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Find Ourselves Some Truth

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It’s only a 10-block walk from his apartment to the VA, and normally it’s a walk he enjoys. It gives him time to sip his coffee and clear his head; the first is a requirement to function, and the second is much the same, these days. It’s the nation’s capital, and it’s fall, and that’s a combination pleasing in both its aesthetics and the much-welcome drop in temperature. The first day he could drag his much-loved leather jacket out of the closet without fear of spontaneous combustion was a good day indeed.

Except today, it’s raining, and TJ Hammond is a man without an umbrella. He could pick up his pace, but he’s not in a hurry, and the cool rain is almost soothing as it hits his neck and rolls lazily down his back. The rain started when he was halfway down his block, and he could’ve gone back, sure, and he could still snag an overpriced umbrella from one of the sellers that appears on the corner every time it rains. But it’s weirdly grounding as the rain pings gently on his skin, and TJ finds himself laughing.

Even if he shows up soaking wet, it’s not like it’ll be the roughest he’s ever looked.

He can think back to a December day, an empty bottle and a garage filled with gas for that - a memory that will always be too vivid, one he still sees reflected every time his mother looks at him with somber eyes.

But he’s almost three years past that moment now. He’s doing pretty well, at least when he looks in the mirror and thinks of where he’s been. He’s doing pretty well, as far as TJ Hammond goes. Maybe not so well if the comparison stretches to his twin, but then Dougie’s always set that bar a little too high.

Really, though, he thinks as he rounds the corner and his destination comes into view. He’s doing pretty well.

Teaching piano lessons at the VA for veterans’ kids hadn’t exactly been at the top of his to-do list a couple years ago. Then Doug and Anne got married, and then Elaine Barrish abandoned her presidential hopes to accept a Supreme Court nomination (after a brutal Senate confirmation), and then TJ decided it was his turn.

He’s never asked about the strings his mother pulled so that he could audit some classes at American; he knows that, in spite of everything, he’s still ten kinds of lucky to be living the life he is. (To be living at all, if he wants to put it bluntly.) Mostly he’d wanted to sit in on the music classes, but then he picked up a pamphlet on the teaching program and thought, Maybe.

He wasn’t ready for the rigors of a formal program, but it felt good to be focused on something. And then the focus sharpened into interest, and he thought again, Maybe.

He’d kept the maybes to himself and just kept going to class, sitting - not slumping - in the back and finding himself entirely caught up in the ideas and the energy that were trademarks of all Dr. Snyder’s lectures on the arts in special education.

Dr. Snyder, or Alex, as TJ had come to call him. But Alex was firmly in the past. The present is Corey, seven going on 17, learning a Randall Hartsell song for the upcoming recital.

TJ climbs the familiar steps, pausing under the building’s overhang to shake off some of the droplets clinging to his jacket, smoothing a hand through his soaked hair. He’s been walking these halls for a few months now, his expensive sneakers in stark contrast to the worn linoleum. But he feels good here: the kids are mostly eager to learn and fun to teach, and then there’s Corey, with a chip on his shoulder TJ recognized on sight.

Corey’s waiting in the hallway, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, and TJ grins, letting his shoes squish loudly as he approaches. Corey’s bored gaze slides over to him.

“Ever heard of an umbrella?”

“Nah,” TJ says easily, sliding the key out of his pocket as he reaches the door to the music room. “I like the way the rain feels.”

Corey rolls his eyes and follows TJ into the room. “You’re gonna get sick,” he says, sliding onto the bench of a baby grand piano that’s lived a longer, rougher life than TJ. “My dad’s always sick.”

TJ shrugs his jacket off and drapes it over a chair by the window, hesitating before he answers. He hasn’t met Corey’s father yet; Corey’s lessons are carefully timed to coincide with therapy appointments, but Corey always claims he’s supposed to meet his dad in the lobby.

“Well,” he says slowly, sitting down on the bench beside Corey and setting the sheet music out, “if he’s here, it’s because he wants to get better. Right?”

Corey’s face is a storm of emotion, but he says nothing, so TJ nudges his shoulder.

“Did you practice? Let’s hear it.”

Small hands hover briefly above the keys, and then Corey launches into the song’s delicate melody. TJ closes his eyes: he doesn’t need to watch to listen. The music’s almost ethereal, setting a mood both peaceful and cheerful - something the composer excels at - and he sits in perfect stillness, making mental notes as Corey plays.

“You did practice,” he says approvingly when Corey finishes the piece and lifts his hands. “And you only had a week to learn it, so I’m pretty impressed. Here, switch me.”

And as is their habit, Corey scoots off the bench to allow TJ to slide into his place. TJ rests his hands on the keys, relaxing further at the feel of familiar ivory under his fingertips, and launches into the same song.

It’s how he likes to teach - by example, rather than exhortation. It’s just simpler when he’s playing, and Corey’s a natural, easily able to pick up on the nuances between TJ’s polished performance and his own.

When he finishes, Corey’s sporting a thoughtful frown. “I missed some of the sharps. And I’m too loud.”

TJ nods, stretching a finger out to point at the sheet music. “Just a little. Remember, I showed you where to look?”

“M-P,” Corey reads. “So, like, in the middle?”

“Mezzo piano,” TJ affirms. “A little softer than normal.”

It’s an accurate reflection of his life these days - the tempo’s a little slower, the noise a little softer. It’s good for him, this calm. He’d worried he’d be restless, and he knows his family still worries, but the hum of energy under his skin isn’t a manic one. He has purpose here, and it may be small and focused, but it feels like a good place to start.

TJ encourages Corey to try the song again and tries to take his own words to heart as the melody starts again, quietly and more measured.

“Yeah,” TJ says quietly, watching the smile bloom on Corey’s face as his fingers dance lightly over the keys. “Just like that.”

***

Steve doesn't mind walking, these days. Gives him time to think, more so than running, which (these days) reminds him of being chased, by the Winter Soldier (Bucky?), by HYDRA, by a lifetime built of ice.

He checks the weather before he heads out, spends too long looking out the window at grey D.C. sky. Grabs an umbrella on his way out the door, but doesn’t need to open it until he’s almost halfway to the VA center, already ahead of time for his volunteer shift.

No longer does he suffer from chronic asthma, anemia or back pain. These days, Steve Rogers is just chronically early.

There’s a skinny guy in a black leather jacket running up the steps as Steve’s approaching the VA; umbrella-less and soaking wet. By the time Steve has entered the building, the guy is gone, the only trace of his entrance a line of progressively smaller drips along the hallway.

Steve’s here to chat with his “war buddies,” as Sam likes to call them. The old brigade, the old guard - guys who served in the Philippines, Western Europe, Korea. Guys who are Steve’s actual contemporaries - inasmuch as he has them (minus Bucky).

“Hey there, Carl,” Steve says as he walks up to an elderly man in a wheelchair, nubby blue blanket draped over his legs. “How are you doing today?” Steve pitches his voice a little brighter than he feels, notches his volume up and pays attention to his diction.

“‘Bout as good as expected,” Carl says, voice a little querulous. It took a few weeks for Steve to learn that Carl had served in the Philippines near the end of the Second World War, had watched many of his buddies die in sweltering, relentless humidity. Steve’s even chatted a bit with Carl’s son when he’s come to visit and realized that the little visits with Steve and the other old guard are the first time Carl’s ever talked about his war experience.

“You’re early today,” Steve continues. “I admire that in a man.” He winks at Carl. “I’m going to go check on Craig. You hang on here and see if the others come along and we’ll be right back.” He pats Carl gently on the shoulder and then heads down the hallway to the assisted living portion of the VA.

When Steve returns to the common room, pushing Craig’s wheelchair, Carl is quietly conversing with Gayle (a former sailor in the Korean War) and Harold, a fellow WWII vet.

Steve carefully pushes Craig into the circle, and then pulls a chair over for himself and settles down to have a chat about the “good old days” - sharing remembrances about favorite childhood things, old radio shows, and the like. It makes Steve feel more alive - while he loves talking with Sam or the other fellow Avengers, there are always some things that he just can’t share. Tony teases him about it relentlessly - Capsicle struggling with pop culture again! - but Steve doesn’t really struggle with today’s popularities; he just doesn’t care that much (except about the Food Network; please do not get between Cap and his Food Network).

Today’s conversation is light and easy, revolving around the upcoming holidays and the memories of those past. It’ll be Halloween soon, in just a few weeks, and the VA is holding a little get-together, at which Steve will be present. The oldsters have little interest in attending themselves, but are looking forward to local schoolchildren stopping by to trick-or-treat in their assisted living wing, and to seeing the costumes.

“Having trouble coming up with a costume, myself,” Steve shares ruefully, running a hand through his hair. “Don’t really want to go as ‘Captain America’ this year.”

“Kids’d like it, sure,” Craig pipes in, leaning closer to Steve, “but I can understand why you wouldn't want to.”

The other men nod along in agreement, and Steve feels a hint of relief. It’s not like he expected the old veterans to think he had to dress up in his Avengers costume for Halloween, but it’s just nice to have some affirmation that he doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t feel obligated, especially after everything that’s happened recently with HYDRA and D.C. - and the vets don't even know the half of it.

***

Steve has a standing lunch date with Sam after his weekly volunteer shifts, but today Sam’s office door is still closed when Steve arrives. Steve can hear Sam’s voice through the door. Not wanting to eavesdrop, he wanders down the hallway a bit and takes a seat outside a different closed door, from which he can still see Sam’s office.

There’s silence from behind this new door for a bit, and then Steve realizes that there are people inside this room, too. One of the voices is more high-pitched - a kid, maybe? - and the other is soft but reassuring, teacher-like.

A piano starts up, and then stops. The teacher-voice says something, and the piano starts again and goes on for several minutes, and Steve thinks it sounds pretty good, until there’s a mistake even Steve’s untrained ear can hear. The teacher voice encourages, and the piano starts again, but then stops after another few mistakes. The kid’s voice gets louder - frustration, but the teacher’s voice is encouraging, reminding the kid of what he’s done well, and fairly pointing out how he could do better. Steve’s impressed - he likes kids, but he never really knows what to do with them.

Whoever this guy is, he’s certainly a natural. From what Steve can hear - and he’s not eavesdropping, not really, he’s just sitting here and happens to be outside of this lesson - he’s kind and patient and obviously cares about this kid. Steve’s listening so hard to the piano lesson that he jumps guiltily when he hears Sam call his name down the hallway.

“Steve Rogers! What are you doing over there creepin’ on TJ’s piano lesson?”

Steve stands up quickly, and strides back over towards Sam’s now-open office door.

“You know,” Steve says easily, “back in my day, we didn’t have to wait around for our buddies. Everyone was on time. And that was even before all the smartphones.” He gives Sam a sardonic look.

“Back in your day,” Sam shoots back, “I wouldn’t even be able to sit at the same lunch table as you, so don’t you tell me about how everyone was on time.”

“Fair, fair,” Steve sticks his hands in the pockets of his jeans.

“Okay, then. Now c’mon, Rogers,” Sam says, grabbing his coat from the hook on the back of his office door. “Let’s go grab some pho and let you tell me a little more about the good old days.”

Steve’s amenable to this, he really is - but something in him makes him linger just a moment longer, so that Sam has to turn and call over his shoulder again. Steve shakes his head, stops straining to hear more of the piano lesson, and follows Sam down the hall.