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Make Me Feel Like I'm Real

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2012, October

He's trying. The words have almost lost all meaning to T.J, because no matter how many times he tries to start over, he always somehow manages to fall and surprise absolutely no one, not even himself. His mother and his brother are so wrapped up in Elaine's run for president, his father tries to work with them, and Nana wants to balance the line, because she knows what can happen when T.J's left to his own devices.

For a while he does good. Isn't that how it always goes? For a while, he fights out the itch with Nana in the family home, in the room that has been scrubbed of all his stashes, dutifully talking to Dougie about his days during short phone calls from god knows which city or backwater town. He goes to NA meetings, sharing and sharing and sharing until it feels like he's running dry. Three months after Garcetti's death, he starts staying less at the Hammond home, and more in his own apartment. He's doing okay. He's good. He's doing fine.

Until one night, he isn't, and he tumbles and falls back into bad habits and he can't even be mad. It's not a big slip-up. Nothing that lands him in a hospital or the tabloid front pages, but it's a fall. Back to square one, and T.J hates himself. He continues trying, but the road is made of speed bumps, and he keeps falling, keeps wanting to fall.

He stays self-contained, all too happy to have his mother and brother zipping across the country. Nana is harder to dodge. She never asks outright, but T.J is sure that she knows. Sometimes she hugs him a little longer, looks at him in the same way she did when she asked what happened to the T.J she knew when he was younger. It drives him mad with guilt, the pain roaring to life in his chest, and he hates how his first instinct is to get high so he can get rid of it.

It's a tough road, and he knows he should work harder not to stumble so often. As weeks turn into months, his mother's bid for the White House strengthens, and T.J knows what it means. Attention. He's been through it, with his father's two terms, with his mother's first campaign. He needs to get a grip of his habit so he doesn't fuck up. Much as he has a complicated relationship with his parents, he knows his mother would be a good president, and he doesn't want to screw anything up for her. That means staying on the straight and narrow, smiling for the cameras, dressing up and shaking hands with Important People, being questioned about his two previous hospital visits. He needs to get a grip.

But it's so hard.

Growing up a teenager in the White House, you never quite forget the absurd amount of attention that all of a sudden finds its focus on you, but damn it if T.J hasn't tried. It's hard to ignore the articles running, the subtle (and not so subtle) jabs at his failures. Some days he can laugh it up over toast and coffee, joking with Nana about the whole thing. Some nights they consume him and set off the itch, the need to escape. So he keeps stumbling, keeps struggling.

Like tonight.

D.C is freezing, the cold wind creeping past his scarf, past the cuffs of his coat and the legs of his jeans that are shoved into his boots. His every shaking breath is visible, puffs of condensation painting a brief trail behind him before evaporating. It's one of those nights, one of those instances where he knows he shouldn't but he just wants to. It also happens to be a shit night for him, because Omar got busted in a sting a few weeks back, and T.J has no idea where to turn. He supposes he could go to just about any club, it'd probably take him less than ten minutes to spot someone who could point him in the right direction, but clubs are attention. It's eager eyes and cellphone cameras, 140 characters straight to TMZ, and he needs to keep this quiet.

He's been circling his neighbourhood, relatively safe from temptation, for nearly an hour. Until he knows what to do, he might as well. T.J kicks a pebble in front of him, kicks it again and again until it skips across the sidewalk and out onto the road. For some reason, it irritates him, angers him past the point of any sense. He just needs something, fucking anything to work tonight. How fucking hard can it be? A nearby lamp post gets the brunt of his aggression, desperate kicks that hurt him more than it does the street light. His entire body is shivering, fingers dragging through his hair, breaths shallow and rapid.

That's when he hears it. It's tiniest sound he's ever heard, a high-pitched whining that confounds him. There's no one around, and for a second, T.J thinks he's imagined it. Then he hears it again, and he whips around, trying to locate the source. Down, down, there. He pushes aside branches of an evergreen brush, and his breath catches. Curled up underneath is a small kitten, its head lifting to look at him with eyes that are barely staying open. His first thought is to leave the little cat alone, figuring its mother might be nearby. But then it meows again, and he can't help himself.

”Hi there...” He slowly extends his hand, fingers barely brushing over the matted, dark grey fur.

The kitten is ice cold, barely even shies away from his touch. Either it's a runaway or it has been abandoned, and something in his heart breaks at the thought. Carefully, he picks up the little bundle, cradling it in his hands and bringing it close to his chest. The kitten lets out another heartwrenching meow, and that's when T.J decides: no scoring tonight. He's only a few blocks from home, and so he gently lets the small animal slide inside his t-shirt, hissing as cold paws press against his skin. Keeping one hand cradling the cat, he sets off towards home.

Turning a corner, he spots a small convenience store just ahead, and he slows down. There is nothing in his apartment fit to feed the cat, and all at once, he's overcome with an overwhelming dread. How the hell is he supposed to take care of this tiny thing? T.J can feel the kitten squirming lazily against his chest, searching for warmth, small paws and tiny claws rasping against his skin, and he wants to get it away from him. Not because he hates it, not at all, but because he hates himself. He's a screw-up, everything he touches fucks up sooner or later, this cat deserves better. His heart speeds up, and T.J stops in front of a row of brownstone houses, fighting the insecurities that run rampant inside of him. He could knock on one of the doors, say he found the cat outside, see if the little furball sparked enough compassion that they would take the cat, give it a better chance.

He's halfway up the stairs to the closest residence when the kitten, as if sensing he's about to give it away, starts to laboriously claw its way up his chest. Too weak to make it all the way up to his shoulders, it slides down, landing on the hand he's still pressing against his chest. T.J scoots it up to the collar, and a small head pokes out from under it, peering up at him. With a single look, T.J's signs away his heart. Doug and he never had pets growing up. They kept nagging, and almost had their parents convinced that they could get a little puppy, and then Doug had to go on a field trip to a farm and realize he was allergic to pretty much everything with fur. After a while, puppies and other small animals became all the less interesting, and T.J started down a path that would prove so tempting and so destructive.

”Take it easy, I'm here...”

The small cat almost launches itself at his hand as he reaches out to pet it, and T.J feels a strange clench in his heart. It isn't quite the all-consuming heartbreak and devastation that he felt after Sean left his apartment. It isn't the dull stab of his parents doubting his abilities and resolve over and over. He can't put words on this feeling, and he can't decide if that's a good thing or not. Drawing in a breath that ends up sounding more like a subdued sniffle, he plucks the kitten out from its hiding place, holding it up in front of him to look at it. If he's going to take care of this little creature, he needs to do it right. He googles kittens, trying to look at pictures and guides to see how old the one in his hand is. Eyes are open, so definitely older than two weeks. The ears are triangular instead of flat, so past three or four weeks. It looks so tiny in his hand, squirming for warmth.

”Come on, let's get you something to eat, okay? Then we'll go home.”

It feels strange saying it with such tender sincerity and knowing there will actually be someone coming home with him and staying. He has avoided company as much as he can to minimize any damage that could come out it. Someone always ends up hurt, whether it is him, his family or the other person. Putting away his phone, T.J holds the kitten close to his chest, shielding it from the cold wind with his coat. As he gets closer to the store, he realizes he can probably not go inside holding a cat. Stuffing it back inside his shirt is not a solid option either, he'll need to hold it with at least one hand, and that will look suspicious. The only option left, however silly it seems, is to slip the kitten into one of the pockets of his coat. They are fairly sizable, and if he is quick, he can probably make it out before anyone notices his pocket was moving.

”Kitty...” He leans down to whisper against the cat's fur. ”I'm gonna have to hide you, okay? I need you to be to really quiet and really still, and I promise I'll get you something good. Just stay still. We're going home.”

The cat meows weakly, and doesn't put up a fuss as T.J gently places it in the left pocket. He keeps his hand with the cat, softly scratching behind its ears to keep it calm. He's in and out of the store in ten minutes, grabbing a shopping basket in passing and going straight for the pet section. It's not necessarily the best stocked store he's been in, but he finds wet food labelled ”kitten” and picks up a bag of kitty litter. On the way to the check-out, he grabs a sandwich and some milk and water. He needs to feed himself, too, after all. Everything goes smoothly as he pays, although he's more than a little nervous when he has to pull his left hand from the pocket to open his wallet, fearing the kitten will protest, but the small animal stays quiet, unmoving in its hiding spot.

He's almost giddy when he exits, a small bag in his right hand and the other stuffed back in his left pocket. The kitten is still, accepting his soft ear scratches. T.J hurries home, jogging the last block and fiddling to find his keys when he ascends the steps to this front door. The heat inside comes at him like a wall, his cheeks burning slightly from the chill outside. He needs to get the kitten warm, needs to feed it. Kicking off his boots, he zips around the apartment; shrugging of his coat and placing it carefully on the couch so the cat is still surrounded by something slightly warm, rummaging through kitchen cabinets until he finds the smallest bowls he owns to fill with cat food and water, rifling through what passes as a linen closet to find the old, ratty blanket he bought a few winters back when his windows did little to keep out the icy cold, wrapping it around himself to warm it up as he returns to the kitchenette to get the cat food.

The kitten has made no move to crawl out of the pocket, and T.J has to gently slide it out into the palm of his hand. For a second, his heart skips a beat when the small thing doesn't seem to move. The tiny body is still cool, despite the insulation provided by his coat. He's not even twenty minutes into taking care of a small animal that depends on him, and he's already failing. Carefully, he picks up the kitten, bringing it close to his chest for warmth, grabbing the small bowl of wet food and putting it under the cat's nose.

”Come on, kitty,” he murmurs, ducking his head to nuzzle against the soft fur. ”Come on, look, there's food.”

The kitten stirs lightly in his hand, but not enough to crawl to the edge of the bowl. T.J can feel his heart beating a mile a minute as he rushes back to get a spoon. He quickly mushes the wet food, measuring a small amount on the spoon and puts it in front of the kitten's face. It sniffs, letting out a soft whine, but doesn't make a move to eat.

”Shit, shit, shit...”

T.J needs this to work, he needs to succeed at this, to have this one small victory. He can feel his nerves fraying, tears threatening to spill down his cheeks. In a last ditch effort, he takes the water and dumps it in with the wet food, stirring it together to a mushy soup, measuring a teaspoon's worth and putting it back in front of the kitten, hoping like hell that it will work. The furball sniffs tentatively at the mush before catching a miniscule amount of liquid with its tongue. T.J gives a hoarse laugh when the kitten lifts its head to swallow, looking like the food offered is mana from the heavens. When the cat musters up whatever strength it has left to faceplant into the spoon to greedily munch what's left on it, T.J feels like he could burst into tears. He doesn't care about the lumps of cat food that falls onto his jeans because the kitten is so eager to eat. He doesn't care about whatever plans he may have had for the night. He doesn't care about the fact that despite having food and litter, he might not be prepared to take care of the animal in his hand. Tears finally escape, slowly rolling down his cheeks as he measures another spoon of food for the little one. None of it matters. Not now.

”I got you, kitty. You're okay...” he mumbles into the kitten's fur hours later.

He still doesn't know what else to call the cat but 'Kitty'. It fits, and in the end it doesn't really matter. Even if he knew if this was a boy or a girl, he would probably still end up calling it Kitty. As is, Kitty is curled up against his chest, fur softer and warmer after a bit of a wipe down and very short stint rolled up in a terry cloth towel. T.J had tried to build a nice little nest on the far end of his bed out of a couple of warm shirts and a pillowcase, but Kitty had given it a sceptical one-over before scurrying over to burrow down as close to T.J's chest as it could get.

It's a long night, but it's okay. T.J is too afraid to fall asleep for longer than fifteen minutes for fear of rolling over and crushing the little furball that stays curled up against his body. The bowl with food is perched on his bedside table, and he makes sure Kitty eats a few times during the night and uses the improvised litterbox he made out of a box lid sometime after 3 am. Mostly he just watches the tiny cat, the rapid breaths, the way it's rolled itself into an impossibly round ball, scooting so close to him it looks like it's trying to dig its way under him. The one time he really falls asleep, it's early morning already, he swears it's just gonna be for a few minutes, just a few...

He wakes up hours later when a loud clank sends him flying up, looking wildly around. He finally spots Kitty, hind legs digging into the mattress, front legs balancing against the edges of the bedside table. Its face is absolutely covered in mush while the mostly empty bowl is coming to a halt on the floor a little ways off. T.J scoops up the kitten, happy to feel it warm against his skin.

”You're gonna be a handful, aren't you?” he muses, smiling as kitty squirms a little in his hand, letting out a squeaky meow.

Kitty turns out to be more than a handful. For three glorious days, T.J feels like there's a meaning to his life. He doesn't leave the apartment during those days, but he's fairly sure if he did, Kitty would have more than enough time to demolish the place. It's completely beyond him how something so small and innocent-looking can cause so much trouble. He can't stay mad at the little bugger for too long, though. Sooner or later, Kitty will amble over to him and either meow or use his pants as its personal ladder to get to his lap. For some reason, T.J feels like he needs to keep Kitty a secret, so when he has his weekly phone call with Doug, he blames his sudden cursing when Kitty claws its way up his leg on having stubbed his toe, and he tells Nana he feels like he's coming down with the flu when she asks if she'll be seeing him for dinner. He knows he's a lousy liar, but at least he's not keeping the usual secrets from them.

Life is good, and then on the third day with Kitty, he has to go out. He is running out of pretty much everything, and the little monster will probably start eating the furniture if T.J doesn't restock. Reluctant to try the cat-in-a-pocket routine again now that the little monster is a lot more squiggly, T.J places Kitty in the bathroom with the litter box and the food bowl.

”I'll be gone for just a little while. Gotta get you more to eat, Kitty.” T.J affectionately scratches the cat under its chin, smiling as sharp teeth try to nip at his fingers. ”You stay here, don't do anything stupid while I'm out, okay?”

Kitty takes a swing at his hand with one paw, and T.J can't resist playing just a little while longer. Grabbing another improvised solution, a crumpled up newspaper page, he tosses it to the far end of the bathroom, Kitty skidding across the floor to get to it. Quickly closing the door, T.J hurries off, grabbing his wallet and phone as he goes.

He almost misses it, too busy typing down his grocery list on his phone. The grocery store he's on his way to is in the same direction as the one he went to on the night he found Kitty only a little bit further away, but he knows it will be better stocked. Crossing the road to cut through a small neighbourhood park, a flash of white catches T.J's eye and he stops. To his left is a lamp post with a rudimentary poster taped to it, and when he looks closer at it, his heart drops.

Have you seen our cat?

Underneath is a somewhat grainy picture of a small kitten, but T.J knows it's Kitty. The bottom of the poster has been cut into stubs with a phone number printed on them, and a few have already been ripped away. T.J hesitates. He should call. Kitty is missing and someone went to the trouble of printing posters and taping them onto lamp posts. Shoulders slumping, he rips a stub, feeling his spirits sink in time with the soul-crushing realization that he will never win. If he doesn't fuck up, he will somehow lose whatever small victory he has won. Save a kitten, find its owner. Isn't that how it always goes?

The trip to the grocery store is dampened by his discovery, and he doesn't bother buying more food for Kitty. There's still a little wet food left, and he can probably bring the bag of kitty litter with him when he returns the kitten to its rightful owner. Instead he buys ice cream, indulges himself with his favourite. He's sure as hell gonna need it.

As soon as he's home, T.J makes sure to toss the tub of ice cream in the fridge, but leaves the rest on the counter. Kitty is scratching at the bathroom door, having heard him return, and he can't help himself. Throwing the door open, he catches the lightning fast cat, holding it close to his chest. Kitty squirms against him for a few seconds, but stills, as if knowing that now is not the time for playing. T.J's breathing comes in fast, shallow gusts, holding onto the small animal like his life depends on it. He could keep Kitty. He could toss away the slip of paper with the number on it, pretend like he never saw the poster, have this one thing to keep him afloat and happy.

Ultimately he can't, and he sets down Kitty, keeping an eye on it as it trots around him, trying to get T.J to play. The phone in his pocket feels like it's made of lead when he pulls it out along with the phone number, and he takes forever to dial. When he hears the tone beep, his throat goes bone dry and T.J swears he can feel his heart slow down to sluggish, thundering beats that echo in his head.

Aiden speaking.”

He flinches and almost drops the phone, giving Kitty a scare. The voice crackling on the other end of the line is melodious despite the distortion. For a second, T.J can't make himself open his mouth, can't take the final step.

Hello? Anybody there?”

”H-Hi,” he finally stammers, squeezing his eyes shut. Idiot.

Who is this?”

”I'm- I think I have your cat.

An hour later, T.J is walking down the streets, heading to a neighbourhood just off the street where he found Kitty. It had been a fairly short phone call; where had he found the cat, was it ok, could he bring it over right away? T.J had given a bullshit reason for not being able to immediately hurry over, taking full advantage over his final, precious hour with Kitty to say goodbye. Kitty had exhausted itself playing with the crumpled up newspaper ball to the point where it fell asleep when T.J wrapped it up in two towels like a tiny baby before grabbing the litter bag and heading out.

His heart constricts as he turns onto the right street. It's a nice neighbourhood, neat homes in well-kept rows, trimmed hedges and tidy streets. T.J knows all too well the secrets that can be successfully hidden behind a polished front, he lived that life, and an errant hope flares to life that maybe Kitty's owner will turn out to be unfit to take care of the small kitten. He quickly rids himself of the thought, feeling ashamed for having entertained it even for a second. Kitty stirs lightly in its little nest, tucked into the crook of his arm. T.J presses a light kiss to the cat's head, a teary-eyed smile gracing his face as Kitty bumps its head against him.

”You'll be fine. I promise,” he whispers, trying to convince himself as much as he's reassuring Kitty.

Not long after, T.J's trudging up the steps to Kitty's home, hands trembling as he brings the left one up to knock on the front door. His pulse immediately spikes and he tries to tell himself he's being irrational, there's nothing to be afraid of. His heart doesn't listen, at least not until the door opens a crack when it seemingly halts and drops like a rock into his stomach. The man standing inside is... beautiful. T.J has been loath to let his mind wander and linger too much on guys since the fiasco with Sean, but this guy... It's impossible not to linger, not to wander. He looks to be about the same age as T.J, yet he still seemingly towers over him, the tightly curled hair adding to his height even though it's pulled back in a loose bun at the crown of the man's head. Bright, brown eyes, curious and perhaps even a bit surprised, compliment the rich coppery skin, with prominent cheekbones lending a grace that T.J didn’t think was possible.

”Hi.” T.J's voice somehow gets stuck at a whisper, and so he clears his throat. ”I'm here about the cat. Are... are you Aiden?”

”I am, ” Aiden affirms, opening the door a touch wider, eyes still glued on T.J. ”Sorry, I'm- I didn't expect- You said your name was Thomas.”

T.J lets out a breath. So he did recognize him. Using his real name instead of his nickname has become second nature. T.J is for family and close friends. Thomas is for official business. It's easier, more convenient, especially in these kinds of situations, it draws a line between who he is and who people see him as. Introducing himself as Thomas, just Thomas, comes with no caveats or expectations, only surprise. T.J looks at Aiden again. He seems to be handling it pretty well, his slightly hooded eyes finally tearing away from T.J's face to land on the bundle in his arms. T.J smiles sheepishly, handing Kitty over to Aiden, trying not to flinch so visibly when their hands briefly touch.

”You sure live up to your name, don't you,” Aiden coos at Kitty, petting the little bundle and receiving a tiny meow in response.

”What's its name?” T.J asks curiously, his hands itching to hold the cat again.

Aiden's face splits into a huge grin, showing pearly white teeth. ”His name is Trouble.”

T.J's pretty sure he hasn't laughed this hard in ages, he's forgotten the sensation of an honest laugh, the bubbling feeling, the way it seeps into his soul to envigorate him. He must come off so strange to Aiden, a madman even, and he tries to rein himself in. Kitty, or rather Trouble, has woken up, squirming to break out from the confines of the towels and find the source of the commotion. The cat cocks his head at T.J, emitting a loud trill, and T.J is once again struck with longing. He reaches out his hand to give Trouble one last scratch, and Aiden helpfully holds out the kitten so that T.J can take it in his arms again.

”You be good now, okay?” T.J whispers into Trouble's neck, breathing in the soft, warm scent of Trouble's fur. ”Don't go running off again.”

Trouble meows in response, and it's almost physically painful to hand him back to Aiden.

”Thank you,” Aiden tells him, his voice so sincere T.J can't even hate him for taking this small bit of joy from him. ”I didn't think I'd ever see this little guy again.”

”Yeah, no, it's- it was no trouble at all.” T.J lets his gaze fall, remembering the bag he's holding ”Um, I... I figured you could take this.” He holds out the litter bag, his heart speeding up again. ”I don't have any other cats, so I won't use it.”

Aiden nods, accepting the gift, smiling softly at T.J.

”So... Yeah. I should get back.”

T.J wants to kick himself. When did he ever get this awkward? He was not trying to flirt with the guy, he wasn't interested, he shouldn't be interested, he shouldn't, shouldn't, shouldn't. He's too complicated for this, too broken, too... T.J. He gives an awkward wave and starts hurrying down the stairs so he can get away as fast as he possibly can.

”Thom- T.J!”

He freezes on the spot when he hears Aiden call out for him, calling him by nickname, as if they really knew each other. Turning slowly, he realizes exactly why. The litter bag is set on the floor next to Aiden, and he's clumsily maneuvering Trouble to completely free him from the towels. Trouble meows loudly at the awkward treatment, but Aiden finally manages to get him out and tucked under his arm, quickly catching up to T.J at the foot of the stairs, handing him the towels.

”Thanks.” He can barely look the other man in the eyes, his cheeks burning as if he was a lovestruck teenager.

”No trou-” Aiden abruptly falls silent, snickering at the unintentional pun he almost let slip. ”No problem. Thanks again, T.J.”

T.J nods, attempts a timid smile before walking off. He distantly hears a door closing behind him, at which point he squeezes his eyes shut in embarrassment at his own behaviour. What the hell had happened back there? He never did this, hadn't been like this since...

Since Sean.

”Fuck, fuck, fuck...”

He can't. He shouldn't. He wants to.