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To Light a Candle

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There weren't many people who would've dared say that they found a Tony Stark event boring. TJ, however, had long since stopped caring about social niceties or political correctness, and so wouldn't hesitate: he was bored.

True, this wasn't one of Stark's legendary parties, where the music was always good, the alcohol pricey and plenty, the guests all beautiful people who knew how to move their bodies. No, this time it was a much more polished affair, a gala planned by Pepper Potts, Stark's personal assistant, to celebrate the inauguration of the brand new Stark Tower in New York.

TJ's glass was filled with nothing but innocent sparkling water and he felt the presence of the free bar like a siren's call. He was currently standing alone, too—had been for the past twenty minutes. So yes, he was bored. And being bored never bode well for T. J. Hammond.

There had been some people willing to talk to him earlier in the evening, or rather to one of Elaine Barrish's sons, even though they themselves didn't seem to know why exactly. TJ had gamely played along: yes, his mother had announced her candidacy for the primaries of the Democratic party less than a month ago; and yes, she was starting out as the definite favorite—not that it was surprising, given her main opponent was Fred Collier. When asked, he'd even taken the time to present her platform, the main lines or the details on a precise matter, depending on the question. He might not have an active part in the campaign yet—for now, his job was to avoid falling off the sobriety train, even though his mother hadn't gone as far as to actually say that in explicit terms—but he had a thorough knowledge of her plans and would use any opportunity offered to spread the word.

The crowd present at Tony Stark's gala wasn't the type to really talk politics, though, unless whispers started spreading about corporate and wealth tax, or tariff—which his mother had intentions for, but somehow they preferred to ignore that. As a consequence, less than two hours in such enquiries had ceased, leaving TJ trapped in conversations he had little to nothing to contribute to. Not that he was surprised: he himself hadn't been invited, he'd only come as his sister-in-law's date.

By some stroke of luck—although TJ suspected his mother of having used her influence to make this happen as a convoluted, veiled wedding present—Anne had been hired by Ms. Potts to help design her private quarters in the newly erected tower. The project had reached its end to the utter satisfaction of both women, who also seemed to go along tremendously well, and so Anne had naturally been included in the guest list.

Douglas hadn't been able to accompany her: as his mother's campaign manager, he was possibly even more busy than she was with the start of the campaign, and hadn't a minute to spare. TJ, on the other hand, had a pretty adaptable schedule. He'd offered to go in his brother's stead, and soon enough he and Anne had decided to make a week of it. It was enough for Anne to meet with a couple prospective clients—Ms. Potts seemed to have been recommending her left and right—, and TJ with the coordinator for the online program he was about to start at NYU, plus it left enough time for a nice amount of shopping away from the scrutiny of DC.

They could also help each other: TJ would make sure that Anne ate and kept her meals down (or most of them) and Anne would make sure that TJ didn't get high or drunk.

As it turned out, on the path to recovery, Anne was a much more reliable partner than Nana.

She was also much better for the crowd frequenting the gala, despite the disparity of experience between her and TJ with public events. Ms. Potts had whisked her away almost at once to introduce her to her friends and associates, and even now, hours later, she still stood amongst the group carrying the liveliest conversation in the room. TJ had no intention of going over there: she didn't need him to come and tarnish the picture.

So he was left alone, adrift—with his glass nearly empty: a dangerous situation if there was one. But he could withstand the temptation, he told himself. A waiter slid by carrying a tray of champagne, and he didn't make a gesture to take a flute. He definitely could.

Taking small sips of water, however, was the only thing he had left to distract himself. There was no balcony on which to step out for a smoke and a contemplation of the New York skyline, given that the reception hall was situated on the ground floor, beside the grand conference room where Stark had taken them on a virtual tour of his tower. TJ felt really reluctant to try and join any of the clusters of people spread throughout the room. The salty finger food at the buffet was almost all gone, and even though it was bound to soon be replaced by dessert he doubted it would do much for him. As expected from delicacies offered at a Stark event it was fancy, pretty with a variety of tastes in complex combinations. But in TJ's mouth it felt tasteless, like most food always did, flaky and difficult to get down despite how small the pieces were.

That was what sobriety was like for him: long nights of little to no sleep, any and all food tasting like cardboard, like nothing, and everything else an endless stretch of time which he tried to fill the best he could, with various tasks and distractions for which he struggled to summon the smallest spark of interest and which left him exhausted. Everyone assured him that all of this was leading him somewhere, that it would "get better", but he couldn't see it. And now that he could neither get drunk nor high, he was deprived of the few means he'd had to forget all of that, if only for a couple hours.

It had been six months since his last fuck up. But he'd already done that, five months, six months sober, enough that he couldn't count it as an achievement or a sign that whatever he was doing was working, that he'd succeed this time. On the contrary: he could almost hear a clock ticking down the hours, the seconds left until he found a way to screw it up all over again.

And here he was, alone, with nothing but a glass in hand in need of a refill.

He chanced a glance towards the bar, checking whether it was busy or not, and for a second everything around him faded, the room, the sound of conversation, the light of the chandeliers, the air he was breathing, disappearing so quickly he thought he would choke, only to reappear right after, when he realized—

There was a man standing near the bar, tall, blond, and for that brief second TJ had thought that it was Sean. His heart had quickened and tripped right over itself, the stupid, useless organ. But it wasn't; at second glance it was even obvious. The man's whole body was larger, broader: his jaw, his shoulders, his arms.

He was also strikingly handsome.

Yet he held himself like he wasn't: he stood awkwardly, his shoulders slightly hunched like he was trying to appear smaller. One of his hands was stuck in the pocket of his trousers, the other holding a glass of wine against his chest like a pitiful shield. As TJ watched he met someone's eye by chance; he smiled briefly, stiffly, then dropped his gaze, not moving from his spot. That whole attitude, combined with the obvious sub-par quality of his suit, made him stick out like a sore thumb. He looked out-of-place, like someone who'd been added at the bottom of the guest list at the last moment, as an afterthought, as a courtesy to an intern for a job well-done—except that he was too old to be a bumbling intern, or anything of the sort.

TJ's interest was piqued, in a way that had him half-way to the bar before he'd even realized he'd started moving. He needed a refill, he told himself—only the excuse sounded thin even to himself, so transparent that he already knew how this would end. By the time he'd reached the table he'd settled for a bargain: he'd ask for another glass of water and, having thus proved that he wasn't going off tracks, he'd allow himself to talk to the man. It wasn't like it would lead anywhere: the most likely explanation for the man's poor getup and demeanor was that he was new to the big city. His stature and coloring were deeply Midwestern; his interests and sexual orientation probably reflected that.

TJ ignored the fact that such things had rarely thwarted him in the past.

Instead he argued to himself that a little harmless, aimless flirtation was a much better distraction than other things he might get up to while Anne schmoozed.

The waiter had to go dig through one of the coolers for a bottle of mineral water, leaving TJ several seconds to consider the man at a closer angle. He was now frowning at the ground, lost in thoughts with his glass half-raised to his lips, like he'd forgotten about it mid-gesture. He didn't notice he was being watched, not even when the waiter returned with TJ's order and TJ thanked him distractedly—and in the end it was what decided it: no such man should be left alone with his thoughts at a party, especially if they darkened his face into such a grave expression. No doubt he'd be even more pleasant to the eye if he smiled.

TJ curled a finger around the stem of his new glass, lifted it and took a sip. It was cool, the taste of gas instead of alcohol a surprise and a disappointment as always, but it was enough to give him the last push. He sidled over to the man and said:

"I know it doesn't look like it, but we don't actually bite."

The man tensed, but didn't startle, simply blinked out of his thoughts and glanced over. TJ gave him a slow, practiced smile.

"Not a regular at that kind of shindig, are you?"

"Is it that obvious?" the man replied, and TJ had been right: he was much more attractive when he stopped frowning, even if the curve of his lips was self-deprecating at best.

"May I ask what got you invited, then? Wait, no," TJ said, unable to refrain from flirting. Something in the man's blue eyes, in the tone of his voice, so far from what TJ had expected coming from such a serious, stiff character, had hooked him right in. "Let me try to guess. And then you have to guess how I came to be here." He had no doubt that the man would soon recognize him, if he hadn't already, even though he'd given no outward sign of it. TJ's face was what the press liked the most about him, after the scandals. He leaned in conspiratorially: "I wasn't invited myself, you see. I came with someone. You'll have to guess who, and why."

It wouldn't be difficult: the press loved Anne too, although for fully different reasons, especially since the news of her and Doug's elopement had broken out. It was so little like the reasonable, successful, organized twin, the tabloids had sighed. It had to be true love. Anne had to be an exceptional woman. And look, she was: so pretty, so successful, and yet so modest and nice too. Perfect.

Usually TJ stopped reading at that word; he knew now how complicated Anne's relationship with it was. Besides, it was often the point at which articles started on how good it was of her to try and help her brother-in-law with his recovery—because the second half of that agreement wasn't public knowledge, and everyone in the Hammond family was intent on keeping it that way.

The man was looking at him with a considering moue, and said: "Okay." He turned towards TJ like TJ was well worth putting his thoughts aside and turning his back to a whole room of New York's best. TJ bit his lips, and grinned.

What followed turned out to be the worst game of hit and miss, where TJ failed spectacularly at guessing how his co-player had scored an invitation to one of the most expected events of the year. He found out that the man had come with his own invitation, that he wasn't a Stark employee, nor a member of the board of directors, nor a partner from another company with which Stark Industries had worked. He wasn't a lawyer, nor an architect, nor a designer. He wasn't an associate, nor the son of one. He had nothing to do with politics, wasn't a cousin visiting the city, wasn't a member of the press, didn't consider himself a friend of Stark or Potts… And even though it quickly became clear that TJ wasn't going to find out the truth through guesswork, he couldn't help but prolong the game, smitten as he was by the increasingly impish smile his enigma sported as he replied another: "Nope."

"Okay, I give up," he had to concede when his suggestions started diving into the absurd, a sign that he'd soon lose what little dignity he had left. "I stand defeated."

The man laughed. It was delightful, sent tingles down TJ's spine all the way to his fingertips, as if the sparkling water he was still sipping was having an effect after all.

"Good thing we didn't put high stakes on that game, then," the man said, before taking pity on TJ and revealing: "I'm a painter—or, I guess, an artist, you could say. Stark commissioned me to do the monumental painting hanging in the lobby."

TJ squinted, trying to find it in his memory. He had noticed a large piece of art in the entrance hall—but in that distracted, uninterested and untrained way he'd developed through living surrounded by expensive art at the While House, without ever being taught how to evaluate or recognize it.

"I have to admit I didn't pay much attention." He bit his lips again, then added: "You could show it to me, though. Surely you're the best placed to explain your process to me, and what it's supposed to mean."

The other man looked at him strangely, as if unsure of what TJ meant or whether he meant it. TJ kept his expression pleasantly interested, with a small hint of teasing in his smile. In the end, the man shrugged.

"Why not?" he said, and put his now almost empty glass onto the table.

TJ kept his own flute so he couldn't give himself the excuse of not having one, of being distracted, of acting on reflex by snatching a glass of champagne when they'd return. He glanced behind him to make sure that Anne was engrossed in conversation. He wasn't supposed to leave her stranded—and he wasn't, he told himself, they'd be back in next to no time, he wasn't going to leave the party. He followed his new acquaintance out of the room.

It was a gamble. Given the way the man had reacted to him and his approach, TJ had no doubt there was some interest here, and therefore a 60% chance that they would never see the painting, that the man would lead him straight to the nearest bathroom. Their smalltalk about art was a great pretext, though.

But as it turned out, it wasn't a pretext. As soon as they stepped out into the lobby the man made a beeline for the huge painting that you indeed couldn't miss if you lingered for more than a second. TJ didn't know if it was disappointment he felt, or relief. Part of him had known he was making excuses, and could already see the flat look Nana would've given him. Besides, the man did have the looks of one of these oblivious straight men, or of these closeted ones politics were rife with, who thought that willfully ignoring advances like TJ's meant that they weren't what they were. It was curious to find that type in someone who called themselves an artist, though.

Or maybe he was just that into his art, which could either hint at a conflated ego, or reveal a deep passion. TJ hoped for the latter—it was the lesser of two evils.

He stopped beside the man and looked up at the painting. A couple seconds passed in silence.

"It is monumental," he finally said.

The man let out a laugh. "Sure is," he said. "I don't even remember the exact dimensions, all I remember is how huge the canvas looked when I saw it, and how terrified I was of butchering it. It was my first time working on such a large surface."

"Trust Stark to do everything the overblown way," TJ said, walking over to the small panel placed at chest level on the wall to see if the measurements were indicated.

Desert VI, the card read. Steve Rogers. Canvas and oil. And underneath, there were the dimensions, but TJ was too absorbed by the realization that he'd never asked the man's name for them to register.

He could hear Nana scolding him from here.

"Steve Rogers, uh," he said, returning to the man's side. "I have to be honest, I don't know the first thing about the current art scene. Are you, like, well established as an artist?"

He had to be, for Tony Stark to have commissioned him. Yet Steve replied:

"God, no." Like the mere thought was ludicrous. TJ didn't see why: the painting was beautiful, and now that he knew its title and really looked at it, he could see it: the tawny and earthy tones, spreading on the canvas like gusts of sand and wind. There was something lonely in it, something harsh too, almost violent. TJ wondered if he felt that right, and if so, from where Steve had gotten all of it.

"I'm just starting out," Steve went on. "Which is the second reason why I was so terrified when I got the commission. I thought it was a prank, at first."

"How come Tony Stark commissioned you, then?"

"I didn't ask," Steve asked ruefully. "There was an article about an exhibit of mine in the paper. Or I guess he saw—or Ms. Potts, maybe. Maybe they simply saw my work at the gallery and liked it."

TJ's eyebrows rose. "Oh, so you have exhibits already? Is that what it means, to 'start out'?"

"It was one exhibit," Steve pointed out. "And I shared it with four other artists. But I do have another one opening this Thursday, in which there are only two artists beside me."

"Wow, careful not to let that get to your head," TJ teased.

"I'll try," Steve promised. "To be honest, I'm a little be afraid of what effect that one—" He jutted his chin at the painting above them. "—will have. I don't want to keep working on such large canvas. I'm usually far more measured."

TJ hummed like he knew exactly what Steve meant. (He didn't.) "So it doesn't look like what you usually do?"

"It does—it's part of a series I was working on, I used the same techniques, the same materials. It's just a whole lot… bigger."

TJ couldn't help but smile, and made himself look back up at the work. "So what is it supposed to mean?" he asked. "Does it go in the series or did Stark have a thing to say about that too?"

"A little bit of both," Steve replied. "I'm exploring the line between abstraction and landscape painting. The exhibition showed the first two of that series, Desert, and— You know what happened to Stark, in Afghanistan?"

TJ nodded. "I remember, yeah."

"I guess he wanted a reminder of that. I mean, that's what made him decide to stop producing weapons and turn over a new leaf."

"A green leaf, you mean," TJ muttered with a smirk. He still remembered the headlines: Deadly ambush in Afghanistan, seven dead, Stark missing. Then kidnapped, then presumed dead, then found. They'd occupied the front page for weeks—hell, maybe even months. Not that it was unusual, when it came to Stark. It was one of the reasons why TJ liked him, without having ever spoken to the man: his extravagances, his mistakes, his indiscretions and even his addictions made the press explode on a regular basis, which gave TJ some breathing room, because in those moments they stopped hounding him, if only for a little while. Never for long enough, but still. TJ knew to be grateful when needed be.

"He told me he wanted a painting referring to that," Steve went on. "And putting it right in the lobby of his brand new tower, which is meant to open a new era for Stark Industries, as a leader in green energy and medicine? I'd say that's pretty symbolic."

TJ made sure to look impressed. It wasn't difficult: he was. "Must feel nice, to be part of something that big," he said. "People will be lining up at the door for you—and they'll be right."

Steve, of all things, blushed. He wasn't that oblivious to innuendo, then. Nor was he that straight either, given the look he gave TJ. TJ bit his lips. It was almost too tempting.

He was about to ask about Steve's upcoming exhibit, not as much out of interest as to keep the conversation going, when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. It was Anne, hovering at the entrance of the reception hall, looking for him. She hadn't been that distracted, after all, and this time TJ definitely felt relief that he and Steve hadn't been busy with anything sordid. He would hate to have let her down that much.

When she caught sight of him she smiled. It wasn't like what TJ would get from any other member of his family—suspicious, worried, accusing maybe. It was rather apologetic, because she knew she was interrupting, but wouldn't retreat anyway. It was their deal.

"TJ," she said as she approached, "they're bringing out the dessert pieces."

TJ smiled at her. "Of course," he said, glad that she wasn't just there to make sure he wasn't veering off his path, but because she stood as much at risk of doing exactly that herself. That kind of honesty was what make their partnership work. He reached out a hand for her to take—a promise that he wouldn't send her away.

"And who is this?" Anne asked, extending her smile to Steve, although that one was more for show.

"This is Steve Rogers," TJ said, relieved that he knew enough to make the introductions. "The artist who painted the beauty above us. Steve, the beauty who just joined us is my sister-in-law, Anne Hammond."

"I heard about you, from Pepper," Anne said as they shook hands. "Mr. Stark is more than happy with your work."

"I imagine he wouldn't have hung it up for all the world to see if that hadn't been the case," Steve replied. TJ bit back a laugh, and a short silence settled.

"Well," he said right before it became awkward. "I guess we're due back inside."

He shared a glance with Anne.

"We are," she said.

"Maybe we'll run into each other again later?" he told Steve, trying not to sound too hopeful.

Steve's smile faltered. "Ah, actually, I won't be staying much longer. The place where I'm staying is some way away, and I have to catch a train before they stop running."

"Isn't Stark lending you a car?"

"I'm not that kind of guest," Steve said with a rueful look.

"Well, then," TJ sighed, "I guess this is goodbye." He reached out a hand. "Have a nice trip home."

Steve's hand was large and warm, its grip sure, not too strong. It left TJ's all too soon.

"I was wondering—" Steve started, but then his eyes darted down to Anne, and he obviously changed tracks. "I hope you have a nice night. And that the dessert is good," he added, almost cheekily.

All TJ wanted to do was to prompt him, make him say what he'd first wanted to, but Anne was smiling and thanking him and already tugging TJ to turn around and walk away.

It took a lot of effort for TJ not to glance back, even once they'd reached the doorway. He had an even harder time stopping from wondering what Steve had almost said, and from feeling regret that he'd never find out.

 

*

 

Two days later he was still thinking about it.

He'd never done well with temptation, after all. But he stood by his first judgment, that is to say that obsessing over a stranger and what they both would've gotten up to had they left the party together or agreed to meet up later was a nice change from pondering how nice it'd feel to take something, anything, to let go for a little while, to catch a break.

His mother wouldn't have agreed with that line of thought, of course, and Nana even less. Both would've had a few choice words about TJ's forwardness, about Steve's resemblance to Sean, about how problematic it was that TJ had been ready to get to his knees for him in a bathroom within five minutes of meeting him.

But they didn't know, wouldn't know, and Anne wasn’t suspecting anything either. She'd probably let Steve slip right out of her mind the second she'd caught glimpse of the newly laden buffet and felt the challenge it was for her. TJ wasn't going to remind her of him, and kept his thoughts to himself.

He was mulling over it again while he waited for her to put on one of the ensembles she was to try on. She might know best about how to set up and decorate a room for maximal comfort and aesthetics, but she knew to defer to him when it came to fashion. In between the third and fourth outfit, he'd come to a conclusion: he wanted to see Steve again. Their interrupted conversation had left him wanting, with the feeling of a potential unfulfilled—something he desperately wanted to explore.

Something that might make the constant yearning for the next high a little bit quieter. And he was pretty sure that Steve had wanted something like it too. TJ had to see him again.

Question was, how? he wondered as he summarily dismissed outfit five. The answer didn't come until between outfit seven and eight: Steve had mentioned an upcoming exhibit including his works, which was hopefully opening before TJ and Anne were due back in DC.

He pulled up internet on his phone, did a quick search, and almost at once he had the information he needed: a date—Thursday—, a time, an address. It was almost too easy.

He glanced up when Anne pulled open the curtain to the changing room.

"That one," he said at once. Suddenly he remembered what they were shopping for: a meeting that'd probably segue into dinner that Anne had set up the night of the party with the wife of one of Ms. Potts' collaborators. It was planned for the following day, Thursday.

Which meant that TJ would be on his own for most of the afternoon and evening.

It felt like a sign.

 

*

 

TJ didn't know New York that well, but he knew enough not to get lost on the way from NYU's campus, where he'd had his brief meeting with the coordinator of his online degree, to the gallery. Taking a taxi helped. He didn't have to worry about the cost: one of the perks of offering himself as Anne's traveling companion was that both she and Doug had claimed they'd cover all his expenses. They'd done so separately, too. A year ago, months ago maybe, TJ wouldn't have pointed that out, would have used Doug's money for the trip and kept Anne's for another occasion, in case he needed to buy something without it showing on his accounts.

But he had told them, and they'd found some way to share the costs between them. TJ didn't ask about the details, he'd just put the whole thing down as a clear sign that he was making progress—as long as he ignored how strong the temptation had been.

It was always there, was the thing. Even now, as he faltered in front of the gallery. He was at the right place: a poster displayed the names of the featured artists, a S. Rogers among them. But what was he doing? Going to an art show when he didn't know nor cared about art, on the off chance that he'd catch another glimpse of a man he'd spoken to once, for half an hour maybe, and who would only be surprised to see him again, maybe unpleasantly so. It was exactly the type of impulsive behavior that always landed him in trouble, be it with substances or the wrong kind of people.

But at the same time, him being here meant that he wasn't out and about, taking advantage of his being entirely unsupervised to look for someone who'd sell him some pills, or tell him where he could find them. And what else was he supposed to do? Stay cooped up in his and Anne's hotel room, watching daytime television and slowly going out of his mind with boredom, until he gave in to the temptation anyway?

No, it was better for him to be here. He had a good feeling about this, about Steve, or at least a hopeful one. Maybe it was time for him to start trusting himself again.

He just really hoped that he wasn't mistaken, that it wasn't going to blow up in his face like things always did.

He tugged at the bottom of his brand new jacket so it fell perfectly right—Anne had caught him eyeing it in the store the day before last and encouraged him to try it, then bought it for him as a thank you present. He looked damn good in it, especially after they'd had it adjusted in a matter of hours. Anne probably wasn’t expecting him to make use of it that quickly, but TJ worried more about being overdressed. He had no idea what you were supposed to wear to these things.

Here went nothing. He took a breath and walked through the door.

A woman greeted him almost at once, offering him a flyer and showing him to a registry where he could put his name, so they knew how many visitors they'd had, and his email address if he wanted to receive the gallery's newsletter, which would inform him about upcoming events and—

And that's when she got a good look at his face and definitely recognized him, given the way both her voice and her expression faltered.

"I'm just here to look," TJ said, giving her his most practiced smile before he bent over the book to scribble 'Jeff H.' in his most illegible handwriting. He left the column for the email blank.

"Yes, of course," the woman said, obviously having no idea what to do with him.

"Are the artists here?" TJ asked, managing to sound casual about it.

"Stefanie Mason hasn't arrived yet," she replied. "But the others are around, I could introduce you if you—"

"That won't be necessary," TJ hurried to say, not wanting her to make a fuss and bring attention to him. He hated when that happened. "I'll just get a look around, see what I like. I imagine I'll bump into them soon enough."

"Yes, of course," she repeated, and fortunately let him go.

TJ walked away with an inner sigh of relief. And to say that it was worse for his dad. TJ didn't know how he bore it. But at the same time his father had always been a people's person, had always thrived under their attention, good or bad.

TJ, not so much.

He could feel the woman's—the curator's?—eyes still on him and forced his focus onto the closest work of art: a sculpture on a small podium, not Steve's. He looked at it for what felt like a reasonable amount of time, then moved on. One painting, two, and then he had to stop in front of the third one because he recognized the style at once.

He wouldn't have been able to say how he knew, because it had little to do with what Steve had painted for Stark. This one was all in darker tones, tortured shapes twisting so unnervingly TJ soon had to move on. It made him feel restless inside, exposed and a little bit afraid. It reminded him of those riots of feelings that so often left him choking, until he could find something, anything, to dampen them all.

The next painting was by the other male artist and held little interest for him, so he opened the flyer he was holding instead. Inside he found a blurb about Steve: an artist based in DC, ex-army captain—TJ's eyebrows rose—who'd studied art at NYU after his discharge and worked essentially with oils. His art was described as part introspection, part 'reflexion on the frontier between abstraction and figuration, between right and wrong', whatever the hell that meant. The whole thing concluded with a mention of the previous exhibit he'd been in—also in New York—and of his Desert series, which made it possible to refer to Tony Stark's commission, because of course they'd wanted to get that name on there.

It made Stark's choice of Steve instead of a more established artist less surprising: if Steve was painting about his own experience as a soldier, probably in Afghanistan or Iraq, there was no doubt his work had found echo within Stark, more than someone else's.

TJ flipped the flyer shut, and walked to the next painting. It was easier to understand it now, to interpret the shapes, the nightmares smeared on the canvas. But at the same time he felt uneasy, like he'd gotten a glimpse into Steve's life that he shouldn't have. Just like his name, he'd gotten it without Steve knowing, without Steve actually giving it to him. And sure, the information was freely available, but there was a lot of information freely available about TJ too, and he'd always hated it when people knew so much about him when he knew nothing about them.

He tried to be more neutral about his contemplation of Steve's work, see it for what it was instead of trying to give it a meaning that'd give insight into the man's psyche, his fears and struggles. He went form painting to painting—still walking swiftly past Terence Farrel's—, reached a second room and walked around it too.

He stopped. The painting that had caught his attention wasn't the best placed, hung in the shadow of a narrow flight of stairs leading up to a mezzanine and the rest of the exhibition. It was darker than the others in the same series, but in contrast to them it felt eerily calm. You could make out the contours of a room, or maybe a city, and it all felt silent, quiet, sunk in a deep sleep—lonely.

2:48, the title read, and TJ's throat felt tight, because that was it, exactly. The painting looked exactly how it felt like to be awake, and alone, at this hour of the night. TJ would know: he'd been there. Was still there, most of the time, now that he'd been deprived of all his means of escape. At least with all the partying his being anything but asleep at three in the morning had been a choice, one surrounded by noise and people, and once he'd danced and drunk and fucked his way past the cursed mark of four or five he could finally collapse into bed and into oblivion for a precious few hours.

Now he'd become extremely well acquainted with the peculiar glow of his clock, with the asperities on his ceiling and walls, with the mounds and crevices of his sheets—and most of the time he felt like that kid in the White House again, all too aware of all the things that were wrong with him but also of the fact that he was trapped there, pinned down in a glass case for all the world to stare at and judge, when all he wished for was to fly away and disappear.

His phone buzzed, then rang. He almost jumped out of his skin.

Snapping back to the present, to the gallery, he fumbled for his cell, which of course remained stuck in the pocket of his skinny jeans for the longest time. He threw apologetic looks around him and picked up the call without giving himself the luxury of looking at the caller ID.

"Hello?" he said as quietly as possible.

"TJ, hey."

It was Douglas. Checking up on him because he knew Anne was busy elsewhere this afternoon, and he knew his twin. Of course. After all, in their mom's run for the presidency, Doug's job was about 75% managing her campaign and 25% keeping TJ in line.

"Hey yourself," he replied, playing along with the game of let's pretend you're not making sure that I'm not three sheets to the wind because I've been left unsupervised for two goddamn minutes. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, we're good, we're on our way to Amherst for the fundraiser."

"The roundtables went okay?"

"Yeah there was— Why are you whispering?"

TJ rolled his eyes. "I'm at a gallery, I don't think you're supposed to carry on loud conversations in here," he said, turning his back to the room. The painting in front him arrested his eyes again, tugged at him.

He liked it. He really did. He felt like he could keep looking at it forever.

"You're at a gallery?" Doug said, incredulity clear in his voice.

"Yeah," TJ said distractedly, still staring at the painting, eyes roving over one detail after the other. "Say, how much do you think a painting costs? By someone who's starting out, it's like his second show—although he did that thing for Stark so it probably had an impact on his prices."

"What?" Doug sounded utterly lost. "I don't know, you'd have to ask Mom, she's the one who buys art and— Wait, why are you asking?"

Because TJ was stupid and impulsive and it was the only way he could think of to have a chance to show it to Doug. Or no, he wanted to show it to Anne. He remembered finding her in the kitchen at three in the morning last Christmas, crying over a plate of leftovers because she hadn't been able to help herself, because she was hungry, because her stomach hurt and her throat burned and she would still go to the bathroom afterwards and by then she'd been almost hysterical—and TJ would never have expected that from his composed, quiet sister-in-law.

He would never have expected to find out about that whole mess before his brother either.

He wanted to show the painting to his dad, too, maybe his mom. They both led lives rife with the kind of thoughts that kept you up at night, with the messes that left you staring into the dark when the rest of the world was asleep, wondering what was even the point.

"TJ?" Doug asked when he remained silent. But before TJ could find an answer he was again distracted by steps clattering down the stairs over him, and when he looked over he saw Steve, landing on the ground floor, turning and seeing him.

He was out of his suit, having exchanged it for a dark blue shirt and darker jeans that fit him much better and—okay, TJ had suspected that the suit wasn’t doing much for him, but he hadn't expected those shoulders to tapper down into such a narrow waist and—

"I have to go," he heard himself say and hung up his phone despite Doug's immediate protestations. After a second of hesitation he put it on silent, knowing that his brother would call back and text, and put it away to smile at Steve, who was approaching.

"Thomas," he said. He was smiling too, reaching out a hand for TJ to shake.

TJ almost corrected him—everyone used his nickname these days, to the point where it was surprising Steve himself didn't. But he found he liked the way his full first name sounded in Steve's mouth: round, more adult, miles away from the kid TJ couldn't seem to grow out of, from the brand the press saw as a guarantee for scandalous and therefore lucrative headlines. He liked that. He liked that very much.

So he simply replied: "Steve," and shook the man's hand.

"I didn't expect to see you here," Steve said.

"Will you believe that I was in the neighborhood, and had nothing better to do?" TJ said with a crooked smile, which broadened when Steve laughed. "No, seriously, that painting at Stark's got me curious, I wanted to see the rest."

His eyes went back to the one beside them. 2:48. Still the same. Still like it had been taken right out of his insomniac nights.

"And what do you think?" Steve asked, sticking his hands in his pockets.

"I really like this one," TJ said. He couldn't take his eyes off of it.

"Really?" The pleased surprise in Steve's voice tore him away this time.

"Yeah," he said. "Why, shouldn't I?"

"Oh, you should. I mean, I'm glad you do. It's just—" He shrugged, turned to look at the painting too. "—most people tell me it's both too sombre and understated."

TJ pursed his lips. "I wouldn't say that. I mean, sure, it's dark, a bit bleak maybe. But also reassuring? In a way?"

That was it, he realized as he spoke: the painting was a comfort, because in order for it to exist, to echo so well with TJ, it had to mean that he wasn't the only one who knew the exhausted bleariness of these hours. It meant that, in the end, he wasn't actually completely alone.

Steve smiled at him, like he'd gotten it just right.

"I guess it goes better with people who share the experience," he said tentatively.

TJ tilted his head to the side, neither confirming nor denying. His recurring insomnia wasn't a topic he talked about, even with his family. He'd had enough of a hard time admitting to it in front of his therapist. He threw an oblique look at Steve and wondered what kept him up, or woke him in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.

It was unnerving, how much TJ wanted to know.

"So, how are things going?" he asked. "Are you selling?"

Steve accepted the change of subject without question. "The exhibit just opened," he said, "so no, not yet." His impish smile made a comeback. "Why, you interested in buying?"

TJ laughed and shook his head. "I don't have that kind of money."

"The Hammond family is having financial troubles?" Steve asked, feigning shock.

"The Hammond family is doing very well for itself, thank you very much," TJ retorted. "The Hammond family’s good-for-nothing first son, on the other hand? Not so much. But come on," he hastily added, because it looked like Steve might question the formulation, "show me the rest. I haven't been upstairs yet."

Steve hesitated for a second before giving in and leading him up the stairs. Once there, he mostly showed TJ the works of the other two artists, and hovered nervously whenever TJ slowed down to contemplate one of his. TJ didn't care: when accompanied by Steve's summary Ms. Mason's sculptures were suddenly far more interesting.

They were pondering over some sort of tarmac-like black blob named 'Home' when someone called Steve's name. It was the woman from the welcoming desk, who obviously didn't dare come closer.

"Duty calls," Steve said.

"Yeah." TJ checked his watch. "I should probably be going too." He'd already been here a lot longer than he'd thought.

"Are you staying in New York for long?"

"Nah," he replied, "we're headed back to DC this weekend."

"Me, too," Steve said. "I mean, I live in DC too. I was just here for the gala and, well, this." He gestured at the gallery.

"I know, it's in the flyer," TJ said, waving it around.

"It is," Steve said. It was becoming obvious that he was lingering. TJ waited, keeping his expression open and barely allowing himself to hope.

"I was wondering," Steve finally blurted, only to stop just as quickly.

"Yeah?" TJ encouraged.

"If you want," Steve said haltingly. "We could maybe—if you want, we could, I don't know, get a cup of coffee? In DC, I mean."

TJ tried not to smile too widely. "I'd like that," he said, and was surprised by how true it was, by how he wasn't disappointed that Steve wasn't suggesting a meet-up that same evening for what would obviously end up as a hookup. Getting coffee sounded a lot more like getting to know each other—and TJ hadn't met a lot of people who seemed to want to get to know him, beyond what they'd heard or read already.

He took his phone out of his pocket, only to see the screen flash with a plethora of unread messages and missed calls—and put it right back away. Besides, it might be prudent to get to know Steve a little bit more before he gave him his private phone number. He hated to think it, but you could never be too careful.

"Let's say about a week from now," he said. "Do you know the coffee shop at the corner of Irving and Mt Pleasant?"

"I know the streets."

"How about Wednesday, around 3 p.m.?"

"Say 4:30 and I'll be there," Steve said.

"4:30 it is, then." He'd have to move some things around, but well. It'd be worth it. He smiled, and refrained from adding: It's a date.

"Great," Steve said.

"Great. But right now you might want to hurry." He tilted his head towards the stairs, where the woman was looking awkward and increasingly impatient.

"Oh, yeah. I'll see you next week, then."

TJ waved. "Till next week."

He did one last tour of the room once Steve was gone, taking advantage of the man's absence to look at his paintings in more detail. When he looked down at his watch another twenty minutes had passed and it was definitely past the time he should leave, take his phone back out and face the music.

With a sigh he turned for the stairs. On the ground floor Steve was deep in conversation with the curator and a man in an expensive-looking suit. TJ didn't try to catch his attention and quietly made his way out.

He couldn't help but slow down in front of that one painting though. 2:48. He still wanted to take it home.

 

*

 

TBC