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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

Chapter Text

It was only the day after he'd agreed to Steve's specified time that TJ realized that making it would be tricky: on Wednesdays he had one of his bi-weekly appointments with his therapist, at 4. And with the trip to New York, he had already missed two of them.

Fortunately, said therapist always encouraged him to express his needs, so that the work they were doing could best suit them. Plus, she always stressed the importance of trust, and used it to explain why she would not question any changes he might ask for.

Given that TJ found Dr. Bennani somewhat awe-inspiring, and that he genuinely liked her, he hadn't broken that trust, and had no plans to even push its limits.

He'd started off therapy wary and skeptical, unsure of what the difference was between that and rehab, apart from how long it would last. He'd spent their first few appointments reluctantly answering her questions, mostly fibbing—and, when Dr. Bennani didn't press for more, wondering whether he should tell his mom that her money was going to waste again. And then in their third week—he didn't even remember what had caused it. He only knew that it hadn't been anything important, had seemed nothing but a trivial question, if not for the fact that when she'd asked it he'd just… broken down. He'd started bawling like a kid who had scrapped his knee and had been unable to stop for the longest time, thoroughly humiliating himself. Yet all she'd done was push a box of tissues towards him, give him a glass of water when he'd finally quieted down, and resume her line of questioning,never once giving him the impression that she was judging him.

More tears had been shed since then, or had come close to, without that ever changing—and so here TJ was, still going to appointments twice a week. While he wasn't quite looking forward to them, at least he wasn't dragging his feet either. Besides, Dr. Bennani had impeccable taste in clothes: even on his worst days he could still look forward to discovering what she'd be wearing that day.

Together they had come up with The Schedule, as TJ thought of it. It had been born from the realization to which Dr. Bennani had led him a couple months in: that his addiction wasn't the root of all his problems, that it was a symptom for something else, something that ran deeper.

"You don't have a tendency towards depression because you're an addict," she'd said. "You're an addict because you have a tendency towards depression that has gone untreated. Both of them have been feeding off each other, and will keep doing so until we root out the one that came first."

That meant digging into the early times of his drug and alcohol abuse, into his childhood. It also meant treatment. TJ had refused to get a prescription for antidepressants, though. After all, coke hadn't been his only poison, and even if Dr. Bennani assured him there was little chance of him developing an addiction as long as they strictly controlled the dosage, he didn't trust himself. Besides, for now he needed to at least try to make it without it, he needed a chance to believe that he could.

"Okay," Dr. Bennani had said, taking it in stride. "We'll just have to try something else."

Hence The Schedule: the aim was to give a structure to his days and weeks, to force him out of bed, out of home, out of his head by other, healthier means than the one he'd previously resorted to—going to the gym, to the movies, having brunch with Nana, lunch or dinner with Anne, and so on. They'd set it up step by step: online classes were the latest addition, one both he and Dr. Bennani judged he was ready for.

TJ didn't always manage to follow it to the letter, of course. But Dr. Bennani had stressed that it was more of a guideline and that he shouldn't beat himself up over it. The purpose of The Schedule was to be flexible, adapt itself to what he needed, what he could and couldn't do at any given time.

More concretely, it meant that she had no problem moving their appointment to another day. However, given that she was in high demand, the only other slot she had free that week was on Tuesday morning. Which meant that TJ had to call Nana to cancel their weekly brunch, which was exactly what he'd wanted to avoid: someone in the family getting wind that something had changed. Especially someone who could smell bullshit from a mile away.

He decided to make up for it by turning their brunch into a late lunch instead.

But then, of course, Nana asked why.

"I need to go to the library and do some preparatory readings for my classes," TJ said. "I wanted to start earlier, but New York turned out to be more distracting than I expected."

"Yeah, I heard that," she drawled, clearly unimpressed by his alleged studiousness.

He should've known that his hanging up on Doug then ignoring his calls and texts for over an hour wouldn't go over well, and would have the whole family on the lookout for more acting out. It hadn't helped that, by the time he'd returned to the hotel room, Anne had already been back. When Doug hadn't been able to reach TJ he'd called her, of course, and had probably barely refrained from asking her to tackle him and have him take a urine test the moment she'd catch him.

She hadn't, but she had asked him if he'd tripped up.

"I swear I didn't," he'd said, and felt grateful for the way she'd chosen to word it: like it wasn't a fall back right to the bottom of the pit, just an obstacle on his way up.

He'd also felt lucky that he'd taken the flyer from the exhibit back with him instead of chucking it into the nearest bin.

Observant as she was, she'd noticed Steve's name almost at once.

"His painting at Stark's must've made quite the impression on you," she'd commented.

"I guess it has," TJ had said, and he could've left it at that, but he'd known she'd feel like he was withholding something and that was how trust crumbled. So he'd admitted: "He did too."

She'd simply looked at him and waited for him to elaborate.

"There might be something—please don't tell Doug," he'd pleaded. "He'll make a fuss and I don't know if it'll even lead anywhere, but. There is something."

She'd probably remembered the early times of her dating Douglas, how quickly the whole Hammond clan had fallen down on her, and had agreed to keep the secret for now.

That, added to the fact that she'd be the one assuaging Doug's suspicions too, meant that he definitely owed her a solid.

He managed to dodge most of Nana's probing over lunch and decided to make up for it in his mind by going to the coffee shop early in the afternoon on Wednesday to start reading his introductory book on management practices there. That way the excuse he'd given wasn't entirely a lie.

It had the added advantage of making his presence less remarkable—T. J. Hammond studying in public places, at shops or at the library, was to become a familiar sight in the next few months—and his meeting with Steve look fortuitous, instead of planned. Hopefully no one would jump to conclusions.

Having arrived right after the midday rush, he was able to choose a good table, by which he meant one that was away from the windows, stuck in the corner between the wall and the end of the counter. It was one of the darkest spots in the shop: an area people would unconsciously avoid and easily overlook, along with any customer sitting there. Or so TJ hoped.

Once seated with a coffee, he tried to focus on his book and take notes, without much success. He felt nervous, worrying over everything, from his choice of clothes—since when did T. J. Hammond doubt his eye when it came to fashion?—to whether Steve would even show. A cigarette would've helped, but stepping out for one was begging to have his picture taken, which wouldn't help. Soon, he had to switch to herbal tea; he already had enough difficulties sleeping without adding a caffeine rush to the mix.

Finally the time came, and TJ pretended to be ensconced in his book when Steve entered the shop with five minutes to spare. Despite the warm weather, he was wearing a leather jacket over a shirt—a checkered shirt.

Now, TJ had nothing against those. He'd been known to wear some from time to time, but certainly not buttoned up to the neck, nor tucked into his pants. Which were khaki pants.

What am I doing? part of him wondered when faced with such a fashion disaster, because there was no way that a man who dressed like that was anything but— But it was Steve who'd asked for them to meet, and surely he knew who TJ was. And he was a painter. And so TJ forced himself to take the man's bad taste in clothes as a detail that made the whole thing less intimidating: nobody was perfect.

It was helped by the way Steve smiled when he caught sight of him and walked over. "Hi," he said, hands once again in his pockets.

"Hi."

"I wasn't sure you'd show."

TJ raised his eyebrows. "Why not?" he asked, but Steve only shrugged.

"Well, our appointment was made in a rush," he said, "and I'm sure you're busy."

"My schedule is flexible," TJ said, and told him to go order something before he got kicked out. Steve did, and when he sat back down he asked:

"What is on your schedule these days?"

He was eyeing the book and notes TJ had pushed to the side, so he probably didn't expect TJ's reply of: "Well, now that the coke and alcohol intake has been reduced to zero I'm actually busy finding out just how many hours there are in a day."

Steve froze, and blinked, half-way between uncertain amusement and faint horror. TJ had to laugh, really. It wasn't very nice to start off that way, but he had to give a warning: he wasn't going to beat around the bush and pretend he wasn't what he was. Still. "Sorry," he said, "addict humor."

Being able to make fun of his situation was a new development, actually; a tendency Dr. Bennani had encouraged. She'd said something about battling the complex that came with being an addict, taking some of the drama—and thus of the pressure—out of the equation.

When Steve gave a small smile and relaxed in his seat, TJ offered an olive branch: "But more seriously, right now it's mostly preparing for my summer classes and managing my club part-time at a distance."

Steve took the cue: "What are you studying?"

"Management. I've had some credits transferred from that time forever ago when I tried going to college." He barely held back a snort at how pitiful an attempt that had been. But then he almost saw Dr. Bennani throwing him a flat look and dialed it down on the self-criticism: half his failure owed to the fact that he hadn't really taken the time to think about what he wanted and had quite stupidly chosen political sciences, because it had seemed like the obvious choice, the only option. "Maybe I'll even manage to get my degree this time."

He didn't mention the fact that he better, because his parents were paying for it and he knew that it was his last shot. Sure, they hadn't come out and said it, but he'd felt it when he and Mom had sat down last Christmas after his last relapse and she'd said they should try and do things differently this time.

That had meant no short stint in rehab, but a long time in therapy, and TJ striving to build a project she and Dad felt like they could support. TJ had agreed; at the time he had been almost desperate, a lot more than feeling guilty over his screw up, ready to accept anything—because he'd tried this time, with what Nana had told him right after his overdose still fresh in his mind, he'd really tried, but apparently his being willing wasn't enough.

"Do you like it?" Steve asked, bringing him back to the present.

TJ shrugged. "I haven't started yet, but let's hope so. It's online, so at least I'll get to choose how I do things without worrying about what my classmates think." To avoid Steve asking what he meant, he hurried to turn the conversation towards him: "What about you? I have no idea how it is to be an artist, do you paint, like, all the time?"

Steve accepted the change of topic and laughed. "I guess you do if you can live off your art, which is not my case."

"Yet."

Steve shook his head with a grin.

"So what else do you do?"

The answer to that turned out to be a lot—enough for a schedule even TJ's mom would've deemed busy. Apart from painting Steve also did some freelance illustration jobs, mostly for a children book series but also for posters and information pamphlets. He worked part-time at the VA, co-leading some art therapy sessions. And on top of that he volunteered for a bunch of associations and places: a shelter for LGBT+ youth, an association helping juvenile offenders reintegrate into society, a retirement home, even planned parenthood.

"You keep busy," TJ commented, keenly aware for a second of how little he himself had ever contributed in terms of charity work.

"I like being busy," Steve replied. And he was: less than an hour later he had to dash off. Clearly he was one of those effortlessly productive people who made everyone around them feel lazy and self-conscious without meaning to. When TJ managed to steer the conversation towards hobbies before Steve left, all he learned was that Steve also did a lot of running and boxing—not that it came as a surprise: the man couldn't look like he did without putting some effort into it, after all. At least TJ was been able to match that revelation with the hours he spent at the gym thrice a week; without those he definitely would've started to feel far too inadequate.

That his gym sessions and all he ever achieved these days was dictated by The Schedule, that is to say therapy-induced, might diminish their value—but no, that wasn't the point, he argued with himself: what mattered was the result, was that he was active, moving forward.

Still, he didn't mention any of it to Steve; he wasn't stupid. Instead he made his weekly visits to the movie theater sound like it had been purely born from personal interest. He even felt validated when Steve said he couldn't actually remember the last time he'd gone to the movies, and chanced telling him about the one he was planning to go see that week. He managed to make it sound interesting enough for Steve to accept when he suggested they go together.

Once Steve had left—in some rush, he had somewhere to be at quarter past five—TJ stayed in the coffee shop for a little while. Part of him wondered, again, what he was doing. Usually, when he met someone who pressed all his buttons the way Steve did, he would already have taken them to bed, and probably kicked them out again already, so he could start looking for the next one.

But it was pretty clear that that wasn't Steve's speed. It was one area where the cover seemed to match the book: he'd reacted well to TJ's flirting, displaying no lack of interest and even blushing once or twice through a grin or a shake of the head, but he hadn't quite responded in kind. Yet, he'd agreed to another date, still seemed interested in getting to know TJ better. And TJ—

Well, like Mom had said: the point was to try and do things differently this time. In order to know if that worked, he was going to have to wait and see.

 

*

 

The movie went well, and segued into a discussion over brunch. Steve, it turned out, had a lot of thoughts about representation. TJ listened to him with bemusement that turned into interest.

It was strange, hearing Steve talk about issues similar to the ones that had always preoccupied his parents and dominated every single family dinner he could remember, but in an entirely different way. Where his parents talked statistics and policies and strategies, how to implement things, how to obtain a majority vote in Congress, how to interpret polls, how to go around the Republicans before this or that bill was mangled beyond recognition, how to present the matter to the press, Steve was all about individuals, people. He talked about personal experience, about day-to-day actions and joys and pains—details, TJ's parents would've said; not important. But to Steve it was everything: what people lived through, what they experienced and felt.

It turned everything upside down. It made it all feel real, humane. Essential. So much so that TJ felt compelled to take part, to add his own input. Steve welcomed it: he listened to him, built on what he said, never once dismissed it, dismissed him. They were, TJ realized, having a conversation, where no one was left out, or left behind, or given the impression that they didn't understand it all—a nice change from the debates at home.

It carried them all the way through brunch, and in the end prompted Steve to talk about an exhibition he'd been meaning to see at the National Museum of African Art. And so off they went, the following week, to visit it.

TJ made sure they met inside, like they had at the movie theater, even though he doubted that anyone would've noticed him: who would expect to find T. J. Hammond at the Smithsonian?

They would, however, definitely be expecting him at the private party he was helping organize to celebrate the one year anniversary of The Dome.

His continued involvement with the club had been the one thing he and his mother had disagreed about. She'd wanted him to give up his shares, ready to take it upon herself to pay Doug back; he'd wanted to do that himself, especially given that she was already paying for his therapy, his gym coach and half his college classes—his father was taking care of the other half. She'd feared that his going back there would only bring back bad memories and subject him to far too much temptation; he'd privately thought that being reminded of what had almost happened every time he stepped foot into his office was a reality check he might need, and argued that being confronted to temptation might actually be a good way to build up resistance—although even he hadn't quite believed that last argument. He hadn't wanted to admit to the truth of it: that part of him was proud of the place, of what he'd done with it, of the fact that he'd built it all without their help—he wasn't talking about money here. And he knew that she wouldn't have been comfortable with it, wouldn't have understood.

It hadn't all been about impressing Sean, or them.

In the end, they'd agreed to disagree—as much as that was possible with his mom—and so TJ had remained one of the key investors to the joint. He had compromised, though, and had chosen a pretty hands-off form of management so far. He'd mostly kept up with things through emails and the occasional Skype call, while his partners dealt with the day-to-day running of the place. The formula had been working well. But now some time had passed, and TJ felt surer of himself, and given that the club was doing well and that his name was still playing a huge part in that, his colleagues hadn't been too opposed to his taking on a larger role when it had come to organizing their anniversary event.

TJ might or might not have taken advantage of how busy his mother was with her campaign to do that mostly unnoticed. Not that she didn't know about the party, or that he would attend; she just didn't know exactly how much work he'd personally put into it. She couldn't be in DC for it either: right now, she and Doug were probably half-way between Minnesota and Missouri. TJ knew she was worried, though: she remembered all too well what had happened on opening night, and was all too aware of how good TJ was at repeating patterns.

To reassure her—and himself—he'd asked Anne to come with him as his date, and agreed to Dad making an appearance.

What he was most nervous about when the day came, though, was Steve, whom he'd invited. As the car neared their destination he could feel the tension rise. He closed his eyes and breathed out slowly.

It was all going to be okay, he told himself. It was different this time. He was in a wholly different state of mind. He had nothing to prove to anyone: the club was doing well, this was just a celebration. Anne was with him, his father was going to come, despite their misgivings both Mom and Doug supported him for real this time. He had no reason to—

Steve was going to come. He was, and he was bringing a friend, and TJ would make a good impression. He wasn't going to get drunk. He wasn't going to get high. He'd established a pretty strict list of who was allowed in and made sure his colleagues and the bouncers knew that his former dealer wasn't on that list, even though they weren't to be rude or violent while turning him away if he showed. His partners had been confused, he knew: after all, even without Omar the place would be far from drug-free, and the bar was fully stocked. TJ had pretended not to notice, just so he wouldn't have to try and explain about the psychological impact of symbolic gestures.

"You okay?" Anne asked as the car slowed down in front of the entrance. The way up to the club was lined with people, paparazzi, gawkers, so-called fans, cameras already flashing. It was difficult to keep believing that things weren't the same, that he wasn't the same.

"Yeah," he said, making himself turn to her with a reassuring smile. "You?"

"I think so." But her whole demeanor was brittle. "Please don't let me get anything horribly wrong on that carpet."

"Promise," TJ said, glad that he wasn't the only one feeling queasy and grateful to Anne for being here, for being less versed than he was in such public appearances, for needing his help: it gave him something to focus on, something to care about that wasn't the eyes and thoughts of the people waiting outside, but something real, something important.

He kept his promise, too: once out of the car he turned around to hold out his hand to her, blocking the view and thus shielding her until she was upright beside him, stable, ready to take his arm and face the crowd.

They didn't stop on the way into the club, didn't answer any question thrown at them. From what TJ could hear, at least half of them pertained to his mom anyway—probably asking some bullshit like how well he was taking her putting her ambitions and political agenda before her family once again. He did his best to ignore them, and heard Anne let out a breath of relief once they were safely inside.

He walked them past the wardrobe counter without stopping, without looking at the V.I.P. cards carefully lined on top of it. If he had, he wouldn't have been able to ignore the parallels anymore, to avoid thinking about how last time he'd invited Sean and this time he'd invited Steve. It was already bad enough that they resembled one another that much—even though it was purely in appearance. When it came to character, they were nothing alike.

They'd reached the bar. TJ put a hand on it, hoping to ground himself. "Okay," he said after a while, checking the time, "let's get this party started."

They did. At first TJ made the rounds with Anne at his side, greeting the guests and thanking them for coming. He checked in with Jamal, the DJ, and with his colleagues. Then he found refuge behind the bar: he couldn't do anything stupid if his hands were busy.

His father came and went. He stayed long enough to be seen, to let TJ mix him a drink and sip at it while looking appreciatively at the dance floor. TJ almost pointed out that the women he was leering at were younger than even he was, but he also knew that it wouldn't change anything: you couldn't teach an old dog new tricks. So he was left exchanging pained looks with Anne and waiting until his dad was gone to wrinkle his nose and shake himself in relief.

"Was he always that obvious or did he at least make an effort to spare you when you were kids?" Anne asked.

TJ frowned in thought. "No, I think he was always like that. I mean, I think Mom tried to shield us from it for as long as possible, make it so we wouldn't noticed. But after that thing with Sarah Latham came out, it became impossible to ignore. Cannot un-see," he said, keeping his tone light and widening his eyes; the smile he got in return was hesitant, with reason.

"With such an example it's a wonder you ever learned how to treat women properly," Anne muttered.

"I don't know, did I?" TJ grinned. "I've been told my being gay is a tragedy some never got over—especially now that Doug's off the market."

That made her laugh.

"No, but seriously. We had Mom." Seeing the pain their dad's infidelities inflicted had been the best vaccine they could've had. "And Nana. And, when push comes to shove, there was always the possibility of drinking to forget." He hooked a glass with his finger and slid it between them on the counter. "So what can I make you?"

Until now Anne had only taken some water.

"Come on," he said when he saw her ready to shake her head. "Do it for me, you know I can't, someone has to have a way to repress the memories." But he knew she wasn't a heavy drinker, so when she gave in and asked for a mojito he made it as diluted as possible while still deserving of the name.

He stayed behind the counter after that, helping dealing with the influx of orders, while Anne went to dance for a bit. He tried not to check his watch, not to glance towards the entrance, not to let himself think or doubt—and then suddenly he looked up and there he was, Steve, looking around as he skirted the edges of the dance floor.

Out of the corner of his eye TJ saw Anne, to whom he'd just handed a glass of ice water, turn around to see what had caught his attention, but he couldn't look away. Steve finally caught sight of him and smiled, shoulders relaxing as he walked over. The man at his shoulder followed—probably the friend.

"Hi," Steve said, going for putting his hands in his pockets again, only his jeans were too adjusted for it to not be awkward, and he aborted the gesture half-way. Not that TJ was complaining: the pants did wonders for him, as did his teal shirt. He would put up with all the checkered shirts and khaki pants in the world if that was what he got when Steve dressed up.

"Hey, you made it," TJ replied, and allowed himself a second to feel relieved and giddy. Steve had come. Steve had come, and TJ wasn't drunk, nor was he high. "You remember Anne," he added, gesturing at his sister-in-law before silence could settle.

"Of course," Steve said, and reached out a hand. Anne took it gracefully, as she did the pleasantries that followed. Then Steve turned to the man standing beside him. "And this is Sam. Sam, this is Anne, and Thomas."

"How you doing?" Sam said, smiling and shaking Anne's hand, then TJ's.

His handshake was firm but not too tight, his gaze friendly but also a bit cautious. TJ felt his anxiety ramp up. He wanted to make a good impression, but he was all too aware of who he was, of what everyone associated with him, of how much he'd given someone like Sam reason to be uncertain about his friend, about Steve, being around him—worse, maybe starting something with him.

"Thank you for coming," he said with what he hoped wasn't too feeble a smile.

Somehow, it made Sam meet it with a grin of his own. "Thank you for the invite. This is sweet," he said, gesturing at the club. There was a small gap between his two front teeth. "Plus, you got this guy here—" He clapped Steve on the shoulder. "—to crawl out of his hole and finally go out to have some fun on a Friday evening."

"Glad I could be of help," TJ said, his smile growing more secure. "What can I get you, gentlemen?"

Both Steve and Sam decided to start off small, with one beer each, which TJ delivered to them once they'd sat down at the booth he'd kept free for them. Anne followed, her glass of water still mostly full. For himself he brought a soda, if only to have something to do with his hands while they talked.

Sam glanced down at it and took the lead of the conversation: he asked about the club and the party, how it had been organized and who was coming—questions that were easy for TJ to answer, made him feel better about the situation, more sure of himself. He was grateful to Sam for being so nice. It was obvious he had chosen the topic on purpose.

"Man, that's impressive," he even said, before taking a mouthful of beer. "But I have to say, not as impressive as making Steve here give up on his Sunday marathon for once."

Steve rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "For the last time, it's not a marathon."

"Is too," Sam retorted, "it is definitely a marathon as soon as you run more than ten miles in one go."

"It's not— A marathon is a race of a little over 26 miles. That's the definition. The name comes from that Greek legend—"

"You see what you're getting yourself into with this one, right?" Sam talked over him, addressing TJ.

"It's okay," TJ said, enjoying their banter. He looked Steve up and down. "I like my men well-built. And with stamina."

As far as declarations of intent went, he could hardly make it more blatant, and his nerves might've made a comeback, hadn't Steve blushed at once. TJ grinned in incredulous delight. Anne and Sam were laughing.

"That's 'well-built' to you?" Sam exclaimed. "Okay, then what am I on that scale, a shrimp?"

"Eh." TJ tilted his head to the side. "You're all right."

"Damn, I'll try not to let that get to my head. T. J. Hammond thinks I'm 'all right'."

That's when one of TJ's associates stopped by the table to inform him that one of their main guests had just come in. "If you'll excuse me," TJ said with an apologetic smile. "I have to go schmooze."

He left the table with regret—they'd had a good conversation going—but it wasn't like he hadn't known it would be that way. It was one of the reasons why he'd told Steve to bring a friend: he didn't want to repeatedly leave him stranded in a place where he knew next to no one.

Once the guest had been greeted and thanked for coming, TJ went around the club once more, stopping to chat here and there to make sure that people where happy, checking on the bouncers to make sure that there had been no turbulences, and exchanging a few more words with Jamal. When he finally returned to the booth, he found Steve sitting alone. He'd exchanged his beer for a glass of water but clearly hadn't been drinking it: it was full, and Steve looked a bit forlorn, lost in thought.

"Hey. Where is everyone?" TJ asked as he sat down.

Steve blinked, smiled; he pointed at the dance floor. Sam and Anne were dancing, holding hands then letting go, spinning and laughing. They were obviously having a blast.

Steve, not so much.

"Why haven't you joined them?"

He shrugged with a self-deprecating smile. "I'm not much of a dancer. I'm pretty sure that if I go out there I'll cripple someone by stepping on their feet."

TJ considered how crowded the place was, and how many shoes were either open-toe or soft sneakers, and couldn't quite contradict him. Still, he was dismayed.

"This isn't your scene, is it?" he asked.

"Not really, no," Steve replied frankly—but he was smiling.

TJ bit his lips, tapping his fingers on the table surface and wishing he had something to fiddle with. "I'm sorry. I should've thought before I asked you to come." Now that he did it was obvious Steve didn't fit in here.

"Hey." Steve put an appeasing hand on TJ's. It was large, and warm, and TJ froze. "If I didn't want to be here, I would've said 'no thanks, maybe another time'."

"Why didn't you, then? I mean, if you don't like…" He made an aborted gesture at the club around him, the dancers, the drinks, the noise.

Steve leaned back in his seat, and his hand slid away from TJ's. TJ had to refrain from grabbing it to hold it back. "You're celebrating," Steve said. "Plus, I don't need to dance to enjoy the music."

TJ perked up. "You like it?" He'd worked hard on the playlist with Jamal. He'd already received more than one compliment about it this evening, but knowing that Steve was enjoying it lit up a whole other kind of glow inside him.

"Yeah." Steve tilted his head to the side. "You like music too, don't you?"

"I do," TJ replied, almost automatically. But then he paused. "I haven't had the occasion to enjoy it much in a while, though."

Steve's hand had come to loosely clasp his glass and he was spinning it, round and round. "I know this place. A bar," he said haltingly, not looking at TJ. "They have good music, live music, people coming to perform. I was thinking of going there the week after next."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. A friend of mine is playing." The glass spun faster. Steve glanced up. "I was wondering if you would want to come."

TJ grinned. "I would. I totally would."

"Would what?" That was Anne, back from the dance floor with Sam in tow, the both of them sweaty and smiling. Instead of answering, TJ slid aside so she could sit down. On the other side of the booth Steve did the same, and their feet bumped under the table. They exchanged a smile. Feeling daring and playful, TJ nudged Steve's foot again, this time on purpose. Steve nudged back, all the while pretending to listen to what Sam was saying. They went back and forth like that, until TJ simply hooked his foot around Steve's ankle. Steve let him, and they stayed like that until he and Sam had to leave.

 

*

 

When the evening on which they'd planned to meet at the bar rolled around, TJ triple-checked his destination then put his phone on silent for the evening. He didn't want to be disturbed.

It made him feel like he'd been cut free, made the taxi ride seem slightly illicit, and therefore exciting. But it also made it hard not to associate it with other kinds of errands TJ could just as easily be making. All he had to do was tell the driver to change directions, take a left at the end of that street instead of a right and then—

But no, no, he wasn't going to do that. He didn't have enough money on him for that kind of transaction, could not arrange for a transfer without it becoming tricky, since he had to justify the ways in which he spent his allowance to his mom, and she always knew when he fibbed. Most of all, given the time, Steve was probably already on his way there. It would be an asshole move to call him to cancel now, and even worse not to call him at all. The thought of Steve waiting for him for God knew how long before admitting to himself that he'd been stood up was intolerable. It would fuck up what they had completely, for good. And TJ wanted to see where it could lead more than he wanted blow. He did.

The trick was to repeat it until it was true, if only because it took him past all the last crossing where he could've switched destinations, and after that he wasn't going to turn around, was he?

Fortunately Steve was already here when TJ arrived, back in his khaki pants, checkered shirt and leather jacket combo. He was talking quietly with the woman manning the bar. The smile she gave Steve worked against the strict bun her hair was gathered into to soften her stern features, but it was nothing to the bright smile that lit up Steve's face when he saw TJ—almost enough to convince TJ that resisting temptation had been worth it. He let himself be ushered to a round table at the edge of the room, with a little 'reserved' panel that the woman—Steve called her Maria—took away before leaving them with the menus.

The whole room was dark and cozy, most conversations hushed, yet TJ still had to lean towards Steve to make sure he heard him properly—not that he took issue with that. They took their orders—a beer for Steve, a fancy alcohol-free cocktail for TJ, plus a plate of fries and dips to share between them—and sank into quiet conversation.

Their table was out of the way but in clear view of the stage, which was the only reason why TJ noticed the small, unassuming man that walked onto it at once. Said man carried a stool and a case with him; he put the former down in front of the mike, adjusted it, then opened the latter to take out a worn saxophone.

The conversations faded when the lights dimmed even more except for the one aimed at the stage. The man threw a brief, faltering smile at the room before he brought his instrument to his lips and started to play.

It had been a while since TJ had witnessed such a performance. In fact, it had been a while since he'd gone to any kind of live musical event at all, so long that he couldn't even remember for sure when that last time had been. He hadn't had the occasion, or the time, or the will. But now—

The man played for a long time, segueing from one piece to the next with nary a pause for a mouthful of water in between. He alternated between familiar pieces and clear improvisation, and TJ felt himself resonate with the emotions poured into it, rising and falling like waves: anger, confusion, sadness, and above all an overwhelming loneliness.

By the time the man let the last note draw itself out and fade, TJ felt gutted. The man was sweaty, his dark curls falling limply onto his forehead, yet the second smile he shared with the audience before he bowed and they clapped was brighter, exhausted but relieved.

TJ had forgotten how to breathe.

"So, what did you think?" Steve asked once the man had packed up and left the stage, once the applause had faded.

Instead of replying TJ suddenly, impulsively turned to him, cupped his cheeks between his hands and kissed him.

"I'll take that as a positive review," Steve said when they parted, cheeks flushed. Then he blinked, and saw the mess that was undoubtedly TJ's face. His smile fell. "Thomas?"

"It's okay," TJ said. When his attempt at a reassuring smile failed he dug his fingers into his eyes to stave off the tears clinging to his lashes, sniffled and heaved a breath out. "It's just been a while since music did that to me. I'd forgotten how that felt."

In fact he'd almost forgotten it could do that, reach into him and take hold, take all those things that bothered him—all the people staring, gossiping, judging, clamoring for his attention and eager to see him fail, all his family's implicit and not-so-implicit expectations, even that small, insidious voice inside of him so keen on thwarting all of his attempts at dragging himself out of that hole—take all of that and bring it so close to the surface that it felt like his very skin would break, so close it became painful, almost intolerable, only to tear it all away, tear it apart and leave it to fall to the ground and fade while he soared.

He'd thought he'd lost that for good with what had happened with Sean, because suddenly even thinking of sitting at the piano brought back memories that had once been good, been a comfort, but had since turned into the sharpest of poisoned blades. But even before that the refuge he'd found in notes and harmonies had started to collapse. How could it not, when it couldn't protect him from the world once it had gotten wind of his worst faults, his worst weaknesses? There had been no keeping it outside, at a distance, it had knocked down all his walls and trampled all over his life, his self, left him with nothing to hide behind.

Only drugs had given him an escape after that; a way to hide the world from his eyes, if he couldn't hide from it.

And now that those weren't an option anymore, now that everyone was lurking at his doorstep once more because of his mom's campaign, Steve had unknowingly put together the right circumstances for music to come back to him. Just for that, TJ could've kissed him again, would kiss him forever—but this wasn't the right place or time. TJ felt too raw, too exposed despite the low lights, and Steve looked far too worried.

"It's okay," he repeated. "I just need a moment. Didn't you want to go greet your friend before he leaves?"

"Yes, but…"

"You go," TJ said, and this time his smile came out better. "I need a moment to myself anyway."

Steve looked at him for a bit longer. "Okay," he finally said, but he still squeezed TJ's hand before he got up and left.

TJ let out a trembling sigh, tried to discreetly wipe his eyes and nose with a paper napkin. He reached into his pocket to check his phone, only to remember that he'd put it on silent and shouldn't; he seized his glass only to realize it was empty, and in the end had to settle on tearing his napkin to shreds while he breathed in and out, trying to feel less like his skin had been torn off, leaving the nerves underneath exposed.

A glass of water landed in front of him. He looked up and met Maria's gaze.

"On the house," she said with an almost smile, and made no remark on his current state. TJ nodded his thanks, not trusting himself to talk. "It's nice to see Steve bring someone for once," she added before she left.

TJ pondered over what that meant. Did the fact that he'd brought TJ along mean something? Was TJ special, or had Steve simply thought he would enjoy himself? It didn't seem probable that none of his friends, not even Sam, would've agreed to accompany him, even if they weren't the most musically inclined.

He was spared further musings by Steve returning. Seeing TJ better composed, he smiled.

"That was quick," TJ commented.

"I just went to say hi. Bruce isn't what you'd call a social butterfly, and usually he needs to regroup in private at home after a performance."

TJ could understand that perfectly. Too bad that the luxury of having a home that was properly private had been taken from him a long time ago.

They stayed until TJ had finished his glass, talking softly. Steve let him steer the conversation. Afterwards they bid Maria goodbye and Steve offered to drive him home. TJ, who by then entirely drained, agreed.

He expected Steve to lead him to a reasonable sedan, probably a grey one, definitely a hybrid. He was not expecting a Harley-Davidson.

"What?" Steve asked when TJ didn't take the helmet he was holding out to him at once.

"… Nothing," TJ replied. He couldn't help but stare.

Suddenly, the omnipresent leather jacket made a whole lot more sense.

He put the helmet on and settled behind Steve on the bike, unashamedly wrapping his arms around him. It was his first time on such a thing, he reasoned, he didn't want to fall off. Plus, he had to stick close to be able to give Steve directions. And Steve didn't seem to mind.

If he'd had to choose he couldn't have found a better way to recover from his inner turmoil than the ride that followed. Steve felt warm against him, solid—and, yes, definitely well-built. He steered his bike with the smooth assurance born from habit, and TJ would've let him drive anywhere, drive the whole night, as long as he was allowed to stay there, tucked snugly against his back.

He couldn't, though, and all too soon Steve slowed down to a stop on the street TJ had indicated. It was, thankfully, deserted—not that it was much of a surprise, given the hour and that it was a week day.

"Is that were you live?" Steve asked, looking up at the closest building while TJ climbed off.

"Nope," TJ replied, running a hand through his hair once he'd taken off the helmet. "It's three blocks away, around that corner." At Steve's confused look he added: "My new address has been leaked months ago, so you never know who might be lurking—especially since that piece about Nana's alcohol consumption has become old news, they're betting on me to give them their next scoop."

He dared a glance at Steve when he handed over the helmet. He feared his reaction a little bit, expected him to be spooked, disturbed maybe. Instead he was met with unmistakeable indignation.

"Relax," he said, although he felt touched. It had been such a long time since anyone had expressed such a feeling on his behalf. His parents and Doug didn't like the press prying, of course, but to them it had become par for the course. They felt irritation, sure, downright anger sometimes, but most of all weariness—and underneath it all, acceptance. Resignation.  People digging through your private life: all part of being a Hammond. "I'm used to it."

"That doesn't make it okay," Steve protested, all righteous.

TJ bit his lips to stave off a grin. He didn't want Steve to think he was making fun of him.

"Maybe. But that's how it is. And I'm sure you don't want your license plate number written down so that they can get your name splattered all over the gossip rags by tomorrow, with all the speculations about my latest hookup." He reached out to take Steve's free hand in  his. "I don't either," he went on. "I'd like to see where this goes first."

It was maybe too veiled a way to say that, were he and Steve to actually enter a relationship, there would be a backlash about it the second it became public. TJ felt even less sure that Steve had gotten the message when his face bloomed into a smile.

"I'd like that too," he said, squeezing back.

They smiled at each other like idiots for what was probably a ridiculous length of time.

"I should go," TJ finally said, but made no move to let go of Steve's hand.

"Yeah," Steve said, and didn't either.

"I should definitely kiss you first, though," TJ added.

"Yeah," Steve repeated, much more enthusiastically.

He met TJ halfway, turning the meeting of their lips into a messy—but thankfully not painful—mesh. But then TJ tilted his head, and Steve parted his lips, and it quickly got much better. So much, actually, that TJ felt terribly tempted to say to hell with the paparazzi and gossip and drag Steve to his flat anyway.

He made himself draw back instead, hard as it was. He was rewarded by the flush that had once again risen to Steve's cheeks.

He tried not to wonder how far down it went.

"Goodnight, then," he said, licking his lips.

"Goodnight," Steve returned, staring at them.

"I'll call. Or text. Or something," TJ went on, and couldn't help but drop another kiss on Steve's mouth.

"Okay."

"Okay," TJ repeated, then made himself step back, made himself let go of Steve's hand. "And buy a second helmet," he added, because he was pretty sure that lending the only one you owned to your passenger was not the right way to interpret the law.

Steve grinned, and put the helmet in question over his head. TJ kept stepping back until he was in the middle of the sidewalk and waved as Steve kicked back his bike's stand. Steve waved back, and drove away.

It was a damn good sight.

TJ smiled all the way back to his building, all the way up to his flat, and not even the three missed calls and the heap of messages waiting on his phone when he finally checked it could dampen his good mood.

 

*

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

The evening at Maria's started off one of TJ's best summers to date—still behind that summer at grandpa Hammond's farm, true, but TJ avoided thinking about that. If he did, he would start thinking about bringing Steve there the following summer and that was far too much, far too quickly.

Instead he tried to enjoy the good time he was—for once—having. The club was doing well, Dr. Bennani was satisfied with his progress, even though she would never come out and say it. Things were also okay with his family; he joined his mom in New Hampshire for an Independence Day Parade, even did some campaigning of his own, holding a speech for a fundraiser here and there—not too many, and every time Nana was there too, but still: it was a clear sign that this time, Mom believed in his recovery. It helped TJ believe in it too.

His classes had begun. TJ had started small, with only a couple of them. He'd worried about whether he'd easily pick studying back up or struggle, but as it turned out it wasn't too bad. Still, he didn't regret not taking on more: it meant that he had more time for Steve.

They saw each other a lot—or, at least, as much as their respective schedules allowed. Apart from his classes TJ had his therapy appointments, his brunches with Nana, his gym and piano sessions, his movies, and after having passed the hurdle of organizing and attending The Dome's one year anniversary he'd decided to up his involvement and started to go there on Mondays, when the club was closed. There he could check the accounts and discuss orders, hires and future events directly with his partners. Steve for his part always had about a thousand things going on, between the VA and his art and volunteering.

Still, they made time for each other. Over the summer they went to see a couple exhibitions, and did several day trips. Steve had quickly cottoned to the fact that TJ liked rides on his bike and had indeed bought a second helmet. They explored the backroads of Maryland and Virginia but mostly drove to the coast, looking for small, near deserted beaches where they could snack or lounge undisturbed. TJ made sure of that last part by carefully disguising himself under what he dubbed his Unfashionable Summer Getup: he was pretty sure no one would recognize T. J. Hammond in cheap flip-flops, a polo shirt/cargo shorts combo and—the one he was most proud of—a fisher hat. As a repayment, he enjoyed the sight of Steve bare-chested and the privilege of repeatedly rubbing sunscreen on Steve's shoulders, pecs and abs.

Steve had the pale skin betraying his Irish descent: it was TJ's duty to ensure he wouldn't get sunburnt.

More often than not, though, Steve had to stay home to work on his art and on the latest volume in the children book series he illustrated, which the publisher wanted ready to come out for Christmas. If TJ dropped by on those days, he had to find something to keep himself busy.

Steve was apologetic about it, but TJ assured that him it was okay. It wasn't a lie: he liked just being in Steve's presence. It felt good—and Steve couldn't know how rare and precious that was for him, almost new: just feeling good. He'd settle in the patch of sunlight streaming through the open window and do his readings for class, or nap, or watch Steve work, or browse for music on the internet. Steve often listened to some while he worked, so he didn't mind.

A lot of TJ's time was indeed spent getting reacquainted with music actuality. With the experience that had been Bruce's performance it was like a door had been thrown back open, and suddenly TJ wanted to listen to music all the time. And while he'd heard most hits as they'd come out, he had little to no idea about what had been done in most genres over the past few years. He was overdue for a check-up, both of the DC scene and of the industry in general.

That pleasant regimen was soon supplemented by a healthy dose of sex— because to no-one's surprise, it didn't take TJ long to give in and take Steve to bed. Not that Steve opposed any resistance: he even did most of the enthusiastic tugging. But unlike TJ's usual hook-ups—unlike with Sean—his and Steve's encounters rapidly segued into them spending the night at each other's place. Which was… nice. And reassuring: Steve opening his door to him, letting him stay over that readily, was a proof that he had nothing to hide.

TJ's surprise was great, therefore, when he dropped by Steve's flat without warning one morning and the door opened to reveal a rather small redhead with piercing green eyes. She was strikingly beautiful—the type of woman who reminded TJ that, on the Kinsey Scale, he was a definite 4—, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a pair of panties. She didn't seem bothered about that, nor did she appear surprised to see TJ. She simply smirked and said: "Hey, sailor."

TJ stared in horror, heart sinking because this time he'd been so sure, convinced that Steve wasn't one of those guys who slept around or had multiple partners without telling them. But then the woman ushered him inside, like he was welcome, like he'd been expected, and then Steve stepped out from his studio, asking who was at the door. When he caught sight of TJ he didn't freeze, didn't look guilty or dismayed or like someone who'd been caught cheating. Instead he smiled that bright smile of his, walked over and dropped a kiss right on TJ's mouth.

TJ glanced at the woman right afterwards to gauge her reaction, but she was smirking still, like she thought he was being shy and found it amusing.

"I see you've met Natasha," Steve said.

"Looks like it," TJ replied uncertainly.

"Natasha, this is Thomas," Steve added, addressing the redhead.

"So I've gathered," she said. "I see what Wilson meant now. I have to say, his sense of humor still sucks."

Steve grinned. "I'll be sure to tell him that."

Natasha's eyes swept from Steve to TJ and back, as knowing as the upwards curl at the corner of her mouth. TJ tried not to stiffen.

"I think I'll go take that shower now," she said, and went to do just that.

As soon as the door had closed behind her, TJ turned to Steve and apologized for showing up unannounced.

"It's okay," Steve said. "I'm glad to see you." TJ had been away on the campaign trail for half the week.

He bit his lips. "Still. I didn't know you had company."

"Yeah, I would've told you about that, but she didn't really tell me she was coming either."

TJ quirked an eyebrow. "So what, you woke up this morning and she was on your couch, eating your cereal?"

"Pretty much, " Steve said, pursing his lips.

They spent the next few hours on the couch, drinking coffee and talking. Natasha, TJ learned, was one of Steve's former army buddies. She'd been on his team during his last tour and had stayed on after he'd left. They'd kept in touch, and now she tended to drop by his place whenever she was on leave. They were close, clearly, but TJ soon realized that their bond was more that of a brother and sister than anything else.

He felt reassured, and scolded himself for jumping to conclusions at once. But, well. It wasn't like there hadn't been precedents.

Another unexpected visit happened about a week later. TJ was lounging on his couch, in boxers and one of Steve's t-shirt—which he might or might not have kicked under the bed one time Steve had stayed over so it'd be forgotten, because Steve wore his t-shirts under his shirts so it wasn't like he would miss it—, taking advantage of a stormy morning on which Steve was at the VA to chill. He was browsing through iTunes on his laptop, testing out his brand new headphones and indulging in one hell of a shopping spree, and was so into it that it took him a while to realize that the weird, repeated sounds he was hearing did not belong to the piece he was currently listening to.

Frowning, he stopped the recording and took off his headphones: someone was pointedly, loudly knocking at his front door.

It was Doug, looking frazzled.

"TJ," he said. "You're home."

"And you're in DC," TJ said, confused. As far as he knew Doug and Mom should've been in Michigan, and Doug wasn't due home for a visit until next week. "Why are you in DC? Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, no, I dropped by on my way down to Raleigh. I thought we could've lunch together, only you didn't— I left you, like, fifteen messages."

TJ raised his eyebrows. "You did?" He reached into his pocket, only to remember that boxer shorts kind of didn't have any. His phone was elsewhere, probably on the coffee table or something.

He left the door open for his brother to step through while he returned to the couch to look. It wasn't there.

"I was listening to some music, I didn't hear," he said, and started digging between the couch cushions. Soon he was straightening up, victoriously holding up his cell—and yeah, he had plenty of messages, five missed calls and two voicemails.

"Wow, you really wanted that lunch," he commented dryly.

Doug shrugged. "We just haven't seen each other in a while and— You know I don't like it when you don't answer your phone."

Suddenly it was obvious what Doug was doing here, why he'd bothered to make a stop in DC instead of flying directly to his next destination, why he'd come to TJ instead of taking Anne out. From the look on his face, he knew TJ had realized that too, and dreaded his reaction a bit.

"It's okay," TJ said, "I get it." Because as irritating as Doug's lack of trust was, him slipping or falling back into addiction was always a definite possibility, as TJ had proven time and again in the past. Clearly, his decision to not check his phone that time in New York and later at Maria's hadn't gone well with Doug and ramped up his suspicions back to top levels. "But don't worry, I'm still right on track," he went on. "I was just buying some music—I'm finally making use of the gift cards Dad keeps heaping up on me whenever he can find a reason to."

iTunes gift cards and music scores had become his father's go to presents on any and all occasions. He wasn't being subtle about wanting TJ to play more. TJ still didn't understand how a man with such fine political sense didn't realize that pushing was the worst way he could've gone about it.

"He'll be stoked," Doug said. He'd sat down on the other end of the couch and was scrolling up and down the list of most recently bought items in TJ's library. TJ was willing to bet he didn't know a tenth of the artists on there.

Music had never been Doug's thing, after all. It had been all TJ's: the one and only thing he'd ever been better at than his brother.

"Please, don't tell him," he groaned. "He'll be insufferable."

"He always is insufferable," Doug pointed out.

"True." After a second, TJ added: "But wait till I ask him if he'd like to come with me to try and find some scores for that Christmas charity thing Mom and I talked about."

The idea had come up at the 4th of July celebration—only before he'd known it Mom had told Dad, and Dad had gone and got them the concert hall at the Kennedy Center booked for a night in late December, because of fucking course they'd make room for anything former President Hammond asked, and to hell with the program they'd set months ago. And so now the Christmas charity thing was already happening, apparently.

Doug hissed. "He'll be beside himself and all over us."

"All over me, you mean. You get to avoid him by going back to the campaign trail."

"It doesn't prevent him from calling," Doug said. TJ had to concede the point. "Why the sudden renewed interest in music, though?"

For some reason, the first thing that came to TJ's mind was Ella Fitzgerald's With a Song in my Heart. He was appalled at the sappiness of the thought, and covered it up by shrugging. "I had some sort of a click," he said vaguely. "I don't know, I guess I realized I did miss it. And, well—" He looked down at his hands, which were fiddling with the phone on his lap. "—it helps."

When he looked back up Doug was looking at him with an expression he wasn't sure he understood. Then Doug looked away, cleared his throat, and the moment passed.

"And reading… children's books?" he said, obviously looking for a way to steer the conversation into another direction and grabbing the first thing he noticed, which happened to be the couple illustrated books piled beside TJ's laptop on the coffee table—an incongruous sight, TJ would admit. "That helps too?"

He picked one of the volumes up—Captain Monkey and Sergeant Bear go to the Alps, by T. Odinson and S. G. Rogers—and, after having briefly leafed through it, gave his twin a slightly teasing glance.

"Hey, the girl at the bookstore recommended it," TJ said defensively. And okay, maybe he was fibbing a little. Maybe he'd already been leafing through it and she'd stopped by to gush about them a bit, as if her appreciation for the series hadn't already been made clear by the prominent place she'd given the books both in the display window and the children section. So what? He could be curious about his— about Steve's work, couldn't he? "She said it was good."

"She had the type of breasts that make you want to make sure you're really gay, didn't she?" Doug said, his tone knowing.

"No," TJ protested, although she kind of did. "They're good, is all."

They were. TJ had mostly bought them because of Steve—because that was what you did when you wanted to support an artist, right? and TJ couldn't really afford a painting. But he'd read them, and he had liked them. They were funny and sweet and even informative, full of little facts about the places Monkey and Bear went to. And despite their military ranks they never carried any weapon, never killed or even fought anyone; they just traveled and helped the people they met in whichever way they could.

"I totally learned things reading them," he went on.

"Yeah?" Doug said. He sounded like he was on the verge of laughing. "Like what?"

TJ kicked him, or tried to. Doug scooted away at the last second. "Well, for starters, that Europe isn't a single country."

This time, Doug did laugh. "No, really?"

"Yup." TJ wasn't lying, though: he'd actually learned some things, about glaciers and ibex in the volume about the Alps, for instance. From what Steve had told him, Thor was the one who took care of that aspect of the books, gathering scientific facts and presenting them in a way that fit well into the story and was easy for preschoolers and kindergartners to understand. They came up with the actual story together, and Steve did the illustrations.

TJ didn't want to be forced to admit all that, though, so he counter-attacked by abruptly changing the subject: "So how is Anne?"

Because if Doug had bothered to come to DC to have lunch with his brother, he'd better have dropped by his wife's office first.

"She's good," Doug replied automatically, before he realized who he was talking to. "Although you know that better than I do, you definitely see her more than I do these days."

"True," TJ said, hoping Doug wouldn't ask for more details because he and Anne had maybe kind of cut back on the amount of times they saw each other each week this past month and a half, so TJ could spend more time with Steve. Not that they'd told anyone.

In exchange, TJ had to keep her updated, bear her scolding that he should tell Doug already, and agree that he owed her an outing and/or fashion advice for every time he went to Steve's when he should've been with her.

He prevented any prying by saying: "My question was just a play to conceal the fact that our plans to elope to the isles are near completion. We'll be gone within the week, leaving all of you goons behind. Don't bother looking for us."

It was his turn to gasp and hastily move away to avoid Doug's attempt at kicking. His twin grew serious again almost at once, though.

"I'm glad you get along so well," he said.

TJ could only match his earnestness. "Me too."

He knew Anne better now. She'd turned out to be so much funnier, so much more interesting than the perfect picture of the pretty little wife she still tried to project in their parents' presence.

She was a lot crasser, too.

"Although I would've liked for us to become friends for better reasons," he went on.

"Maybe, yeah. But I'm glad you can and do help each other, too," Doug said. He sounded more hesitant and pained when he added: "I know she doesn't tell me everything."

TJ didn't know what to say to that, because of course Anne didn't. There were doubts, weaknesses, things Anne perceived as faults of character that she still wasn't able to let Doug see—but she had to show them to someone. She had her friends for that, and now she had TJ too, because TJ wasn't important and good like Doug was. Anne wasn't afraid of losing him, nor was she afraid of him judging her—or at least not anymore. Not since TJ had made it clear that, from the bottom of the hole he'd dug for himself, he definitely had no rights to.

"How is she doing, really?" Doug asked quietly.

"Better. Even if it's slow going," TJ said, and left it at that, because one of the ground rules he and Anne had laid down when they'd set up their recovery partnership was that the other would not report to Douglas.

Doug, who quite clearly wished they would, was slowly coming to accept that. He didn't pry—much. So TJ felt like he could give him a bit more.

"Today's Thursday, right?"

"Yeah," Doug said slowly, suddenly looking like he was tempted to check his twin's pupils, just in case. "Today's Thursday."

TJ ignored the tone. "Then tomorrow we'll have our first cooking session."

"Cooking session?"

"Yeah. We want to see if it's easier for her to eat a whole meal and keep it down if she does it herself and therefore knows—and controls—what exactly is in it."

He didn't mention the tiny part of him that hoped that it would help make food taste like something to him for once. Most of him wasn't that optimistic.

"That… sounds good, actually," Doug said.

"Good?" TJ scoffed, piqued by Doug's lack of enthusiasm. "It's genius, is what it is. Her therapist went nuts over it, going on and on about how cooking and handling food is a great way to reconcile yourself with it and all."

Doug still wasn't entirely convinced. "Okay, but Anne can't cook," he said. "I mean, she doesn't know how."

"She'll learn."

"She doesn't have the time."

"Time is not something you have, it's something you make," TJ replied loftily.

Doug tried to kick him again.

"I don't get why you're complaining," TJ protested. "You'll be the one reaping the benefits in the end. I, on the other hand, will be the guinea pig. I'll probably die, too."

This time, he had to duck to avoid a couch cushion. "Don't insult my wife or her skills," Doug said.

"You insulted them first," TJ pointed out.

"Did not," Doug retorted. The conversation might've dissolved into utter childishness right there and then, if he hadn't added at once: "But speaking of food: I still need to have lunch, and my plane leaves at half past three. Is there a place nearby that's both good and serves quickly?"

TJ thought for a minute. "I believe there is," he said. "Let me just get dressed."

Five minutes later, they were both out of the door.

 

*

 

TJ hadn't been lying: music did help. He'd gotten used to putting some on whenever he was alone, at home, at the library or at the gym. With his head filled with harmonies it became a lot easier to ignore the feeling of the walls closing in on him whenever it tried to creep up on him; it gave his brain something to focus on that wasn't how empty and meaningless his life was, how vain his endeavors to move forward would probably prove to be.

When he was with people it wasn't the same, although Nana never refused a soundtrack to their talks. He didn't need the distraction, unless it was one of the evenings Mom was back in DC and asked for everyone to come to dinner and Dad dropped by unannounced and everything got to be too much too quickly. Instead of finding refuge in the bathroom and a line of coke TJ went and ensconced himself on the couch in his mom's office, took out his phone and put on his huge headphones until he felt like he could deal with them and their political talks at the table, in the kitchen, everywhere, again. More often than not Anne joined him,  just to sit beside him and revel in the quiet, because even though she could play the perfect wife in public, she was not one for politics either. TJ soon bought an adapter so she could plug in her own earphones beside his when she wanted.

The worst were the nights, when insomnia struck and he got stuck in those circling dark thoughts that led to his worst cravings, with few ways to dispel them or drown them out. Dr. Bennani had tried to suggest a medical treatment for that too, but it had gone the same way as the antidepressants: TJ didn't want to risk it. If that meant spending far too much time staring at his ceiling at night, then so be it.

She'd relented, and had simply stated he could always call her if he was struggling—which he never did because if so, she'd never get a full night of sleep again. He was also reluctant to call his brother or his mom, even though the campaign undoubtedly kept them up late into the night. He didn't want to worry them, not when they were already so preoccupied. The same went for Nana and Anne, who on top of that were the only ones in the family with a regular sleeping schedule: they should get to enjoy it. Apart from them the only people who were awake and would've been happy to hear from TJ at 4 a.m. were precisely the ones he was now supposed to keep away from.

But music helped. Headphones in, sound cranked reasonably high, TJ made himself sink into long pieces, a good movie soundtrack, a new album, one of the symphonies he always felt compelled to listen to the end. On the worst nights he could even resort to Wagner's Ring, because he was sure to drop from exhaustion before that one reached its end no matter what.

At first he struggled, but usually after a while the music took over his brain, be it because it was comforting in its familiarity or intriguing in its novelty. He made himself listen to it, really listen to it, feel it with his whole body, and by the time it came to an end he was drained, and the worst of the craving had passed, and if he was trembling it was for another reason altogether.

The best, of course, was when Steve was here. They now stayed at each other's place frequently, following a schedule that TJ carefully crafted so it remained irregular, jumping between nights spent at his apartment and nights spent at Steve's in no discernible pattern—another thing that kept him busy, or that he could think about when sleep eluded him.

He liked to snuggle against Steve while listening to music. He let the man wrap himself around him in his sleep, half-crushing him into the mattress sometimes. That way he could sink into the dual sensation of touch and sound, and felt closer to okay a lot sooner.

There were nights, though, when even that wasn't enough. On those nights, if he was at home, he'd silently get up and walk to his living-room. There he would sit at the piano and play, sometimes for hours.

He stuck to quiet pieces, training his way through Chopin's nocturnes, with the muffler system he'd had installed engaged. Up until now he hadn't received any complaints from his neighbors. He played and played and played, until his fingers started cramping, and his tired eyes couldn't follow the score anymore, and his weary brain stopped remembering and filling in the blanks. Then, and only then, he could go back to bed and hope to catch a couple hours of sleep while the sun rose and normal people started their day.

Once, when he returned to his room, he found Steve sitting on the floor beside the door, with his back against the wall. His knees were drawn up, his hands loosely entangled between them. He looked up at TJ, but didn't move.

"I didn't mean to wake you," TJ said apologetically.

Steve gave him a crooked smile, barely visible in the dimness of the room. "You didn't."

There was something in his voice, in the stillness of his body that made TJ suspect that he'd been sitting there for quite a while, and wasn't ready to move yet.

He sat down beside him.

"What is it?" he asked after they'd sat together in silence for a little while.

Steve shrugged, then paused. When he spoke it was with his self-deprecating smile: "I was about to say 'nothing', but I'm pretty sure it doesn't look like it, uh?"

TJ smiled wryly. Steve's head thunked against the wall.

"It's just… the usual. What's to be expected when you…" He trailed off, threw TJ an oblique look. "You know I was in the army."

"Yeah," TJ said. Steve didn't talk much about that time, but he'd told TJ enough for him to know that he'd served for nearly ten years, and that even now he still went regularly to the VA, and not just as an employee. He'd made most of his friends there—Natasha, whom TJ had already met, and several other people he'd mentioned, like Clint, who'd had his eardrums blown off and now lived with his wife in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, or Peggy, who lived in England. Even Sam, whom he'd only met after his discharge, used to be part of the Air Force.

Plus, even though Steve didn't talk about it, that time of his life was all over his art.

"Most of it wasn't pretty," Steve said in a low voice. "When you sign up, you usually have big ideas about defending your country, about helping people and fighting for liberty and democracy." In his mouth, the words sounded like shattered illusions. "But then you're over there, and the reality of it— It's not clean-cut like you imagined, it's not the good guys against the bad guys. You fail, a lot. You have to compromise, a lot. And sometimes it gets really hard to remember what's good and what's bad and why you're over there. For me it got really hard to keep believing that I was making a difference, making things better for at least some people instead of… screwing it all up."

TJ waited, not daring to make a sound, but Steve stopped there. It had obviously demanded an effort for him to say that much already.

"So is it, like, nightmares?" He racked his brain for what little he knew about soldiers, what his mom and dad might've said about veterans over dinner. "PTSD?"

"Something like that," Steve said. "Sometimes it's other things."

TJ bit his lips. "It's not the first time this happens, is it?" he asked, gesturing at the room, at the situation, Steve awake and sitting against the wall, listening to him play.

"No," Steve said, "but usually I go back to bed before you return."

TJ nodded in understanding. Steve had meant for him to find him this time, to find out about that part of himself he usually kept hidden.

"I don't sleep well either," he said. "I don't always leave the bed to go play, though."

"I know," Steve replied with a small smile. "Sometimes I wake up, and I listen to what you have playing. It helps too."

"I have another pair of headphones I can plug in too, if you need."

Steve shook his head. "I like it that way. I have to strain to hear it properly, it gives me something to focus on."

"And what do you do when you're awake and I'm not?" TJ asked hesitantly. He didn't dare ask what Steve did when he was alone. Maybe go for a run, or paint.

"Depends. Sometimes I have to get up and do a perimeter check of the whole flat. Mostly I listen to you breathe." He gave TJ a smile. "You don't snore."

"Uh, thanks?" TJ said through a huff.

"Most of the guys on my team did, it's as good a way as any to realize I'm here and not over there."

TJ nodded again. He didn't know what to say, didn't know if he was even supposed to say anything. He knew nothing about soldier life, about veterans and how they dealt with their trauma, about the ways in which he could help.

"We're both pretty messed up, aren't we?" he said, hoping that it was okay to compare their experiences, even if they had little to do with each other: at least one of the results was the same. Steve hummed, not contradicting him.

Maybe he could ask Sam for advice, for some books or leaflets he could read. Just to feel a bit less out of his depth. Sam worked at the VA, too, as a counselor if TJ remembered well.

For now he settled for what he preferred when it came to his own struggles: for people not to make a fuss, not to be too dramatic. He knocked his shoulder against Steve's. "Next time you wake up and I'm playing, feel free to come sit on the couch. It's much more comfortable."

"But your floor is so nice too," Steve said with a half-grin.

TJ nudged him again, and after a short moment of silence he asked: "Do you think you're okay to go back to bed?"

Steve sighed, but he was smiling. "Might as well try," he said, and let TJ hoist him up.

 

*

 

As summer started turning towards fall and September arrived, TJ chose his next classes feeling almost optimistic. For the first time since his screw up last December, for the first time ever maybe, he was actually starting to believe that he could do this. That he could learn to live with his addiction without being at risk of giving in to it every second of every day, that he could gain some control over his life and have a chance at building something.

So of course that's when life reminded him that if someone was at the wheel, it certainly wasn't him.

It did so when he had his guard entirely down, too. After a lackluster night that had almost spoiled the great sex that had preceded it, he was lazing in Steve's bed, slumbering under warm sheets while Steve puttered in the kitchen. He was half fantasizing about Steve bringing him breakfast in bed on a tray, and about thoroughly distracting him from it, when Steve called:

"Thomas, they're talking about you on the radio."

TJ groaned, dream shattered: that was never a good sign. He stumbled out of bed, pulled on the first thing he found—Steve's sweatpants—and nearly fell through the door to the living-room.

Right on time to catch the word 'overdose'.

He stopped there, and didn't let go of the doorjamb, suddenly sure that he'd need the support. Belatedly he met Steve's horrified gaze—Steve obviously hadn't expected that. The reporter was now explaining how TJ's family had covered up the whole affair with that story about an allergic reaction.

TJ slowly made his way to the couch and sat down. Something popped in the pan on the stove, making Steve startle. He hastily turned down the heat and asked: "Do you want me to turn it off?"

"No," TJ replied faintly. He needed to know what they were saying. When Steve didn't ask anything else and simply came to sit down beside him, he was grateful.

The reporter didn't linger on the story for too long, but she still took the time to mention the criticism already rising against TJ's mom. Because if Elaine Barrish could so quickly and so easily lie about her family, cover up such a sordid affair, what else was she hiding? Could she be trusted as a person, as a candidate? Worse, could she be trusted to run the country, to occupy the most powerful position in the world, if she couldn't even control her own son?

"Moving on to other news—" the reporter said, and somehow that was what made TJ close his eyes and struggle to breathe—because they could move on, sure, they could talk about something else, forget about that story between one second and the next, because to them that's all it was: a story. It wasn't their lives. It wasn't their privacy, their failings that had been brought to light, displayed for all the world to see and comment and judge—again.

"Turn it off now," TJ managed to say. His lips felt numb. His whole body felt numb. "Please."

Steve jumped to his feet and a second later the room was filled with silence. A heavy, loaded, awkward silence, the likes of which had never existed here, up until now.

"I'm going back to bed," TJ said before Steve could speak. Avoiding Steve's gaze, he went and did just that.

He turned off his phone entirely too.

 

*

 

Steve was great. He let TJ roll himself into the covers and pretend the world didn't exist, didn't come to bother him—up to a point. Because Steve wasn't a pushover either, nor a coward, and he wasn't going to let TJ stew in his misery more than was good for him.

After several hours he knocked and entered the room, sounding only the slightest bit hesitant when he said: "Hey, I made you some hot chocolate."

TJ groaned internally, because of course Steve had. He knew TJ wouldn't be able to resist that small comfort.

Externally he didn't move from where he was lying on his side, having thrown off the cover a while ago because he'd been boiling and suffocating under it.

Despite the lack of reaction, Steve walked into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. The warm smell of the drink he'd brought wafted down to TJ's nose.

"Shouldn't you be working?" TJ mumbled. "Painting?"

"I'll work on Friday afternoon," Steve said. "The perks of making half your schedule."

And okay, TJ couldn't ignore that. Friday afternoon was the only real time off Steve allowed himself in the week, apart from evenings. Mostly he used it to run errands, when he and TJ weren't going somewhere. TJ couldn't refuse the drink he'd sacrificed that to make.

He pushed himself up into a sitting position and took the giant mug Steve held out to him. However, he didn't manage to meet his eye. Steve let him blow on the surface of the drink and wait until it had cooled down enough for a first sip before he asked: "Are you okay?"

With anyone else TJ would have lied and said he was. Or he would have snorted. But this was Steve, who hadn't been through this a thousand times already, who really wanted to know instead of asking as a formality—and who deserved to know the truth.

TJ took another sip of hot chocolate and found himself admitting:

"I knew what I was doing."

He stared down at the pale brown surface of his drink. Steve didn't say anything—but now that he'd started TJ couldn't stop here, could he?

"I knew. I mean, I'd gone weeks without a hit and suddenly I was doing several lines in a row, with barely a pause? I knew what could happen. And I didn't care. I guess part of me wanted something to happen, even, like that night in December two years ago."

He thought he'd stop there, let Steve say something, maybe search for words or for a proper reaction—but suddenly it was like a dam had broken and TJ went on, words pouring out of him without him being able to stop them:

"And I should say I'm better now. I've started my studies again and my club's doing okay and I'm seeing a therapist—only the more I see her the more I realize it wasn't the drugs. It wasn't even Sean, it was me. It's always been be, and I don't know why, but it's not going away. At best I manage to ignore it for a couple of days at a time. And there is no way for me to know if or when I'll do that again, try to— to hurt myself, and I guess— No, I know, I know I should've told you earlier, because you had the right to know what you were getting into—"

"Thomas—" Steve tried to interrupt.

"—and I get it if you think this is too much and you want to stop here—"

"Thomas—"

"—because I'm an addict and depressed and none of that is going away ever and if you want to leave—"

"TJ." It was as much the nickname, which Steve had never used up until now, as the firmness of his voice and the warmth of his hands wrapping around TJ's on the mug that finally made TJ stop talking. His throat had clamped shut so hard it hurt.

He tried to swallow. All it did was bring tears to his eyes.

"TJ," Steve repeated softly. He carefully took the mug to put it on the bedside table, then clasped TJ's hands in his. "Okay," he said soothingly. "One, I'm not leaving. I'm not," he repeated when TJ's eyes snapped up, forestalling any protest. "Two, I'm sorry for what happened to you." It was the first time someone had put it that way: like something that had happened to him, instead of something he had done to himself. "Three," Steve went on—but then he paused, eyes lowered. He looked like he was bracing himself. "I never tried to kill myself."

TJ could feel a platitude coming and tried to pull away, but Steve held fast, didn't let go of his hands.

"I never tried to kill myself," he repeated, "but. When I was in the army." That made TJ pause. "There were times—several, or a lot—more and more as time went on. On paper it was put down as courage, or audacity, most of my superiors were quite happy with the results and so they didn't always question the means as much as they could have, or should have—as long as the losses and damage stayed within the realm of the acceptable." He was quite obviously stalling, and aware of it. He shook his head. "I wasn't always as careful as I could've been—should've been. I took risks with my life, allegedly for the sake of the mission, but sometimes even when it wasn't necessary, when another plan would've been just as efficient and less dangerous for me—sometimes even for my team." He let out a breath. "It wasn't courage. It wasn't a need to prove myself, or to show off. I just… didn't care."

He finally looked back up at TJ and gave him a crooked smile.

"I knew what could happen, and I guess part of me wanted it to happen." His smile faded and his eyes slid to the side, losing their focus. "I had nothing to go back to. My mom had died two years before I'd enlisted. And after—" He cut himself off. "I'd lost sight of why I'd joined up in the first place, and by the time I fully realized that, I'd stopped caring. Nothing made sense, so…"

He shrugged, and fell silent for a moment. His hands were still holding TJ's, his thumbs brushing soothingly against his knuckles, his wrists. He met TJ's gaze.

"I'm not trying to minimize your pain, or your struggles. I'm just trying to say that you're not alone. But we're all trying to move forward, to move up, in whatever way we can, even small. And we all deserve to get help along the way, and to have people caring about us."

"What changed?" TJ asked.

Steve blinked. "What do you mean?"

TJ cleared his throat. "What made you leave? Instead of—" He didn't finish. The mere thought was awful enough.

"I told you about Peggy," Steve told him, his smile returning. "We met when I was sent on a temporary assignment with NATO. She was a fellow officer and she saw right through my bullshit—cut right through it too. After one close call too many she gave me a choice: either I'd get my honorable discharge, or she'd request a psych-eval, which by that point we both knew I wouldn't pass."

"Was she allowed to do that?" TJ asked.

Steve shrugged. "Didn't matter. We were friends, as much as army colleagues can be friends, and she cared so much it became impossible for me not to, at least a little. Besides, I had really screwed up and was laid up with multiple fractures at the time, so what she was saying made a lot of sense."

TJ let out a wounded sound at the thought, and freed one of his hands to press it against Steve's chest. It felt solid, healthy, as did the steady beating of his heart.

"And you're better now?" he asked.

"I'm getting there," Steve replied. "It's a work in progress." He looked down and admitted: "I didn't do so well at first—I was pretty isolated, I had PTSD, I buried myself in my degree and overdid it." He shrugged. "Now I have the VA. I have some friends, who understand what it's like. I have my art, and my volunteering work. I keep busy."

For the first time, TJ realized that Steve might be keeping too busy, actually—trying to escape something. Not that he, T. J. Hammond, could blame or criticize him for it.

"And when even that's not enough," Steve went on, glancing up with a returning smile, "and I'm standing alone at some gala wondering what the hell I'm doing here, what the point even is, thinking that I could be over there doing something, protecting people, this great guy walks up to me and it turns out he somehow thinks I'm worth his time and attention."

TJ huffed, feeling his cheeks heat up.

"It's not easy," Steve said, sobering. "You know that. But it does get easier. With the right people, the right things in your life. For me it's art, and helping others."

"Music's like that for me," TJ said. He swallowed. "But I don't think that's enough. And apart from that…"

"Well, you have me," Steve said. "You have your family, and your therapist. I'm sure you'll figure out what other things can help, even when things get hard."

"Like today?" TJ asked, almost wry.

"Like today."

TJ tried to hold it in, couldn't: "There must be hundreds—thousands of people OD-ing everyday. Or attempting sui— suicide, but— I mean, it's awful, for them, of course it is, that they feel— But they don't have the whole country watching, ready to put them and their actions under a microscope to dissect and analyze and discuss like—" He had to swallow. "I just, I'm so tired of it. It never stops. They never, ever stop."

Steve gently pulled him into a hug, protectively wrapping his arms around him. "You have the right to be," he said. "And if you want, you can stay here and rest and— and hide for as long as you need."

"If you say that I'll never leave," TJ warned, muffled into Steve's shoulder.

"Works for me," Steve said, and dropped a kiss to the side of his head.

TJ curled his arms around Steve's waist, turned his head into the crook of Steve's neck. He closed his eyes. Let himself be held, let himself, for just a second, feel safe.

"I'm glad you didn't get blown up in the desert," he murmured after a while.

"I'm glad you were found in time," Steve whispered back.

They stayed like that for a long time, and it was only with an effort that TJ pulled back.

"I have to turn my phone back on," he said, glancing at it sitting dark and silent on the bedside table. "Doug must be having an aneurysm."

"I'll go warm this up," Steve said, picking up the mug of now-lukewarm chocolate, graciously giving him the space and time he needed. TJ stopped him on his way out to give him a slow, sweet kiss of thanks.

As predicted, his phone blew up with alerts as soon as it was on: about a dozen missed calls, half as many voicemails, and too many texts to count. Mom and Doug were probably going out of their mind—but even as his finger hovered over the call button TJ realized he wasn't ready to talk to either of them. They would already be talking about collateral damage and how to deal with the situation and limiting the impact and maybe planning a public apology and TJ—

TJ just needed a little bit more time.

He pulled up his texting app to send a message to Anne. Hey, sorry for being MIA. I'm at Steve's. You can tell Doug I'm okay.

Anne probably had her phone near her, if not already in hand, because she replied almost at once. Good. Tx for telling me. And then, in quick succession:

Tho u couldve texted earlier

I hope Steve can help?

& u rly have to tell Doug abt him

Im asking him to trust me but that wont work forever

TJ bit his lips and replied: He helps even more than I expected. Great cuddling session. Then, after a second: & I know.

He had been thinking about coming clean to Doug, given that both he and Steve seemed to be serious about each other. And if Steve wasn't leaving even now that TJ couldn't pretend that he was anything but a mess anymore, well. He had no more excuses.

If only his family were normal.

Ill call mom in the morning I swear, he typed. For now I need to pretend this isn't happening for a little bit longer.

It was asking a lot, he knew. Neither the press nor the public liked to be kept waiting and they'd be demanding a reaction, an explanation from the Hammond family, from him but most of all from his mom. The sooner they started planning who was going to say what, how and when, the better they'd be able to control the situation. That was what his mother would say, at least.

But at the same time, she and Dad and Doug rarely ever needed TJ for that kind of brainstorming. He didn't have the political sense they had. Most of his instincts and suggestions came off as insufficient, simplistic or downright naive compared to theirs, so it wasn't like his input or his opinion mattered. They rarely did. Usually he was only informed of the plan once it was ready to be put in motion, and all he had to do was show up where he'd been told to show up and say what he'd been told to say, until something else happened to distract the press, to take it elsewhere. This time, he wagered, would be no different.

His phone vibrated in his hand—a text from Doug, who'd hopefully been updated by Anne. TJ wasn't ready to read it. He put his phone on silent, put it down on the bed, and went to join Steve in the living-room.

 

*

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Later, TJ would feel grateful for the whole day he granted himself with Steve.

The three weeks that followed were brutal.

It was like when the story of his suicide attempt had broken out, only worse. Because a suicide attempt caused more horror and pity than anything else. It made the country briefly question itself, wonder whether it should even be talking about something so terrible, so intimate, wonder whether it might have had a part in it happening in the first place.

It wasn't like that with drugs. Sure, there were some people who drew a parallel, who theorized that his addiction was nothing but another sign of inner suffering, that his overdose was nothing but another attempt to take his own life, just with a different method. But they were few and far between, drowned out by the masses exulting over such a scandal, by moralists going on and on about the corruption of youth. TJ had brought it on himself, they claimed, he was the perfect example of what moral deliquescence led to, one no one should follow.

The worst, though, were the politicians, not only the conservatives but also those supporting Collier as a candidate for the Democratic Party: they all grabbed the occasion to try and undermine TJ's mother. And this right when Elaine Barrish needed to appear her best.

The criticism kept swelling: TJ's addiction and excesses came as a perfect example why she couldn't be trusted. She wasn't honest, she wasn't competent, she wasn't even a good mother. Some said it was her fault for not staying in her place as wife and mother, for having ambitions, for wanting a career when she shouldn't have; she'd neglected her womanly duties, and TJ was the result. Others claimed the contrary, that she was too soft, her will too weak, that if she'd been stronger, more capable, more determined, all her children would've turned out okay—and her husband wouldn't have strayed either, probably. And no matter how she reacted, she was now deemed a hypocrite by all.

"I'm sorry," TJ told her, because that was even worse than he'd thought.

"This is not your fault, Thomas," she replied. She meant it, too; to her the only person to blame was the one who had broken the story, probably for strategic purposes too. They'd undoubtedly been sitting on it for a while—if not, it was hard to believe that it had taken that long for someone to dig that piece of news up—and had decided to leak it precisely when it would have the most impact, right when her campaign was taking flight.

But TJ knew it was his fault. It always was, had always been, since what felt like forever. Of all the Hammond family, he was the liability, the one all the problems came from. If it wasn't his addiction, then it was his queerness; if it wasn't his queerness, then it was his obvious inability to do anything worthwhile with his life, as proven by his repeated failures at getting something as simple as a degree; if it wasn't those, then it was the fact that on top of being gay he was promiscuous; and if it wasn't that, then it was something else. It was everything. He kept screwing up, and worst of all he couldn't seem to stop—and, with the media picking it all up to blabber about it, it always felt like he was making each mistake twice.

He couldn't be sure how much it had cost his parents and Doug already, or how much it would keep costing them. It certainly hadn't made the end of his father's presidency any easier, it had definitely contributed to the clear Republican win at the end of his second mandate; it had overshadowed all of Doug's successes, first at school and then in his career; it had probably played a huge part in his mother's failure to secure the candidacy in the last elections and this time—

Fuck, what if it cost her that last chance too?

It sure felt like it could, given what the press was saying about her right now. TJ knew how far it went, even though everyone was trying to keep the newspapers away from him, out of the same concern as the one making Mom insist he wasn't to blame: they all knew what guilt could make him do, usually made him do.

He could not let that happen. He could not add fuel to that fire by stumbling now. (Please, don't let him stumble, don't let him screw up, not again.) He didn't want to. And he didn't want to be the reason why his mother never got the presidency. She'd been wanting it for so long, and she would be so good at it. She was the most qualified person for the job.

He was sorry, and he wanted to make it better. But he knew there was little he could do. So he did the next best thing: he agreed to everything his mom asked, did everything she said she needed.

He stopped going to the club, only checking in via emails and maybe a phone call if absolutely necessary—not that his coworkers complained: there had been some frictions over future projects for The Dome. He focused on finalizing the program for the Christmas charity event instead, contacting the guest performers who'd accepted his (okay, mostly Nana or Dad's) invitation to go over the pieces they might want to play. He studied for his classes. He rigorously followed The Schedule, with one alteration: he upped the number of his appointments with his therapist back to three a week.

He agreed to stay with Nana at his mother's place until things had blown over, if only so the whole family would know at all times where he was and with whom. Apart from his usual activities he went where they told him to, when they told him to, said what they told him to when they told him to. There was a press conference, a series of interviews—one of them with Susan Berg, even though TJ wanted nothing to do with her, plus two on TV and a Q&A. He let his mom, his brother, his dad coach him on every single one of those appearances, and tried to perform as flawlessly as he could. In the end he did so well that, when he wobbled away from his last interview, his dad clapped him on the back and proudly said: "We'll make a politician out of you yet."

TJ smiled, and pretended the thought didn't make him want to throw up. Turn into a politician: it was the last thing he wanted.

He coped however he could. He couldn't take refuge in his music like he usually would, because he had to be available and ready at a moment's notice if his family needed him. He spent time with Anne, mostly cooking to keep his nervous hands busy, but such stressful times were hard on her and she could only be present in small doses. It was hard on him too: he tried to keep it to three meals a day, as dictated by The Schedule, but the constant knot in his throat and stomach made every mouthful a challenge and he knew he was losing weight. He drank way too much coffee instead and, at times, went through one cigarette pack a day. His insomnias, too, were back with a vengeance.

He didn't drink. He didn't take any drugs. After a while it started feeling like it was all he had left to cling to.

He texted Steve, a lot. He missed him even more: being back at his mother's, with Nana and Doug keeping tabs on him, meant that he couldn't see him. And that—not seeing him, not being able to touch him, barely getting to talk to him in low tones at night when neither of them could sleep—that was starting to grow painful. It was even more so because he'd come to associate Steve with respite, with peace, moments where he could relax and feel safe, a place where he could be himself without fear of not being welcome. Right now he had access to none of that.

Steve missed him, too, even though didn't come out and say it. He kept asking TJ if he was okay, and never seemed quite reassured by his 'I'm fine'—probably because they weren't entirely genuine. It would've been easier to assuage his worries in person.

This, more than anything, more than Anne's insistent encouragements, more than his guilt over hiding something that was becoming so important to him from his twin, was what made him finally give in and tell Doug about Steve.

Since the breaking of the story Doug had been somewhat cold and distant. TJ knew, without needing to ask Anne, that it had to do with his going off the radar when the news had come out, for disappearing again, when Doug had told him, when everyone had told him, over and over, how worried, how panicked it made them feel. TJ didn't need to ask either to know what Doug suspected—or rather thought he knew: that TJ had resorted to something that was far worse than curling up in his bed in his room in his flat to try and escape what was happening, to pretend that it wasn't. In Doug's eyes, TJ's disappearing act had had more to do with hiding from his family than hiding from the world.

He'd clearly been surprised at TJ's willingness to be there and do what he and Mom needed him to do to get them through that crisis. But instead of placating him, it had brought his suspicions to near certainty: he'd interpreted TJ's cooperation as the result of a need to make something up to them.

Three weeks later, and Doug was still barely talking to him; when he did, it was strictly to discuss their strategy in regards to TJ's previous or upcoming appearances.

He was finishing such a dry, matter-of-fact report about some poll or other when TJ found his courage and called him back before he left the room. It was one of the rare occasions where Doug had actually come to DC, instead of doing this over Skype. Tomorrow he'd be gone again, and TJ had to try and do this face to face.

"I need to talk to you," he said, stubbing out the cigarette he'd been smoking to try and assuage his nerves, "about the day the story broke."

Doug paused on his way out—and stayed, because half his anger stemmed from the fact that he had been given no explanation or apology, while he felt that he was owed one, that the least TJ could do was own up to his latest mistake.

"Yeah? What about it?" he said, staying right where he was, right beside the door.

"Please, sit down?" TJ had to ask, and even then Doug only did it slowly, and chose the armchair furthest away from where TJ was sitting on the couch—as many signs that he was ready to listen, but certainly unwilling to make it easy for TJ.

TJ would take it.

"I know what you think I was doing when I went offline, but I swear to you—" He caught Doug's gaze and held it. "—I swear, I wasn't. And I know that's not easy to believe—"

"Yeah, it kind of isn't, considering your track record and your utter lack of an explanation," Doug cut in.

"Well, I'm giving it to you now." TJ took a breath. "I'm seeing someone. I was with him."

"You were with your therapist? That's your explanation?" Doug said with clear, almost mocking skepticism. "You do realize that that's even less believable than you saying you were at home, right?"

"I'm not talking about my therapist," TJ countered, trying not to let irritation overcome him, "which, by the way, you're not supposed to know about."

"Mom's paying for it, of course I know about it."

"That's not—" TJ breathed out harshly through his nose. "And then you're surprised when I don't tell you things, it's impossible for you or Mom to keep a secret to yourselves."

"Maybe because it's the kind of things that shouldn't be kept secret, did you think of that?"

"It's my own business whether I need therapy or not," TJ said, trying not to let his voice rise. "My business, and no one else's. Because it's my life, my fucked-up brain, so ex-fucking-cuse me for not wanting to advertise how much I—" He cut himself off.

"What?" Doug prompted, provocative. "How much you what, TJ?"

TJ had a pretty good idea of how Doug expected him to finish that sentence. He had no wish to correct him. "Nothing," he bit out. It was between him and Dr. Bennani, and maybe one day he would feel inclined to share, but certainly not today, and not with Doug.

He briefly closed his eyes and breathed, making himself calm down.

"Anyway," he said, "that's not the point. I wasn't talking about my therapist. I—" He paused, uncertain of how to formulate it—but then he knew, and it was so simple. "I have a boyfriend."

It was, he realized, the first time he'd ever said the word out loud.

"A boyfriend," Doug said after a long silence.

"Yes," TJ said, feeling almost defensive. "I was at his place when the news broke, and I stayed with him until I came here." He bit his lips. "His name is Steve."

"Steve what?" Doug asked.

TJ didn't know how to interpret the look on his face, but it wasn't a happy one. "Just Steve. I'm not giving you his last name."

"Why not?" Doug challenged. Obviously he barely refrained from asking if TJ even knew it.

"Because I don't want you to go digging into his personal life," TJ retorted. "Dating me shouldn't mean he gets stripped of his privacy."

"Except it does, TJ," Doug said. "It does when you are who we are."

TJ crossed his arms. "And that's supposed to make it okay? That's what you told Anne when Mom found out about her?"

Doug ticked. He hadn't expected TJ to bring his wife up. "She understood—"

"But she still wasn't prepared, was she?" TJ interrupted him, pressing his advantage. "And you know what? Maybe it would've been better if someone had at least tried to protect her from all that."

The blow carried, TJ saw it at once. He might've regretted going there, thought he'd gone too far, if not for the fact that this had been bothering him for a while now—since that night last December where he'd awkwardly held his sister-in-law while she cried and babbled about how Doug was going to be so disappointed, how she'd failed him, how he was going to hate her, and what if he left her, what if he didn't want her anymore, once he knew what a mess she really was? TJ had held her and been aghast, not so much at himself for not noticing—that was par for the course with him, he was aware of how self-centered he was—but most of all at Doug, for not realizing how much pressure his wife was under, for not seeing what it was causing, for blundering on while she came apart—and damn it, wasn't it Doug's job to know, to support her, to be there for her?

But he hadn't been, and TJ had been shocked, yes. And then he'd been pissed. And he still was, on Anne's behalf but maybe also on his own, because Doug hadn't exactly been there either for him when he'd started the not-so-slow spiral down, all those years ago.

"You know there is no stopping Mom once she's on the war path," Doug was saying, trying to use his reasonable voice.

All it did was make TJ's anger blaze.

"I don't care," he snapped. "You could've at least tried. But you didn't. And you don't get to complain about me trying to do it for Steve."

He distantly realized what he was implying here; that Steve was to him what Anne was to Doug, or at least what she'd already been for a while when Doug had introduced her to their mom: someone serious. He wasn't going to look too closely at that right now.

"Why are you telling me about him, then, since apparently I can't keep a secret from Mom?"

He'd unwittingly brought the conversation right where TJ needed it. TJ looked down and bit his lips.

"Because it's been three weeks," he said. "Three weeks, and I did everything you asked, the Q&A, the interviews, I haven't taken anything, not even a glass of wine, I've stayed right here the whole time and— Doug, it's been three weeks. I haven't seen him, and… I miss him."

"He's the one you spend all your time texting," Doug said after a short silence.

"Yes," TJ blurted, "and believe me, half of what I did I wouldn't have been able to pull off without him, but—" He paused. "It's not enough. I need to see him—I want to see him—and for that…" He took a breath. "I want to go back to my flat."

Doug's answer was instantaneous. "No."

"Doug—"

"No, that's out of the question, things are barely starting to quiet down—the press will jump on any occasion—"

"Exactly!" TJ exclaimed. "They're everywhere! So I can't go to him—but I can't have him come here either, can I? All I can do is go home and hope that they mistake him for a resident when he comes."

Doug gave him a hard look. "Well, it sure sounds like you've got it all figured out. I still don't know why you're telling me this now."

"Because I know what you'll think if I just up and leave without warning. So I'm letting you know: it's not. I just want to be with him, if you want I'll even come back after, in a couple of days—"

"Oh, come on," Doug cut him off, rolling his eyes, "we both know you won't."

"I will, I promise I—"

"Excuse me for not putting much weight into your promises, TJ," Doug snapped.

That shut TJ right up.

Doug saw the look on his face and hissed between his teeth. He stood up and started to walk up and down, running a hand through his hair. "I just don't get it. You're okay here, you're doing great. You're surrounded, we can make sure the noise that reaches you is kept to a minimum, you're supported… We're finally starting to get a handle on this thing, and you want to risk all that—for what?" He turned towards TJ. "How long has this been going on?"

TJ looked down. "Since June."

He flinched when Doug scoffed and shook his head.

"What?" he asked reluctantly.

"Oh, nothing," Doug said, tone harsh in its lightness. "It's just— I mean, look at you. You're doing it again, do you even realize that? Throwing yourself head first into something and thinking that it's more than it is, that it's what you want to do, what you need—the thing that'll make everything better, the guy that'll make all your problems just go away, the project that will magically fix your life— When it's just another one of these stupid daydreams that will just blow up right in your face, like it does every time—"

"It's not—" TJ floundered, reeling. "It's different, Steve's not—"

"Are you in love with him?" Doug cut him off, his glare daring TJ to reply.

TJ felt himself flush to the root of his hair and faltered, because this was a question he'd been very careful not to ask himself. It was too soon, it was crazy and stupid and of course he couldn't already—

"I— That's not the point—" he stammered.

Doug huffed. "You are, aren't you? You think you are—and that that's why you want to see him, right? Well, you can be sure about one thing: whatever it is you're feeling? It's not love. It's just some, some infatuation because I bet he's your type, or the sex is good, but it's not—" He shook his head. "And I'm sorry TJ, but that's all it is, and we can't afford to take any risk just because you've decided you need a good fuck."

TJ stared at him, half incredulous that he'd gone there.

"You know what?" he finally managed to say, feeble at first but gaining in assurance. "I don't actually need your authorization, or even your approval. I don't have to care about what you think." He slowly stood up, tried to stand straight, and firm. "I'm going."

"No, you aren't," Doug retorted. "You shouldn't, and you know it, and that's the exact reason why you told me about this. Because you knew what I was going to say, and you knew I'd be right."

"You're not." But the protest sounded uncertain.

"I am. And Anne would agree with me too."

Doug probably thought that'd be the killing argument, but somehow it had the exact opposite effect. "No, she wouldn't." TJ took a breath, and when he spoke again his voice came out clearer: "Actually I'm pretty sure she'd agree with me, because on that matter she definitely understands things better than you do."

"Oh yeah? Well, she—" Doug paused. "Wait, does she know about this? About Steve?" He didn't give TJ the time to figure out an answer, coming to the right conclusion almost at once. "She does, doesn't she? She does, and she didn't tell me," he went on, voice rising, "because you asked her not to, didn't you?"

"Yeah," TJ said defiantly. "I did."

"And just how many things do you have her hide from me? Or— How many times did you make her lie to me?"

"I didn't make her do anything!" TJ retorted, tone rising in turn. "She agreed to it, from the start, because she knew what would happen if you knew—from personal experience."

"And what's so terrible that could happen, uh?"

"You don't even realize it, do you?" TJ asked, and couldn't hold back a short and derisive laugh. "This family, I swear. You know, most people, anyone, their brother tells them they've met someone, they'll actually, you know, be happy about it. They'll be all, 'That's great!' and 'What's he like?' and 'How did you two meet?' But you—"

"I did ask—" Doug started to protest.

"No, you didn't!" TJ snapped. "You asked for a name to sic the fucking secret service on him—"

"It's not—"

"—and the first thing you imagine is that he's just another fucker who'll, I don't know, drag me back down and have me shoot up with heroin—except that most people aren't like that!"

"Except that most of your so-called friends are, TJ!" Doug shouted.

"Well, Steve isn't!"

"I wouldn't know, would I? And excuse me, but you don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to being a good judge of character! Or should I remind you of Mike? Or, what was his name, Ted? And let's not forget Sean Reeves—"

"Don't," TJ growled, feeling his stomach turn right over at the name.

"Don't what? Remind you of the last asshole who 'wasn't like that'? Well, I'm sorry, TJ, but someone has to, since you quite obviously won't—"

"Fuck you, Douglas," TJ said between clenched teeth, heartfelt and strangled, because his twin had no idea, no idea what Sean had done to him, was still doing to him, how it was a daily struggle not to think about it, not to believe what he'd said, not to let it define him and pull him down down down— "Fuck you."

"Well, fuck you too, TJ," Doug spat. "But you know what? You want to throw everything away to get your dick wet? Be my guest. I actually have better things to do than babysit you all day long."

"Oh, don't let me hold you back," TJ sneered.

Doug glared. TJ glared right back, and refused to back down, and in the end his brother threw his hands up, turned around and stalked out of the room.

"And for your information," TJ shouted after him, "Steve's a great fuck."

Doug slammed the front door shut behind him. TJ let out a wordless cry and kicked the couch, before collapsing back onto it. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and tried not to cry, tried to breathe—and all along he knew with horrid clarity that if there had been even a pinch of coke left in this place he would've taken it right there and then, just for spite. And that wasn't okay. That made everything even worse.

He didn't know how long he stayed on the couch, choking on his breaths and on the turmoil inside him. The first thing he did when he finally got a hold of himself was fumble for his phone—it almost slipped from his trembling hands—and message Steve.

Can you come to my flat? As soon as you can.

Steve didn't reply at once. Given the time he was probably painting or drawing, or maybe it was one of the afternoons he spent at the VA. But TJ knew he'd come. He just had to return to his flat, and hold himself together until Steve got there.

He went to stand up, ready to go pack, and that's when he noticed his Nana's presence. She was standing in the entryway, purse slung over her right shoulder, eyebrows slightly raised.

"Your brother sure seemed in quite a hurry to leave," she said cautiously.

How long had she been standing here?

"Yeah," TJ said, and had to clear his throat. His voice was a wreck. He was a wreck. He refrained from grunting 'Good riddance' and said: "I'm going back to my flat."

Nana nodded knowingly. "Off to see Steve, uh? I was wondering how long it'd take for you to cave in." TJ stared. She batted a hand and finally walked into the room. "Oh, come on, don't look at me like that. I'm not spying on you, I'm not your mother. Anne told me."

She put down her purse, took off her light jacket and turned to him, eyebrows quirking.

"Don't tell me you're surprised. She has you to complain about Doug, but where do you think she goes when she needs to complain about you?"

"But—"

"If you're about to ask me what she might need to complain about," Nana said preemptively, "I advise you to think for a second."

TJ did. He closed his mouth.

Nana smirked.

"Good," she said approvingly. Then: "So, do you need help to pack?"

TJ raised his eyebrows. "You aren't going to tell me I shouldn't leave?"

Nana rolled her eyes. "You forget I'm not your mother. Or your brother. I don't know how they can't see how destructive their brand of mothering is on you. Or how obvious your pining is. You're miserable, and at this point it's become painful to watch. And I have no doubt that feeling it is even worse." She looked right at him and TJ swallowed: under her knowing eye he felt almost naked. Then she looked away, and quipped: "I do have a condition, though."

"Yeah?" TJ asked, wary.

"Yes. See, Anne tells me the man is a total hunk," Nana said, entirely serious. "I need photographic evidence."

TJ laughed, and took out his phone at once. He brought up his contacts, selecting Steve's for the accompanying picture—the only one he allowed himself to have saved on the device, for the same reason he regularly erased their conversations.

A phone was easily lost, or stolen.

He'd taken the picture before they were even a thing, over brunch after that movie they'd seen about two weeks after they'd met. In it Steve was smiling over a round table that looked tiny in comparison to him, chin propped in his hand. The sun streaming through the window of the restaurant bathed his face in light, turning his hair golden and bringing out that slightly mischievous spark in his eyes.

Seeing it TJ paused and, for a second, yearned.

Then he shook himself, and handed the phone over to Nana.

She stared at the picture for a long time. For so long, actually, that TJ started feeling nervous.

"TJ," she finally said, "I don't know what your plans are for the next time you see him, but if you don't jump this man within the hour I'll officially disown you as my grandson."

By now TJ should've been used to the things Nana could come up with. He laughed, feeling his cheeks flush. "I'll do my best."

"Do your worst, you mean," Nana corrected as she handed the phone back. "And feel free to grope his ass for me—that man sure looks like he has a magnificent behind."

 

*

 

Steve was sitting on the floor beside TJ's apartment door when TJ arrived. He'd warned Steve that he might be a while, even being driven there by one of the few agents assigned to his mother's townhouse while she was out of state, but Steve apparently didn't mind, and had busied himself sketching.

He stopped and scrambled to his feet as soon as he noticed TJ, his smile quickly replaced by a worried look when he saw the state TJ was in.

TJ didn't let him ask any question until his front door was closed between them and the world—and even then he didn't reply, just shook his head until Steve simply wrapped him in his arms. TJ clung to him, burying his nose at the juncture between his shoulder and neck. He closed his eyes, and let Steve hold him—just hold him, until the world faded away, until he felt safe, until he stopped feeling like he was about to fall apart.

 

*

 

U awake? Anne texted, hours later.

Y, TJ replied, changing the settings on his phone so that the glare wouldn't be too strong and wake Steve. They'd both fallen asleep mere minutes after orgasm, not having even found the energy to clean-up—and yes, Douglas, they'd had sex, and yes, TJ had needed it. He'd needed the proximity, the intimacy, the comfort, and he did feel better for it now, thank you very much—not that his cerebral, workaholic brother would understand that.

TJ had half expected to sleep straight through the night, overwrought as he was after the fight and after weeks of stress and pretense, nothing but work and bad nights. Yet at 2 a.m. he'd blinked his eyes open, and he hadn't been able to go back to sleep.

He hadn't left the bed, though. He'd be damned if he left Steve's embrace. After three weeks of nothing but the piano to give him some modicum of comfort he was almost back to being unable to play the thing.

How did it go? he asked.

Abt as well as u would expect, Anne replied. But tx for the heads up.

On the way to his flat TJ had made sure to warn her about what had transpired, knowing that Doug would want to have a Conversation and that, like with TJ, it was liable to get ugly. The bunch of texts that followed only confirmed it:

He said some things, I said some things.

It was awful.

But honest too?

& thats a good thing right? Being honest w each other?

TJ wrote, On the long term its a good thing yeah. Or so my therapist tells me.

All they could hope was that Doug would be willing to learn that too. Given the field he'd chosen to work in, it wasn't sure he would.

How are *u* doing? Anne asked.

Good, TJ replied. Better. Then, after a hesitation: I really missed him.

I know.

And several of his other attributes, he added for levity.

Really, TJ? Really?

TJ grinned. I was talking abt his kindness, patience and hugs. What do u think I meant?

Right, Anne sent, and he didn't need to see her to know it was dripping with skepticism. After a pause, she added: I gave Doug his last name.

TJ's smile faded.

He promised not to give it to anyone for a background check, Anne assured. All hell know is what hell find by doing a google search.

It took her some time to type the next message:

I thought, if he could get to know more abt him from an outside pov itll help, and hell come around sooner.

Im not sure he will, TJ typed.

Dont underestimate your brother, Anne chastised. Then: I should probably try & get some sleep.

TJ acquiesced. Once they'd said their goodbyes he turned off his phone and put it on the bedside table. Then he turned back and scooted down, snuggling closer to Steve. Steve let out a quizzical sound, most of the way asleep. TJ hushed him, whispering 'It's okay', which was enough for Steve to settle, tightening his arm around TJ's waist and tangling their legs together. TJ let him and closed his eyes. Even if he didn't find sleep again, there was no better place in the world to be.

 

*

 

To prove how alright he was and how him going back to his flat had actually been for the best, TJ had lunch with Nana three days later. Three days later, because it had taken that long for him and Steve to part—something Nana was definitely wise to, if the way she kept leering at him was anything to go by.

TJ took a second to feel grateful that, out of the two of them, he was the one who tended to leave hickeys all over his partner's neck, and not the opposite.

He'd been worried when he'd seen that Steve had come over with several changes of clothes and the clear intent to devote a couple days off to them. TJ didn't want him to fall behind with his work just because he couldn't keep it together through yet another family crisis for which he was responsible. But Steve had waved his concerns away.

"I've kind of been working non-stop for the part three weeks?" he'd said, almost sheepish, while they sat on the couch. "It was that, or spend my days worrying about you and ending up on news websites, watching your interviews and getting angry at the press."

"Aw, you got angry on my behalf?" TJ said, overplaying his display of bringing a hand to his heart to hide how genuinely touched he was, even though he'd already known what Steve thought of the paparazzi and their behavior.

"Well, yeah. You always look so uncomfortable or unhappy or… just not like yourself."

Steve sounded very bothered by that, and, yeah, a bit pissed. It was so refreshing: to Steve, such a reaction was obvious, he couldn't fathom any other one, couldn't understand that one might just be tired, or resigned instead. It was sweet, too.

TJ told him so, cupping his face between his hands and dropping a kiss on his lips. "You definitely shouldn't watch any videos from the time I first came out then," he said. "Because compared to that? This, here and now, this is nothing."

"Really?"

TJ sighed. "Really," he said with a bitter smile, settling back into the couch. "That's when I learned you should never watch your interviews or read the articles written about you. Ever."

"But you do it anyway," Steve pointed out. He'd seen TJ on his phone.

"It's another one of these bad habits I'm trying and failing to kick?" TJ winced. "I have a lot of those, as you might've noticed."

Steve pursed his lips and looked him up and down. "I don't know, it doesn't look like it from where I'm sitting."

"That's because I have you fooled," TJ said, only half-joking.

"Or maybe that's because I have bad habits too, so it all balances out in the end."

"Oh, you do?" TJ teased, disbelieving. "Like what?"

"Well, like I said: I get angry." He slid his hands between his knees and shrugged. "Sam might or might not have banned me from calling him until I could hold a conversation that didn't end in a rant about today's media and people's right to privacy within the first two minutes."

TJ couldn't hold back a laugh. "That's cold," he said, and sobered: "Lonely, too." He didn't like the idea of Steve not having his best buddy around when he himself was kept away.

"Well, I went to the gym a lot instead," Steve said, keeping his tone light. "Hit a lot of bags."

"Is that why your arms look that good?" TJ said, because Steve was wearing a t-shirt and, even stretched out as it was, his right arm looked thick and sculpted and—

Well. Let's just say, TJ had noticed.

"Maybe?" Steve said, turning his arms over to look at it like he, on the other hand, hadn't. He was one of those few crazy people who didn't think about the way they looked at all when they did sports. Until TJ had met him, he hadn't believed those existed. "I don't know."

"I do," TJ said, scooting closer and running an appreciative hand along Steve's biceps. "I like it."

Fortunately, after nearly four months, Steve had learned to read TJ's cues—at least when TJ was being that obvious about it. He blushed, but smiled and turned slightly towards TJ, welcoming his approach. "You do?"

"Yeah," TJ said, leaning in. Then he shut up in favor of kissing Steve. Just once, though, because he had to ask: "Think you could do me against the wall?"

Steve pulled away to meet his eye. "What?"

"You know," TJ tried to explain, not letting him go too far, "you propping me up—you're all buff now." He squeezed Steve's arm again. "How much do you lift?"

"I— I don't know," Steve replied, confused but also, quite clearly, pretty affected by how obviously turned on TJ was.

TJ grinned. "Wanna find out?"

It turned out Steve couldn't, actually, although at least they got a good laugh out of the attempt. That was one thing TJ liked about Steve: he was always willing to try new things.

That, and what he did to TJ as a consolation once they'd reached the bed more than made up for his thwarted fantasies.

 

*

 

Lunch with Nana was followed by a Skype call to Mom, who mostly tried to alleviate TJ's worries by mentioning how this or that thing was finally turning some attention away from that whole mess—like the 'mess' wasn't TJ's life—, how TJ's interview with Susan Berg had found a positive echo—much to his dismay—, how her poll results were slowly but surely recovering, how it wouldn't be so bad after all, see, she'd known it wouldn't.

She was trying to be positive and reassuring, TJ knew, but all he could think about while she talked was Steve's frown, the righteous anger burning in his eyes and making his voice carry while he'd talked about the subject—because of course he had. TJ hadn't minded the rant. He remembered it now, and found that he couldn't recall at time when he'd seen his mother genuinely angry about what the press was always putting him through. In all the memories he had, she was taking it all in stride and was half-way through planning their way out of the crisis by the time he stopped reeling. Even back when he'd come out, he wasn't sure it had been any different.

Dr. Bennani had told him it was normal not to remember everything from that time; she'd also pointed out that, given how harrowing the experience had been to him, his mother might've chosen to contain her anger in his presence, lest he took it as being aimed at him.

She had him talking a lot about that time lately, even more so than about the present crisis. True, he'd been the first to mention it, in one of those offhand comments or analogies she always jumped on and made him dissect. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot to dissect about his coming out.

It gave him a lot of food for thought, too. There were things he'd never really understood back then, was only able to see now. Most of all, now that he was looking at all of it with the eyes and experiences of a thirty-year-old man, he felt for the first time how young he'd been. How naive, and inexperienced, and vulnerable, and scared. He'd felt small at the time, but he'd been small too, especially as a lone kid against that vast, faceless multitude of people watching, criticizing, disapproving, some of them ready to tear him to shreds. His parents had done their best, but—

But against that, what was to be done?

He was thinking about it so much that one evening, as he laid in bed with Steve, sweat cooling off their skin, he asked: "Do you remember?" When Steve looked over quizzically he explained: "When I came out, back when I was sixteen. Do you remember what you thought?"

He regretted asking as soon as the question had left his lips. He didn't want to find out that Steve belonged to the hordes of men who had taken what was happening as an implicit authorization to use him as prime wank material.

Steve rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, seriously thinking about it. "Kind of," he finally said. "It's a bit vague. I was in the Academy at the time, and let's say the news weren't the main focus of our attention. Plus, I was able to go serve in an active army unit that summer, so it made everything feel even more distant."

He was silent for a few seconds.

"'Don't ask, don't tell' was in effect at the time, too," Steve went on. "I remember thinking that it was brave of you to choose to do that—to be honest about who you were, no matter how ugly people's reactions were gonna be. At the time it wasn't even a possibility for me. I'm not sure I'd even fully realized I could be attracted to guys too, or what that really meant."

He glanced at TJ when TJ took his hand.

"It's only now that I realize it probably hadn't been your choice at all," he added.

"Yeah," TJ said. "Being a Hammond means you don't get a lot of those."

Steve looked upset, and cupped TJ's cheek in his hand.

"Wanna know something though?" TJ whispered, nuzzling into Steve's palm. It was dark and, with Steve so close, he felt like he could say anything. "Of the few choices I did get to make, I'm pretty sure you're one of the best ones."

Steve paused. "That was cheesy," he said after a while, because he was as bad as TJ when it came to feelings.

"Yup," TJ said.

"I feel obligated to kiss you for that."

TJ grinned. "Yup," he repeated. "Actually, that was my plan all al—"

He didn't get to finish.

 

*

 

The problem was that, even though Steve had followed the news surrounding TJ's OD and could get righteously indignant about the way the topic was treated, it rapidly became clear that he didn't fully grasp the implications and direct consequences of the crisis.

He kept suggesting outings like the ones they'd done before the story had broken out: to the museum, to the cinema, to Maria's, to a baseball game even, although they'd never done that. Every time, TJ had to decline. He usually had a good reason to, aside from trying to protect what little privacy he had left: an appointment with his therapist, a Skype call with his mom or someone from her PR team, a fundraiser or rally he had to make an appearance at with Nana so he'd be seen, upright and sober and going on with business as usual. So Steve didn't seem to think anything of it. For a while he didn't seem to notice that TJ wasn't really going to his flat anymore either, always arranged for them to meet at TJ's instead.

It couldn't last.

It all came to a head on a Sunday. Steve had spent the night and TJ had tried to keep him in bed in the morning, but Steve had a meeting with Thor, the co-author of the Captain Monkey series, and had stoically torn himself away from TJ's embrace to go take a shower.

He came back out only wearing boxers, so TJ consoled himself by watching him get dressed, which was only slightly less pleasant than watching him to the opposite—at least until Steve's patented khakis and tattersall check shirt got involved, at which point he remembered to despair of his boyfriend's tastes and of himself for not doing anything about it.

"Sam's suggesting I meet him for brunch when I'm done," Steve said when he checked his phone. "You could join us after your movie."

TJ, who hadn't been so sure about going this week, snorted. "Yeah, no." He waved lazily. "You go. Tell him hi for me."

When he was met with silence he glanced over, only to see Steve frown minutely.

"What?" he asked.

"I just don't—" Steve said slowly. "Do you… not like Sam?"

"I do, Sam is great—he's a great friend to you and he's hilarious."

Steve made a helpless gesture with his hands. "Then why…?"

TJ gave him a look. When Steve simply returned it, nonplussed and waiting for an answer, he sighed. "I was kind of hoping that I wouldn't have to explain this one," he muttered. But he sat up and patted the bed beside him. "Come here."

Steve came and sat.

"Look," TJ said, wondering what would be the best way to put it. "You know that with the news about my overdose, I've gotten a lot of attention lately." Steve nodded. "And we've played into that, with me doing interviews and appearances in public, so people can see how much better I am now and how I'm totally keeping it together," TJ went on, flashing his fake public smile for emphasis. "But you have to know that some people are not satisfied with that—because in the end, we all know it's all bullshit. And people will not stop until they find what's underneath the veneer, especially if they hope for something sordid. And I've given a lot of people a lot of reasons to expect that sort of things from me."

Steve didn't say anything but he was listening, a half-concerned, half-angry look on his face.

"So you can be pretty sure that wherever I go right now, there'll be at least one person trying to follow me, hoping to catch me, I don't know, buying from a dealer or drinking in the middle of the day or something." He took a breath. "So if I go to brunch with you and Sam, there will be pictures. And if there are pictures people will ask for a statement, and if there's no statement then there'll be speculations."

Steve pursed his lips. "Okay," he said. "They can speculate. I don't think Sam'll mind."

"Yeah? Even if it's about which way that threesome goes, with them concluding that of course I'm on the bottom, probably getting spit-roasted as we speak?"

"Must you be so crass?" Steve asked with a wince.

"Yes," TJ replied plainly. "Because they will be, you can be sure of that."

"Then we tell them the truth."

TJ stared. "What?"

"You said they'd want a statement, we can give them one. About us." Steve glanced over. Whatever he saw on TJ's face made him reach out and take TJ's hand. "It would be okay for me—more than okay. I don't care what anyone has to say about it."

"You don't?" TJ asked, because he'd guessed that Steve was out to his friends, and beyond that didn't really care who knew and therefore didn't hide, but he hadn't let himself contemplate what Steve would think about them going public—about being publicly linked to T. J. Hammond.

He hadn't dared ask. As irrational as it was, he'd been afraid, amongst other things of a repeat of the last time he'd broached that subject with a lover.

"I don't," Steve replied with a reassuring smile. "Especially not if it means that I get to be with you however I want, that we can go wherever we want together, or that I can hold your hand in the street, or that I can just be there for you when there's a crisis—and I get the feeling the Hammond family gets a lot of those."

"Oh," TJ let out. To his utter embarrassment, he was suddenly close to tears.

"I'm okay with whatever happens," Steve assured.

"You really are," TJ said, marveling at bit.

"Yeah." Steve started to grin. "Soo, I can tell Sam that you'll join us and that he should dress to the nines so he'll look good on the covers of the National Enquirer and the Globe?"

TJ stared at him for a long while, at this man who'd so unexpectedly dropped into his life and who tried so hard, gave so much without expecting the same in return. Sure, he wasn't perfect: he was a bit of a workaholic, often too serious and definitely unable not to care about any and everything. But he was also so kind, and honest, and attentive, and giving. And TJ was so tempted to take everything he offered.

But he couldn't. Somehow, the mere thought filled him with dread, with panic, created an icy bloc of ice weighing down on his stomach and making his throat seize, without him quite understanding why. He should want it, but—

"No," he said, taking his hand out of Steve's. His throat was so tight he was surprised it even came out. "No, I'm sorry. You say you're okay with whatever they'll say but you don't realize. There'll still be speculation, about you, about us—" God, he could already see the headlines, wondering how they'd met and whether they were even compatible given their history and—oh, the paps were going to have a field day when they'd find out Steve used to be military. "—and they'll pry into your life, your past—I mean, they'll dig, deep, and—"

"I have nothing to hide," Steve said.

"No?" TJ looked him right in the eye. "Not even from your time in the army?"

It was only for a second, but he saw the faint flinch Steve couldn't repress, saw how Steve lowered his eyes. "Most of that is classified," he said after a while. "And I'm pretty sure that no matter how vile their methods are, they can't breach national security."

"So that means they'll get to say whatever they want instead," TJ nodded, merciless. "And they'll look for what there was before—where you went to school, if you were a good student. Did you ever get arrested? Expelled from school?"

Steve looked briefly uncomfortable. "I— Okay, I did get arrested. Once or twice. And expelled. More than once or twice."

TJ hadn't actually expected that. "You did?"

"It never led to prosecution," Steve defended himself. "I just, I used to get into a lot of fights. Against bullies. You know, guys pushing the little kids around, tormenting cats for fun or bothering the cheerleaders; guys who refused to take no for an answer when a woman told them to get lost at a bar, that kind of guy." He looked down. "It used to make me see red, I just stopped thinking, threw caution to the wind and jumped right in. The way I saw it, someone had to tell them their behavior was inadmissible, and I thought that someone had to be me, because if I didn't then no one else would." He sighed and looked up with that crooked smile of his. "I thought I was doing the right thing. Bucky always said I just had a chip on my shoulder the size of the Statue of Liberty."

"Who's Bucky?" TJ asked. That was a weird name.

Steve's smile faded. "Oh, uh. My best friend— childhood best friend. We grew up together."

TJ frowned minutely, confused and maybe a bit hurt. He couldn't recall Steve ever mentioning a Bucky before. "He still live in New York?" Maybe they'd had a falling out.

"Ah, no." It wasn't like Steve to talk so haltingly; TJ's frown deepened. "He, uh, he died. A long time ago."

"Oh," TJ said. "I'm sorry." He bit his lips, then asked: "Do you… wanna talk about it?" He'd rarely seen Steve so affected before.

"Not really, no," Steve replied, which only worsened TJ's worry. He didn't press the matter, though. Aside from how young Bucky must have been when he'd died, Steve's reaction was enough to suggest that the way it had happened had been pretty awful. Plus, even if he'd wanted to ask anyway, Steve prevented it by saying: "Besides, it doesn't have much to do with the matter at hand, does it?"

He accompanied the sentence with a pointed look, and TJ felt himself flush just as he realized that his question had, indeed, been an attempt to evade the subject.

"No, it doesn't," he admitted. "But you do understand that if we go public, your fighting habits will probably be one of the first things they grab onto and run away with."

"Former fighting habits," Steve pointed out. "One of the things I learned from the army: fighting never actually solves anything." He smirked. "And they wiped my record clean when I got promoted to captain."

"Of course they did," TJ muttered.

"Look," Steve said, growing serious, "what I mean is, even if they find out about it, I'm not ashamed about any of it. Yes, I made mistakes, I was misguided. I was also very young. And tiny." He met TJ's eye. "I hit my growth spurt pretty late." TJ gave him a hesitant smile. Steve took his hands back in his. "Plus, it's going to happen sooner or later, right? If this continues, if it's serious—"

"It is," TJ said at once, because he saw the doubt suddenly creeping into Steve's eyes. "It is, we are—and you're right. We will have to deal with it at one point or another and— There's also the question of timing." He sighed and rubbed at a hand against his temple. "It all goes back to the same thing, which is me really, which is that I— I attempted suicide almost two years ago and then I OD-ed six months later and my mom tried to cover it up both times and failed and now the press is all over it. And— You might remember that my mom is at a pretty important point in her life and career right now, and it's crucial we don't rock the boat any more than it already has been and this—" He gestured between the two of them. "—like anything that concerns me, this is not maintaining us in quiet waters."

"You're afraid that this might cost your mom her chance at the presidency," Steve summed up.

"I'm afraid that this might mean the media spend the whole campaign gossiping about my love life instead of talking about her platform," TJ corrected, even if the end result was the same.

Steve opened his mouth, closed it. Clearly, he agreed that one could not put it past the press to do that.

"Maybe it won't," TJ said. "For all we know, it might actually make everything better. After all, who doesn't enjoy a good old love story, even if it's a gay one?" Steve and TJ exchanged a glance: they both were keenly aware of just how many people would not enjoy a love story precisely because it was gay. "What it comes down to is, I can't go and start making an announcement like that without at least planning it and, well. Telling my mom, to see if it'd be okay."

"Which means that she'd need to know about us first."

TJ bit his lips. "Yeah," he said, replying to the implicit question.

"Were you—" Steve swallowed. "Are you planning on telling her?"

"I—" TJ didn't know what to say. "Not yet, no." He looked away and felt awful.

"May I ask why?" Steve asked, in a voice that was painful in its blandness.

"It's just— She's busy with her campaign and she doesn't need— And, look. You know how Doug reacted to the news."

"I do."

TJ forced himself to look back at him. "Yeah, well. Mom's gonna be worse."

Steve frowned. "How can you know that?"

"Because I know her?" TJ replied with a wry smile. "And I— I don't exactly have a good track record when it comes to relationships. Especially when it comes to them ending."

"I don't know about you, but I have no plans to let this one end," Steve pointed out.

TJ's smile turned more genuine.

Steve pressed his lips together. "Does it have anything to do with… Sean?" he asked hesitantly. TJ's smile disappeared. "You've mentioned him before."

"Yeah," TJ said, but his voice cracked and he had to clear his throat. "Yes. In parts. I… can't talk about him, though. I really can't."

"Okay," Steve reassured him, "okay. That's fair."

They sat in silence for a while.

"So," TJ finally said. "Where does that leave us?"

"Well, we both agree that we're serious about this," Steve said with a smile. "And that we'll go public about it, but—"

"Not yet."

"Not yet," Steve repeated. "Because of the whole election thing and— your mom."

"My mom."

"And you—" Steve looked at him. "You're not ready."

TJ looked down. "No. I guess I'm not." Inside him, relief at Steve's easy acceptance warred with guilt. "I'm sorry."

"Hey," Steve said, ducking his head to try and catch his eye. "It's okay."

"It's not."

"It is," Steve insisted. He cupped TJ's cheek in his hand. "I refuse to do anything you're not comfortable with yet, okay?"

"But you want to—"

"I can wait." He sounded so sure about it, was so clear about the fact that, yes, he would prefer for them to be honest and open about it now, but that he'd follow TJ's lead anyway just because that was what TJ needed—

God, I love you, TJ thought. The words were on the tip of his tongue. Holding them back was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, but he did, because he knew it wasn't something you said and meant after less than four months with someone. It wasn't.

"Still, I should've warned you," he said instead. "That's exactly the kind of bullshit that's to be expected when you're dating a Hammond. You don't exactly get to choose the schedule of your own life."

"Yeah, this comes entirely out of nowhere, I had no idea," Steve said, this time with a heavy layer of sarcasm. "Why wasn't I given the information pamphlet?"

TJ laughed. "We should totally make one. Anne will definitely have some input, we'll name it 'Things Anne Ogami Would've Liked to Know Before She Committed'. Comes with the Full Hammond Package, now with a 100% refund if you end up changing your mind."

Steve grinned and kissed him and TJ, still feeling much too close to blurting his inappropriate feelings, kissed him back eagerly—more than eagerly. He was halfway through unbuckling Steve's belt, having given up on taking off Steve's shirt because Steve would not stop touching or kissing him for long enough for that to work, when he felt something buzz against his thigh. It was Steve's phone.

"Don't answer it," he said, because Steve had stopped kissing him at once and was clearly about to straighten up. "It can wait."

"Yeah, no," Steve replied, but still returned his kisses. "People don't usually call me unless it's—" He finally managed to hoist himself up onto his hands and knees to get his phone out of his pocket. TJ let himself fall back onto the mattress with a pout.

Steve looked at his screen and frowned. "It's Thor," he said, and then his eyes widened in realization. "Fuck, I'm late, I'm—wow, really late."

He scrambled off the bed, trying to button his shirt back up and tuck it back into his pants one-handed while he picked up the phone and said: "Yeah, hey, hi, Thor, sorry, I'm late, I know—but I'm coming, I swear, I'll be here asap—"

TJ couldn't hear what Thor said in reply but it made Steve laugh. "Yeah— yeah, okay, thanks," he said. "I'll see you soon." He hung up and rushed to finish getting ready.

"Is everything okay?" TJ asked.

"Yes," Steve said, checking the content of his bag and glancing over with a smile. "Don't worry, Thor's a cool guy. And he's not always the most punctual either, he understands."

"Okay. Sorry for… distracting you."

This time Steve grinned. "Don't be," he said, zipping his bag shut. "Things needed to be said, I think it's better now. Don't you?" TJ returned the smile and welcomed the kiss Steve dropped on his lips. "I'll just—"

"Yeah, go," TJ laughed, and pushed him away.

He let himself fall back onto the mattress once Steve was gone and sighed. Then he went to take a shower.

While he stood under the spray he thought about everything they'd just said. Steve was right: it was good that they'd cleared the air, assessed the situation and drawn clear lines. TJ realized now that he probably should've been more honest about what he was doing, about the reasons why they should be more cautious for a while and how it was going to happen, instead of simply doing it.

Doug still wasn't talking to him, but TJ had meant it when he'd told him that he was going to be careful. In retrospect, he'd realized how imprudent he'd been, how foolish, going with Steve to exhibitions, on outings: it was a miracle that they hadn't been spotted. He'd gone looking, in a bout of paranoia one week into the whole mess about his OD: he'd dived right into the tabloids, had gone digging deep into the recesses of the internet to make sure that there was no picture, that nothing had brewed over the summer. He hadn't found anything; he could hardly believe his luck. The worst he'd seen had been icky speculations about how close he and Anne had grown: wasn't that suspicious, given how little Doug was at home right now? Wasn't it very fortuitous that Doug was almost never there? Or was he aware of what was going on, were the Hammond twins actually the type to share?

TJ had snapped his laptop shut with a grimace of disgust.

So yes, he should've been more honest with Steve from the get go. But he did not regret his choices and actions. He did wish he could give Steve what he wanted, could grant him the open relationship he quite obviously yearned for. But once again, his being a Hammond, combined with his numerous past mistakes, came to screw everything up in the present, both for him and for the people he loved.

He wanted to make it up to Steve, he thought as he climbed out of the shower and snatched a towel. He wanted to do something, a gesture that'd show Steve that TJ appreciated his understanding and his patience, that he appreciated him, that even though the country and his mom couldn't know about them yet, TJ was taking their relationship seriously.

In the end, he had a copy of his apartment key made.

"So you can come whenever you want," he explained when he gave it to Steve. "It'll make everything easier and— I want you to know can always come here. You're always welcome."

He bit his lips, waiting for Steve's reaction.

"You really didn't have to," Steve said after a while. He followed it up with a smile. "But thank you."

It wasn't much, TJ knew. But it was something, something he could give, and gladly did.

 

*

 

TBC

 

 

Chapter Text

Giving Steve the keys to his apartment turned out to have been the best idea ever.

"This was the best idea ever," TJ told him.

He'd come home from a rally for his mother's campaign, that is to say from a long day of standing and walking around, and at the end of it he'd been exhausted, dreading the long journey home and the thought that he'd still need to find something to eat.

But then he'd opened the door to his flat and found Steve waiting for him with his hands smudged with charcoal from an afternoon spent sketching and several boxes of take-out waiting on the kitchen counter. It hadn't even stopped there: after they'd filled their stomachs Steve had told TJ to go lie on the couch and was now turning him into a warm pile of goo by pressing his sure, strong fingers along the bottom of TJ's foot in the best massage TJ had ever received.

"Seriously, I could get used to this," he moaned, eyes fluttering shut. "Having you here waiting for me at home, ready to cater to all my needs." He looked down in time to see Steve raise an eyebrow at him, lips crooked into that sardonic smile of his. "I promise to be a benevolent master," he added with a wave of his hand.

"You better be," Steve said. "After all, you must not forget that from where I'm sitting at your feet I'm also in the best position to—" Suddenly his touch lost all its firmness, turning into a featherlike brush against the most tender part of TJ's sole.

TJ squealed and flailed, but Steve had caught his ankle in an iron grip and there was no escaping. Still, TJ tried.

He found himself unable to straighten up, the torture Steve was inflicting on him making him squirm far too much to attempt any kind of coordinated escape. The feeble kicks of his free leg didn't seem to have any effect, and then Steve pinned it under his arm too, effectively trapping TJ and putting him at his mercy. All TJ managed to do, in between cries and bouts of laughter and 'No!' and 'You monster!', was worm his way right off the couch, landing shoulders first onto the floor to end up in the most undignified of sprawls.

Steve tilted his head to the side and bent forward. He wasn't making sure that TJ was okay, no: the grinning asshole asked: "Surrender to the people?"

TJ gave a garbled reply.

"What's that?" Steve asked, leaning closer.

Close enough for TJ to surge upwards, wrap both arms around Steve's neck and tug. Caught by surprise, Steve overbalanced and, trying to catch himself, briefly let go of TJ's leg.  Those few seconds of freedom were all TJ needed to turn the situation around: he wrapped himself arms and legs around Steve, halfway between a sloth and a cobra.

"I shall never give in to the plebe!" he exclaimed as Steve tried to tug him away. They laughed and rolled around and scrambled and TJ held on for as long as he could but to no one's surprise Steve won that fight too, soon pinning him on his back on the ground.

"I win," he declared.

"You sound like Nala," TJ pointed out, making no move to free himself from the hold.

Steve grinned. "I'll take that as a compliment, she kicks Simba's ass from beginning to end."

"Hey, not everyone can be a gorilla like you," TJ said with a roll of his eyes—although he was the first to appreciate the strength in Steve's arms.

"Nala's a lioness. And it's just training," Steve said.

TJ bit his lips around a smile. "Oh yeah, I know all about your dates with that punching bag. Which is totally cheating, by the way, you fickle man."

"It's not," Steve laughed.

"Oh, but it is. The question is, why?" TJ let his voice become emphatic. "Am I not enough for you? Is all the romance already gone?"

Steve shook his head, still grinning. "I'm serious, though, it's just practice. I could show you if you wanted. Teach you how to throw a punch."

"And now he's suggesting threesomes," TJ muttered and shifted. Steve let go of him at once and scooted back so TJ could sit up. "I'm a pianist, dumbass, I can't go around busting my knuckles against sandbags and other people's faces."

He still kissed Steve, because the thought was sweet.

"Besides, you wouldn't want your gym to be overrun by camera people ready to write about my latest publicity stunt. 'T. J. Hammond, not actually cleaning up his act?'" he announced with a twirl of his hand and a healthy dose of irony. Steve's expression darkened; he easily forgot about that side of things, TJ had realized. As a consolation he added: "Maybe after New Years, we can see how things are then. In the meantime—" He bit his lips again and reached out to run a finger along the collar of Steve's t-shirt. "—I have one or two ideas about how we could spend some energy together."

"You do?" Steve said, smiling back. "'Cause I do too."

"Do tell," TJ purred.

Only instead of going for the kiss TJ had been aiming for, Steve looked down at his hands, suddenly a bit bashful. "My friend Clint—you remember him, I told you about him." TJ nodded slowly. "He's been trying to get me to visit him for a while now and I thought it might be a good idea. It'd be right after Halloween and—I was wondering if you might wanna come with."

It was not what TJ had expected. "Your friend Clint, who owns a farm," he said for confirmation.

"Yup."

"In Iowa."

"Yup."

"Why would I want to go to a farm in Iowa?"

"Because I'm going?" Steve said with a winning smile. "Come on, open air, open fields… Lots of open fields. And… more fields. What's not to like?"

"What indeed?" TJ laughed.

"It'd be quiet, too," Steve said, and that made TJ pause. It was true: even though he was pretty sure some things did happen from time to time over there, he was even more certain that it would have nothing on DC. Plus, no one would expect to find T. J. Hammond in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, Iowa.

"It would," he said quietly, realizing what Steve meant, what he was offering: a break.

"Plus I kind of miss seeing your face in direct sunlight."

TJ rolled his eyes. "It's October, it'd happen even if I wasn't on near house arrest—"

"I'm beginning to worry you're turning into one of those sparkly vampires."

"I am not turning into Robert Pattinson," TJ exclaimed, outraged. "Dude's not even gay."

Steve quirked an eyebrow. "And you know that how?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" TJ teased back.

"What I'd like to know is if you'll come."

TJ sighed. "I want to. It's not a bad idea."

Steve lit up. "You think?"

"Yeah. But." He made a helpless gesture. "My mom'll never let it happen."

Steve pursed his lips. He was probably about to point out that TJ was over thirty and could make his own decisions, but before he could do so they were interrupted by a knock at the door.

TJ met Steve's eye, both of them wondering who that might be. When he scrambled up to go open Steve stayed where he was, sitting on the floor in front of the couch, out of sight.

It was an unnecessary precaution, as proven by the person TJ found standing on his doorstep.

"Hey," Doug said, hands in his pockets, his slightly hunched shoulders matching the reluctant, almost mulish and definitely awkward look on his face.

"Hey," TJ returned warily, leaning against the doorway while holding the door to make sure his twin wouldn't get a look inside. "I didn't know you were back in DC."

"It's just for a short night, I have a flight to Florida first thing in the morning," Doug said.

Silence settled. After a bit over two weeks, the last conversation they'd had still smarted.

"Look," Doug finally gave in, "I'm sorry about what I said. About you, and about your relationship, and about your— about Steve. You're an adult, you get to decide what you think is best for you, and I don't get a say in it, even if you've made mistakes in the past. I might've been— No, I was out of line."

It sounded like a perfect blend of honest and rehearsed. TJ wondered how much of it was Anne's input. He shrugged.

"It's okay," he said, although the apology meant a lot. "I was out of line with what I said about you and Anne, so…"

"You were," Doug nodded. "But you were also right, in parts. I… could've handled Mom finding out about us better. Same for me finding out about you and… Steve. And I shouldn't have lashed out when all you were trying to do was watch out for someone you care about."

"Yeah," TJ said, "you shouldn't have."

The next sentence was obviously the hardest: Doug glanced down and very visibly made himself look back up. "I guess I was angry that you hadn't told me earlier and I took it out on you. I'm sorry for that too." He swallowed. "It's just, we used to tell each other everything."

"Not for a long time," TJ pointed out with the shadow of a smile. "But that one's on me."

"It's on me too," Doug said. "I know I'm not always the best listener, that with my work I never make enough time for it and that I'm judgmental— But I do want you to be able to share the good things in your life with me. The good and the bad."

TJ bit his lips. "You know I want that too, little bro."

Doug rolled his eyes. "You know I hate it when you—" he started, but stepped into TJ's embrace at once when TJ went to throw an arm around him.

TJ squeezed, and stepped back, still smiling. He hated fighting with Doug and he was glad to put this behind them. Doug took a breath.

"And I'd actually really like to, you know, meet that Steve guy one of these days. Since you're— You're pretty serious about him, aren't you?"

He was trying so hard to keep his tone neutral. TJ almost grinned. "Yeah," he said, "I am."

"Good," Doug said, "that's good." And God, could they be more awkward? But Doug was trying, he really was, and that more than anything decided TJ. He stepped back and pushed the door wider open.

"Come on in," he said. When Doug gave him a confused look—he'd clearly been expecting for them to say their goodbyes—he explained: "No time like the present, right?"

Doug's eyebrows jumped up but he kept his mouth shut, and followed TJ inside.

Steve was scrambling up to his feet, wiping his hands on his pants. TJ briefly felt bad for springing such an introduction on him without warning—but then he hadn't been much more prepared when meeting Natasha, so there.

"Steve, this is Doug—Douglas, my twin brother. Doug, this is Steve."

"Hello," Steve said, stepping forward with his hand outstretched.

"Captain," Doug returned as he shook Steve's hand, making it clear with just one word that he'd looked into Steve before coming. TJ barely refrained from rolling his eyes.

"Please, just Steve," Steve said with a stiff smile that reached nowhere near his eyes. "I'm retired."

"So I've seen," Doug said slowly. Their hands had parted. They were facing each other and Doug had a weird look on his face, like Steve wasn't actually what he'd expected.

TJ tried to look at his boyfriend with the eyes of someone who didn't know him; who wanted to be suspicious of him. But no matter how much he tried, Steve, with his guileless blue eyes, his blond hair, his khakis and plain white t-shirt, couldn't have looked more harmless, or more wholesome—in any case, miles away from the types TJ had been known to rub elbows with in the past.

He was also damn attractive, but TJ wasn't sure Doug could appreciate that properly.

"So," Doug asked after an awkward silence, "where did you two meet?"

TJ laughed, and walked over to stand beside Steve. Something was telling him Steve needed the support. "At the inauguration gala for Stark Tower," he said, sitting down on the couch and thus breaking the spell keeping them all standing around like idiots. Steve settled down beside him while Doug took the armchair. "You know, the one I went to with Anne?"

"I remember," Doug said. "Back in May, right?"

TJ nodded. "Steve's the artist who did the painting in the lobby," he went on, as if Doug hadn't found out about that along with Steve's military rank. "It's huge. Although I don't remember the exact dimensions."

He glanced at Steve, who shrugged. "I don't either," he said. "But it was big."

"It's beautiful, too. You should check it out if you have the occasion," TJ told Doug.

"I'll try to find the time next time I'm in New York," Doug said with a wry smile, which TJ shared because they both knew that the next time Doug went there, it would be for the campaign and he wouldn't have a second to himself. "So you're an artist?" he asked Steve.

Steve smiled gamely, like he wasn't perfectly aware that the Hammond family did background checks like others shook hands in greetings. "Trying to be," he said. "I studied art at NYU and haven't had a dry spell yet."

"Things seem to be going well if you're already getting commissions from Tony Stark."

"I'd say Stark is an outlier," Steve retorted. "He usually is." Neither Doug nor TJ could deny it. Steve shrugged. "Mostly I'm busy working on illustrations for a children's book series."

"Yeah? What's it—" But then Doug paused, and looked right at TJ. To his utter mortification, TJ felt himself blush. "Is it Captain Monkey and Sergeant Bear?"

Steve perked up. "You've heard of it?"

He hopefully wouldn't notice TJ trying to murder his brother with his eyes, because, well. TJ might've neglected to mention to Steve that he'd bought and read the two available volumes and was kind of totally looking forward to the third one. Steve had told him that it involved the Russian winter, how could he not?

He just didn't want to make a big deal out of it, didn't want to act like it was some sort of big gesture. So he was supporting his boyfriend's work; so what? Wasn't it, like, normal?

Doug seemed to understand that—or something else, but whatever it was, it made him school his expression and say: "I think. Susan Berg has a niece, I think she mentioned it and, I don't know, the title kind of stuck—and then with the whole captain thing…"

Oh, he was good. It was easy to forget it, since he spent most of his time in their mother's shadow, walking one step behind her, but Doug had grown up surrounded by politics too, and contrary to TJ he'd acquired a taste and discovered himself a gift for it. He'd managed to make something out of it, too, be it by graduating from Harvard with honors, or by becoming the youngest chief of staff in a state department under President Garcetti. Soon he might even become the youngest and definitely the best chief of staff the White House had ever seen too.

"Yeah, it's a bit— It's an idealized version of things for sure," Steve said, a bit rueful.

"It's not all Steve does, though," TJ said, desperate to draw the attention away from that topic and thus erase that knowing look in Doug's eyes. "He'll try to have you believe otherwise, but he still paints a lot too. He's been in several exhibits, you know, in galleries and everything."

Doug nodded. Then paused again. "Wait, is that where you were when you said—"

TJ realized his mistake all too late. "Yes," he said quickly, trying to remember what you were supposed to do to suppress a blush.

"And the painting you wanted to buy was—"

"Yes," he repeated, and either the methods he'd been taught were hoaxes, or he was an extremely bad student, because he was definitely beet-red by now.

"You wanted to buy one of my paintings?" Steve asked, half-way between touched and teasing.

"I was just wondering how much it might cost, I wasn't being serious," TJ protested.

"Sounded pretty serious to me," Doug pointed out, because he was a traitor. Steve, who was nice and decent and a gentleman, sobered.

"Was it the 2 a.m. piece?" he asked softly.

TJ glanced at him, then looked down. "Yeah," he said. "I really liked it, okay? It felt…" He trailed off, then shrugged. He still had no idea how to say it.

"I still have it, you know," Steve said. "It didn't sell—not that I was surprised. You know what people thought about it."

"People don't know shit," TJ said.

"I could give it to you."

"No," TJ replied firmly. "I might buy it from you if I ever get that kind of money and you still have it then, though."

"You do realize that the longer you wait, the more expensive it'll get, right?" Doug cut in. "That's how art works."

"If the painter ever garners enough attention from the right people," Steve retorted. "Which is a big if."

"But you hope it'll happen, right?" Doug said—and there was something in his voice, in his expression; it sounded like suspicion, and like he was daring Steve to claim that it wasn't founded. TJ narrowed his eyes. Steve just shrugged.

"I don't know, I'm happy with what I have right now. I sell some, but I also work on other things, and at the end of the month I still have enough to buy my supplies, so I'm good."

TJ found himself smiling at him. Doug nodded slowly.

Then his phone beeped, and he swore when he glanced at the screen.

"I have to go," he said as he stood up.

"Oh, okay," TJ said, disappointed and relieved at the same time. "Say hi to Mom for me. And try to get some sleep."

"I will."

TJ accompanied him to the door. Once outside Doug turned around and added: "Before you ask, no, I won't tell her. She has other things to think about right now. That, and that's something you have to deal with yourself."

"Yeah, I guess we'll see how I fare and then we can compare notes," TJ replied dryly.

Doug shook his head with a chuckle. "Right." After a pause he added: "I am sorry about what I said, and the way I acted. That's why I won't tell her, too. And if I can do anything to make it up to you…"

He let the sentence hang. TJ was about to tell him not to bother, that it was okay, that he'd already forgiven him, when a thought occurred to him.

"Actually," he said, "there is something."

 

*

 

"Remind me why I agreed to this?" TJ asked.

He could congratulate himself on only asking it now, at the end of their road trip—but if he was honest he'd really enjoyed the near three days they'd spent on the road. Eating in the car, listening to outdated songs, sleeping in cheap motels… It was something he'd never done before and with Steve it only felt cool and liberating, instead of sleazy or shoddy.

Now, however, they were reaching their destination and the road had turned from asphalt to dirt under the wheels of Steve's rental car. Suddenly TJ was reminded of his poor track record when it came to isolated places. Grandpa Hammond's farm was the exception: usually such outings went about as well as the disastrous trip to Jubal's with Doug and Dad last year.

"Because you didn't want to leave me alone in the wilderness?" Steve replied. "I'm a city boy, I was born in Brooklyn, I don't even know what a cow looks like—whereas you have a ton of experience in comparison."

"Okay, one," TJ laughed, "North Carolina has nothing to do with fucking Iowa. Two, summers spent at my grandpa's farm don't count, because I'm not sure that house counts as a farm. And three, I don't think you count as 100% pure city boy anymore, given that you've spent years deployed near tiny villages in the Near and Middle East."

"Ah, but see, I wasn't on my own then," Steve retorted before TJ could wonder if mentioning his time in the military had been a good idea. "No man alone and all that."

"Exactly. You wouldn't be alone even if I wasn't here: you're visiting an army buddy."

"Wouldn't I be? I mean, I haven't seen Clint in a while. He's one of them now, who knows if he'll stand by me if they come for me."

"This is starting to sound like a crap horror movie," TJ pointed out. "I regret everything."

"Aw, don't worry, I'll protect you," Steve said winningly.

"I thought I was the one supposed to protect you," TJ said. "And don't say that, it makes me sound like the love interest—and you know what happens to the love interest. All the more so since I'm, like, a gay love interest."

Steve gave him a look. TJ rolled his eyes.

So Steve's rant several months ago about representation in movies and other forms of media had spurred TJ into reading a bit more on that topic. So what.

"Fine," he conceded. "I won't ask you to drive me back. But at least agree that when it comes to entertainment, my plans are better."

He was referring to the Halloween party at The Dome, which he'd helped to organize as a way of getting back into the swing of things. As was becoming his habit he'd brought Anne, dressed up as the Morticia to his Gomez. He'd also invited Steve, even though he hadn't expected him to come. Steve had, though, wearing a getup that went right past the usual squareness to topple right into old-fashioned, complete with high-waisted wool trousers, linen shirt and suspenders. And instead of Sam, he'd brought Natasha.

"Back so soon?" TJ had asked, half-distracted by the little red devil horns on top of her head. He hadn't known the army gave out that much leave.

"They gave me a three day pass because they're sending me undercover in Russia over the holidays," she'd blithely replied, and simply smirked when TJ had given her a look, pretty certain that this was not information she was supposed to divulge. Unless she'd been bullshitting him, of course. Which she'd probably been.

He'd discarded the thought, though, especially once she'd dragged him and Anne onto the dance floor. TJ had been hesitant at first, unwilling to leave Steve alone at the bar, but when he'd glanced over Steve had only made an encouraging gesture, so he'd given in and let himself get lost in the music.

Anne had been the first to leave, and Steve had offered to escort her back home. When they'd said their goodbyes Steve had whispered to TJ that he'd be waiting for him at his flat—and, taking in Steve's darkened eyes and flushed cheeks, feeling Steve's hand run down his side in a barely-there caress, a gesture that might've looked accidental, TJ had realized that he wasn't the only one affected by the dance, even though Steve hadn't taken part in it.

He'd stayed with Natasha a bit longer but had soon felt the need to follow Steve. She'd smirked when he'd asked if she'd be okay, although he hadn't been able to determine whether she was amused by his obvious eagerness to join his boyfriend, or at the thought that she might not be able to manage on her own. Probably both.

In any case, he'd gone home, to Steve, who'd more or less pounced on him the second he'd walked through the door.

He smiled when he thought of it now, the curve of his lips only widening when a faint flush spread on Steve's cheeks.

"Maybe," Steve conceded. Even the tips of his ears were reddening. TJ would've teased him further, but then the car slowed down and Steve said: "I think this is it."

They'd just driven past a cluster of trees beyond which a meadow opened. Up ahead TJ could see a fork in the dirt road, the right branch leading to a pale yellow, two-story house in the distance. It wasn't as big as grandpa Hammond's farm—but then, few buildings deserving of the name 'farm' were or could be—and yet TJ found it just as intimidating to the foreign eye, if not more.

His apprehension only grew as Steve drove up to it and parked. TJ had to take a fortifying breath before he stepped out of the car and joined him beside the trunk.

"It's going to be okay," Steve reassured him, handing him his suitcase.

"You're just lucky I like you," TJ mumbled sullenly, following him to the porch.

"I really am," Steve said, because he didn't care that that wasn't something you said.

He rang the doorbell. After a few seconds, they could hear footsteps shuffling closer and the door opened, revealing a brown-haired woman in a loose printed shirt. A heavily pregnant woman.

"Hi. You're Laura, I presume," Steve said, all smiles.

"And you must be Steve," she returned with a smile of her own. "Hi." She reached out a hand for Steve to shake. "I'm very happy to meet you, Clint told me so much about you."

"Good things, I hope," Steve grinned.

Laura laughed. "Among others. But come on in," she added, stepping aside to let them in. That's when she turned her attention to TJ. "And this is—"

"My boyfriend, Thomas," Steve said. He glanced over to introduce him and so didn't see how Laura's expression faltered.

She definitely recognized TJ.

"I'm— It's a pleasure," she said, shaking his hand; but there was something stiff to it now, uncomfortable. TJ equated her pregnant stomach with the most recent news about him and came up with several reasons for the dread spreading through him. "I'm sorry," she went on, "when Clint told me Steve was bringing someone I didn't expect—"

TJ attempted a smile, started wondering how to assure her that he wouldn't be doing blow in her house in a way she might believe, but before he could speak there was a clatter down the stairs and a voice exclaimed: "Cap! You're here!"

This was probably Clint, a stocky man with dirty blond hair and a plaid shirt, who dragged Steve into a firm hug.

"Finally," he added when they parted.

"Better late than never?" Steve replied, accompanying his words with a flurry of gestures—sign language, TJ realized, and suddenly remembered that the army had left Clint almost entirely deaf.

"And you must be Thomas," Clint said, turning to him and clasping his hand without a second of hesitation.

After the way his wife had reacted, it caught TJ off-guard. "Yeah, hi," he said belatedly. "I'm sorry, I don't—" He waved his hand, and only realized a second too late that it might not only be difficult to understand as a gesture for sign language, but also be profoundly insulting.

"It's okay," Clint said. "I have hearing aids, and I'm good at reading lips. You're good." He clapped his hands together. "Let me show you to your room, okay?"

TJ gave a silent, relieved sigh. Steve heaved his backpack higher on his shoulder and said: "Lead the way."

Once again, he completely missed the look on Laura's face, whose eyes darted to TJ, something like panic flitting through them. For a second it looked like she was going to say something, but refrained.

TJ pretended he hadn't seen and hastily followed Steve and Clint up the stairs, only belatedly realizing that Clint had taken his suitcase with him.

Not one minute in, and he was already being a terrible guest. That was just great.

Clint led them to a small square room, where everything seemed to be made of wood: the floor, the walls, the chest of drawers, the two bedside tables and the chair in the corner. That, combined with the knitted quilt on top of the bed whose pattern nearly matched that of the curtains, gave the whole room a warm feel, cozy and timeless.

"Bathroom is at the end of the hall," Clint said once they'd put down their bags. "I'll let you get settled, I have to go fetch the kids from school."

"Okay," Steve said, and unzipped his bag to start transferring his clothes into one of the drawers. They'd only be staying for a few days, but he definitely felt welcome enough to make himself at home.

TJ sat on the bed and rubbed at his face with his hands. Shit, he thought. Shit.

"Hey." He raised his head and glanced over to see Steve looking at him in concern, a small pile of neatly folded t-shirts in hand. "You okay?"

"Why didn't Laura know—" TJ started, only to change track. "Why didn't you tell me there would be kids?"

Steve seemed to find his distress amusing. "Relax," he said, "they won't bite."

"That's not what I—" TJ stood up, turned to face Steve. "I can't be here."

"I had no idea the Midwest would defeat you that easily," Steve retorted, eyebrow quirked.

"I'm not joking! Do you think—" He realized that his voice was rising, that he might be heard, and walked over to close the door. When he spoke again, it was in a hiss. "Do you think Laura wants me here? Because let me be clear, she doesn't."

"Why wouldn't she?" Steve asked, face growing serious.

"Come on, Steve, it's not that difficult," TJ said, almost rolling his eyes. "You know what I am."

Steve frowned. "I can assure you neither Clint nor Laura have any problem with us being together."

This time TJ did roll his eyes. "I'm an addict, Steve," he snapped, "that's what I mean. I'm an addict, and a drunk, and two months ago the story broke that I OD-ed in my own nightclub. Do you think anyone in their right mind would want that kind of person anywhere near their children?"

"You're a recovering addict," Steve countered. "I'm sure Laura knows the difference."

TJ snorted. "Yeah, you didn't see the look on her face. Couldn't have been more awkward."

"TJ, she's opening her home to two men she doesn't know just on her husband's guarantee that they're good guys, she has all the rights to be nervous," Steve said reasonably.

"She thought she was opening her home to a vet with PTSD, not the country's topmost junkie."

"Hey," Steve said, clearly bothered by the name. He came closer and put a hand on TJ's arm, which TJ only realized now he'd wrapped around himself. "Where is this coming from? I don't get it, you're not— you're doing fine, you're in recovery—"

"Because for some reason you don't see me the way everyone else does, which is as the guy who wouldn't know sobriety if it kicked him in the balls." TJ looked down. "And I'm pretty sure that's the way Laura sees it too."

Steve pursed his lips, obviously disagreeing. All he said, though, was: "Well, if she does, she'll learn to see past that. I'm sure of it." He cupped TJ's cheek in his hand and smiled at him. "Especially if you just act like yourself. She'll have no choice but to like you then. Just like I didn't."

"Yeah, I still have no idea how come," TJ said, but he forced a small smile so it looked like a joke instead of the truth.

Steve saw right through it, but didn't point it out. Instead he gave TJ a kiss. TJ closed his eyes and focused on it, let the rest just fall away for a second. He let out a slow breath when Steve stepped back.

"Come on," Steve said. "Let's put your clothes away. Then we'll go back down, okay?"

TJ would have preferred to stay holed up in the room for the next five days, but he knew that that wasn't an option. He bit his lips. "Okay."

 

*

 

Dinner was a quiet affair, not quite tense, but subdued.

"It's nothing much," Laura said almost apologetically as she brought it to the table and started serving.

Steve reassured her with a smile. "It smells great," he said, and added: "Tastes great too," once he'd tucked in. TJ would've concurred, out of politeness if nothing else, but his throat was locked by the fear of saying the wrong thing. Instead he simply ate, and focused on finishing his plate without the effort it was taking him showing.

Around him the table was almost silent. Steve and Clint had struck up a conversation, to which Laura took part from time to time. The two kids were being discreet. Intimidated as they were by the presence of two strange men at the table, they only whispered to each other or their mother once or twice. As dinner went on though, the younger of the two, Lila, started looking at TJ for longer and longer spans of time. Once he caught her eye, only to have her hastily look down. He didn't glance over again.

All in all, it didn't bode well for how their stay would go.

Fortunately, the next day was better. Against his expectations TJ got a whole night of uninterrupted sleep and woke up in what felt more like a cocoon than a bed, tucked between the squishy mattress, the covers and Steve. It was so nice that he stayed right there until Steve woke up.

To TJ's further relief, Laura was already up and ready to take off to bring the kids to school when they came down. In the kitchen Clint was putting plates and cutlery away, but set the pan back onto the stove to fry eggs and bacon the second he saw them.

"So, what's the plan for today?" Steve asked while they ate.

"I need to go mend some fences here and there," Clint said, mouth full. "Could use some help."

Steve glanced at TJ, who shrugged and nodded. He didn't have any classes this morning and had a vested interest in staying out of Laura's hair and sight, so why not?

He saw 'why not' soon enough, as he stood on the porch and realized something he hadn't taken into account when he'd packed or agreed to go traipsing through the grass: it had rained during the night. The ground was soaked.

This is going to ruin my shoes, TJ thought in dismay. And my jeans. When Clint joined him on the porch he obviously realized the same thing, since he said: "Uh, you might want to change."

He didn't say it mockingly, but TJ still felt bad, ridiculous and inadequate.

"This is kind of all I brought?" Or owned, actually. Unless you counted the clothes he wore to the gym, but even those wouldn't appreciate a roll in the mud.

There was a short silence. "You don't have to help, Steve and I can—"

"No, no," he protested, because staying alone in the house, entirely useless and knowing it, sounded even worse. "It's okay, I can buy new shoes if I have to."

"Or I can try and see if we have a spare pair of boots," Clint said helpfully. "And I'm sure Steve has a pair of jeans you can borrow. You're about the same size and his will give you a greater ease of movement."

So TJ went to find Steve, and that's how he ended up in a plaid shirt—his own, thank you very much—, a pair of paint-splattered jeans held up by a tightly clinched belt and a pair of old, khaki rubber boots.

"All good?" Steve asked.

"Well, I don't know," TJ said, looking down at his attire. "I feel like a whole new man." He squinted up at the glare shining through the pale cloud cover, took his sunglasses out and donned them. "That's better, don't you think?" He gestured at himself with a twirl of his hand.

Clint guffawed. Clearly the contrast between his clothes and his designer glasses was doing its job.

"Does the new man know how to use a mallet?" Clint asked, holding one out to him.

TJ took it. "I'm sure it'll come to me," he said, weighing it in his hands. It gave him an idea. He pried his phone out of his pocket and gave it to Steve. "Eh, can you take a picture?"

Steve gave him a quizzical look.

"I have to give Doug my daily report, don't I?" TJ said. It had been his twin's condition for covering for him during the week and a half he'd be away.

He struck a pose, one hand on his hip, the mallet slung over his other shoulder, feet wide apart, chin raised provocatively high. Found my calling, he wrote as a caption.

He was struggling with the first wooden post, which refused to let itself be hammered down in anything close to an upright position, when he received an answer. Apparently Doug had almost spewed coffee all over one of their sponsors.

 

*

 

By the time lunch rolled around what little fun TJ had found in the novelty of farm work had long since worn off. He was aching all over, especially in the shoulders, and his hands were burning, his palms a mess of irritated skin and torn blisters.

"I'm sorry," Steve said as he carefully dabbed TJ's left palm with antiseptic. TJ made an effort not to hiss. "I should've realized."

"Hey, don't diss on my wounds," TJ protested with a teasing smile. "First blood. Somehow I feel like more of a man now."

"Oh, sure," Steve replied, now gently pressing a cotton pad to the spot he'd disinfected before wrapping some gauze around it and fastening it with a little bit of tape. His gestures were slow and sure. He'd probably done them a lot, TJ realized, and in much worse conditions. "You're a real warrior now."

"Soon I'll raise an army and no man will be able to stop me." Steve looked up. "Don't worry, you'll get to be one of my first, most trusted generals."

"I'd be honored," Steve said, thick with sarcasm. He belied it all right afterwards by brushing his lips against the bandage he'd just applied and against TJ's other, less hurt palm, and how was TJ supposed to react to that? Steve always did things like that, spontaneous and somehow never ridiculous, like it was just what people did, like it didn't make TJ all wobbly inside, tender and vulnerable.

"Better?" Steve asked. Given the curve at the corner of his mouth, the asshole knew perfectly what he was doing.

"Yeah," TJ breathed, and thankfully the moment was broken by Clint poking his head through the bathroom door saying lunch was ready.

 

*

 

He remained quiet during lunch, listening to Clint and Steve telling Laura what they'd achieved that morning and what remained to be done, which segued into a discussion first over who was going to do what and when, then about what their plans were for the farm in the medium and long term and what they had to get started on now in order to achieve them. It sounded like strategizing a military campaign, like Mom and Dad and Doug figuring out the timeline for a reform, a bill, an election. Yet the implications were on such a small scale in comparison, a domestic, day-to-day scale, that TJ felt more amused and admiring of Laura's obvious organization skills than left out and inadequate—the way he usually did.

In the end it was decided that Clint and Steve would finish the portion of the fence they'd started on before lunch but hadn't had the time to finish, then run some errands. TJ for his part had to be online at half past two for his class; but most of all he needed to take a break and to nurse his hands. However, he offered to help Laura with the dishes first, as an attempt to make a better second impression.

She glanced down at his hands, but didn't refuse. "I'll wash," she said.

They worked in silence. It was awkward. TJ couldn't fathom why his mom liked it so much.

Feeling a bit desperate, he looked for a topic of conversation. "Do you play?"

"Pardon?" Laura asked, glancing at him.

"Do you play music? There's a piano in your living-room, I've noticed." It was an old upright, made of pale wood, half-hidden under a clutter of papers and toys, but still easily recognizable to anyone paying attention.

"I used to, when I was younger," Laura replied, scrubbing at a pan. "A teenager, really. I keep telling myself I'll get back to it, that's why we're keeping it, but…" She shrugged. TJ nodded in understanding: what he'd heard of her and Clint's to-do list didn't leave much room for a personal hobbies, and that had been without mentioning the kids, or the baby they had on the way. "Do you?"

TJ blinked. He'd gotten carried away by his thoughts. "Do I what?"

"Play."

"Oh, yeah. Yes," he said. He wasn't surprised she didn't know: after all, it wasn't the first thing people usually heard about him. "I stopped for a while but— Yes."

Laura smiled at him, less stiffly than before. Once they were done with the dishes, he risked asking: "I have to study for a bit, but once I'm done, would you mind if I—" He gestured at the instrument. "I try to play a little bit every day."

"Oh, yes, of course," she said. "Feel free. It might be a bit out of tune though—and a world away from the instruments you're used to play on, I'm sure."

"It's okay, it's great," TJ reassured her, wondering why she sounded so apologetic: having a piano to train on was already a lot more than he'd expected.

She smiled hesitantly back, and he retreated upstairs for his class.

The connection was spotty but present, and worked well enough for him to finish what he had to. When he came back downstairs afterwards—and after an illicit cigarette smoked through the open bedroom window to help him relax—Laura had disappeared and he found the piano rid of the mess that had been covering it. A tour of the rooms he felt safe to enter showed him that he was alone, and therefore unable to thank his hostess just yet. Lips pursed, he returned to the living-room and sat down in front of the ivory keys.

He started off with some scales to get a feel of the instrument—and yes, indeed, it could've done with some tuning, but it wasn't awful either. He went through a series of exercises to stretch his hands, who were still stiff and achy from the morning, then started on one of the pieces he knew by heart, working his way up from simple to more difficult ones, planning on finishing with the one he'd play to open the December charity concert.

He didn't want to do it. He didn't want to end up in the spotlight, that wasn't what the concert was supposed to be about. All he wanted was to be the instigator, maybe, to help. But Dad had insisted, and then Mom had concurred, and in the end he'd given in, on the condition that he wouldn't do anything long or spectacular, just give the public an appetizer for the actual performances to follow.

He might or might not have kept that condition quiet, made it a private decision. Up until now his dad didn't seem to have realized it, even after having been presented with the first version of the program.

TJ played the piece twice, frowning when he tripped up two thirds in both times. If only he'd brought the scores with him, he could've checked and found what he was doing wrong. Instead he had to give up, and segued into a more familiar sonata, letting himself get lost among well-known notes, a comfort in such an unfamiliar environment. He might not be entirely welcome here, but right here, at this piano, he was.

Once the last note had rung out he leaned back for a break. Idly, he wondered if Laura might have some scores he could use. Trying new pieces was always a good exercise.

He almost jumped when, a second after he'd thought of her, he noticed her presence in the living-room doorway.

"You play beautifully," she said. Her smile was warm.

"I didn't always," TJ said. His dad had been the one to insist he learn—and was still insisting now that he keep up with it. He usually explained it by saying that if Bud Hammond knew one thing, it was not to let talent go to waste. Sometimes though, TJ couldn't help but wonder if there hadn't been something else underneath, a hidden interest. After all, there was something inherently likable, laudable even, about the Governor or President's kid being a gifted musician. He'd been paraded in front of guests long enough and often enough to know that, intimately so.

Now he was grateful for it: at least he had that going for him, if nothing else.

"How long have you been playing?" Laura asked, coming closer.

"Since I was six, thereabout. Maybe younger." If he was being honest, he couldn't remember a time when his days hadn't been punctuated by an afternoon training session. "You?"

"I had a teacher from age ten to seventeen. Since then…" She shrugged, but TJ could see something in her eyes as she looked down at the keys, brushed her fingers against their surface; temptation, maybe, yearning.

"Do you know any four-hands pieces?" he asked, testing the ground.

"I learned a couple, back in the day," Laura replied. "But I wouldn't be able to get any of them right anymore."

"Maybe I can help you remember. It might be fun." He scooted aside so she could sit beside him on the bench. She bit her lips in hesitation, but finally gave in.

She sat down, and only then did TJ really realize how big her belly was. It barely fit against the piano. TJ almost offered to push the bench back a bit. He wondered when she was due.

"Okay," he said, "let's see."

He led her through one exercise, then another, then another, and soon he was playing a simple, slow piece, letting her try and follow, reacquaint herself with the keys. He barely had to guide her or to correct the placement of her hands before the melody was flowing, with nary a hiccup. By the third one Laura was laughing, and TJ grinning.

"See? You still got it."

"I can't say it's like riding a bike, though," Laura said. She let her hands fall back onto her laps and sighed through a small smile. "I really should get back to it for real."

"I can help with that while I'm here," TJ said. "I promise the fare is cheap."

"Oh yeah? How much?"

"Food and sleep, basically." They shared another laugh, and with it TJ felt a bit more of his unease dissolve.

"We'll see," Laura said. "In the meantime, I have to go pick up the kids from school. Do you want to come?"

Had he been anyone else, TJ would've said yes. But he wasn't, and going into town to wait in front of some school gates with a lot of parents, several not much older than he was, was taking the risk of being recognized. He didn't want that, neither for him, nor for Laura, and even less for the kids.

"I think I'll hold the fort," he said. "Besides, I have some readings to do." He didn't only mean for class: he might not be a politician, nor part of his mother's campaign, but as a Hammond he had to keep up with what was happening and, most of all, with what people were saying about his mom. Part of him knew he shouldn't, should treat this as the full holiday Steve meant for it to be, but he couldn't, not entirely. He was anxious, terrified still at the thought that he might've cost his mother her chance.

Her opponent was a dick barely deserving of the name of Democrat. It would be terrible, if TJ was the thing that helped him win.

 

*

 

On the second day of their visit, TJ went back out with Clint and Steve. This time the aim was to plow a couple of fields to let the earth breathe over the winter. TJ had Clint take a picture of him, again in his backwater hick garb plus sunglasses, sitting at the wheel of his tractor.

Fortunately, the picture did not show how much he'd struggled to simply climb into the thing. It was much higher than he would've expected, the rear wheels muddy and enormous.

Call me Mad Max, he sent with the picture. Doug would never admit it, but he had a weird obsession for these movies.

The day after that dawned bright and blue. After TJ's morning class, he and Steve went for a long walk. Steve had suggested it, and TJ had been a bit apprehensive at first: there was something about wide open spaces, about the quiet, that easily got to him, made him anxious, made him feel like he couldn't breathe, ironically enough. This time however it wasn't too bad. He didn't even need to reach for the cigarette pack he'd brought; he had Steve at his side, could hold his hand as an anchor, could drag him closer for a kiss whenever he felt the trees and fields close in on him. He wouldn't have been able to do that had they been anywhere else.

Steve enjoyed it, that much was obvious. He was enjoying the walk, too, and walking beside him TJ could almost see what he saw and understand: the land surrounding the farm was pretty. It rose and sank in an undulating series of wide fields and small woods interspersed with brooks. Given the time of the year it was clad entirely in tawny colors, gold and orange and brown. TJ took a picture of the sunlight filtering through the last yellow leaves of an elm tree and reflecting on a small stream, knowing that Doug had probably been in meetings since before sunrise.

Sucks to be u, he sent, and ignored the frankly vulgar emoji Doug sent in reply. He retaliated later, when they returned to Clint's house right on time for Laura to take them into account when she prepared some hot chocolate for the kids. The drink came in a huge mug filled to the brim. Suck on that & on ur 5$ Starbucks coffee, was the accompanying comment.

Anne was the one to reply: We're never getting you back, are we?

On Friday afternoon, Clint went to the VA, agreeing with Laura that he'd pick up the kids from school on the way back. Steve went with him, leaving TJ a bit bereft. He'd done most of his readings for class and, given that he'd already had a run on the piano in the morning, he found himself following Laura around like a duckling, trying to make himself useful by helping her with her chores.

"I could get used to this," she said once they were done hanging the laundry outside. TJ had done the most of it and had subsequently been slapped in the face by the sheets at lot more.

The weather was quite windy.

After that they took a small break, Laura preparing some tea.

"I know it's nothing like what you're probably used to," she said while she poured. "This is just good old Lipton."

"You keep saying that," TJ said, because after a few days he'd noticed.

Laura twitched a smile. "Well, it's the truth, isn't it? I mean, you're from DC, you've lived in the White House—I love our home, but I'm well aware that it's nothing fancy."

She looked around with a slightly pained look. TJ did the same, having a hard time seeing what she did. But he was starting to suspect that this was what had been bothering her from the start, a lot more than TJ's past screw-ups.

"Well, I for one find it great," he said. "Besides, the White House? Totally overrated. And very much not worth the trouble." He smiled wryly and went on before she could ask what he meant: "This is all I need: some tea and a nice couch. Some quiet. I'm really grateful you're letting me stay."

"You're welcome," Laura smiled. "We love having you here." She hesitated for a second, then added: "Clint's been wanting for Steve to come for a visit for years. I'm glad it finally happened."

"Doesn't have much to do with me," TJ said.

"Doesn't it?" She gave him a knowing look and suddenly TJ knew that she was perfectly aware of what had recently happened, why TJ might want to get away from DC for a little while. And wasn't it fortuitous that Steve had finally decided to take Clint up on his offer all of a sudden? He tilted his head in concession. "In any case, it's good for Clint. I think it's the first time I've seen him go to the VA without putting up a fight."

"Why, does he usually?"

Laura shrugged. "We run a farm. There's always a thousand things to be done, it's easy to find an excuse, say that he's too busy this week, that he'll go next time—only he doesn't. He's one of those," she added with a quirk of her mouth, "finds it easier to just ignore everything, or drink it away on a hard day—and once it's buried deep enough that he can pretend it's not there, well. What he doesn't know can't hurt him, right?"

"Right," TJ said. "Steve's a bit like that, too."

"He looks good, though."

"He's got a good support network in DC, with the VA and all."

"He has you too." Her smile widened when TJ shifted uncomfortably. "It's good that he has people from that time, like Clint or Nat, or friends with shared experience, like the people at the VA," she said. "But it's also good for him to know people who aren't linked to the military at all."

"It's not like we have 0% shared life experience either," TJ said with an oblique look. He hoped he wouldn't have to spell it out to her.

From the silence that followed, he didn't.

"You know," Laura said after a while, looking down at her cup, "I used to have this friend. I mean, we're still friends, we still call each other and write from time to time, she just doesn't live her anymore. She was my best friend at school, and I remember—when you came out."

Oh, TJ thought. He took a sip of tea to hide any reaction he might have.

"She cried a lot, more or less every time we started to talk about it, yet at the same time it seemed like it was the only thing she wanted or could talk about. At first I though that she was heartbroken—you know, that she'd had a crush on you and was devastated by you being gay."

"I'm more of a bisexual, actually," TJ said. Laura looked at him, eyebrows faintly raised. "I know," he went on. "It's just, not everything is clean cut, black and white—it's a mess, and confusing, especially when you're a freaking teenager. And by the time I'd figured things out for myself, the media already had me labeled as the most flaming faggot ever, so…" He shrugged. "I'm not exactly eager to try and correct them even now. I don't need people to start accusing me of trying to tip-toe back into the closet, or crazy religious sadists to start raving that, look, it can be cured, you just need time and effort and to be honest with yourself." He sighed. "Plus, I'm still gay. Very gay—exhibit A: Steve." They exchanged an amused, knowing grin. "But sorry, I've interrupted you."

"Right," Laura said, picking up where she'd left off. "Well, going from the information we had at the time, I thought she was sad because you being gay meant she'd never have a chance. It… wasn't that, though." She took a breath. "It took her weeks—months, maybe—to correct me and to tell me that, well. Her reaction didn't stem from heartbreak as much as from a feeling of kinship." She bit her lips. "I'm ashamed to say, I didn't react well. It could've been worse, but it definitely could've been better too."

"Is that why she isn't your best friend anymore?" TJ asked cautiously.

"On her side, maybe," Laura replied. "But mostly I think it was just the work of time. We did stay friends back then. After a while, I realized that my reaction was due to the fact that I was terrified. We were both terrified, me for her and her for herself, but mostly for you. Once we managed to talk about it without me… leaving or blocking the conversation, she told me she kept expecting to hear that someone had tried something, that one of your classmates or one of the crazies bellowing at the gates of the White House or of your school had managed to sneak in and—" She sighed again.

A short silence followed.

"It never came to that," TJ said. His lips felt bloodless and numb. It hadn't been a possibility: Dad hadn't wanted to take any risk, and so from that moment on TJ had had a full security detail, agents shadowing him at all times of the day for as long as the hype lasted, and even after that.

It had been awful. Try focusing on your classes with two gorillas hovering nearby, one at the back of the room and the other at the entrance. Try keeping up the few friendships you'd been able to build, or the faintest illusion of normalcy, when two hulking masses always separated you from the rest. TJ had spent the last few months of that school year terrified of being called into the principal's office, of being told that this was too much, too distracting, too bothersome, and that TJ should leave, look for another establishment that would have him. He'd been terrified of that being nothing but a poor excuse badly hiding the real reason, that is to say that the school couldn't and wouldn't have an openly gay boy amongst its students, even if he was the President's son—or maybe especially because he was the President's son.

It hadn't come to that. The principal had expressed her support, had ensured no paparazzi ever made it onto school grounds, had let no hint of harassment pass without warning or punishment. The expulsion had come later, the following year, the third time he'd been caught miles away from sober on campus.

So no, TJ hadn't ever been physically assaulted. There had been looks, though, words, things said and written: those couldn't be stopped at the door. He'd lost almost all of his friends that year—or simply had had his eyes opened when it came to the reason why they were sticking around.

Too bad that the only ones that had still been willing to talk to him in the end had been the very ones all to eager to take his money in exchange for a couple of hours of blissful forgetfulness.

Laura was looking at him with worry and TJ made himself smile, shrug. It's in the past. She only returned the expression with hesitation, before she went on:

"Over time she grew angry—at the way they treated you, the way they talked about you, and when we heard the first speculations about a correlation between your orientation and your drug consumption she was incensed." She paused. "She lives in New York now, with her wife. I know that she'd say that it's that anger that got her where she is now. Anger on your behalf, on hers, on behalf of all the people who've been treated wrong because of things they had no control over."

"I'm glad she's happy," TJ said, feeling a stab of envy. He could almost picture it, her life: a nice flat in the Big Apple, a city that was busy but far away from the intricacies of DC; a good job; a companion to wake up to in the morning. God, if only things could be so simple for him, so good.

"She is," Laura said, preventing him from toppling right over into a yearning fantasy where he could have that, with Steve. "And she still gets pissed over all this if you start her on it. I had her on the phone the other day, it wasn't long after the news about your— about last year had come out. You wouldn't believe the things she said."

"Yeah?" TJ said. He didn't quite know what to make of that. Steve was one thing, but the thought of people he didn't know, whose existence he wasn't even aware of, caring about him, being angry on his behalf instead of at him… He knew they existed, in a distant way, and sometimes he remembered them, or tried to, as a comfort. But the crowd of haters was so much louder, so much more ready to encroach on his personal space and life, that he had a hard time hearing or seeing anything else. "I guess you can tell her that I'm okay, then." He looked down at the remnants of his tea. "I mean, it hasn't been easy, but…" He shrugged. "Plus, being here right now, it's a nice break. It's helping a lot." More than he would've imagined, given his past experiences with the countryside.

Laura gave him the brightest smile she'd ever worn in his presence. "I'm glad." After a pause, she added: "You can stay longer, if you want. Clint won't mind, and the kids are warming up to you."

She'd probably noticed, like he had, how much staring Lila had been doing.

"I can't," TJ said, half regretful. "I have to go back to DC."

"Work?"

TJ laughed softly. "Not even."

"What do you do, actually? You never said."

"Because there's nothing to say," TJ replied wryly. "I mean, there is the club, you've heard about it." Laura nodded. "But it's not like it can't run itself without me. And I have my classes. That's about it."

He didn't mention his therapy, or his recovery, even though he was perfectly aware that, to his mom at least, that was his full-time job: stay sober, and get better.

"Don't you work for your mother? I've heard about that speech you held, in— I don't remember where it was."

"You have me confused with my brother. I mean, I've done a couple events here and there, with my Nana, but that's nothing. We've all realized a long time ago that I'm not one for politics."

Laura's brow furrowed faintly. "You're taking classes, though."

"Yup," TJ said, "trying to finally get my degree."

"In what?"

"Leadership and Management Studies," he drawled, and didn't specify he'd mostly chosen it because he could transfer the most credits that way, and it was one of the only NYU degrees with a majority of courses online.

"And do you know what you will do afterwards, once you have it?"

TJ almost snorted: Laura spoke like it was obvious that he would succeed, like it wasn't the third time he was attempting college. He didn't share her faith. "I don't know," he replied, but agreed to play along and pretend he would end up with a degree. It didn't brighten his prospects much. "I mean, I can't be sure anyone will want to hire me. I'm T. J. Hammond." He pressed his lips together. "It's attention and trouble they don't want, especially for someone who can't be trusted."

I'm a joke, was what he meant to say, but couldn't. He could feel the panic creeping in: he didn't like to think about the future, even less talk about it. It always made him feel caged, because if he stopped and thought about it, he realized all over again that there was no way out, no way up, or that if there was, it was over an uneven path, a narrow edge full of pitfalls between two precipices. He had little faith that he would reach the other side without failing, falling. It wasn't being pessimistic: just realistic. He knew himself.

"Well, if no one will hire you, then maybe you can do your own thing," Laura said, "create your own business."

"You need investors for that," TJ pointed out.

"But you got some for your club, surely—"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure they won't go for another loan," TJ said, putting the cup back onto the coffee table with a rattle. His hands were trembling. He'd started paying Doug back, but there was just no way he'd ask again. As for his mom and dad—or, God forbid, a bank… Yeah, it was better not to hope.

"Do you like it at least?" Laura asked softly. "Your classes, and working at the club."

TJ bit his lips and thought about it, hands twisting on his lap. "I like helping plan things, when they go well," he finally said. "My classes can be boring, but when I apply what I learn and things work better for it, it's nice. And there's this concert I've been planning with Dad, for a charity in December…" He shrugged. "I guess I like that, calling people, figuring out a schedule, talking to musicians about what they're doing, what they'd like to do—the club doesn't offer much opportunity for that. I mean, it could, if my colleagues were willing. But they aren't."

"What do you mean?"

TJ glanced at her uncertainly, but she seemed to be genuinely interested. And T. J. Hammond would never turn down an opportunity to vent in front of a neutral party.

"Well, I have some ideas, about things we could do or experiment with, among others to try and expand our clientele—attract people from different horizons. It's nothing too crazy either: things like theme nights, or investing more in the restaurant, or hiring DJs who aren't too well-known. It would make the club multipurpose, a place for newcomers on the scene to have a chance to prove themselves—it'd be great for us to be known for discovering new talents." He sighed. "But they don't want that. It's too risky, they say. Maybe several years down the road, once our finances have stabilized, once we're well-established. But if they aren't daring now, I'm pretty sure they won't be later on either. Why change a winning recipe, or something like that." He shrugged, frustrated.

"So, that brings us back to the idea of doing your own thing. Open your own club where you can have all the theme nights you want." Laura met his eye and smiled.

"That's a start. Something to think about."

TJ stared at her for a second. It was just a statement, and the look on her face made it clear she wasn't going to push. He breathed out, tried to calm down. "Yeah," he said belatedly, "I guess it is."

 

*

 

"Did you have a nice time with Laura?" Steve asked that evening as they went to bed.

"Did you have a nice time at the VA?" TJ countered.

Steve gave him a wry smile. He knew TJ was deflecting. "I prefer Sam's style of counseling," he said gamely.

"I thought you weren't in his group."

"I'm not. But I've caught the tail end of a session once or twice. If I'm being honest, the only reason I don't go is because I know he's an even better friend than counselor." He turned to his side and propped himself on an elbow. "But what about you?"

Because of course, he wouldn't let the matter drop.

"It was good," TJ said.

"Yeah?" Steve prompted, hand coming to rest on TJ's belly.

"Yeah. We talked. It was thought-provoking."

"How so?" But if Steve was expecting an answer, he was going the wrong way: he'd started nuzzling at TJ's throat, derailing TJ's thoughts entirely. When no answer came, he stopped and straightened up.

TJ blinked up at him. "I think I need to think about it first, by myself," he said.

Steve checked his eyes, then let out a small sigh. "Okay."

"For real, I'll let you know when I know."

"Promise?" Steve asked with his crooked smile.

"Promise," TJ confirmed, and drew him down to seal it with a kiss.

He didn't mean to start anything, was just hoping for a little bit of slow kissing to help them slide towards sleep. But then Steve deepened it, turning and covering TJ's body with his own, his large hands running down TJ's side and trailing back up, under his t-shirt. TJ shivered and let out a strangled groan when Steve started kissing down his neck.

Steve, the asshole, laughed softly. The brush of his breath against the damp spot he'd left behind made TJ squirm. He wiggled away—as much as was possible, which is to say not a lot—to give Steve a look.

"What?" Steve asked.

"Don't start anything you can't see through, you tease," TJ warned.

"Who said anything about stopping?"

"Uh, the two impressionable kids down the hall that we don't want to traumatize?"

Steve's reaction was to drop a kiss on TJ's clavicle, another on his chest through TJ's t-shirt. "They went to bed more than two hours ago. I'm pretty sure they're asleep—and I know you can be quiet if needed be."

"I'm not asking Laura to clean our sheets in the morning," TJ said.

"Oh, believe me," Steve grinned, "my plan is not designed to make a mess." And if the direction of his kisses hadn't been enough to guess what he meant, his impish smile definitely was.

And to say, the first time they'd done this he'd been all nervous and unsure, needing TJ to guide him, tell him he was doing good, blushing the whole time. TJ had never asked, but he was pretty sure he was Steve's first male lover.

Steve, however, had been a fast learner, and with knowledge had come confidence. TJ wasn't complaining. Usually.

"I am not having sex under your friends' roof," he hissed.

"I don't think they'd mind," Steve said, pushing TJ's t-shirt up inch by inch. "Something tells me sex isn't an unknown factor to them."

And the way he said it, eyebrows raised… "Ugh, gross," TJ said. "I don't want to think about your friends having— They're parents!"

"So?"

"So they just— They don't! It's a rule, or if— if they do, you don't talk about it."

"I'm pretty sure they do," Steve said mercilessly. "Actually, I'm pretty sure that's how they became parents in the first place." He ducked down to drop a kiss on TJ's ribs, over his heart.

"Ugh," TJ repeated, but somehow he was laughing too. He rubbed his hands agains his face. "You're awful. I don't even know why I put up with you."

"Aw, but you love me."

"Yeah," TJ said, looking down as Steve looked up. Their eyes met, and the humor seeped out of the room. "Yeah, I do. I really do."

Steve smiled softly, cheeks flushing.

"Come here," TJ said, and Steve obliged, letting TJ tug him up until TJ could kiss him—because he did love him, the big lug, and right now he saw no point in hiding it.

Even if Steve was a filthy cheater who of course took advantage of the fact that he was now lying snugly between TJ's legs to rub down against him.

"Let me?" he asked when TJ groaned. "Please?"

He met TJ's gaze. TJ had to giggle. He couldn't help it, because only Steve. Only Steve would do that, look at you all pouty and earnest to ask you if he could suck your cock, please and thank you.

"Well, if you're asking that nicely," TJ said, cupping his cheek to drag him into another kiss. "Who am I to say no?"

Against his lips, Steve grinned.

 

*

 

They left on Sunday. Lila came out of her staring for long enough to give TJ a drawing, the result of the times she'd spent with Steve at the kitchen table between dinner and bed time. TJ praised it the best he could: it was cute, and the girl's obvious crush on him even more so.

He and Laura hugged, as well as her belly allowed. TJ still didn't know when she was due. They wished each other good luck and parted with smiles.

Steve was smiling too when they drove away. "So, did you have a good time?"

"Yeah," TJ said. "More than I expected." He bit his lips. "I'm kinda looking forward to sleeping in my own bed tonight, though. And getting some real coffee. And going to the movies. And, you know, having people around." Most of all he was missing the comfort and structuring familiarity of The Schedule; a week and a half without it was okay, but any more would lead to everything falling by the wayside, TJ was sure. He could feel it.

Steve briefly smirked, but didn't mock him. He wasn't made for the countryside anymore than TJ was, what with him being from Brooklyn and all.

Besides, TJ hadn't allowed for more than a blowjob the other night, so he was pretty sure that Steve had Plans for when they'd arrive home. He definitely had some ideas himself.

He tried to focus on that, to look forward to that, instead of feeling dread at the thought of being back in DC again, right at the heart of things. He hadn't cut himself off entirely from the news, but it had been easy to look away, to leave his phone behind when he went outside. The coverage was non-existent on most of the land surrounding the farm, anyways. Now it wouldn't be anymore.

On the bright side, Doug hadn't interrupted their trip with an emergency phone call, so at least things should be okay. TJ was just going to go back to his day-to-day activities. He thought of his cooking sessions with Anne, his appointments with Dr. Bennani, his brunches with Nana and his evenings alone with Steve. He clung to that.

It's going to be okay, he thought, trying to convince himself.

He breathed out when Steve reached over and took his hand, squeezed back. He closed his eyes.

It was going to be okay.

 

*

 

TBC

Chapter Text

TJ's return to DC went unnoticed by both his mom and dad. Doug had done his job, covering for him from beginning to end, and they were none the wiser about the whole trip.

The same could not be said about Nana. That much became clear on the very day following his and Steve's return. That morning, TJ was woken up by a text: Nana suggesting a morning outing.

"Wuzzat?" Steve asked, half-muffled by his pillow. By now he'd realized that a message on TJ's phone had a 50% chance of being a problem that would ruin their morning.

"Nothing," TJ said reassuringly as he typed a reply. "Just Nana asking for some company this morning. But unfortunately for her—" he went on, dropping the phone on his bedside table and turning towards his boyfriend. "—I have other, urgent matters to attend to."

"Oh," Steve said, starting to grin. He'd moved and was now lying on his back, one arm curled under his head: a mouthwatering display. "I'm urgent matters?"

"Seems pretty urgent to me," TJ replied, hand trailing down Steve's abs and going to curl around his half-hard cock. Steve's breath caught. TJ smirked.

He should've known that getting rid of his grandmother wouldn't be that easy, though. Barely one hour later, while they were still lazing around in bed and very reluctant to leave it, tired as they were after three days on the road, the doorbell rang.

With a sigh, TJ put on a pair of boxers and the first top he got his hands on—it turned out to be Steve's shirt, which he slid into without bothering to button it—, and went to open.

His grandmother stood on the landing.

"Nana?"

"Hi, sweetie," she said with that winning smile TJ knew from experience was not to be trusted.

"What're you doing here? I told you—"

"I know what you told me, you're busy," she said, waving a dismissive hand and pushing her way inside, forcing TJ to step back and let her through. "I'm here to see who you're busy with. Or have been busy with, you'll notice I left you plenty of time—and don't try and bullshit me about how one hour is a short span of time, I know what to expect of a man's stamina."

"Nana—" TJ said.

"What?" she asked innocently.

TJ glanced at his bedroom door, behind which Steve had the good sense of staying silent. "I don't—"

"I told you, don't try and bullshit me," Nana said with a knowing look. "I know your boy's here."

At TJ's half-confused, half-frowning look, she sighed and rummaged through her bag for her phone. "Here," she said after having swept a couple of times, brandishing it under TJ's nose. TJ's eyes almost crossed and he had to take a step back, snatching the phone to squint at the screen: it displayed the brief conversation that had occurred an hour ago.

"See that?" Nana said, jabbing her finger at her first message: Up for some people watching before brunch? "You know as well as I do that 'people watching' is code for ogling firefighters on their morning run and wondering whether faking a seizure to get them all over me is morally wrong or not. And I know that you enjoy that kind of show about as much as I do, if not more—and yet, what was your reply?"

"'Pass'?" TJ said, not needing to read it to remember.

"Yes." Nana shook her head. "Rookie mistake, kiddo. The only reason you'd pass on that would be if you already had something as good, if not better, already at hand."

"Or I could be busy with homework, or—" TJ started. Nana shut him up with a look.

"Don't even try," she said. "I know. Like I knew that you couldn't be busy with porn, because nothing replaces the real thing—and besides, it's not like those movies or pictures or whatever are going anywhere, so why not have the live show then the rest? So it's a real guy, only it's not some random boy toy, because no matter how many flaws you inherited from your father, I'm pretty confident rampant infidelity isn't one of them, thank God. Which only leaves one option."

Sometimes TJ remembered that his mom's political sense did come from somewhere, and it wasn't entirely from studies and experience.

"It doesn't explain why—" he tried to protest.

"Well, I've heard all about how the man's even prettier in person from Anne, and it's wrong of you to hold out on me like that. Plus, I'm not my daughter, I refuse to be kept out of the loop when both Anne and Doug have met him. So."

She walked straight to the bedroom door. For a second TJ was afraid that she'd unceremoniously fling it open, but she just rapped her knuckles against it.

"Now come on, come out, sweetie," she said. "I know you've been listening."

Several seconds passed, then there was a click, and Steve stuck his head out. His cheeks were faintly pink. He threw a meek glance at TJ, who just shrugged: no can do. Interpreting that as approval, Steve shuffled out.

He'd put on a pair of jeans and one of his t-shirts, which stretched over his shoulders looking ready to burst.

"Nice," Nana said, looking him up and down with a shark-like grin. "Steve, right?"

"Ma'am," Steve replied, sticking out a hand.

"Oh, none of that," Nana tutted. "Give me a hug." Before Steve could blink she'd stepped forward with her arms open and squeezed him. Steve met TJ's eye over her shoulder as he briefly, loosely wrapped his arms around her in return. Sorry, TJ mouthed.

Fortunately, Nana soon pulled away—only to clasp Steve's upper arms, clearly looking for a pretext to grope his biceps. "Aren't you a nice upgrade," she said.

"Thanks?" Steve said with a puzzled frown. "I think?"

Nana laughed. "Okay, you'll do," she said, and turned to TJ. "Now, what's a woman got to do to get a drink around here?"

TJ briefly met Steve's gaze, still apologetic. "Well, accept it'll be coffee, to start with," he replied.

"Eh," Nana said with exaggerated disappointment. "Fine."

She sat down at the table, gesturing at Steve to join her, and proceeded to drill him about his workout schedule while TJ put the pot on. By the time he took a seat beside Steve, his boyfriend looked supremely uncomfortable and was all too happy when TJ steered the conversation towards what Nana had been up to during the week and a half they'd been gone instead. She retaliated by asking them whether they'd found anything interesting in the 'boondocks', and showed herself profoundly unimpressed with their answers.

The conversation carried them until the coffee was done and they'd had a cup. At which point Nana made some noises about growing hungry.

"I could fry some eggs," Steve suggested.

"Except my fridge is empty," TJ pointed out. He'd made sure it was before he'd left for Iowa, so that he wouldn't come back to find some mutant creature growing in his fridge, and he hadn't had the motivation to do groceries last evening.

Nana was grinning, eyebrows raised. "Oh, so you cook too?"

"Just the basics," Steve said, the modest idiot.

"Good, good," Nana said. "But it's okay, sweetie, I think I've taken up enough of your time. I'll leave you two alone now." She stood up, her eyes bouncing from TJ to Steve in a way that made it obvious what she thought they would—and should—be up to the second she was gone.

Steve, of course, flushed. TJ pretended he hadn't noticed and accompanied Nana to the door, holding her coat out to her so she could slip into it. She checked that she had all her things and gave him a pat on the cheek.

"I'll see you tomorrow for brunch," she said. With TJ's new fall class schedule, they'd moved them to Wednesdays. "And don't forget to come by on Saturday. Ellen and Joyce are coming by to repeat and they will not be happy if you bail."

With a last pointed look, she left.

"Who are Ellen and Joyce?" Steve asked once the door had closed behind her.

"Old friends of hers," TJ explained, feeling restless. He went to pour himself another cup of coffee. "They've decided to sing the closing number for our charity concert, and I'm accompanying them on the piano."

"That's nice," Steve said, nodding when TJ held up the coffee pot in question. "I gather everything is shaping up good?"

"Yeah, yeah," TJ said, and filled Steve's mug to the brim. "My dad's helping so, you know. It's kind of easy to make things work when you have former President Bud Hammond backing you up."

"I'm sure that's not all him," Steve said.

TJ only shrugged. It was obvious Steve didn't really realize how huge his dad's influence still was.

"What will your grandmother be singing?"

"What do you think?" TJ smirked. "Christmas songs—they're partial to Nat King Cole, so we still have to do some tweaking so it sounds good with three voices and a piano."

"I'd like to hear that," Steve said.

"Yeah?" TJ asked. "I could get you a ticket if you're not busy. It's on the 22." His dad had chosen the date. After all, what better way to keep an eye on TJ that night than by putting him on a stage for the whole evening? TJ ignored the thought in favor of another one, equally bothersome: "I have no idea what you've got planned for the holidays, actually."

"I'm free on the 22nd, I think."

"It's a Sunday," TJ pointed out. "In case you were wondering."

"Okay," Steve smiled. "And if you want to know, the last two years I spent Christmas at the retirement home. We like to try and do something for the residents who can't go home—or who don't have family to take them in."

TJ almost rolled his eyes: of course Steve would be doing something good.

"And what about Thanksgiving?" he asked.

"That one's spent at the shelter." That was how Steve called the house for LGBT+ youth he volunteered at. "We have a couple people coming in to talk to the kids—older generation people, who can tell them a bit about what it was like to be queer in the past, in the eighties or earlier."

"Isn't that kind of a downer?" TJ asked, thinking about what the eighties stood for in queer history. He'd learned all about it himself back when he'd come out. There had been no escaping it: HIV had been about the third word that had come up in the ugly debate that it had unleashed; like him being gay was a condemnation, like it automatically stamped him with the virus, and suddenly the revelation had grown beyond a simple matter of morals, turned into a debate about public health and safety, like he was going to infect the whole country.

You're going to die, a woman had shouted at him once, on the street. He'd been what, seventeen? He didn't even know, only remembered the snarl on her face, his own confusion, quickly followed by icy fear—not so much of her, but of what she said, of it maybe being true. You'll get AIDS, she'd said, and you're going to die. And you know what? Good riddance.

"It's okay, actually," Steve replied. "The holiday is all about being thankful, and there is a lot to be thankful for when it comes to how the situation has progressed. And we think it's important for the kids to know their history, to learn how far we've come, even though a lot remains to be done." He took a thoughtful sip of coffee. "Sometimes it's even sweet. I mean, some people have gone through terrible things, but they're still here. A lot of them have found love, friends and partners who support them through life. They all have beautiful stories to share—it's a great way to show that despite everything, it does get better."

"Have you done it too?" At Steve's quizzical look, TJ explained: "Talked to them. About, I don't know, being gay or bi in the army."

"Not really," Steve said.

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "There isn't much to tell. For me the realization that I was bisexual only came gradually. It didn't actually happen until after I'd left the army, so by then it didn't matter as much."

"You did have to come out to some of your former army buddies, though," TJ pointed out. "Like Clint and Natasha." Although they'd obviously taken it well. "And isn't it possible that you being in the army was one of the reasons why it took you so long to realize you could like men too?"

"No," Steve replied softly but without the shadow of a doubt. "At the time I was simply too preoccupied with— by other things, to think about it. That's all."

TJ almost asked what these 'other things' were, but refrained. Chances were, it had to do with missions. Either Steve would tell him it was classified, or he wouldn't want to talk about it. When it came to his army days, he rarely did.

"Looks like you're all set for the holidays, then," he said instead.

Steve gave him a long look, which resolved into a faint sigh and a small smile. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I am."

 

*

 

If TJ had been wondering whether he should've pressed the matter about what had preoccupied Steve that much when he was in the army, most of it was dispelled less than a week later—only to be replaced by other reasons for concern.

It was the middle of the night, the first one TJ was spending at Steve's place since the news of his overdose had leaked. TJ had been enjoying a rare deep sleep, so upon waking all he could feel was confusion, unable to understand what was happening. Then the mattress under him shifted, again, and he became aware of what had woken him up: Steve, stirring restlessly, almost struggling, his heavy breathing rising towards panic while he muttered unintelligibly.

With a frown TJ turned and scooted closer, trying to remember what Sam had told him, what he'd read, what had happened the last time Steve had had a nightmare. It wasn't much help: most of Sam's advice was theoretical and up until now TJ had only ever been confronted to such a situation after the fact, once Steve had snapped out of a bad dream and jumped up; one time he'd even rolled of the bed to land in a crouch. TJ had never come awake to find him still trapped by his subconscious.

He didn't know what to do. He didn't want to spook Steve. Sam had been adamant that doing so could be dangerous and TJ easily believed him. Even though he'd never seen Steve in action and worked out himself, he had little to no doubts that Steve could neutralize him, or even seriously hurt him, before he became aware of what he was doing.

In the end, he settled for calling his name—softly, at first, then louder. "Steve. Steve, hey," he said. "Wake up, Steve. It's okay, it's me, TJ—"

It didn't work, not even when TJ turned on the bedside lamp. The situation was becoming worrying. Steve seemed to have difficulty breathing even as his voice grew louder, loud enough for TJ to make out a name, "Bucky", along with a mess of prayers and denials. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he brushed a hand against Steve's shoulder, ready to try and shake him.

The effect was instantaneous. Steve's eyes snapped open and he seized up with a gasp. He briefly met TJ's gaze, then collapsed back on mattress.

"Hey, hey," TJ said soothingly, stomping down on the panic he could feel surging inside him at the look in Steve's eyes, the sheer horror. "It's okay, you're home," he went on. Now that Steve was awake, he was back in more familiar territory. "You're safe. You're in Washington DC, it's 2013. You're okay."

Less familiar was how Steve didn't seem to quite hear him, that terrible look still widening his eyes, slackening his mouth. His breathing wasn't calming down, stuck between choking and sobbing, trembling in a way TJ had never seen. He rubbed at Steve's shoulder, wishing he could just hug him but not daring to; he hushed him, kept up the litany and tried not to lose it himself.

Finally, Steve's eyes fluttered shut, and TJ risked: "You with me?"

Steve struggled with it for a second, his breath still too uneven for him to speak easily, and managed to reply: "Yeah." He gulped. "Yeah, I—" But his voice gave out on him.

Nearly a whole minute passed, then suddenly he blurted: "I need to—"

Before TJ could react he'd sat up, slid off the bed and disappeared into the bathroom. The door closed behind him. TJ heard the lock turn and, a second later, the sound of water running. He couldn't help but follow and press his ear against the door.

He didn't hear anything. No sound of throwing up, no sobs. Biting his lips, he raised a hand, almost knocked, almost asked if Steve was okay. But at the same time Steve locking himself up was a clear sign that he needed some space, or at least wanted it. In the end, he refrained and returned to the bed, sitting amongst the covers with his knees draw up, arms loosely wrapped around them, anxiously watching the door and worrying his lips between his teeth.

It felt like an eternity had passed before Steve finally came back out. He looked quieter, more composed, his breathing regular and his eyes dry. One would almost believe that he'd just got up to pee in the middle of the night, if not for how wrung out he looked. He avoided TJ's gaze.

"You okay?" TJ asked and hardly scooted backwards when Steve sat down on the bed, so he could stay close.

Steve laid back down, tugging the sheets over himself before he replied: "Yeah."

He didn't say anything, and TJ couldn't gauge his expression, given that he'd laid down on his side, facing away from him.

"Do you— Do you want to talk about it?"

One second passed, then two. "No."

Oh, TJ thought, and tried not to feel rejected, not to feel hurt. This isn't about you, he told himself. It was about Steve, about what Steve needed. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked, voice wavering.

"Can you—" Steve cleared his throat, but didn't look back at him. "Can you turn off the light? I need to try and get some more sleep, I have a lot of things to do tomorrow."

TJ stared at him, but after a moment he complied. Once darkness had returned to the room he laid back down in turn, turned towards Steve—but Steve was still turned away, his back like a wall. Somehow, TJ felt that trying to spoon him in comfort wouldn't be welcome. Yet he couldn't look away, couldn't stop wishing, hoping that Steve would say something else, give him a sign, tell him what he could do to make it easier. Steve didn't and TJ was left trying not to feel too hurt, worrying, wondering.

Steve had called 'Bucky', his childhood best friend's name. TJ didn't know much about him, only that Bucky had died young. Maybe it had happened in an accident; maybe Steve had been there; or maybe his brain was mixing it up with Steve's time in the army: there were lots of reasons why that name might come up in a nightmare, why remembering might be horrible, why Steve might not want to linger on it.

Still, TJ felt like he should be doing more. He felt like he was failing. Surely, if Steve opened up to him, TJ could make things better, right? Unless he couldn't, and Steve knew it already. After all, up until now, TJ hadn't done much to help him, had he? Apart from some nights where he had soothed him while he came down from another nightmare, where he had comforted him with a piano piece… Compared to all the problems TJ carried around, with his addiction and his depression and his family, compared to all the support Steve gave him, it was nothing. It was even a wonder that Steve hadn't had enough already, that he hadn't—

But no, no. TJ stopped that train of thought, that wasn't the point, that wasn't even real, he was being irrational. This was just a case of Steve being upset, of Steve not being ready to talk about something. This wasn't an example of all that might be wrong with their relationship, with TJ. One day, Steve would talk. When he was ready. He would.

TJ repeated that in his head, until he'd convinced himself, or at least until it felt like he had.

It took him a long time to fall back asleep.

 

*

 

Steve acted like nothing had happened the following morning, which didn't help assuage TJ's concerns. TJ didn't dare press the matter though. Instead he settled for making blueberry pancakes. It had been about the third thing he and Anne had learned how to make, because to hell with the rules stating that it was breakfast food.

As he and Steve ate he tried not to hover, to follow Steve's lead, and when they parted he gave him a smile like he truly believed everything was okay.

It didn't mean he was giving up just yet. He didn't like the thought that there were things Steve felt like he couldn't share with him. Over the next few days he kept checking in, sending him pictures of Mom's dogs while he walked them or of the front window of a bookshop that had given the first two Captain Monkey books a prominent place in its display, just letting him know TJ was thinking about him and that he was here, ready to listen if Steve wanted to.

Steve didn't take the bait, so in the end TJ dropped by for a surprise visit on Saturday, after his second rehearsal with Nana and her friends. Officially, he was just bringing Steve some of the muffins he and Anne had baked the day previous, because while even he found them delicious, there was just no way he or Anne would manage to eat them all on their own.

Steve was on the phone when he opened the door. His face brightened when he saw TJ, like it always did—and TJ could never admit to him how good it felt to have someone who was genuinely happy to see him every time. Steve gestured at his cell, implying that he had to finish the call, and disappeared into his studio while TJ came in and went to prepare some herbal tea. It was late in the afternoon: too late for coffee, in Steve's opinion.

He was half-way through a mug of rooibos that might or might not be one third honey and biting into one of his muffins when Steve returned. He had a faint frown on his face.

"What is it?" TJ asked once he'd swallowed.

Steve sat down beside him on the couch. "One of the guest speakers for our meet and greet at the shelter had to drop out. Their partner's just been in an accident."

"Ouch, that sucks," TJ said. "Are they going to be okay?"

"Yeah, it's nothing too serious from what I understand. But still, they had to bow out—last minute, too." He sighed, slumping into the couch. "It's like we're cursed this year. We already had less participants than usual, and now this. It's starting to look a bit dismal." His frown deepened. "Kids will be disappointed."

TJ licked his lips. "It for that LGBT place, right? Maybe I could—" he started to suggest—but then he actually thought about it. "Never mind."

"What?" Steve asked.

TJ pushed the box of muffins towards him and felt gratified when Steve automatically took one, without asking what flavor they were. "I thought maybe I could fill in, but…" He shrugged. "Yeah, that won't do."

"Why not? That'd be—" Steve said, eyebrows raised. He straightened. "That'd be great, actually. You would be doing us a solid—and you're much younger than the other participants, the kids probably know you already, it'll be easier for them to relate—"

"Yeah, exactly," TJ cut him off. "And that's exactly why it's not a good idea." He gave Steve a wry smile. "I'm pretty sure the people running the shelter don't want the kids relating to someone like me."

Steve furrowed his brow. "Once again, why not? It's not like you're going to tell them to do drugs or drink alcohol."

"Yeah, but like you said, they probably know me. And so they know I do drugs and drink. Or did. Whatever."

"But you don't anymore," Steve pointed out.

TJ really didn't want now to be the moment he had to explain this. "Steve—"

"And it'd be a good thing for them to see that, even with that thrown into the mix, you can overcome it too," Steve went on.

He had such an earnest, convinced expression on his face. TJ had no idea how to tell him that it wasn't that simple. "Just… drop it, okay?"

But Steve was nothing if not stubborn. "You've been sober for, what, a year and a half now?"

TJ clenched his teeth. Steve wanted to go there? Fine, they'd go there.

"Not quite eleven months," he said. When Steve looked confused he forced a smile entirely devoid of humor. "Yeah," he said with a nod. "I slipped up. Last December. Because that's what I do. That's what people like me do, we screw up, over, and over. It's like clockwork, really. Every six months for me."

Steve pressed his lips together. "You just said yourself that it had been almost eleven months," he said.

"Yeah, and I can't be sure yet whether me holding out for longer this time means anything, or if it's just an inconsistency in the pattern. Guess we'll see come Christmas." He shrugged again. "Anyway, point is, I'm not the kind of person you want around impressionable teens whose life is already unstable enough as it is. Ask your supervisor, I'm pretty sure they'll agree."

He should've expected that Steve would refuse to let it go. "Okay, I'll ask. But I'm pretty sure Aisha will agree with me and want you to come. So you've got to be serious about it."

TJ rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. But fine, I am," he said, convinced that it wouldn't matter.

Unfortunately, it did. Because it turned out Steve was right: Aisha's reply, when it came, was even bordering on enthusiastic.

"See?" Steve said with a grin.

"I do," TJ said faintly as he read the email. He had expected reluctance, not gratefulness, not Aisha talking like him coming was going to solve at least half of everyone's problems.

Steve saw the expression on his face and interpreted it as dismay. "Unless you— Look, Thomas," he said, "if you actually don't want to do it, it's okay. I did rush into it without taking the time for us to actually talk about it."

"No, no," TJ reassured him. "It's not that I don't want to. It's just… Well, there is the whole I'm-an-addict issue. And beyond that…" He trailed off again. "I mean, yeah, I'm gay—or bi, pan, whatever—but I'm not sure what they can get from talking to me. I had it pretty easy. These kids, they've been bullied, sometimes beaten up, they've been kicked out by their parents or had to be taken away for abuse whereas I— It just doesn't compare."

"You know violence isn't always physical," Steve said. "And Thomas, you went through a lot when you came out. And even before that."

"Maybe, but—" He paused. Looked at Steve's face. Frowned. "Wait. Wait wait wait—" He shook his head. "You went and dug through the reports and video archives from back then, didn't you?"

Steve looked awkward, but didn't deny it.

"Steve, I told you, don't do that. You should never read what the press says about you, or about the people you care about. It'll drive you crazy and it won't do any good."

"I had to know!" Steve exclaimed. "Obviously it had a big impact on you, and even now it's still a big deal—and now at least I know why you still have a hard time talking about it."

"What, like you have hard time talking about your time in the army?" TJ said.

"Yes!" Steve admitted, more easily than TJ had expected when he'd lashed out. "So if you don't feel like talking about it to a bunch of kids, I get it, okay? I'll just, I don't know, tell Aisha I forgot to mention the date and that you have a prior engagement."

"I have prior engagement," TJ said. "Mom's coming to DC for a family dinner and she hasn't seen me in person for months. If I bail she'll kill me."

"Oh," Steve let out. His disappointment was obvious, no matter how much he tried to cover it up.

"But I can come early," TJ hastily added, loathe to let him down. "For, like, the first half. It starts in the afternoon, right?"

"Are you sure?" Steve asked.

TJ smiled reassuringly. "I'm sure. I mean, if you really think it can be good for the kids."

"I do," Steve assured him at once. "I really do."

"Okay, then," TJ said, leaning back on the couch. "You can tell Aisha I'm in—as long as, you know, there's no advertising it. If word gets out the place will be overrun by paparazzi, half of them wailing it's nothing but a publicity stunt, and a transparent one at that."

And that's how T. J. Hammond found himself at the DC GLBT center on the 28th of November, nervously watching as kids trickled into the room that had been set up for the occasion. All the chairs had been put in a circle and a refreshment table stood against one of the walls, between two potted plants and a paperboard. TJ hovered in a corner, a glass of sparkling water in hand; there was, of course, no alcohol available, something he found himself grateful for. He wasn't sure that he would've been able to resist temptation otherwise, and to not gulp down a glass to take the edge off.

He was strongly reminded of the few NA meetings he'd ever gone to.

"Remind me why I'm doing this already?" he asked in a low voice.

"To pass down you wisdom to the younger generation," Steve replied, face straight.

"Why, thank you for making me sound like a fossil," TJ groused, although Steve was the one dressing like he was ancient, back in one of his damned checkered shirts. At least this one had a blue pattern, which matched his eyes. "You're lucky I like you."

Steve grinned. "Very."

TJ rolled his eyes and pretended not to notice when one of the girls did a double take at him as she sat down and elbowed her neighbor none too gently to gain her attention. Instead he took a sip of water, keeping his face carefully neutral. Internally, he was wincing: less than two seconds in and the cat was already out of the bag. Marvelous.

The session was led by two people from the shelter. Aisha, whom Steve had already mentioned, was clapping her hands to call the last stragglers to attention, making the countless bracelets covering her forearms clink in unison. Meanwhile Shirley, a plump and genial volunteer, was inviting the guests to sit down.

There were only two apart from TJ. Steve hadn't been kidding when he'd said they were having a hard time finding speakers this year. He'd been introduced to them already: one of them was Martha, who was over seventy and couldn't have been more different from Nana if she'd tried; the other, Robin, were in their forties. TJ felt quite young and useless in comparison, until he looked at the group from the shelter as they took their seats and was stricken by how young they were. Some couldn't possibly be more than fourteen.

It made him reevaluate what he could or needed to say. He had expected young people, sure, but not people so young that they probably had no conscious memory of the time he'd come out, or hadn't even been born back then.

Aisha finally managed to obtain silence and started to explain the purpose of the meeting, both for the guests and for the newcomer kids they'd welcomed during the year. Then came the introductions—first the kids giving their names, then Aisha saying a little something about the guests.

"—and I'm sure some of you have recognized our last participant already," she said when she reached TJ. She gave the group an encouraging glance.

"You're T. J. Hammond," the girl who'd noticed him earlier said, after several seconds of silence. She seemed to be one of the older ones. TJ already couldn't remember her name.

"Very good, Mara, good to know some of you keep up with the news," Shirley said. TJ for his part would have dubbed knowing his identity more as interest in gossip rather than in actual news, but well. To many people, there didn't seem to be a difference. "Thomas here has offered to come and we're very grateful that he was ready to devote some of his time to one of our meetings, despite his busy schedule." TJ gave a polite, practiced smile. "However, he asked for us to keep his participation on the downlow—which is why we didn't tell you beforehand and are asking you now not to take any pictures, or to text, or to tweet about this. So phones off, people, or at least put them away. Chop, chop."

She repeated the sound, snapping her fingers with a stern look until most of the teenagers had obeyed.

"Good! Now, if it's alright with everyone, Thomas will be speaking first, given he has other obligations for the evening, with his family."

When she glanced at him TJ shrugged, smile still in place. "It's just that when Elaine Barrish tells you to be at her house by 6 p.m., you are at her house by 6 p.m.," he said. As expected it made everyone smile in amusement; some even snickered. He tried to let it relax him and took a breath when Aisha gestured to cede him the floor and sat down.

"Okay, so," he started, sitting up in his chair and consciously not rubbing his hands on his thighs. "This is my first time doing this, so I actually have no idea of what I'm doing." Once again, he was reminded of past NA meetings. The audience was different, though, less benevolent but at the same time easier to win over. At his words, more chuckles came. "And I can't say I have a story as good as these guys probably do—" he went on, nodding at the other two guests. "—especially since you all know already the gist of it, I think…?"

He trailed off, waiting for a couple nods at least. Aisha looked around the circle to try and prompt one of the kids to speak up. One of the boys finally did—a slip of a thing, swimming in a huge plaid shirt with half his hair shorn off. "You're the first gay kid of a president," he said, then seemed to regret it when half the group looked at him.

"Well," TJ said, bringing the attention back to him. He knew that kind of shoulder hunch all too well. "I can't say that I'm the first gay kid of a president for sure—but I am the first for whom it became public knowledge."

"Does anyone remember when that happened?" Aisha asked. She was obviously trying to encourage a conversation more than a speech.

An awkward silence followed, until the girl sitting beside Mara raised an hesitant hand. "Towards the end of President Hammond's second term?"

"Correct," Aisha said approvingly. TJ exchanged a brief look with Steve, amused by his life having suddenly become a topic for questions eerily reminiscent of a school quiz. He turned back to Aisha almost at once, though, to nod when she glanced at him for confirmation.

"1998, to be precise," he said. "Not a good year for me."

Although if he was honest, all the years his dad had spent at the White House had been going from bad to worse for him. And unfortunately, that downwards spiral hadn't stopped with Bud Hammond's last presidency.

"I guess most of you know the story. That I decided to come out, first to my parents and then to the whole country."

He looked around the circle, saw several kids nodding. Martha and Robin, however, weren't.

"Yeah," TJ huffed when he met Robin's unimpressed gaze. He turned back to the kids. "Thing is, first thing you need to know when you talk about a public figure coming out—no matter if they're a president's kid or an actor or a congressman—" He briefly thought of Sean and pushed the image back. "There's always a difference between the story you get told and the way things really happened. Especially when politics are involved—and, with my dad being president, they definitely were." He bit his lips. "And I'd like to only tell you the official story—it's the best one by far, or at least the prettier one—but you can find it on the internet, and I guess it wouldn't be very useful to you, or help what we're trying to do here, so. What actually happened."

He looked around, took a fortifying breath.

"You all know I've kind of dabbled in… not so legal things, some substances—" He caught Mara's eye and suddenly realized beating around the bush would only make him sound stupid. "I'm a drug addict," he stated, plainly. "A recovering one, now—I hope—but an addict nonetheless. I've been one for a long time. And that didn't start with my coming out. So, in 1998, I'd been sent to a boarding school, in the hopes that a more controlled environment, away from DC, would help set me straight."

The pun wasn't intended, but it had the merit of making the kids snicker.

"Yeah, you can guess how well that worked out," he smirked. "Especially since it was an all-boys school, and private, which means expensive. And when the whole student body is made up of rich boys, you can be pretty sure at least one of them has a sure fire way of procuring himself whatever he wants, no matter his age, and dozens of classmates willing to experiment with him. That school was no exception, so no matter how much we were watched, there were parties. With, you know, booze, weed, the whole shebang."

He sent Aisha a worried look, hoping that mentioning that wasn't too terrible an idea. She wasn't glaring at him, so he felt safe to continue.

"Most of those parties were all-boys too, because having the girls from our sister school come over was next to impossible—and here I was, in the middle of all that, starting to figure myself out. I don't think I need to go on for you to guess where that went." He looked down at his hands, interlaced in his lap. "There was a picture," he went on, voice low, "sent to my dad, at the White House. No message, no sender, not even a demand for a ransom, nothing. It wasn't even anything sordid—just, you know, two kids. Kissing. Nothing scandalous about that. Except that they were both clearly underage, and even more clearly drunk. But that didn't matter, as it turned out. No, the only real scandalous part, apparently, was that they were both boys."

He met Shirley's gaze by chance and knew they were sharing the same thought: clearly some people had a weird sense of priorities.

"I still don't know who sent it or why, if that picture was sent to screw me over, as a threat, or as a warning—because if there was one picture, then chances where there were others, and God knew where they were, or where they were liable to end up. Not that it mattered to my parents. What they got from it was that the news that I liked boys was going to leak, sooner than later, so we needed to be prepared. We needed to 'preempt the strike', in order to keep a lid on the situation. And so…" He shrugged. "I came out."

A silence followed. Then the girl sitting on Mara's right said: "So you didn't actually come out—that's only the story. You were outed." She swallowed. "It really doesn't sound like you planned or wanted the rest to happen, either."

TJ attempted a smile but had to give up half-way. "I like to think that if I had given my parents a hard no, they would've backed off and found another way," he said. But he knew that at the time, young, frightened and confused as he had been, it hadn't felt like it was even a possibility. Even now, saying no to his mom or dad was next to impossible. Back then they'd been half-way through a plan before he'd even been told. And when he'd found out, no one had asked him to confirm or deny. That hadn't been the point. His being—apparently—gay had already been accepted, taken in stride, logged away as another fact to take into account when moving pieces on the board.

So no, he'd never actually come out to his parents, he realized now. The pictures had outed him to them. How strange, that it was the first time he was thinking of it like that. Somehow, the narrative his parents had superimposed on everything had become his. It wasn't that surprising: back then there had been no time, every second one second less on a ticking clock whose alarm was set at a point in time they couldn't identify for sure. At no point had they sat down with him, at no point had he been given an occasion to tell them out loud that yes, he was gay—or rather to break down and admit that he didn't know, that he wasn't sure, that it had only been his second time with a boy and he was pretty sure he still liked girls too. In all that turmoil, it had been so much easier to just go along with everything, cling to the story, say and do what people told him to, terrifying as it had been. It was going to happen anyway, he'd known; the awareness of it had been acute, more cutting than a blade, crushing for how powerless it made him feel. All he'd had left was acceptance. He was going to be stamped as gay: he might as well be.

So that's what had happened: T. J. Hammond was gay, and had come out in 1998, during the last year of his father's presidency.

Since then he hadn't had the occasion to tell his parents that he was actually bisexual. God knew what they made of his sexual practices, too; if he was being honest, TJ didn't want to know.

He looked around at the circle of kids and gave his smile another try. "You have to admit that the story they wrapped it all up in is prettier. For one, it makes me sound a lot braver." And self-assured, and self-aware, he didn't add.

"You were brave, for facing it all anyway," Steve said, arms crossed over his chest.

TJ pursed his lips. "Maybe. But I mean, I know why most of you are here," he told the kids. "I know what most of you have gone through and are still going through. For me, it wasn't like that. I had parents who supported me, in their own way. I didn't get bullied or anything; you don't bully the president's son, after all."

"That's 'cause bullies are cowards," Robin butted in, looking around to make sure people marked their words, "only attacking people they think are more vulnerable than they are, because they're smaller, or isolated, or unwilling to fight back."

Both Steve and Aisha nodded earnestly, with expressions so similar it was almost comical.

"Exactly," TJ said. "So there wasn't any of that. Just… you know, a lot of attention. A lot of stares and whispers at school, and in the rest of the country there was this huge outcry." He glanced at Aisha. "But I'm not sure that giving you the details of what the press or the Republicans had to say about it would be very useful. Most of it you've probably heard or seen already, in one form or another. It's not like their arguments really change."

"I remember reading things about the moral decay of America," Robin muttered.

"Yeah, something like that," TJ nodded. "Although that's partly because my coming out came on the heels of all those revelations about my father's infidelities. It was a boon to them."

"A boon they shouldn't have exploited," Martha suddenly claimed. "You were sixteen, for god's sake."

"Ah, but that doesn't count," TJ countered with a wry smile. "Not when your family is in the White House."

"And then they have the gall to say that their main concern is to protect the children," Robin said.

The three of them exchanged a knowing look, then TJ turned back to the rest of the room. "It got pretty bad," he admitted, "and given that I already had some other problems… Let's just say it didn't help making things better. But—and I guess that's the message we're all here to tell you—it passed. It wasn't easy, but it's over now. And I'm still here."

"And you're better now?"

He looked at the boy who'd spoken—around fifteen, with a dark scab at his temple and a nose clearly healing from having been broken—and wanted to tell him yes. He wanted to give him the infamous speech, say that 'it gets better'… only he was still having a hard time believing it himself.

"I'm getting there," he finally settled on. "But then, like I said, I have some issues, beside the whole gay thing—because me being gay is not an issue. Just like you being gay, or bi, or whatever, isn't. My problem's the whole addiction thing." He looked around. "Don't do drugs, kids. It's not worth it."

"Second that," Martha piped up, in an obvious been there, done that that had everyone stare at her uncertainly for several seconds.

Being the first to blink out of it, Aisha took back the lead, encouraging the kids to ask any question they might have. To TJ's surprise, they did. They wanted to know how his first press event—an interview—had gone (much better than the majority, because that journalist hadn't been overtly hostile), what was the dumbest question he'd been asked (it was hard to settle on only one), if the boy he'd been kissing in the picture had been his boyfriend (no, and he'd actually been transferred to another school at once by his parents). They wanted to know how he had felt, when things had started to quiet down, how his brother had reacted.

One of them asked what was the worst moment he could remember about that time. TJ had to think about that one, acutely aware of his audience and of the fact that there were things he probably shouldn't say, and settled for that time he'd made the mistake of watching an interview with a supporter of conversion therapy and done some research on it: for a second he'd believed what the woman had said, that it might work and that, if so, it would solve all of their problems, especially the matter of his dad's reputation pummeling when he still had so much to do in the time he had left in office. To compensate, Aisha asked him to recall a good thing, and he briefly talked about Justice Nash, who had come to talk to him on his mom's request—mostly because she wasn't sure how to do it herself.

Justice Nash had seen right through him, he'd since realized: she'd told him that it was okay to be confused and afraid; she'd known at once that he wasn't 100% sure about being gay, and yet hadn't criticized him for going along with everything.

"Hearing about her experience, it really helped," TJ concluded. "It's part of the reason why I wanted to come here today. I guess it's important to hear from people older than you that no matter how hard it is right now, you can and will survive it."

And then came the question he really should've expected: "Do you have a boyfriend?"

Most of the circle perked up, clearly more interested in that answer than in all the ones that had preceded. TJ understood: all kids were gossips and naive romantics at heart. And those kids in particular were lonely, for the most part, half worried that they would never find anyone, half convinced no-one would ever love them the way they were. They wanted the reassurance: after all, if even someone as fucked up as T. J. Hammond could find love, then they probably would too, right?

With that in mind, he bent forward conspiratorially and said: "Okay, so it's not official, as in the press doesn't know yet, so it's a secret, okay?" He waited until he'd gotten a few solemn nods. "But yes."

"How is he?" asked the kid with the half-shorn hair.

It was an effort not to glance at Steve. "He's kind," TJ replied, "caring. Understanding, and patient—you have to be, to put up with—" He gestured at himself. "—you know, everything." He couldn't give them too much detail, lest they start to suspect, and so he derailed everything by grinning and concluding: "He's also very, very hot."

Half the kids returned the grin or giggled. At least two of the boys seemed very interested and ready to ask how so. TJ looked at them all. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw that Steve was blushing while studiously looking down at his shoes, shoulders hunched like he was hoping not to be noticed. TJ's grin widened.

"Okay, and on that note," Aisha said, "I think it's time for us to take a small break."

The Q&A had indeed lasted a lot longer than TJ had been led to expect. It was getting close to the time at which he would have to leave.

He maneuvered so as to almost bump into Steve on his way to the refreshment table, giving them an excuse to exchange a couple of words, and for TJ to warn him about his imminent departure.

"Say hi to Anne and Doug and your Nana from me," Steve said.

"I will. And hey, speaking of Nana." He rummaged through the pockets of his jacket, and came up with three tickets for the charity concert he and his dad were organizing. "Here," he said, handing them over to Steve. "It's for you, three seats—I thought you might want to bring a couple of your oldie friends from the home. It might do them good to go out for the holidays, if they can."

Steve stared at the tickets, before his face bloomed into a huge smile. "Thank you," he said, touched.

TJ shuffled his feet, not sure it was warranted. It wasn't like it had cost him a thing. "It's just," he said, "I won't have much time, if any, in between making sure everything runs smoothly and my family, so… That way you won't be alone."

"That's great," Steve assured him. "Josie will love it, I'm sure."

At this point his gaze caught on something behind TJ, which was a good thing because if not TJ might have thrown all caution to the wind and gone for a kiss. Instead he turned around, only to see the girl who'd been sitting beside Mara approaching.

"Hey, Alicia," Steve said, all open and welcoming, like she wasn't interrupting.

"Hey," she said, but her eyes were straying towards TJ. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if maybe I could have an autograph? For a friend. They're a fan of yours, it would mean the world to them if you—"

"Of course," TJ said. He usually felt reluctant to give them, because he couldn't fathom why people would want an autograph from him, of all people. Today felt different though, so he took the piece of paper and pen she gave him and asked: "What's their name?"

"Ah, uh," Alicia hesitated. "It's a pseudonym? I know them from the internet."

TJ nodded sagely. "Let me guess: tumblr fandom?"

Alicia froze, eyes wide. Beside them Steve said: "You have a fandom?"

"Of course I do," TJ said with a disapproving glance. "But don't worry, they're nice." He started writing on the paper while Alicia stumbled over the spelling of her friend's online name.  "All they want for me is to gorge myself on chocolate pastries, spend my days wrapped up in warm blankets or being cuddled—and get regularly and thoroughly fucked by handsome celebrities."

Steve choked. Alicia was now red as a beet, only belatedly taking the signed flyer when TJ handed it back to her with a grin.

"Celebrities?" Steve asked.

"Yeah, the latest contender is Tom Hardy." TJ frowned. "Or is it Channing Tatum? It's hard to keep track. But at least that guy can dance."

"Isn't he married?"

"Do you think they care?" TJ asked. Then he smirked. "Besides, for half of them it's even better. One word: threesomes." He wiggled eyebrows. "Although to be honest, I preferred it when they shipped me with Prince T'Challa."

Steve's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "Prince T'Challa? The heir of Wakanda?"

"Yeah," TJ said. "He accompanied his father on an official visit last December, there was this gala—Mom hadn't resigned yet." Although her intentions had been an open secret by then. But fortunately they'd managed to tweak it so it didn't cost her the good opinion of the public: they'd made it sound like she wasn't hiding her purpose, but had decided to stay in as Secretary of State for as long as possible to help maintain stability and continuity in view of President Garcetti's untimely demise. See, she was just fulfilling her duty, out of respect and loyalty to him and to America.

TJ would've admired the beautiful narrative, had his mom not worked with Susan fucking Berg to spread it.

"We must've exchanged, what, three words?" he went on. "Doug was there, he was the one the Prince was actually talking to, I was just standing there looking pretty—but somehow Doug's the one who got cropped out of the picture."

Steve quirked an eyebrow. TJ shrugged.

"I have to say, it was quite flattering that they considered me boyfriend material for an African prince," he said.

"What about your boyfriend, though?" Steve asked, probably thinking he was being clever.

"I'm sure he'd understand."

"Oh, so he doesn't know? Are you hiding it from him?"

"It's just never come up," TJ said. "Mostly because he has nothing to worry about."

"He doesn't?"

"No." He looked back at Alicia, who was following the conversation with a slightly incredulous look on her face. "I'm not kidding when I say he's smoking. But," he added when his phone beeped, "unfortunately I can't stay to expand on that." He took his phone out of his pocket to silence the alarm and reached out a hand to Steve, to shake like they were near strangers. "Steve, nice meeting you."

"Thank you for coming," Steve replied stiffly, with a polite smile that reached nowhere near his eyes. He didn't like the deception, that much was clear.

TJ gave him a rueful smile, then went to say goodbye to the rest of the room.

 

*

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Over the next few weeks, TJ regretted that he hadn't found a way to spend more time with Steve, that he hadn't even tried to wiggle out of Thanksgiving dinner to spend at least one of the holidays with him. December came and quickly became extremely busy. He had exams for most of his classes and papers to hand in before break for the others; there were presents to buy and extra orders to put in for The Dome's various parties; the charity concert was looming close and TJ had to make sure that every detail was secure, every kink smoothed out. On the 14th his dad arrived from North Carolina and suddenly he was everywhere, taking TJ out to lunch or dinner more often than not; and then the performers started to trickle in too, which meant TJ had to make sure that they'd all been able to check in at their hotel, that their instruments had landed safely, that they were up-to-date on the schedule and would all be there for the couple group rehearsals they'd arranged in the days preceding the concert.

TJ, always half-way between the library and countless phone calls and a meeting with his dad or the technicians at the Kennedy Center, barely had room to breathe. On some days it felt like he barely had room to eat, and cut through the hunger by smoking a lot more than he should. Most of all he barely had room to think, and part of him loved that, loved being so busy that it took him out of his own head, loved seeing the whole event coming together and having such a key role in it, answering questions, giving instructions, checking on people. It reminded him of when he'd opened The Dome, made him feel confident, competent, like he could do this—and if he could do this, surely it meant that he could do more, that there was hope for him, didn't it?

But it also meant that he was almost never at home and therefore had next to no time for Steve. When they managed to get together on an evening he was so exhausted that he struggled to hold up his end of the conversation while forcing down some dinner, then collapsed straight into bed.

He apologized for that in the mornings, once he was better rested but already had to leave. Steve reassured him by pointing out that he was pretty busy too: he was planning some activities over the holidays with Aisha at the shelter, organizing Christmas Eve at the home; he had several signings to attend with Thor for the publication of the latest Captain Monkey book and he'd been roped into helping finalizing the details of a fundraiser that some of his colleagues from the VA would be holding after New Years.

"Things will quiet down once the concert is done and Christmas break's started," TJ promised—but he was wrong, it turned out; he had forgotten to take one major factor into account: his mom.

She'd been glad to find him doing well on Thanksgiving. She'd asked about his classes, had noticed he'd put on some more weight, had even had one or two questions about how the club was doing. She'd only talked about his therapy once, when they were alone. When he'd said it was going well, that he was doing well—or as well as could be expected—she'd seemed to believe him.

However, she hadn't forgotten what a delicate time of the year December was for him, not only because of Sean and of the mess that had followed, but also because of his screw-up last year. While she hadn't mentioned it, she'd obviously had it in mind when she'd suggested he spend the whole week surrounding Christmas at hers. Seeing how tired she was, remembering how frayed around the edges she'd looked after his suicide attempt and then six months later after his overdose, and being all too aware that she'd kept his screw-up from last year not only from Dad but also from Doug, TJ hadn't been able to say no.

It would be his Christmas present for her, he thought.

Plus, it wasn't shaping up to be too bad. From the moment he came by to drop off his bags on Sunday morning, it was clear that she and Doug had resolved to keep the talks about her campaign to a minimum, and he did enjoy doing festive family things: putting up decorations, baking cookies, playing silly tunes on the piano.

But something was missing. Or rather, someone.

It was like on the night of the concert, when the elation from the deafening applause saluting a flawless performance and the cheer of the afterparty had been dampened by that small, constant tugging at his stomach. People had come up to him in droves to congratulate him, performers and workers of the Kennedy Center alike had thanked him for a great organization, some already saying that they'd be willing to repeat the experience next year, if that was something he was planning. He should've been high on that, and on his family being here to witness it and be unreservedly proud of him for once, but instead all he'd been thinking was that he hadn't managed to see if Steve had been in the audience; surrounded by the selected guests invited by his mom and dad, by Nana and even Doug, he'd realized anew that he hadn't invited anyone, but that he should have: that Steve should've been there.

He kept thinking that the following day, and the day after that. He watched his mom and dad circle each other, watched Doug and Anne kiss under the mistletoe and tease each other while they all decorated the tree, watched Anne slap Doug's hand away from the cookie dough and couldn't help but imagine himself doing the same with Steve—although Steve would definitely be more disciplined than Doug in the kitchen, and their mistletoe kisses would never stay that PG.

His only relief came from the fact that he had Anne and Nana in his corner. On Monday afternoon, the 23rd, they both sent him on errands, with clear instructions to take all the time he needed, just so he could escape for a few hours and drop by Steve's flat. There he got to hear from Steve himself that he had indeed been at the concert, that he and both his oldie friends had really enjoyed it. They exchanged gifts, too, if only because TJ wasn't sure when else they'd have the occasion.

Steve told him to be careful when he handed over his present, a large flat rectangular parcel, yet it wasn't until he was halfway through opening it that TJ realized what it was: Steve had just given him his 2:48 painting.

"Steve," he protested at once, throat tight, "I can't—"

"I wanted to," Steve replied, soft but firm, making it obvious that nothing TJ could say would change his mind.

TJ looked down at it, carefully tugging the rest of the paper away. He still liked it, very much, although, he realized, in a less visceral way than when he'd first seen it. It felt less haggard, less lonely, somehow, and a lot more comforting. He already knew where he would hang it, too: in his living-room, on the wall he half-faced whenever he sat at his piano—right where he would see it, looking up from the keys on a sleepless night.

Still, accepting it didn't feel right. You're an artist, he thought. You should get paid for every single piece you create, shouldn't you? And suddenly he felt a lot better about splurging and buying that full set of high quality oil colors of a brand Steve had raved about once, sighing that they were much too expensive for him afford them. Seeing them, Steve gave him his patented pointed look, complete with quirked eyebrow. TJ bit his lips and shrugged: he guessed that made them square.

He couldn't stay long after that. Sooner or later either Mom or Doug were going to look up and wonder where he was, and now he had to drop by his flat to leave Steve's present there on top of buying what Nana and Anne had asked for to serve as an alibi, so he couldn't dally too much.

He only had himself to blame for the situation, he knew; himself, and the whole being-a-Hammond thing. After all, even if Mom had learned about Steve at the same time Doug had, the timing would still have been wrong for their relationship to go public. As a consequence, inviting Steve to her Christmas Eve dinner would still have been a tricky matter: not only had the table plan been fixed months in advance, but you couldn't be too careful when the guest list included people like Susan Berg or near strangers in important positions whom you couldn't entirely trust to keep their mouth shut.

TJ had little to say to any of those people, most of them sponsors and potential allies of his mom, accompanied by their spouses. He resented their presence on such an evening, the fact that he had to put up with them instead of being with someone he actually cared about. All through the meal he remained quiet, listening and smiling for show, focusing on finishing his plate. Not that anyone noticed: he rarely had much to contribute to the conversation during such events, beyond the entertainment value they could all do very well without. When Doug received a phone call that had him ask Mom for a word in private, he was almost all too happy for the excuse to follow them upstairs.

The call had to do with the campaign, of course: Senator Soren had broken a leg skiing and so wouldn't be able to make the events for which he'd been scheduled come January. It begged the question: should they cancel everything, or try and find someone to replace him? The problem for the latter was that Mom's team was already overstretched. Despite Collier's lukewarm popularity, people were still hesitant to officially throw in their vote for her already, and even amongst her supporters not everyone had the time or the wish to take an active part in the campaign. With Dad out of the picture, the Hammond clan itself was looking thin and both Mom and Doug were fully booked already.

"Maybe your grandmother could take care of the fundraiser at least?" Mom suggested, kneading her brow.

"No, she has that thing in Jersey that week," Doug replied. He was scrolling up and down on his tablet, frowning at it like it would liberate a slot in his schedule.

"I could do it."

Both Mom and Doug turned to TJ, as if noticing his presence for the first time.

"Maybe not all of it," he said hesitantly, "but I can pinch hit where it's absolutely needed. I do have some experience, after all."

He didn't only mean his mom previous campaign four years ago, or even the fundraisers and rallies he'd done with Nana. He was still giddy on how well the concert had gone, but mostly he remembered the shelter, and the kids he'd met on Thanksgiving. It had felt good to share, to do something that had to do with a public but wasn't mopping up a mess he'd made, to take an awfully bad experience and turn it right around, make it something he could use to do good. He thought about it now, and was confident that he could do more. But:

"No," his mom said, quiet but adamant.

"But—"

"Your job in this campaign is to keep up with your recovery," she went on before he could speak. "That's all. What you've been doing, accompanying your grandmother to some events, is more than enough. I can't, and won't, ask any more of you."

Only what TJ had been doing wasn't just following Nana around. He had held several speeches too, had helped supervise one or two roundtables, surely his involvement couldn't be discounted as him simply standing in the background looking pretty so that the press wouldn't start commenting and speculating about his complete absence from the campaign, could it?

"You're not asking," TJ said, "I'm offering."

"And I'm telling you—"

TJ spoke over her: "I just want to help. Who knows, it might help better my image some more," he argued. If it went well, he might have an impact on his mom's campaign, on her public life, that would not only be stronger, but also purely positive for once. For once, he would be an asset instead of a liability. The thought was almost dizzying. "Plus it'll be only until the senator has recovered."

"Except that we all know how this works," his mom countered. "We make an exception once and send you out on your own, and six months later you'll be solicited full time, and we'll have no idea how it came to this, only it won't matter because by then we'll be stuck."

"I can do it," TJ said, growing stubborn. He'd always reacted badly to being told what he could and couldn't do.

"No, you can't."

He didn't know what expression painted itself on his face but his mom faltered.

"I don't mean you don't have the ability," she hastily added. "You just have other things, better things, to prioritize over this. It just wouldn't be good for you, not on the long term. All this," she said, gesturing at the room, at the guests downstairs, "politics and power play, you’re not made for it, we all know that by now. And I won't subject you to it more than I have to, not anymore." She tried for a smile. "It's okay. We'll find someone else, at worst we will cancel. You don't have to worry about it."

"… Okay," TJ said, a bit reeling at being so summarily dismissed, no matter how nicely she tried to go about it. "Okay, I get it. I'll just—"

With a nod he turned around and left the room. He could feel her and Doug's eyes on him, preoccupied, but they didn't hold him back.

In the corridor he reached out a hand to brush against the wall, ready to support his weight: he didn't feel quite stable on his feet, thrown off-balance by the confused turmoil inside him—vexation, resentment, frustration but most of all hurt. He couldn't entirely fault his mom for her reasoning, God knew he'd given her enough reasons in the past not to want to lay too much responsibility on him, but still: to be rejected that way, so quickly, so easily, without her even taking the time to consider it, like obviously he couldn't do anything important without it becoming too much, without risking a relapse… It smarted.

He was doing better. He'd thought that she saw that. But instead—

He found the bathroom, locked himself in it and splashed some water onto his face to clear his head. It didn't work. With a sigh, he grabbed a towel and straightened and froze, when he met his own eyes in the mirror, struck by déjà vu: how many times had he shut himself in here on an evening like this one, feeling like he did now, after a discussion with his parents had gone awry? How many times had he hidden here to do a line or two? Just to calm down, just to take the edge off, half the time feeling disgusted with himself, ashamed and guilty, but about as often simply vindictive.

There was nothing in his pockets tonight, nothing in the house, yet despite himself he started counting off the stashes that he used to keep here and that he'd listed to his mom last year so she could get rid of them all for good. Part of him almost hoped that he'd "inadvertently" missed one, that he might—

"Fuck," he muttered, dropping his head, his hands gripping sink so they wouldn't tremble. One year sober, and still this was his first reflex as soon as things didn't go the way he wanted them. Clearly his mom was the more discerning of them both when it came to evaluating how much "better" he really was.

He shook his head at himself, and his eyes fell on the toilet at his right. It made him think of Anne. He imagined her coming in here like he did, turning the faucet on and kneeling down on the tile, gathering her hair in a hand and—

He almost laughed: what a pair they made. But the thought of her settled him a bit. He should probably go find her.

Only once he was back in the corridor, at the top of the stairs, he stopped. Voices were bouncing up to him from the dining-room, a regular rumble interspersed by brief exclamations and clear bouts of laughter. He took a step back, balking at the idea of joining them, of having to pretend.

Instead he turned around and walked to his room. Once the door was closed behind him, the sounds from the party muffled, he let out another sigh and went to sit in the armchair under the window. A cigarette pack lay on the sill; he reached for it, lit one and smoked it slowly, watching the smoke waft up and gather near the ceiling. Mom would be pissed: she didn't like it when they smoked indoors without airing the room properly. But it was freezing outside, and right now TJ couldn't care less about her feelings. The small act of rebellion felt good, even.

All too soon the cigarette was down to a stub that he had to put out. He stayed where he was, reclining in the seat, his eyes closed, breathing slowly. He still felt restless, subtly wrong, tobacco hadn't helped with that. It never did, and so smoking more wouldn't change anything. What he needed, what he wanted

He fumbled for his phone and, after only a second of hesitation, dialed Steve's number. The last time they'd spoken, earlier that morning, Steve had told him that Laura had just given birth to a baby boy, named Nathanael. TJ could use such good news right now.

He was relieved when the call was picked up. "Hello?"

"Hey, Steve."

"TJ, hey," Steve said. TJ could hear the start of a smile in his voice. An answering one curved the corner of his lips and he felt himself relax the slightest bit. Ideally he would've had more than Steve's voice—would've had him right here, his presence, his body with its large hands, its encompassing hugs, its warmth—but it as still something.

"How're things at the home?" he asked, trying not to let his yearning show.

"Good, good," Steve said. "We're in the middle of a gingerbread house building competition, things are getting pretty heated." He lowered his voice and added: "I think Andy insulted Marlene's frosting skills."

"Ouch," TJ said with a playful wince.

"Yeah, World War III might be brewing. What about you? You doing okay?"

TJ tilted his head to the side. "About as good as can be expected," he said. "Lots of people, half of them I don't know but still have to pretend I do just to avoid a diplomatic incident." He pursed his lips. "Looks like this evening is high risk all around, we'll have to consider ourselves lucky if tomorrow we're all still alive and at peace."

"I live in hope," Steve said. "How's your family?"

TJ's smile turned wry. "Well, I'm pretty sure Nana is doing great since she's entered Tipsy Town," he said lightly, "and Dad has about thirty people at his feet so he's as happy as can be. Mom and Doug are still planning the campaign—but I'm not invited to that." He stopped himself: his voice was becoming strained and the last thing he wanted was for this to turn into a rant.

"Well, good," Steve said, "you hate that kind of things."

"… Yeah," TJ agreed belatedly. "Yeah, you're right." He should be glad that his mom didn't need him, or didn't want for him to get involved. He had no reason to be bitter, or feel useless.

Silence had settled. TJ bit his lips and admitted quietly: "I miss you."

"I miss you too," Steve replied.

TJ took a breath. "I feel like I've— Wait."

He'd been interrupted by the sound of the door opening. When he looked down he saw Anne, hovering in the doorway. She gave him a hesitant smile. "Hey."

"Hey," TJ said, wary.

"Don't shoot the messenger? But—"

"But someone is wondering where I've disappeared off to," TJ finished the sentence for her, with a spark of exasperation: couldn't he have five minutes in peace? He returned to his phone. "Sorry," he said to Steve, "I have to go. Got to go play some jolly tune to entertain our guests so people won't think I've been shooting up in the bathroom or drowning at the bottom of a bottle."

"Oh," Steve let out, obviously disappointed. "Okay."

"Talk to you later?" TJ suggested, hating that he had to cut their conversation short; it had been nowhere near enough. "And try not to get hurt in the gingerbread war, I like you in one piece."

"I promise I'll be careful," Steve said, following his lead towards levity. TJ missed him so hard it hurt.

"Yeah," he choked.

It felt wrong to hang up. It felt wrong that right now the sole contact they could have was over the phone. Steve should've been here, TJ thought again, especially given how important Steve was to him and that he had no family left.

The feeling followed him through the rest of the evening and spiked again on Christmas morning. Only the Hammonds were left then, exchanging gifts. Well, the Hammonds and their security detail.

TJ suddenly felt sympathy for them, for having to be here today of all days. Was it because they had no family of their own? Or had they had to sacrifice time with them for work, for a bigger year-end bonus?

His mom put a hand on his arm and he shook himself, forced himself away from his straying thoughts. Being only half here wouldn't help matters. Instead he tried to focus on Nana's gifts, which were bound to be good—and indeed they were. Aware of Dad's striving to better his image she'd bought him a book about "understanding sexual addiction". Mom got one entitled Dealing With Idiots, Anne a shirt with "#1" printed on it, for some reason, and TJ a recipe book for mocktails. But it was Doug's present that caught his attention: as a joke, he'd offered his twin the latest Captain Monkey. The joke ended up being on him though, because TJ was genuinely happy to have it and started reading it right there and then, if only to feel Steve's hand on every page, his care and amusement showing through in every stroke of the pen. Then Anne asked if she could read it too, with Nana pretending she wasn't peering over her shoulder, which got Mom curious, and after a while even Dad ended up leafing through it, eyebrows raised, hooked-in despite himself. The sight was so incongruous that TJ couldn't help but take a picture, to send to Steve later.

"TJ has the rest of the series, if you're interested," Doug said, but as far as razzing went it was a feeble attempt. He was outnumbered and knew it.

"How did you even find out about it?" Mom asked. "Children books aren't your usual type of reading."

Which was a nice way to say that he wasn't much of a reader at all. TJ shifted, awkward, unsure of what to say. He met Doug's gaze, who lifted an eyebrow, obviously thinking this was as good an opportunity as any to start introducing the idea of Steve to her. But no matter how much TJ regretted Steve's absence, he still wasn't ready for that conversation. Now was not the time either: they were having a nice morning, for once; he didn't want to be the reason it went to shit again. So he just shrugged.

"I don't know, I was getting some books for my classes and there was this display. The covers are pretty eye-catching. And the cashier recommended it."

Nana and Anne exchanged an unimpressed look over his half-assed lie, but somehow his mom seemed to take it at face value. Maybe because you couldn't do more harmless than an illustrated book about a monkey and a bear going to Siberia.

 

*

 

Once the week was up and his mom had left, TJ didn't linger. Within an hour he was back home, hurrying to get things ready for when Steve would arrive: he ordered takeout, made dough for chocolate cake from scratch and had just put it in the oven when the front door opened.

"Hey, there," he greeted, sauntering over to welcome Steve with a kiss.

"Hey," Steve returned, smiling agains this lips. "You taste like chocolate."

So TJ had scraped some of the leftover raw dough from the bowl with a spoon. So what.

"We have about forty minutes to wait until dinner," he said, clasping Steve's narrow waist between his hands. "Any idea how to pass the time?"

He raised his eyebrows suggestively. Steve's reply was to drag him to the bedroom.

 

*

 

"Oh God," TJ said once he'd managed to catch his breath, arm slipping from where it had been thrown over his eyes and head turning towards Steve, who'd collapsed beside him. He was covered in sweat and looked far too satisfied with himself. TJ chuckled. "Damn, I missed that."

His brain still felt a bit scattered, his limbs like overcooked noodles, yet he managed to flop over, throwing an arm and a leg over Steve and resting his head on his shoulder.

"I missed you," he added, squeezing him.

"I missed you too," Steve replied.

He started carding a hand through TJ's hair and closed his eyes, basking in the warmth, in the smell of them for a while. He listened to Steve's breathing, to his heartbeat as it slowed down.

"How was your Christmas?" he asked then. "I mean, how was it really?"

They'd talked about it over the phone, but TJ knew by now that Steve always tended to smooth things over, and that it was much easier to do so when he and the person he was talking to weren't face to face.

Steve assured him that it had been good, even if in the end only half of the gingerbread houses had turned out to be edible. There had been a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards, with two bladder incidents during the night and a small scare in the morning—nothing unusual, though.

"What about you?"

TJ let out a groan. "Don't remind me. Tiring." He moved his hand up and started tapping on Steve's chest like on a keyboard. "Christmas day was nice, though. No more guests, and for once there wasn't any drama. Even Mom and Doug managed to lay off politics for the whole morning, and Sara—that's my mom's housekeeper—she had one hell of a lunch made." He bit his lips and his hand stilled. "I'm sorry you couldn't be here."

"It's okay," Steve said. TJ pulled away to check his face and make sure that he wasn't pretending too much.

It'll be different next year, TJ wanted to promise. But he didn't want to make things weird, didn't want to take them too far too quickly, didn't want to assume too much or, worse, spook Steve. He had no idea if Steve could see them still together in a year and, no matter how much he hoped that it was the case, he found himself unable to ask.

"Let me make it up to you," he offered instead. "Ask me for something—and getting an invite for the New Years party at The Dome doesn't count, you're already on the list."

"Okay," Steve said slowly while a thoughtful look came over his face.

"It doesn't have to be now," TJ said after nearly a minute of silence, starting to worry that Steve didn't want anything from him, or might be gearing up to ask something big, like going public before the end of the month. "You can keep it as an IOU or something."

"No, no, there is something—"

Before Steve could tell him what it was, the oven timer rang.

TJ let out a plaintive sound. "Already?" he whimpered, but after a last squeeze around Steve he propped himself up anyway and started to hunt for a pair of boxers.

"Time flies when you're having fun," Steve grinned. He knew exactly where it had gone too, TJ was sure: he had tortured him for one hell of a long time with that blowjob while he'd fingered him open.

In the kitchen TJ silenced the oven and snatched a pair of mittens before opening the door. Hot air streamed out, billowing against his naked skin. He belatedly realized it might've been prudent to cover a little bit more than his junk to do this. What was done was done, though, so in the end he just shrugged internally and was extra careful as he checked with a knife that the cake was done, then took it out to put it on the stove.

"That smells delicious," Steve said, finally following him. He hadn't put on a shirt either, which made TJ grin: he was always grateful for opportunities to enjoy the view and part of him felt thrilled that Steve was growing comfortable enough around him to forego his usual layers.

"Of course it does," he replied haughtily. He turned to the takeout boxes waiting in front of the microwave. "So what is it I can do?" he asked, picking up the thread of their previous conversation.

"Oh, well," Steve said as he took out a couple of plates and some cutlery to start setting the table. "I told you about that charity event we're organizing for the Wounded Warriors Project in mid-January."

TJ started the microwave. "Yeah?"

"I'd like—" When Steve stopped talking TJ glanced over to see him fiddling with a fork on the table, eyes down. "I mean, it would mean a lot to me if you could be here." He frowned. "Although I know you can't come as my plus one, given the whole…" He made a half-aborted gesture. "And I think all invitations have been sent already, and I can't ask you to actually buy a ticket, so I'm not sure how—"

TJ saw the never mind, forget it coming from a mile away and pursed his lips. "Did my dad get one?"

Steve looked up. "Pardon?"

"My dad. Former President Hammond? He's on pretty good terms with the military—always was, especially after that thing with the Russians. And I know he goes to that kind of things from time to time. So maybe— I mean, it's quite a big event, right?" Steve nodded. "So it'd make sense he would get an invitation as a courtesy, even if they have little hope he'll actually show."

"I would have to ask around," Steve said slowly, but TJ could see how he was brightening. "When I say I've been roped into helping, I don't mean I was responsible for the guest list. All I did was coordinate for my center—see if I could get some of our veterans to come and talk about their experience, take in RSVPs and forward them, that kind of things. Sam did too, he'll be there as well."

"Then I will be too," TJ said, checking how much time was left until the box of takeout currently heating was done, "provided I can catch my dad before he leaves."

Bud Hammond was indeed due back in North Carolina. Fortunately, ever since TJ's overdose, and especially since Mom had officially launched her campaign, his dad had made it a point to be there in her stead whenever TJ needed it—and even when he very much didn't. It was overbearing at times, but in this instance it proved useful: TJ barely had to ask before his dad agreed to meet him for lunch the following day, before his plane took off.

They met at his dad's hotel, which was all too happy to host them for a meal. Most of it was spent in pleasant talks and, once the waiter left with their empty plates, Dad asked: "So, what can I do for you, son?"

"I just wanted to do some sort of post mortem on the concert," TJ replied smoothly. He'd come prepared. "It went well, didn't it?"

"Sure did," his dad nodded. "Raised a lot of money too—I had no idea so many people cared about gays and lesbians outside of pornography."

"I do think the timeline was a little bit rushed, though," TJ went on, carefully trying to steer the conversation where he wanted it, that is to say away from a rant about people who donated with next to no care about the cause, but lots of hopes as to how it might put them in his parents' good books. With his father around, such an attempt was always a challenge. "We hit more than a few snags with the wind quintet, for instance."

"Well, of course you did," his dad said with a faint smirk. "You should know by now never to trust anyone who blows things for a living. Although now that I think about it, I see how you of all people might've gotten confused about that."

TJ gritted his teeth. It was another problem with his dad: he always thought he was so clever and funny. Even—or especially—when he wasn't.

"Anyway," he said, "I was thinking such things could be avoided if we start planning earlier."

His dad stared at him for a long time; long enough for the waiter to come back with their drinks—some liqueur for his dad, a strong coffee for TJ—and retreat again.

"You want to do this again next year?" he finally asked.

"It went well," TJ repeated with a shrug. "And like you said, we raised a lot of money, for a good cause. That felt good." He didn't mention that he could've done without ending up on stage himself. "So I thought, I don't know, that it could become some sort of holiday tradition—especially if Mom wins. I mean—"

His dad picked up his glass. "Yeah, I've gotten a look at her numbers, and it does look like it gave her a slight bump amongst the younger voters and upper-class liberals. Amongst conservatives, not so much, but these sacks of shit never need an excuse to turn their backs anyways."

TJ smiled hesitantly. Part of him had perked up at the thought that he might've helped his mom even without replacing Senator Soren; but if that was only true for half the voters, he wasn't sure it counted.

"Maybe next time we should pick a less controversial beneficiary, then?" he suggested.

"What, like the National?" His dad snorted. "They will find something to complain about no matter what, son."

"Still," TJ said, feeling his heart beat faster, "there are lots of associations and institutions that could benefit from more support, or a public endorsement. Like, I don't know, planned parenthood."

"I thought you were going for less controversial," his dad muttered, and took a sip of his drink.

"Or the ACLU. Or the VA." He frowned like the name was suddenly ringing a bell. "Speaking of the VA, isn't there a charity thing going on for it after New Years?"

"It's for the Wounded Warriors Project, actually," his dad said. "But you're right: vets might be the only matter on which you will find Republicans and Democrats agreeing the littlest bit."

"At the same time, it's kind of understandable," TJ said, treading carefully. "I mean, no one will say those people don't deserve all the support and respect they need, unless he or she is an asshole." He bit his lips. "Have you seen how high suicide rates are for vets? The VA did that study not that long ago, I stumbled upon it while browsing after— you know." He looked down. "I wouldn't have expected it. I mean, they're vets, they risked their lives for our country, if there was one part of the population you would expect to have good insurance or even be pampered that'd be them—and yet it turns out that a lot of them don't have access to mental healthcare. And that's not all—"

He went on to talk about precarity, about unemployment and homelessness and the general difficulty for vets to reintegrate into society, especially when they'd come back with a disability—all the things he'd read about and rehearsed. Every few seconds he glanced up at his dad, expecting him to interrupt as he was wont to. But he didn't: instead he listened, one eyebrow quirked, a weird smile hovering at the corner of his lips. He looked… intrigued, maybe.

"I didn't know you had taken such an interest in veteran affairs," he said when TJ's small speech came to an end. Before TJ could scramble for an explanation, he added: "That wouldn't happen to have anything to do with that man you've been seeing, would it?"

His gaze was knowing—and TJ should really have realized sooner that there was no chance for him to ever bullshit the master bullshitter.

Stupidly he froze, mouth opening and closing. "I don't—" he tried feebly.

"Come on, TJ, it's me you're talking to." His dad gulped down the rest of his drink. "You've been humming and smiling all over the place—which, don't get me wrong, is a nice change, but it sure ain't your usual modus operandi. Now," he went on, pointing with his glass, "there are lots of things that can put that kind of spring in your step—except that you're keeping your weight, still look like you're sleeping at least from time to time and there's no trace of that guilty puppy look you're so good at, so you're probably not doing lines every time you go take a piss. Which leaves the other option, that is to say that you're getting some on the regular. Only I know for a fact that you haven't been going out enough to find a series of dumb little jerks to fuck or get fucked by, which leads me to think that you're getting it all from one and the same dick." By now TJ's cheeks were burning, and his dad smirking; he was enjoying this, the asshole. "Besides," he concluded, "now that I know what to look for, I'm sorry to tell you, son, but you're damn obvious when you're smitten."

TJ's blush only darkened, lined with mortification. "It's not—" he stammered. "Mom doesn't—"

His dad scoffed, interlacing his fingers. "Your mom's so busy right now that she wouldn't notice it if you turned straight overnight," he said. "I, on the other hand, am not officially part of her campaign, and so I've got all the time in the world."

He was trying to hide it, but clearly being left aside still stung. TJ wasn't sure if it was his ego talking, or if he genuinely wished he could be there for his ex-wife. Probably a mixture of the two. TJ could understand: after his mom refusal to let him help, he was more or less in the same boat, cruising on the same unpleasant feelings.

The waiter briefly stopped by their table to pick up Dad's empty glass and asked if they needed anything else. They didn't.

"So, your man," Dad said once he'd left. "He's military?"

"Ex-military," TJ admitted. There was no point denying it. "He got his discharge more than five years ago now. He works at the VA."

"He an officer?"

"Dad." TJ gave him a look. "I'm not telling you his life story. I just—"

"You just want to know if I got an invite to that fundraiser for the Wounded Warriors Project and if I am planning on going," his dad said, because he liked to rub it in other people's face how easily he could read them. "Can't say I was, because I can think of better things to do than spend a whole evening catering to a bunch of stuffy assholes. But clearly you're serious enough about this guy to be willing to endure that, which makes me want to ask when you're planning on proposing." He badly bit back a grin when TJ glared, then turned serious at once: "Unless he is not as serious about you, in which case I should remind you that I still have enough pull with the generals to make his life a living hell, retired or not."

"He's serious," TJ quickly said. He knew what his dad was capable of.

"And I'm glad to hear it." He smiled and reached into the inner pocket of his jacket. "You'll be needing this, then."

TJ took the envelope. When he saw what was inside, he stared: it was his dad's invitation to the fundraiser.

That his dad had just happened to have it in his pocket would've been one hell of a coincidence; only TJ knew at once that it wasn't. His dad had probably received it weeks, if not months ago. He'd brought it with him all the way from North Carolina, which meant that he had known, even before TJ, that TJ might ask for it at one point, or might welcome it if it was given to him as a surprise. So he knew about Steve, had known before this conversation, and not in a vague or abstract way either: he hadn't needed TJ to confirm it to know that Steve was ex-military and helping with the fundraiser. Hell, chances were he knew more about Steve's rank and service than TJ did or ever would.

In short, their whole conversation had been nothing but another act, and damn it, why did his father always feel the need to one-up everyone all the time, even his family? Why did he have to remind everyone, again and again, that he was always the smartest person in the room, that there was no hiding anything from him?

And how long had he known about Steve?

TJ was brought out of his thoughts by the sound of paper tearing. He looked up in time to see his dad flipping his cheque book shut before sliding it back into his jacket.

"You'll be needing that too," he said, and handed over the cheque he'd just detached. TJ took it. It was blank, yet already signed.

"That way you can make a donation in my name," his dad explained. "Best way to go about it is to take the average amount an event this size would expect, then add a zero—that ought to make these pompous jackasses sweat."

"But—"

TJ met his father's gaze, saw the small, benevolent look on his face. He knew perfectly what he was doing, giving TJ a blank check, when a year and a half ago he'd categorically refused to loan him the funds to start his nightclub. It was a show of trust TJ hadn't expected and wasn't sure he deserved.

"Looks like it's time for me to leave," his dad said then, looking down at his watch.

"Wait—" TJ protested, even if he still didn't know what to say. But his dad was already standing up, putting on his coat and scarf. He stopped beside TJ's chair and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Just let me know for how much it went," he said, "and enjoy the party." He patted TJ's shoulder and smiled. "Happy New Year, son."

Then he was gone, before TJ could call him back, give him his fucking check back, tell him no, tell him that it was too much, too soon. His father himself had said that giving money to an addict was stupid, and no matter how well-behaved TJ had been these past few months he still was one, and surely he couldn't be trusted—

But even though his dad tended to be exceedingly smug about it, he was a good judge of character. He'd spent all his presidency making people dance to his tune, even dangerous dictators, because he always knew which strings to pull when and how. How else would he have been able to leave the White House with such a high rate of approval, despite his countless affairs and his faggot of a son?

What it boiled down to was, if Bud Hammond thought you were trustworthy, then you were trustworthy, end of story.

Still, TJ's throat was tight, his hands trembling when he slid the check inside the envelope beside the invitation and put it all in the inner pocket of his coat. He wouldn't think about it, he decided. He would focus on the rest, the good news, the reason why they'd had this conversation in the first place: he had the invite. Steve would be glad.

 

*

 

He had to wait until the following day to tell Steve. It was New Year's Eve, and the party at The Dome was in full swing. Steve was here with Sam, although TJ didn't know when exactly he'd arrived. He'd been busy with the guests, with his colleagues, evading drinks and invitations to dance—for a certain definition of 'dancing'.

When he managed to free himself, he was relieved to find both his boyfriend and his friend sitting in a booth. He was also happy to give Sam a reason to make himself scarce and disappear into the crowd on the dance floor. Like the good guy he was, Sam had been patiently keeping Steve company while they waited, but TJ could understand his wish to enjoy the party like it was meant to be. TJ himself was tempted by it.

"I got the invite for your fundraiser," he said instead, half-shouting it in Steve's ear.

Steve grinned. "You did?"

"Yup. Also, my dad knows about you."

"You told him?" Steve asked, eyebrows raised.

TJ tried not to find his surprise hurtful and shrugged. "He found out by himself—not surprising, really. But I thought you should know, in case he ever decides to come talk to you, just so you don't panic when you find yourself surrounded by huge guys in black."

"He'd sic his security team on me?"

"Only if you break my heart," TJ teased.

"Oh, I'll have to be careful not to do that, then," Steve said with a smile. Had they been in private, TJ wouldn't have hesitated a second before kissing him.

Instead he patted Steve's thigh under the table. "Got to get some water, I'll be right back."

Being one of the owners certainly had its perks: the second he reached the bar one of his employees was ready to serve him. He didn't even need to ask before being presented with a glass of lemon water. The trip back to the booth was a bit more perilous with a drink in hand, but he managed.

The whole of it had taken maybe a minute, but it had apparently been enough for Steve to down the last third of his beer.

"I'm sorry," TJ said, "I should've asked if I could get you anything."

Steve shook his head. "No, it's okay. I—"

He didn't finish. Seeing the strange look on his face, TJ furrowed his brow. "Everything okay?" he asked.

"Would you like to dance?" Steve blurted.

TJ stared. "Really?" he finally asked. Steve nodded. "But you hate it."

"I don't hate it, I just never learned," Steve said. "But you love it, and it's New Years, so I though I could try?" He attempted a winning smile. "I'm probably terrible, though, I should warn you."

TJ was still staring.

"So what d'you say?" Steve asked again, more hesitant.

"Yeah, yes." The grin was irrepressible. "Yes."

TJ downed most of his water in one go—one of the advantages of non-alcoholic beverages, he had to admit—then grabbed Steve by the wrist and dragged him to the dance floor.

Steve had been right: he was terrible. Mostly because he was so self-conscious. No matter how much TJ encouraged him to just let go, forget the people around them because it wasn't like anyone was looking, it was obvious he was never going to quite achieve that. But TJ didn't care. Steve was trying and after a while he started laughing, even if he remained stiff, and that was enough. That was more than enough. It was perfect, and TJ felt something very close to a high, even though he hadn't taken anything. It was just: this man. This caring, earnest guy, who wasn't good at everything but didn't give up when difficulties arose, who didn't give up on TJ despite all his bullshit, who stepped out of his comfort zone and tried—and asked for so little in return.

I'm going to tell Mom about you, he thought as Steve stumbled for the umpteenth time and he smoothly caught him, making Steve chuckle, squeak then laugh harder when TJ seized the opportunity for a light grope. Right in that second, he felt like the luckiest guy on Earth.

When midnight came and the count-down reached zero, TJ didn't think, just threw his arms around Steve's shoulders and kissed him. I'm going to tell the whole world about you. You just wait.

As far as New Years resolutions went, it was one of his best ones to date.

 

*

 

One of the rare advantages of being T. J. Hammond was that people rarely asked to check your ID, especially when you turned up at an event with an invitation meant for your father in your pocket. One glance at his face and security let him right through, as did the host.

With a deep breath and one last tug at the jacket of his tailored suit, TJ stepped into the hall. It was the first time in a long time that he was going to such an event on his own, and maybe the first time he did so without having received any coaching from his family—or without having done a line of coke as a boost beforehand.

He hadn't thought about all that when he'd told Steve he'd try and be here for him. It was only later, when he'd looked on the internet to prepare for his lunch with Dad, that he'd realized what the size of the event meant. While not huge, it was still big enough for at least a couple news outlets to cover it and for several high level officers to be there. TJ's presence would be noted for sure.

In short, it was an occasion. TJ could kill two birds with one stone: make Christmas up to Steve and show his mom that he could do the whole appearance-in-public thing without crumbling like a sand castle against the tide; that he didn't need help or a chaperone; that he even knew to be cautious and start small: the venue was nice, with high ceilings and white walls over a beautiful wooden floor, but compared to the places TJ had seen for his mom's events back when she'd been First Lady, it looked downright humble. There was no seated meal planned either, just a buffet and a bar, and probably some speeches to serve as food for thought, as suggested by the stage set up along the eastern wall. Music was playing from somewhere, faint and definitely recorded.

The room was fairly full when TJ entered. A good third of the people present were in dress uniform; TJ couldn't remember the last time he'd seen that many of them in one place outside of a parade. Most were busy with conversations already and, lacking the armed escort his dad would've had, TJ went unnoticed. For now.

He used that opportunity to look for Steve. Someone was bound to recognize Bud Hammond's son sooner than later, it was only a matter of time; all TJ could do was try and talk to his boyfriend before that happened: afterwards it would be impossible.

He caught sight of Sam first, standing near the wall, looking quite dashing in a black suit and white shirt without tie. He was half turned away and so didn't notice TJ's approach until TJ was nearly there.

"TJ, my man," he said when he finally did, with that wide smile which always put TJ at ease. "You made it."

He reached out a hand to shake. TJ took it, glad as ever that Sam had warmed up to him so quickly. "I couldn't refuse an occasion to ride on my dad's coattails, could I?" he said. "Is everything going okay?"

"Well, we got the music system to work on time, and even if it dies on us there is food and drinks, so we should be good. Fingers crossed that people will find it nice enough to give something at one point or another."

"If they're reluctant I have my dad's blessing to lead the charge, so don't worry," TJ assured. "They'll follow."

Sam laughed like it was a joke.

"How was Christmas?" TJ asked. He hadn't had the occasion to ask back at The Dome.

"Good, good," Sam said, "Mom had the whole family over, all seven billions of them—it was a mess, especially with the little cousins and my sister's kids." He shrugged philosophically. "But then, it always is, and that's what makes it fun. You?"

Before TJ could find a way to formulate his reply, he glimpsed Steve walking up to them, two glasses in hand. He handed one over to Sam while smiling at TJ. "Hey, there."

TJ tried to tone his own smile down, aware of their possible audience. "Hey."

"Looking good."

"Looking good, maybe. Feeling good, less so." When Steve's expression folded with worry, he added: "I'm utterly disappointed by the lack of uniform I'm seeing here." He gestured at Steve's red shirt and black slacks, which, while doing all kinds of good things for him, weren't the best one could've expected. "I had high hopes."

Steve and Sam laughed. "I'm retired," Steve pointed out. "I can wear what I want."

"But what about what I want?" TJ pouted.

"That only counts when it comes to your drink preferences. What can I get you?"

TJ let out a put-out sigh. "Lemonade," he replied. "If they don't have it, sparkling water is fine."

"Coming right up," Steve said, and bowed out. TJ watched him go, and told himself he could console himself for the absence of a military jacket by enjoying the curves and angles that were on display without it.

"Man, you are smitten," Sam remarked.

"Of course I am," TJ said, still staring and utterly unashamed. He bit his lips and admitted: "Sometimes it feels like he's my reward."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sam blink at him. "Come again?"

"He's my reward," TJ said. "I stay good—I don't do drugs, I don't drink—and in return, at the end of the day, I get him." He shrugged with a smile. "I can live with that."

"Oo-kay," Sam said slowly. "Not to pop your bubble or anything, but that's a warped way of looking at things. Are you going to go on and tell me you feel like you don't deserve him, too?"

"Well," TJ hedged, "you have to admit that there is some disparity between us when it comes to being decent citizens of the Democracy." He was still looking at Steve, who'd been stopped at the bar by a man in uniform, a major if his stripes were to be believed: someone important enough that Steve couldn't get out of the conversation just yet, if only out of respect. "Sometimes I wonder what he's even getting out of it."

"Are you kidding me right now?" Sam half-exclaimed. When TJ glanced over, he rolled his eyes. "Okay, so maybe you can't notice it that much because you're biased, and because you didn't know him before, but man, Steve's so much better now than he was back before he met you. You've been good for him."

"I have?"

"Yeah," Sam said softly. "You might've noticed he's kind of the workaholic kind? Always does too many things at once, cares way too much about way too many things, doesn't know how to take a break?" TJ nodded slowly. "Well, now thanks to you he's starting to figure out that taking-a-break thing. I mean, he sleeps in on a morning sometimes, instead of going for a run or painting through his insomnia. He allows himself two half-day breaks per week. For him, that's like, huge. That's progress."

"But it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with me," TJ said. "He's getting better, that's great, but that's all him."

Sam looked like he really wanted to roll his eyes again. "Okay, yeah, he's the one working his way up. But one, don't tell me you have nothing to do with him finding reasons to stay in bed in the morning." TJ couldn't hold back a smirk: Sam had him there. "And two…" He sighed. "Look, you know the kind of guy he is. He cares. He needs causes to fight for, problems to be indignant about, things and people to worry over—that's how he makes himself make sense. Thing is, he has no notion of scale, so half the time what he ends up caring about and feeling responsible for is the whole damn world, or at least the whole country. Which is a lot for one guy to carry. But now there's you. And caring about you? That's something that can be achieved without him running himself into the ground."

"Are you saying that I'm his pet project?" TJ asked with a frown.

"I'm saying you're his cuddle muffin," Sam deadpanned. "God knows that man needed a hug. Now he gets plenty by giving them to you."

TJ flushed, and then realized that Sam wasn't quite being literal, and so wasn't referring to the—actually quite mortifying—amount of time TJ spent snuggled up against Steve.

"I don't see how that is any less unbalanced than what I was saying," he muttered.

Sam shrugged. "You bring him what he needs—which, part of it is being needed, simple as that. He told me he sleeps better at night. And he's finally starting to deal with what happened with Bucky."

TJ frowned. "What happened with Bucky?" he asked.

A prime example of an oh, shit look spread over Sam's face. "Er, he didn't tell you?"

TJ looked down with a bitter smile. "No. And that's just it, see: he doesn't tell me that kind of things. Not about Bucky, or about the army—and how can I really help him and support him if he doesn't?" He bit his lips again. "Sometimes I feel like I spend all the time we get together blubbering all over him because of all my problems while he— But even when I try to turn things around he doesn't let me."

"Yeah, that's Steve for you," Sam said knowingly. "Gold medal for repression."

"Well, I don't want him to train those skills when he's with me," TJ said vehemently.

"Hey, hey," Sam said with an aborted gesture. "There's no need to worry. He'll come around. He knows you're here to talk if he need to, and he'll come to you when he's ready. He's already told you some things, right?"

"Yeah," TJ conceded.

He looked back towards the bar. Steve was still stuck in conversation, even if his smile had turned less polite and a lot more stiff. Unfortunately, another portly officer had joined them. This one had an indecent amount of medals glittering on his chest.

TJ was brought out of his dismayed contemplation by a voice calling: "Mr. Hammond!"

He turned and saw yet another officer heading towards him and Sam, two champagne flutes in hand. He held one out once he'd reached them and TJ had no choice but to take it.

"Colonel Falk," he said, having placed the man just in time. Last TJ had seen him, he'd only been a lieutenant-colonel.

"I have to say, I did not expect to see you here," Colonel Falk said.

"I'm filling in for my father," TJ replied smoothly. "He deeply regrets that he couldn't be here, you know how important such causes are to him."

"Of course, of course," the colonel said. "And I am glad to see you ready to pick up the mantle!"

TJ gave a practiced smile. "It's just impossible to look at the life conditions of veterans and not feel compelled to do something. Our soldiers are willing to give their lives for our country. We should be repaying that service, with interest."

"Indeed." The colonel clearly approved of his involvement. "And tell me, what exactly does your mother plan to do about that?"

The look on his face was slightly provocative, testing. TJ let his smile widen a fraction, relaxed his shoulders. He was prepared for this: he knew his mother’s platform like the back of his hand, had read as much as he could find on the matter of veterans, memorized facts and statistics and used them to make sure that he properly understood what his mom intended. He'd done rallies and fundraisers: this wasn't the first time he stepped into that kind of ring.

So he replied, and as he talked gathered a small group of listeners. He explained his mother's purpose, listened to remarks, answered questions, replied to criticism. Then a man in an expensive looking suit, with his wife in an even more expensive looking dress, came to greet Colonel Falk, who introduced TJ, and soon TJ was swept away for more introductions, leaving Sam behind. He barely had the time to cast an apologetic look at him and notice his nonplussed expression.

Such talks kept him busy until all of the guests had arrived and the speeches began. As a stern-looking woman took the stage, TJ looked around and finally caught sight of Steve again. He was standing beside Sam with a small group of people who stuck out not so much because of their clothes—they'd dressed up but it still looked somewhat cheap and ill-fitting compared to everyone else's garments—than because of how ill-at-ease they looked. Steve was talking earnestly to one of them, who was nodding while wiping his forehead.

The woman on stage only talked briefly. She introduced herself as Susan Dwyer, one of the main coordinators for the event, thanked the guests for coming and said a few words about the reasons why they'd organized the fundraiser. She then gave the floor to a representative of the Wounded Warriors Project, who was followed by Colonel Falk: he was, it turned out, the highest ranking officer involved in the event. After that came testimonies from several veterans who'd benefitted from the project's support—and that's where Steve and Sam's band of misfits came in. The man Steve had been talking to was the first to climb onto the stage; it was only then that TJ realized that he was missing half an arm.

After his speech came another, then another. Some took the stage as a pair, others alone. Steve himself didn't talk—but then, TJ realized, he belonged to the lucky few who'd made it out more or less intact, at least physically. It didn't mean that he was entirely passive, though: more than once, the vets glanced in his and Sam's direction while they spoke, looking for reassurance or support, and every time Steve was right there, attentive, ready to give an encouraging nod or a smile. TJ wondered how many of them were in his workshop.

Once the speeches were done, there was a round of applause, then Ms. Dwyer announced that the buffet had been served and a donation table set up. Most of the guests took off at once towards the food, which led to enough confusion for TJ to extract himself from the group he'd been stuck with and make his way to the bar.

He'd had to drink the champagne he'd been given and, even though he'd done it as slowly as possible, he still felt wrong about it, unsure whether he really hadn't had a choice or had just grabbed the convenient excuse to make a breach in his sobriety. Carried by the half-guilt, he asked for a glass of still water, which he downed in one go, then another of sparkly water to take with him.

When he turned away, glass in hand, he came face to face with Steve.

"Hey," he said, glancing over Steve's shoulder. Sam was nowhere to be seen. "How are you doing?"

"Good," Steve said, but his smile was uncertain.

He didn't say anything else. Fortunately, TJ was in the perfect state of mind to steer even the most difficult of conversations. "Those were some nice speeches back there," he said. Most of the veterans weren't what you'd call champions in rhetoric, but they definitely had heart and had been able to speak plainly about their experience—past and present—in a way that was strongly compelling.

Steve's smile became more genuine. "Yeah, they did great."

"You must be proud. Are those your students?"

"I don't really consider them students," Steve said with an awkward laugh, "but yeah, some of them come to my workshop."

TJ bit his lips. "I'm sorry we didn't get to talk earlier," he said. "As you can see, there are lots of people here who want a piece of Elaine Barrish's son."

"Yeah, I've noticed," Steve said slowly. "You okay?"

"Mh? Oh, yes, don't worry. It's a walk in the park."

"I don't mean that you're not good at this," Steve said, "but… You don't look like yourself."

TJ gave him that smile he'd perfected over the years. "Of course I don't. I'm socializing."

Steve didn't look happy about that.

"Hey, I told you, it's okay," TJ added softly, striving to be reassuring. "I expected it—comes with being a Hammond." He shrugged. "I've had years to get used to it, it's the way I was raised."

"I'm not sure that included the most recent facts and statistics pertaining to the living conditions of veterans," Steve pointed out.

TJ wondered when he'd come close enough to hear him mention those. Or maybe Sam had told him.

"That's called doing your homework. What?" he asked when Steve looked down.

"It's just, I didn’t mean for tonight to end up like this for you," Steve said. "You having to pretend, or having to prepare for questions about the project, or about your mom… This wasn't meant to be work—"

"Hey, hey," TJ said, with an aborted gesture to put his hand on Steve's arm. "Don’t worry. It’s okay, I promise. I’m all good."

Steve didn’t seem convinced. TJ would’ve tried to reassure him further, but they were interrupted by a voice calling: "Captain!"

Steve's jaw clenched, then he put on a carefully bland smile as he turned to greet the man joining them. "Major Hawks."

"I see you've caught our guest of honor," the major said, clapping him on the shoulder. He reached a hand out for TJ to shake. "Major Samuel Hawks, it's a pleasure."

"The pleasure is mine, Sir," TJ replied gamely, already sensing what was coming. And indeed: after a couple minutes of chit-chat the major mentioned an acquaintance who wanted to hear more about something TJ had said earlier, and so off TJ had to go. He shared a brief look with Steve, who looked for all the world like he wanted to hold him back.

The speeches had begun once all the guests had arrived, even the civilians who still thought arriving late was fashionable. It was to those TJ had to talk to now, which meant that he not only ended up talking about his mother's platform, but also about veterans in general. At least half of the people he faced were here to be seen first and foremost, and only brought the most moderate kind of interest for the cause with them.

As the evening wore on TJ remembered another aspect of those things—the main aspect, actually, which he always tended to forget or underestimate: how exhausting it all was. He smiled, he shook hands, made quick note of a name and physical attribute in order to avoid a faux-pas later on; he talked and listened and always stayed agreeable, even when people picked petty holes in his arguments, were being voluntarily obtuse, or downright hostile under the thinnest veneer of politeness—because in a room full of servicemen and their acquaintances, more than half of them were definitely not voting Democrat.

TJ could only fight back by being more knowledgeable, more patient, more decent; by deferring when a general gave their own input, by letting matters go with a light-hearted quip whenever he perceived that insisting would spoil the nicety suited for such a time and place. That, and when the event drew to a close and people began to leave, he made sure to go to the donation table when the crowd around it was at its thickest. There he played the newbie—it was easy to pretend that he was used to his parents handling that part—so as to draw some attention, and followed his dad's instructions to the letter. He couldn't advertise the amount of money he was giving—such things just weren't done—but he could take his time writing it down, painfully legibly, and slipping the check into the envelope, knowing some people would try to peek. As he dropped it into the donation box, the duo manning the table, who'd been quietly boggling, tried to tell him that he might've miswritten; he swiftly reassured them that he hadn't, that he'd only done as his father had requested. The whole thing caused enough of a scene that by the time TJ walked away, relieved by that check finally being out of his hands, most people still in the room knew that former President Bud Hammond had donated a much larger sum than expected, and so would feel obliged to do the same.

After that TJ couldn't linger, though. He tried to catch sight of Steve, or Sam, but didn't find either of them, and in the end he had to leave before anyone could snatch him for another bout of conversation for which he had no energy left. Still, he kept his head high, his shoulders straight, and it was only once he was safely inside a taxi, around a corner, that he let himself sigh and slump down against the seat.

He undid his tie, the top buttons of his shirt, and for a moment just sat there, staring through the window at the lights of DC in the night. He felt wrung out in ways he hadn't been in a long time, not even back in September and October after the whole mess about his overdose. Mom and Doug had made sure to keep all his appearances short and to the point, giving the journalists little to no leeway for prodding. A whole evening spent entirely on his own in a not-quite-friendly crowd, without Nana to pick up the slack, was a whole other thing.

He itched for a cigarette. A headache was crawling along his temples, the result of talking too much and not drinking enough—with the wine and champagne people had kept offering him, he'd had no choice but to drastically pace himself. He closed his eyes and felt the faint vibrations of the car around him, listened to the rumble of the motor and of the wheels on the tarmac. The driver had the radio turned on low, some station in Spanish, and no matter how quickly and animatedly the host talked, it sounded quiet, melodic, more pleasant than most of what TJ had heard all night.

He wondered, not for the first time that evening, why he'd come. Steve had asked, of course, but half of that decision hadn't been about him at all; it had been about proving something, to himself, to Mom, and right now he couldn't fathom why it had felt so important, important enough for him to go and do this to himself, again.

He took his phone out of his pocket and texted Steve. Headed home, sorry I didnt say goodbye, I couldnt find u. U still there?

Steve must have been, because TJ didn't get a reply until he'd arrived home and changed out of his suit. He'd just drank a glass of water and was half-heartedly contemplating eating something, given that his audience had barely left him the time to nibble on a couple of mini-sandwiches, when his phone buzzed. He was glad for the distraction.

Yes, we have to help packing up some.

TJ bit his lips and typed: Come over once ur done?

It took Steve over a minute to reply. I’m beat, he wrote. I think I better go home.

TJ pressed his lips together in disappointment. Part of him was frustrated that he'd scarcely gotten to talk to Steve all night. Another part was worried that Steve might've taken it badly, that he'd done something wrong. But at the same time, he was so worn out that he also felt relieved not to have to wait up—relieved and guilty.

K, he wrote, tty tomorrow?

Steve's reply was: Sleep well.

 

*

 

The following day, TJ waited until the afternoon to call so as to avoid waking Steve up. He had no idea how late Steve had finally come home and didn't want to interrupt a rare sleep-in.

Steve replied on the second ring. He still sounded dead tired.

"You okay?" TJ asked.

"Yeah," Steve said. "Just remind me to be more wary next time someone asks me to help out with something last minute."

"Not everything takes so much out of you," TJ pointed out. "But yeah, charity events are a bitch. I could've told you that."

"Why didn't you, then?" Steve asked. TJ was relieved to hear that familiar teasing tone.

"Well, there's that weird phenomenon where you forget, afterwards, just how bad it gets. I mean, you survived it, so it couldn't be that awful, could it?"

Steve laughed softly. "Yeah, I don't think I will forget."

"Just give it a month," TJ said.

"Okay, you're the expert."

TJ smiled. A short silence settled.

"Is it always like that, though?" Steve finally asked, quietly.

"What, people simpering at one another, smiling and pretending to enjoy themselves when half of them are bored out of their skulls and the other half only peacocking? Pretty much."

"I mean the— the hypocrisy," Steve said. "All these people in fancy dresses and suits, who obviously have more money than they can spend, and yet they still want us to convince them to give the tiniest fraction of it, to parade all our problems in front of them, give them a real show, never mind the intrusion into our privacy, on the off chance that it'll move them enough for them to do something about it. And even then they'll hem and haw about just how much they can spare when really—" He let out a harsh sigh. "I mean, half the people I work with are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and they're the lucky ones. Most of them have to beg for— Do they even realize that?"

"No," TJ said, subdued. "We don't, not really."

"Thomas—" Steve said, sounding ill-at-ease. He probably hadn't realized what category TJ belonged to here.

"At least my dad gave something," TJ added, keeping his voice light to say he wasn't keeping any ill-will. It was just facts, after all.

Steve jumped on the hint with obvious relief. "He did. The whole thing was a success, actually. We raised about 50% more than expected. Major Hawks is convinced you and your dad are to thank for that, too, so expect a phone call or an email at one point or another."

TJ perked up. "Really?"

"Yeah." Steve paused. "I'm still sorry it turned out that way though. I guess I didn’t really get what you meant about you being a public figure until now, uh?"

"It's difficult to realize unless you've lived it," TJ reassured him. "But like I said: don't worry. I'm used to it by now."

"You are," Steve said slowly. TJ couldn't read the tone of his voice.

"My only regret is that we barely got to say three words to each other," he said, wondering if he should apologize for that. Steve was the one who'd invited him, sure, but them spending the whole evening at opposite sides of the room definitely hadn't been what he'd had in mind when he'd done so.

"Me too," Steve said.

"I could drop by?" TJ suggested, as an olive branch: he still rarely went to Steve's flat these days. "Later today?"

"Oh, I didn't work this morning, so I was planning on doing some of it this afternoon," Steve said apologetically.

"It's okay," TJ said, trying not to feel rejected. "I have some readings to do for class, I can bring them." Although given how tired he still felt, he had little doubt as to how that would go: him napping on Steve's couch and waking up a couple of hours later with a knitted blanket thrown over him.

Right now, that didn't sound too bad at all.

"I just wanna be near you," he admitted.

Steve sighed, but through it TJ could hear a smile. "Well, since you're asking that nicely."

TJ smiled. "So it's okay?"

"Yes," Steve said. "I'll see you later. But eat something beforehand, my fridge is empty."

"I will," TJ said. When they hung up, he stood up to do just that.

 

*

 

TBC

Chapter Text

TJ didn't tell his mom about the fundraiser—not that he meant to hide it from her. He just wanted the information to circle back to her by itself, either through Dad or through the news. The first one rarely knew how to keep his mouth shut and there was no doubt that both Mom's PR team and Doug had Google alerts set up for any and all of their names.

He didn't know if he was looking forward to it or not. On the one hand he was: he wanted to see her reaction, because he had done it. He'd actually done it, he'd gone through a whole evening of schmoozing and discussing and low-key campaigning on his own, and he'd left in one piece, with his head held high. What's more, his being here had made a difference: as Steve had surmised, he had received an email of thanks from Colonel Falk and the organizing team, mentioning the total sum they'd raked up, and TJ had helped with that. It was like the charity concert, like that evening with the kids from the shelter on Thanksgiving: he'd had a positive impact, and it felt good; it made everything seem worth it.

Because on the other hand, he'd been exhausted at the end of the evening, his nerves frayed, his whole mind stinging from the barely veiled barbs that had been thrown at him all evening, the pleasant mask he'd worn as his only shield sticking to his skin. It had taken him days to recover properly. That, and he'd made a breach in his sobriety, which didn't sit well with him.

Now part of him was almost apprehensive, almost afraid that, upon seeing how well he'd done, seeing such voluntarism on his part, his mom would take him up on his offer and involve him in her campaign for good. He… didn't want that. Although he should have: it was half the reason why he'd gone to the fundraiser in the first place.

It took him days and several sessions with Dr. Bennani to untangle these ambivalent feelings. Even then, he wasn't quite sure he understood them, or the reason for them. He was angry at himself, too, for being so contradictory. But one thing was clear: he wanted his mom to acknowledge that's she'd been wrong, that he could do his part if needed. That he'd done good.

But as weeks went by, and neither his mom nor Doug mentioned the event whenever he talked to them on the phone or over Skype or when Doug dropped by in DC to see Anne, he started to wonder. Had the event been too insignificant for the few short articles that spoke of it to ping their radar? No, that didn't seem likely. Maybe it had slipped their notice, with the early primaries starting and the first results coming in from Iowa and New Hampshire. But at the same time, it wasn't like his mom to let things slip away from her. More probably, she knew about it, had known since the beginning, but wouldn't admit that she's misjudged him. Or, even more likely, she disapproved of TJ taking such an initiative and that was how she was letting him know: by ignoring it entirely. Or she was waiting for the right moment to broach the topic.

Then one day, a little over a month after the fundraiser, TJ received an email. His mom was exceptionally going to be in DC for a day, she wrote, and was wondering if he'd be free to come by for tea. The date and time she gave him fell right after one of his therapy appointments, with ample time for him to go from there to her house: a subtle reminder that no matter how busy or far away she was, she remembered his schedule.

He felt some trepidation on the way there. Mom hadn't told him whether there was something specific she wanted to talk to him about or not. Maybe she just wanted to see him; after all, it had been a while since their last family lunch, right after Christmas. Maybe she had no intention of talking about the fundraiser, in which case TJ would have to bring it up himself, and he had to be ready for any reaction she might have.

When he arrived, he was surprised—then not—to cross paths with Susan Berg, who was stepping out the front door when he reached the house. She gave him a closed-lipped smile, which he didn't return, and fortunately didn't try and strike up a conversation. TJ watched her go, still wondering about the strange and entirely unexpected affinity that had developed between that woman and his mom. After everything Ms. Berg had done to them, to his parents' marriage, to his mom's reputation, to him

He didn't get it.

If he was being honest, some part of him was even hurt by it.

But that wasn't important right now. TJ shook himself, climbed the last few steps to the door and let himself in.

His mom was putting a tray laden with a teapot and cups on the coffee table. She'd obviously made it herself: Sara, her housekeeper, was nowhere in sight.

"Hi, sweetie," she said, walking over and giving him a hug as soon as he'd divested himself of his coat and scarf.

"Hey, Mom," he said. He returned the hug with a squeeze, because no matter how overbearing she could be at times, he did miss her. "You're getting skinny."

She laughed at him turning her usual remark back on her. But between the gym and the regular meals he forced himself to have, he was definitely not the one losing weight here. Especially when the other side of the comparison was her and her crazy schedule of TJ-didn't-even-know-how-many-hours days and next to no sleep.

"I am doing fine," she assured him as she led him to the couches and armchairs. Up close TJ could see the bags under her eyes though, how drawn her features were. She noticed his concern and dismissed it by putting a hand on his and adding: "And I'm very glad to see you."

TJ couldn't help but smile at that.

"Talking over Skype is not the same," she went on. "How are you really?"

TJ followed her lead and answered: he talked about his new classes, about his therapy, even if he kept his remarks on that superficial, following the rule he and his mom had established, according to which she would not pry; he talked about the last recipe he and Anne had tried, about the movies he'd seen, about how his coach at the gym was happy with his progress. His mom listened with a small smile on her lips, but as he went on he realized it was growing more forced, frozen almost, and didn't cover what was starting to look like worry in her eyes. And he hadn't even mentioned The Dome yet.

"Mom, what is it?" he finally asked.

She briefly looked down, and that was enough for him to know that whatever it was, it was serious, and potentially bad. "I've heard that you went to a charity event back in January," she said in that cautious voice that never bode well.

TJ's heart jumped. He forced himself to stay outwardly calm, even as he wondered in what direction the conversation was about to go. Was she going to be angry? Disappointed?

"Yeah," he said slowly. "Dad gave me his invitation when I asked."

Her expression fell. "When you asked?"

TJ wondered what he'd done wrong.

"Yeah," he repeated, "I saw something on the internet—"

But he stopped almost at once, realizing that if his little speech about veterans' suicide rates hadn't worked on Dad, it certainly wouldn't work on his mom either. Plus, her detecting a lie right now wouldn't help.

"It was a huge success," he said instead, trying for a smile. "We— They raised a lot of money, almost twice what they expected, and they said that me being there and Dad donating definitely helped."

He would've gone on, maybe, if not for the look on his mom's face. It spoke of worry and made him realize that whatever good he'd achieved, for some reason to her it was nothing, or at least not enough to overbalance… what, actually?

He asked her: "What?"

"Sweetie," she said, voice so measured it made him dread what was coming, "I need you to be honest with me."

"Oo-kay?" TJ replied uncertainly.

She took his hand in hers. "Barry Harris was there, at the fundraiser. He couldn't stay long, which is why you didn't see him. But he saw you. He told me you seemed quite busy at the time and that he didn't dare interrupt."

TJ's eyes flickered down, torn between apprehension at where this was going and pride that he'd been seen, engaged in conversation, doing things right. His mom, however, wasn't finished. She squeezed his hand so he'd look back up.

"He told me you were with a man, a blond man in a red shirt, and that you seemed quite… taken."

TJ felt himself freeze—and of course, of course, he should've expected this. He and Steve in the same room, at such a public event: strangers wouldn't have noticed that something was up, but someone who knew him… And if someone like Harris had, then it was only a matter of time before his mom heard about it. It shouldn't come as such a surprise.

He struggled to keep his breathing regular and to not panic. This was alright, this was good, even. Hadn't he promised to himself that he'd tell his mom about Steve? Well, here was the occasion, offered on a plate. Everyone else in the family knew already, it was only fair for his mom to be informed too. It wasn't bad news either, it was Steve. Steve was amazing, she couldn't disapprove of him. Could she?

He knew his trepidation showed on his face, or at least in how still he'd suddenly become. His mom's voice softened even more, if possible.

"I need you to be honest with me, Tommy," she entreated, her eyes not leaving his. "That man… Was it Sean Reeves?"

For a second, TJ's mind went blank. Then he registered what she'd just asked and he couldn't help but jerk back. He hadn't thought of Sean in, hell, weeks. And to hear his name so unexpectedly, in such a context—

"What?" he said. "No."

"Sweetie—" his mom said.

She didn't believe him. He snatched his hand away. "It wasn't," he insisted—and then it dawned on him: "But that's why I'm here, isn't it? You think that I'm at it again, making that mistake again—"

He stood up and turned away, threading a hand through his hair.

"Tommy—"

He whirled back towards her. "—when I'm finally starting to believe I've moved on—and you know, it'd actually be a lot easier for me to do that if you and Doug stopped bringing him up every two seconds."

"Well, that goes on to show you haven't moved on that well, doesn't it?" She seemed to regret her words at once and added: "Look, I'm sorry if my suspicions are painful to you, but even you will agree that they aren't unjustified. I remember that spring, and the club—"

"What does it have to do with anything?" TJ exclaimed.

"You suddenly taking an interest in something you couldn't care less about one month ago," she retorted. "Or are you going to tell me veteran affairs have secretly been your passion all this time?"

TJ threw his hands up. "So what, I can't discover or try new things now? Isn't that what my recovery is supposed to be about?"

"It wouldn't be the first time you threw yourself into something on a whim, TJ, and you know it."

"It's not a whim!"

"What is it then?" his mom asked. "Why were you there? Why the sudden interest?"

TJ was briefly tempted to pick up his whole story about browsing on the internet and going on a research binge, but in the end opted for the truth. "I— One of the coordinators," he said, more quietly. "I know him, and he asked me if I'd come."

"So what, so that he could put your father's name on the guest list and his money in the chest?"

"It was for charity, would that be so bad?" TJ protested. "And it wasn't like that."

He hated the look his mom gave him then—like he was being naive, like he was almost to be pitied. "TJ, how is that any different from what happened with your so-called friends for that nightclub? You can't let people take advantage of you like that, take advantage of your name or your parents' money—"

"I told you it wasn't like that," TJ cut her off. "He didn't ask me to bring Dad, he didn't even ask me to bring a check. That stuff, the charity, the VA, it's important to him, okay? He invests lots of time and energy in it, and he wanted me to be there for him. Just me, because he cares about me, and I care about him—"

"Oh God," his mom said. "You're involved with this man, aren't you?"

TJ looked down. "Yes."

"Since when?" she asked. When he didn't reply at once, her voice rose. "Since when, TJ?"

"I don't know, it's not like I'm counting," TJ said. He huffed. "I met him at the inauguration of Stark Tower."

"Eight months? This has been going on for eight months?" TJ couldn't be sure whether she was angry or hurt. "And no one knows about it?"

"Well," TJ said hesitantly, "Nana knows, and Anne, and… Doug…"

She stared at him. "So everyone knows but me, is that it?" This time she was definitely hurt.

"Mom—"

"What is it then?" she interrupted. "Why is it that you couldn't tell me, is he married, too, or simply closeted? Is he cheating on a girlfriend with you?"

"He's not," TJ said.

"Then what?" She sounded like she really didn't understand why TJ might've been reluctant. "If he's— Oh no, wait, the VA. He's military."

"He was, but that's not—"

"Don't tell me that's not what I think it is, I know perfectly what it is," she said. "And I've said it once, and I'll say it again: you deserve better than some closeted asshole who will take your affection and money but never acknowledge what you are—what he is—to anyone, or even really appreciate you."

"He does!" TJ exclaimed. "Hell, more than this family ever does it feels like—and he loves me, okay? He loves me."

"But not enough to be open about it?" his mom retorted.

"That's me, okay?" TJ said. "I'm the one who doesn't. If it were up to him I would've been his date at the gala, he'd hold my hand in the street and kiss me over coffee every other day. He's not closeted, all his friends know about us and he doesn't care about what people think."

Now Elaine looked confused. "Then why, TJ?"

"Because I do. I care about what they think. I don't want this—" He gestured at the room, the whole conversation. "All this suspicion and you judging him and having a bad opinion of him even before you've met him because poor stupid TJ doesn't know any better, he's a terrible judge of character, he just can't be trusted to find someone who's actually good—"

"You know that's not—" she tried to protest, but TJ spoke over her:

"And that's not even the worst of it! Because we both know what will happen when this gets out, especially right now, and I don't want it. I don't want any of it, I don't want the speculations, and the stalking, and the press being all up in our business."

"If we set boundaries—"

TJ rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, like that ever works. They'll dissect us into pieces if they think it'll get them a headline. I can already see them, warning Steve about me, claiming I'm corrupting an American hero—or even better, rejoicing and claiming that hey, apparently that's what behind my finally getting straightened out, turns out all T. J. Hammond needed was a firm hand, who knew? No need to ask who's fucking who here."

"Thomas!" his mom snapped.

"Don't pretend to be shocked," TJ said, "you know they'll go there, they've been going there since I was sixteen fucking years old! And now they'll be saying it about Steve too, prying into his private life, hoping to find some dirt—"

His mom jumped on that one. "Is there?"

For a second, all TJ could do was stare at her. "Oh my God, why is that even a question?" he exclaimed. "It doesn't matter if there is any dirt, they'll make bullshit up if they need to—and I won't let them! I don't want them harassing him, or digging into his past, or spreading lies about him." He shook his head. "I won't. So yeah, we're not public. Because what we have, what we are, it's no one's business but ours."

His voice had quieted down at the end. So had his mom. She was looking at him with sadness, but also understanding.

"But Tommy," she said after a short silence, "you know that it will come out eventually—it will," she repeated when TJ shook his head again, "and you know it. You have to be prepared for it." She swallowed. "And since it can't be avoided, then don't you agree that it's better to at least decide when and how it happens?"

"Like you decided when and how I had to come out?" TJ asked.

She hadn't expected that, that much was clear.

"I wasn't ready, you know," he said. "I mean, who would be ready to face what I faced? But even without the whole media circus, I wasn't ready to come out to anyone. Hell, I didn't even know if I was gay for sure. I was starting to realize that I liked boys, maybe, enough to give it a try." He huffed. "Only then all of a sudden you know, and Dad knows, and maybe the Republicans know too, or at least they're about to know, and the whole country too. And your solution was, what, to have me tell everyone?"

"It was going to happen anyways," she argued, "you had to—"

"Well, I didn't want to!" TJ snapped. "But you never thought to ask about that, did you? I didn't want to, and I knew it would be awful, and yet you made me, when you should have protected me—"

"We did!" his mom protested. "Don't you get it? It was the only way, someone was going to leak it—"

"Then you should've let that be on them!" TJ shouted. "Not me! You shouldn't have played into their fucking game."

"We had to try and take back control."

"Oh, yes, you definitely did," TJ said derisively. "Maybe that's what it looked like to you, but to me it certainly didn't feel like it. Hell, I've been spinning ever since, or have you not realized that yet?"

His mom took a sharp breath. "Don't blame your addiction on us, or on this. You had problems well before you came out—"

"Yeah? Ever thought to wonder why?" TJ said. "Maybe, just maybe, the problem was me realizing I was nothing but some shiny toy you only took out whenever you wanted to make a nice picture."

For a second his mom looked like she had been slapped. "We didn't—"

"You didn't what? Use me to further your agenda? I was thrown into a situation where half the country wanted to beat or psychoanalyze the gay out of me and the other half couldn't wait to tell me I was going to burn in Hell—and guess what? It was terrifying, Mom! It was terrifying, and dangerous, and all you could think about was how this was going to tarnish Dad's last year in the White House!"

"It was not all I could think about," she said between clenched teeth.

"Maybe it wasn't," TJ conceded. "But in the end you didn't help, not the way you should have. Like you didn't help with Sean, like you won't now—because you never help when I really need it, not if doesn't suit your plan, your views. And maybe until now I let it happen, but not this time," he said, taking a step back, then another.

"Thomas—" his mom called when he spun on his heels and headed for the front door. Suddenly he couldn't breathe, could barely see—he needed to get out. He needed to get out now.

He blindly snatched his coat and scarf, and let the door slam shut behind him before he'd even put them on.

 

*

 

Steve had never given him the key to his flat.

Given the state TJ was in right now, it was a terrible thing to remember all over again. He'd rung the doorbell and knocked and knocked, but the door hadn't open, and so Steve wasn't home, and TJ couldn't for the life of him remember where he might be. Was today one of the days he had an evening workshop at the VA? Was he at the shelter, at the home? If so, what was TJ going to do? He couldn't go to Nana since she lived with Mom, Anne was probably still at work or commuting, and he didn't want to go back to his flat. He couldn't be alone right now. He really shouldn't be either.

"Damn it," he hissed between his teeth, hitting the door a couple more times, his other hand gripping the doorjamb and supporting most of his weigh.

Maybe he could try to call someone, his therapist—but no, he wanted Steve, and not just his voice over the line, he wanted—

His head snapped up when the door unexpectedly opened.

"Yes, what do you—" Steve's irritation vanished the second he recognized TJ. "Thomas?"

TJ gasped and more or less flung himself at him, choking back on a sob when Steve's arm automatically closed around him. Steve dragged him inside and closed the door behind them, then his other hand came up to rest against the back of TJ's head.

"Hey, hey," he said soothingly, "it's okay, I'm here." TJ only burrowed closer to him. "What happened?"

"Mom knows," TJ managed to say.

"Okay," Steve said, although he was probably wondering how such a simple fact could lead to such a wreck. He didn't ask, though, just held TJ for a little while longer before suggesting: "Come on, let's get you out of that coat, let's go sit."

It was hard but TJ let him pull away. He slipped out of his coat and followed Steve, who picked up the knitted blanket resting on the back of the couch to wrap it around TJ's shoulders. TJ realized why when he tried to tug it closer around him: his hands were trembling.

He couldn't tell Steve that it wasn't because he was cold.

"Can you hold me?" he asked, and let out a shuddering breath when Steve did at once, his arms warm and encompassing. TJ closed his eyes and tried to calm down, turned his head into Steve's shoulder and breathed him in. He smelled faintly of sweat and musk, like he often did at the end of the day, but it was mostly covered up by the pungent smell of paint. TJ blinked, took in Steve's color-splattered t-shirt and jeans.

"Oh God," he said, straightening up. "You were painting, that's why you weren't answering the door—" He knew how absorbed Steve could get when he did, forgetting everything else and not noticing what was happening around him. He also knew that Steve generally gave priority to the VA, to his volunteering, to his work on the Captain Monkey series and therefore only rarely took the time to work on his art. And now TJ had come and interrupted him. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Steve reassured him, because of course he would. "Night is falling, I was bound to stop soon anyways. Besides," he added, cupping TJ's cheek and meeting his eye, "I'm glad you came here. You can always come to me if you need me, okay?"

TJ nodded. "Okay," he said. "Thank you."

Steve smiled at him, but it looked pained through his obvious worry. "Can you tell me what happened?"

TJ bit his lips. "Mom found out about you. I mean, she found out about the fundraiser, and someone she knows saw us." He let out a breath. "And I thought she'd, you know, appreciate what I did, or at least see that I did some good, that this is something I can do, that I can help—but no, no. She doesn't care about that." Trembling as it was, his voice was rising. "No, what she cares about, all she cares about, is that you look like Sean, so of course I must be back to repeating my old patterns again, and everything will go to shit again, and I'll fly off the handle again—because that's what I do, isn't it?" He could feel that crazed, hopeless  smile spread over his lips. "I'm an addict, I've always been an addict, and to them that's all I'll ever be."

Steve's lips parted but he didn't seem to know what to say.

"They don't care that I'm— I'm trying, they—" He sniffled. "I'm trying and it's so hard, every second of every day, and I get that recovery isn't supposed to be easy, but it shouldn't mean that they'll never trust me with it."

"No," Steve said, drawing him against his chest as TJ, humiliatingly, started crying. "It shouldn't. They should trust you, or they should at least try, because you're trying, I know you are, and you're doing so well, you are—"

He kept up that soft, comforting stream of words, kept holding TJ until TJ was spent.

"I trust you," he said then. "I know it's not the same, but I do."

"I know," TJ said. His voice was a wreck. "I trust you too."

He sniffled wetly, which sounded about as disgusting as he felt. A second later Steve was handing him a tissue, because he was a gentleman like that.

"I'll get you something to drink, okay?" he said after TJ had wiped his eyes and nose. "Something warm."

"Hot chocolate?" TJ asked hopefully.

"Hot chocolate it is," Steve smiled. He dropped a kiss on TJ's temple before standing up.

Left on the couch TJ blew his nose again. His head felt heavy, his eyes sore; his shoulders ached. Slowly, he tugged off his shoes so he could curl up on his side on the couch, wrapping himself more securely in the blanket.

That's better, he thought, closing his eyes to rest them as he settled down to wait.

 

*

 

He realized he'd fallen asleep when a murmur gently made him resurface. He blinked his eyes open and was confused for a second, until he recognized Steve's living-room. There was a glass of water on the coffee table in front of him and, when he craned his neck, he saw that outside the night had fallen entirely. Steve was nowhere to be seen.

Another murmur came from deeper into the apartment. TJ sat up, rubbing at his eyes; they felt uncomfortably dry. His head felt ready to topple right into a migraine, so he gratefully drank the glass waiting for him.

How long had he been asleep? There was no clock in the room and his phone was in his coat.

In the end he stood up and went looking for Steve. He found him in his studio, standing in front of the window. He was on the phone.

"Is it always like that?" he was asking when TJ entered the room. A pause followed while the person at the other end of the line replied. "You do realize that—" he started, only to be interrupted. "Yeah. I mean, I can't be entirely sure but I think so, given the state he was in—he was really upset." TJ bit his lips when he realized Steve was talking about him. He wondered if he should make his presence known. "He's asleep, that's why I—" Another pause. "Yeah. Yeah, okay, I'll tell him." And then: "Goodbye."

He finished the call and nearly startled when, upon turning around, he saw TJ standing right here.

"Boo," TJ said.

Steve smiled and shook his head. "That was your brother," he said, waving what TJ now recognized as his own phone. "I took the liberty of answering, since you were asleep and I didn't want to— He was worried."

His gaze was silently asking if he had overstepped.

"It's okay," TJ said. "It's good." He didn't think he wanted to talk to anyone in his family right now. "Thank you."

"Are you feeling better?" Steve asked.

TJ nodded and came closer, taking back his phone and sliding it into the pocket of his jeans before pressing himself against Steve's chest. Steve wrapped his arms around him and he sighed happily. "How long was I out?"

"About an hour and a half. It's nearly 7."

TJ groaned. "I'll never sleep tonight."

"You looked like you needed it," Steve said. "And we can watch a movie."

It was an implicit invitation to spend the night. TJ felt grateful for not having to ask. "Okay."

"Before that, I was thinking about making some soup. That okay with you?"

"Yeah," TJ said. He'd gotten to taste Steve's cooking already. Mostly he used recipes he'd gotten from his mom, making simple, hearty dishes a world away from the fancy stuff TJ had grown up on. While not mind-blowing, it was still good, comforting in a way. Right now it sounded more appealing than anything else TJ could think of. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Well, I don't know," Steve said as they parted, some teasing shyly peeking through his voice. "Peeling potatoes might be kind of beyond—I mean, beneath you."

"Well, duh," TJ said, ramping it up. "Of course it is, you can't expect me to be able to do anything with my hands, can you? My manicure has to stay perfect for when I wave at the adoring crowd." He flicked his fingers to demonstrate.

Steve snatched his hand out of the air and brushed a kiss against his knuckles, the dork. "They also make beautiful music."

TJ gave him a wobbly smirk. "That's not all they do," he said, heavy with innuendo.

Steve laughed. "Come on," he said, and tugged him towards the kitchen.

 

*

 

Unsurprisingly, the soup involved potatoes, cabbage, an onion and a thick slice of bacon—for flavor, according to Steve. TJ managed to eat a full bowl; given the circumstances, it was quite a feat.

He was silent for most of the meal, too, which explained why, upon finishing his second serving, Steve pushed his bowl away and asked: "Do you want to talk about what happened?"

TJ, who'd been lazily mopping the inside of his bowl with some soda bread, froze.

"Not really, no," he said, stuffing the piece of bread in his mouth for an excuse not to talk.

"Then," Steve continued haltingly, interlacing his hands in front of him on the table, "maybe you could tell me more about Sean?"

TJ paused in his chewing.

"It's not the first time he's come up," Steve explained, "and I wonder—"

"Depends," TJ said, interrupting him. "D'you think you could tell me more about Bucky?" But that was a low blow, he saw it and regretted it at once. He swallowed. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I'm being a dick." He sighed. "It's just, there's not much to tell." Which was about the biggest lie ever, but somehow he couldn't help it. "We were together. He wasn't out. But due to him being who he was, and me being who I am, some people found out. I thought we could go public, get through this together. He didn't. And so that was it." He shrugged, and was glad that he'd managed to keep it short: his throat had begun to close.

"When did that happen?" Steve asked, oh so carefully. He hadn't been fooled by TJ's stripped down narrative.

TJ huffed a breath around a bitter smile: there was no escaping the truth, was it? "He dumped me in December 2011," he said, and looked up in time to see the realization dawn on Steve's face. "I know. Stupid, eh? All of that over some guy."

But even as he said it he knew that it wasn't right. He'd known it for quite a while, too. The realization was one of the hardest he'd come to with Dr. Bennani, and no matter how much he'd pushed it away, tried to blame it all on Sean anyway, he couldn't un-know it, not anymore.

His suicide attempt hadn't been because of Sean. Not quite.

He remembered how it had felt, being with him. How right, how easy, how good—and yeah, maybe Sean was married, maybe they couldn't tell anyone, but it was still great. TJ hadn't been lying when he'd told his mom that he felt like a different person. Mostly, he remembered light: from the summer solstice to the twinkling of Christmas, he hadn't even noticed the days growing shorter, darker; all he'd noticed was Sean, his fair hair, his bright eyes, his smile. With him TJ had felt weightless, he'd felt like he could do anything, be anything, be better. All he'd needed, it turned out, was someone to love and be loved by—and now that he had it, everything was going to be okay. He was finally going to live.

Only then Sean had taken it all away, the light had gone out, and TJ had been left to realize that he'd never stopped being himself. All the reasons he'd had to think otherwise had been nothing but an illusion, a dream. Now he'd woken up, and everything around him had looked and felt all the darker in comparison. So dark that it had been impossible to believe that it was ever going to change. No, all TJ was ever going to have were at best brief moments of artificial light in a never ending obscurity, the only thing in sight a bleak horizon where no sunrise would come. That was what had pushed him over the edge. Because if there was no hope for daybreak, what was the point, really?

"You're not," Steve was saying. "You're not stupid."

He took one of TJ's hands in his and TJ gave him a faltering smile. He saw things differently now, he wanted to tell him. But he didn't know how.

What he'd looked for in Sean… It was like being that stupid traveler trudging through a swamp, who sees some will-o'-the-wisp and starts following it, thinking it's going to show him the way, to save him. But that's not what will-o'-the-wisps do. And when it suddenly, inevitably goes out, the cretin finds himself all alone in the middle of the night, utterly lost with murky water up to his knees and God knows what lurking in the darkness. He's still stuck in the marshes, only now he has little to no hope of ever getting out. And yeah, maybe he can try and blame the will-o'-the-wisp. But the truth is, he can only blame himself, for believing it was going to solve all his problems in the first place.

That poor bastard, that had been TJ—still was, only now instead of planning to jump into the nearest pond to drown, he was struggling forward, clinging to belief that if he walked in a straight line for long enough, he was bound to reach the end one day, or at least higher, dryer ground.

He looked at Steve, who was still holding his hand, his thumb brushing against his knuckles. And yes, he was blond, and handsome, and he had blue eyes, but in that moment TJ thought he didn't look like Sean at all. He wasn't anything like Sean either.

"I love you," he said. "You know that, right?"

Steve's smile was small, but real. "I do," he said. "I love you too."

He wasn't a will-o'-the-wisp, TJ didn't think. Just another guy, plodding through the marshes too, even if he'd ended up there for entirely different reasons. TJ had been lucky enough to stumble upon him and now they were making their way side by side, helping each other along, preventing each other from falling into turbid waters. TJ knew he could lean on Steve if he was tired. He hoped Steve knew he could do the same.

He also regretted agreeing to sit through Doug's yearly Lord of the Rings re-watch over Christmas. Especially since he hated how compelling he found Frodo's storyline, up until he remembered that Frodo's struggles came from a wish to save the whole damn world and his only stemmed from him trying to hide from it.

 

*

 

When the time came for the weekly phone call from his mom and Doug was the one on the other end of the line when TJ picked up, he wasn't surprised. He wasn't quite sure what it meant, though: was she mad, or regretful, was she trying to give TJ space or to let him know of her disapproval? He couldn't know for sure. He never did with her: that was the problem.

He and Doug exchanged the usual news—the conversation was more of a check-up than anything—until Doug, perceiving TJ's tension, took pity on him and got to the point: Mom was wondering if they could talk, face to face, and wanted to know if he'd agree to come by her house for dinner the week after next. She should be able to arrange her schedule to allow it.

TJ pressed his lips together, recognizing the staging of an apology: going through Doug so that there was no pressure, implying that he could say no and wouldn't even have to take the brunt of her disappointment… He was entirely free to choose, see? But that liberty of choice itself was an admonishment: she was willing to take the first step; would TJ be decent enough, mature enough, to respond in kind?

TJ almost rolled his eyes at it. It would be so much simpler if she plainly told him what she thought and wanted. Sometimes he suspected that after all these years in politics, she'd simply forgotten how. However, given that he owed her some excuses for what he'd said, or at least parts of it, he agreed.

He'd talked a lot with Dr. Bennani about what had happened; he might even have asked for an extra session in the days following the fight. She'd stressed how important and positive it was for him to start being able to take some distance with what had happened when he'd come out, and that he'd reached the point where he could be critical about it, could discern what had and hadn't been his responsibility, could reflect on his parents' role in it and most of all confront them about it. Still, TJ knew that all he'd said hadn't been entirely justified and that the rest could've been better expressed.

With that in mind, he showed up at his mom's house at the appointed time. It was quite early, so they could make dinner together, Mom had said. TJ didn't know yet if it was to give them a distraction in case things threatened to go wrong, or one of these attempts at bonding both his parents were so terrible at. In any case, it was bound to be awkward.

But at least she was tying. Even after she'd said that she was done, spent, she was still trying. For that, TJ was grateful.

He was right, though: things were awkward, from the moment he stepped through the door and saw her smoothing down the apron she was wearing. She didn't seem to know whether she should hug him or not and when he briefly cradled her in his arms she was tense, stiff as a board.

She was nervous, he realized. The mere thought sent a jab of panic through him. He couldn't be comfortable with the idea of his mother, one of the most influential people on Earth, being nervous about talking to him.

He hung his coat and followed her to the kitchen, where all the ingredients they'd need were laid out neatly, the arrangement pretty enough to fit in a magazine. TJ briefly wondered how many times his mom had straightened that spoon or moved that box half an inch to the right.

"I thought we could make lasagna," she said. "Doug had nothing but praise for the dish Anne cooked about a month ago."

"Okay," TJ said, having decided to go along with whatever she'd planned. It'd make everything easier. "Where do you want to start?"

The answer was: with him. As it turned out, moving into the White House when he was eight years old had made him forget that his mom, while not a disaster in the kitchen, wasn't the fanciest of cooks either. Over twenty years of involvement in politics hadn't helped her hone those skills either. In short, he was in charge, and so ended up making the filling while she stirred the béchamel sauce while it thickened, so it wouldn't burn.

As a gesture, it was quite transparent. But now wasn't the time to nag.

"I talked to Douglas," his mom said after a while, while they both stood in front of the stove and stirred they respective pans.

TJ hummed.

"He told me he's met… Steve."

"Yeah, he has," TJ said, wondering where this was going.

"And that he seems like a good man."

"He is, Mom." He turned to her. "He really is."

She looked at him for several seconds. She wanted to believe him, he could see she did, but at the same time she was worried.

"I hope so," she said. "You have seemed happier, these past few months."

TJ tried to see things from her point of view: watching her son open himself up to another relationship, another stranger, after what the previous one had done to him.

"You know, what happened two years ago," he said slowly, "it wasn't Sean's fault."

Her expression hardened at once.

"It wasn't, Mom," TJ insisted. "He might've been a catalyst, what he did certainly didn't help, but he didn't—" He sighed. "It was a long time coming, is all."

That hit her, hard. She shuddered, heartbreak clear in her eyes. TJ felt sorry, would've taken it back, if that hadn't been the truth they all knew deep down, but refused to acknowledge. Or had, up until now. TJ was done with that.

"I know," she admitted. "And I'm sorry if— I'm sorry that the choices we made contributed to that. I'm sorry that we didn't help—"

TJ couldn't let her shoulder all the blame. "You did," he said, "you did the best you could, I know you did—"

"No, we didn't," she retorted. "You were right about that. We made choices, and those choices were to put the country and our own ambitions before our family, before our own sons—and for that, I am sorry."

"You did a lot of good for a lot of other people, though," TJ pointed out.

His mom looked down. "I like to think that we did. But I wonder, sometimes, what it says about a person, that they don't protect those they hold dear to protect everyone else—or that they sacrifice those closest to them for the greater good."

TJ twitched a smile. "You didn't cut my throat at the altar, Mom."

"But I put you in a position where it was easier for people to try and drag you there, when I could've hold you back and kept you safe."

"I didn't make it easy for you either," TJ said, perfectly aware of what a terror he'd been as a pre-teen. "Plus, that metaphor is becoming kind of weird—and the sauce will burn."

"Oh, yes," she said, returning to her stirring.

They enjoyed a moment of silence, before his mom spoke again:

"I wanted— No, I want to do better."

"Mom—"

"I do." She took a breath. "Before he died, President Garcetti asked me to run with him, as his Vice President." TJ's eyebrows rose: he hadn't known that. "I was going to accept. I really was. You'd just overdosed, and Doug—" She stopped, shook her head.

TJ frowned minutely, wondering what about Doug. His mom continued:

"I'd made my decision, but then—the accident."

"Yeah," TJ murmured. "I don't think anyone could've seen that one coming."

"Yes," she said, voice trembling. "And now, I can't let Collier run unopposed—I just can't, you know what kind of man he is."

"That I do." He was trying not to blame Sean for what had happened, but he certainly wasn't extending the current president the same courtesy. Part of him kept thinking: if he hadn't found out, if there hadn't been that thing about the Child Protection Act… If, if, if.

"I want to be here for you too, and for Doug," his mom was saying, "but I don't know how."

Her voice was breaking. TJ looked at her in alarm, only to see her on the verge of tears. "Mom—"

"I just want you to be okay," she said.

He stopped stirring to hug her. "I am okay," he assured her. "Right now, I am. And mom—" He drew back to look her in the eye, holding her hands. "—don't take this in a bad way, but I'm an adult. I'm over thirty, even if I don't have much to show for it. And I'm getting better. But this, recovery, it's something I have to do on my own. I have to," he repeated when he saw her about to protest. "I don't mean that I have to disappear, or go away, or that I don't need support, just that I have to be the one doing the work. I'm the only one who can. But you, and Doug, the whole family, she way you coddle me, or mother-hen me sometimes, the way you walk on eggshells around me and treat me like a kid or a ticking bomb—it doesn't help."

She squeezed his hands.

"And yes, maybe when I was younger—no, yeah, I definitely could've used more supervision and protection, and yes, part of it is on you and dad. But it's wrong of me to make you the only ones responsible. Because a lot of it is on me too. And I have to change that—me, not you, not anyone else. Okay?"

"Okay," she said with a nod, tears threatening to escape. He let her hug him again, wrap her arms around his neck and hold on tight. "Okay," she repeated. "But I need you to know that I'm here to support you. If you need anything—and I mean anything—you can ask me. And I will listen, properly, I swear. Promise me you'll ask."

"I promise," he said, his own throat in a painful knot. He was going to cry too, but he didn't want to let go.

"I love you, Tommy," she whispered.

He closed his eyes and held her tighter. "I love you too."

 

*

 

In the end, the béchamel did burn. They managed to salvage most of it, though, and took the time the lasagna spent in the oven to compose themselves, first by preparing the salad and then by getting a drink.

"Let me guess, sparkling water?" TJ asked with a clear lack of enthusiasm. His mom gave him a look. "I know, I know—but you know, mocktails are a thing, I got a book about how to make, like, two hundred of them at Christmas, you know that, you were there. Not that I needed it. What I need, however, is syrup and juice and lemonade—anything but sparkling water."

She smiled indulgently and put her glass down after having taken a sip. "So," she said, "tell me about your… tell me about Steve. Doug told me some of what he knows, but I'd like to hear it from you."

"Oh, uh," TJ floundered. "I don't know, what do you want to know?"

Some part of him was afraid that, if he started, he wouldn't be able to stop.

"Maybe start at the beginning," his mom prompted. "You met at the inauguration of Stark Tower?"

"Yeah, he was invited too, he made the painting in the lobby—he's a painter. I mean, he paints amongst other things, he likes to keep busy."

"Doug told me he's the illustrator of that children book series you like."

TJ nodded, willing himself not to blush. "He does an art workshop at the VA too, and he volunteers for a ton of things—he cares about a lot of things. He's a very caring person."

Someone kill him now.

His mom was smiling, though, amused and warm in a way she hadn't been before.

"So he's socially involved. Politically, too?"

TJ shook his head. "No. I mean, he cares a lot about social issues, and he goes to protests and is always ready to do things for charity—like helping for that fundraiser for the Wounded Warriors Project. But he doesn't belong to a party or anything. And he has no plans to ever start a political career, like, ever."

That seemed to please his mom, for some reason. "So he's active—and vocal about it."

"Oh, yes," TJ said, remembering the many rants he'd had to listen to. "You should hear what he was to say about gender equality. To be honest, I'm kind of worried about the day he'll end up in the same room as Dad."

"He's not a fan of your father?" his mom asked with a small grin.

"While he acknowledges the merits of several of his policies, the progress made under his administration as well as the ingenuity of his declarations are strongly undermined by the way he treats over half of the human population," TJ drawled.

His mom laughed. "I see."

"And that's the redacted version." Steve's Brooklyn accent tended to resurface whenever he got riled up about something, accompanied by a slew of swear words.

"He does sound like a good man," his mom said once they'd quietened down. "I'd like to meet him one day."

TJ bit his lips. "I'd like to introduce him to you too, but—"

He was interrupted by the front door opening. Nana stepped through, pretending to shield her eyes.

"I hear no screams," she announced as she lifted her hand, "see no blood. I guess you two made up?"

TJ went to help her out of her coat while his mom rolled her eyes.

"Yes, Mom," she said, "by some miracle, we did manage without your enlightened guidance."

Nana ignored her. "Smells delicious in here," she said, "what is it?"

"Lasagna."

TJ finished hanging up Nana's coat in time to catch the surprise glance she cast at her daughter. "Didn't know you had that in your wheelhouse."

"TJ directed the preparation," Mom said with a glance at him, before starting to toss the salad.

"Right," Nana said, turning to TJ as he joined them, "'cause you're a fine cook now." She sat down at the bar. "I swear, you're getting gayer by the minute."

TJ checked on the lasagna and came back with a glass of water, which Nana promptly ignored.

"I understand, though. If I were in your shoes and had your boyfriend for company, I'd feel myself growing gayer by the minute too."

"Doug told me he's quite handsome," mom said prudently.

Nana snorted. "It has nothing to do with him being handsome, and everything to do with how he makes you want to test for how long he can bench-press you, then lick chocolate off his abs to recover from the exertion."

TJ laughed, although his cheeks were burning. "Sure, that sounds exhausting for you."

"So," Nana said, folding her hands on the bar surface, "when's the family dinner?"

She was met by two quizzical looks.

"You are going to introduce him to your mother, right?" she said, giving TJ a disapproving glance and slapping him on the shoulder. "I need to know when. I don't want to pass up such an occasion to feast my eyes."

TJ's mom quirked an eyebrow. She was probably starting to wonder just what Steve looked like, to warrant such praise.

"I would like for it to happen," TJ said, "but how can we do that without… you know." His mom nodded: she knew. He bit his lip. "Maybe you could drop by my flat when he's there."

"Pssht," Nana interrupted at once, "no, that won't do. We need to have the whole formal family dinner, right here in this house. I want to know how well he performs under pressure."

"You just want to make him sweat," TJ said with a glare.

"That too." She grinned unrepentantly.

TJ rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "The problem remains the same," he pointed out.

"Not necessarily," Nana said thoughtfully. "I may have a plan. We just need to find a date on which your mother is available and your man is free for the whole afternoon. I'll need his phone number too."

TJ met his mom's gaze, uncertain. "Okay?"

"Good, that's settled then," Nana said. "I need to go shopping."

 

*

 

"How did it go?" Steve asked when TJ got home that night. He'd been waiting for him, sitting up in bed reading one of those thick history books he went through like others through snacks.

TJ had had to pause and enjoy the picture: he liked that Steve felt comfortable not only to come here, but also to make himself at home. But at the same time, Steve did spend a lot of time here, especially as of late.

"Good," TJ replied, making a detour on his way to the bathroom to kiss him in greeting.

He quickly washed up, brushed his teeth, then came back out to change into his night clothes. Given that Steve was here, it was only a pair of pants. Steve was like a furnace and TJ would never pass up an excuse to snuggle up to him during the night.

"She wants to meet you," he said as he slid under the covers.

"She does?" Steve said. He sounded so surprised TJ almost rolled his eyes.

"Of course she does—and not just because of your opinions about women's rights." He lay down and scooted closer while Steve closed his book and put it on the bedside table.

"You told her about those?" he said. Before he turned off the lamp TJ saw something like apprehension on his face.

"Yup," he said as they settled down. "She's very interested. And she knows you're important to me."

Of course, Steve met that with: "You're important to me too."

TJ acknowledged that by kissing the closest patch of skin, on Steve's shoulder.

"Your half-days off are still on Friday and Monday, right?" he asked.

"Yeah, why?"

"We have to find a date where Mom can be here for dinner." That was probably going to be the hardest part, actually.

"There's gonna be a dinner?" Steve asked.

"Yup." TJ had closed his eyes. He could already feel that tonight would not be one of these evenings he struggled to fall asleep. "Don't worry, you'll do great."

 

*

 

After that, TJ would've thought that his main preoccupation for the weeks to come would be the prospect of having his boyfriend meet his mom. However, it turned out not to be the case.

Nearly a week after his dinner with Mom and Nana, he was brought out of the light slumber he often hovered in around 3 a.m. by Steve sitting up. It took a second for his muddled mind to find its bearings.

"Steve?" he asked, turning his head, then his whole body to flop over gracelessly. It felt like his brain had forgotten how to access his limbs. "You okay?"

He winced when Steve, instead of answering, turned on the light.

"Nightmare?" he mumbled.

"Yeah," Steve croaked.

TJ reached out a hand to brush his fingers against the small of Steve's back. "Wanna talk about it?" he asked, like he always did. He usually got rebuffed, but Dr. Bennani had told him that it was to be expected, that it shouldn't discourage him: what mattered was that Steve knew TJ was here to listen, and so all TJ could do was make sure he knew it, every time.

When Steve didn't reply with his usual "no", TJ took it as an encouragement. He sat up and clumsily scooted over to Steve's side.

"What was it about?" he asked prudently, blinking and trying to get his mind to clear.

"Bucky," Steve said. "Most of the nightmares I still get nowadays are about Bucky."

"Oh." TJ realized what was happening, why Steve's shoulders were so bowed, almost hunching. Suddenly he was wide awake. "You know you don't have to—"

"No, I do," Steve cut in. "You told me about Sean, it's only fair."

It wasn't, though: TJ hadn't told him even half of the story when it came to Sean, didn't know when he would manage it. And he didn't like the idea that honesty between them had to be met point by point, like a currency exchange.

But TJ was curious, too. He didn't know if and when an opportunity like this one would arise again, especially if he stopped Steve now. So he remained silent and simply pressed his shoulder against Steve's in support.

"He was my best friend since we were kids," Steve began? "My only friend, actually, for a long time." TJ had a hard time believing that: he couldn't imagine a time or a reason why people wouldn't flock all over Steve. "Most of the time I was sick, and when I wasn't I was pissy as all hell, some self-righteous little shit always looking for a fight. Somehow he saw past that—but of course he did, he was such—" His voice briefly went out on him and he cleared his throat. "He was such a great guy. Smart, and perceptive, he got people, you know? He got me. And I never really understood why he stuck around given the way I was, but he did."

He fell silent for a little while, kneading his hands between his parted knees.

"He enlisted first," he said—and TJ knew at once where this was going. "He didn't do it for the same reasons I did. I was being an idealistic idiot, arrogantly thinking I could change things. He just did it because—" He huffed. "I don't even know. He said that he might as well, that he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life yet and needed the money. He had three little sisters, his parents weren't rich, there was no way they could all get an education—but there are programs, financial support for vets who want to go to college. And I guess, listening to all my babble, he thought he might do some good out there while he was at it."

His hands were still kneading, kneading, in a way that was starting to look painful. In the end TJ reached out and put one of his own on them. Steve let him, let go, cradled TJ's hand in his and interlaced their fingers.

"He didn't go the way I did, he enlisted. Went through basics, and was good enough to get noticed—not that it was surprising. He was good at everything. So he got some special training, too. But even then he ended up in the field a lot earlier than I did. By the time I got out of the Academy he'd completed one tour and started a second one, and he'd already made it to sergeant." He turned TJ's hand over between his, traced the lines on his palm. "I had this dream, this fantasy I guess, that one day we'd end up in the same unit, serve together. But it never happened, of course. Turns out that the US army is active in a number of countries, and most of these are pretty vast. Even when we both ended up in Afghanistan, we kept missing each other. And then—" He sighed. "Bucky's unit was captured."

TJ bit his lips and squeezed Steve's hand.

"A bunch of others were too, some from NATO—enough for command to decide to stage a rescue. I was part of it." He swallowed. "On paper the operation was a success—that's how I got promoted to captain. About four fifths of the prisoners made it out alive. Bucky—" He had to clear his throat a second time. "Bucky wasn't one of them. We were— I was too late."

He was silent for several seconds and when he spoke again, his voice was so low TJ had to lean forward to hear it. "I was the one who found his body. It was…" He lowered his head. "It wasn't pretty. I learned later that he'd volunteered to take the brunt of— of everything, in place of his team. Saved a whole lot of his guys doing so, at the price of his own life." Another silence. "He hadn't been gone that long when I found him and— if only I'd been quicker."

"No, no," TJ whispered, putting his free arm around Steve's shoulders, because surely Steve couldn't blame himself for what had happened, "you did everything you could, I'm sure of it."

"All his life he'd been there for me when I needed it," Steve said, voice strangled, "and the one time he needed me to do the same—"

"You did," TJ insisted. "You tried, and you saved the rest of his team, didn't you?" But even as he said it he knew that, to Steve, it meant next to nothing. And he realized that this, here, was the root of all the doubts and confusion and hopelessness that Steve had felt, that had nearly driven him off the brink, that he'd told TJ about on a night like this one, months ago, sitting on the floor of this very room; because what good was Steve, what good could he be and do as a soldier, if he couldn't even save his best friend? Still, TJ tried: "There was nothing you could've done. And— And you found him, in the end. You brought him home, to his family, right?"

Steve let out a short, terrible laugh. "That I did. And it's been nearly ten years, and I haven't been to see any of them—I haven't even been to his grave. God, I'm such a coward." He passed a hand over his eyes.

"You're not," TJ tried to say, but Steve dismissed him with a shake of his head.

"I am. I wasn't even there for the ceremony they held in his honor." His lips twisted. "He was posthumously promoted to sergeant first class, fat lot of good it did."

TJ looked at him, wishing he had the words to make it better, all the while knowing that there were none. Then he realized: "Wait. So Sergeant Bear—"

Steve glanced over with a small smile. "Yeah," he said. "That's him. That's us, in a way—that whole fantasy I had, the both of us serving together, helping people. God—" He squeezed his eyes shut. "—I was such a kid. I am such a kid, still, I just can't let go, so now I'm drawing it—worse, I'm selling it. And I really shouldn't, I shouldn't sell that lie to kids. What if it makes them want to join one day, what if it gets them killed too?"

"Hey, no, stop," TJ said, voice firm. "They won't join until they're adults, and I'd hope that by then they won't base their decision on a book they read when they were six. Plus there's that disclaimer at the beginning of every volume stating that things in that world don't work like they do in ours."

"Do you think they read it?" Steve said, clearly skeptical. "Or that they really understand what it means?"

"Well, then it's up to their parents to make sure they do," TJ said. "As a matter of fact, it's up to their parents to choose whether those are books their kids should read or not. They're the one with the money. And if they do buy them, mostly it'll be because those books are great. And they are," he insisted when Steve scoffed. "That Monkey and Bear are army, a captain and a sergeant, it barely registers. You never see them on base, or doing drills—the whole things is about discovering new things, helping people, being kind and open and working together. And there are all these science facts too."

It distantly occurred to him that he was theorizing about a book meant for pre-schoolers, involving a monkey and a bear, at three in the morning. But the absurdity of it was outweighed by the dawning realization of how much Steve was carrying, every hour or every day, without it showing most of the time.

"Yeah," Steve said, all choked up. "Bucky loved science."

"See? I'm sure he'd love it," TJ said. "He would find it very flattering too, Sergeant Bear is definitely the cuter of the two. I'm sure he gets all the ladies, and the guys, all the time. He's definitely the real hero there."

It was true, too: while most of the action was initiated by Monkey, out of a constant wish to do good, most of his plans were hare-brained—if he had one at all. Bear was the reasonable one, picking up the pieces after his friend, trying to prevent him from doing anything too crazy but still going along with it all. And in the end he always, always saved the day.

"Yeah, he is," Steve said, smiling like he was glad TJ had gotten that. But then his smile faded, and he blinked, and suddenly his face was nothing but grief—or, worse, heartbreak. "He was." He closed his eyes. "To me, he was."

Fuck, TJ thought. He was in love with him.

He didn't think Steve even realized it. But for him to still be so affected, so bereaved, after nearly ten years…

It didn't matter right now, though. The only thing that mattered was that Steve was hurting. TJ wrapped his other arm around him, trying to be there, to be tender and at the same time solid, something Steve could lean on. Steve closed his eyes and turned his head into the crook of TJ's neck like he was hiding.

"I'm sure he was," TJ whispered, and held Steve as he grieved.

 

*

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Finding a day on which both TJ's mom and Steve could be present was about as difficult as TJ had expected and sent them well into March. They had to settle on a Friday, between the back leg of Mom's tour of the Midwest and a short trip Steve had to make to New York.

"You're going to New York?" TJ had asked. That had been news to him.

"Yes," Steve had said. He'd looked down a bit bashfully. "Tony Stark wants to commission me for another painting."

TJ had grinned. "Oh, really? And here you said the previous one was just a fluke. What's it for this time?"

"He wants me to do something for Ms. Potts' home office," Steve had replied. "From what I gather, one of the paintings there suffered a small mishap due to one of Stark's experimental robots. He wants to make it up to her for her birthday."

"I see," TJ had said with a smile.

"That's why he wants me to go there. He's unable to give clear instructions over the phone, for one, and he wants me to see the place so I can have an idea of what she likes."

"You could talk to Anne too," TJ had suggested. "She's the one who designed her whole floor."

Which was partly why he'd asked Anne to be there for dinner too.

When the time came, he was grateful for her and Doug's presence. He was awfully anxious. He would've liked to have a glass of something strong to assuage his nerves, but unfortunately he didn't do that anymore, and so he was reduced to biting his lips and jiggling his foot up and down as he waited for Mom, Nana and Steve to arrive.

He itched for a cigarette, if only to have something to do with his hands.

"Relax," Anne told him as she sat down beside him. "It will be okay. My first meeting with your mother was a disaster, and yet I still married your brother, didn't I?"

"Yeah," TJ said, "except for the fact that you knew Doug was a safe bet. I mean, he's the  right brother, you know—a good, reliable guy, not liable to fuck things up between you because of his thousand issues or because he got high or drunk or both and did something stupid, I don't know, that's just something off the top of my—"

He stopped, because somehow Doug had swallowed wrong and was coughing all over himself. Anne stood up to go rub his back soothingly. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just, wrong pipe," Doug choked.

"Sparkling water, man," TJ sighed dramatically. "When I say it's shit—turns out it's dangerous too."

They all looked up when the door opened.

"And we're here!" Nana announced, stepping inside with a bright smile on her lips. Her outfit was blindingly colorful, as always when she went out. Something about taking control of other people's gaze by making sure they couldn't look away, she'd explained once. Still, a detail made TJ frown.

"Why are you wearing sunglasses?" The weather certainly didn't warrant it. It was a miracle they hadn't been caught in one of the showers that had been intermittently falling since morning.

"Helps with the aura, sweetie," she replied grandly, but TJ barely heard her. Steve had finally managed to fit himself through the door, which had been a feat given the amount of bags he was carrying.

TJ hurried over to help him put it all down. "And using my boyfriend as a mule, is that part of the aura too?" he said reproachfully.

"Why, yes," Nana grinned. "You're getting it now."

"It's not that heavy," Steve reassured him. "Most of these boxes are far too big for what they contain, so most of it's just air."

Nana nodded. "Plus, it's all part of our cover."

"Cover?" Doug asked as he stood up from the couch. He seemed to have recovered from his fit and walked over, with Anne in tow, to shake Steve's hand.

"I'll let your man explain, but before that, Anne, Doug, help me with these, will you?" She gestured at the heap of shopping bags. "Elaine will throw a fit if we leave them all in the foyer."

They obeyed, which conveniently left TJ and Steve alone for a little while.

"Well," Steve said. "Hi."

"Hi," TJ said. He let his eyes appreciatively rove over his boyfriend: he was in the same getup TJ remembered from his exhibition in New York, dark jeans and a vivid blue shirt that enhanced everything—his eyes, his broad shoulders, his trim waist and his nicely toned arms. "Don't you look nice."

"I tried," Steve said with an awkward smile. "Is your mom here?"

"Not yet," TJ said, feeling fond: Steve was nervous too. He looked properly delicious, TJ just had to get a taste.

Steve didn't seem to mind, much to the contrary. Yet TJ made himself pull back after two—okay, three—kisses. He wanted to help Steve make a good first impression and that wasn't going to happen if he was all mussed up, his lips swollen and his shirt askew by the time Mom showed up.

"Might I interest you in a drink?" he asked.

"A glass of water would be great for now," Steve replied. He raised his nose in the air. "What's cooking? It smells delicious."

"Just roasted chicken and potatoes, nothing too fancy."

TJ led Steve to the bar and poured him a glass.

"Well, don't you look cozy and presentable," Nana said when she returned a couple minutes later. Her tone was openly disapproving, as if TJ should've had Steve pinned to the front door and halfway out of his pants by now, instead of being a good host.

TJ had to agree, the image was pleasant.

Once Doug and Anne had joined them, they all moved to the couch and armchairs in the living-room.

"So, what's this cover story you mentioned?" Doug asked. He probably wanted to make sure he wouldn't wake up to a PR nightmare come Saturday.

"Oh, um." Steve glanced at Nana.

"Go on, sweetie," she encouraged.

"Well, Margaret had told me to meet her at the Pentagon City Mall and to wait for her at a Starbucks table on the ground floor," he said. "So I was there, waiting, when she arrived, laden with bags. Before she could reach me she dropped a couple by accident—or so it looked like."

"It was an Oscar worthy performance," Nana cut in. "He fell right for it."

"I did! I hurried over to help—"

"Like I knew he would."

"—and once she'd recovered all of her purchases and we'd straightened up she said: 'Nice way to break the ice, eh?' Which is when I realized that everything had happened accidentally on purpose."

"Sounds like Nana," Doug said.

Anne laughed and TJ added: "Say, how many guys did you pick up with that one?"

Nana grinned without answering.

"Oh, so I'm nothing special?" Steve said.

Nana patted his shoulder. "You're alright, sweetie."

TJ couldn't help but smile, delighted that they were getting along.

"So how did that translate into Steve becoming your porter for the day?" he asked.

"Well, given that we probably had eyes—or cameras—on us, I kept up the pretense of a meet-cute and I have to say, Stevie played along beautifully," Nana said. "I said: 'Glad to see chivalry ain't dead', and he said…"

"'It was my pleasure, ma'am'," Steve filled in. "'Will you be okay carrying all this?'"

Nana was clearly getting into their reenactment of the scene: "'I hope so, I still have a lot more shopping to do'."

"'If that's so, I'd be happy to help you'."

She batted a hand. "'Oh no, I wouldn't want to take up any more of your time'."

"'I insist'," Steve said and accompanied it with an earnest puppy-eyed look that had everyone laugh and coo.

"And so off we went," Nana concluded. "That tame enough for your, Dougie? If anything pops up in the rags it'll be all about how I managed to catch the last good Samaritan on Earth." She pursed her lips. "I hope there will be pictures, actually, so people really understand what a good catch it was."

"Hey," TJ protested, "as far as I know, I was the one who made it."

"But they won't know that, will they?" Nana countered.

"I kind of feel objectified by this conversation?" Steve told Anne.

"Sorry to break it to you, honey," Nana said mercilessly, "but you better get used to it. It's all those rotten paps know how to do."

The ensuing silence might've turned awkward if it hadn't been interrupted by the front door opening, and TJ's mom stepping through with Agent Clark in tow.

"Sorry," she said, "my plane was delayed at landing because of the rain." She took off her damp coat. Sara appeared right on time to take it away with her umbrella. "I see everybody is here already."

Steve met TJ's glance, silently asking what he should do. TJ stood up and reached out a hand, which Steve took after discreetly wiping his palms against his jeans. They met Elaine at the entrance to the living-room.

"Hey, sweetie," she said, giving TJ a kiss and a swift hug he returned with one arm.

"Hi, Mom. So—" He tugged Steve to stand beside him. "This is Steve. Steve, this is my mom, Elaine."

"Ma'am," Steve said, shaking her hand.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Elaine returned, meaningfully stressing her words.

Neither seemed to know where to go from here. They didn't have to try and figure it out either: the oven bell started ringing.

"And that would be dinner," TJ said. "Everyone, go sit down, food's ready."

"Can I help?" Steve asked eagerly. The accompanying glance begged, Please don't leave me alone.

TJ took pity on him and said: "You can bring the salad, come on."

They brought the food to the table. TJ carved the chicken and started serving, helped by Steve who reached out the plates, starting of course with the ladies. First Nana, then Mom, then Anne—who tolerated a chicken breast and a whole potato on her plate, before drowning it all in salad—before he continued with Doug, TJ and himself.

For a little while there was nothing but the sound of eating.

"This is delicious, Tommy," his mom finally said, a third of the way into her serving.

"Thanks," he said, a bit hesitantly because there was nothing extraordinary in putting a chicken into an oven. That, and he himself couldn't perceive whatever taste she was enjoying: to him the chicken tasted bland, a bit dry, and the potatoes felt like chalk. Nothing unusual, though.

He felt a nudge against his foot and looked over. Steve gave him a small, reassuring smile.

"So, Steve," Mom said, because she had never been one to back down from a difficult situation, "TJ tells me you're an artist."

"Oh, uh, yes," Steve said. "I mean, I wouldn't go as far as calling myself an— But yes, I paint."

"Well, don't you two make quite the pair," Nana muttered, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

TJ's mom ignored her. "I'm sure the word is warranted. After all, you've sold to some people of note, I've heard."

"That was a one-time thing," Steve said with a somewhat stiff smile, like Stark hadn't just commissioned him for a second time.

TJ wondered if he should intervene. Steve wasn't making it easy for his mom to have a conversation. Still, she didn't give up:

"I'd love to see your work sometime. TJ told me you do exhibits? Do you have anything upcoming?"

"Maybe," Steve said. TJ turned his head: Steve certainly had not mentioned that. "In a couple of months. It would be in New York, though."

Elaine nodded. "I guess that the art scene is a lot more active there."

And now TJ knew he had to cut in, before she asked why Steve had chosen to live in DC when his line of work would rather bring him to the Big Apple. TJ was pretty sure Steve wouldn't want to delve into his mother's death, or Bucky's, or the years following his discharge.

He did not to need to find a good quip to steer the conversation into another direction, though. Before he'd even opened his mouth, the front door opened again, unexpectedly this time, and in stepped his father.

"It's raining cats and dogs out there," he announced, wiping his forehead, which had gotten damp despite how short the trip from his car to the door must've been.

TJ felt Steve tense beside him and sent a furious glare at his mom, because what the hell? Meeting her in such a formal setting was enough pressure, there was no need to add freaking Dad to the pile. She returned it with an expression of surprise and dismay: apparently, she had nothing to do with it.

"Sorry for being late," Dad said as he ambled closer, "I bumped into Senator Richards and you all know how much that man likes to hear himself talk. But still, there was no way I was going to miss a family dinner and the chance to meet TJ's man." Stopping beside TJ, he briefly put a hand on his shoulder then zeroed in on Steve, who politely stood up. "Captain Rogers, I presume."

He held out a hand without bothering to introduce himself. Steve accepted the handshake, clearly intending to keep it short—only Dad didn't let go. Instead he took a step closer and, using that warm, earnest and confidential tone he was so good at, he said: "I wanted to thank you, personally, for your service."

Like he was doing Steve a favor, like being thanked by former President Hammond had been one of Steve's secret ambitions in life, like somehow those would make any of what had happened to him and because of him better. TJ squeezed his eyes shut. Fuck.

"Sir," Steve replied noncommittally. TJ wished desperately for the last minute to not have happened. He knew how conflicted Steve was about his time in the military. Steve would never enjoy being thanked for it, not even by former President Hammond—or especially not by him.

"Bud?" Mom cut in. She'd stood up too.

"Yes, sugar?" Dad said, finally letting go of Steve's hand and turning away.

"Can I have a word? Alone."

Her tone was cutting enough for her ex-husband to understand he was in trouble, if the look he threw around was anything to go by. He didn't seem too worried, though, and simply followed Elaine out of the room and up the stairs.

TJ had never been more grateful for how perceptive his mom was.

As soon as they were out of earshot, TJ whirled on Doug. "Did you tell him?" he hissed.

"No!" Doug replied. "I swear, the last time we talked was days ago, before you'd even confirmed!"

"Are you sure you didn't let anything slip? You know his mind's a steel trap—"

"You didn't come up even once," Doug insisted. "But you know he has his ways for finding out about everything that happens around here."

"My money is on him having someone on the security team in his pocket," Nana said, picking up her glass.

TJ turned to Steve. "I'm so sorry, he wasn't supposed to be here—Jesus."

"It's okay," Steve said, even though it obviously it wasn't. "You couldn't know."

Except TJ should have: it was so like his father to do something like that.

"God, I need a drink," he said, standing up.

"TJ—" Doug said at once, warningly.

"Relax," TJ said, sliding behind the bar. "There's still zero booze in that kitchen and I haven't gone looking for Nana's not-so-secret stash yet."

"Yeah, you better not," Nana snorted. Now that TJ stopped to think about it, the content of her glass looked suspiciously not like water. "But I have to admit that if there's one person liable to bring anyone to unreasonable drinking, it's definitely your father. How your mother put up with him all those years, I have no clue."

"Me neither," TJ said, looking under the bar and in the fridge to see what he had to work with. He was pleasantly surprised to find them fully stocked with everything he might need: juice, syrup, lemons and oranges, even some mint. Mom hadn't been kidding when she'd said she'd listen. "I can do some mocktails. Any wishes, anyone?"

"Yeah, make me a Virgin Mary, or whatever you call it when you take out the interesting part," Nana said.

"So, tomato juice?"

"Don't scrimp on the tabasco and lemon and it might come close to drinkable."

TJ snorted.

"I'll have a virgin sunrise," Anne said.

"Coming right up," TJ said, and quickly gathered the ingredients he'd need, bringing them to the counter. A movement made him look up, and he smiled at Steve, who'd just sat down on a stool in front of him. He always liked an audience when he mixed drinks, especially one as appreciative as he knew Steve could be.

"Is he always like that?" Steve asked, quietly enough for the people at the table not to hear.

TJ knew at once he meant his dad. "Depends on what you mean by 'like that'," he said while shaking the bottle of tomato juice.

Steve shrugged. "Just… showing up uninvited and coming right in, it's just— I thought your parents were divorced?"

"They are," TJ said, opening the bottle and pouring the content into a tall glass. "But you have to understand, about my dad: whatever he wants, he usually gets. It's always been like that for him, especially since he became president." He put the bottle down. "I guess that after a while, he simply forgot that you're supposed to ask first."

"Really?" Steve sounded skeptical: to him it wasn't an excuse.

"Well," TJ said, now carefully counting drops of tabasco. "There are lots of precedents for him getting what he wants, isn't there? My mom. Women. The presidency—twice. World leaders bending over backwards to please him. Hell, like you said: he and Mom have been divorced for over two years and he still has the keys to her place."

He added some lemon juice, salt, pepper, and looked up when the silence prolonged itself. "What is it?"

"What?" Steve repeated, snapping out of whatever thoughts had been brewing inside his head.

"You have your stubborn frown on," TJ commented as he stirred the drink.

"I have a stubborn frown?"

"Yeah, the one with the almost pout." He cut a slice of lemon and affixed it to the glass. "The one you always get when Sam advises you to drop something and all you're thinking is 'Fine, I will stop talking about it, but I definitely won't stop brooding about it, you just watch'."

Steve was struggling to hold back a grin. "So I brood, now?"

"Babe, I hate to break it to you, but you're a professional brooder." He rubbed his thumb in the space between Steve's eyebrows, smoothing it out. "You care about a lot of things, is all."

"I do," Steve admitted. "And I was just thinking it might actually do your dad some good not to get what he wants for once."

"Already tried that," TJ said, bringing up another glass and half-filling it with ice-cubes. "He wanted a piano prodigy that'd turn into a star concert player for a son and got a useless junkie instead." He started pouring the orange juice. "Not sure that did him any good."

"You're not—"

"What? An addict?" TJ put the bottle down with a clatter. Distantly, he noticed the conversation between Anne, Doug and Nana at the table stop. "Because I am. I really am. I might be trying not to do that anymore, but it doesn't stop being true."

"You're not just an addict," Steve said, almost stubbornly. "Nor are you useless." He leaned forward when TJ's eyes darted down. "You're more than your addiction, Thomas. You know that."

TJ avoided his gaze: he wouldn't have been able to bear its earnestness. He didn't know why hearing things like that made him react that way, throat suddenly tight and eyes filling—when hearing the contrary, that he was and always would be nothing but a stupid addict, didn't. The words hooked something inside him and twisted to the point of being painful, every time. "So people tell me," he finally managed to say, and finished pouring the orange juice.

"Well, obviously they're smart people," Steve said.

"Stop flattering yourself," TJ retorted, taking advantage of the second he turned away to snatch the grenadine to discreetly wipe his eyes.

"Who, me?" Steve said. "I thought you meant Sam."

"I meant Dr. Bennani, you ass," TJ snarked back. "And I'm paying her, I think that's enough as far as signs of appreciation go." He focused on pouring the grenadine right and said quietly: "Sorry about snapping."

"It's okay," Steve said. "I guess we're all a bit stressed out about the unexpected arrival."

TJ snorted. "You don't say. Here," he added, pushing both glasses towards Steve, "bring those to the ladies. It's not good form to keep them waiting."

"Aye aye," Steve said.

"I thought you were army, not navy!" TJ called as he walked away.

Steve didn't reply and went. Doug chose this moment to stroll closer and take his place at the bar.

"I'm impressed," he commented.

"What, that I do somehow manage to have meaningful and mature conversations with my own boyfriend?" TJ smirked, although he didn't quite mean it as a joke.

Doug realized it and looked uncomfortable. "Well—"

TJ took pity on him. "What will it be for you?" he asked.

"What? Oh, just water, thanks."

TJ rolled his eyes. "Philistine," he muttered, but poured his twin a glass anyway. "But seriously, why are you so surprised? Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship."

He probably should've tried to tone down the sarcasm. Probably.

"You're aware that you're quoting Dad explaining why he was so open about cheating on Mom, right?" Doug said flatly.

"You're aware that it was better for her to know than to be lied to, only to find out the truth anyways later on—after she'd made a fool of herself in front of the whole country?" TJ retorted.

Doug's fingers paused on the edge of his glass. "You really think so?"

"That it was better for her to know? Yeah." TJ shrugged. "Those things always come out sooner or later. At least Dad had the merit of being honest, to a point. That's better than living a lie for years. On the long term, it always is." He gave a wry smile. "At least that way you don't wake up one day only to realize you've been the butt of a cruel joke, just on virtue of you being the only one not to be in on it."

Steve wasn't coming back. TJ looked over at the table and rolled his eyes again. "Nana, stop trying to grope my boyfriend. He doesn't have a drink yet, he has no way to try and forget."

Steve laughed, cheeks flushed, and finally managed to extract himself.

"What will it be for you, darling?" TJ told him, leaning against the bar with his chin propped in his hand.

Steve chuckled and TJ grinned: he loved making Steve smile that way. It felt like he was actively contributing to making the world a better place for once, every single time.

"I don't know," Steve said. "You know I'm not much of a drinker, I have no idea what's good."

"I'd say a blowjob," TJ said at once, just to see the automatic blush dart over Steve's cheeks, "but without the booze it's actually 100% whipped cream, so…" He shrugged. "Fear not, though, for I have this."

He dug under the bar and came up with Nana's Christmas present. He put it down, turned it so Steve could read the title and pushed it towards him.

"This is my New Testament," he explained. "Pretty boring, but a lot more family friendly than the previous one."

Steve gave him a grin and TJ preened. He was quite proud of this one.

"And you can do all these?" Steve asked, already leafing through the 200 recipes.

TJ gave him a haughty look. "Of course I can." He smirked. "As long as you're not afraid of being experimented on."

Steve raised his eyebrows, rising up to the challenge. TJ left him to peruse the book and turned back to Doug, who was still sitting there like a schmuck. He hadn't even touched his glass.

"Having second thoughts?"

Doug startled out of his thoughts. "Ah, uh, no. Thanks," he said, picking up his glass and sliding off the stool to return to his wife. TJ watched him go with a faint frown, wondering what was up with him.

"Okay," Steve said, "I'll have this one."

TJ looked down at the page he was pointing at and knew Steve had chosen his mocktail to be purposefully fancy.

"Fine," he said. He read the recipe, gathered the ingredients, and had it mixed and served in three minutes flat, complete with lemon slice and curly straw.

He didn't know what instructions Mom had given Sara, but she'd certainly gone all out when she'd stocked the bar.

"Tadaa," he said, deadpan.

Steve only smiled. "You're very good at that," he said. He'd openly enjoyed the show. When TJ preened, he leaned closer and whispered: "Very sexy, too."

"Oh, am I?" TJ purred, propping his elbows onto the bar top. He knew it, of course: with his dark shirt, strategically open collar and rolled-up sleeves, he definitely looked good. Add to that a series of quick, agile, assured gestures…

Still, getting the compliment from Steve was incredibly heady.

"Uh, uh," Steve said. Disregarding the straw he took a sip of his drink, licking his lips afterwards, never letting go of TJ's eyes. TJ bit his lips.

Unfortunately he never got to find out where this moment might lead: with a clatter down the stairs his parents reentered the room, and both he and Steve abruptly straightened up.

Given how long the conversation had taken, there was no doubt that TJ's dad had been properly chastised. You wouldn't have known it, though, seeing and hearing him.

"Okay, now that The Talk is out of the way, I'll have some of that chicken, if you don't mind," he said, taking out a plate, a fork and a knife to bring to the table. He set them at the end opposite Mom, separating Doug from Anne and forcing him to squeeze beside TJ and Steve along one of the sides. "It smells damn good, sugar."

Elaine, who'd taken her own seat, gave him a look. "And what in the last year has given you the impression that I have the time to cook?"

"You mean that you didn't?" Bud said, disappointed.

"No, TJ did."

"TJ?" Bud gave his son a surprised glance. "I'll be damned."

"He and Anne have had their own cooking workshop since, what, last summer?" Doug said.

"Thereabout," Anne replied with a smile.

"Well, then," Dad said, finishing serving himself and taking the glass TJ had brought him—full of sparkling water, because TJ would get his revenge where he could. "I'd like to propose a toast. To TJ, for finally getting his ass in gear, right on time to snatch up an American hero." He glanced over at Steve and obviously couldn't help himself: "I was there the day they gave you that Medal of Honor—and from what I hear, it was more than deserved."

Mom looked surprised, TJ noted, but not unpleasantly so. Apparently she hadn't gone digging into Steve's military service.

"That's not for me to judge," Steve said neutrally, but he squeezed TJ's hand when TJ reached out for him under the table.

"Modest, to boot," Dad said, sitting down and tucking right in. "That's good. It proves that you know you don't need to boast for people to recognize your qualities. Believe me, I have seen more than one useless asshole in my day, bragging high and low about their virtues, who hadn't the smallest lick of sense or talent. So I know how to appreciate a man of few words." He chewed for a bit, but soon started off again: "So tell me—and yes, this is a test—what do you think of the buffoon we're cursed with as our current acting president?"

"Bud," Mom scolded. "Collier took the oath, so he is, believe it or not, the actual president of the United States."

"And," TJ intervened, "we're not talking politics."

Dad's eyebrows darted up. "Why not?"

"Because that's all you ever talk about?" TJ bit back. "And that's exactly the kind of delicate topic that is entirely inappropriate for the night my boyfriend meets my family for the first time."

"On the contrary, it couldn't be more appropriate," his dad countered. "There's no better way to gauge a man's character than to know which case he'll tick once he's alone in a voting booth. Besides, we're all mature and open-minded adults here, so I don't see how that topic would be delicate—"

"Dad—"

"Unless of course our guest belongs to the category of people who do consider that some opinions, different opinions, don't deserve to be uttered or heard—is that it? Because no offense, Captain, but you do look the type." He gave Steve a pointed look, then leant back in his chair. "In which case, you still shouldn't worry, son. We will not criticize you for sleeping with someone from the other side. I am sure that Cap here has a lot of redeeming qualities, even if most of them might be situated south of the equator—"

"Dad," TJ snapped, but once Bud Hammond was on a roll, there was no stopping him.

"However, I do feel like I should remind you of what happened the last time you put yourself in such a situation—"

"Bud," Mom said firmly, "that's enough."

Bud raised his hands in a placating gesture. "I'm just saying, someone who consciously chooses to vote red, especially a white able-bodied man, does show a definite lack of empathy and understanding for anyone who isn't a carbon copy of himself—that is to say most people—which will reflect in the way he treats others, especially his close ones. Now, I'm not saying that all Republicans are insensitive dicks, or that all Democrats are good people, but—"

"Actually," Steve cut in, quiet but clearly audible, "I consider myself more of a socialist."

Which shut Bud Hammond right up. TJ never would've thought he'd see the day.

"That drink is delicious, Thomas," Steve went on, like he hadn't just performed a miracle.

"It is? Do you want another?" TJ said, jumping on the pretext even though Steve's glass was still mostly full. "I can make you another. It's, like, the only kind of performance I can repeat."

"I can think of one or two other kinds of performances you can repeat," Steve said.

"Oh, yes," Nana suddenly piped up, loudly. "Do tell us about the performances TJ can repeat, honey, I'm all ears."

The accompanying leer made it obvious what type of 'performance' she was referring to—obvious enough for Steve to catch on. He flushed bright red.

"I meant… music?" he stammered.

"Right," Nana said, utterly disbelieving, "of course."

"Nana," TJ half-begged, not wanting her to torture his boyfriend.

She raised a dismissive hand. "Tut-tut, I need to know if my grandson lives up to his reputation. You know it's bad form to oversell it in that domain."

"Mom—" Elaine tried to intervene.

"I plead the fifth," Steve said prudently, hiding behind his glass.

"Referring to the Constitution, you are a socialist," Nana grinned. When Steve couldn't help but return the expression, she added: "And look at that smile— This, Anne, is the smile of a man who gets it on the regular, in a spectacular way."

"Ugh, Nana," Doug said, "I do not need to hear about how often you think my brother is getting it on."

Unfortunately, that was exactly the kind of reaction that baited their grandmother.

"This, on the other hand, is the look of someone who doesn't," she went on, gesturing at him. "But don't worry, honey," she added at once, patting Anne's hand consolingly, "it's not a slight at you. I know what that boy's schedule is like. Plus, the key to a good blowjob is communication. Given that in such a situation only one person can talk, it's up to them to tell the other if it sucks—or, you know, doesn't."

TJ let his face fall into his hands and wished to disappear or, better, to wake up from this nightmare. He only blinked up when a hand brushed against his back. Looking over, he met Steve's sympathetic gaze.

I'm so sorry, he mouthed.

It's okay, Steve replied in the same way, even though he was still blushing.

Meanwhile, Nana was still talking: "—so the real question here is: Doug, what's wrong?"

"Yeah, Douglas," Anne said. Her voice faltered a bit but she seemed unable not to play along, egged on as she was. "Anything you would like to tell me?"

Dad laughed uproariously while Doug looked ready to self-combust or to murder someone. And then of course the former president started giving some pointers.

It busied him enough not to notice when Mom discreetly asked Steve if he wanted more potatoes. She probably expected his declining the offer, but she'd just been looking for a conversation opener. Soon they were tentatively talking.

The rest of the table was still talking about uses for a mouth that had nothing to do with eating and therefore were very much not suitable for their current setting. Still, TJ nudged Nana's foot under the table, mouthing 'Thank you' when she briefly glanced over. She replied with a smile and went back to listening and arguing with Dad about the proper technique for fellatio, thus keeping him distracted. Anne sat half-frozen between the both of them, looking out of her depth and incredulous, while Doug seemed ready to crawl under the table and disappear there forever.

TJ turned his attention back to his mom and Steve. They were discussing an upcoming artist they both seemed to like. TJ smiled and listened: as far as conversations went, this one was much better.

 

*

 

The evening, thus mostly saved, proceeded on better ground. TJ made more mocktails, each one more fancy than the last in the limits of what was available, and didn't force his dad to ask more than twice before he agreed to play a piece on the piano. Something had to go the way the man wanted, after all. Then Mom whisked Dad and Doug away to discuss the results of Super Tuesday, what they could expect of the mid-March contests and the possibility of setting up a fifth debate against Collier—because she never really stopped these days, like TJ's dad hadn't since he'd been elected governor in North Carolina forever ago.

It was also time for Steve to leave. Nana's scheme, which planted the idea that he might have been invited as a thank you for his porter services, would only have a chance to work if he didn't stay too late. Besides, he had an early call in the morning to catch his plane.

"So that was it," TJ said as he accompanied him to the door. "The Hammond family. I hope it wasn't too bad."

"It was certainly… enlightening," Steve said diplomatically, sliding into his coat.

"Did you take notes on the blowjob lesson?" Nana called from the couch, because she didn't know the meaning of privacy. "Because I will ask TJ to report and grade."

Anne dissolved into laughter. TJ suspected that Nana had been spiking her drinks whenever he wasn't looking.

He and Steve exchanged an awkward smile: blowjobs would definitely be off the table for quite some time, or at least until they could overcome the mortification.

TJ bit his lips. "I hope they didn't scare you off."

"Oh, they did," Steve grinned. "You don't know this yet but I'm fleeing to New York first thing in the morning."

TJ huffed and took a step closer, interlacing their fingers. "I really want to go home with you," he murmured. It felt like they'd barely had the time to see each other, let alone talk, and now Steve would be gone for several days. Three, he'd said—but he'd also warned that Stark might try to keep him for longer and succeed.

"Me too."

"You sure you have to go all the way to New York for that commission?" TJ pouted.

Steve nodded. "Unfortunately yes. It's impossible to get Stark to focus over the phone, and even over Skype. Believe me, I've tried."

TJ sighed. "Fine."

Steve freed one of his hands. TJ thought that he was letting go, but a second later the hand was back, pressing something into TJ's palm. TJ looked down. And stared.

"I'll see you when I get back?" Steve asked, voice only carrying the faintest trace of nerves.

TJ swallowed and closed his fingers over the pair of keys Steve had just given him. Instead of answering, he tugged Steve closer by the collar of his shirt and kissed him, deeply.

Of course, they were soon showered by catcalls coming from the couch.

"You better go," TJ said, drawing back reluctantly.

Steve cleared his throat. "Yeah. I'll call you."

"You better," TJ said. He stepped back so he wouldn't be seen when Steve would open the door and gave a little wave. "Good night."

"Night," Steve returned. After one last look he was gone.

 

*

 

"Your man's got guts, I'll give you that," TJ's dad told him later, when it was his turn to leave. "Clearly he's got his convictions and is ready to stick to them. I like that."

"Thanks, Dad," TJ said, because it was probably was Bud expected—although despite his father's intelligence and his political sense, TJ had no intention of ever using him as a guide to determine with whom he was going to go out or sleep. For obvious reasons.

Still, part of him was glad, relieved even, that Steve had gotten his approval.

 

*

 

TJ hadn't realized how much he'd wanted a key to Steve's apartment—and everything it meant—until he had it.

Beyond the display of trust and the hint at intimacy, it felt like a safety net. Over the past few months, TJ had come to associate Steve's flat with quiet and peace, long spans of time where they worked side by side in silence. It was a safe haven, something his own apartment had ceased to be the second the press had gotten hold of his current address. He never felt 100% safe at home, wouldn't put it past the paps to try and get a peek through windows any way they could. At Steve's, however, there was no risk for that. He was free to be himself.

And now he could go there whenever he wanted, or needed to.

All of this was the reason why, not two days after the family dinner, TJ asked Steve if he could come by to study, because he didn't want to go all the way to the library and had little success working at home. Steve hadn't returned yet, so he didn't want to overstep. Steve said yes, of course, no problem, TJ should just pick up something to eat on the way there, because he'd left his fridge empty.

He was surprised, however, to find TJ still there come evening.

"Eh, you can't decide what makes a good work environment," TJ protested, even though he'd been watching Youtube videos for the past half hour. Before that, though, he had been studying, working on an essay he might or might not have left too long.

"Glad to know you feel comfortable here," Steve said, half-serious, half-joking.

"I do. I'm moving in by the way, don't bother coming back."

Steve laughed.

"Or I mean, that's what I'd say, but your bed somehow doesn't feel as appealing without you in it," TJ added. "So I won't kick you out if you show up. Speaking of, how are things going in the big city?"

Will you be done soon? he wanted to ask, but didn't.

Steve groaned. "Laboriously. See, Ms. Potts is not supposed to know about Stark's big surprise. So we have to be sneaky when getting a glimpse of her office."

"Sneaky?" TJ said with a quirk of eyebrows. "I didn't think Stark knew the definition of the word."

"He only thinks he does," Steve said, "which why Ms Potts pulled me aside earlier this evening to tell me she had arranged for her PA to give me a tour of her private quarters tomorrow morning. Stark mustn't know about it, though: he has to remain under the impression that the secret isn't out."

By the end his voice was dripping with sarcasm. TJ snorted. "Your life, I swear."

"Yes. So please, tell me about yours instead."

TJ shrugged. "There isn't much to say. The movie I went to see this morning does not deserve any further mention, and after that I spent the whole afternoon studying. Now I'm tired, but it's too early for me to try and go to sleep, and there is no you to distract me." He pouted.

"Sorry," Steve said.

"You should be," TJ said. "Since you're not here, I'm tempted to snoop."

Steve gave another small laugh. "What would you even snoop for?"

"I don't know," TJ said. "Old drawings you now wish had never seen the light of day. Your first notes on the next Captain Monkey book—if I can find where he and Bear are going next, I can sell the information and become a rich man. Or, oh, old pictures for blackmail material—you told me you were tiny when you were younger?"

"I was."

"Yeah, I will believe it when I see it."

For some reason Steve took that as a challenge. "Fine," he said, "go snoop in my room, then."

TJ blinked. "Really?"

"Yeah, check the wardrobe. There should be a cardboard box in the upper right slot."

TJ scrambled off the couch and, laptop in hand, hurried to the bedroom. He set his computer on the bed and did as Steve had indicated. He found the box, which was bigger and heavier than he'd expected. Once he'd put it down on the covers and opened it, he understood why: it was filled with photo albums.

"How meticulous of you," he said fondly.

"My mom made them," Steve explained. "They go all the way till I reached sixteen. I was still tiny then: I only shot up after that."

He didn't mention it, but TJ remembered then that sixteen had been when Steve had lost his mom. He forgot that sometimes, all too easily.

He'd come out at that age. Remembering what that had been like, he couldn't fathom losing a parent. It had to have been awful.

Steve, of course, never really talked about it.

TJ chose not to linger on that thought and picked up the album lying on top instead. It was labeled "1992—        ", so it was obviously the last one. With a glance at Steve to make sure it was okay, he opened it.

"God, you were tiny," was the first thing he said. Steve was not only short, but skinny too, his complexion almost sickly. Even his hair looked paler and thinner than it was now. His stubborn frown, however, was exactly the same, even if it took up his whole face.

Grinning, TJ leafed through the album, slowing down at a picture of little Steve drawing, curled up on a chair under a window with sunlight streaming down on him and making him look almost ethereal. The next page contained birthday pictures; when TJ saw the date, he looked up in mock outrage.

"You never told me your birthday's on the 4th of July! And here I was, off with Mom doing rallies instead!"

"We hadn't been dating that long," Steve said, "I didn't think it mattered."

"Well, it does now," TJ grumbled. He took note of the date for this year and looked back down at the picture of little Steve in front of his birthday cake. A dark-haired boy was grinning over his shoulder. He seemed to be the only guest. "Is that Bucky?"

Steve didn't even ask to check the picture. "Yeah," he said quietly.

TJ looked at that face whose every feature was smiling—the full lips, the scrunched up nose, the creased eyes. He bit his lips.

He and Steve hadn't talked about Bucky since that night. TJ didn't know if Steve would welcome him trying to broach the subject during the day. That, and it was so easy to forget about it, about the burden of guilt and grief Steve was carrying: he was so good at hiding it, at pretending that it wasn't there, that most of the time you didn't even notice.

"He was a cute kid," TJ said, his eyes now riveted to the next picture. On it Bucky was sitting at the table, watching Steve open a present, his expression attentive and curious. Yet his gaze wasn't on the package: it was on Steve, like he and the reaction he was about to have were the only things that mattered.

Steve gave a soft laugh. "Yeah, everyone always agreed on that. It was incredible, when we were kids. All he had to do was look up at someone with those big blue eyes of his, or give them a smile, and they'd keel right over, give him whatever he wanted."

"Like it wasn't the same for you," TJ teased.

"Oh gosh, no," Steve said. "Not at all. I was the troublemaker, and they all had me pegged at first glance. I think the near-constant frown helped. Bucky, on the other hand…" His expression softened. "He was so bright, you know? In every sense of the word. He drew attention to himself, because he was just that good a guy."

TJ hummed, a bit uncertain about the look on Steve's face.

"It helped that he grew up damn handsome," Steve added.

"Is that so?" TJ said. "Because on this he's about fourteen and dimply."

Which wasn't entirely true: even though he was almost in profile on the picture, you could clearly see that, even at fourteen, Bucky had been showing serious promise in the looks department.

Steve laughed again. "There should be pictures where we're older in an envelope."

TJ rummaged around for a minute and found them. They were less numerous, too: clearly Steve's mom had been the photo taker in that small family.

There was a couple awkward pictures from Steve and Bucky's graduation, on which you could see that Steve had shot up to his friend's height but that his muscles were still struggling to catch up. Then came a whole series of stills from Steve's time at the military academy, probably taken by a classmate. TJ gave them the attention they deserved, smiling at this younger Steve slowly growing into himself: cross-legged on his bunk drawing, covered in sweat and victoriously brandishing an army-green flag, sprawled on the ground in whole gear looking like he'd passed out, grinning over a glass of beer on a night out… He would have to ask Steve to tell him the stories behind those one day. Hopefully his time at the Academy wasn't as marred as what had followed.

The next picture was of Bucky again, a portrait of him in full dress uniform. It looked official, too, given the pose, the quality of the print, the neutral background; it had probably been taken when he'd been promoted to sergeant, if the three chevrons on his upper arm were to be believed.

He wore the uniform impressively well. He stood perfectly straight, head high, gaze frank, with the faintest shadow of a smile hovering at the corner of his lips, striking the perfect balance between flawlessly disciplined and roguish. Without a word it promised you anything, if you would only dream of it.

It also proved quite undeniably that Steve had a type, too. You couldn't ignore the resemblance between Bucky and TJ: dark hair, light eyes, square face… Yet Bucky's features were firmer overall, his nose stronger, his jaw broader, his brow more decided. His whole demeanor followed, making him look self-assured, solid, a guy you could rely on. Nothing like TJ.

"Handsome indeed," he said quietly, turning the picture so Steve could see and trying to push away the voice inside him asking what actually he and Steve were doing, both starting something with a guy that looked so much like someone they'd loved but couldn't have. Was it rebounding, was it looking for a replacement, for the next best thing? But no, no, it was real, for TJ at least it was, and he'd long since realized that he'd definitely traded up.

Seeing Bucky though… It was difficult not to think that Steve, on the other hand, had traded way down.

TJ tried to focus on the next picture, which didn't help. On it Steve and Bucky had their arms thrown around each other's shoulders, both in field uniforms and smiling at the camera. TJ showed it to Steve too.

"I thought you guys always missed each other?" he said.

"That was taken at my graduation from the academy," Steve replied. He was smiling, but his eyes looked sad. "Bucky managed to get short leave for the occasion." He was silent for a second, then added, so low the computer almost didn't catch it: "At the time it felt like my dream was coming true."

TJ looked down at the picture, at these two boys in their early twenties, smiling so brightly. They looked happy and carefree and—

And Steve had never looked like that, never smiled like that, for as long as TJ had known him. He'd never looked that light, that unreservedly joyful, that… young.

Of course he hadn't, TJ scolded himself: he was over ten years older now. He'd experienced so much, seen and done so much, lost so much, of course he wasn't going to look as insouciant, as hopeful as he did at twenty. It had nothing to do with TJ, or his personal shortcomings. The boy on the picture simply didn't exist anymore. He'd grown, he'd changed; he'd been hurt. Part of him had died in a desert, with his best friend and after, and the parts of him that had survived had had to make do, to adapt, to build something new where the war had left its mark.

Still, part of TJ felt like he should be able to do more, to help Steve really heal, to—

"TJ?"

He'd been staring at the picture for a long time, he realized.

"It's a good picture," he croaked, and scolded himself as he cleared his throat. Bucky was dead. He couldn't be jealous, he couldn't feel threatened by a dead guy.

Or could he, precisely because he was a dead guy?

After all, you couldn't compete with a ghost.

"You two were very close," he added.

"Yes," Steve said quietly, "we were."

TJ bit his lips. "Were you two ever…?" He couldn't say it.

"What?" But then Steve got it. "Oh. No. Bucky wasn't—" He huffed. "He was all about the ladies. Had a different one at his arm every week back in high school, it felt like."

TJ shrugged. "That doesn't mean anything. Sean was married. Had kids too."

He realized a bit too late, in the silence that ensued, what he'd just said: something he hadn't meant to disclose, or at least not like this, not now.

"Thomas—"

And here it came, TJ thought, looking down, shoulders hunching. The pity, or maybe the blame, the whats, the whys, the 'you deserve better than that', the 'how could you fall for that'—because this was real life; it wasn't a fairytale, it wasn't Romeo and fucking Juliet, and so of course Sean was never going to leave his wife, of course he wasn't going to switch parties, or if he did, it certainly wouldn't be for something as ridiculous as love, it certainly wouldn't be for T. J. Hammond. And really, how could TJ have believed that he would, how could he have been so stupid?

But Steve was not one for such recriminations. TJ should've known that, by now. All he said was: "I've been wondering—with what your father said the other day. Sean. He's a politician, isn't he? A Republican."

"Yeah," TJ said. He had to put the pictures aside to avoid damaging them. "A congressman."

"From Ohio."

He nodded unhappily. So the cat was out of the bag. He waited for— He didn't know what.

After several nearly unbearable seconds of silence, Steve said: "I see what you meant when you said I look like him." His tone was cautious and became forcibly lighter when he added: "You have a type."

"Eh, you have a type too," TJ protested weakly, scrambling for the branch Steve was holding out.

Encouraged, Steve went on: "Although from what I've read I'm not sure I compare."

"Fishing for compliments now?" The teasing was becoming easier. In that second TJ felt so grateful and relieved he could've cried. "Just so you know, it's not sexy."

"Wasn't he named for 'best abs on the Hill' a couple years ago?"

TJ laughed, if a bit weakly. "Since when do you read Vanity Fair?"

"It's a well-established publication with all the information you need to keep up with pop culture, fashion and the daily life of our celebrities," Steve intoned. "I was at the dentist. It stood out. Like Sean Reeves's abs, apparently."

TJ pushed the pictures further away and settled on his side. "So you have a complex now? You need me to tell you that your abs are fine, that they don't leave anything to be desired?"

"Maybe."

"Okay then," TJ said, gathering up all his churning in a large breath and letting it all go, putting it decisively behind him. "But I might need something to refresh my memory. How about you take off that t-shirt so I can make sure it's accurate."

Steve blinked then collapsed in a fit of giggles, like he always did whenever TJ associated anything remotely sexual with putting on a show. He often laughed during sex: it seemed like he couldn't quite stop being self-conscious about it, like part of him always remained aware that some of it was inherently ridiculous, in a way. It had made TJ give up on the idea of roleplay a long time ago—there was just no way Steve would've been able to stay in character—but somehow it rarely destroyed the mood. Steve never grew awkward nor asked for them to stop. He might dissolve into laughter but most of the time he only dragged TJ closer, kissed him some more and grinned when TJ couldn't help but start chuckling too.

The result was miles away from what sex had meant for TJ up until now, except maybe with Sean: either a performance—you are currently having sex with T. J. Hammond, lie back and enjoy the unforgettable experience—or a whirlwind he could get lost in. Sex with Steve felt good and most of the time it was just… fun. The kind of harmless fun which TJ only now realized he'd sorely needed.

Once he'd half-recovered from his giggling fit Steve followed TJ's suggestion and tugged off his shirt with a flourish. TJ put on a thoughtful expression, a judge assessing the goods, and wondered what instruction he should give next that wasn't 'get on a plane and come back to me now'.

God, he couldn't wait for Steve to be home.

 

*

 

TBC

Chapter Text

In the end, Steve spent six days in New York, twice as long as he'd planned, and even then he had some difficulties making it out of Stark Tower, given how reluctant his host was to let him go.

TJ was not pleased. He and Steve texted and called and Skyped, but it was a poor compensation.

One week after Steve's return, he still wasn't done making up for it.

Steve didn't seem to mind too much, as long as TJ didn't interrupt him while he worked; he had several pieces to finish for his new exhibit which would open in less than a month. TJ was okay with that bargain: he himself was busy during the day. In the evening, however? All bets were off. Not that Steve ever opposed much resistance when TJ tried to distract him from doing the dishes, like tonight. On the contrary, he'd been a very willing participant while TJ had dragged him to the bedroom and pushed him to sit on the bed so he could straddle him and kiss him and lay him down onto the covers.

TJ would've liked to bask in the afterglow, too, but it wasn't to be: his slumber full of warmth and mellow thoughts was interrupted by a buzzing starting—and not stopping.

"What's up with your phone?" he complained, not moving his head from where it was resting on Steve's shoulder. His own cell had a sound alert for messages, so he knew it wasn't it.

Steve groaned and made to get up. "It's probably Stark."

TJ clung to him like a sloth but Steve still managed to slide out of his hold. Damn military training. "Isn't it a bit early for him to check on your progress?" he asked, replacing Steve with his pillow, which wasn't as comfy but wouldn't leave him, at least. "And how can you know it's him anyways?"

"A dozen messages in a row?" Steve said as he picked up his discarded jeans. "Typical Stark."

"You recognize Stark by the way he texts?" TJ asked.

Steve had found his phone and was now scrolling through it. He didn't seem to realize that he was still completely naked. TJ flopped over onto his back to better appreciate the view. "Well, he does it quite a lot. I think he's trying to be my friend."

TJ's eyebrows rose. "Tony Stark wants to be your friend? Dude, that's so gay."

Steve gave him a look. He didn't like it when TJ made that kind of jokes. "In his defense, I don't think he has that many of them." He scrambled back onto the bed and settled against TJ, who ditched the pillow without remorse to let him. "I mean, real friends—what with him being so famous and rich and all, it doesn't make it easy, as you know."

"Yeah," TJ said, a bit subdued. "I know."

Yet for some reason he'd never really thought about it. Sure, he'd felt kinship for Stark, more than once, every time one of his fuck-ups—with Stark Industries, with women, with alcohol—ended up on the front page. But he'd never stopped to think that their lives might be similar in other ways; that Tony Stark, of all people, could be lonely, just like TJ was.

"It sucks," he went on. "But I have to admit he has good taste when it comes to choosing his prospective BFFs." He reclaimed his place with his head pillowed on Steve's shoulder and squinted at the screen of Steve's phone, which Steve was still holding. "Are those pictures of flats?"

"Uh uh," Steve said distractedly as he typed.

"Steve." TJ sat up. "Steve, is Stark offering to pay for your painting by buying you a flat in Manhattan?"

"Those are in Brooklyn, actually and—" He stopped and blinked. What TJ had just said seemed to have finally registered. "What? No, this isn't payment, those are… suggestions."

"Suggestions," TJ said flatly. "For flats in Brooklyn."

Steve looked a bit awkward. "Well—"

"He wants you to move back to New York? That's what makes you say he wants to be friends with you?"

"Maybe?" He still looked uncertain. TJ made sure to keep his expression carefully blank.

"Does he want to be your sugar daddy?" And that was when Steve realized TJ was messing with him. "Did you tell him you're already taken?"

Steve rolled his eyes, but the corner of his mouth twitched.

"Or are you leaving me for him?" TJ went on, mock-outraged. "I mean, I can see the appeal—clearly, we are the same type, what with all the things we have in common. Daddy issues the size of mount Everest. Fame. A tendency to party like mad. Drug use and addiction—although I hear Stark's problem has more to do with alcohol than coke. Money—ok, yeah, Stark definitely has me beat on this one." He put a hand to his chest. "Is that it? I wouldn't have pegged you for such a gold-digger, Steve!"

"You done?" Steve asked, one eyebrow quirked.

"I'm done," TJ said, although he really wasn't. Somehow the idea of Tony Stark wanting to make friends with Steve Rogers was hilarious. "But seriously, why?"

Steve shrugged. "Beats me. But yeah, it translates to him saying I should move. I mean, we got to talking while I was there. About New York. He knows I'll have to go back there soon to help set up the exhibit and that the art scene is a lot more active there than here in DC. I guess to him it's a problem with a simple solution."

"And to you?"

Steve folded an arm behind his head. "To me…" he said, looking at the ceiling. "I guess it's complicated. I mean, I do miss it, a lot."

"You do?" TJ asked, feeling a pang in his stomach.

"Yeah." Steve glanced at him. "That's where I grew up, you know?"

TJ bit his lips. "Not really. I mean, I grew up in the Governor's manor in North Carolina, and then in the White House and— I can't say I miss either of those."

"But don't you have that one place, I don't know, where you went when you were a kid—a place full of good memories, where everything was just better and brighter, and sometimes you just wish you could go back there, and never leave?"

TJ tilted his head to the side. "Grandpa Hammond's farm," he said, "the best place on Earth." He remembered Doug and Anne's wedding and smiled. "I'll have to take you there someday."

"Yeah?" Steve said, returning the expression. "Well, that's Brooklyn for me. Or, well, the Brooklyn where I grew up."

TJ's smile faded. "So you do want to go back there."

Steve's smile turned sad. "Like I said: it's complicated." When TJ remained silent, patiently waiting for him to elaborate, he sighed. "When I say Brooklyn, it's not just a place. It's a time. Back when my mom was still alive and— and Bucky was still alive, and I was young and could still believe that wanting to do good was enough. And I can't go back there. I tried it, back when I first got my discharge." He glanced at TJ. "Didn't work out that well for me."

TJ didn't know much about that time; only that Steve had dived right into an art degree, which he had obtained in less than three years—thanks to the credits he'd been able to transfer from the Academy, but mostly by overworking himself, as he was wont to do.

"So you moved to DC," he said.

"On Nat's advice, yeah. I moved; I met Thor, barely a week after I'd settled—that felt like a sign. I got that job at the VA, I met Sam, I started volunteering, and now…" He huffed. "You know how it is. You get better, so you start wondering—"

"Was it really so bad?" TJ finished for him. It was a feeling he knew well.

A short silence followed.

"But still," TJ said, "you do—"

He never got to finish: someone started knocking at his front door. Loudly. He glanced at Steve's phone again and saw that it was well past 11 p.m.

"The fuck?" he said, stumbling off the bed and grabbing a pair of boxers and a t-shirt to put on before he went to open the door.

He didn't know whom he'd expected to find on the other side, but it wasn't his twin, looking strangely disheveled.

"Doug?"

"TJ, hey," Doug said. His hair was a mess, his tie askew and his eyes…

"What—" TJ began, only for Doug to interrupt him by asking: "Is Anne here?"

TJ blinked. "Anne?" He glanced around, like an idiot. "No, why?"

"Damn it." Doug rubbed a hand down his face with a groan. "We had a fight."

TJ gaped at him for a moment, then said: "Come on in."

Doug hesitated but finally let himself be ushered inside. Before closing the door, TJ leaned forward to check none of his floor neighbors had been eavesdropping—and, doing so, got a good whiff at his brother as he walked past. He frowned and blurted:

"Are you drunk?"

"Oh, don't, will you?" Doug said before he collapsed on the couch. Yes, he was definitely inebriated. "You don't get to tell me anything about drinking on an evening."

TJ reared back, startled by the unexpected blow. He probably would've lashed out right back, if Steve hadn't appeared in the bedroom doorway, wearing a pair of sweatpants and one of these sleeveless undershirts that looked downright indecent on him.

"Did she at least call you?" Doug asked. "Texted?"

"No," TJ replied slowly, unnerved at seeing his brother in such a state. "What did you fight about?" But that was the wrong thing to ask, because Doug covered his eyes with his hand and— and TJ hadn't seen his brother on the verge of tears in years, not since—

He couldn't remember when, actually.

"I'll see if I can reach her," he quickly said. "Just… stay here."

He met Steve's gaze as he squeezed past him into the bedroom. His boyfriend seemed as surprised and worried as TJ himself felt.

Once in the bedroom he hesitated for a second, then softly closed the door behind him and went to snatch his phone from the bedside table.

He had to try two times before his call was picked up.

"TJ?" Anne said. She sounded terrible.

Oh no, TJ thought. Did they have that fight about Mom everyone knew had been coming forever?

"Anne, hey," he replied. "Is everything okay?"

She let out a strange, hacking laugh. TJ's worry increased. "Doug hasn't told you?"

"Well, no. He showed up here, looking for you. He said—" He glanced at the door and lowered his voice even more. "He said you had a fight."

"A fight," Anne repeated with a scoff. "A fight."

"That's what he—"

She didn't let him finish: "He cheated on me," she said. "That asshole—" Her voice broke. "—fucking cheated on me."

TJ blinked. For a second, he thought that he'd heard wrong. That's he'd misunderstood. "What?" He threw another glance at the door. "Doug? My brother?"

"Yes, your brother," Anne said, "Douglas fucking Hammond—turns out it does run in the family, after all!"

"But," TJ floundered, "when?" And how? Doug spent all his time with their mom, traveling, working on her campaign, barely sleeping four to five hours per night, making endless phone calls—and what little time he managed to spare he dedicated to Anne.

Didn't he?

"Before our wedding—days before, and he has the gall—" She choked on a sob, made as much of pain and sadness as of rage. "—to tell me that it was that, that mistake that made him realize how much he loved me and wanted to be with me—"

"Anne—" TJ tried, but he barely knew what to say and she wasn't done:

"God, I'm so stupid," she exclaimed. "Because I fell for it! When he said he wanted to elope, when he said that I was what mattered the most to him, that he loved me, I actually believed it! I actually thought that he was finally meeting me half-way, that he'd finally heard what I'd been trying to tell him for weeks, that he'd finally told his mom to go fuck herself and her elephants since she likes them so much—but no, no, it was just him needing to make sure I was a sure thing before the truth came out. And I fell for it! Like an idiot!"

"You're not an idiot, Anne," TJ said firmly.

"Oh yeah? How am I not, TJ?" she snapped right back. "Because from where I'm standing— I bend over backwards to be what he needs, to play the good little wife ready to welcome him home whenever he deigns to spare some time in his oh-so-important and oh-so-busy schedule to grace me with his presence for a measly weekend. I let your mom walk all over me, just because he's so used to her walking all over him that he doesn't notice it anymore. I've let you crash on our couch at all hours of the night, even when you were high or drunk or both, even when you stink up the fabric until it smells like an ashtray—"

TJ felt a stab of guilt. He'd cut back on the smoking at about the same time he'd gone cold turkey on drugs and alcohol, but even now there still were moments when he was like a chimney, especially during stressful times. Plus that didn't erase all the times before that, when the pungent smell of cigarettes were the lesser evil in the cocktail of substance residues he might've been bringing with him.

For Anne, who liked to have control over her environment and to keep things neat and clean, it sure had never been a pleasure.

"—and what does he do in return?" Anne was saying. "Fuck Susan fucking Berg."

The name felt like a slap, a bucket of ice cold water thrown right at TJ's face. For a second his mind went blank, his whole body numb, with nothing in his ears but a piercing whistle. His legs nearly gave out on him; he fumbled for the bed behind him, sat down heavily. Breathed in, out, in, then blinked, and realized his phone was still stuck to his ear, Anne still ranting:

"—guess a woman who made a career out of tearing his mother down is a turn on for him, since he's incapable of doing it himself—unless it's the D-cups, not having an eating disorder must really help with that." She sniffled and coughed. "Oh, but who am I kidding? Of course it does, I'm a fucking mess, why am I even surprised—"

"No," TJ tried to protest at once. "No, Anne—"

"What?" she bit back. "I do everything to try and live up to his expectations—and his mother's—but of fucking course it's not enough, it can't be—"

"It is," TJ said, his tone surer. "It is enough. You try—and right now, that's more than he deserves, because he didn't."

Yet he couldn't for the life of him figure out why. He didn't understand: Anne and Doug were perfect together, they thought the world of each other. Most of all they loved each other. They were the only thing in this family that was working properly, that had only ever felt right. It was so obvious, even the press couldn't find a single bad thing to say about them…

So why?

"Anne," TJ said, as softly as he could. She'd broken down sobbing. "Can you tell me where you are?"

"So you can tell Doug and he can come running after me?" she snarled. "No. Fuck him, fuck you—"

"No, no, it's just—" He bit his lips. "You're upset, and I know better than anyone what stupid shit people can get up to in that kind of situation. So please, just, tell me if you're somewhere safe, or if you need me to call you a cab, or—"

"I'm already in a cab," Anne admitted. "I'm going to Clara's—and we'll trash talk your family all night, and drink too much, and I'll probably throw up everything I've eaten for the past week but see if I fucking care—"

"Okay, good." Clara was a former client turned friend, one of the first Anne had managed to make in DC. TJ had never met her, but he'd certainly heard of her. She sounded like a riot. Better, she sounded like a good friend. Hopefully she'd be what Anne needed right now. TJ understood why he couldn't be it, what with him being a Hammond and a twin to the man who had broken her trust. "I won't tell Doug, I promise."

"You better not," she said, but her anger seemed to be fading, muffled by encroaching exhaustion. "I just can't believe—"

"I can't either," TJ said. "Fuck. I really can't."

"Just when I thought things were starting to get good."

"I know." He'd thought so too.

They had to hang up shortly after: Anne had reached her destination. TJ didn't return to the living-room at once, though. For a while he had to sit, just sit, and let the realization wash over him, along with the confusion and hurt, here in the quiet twilight of a familiar, sheltered place.

Even so, he had to brace himself before opening the door.

Doug was still sprawled on the couch. The only change was the glass of water he was loosely holding in a hand, courtesy of Steve probably. One look at the sink and TJ saw that his boyfriend had taken the time to do the dishes while he was at it. He'd probably needed to keep busy.

He was now sitting in the armchair placed at an angle from the couch, twisting his hands and glancing anxiously at Doug. He obviously didn't know if he should try to talk and, if so, where he should start. When TJ appeared in the doorway he straightened, hopeful.

All TJ could do for a while was stand there and watch his brother. He didn't look any different. Sure, he was a bit rumpled, his shirt collar creased, his hair in disarray; but underneath it all he was still the same: TJ's straight-laced, devoted, talented brother. The good egg, the one who'd come out right.

And yet.

Doug finally noticed his presence. TJ didn't know what he saw on his face—his whole body still felt kind of numb—but he only slumped further into the couch with a sigh.

"I guess she told you, then."

"Yeah," TJ said, his voice barely audible. "She told me."

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Steve watching them, but he didn't look away from his twin. No, Doug really didn't look any different. And yet.

"You going to yell at me?" Doug asked. "Tell me I'm an asshole? Ask why, out of all of Dad's faults, I had to pick this one?"

"No," TJ said. "I… really don't know what to say to you right now, actually." His voice trembled and he realized, with no little amount of horror, that he was on the verge of tears.

"While we're at it, I should probably tell you that I was leaking her everything, too—Mom's plans for the presidency, my suspicions that another campaign would definitely send you on another bender and Nana to an early grave, Mom's letter of resignation—everything. And—" He suddenly seemed to remember Steve's presence. "—I probably shouldn't be saying any of that with him here."

"Steve's safe," TJ snapped. "Contrary to— Fuck." It all caught up to him again, another wave on a rising tide. He wasn't sure how high it'd go yet, or if he'd be able to withstand it. "Fuck, Doug."

"Yeah," Doug agreed. "Pretty much."

Silence fell.

"I should probably go," Doug said. He fumbled his glass onto the coffee table, letting some of the water spill over the edge.

"Stay down," TJ said. When Doug tried to hoist himself up, he crossed his arms and repeated: "Stay down. You're not leaving."

Doug blinked at him. "But—"

"Where are you going to go, uh? Home? She won't be there, Doug."

"You know where she is?" Doug asked, perking up.

"She's gone to a friend—and that's all you'll get from me," TJ said. "She needs space, okay? That's why she left. And you better give it to her, after what you did."

Doug stared at him, looking, for a second, like a lost little boy. "Okay," he said, falling back into the couch. "Okay."

"And you're staying here tonight," TJ declared. He went on before Doug could protest: "Because I'll be damned if I let my brother outside on his own in the middle of the night, completely wasted after a fight with his wife."

"I'm not—"

"Please, Doug," he forced himself to say. That shut his twin right up. "You'd do the same for me. Hell, you've done the same for me. So just… stay, okay?"

Doug was staring at him. "Okay," he said belatedly.

Good. TJ nodded. "Drink your water," he said. "I'll bring you a blanket." And once that was done, he added: "We'll talk in the morning."

 

*

 

"Are you okay?" Steve asked quietly later, coming up behind TJ while he was brushing his teeth in the bathroom.

TJ spat in the sink. "No," he replied succinctly.

"Do you need me to go? Stay?"

Before he'd realized it, TJ had taken hold of Steve's wrist. "Stay. Please, stay." The thought of being alone with his brother right now was… not good. "I mean, if you think you can bear any more Hammond family drama," he added with a crooked smile.

Steve didn't even attempt to return it, brow wrinkled in worry.

It was only later, once he was lying in the dark with Steve's arms around him, that he finally managed to speak.

"He cheated on Anne." He had to swallow before he got the rest out: "With Susan Berg."

Steve didn't say anything, only tightened his hold, his thumb brushing back and forth against TJ's forearm. For a second TJ focused on nothing but that small, soothing sensation. Then he turned in Steve's embrace, settling on his back, eyes open. They hadn't adapted to the absence of light yet: he could barely make out the pale edges of his ceiling.

"She's a journalist," he explained, in case Steve didn't know. "More or less made her career destroying my mom's reputation."

"I've heard of her, I think," Steve murmured. He was lying so close, TJ could feel his breath against his ear.

"She's also—" TJ cleared his throat. "She's the one who found out about my— my suicide attempt, the first one. She used it as leverage, as blackmail, to score an exclusive interview with my mom, get to follow her for a week. Only that still wasn't enough, apparently, because the story leaked anyways, as you know." Steve's hand slid down to take hold of his. "And yet somehow—somehow—that bitch earned a spot in my mother's good graces. I guess that's how she and Doug got to talking and—"

He had to stop, throat tightening as he realized: he had no idea how far that went. Anne had talked about a mistake, but that didn't mean much. Was it a thing of the past? Had it been a one-time hook-up or an affair? Had it been nothing but sex, or was there something more there, intimacy, an emotional investment, a connection?

"Fuck," he said, because he had no idea and dreaded knowing. "Fuck Doug, fuck him, for hurting Anne, and for doing it with her."

Why did it have to be her?

He squeezed his eyes shut, but it was too late: he was crying too, quiet but irrepressible sobs. And the worst was, he wasn't even sure what he was crying about, what was hurting the most: Doug's betrayal of Anne, his choice of partner-in-crime, or rather Doug's betrayal of himself, of the image TJ had of him, of Douglas Hammond, the good brother, the twin who'd turned out right, who couldn't and therefore didn't fail at anything.

Because if even Doug couldn't do that, couldn't avoid making such huge mistakes, what hopes were there for TJ to ever get anything right?

So he cried, and clung to Steve—Steve's who'd wrapped him in his arms without question, who was just here, holding him, holding him together while he broke apart.

 

*

 

TJ felt hungover the following day, something that he hadn't experienced in a while but  that was still both extremely familiar and entirely unwelcome. His crying bout had ended with him more or less passing out from exhaustion, and he'd spent the rest of the night in uninterrupted sleep. Yet he felt like he'd barely slept at all.

He dreaded the conversation he was about to have with Doug.

Still, he summoned a smile for Steve, who had to go supervise an art workshop for that association which helped young offenders reintegrate into society and for which he volunteered from time to time. One word from TJ and he would've called them to cancel at the last minute, TJ knew: Steve was always ready to drop everything if he felt TJ might need it, if TJ only asked.

TJ made sure to never ask.

"I'll be fine," he told Steve at the door.

"I can be back tonight," Steve said, obviously fretting.

TJ glanced at Doug over his shoulder. "We'll see," he replied. "I'll keep you updated."

He allowed for a brief, sweet kiss which left yet another I love you ready to tumble off his tongue, but he bit it back, keenly aware of their audience.

Once the door was closed, he turned around. Doug was staring with a strange look on his face; part of it was easily recognizable as envy. TJ chose to ignore it and walked to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

He kept it simple: he brought out some orange juice, milk and cereals, toasted some bread. If Doug wanted anything fancier he would have to make it himself. In a morning TJ only ever bothered for coffee. Or Steve.

Doug however didn't say anything. He dragged himself to the table and accepted his mug with a quiet thanks. Apart from that, he remained silent, hair even more a mess than the night previous, shirt wrinkled, eyes red.

The silence was heavy, pained. It was also eerily reminiscent of the few times TJ had managed to get Doug to sneak out with him to go to a party, back in their first years of high school. On the following morning they'd both be atrociously hungover—or, once, still half drunk—and tense whenever they'd hear a sound, afraid that it might be one of their parents, who would've known at a glance what had happened; only it never was, because both their mom and dad would've been up and have left hours before, busy as they were, even on a weekend.

"So that's what you meant," TJ finally said, having found his courage at the bottom of his first cup of coffee, "all those months ago, when you said that you make mistakes too, sometimes."

After a while, Doug said: "Yeah."

"So you don't do those a lot, but when you do, you really do it big time."

"Lay it on thicker, will you," Doug said. He looked up at TJ and his face crumpled. "TJ, I'm sorry—"

"I'm not the one you should be saying that to," TJ dismissed, standing up abruptly and turning his back on him, heading for the coffee pot. It was a lie, of course.

He poured himself a second cup of coffee, but his hands were trembling: some spilled onto the counter. He put the pot down. He breathed. After several seconds, he reached for a sponge and wiped the small puddle away, the underside of his mug. He rinsed the sponge and put it back on its holder.

"What I don't get," he finally managed to say, "is why."

When no reply came he turned back around. Doug was staring down at his coffee.

"I don't know," he murmured.

TJ crossed his arms. "Yes, you do."

"I don't!" He gave TJ a defiant look. "Look, I was just… stressed, okay? There was this whole mess with the wedding, with— Neither of us was happy with how it was turning out and we'd been engaged for two years, for fuck's sake, it should've been, I don't know, easy, or obvious, but instead— And then there was the whole thing with the Chinese and— and with you and your fucking club and— and I don't know, okay? It's just— she was there, and we were drunk— It was a mistake. We were drunk, and we made a mistake."

"Well, that's convenient," TJ said flatly.

"That's not—" Doug clicked his tongue. "Do you have any— Do you even know how long it had been, since the last time we'd actually managed— Because I don't know, okay? All I know is that somehow it was impossible for me to be intimate with my own fiancé, because there was always something: either she was too tired or too preoccupied, or Mom was calling, or Garcetti was sending us on a trip around the world for three fucking weeks, or you dropped by in the middle of the night, high as a kite and drunk off your ass—"

"Oh, so it's not your fault you couldn't keep it in your pants?" TJ said. "No, it's Anne's, clearly, or Mom's, or mine, or yeah, the late president's, why the fuck not—"

"I don't think you're well placed," Doug gritted between his teeth, "to lecture me about not being able to keep it in my pants, TJ."

"I never cheated on anyone," TJ argued, trying to ignore how much that one had stung.

Doug snorted. "Yeah, because you've never been in a relationship until now, right? Except that, look at that: Sean Reeves. What do you think that was? The fact that you weren't the one with the wife doesn't make you free of blame, you know."

Sometimes TJ hated how good a politician his brother was: he always knew where to strike for it to hurt the most.

"This isn't about me," TJ retorted, albeit weakly—because it was true, wasn't it? He couldn't even pretend that he hadn't known, not like with those guys in those so-called 'open relationships', who somehow never thought to mention they weren't single until they were backed into a corner.

Doug deflated. "I know," he said, with a sliver of ruefulness. "But it was a mistake, and some part of me knew it even as it was happening. But we were drunk, that's it. It was a mistake, and it won't happen again. It won't."

"How can you be so sure?" TJ asked.

Doug glared at him. "Because the situation is different now, because I'm married—"

"Never stopped Dad," TJ pointed out. He almost regretted it when he saw Doug's lips tremble, when something fractured in his eyes, revealing the naked fear behind.

The thing was, they'd never gotten an actual explanation for their father's recurrent infidelities: entitlement, pathology, power high, misogyny, anything. All they knew was that he loved their mother, always had, still did, genuinely. And yet he'd cheated, again and again. And if they didn't understand why, how could they be sure that they themselves wouldn't do the same, weren't the same, as part of the crappy genetics package?

Suddenly, Doug's mantra of 'it was a mistake' made a whole lot more sense: it started sounding like a desperate prayer.

"Look," TJ said, "maybe you really don't know. But maybe that's the problem. It wasn't a random hook-up—it wasn't," he insisted when Doug opened his mouth to protest. "From what you just said, it was at least some time coming, maybe more—and maybe it wouldn't have happened with— with that woman. But if you'd been having issues for a while when it came to, you know—" He awkwardly batted a hand. "—being intimate— Everyone always says that's a sign something's wrong. And you need to know what that was, because if you don't, what's to say the same thing won't happen again? And fine, you don't have to tell me, but you definitely have to tell Anne, because you sure as hell owe her more than a fucking 'I don't know'."

Doug was staring at him.

"What?" TJ said, feeling defensive.

"That's… actually good advice," Doug said. Clearly it was a surprise to him. "I'm impressed."

TJ huffed, torn between pride and irritation, and deflected: "Fuck off, I'm an emotionally mature man now."

"I'll have to get myself a therapist if that's the kind of miracles they can perform."

"Yeah, well you don't get mine," TJ snarked, giving him the finger.

Doug's lips twitched, but the smile never made it onto his face. Instead silence settled as his gaze lost itself again in his coffee. It was probably cold by now.

"I need to talk to Anne," he said after a while.

TJ shrugged. "Like people say, communication is key."

"I'm pretty sure she won't take my calls," he added with an oblique look.

"Dude," TJ said with an eye roll, "of course she won't. Right now she needs space, for God's— Just give her time. And hey, maybe use it to figure out your explanations. And your apologies. You better grovel."

Doug looked hesitant. "I don't want to hurt her more than I already have."

So he already had a pretty good idea of what exactly the issue was. That's something, TJ thought. Out loud he said: "Well, tough. You shot down your only chance at a smooth transition."

"I did." Doug rubbed at his forehead and tugged at his hair, making it stick up even more. "Fuck, I did."

His phone, which he'd left in the living-room, started ringing. He jumped out of his chair and lunged for it. TJ followed at a more sedate pace and arrived right on time to see his twin's face fall. Not Anne, then.

"It's Mom," Doug said. "I— Shit." He looked at TJ. "I've got a conference call with the campaign team in ten minutes."

"You can borrow my living-room and my computer—and some clothes," TJ said magnanimously. "You know where everything is in the bathroom."

Doug nodded and hurried in that direction. Once alone, TJ sighed, finishing his coffee. He grimaced: it was lukewarm, as he'd expected.

Five minutes later Doug was back, hastily tying one of TJ's most hated ties around his neck. TJ barely refrained from rolling his eyes again: he despaired of his brother's tastes when it came to clothes. He put his empty mug in the sink and went to fetch his laptop.

He'd dropped it on the coffee table and was preparing to retreat to his bedroom when Doug stopped him.

"Thanks," he said. "For, you know."

"Don't sweat it," TJ said. "Like I said, you'd do the same for me. You've done the same for me. Although to be honest, the role reversal is kinda freaking me out."

Doug twitched a smile.

"Tell me when you're done. We'll drop by your flat, pick up some of your things." At Doug's confused look he added: "You're staying here, at least for a couple of days. You're in no state to return to the campaign trail right away, and anyway you shouldn't go back to it before you've talked to Anne—and you're supposed to give her space, remember? So we'll send her a message to let her know that's what you're doing, and clear the stage."

"But why—"

"Dude," TJ interrupted, preempting the question, "you're the one who screwed up. So she gets the flat, that's not even a discussion. Your options are here, or Mom's—" He nodded at the look of horror on Doug's face. "—or a hotel. That's up to you."

Doug pondered it for a second. "I'll tell you when we can go," he finally conceded.

"Atta boy," TJ said. He kept his smile up until he could close his bedroom door behind him.

 

*

 

He warned Steve that Doug would be staying over for a couple of days but that he shouldn't worry; there was no need for him to come by, TJ had it in the bag.

Then he called Anne.

"You doing okay?" he asked when she replied. He couldn't determine if she was half-asleep, hungover or still—understandably—furious.

"Not really," she said. "But at least my voice is fucked enough that my boss granted me sick leave without question when I called."

"Small graces." TJ bit his lips in the ensuing silence. "Look, Doug'll be staying with me for a couple of days, until things've cooled down a bit and you can figure things out."

"TJ—"

"We'll pick up some of his stuff in the afternoon," TJ hastily went on, "so you should be safe to come back home to sleep. We'll have cleared out by then, I promise."

But his interrupting her didn't deter Anne from saying it: "I'm not sure I want to figure things out. Right now I—"

"Exactly," TJ said. "Right now, you're hurt, and pissed, and you have every right to be. And I'm not trying to tell you what to think or decide, but just… talk to him? When you're ready. And take all the time you need for that. Just, talk to him before you make any decision. Okay?"

She was silent for such a long time that TJ felt something like ice pool at the bottom of his stomach. Surely she wasn't going to say no. Surely it wasn't going to be over now, just like that.

"Okay," Anne said.

TJ breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Okay?"

"Yeah," she confirmed. "But I don't know when I'll be ready for that."

"It's okay, take all the time you need. He can wait." After a second he added: "He better wait."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Look, he's in the wrong here, okay? This is on him. I'm 100% on your side on this one." No matter how many difficulties they might've been having, sleeping with someone else had been Doug's decision, and only his own.

"But?" Anne prompted.

TJ sighed. "But he's my brother. I can't just give up on him—" If he was honest, he couldn't give up on the idea of Doug and Anne's marriage being the most solid, the most perfect thing in the family either. "—especially after all he's done for me, all the times I fucked up and he picked up after me. He shouldn't be alone right now." A wry smile curled at the corner of his lips. "Plus, it's Doug. As you might've noticed, he doesn't have a lot of friends." It's kind of a miracle he's got a wife at all, he thought but didn't dare say. "He needs someone to remind him to eat and not overwork himself too much."

Anne huffed. "Good luck with that," she mumbled.

"And that way, you know where to find him," TJ concluded.

"Yeah," Anne said, "that way I do." A silence followed. "I should be going, I need a shower."

"Okay," TJ replied, "just— Keep me updated? Please? I worry about you too."

He could hear a smile in her voice when she replied: "I will. Promise."

"Okay."

"Oh, and TJ?" TJ hummed to let her know he was still listening. "Thank you."

He blinked. "You're welcome," he said slowly.

He just wasn't sure what he'd done to warrant that.

 

*

 

A few days were enough for TJ to realize how much he'd lost the habit of having his brother around.

In order to explain Doug staying in DC for a little while instead of returning to the campaign after a day and a half—as had been the plan—they'd given their mom some bullshit about Doug having caught a bug. Given how terrible Doug looked, hungover and sleep-deprived as he was, it wasn't that surprising that she'd believed it, and she'd been all too happy to let him recover far away from her and her team. Now was not the time for her to fall sick. Doug, on the other hand, could be allowed to recover in peace. Thanks to modern technology, he could do that while still managing the campaign from afar.

Doug being who he was, he did a lot of that for someone supposed to be recovering. He'd turned TJ's living-room, especially his couch and coffee table, into a miniature HQ and spent most of his days making or answering calls, typing emails, reviewing speeches and checking poll numbers. When he was not busy with that, you could find him sitting or lying on the couch, lost in thoughts and failing to get any kind of sleep—when he wasn't trying to make conversation with TJ.

His presence was impossible to ignore, as was the reason for it. It was, however, the last thing TJ wanted to think about: every time he did his breathing grew shorter and he could feel panic close in on him while questions and doubts crowded his mind. What was going to happen now? Could things be mended, or were the problems that had led to this situation too big, too complex to try, or to even want to? What was he, TJ, going to do if that was it, if Anne and Doug broke it off and got a divorce after less than two years of marriage? He and Anne had become so close this past year, would they remain friends? Or would Anne want a clean break, maybe even return to California, to Del Mar? The thought of her leaving made TJ shudder: he wasn't sure he could keep his good behavior up without his trusted partner. But at the same time he wanted what was best for Anne; if she decided that it was to let go and move on… Besides, could he in good conscience want her to forgive Doug, after what he'd done?

TJ didn't know and, worse, couldn't do anything one way or another. He could be here for Anne and Doug should they need him, but the actual work they had to do themselves. So really, he was better off not thinking about it—which meant avoiding Doug whenever possible.

Fortunately, he still had The Schedule. And if he brought things up a notch in regards to some of his activities, Doug was none the wiser about it.

He added a couple morning jogs to his gym sessions. He got back into the habit of studying at the library instead of at home—or at Steve's, knowing that being in his attentive presence would only trigger useless rants right now, which wouldn't benefit either of them. He started going to Mom's whenever he wanted to practice on the piano, allegedly so he wouldn't disturb Doug with his music. He went shopping with Nana, he managed to convince Anne not to drop their weekly cooking session, even though it was on the condition he wouldn't mention Doug at all and all they ended up doing was a vegetable smoothie Anne barely drank the half of.

He upped his therapy appointments to three a week again. As always, Dr. Bennani was more than accommodating.

In short, he did everything he could to keep busy, because if he was then he didn't have the time to really think about anything else, let alone Doug and Anne. And when even that wasn't enough and he found himself with some idle minutes, there was always the internet. TJ carefully avoided news outlets: if not, he would end up obsessively checking that nothing of the current mess had leaked to the press. It felt strange, though, that for once that sword of Damocles wasn't hanging over his head. Unfortunately, not being the main person concerned wasn't actually that much better.

Instead, he spent time looking through apartment listings and ratings for New York. As a joke and a way to distract himself, he'd asked Steve, per text, to respond to Stark's 'suggestions' with an ad that was, in TJ's opinion, much more adapted to Steve's needs and tastes: it advertised for a two rooms flat in Brooklyn, with a lot of light and a direct connection to Coney Island with the N, if you were willing to walk fifteen minutes to reach the station.

Stark had taken it as a challenge—TJ really should've expected that—and had retaliated with more offers from various fancy real estate agencies. The situation had grown from there, and they were now engaged in some sort of inane, snarky battle over it, even though Steve had long since backed out, giving TJ Stark's number so that he wouldn't have to play the middle man anymore. He even refused to comment when TJ sent him a link to a place, except for that one time when TJ had found what he deemed to be the perfect one, only for Steve to retort that he could never afford it. Doing so, he'd unwittingly given TJ an unbeatable argument against more or less all of what Stark sent in.

The man was unable to understand that, to some people, money could be a limitation.

He didn't seem interested in TJ at all either, beyond the fact that he was dating Steve. He had no idea he was talking to T. J. Hammond, might not even know TJ's first name, and TJ was happy to keep it that way. The last thing he needed was for Tony Stark to run his mouth as he was wont to and make the situation blow up in their face in that typical flamboyant way of his.

Steve was bemused by the whole thing, TJ knew. He didn't know how to tell him that squabbling with Stark over exposure, the virtues of stairs versus elevator and the importance of close local businesses beat thinking about the near future, about another part of his family falling apart, about the role Susan fucking Berg was playing in it again, about how he was scrambling, barely holding it together, and how the only way he could deal with that right now was by not thinking about it, by pretending that it wasn't there, that it wasn't happening. That he was fine.

Yes, he was fine, he insisted whenever Steve asked, because he didn't need Steve to notice him fraying around the edges. He didn't want Steve to get involved in this either: he shouldn't have to deal with yet more Hammond family drama, especially since this time it had nothing to do with him, or even directly with TJ. TJ asked enough of him already.

Doug, on the other hand, saw it all, by virtue of always being there when TJ ran out of excuses to avoid his flat. He saw how TJ fidgeted, how his hands jittered, how his foot jiggled whenever he sat down. He drew his own conclusions and TJ didn't need to ask to know what those were. Not when Doug started watching him like a hawk, asking him where he'd been and only nodding skeptically when TJ answered the library or Mom's house or the gym. TJ suspected that despite everything part of his brother was glad, even, that the turn of events meant that at least he was here to make sure TJ didn't slip up. Because of course in his eyes TJ was but a step away from falling off the sobriety train, as always.

It wasn't entirely wrong—TJ didn't do well with stressful times, and unfortunately life as a Hammond was rife with those—but he wasn't entirely right either. TJ had long since given up on trying to explain the particularities of his addiction to Doug; not that Doug had ever really asked about them. He'd read a book instead, maybe, probably, had asked a doctor, or consulted a website. So TJ hadn't ever told him how the need came and went, how sometimes he wasn't struggling with it at all and it almost felt like he would never be tempted again, only for another bad day to come and snuff that feeble hope out right after. He'd never gotten to say that it was that incessant yo-yoing between alright, okay even, and really really not, that was the hardest, the most exhausting part, even now. Or especially now, when a bad day would pile itself up on what was already a shitty week.

"He just has no idea what it's like," TJ mumbled to Steve. He'd given in, after nearly a week, escaped to Steve's flat for a little while, for a breath of fresh air, a moment of solace. Why shouldn't he? he'd wondered. He deserved it. Having Steve's arms around him was the best place in the world to be and he wouldn't have many more chances of taking refuge there right now: in a couple of days Steve would be returning to New York to help transport and put up the first batch of his work for the exhibit. Sure, dropping by Steve's flat meant TJ remaining unaccounted for for longer than he'd told Doug he'd be, but fuck Doug, really. If he thought that TJ would let his mistakes, his relationship problems and his suspicions take up what little time he had left and cockblock him entirely, he was seriously mistaken.

They hadn't quite gotten to the part where clothes started coming off though. Upon TJ's arrival Steve had asked if he was okay and TJ, still peeved by Doug calling and texting him at least thrice on the way from the library to Mom's house and during piano practice—by that point TJ had stopped answering—hadn't been able to prevent himself from ranting a little bit. So here they were, sitting on Steve's couch, both fully clothed. The TV wasn't even on.

"What is it like?" Steve asked quietly.

"What, addiction?" TJ said, craning his neck to meet his eye.

Steve looked cautious. "Well, yeah."

TJ turned back with a thoughtful hum, wondering how to explain it.

"It depends, I think," he said slowly after a while. "On whether you actually want to stop or not. I mean, you always low-key know that you should stop—or at least I did, if not for my sake then for my parents'. So going from there, it's like, spending your whole time looking for an excuse, for the right pretext, a way to justify why you're not stopping. You're at a party, you're having fun, it'll just be this once, it'll just be a small dose. Or you're stressed, you have that essay you left alone too long, you just need a little boost, something to tide you over till morning, so you can do it well enough, turn it in on time. Or the media are at it again, prying, gossiping, speculating, looking into your life and you can't escape and you can't shut them up, but at least that way you can ignore them, stop listening for a minute, you can make it all go away. It's Dad being Dad, or Mom being Mom, you just need a little help, that's all, just to take the edge off, so you'll be all mellow and smile and play the piano and be the good little boy they want instead of causing another scene. It's everything, really. All the time."

He didn't mention the other side to that search for a pick-me-up, for relief: the times where you just wanted to fuck yourself up, where what you really wanted or needed was to hurt yourself, drown yourself until you and that fucking voice inside your head just shut up, just disappeared, for a while, forever, at this point you didn't even care.

"And if you actually want to stop?" Steve asked slowly once TJ had fallen silent.

TJ tilted his head back with a sigh. "It's trying to convince yourself all the time, every second of every hour of every day, that none of these excuses are enough."

His eyes slid over to Steve, who was looking at him with that familiar fold between his eyebrows, full of worry.

Sometimes, TJ wished he wouldn't worry that much.

"It's not always that bad," he reassured him. "Sometimes things are even good and you really have to stretch it to find a reason that sounds anything like plausible—and then it can get quite ludicrous." He turned so he was sitting sideways on the couch, still pressed against Steve. "Nana's wearing that orange monstrosity again, reminding you of how spectacularly you failed at talking her out of that fashion disaster. Your chocolate soufflé didn't rise. Steve only kissed you twice today—call the generals, it's the end of the world."

"Oh, so I'm an excuse now?" Steve said, but a grin was hesitantly blooming on his face.

TJ nodded. "Uh, uh. I doesn't do good to pile up on withdrawal, you see." He smiled and leaned forward. "Good thing that I'm here and you're here and it's easily remedied."

Of course, the moment he straddled Steve and started kissing him in earnest, his phone rang. He groaned and straightened up. Biting back a sigh, Steve leaned back against the back of the couch, familiar with how things went by now.

The worst was, the call wasn't even an emergency: it was Doug. TJ picked up and snapped: "What?"

"… Hello to you too," Doug said, bordering on disapproving. "I just wanted to know what you wanted as takeout tonight. Is Thai okay?"

TJ raised his eyes to the ceiling. "I don't know! I don't care—"

"When did you say you'd be back, already?"

He tried to sound nonchalant, but TJ saw right through it. He gritted his teeth. "Let me guess: you called Nana and she sent you packing? You know she's noticed what you've been doing, right? Calling her 'completely at random' whenever I say I'll be at hers, like you just need to be sure—"

"I know, I know," Doug said. He paused. "Look, I'm sorry. I just— I worry."

TJ didn't let himself be assuaged that easily. "Do you stalk Anne that way too or am I just that special?"

"I just want to make sure you're okay."

"Well, until you called I was about to get plowed right into Steve's couch—" Steve's eyebrows darted right up. "—so I'll let you guess how okay I am right now, being on the phone with you instead."

He didn't need to see his brother to know Doug was wincing. "Must you be so crass?"

"You asked for it," TJ retorted, unrepentant. "Look, I get that you're worried, and that I gave you enough reason to in the past, but I got this, okay? Which means that right now, what I actually need is for you to believe me when I say I'm good, trust me and back off. And don't think I don't know what this is really about."

"What?" Doug barely even tried to sound confused.

TJ had no qualms about spelling it out for him. "It's not my life you should be worrying about and trying to fix, Douglas."

Doug was silent for nearly a minute. Then he let out a sigh. "Yeah. I know."

He sounded so tired, though, that TJ felt a rush of sympathy. "It's going to be okay," he said. "She'll call."

"It's been a week—and I can't stay here forever."

"It's been a week because she needed a week, and if she needs another one you'll give it to her, and you damn well better be here the day she's ready to give you a chance," TJ growled. "In the meantime, you have my couch—which is not as sexy, I'll give you that, but—"

"Yeah, that's not funny," Doug said, but it was almost teasing.

"Look, I'll be back for dinner, okay?" He glanced at Steve, whose lips had pursed in that way he had when he was pouting without realizing it. "Late dinner. I'll bring back Indian or something."

"You know I hate Indian," Doug protested.

"Can't hear you, I'm hanging up now," TJ replied almost joyfully, taking his phone away from his ear. "See you!"

He ended the call and dropped his cell on the coffee table instead of the couch, aware that it might get crushed otherwise.

"Now," he said, "where were we?"

Steve clasped his hips. "I think I heard something about someone getting plowed somewhere," he said, fingers already inching up TJ's shirt.

"Yeah?" TJ said, inching closer and grinning when Steve's breath hitched. "Sounds good to me."

As it turned out, it felt pretty good too.

 

*

 

"I just don't understand," Doug said. It was a couple of days later, at the tail end of the evening. Empty takeout boxes lay on the coffee table and they were both sprawled on the couch, the TV turned on low, wishing they had some alcohol. "How it's come to this."

In between coordinating his mom's campaign from a distance, he'd apparently done his thinking homework. Of course he had: he was TJ's brother, the multitasking genius. That, or he'd spent what little time he allowed himself to sleep wide awake, ruminating.

In any case, he'd come to some realizations, most of which he hadn't shared with TJ, beyond the fact that TJ had been right: the problem reached a lot further than Doug just getting drunk and sleeping with Susan fucking Berg.

"I mean, I love Anne," he went on. "I really do. And I'm not—"

He didn't finish, but TJ could hear it anyway: I'm not Dad.

Or at least I think I'm not.

"The way I see it," he said slowly, "you both have, like, this picture of each other. You know?" He glanced at Doug, who looked faintly quizzical. "You love each other, so it's kind of embellished, it makes the other bigger and perfect—but as a consequence it makes all the expectations that much bigger too, the ones you have for yourselves and the ones you think the other has for you. It's like, you both have to be perfect, right? And— You know how Anne actually hates that word."

They exchanged a wry smile. While they were both aware of it by now, neither Mom nor Dad had cottoned on yet; it was still their favorite adjective to try and compliment her with, ironically enough.

"Yeah," TJ went on, "and it could be a good thing, I guess, if it just pushed you both to be better versions of yourselves. But when the result is Anne having a relapse with her eating disorder and you sleeping with Susan fucking Berg…"

Doug's tensed at the name. TJ shrugged.

"And I don't know why that is—or maybe it's just, you know, DC. Being so close to power, the responsibility, the pressure, the exposure. It got to Dad, to me. Why not you? Clearly Mom's just the exception." He tilted his head back on the couch. "Maybe she's just stronger, simple as that. Maybe out of all of us she's the only one who's got what it takes. Maybe we all should just pack our bags and leave, already."

It sounded good, actually: going away. The idea was undeniably appealing—but only to him, apparently: Doug just laughed weakly. "Yeah, right."

TJ looked at him. "What, that never happens to you?"

"What?"

"Wanting to leave. Do you never just want to up and—" He made a sound close to a whistle, accompanied by a hand gesture, a plane taking off, a bird taking flight.

"And go where?" Doug asked. "To do what?"

"Anywhere," TJ replied. "Anything."

Doug laughed again. "You'd die outside of the city," he said, which wasn't untrue.

"There are other cities," TJ said. "Chicago, New York. Brooklyn."

"That's in New York too, you need to revise your geography," Doug snorted.

TJ barely heard him: he'd lost himself in a daydream. He didn't know if it was all the descriptions of flats and neighborhoods he'd been sifting through for the past week, or simply the way Steve talked about it, but right now Brooklyn did feel like a great place to live. The sheer size of it would guarantee both a stimulating life and the possibility to just melt into the crowd, to become nothing but another anonymous citizen. Steve would show him all the best places, or at least all the ones dear to him, he'd tell him about this or that memory and he'd—

His half-formed thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. When he went to answer, he was surprised and not to find Anne on the other side.

She looked about as awful as Doug did, features drawn and hair in a messy ponytail, wearing a trench coat TJ had never seen before. Her face seemed different, somehow, even though it wasn't the hairdo, or the bags under her eyes—or maybe it was, actually: it was that he could see them clearly, see the little blemishes on her skin. She wasn't wearing any make-up.

"Hey," he said.

"Hi," she returned. "Is he here?"

TJ simply nodded and stepped aside. As he closed the door behind her and turned, he saw Doug scramble off the couch.

They exchanged quiet, awkward greetings before an even more awkward silence settled.

"Make yourself at home," TJ said, trying to help break the tension. "Do you want anything to drink or—"

"No, it's okay, thanks," Anne replied. She undid the belt of her coat and started unbuttoning it. "I guess— We should talk," she said, glancing at Doug.

"Yes, um." Doug cleared his throat. "I think so too. I—"

TJ looked from one to the other and rapidly came to the conclusion that his presence was unnecessary—and unwanted.

"You know what?" he said. "I'll just… leave you two to it." He returned to the door to put on his shoes. "Take all the time you need. I have my phone, in case you need anything."

He grabbed it, took his keys, his wallet and a coat, and was out the door in under a minute.

 

*

 

It was only once he was on the street that he realized his predicament: he was alone, late at night, and had no idea where to go. His mom's house was too far away and his arrival would not only wake Nana but also worry her needlessly. The library was closed, as were all drinking establishments which didn't revolve around alcohol—and TJ most definitely should avoid all the others, given his anxious state. Even his gym would be closing already; plus he didn't have his gear. Steve had left that very afternoon for New York and while TJ had the key to his flat, he didn't feel comfortable crashing there without asking and was pretty sure Steve would've gone to bed already. He was loathe to wake him.

In short, he had nowhere to go, at a time when it was very bad for him to be alone, nervous as he was about what was happening in his flat and what outcome it might have. It was like a clock had started ticking in his head: if he didn't find somewhere safe, it was now only a matter of time before he did something.

He took out his phone, with half a mind to maybe call Dr. Bennani—she had always assured him he could do so, no matter how late or early it was. TJ never had and even now he hesitated: calling her felt like admitting defeat, or letting go of a trump card at a time where it wasn't entirely necessary. He might regret it later on. Uncertain, he scrolled up and down his contact list, short as it was.

Then Sam's name came up. TJ paused and, biting his lips, typed a message—testing the ground instead of intruding with a direct call—asking if he could drop by. He knew, from one or two brief comments in passing, that Sam didn't live too far from his own flat, even though he'd never gotten the exact address.

Once the text had been sent, TJ put his phone back in his pocket and started walking. It was better than waiting anxiously to see if Sam was awake or not. He'd look for a diner, he though, maybe even a hotel. That might work too.

Still, he was relieved when his phone buzzed. Sure, Sam had replied.

I might need to stay a while, TJ warned.

Then you'll have to make do with my lumpy couch, Sam returned at once, taking it all in stride and still keeping his door open, even though he didn't know why TJ was out and couldn't go home right now. He didn't even know what state TJ might be in. But that was Sam for you. In that moment, TJ had no problem understanding why he and Steve were such close friends.

His phone buzzed again: Sam had sent him an address. TJ thanked him and apologized for the bother, so Sam replied: No prob. But if you're so worried about intruding, get me some OJ if you walk by an open store. I forgot to buy some when I did my groceries.

U got it.

He knew a store nearby that was open 24/24. Going there would mean making a little detour, but it was the least TJ could do.

He checked the map on his phone to make sure he had the itinerary right and set off.

 

*

 

"Thank you for letting me crash here," TJ said as Sam returned from the kitchen with a beer for himself and a glass of water for his guest.

"Don't sweat it," Sam said, settling back on the couch beside him. The TV was on, showing a baseball game he seemed to be only half-heartedly watching. "I hope Anne and your bro figure things out."

"Don't we all," TJ sighed. He'd filled Sam in upon arrival, although he hadn't given him all the specifics—like for instance the actual reason for the big fight that had led to Doug crashing on his couch for a week. Sam had known some already, too: with TJ being so busy with that family mess, Steve had ended up with a lot more free evenings than usual and spent a lot of them all up in Sam's business.

TJ didn't know if he should apologize for that.

"Didn't peg you for a baseball fan," he commented instead.

"Steve converted me," Sam said. "He hasn't been on your ass about it yet?"

TJ smirked. "Oh, he has. I think going to a game is, like, number one on the list of dates he'll take me on once we go public."

Or at least he thought it was. Steve had suggested it several times when they'd first gotten together and kept at it even when TJ had repeatedly declined: sitting in the stands, being who he was, was begging to be spotted by the cameras, no matter how huge and nondescript the cap and sunglasses he wore might be. But since TJ had shut down the idea of any more outings in public after the scandal about his overdose, the topic hadn't come up again. Which, given how stubborn Steve was, might be a little surprising, TJ now realized.

"Oh, so that's on the agenda? Going public?" Sam asked. He seemed surprised.

TJ frowned minutely. "It's always been on the agenda," he said, feeling a spark of unease. Because if Sam thought coming out wasn't part of the plan, it could only be because Steve had told him so. "It's just that now is not the right time, with the elections and all the attention being on all of us Hammonds, good and bad."

"Uh," Sam said, thoughtful. Then he grimaced. "Yeah, I see how that could go wrong. People can be nasty."

"The paps especially," TJ said, both wry and relieved that Sam got it. "Steve's been very patient about it, though."

Maybe he'd simply decided to trust TJ with it, had acknowledged that TJ knew more about that kind of things than he did. Or maybe making the mistake of reading the articles from the time TJ had first come out had made him realize what exactly TJ was trying to shield him from, had made him understand why they needed to be cautious.

Plus, TJ's whole family knew now: it was clear that he took their relationship seriously and didn't mean for it to be a secret, not to the people who mattered. Right?

With a slow grin, he said: "Hey, maybe when the time comes I could let him take me to a game and kiss him right when the cam's on us. How'd that be for a coming-out?"

"That's assuming they'll want to show your mug enlarged on the jumbo screen," Sam laughed.

"Oh, they will," TJ said, "given who I am—or will be, possibly." No doubt that being the President's son—for the third time!—would make him even more of a tourist attraction than he already was.

"Yeah," Sam admitted more quietly, "I forget about that."

TJ gave him a small smile: he understood. He knew that it was easy to forget for someone who hadn't grown up in it. Sometimes he even felt a bit envious: getting to ignore all that was a luxury he'd never been granted.

"Who's playing, anyway?" he asked, changing the subject.

"I actually have no idea," Sam replied, "and I don't really care. I'm still making up my mind about teams, no matter what Steve says." He grinned. "I'm half tempted to start rooting for the Cubs just to fuck with him."

TJ snorted. "Oh yeah, he'd hate that."

"He gave you his rant about the Dodgers already?"

"Which one?" They both laughed.

The most recent TJ had been subjected to had been about how no Brooklynite deserving of the name would ever betray their city by up and leaving like the Dodgers had. When TJ had pointed out that Steve had kind of done the same, Steve had defended himself by saying that he wasn't a whole, beloved baseball team, he wasn't an institution, he wasn't a dynasty, he wasn't the heart and soul of the sport in Brooklyn, he wasn't an inspirations to kids all over the borough—

TJ, thinking of Captain Monkey, had almost begged to differ. And he'd been hard pressed not to hear all of that as an implicit reminder that part of Steve desperately wanted to go back there, felt almost obliged to.

The game on TV was pretty boring. Not much was happening and TJ had long since realized that most of the interest he usually managed to summon fed on Steve's. So, with New York in mind, he soon found himself on his phone again, scrolling through the newest ads for flats in Ozone Park.

"What's that?" Sam asked when he snorted at the exorbitant price demanded for a shoebox that clearly didn't follow any hygiene or security regulation, no matter how many filters the owner had put on the pictures.

"Nothing," TJ said, still scrolling. "Just—the housing market in New York."

"Oh yeah," Sam nodded. "Steve told me about that—something about you and Tony Stark competing over who'll find him the best flat?"

TJ hummed distractedly while he squinted at an offer that looked far too good to be true. "Yeah, right now I have to raise Stark for that three bedroom in Bed Stuy—which is tough, I'll admit."

"You do know Steve isn't actually planning on moving to New York, right?" Sam asked. Something in his voice made TJ look up and blink.

"What? Yeah, of course I know, he's not ready to go back yet and all that." He shook his phone. "This here, it's just a game—a stupid one, I'll give you that, but at least we're having fun." He glanced down at the endless conversation he and Stark had going. "Turns out you can rant through text, and Stark is kinda hilarious when he does. I'm pretty sure he developed his own speech recognition program, too, because there's no way he has the time or patience to type all this, or that any software already available will understand anything he says."

He'd seen Stark speak, at press conferences and during interviews, that is to say in public settings where he actually modulated his rhythm and expressions. Even then, he was hard to follow.

"… Okay," Sam said slowly.

TJ's phone buzzed in his hand and he looked back down. It wasn't a text from Stark—not that Stark being up that late would've been surprising: their game mostly happened at night and one of the great unsaid truths about it was that it was a great way to pass the time when insomnia struck. No, the message was from Anne. She and Doug were done talking, and she was going home. Doug, on the other hand, was still staying at TJ's flat. She'd prefer it if he wasn't alone right now.

TJ tried not to interpret it as bad news. It wasn't easy. "Shit," he muttered, already standing  up, "gotta go."

"Your brother?" Sam asked.

TJ nodded. Sam followed him as he went to the front door, put his coat back on and checked he had everything with him.

"You're pretty hung-up on this," Sam remarked.

"Well, yeah," TJ said. "He's my twin and she's kind of my best friend. I've got to be there for them."

Sam pursed his lips. "Don't forget to give yourself some time to be there for you too," he said.

TJ almost rolled his eyes, but he felt fond: Steve often talked about how Sam couldn't help but take care of his friends, how he always pushed them to take care of themselves, sometimes toeing the line with mother-henning—which, according to Steve, was more a family trait than his job bleeding into his private life. That Sam was turning that on him right now made TJ oddly glad: he could do a lot worse than being Sam Wilson's friend, after all.

"I will," he said. "Thanks for letting me crash here."

"Anytime," Sam replied with a smile. "Say hi to Anne from me."

He even returned TJ's brief hug goodbye.

 

*

 

As it turned out, Doug and Anne had decided to try and make up, but wanted to be careful about it: they'd both agreed that things could not go on the way they had—especially if Doug was to continue with his career in politics and Anne with her job as a designer, which both kept them busy and stressed out. They had to learn how to be honest, to listen, to just be entirely themselves with one another, if only because they couldn't be so with anyone else. Then they'd see if they still liked, or loved, the person they saw.

When Doug explained that, TJ very carefully did not ask: And what if you don't?

Instead he agreed to help with the plan. It consisted in almost but not quite starting over. The distance imposed by the campaign would actually be of help: Doug and Anne would begin by talking again, over the phone mostly, trying to do it for real, not skirting difficult topics. If that worked, they'd start thinking about Doug spending the night at their flat when he came to DC—he was keeping up with his visits—instead of going to TJ's or to a hotel. And if that worked, once the campaign was over, Doug would move back in for good and they'd go from there.

TJ really hoped it would work.

For now he watched Doug pack up his bags and leave to rejoin Mom, right on time for the Wisconsin primary. He only left a couple of things that TJ brought back to his and Anne's flat the following Friday.

"You can put it in the bedroom," Anne told him.

TJ didn't comment on that choice, did as he was told then joined her in the kitchen. She'd decided they'd try ratatouille this time.

"How are you feeling?" he asked hesitantly as they sliced and diced the vegetables, starting with the onion and eggplant.

"Like I've had too many sessions with my therapist," she said. But then she looked down and added: "I don't know. Anxious. Afraid. Part of me wants it to work, if only out of pride because I don't want to have to admit I might've been so wrong about myself and Doug that I end up with a divorce less than two years after getting married. Another part wants to forget all about it, without knowing if I want things to go back to the way things were before, or if I want to leave and start over elsewhere, or if I want to never have heard the name of Douglas Hammond." She sighed. "Mostly I just wished none of this had happened."

"But it did," TJ said.

"Yeah. And so I can't pretend things are okay." She pushed the sliced onion into the pot, where it started to sizzle. "Obviously something isn't working, and I think we both understood what. I'm just— I'm not sure we can do things differently, after all this time."

"I guess we'll see." She glanced over and he smiled reassuringly. "No matter what happens, I'm sure in the end you'll do what's best for the both of you."

"Glad to know someone at least has faith in us figuring out what that is," Anne said wryly.

TJ shrugged, and went back to dicing his eggplant. He felt glad that things weren't quite broken and that, despite Anne and Doug's troubles, he could still be here for her.

That, at least, they could still be friends.

 

*

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

It was three weeks before Doug came back to DC. Both he and Anne had agreed to start with him taking some distance; that, and he had several things to catch up on after nearly a week and a half spent at TJ's instead of on the circuit with Mom.

On that first weekend back, he slept at a hotel. That was where TJ was supposed to meet him for lunch after his movie on Sunday.

Given that Doug was sparing a moment for him in between two meetings and a plane ride, TJ made sure to arrive on time. He was anxious to know how things had gone the evening previous too, which Doug had spent with Anne. Yet when he arrived, Doug wasn't in the lobby. When TJ enquired after him at the welcome desk, he was told that his brother hadn't returned yet. Pursing his lips, TJ thanked the receptionist and went to sit on one of the couches in the lobby, bringing out his phone to pass the time until his twin to show up.

Stark still hadn't replied to his last message, proving that he was either on a creative bender—he seemed to go on a lot of those—or hadn't found anything better than that admittedly small but extremely light one-bedroom in Red Hook which was even somewhat close to Steve's supposed price range.

Steve still refused to get involved, even if it meant more than giving them a budget limit.

Moving on, TJ checked his emails, replied to a thread with his colleagues at the club about whether they could and should hire another bouncer, noted that he still hadn't gotten anything back from the two people he was doing a project with in one of his classes. By then, Doug was over five minutes late and hadn't sent a text in warning. That was unusual.

Dude, TJ started typing, where the hell are

"TJ?"

He looked up automatically and felt his heart seize, blood surging through his veins and reaching all the way down to his fingertips in a sudden, painful throb, when he saw who it was.

"Sean," he said, uncrossing his legs to stand up. For a second he was certain that he was going to stumble and make a fool of himself and then he was upright, level with Sean's oh so blue eyes. "Hey."

He almost blurted What are you doing here?, but even as he thought it he knew: the St. Regis was one of Sean's go-to hotels whenever he couldn't get a room at the Wrigley or the Willard. TJ cursed himself for not thinking about that when Doug had told him where he'd be spending the night, or that they should meet there.

So here they were now, and it was difficult not to remember the last time he and Sean had met in such a lobby, when TJ had hopefully, naively, stupidly thought that he could pretend that they were bumping into each other by pure chance and had invited Sean to The Dome's opening. It felt like forever ago. It felt like yesterday.

Sean had reached out a hand to shake, distant and mindful of who might see them. TJ took it, felt that damn shiver run up his arm when their skin made contact, summoned a smile. He only realized that it was his fake, public persona smile when their hands parted.

"It's been a while," Sean said, that awkward half-smile on his face. "How— How have you been?"

"Oh, you know," TJ said, not quite sure of which tone he was aiming for: nonchalant, polite, amicable or distant. He hadn't thought about Sean in weeks, had strived not to think about him for even longer, and now that he found himself unexpectedly in his presence, he realized that he had no idea where they stood. "Busy, with the nightclub and all."

"Yeah, I've seen it's going well. Which I knew, I always knew that you'd—" Sean broke off and, when he spoke again, his voice was quieter, less certain: "But I heard… some other things too."

Once again it was déjà-vu: Sean probing and TJ scrambling to keep his countenance, to pretend, even if they both knew better.

"Oh, that," TJ said and managed a laugh, like it was no big deal, like it was a joke. "Turns out you can party too hard. Who knew, right?"

Sean's smile twitched but remained uncertain, his gaze faintly worried: he wasn't buying it. Why should he? And God, it was painful to see him, like it had been the previous time, although it was for different reasons.

Last time TJ had been trying to rekindle something. He'd been almost desperate, eager to prove Sean wrong, to show him that he could want more, be more. He'd hoped with all his dumb being that Sean would be impressed. Only it hadn't mattered, in the end. Even Sean's possible appreciation had paled in view of his family's last-minute defection, when TJ's plan had been revealed for what it really was: a fool's hope, an illusion, an abyss instead of the step up he'd thought it to be. He'd barely escaped from it. And now here he was, on the other side, and he didn't even know if Sean had shown up that evening in the end. At first he'd been recovering, and by the time he'd started wondering he'd been at his mom's place, with no one to ask; and even if there had been someone, he'd felt so pathetic that he probably wouldn't have dared add anything to that pile. And then there had been the crash of Air Force One, and Doug's elopement, and rehab, and those weeks at grandpa Hammond's farm, and his slip-up at Christmas, and everything else.

"How have you been?" he asked, hoping to steer the attention away from him.

"Good, good," Sean replied. "Busy."

"I can imagine," TJ said pleasantly, although his smile felt pained. The conversation was painfully awkward. They had nothing to say to each other, it seemed, or at least not in a public setting. Any second now Sean would express his regret that they couldn't talk more, mention an obligation, bid his goodbyes.

He didn't. Instead he lingered, his eyes not leaving TJ's face. He took a breath.

"Look," he said, "could we—" He stopped and looked around, as if to make sure no one was looking at them or close enough to overhear. Then he steered TJ to the side of the room, until they were out of the way, half hidden by the banister and a decorative plant—steered him with a hand on his arm.

TJ stared at that hand, lips parted. When he looked up Sean was right beside him, leaning in to speak low yet still be heard, so close TJ felt all of his limbs lock up, felt Sean's proximity like flames licking at his side. He still used the same aftershave; TJ could smell it, warm and familiar, could remember the taste of it on his tongue.

His skin prickled.

"I was wondering if we could meet," Sean murmured. "Privately. The way we left things… I can't—" He glanced around again, his hand sliding minutely down TJ's arms. TJ's breath caught. Sean met his gaze, held it and leaned even further in. "I miss you."

For a second, a minute, an eternity, TJ couldn't reply—couldn't even think, nor breathe, his mind utterly blank. Because this, this was what he'd wanted the last time they'd seen each other, in another lobby in another year. This was what he'd wanted since Sean had slammed the door on him, on them, that night in December. He'd hoped for exactly this: Sean coming back to him, regretful, ready to apologize, to say that he'd made a mistake, that he was ready to be honest with who he was at last, that he wanted to be with TJ and no one else.

Two years ago, one year ago, TJ would've fallen over himself to accept. Now though, all he could think about was:

"What about your wife?"

Sean frowned minutely: he hadn't expected her to come up. "What about her?"

"Well, you're still with her, aren't you?" TJ said faintly. "You chose her over me."

"I didn't choose her over—" Sean clicked his tongue. "I did what I did to protect my career, you know that."

"Yeah. And your kids. And, by extension, the mother of your kids." TJ's lips felt numb. "You'd think that'd count for something."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Sean said. Even though he was still smiling, something had changed in his eyes, his voice. Something had tensed, hardened, like that night two years ago.

TJ shook his head and shrugged, even as his heart sank: obviously Sean still had no intention to leave her, or tell her the truth; his offer was to go back to what they'd had, to their secret little affair—and maybe two years, one year ago TJ would've been foolish enough to give in, or to at least be tempted, but now…

Now, he thought about Mrs. Reeves. He didn't even know her first name, only knew her as Sean's wife; he also knew that she was pretty, that she and Sean had been high school sweethearts. He'd never bothered to learn more about her, or even spare her a second thought. Back when he and Sean had been together, she'd been an inconvenience, or maybe something to be pitied: at worst a vapid harpy that was ruining Sean's life, at best an insipid little thing Sean was shackled with. Something that didn't matter.

But she did matter, he thought now. She was a person, a wife whose husband had cheated, kept cheating maybe, for all TJ knew—like Anne; like TJ's mom. And now he wondered: did she know about it? Was she aware of her husband's proclivities, did she have an inkling? Or had she no idea? The whole schtick about her and Sean having been together since high school sounded too good to be true, too cliché, too perfect—but what if, to her, it was that dream? She'd loved Sean, probably, at some point, at least a little. What if she still did? What if she was as devoted as one could be, taking care of his children, running his house, being the ideal wife, supporting her husband's career with appearances in public, with charity events, with gatherings she planned, and even with the friends she chose? What if she'd sacrificed things for that, for Sean's sake, her own career, a place where she would've preferred to live outside of Ohio, hobbies that wouldn't be proper for a congressman's spouse? What if she did all that, and didn't realize that everything, her whole perfect little life, was nothing but a lie, something her own husband looked down on because it wasn't what he really wanted?

Worse, what if she knew and still stayed?

"It means that you can't have it both ways," TJ said, answering Sean's question. He managed to take a step back, dislodging Sean's hand from where it had still been brushing against his sleeve. "You can't have your career and your wife and at the same time—"

"Her existence never bothered you before," Sean pointed out.

"Well, it does now," TJ retorted, raising his chin.

Sean looked incredulous. "Must I remind you who came onto whom first? You knew I was married, from the start."

"I did," TJ admitted, "and it was wrong of me."

"So you're better than that now? That's it?" Sean asked. His voice was turning a bit brittle, almost… mean. "And you're better than me too, is that what you're saying?"

TJ tried not to falter. "No," he said. "I'm saying that you've made your choices, when you married her and when you broke up with me, and I'm trying to respect that. It was your right to choose your priorities, and you did—but you don't get to half-change your mind and expect me to be waiting, ready to jump on the offer."

"I was just making a suggestion," Sean said defensively. It was like he hadn't heard or understood what TJ had just said, like he didn't grasp that him 'making a suggestion' in the first place was half the problem.

"And I'm saying no," TJ said, chin still raised even though his voice trembled, even though he couldn't quite believe what he was saying. What are you doing? part of him was screaming. This is what you wanted! And it was—or rather, it had been. It wasn't anymore, he realized. Maybe if Sean had declared himself ready to file for divorce, to come out, to be with him, really be with him, he might've—

But no, no, because that was never going to happen, and even if it did, it would only be a mess: Sean's career in shambles, everyone out to get them and no one to support them, not a minute of peace for months, maybe even years; it would only end with Sean resenting it, resenting him. It would be nothing like it was with—

Steve, TJ thought, and realized that in the immediacy of the moment, the shock of seeing Sean again, so unexpectedly, the surprise of hearing Sean suggest something, he'd almost forgotten—

God, how could he have forgotten Steve, even for a second?

"No?" Sean was saying with half a laugh, like he didn't believe it, like he was almost amused. TJ felt a spark of irritation, or maybe rather vexation, which somehow translated in him retorting:

"Yeah. Clearly we're both busy and— and apart from that, I might be moving."

Sean's eyebrows shot up. "Moving?"

"Yes," TJ said with a nod. "To New York. With my boyfriend."

What the hell are you saying? that same voice shouted inside him—but it was muffled in view of another realization: that moving to New York with Steve sounded like a good idea, a great idea; that it was definitely something he could want, maybe something he'd already wanted, unbeknownst to him, the reason why he'd so easily gotten caught up in that stupid game with Stark.

"Your boyfriend?" Sean repeated.

"Yes," TJ said. "I probably should've led in with that."

A silence followed. Sean had a strange expression on his face, one TJ wasn't sure he understood.

"See, we've both moved on," he said with a conciliatory smile. "You with your career, me with—" He shrugged.

"What's his name?" Sean asked, his voice matching his expression: weird and undecipherable.

TJ kept smiling even as he shook his head. "You know I can't tell you that." Not after what Sean had done to him, dumping him to protect his career. TJ couldn't quite trust him not to put his interests first once again and use the information for his own gain.

"Why not?" Sean challenged.

"You know why," TJ replied, keeping his tone pleasant.

Sean was trying to do the same, but his face had darkened with displeasure. "Because he doesn't want people to know? Is that why there hasn't been a whisper of it in the press?" He paused. "Or is it because he doesn't exist?"

He said it almost sweetly, almost benevolently, like he was telling TJ that it was okay, inviting him to admit that he was lying, trying to save face. Because how could T. J. Hammond have found someone else already?

It wasn't as bad as what he'd told TJ when he'd first dumped him, snarling at him that not everyone was content being nothing, but it reminded TJ of it, revealed that in Sean's eyes, he was still at that point and would probably always stay there. An American punchline. And in that second, TJ was seized with the urge to go on and tell him, give him Steve's name, let him look and find what was to be found.

He'd googled Steve, of course, back when the story about his OD had broken out and he'd been worried about them both being linked. He knew what you could find on him: first came the Captain Monkey series, courtesy of Amazon and Barnes & Noble vying for the first place in the results; it was followed by the website of the gallery representing him in New York, then Steve's personal page, then an article about the new Stark Tower mentioning his painting in the lobby. Then there was the page of the VA center where Steve worked. If you dug deeper, you might find one or two older articles about the ceremony at which he'd received his Medal of Honor, and if you did an image search you'd definitely see a couple of pictures of him: a portrait from the VA workers' page, amateur shots from book signings with Thor and a couple professional ones of him in dress uniform—which TJ might or might not have saved on his own computer. TJ wouldn't have been surprised if a Wikipedia blurb had sprouted since then too.

Point was, there was a lot you could find about Steve, and all of it was good, and right now TJ wanted nothing more than for Sean to see that, see the wonderful man TJ had found and realize how much better than him that man was: more open, more honest, brave and strong and kind; better looking even—someone who didn't treat TJ like a dirty little secret, who'd never asked him to hide, who stood by him even when things got hard. TJ wanted nothing more than for Sean to see that, and be hurt by it, like TJ had been and still was.

But he wouldn't. Too many things had been about Sean already these past few years. TJ's relationship with Steve, their going public, would not be one of them. He would make sure of that.

"I don't have anything to prove to you," he managed to say.

He was unspeakably relived when he heard his brother's voice ringing through the lobby. He turned around and there was Doug, hurrying—barreling—towards them with a look like murder.

"Doug, hey," TJ said, aiming for a light tone. "You're late. I was wondering where you'd disappeared off to." Doug's presence was proof too that his and Sean's meeting had been entirely accidental. Somehow, it made TJ able to stand straighter. He glanced at Sean. "Congressman Reeves was enquiring after my health," he went on, as formal as possible, like they were nothing but distant acquaintances. "But he has a lunch, I believe."

Sean couldn't have taken the hint more eagerly. He summarily greeted them and left.

"You okay?" Doug asked as soon as Sean was out of earshot. He looked ready to try and pat TJ down, like he'd just been assaulted and needed to be checked for injuries. "What did he want?"

"Like I said," TJ replied, "he just wanted to ask how I was doing." There was no way he was going to tell Doug what had really transpired. "He probably heard about my OD; but to be honest, it would've been surprising if he hadn't."

Doug wasn't satisfied with that answer. TJ mollified him by adding: "I'm fine, I swear. I've moved on, you know that."

"Yeah," Doug said slowly, unconvinced.

TJ chose to ignore it. "Come on, let's get some lunch," he said. "You can tell me what kept you, and most of all how things went last night."

Doug didn't seem too eager for that either, but followed.

 

*

 

Now that it had first come to him, the idea wouldn't leave TJ alone: moving to New York with Steve.

It would be perfect, he'd realized. With all the flats that he'd been reviewing during his game with Stark he could easily picture it. He was beginning to have a good grasp on what to expect, what the various neighborhoods were like—although now that he was included in the equation he'd definitely have to up their standards, if only to make sure the place fit two instead of one. As for where it would be, he was leaning towards Bed Stuy (not that he would admit it to Stark), Park Slope or Brooklyn Heights. Bay Ridge or Sunset Park would work too: being near the water would be nice. All he needed to do was find a nice flat in a nice townhouse on a nice street lined with trees. It would be high up in the building, so that even in summer the leaves wouldn't block too much of the sun. Add to that good windows and southern exposure in the main room, so that Steve had plenty of light to paint. It would be large, too: enough for all of Steve's supplies, for his aisle and for TJ's baby grand. Steve often put on some music when he painted; surely TJ providing it would be even better.

He could imagine whole afternoons spent like this, Steve painting, himself playing, maybe even composing; creating, making art. In the evening they'd go to bed together and wake up together in the morning, without either of them having to hurry and fetch something from their own flat before the day started. Instead they would laze around a little bit, share breakfast, talk about nothing and everything. They'd see movies as they came out, visit galleries to see exhibits—especially Steve's—, they'd go to concerts, classical and experimental. TJ would only rarely be followed: with the sheer mass of people living in New York, the sheer number of events taking place there, it would be easy for him to go unnoticed, to become nothing more than a random New Yorker, going on with his day. With eight million inhabitants milling about, there would be thousands of things more interesting to gawk at than T. J. Hammond looking at a canvas. He would be left alone. For the first time he would be able to live his life in peace, without anyone caring about what he did and who he did it with.

Plus, the next time some crisis broke out in DC, he would be far away, safe. He might even be able to provide a refuge, a safe harbor, for Anne maybe, if she needed a break. They'd go shopping. Nana could come too. And even if they chose to sleep at a hotel instead of at TJ and Steve's—they'd have a guest bedroom, of course—there would still be little to no chance for them or TJ to bump into someone they'd rather avoid.

Sam would visit too, to see Steve. But even without him Steve wouldn't be alone: he would have TJ, he already had a prospective friend in Stark, and if TJ remembered well Natasha had a small flat there, for when she was on leave.

Steve could show TJ the street on which he'd grown up, the school he'd gone to, the places he liked, the restaurants he favored: countless things that he wouldn't miss anymore. He would have art all around him. As for all the other things he did, well: he could keep working with Thor at a distance, he could join another VA center for his workshops, and in New York he would be sure to find many associations defending LGBT rights, or gender equality, or granting troubled youth a second chance, or helping old people live with dignity and companionship—everything he could wish for if he wanted to keep volunteering.

The more TJ thought about it, the better the idea became, to the point where he wondered how come he hadn't thought about it earlier.

He had to talk to Steve about it—Steve, who had told him he missed Brooklyn, for whom Stark's prodding had been a temptation, he'd admitted it himself. Besides, moving when it didn't mean losing TJ, didn't mean giving up on anything he found important: that was all win, right?

TJ wasn't sure how to broach the topic though. While he was thinking about it all he was pretty confident, but that feeling disappeared as soon as it came to actually making the suggestion. Instead he grew hesitant, maybe a bit afraid. Moving in together was a big step, even more so if you moved away at the same time. Maybe Steve wouldn't want that, not yet. Maybe—

He had to at least ask. All this time, he'd been wondering where he was going, where everything—his sobriety, his therapy, his studies—was supposed to lead him. Now it was like a door had been opened, for the first time there was something: a possibility, a life. A future he could look forward to and want for himself. All he had to do was reach for it.

He tried to find the proper moment, which turned out not to be easy: Steve was busy with the preparations for his exhibit; and, with the primaries advancing, Mom needed TJ to make a couple appearances—with Nana, of course. Preoccupied as she'd been by finding out about Steve, she didn't seem to have taken the time to wonder if there'd been something more to TJ going to that event and TJ, all too relieved to have dodged that bullet, sure hadn't drawn her attention to it. For now, holding a speech here and there with Nana at his side, participating to a couple roundtables, was more than enough.

The trip to those events and back usually took him and Nana a couple of days at least, every time. Combined with the rest of his and Steve's respective schedules, it left them nothing but rare, tired evenings which were far from ideal to start a serious discussion.

TJ was determined, though. As soon as a more clement week presented itself, he decided to try it.

His game with Stark gave him the perfect opening, too: he was finishing in the bathroom when he received the man's latest ad.

"Say," he said, coming to lean against the bedroom doorway, "do floorboards and an exposed brick wall justify a 50% rise in price, you think? Asking for a friend." He might've accompanied the words with a smirk, hadn't he been filled with trepidation. Not that it mattered:

"You know I won't answer that," Steve replied, not even looking up from his book—something about a 'ghost army', which he swore was history and not fiction. "I told you, I'm not getting involved."

"Come on," TJ entreated, walking to the bed and sitting down beside Steve's legs, which were covered by the blankets. "You do realize that if you gave us some input, it would be much easier for us to pronounce a winner and be done with it all, right?"

"Somehow I doubt that." Steve was still reading, or pretending to. "It would only encourage you, I'm sure. Not that I get what you both find so fascinating about flat hunting in New York—seems uselessly stressful to me."

"And what if—" There it was, the moment. TJ's voice wavered and he stopped, had to swallow. Steve noticed at once and looked up. "What if it wasn't useless?"

"What do you mean?" Steve asked with the faintest of frowns.

TJ bit his lips, picked at the cover. "What if it wasn't just a game and— and I was really looking for a flat, in New York. For you. And— and me."

Steve looked at him for several long seconds, face blank. It wasn't the most encouraging of reactions. TJ took a fortifying breath and went on:

"I've been thinking. About moving there. Because—take your exhibit, for example. You've already had to go there once, and you'll be going back again for the actual opening, maybe even more, and then again once it's over to pick up the pieces that haven't sold and— That's a lot of time and a lot of money spent, and it will only happen more and more as you become more famous as an artist. And so actually living there… And there are branches of the VA and of most of the associations you volunteer for, so you wouldn't actually—and I, I'd be there too. With you."

As far as opening pitches went, that might have been the worst TJ had ever given or heard. Mom would be ashamed.

He looked at Steve, almost pleading, mutely begging for an answer. Steve remained silent. He seemed to be weighing his words. Finally, he asked: "And what would you be doing?"

TJ blinked, caught off-guard. He hadn't expected Steve to go along with the idea, if only as a thought exercise. That, and: "I don't know. I haven't—" He reflected quickly. "I'd be finishing my degree, I could take some classes in person instead of online. And then—" He shrugged.

"And then?" Steve prompted.

"I don't know," TJ repeated. "I'll figure it out—it doesn't matter."

Steve tilted his head slightly to the side, lips pressed together, as if he was debating something. Then he closed his book and put in on bedside table. TJ watched him do so with growing anxiety: this was nowhere near the positive response he'd secretly been wishing for, or the confusion and surprise he'd actually expected. Instead it now looked like a 'we need to talk' situation.

He regretted starting that conversation.

"Okay," Steve said. "What about other things, then. For instance, what about your therapy?"

TJ frowned. "What about it?"

"Did you talk to Dr. Bennani about this? Moving to New York? She could get you a referral."

"I didn't—" He hadn't thought about it. And now that he did he felt reluctant: the thought of talking to anyone other than Dr Bennani was not an appealing one. "Maybe I won't—" —need it anymore, but once again he didn't finish his sentence. Who was he kidding? He would. He did. He knew he did.

He should've thought about that.

Steve was nodding, like he knew exactly what was going through TJ's mind. "Yeah," he said with a small smile. "Look, I've told you: I get these ideas too. About moving back to New York. Going back to the old neighborhood—and yes, showing it all to you. Working up to going to see Bucky's mom. It ought to be easy. It'd be different than last time, because I'm better now." He looked down at his hands. "But it wouldn't, actually. Yes, I'm better—but not enough; I'm not good, not really. And I need…" He huffed. "I'm in a good place here. With the VA, and Sam, and working on the Captain Monkey series with Thor, and my whole weekly schedule, and— and with you. All of it, it helps. That's why I'm better. If I leave all that, who knows what will happen? I'm not in a secure enough place yet to know for sure. So I know I shouldn't be moving—even for New York." He glanced back up at TJ with that small, crooked smile of his. "That's the same for you. You know that, deep down." He paused. "That idea, moving to New York with me, it's not a plan: it's a fantasy."

"It's not," TJ defended himself, but the protest was weak: suddenly, he wasn't so sure.

"It doesn't feel like it, I know." Steve sighed. "Look, I'm tired, can't we just— You asked. That's my answer: I don't think it'd be a good idea to move to New York right now, neither for you nor for me. I know it's not the answer you wanted," he went on more quickly, more firmly: he'd noticed TJ's minute frown, his lips pressing together, ready to argue, "and I'm sorry for that. But it is my answer." His hands briefly fiddled with the sheets and blanket covering him. "What you describe sounds nice—too nice, actually. Because it's not real. It's just… another way for you to try and escape things, and I don't know what brought this on now, but I can't play along with it. I won't, not this time."

And okay, TJ hadn't expected that, nor the tension underlying Steve's word: it spoke of frustration, of something like anger.

"What do you mean?" he asked almost reluctantly, confused and suddenly apprehensive. He didn't like the turn this was taking.

Steve looked uncomfortable, like he'd said too much and regretted it. "Nothing," he said, rubbing at his eyes. "It's nothing. Like I told you, I'm tired."

"It doesn't sound like nothing," TJ said. Steve's quick retreat unnerved him and made him want to insist even more. They'd clearly touched upon something here, something sensitive and… not good. Something he shouldn't let Steve sweep under the rug.

"Thomas," Steve said, half firm, half pleading.

"Steve," TJ returned earnestly. "Tell me what it is." He swallowed. "Please."

Steve looked at him for a long moment. His shoulders slumped slightly. "I mean, that fantasy just now and the way you—" He sighed and closed his eyes. "I can't just be the place you go to when you need to get away from your life, Thomas."

It felt like a blow. "Oh." For a moment TJ didn't know what to say, or if he could even say it, say anything. "I thought," he finally stammered. The words barely got out. "You said—" He had to take a breath, but it was like the air had deserted the room. "You said I could always come to you when I needed it."

There was no way for him to hide his pain. Steve noticed it, whether it was because of the look on TJ's face, or the waver in his voice. He looked sorry and reached out, but TJ shied away. Steve's hand fell back on the cover. "You can," he said. "Of course you can. But—" He stopped.

"But?"

"But I would— It would be better—" He huffed a breath. "It's like that: whenever there is a crisis, a difficult moment, for you, often involving your family, you just— You disappear. It happened when the story of your overdose broke, and then again when Doug and Anne fought—"

"You know why I had to go, both times, and you know I couldn't just leave," TJ protested.

"Couldn't you?" Steve asked, tone almost challenging.

TJ wasn't sure what Steve wanted him to say. Instead he pointed out: "And we did see each other when Doug was crashing at mine."

"Yeah, and when I tried to talk about it in some depth, we wound up having sex instead."

"You weren't complaining at the time," TJ said with a frown.

"I—" Steve shook his head.

"I don't get it, you never—" He faltered, doubt creeping up on him. "Don't you— don't you like that we…?" He swallowed. "Did you not want to?"

"It's not that. Of course I wanted to," Steve reassured him. "I always want to, with you." TJ would've preened, if not for the fact that Steve wasn't saying it like it was a good thing. "It's just that it would be nice, sometimes, to really connect emotionally with you in other ways. When we have sex, we don't talk. And I meant what I said: whenever there is a crisis, I don't see you, or I scarcely see you, and even then you're not entirely here. And if try to talk to you about it, you just tell me that you're fine, that it's all fine, that you're okay, that I shouldn't worry—until you reach the breaking point. And then you come here, to get away from it all, to break down. And I am glad that I can be that for you at least, a safe space—I am. But it would— I could do more, should do more. Things don't have to be like that. They don't have to go that far, or hurt you that much."

TJ twitched an uncertain smile. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but they do. The world doesn't just cut you a break whenever you start getting tired—especially not when you're a Hammond."

"That's not what I'm saying," Steve said. "What I'm saying is, it'd be better, for both of us, if instead of waiting for you to come crashing down here once you're about to fall apart, I could be with you, supporting you, all along. So that maybe it wouldn't come to that."

"But you are," TJ said, puzzled. "Supporting me." Steve was: even when they were apart, there were texts, and phone calls, and maybe it wasn't the best but it was something. It was more than TJ had ever had.

Steve shook his head. "I'm not. Not in the way I should. And it's not only that, it's also— Whenever you do something as a Hammond—like at Christmas, with the concert and the dinner on Christmas Eve, and after that at the charity event. It's like you're a different person. I don't mean it in a bad way, I don't mean that you lie or that you change personalities, just— In those moments, you're T. J. Hammond. And I'm not part of that life—your life. I'm off to the side, in the margins, with little to no way to reach you."

TJ looked down. He couldn't contradict Steve on that and he was sorry. But he didn't know—

"I don't understand," he said. "Why are you telling me this? What do you want me to do?" He couldn't stop being a Hammond. He knew: he'd tried.

Steve gave him a long look. "I thought it'd be pretty obvious," he said quietly.

But it wasn't, not to TJ. He made himself stop and think about it, try to gather up everything Steve had just said—that TJ couldn't barge in on his life whenever, that Steve was tired of being left out, left aside until TJ needed a rest or a fuck, that TJ couldn't go be a Hammond and expect Steve to wait on the sidelines and—

Oh.

"Oh," he said. He wondered, for a second, if that was what it felt like, being stabbed. "You're—" His voice gave out on him. He cleared his throat. "Are you breaking up with me?"

If Steve was—

It Steve was, TJ wasn't going to survive it. In that second, he knew that with the most cruel clarity.

Steve took his hands at once—TJ was too numb to pull away this time—and shook his head. "No. No, of course not," he said. "I am not breaking up with you. I'm not."

"Then what do you mean?" TJ asked, clutching Steve's hands in his and trying really hard not to break down into sobs—which in his opinion would be a pretty understandable reaction to the rollercoaster he'd just gone through, from unspeakable fright to utter relief in a couple of second.

"I mean that I want in," Steve explained. "I need in, all the way, I— Come here." He tugged on TJ's hand and, when TJ followed, wrapped his arms around him. "If I'm to be part of your life—and I want that, I really do—then it has to be all your life. And a big part of that is being a Hammond."

Fuck, not matter how hard TJ tried to hold back, he was crying, clinging to Steve and unable to utter a word. Yet Steve didn't try to shush him, just leaned back to take his weight and brought a hand up to TJ's face to wipe at his cheek, the pad of his finger brushing oh so softly against his skin, under his eye.

"I get that you're reluctant," he went on quietly, "that you want to protect me—protect us—especially given the bad things being a Hammond has meant to you. But keeping me and that part of you completely separate isn't good either. And I know what I'm getting into."

TJ shook his head with a scoff, followed by a sniffle. "You don't—"

"I have an idea, at least," Steve corrected. "I also talked to Anne."

This gave TJ pause. "Anne?" he asked, glancing up.

"Yeah. You gave me her number so we could talk about Stark's commission for Ms. Potts, remember?" Steve smiled. "Our meeting might've gotten a little bit off tracks. And yeah, she told me that even if you think you know, you can't really realize what being part of the Hammond family will mean until you're in it. But I think I can face it, especially if it means that I'm with you. I just need you to believe it too."

"I do," TJ admitted, "you're the bravest person I know."

"I'm sure that's not true," Steve said, his smile turning crooked. "Your mother comes to mind."

TJ chuckled faintly, then hiccuped. He'd quietened down somewhat, reassured by Steve's embrace.

"I just don't see— How are we supposed to go about that?" he asked. "Because you say I don't tell you things, but I do. I do," he repeated when Steve looked about to protest. "You know about my— my suicide attempts, and the drugs, and even Sean. I don't know what else I can tell you."

"You did tell me, but—"

TJ deflated, suddenly understanding. "But I never went into details," he said, "and you want to really talk about it."

"When it's needed," Steve said, "yeah."

"Well then the same goes for you too," TJ said. "You want to talk about my bazillion problems, fine. I want to talk about yours too—about Bucky, and your time in the army, and your first years back, and why you feel the need to plan your days like they're 36 hours long—"

Steve was silent for a second. "That's fair."

"And," TJ said, craning his neck to meet his eye, scrambling for solutions, for ways to solve this before it could get worse. "we can move in together, too. Not to New York," he hastily added, before Steve could react, "we can stay here, but— Living in the same place, it'd make things easier, wouldn't it? Next time something goes wrong and I've got to be there for Mom or Doug, at the end of the day I'd come home to you. I won't be disappearing then."

For a second Steve looked like he wanted to say something, maybe refuse. But then he let out a breath, followed by a smile. "I guess you won't."

"And at the end of your bad days you'll be coming home to me." TJ returned the smile with a wobbly one. "I'll take care of you too."

"That'd be nice," Steve said.

"Okay," TJ said, "Good." He settled back down on Steve's chest, tightening his arms around him. When Steve squeezed back TJ closed his eyes, taking in Steve's warmth, his strength, breathing him in.

"We're okay, right?" he asked after a long while, muffled into Steve's shoulder.

Steve's hand briefly slowed down, then resumed rubbing up and down TJ's back. "Yes," he said, "we're okay."

TJ breathed out and held on. They were okay, he repeated to himself. They'd had a little bit of a fight, a little bit of a fright, but they'd talked it out and in the end it had been a good thing, hadn't it? They'd cleared the air and now they could move forward. They knew what they had to work on. He knew what he had to try and do better.

They were going to move in together. It wasn't New York, but it was pretty close to perfect too.

 

*

 

"You're distracted."

TJ almost startled and looked up, realizing he'd been staring into space. Nana was standing right beside the piano bench he was sitting on, the glass she'd gone to fetch in the kitchen in hand: TJ hadn't noticed her coming back.

"Yeah, sorry," he said, blinking, trying to shake himself.

"Distracted and dejected," Nana remarked. She took a sip of her drink. "Did those little shits at the club reject another one of your ideas?"

Her gaze was knowing: she knew all about TJ's difficulties and frustrations over the club and his colleagues' vetoing his ideas, not only because she was the only one in the family who was willing to hear about it—both Mom and Doug had settled into some sort of denial over his continued involvement—, but also because she was the only one who knew the scene enough to understand the implications of what TJ wanted to do, but couldn't.

Still, TJ wasn't sure whether her supporting his ideas against his colleagues' was her rooting for her grandson on principle, or because those ideas were actually good. He wasn't confident enough to ask.

"Not this time, actually," he said.

"You should just dump them and do your own thing, you know," Nana said. "For one, a nightclub is so passé; to be honest I never saw the appeal. People drinking and gyrating and writhing under strobe lights, music so loud you can't even hear what it is, please." She flapped a dismissive hand. "I know you agree with me, too, or at least you do now. You should just open something else, a real club with a stage for actual performances. Something on a smaller scale too, so you can be the sole investor and make all the decisions."

TJ pursed his lips, thoughtful. "Maybe I should," he said. He remembered his discussion with Laura, all those months ago. Something similar had come up. Distractedly, he started playing the piece on the score in front of him. "I mean, it's not a bad idea. I have to finish paying Doug back first, though."

"How is that going, by the way?"

"Well, I've started giving him some money back, and it looks like I'll manage to return it all, if The Dome keeps doing well. But once that's done…" He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess I could try to find some investors for another project. If not, I could sell my shares at the club and start with that."

Something to think about, Laura had said. It was maybe time for the thinking to become serious.

"If you need to convince anyone, tell them I'll guest star," Nana said. "They'll throw money at you for sure."

TJ laughed. "I bet."

"But that's not what's bothering you, you said," she said.

TJ paused in his playing. "No," he admitted after a silence. "It's just— It's Steve."

Nana raiser her eyebrows. "Steve?" She sounded intrigued and faintly worried at the same time.

"We had— well, not really a fight," TJ said. "More of a discussion."

He still thought that it had been good, too. Not easy, but productive. Yet at the same time he wasn't entirely reassured. Something was nagging at him, a feeling, an unease, the impression that he'd missed something. That, despite the understanding he and Steve had reached, something had been left unsaid, unfinished, unsolved. He didn't know what, and so kept picking at it, over and over.

"Please tell me neither of you went and stuck his dick somewhere he shouldn't have," Nana said.

TJ winced. "What? No!"

"Sorry, but I had to ask," Nana said, patting his shoulder appeasingly. "Seems to be a running theme in this family."

And there went TJ's last doubts as to whether she knew about Doug or not.

"Yeah, well, no," he said. "Only dick I've been involved with since I've met him is his." He frowned minutely. "Too involved, maybe, he seems to think."

"What is that supposed to mean?" she said with a delighted grin. "Does your… vocal enthusiasm make him uncomfortable?"

TJ immediately regretted bringing that part of the discussion up. "It means that apparently he'd rather we talk about our feelings than… you know."

He couldn't bring himself to say the words in front of her, ironically enough. Not that she needed them to understand his meaning. She laughed.

"I have to be honest, I do sometimes wonder where you found him," she said. "I mean, I've seen him. I've seen the way he dresses, the way he acts and speaks, always so earnest. And now you tell me that, contrary to any other man on this planet, gay or not, he wants to talk about his feelings instead of fuck?" She shook her head, incredulous.

TJ's cheeks were burning dully. "It's more—he doesn't think we talk enough. He thinks I'm trying to keep him to the side in my life, separate from the whole—" He gestured with his hands. "—Hammond thing."

"Well, you are, aren't you?"

TJ glanced at her in surprise. She rolled her eyes.

"How long did it take you to introduce him to your mother? Eight months, nine? And even then, it was only because she'd found out about it first. Now, I get why you're doing it: you're terrified that the day he's really confronted to what being part of this family means is the day he unceremoniously dumps you, and your past experiences sure won't have helped you believe otherwise. But if I were in his shoes, well. The message would seem clear."

"What message?" TJ asked reluctantly.

Nana gave him a look. "Come on, honey, you know this. Who did you ever introduce to your parents, apart from him?"

"No one," TJ said, "but that's because— Oh." He'd gotten it. "It means that we're not serious, that I don't think we're serious."

Or it meant that, deep down, he thought that what they had was something to hide, something reprehensible—or, worse, shameful.

Like with Sean.

Nana nodded. "Like you said. It makes him nothing but a side note in the margins of the great Hammond saga or whatever. You're with him, but you don't tell your parents, you don't tell the press? That'll be pretty convenient if you ever decide to break up with him: it leaves the back door wide open to do it easily and quietly. I'm sure he realizes that."

"Well, I'm sure that he realizes there's no way I would ever want to break up with him," TJ said, forcing a chuckle.

"Does he?" Nana said.

"He does," he insisted, displeased by the insinuation. "I love him, he knows that. And— and anyway, we're moving in together. We wouldn't be doing that if I wasn't serious."

Nana's eyebrows shot up, but she smiled. "You are?"

TJ couldn't help but grin back. "We are," he confirmed. He felt almost giddy, saying it. "I mean, it might be tricky doing so without the press finding out, but that's— Oh." Everything screeched to a halt as the pieces fell into place. "Oh, fuck."

Nana grew serious at once. "What?"

TJ blinked at her.

"He wants us to go public," he said.

She seemed stumped by that. "I would expect that he would at some point, yes."

"No, I mean, he wants us to go public now," TJ explained. "He doesn't like lying, and he hated pretending we were near strangers at the shelter and the charity event, that's what makes him feel like—" He almost gasped as another thought followed, joining the first as smoothly as pearls lining up on a string. "And that's what he meant when he said that what we should do was pretty obvious— Oh my God."

Nana was watching him, eyebrows raised. Obviously she wasn't quite following, but still she listened, waiting for him to reach his conclusion.

"And then I suggested moving in together as a solution and that idiot said yes, instead of telling me—" Dismay spread through him. "That's not what he wants."

"Now," Nana tutted, "I'm sure he does want to move in with you, sweetie."

"But that's not all he wants," TJ said. "Only he didn't tell me—why the fuck didn't he tell me?"

"Who knows?" Nana said. "You're the one who belongs to the repressed gender—and who's been holding the gold medal for pretending you're fine until someone finds you sprawled on a dirty bathroom floor, drunk on vodka or high as a kite, since you were fifteen. You tell me."

TJ would've given her a look, but he was too preoccupied by what he'd just understood.

Sam had told him that too, or tried to: That's Steve for you, he'd said, gold medal for repression. TJ should've realized that it included sucking at expressing what he wanted or needed. It was obvious, now that he thought about it: Steve was always here for him, but he didn't often let TJ return the favor. He was so good at burying everything, most of the time you believed it when he said he was fine. And even when you were here when the facade cracked and you caught a glimpse of what lurked beyond, there was no guarantee that he'd let you help. Then the walls went up again, always, and—

And it wasn't fair. It wasn't fucking fair.

Thinking about it now, TJ felt himself growing angry, outraged almost—if only because it was easier than wondering, worrying why Steve had felt like he couldn't just simply, plainly ask. Wasn't it hypocritical of him, to ask TJ to be more honest, more open, and then not do that himself in the very same conversation? Why the fuck should he be here for TJ, be what TJ needed, support him and love him, if TJ couldn't do the same for him in return? What the fuck was TJ for if he didn't give at least some of it back from time to time?

But he could do it now. What had been left unsaid, unfinished, what had been bothering him about their conversation, he had it now, he knew what it was—and, now that he did, he'd be damned if he let it go, if he didn't at least try to fix it. Like hell he would let the situation go on as it had, like hell he'd leave Steve be dissatisfied, unhappy even, or put his needs second. Like hell.

TJ took a breath, straightened.

"I have to talk to Mom."

 

*

 

The midday rush had come and gone, yet the coffee shop was pretty busy; surprisingly so for a Friday afternoon. The cashiers were shouting orders one after the other, people came and went, lively conversations rose and sank at various tables.

TJ sat in his usual chair, out of the way, half hidden behind the counter, away from the windows. He was waiting and trying not to let his nervousness show by biting his lips, or jiggling his leg, or tearing his napkin to shreds.

He was utterly failing on all three accounts.

Should've ordered decaf', he thought distractedly as he fiddled with a sugar package that looked like it'd burst any second, mistreated as it had been for the past five minutes. He definitely could use a smoke right now, or a drink. But mostly a smoke.

"Hey."

The voice made him look up. It was Steve, in his usual combination of khakis, checkered shirt and leather jacket. He was hovering in front of the table, his hesitant smile not quite reaching his eyes.

"Hey," TJ said. His voice crackled. "I see you remembered the place."

"I did," Steve said, glancing around. He didn't seem to know what to do with himself, whether to sit down or not.

"You should go order something," TJ said. "We'll be here a while."

He'd chosen one of Steve's free afternoons and postponed an appointment with his therapist for that very reason.

"Okay," Steve said slowly, cautiously, and went.

TJ spent the time it took for him to reach the front of the line and get his drink to gather his thoughts. He ran over what he needed to say in his mind. He had to be as clear as possible, so as to avoid any misunderstandings. Problem was, growing up as a Hammond, while giving him all the necessary tools to express himself in a nuanced way, had most of all made him acutely aware of the fact that no matter how careful you were in your choice of words, no matter how precise you strived to be, you could never be sure the person opposite you really grasped what you meant.

He would have to make sure Steve had. He had to trust himself to explain and trust Steve to understand. And he needed to breathe.

Steve returned, drink in hand, and unexpectedly started the conversation himself: "I have to admit that I was surprised when you asked me to come here," he said. "I thought we didn't do that anymore—meet in public, I mean."

He was nervous, TJ realized. He didn't know if that made things better or worse.

"We didn't," he said, trying to sound calm and confident. "But we do now. Welcome to step one."

Steve blinked. "Step one?"

"Of us going public." Suddenly he found himself unsure. "That's what you want, right? I didn't get that wrong?"

For a second Steve stared at him, lips parted. "I didn't—"

"Because I've been thinking about our talk," TJ explained, "and about what you said, about me keeping you away from my life, at a distance, especially whenever I do anything Hammond-related, which happens often, and— Most of the time, it's not because you can't help, or because I don't want you here; it's simply because you being at my side would mean people knowing about you and up until now—" He was rambling. He stopped, breathed in, went on more quietly: "But that's over now. I mean, people are going to know. So that next time something happens, you can be here if you want to. All in, like you said."

"But—" Steve didn't seem to know what to say. "But you don't want that."

"It's not that I don't—" TJ clicked his tongue. "Of course I want people to know—if only out of pride, because have you seen yourself? It'll be the biggest 'in you face' of my life. What I don't want, on the other hand, is them talking about it, speculating about it, because it's intrusive, and perverse, and most of the time ugly. There is a lot of hate, in various forms, and I don't want you to have to deal with that. But it's not like I can prevent it, not if you stay with me." He looked down at his own drink, turning the cup around and around. "You asked me to trust you when you say that you can face it. Well, I'm trying." He bit his lips. "But I'll hate it, and I know you'll hate it, and— and to be honest, I'm terrified that you'll end up hating me for it too."

He remembered the look on Sean's face, the words in his mouth, the way he'd left—so quickly, so easily, and yet it hadn't been painless, far from it.

"I could never hate you for that," Steve said, so heartfelt it made TJ look up. "You're not responsible for what other people say or do. And you've warned me, as much as you can. I'm not walking into this blind."

TJ nodded. "Okay. Good." He still wasn't convinced: he knew how private Steve was as a person, and how impossible it was for anyone to fully measure the reaction the media and the people would have beforehand. Hell, even now TJ had no idea how they were going to take the news, what they'd do about it.

But pointing that out, instilling doubt, wasn't what he should be doing right now. He took a breath. "So I was right, that's what you meant," he said. "You wanted us to go public?"

"Well. I mean." Now it was Steve's turn to look down. He sounded almost sheepish. "Yes."

"Okay. Good," TJ repeated. "Why didn't you tell me so, then?"

His voice was brittle, not because he was upset, but because his irritation had returned; only it wasn't irritation, it was anger, it was almost rage. He'd thought he'd spent most of it during his past few therapy sessions, but apparently not.

When Steve looked back up, caught off-guard, he glared.

"I was sitting right there," he said. "We were talking about how we needed to talk about things in depth, to be honest with each other—and then you don't tell me anything? You can't do that. Especially not when it comes to things that bother you that much and have been bothering you for a while—and that's another thing." Steve was now staring at him, eyes wide. "Everything you told me the other day, all that's been bothering you, hurting you—how long have you been bottling all that up? Didn't you think it was something I should know?"

"I did," Steve said, "but—"

"But what?" TJ almost snapped when he stopped there. "Look, I know I'm self-centered, okay? I'm so busy dealing with all my crap, I suck at noticing things around me. I'm trying to do better, but you might've realized that I'm not exactly there yet. So you know you can't expect me to magically get what you mean if you're being cryptic, or to just guess that something is amiss if you don't say anything. You have to tell me—and I shouldn't have to squeeze it out of you like I did the other day. What if I hadn't insisted, uh? What if I'd let the matter drop, where would we be then?"

Steve didn't seem to have an answer.

"How long were you going to keep sitting on that one?" TJ went on. "Until it got to be too much? Until it got too painful, and you had enough? See, I wasn't being completely paranoid when I though you might be—" He couldn't say it. He shook his head. "Because that's how it happens. Hell, that's what happened to Doug and Anne."

"I'd never," Steve protested at once, reaching out to put a hand on TJ's forearm. "Thomas, I'd never—I swear."

TJ looked at him, anger suddenly muddled with sadness. "I know," he said, deflating. "But not being honest with me about how you feel and what you want, when you're asking me to do so with you, when you're hurting—how is that any better?" He leaned forward, holding Steve's gaze, intent on making him listen. "This is a relationship, Steve. Between two people, caring for each other, building something together. It can't be just you carrying all the weight all the time, it's not like—" He huffed. "This is not the army. You're not my superior officer and I'm not your subordinate. You're not the only one responsible for everything here, nor are you the only one making the decisions. You don't have to always be there for me, all stoic and strong—and most of all, you shouldn't be. You've got to let me be there for you too. Because if you don't, how is that fair? For you or for me?"

"I know," Steve said. "I know. It's just—" He sighed.

"Just what?" TJ asked, wondering what in Steve's eyes justified the double standard.

Steve stared down at his drink. "Your family already asks so much of you," he said, voice low. "Helping with your mother's campaign, putting up with your dad, supporting Anne in her recovery, and then recently taking Doug in when he needed it… I just didn't want to add to that. I don't want to be just another person making demands, asking things of you that you aren't ready or willing to give."

"Yeah, no, that's not how that works." Steve glanced up again in surprise. "I want you to be honest with me, okay? I need you to be, if we want this to work." He bit his lips. "That's my condition." When Steve frowned in faint confusion, he explained: "We're going public, starting now, and in return you have to be honest with me. I know it's not easy," he went on with a rueful smile. "It's not easy for me either, as you know. And I won't force you to talk about Bucky, or your time in the army, not until you're ready. But when it comes to us, I will. You have to tell me when things aren't okay for you, or when I do something that hurts you, because I won't always realize it and a relationship is not supposed to hurt. So I need you to promise me to tell me, okay? Or at least try."

"… Okay, yeah." Steve gave him a small smile. "I'll try. I promise I'll try."

"You better," TJ said, half-teasing, half-serious. "And to reassure you, right now, no one's forcing me do to anything I don't want to do. Sure, I won't like it, the attention and all, I really won't like it. But that's just— Weighted up against you being hurt, or uncertain, or thinking I'm not serious about us, it's nothing. It's an inconvenience, a— a discomfort. Your well-being is more important, especially compared to those assholes. They don't matter. You do."

The words carried, he saw it in Steve's expression, in the way his hand tightened around the cup in front of him. Had they been alone, TJ was pretty sure Steve would've kissed him. As it was, he was still uncertain, didn't know where they stood on that matter.

The next question, therefore, wasn't surprising:

"So, uh. Going public." He cleared his throat. "What does it entail? What happens now?"

TJ took a breath. "Well, I talked with Mom. We have A Plan," he said, stressing the word.

"A Plan?" Steve repeated.

TJ nodded. "We're Hammonds—well, actually she's a Barrish, but still: we always have A Plan." He didn't mention the part where his mom, while glad that he wanted to go public because she was all for her son having a relationship he didn't have to hide, hadn't been too happy with the short notice: it was another thing to add to an already overloaded schedule. Still, she hadn't told him to wait. He'd asked, she'd listened. And she'd helped.

She'd also jokingly said that it might even serve her campaign. Having a former army captain, recipient of the Medal of Honor, linked to her in such a way: that was sure to bring in some conservative votes. TJ had had to shatter her hopes by pointing out that she'd probably lose those votes all over again the second they learnt that Steve was now not only an artist, but also in a gay relationship with her good-for-nothing son.

"It's a simple one, too, nice and progressive, step-by-step," TJ went on. "Step one is this." He gestured at the coffee shop around them. "We stop only meeting at your place or at mine, we start going out wherever and whenever." He grinned. "I know you're been dying to drag me to a baseball game."

Steve's eyes lit up at the prospect.

"Yeah," TJ chuckled. "Or, I don't know, we can go to the movies, or to the museum, or to a restaurant. We can even just take a walk through the park. Point is, we're not hiding. We get seen, we get noticed, speculations start to arise and we'll start to get questions from the paps. Then comes step two: the rumors become strong enough for us to start getting questions from newspapers that don't entirely belong down the toilet. At that point, we'll give a statement. We'll probably receive requests for an interview too, with me, or you, or the both of us. It'll just be a matter of choosing who we give it to."

His mom had already started throwing around some names, the first of which had been Susan Berg's.

"No," TJ had said.

His mom had blinked. "Pardon?"

"Not her. Anyone but her."

"Why not?" she'd asked, as if there wasn't plenty of reasons.

Unable to tell her about the most recent, chafing one, TJ had said: "You know why. I know she's your new lady friend or something, but I can't, okay? I can't just forgive and forget that she spent years building her career by tearing you down, and that she blackmailed you using my private life—"

"She had no intention of running that story," Mom had protested.

"But it did run," TJ had said. "And she got a whole piece out of it. Because that's what she does, she uses people and their problems to push herself forward, fucking up their lives—"

"She's changed, she doesn't do that anymore."

If only you knew, TJ had thought, and said: "Well, forgive me for having a hard time believing it."

"TJ—" she'd tried.

"Anyway, that's not the point here," TJ had cut her off. "The point is that I don't want her to be the one to write about us. So just, please: find someone else."

Mom had been taken aback by his vehemence and a bit vexed by his rejecting her evaluation of Ms. Berg's character. But she'd let it drop, as much as she ever did. TJ suspected she'd try to convince him again later. He'd worry about that then.

"At this point it'll be done already," he told Steve. "So we'll get to, you know, do what we want. All of it, holding hands in the street, putting on a show for the kissing cam… Most of all, I'll get to show you off in a tux at events." He grinned. "We'll be bothered quite a lot at first. There'll be people taking pictures and asking questions, giving their opinion even when it's not wanted, paps trying to get a quote. I won't lie, that part will suck. But it should quiet down with time, as the novelty wears off."

He hoped that it would happen sooner than later. But then, he always did.

Steve was nodding.

"All that sounds okay with you?" TJ asked.

"Yeah," Steve said. "There's only one thing."

"What?" TJ felt a spike of worry.

Steve smiled. "I don't own a tux."

"Oh, that." TJ relaxed. "We have A Plan for that."

"Another one?" Steve said with a soft laugh.

"Yeah. Be ready: Nana's taking you shopping." He propped his chin in his hand. "We'll have the final results of the primaries in about a month, which means that there'll be a speech, hopefully a party, and you better believe you're invited no matter what, so you need at least one good suit. Expect a call from her soon—oh, and one from Mom's PR too. She'll arrange a meeting between you and a member of her team so they can coach you and teach you some things about what to expect and how to deal with the press." He gave Steve a crooked smile. "You need to know the basics of how to avoid committing homicide. That and, well: how to avoid spreading state secrets you might end up privy to."

"Will I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement too?" Steve asked.

TJ tilted his head. "If my mom gets elected to office? Probably."

Steve nodded again. He seemed a bit disquieted, overwhelmed. TJ nudged his foot under the table.

"Hey," he said softly. He met Steve's eye. "You okay? I mean— If you're not ready, we can wait. I know the idea of it is not the same as the actuality of it. If you think it's too much all at once… I should've talked to you about it before starting in on the plan."

"It might've been nice to get some warning, yeah," Steve agreed.

"I'm sorry," TJ said. He'd been so worried about fixing things as quickly as possible that he hadn't stopped to think about how Steve might want it to happen—if he'd even had an idea of how these things were done. "Say the word and we stop, right now. We can start again later."

Steve shook his head. "No, no. You're right, I want to do this." He took a breath. "I faced a whole troop of rebels with nothing but a banged up car door and an empty gun—" TJ's eyebrows rose: if that was the kind of things Steve had gotten up to in Afghanistan, it was no wonder his friend Peggy had demanded a psych eval. "—I can face some overeager journalists."

"You can," he said, and offered his hand, palm up on the table. "Plus, I'll be with you all the way, I swear. We'll get through this together, okay?"

Steve stared at TJ's hand for several long seconds, then put his own in it. They both tensed, almost froze, waiting for something—but nothing happened: conversations carried on around them, drinks kept being ordered and prepared and delivered. No one stopped in their tracks, or gasped, or pointed. After a minute, they relaxed and, hands still joined, laughed a bit.

"Yeah," TJ said. "That'll take some time getting used to."

 

*

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

President Fred Collier was one ugly man—inside and out, one reflecting the other.

He also didn't bear defeat well, which, in the present case of him having to admit to one, was exceedingly obvious. Try as he might, he couldn't quite hide his vexation, transforming what would've been a gracious withdrawal into a painful obligation reluctantly fulfilled between clenched teeth. It was a pity, too: the writers had outdone themselves.

Such were TJ's musing as he distractedly watched excerpts from Collier's concession speech on the large TV screen hung on the wall. Mom could now safely hold hers. She was expected, too: they were all waiting for her while she got ready in the next room over and soon they'd all walk to the hall where her supporters and the press stood waiting.

"Quite a day, uh?"

TJ blinked out of his thoughts and glanced over to the person who'd just sidled up to him. He was dismayed to find out it was none other than Susan Berg, in a dark blue dress that did nothing for her. Why Mom had given her access to the green room, TJ had no idea.

She was smiling up at him, a tad bit hesitant but still mostly striving for friendly. That was her M.O. with him: awkward but friendly, as if she was aware of her past faults but hoping TJ would be gracious enough to let bygones be bygones.

TJ was not that good a person. But he couldn't be too insulting to someone his mom considered a friend; he dipped his head into the tiniest of nods.

"I see that the whole family is here," Ms. Berg went on. "Your grandmother, your sister-in-law—"

She caught the sharp glance TJ threw at her and faltered. It clearly dawned on her that he knew everything and that this was ground on which she definitely shouldn't tread. He had to hand it to her, though: she took hold of herself almost at once.

"I hear your father's in the public, too," she said. "Without a date."

"Believe it or not, Ms. Berg, but I hold little interest for my father's love life," he drawled.

He was now watching Doug and Anne, who stood side by side at the other end of the room, talking. It was the first time he saw them together since their fight. They themselves hadn't seen each other much over the past month, but from what TJ had been told, when they had, it had gone well. They'd been glimpsed eating lunch and dinner outside. The last time Doug had been in DC, he'd ended up crashing on their couch instead of booking a hotel room.

There was still no telling whether things would keep on progressing that well. Anne had agreed to be here today and play her part, but TJ knew her and Doug well: looking at them, he could see how stiff they still were, how tentative.

Still, they were talking. Doug was listening attentively while Anne gestured, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

Ms. Berg had followed his gaze. They watched the couple in silence for several seconds, then she asked: "What about you? Bring anyone special?"

She glanced around the room as she asked, searching, fishing. Clearly, she already knew there was someone. Mom had probably told her at some point, and it was both mortifying and touching to imagine his mom announcing to her friend that her son had a boyfriend now. She approved of Steve, TJ was sure of it. He'd thoroughly won her over during that family dinner, like TJ had known he would.

Still, what his mom decided to share with Ms. Berg had no bearing on what he himself chose to disclose or not.

"I'm not going to answer that question, Ms. Berg," he said warningly, not looking at her. "And I think you know why."

"You don't need to worry," she said, missing the point entirely. "Everything that happens in this room is off the record."

"Is it?" he asked, raising his glass of water to his lips. "Then maybe you can reply to a question I have for you."

She kept her smile up and nodded, although there was something wary in her demeanor even as she said: "Sure."

"Is your private life that dismal that you feel the need to constantly pry into other people's and screw up their relationships? I don't know, my parents'. My brother's." He gestured at Doug and Anne with his glass. "Just a few examples off the top of my head."

Her pleasant smile froze on her lips. TJ went on:

"So I assume you will understand why I am reluctant to give you access to my privacy, no matter what my own relationship status is."

She titled her head in concession.

"Now, given that this is actually my mother's day," TJ added, "I'd prefer not to make a scene. So I'll just go join my grandmother over there—" Nana was currently joking with Mr. Willis, one of Mom's sponsors, who clearly wasn't equipped for her brand of humor and was in dire need of a rescue. "—and you'll choose whatever other corner of the room you deem best, and we will all have as nice a time as possible. A fine plan, don't you agree?"

"I— Yes, it is." She wasn't pleased by the rebuttal, but definitely acknowledged that it was partially warranted.

TJ gave her a pleasant smile, but let it drop a second before he'd entirely turned away, just to make sure she knew how serious he was under the polite veneer. And, feeling relieved that Steve wasn't in the room, he did as he'd said and sauntered over to Nana's side.

 

*

 

The applause that welcomed TJ when he followed Doug and Anne into the main hall and onto the stage was deafening, but it was nothing compared to the roar that rose up when his mom entered the room.

For a while he couldn't even see her, hidden as she was by the people crowding near the barrier, waving their arms, jumping up and down, by the cameras and by the flashes going off again and again. Half-blinded, he even had to look away for a second—and when he did, his gaze fell on Steve, who was sitting in the front row beside Anne's parents. TJ's heart skipped a beat. He couldn't help but grin and barely refrained from waving like a dork when Steve realized he'd been noticed and smiled back.

They hadn't seen each other in nearly a week and, when they had, Steve sure hadn't been wearing what he was wearing now—that is to say the proof that Nana could do understated yet tasteful when she wanted to.

TJ's boyfriend cleaned up so well.

He was so absorbed in his considerations over how devastating Steve looked in his suit—and so close to the follow-up pondering over how exactly he was going to peel him out of it later—that it took Doug discreetly but pointedly elbowing him in the side to realize that Mom had reached the stage, had walked to the podium and was about to start speaking. He hastily straightened, schooling his expression and joining his hands in front of him, the perfect image of the proud and attentive son.

TJ already knew the gist of the speech, and he knew from years of listening to her how his mom talked; so he was surprised when, barely a couple sentences in, he felt himself start to choke up a bit. Realization was dawning all over again: she'd made it. She had been chosen as the candidate for the Democratic party in the presidential elections, she'd flawlessly cleared the hurdle that had stopped her last time and now she had a real shot at actually becoming the first female president of the United States. Elaine Barrish, his mom. The emotions showed on his face, he was sure, and no matter what people might think it wasn't even an act: he was so proud he could burst with it and could've listened to her talk for hours.

She kept her address short. She'd never been one for rambling or pompous declarations, preferring a more direct, plain approach. She said what she had to say, mentioned the road that lay ahead, but still invited the audience to rejoice and take part in the celebrations of that first victory. She'd be joining them shortly.

A long salve of applause followed, which TJ happily helped along, relieved that he'd managed to keep it together and hadn't started shedding tears in front of the cameras. In the audience, Dad was the first out of his seat, soon followed by everyone in the room for a standing ovation. Even Susan Berg looked somewhat emotional, but most of TJ's attention was focused on the front row, on Steve, who was grinning and clapping along. He looked happy for TJ's mom, for everyone, even though TJ knew for a fact that he was far from agreeing with everything Elaine Barrish suggested, that he often wished she'd try and go further. In that moment, he was putting all of that aside and just cheering. TJ's heart felt like it had grown three time its size and was ready to beat right out of his chest.

The applause showed no sign of quieting down when Mom left the stage to make her way back out. She did so slowly, taking the time to greet supporters and donors and fans, giving Doug a second to give one or two quotes to the journalists. TJ and Anne took advantage of the delay to make a quick detour to greet her parents, although TJ's real purpose, after shaking Mr. Ogami's hand and kissing Mrs. Ogami on the cheek—she giggled—was to end up in front of Steve.

"Hey," he said. "Fancy meeting you here."

"You don't say," Steve returned with a grin, putting his hands in his pockets. "That was a nice speech."

"It was," TJ agreed.

"You look nice, too," Steve added, almost timidly. TJ couldn't help it anymore.

"I'm going to kiss you now," he stated. Steve barely had the time to raise his eyebrows before TJ's lips were on his. He didn't shy away, though, returned the kiss sweetly, his hands settling on TJ's hips after a second.

"What about the plan?" he asked when they parted. Wolf-whistles could be heard, but in the middle of the applause there was no saying if they were for them, or still for Mom.

"What," TJ retorted, "don't you think that was eloquent enough as a statement?"

Steve smiled and kissed him again, a bit more hotly this time, his hands running up to cradle TJ's back and pull him against his chest. TJ went happily and slung an arm around his shoulders.

Someone pointedly cleared their throat beside them. "Time to move, lovebirds."

The kiss broke, TJ biting and licking his lips around a grin. Steve blinked at him for a second, then glanced over. "Margaret," he greeted.

"Steven," Nana returned sternly.

TJ untangled himself from his boyfriend and stepped back, only now realizing that he'd almost gotten carried away.

"Off we go," Nana said. To Steve, she said: "You're coming, by the way."

Ever the gentleman, Steve gamely offered her his arm, which she took with a pleased grin and an approving nod. That was when TJ realized she'd chosen her outfit to compliment Steve's, and vice-versa. Damn, she was cunning.

He joined Anne and walked alongside her until they'd reached Doug, who welcomed her while TJ continued to his mom's side. Elaine rose an eyebrow at him, striking the perfect balance of disapproving and amused. TJ brought a hand to his chest with an expression that wasn't quite apologetic—It's love, Mom, what can I say?—but he soon cracked and was smiling again, glancing back in time to see Steve shake Doug's hand and receive a kiss from Anne, all clear signs that he was part of the clan, that he was here to stay.

Sean was going to see this, TJ realized. He could see some of the cameras swiveling towards the group, could almost feel some people wondering who that blond guy was. Everyone was going to see this. Hell, Susan Berg was already seeing it right now, even though TJ hadn't actually meant to stick it to her that obnoxiously. A shiver ran up his spine as he became aware of the room around them, of the world beyond that, all those people who would see and talk and judge.

But then, as he watched, Steve burst out laughing at something Nana had said. When he quieted down, he look right at TJ, still grinning, and everything else fell away. TJ smiled back.

They were going to be okay, he realized. He waited until Steve was close enough to reach out a hand, which Steve took without hesitation, interlacing their fingers. TJ's smile widened.

They were doing this together. People could say and think what they wanted: in the end, none of them mattered at all.

 

*

 

Later, much later, after more speeches and congratulations, after the official celebration and the unofficial party, there was no one else left but them, the Barrish-Hammonds, in a hotel room—TJ didn't know which one exactly. He'd allowed himself a couple of drinks and was pleasantly tipsy; after over a year of sobriety, his tolerance was nowhere near what it had once been.

It wasn't too bad, though. Everything felt cozy and warm, he himself was drowsy, the mixture of elation and excitement having left him now that things were closer to morning than midnight, now that the joyous crowd had left. Taking advantage of everyone's distraction and exhaustion Doug had sneaked over to the radio system a while ago and plugged in his own phone to give his Backstreet Boys playlist a turn. He was now dancing to it with Anne, singing along quietly and definitely off-key, trying to twirl her but only succeeding in making her laugh—that full-bellied laugh she usually bit back in front of other people.

TJ watched them with a smile, allowing himself to feel hopeful, to believe that they'd be okay. He was sitting on a couch beside Steve, or rather against Steve, slowly but surely sinking into him and into a half-slumber. His boyfriend was talking with Nana, something about the working conditions of go-go-girls back in the day and whether they had gotten better or worse since then—TJ wasn't quite following. He was basking in the nice, quiet glow of seeing these two people who were both so important to him getting along so well.

It had been different earlier: his mom's victory, the ensuing celebration, the kiss he and Steve had shared in front of everyone had set him abuzz, had sent him into something almost like a high. Steve had felt it too; when TJ had dragged him to the nearest bathroom to blow off some steam he'd kissed back, touched back—but he also hadn't let things go too far, catching TJ's hands the second they'd strayed down towards his belt. Hard as it had been, TJ hadn't forced the issue, focusing on kissing him some more instead.

Still, Steve had looked adorably self-conscious when they'd straightened up their clothes and returned to the room where the party was taking place, stiff and a bit sheepish, as if he'd expected everyone to know what they'd done. TJ hadn't had the heart to tell him that, if anyone had noticed their absence, then they'd definitely assume that a lot more than a few heated kisses had been exchanged too. Instead he'd brazenly taken Steve's hand in his and gone to find Anne, while privately crossing anything close to public sex off his list of things to try.

He was okay with that, too. Especially right now, now that everything had settled down and he could simply enjoy Steve's presence, feel his warmth, listen to his voice.

His eyes roved over the room and he realized he couldn't see his parents. Then he remembered noticing them leaving a while ago; he sure wasn't going to ponder over what they might be up to. Instead he let the realization spread through him once more: his mom had done it. She'd won the primaries of the Democratic party. She was one step closer to maybe, hopefully, winning the presidential elections, becoming the next president of the United States, the first female president of the United States.

He felt a brief spark of unease at the thought of his mom being back in the White House: that place wasn't associated to any memory he could call good. But they weren't there yet. Plus, he wouldn't be following her there, he reasoned. He wouldn't go back to being that kid again, that kid who'd been so lost, so confused, so afraid and so exposed, so vulnerable. No, he thought, and settled his head more comfortably on Steve's shoulder, he was never going back there.

He was moving in with Steve. They'd started looking for a place and they were going to find the right one, with a large living-room and high windows. They were going to start their life together: Steve with his art, his workshops at the VA and his volunteering, TJ with his studies and his projects. They'd have friends over from time to time, they'd go on trips—maybe even to New York, so Steve could show him his neighborhood and, who knows, go visit Bucky's grave at last. A few years down the road, when TJ would've gotten his degree and would've finally paid Doug back, he would open another club, a better club, something smaller, more intimate, where people like Steve's friend Bruce could come and perform, where there'd be music old and new, where you could experiment, or talk, or dance, or just be there and listen. He wasn't entirely sure yet how that was going to work exactly, what it would look like, but it would be something good. It was already something to look forward to.

It had been a long time since T. J. Hammond had had that. His smile widened and he closed his eyes, rejoicing in the feeling. For the first time in a long time he felt good, about himself, about where he was and with whom, about the future. He felt confident. It was different this time.

This time, he had a real chance to win too.

 

*

 

END