parents yet."
"Well, they gotta save some of the entertainment for dinner," TJ said. "They're still softening you up, figuring out your weaknesses."
"I'm a twenty-nine-year-old freelance artist who doesn't even read political blogs every day," Stevie replied, grinning. "If they can't argue rings around me without a running start they probably shouldn't have the jobs they have."
TJ huffed. "I have this feeling you're gonna go down swinging."
"It's like we've met," Stevie said, with a grin that reminded TJ of every playground fight he'd ever waded into after Stevie. Stevie went up on his tiptoes to press a kiss to TJ's mouth, and TJ slipped both arms around him and held him close for another, and then one more--it wasn't even about wanting to get laid, it was just about wanting to escape. Stevie seemed like the safest place he knew right now, a thousand times safer than this house full of invading family.
"Okay," Stevie said after a minute. "I really do need to use the bathroom, though, and you're not coming in with me to hide from your parents."
TJ huffed and pressed a last quick kiss to Stevie's lips. "It's like you don't care about me at all."
"I have standards, man," Stevie said, and as he turned away, "You're not watching me take a piss on the first date."
"So that's, like, more of a second date activity?" TJ asked through the closed door, and grinned at the sound of Stevie's fist thumping against the other side.
TJ did dutifully retreat across the hall to the kitchen. There weren't any obvious additions to the beverage selection, but he supposed they wouldn't be out on the counter for him to see if anyone had smuggled anything in. This would be so much easier drunk, or even just a little tipsy. This would be so much easier with anything at all between him and all this smothering concern, landing on him for a moment before they all disappeared back to DC and more important things.
"TJ," Mama said softly, coming into the kitchen with a couple of empty glasses in hand.
"Hey," TJ said, plastering on a smile, but Mama left the glasses on the counter and walked right into a hug. TJ surrendered to it, hugging her back and letting himself relax a little.
When she stepped back, Mama flicked her fingers through his hair, tidying it up. "You know you haven't brought a boy home for us to meet in about ten years?"
TJ squinted, trying to remember who the hell he'd brought home last. He'd been in college ten years ago--maybe his spectacularly disastrous final semester at DePaul? "Was that Chad?"
"Alex. He had blond dreadlocks and one of those little shell necklaces and it was pretty obvious you were just bringing him home to raise your father's blood pressure," Mama said, smiling a little.
"I really didn't intend to introduce you guys to Steve, we've literally just been hanging out this afternoon," TJ said, trying to smile back and knowing it was coming out as grimace. "It's a little soon for--anything."
"I know, sweetheart," Mama said, touching his cheek. "We really didn't mean to crash your first date. We just wanted to see you."
You could have asked, TJ didn't say. You could have checked with me. You could have fucking done anything but showing up totally out of the blue with an entourage.
"I know," TJ said instead, summoning up a slightly better attempt at a smile. They'd been aiming for intimate family gathering, he could tell. The staffers were shut in the office and the secret service agents were all outside. The housekeeper wasn't even here cooking dinner; things were laid out to be put in the oven so Mama could enjoy the illusion of cooking for the family.
"Tommy?" Stevie said, and TJ turned and leaned out into the hall to wave Stevie into the kitchen. Stevie came and tucked himself under TJ's extended arm, and offered Mama a smile.
Mama smiled back, a more polished expression than she had shown TJ. Stevie was still getting Mama's company manners, the nice kind.
"You boys should go have a look around outside," Mama said. "TJ, you should show him the barn, all the places where you and Douglas used to play."
TJ took a second to bite back his instinctive reaction to being told to take his friend and go play outside, and Stevie jumped into the silence to say, "I'd like that. It'd be nice to see the place."
TJ looked down at Stevie and raised an eyebrow, because he was pretty sure Stevie still wasn't here for the fresh air, but Stevie just nudged him and said, "Come on, give me the tour."
TJ knew perfectly well that Mama was offering him an out and he should just shut up and take it.
"Yeah," TJ said, "All right, if you insist."
Mama smiled and waved at them as they turned toward the back door, and TJ managed to smile almost for real as he led Stevie out. There was an agent standing near the back door, and TJ ignored, with long practice, the man raising his wrist to his mouth and murmuring into it. He saw Stevie look, but TJ towed him out into the yard, past the overgrown garden patch where he and Nana had discussed planting an army of garden gnomes, and toward the start of the trees.
"I'm guessing the barn isn't going to do your lungs any good," TJ said, glancing in that direction. Hiding out in the hayloft sounded pretty good right now, but not worth Stevie having an asthma attack.
"Yeah, dust and hay are not my friends," Stevie said, squeezing TJ's hand as he looked curiously around the farmyard, which did look pretty in the late afternoon light. "Did your mom seriously just tell us to go play outside?"
"She did," TJ said. "To be fair I think she was trying to give us some time alone before I completely lost my shit. And if she had kept talking to me for another five minutes I would have completely lost my shit, so that was good timing."
Stevie stopped him with a tug on his hand, pulling him close, and TJ was a little surprised to find that it was just a hug this time.
"Oh," TJ muttered in Stevie's ear, arms wrapped tight around him. "O, O, O."
Stevie relaxed his grip a little and then tightened it again, snuggling in. "O."
When Stevie let go of him TJ looked around and found the agent still standing by the back door, ostentatiously looking forty-five degrees away from them; TJ, in turn, did not look toward the kitchen window to see who might be able to see them from there. They were still ten yards short of the start of the trees, and TJ said, "Maybe a little more walking first."
Stevie grinned at him and swung their hands between them as they walked down the track to the well-worn path through the trees to the back forty, which was now just overgrown meadow, slowly merging into the woods. No one had bothered planting a crop back there in going on twenty years; even the last few years before Grandpa Hammond died he hadn't been able to really farm.
When they were safely into the shadow of the trees, Stevie said, "O," and TJ turned toward him for another hug. They stood there so long that TJ became aware of every little bit of the hug playing out; the sounds of little critters in the woods around them and the breeze shaking the leaves, Stevie shifting his weight a little but holding on tight so TJ wouldn't think he was pulling away. They both just stood there, holding on, holding still. TJ was acutely aware of how weird it was, how amazing, to have someone he could just stand here with, without playing any of his assigned roles, without moving or speaking or kissing or fucking, someone who would just stand here with their arms around him because he had said oh and that meant he got a hug.
That was what made him pull away, finally. The shivery half-terrified fascination of it made something in him need to resist. He slipped free of Stevie's grip and looked around, spreading his arms wide. "Welcome to the trees, Stevie. Not to be confused with the woods."
Stevie raised his eyebrows. "Is that some really important technical distinction?"
TJ grinned, running a hand through his hair as he looked around. "I actually have no idea. That's just what we always called it. I mean, you can kind of see out from everywhere in the trees, and in the woods it's just more woods all around you once you get in."
Stevie nodded, looking like he was actually making a note of that information. "Do the trees have any special points of interest?"
"Uhh," TJ looked around from where they stood on the main path. "I mean, there's a bunch of poison oak over that way, and down there by the creek there's blackberry bushes and also some really mean squirrels who like eating blackberries, and--" TJ's arm swung to point, off to the right of the path and twenty feet up, before he even recognized what he was pointing toward.
Stevie craned his neck, following TJ's pointing finger, and he looked back at TJ with a little smile. "Tree house?"
"Deer stand," TJ corrected, his mouth moving automatically while his brain went a little bit blank. "You can see just about the whole field from up there, and the deer are pretty easy to hit out in the open like that. When there was corn in the fields Grandpa used to go up sometimes and shoot at them just to drive them off. Out of hunting season, so he wouldn't kill any, just shoot close enough to scare them. He said shooting not to kill was a lot harder than aiming right at them."
TJ managed to make himself shut up after that. Stevie had looked back and forth two or three times from TJ to the deer stand at the far edge of the trees as he spoke, and when TJ finally shut up, he said, "Can we go up there?"
"I haven't been up there in a while," TJ said. "But--yeah, it should be fine. It was built pretty solid."
Stevie nodded and set off down the path, and he got ten feet away before he looked back. TJ made himself move, hurrying down the path after him and then showing him where the fainter track branched off toward the deer stand, a platform big enough for four lawn chairs and a cooler, built onto a tree right at the edge of the field.
The ladder was a set of metal bars that had been bolted onto the tree so long ago that the tree had started to grow around them, making the bolts redundant. The bars started waist high. Grandpa's rule had always been that no one was allowed up in the deer stand until they could get onto the ladder themselves; TJ remembered standing out here with Dougie, desperately chinning themselves up to the first rung while Daddy and Grandpa smoked cigars up in the stand. TJ thought for half a second about offering Stevie a boost, but Stevie just grabbed a rung and started climbing, leaving TJ to watch and then, when Stevie was halfway up, follow.
When TJ's head poked through at platform height, Stevie was sitting with his legs folded near the field-ward edge. TJ squirmed up and lay prone beside him on the old weathered boards, elbows propped a couple of inches back from the drop, his shoulder against Stevie's knee.
"Did you ever actually shoot anything from up here?" Stevie was looking around in fascination at the wide open vista of the back forty in the low afternoon light. TJ found himself noticing all the new little trees that had sprung up out of the tall grass; in another twenty years the deer stand wouldn't be on the edge of anything, just a platform in the middle of one unbroken stretch of woods.
"Yeah," TJ said, and pointed again without thinking. It had been a pretty easy shot, only thirty or forty yards. He'd been lying right here, maybe a little further back; the agents hadn't let him stand up to fire in case the combination of recoil and excitement knocked him down. "Six-point buck on the first Saturday of gun season when I was twelve. Dad was supposed to be out here with me, but he got called away--that was an election year, I think a poll came out--so it was me and a shotgun and three secret service agents. Agent Cooper helped me gut the deer and carry it back to the house."
Stevie looked down at him and said, "You know, I'm picturing him wearing a black suit and sunglasses while doing that."
TJ winced and smiled and said, "Nah, Cooper had hunting gear on. The two down on the ground keeping watch were in suits, though."
Stevie grinned and shook his head and pulled his phone out, taking pictures of the view. TJ rolled over onto his back, arms folded behind his head. He looked up at the sky through the leaves, and at Stevie, sitting quietly and looking around. After a while Stevie put his phone down and rested one hand on TJ's chest, and it was like the touch unlocked something.
The words had been looping through his brain since he'd found himself pointing in this direction down on the path. They almost didn't mean anything anymore, like when you said spoon or ankle or sorry too many times in a row. When Stevie's hand settled on his chest, TJ spoke without thinking.
"The first time I planned to kill myself, I was going to do it right here."
Stevie's hand clenched hard against his chest, knuckles pressing in and pulling his t-shirt tight. TJ kept looking up at the sky. It was a really blue blue, not all pale and washed out, and the leaves were a deep, lively green. TJ kept breathing against the pressure of Stevie's knuckles until Stevie's hand relaxed and he said, "Do you want to talk about it?"
TJ shook his head, even as the plan unreeled in his brain, every bit as vivid as it had been when he was first figuring it out, the short dive down to the old pile of field stones at the base of the tree, the way his skull would smash and it would all be over, just like that. "I just--when I come up here, sometimes it's all I can think about. And I haven't been up here since before December, so."
Stevie shifted, his hand sliding off of TJ's chest to settle on his opposite side as Stevie leaned low over him. TJ looked up at him and saw a weird mix of emotions on his face. The first thing he thought was that Stevie had never been on national television and had never learned to guard his expression at all. TJ could see so much there, worry and grief and a funny kind of happiness. It would look awful on camera.
"Have I said how glad I am that you never pulled it off?" Stevie asked, smiling a little.
"I got that impression," TJ said, and felt himself smiling crookedly back. He would probably look pretty weird on camera himself right now, but Stevie didn't seem to mind.
"Really fucking glad, Tommy," Stevie said, and he shifted lower still, settling against TJ's chest and leaning down for a kiss.
TJ curled up into it, letting his lips fall open, letting Stevie in. He took one arm from behind his head to curl around Stevie, holding him close.
The game came back to him right then, and just like that he was laughing into Stevie's mouth. Stevie jerked away, giving him a baffled look, but TJ couldn't stop, dropping flat on the boards with his head tipped back, laughing helplessly and tightening his grip on Stevie as he did.
"You fucked it up," TJ managed finally, shaking Stevie a little as Stevie stared down at him. "I said O, O, O, and you did O, O, X--" and then he was laughing too hard to talk again.
Stevie rolled his eyes but started to smile, watching TJ laugh. He shifted to lie half on top of TJ, squeezing him with the whole length of his body as TJ kept laughing, tears leaking from his eyes, chest aching with the force of it. Stevie started kissing him again, and TJ couldn't resist Stevie's mouth, grabbing little sloppy kisses in between bursts of laughter.
When TJ finally settled down enough to breathe mostly normally between kisses, Stevie said, "I can't remember what happens when somebody loses."
"Well, mostly you get laughed at," TJ said, turning his head to wipe his eyes against his shoulder. "I think I get to dare you to do something?"
"Oh, yeah?" Stevie said, sliding more firmly on top of TJ. He pushed up enough to look down at TJ with his eyebrows raised, and the motion pressed his hips down firmly against TJ's. "Whatever are you gonna dare me to do?"
TJ grinned, memory blooming in the back of his head. "Oh my God, do you remember that time I made you sing that Little Mermaid song?"
Stevie snorted, blushing a little and letting his head hang down. "Mostly I remember the dancing, actually. And you running around finding props."
"Oh God, yes," TJ said, smiling so wide his cheeks hurt at the memory of seven-year-old Stevie's moves. "God, the dancing, that was--"
Stevie punched him in the center of the chest, hard enough to sting. TJ laughed again, startled, and said, "So no dancing this time, I guess?"
"Not up here," Stevie said. "Also I have a strict policy against dancing alone."
"I'll keep that in mind," TJ said, and the thought of taking Stevie dancing was there in his head, sudden and complete. He could feel every inch of it, a beat throbbing in his bones and the crush and noise of the club around them, Stevie a little sweaty and loose, a little drunk....
And he would be a little drunk, and then he would slip off to the bathroom and--TJ shut down that whole line of thought. They weren't going dancing. They weren't going anywhere. They were right here in the deer stand at the farm and this was the whole thing, right here, playing out a kids' game. Picking out a dare.
TJ knew the kind of dare Stevie was expecting. Stevie wasn't being shy, except about dancing, and if TJ had any fucking sense he wouldn't go near that idea either.
It occurred to him with startling force that he hadn't hooked up with anyone since sometime before his overdose--probably that night in the bathroom at the club. He'd definitely been dancing that night, and he'd definitely taken a couple of breaks. He thought he remembered leaning up against a wall, sweaty and dazed, with some interchangeable party kid on their knees, his hands in their hair. Whoever it was, their face was gone from his memory long before he lost consciousness.
That summed up a pretty solid percentage of TJ's sexual history, but it was the opposite of anything he wanted with Stevie. Nothing up against a wall, nothing frantic and fast and fully clothed and over before anyone could walk in. No one would, out here. They had plenty of time, and they'd have plenty of warning if anyone came looking for them. Douglas would definitely know better than to do anything but stand in the yard and yell.
TJ wasn't ever going to forget Stevie's face, or who had been out here with him today.
TJ lay all the way back down, folding his arms behind his head, and said, "I dare you to take all your clothes off."
It sounded childish--more childish than the rest of it--coming out of his mouth, but Stevie grinned and said, "You gonna show me yours if I show you mine?"
TJ tilted his head and said, "I think you've got a pretty decent shot, yeah."
Stevie snorted and kissed him one more time and then moved, kneeling up over TJ's thighs as he reached for the knot of his tie. He'd taken his suit jacket off back in the house, so he didn't have too many layers to get out of. He tucked his tie into his left pocket--TJ had already noticed the hard press of the inhaler in Stevie's right pocket, so that made sense.
Stevie started unbuttoning his shirt next and said, "This seems like a good time to ask you about the last time you got tested for STDs."
TJ made a face but said obediently, "They checked me at the hospital and I got a followup check four weeks after, so two and a half weeks ago. All clear, and I haven't slept with anybody since before I got sober. I, um," TJ let his face crumple up in a camera-ready pure expression of anticipation-of-judgment as he said, "I never had anything antibiotics didn't clear up? I'm good now, I swear."
He kind of expected Stevie to ask him to give his entire disease and treatment history--catching syphilis twice in the twenty-first century was sort of funny, if he managed to say it the right way, but he wasn't sure he could pull off that practiced version of it with Stevie.
Jesus, Stevie probably shouldn't be sleeping with him without about a mile of latex involved--what if TJ had some latent thing that made him sick? Stevie got sick so fucking easy, and even TJ didn't know a hundred percent of where he'd been and what stupid things he'd done before now.
"Did you take all your antibiotics?" Stevie asked, giving TJ a stern look, hands halfway down in the process of unbuttoning his shirt.
TJ honest to God squirmed a little at that look, but he said, "Yeah, every dose. I got all the lectures about not cooking up a new superbug."
"Good," Stevie said, and he kissed TJ again before he went back to unbuttoning his shirt. "So did I."
TJ's mouth fell open. "You--what?"
"Also I had mono for like six months, which is a herpes virus and therefore forever," Stevie added, not answering the question directly. "But most people already have that in their systems anyway, so you're probably okay? And Chlamydia one time in art school. I made some bad choices after I broke up with Sam, which, believe me, Sam has never let me hear the end of."
"I still have you beat," TJ assured him, grinning helplessly. "I spent fifteen years making bad choices. But I'm clean now."
"Good," Stevie said, shrugging out of his shirt, baring his skinny arms and sharp-cornered shoulders. "Because it was going to suck to have to go back inside for condoms."
TJ couldn't help laughing, picturing sneaking back in right now, in full view of the inevitable protective detail, trying to dodge Mama and Dad. "We used to stash some in the hayloft, but if there are any left they're probably about ten years old."
Stevie made a face and peeled out of his shirt and then hesitated, glancing down a little shyly at TJ, like TJ might have expected him to be hiding something other than a wiry, pale-skinned body under his clothes. TJ might not have picked him for an anonymous hookup based on some random shirtless selfie, but that was kind of the whole point. He was Stevie, and he looked like Stevie.
TJ sat up and peeled out of his own shirt, reaching back to lay it on the edge of the stand so it dangled over, visible from the ground. When he sat back up again he looped his arms around Stevie's waist, spreading his hands on Stevie's smooth-skinned sides. Stevie's hands were on him as Stevie kissed him again, his hips rocking against TJ as his hands skimmed over TJ's shoulders and down his back.
TJ slid his own hands down over Stevie's ass and across his thighs, and Stevie shifted encouragingly into his touch and moved one hand up to the nape of TJ's neck, holding on firmly as they kissed. TJ moaned a little into Stevie's mouth, his hands tightening on Stevie's thighs, and then he remembered that he'd been going somewhere with this and brought his hands around to unfasten Stevie's belt and open his pants. Stevie's hand shifted up into his hair, tilting his head for a deeper kiss as TJ's hand slipped into Stevie's pants, palming his cock through his boxers--he was half hard and pushed shamelessly into TJ's palm. His grip on TJ's hair pulled a little and TJ flexed up, trying to get friction and catching only the little space between his body and Stevie's.
"Hey," Stevie said, easing back a little. TJ blinked and stared like he was coming up for air.
"I got a dare to finish, first," Stevie said, and then he pushed TJ's hand away and stood up. He crouched to get his shoes and socks off--TJ toed out of his own just to get it out of the way--and then shucked off his pants and boxers in a few quick moves. TJ watched with his mouth hanging half open, feeling every beat of his heart as a thud in his cock as it hardened. He watched a flush spread down from Stevie's face over his throat and onto his chest, drawing his eye down even lower, to Stevie's cock standing out from a dark blond thatch of hair.
"Come back here," TJ demanded, holding a hand out, and Stevie grabbed it and settled back where he'd been, straddling TJ's lap.
TJ kissed his mouth briefly and then moved on, kissing his way down Stevie's bare throat, unprotected by a shirt collar. His hands explored with nothing in the way, settling on Stevie's ass and then moving to his thighs. The wiry muscle there bunched under his palms as he sucked a kiss low on Stevie's throat.
Stevie's left hand closed on TJ's right, shifting it firmly toward Stevie's cock, and TJ laughed and bit down just a little, enough to know he was going to leave a mark on Stevie's pale skin. He put his hand where Stevie wanted it, giving his cock a couple of firm strokes and feeling it harden further in his grip. Stevie pushed closer, his breath speeding up, and TJ leaned sideways, trying to kiss more of Stevie's skin.
"Hang on," TJ said after a frustrated minute. He wrapped one arm firmly around Stevie's back before rolling over, laying Stevie down with six inches to spare from the edge of the platform.
Stevie glanced that way as TJ propped himself over him, getting his hand back on Stevie's cock. "If I get splinters in my ass I'm making you pull them out for me."
TJ grinned. "That's a promise. Anything that goes in your ass, I'll get back out."
Stevie snorted, then caught his breath as TJ shifted lower, kissing his way down Stevie's chest. Stevie's cock jumped in his hand--and his own cock throbbed in his still-zipped jeans--when TJ bit lightly at his nipple. Stevie's hands slid into his hair, like TJ needed more of a hint to stay there a while, and he settled in, stroking Stevie's cock lightly while he licked and bit again.
Stevie squirmed under him, fingers digging in, and then he said, almost steadily, "Tommy. I did your dare, right?"
TJ picked his head up sharply. If Stevie wanted to stop--but Stevie was smirking.
"My turn," Stevie announced, pushing up on one elbow. "X, X, X. And if it takes you more than three kisses to get your mouth on my dick I'll be--"
TJ showed his teeth in a grin as Stevie spoke, and then lunged up to cut him off with a kiss, deep and long and filthy, keeping his hand moving on Stevie's cock the whole time he was licking into Stevie's mouth, stroking Stevie's tongue with his until Stevie's head was hanging back. Stevie was breathing in moans, his hips jerking up to follow TJ's hand.
"X," TJ finally said, and then he started moving lower again, nuzzling against the darkening bruise he'd already left on Stevie's throat without letting his lips touch. He only had two kisses left. He planned on making them count.
"What'd we decide the rule was," TJ breathed against Stevie's skin. He brushed just the tip of his nose against Stevie's chest where it was flushed pink, hot enough for him to feel, and let his hand fall still, just cradling Stevie's cock against his palm. "When we found out about French kissing? Licking isn't kissing, right?"
"Oh, fuck," Stevie murmured, like he could see where this was going, and TJ looked up to meet his eyes.
Stevie was biting his lip, which looked bright red against his even white teeth, but his eyes were bright, welcoming and challenging all at once.
TJ grinned back. "That's what I thought."
He licked a stripe up Stevie's chest, tasting a faint sheen of sweat. He was careful not to let his lips touch skin. It wasn't a kiss. It was a lick. He could deliver the kisses Stevie had demanded however and wherever he wanted. Stevie wasn't allowed to set any conditions past the first demand.
TJ had always liked Stevie's turns better than his own.
He shifted lower, leaving Stevie's flat stomach alone--he doubted Stevie's reaction to being tickled had gotten much less violent than it had been when he was eight, and he didn't need a bloody nose right now. He did rub his nose against the faint blond trail of hair that started below Stevie's belly button. Stevie made a noise like a car grinding its gears, and his cock jumped in TJ's slack grip, so apparently Stevie didn't mind being teased.
TJ kept his hand still and Stevie pushed up against it. TJ shifted back to look, his own cock throbbing almost painfully in his jeans. He shook his hips, trying to get comfortable without taking his hand off Stevie to adjust himself. Stevie's cock was still hard against his palm, flushed a hell of a lot darker than Stevie's face. TJ closed his grip and rubbed his thumb just under the head, and Stevie made a little whining noise as a drop of pre-come welled up. TJ met Stevie's eyes as he ducked his head, and kept his eyes on Stevie's all the way down as he took another careful lick, swiping the wetness away before he lifted his head again and licked his lips. Still not a kiss.
"Jesus fucking Christ, Tommy," Stevie managed, and TJ ducked his head again, this time over Stevie's hip, closing his teeth lightly on the place where the bone jutted up. He turned his head to see what Stevie thought of that, but Stevie was letting his head hang back, so TJ mostly got to see his throat working as he swallowed before he said, "Harder."
"Yes sir," TJ said, playing the Southern gentleman, before he bit down hard enough to bruise. He didn't let his lips touch, though, and when he let go Stevie almost sobbed. TJ nuzzled at the indents of his teeth and then trailed lower, letting his breath gust along the crease of Stevie's groin and the inside of his thigh when Stevie helpfully spread his legs. He licked again here and there, tasting the sweat that broke out all over Stevie's skin, making him shine in the dappled sunlight. TJ pressed his nose against Stevie's balls, breathing in the smell of him, and Stevie's hand landed in his hair again and tugged hard enough to make his eyes water.
TJ tilted his head but stayed close enough that Stevie would feel his laugh against the base of his cock. Stevie's fingers tightened again in his hair and Stevie muttered something breathless that TJ didn't bother to try to understand, and then TJ shook his head sharply enough to make Stevie let go. He opened his hand and licked all the way up Stevie's cock, and his mouth hovered just above the head while he looked up Stevie's body--bare for him, sweaty and flushed and his chest heaving. TJ hadn't even had to take him dancing to get here. Just a kids' game. Just the two of them.
Stevie picked up his head, but before he could say anything TJ said, "X."
He let his eyes close as he pressed his lips to the head of Stevie's cock, slowly parting them to take it into his mouth. Stevie's hand brushed the side of his face, the lightest touch. TJ stayed right there for a moment, letting the taste of Stevie fill his mouth, sucking gently and waiting to see if Stevie was the type to give up and start fucking his mouth in the first minute.
Stevie's hand settled against his cheek, and Stevie shifted under him restlessly, but Stevie didn't push now, when TJ would let him take whatever he wanted. TJ got on with it, sliding down to fill his mouth with Stevie's cock, sucking him off with no more fooling around. Stevie's hand stayed gentle against his cheek, and Stevie never pushed more than little twitches of his hips, no matter what tricks TJ tried on him.
Stevie talked, though, encouragement first and then just TJ's name--Tommy, Tommy, fuck, yes, Tommy--and TJ had to pull off as much to grin as to breathe. He made sure to keep his lips against Stevie's cock the whole time, though. This was all one kiss. He was saving the last one.
He didn't know how long it took--his jaw ached a little, out of practice, and his head felt a little dizzy and light from not breathing more than he absolutely had to. He felt drunk on it, spun by the taste and heat of Stevie's cock in his mouth, the pleasure of being lost in someone else's body this way. Stevie was the whole world right now, and the whole world thought he was doing a good fucking job at this.
"Tommy," Stevie said, sharper, jerking TJ halfway out of his daze. "Gonna come, are you--"
TJ picked his head up enough to smirk at Stevie, open-mouthed, just his lower lip dragging against the head of Stevie's cock. He sounded hoarse to his own ears when he said "Go for it."
Stevie groaned and TJ closed his mouth over Stevie's cock again, putting his hand back to work jerking Stevie off. Stevie's hand slid into his hair, holding him where he was, and Stevie came in salty-bitter pulses over his tongue. TJ swallowed without taking his mouth off Stevie's cock, and Stevie made a whimpering noise and pushed him away. TJ grinned and finally pulled off, taking a few totally unobstructed breaths of cool air as he crawled up to prop himself over Stevie again.
Stevie was lying totally limp, looking about as out of it as TJ felt, but he smiled when TJ said, "X," one more time. Stevie slung his arm around TJ's neck to encourage him down into one more kiss.
TJ's hand, reaching down to finally get his own pants open, collided with Stevie's. TJ laughed against his mouth as Stevie swatted his hand away and got his belt open and then his pants. TJ shoved them down along with his underwear, and he had them as far as his thighs when Stevie's hand closed around his dick and TJ went absolutely still with the effort of not coming right then.
It was Stevie's turn to laugh into a kiss, and he said, "Your turn."
TJ nodded--fuck yes, his turn--and then Stevie was sitting up a little, taking his arm from around TJ's neck to shove him over. TJ landed on his back with Stevie straddling him, Stevie's hand jerking him off while Stevie leaned down to kiss him. If TJ thought he'd felt drunk before, it was nothing compared to now; it had been a long fucking time since he'd had sex sober, a long time since he'd felt anything this purely good, and his whole body felt lit up from it, dangerously wild. He arched into Stevie's touch, gasping into Stevie's kisses, too gone to even tell Stevie how fast this was going to be before he was coming.
He lay there for a while, floating, returning Stevie's soft, lazy kisses whenever he felt the brush of lips on his. He opened his eyes when Stevie moved away from him, and watched Stevie grab his undershirt and wipe his hand on it.
"Sorry," TJ muttered. "We do laundry, too."
Stevie grinned at him, and when TJ reached for him Stevie came back, lying down against his side, where TJ could get his arms around him.
"I'm not too worried about the laundry," Stevie said, and then, "Oh Jesus, we have to go back inside and have dinner with your parents."
TJ snickered, and then laughed out loud, curling into Stevie and holding on. Stevie laughed too, his naked body sliding against TJ's. It wasn't sex now; there was just nothing between them as they clutched each other and laughed. TJ tried to picture going back inside and playing nice with the grownups and he couldn't. It didn't compute. The harder he tried the more he laughed, feeling giddy and drunker than ever, and Stevie was laughing with him in little giggles that burst out louder and then choked back only to break free again.
"We can fight the squirrels for some blackberries," TJ offered. "Or just sneak out to your car and make a break for it."
"No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy," Stevie managed to say, choking back his laughter to a wide grin. "From here on out we just improvise."
"That's cool," TJ agreed, tilting his face into the sun and letting his eyes close. "I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy."
Stevie snorted and settled in with his head on TJ's shoulder and didn't press for any kind of plan, improvised or otherwise, which suited TJ just fine. He wasn't in any hurry to get dressed and climb back down to solid ground; he'd rather be floating up here with Stevie forever.
Stevie started laughing again out of nowhere, and TJ had to open his eyes to watch; it occurred to him right then, like a punch in the gut, just how gorgeous Stevie was, and how much TJ liked him. It was a little terrifying and a lot like being actually alive instead of just breathing in and out and getting through each day, and it was too fucking soon to be thinking any of this.
He couldn't have said what expression was on his face as those thoughts flashed by, but it made Stevie stop laughing and say, "Sorry, it's not--I was just thinking that this isn't really how I expected to be spending my day."
TJ couldn't help smiling at that. "Did you have a battle plan for me?"
"You fucking demolished it," Stevie said, shaking his head. His eyes were a really blue blue, and TJ couldn't look away from them. "I figured you probably wouldn't remember me, and even if you did it'd just be a couple minutes of polite conversation, maybe I could give you my card, maybe we'd text a few times--"
"Did you think maybe I'd Google you?" TJ asked. He had to remember to try that when they were back in the house; the wifi signal didn't reach out this far and data coverage was for shit. He didn't even get texts half the time.
Stevie closed his eyes and his face scrunched up. "I thought of that, yeah. I imagined all kinds of ways you might react to the comic, and all the ways I was gonna explain about Bucky, if you were hurt or pissed or just thought the whole thing was stupid..."
TJ squinted. "Who the hell is Bucky?"
Stevie opened his eyes, took a breath and shifted a little, so he was still holding on to TJ but could look him in the eye comfortably. TJ was abruptly aware that they were lying naked on the warm, weathered boards of the deer stand. He wasn't sure he wanted to be naked for whatever it was Stevie was about to explain to him.
Stevie shook his head a little and then said, "You are. Or--Bucky's the guy in my comic who looks like you."
TJ wrinkled his nose, laughing a little in sheer disbelief. "You named me Bucky?"
"I tried to name him Jimmy, but I kept writing Tommy," Stevie said. "I don't--I suck at making up names, most of the characters just have the same names as people I know. Cap is Steve Rogers, Peggy and Sam are in there, a ton of people I knew in high school and art school. But I couldn't have a Tommy Hammond running around my comic, so I named him James Buchanan. James Buchanan Barnes."
"Jesus, Stevie, that's actually worse than Thomas Jefferson Hammond." James Buchanan, though... it only took a second before it clicked. "Did you name him after those president reports we did in second grade?"
"That's the other presidential name I associate with you," Stevie said, smiling crookedly. "You were so determined not to write about Jefferson."
"You wrote about FDR and spent an entire week talking about the fucking New Deal," TJ said, because he wasn't going to be outdone here. "You were such a little bleeding heart socialist second grader."
"I didn't really grow out of that," Stevie said, which didn't surprise TJ, what with Stevie casually referring to being at the Occupy protests.
"So other than being named James Buchanan," TJ said. "What did you think you were gonna have to explain about Bucky?"
"Oh," Stevie said, letting out a breath. "Well. He's been dead for most of the run of the comic."
TJ's mouth fell open. It was stupid. They were talking about a character in some comic TJ had never read, who TJ had literally never heard of before two minutes ago, but it still felt like a blow, like... Stevie hadn't wanted him there after all.
"Hey, no," Stevie said, pressing closer to TJ, one hand tightening on TJ's opposite shoulder. "He's been in the comic the whole time. I never managed to stop drawing him, because Cap is always thinking about him. They were best friends, they grew up together, but--about seven years ago now, I was reformatting the comic, really trying to make it actually a coherent thing instead of all these disconnected one-shot images. I'd been drawing Cap and Bucky in World War II most of the time, and I wanted to move it to the present."
Stevie pressed his forehead against TJ's cheek, and TJ stared up at the sky and didn't say a word about all the totally logical reasons Stevie had had for killing off a character with his face.
"I also thought I should try to--let go a little," Stevie said, his voice getting slower, hesitant. "You weren't my best friend anymore, you know? And I told myself I shouldn't be stuck on this guy I knew when I was a kid. I got convinced that you were just this celebrity I had a thing for, and I was twenty-three, I was an adult, I should quit that. So Bucky died in the war. And I quit following you so closely, and I convinced myself that you were just--this famous guy I had a crush on. Not really anything to do with me, except I kept coming up with these comics where I had to draw Bucky again, because Cap never forgets about him and never stops caring about him, and I'd go look you up all over again for reference photos. And then--and then I heard about December. About you trying to kill yourself."
TJ let his eyes close.
"I never actually stopped caring, Tommy," Stevie said softly. "I don't know how weird that is or what, but when I heard that you tried to kill yourself and people were still getting you all wrong, when I knew that maybe nobody understood why you did it or what kind of help you actually needed... I knew I had to do something. I didn't think actually seeing you was going to accomplish anything, because I was so sure you wouldn't remember me or give a shit if I got in touch. I didn't think there was anything I could actually do for you. So I did something for Bucky, instead. I brought Bucky back to life."
TJ's eyes flew open as he let out a startled laugh, and Stevie pulled away from him--he was blushing a painful-looking red, hiding his face with one hand.
"I know it sounds stupid, but--"
"Honest to God, Stevie, it's probably the nicest thing anyone ever did for me," TJ cut in.
Stevie dropped his hand and met TJ's eyes, steady and serious, and the vague idea of it became solid and sure in TJ's head. It was a little scary, just for how sure he was that he had it right. He knew Stevie well enough for that.
"It was kind of--a wish," TJ said hesitantly, not knowing how to make the words sound as sincere as he meant them, the way he knew Stevie had meant it. "Right?"
"A prayer," Stevie said matter-of-factly, the same way he'd calmly insisted on saying grace before eating his lunch as a kid. "It felt kind of arrogant, but... there was this universe I could control, where I could make you okay. So I did. Every day I sat there drawing Bucky back into the world, I was--I wanted it to be you. I made him okay as a way of hoping you could be, too. Praying you could be, with every line I drew."
TJ tried not to think too hard about how far he still was from actually being fucking okay. It was bound to be easier in a comic book, though. "How's that working out for Bucky, being alive again?"
"Ohh," Stevie said, with a wry smile. "Well--it's a comic, so a lot of comic book shit is happening, it's complicated. The bad guys had him, which is why everyone thought he was dead, and a lot of people think he's a bad guy himself. The last page that went up was kind of this reveal, about how the guy in the mask isn't what people think he is. He's not a bad guy, he's trying as hard as he can, but he's still in a pretty bad place. Coming back from the dead isn't easy."
TJ squeezed his eyes shut, telling himself, Not you not you not you just some guy in a comic just comic book shit, but at the same time he tightened his grip on Stevie, hiding his face against Stevie's shoulder.
"He's gonna be okay," Stevie said quietly. "Cap's gonna find out what's going on pretty soon, and once Cap knows where he is, he's not gonna give up on Bucky. It's--there's a lot of story left to go, but Bucky's gonna be all right."
"Stevie," TJ muttered, feeling cracked open and defenseless. Stevie had always known him. "Fuck."
"You're gonna be all right," Stevie murmured, shifting to rest more of his weight on TJ, holding him still. "I'm not giving up on you."
TJ shook his head silently, not so much to argue with Stevie as because he couldn't believe it. Nobody believed in him; nobody thought this time was going to be any different from any other time. Sometimes they said they did, or said they hoped, but they were all just waiting for him to go to hell again. For all that he wanted to prove them wrong--for all that he didn't fucking want to die--it was exhausting pushing back against all that grim expectation all the time. He didn't know what to do with someone having his back like this.
Stevie didn't say anything else, and TJ didn't ask any more questions. The shadows were getting cooler, and TJ was just thinking that at some point they had to put their clothes back on when heard his phone buzz, muffled in the discarded heap of his jeans. He thought he could even feel the vibration of it, traveling through the boards.
"So this is the part where we make a break for it, huh," Stevie said, not moving to allow TJ to reach his phone.
"We could just hide," TJ muttered. "They'll check the hayloft first."
Neither of them moved. The phone didn't buzz again, and eventually TJ thought that was weird. There should've been a second message pestering him to respond by now, but there was nothing. Nothing from his phone, no shouting from the yard, no sounds of anything but the trees around them.
"Okay, this is weird," TJ declared, and that did make Stevie move, pushing up to look down at TJ with the first hint of awkwardness TJ had seen on him all day.
"No, I mean," TJ sat up to kiss him and then waved toward his phone. "Nobody just gives up at one message like that. I should see what it says."
Stevie gave a crooked smile and got all the way off of TJ, looking around for his clothes while TJ rolled up to his knees and grabbed his jeans. When he pulled his phone from his pocket there was just one notification showing on the lock screen: a text from Douglas.
The coast is clear. Mom & Dad decided we needed to go eat at Sandy's, staff and all.
"Holy shit," TJ said, laughing a little and staring at the message. He unlocked his phone and stared at the message some more, and Stevie came and leaned against his back, draping his arms around TJ's shoulders, so TJ tilted the phone to let him see.
"Who's Sandy?" Stevie asked.
TJ shook his head. "Sandy's, it's this restaurant up the road, kind of a local institution--animal heads and weird antique toys all over the walls, secret barbecue recipe, the whole works. I'm pretty sure Dad has to be seen eating and shaking hands and kissing babies there about twice a year or he can't say he's from North Carolina anymore. We all went the day after Douglas and Anne got married, so they weren't really due for another circus like that for a while. I've never seen my parents get out of there in under three hours."
"So your mom sent us to play outside so she could kick everybody out of the house for us."
"Looks that way," TJ said, feeling a baffled sort of gratitude, the helpless love that his family inspired sometimes. "I guess we don't have to fight the squirrels for dinner now."
"Good," Stevie said, closing his teeth lightly on the top of TJ's shoulder. "Because I was about ready to try it."
By the time TJ found both of his shoes--they'd gotten kicked off the deer stand at some point and bounced in wildly different directions--his feet were too dirty to put his socks back on. Stevie had only bothered to do up three of the buttons of his shirt, so the marks TJ had left on him kept wavering in and out of view when his collar flopped open. He had his undershirt balled up in his hand, and his hair was a mess; TJ was pretty sure his own was worse, and his lips felt almost raw. They were in full walk of shame mode and busy arguing about Batman movies as they walked across the yard to the house. TJ was defending the camp aesthetic of Batman and Robin mostly because he was curious if Stevie would spring a nosebleed or just physically attack him when he ran out of things to yell about nipples on the Batsuit.
TJ spotted the agent standing by the back door and felt that same odd sense of coming home he'd had out on the road. Of course there was an agent by the back door; if they kept a couple of guys at the house no one had to clear the location again when Mama and Dad came back.
"All clear?" TJ asked when they were close enough that he didn't have to yell, and Stevie, who must not have noticed the guy standing there, stopped short in mid-tirade.
The agent nodded, not smiling, and TJ grinned and nudged Stevie back into motion, steering them around the side of the house toward the driveway. "I actually met Clooney once. That thing about him giving you five dollars if you tell him you saw the movie is totally true."
Stevie raised his eyebrows, his aesthetic fury dissolving into amusement. "Yeah?"
"I gave it back," TJ said. "I watched that movie of my own free will way too many times. Chris O'Donnell in tights, man."
Stevie cracked up, and TJ got to work making him spill the beans on his teenaged celebrity crushes.
They got Stevie's bag from his car and then went inside to put together a meal from the supplies someone had put away in the fridge before everyone else decamped. They talked easily the whole time--not about Stevie's comic, not about what was wrong with TJ, just normal stuff. First date stuff: reminiscing about college--Stevie had fewer drunken escapade stories but actually remembered all of his, so they came out pretty even--and talking about freelance work (Stevie) and TV they'd recently binge-watched (mostly TJ).
It was dark outside, and they were still sitting at the kitchen table talking, when someone gave a brief double-knock on the front door. TJ looked up to see the sweep of headlights approaching and realized that he'd just been sitting there talking to Stevie for hours.
"Okay," TJ said, looking them both over; they were still in their walk-of-shame clothes. "I'm proposing an immediate retreat to my room to hide from the grownups."
Stevie grinned. "Lead the way, I'll cover you."
They picked up Stevie's bag from the kitchen and then bolted up the stairs and up again, taking the steep, narrow flight to the little attic room that had always been TJ's. Dougie's room was on the opposite side of the stairs, and the rest of the attic was still an actual attic, full of five generations of Hammond family stuff.
Nana had asked TJ a dozen times if he didn't want to move down into one of the guest rooms--there wasn't even a bathroom on the attic level, and two of the guest rooms had their own attached--but this was TJ's room. He'd asked for a few of his art prints from his DC apartment, and his own bed to replace the rickety little twin he'd slept on during his childhood summers, but he liked being hidden away up here.
He saw it all over again while watching Stevie look: a crowded little room, with a bed too big for the space crammed in under the half-slanted ceiling. The dresser was tucked under the window between the foot of the bed and the wall, and a few hangers were hooked on the clothes pegs by the door. Oversized art prints covered the little space available on the full-height wall with bright splashes of color. A small bookshelf overflowed with paperback books and stray DVDs, with a workbook his therapist had given him lying on top next to the fan. The two narrow windows were open, venting a little of the attic's stuffy heat and showing a view out across the yard to the trees.
Stevie just smiled. "I think this is still bigger than the place I lived when I gave Manhattan a shot during art school."
TJ kissed him and dragged him over to the bed, which was the only place to sit.
It was just as easy to talk here as it had been downstairs, and lying side-by-side on TJ's bed they could punctuate their words with kisses and touches. By the time the moon was visible through the window they were lying with their legs tangled together, facing each other on their sides. Stevie's hand was resting on TJ's hip, two fingers tucked inside his jeans, as he talked about the campaign appearances he'd done two years ago, when Mama was running for president.
Stevie yawned in the middle of TJ's description of a rally at Berkeley. TJ was going to pretend to be offended, but he found himself yawning, too, even though it couldn't be much later than ten.
"Sorry," Stevie said, his smile gone soft and his eyes heavy-lidded. "I'm gonna turn into a pumpkin in about ten more minutes. It's been a long day and bad things happen when I try to fight my circadian rhythm."
"Whatever," TJ said. "If you wake me up at dawn tomorrow morning I'm gonna expect something cool to happen, though."
Stevie stretched--TJ's gaze slipped down to the curve of his body--and then sat up. "I could probably come up with something."
TJ stayed where he was, stretched out on the bed, while Stevie got up and pulled some things from his bag. "I'm gonna wash up."
"Bathroom's right at the bottom of the stairs," TJ said, pushing up on one elbow.
"Stay there," Stevie ordered, with a sideways smile. "Watching me brush my teeth isn't a first date thing either."
"You never let me have any fun," TJ called after him as he slipped out the door, and let himself fall flat again.
He stared up at the slanting ceiling and considered freaking out. Stevie was going to come back and go to bed with him; he hadn't slept in the same bed with anybody since Sean, and even Sean had only stayed over rarely. It had always been kind of an Occasion when there was a possibility that Sean might stay the night, and even more rare that he actually followed through and slept over. TJ had always made sure to make the bed up nicely, stocked up on breakfast foods, freaked out about how he was going to look with bedhead, all of that.
But Stevie had already been lying on TJ's sheets for hours, so it was too late to make a good first impression. Weirdly, TJ knew he didn't need to. If he looked stupid in the morning or they didn't have whatever Stevie liked to eat for breakfast in the fridge... Stevie would still be the guy who'd been worried enough about him to come looking for him. He'd still be the guy who would hug TJ whenever TJ asked.
When TJ did get up, it was to rummage through his underwear drawer to check if he actually did have any unexpired condoms. There was a half-full bottle of lube in the nightstand drawer, but condoms hadn't really mattered since he'd been living here. When he got the box of everything he was allowed to have from the bathroom cabinet of his DC apartment, there had been a box in there.
Naturally, Stevie walked in just as he was dumping a handful into the nightstand drawer. TJ felt himself start to blush, which he could have sworn he didn't know how to do anymore, and Stevie--standing there in black-framed hipster glasses and the same clothes he'd worn downstairs, shirt still hanging half open over his bare chest--just smirked.
"I'm just gonna brush my teeth," TJ announced. "Um, if you need to hang stuff up--" he waved vaguely toward the hangers; there were a couple of empty ones.
"Sure," Stevie said, and they circled around each other in the tight space between the bed and the door before TJ made his escape. He could hear voices downstairs as he went, his dad's low rumble and then a general laugh; the grownups were still doing their thing. TJ went into the bathroom without so much as peeking down to the first floor.
He brushed his teeth, washed up, raked his fingers through his hair and gave up on getting it into any better order than it already was. His face was just barely starting to prickle with five o'clock shadow, but shaving seemed like trying too hard. He stayed there for another few seconds, looking himself in the eye and thinking about what was going on here--Stevie in his bed, Stevie Rogers back in his life like a fucking lightning bolt from the clear blue--and then he grinned, blew himself a kiss, and bolted back up the stairs.
Stevie was already in his bed, stretched out on the side closer to the window, his face tucked into the pillow. His phone and glasses were lined up on the windowsill. He was wearing only his boxers--light blue striped, a detail TJ hadn't caught when Stevie was stripping.
TJ got undressed himself and turned off the light, which made Stevie startle half upright as TJ was shuffling toward the bed.
"Tommy," Stevie said, and stretched out again. "Sorry, wow, I just passed out."
TJ grinned and shook his head. "It's okay. I'm gonna put the fan on, it's kinda hot up here."
"Kinda," Stevie agreed. "I don't mind, I hate being cold."
TJ lay down on the bed beside Stevie, not touching him, just looking. Stevie's pale skin glowed in the moonlight that poured through the windows, disappearing into darkness between the rectangles of light. The top sheet and blanket had gotten shoved down while they were lying on the bed, and Stevie seemed to have kicked it the rest of the way off.
Long before TJ got tired of just lying there looking, Stevie said, without moving or opening his eyes, "Big spoon or little spoon?"
TJ laughed a little, mouth hanging open while he tried to think of what to say. Stevie opened his eyes before TJ said anything, shoving gently at his shoulder. "Works for me."
TJ went where he was pushed, turning on his side and putting his back to Stevie, feeling the chill of the fan's breeze travel down his body as the fan swept past. Stevie snuggled up behind him, settling a hand on his chest and pressing a kiss to the back of his neck. "Okay?"
Stevie was warm behind him, but the breeze from the fan made the warmth welcome, and Stevie's arm around him was nothing he would ever say no to. "Yeah."
"Okay," Stevie murmured, and didn't say anything else, his breathing going soft and even. TJ lay awake for a while, listening for the small sounds from downstairs that meant the house was full of people, Mama and Dad's work carrying on through the night while TJ slept safe in the attic, hidden away with Stevie. He felt a kind of backward nostalgia, because it was better now than it ever had been when he was a kid. He lay in the dark smiling while Stevie slept.
TJ opened his eyes with no sense of transition: it was dark and quiet and he was awake. He was lying on his back, and Stevie was still lying close along his side, one hand on TJ's chest, one leg thrown over his. TJ reached for his phone, and found that it was going on two in the morning, which meant his usual insomnia was arriving right on time.
This was even more familiar than falling asleep to the sound of his parents and their staffers working late. He couldn't remember this ever being new; he'd always just been awake in the night sometimes. It had happened a lot in the White House, which had given him a new place to explore in the night, but he remembered roaming the governor's mansion in the dark, too.
He tried to lie still and enjoy being in bed with Stevie, but the restlessness crept in after about two minutes. TJ edged away from Stevie carefully and slipped out of bed. He shut off the fan so Stevie wouldn't get cold without him, and everything was suddenly that much quieter; he could hear the rustling of the trees around the house and an owl somewhere nearby, but nothing from the two floors below. Everyone else was asleep. He was alone.
TJ grabbed his clothes to put back on. Whatever agents were on the night shift wouldn't be bothered by seeing him half-dressed, but he didn't feel like dealing with some awkward staffer hitting on him or pointedly-not-hitting-on-him at two in the morning. He padded barefoot down to the second floor and walked down the hall past all the closed bedroom doors. Someone was snoring in one of the guest rooms. TJ didn't break stride at the room where Mama and Dad used to sleep and didn't let himself wonder who was sleeping in there tonight.
The office door was closed, so there were probably some staffers bunking down in there, but no one was out in the living room. He saw the dark figure of an agent out on the front porch, and knew that most of the detail would be asleep as well--there was an apartment set aside for them in the carriage house.
TJ stood for a minute in the mostly-dark, listening to the house quiet all around him. There wasn't much he could do without bothering someone. He thought reflexively of hunting for a drink to numb himself to sleep, but he realized there was something else he wanted.
He walked over to the piano and sat down. The window was open already, letting a cool breeze in. He figured that was what made him shiver as he touched his fingers to the keys, too lightly to make a sound.
The White House had been the first place he'd lived that was big enough to have a piano somewhere he could play at night without waking anyone. He'd started going to the East room in the middle of the night to play the pieces he knew from Fantasia, missing Stevie and consoling himself with music they'd shared. His dad had surprised him there once, and Tommy had laughed and run off, not knowing what else to do. But he hadn't gotten caught ever again--not his dad, not the detail. In the most secure house in the world, no one had noticed an eight-year-old boy who couldn't sleep through the night.
He realized there was a melody in his head: not the pieces he'd played those nights, but something all his own, a musical expression of the secret, lonely pleasure of having the White House to himself in the middle of the night. His left hand twitched against the silent keys as he found the harmony line in the never-articulated question: Where were you, why was I alone?
It had been a long time since he'd heard music in his head like this, in his own voice. Music had been coming back to life for him for the last couple of weeks--one of the effects of sobriety that didn't fit on a neat little fact sheet, like the sense of taste improving five days after you quit smoking. At some point, when the drugs cleared out, if the clouds didn't roll right in to fill the space they left--sometimes, there was music instead. First the music he played, turning into something more than just rote motions producing the correct sounds, and now this. Music of his own, whispering its way into being. Last year, he'd believed it was Sean inspiring him to want to write music again; he could feel the temptation to believe that it was Stevie, this time, but he knew it was scarier than that. It was himself, waking up.
TJ shifted his hands, finding the opening chords of the little half-formed piece inside his head. He curled his fingertips against the keys--the lightest caress, molto pianissimo--and the sound shivered into the air around him like a distant echo of music being played far away.
The breeze through the window strengthened, bringing the familiar scent of cigar smoke, and TJ's fingers stilled. He turned his head just enough to see the glowing coal of his dad's cigar, marking the spot where he stood out on the wide front porch, a few yards down from the window.
"Sorry," his dad said. The glow of the cigar came closer until TJ could see the shape of his dad, coming over to lean against the window frame beside him. "Didn't mean to interrupt you."
TJ looked up at him, his face just barely visible on the other side of the open window. He remembered that night when he was eight, when his dad found him playing the piano and he ran away.
"It's okay," TJ said lightly. "I can't really play now anyway, everybody's sleeping."
"Almost everybody," his dad said, and TJ could hear a smile in his voice, warm and fond. "I think you must get your sleeping habits from me--not sleeping, I mean."
"Could be," TJ said, looking down at his hands, still resting silent on the keys. His fingers shifted to the opening of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but he didn't let them make a sound. "Guess I had to get it from somewhere."
His dad didn't say anything, and TJ let his fingers ghost through the opening measures of the Toccata, making no more sound than the whisper of skin against the keys.
"Son," his dad said, and TJ's hands stilled again at the weight of his voice. "You and Steve..."
TJ jerked his hands away from the keys to keep from a sudden fortissimo. His hands hovered in midair as he sat there, not looking up, not saying a word, and not letting his hands close into fists.
"Granted it was only a few minutes, but I don't think I've ever seen you like that with anyone," his dad went on. TJ almost didn't hear the criticism under the approval. "I know it's early days, but if you'll take a piece of fatherly advice, you hold onto that boy with both hands and you don't let him go for anything."
TJ looked down at his hands and lowered them gently to the keys again. The Rite of Spring, this time, but he still didn't make a sound.
He heard the faint crackle of the cigar burning in the silence, and glanced up to see it lit up orange again. His dad had turned half away.
He exhaled smoke in a sigh, and said, "And if he says something to you about sending you a letter, back when you came out, I want you to know he's not lying to you, so don't you go doubting him."
TJ realized first that it had never occurred to him to doubt Stevie and then that the only surprising thing about what his dad had just said was that he was actually saying it. Knowing what the answer had to be, he swallowed hard and made himself ask, in an almost even voice, "How would you know that?"
"Because I saw it, read it, and made sure you didn't get it," his dad said briskly. "Secret Service asked me to confirm that he knew you like he said he did, wanted to know whether he should be on the pre-cleared list so you'd get mail from him directly. I said I'd take care of it."
TJ stayed frozen until he realized his dad wasn't going to say anything else. His dad was still facing away, not even bothering to look him the eye. TJ twisted on the piano bench to face him, dropping his hands into his lap and closing them into fists. "Why. Why would you--why."
His dad sighed again and turned, bowing his head as he showed his profile to TJ. "Because I knew what the two of you were like together. I knew you were funny about each other even when you were just little boys--"
"You, what, you knew we were a couple of eight-year-old fags, is that what--"
"TJ," his dad said, sharply enough to silence him, and turned to face him full on. He lowered himself so that he was looking straight at TJ, and TJ could feel the force of his gaze in the murky darkness, even without the emphatic punctuation of two fingers pointing at him with the cigar held between them. "I have never called you any such thing, and I'd never say it about Steve either, and you know that."
TJ gritted his teeth and looked away.
"But as it happens," his dad went on, his tone half-conciliating, "I do mean that I knew it wasn't just friendship for the two of you, even when you were kids, even if I didn't think through what it actually was back then. For sure I knew as soon as I saw that letter he wrote you that what was a little weird when you were kids was going to turn into some Romeo-and-Juliet thing now that you were hormonal teenagers. We woulda had Steve standing outside the security fence on Pennsylvania Avenue holding a boom box over his head, or you running off to Raleigh to see him. One way or another the two of you would have outed yourselves--"
"I was already fucking out," TJ snapped, and his voice sounded close to tears, but all he felt was a half-numb pounding in his head.
"You were out as gay, yes," his dad said, his tone turning on a dime to let me educate you about politics, son. "That was one thing. But for you to have been in a relationship, possibly a sexual relationship, at fifteen, in that kind of spotlight--and to throw that kind of spotlight on Steve at that age--would have been a whole other ballgame. Let me tell you, if you think what you got was bad, that would have been worse. That would have been a thousand times worse, TJ, and I couldn't let it happen to you."
"You couldn't let it happen to you," TJ said, the fear he'd swallowed for so many years finally, finally finding its way out of him. He'd spent half his life in the White House terrified of affecting the fate of the free world with the scandal of what he was. "You couldn't let it happen to your presidency."
His dad sighed. "I was a lame duck, TJ, less than a year away from the end of my term. I won't try to tell you there was no political calculation in it. You know there was. You know where you grew up, and why. But if you'd been anyone else's son you wouldn't have had to come out on national television and you wouldn't have been a news story if you dated in high school. You want to be angry at me, yes, be angry. I am sorry. I don't know if it was the wrong choice, but seeing you and Steve together tonight, I saw what I took away from you back then, and I am sorry for that. I want you to know that."
TJ didn't actually feel angry. He knew he was going to be angry at some point--logically, this was something he should be angry about--but right now all he felt was the vast blank hollowness of knowing that he had come that close to having Stevie in his life ever since he was fifteen. He would have run away to Raleigh as many times as he could slip or suborn his detail to do it. He would have snuck Stevie into the White House and into every dorm room he'd ever lived in. He would have said X, O, X, O to Stevie for real before he was out of high school, and instead....
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth on all the things he could say to his dad right now, all the ways to make him as sorry as TJ was for what he'd done. All the things he'd never wanted him to know, and still didn't, really. It wouldn't help, except maybe to turn this into a middle-of-the-night shouting match after all.
TJ felt a touch on his clenched fist, and he opened his eyes to see his dad leaning into the window frame, one hand extended to cover TJ's.
"I'm sorry," his dad repeated, squeezing his hand. "It was always going to be a hard road for you. Maybe Steve would have made it easier for you back then, maybe harder. There's no knowing now. But I do know that I could have made it easier, and I didn't. I will regret that for the rest of my life, TJ. You deserved better."
TJ just stared at him for a moment, caught right on the edge of wanting to buy it, to forgive his dad and revel in this moment of closeness--he'd been Dad's favorite, once, the way Douglas was still Mama's. On the other hand, he knew he was going to be really fucking angry about this eventually, and he knew he wasn't going to be able to let this go at a single apology.
"Okay," TJ said after a while, his dad's hand still holding his fist, his fingers aching from clenching so tight. Somehow he couldn't relax and let go with his dad touching him. He had to hold that much ground. "Why are you telling me this right now?"
His dad sighed again, and TJ saw the shadowy shape of an unhappy smile on his face. "Not because I expect you to forgive me right this second, or because I think it's gonna help either of us sleep any better. But you've got somebody awfully special waiting for you upstairs, and I want you to know it's not his fault he wasn't here for you sooner. I want you to know you can trust him if he tells you that."
"I already knew that," TJ said, without a hesitation for breath or thought. His dad's sad smile shifted into something that might have been a wince.
He patted TJ's hand and let go, and said as he stood, "That's good, son. Don't give that up."
His dad turned away without another word, calling out softly, "Sam," as he walked across the porch. TJ stayed where he was, watching the dark shapes of his dad and a Secret Service agent walking away into the deeper darkness.
TJ exhaled, and then whispered a shaky, "Jesus Christ, Dad," as he ran both hands through his hair, staring into the dark. "Jesus fucking..."
He turned on the bench, putting his back to the piano, and looked around without really seeing anything. He wanted to run after his dad, or just run--he wanted a drink or a hit, anything that would soften the crash he could feel coming.
It wasn't even a surprise, not really. He'd known it, a little bit, from the moment Stevie said he'd sent a letter. It was the only reason TJ wouldn't have gotten it--this way, at least, he could believe that Mama hadn't known. She wasn't like Dad; she wouldn't just throw something like this at him as her way of giving her blessing to him and Stevie.
She'd given them privacy, though. And Dad was trying to give him... trust. Honesty. TJ curled down to rest his elbows on his knees and counted his breaths, trying not to think too much about what those efforts meant. He couldn't take it in right now. He couldn't do anything about it at all.
When he felt--not calm, but a little less like he was about to fly apart--he became aware of the sounds of someone moving around upstairs. The sound came from directly overhead, in one of the guest rooms, so he knew it wasn't Stevie, but it was enough to drag his attention away from himself. For a second he remembered his dad's voice--you're got somebody awfully special waiting for you. He felt himself resisting going up there just because it was more or less what his dad had told him to do, but that was actually stupider than most of his bad impulses. Getting wasted at least felt good while he was doing it. TJ turned and lowered the cover over the keyboard without a sound, and then headed back upstairs.
There was a low light coming from the crack under TJ's bedroom door, and he opened it to find that Stevie had turned on the lamp beside the bed. It had a fifteen-watt bulb--TJ woke up in the night often enough that he'd wanted something he could turn on without blinding himself at two in the morning--so the room was bathed in warm, shaded light, just enough to see by. Stevie was lying diagonally across the bed, head near the lamp, his hand curled around his phone on the pillow by his cheek.
Stevie's boxers were on the floor by the bed. TJ stood in the doorway for a minute, just looking, wondering if Stevie had gotten too warm for any clothes at all without the fan running or if he'd meant to wait up for TJ to come back. If he'd come upstairs a little sooner, what kind of welcome would he have gotten?
This was good enough, though. Stevie was in his bed, sleeping naked where TJ slept, and that was a million miles away from what he'd found last night when he finally gave up on wearing himself out watching TV in the middle of the night.
TJ got undressed again--all the way this time, kicking his own underwear over to pile on top of Stevie's on the floor--and crawled back into bed, leaning over Stevie to shut off the light. That didn't wake him this time, but he made a sleepy noise when TJ slipped his phone from his hand and returned it to the windowsill, next to Stevie's glasses. He pushed Stevie gently away from the edge of the bed, fitting himself into the space left, and Stevie immediately draped himself over TJ.
TJ grinned in the dark. "Are you awake?"
"Uh-uh," Stevie mumbled, nuzzling into TJ's throat and squirming against him in a way that made TJ really aware that they were both naked. "Still asleep. Dreaming Tommy Hammond got into bed with me."
"Huh," TJ tilted his head, kissing Stevie's temple. "You ever have that dream before?"
"So many times," Stevie said, shifting up along TJ's body so their mouths could find each other for a soft, sleepy kiss. "Pretty much my favorite dream, to be honest. I wish I could have it all the time."
TJ felt his whole body flush hot with happiness at the idea of all the time. He knew he was getting ahead of himself, but he wrapped both arms around Stevie, pulling him all the way on top, and tried to kiss him softly enough to still be a dream. Stevie rocked gently down into him, and TJ could feel Stevie's cock getting hard against his belly, and shifted a little to get Stevie's thigh to fall between his, giving him something to push up against.
TJ startled when the light came on, tightening his grip on Stevie as he opened his eyes to see Stevie grinning down at him in the gentle glow of the bedside lamp.
"Nope," Stevie said. "I'm definitely awake now. And you woke me up at an ungodly hour, so it's up to you to make something cool happen."
TJ let his head fall back on the pillow and looked up at Stevie through his eyelashes, one hand sliding down to rest on Stevie's bare ass. "What kind of cool thing did you have in mind?"
Stevie made a considering noise, shifting forward so he could kiss TJ again while grinding pointedly against him. TJ pushed up against Stevie's thigh, cock hardening as he kissed Stevie, deep and wet and slow. This might not be cool, but he could do this all night and never want to stop.
Stevie broke the kiss, and TJ opened his eyes to see why, feeling a little dazed already. Stevie smirked down at him and said, "You should fuck me."
TJ's hand tightened reflexively on the cheek of Stevie's ass, and Stevie grinned and pushed into TJ's grip. "Close, but no cigar."
Stevie moved to straddle TJ, taking away TJ's source of friction but also spreading himself open. He ducked his head to kiss TJ's throat as TJ's fingers found his hole, and TJ groaned a little when his fingertips skated across warm slick wetness. He couldn't help pressing in against Stevie's rim, already soft and welcoming, and he knew Stevie had been lying here in his bed, fingering himself, slicking himself open for TJ.
He rocked his fingertip barely into Stevie, and Stevie bit down at the base of TJ's throat, wrenching another low, helpless noise from TJ's mouth. Stevie licked the spot and said against TJ's skin, "I mean, if you want."
"Yeah," TJ said, letting his finger push inside Stevie, closing his eyes at the hot welcoming clutch of his body. "Fuck, of course I want."
He couldn't stop touching Stevie, dipping his finger inside and stroking over the rim, feeling the muscle twitch and tighten while Stevie's hips rocked. Stevie's cock was hard against his belly, and Stevie kept biting new kisses along his throat.
TJ took his left hand away from Stevie, feeling around on the bed, because if Stevie had gotten himself ready... He grinned and pushed his finger in deeper when he found the bottle of lube and a condom tucked under the other pillow.
Stevie pushed himself up to give TJ a kiss on the mouth, and his hand closed over TJ's, plucking the condom out of his grip. "I'll do you if you do me."
TJ hadn't even figured out what he meant before Stevie moved away from him sharply enough to make TJ's finger slip free of his ass, and then Stevie moved to straddle him the other way, facing TJ's cock and giving TJ a perfect view of his ass. TJ just stared for a second, and then Stevie looked over his shoulder as he shook his hips and said, "Tommy?"
"Yeah," TJ said hoarsely, and slicked his fingers as Stevie's hand closed around his cock.
TJ pressed one slick finger into Stevie and then two as Stevie stroked him, falling into the same teasing rhythm Stevie was setting. He couldn't take his eyes off his finger disappearing into Stevie's ass, and he backed off again and again to toy with the rim until Stevie's hips were pushing back into his hand and Stevie finally rolled the condom onto him.
"More?" TJ asked, pressing his first two fingers in and tracing the third along Stevie's shiny-slick rim.
Stevie reached back with his left hand, groping around, and TJ grinned and worked his fingers slowly in and out while he found the lube and pressed it to Stevie's palm.
"N--nah," Stevie said, just as TJ worked the tip of his ring finger into him. "Don't need it."
The next second the chill of lube on the outside of the condom hit his cock, accompanied by Stevie's stroking hand again. TJ arched up under the confusion of sensations, wanting more, wanting Stevie, and he abruptly saw the appeal of getting on with it. Now.
"How d'you wanna," TJ managed, easing his fingers out of Stevie's hole.
Stevie turned again, bending down to kiss TJ, and then flopped down on his own side of the bed, face tucked against his pillow, hips tilted up helpfully. "Like this."
TJ didn't have to be told twice. He rolled over to cover Stevie's body with his, guiding his cock to Stevie's ass and pressing a kiss to the nape of Stevie's pale neck.
"Slow, okay?" Stevie said. "It's been a while."
TJ nodded. "Slow's fine."
He lined himself up and pushed just barely inside, pressing his forehead against Stevie's shoulder and breathing through the tight heat of Stevie's ass on the head of his cock. When Stevie squirmed under him TJ pushed in a little further, and then a little more. He paused to plant a sucking kiss on the point of Stevie's shoulder, pinching the thin skin there with his teeth to be sure of leaving another mark.
Stevie moved under him, shoving his ass back onto TJ's cock, and TJ let his mouth break from Stevie's skin so he could laugh. It wasn't exactly the right reaction to being suddenly buried balls-deep inside Stevie, but he had to do something.
"Fucking glacial," Stevie said, still squirming a little under him, maybe adjusting to TJ's cock, maybe just fidgeting. "Don't tease."
"What if I'm not teasing, huh?" TJ muttered, nuzzling against Stevie's throat, whispering in his ear, and still not moving otherwise. "What if I gotta hold real still so I don't lose it right now?"
He rocked just a little, making his breath catch. Stevie felt so good around his cock, and more than that was the fact of being here, with Stevie, fucking in bed in the middle of the night, like this wasn't just a dare or a game or a hookup. Like this meant something special.
"I guess I can take it, then," Stevie said, sounding a little amused and a little breathless. "Whatever you need, Tommy. But if I fall asleep before you're done, don't take it personally, okay?"
"I'll see if I can keep you awake," TJ promised, bracing on his left arm while he slid his right hand under Stevie to get a hand on his cock. TJ hardly had to move then, just rocking a little to set the pace as Stevie pushed back and forth, fucking his cock into TJ's hand, still slick with the lube he'd used on Stevie, and then pushing his ass back onto TJ's cock. Pleasure burned through him like a fever, focused where he was sunk inside Stevie but taking up his whole body. He mouthed at Stevie's skin wherever he could reach it, letting Stevie drive both of them.
"Tommy," Stevie gasped after a while, the motions of his hips getting faster. "Tommy, more, please--"
TJ took charge, then, fucking into Stevie until he found the angle that made Stevie say his name again, broken around a gasp, bracing both hands against the wall to push back. TJ bit down just above Stevie's shoulder blade, and Stevie reached back and curled his fingers in TJ's hair, tugging while TJ fucked him harder.
Stevie gasped, "Oh, fuck," and his grip loosened as he came. TJ tried to hold still and wait him out, but the feeling of Stevie coming around him made his hips jerk, thrusting into the tight clench of his ass, and TJ didn't last a minute longer.
He held himself up off of Stevie, braced on his elbows and letting his head hang, his breath gusting fast against the back of Stevie's neck while Stevie breathed in huge gasps. TJ found himself listening for the whistle of Stevie's lungs, but it never showed up. Stevie coughed a couple of times--which felt fucking weird on TJ's softening cock--but other than that he gave every sign of just melting into the mattress and going back to sleep.
TJ huffed and dropped a kiss among the red marks of kisses and bites he'd left scattered over Stevie's shoulders, and then pulled out, holding onto the condom to try to make as little mess as possible. He sat up and peeled it off, tossed it into the tiny trash can next to the bookshelf, and leaned over to turn the fan back on. Even with both windows open, the bedroom smelled like a sauna people had fucked in now.
"Cold," Stevie muttered, grabbing at TJ's hip, and TJ gave up on cleaning up any more than that. He turned off the lamp and lay down again, rolling over to face Stevie, who immediately snuggled up to him, throwing an arm and leg over him like he needed to hold TJ still.
"Are you awake?" TJ murmured. He felt sleepy and sex-dazed, and he knew there was a stupid smile on his face that was all for Stevie.
"Not for long," Stevie said. "You gonna be able to sleep now?"
"Probably," TJ replied, squirming a little to put his forehead against Stevie's. Downstairs, his dad, all of that seemed really far away. He was here with Stevie, safe in his bed with the whir of the fan and the moon lighting up the treetops out his window.
"I would've run away," TJ said quietly. "If I knew where you were. I would've come to find you."
"When?" Stevie asked, tilting his chin up and giving TJ a soft kiss. "Like last week?"
"Last week," TJ agreed. "Or when I was fifteen. When you wrote to me."
Stevie huffed a little laugh, blinking slowly at TJ. "Well that would've been a shitshow. Forget being cockblocked by the Secret Service, we would've had a fucking SWAT team and CNN on our asses. I would've told you to stay put, let me run away to you."
"I might not have listened," TJ said, because he didn't want to think about Stevie siding with his dad right now. "I might've come anyway."
"Sure," Stevie said agreeably, and Stevie being agreeable had to mean he really was almost asleep. "But I'm here now. It all worked out."
"You found me," TJ agreed, and he squirmed until he had both arms around Stevie and Stevie's warm, sleeping weight resting half on top of him. Stevie had found him; TJ had lived long enough to get found. He wasn't going to let go now for anything.