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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.

Chapter Text

He’s still itching, but he makes an effort to stay completely clean over the holidays. It’s the only time of the year where he voluntarily wants to spend time with his family, not bearing the loneliness of his apartment, not since… well. There have been no Christmas tree, no sitting by the piano lazily playing carols, no eggnog spiked just beyond acceptable. T.J can’t bear Christmas alone, can’t process the cheer and lightness that everyone else seem so abundantly full of. His family, while not perfect, can still be civil on Christmas, and it’s so steeped in traditions and ceremonies that it almost feels cold and perfunctory.

From Thanksgiving to December 23rd, he immerses himself in anything he can think of, anything that comes his way. He does the mandatory Christmas shopping, making a list in advance so he can efficiently plough through the shops and not linger on the fact that there was a time when he looked forward to Christmas shopping, of finding that perfect gift for what he though was his perfect man. Now it’s a chore, a duty, something he suffers through to make time pass. A couple of quality Cuban cigars for his father, a couple of books his mother has talked about for months, the usual prank gift for Dougie and some wall art that he thinks Anne will appreciate. Nana is the hardest. Maybe it’s because whenever asked, she just thwacks him teasingly over the head and tells him not to get her anything. T.J still feels like he should, like he needs to, like he has to make up for everything and especially to Nana. So he makes a few calls, and a couple of days later a thick envelope finds its way to him, chock-full of photographs from her time as a showgirl. He actually manages to forget most of his woes as he looks through them, realizing that Nana and he are more alike then they might want to admit.

The cravings come and go, and T.J hates the nights. He never knows when it’s going to be a good one. It’s either a solid eight hours, soft light filtering in through the blinds and lazy morning coffee, or it’s fitful hours tossing and turning, feeling like his limbs are slowly catching on fire before exhaustion claims him and he wakes up past noon feeling heavier than ever in sweatsoaked, cold sheets. It’s nights like these that he truly misses Trouble, the sensation of a small, warm body curled up against his chest, purring contentedly in the darkness, keeping his mind focused on something besides himself.

Somehow, he makes it to Christmas Eve, packing up all the gifts he’s bought to spend the holiday with his family. He takes one last look in the mirror, fiddling with his blazer and nervously running his hand through his hair. He’s kept off the drugs for three weeks, an unbelievable amount of time for him right now, and the prospect of spending the holiday with his family has his stomach in knots. Trying to calm himself, he goes through the time-honoured Hammond family Christmas. Late dinner on Christmas Eve. Sleeping in his old room, waking up on Christmas Day and for a second feeling like a kid again. Ice skating with Nana at National Mall, he and Dougie sneaking turkey stuffing before Elaine without fault busts them and chases them out of the kitchen. Singing Christmas carols all night. Opening presents at exactly 8 pm, followed by eggnog and mulled wine and an easy sort of peace and quiet until one by one, people bid their good nights. T.J takes a deep breath. It’s easy. He knows this. He doesn’t have to pretend.

Still, he hesitates at the door, shifting his weight from one foot to the other before finally ringing the doorbell. His mother’s silhouette approaches, and T.J plasters on a fake smile to go with his fake Christmas cheer. He can do this. It’s easy. He does it all the time.

”Hello, mama.”

Maybe Elaine doesn’t see through his facade. Or she does and she plays into it. She hugs him tight and invites him in. And so it begins.

They tread lightly through dinner, no one directing any serious questions his way. It’s that time of the year, they all remember too well the ghost of Decembers past. T.J gets it. They’re trying to be gentle and considerate, but their silence and evasion only serves to remind him of an incident he’d really rather not think about at all. He shuffles his food around his plate for a while before Nana gives him a swift kick to the shins, a silent prodding to eat up, you little shit, and he makes an effort to smile and laugh at appropriate times.

The night wears on, and he, Dougie and Anne end up in his old room, playing gin rummy with his brother and Anne tag teaming against him. The tension built up from dinner slowly dissipates as they battle it out on his bed, tittering and groaning at their success and failures. He hasn’t played in a while, and ends up losing several rounds before finally winning and hastily calling it a night afterwards.

”Oh, come on, T.J, afraid you won’t keep your throne?” Dougie teases him, shuffling the deck.

”Just trying to keep the Christmas peace, bro, you’re the one who’s the sore loser of the two of us,” T.J rebuts with a cheeky grin that almost feels genuine.

”I can attest to that!” Anne grins, playfully nudging Dougie’s arm, and his brother looks so utterly scandalized at being targeted like this.

They’re interrupted by a knock on the door, Bud poking his head in. There’s something soft brimming in his eyes at the scene before him, his two boys together, seemingly at ease with themselves and their lives. T.J keeps his smile light and tries not to make it seem so forced as Bud bids them goodnight, saying he’ll see them tomorrow at lunch. Conversation halts after Bud leaves, and Anne quickly excuses herself to go to bed. Dougie lingers, still shuffling the deck as if they will play one final round.

”Are you okay?”

The question, so out of the blue and yet so expected, has T.J smirking. Typical Dougie. Always feeling like he has to look out for him.

”I’m fine,” he replies neutrally, trying and failing at keeping eye contact with his brother.

”Don’t bullshit me, T.J. Are you doing okay?”

T.J heaves a sigh, fiddling with the cuffs of his shirt. ”I haven’t used, if that’s what you’re asking.”

”How long?” Dougie prods, setting down the deck of cards.

”Long enough.”

”T.J…”

”Three weeks,” he relents, not wanting to look up and see the disappointment in his brother’s eyes. He just knows Dougie expects him to have done better.

”Damn it…”

”I’m trying. God, do you even know how hard it is? I’m trying my fucking best to stay clean, or at the very least to fuck up in private so I don’t make things worse for mom.”

He’s keeping his voice down, knowing Elaine could be passing by his door at any moment. Dougie has no sharp comeback for him, no admonishing retort, no guilt tripping comment to make him feel worse about his failures. T.J is unsure of how he feels about it. The disappointment and the talking down to him has become such a standard response that the lack of it throws him for a loop. He heaves a sigh.

”You know what, I think I’m gonna go to bed.”

Dougie looks like he wants to say something, but opts to stay quiet, giving an affirming nod before rising from the bed and leaving T.J alone with a quiet ”Night, bro”. Left alone in the room, he falls back with a heavy sigh, head hitting the pillows with a subdued poof. Fucking brilliant start this turned out to be. Rubbing his eyes, he looks up at the white ceiling, toeing off his boots. It’s still better.  He can make it. He doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want to sit and stew in his apartment with the ghosts of Christmas Fuck-Ups Past. He’ll go to bed, he’ll sleep, and tomorrow it’s all going to be blithesome pretend and smiles all around. He can make it. He has to.

He does.

It’s as if reality resets when he wakes up the next morning. His room is bathing in soft light, there’s a pleasant chill in the air, and whatever happened yesterday doesn’t matter. T.J positively skips down to breakfast, earning a quirked eyebrow from both Elaine and Nana as he presses quick kisses to each of their cheeks, grabbing juice from the fridge and a stack of pancakes from the plate next to the stove. Dougie, of course, isn’t up yet. It’s another tradition. His workaholic brother takes one day a year to sleep in, and that’s Christmas. T.J’s skin itches, almost like when he’s jonesing, but this is different. This is his day, his one day to feel like he’s leading a different life, a normal life. There is no limit to this day.

Only, there is.

His steam inexplicably runs out around dinner. It’s as if the rug has been swept out from under his feet, and he’s overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness, like a heavy blanket wraps itself around his shoulders and his heart and tucks and tucks and tucks until he almost gasps for air. The conversation around the table slowly fades out as he seemingly folds in on himself, building up a wall of smiles and nods while he crumbles inside. This was not supposed to happen. Things have been going so well. Ice skating with Nana, trying to steal stuffing with Dougie without getting a whack over the head (neither were quick enough to escape Elaine’s reach), listening to their father regale them with tales of glory days gone by. T.J should be okay. He should be light and lively and not feel like he’s getting crushed in a car compactor.

”T.J?”

It’s as if he’s being pulled back through a wormhole, his mind trailing woefully behind as he looks up to meet his mother’s gaze, guarded and imploring.

”Hmm?”

”Your phone. You got a message.”

T.J rifles for his cell, and sure enough, it’s blinking up a storm. ”Sorry,” he apologizes, plastering on a coy smile. ”Lost in thoughts.”

His fingers feel numb as he swipes the pattern to unlock the screen, his brow furrowing when he reads ”one new message”. He taps the notification, bringing up his inbox.

>>Merry Christmas! /Aiden

Aiden. Trouble. His one good thing. T.J’s mouth slowly pulls up into the ghost of a smile. It has to be a mistake, he doubts Aiden has actually texted him on purpose, but even so, the generic greeting and the memories attached to the name is enough to ground him a bit. Aiden, and by extension, Trouble, is out there, having a grand old time.

”Who’s got you smiling, sweet cheeks?”

Nana. Of course. She’s watching him like a hawk, fork halfway to her mouth. The rest of the family halt their eating, the room falling strangely silent as all eyes are turned to T.J.

”Group text,” he replies, schooling his features to tone down the inexplicable joy that is suddenly bubbling inside him, forcing the heaviness away. ”I… wasn’t exactly expecting them to send anything today.”

”That’s nice,” Elaine notes, her eyes roaming T.J’s face for any sign of lies.

He knows that look, he’s been on the receiving end of it for years. He’s not exactly lying. It’s a group text. It is unexpected. He’s just omitting the finer details. His mother seems to decide he’s not lying, and the rest of the table follows suit when she picks up her knife and fork and continues eating. T.J is itching to excuse himself from the table, get away from the prying eyes and send something back, but he knows how it would look if he would do it. Getting a text in the middle of dinner, leaving the table soon after, coming back possibly happier than before. Yeah. T.J would be suspicious of himself if he was in their position.

Dinner drags on forever. There are jokes and anecdotes and Nana poking fun at Elaine. His dad is unusually tempered, but his raucous laugh and drawling voice still colours the discussions. It’s same, but different. The text has brought him back to reality. There is focus, he is attentive to every utterance, every movement, he plays along. His fingers tingle, tapping against his thigh as if typing out a phantom reply. T.J can barely contain himself when Elaine declares dinner over, but he can’t leave just yet. The table needs to be cleared, the food needs to be put away, traditions need to be kept.

So maybe he is back to being all smiles and giddy jabs at Dougie. Maybe Nana looks at him a little more than usual, trying to decide who this T.J is that looks and acts so much like the little boy she remembers. Maybe his mother’s hand on his back when he does the dishes is more than just encouraging. Maybe her voice is ringing in his head. You’re tying your sobriety to to this asshole. But this is not the same. It’s not. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. It’s nothing. It’s just a happy coincidence, and he needs all the happy coincidences he can get. He will take it, and be happy with whatever comes his way. His mother, hell, his entire family, might not believe him, but T.J has learned his lesson. He can be cautious. He will be. He will.

Finally, there’s a lull, a transition from one stage to the next. He pulls out his phone again, brings up the text and quickly types a reply.

>> Not sure I was supposed 2 be included in this, but ty. Merry Xmas 2 u 2. T.J (guy who found ur cat)

Dougie’s watching him when he looks up, and T.J’s almost relieved. He can handle his brother.

”What, you wanna see my group texts now? See every permutation of Merry Christmas there is?”

”You’re a dick, you know that?”

”Well, I have one…”

”Don’t even go there.” Dougie shoves him playfully in the arm before escorting Anne into the parlor.

T.J smirks as he follows. This will be good. He can make it. He’s back on track. Next phase, ready, set, go. After-dinner drinks, music playing in the background. Nana begs him to play, and although he has been so determined not to, he relents, sliding onto the stool. Fingers hovering over the keys, his breath hitches slightly, his mind flooded instantly with memories that he has tried to lock away.

Have yourself a Merry little Christmas…

No.

It- He- Sean-

His thoughts momentarily refuse to organize into coherency, and T.J has to take a deep breath. It’s okay. It wasn’t his fault. The words were hurtful, but they were not the truth. Just play, T.J. This is yours. You are okay. You are here. His fingers finally land, pressing gently against black and white in patterns so familiar it soothes him. Nana follows his lead. She can’t help herself, and T.J doesn’t want her to.

I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love… even more than I usually do…”

The words are comforting, and Nana’s voice takes on that strange quality where it is both frail and warm, the one he loves most. It’s the first time he’s played with his family since Dougie and Anne’s wedding. It hurt back then, but he wanted to do it for them. Now his heart seems blissfully at peace, beating a steady rhythm under his dress shirt. He thinks about the piano in his apartment, the one he’s hardly spared a look at in months. He’ll probably have to tune it. Maybe get some new sheet music. He can start again. Maybe he won’t be a concert pianist, but he still loves this instrument more than he’ll ever be able to explain.

He begs off when Nana tries to cajole him into playing another song, saying he hasn’t played in a long time, that the radio is perfectly all right. Glancing wistfully at the meagerly stocked drink cart, T.J excuses himself to go fetch a bottle of mineral water. They’re still trying to make things easier for him. No distractions, no temptations, no matter how many times he’s tried to tell them alcohol was never one of his demons. Being denied even the smallest glass of red wine at 30 has to be a new low, but he knows better than to bicker with his mother today.

The imposition of having to walk to the kitchen turns out to be a blessing in disguise. His phone buzzes as he steps around the kitchen island, and his heart leaps, hands shaking as he checks the new text.

>>Oh my GOd, I’m sorry. This is why I should not text when stressed. And I’m doing it again. I’m texting the former 1 st son under the table. I’m sorry. Merry Xmas. Again. /Aiden

T.J’s tempted to write something cheeky back, but decides against it. His sexuality has been known since he was 15, but that doesn’t excuse blatantly flirting with someone he’s not sure about. Memories flare up again, and his heart briefly constricts. Look where it got him last time. Pulling open the fridge door, he texts back:

>>Its ok. Not like I get a lot of greetings. Its nice. Tell Trouble merry xmas from me. /T.J

He hurries back before his absence becomes too noticeable, taking a deep swig of the carbonated water as he enters the parlor. His family is halfway through the first verse of a very upbeat version of Ding Dong Merrily On High, the music barely discernable over the sound of everyone singing at the top of their lungs, smiles wide and cheerful. In a way, it’s strange for T.J to see his family like this, genuinely happy, laughing and letting loose. So much of their lives revolves around appearances, a carefully maintained image, so ingrained that it has seeped into their private lives. Seeing them like this is a nice change. T.J takes another swig of water before joining them.

He doesn’t expect another text from Aiden, so it’s with a fair amount of surprise he feels his phone buzzing twice in short succession in his pocket in the middle of exchanging presents. He and Dougie have just given each other the traditional prank present, and he’s still laughing at the frankly ridiculous and sad excuse for a pair of boxers his brother has gifted him. He might just have to wear them to breakfast tomorrow for shits and giggles. Nana is still flipping through the book he compiled for her out of the stack of photos he got from Las Vegas, a fond smile on her face. T.J can’t help but feel a little proud of himself. He has made Nana happy. It’s a start.

Looking surreptitiously around the room, he finds his family suitably wrapped up in oohing and aahing over presents received, and T.J quickly picks out his phone to look at the messages. He’s sitting off in a corner, relatively safe from prying eyes, but he still tilts his phone so it looks like he might be taking a pic of the scene. He’ll have to be quick, maybe even snap a few actual photos so he can prove it. Quick fingers swipe against the screen, bringing up the messages. The first is a picture, and T.J can barely contain his laughter. Trouble is nestled on a rather large branch, surrounded by baubles and tinsel and illuminated by Christmas lights, evidently napping peacefully.

>>It took me AN HOUR to find him. :) He says merry christmas too. /Aiden (and Trouble)

”What are you doing?”

Dougie. T.J realizes he’s smiling goofily, and his heart is about ready to leap out of his chest.

”Are you filming this?”

”T.J!”

”Stop it!”

Relieved that everyone are simply going along with Dougie’s question, he taps the message away, careful not to do it too quickly, making it look like he’s snapping pictures. Nana and Elaine are peering at him, their expressions almost identical in the way they try to almost see through his phone. He manages to bring up his camera and take pic of the two of them.

”I swear, it’s just pictures!” he defends, letting his smile turn into a laugh that he can’t be bothered to control, turning to photograph his father chortling in his armchair, then panning to Dougie and Anne to capture them looking at him with a mix of outrage and glee.

”Prove it, you shit,” Nana challenges, waving her hand for him to hand over the phone. ”If you filmed us, I’m gonna shove that thing-”

”It’s not a film clip, Nana, look.” T.J brings up the gallery, selecting the photo of Nana and Elaine and holding it out for them to see. ”Look, it’s a photo. You and mom. No moving pictures.”

Nana actually leans forward as far as she can, squinting her eyes at the photo until she’s sure it won’t start moving at some point. Finally, she purses her lips and leans back against the couch with a grumbling ”I look like shit” before going back to her photo book. Snickering, T.J once again pockets his phone, not daring to text back immediately. The image of Trouble sleeping in the Christmas tree still keeps the smile on his face, and there’s a pang in his heart when he thinks back to the three days he had the kitten to himself. Maybe he should get a cat. Maybe he could get by a bit easier. Maybe he’d be okay.

The evening drags on, through non-alcoholic eggnog (a travesty, but he keeps his smile bright and his mouth shut) and dito mulled wine (not actually too horrible), through more reminiscing fueled not by the contents of their glasses but the calm, safe atmosphere that has nestled its way into the room. T.J looks longingly at the piano, aching to give any of the songs Nana gave him a try. She’d gifted him with a selection from her own collection of sheetmusic, bound and catalogued for him, saying he was the only one she trusted would get any kind of joy from them. It’s so tempting to sit down, play again, but he doesn’t want to risk it, doesn’t want to risk sitting down and bringing on the pain and memories. Once was quite enough, and they are having too good a time to bring on an onslaught of unwelcome flashbacks and the inevitable discussion about his future.

And, of course, there’s still the messages from Aiden.

He stays longer than he perhaps would have liked, finally begging off with a yawn that is not all fake. Anne has already retired, and Nana is snoring softly up against a mountain of pillows. His mother, all too used to working late nights, will probably be the last one standing. T.J gives her a quick kiss, dipping down to place another on Nana’s forehead before whispering goodnight and trailing off to his room, his gifts piled precariously in his arms. He’s oddly at peace. No anxious trembling, no all-consuming fatigue. He’s tired, sure, but it’s the kind of tired that’s blessedly normal. Tired from staying up too long with family.

Gently unloading his Christmas bounty on his dresser, T.J starts peeling off his clothes, and he can’t be bothered to hang them or fold them, discarding them as he ambles around his room. There’s no reason to pace really, but it’s a comforting action, so ingrained in him that he barely notices it anymore. So worrisome. In the haziness of sleep, T.J makes an early New Years resolution. Worry less. ”It’s not good for you,” he thinks to himself, grabbing his phone and plopping down on his bed.

His eyes are heavy, the soft mattress welcoming him and he doesn’t mind the sensation of cool sheets against his warm body. Lazily, he unlocks his phone, brings up his texts again. Trouble sleeping in the Christmas tree. T.J giggles, the image absolutely hysterical to his sleep-addled mind. He’s so tired, but everything is so funny.  His thumb hovers over the reply field. He wants to. He really, really wants to.

He might not be-

                           But it’s just-

                                              He’s only-

                                                                  I can-

 

”Stop fucking worrying,” he mumbles to himself, eyes fluttering.

It’s not even New Years and he’s already going back on his resolution. But, he reasons, it’s not New Years yet, so technically he has not broken anything. He’s still good. T.J takes a final look at the photo, smiling at the sleeping, mischievous kitten.

A cat. He should get a cat. That’s also going on the New Years resolution list. He’s going to get a cat, he’s going to stop worrying and things will be fine. T.J drifts off with a smile on his lips, phone falling from his hand with a dull thud against his chest.

Chapter Text

Three weeks. That’s how long T.J manages to stay on the sobriety wagon before he takes another plunge, breaks all his New Years resolutions. He hobbles through the first three months of the year being inbetween clean and using. He tells himself it’s not so bad. It’s not a regular thing. It’s not. Things are just… hard. Again. His existence is a series of potholes that he tries to avoid but inevitably drives straight into, shaking up his life and his resolve and his promises to himself. The close calls have been far too many, and every time it happens, he just digs himself deeper into his relapse.

Until now.

In the midst of his life going to shit, so did the city, apparently. D.C’s turned hostile, and if T.J had bothered to read the news, he’d seen it. His mother calls one day in late March, saying she’s assigning him a security detail. It’s nothing you haven’t already been through, it will just be one guy. T.J’s having an off day when it happens, but he’s thankfully clean and what he gets from the conversation that mostly consists of a lot of shouting is this: A lot of gay people have been attacked. Elaine is worried. T.J tries to tell her he can get by, he knows how to take care of himself. More yelling. The only reason he relents is when he hears the strain in his mother’s voice, the one where she’s holding back tears, and he can’t fight that. He agrees to the personal security, but only when he’s going out. No standing guard outside his door, no invasion of privacy.

At first T.J dismisses the supposed threat, hoping to be able to do the same to his constant companion whenever he steps foot outside the door. But within two short errands, he can see it. The looks, the atmosphere, the gnawing sensation in the back of his mind. He’s a target, like anyone else. His face has been plastered over tv and tabloids since he was fifteen. Everyone knows. T.J Hammond: the first openly gay child in the White House. He never thanks Elaine outright, he simply refrains from complaining. It’s the Hammond way.

His security guy, Paul, does make things… complicated. He looks older than his supposed 37, and oozes the kind of quiet resolve and determination that comes with his profession. They agree on him ditching the suit right away, but Paul is still on his ass whenever T.J’s outside. No chance of scoring anything stronger than Advil on his watch, because that would get back to his family before he even had time to scrape out a line. The first week, when his fingers itch and numb and itch again, all at the same time, he considers going rogue. Just one quick walk. He hasn’t found a new dealer per sé, Omar is still locked up, but rather T.J has been taking what he can find from whoever.

Just once. Just a little. Paul doesn’t have to know.

He makes it to the door, the doorknob already turned in his hand, and he can feel the slight draft of cool air against his knuckles. T.J wants it, god, does he want it. But he also doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to disappoint, doesn’t want to drown in the guilt that comes with each relapse. Elaine and Nana are still at the front of his mind. His mother’s campaign would suffer if he went out on his own, got arrested, got assaulted, got murdered. Nana would never forgive him. She’d probably find a way to reanimate him just so she could kick his ass. With a sigh, he let’s the door lock again, lathes the security chain, takes a deep breath.

Paul has to know.

T.J toughs it out, tries not to alienate himself from his family. He goes to dinner at least once a week, he talk to Dougie and Elaine as often as he can. He feels bad for Paul. The first weeks are always the hardest no matter his resolve, and T.J can be a spectacularly irritating asshole. Paul probably thinks he is an idiot. He briefly wonders if Elaine has made his bodyguard privy to his substance abuse, or if he simply takes it because the eldest Hammond son is a priority, no matter how rude he is. Sometimes, Paul is hard to read, much like the Secret Service agents that were assigned to him and Dougie in the White House. They exchange the briefest of pleasantries, they talk about mundane stuff to keep up appearances of being buddies when they’re out. T.J tries to be courteous and get to know his shadow beyond his views on major league baseball. Some days he wishes he could function like a normal human being, not be such a mess, not be such a fucking screw-up. Some days he’s glad their relationship is seemingly permanently stuck in professional. Attachments just fuck you up.

Days drag on, become weeks, becomes a new month. The chill of March slowly dies away, but the unease in the street persists through the first weeks of April. T.J has been clean for almost a month. It’s a forced sobriety, but he’ll take it. He could falter, could break the terms of his agreement with his mother, leave without telling Paul, but he doesn’t. It’s what keeps him grounded on bad days. He’s made it this far. He can make it further.

There’s very little left for him to do on his excursions on the town. Nightclubs are out, too big of a temptation, and he’s had enough experience ditching Secret Service in his life that he knows a visit to a nightclub will only end in a disaster. Bars are out. Paul can’t drink on the job, and T.J’s supposed to stay off the alcohol, too. Plus, drinking alone while you’re company just watches you, stone sober? Hell no. They’ve been to the movies, taken the same walk so many times T.J is confident he could walk the route with his eyes closed and not miss single crossing. Paul has followed him on the short trip to his family’s house. It still feels a little ridiculous having to call his bodyguard over for a fifteen minute bus trip in broad daylight, and thankfully Nana was the one to point it out on their first visit.

”Take it up with mom,” T.J offered by means of explanation, earning an exasperated huff from his grandmother.

They’re out walking again tonight, strolling past crowded pubs and brightly lit fastfood joints. The conversation has stalled a bit; there is only so much T.J knows about the impending baseball season, while Paul seems to be a neverending source of information. At least the silence isn’t as awkward as it was in the beginning.

”Do you ever think it’s ridiculous?” T.J asks as they’re rounding the corner, hands thurst deep into the pockets of his coat. ”Babysitting a 31-year-old man? Watching every step I take?”

”’S better than babysitting a paranoid hedge fund manager in his mid-60’s,” Paul quips, chuckling a little.

”Well, isn’t that a relief.”

T.J desperately wants to continue talking. They’re turning away from the well-trafficked streets, into areas that without fail make his hair stand up the back of his neck, a constant vigilance strumming against his nerve endings. He would feel so much better if they were talking, if they looked like they were friends in case they meet someone. Would he be this uneasy if he didn’t have Paul with him, if Elaine had never prompted him into this arrangement?

”T.J.”

Paul’s voice is low, cautionary, one hand coming up on his shoulder. T.J looks up, fear bubbling just under the surface. Ahead of them he spots a group, huddled together, talking. Although they’re loud, T.J can’t make out what they’re saying, but he can feel the menacing aura coming off of them. Glancing at Paul, he sees the other man slowly sneaking his right hand towards the gun he’s got tucked away in a holster. He wants to tell Paul to cut it out, but he knows it won’t do any good.

The group scatters a bit, and T.J finally sees that there’s another person, the object of their attention. It’s another man, tall compared to the others but somehow looking so small surrounded by them. He finally catches a word hurled at the man, and it’s one he balks at, one that should not be repeated to anyone ever. The decision takes less than a second; he can’t let this slide. It’s even further solidified when the man turns towards him and Paul and T.J’s heart makes a wild somersault as he realizes he knows this person.

Aiden.

He’s already more than halfway when he hears Paul hissing at him to come back, but he doesn’t care. Shoulders squared, an amiable smile on his lips. It’s so easy to play pretend, he’s done it for so long it’s second nature by now.

”Aiden!”

Pause. The world seemingly comes to a screeching halt the second T.J’s mouth opens. Aiden flinches, looking around wildly before finding T.J’s gaze. A messenger bag hangs from his shoulder, hands gripping the strap so tight hiss knuckles are paling. The idiots freeze, regarding him for a second, appraising him. T.J knows he doesn’t cut a very impressive figure, all lean figure and gangly legs. Their eyes squint, they think they can take him.

”Sorry, man, I know we’re late, but Paul here…” he motions with behind him where he’s sure Paul is cautiously following him, possibly with his his hand resting on the handle of his gun. ”…insisted we take a different route. Can’t be too sure in this city, right?”

”Hey, man, fuck off!” one of the idiots spit at him, a particularly nasty-looking guy with a scar running right through his left eyebrow.

”Hey, man, how about you stop messing with my friend.”

”T.J…” Aiden finally speaks, and his voice couldn’t be a clearer warning. Stay out of this.

”Hammond? T.J-fucking-Hammond?”

This is also familiar ground. All eyes turning to him, his name inspiring attention, incredulity, derision. Head Idiot peers at him, the malice in his expression now mixed with recognition.

”Fucking figures,” another of his friends mutters under their breath.

”My words still stand, fag, fuck off.”

T.J clicks his tongue, drawing in a breath through clenched teeth. ”I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he continues, voice emulating the cinematic computer. ”See, that there,” He points to Aiden, ”is my friend. That guy back there is also my friend. And he would just love for you guys to mess with either of us.”

He can’t help the satisfied smirk that tugs at the corners of his mouth as Head Idiot takes one look at Paul, evidently realizing that although they may still have strength in numbers, it would be an incredibly stupid move to try and pull anything on T.J Hammond. A thick glob of spit lands at T.J’s feet, followed by shuffling as the gang disappears into the shadows down the street, leaving T.J, Aiden and Paul alone on the sidewalk. Paul sidles up next to him, and the man looks like he’s been through hell. T.J almost feels bad for him, but his focus immediately shifts when Aiden unfreezes from his spot to brush past them.

”Hey, are you okay-”

”Why did you do that?” Aiden interrupts him, spinning on his heel.

The lightning quick movement, the unexpected loud tone of voice. It’s too close.

                                ”Don’t touch me!

T.J can’t answer, can’t open his mouth, a thick knot restricting his windpipe. He can’t even look at Aiden, too scared that what he’ll see will be too much like it was. Paul tenses again next to him.

”I don’t need you to save me, man,” Aiden continues, his voice still loud, but some of the anger has fizzled out and T.J hears rather than sees him gesture after the gang. ”You think I don’t know how to handle myself, how to defend myself?”

”Sir,” Paul starts, and there is authority and assertiveness there. ”You need to stop.”

”It’s okay…” T.J mumbles, eyes still cast downwards. ”I just- I wanted to…”

Aiden heaves a sigh. ”I get it. I follow the news, too. You wanted to help, but T.J, not everyone needs it, and let’s face it, you will always come out on top.”

Paul moves next to him, but T.J reaches out a hand to stop him. He’ll just take this verbal beating, take it like he always does and turn tail. It’s not like he hasn’t had worse.

”I’m sure you’ve gone through your own stuff - hell, the entire country watched you go through some of it - but trust me, you will never experience that,” Aiden points once again down the street, ”and we both know it’s not only because of your personal security.”

”I understand.” His voice is subdued, low, not a hint of fight in it. T.J’s never been one to fight, it’s been so easy to be complacent, to conform and numb out the pain in ways that have clearly not been healthy.

He misses the way Aiden furrows his brow at his response, misses how he slowly bends down, tilting his head to catch T.J’s gaze. ”Hey…”

Curls fall into his field of vision, and T.J can’t help himself. There he is. Dark brown eyes, the colour so intensive it almost bleeds together with the pupils in the dusky evening light. No anger, no hate. His eyebrows are slightly knit together in determination, but it doesn’t look threatening. T.J’s body slowly relaxes, joints unlocking from tensing up in preparation for another rejection.

”You wanted to do something nice, and I appreciate that… but I can take care of myself,” Aiden tells him kindly, voice deep and smooth, comforting T.J’s unease.

”Sure,” he replies, and he winces inwardly for sounding so curt.

He takes a breath, manages to do it without revealing how affected he really is. Glancing to the side, Paul is still standing stalwartly at his side, ready to take action if T.J gives even the slightest hint.

This fucking night…” he thinks. He should never have left the apartment.

”We should probably get going.” He looks at Paul as if for confirmation, and his guard takes the cue, nodding in agreement.

In a perfect world, they would have said goodbye, and gone home, but T.J can’t. Maybe it’s his fucked-up addiction playing with him. Can’t get high, so why not put his heart on the line again. Turning back to Aiden, he stuffs his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumping, only barely daring to keep eye contact this time.

”Are you heading home? You could- Do you want to keep m- keep us company?”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. T.J wishes he could take back the words, shove them back down his throat and reboot his brain. Why does he keep turning into a shy, little schoolboy around this guy? The only thing missing is the coy little foot scraping and fucking hearts shooting from his eyes. For modesty’s sake he stands still, tries to look like he’s a grown ass man and not at all like something more than his walk home is at stake.

”Sure.”

What?

”What?”

”I’ll walk,” Aiden clarifies, readjusting the bag. ”It’s in the same direction anyway.”

Well, shit.

”Oh, okay.” T.J wants to kick himself. ”Shall we?”

The first block or so is awkward silence, drowning out the steady increase of noise around them. Paul walks just a few steps behind them, lending a small amount of privacy that now has T.J drowning in cold sweat. It’s just a walk. He’s being a decent person. It’s been a rough night for both of them, and he needs to relax, needs to stop being such an ass, needs to-

”Trouble almost ate a loaf of bread today.”

It’s followed by something between a chuckle and a snort, and T.J can feel himself deflate. For a cat with a very unfortunate name, it sure keeps their connection alive.

”Really?”

”He’s getting real good at jumping,” Aiden snickers, coming to a halt at a pedestrian crossing. ”Found him on the kitchen counter, chewing and clawing his way through the paper bag the loaf was in. Had the nerve of looking so completely innocent I almost forgot to admonish him.”

”He pushed down a bowl of food I had on my bedside table once,” T.J confides, smiling fondly at the memory of the then much smaller Trouble, stretching between the bed and the table.

”He still does that. Pushing down stuff, I mean. Although I’m pretty sure that’s just regular cat stuff and not just Trouble-stuff.”

They wait for the light to change, falling back into silence. It’s easier now, more comfortable, feet against concrete, ambient noise, safety in numbers. It shouldn’t have to be like this. T.J shouldn’t have to have someone following his every step, Aiden shouldn’t have to fear going down the wrong street. Neither should have to think about safety in numbers.

”If you don’t mind my asking…” he begins a while later when they turn onto his street. ”Why were those guys harassing you?”

Another sigh, and T.J fears he’s crossed a line. When he looks up, he unexpectedly meets Aiden’s gaze, calculating and guarded and he’s about to apologize and say it doesn’t matter.

”For the same old thing. For being me, for being…”

He lets the sentence hang in the air, and it would be so easy to fill it out with the answer T.J wants to hear, but he’s learned his lesson. Assumptions never get you anywhere. He doesn’t press the matter, just nods and hums his assent, because security or not, he’s been there. The media loves to extol his coming out, to happily report how there was never any backlash. Sure, there was no backlash, not for his father, for the rest of his family. They rarely asked him. He could tell them all about jabs and sneers, the things that got silenced within the bubble of politics and the White House, about people looking at him differently, about people refusing to look at him at all after his sexuality suddenly became the business of the entire country.

”This is me,” he offers quietly when they approach the stairs leading up to his apartment.

”Huh.”

”What?” T.J looks up at Aiden, the other man gazing up at the building with a sweet little smile.

”Not what I expected, that’s all,” Aiden quickly backtracks, and T.J has to bite his lip not to laugh.

”It’s worse inside, so don’t think too highly of me.”

They’re quiet for a moment, both unsure of how to wrap up the evening. T.J wants, god, he want so much for this to continue. He wishes he knew if he could invite Aiden in, if there’s even a point in hoping and dreaming. Of course there’s not. Of course there is.Hope is the worst, he decides in that moment, rocking slowly back and forth on his heel. Hope is a lifeline until it snaps and then you’re in freefall. Hope let him down once and now he’s not sure if it’s worth it anymore.

”I should get going. See what the little monster has gotten up to while I’ve been gone.”

”Tell him ‘hi’ for me?”

T.J means it to sound like a statement, but his voice hitches at the end, and it comes out a question. Aiden only snickers, nodding his promise and waving goodbye. Shaking his head, T.J starts up the stairs, digging through the pockets of his jeans for his keys. He needs… something. Not the usual. Not anything to completely dull him, just something comforting. Hot chocolate. Ridiculous amounts of whipped cream. Melting marshmallows. A different kind of warmth.

”T.J?”

He turns around to see Aiden just a couple of yards away. For a split second, he wonders if Aiden forgot something, only to remind himself there hasn’t been anything to forget. They’re not that. He settles for quirking his eyebrown in question, keys still clutched in his right hand.

”If you want to… you can come visit Trouble. And me. But you know, mostly Trouble.”

And there it is again. Hope. Fuck. He should say no. Politely decline. He’s already put his heart on the line once, twice, it should have been enough excitement to last him longer than this. But he’s T.J and he’s an idiot, and he takes hope and runs with it. Before he knows it, he hears himself agreeing, saying he’d love to, affirming he still has Aiden’s number, promising they’ll make it soon. He’s an idiot, and he feels light as air when he turns back to unlock his door.

”T.J?”

Paul. It’s cliché, but T.J has almost forgotten his bodyguard is there. He expects an admonition for his stunt, a warning to never run headfirst into danger, hell, he even expects the baseball-loving man to up and quit. Instead he’s met with a smug grin, eyes twinkling in a way T.J has never seen from Paul before.

”What?”

”Nothing.”

”You’re a lousy liar, Paul.”

”Goodnight, T.J.”

It’s tempting to flip Paul off, but T.J merely flicks his hand dismissively, calling out a goodbye to his bodyguard. There is joy running rampant inside him, and he tries to fight it. It’s not a date. He would know. There would have been words exchanged, words including ”date”. It’s just a kindness, a favour, a gesture of goodwill. It’s nothing.

He hopes.

He curses, and stomps around his living room, he hopes and tries to squash it. It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing. Repeating it out loud does little to quell his excitement. Drinking coffee definitely does not help, but it’s the only thing he’s got that scratches his itch for something warm, and he’s jittery all through the night, fingers drumming against his mattress.

He’s been doing so well. T.J can hear how fucked up it sounds, but not hoping has been everything. Now it lives, it licks through his veins, settles in his mind, spits scenarios at him that are fueled by caffeine and he swears he will have to cancel because what has hope ever done for him? Nothing good.

Not until now.

Shut up.

It’s an endless bickering with himself that lasts into the wee hours of the morning. The shadows have travelled across his room and are slowly dying, bleeding into their source once again. Exhaustion claims him in the end, and he won’t remember conceding to hope, won’t see the slight smile on his lips.

He’s T.J, he’s an idiot, and he hopes again.

Chapter Text

It starts off slow. T.J calls Aiden about a week after the incident, too much of a chicken shit to even so much as look at his number before that. It’s a polite visit, he even calls Paul to inform him about it, and they agree Paul will follow him to Aiden’s place and leave the two of them alone until it was time to go home. It’s all good, a beat of awkward silence before shaking hands and stepping inside. They have barely made it into the kitchen when Trouble comes skidding into the room and with a loud meow claws his way up T.J’s leg.

”He remembers you,” Aiden laughs, biting his lower lip as T.J tries not to curse at the sting of tiny claws pulling a small body up onto his lap.

”Hey buddy,” he coos, lifting the kitten to bring it up in front of his face.

Trouble is bigger than he remembers, bigger than he looked in the photo Aiden sent at Christmas. Still smaller than he probably ought to be, but full of life, paws swinging at T.J’s face, trilling and purring throughout his stay. It’s polite and static, coffee in the kitchen, keeping biscuits out of reach from the cat and not talking about anything special, and it’s the most normal thing T.J has experienced in a long time.

It starts off slow, and T.J thinks that after his visit they won’t meet again. They do. They run into each other one day while he’s hurrying to reluctantly meet up with his father for lunch, and Aiden is hurrying… somewhere. There’s no time to ask or talk, but they tell each other to stay in touch, to call, the usual. It’s empty words to T.J, the kind of pleasantries he’s grown used to, the kind that are readily offered, but with no real expectations attached to it. He almost drops his phone into a bowl of soup the week after when Aiden calls, asks if T.J’s free for coffee.

It starts. One coffee. Another coffee. Hey, you free for lunch? The city calms, he says goodbye to Paul in August, promises to at least try to keep track of the Baltimore team the rest of the season. Lunch, smiles, laughs. T.J keeps his hopes to himself, fights to simply enjoy this normalcy, a companionship without ulterior motives, strives to keep himself clean after Paul is dismissed. Maybe it’s the months he already has under his belt. Maybe it’s having something good in his life. Whatever it is, it’s a bit easier to manage the days when temptation gnaws at him.

It continues. He’s the first to invite Aiden in. It’s spontaneous, and he regrets it exactly three seconds later when he remembers what a mess his apartment is. Aiden doesn’t mind. He gravitates towards the piano, sitting down and starts pressing down keys, creating chords, playing simple melodies.

Do you play?”

Nah, not really. Too much to keep track of.”

Aiden, as it turns out, is a god damn liar.

He does play. Just not piano. T.J is quick to point this out when he makes another visit to Aiden. They make it past the kitchen this time, Trouble trotting behind them, loudly meowing for them to give him attention. It’s hard to miss the beautiful cello in its stand, and Aiden only gives him a sly grin, reverently lifting the instrument and sitting down on a chair next to it. It’s as if his body softens and melds with the cello when he holds it, fingers gracefully moving across the neck, hand delicately holding the bow. He’s heard Bach’s cello suite numerous times, but T.J swears it has never sounded more beautiful than in this room.

I thought you didn’t play.”

Piano. This is easier.”

It goes on. T.J hits a rough patch just before Halloween. They’re in this strange limbo. T.J doesn’t dare think of it as anything but friendship, but he’s hoping again, his heart stuttering with each meeting and text and silly joke. It’s so good, he’s taken by surprise when the itch hits him, clawing at his carefully constructed restraint, enticing him with an easy escape. No more babysitter, he could go out. Just for one night, one hit, one line. It would be so easy. He resists, tossing and turning through the nights, rereading texts and looking at the damn photo of Trouble sleeping in the Christmas tree. He can do this. He fights on. It’s been months, he can make it.

Then it happens.

Attention has been focused elsewhere for so long that when T.J eventually ends up in the papers, a grainy photo of him and Aiden out for lunch taking up an obscene amount of space in several tabloids, he fears the worst. His mother calls, demands an explanation. Dougie calls, asks who the man is, promises to tear the editors a new one. Nana calls, says he needs to bring the cute boy over for dinner.

He’s terrified when he calls Aiden, struggles to get the words out, tripping over them, apologizing over and over. And Aiden is quiet throughout his ramblings, and T.J’s heart is about to sink through his stomach when that melodious voice says four words he couldn’t have made up even in his dreams.

I’ll be right there.”

It starts in a spark so sudden he thinks he’s dreaming. T.J expects a discussion, a confrontation, a break. Certainly not this. Absolutely not Aiden being there within ten nervewracking minutes, not a hug that warms him to the far reaches of his soul. Not a soft kiss, plush lips against his, the faint taste of coffee. Not eyes that look at him like he’s worth all of this. Not-

I don’t care.”

For the first three weeks it’s hard to breathe. He tells Aiden about his struggle with addiction, the failures, expecting him to regret taking a chance on the damaged goods that make up Thomas James Hammond. The seconds feel impossibly long as he waits for the rug to be pulled out from under his feet (again). Nothing. Aiden stays, and it makes the fist clenching around T.J’s heart tighten even more. If he doesn’t leave now, how will T.J survive when he does? He smiles and he hopes it reaches his eyes. The next day, he reluctantly tells his family, if only because they already know something is up. Understandably, they are vary of the news, and demand without actually demanding that T.J brings Aiden over.

He’s not sure how he manages it without suffocating from the anxiety running rampant through his body, and he has never wished for vodka more than he does that night.

The meeting calms his family, but not his heart. T.J still expects things to go south. It always happens to him, what’s stopping the universe from breaking his heart wide open again? Ironically, that’s what eventually dislodges the lump in his throat in the end. It comes to a confrontation, and he’s so sure it’s gonna burst this happy little bubble, it feels like he’s jamming a seam ripper underneath the carefully laid stitches of his soul, prepared to rip them himself. It starts with an innocent question, escalates to raised voices and evasive answers and culminates in T.J breaking down. He’s kept Sean, the terrible, terrible night and the permanent fear etched into him because of it to himself, adding to the weight of the rest of his worries. His tentative grasp on staying clean, his fear of never amounting to anything, all of his failures and shortcomings; it all comes out. His body aches as he finally voices his worries in earnest, his knees buckle and he cries because he’s finally said it.

Aiden’s hand on his shoulder makes him recoil, still expecting the worst, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s deaf to the words coming out of the other man’s mouth, so wrapped up in his own sense of doom that he can’t hear, can’t process, can’t focus. For so long, his life has been about numbing the pain, but now he just wants something to hurt worse than this so he won’t have to think about it. T.J longs for a pain that can be made better with simple means; a bandaid, a cast, a painkiller. Not this hurt that rages like a storm inside him that refuses to be treated.

T.J…”

He’s not sure how much time has passed when his consciousness decides to accept external input. Warm embrace, arms safely tucked around him, closeness. A steady th-thump in his ear. Aiden has maneuvered him into his lap, holding onto him while he crashes and burns. There’s an apology ready on his tongue, but T.J never gets to voice it. It’s Aiden’s turn to talk, reassurences upon reassurences, validation and promises, and it’s almost too much. They don’t speak for the rest of the evening, falling asleep on the floor, T.J up against Aiden, who’s leaning up against the couch.

Breathing gets easier, trusting gets easier. There are real things, tangible things to be thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner. Hands squeezing under the table, twice, because Aiden convinced him to meet his parents, claiming it wouldn’t be fair otherwise. It’s pleasant and normal, a warm atmosphere and so many smiles. Aiden’s mother and father welcome him with equal measures of surprise and joy. There are brothers and sisters and playful teasing and tossing peas when they think their mother won’t see it. T.J feels stiff, ceremonial, not fully able to relax until Aiden takes his hand, gently running soothing circles across the base of his thumb until little by little T.J relaxes into his chair.

It doesn’t mean the fear goes away, not completely. Christmas is strange. He’s happy and scared and tries to reconcile himself with the past couple of years, the odd sensation of not needing to exclude himself from the joy. There are gifts exchanged again. It’s the same and then some. It’s blushing in front of his family when he opens Aiden’s gift and realizes he may have overcompensated. It’s teasing Elaine mercilessly when she allows him one small glass of wine with dinner. It’s playing two Christmas songs at the piano, stealing glances with his boyfriend (and he’ll never get tired of saying that word) while Nana entertains them all. It’s walking home, hand in hand, chaste kisses, atrocious non-alcoholic egg nog and both of them falling asleep (mostly by mistake) on T.J’s couch at 3 am. It’s all so good.

So of course it has to come crashing down.

He has to spend New Years alone. Aiden’s going away to play a concert with the orchestra he’s part of, a fact he’s been moaning about for the better part of December. T.J is prepared, it’s not like he hasn’t been alone on New Years Eve before. He can make it, he’s been clean for a year, he’s good. He sends Aiden out the door with a kiss and a boyish grin, promising they’ll speak at midnight.


T.J? Where the hell have you been, I’ve been calling for two hours?”

The voice sounds so far away, and T.J’s brain struggles to tell him it’s because he is. Aiden is not here. Aiden is playing his fucking beautiful cello far away. Trying to find focus, T.J sighs. Where the hell has he been? Having the fucking time of his life, or at least trying to, but good fucking luck with that because he’s fucking alone on News Year’s Eve.

T.J, did something happen?”

A walk happened. Some old acquaintance or other happened. Loud, thumping music and a bottle of champagne happened. It’s New Year’s after all. He can indulge.

Are you high?”

As a house. And all the nice things are gone. The people, the buzz, the highest high. It was just a line (maybe two… or three, he can’t remember exactly). He was so alone, didn’t feel like going to his parents for their god damn soarée. Just because Aiden is out of town doesn’t mean he can’t take care of himself. ”But you fucking can’t,” he tells himself, feeling his chest tighten. Waiting was boring, it was just a walk, just a short stroll around the block that turned into a brief excursion downtown, look at the celebrations, the people. He found- no, wait, they found him. Calling out his name, waving and smiling like they were close friends. He could join them, right? Just a couple of minutes, just a glass of champagne, just a few drinks more, and then suddenly there are people counting and white-white-white and it shoots through him like lightning and fireworks.

One year.

One year and it’s like nothing has changed. T.J Hammond, fucking up right on schedule, in the most spectacular way possible.

There’s a sigh, and it takes two sluggish seconds for him to realize it’s not his own. Aiden. AidenAidenAiden. T.J’s mind reels, trying to catch up, trying to make sense, and it rushes to one irrefutable conclusion: He’s done it, he’s disappointed Aiden, he’s shown himself to be just as irrideemable as he’s been made out to be. His stomach feels like it’s caving in, a dark and endless abyss opening up, and he can’t fight, he plummets into it to the sound of a racing heartbeat.

T.J? T.J, where are you?”

Aiden’s voice is sharp, cutting through the despair and why can’t the world fucking stop shifting in and out of focus? He blinks an inordinate amount of times, before he finds something that isn’t blurry, something to ground him.

”There’s a stain on the ceiling” he mumbles, not daring to look away from it. ”I have a stain on the ceiling…”

Are you at home?”

Part of him wishes he was, so he wouldn’t have to fight his way to get home. So much trouble. People who can see. People who’ve probably already seen. As if he hasn’t fucked up enough. Another part of him wants to be lost, to not know where he is, to never find his way back. His mind briefly stumbles over thoughts and scenarios he’s kept locked away for two years, and his breath hitches as old hurts and new disappointments bleed together, creating a cocktail he can’t help but drown in.

”I fucked up…” he whimpers, turning over on his side and curling into a ball, making himself as small as he can.

You’ll be fine. Call Doug. Ask him to come see if you’re home and have him text me so I know you’re safe.” Aiden speaks so calmly to him, he doesn’t deserve this. ”It’s gonna be okay.”

T.J’s already gone, back in the void where everything hurts and everything’s his fault. Left to take care of himself for a few days, and he couldn’t make it through without slipping. There are things he should be worried about, he just can sort them out and focus on them right now. It hurts. It overwhelms him, and he thinks

I’m all alone

Happy fucking New Year, T.J.


Thudding. Hard. Is it his heart?

”T.J?”

More thudding. It sounds urgent, stressed.

”T.J.”

Why does the voice sound so mad?

”T.J, open the damn door!”

Aiden?

It feels like his body has been turned inside out, his head lolling from impossible weight, aching in surges of pain and regret over bad decisions. He knows it well, has woken up from it enough times to recognize it, and it’s enough to make him want the floor to open up and swallow him whole. The thudding continues, more insistent than ever, and T.J groans loudly trying to get up from the couch, joints cracking and muscles stretching uncomfortably from the rough night.At least it’s not obscenely light outside.

He’s barely unlatched the lock and turned the knob before the door is shoved open and he’s body checked into a tight embrace, sliding backwards and fighting not to tilt too far back and end up falling. T.J can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not to draw a breath and have his nostrils, his mind, his god damn world flooded with Aiden’s scent. Something tugs at the edge of his memory, too frayed to reach. Wait. Why is- He should-

”Why are you here?” T.J asks, voice raspy from the night before.

”Because you never called Doug! I took a god damn cab to the airport and cried in front of an airline clerk so I could get booked on the only flight out because you didn’t call and you didn’t answer your phone anymore. Shit, T.J, I thought something had happened!”

Call Doug..? Oh.

”Fuck. Fuck, I fell asleep, I swear, I-”

He can’t even bring himself to finish the sentence, suddenly afraid he will lie to the man he loves, the man holding onto him like he’s afraid T.J will disappear if he lets go.

”What happened last night? I thought, I mean, you’ve been doing so well.”

It’s not an accusation, Aiden’s voice is even, he checks himself before it comes to that, but it all translates to disappointment in T.J’s ears. Hell, he himself is disappointed. One fucking year down the drain, and for what? Absolutely nothing. He tossed away his longest period of being sober because somehow it was easier than fighting, than walking, than pretty much anything else.

”T.J…”

”I fucked up, okay? It’s what I do,” he uttered, going slack in Aiden’s arms, wanting to put distance between them so maybe it will hurt less. ”I used, I don’t even know why.”

”God, I never should have left, I should’ve…” Aiden finally takes a step back, shaking his head and sounding so damn miserable that it makes anger flare up inside T.J.

”No! Jeez, this is not your fault, how the fuck could this be your fault? I’m the fuck-up who can’t stay clean just because his boyfriend leaves town for a few days. You don’t-” He runs his hands through his hair, covering his face and taking a deep breath. ”Shit, shit, shit…”

”Why do you do this?” There it is, the accusation he’s been waiting for. It almost a relief to hear it. ”I don’t expect you to be perfect, I get that addiction is a struggle, it doesn’t magically get better. Yeah, this sucks, but it’s not the end!”

T.J lets out a humourless chuckle. ”Do you know how much I’d want this to have an end? To be able to go out, to be alone and not have to constantly fear that something might trigger me? I will never get rid of this, Aiden. Never. I… I love you, okay? I love you so fucking much, but I don’t want you to be the sole reason why I keep myself clean. I tried that once, and it blew up in my face.”

Aiden blanches, the hope that had been burning in his eyes faltering, mouth setting in a tight line. Fuck. T.J wants to kick himself.

”What are you saying?” Aiden’s voice is still calm, but it’s a different calm, one that scares T.J.

”Jesus… Please, I just- I want to love you completely, I want to be with you, I want to… I want be in control of myself so I can be with you, not because I’m with you.”

He hates confrontations. He hates having to do this. It’s draining every ounce of energy from his already tired body, his limbs feel soft and his head is still heavy and sluggish trying to make the right words come out. Aiden is silent, arms crossed protectively across his chest. There is resignation written all over his face, and it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and so, so familiar. T.J’s been on the receiving end of this look so many times; he just wishes he would never have to see it on Aiden.

”Please, say something.”

Sigh. Pause. Hesitation.

”I don’t know what I can say, or if I should.” Aiden tightens his hands over his arms, and T.J wants nothing more than to bring him in close, now craving the intimacy of a hug. ”I want you to be well, but… I don’t know how to help you. I want to help, but you’re saying you don’t want me to be the reason you’re keeping it together.”

”I never said it was logical,” T.J tries, attempting to lighten the mood.

”I think… I think I’m gonna go home.”

T.J swears he does nothing, but something causes Aiden to knit his eyebrows together and immediately backtrack.

”I don’t mean- I mean- Fuck! I just mean, you seem to have a lot to think about, and I’m obviously doing jack shit to help you. Take a few days, get your head straight.”

Aiden finally moves, and T.J automatically steps forward to meet him. His boyfriend regards him with a soft look in his eyes, taking in his no doubt gaunt face, gingerly placing a kiss on his lips.

”I’ll still be here when you figure things out. Always. Okay?”

T.J closes his eyes, nodding silently in reply, because what else is there to say? His lips tingle, sense memory refusing to let him forget Aiden’s soft lips, gentle pressure against his, another promise. It’s not quite heartbreak when the door closes, but it’s something like it; equal amounts of despair, longing and dejection.

Alone again.

The couch welcomes him back as he once again makes himself as small as he possibly can, and it’s a feeling that settles. So small, so alone, and it’s all his fault. He wanted to be good this time, and things were going so well. Clean for a year, attentive boyfriend, on good terms with his family. No plans for the future, but T.J had figured that was a work in progress, something that would come with continued sobriety and emotional support. Now there’s… well, not that.

”Fuck, fuck, fuck…”

Grabbing the nearest pillow, T.J buries his face in it, screaming out the pain that’s been brewing inside. It helps a little, dislodges the physical manifestations of his regret. Tears break free, soaking into the bunched-up pillow as he continues to unleash all manners of admonishments directed at himself. He cries and screams until there is nothing more for him to give, falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion, arms wrapped around himself to make himself feel more safe and loved than he feels he is.

It’s dark when he wakes up, his mind blessedly empty and tranquil. There was… a dream. Or maybe an idea. T.J can’t be sure. He wants to talk to Aiden, but Aiden’s not here. He’s all on his own, he needs to figure this out. He needs to do something. Swinging his legs over the edge of the couch, he brings himself up to sit, leaning forward. There is something he could do. There’s not much else.

If only he can find it.

He spends the next hour upending every box and drawer in his apartment, knowing he still has the information somewhere. The search is almost manic, and his hands tremble when he finally finds the small piece of paper, the text a little faded but still perfectly legible. T.J manages to keep his fingers steady as he dials the number, swallowing thickly when a voice answers on the other end.

”Hi. I… I need your help.”

Chapter Text

Please jailbreak me.”

That bad?”

I feel like I have ants crawling under my skin.”

Do I say 'you'll be okay'? Or will that make it worse?”

I hate myself.”

I love you.”

I don't deserve it.”

I still love you.”

Please bake me a cake with a rasp inside it.”

I'll send you cupcakes and a $1 nail file.”


 

How you holding up?”

Okay, I guess.”

Really?”

No. I'm terrible. I remember exactly why I tried to halfass my way through it before.”

But you won't now?”

I won't. I promise.”


 

I'm sorry.”

What? What happened?”

No! No, it's-it's a step. I should be doing this face to face, and I will, I just... I'm so sorry.”

Oh.”

A conversation for next week. Just... I don't know. I wanted to get a head start.”


 

He returns home at the end of March.

Rehab was different this time. Same place, a couple of people he recognized from his previous stint, but this time T.J actually tried. Dutifully went to appointments, talked, reflected, fought, accepted. The first week was hell, as expected. One year apparently did very little to tame his cravings. He was commended for making it so far essentially without help, for returning to rehab, and when he stepped outside the doors to finally leave, he felt ready. He could do this. One day at a time.

And then he realizes he promised Aiden he'd call once he was home, and one day at a time becomes one second at a time. They've only spoken on the phone a handful of times, exchanged a couple of pictures. Trouble is huge now. The sensation of ants under his skin returns full force when T.J picks up his phone, and he can't even bring himself to call. He scolds himself for being such a fucking chicken and sending a text.

>>Can I come over?

>>ofc

>>I missed you

>>me 2

Everything seems so amplified. He's about to see his boyfriend for the first time after three months, for the first time since that night. The rehab welcomed him immediately, and T.J packed his bags, sending Aiden and his parents a short text from the cab. His mother called a couple of times during his stay, asking if he wanted them to visit. He declined her every time. It was better that way. He couldn't fathom having to deal with himself at times, even less his family. Plus, things were getting serious on the campaign trail. Caucuses and rallies had kept Elaine busy. T.J didn't want to interfere. Either way, it wasn't his first rodeo.

His bags feel lighter as he dumps their content on the bed, sorting through the mess. Dirty clothes, toiletries, a notebook he got to keep track of all the things he wants to do, needs to do. It's gotten to be a pretty extensive list. Smiling, T.J sets it on the bedside table. He'll have to look through it later, see where he can start. It's mostly amends, but he figures he can't ignore them, not if he really wants this to stick.

When Aiden knocks on his door ten minutes later, T.J's heart kicks into high gear. It's... He realizes he's scared. They are together, or so he fervently hopes. What if Aiden wants to take a break, the kind that always remains a break and never has a happy ending? T.J pulls at the sleeves of his henley, trudging out to answer the door. Aiden's outside, smiling expectantly. It's not the full-on grin that's like the sun on a cold winter day, but it's something. T.J's heart is still beating hard, but it's as if the other man's presence calms it, however little.

”Hi.”

Yeah, it's awkward, and if he didn't know better, T.J would say he's been transported back to high school. For what feels like hours there's only tentative smiles and hands shoved into pockets before Aiden takes the first step. He brings T.J in for the tightest hug he's had in three months  ̶  three fucking months  ̶  and it's the best thing he's ever experienced, he's sure of it. It's more than the sensation of being held tight; it's the scent of Aiden that he would happily drown in, and just being home. Aiden presses a gentle kiss to his lips, and T.J can swear he's flying. He's home.

It's not easy to be back, and it takes a couple of weeks for them to get back into the life they were right in the middle of before New Years. There's the issue of T.J having to adapt to life post-rehab, taking the responsibility he never really bothered with the last time. There's also, well, life. T.J has things he needs to do. He needs to leave the club, or at the very least renegotiate his position in the hierarchy. Aiden keeps busy, rehearsing with the orchestra for a month-long concert tour that, yes, has T.J worried. There's also the issue of the election.

Preparations for the final stretch of the nomination process have been going on for a while, gathering support from delegates and maintaining their donor base. Sooner or later they will knock on his door, and he will be asked to do his part. He's not sure if it will be easier or harder this time. It's not him the spotlight will be on primarily, but with his history, he will be dragged into it plenty. The addict son of the Secretary of State, now second-time-Presidential candidate, and the former President, at least one suicide attempt, hospital visits that were swept under the rug, plenty of scandals to choose from. Yeah, what opposing candidate and newspaper would turn that down? It's easier because he's trying to stay clean, level-headed, and not fall apart at the slightest hint that he's in trouble. And, he has Aiden by his side. It's harder because he will have to deny himself the escape when the spotlight eventually stays too long on him and tries to burn him. And... he has Aiden by his side. The tabloid article that ran back in October was nothing compared to what might be published now. He's not ashamed of Aiden, absolutely not. He just wishes he could shield him from the cruelty of the press.

Some of it is easy. T.J gets out of his club deal, no hard feelings (just an obscene amount of paperwork), and he continues his efforts to fulfill the program outside rehab. Making amends with Gunner has his stomach in knots, and he feels like he's doing it wrong when the other man nods and pulls him in for a hug. He fucked up another man's sobriety, and this is it? It feels too easy, and T.J wants to do more, but can't come up with any gesture that would atone for his wrongdoing.

Most of it is... not exactly hard, but unfamiliar. He thought he'd be more confident in his abilities, in his resolve to stay clean post-rehab, but all he can see nowadays are potential pitfalls. Each passing day bring him closer to Aiden leaving to go on tour, and it's hard to feel confident when he knows what happened last time he was alone. He also realizes he has to let Aiden go, that he can't let it stand in his way. He went to rehab so he could get past not only the addiction, but the co-dependency, too. It will be okay. T.J repeats it like a mantra, rehashing the coping mechanisms he's learned should he be tempted, making sure he has places to be while Aiden's gone.

When the day comes, he's restless. By 8 am, he's already on his third cup of coffee, and keeps rechecking Aiden's bags to make sure he has everything he needs. It sucks. Things are finally starting to settle between them, they're doing good, and now they gotta make it on their own for a month. Aiden lets him fuss, until the cab honks angrily outside his apartment, after which it becomes a race to see how many affirmations and kisses and silly little declarations they can cram in before they have to open the door and wave at the cabbie to wait.

”I'll miss you,” T.J mumbles, straightening the lapels of Aiden's blazer, fingers tripping over each other from too much caffeine.

”You'll do fine. You can text me anytime, about anything, and I'll call you as often as I can, okay?”

”I'll still miss you.”

”Trouble will take care of you,” Aiden coaxes, nodding to the now very large cat sitting at their feet.

They've decided to let Trouble stay with T.J until Aiden gets back home. It's easier for everyone. T.J gets to stay in his safe space, he'll have something to focus on daily and Trouble gets taken care of. It's a win-win for everyone.

”I'll blame him for everything then.”

Aiden rolls his eyes at him, leaning in for a final goodbye kiss before taking his bag and the cello in its case, and walking out to the cab. T.J feels like some strange 50's housewife, waving off his man as he rides off into the distance. Only thing missing is a fucking handkerchief. Behind him, Trouble meows loudly, looking very perturbed and apparently knowing that his owner has gone off and won't be coming back for some time. T.J snickers, picks up his phone and snaps a picture of the groused cat.

>> he looks like he will murder me X
attachment img_1293.jpeg

>> Damnit, told him to wait until Friday! X

>> play good ok? X

>> I will. I love you. X

>> i love you X

>> I love you. X

>> i love you X

>> Turning off the street now. I believe in you.

He keeps staring at those four words throughout the day, smiles as he reads through the rest of the conversation. So blessedly ordinary, so perfectly okay. T.J knows the feeling won't last forever, and revels in it for as long as it lasts. Aiden calls when they get to their first stop, only dropping his phone twice as he tries to unpack and talk at the same time. It's easy, effortless. He can do this. He can. He can.

For the most part, he does okay. The schedule he's set up for himself helps. Meetings, dinners, Trouble. He plays a lot, working his way through the treasure trove of sheet music Nana gave him for Christmas two years ago. The first week of Aiden's three week tour goes by without a hitch. He's energetic, he has a plan, it works. It goes so well T.J starts worrying, and so is not surprised when the following week he suddenly wakes up one day with a weight on his chest that is another kind of trouble. It's that dangerous cocktail of loneliness, doubt and a day with no plans. His skin feels electrified, fingers twitching for something to do, the apartment feels too small. The real Trouble meows, demanding his attention, but T.J can't focus. He makes sure the furball has food and heads out.

It's dangerous, and he knows it. Last time this happened... He lets out a shuddering breath, digging his hands deeper into the pockets of his jeans. It will be okay. It's not even noon, he would be foolish to try, he's been doing good, he just- he has to come up with something to do. T.J keeps a running commentary on himself as he stalks downtown, heart aching because he wishes Aiden was here. His first truly bad day since coming out of rehab, and of course Aiden has to be away. He knows he's supposed to be okay, that his sobriety isn't and shouldn't be tied to his boyfriend, but that doesn't mean this feeling of anxious worry in his chest will go away as easily as it would if Aiden was by his side now.

>>not doing so good 2day. trying 2 find smth 2 do. miss u.

It takes Aiden all of two minutes to respond.

>>Tour is overrated. Can't wait 2 come home. U will make it through 2day, I know it. Call me if u need to, travel day 2day. xo

This man, he's too good for him. His body this aches and wants and writhes, but T.J fights. He ends up going to lunch, finding a reason to kill an hour. It becomes two hours, a staffer who used to work for Elaine on Dougie's team recognizes him, comes over to talk. It's good, normal. Smalltalk and business talk and empty phrases. ”I don't know anything about that, and even if I did, you know I couldn't say anything about it.” ”Tell Doug I said hello.” ”Sure, I will!” T.J can't even remember the guy's name.

He visits Nana, determined not to let anything tempt him today. She's surprised at first, but seems to realize he needs refuge from the world. They play showtunes and watch horrible soap operas for hours before T.J feels safe and centered enough to return home. Trouble needs him. It's a strengthening thought. He's needed. The cat climbs him like its own personal tree the second he's inside the door, and he holds the purring fuzzball close, doesn't mind when Trouble curls up next to him on the bed. He can't wait for this loneliness to come to an end.

He should have known even thinking about the possibility of being happy once Aiden gets home was tempting fate. The days have felt impossibly long, and he has gone stir crazy trying to work through the combined stress of loneliness and worry about his resolve. T.J can practically see the finish line. One more day, one more night. He can do it.

With one day left, he's pulled back into the harsh reality. T.J's phone explodes around 9 am, sending Trouble into a tizzy that ends with claw marks etched into his arm before the spooked animal sets off like a rocket to hide under the couch. Hissing at the quickly reddening marks, he fumbles for his phone and blindly sliding the blinking icon to answer.

”Yeah?”

Aw. You sound like you've had a lot of sad, lonely nights.”

”Aiden?” T.J sits up, clenching his fist so as not to itch the scratches. Aiden snickers at the other end of the line.

Were you asleep?”

”Are you surprised? It's Saturday!”

I thought you'd be lying dramatically on the couch, crying your heart out,” Aiden rebuts, and though the tone is teasing, the comment confuses him.

”Are we- Should I know what you're talking about?”

Oh. Oh, okay. You haven't seen it. We've apparently broken up according to at least two tabloids.”

T.J's blood freezes in his veins. He tells Aiden to hold on, bringing up the browser on his phone, taking a steadying breath and then does what he's long learned he shouldn't do. He googles himself. In less than a second, his screen is filled with headlines screaming at him.

HEARTBREAK FOR HAMMOND?

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST? - FORMER FIRST SON SPOTTED ALONE

TWEAKING T.J? NO THANKS!

LOVE 'EM AND LEAVE 'EM?

THE SINS OF THE FATHER... A YOUNG BUD HAMMOND IN THE MAKING?

His eyes skitter from one headline to the other, feeling his heart rate increase and his mind instantly kick up a whirl of ”What did I do?” It's only when Aiden calls his name loud enough for him to drag him out of the judgmental tailspin that he takes a moment to calm down. Nothing has happened, it's just gossip. They're still together. Aiden is just away, doing a concert tour. No heartbreak.

Right?

”Aiden...” he begins, rubbing his forehead. ”I'm so sorry, I-”

T.J, don't. This isn't your fault. I don't blame you. You told me this could happen, and I accepted it. I know we're not over, I hope you know that, too.”

”Of course! I miss you like crazy, and I've- I have had a few hard days. I'm still good.”

I'll be home soon, T, I promise. Are you eating okay? You looked a little pale in the pictures?”

Of course there were pictures. T.J groans.

”I'm not subsisting entirely on takeout, if that's what you're asking,” he replies, making a mental note to take out the boxes that have accumulated in his kitchen. ”I've had dinner with Nana a couple of times. Wholesome, filling meals. You would be very proud.”

His phone beeps, indicating another call, and he misses most of Aiden's no doubt sarcastic comment checking his screen. Elaine. Fuck. He bites his lip.

”Mom's calling,” he says, putting the phone back against his ear. ”I gotta take it.”

Of course. Text me if you need anything, okay?”

”I'm sorry. Again. And again.”

And I love you. Again. And again.”

They say goodbye, and T.J has to call Elaine back. She's somewhere in Wisconsin, incidentally also heading home to prepare for a rally set for next week. Apparently she has put him on Google alert, and T.J's not sure if he's supposed to be grateful or miffed. As is, his mother is more worried than angry, asking if everything is okay, if he needs anything.

”I'm fine, mama, I promise. It's all lies,” he assures her, crouching to hold out his hand when Trouble crawls out from under the couch to check if things have calmed down.

You sure, sweetheart? I've got staff working on finding out the source for the articles. The timing is a little too convenient. They've left you alone for so long now, and suddenly running a purely libelous excuse for an article this close to-”

”I promise. I'm okay. Nothing I haven't seen before. Aiden will be home tomorrow, he's... he's actually kinda amazing about this whole thing.”

On the other end, Elaine lets out a breath, and he can almost see her trademark smile. T.J can't help but smile in kind, not caring that she can't see it. Trouble comes trotting towards him, sniffing his hand to check if there's a treat waiting.

I'm glad. I'll be home in a few days. We'll talk more then, okay?”

After promising he'll come by with Aiden once they're all in the same city, they say goodbye, and T.J quickly works through his notifications. Doug has sent a bunch of texts, and the righteous anger almost jumps off the screen. Nana and Bud have both left voicemails, a bunch of emails have dropped in. Nothing to worry about in the grand scheme of things. And yet...

He can't help himself. Against better judgment, T.J scrolls through a couple of the online articles, knowing they're worse than the printed versions. Whoever invented the comment section should get a swift kick to the shins with a steel toe boot. It's all variations on the same spiel, T.J Hammond spotted alone, looking tired and haggard, where is the still unknown boyfriend he's been sighted with, are drugs behind the supposed breakup, and... There's a picture of him talking to the staffer – what the hell is his name again? – that makes his stomach lurch. He still looks tired, but the pap has managed to catch him in a moment where he's smiling, however tentative. Even though this is –  should be –  same old-same old to him, the insinuation that he's cheating or moving on because of a relapse makes him nauseous.

By some miracle, T.J manages to tear himself away before he makes the terrible mistake of delving into the comment section, fearing it might set him off and make him do something stupid. He clenches his teeth, shutting of his laptop and pushing it away from himself. It's.. not okay, but he's okay. He can do this, it's nothing he hasn't encountered before. Only it is, his mind quietly tells him, and T.J can't really protest. There's never been anyone like Aiden in his life when this has happened. It's been months, they're good, even with his recent stint in rehab. All things considered, they're good, he's clean, why does this have to happen?

It's a blessing to wake up to knocks on his front door the next day, to Trouble galloping to serve as welcoming committee, to Aiden's smile as he sets down his bags and bring T.J in for a hug and a peppering of kisses, to calm in his soul. Couldn't the paps capture this instead? Is this not as desirable?

”Next time, I'm bringing you with me,” Aiden speaks against the crook of T.J's neck, holding him tighter. ”I don't care how, you're going in my suitcase. You're getting contortionist classes for Christmas.”

”I missed you, too,” T.J replied quietly, drawing in the scent of his boyfriend.

He still smells a bit like bus and airplane, but there's that ever-present smell of sandalwood hidden underneath, the soft cotton of his shirt evening it out. Aiden smells like safety, his tall and slender frame so easy to wrap oneself around, always warm no matter the season. Maybe it's regressing a little bit, but right there, wrapped up in Aiden's arms, T.J can't help but feel relieved. He's back, he can breathe a little easier. It is a nice little moment, tender and stretching out until seconds feel like minutes.

Until Trouble decides he's done being ignored and uses them as his personal scratch tree.

They have a nice two days before Elaine calls to inform T.J that she'll be home the next day and wants to have dinner with them both. He can almost hear how smug she looks when he turns to Aiden to ask if the time is okay, and he's not entirely sure why it makes him blush a little. So Aiden hasn't gone home since he got back. So maybe they're enjoying the domestic bliss. So maybe it makes him feel better and not think about the articles so much. So maybe he likes it.

Aiden hasn't been over for dinner with his family since Christmas, and T.J feels like he's introducing him for the first time all over again. The way he hugs his mother is perhaps a tad perfunctory, but his stomach does a wild little somersault when he sees the way she smiles brightly at his boyfriend, hugging him as tight as she would her own two sons. Nana, true to her nature, is as brash as ever, holding her arms open for T.J and beckoning him over with a ”Come here, you little shit.” He's almost surprised she doesn't slap Aiden's ass when they head to the dining room, where Dougie and Anne are waiting for them.

They chat amicably, polite questions about Aiden's trip, about his parents. Dougie goes on a tangent about something that happened in Minnesota, and T.J can't help but look at Anne by his brother's side. She looks good, a lot healthier than she did back before they married. As fucked up as T.J had been, of course he'd noticed; the way she shuffled her food around her plate, the sometimes less than subtle excuses from the table. It's a struggle, just like his own, and he can't even bring himself to be jealous of her progress.

”So, how you holding up. T.J?”

Smooth, Dougie.

”Your faith in me is breathtaking, bro,” he shoots back, chewing demonstratively on his food.

Doug pulls a face at him, huffing. ”I just meant, it's been a while since-”

”I'm good. It sucks, but it comes with being a Hammond. Same old, same old.”

”You know that's not true, honey,” Elaine admonishes him, setting down her knife and fork.

And T.J knows that's not entirely true either. The second Bud announced his intention to run for president, their lives were never the same. They became public property, something for people to scrutinize and put expectations upon. It's not his father's fault, but he's not sure if he should put the blame on the people or the ones that cater to them.

”Any luck finding the bastard behind this?” Nana, always there to distract, even if it brings them back to the matter at heart.

”Nothing substantial yet,” Doug says, but T.J can tell from the way he clenches around the cutlery that there is something. ”I talked to Daniel-” That's the fucking staffer's name! T.J thinks triumphantly, ”-he didn't seem like he was hiding anything.” His brother turns to him. ”Asked if you were okay.”

”Peachy.”

”Come on, man, we're trying to help you!”

T.J is about to launch into a rant of his own, feeling the exasperation rise in his throat, but it lodges there, frozen in place when Aiden places his left hand over his under the table. It's Thanksgiving and Christmas all over again, thumb running smoothly over his knuckles, a quiet show of solidarity, a simple gesture to say ”I'm here. It's okay.” His outburst dies before it has time to potentially ruin dinner.

”I...” His voice comes out thick and low, and he squeezes Aiden's hand. ”I don't want to make a big deal out of it, it just makes it worse.”

”I know you don't,” Elaine tells him, reaching out to pat his cheek. ”But if this is something... more, I want you to know that we're not going to stand for it. You've been through enough, darling.” She pauses for a second, eye contact briefly breaking to look over at Aiden. ”Why don't you bring Aiden with you to the rally next week?”

”Mom...”

Elaine pulls back, once again sitting straight in her chair. ”If you don't mind?” She looks inquiringly at Aiden, and T.J can feel him stiffen in his seat.

”I... guess not? I-I just gotta check m-my schedule?”

”You don't have to do this,” T.J assures him, then turns to his mother with a sharp look. ”Right?”

”Of course not, I just thought you would appreciate having him there. I know you don't like these things all that much.”

Well, she's not wrong about that. Elaine's first campaign had been taxing enough to get through and that was when he could battle the pressure of presenting a perfect picture with blow. He'd been high a couple of times throughout, it was easier to smile and pretend that way. That's not an option now. No floating through rallies and fundraisers in a blur, all edges smoothed out. T.J hates the way his mother managed to trap him, hates the way he can't look at Aiden for the rest of the dinner, hates the way conversation dies down to hums and platitudes. He's almost thankful when the family disperses after dinner almost like they knew this was painful. Aiden carries most of the charm as they say goodbye, thanking Elaine for the delicious food, giving her a hug that to T.J's eyes looks as sincere as anything. He himself barely manages a light kiss to his mother's cheek before he's out the door.

”You're angry,” Aiden states, slinging his arm around T.J's shoulder.

He's not sure whether to contest the statement or not. It's not quite anger, not all of it. It's worry and disappointment and apprehension, all swirling inside him, and T.J knows he needs to get a grip on it before it sets off his itch.

”You don't have to come,” he murmurs, still keeping his eyes trained downwards, following his feet as they steer homewards. ”I can manage. Done it before.”

”But you don't have to.”

Aiden stops mid-step, holding onto him gently to make him stand still, too, before placing both hands on his shoulders.

”I'm not... wild about the idea of standing in front a crowd, waving and smiling, but I can see what your mom's thinking. If we go... if we stand there together, it's a statement, right? We prove them wrong.”

”I hate that we have to do that,” T.J says, reluctantly looking up, breathing slowly in and out. ”I never thought I'd have to bring you into this, not this much. If she- If mom becomes President, I won't move back. I don't think Doug will either. It shouldn't be as exciting as last time, people were going on and on about how the White House had not one but two First Sons, the first since JFK junior.” He uttered the last few words with rehearsed disdain, having heard them so many times, always with the same expectations attached to them.

”They came after you, T. You've done so well, and I want them to see that. If it helps that I stand by your side and show them just how much I am still in love with you, then baby, I'll do it. I'll dress up in my best suit, and I'll kiss you on national god damn television if that's what it takes.”

They both break down in snickers at that, T.J leaning in to press a kiss to his boyfriend's jaw.

”You only have one suit, idiot.”

Aiden grins, kissing him back. ”Then clearly it's my best one.”

It doesn't take away all of his worries, but it eases them slightly. They spend the following days preparing, Aiden asking questions upon questions, getting asked questions in turn as he's cleared by Elaine's security to attend the rally as part of the family. It's the only time before the rally T.J sees him even a little bit nervous, sitting with his hands clasped tightly in his lap, shaking and nodding his head so vigorously when he answers it sets the tight curls of his hair dancing. T.J draws a small sense of pride in being able to be the supportive one, to be the one who has the answers, who knows what will happen.

It doesn't change the fact that they're both a mess the day of the rally, hands shaking as they tie their ties, cursing under their breaths. True to his word, Aiden is clad in his only suit, hair pulled back into a tight bun. Though his heart is thundering in his chest, T.J can't help but admire the man in front of him. It's been almost a year since that first kiss, two years since they first met. It's strange to think how much things have changed since Aiden came into his life.

”Hey,” he whispers, taking hold of Aiden's hands as the man struggles to wrestle the silk into a tidy knot. His own fingers steady as they pry Aiden's hands away, taking hold of they tie to twist and turn it in a pattern familiar to him. ”It'll be fine. Find something to focus on. Not the people, that's... overwhelming. Look at a flag, there's always flags. Or balloons. I usually try to play connect the dots with them. One flag, linger. Another flag, linger.”

”And here I'd worked on my royal wave,” Aiden jokes, voice shaky as he exhales.

”You can wave.” T.J tucks the wide end of the tie through the loop he's created, pulling to tighten the knot. ”I'll be there.”

He smooths out Aiden's shirt, pulling lightly on the lapels of his suit jacket. Aiden smiles weakly at him, fixing T.J's tie in kind, straightening the collar before cupping his cheeks. T.J relishes in the sensation, the lightly calloused finger tips against his cheeks, the warmth emanating from the contanct. Tilting his head, he kisses Aiden's hand, taking hold of it with his own, letting their fingers interlace.

”Ready?” he asks, gaze flickering over Aiden's shoulder to the door behind which the public awaits.

”As I'll ever be.”

It takes them both by surprise at first. Aiden, who has never been in front of this large a crowd before, breathes out a surprised ”wow” as they step onto the podium, squeezing T.J's hand a bit harder. For T.J, it's been a while since he’s been in the spotlight, but he eases into character sooner than he'd guessed, an easy smile gracing his features. He waves to the masses, his heart doing a little somersault when he sees Aiden doing the same from the corner of his eyes. The booming roar rises when Elaine finally takes the stage, and for a second, it's almost like he's back in that ballroom in Chicago.

The ruckus dies down as Elaine begins to speak, motioning with her hands for people to calm down. It's always been fascinating to T.J how skillfully his mother can work a crowd, how with a simple gesture or a few choice words she can make her audience listen with bated breath, even when it's just the standard phrases that precedes her true message.

”I am so happy to be here today, to see all of you. Your support and your enthusiasm are truly inspirational,” Elaine starts off, making a sweeping motion with her right hand. ”These are tough times, and we face even tougher times ahead of us. It is so important to stay strong, to stay together through these hardships.” The open palm becomes a fist, striking down with a decisive thud as her voice softens. ”It is far too easy to take the easy path, to turn a blind eye to injustice. I say, no more. No matter what happens, I will protect what matters to us, to this country. We are all family, and anyone who tries to challenge us, who tries to harm us,” She pauses, looking out over the crowd, and T.J can swear she is zeroing in on one of the cameras filming, “will see that we are prepared to defend ourselves.”

T.J has to fight to keep from frowning. It's a tad more aggressive than he's come to expect from his mother, almost to the point where it's retaliatory. He steals a glance at Doug, looking proudly at their mother as the crowd breaks into cheers and applause. They all follow suit, but T.J can't help but think there is something else going on, something in this speech he is missing, someone who will listen to it and see so much more than the impassioned outcry of a presidential candidate. He plays his part, knowing full well he will be in the papers for the coming week. He and Aiden have talked about it, prepared for it as best they can. The need to protect Aiden from the uglier sides of this mess boils in him, and through the final minutes of Elaine's speech, he's terrified that he made a mistake in letting Aiden convince him to come with him.

The man in question must have caught on to his discomfort, as he lean in to T.J when Elaine wraps up her speech.

”I'm fine,” he whispers under the thunderous roar, his breath tickling.

Something in him shifts, slotting together like pieces of a puzzle. They have made it. One year of sobriety and relapse and rehab and now the articles. It's not gonna get easier, but they've made it this far. T.J thinks about how he's been the older brother all his life but constantly been the one needing taking care of, needing protection. He wants to take that responsibility now, wants to be the man Aiden sees in him. When he smiles up at Aiden, there is true joy behind it. It stays etched on his face throughout the rally, on the walk home, settling into the kind of smile that lives in your eyes. Aiden stays the night again. Trouble sleeps nestled between them. T.J briefly wonders if this is what love really feels like before drifting off to sleep.

It takes the tabloids two full days to find out who Aiden is, running his life story over the following week. There's nothing in there T.J doesn't already know, but he can see the hurt in Aiden's eyes, understands what he's feeling. Someone has trespassed into his lover's life. The way Elaine and her staff handles it makes warms his heart. She still refuses to say exactly what was up with her speech at the rally, brushing it off or switching the subject. T.J doesn't believe for a second that the pointed jabs were just theatrics to win over the crowd. Maybe he's not as invested in politics as Doug, but he's sharp enough to see the broad strokes; the upswing in the polls leading up to the Democratic convention, the way the tabloids slowly back down from reporting on their every move. He's sharp enough that when he sees President Fred Collier congratulate his mother on winning the nomination, he spots the unbridled disappointment and malice that the man tries to hide behind a slimy smile and grovelling words.

This man tried to destroy him. T.J swears to not let it happen again.

Chapter Text

It hurts. T.J struggles to claw his way back to consciousness only to be met by an onslaught of pain. It's familiar, tendrils shooting from a thudding ache that seemingly encompasses his entire being. Shit. He knows without opening his eyes, hell, without even being fully conscious that he's not in his own bed. He's been here often enough to know the feeling of being in a hospital without seeing the sterile walls or hear the incessant beeping of the machines.

It's strange how his lucidity decreases the more he wakes up. What day is it? Why- What happened? Okay, maybe he knows, or can guess, the what. Why is more important. He fumbles for any clue in his jumbled memories, each as fuzzy as the next. Election. Collier. Reeves.

Oh, god, no.

Not again.

Not again. Not again. Not again.

Out of everything he's trying to grasp, it has to be the memories of finding out Sean Reeves won the Republican nomination that fill his clouded mind. His mother calling him and Aiden over for dinner. Having to relive everything, again. Because of course. It makes sense. They think they have a chance with Reeves as their candidate. He's young, has the traditional values that attract voters, no scandals. Even if the tawdry story about him and T.J was to surface, he could easily turn it. Blame it on the Democratic party as a conspiracy to slander him, sweep it away as the desperate smear campaign of the opposing candidate's junkie son, a proven liar and disappointment. Or he could launch an investigation into how the information was obtained. T.J has no objection to humiliating Collier further, but there are more important things to consider. He begs his mother not to be dragged onto the circuit again, not to have to stand and smile next to the rest of the family while sharing any kind of space with that man.

Elaine promised. She... she promised, right?

Did it not take?

”T.J?”

The voice is muted, fuzzy. He thinks he recognizes it, his consciousness turning towards it like a flower bending towards the sun. Fingers tread softly through his hair, and little by little, T.J finds the rest of his body, categorizing it by the level of pain radiating from each part. His head aches dully, while center mass feels like it's been through the grinder. Legs don't feel too hot, either. His arms are like spaghetti, the muscles there refusing to obey him when he tries to make either arm reach for whoever is talking.

”T.J, I'm here, please wake up.”

His eyes flutter open for the briefest second before he squeezes them shut, the light shooting much too bright and searing. A soft touch to his hair, his face, and it’s the most glorious sensation, even if it is tinged with discomfort. T.J tries again, squinting against the light until it doesn’t hurt, gradually letting his eyes open fully. The world around him is slightly out of focus, but he can make out two shapes, one of them leaning over him, bringing with it a sweet scent of sandalwood. T.J lets out a contented hum. He knows this scent, knows this touch.

Aiden.

He finds enough strength to lift an arm, just enough to make contact with Aiden before it fails him and the appendage falls limply to his chest. Groaning at the ache it causes, he sluggishly pulls it away. Aiden laughs next to him, breath hitting T.J face in warm gusts. He tries to say Aiden’s name, but it comes out jumbled, hidden in a breath and a groan, but somehow, the other man recognizes it.

“I’m here, baby. God, you had us scared. Do you need anything? Water? Should I get the doctor? How do you feel?”

“Sit down, sugar, you’re gonna break yourself.”

Another voice T.J would know anywhere. Guilt floods him, he hates that Nana has to see him like this again. Blinking a couple of times, he finds her, leaned back in a chair off to the side and slightly behind Aiden. She looks more than a little amused at her grandson’s boyfriend wrapped all around him, but T.J can discern the faintest trace of utter and complete relief in the way her posture relaxes and softens.

“Thirsty,” he finally croaks, and a small plastic mug of water is thrust into his hands before he can blink.

It feels like the water evaporates the second it hits his tongue, and T.J drinks greedily until his mouth and throat feel somewhat normal again. It doesn’t hurt like it usually does. No intubation, then. It doesn’t add up.

“Wh-what happened?”

Aiden frowns at him, wets his lips nervously. Wrong question.

“You don't remember?” he asks, eyebrows still knit together.

T.J tries, digging in the muddled mess that is his memories. Had they been out? To be exact, had he been out? Dread fills him. Please, don’t let this be about Reeves. His mind gives him nothing, not a single flashback, and it scares the shit out of him. He shakes his head, and he can feel a lump forming in his throat when he notices his boyfriend’s shoulders slump.

“I’m… I think we should get the doctor in here. Or a nurse. They should know you're awake? Right?”

The fact that Aiden is avoiding the subject isn't comforting in the least, but T.J hums his assent at his question. It has to be done at some point, might as well get it out of the way. God, he has been doing so well.

By the time the nurse shows up to check his vitals and look through his chart, he’s geared himself up to face his failure, so much so that when the doctor arrives minutes later T.J has mentally already checked into rehab. He’s so distracted he barely registers when he’s filled in on all his injuries. Cracked rib, bruised kidneys, a concussion-

“Wait- concussion?”

Did he fall over?

“Yes,” the doctor, a kind- but rather sharp-looking woman, confirms. “You’re probably in a lot of pain. We were made aware of your past substance abuse, so certain pain medications were out of the question. You were in quite the rumble, mr. Hammond, from what your… friend told us.”

He can’t even be bothered to correct the doctor, staring at her. “I… what?”

“He doesn't remember,” Aiden supplies, nervous fingers fiddling with T.J’s hair.

“Do you remember your name?”

He knows this, remembers it from the time he got a concussion when he was seven. The amnesia, the nausea, the disorientation. Nodding, he repeats his full name back at the doctor.

“Do you remember anything from last night?”

The memories are there, T.J knows, and he should remember. Last time wasn’t nearly this bad. He fights to pull anything from his hazy mind, anything to smooth out the lines of worry etched into Aiden’s and Nana’s faces.

“We… were out?” he fumbles, knitting his eyebrows together. “Did- did we see a movie?”

There’s a smile that calms his heart. It’s small, something’s still missing, but it’s a start.

“Your memories will return in time,” the doctor says, checking his vitals and jotting them down on the chart. “We’ll need to keep you here another day for observation, just to make sure.”

She excuses herself, leaves the room and as soon as she’s out, T.J fixes Aiden with a look that demands an explanation, trying in vain to sit up straighter in bed. He winces, conceding to lying down and he can practically hear Nana scoff at his stubbornness.

“We barely got a block away from the movie theatre, you- a couple of guys, they started throwing insults around,” Aiden started, worrying his lower lip.

Oh, god.

Much as he’s relieved this has nothing to do with Reeves, that he hasn’t broken his sobriety, he has still fucked up. All the shit that got thrown his way when he was a teen gave him a habit of running his mouth, sassing and taunting whoever had the gall to try and insult him to his face. T.J shifts in the bed, bringing on a fresh wave of dull pain in his abdomen.

Boots.

It’s… not exactly a memory, but he just knows. They wore boots, not steel toed, but still sturdy enough to cause a pain so sharp he winces at the sense memory. A group of them, shouts dimmed, but he can vividly imagine what they had to say.

“Your mother wants to get a security detail on you again,” Nana remarks dryly, crossing her left leg over her right. “What the hell happened? This one,” She nods to Aiden, “wouldn’t tell me a peep.”

“I was freaking out, Ms. Barrish!”

“Margaret, Ms. Barrish makes me sound like my daughter. Now why did someone feel like they needed to beat the shit out of my grandson?”

Aiden’s gaze flickers back to him, asking without speaking what he should say, if he should tell the story. T.J quirks his eyebrow. It’s not like he’s going to be remembering a whole lot unprompted. Aiden nods almost imperceptibly, taking hold of T.J’s hand.

“We’d been to a movie, and were thinking about going somewhere to eat. You told me you wanted to try some new place that opened last week.”

“Anthony’s.” The name pops up along with a nagging thought that there was meaning behind his choice, something he still can’t recall.

“Yeah, Anthony’s,” Aiden affirms with a nod. “We got about a block from the movie theatre and a bunch of guys started yelling after us, trying to provoke us. It wasn’t anything either of us haven’t heard before, but for some god damned reason, this one had to confront them.”

Nana heaves a dramatic sigh, making a big show out of letting her forehead rest against her hand. She’s seen this before, in all its ugly permutations. Between him and Doug, T.J was always the more temperamental, and though a lot of it was hidden behind expectations and rehearsed politeness, he knew just how to provoke, lash out, bite back. It’s a defense mechanism, still hanging on from his sordid past and it finally came back to royally bite him in the ass.

“He just stood there,” Aiden continues, a small smile tugging at his lips.

Fuzzy memories are playing in his mind’s eyes, brought on by the narration. It’s not clear, more like an out-of-focus, damaged movie reel that occasionally sharpens and comes alive.

“One of them asked what he was staring at, only a little less polite, and T.J – not missing a beat – he just tells them-”

“That thing between your legs, it kinda looks like a dick, only smaller,” T.J echoes, the words spilling out of him before he can think.

He chuckles, remembers thinking it had sounded so god damn hilarious in the moment. It’s a zinger he’s been carrying for years, something he came up with too little, too late in high school after he came out and some of the guys in his PE class decided to throw a couple of insults his way. The difference between the jerks in high school and the ones he and Aiden had encountered last night is that adults pack a hell of a harder punch, or he wouldn’t be here.

Nana stand from her seat, crowding in next to Aiden to lean in and clasp T.J’s chin in her dainty hand. “Thomas James Hammond, if you hadn’t already been knocked into next week, I would hit you over the head. I swear to god... I don’t know whether your mother should be privy to this little nugget.”

“I’m sorry, Nana…”

He hates disappointing her so much, that look of sorrow that’s almost worse than anything else. She believes in him so much; his heart still hurts thinking back to her broken voice asking what happened to him, to the happy kid he’d been. T.J’s eyes burn, and he pulls his lower lip between his teeth to keep it from trembling. He didn’t want this to happen, he had the night planned, it was supposed to be perfect, he was-

“Honey, I can see you digging yourself into a pit.” Nana tilts his head gently up so she can meet his gaze, but T.J tries to avoid it. “T.J. Look at me. Maybe… Maybe the way you responded wasn’t the best, but that did not give those people the right to hurt you. It will never be okay. You understand me, young man?”

T.J nods, mumbling a muted “yes, Nana”, which seems to satisfy her enough to press a kiss to his cheek before settling back in her chair. They fall silent, T.J dozing off, waking with a start and wincing at the pain that continues to ache dully or give a quick shooting stab. Aiden stays by his side, hunched over the side of his bed, the expression in his eyes so soft and loving T.J wishes he could stay locked in that gaze forever. He feels bad for his boyfriend, the uncomfortable position, the worry he must have felt, and god, having to witness the assault. He can’t even begin to apologize for fucking up their night, not without breaking, so he opts for reaching out to take Aiden’s hand in his own.

He’s gently shaken awake, head feeling all fuzzy and he makes the mistake of trying to turn around to pull the covers over his head the “five more minutes” on the tip of his tongue. The hiss in response to the pain is enough to start him awake, finding the hospital room still there, his body still battered, Aiden still by his side. T.J lets out a shuddering breath, sinking back into the pillows, squeezing his boyfriend’s hand.

“Can we settle the whole squirming and cover hogging issue now?” Aiden jokes, running the pad of his thumb over T.J’s knuckles.

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

“You are awake!”

“Barely,” T.J rebuts, managing a small smile.

“Ugh, you two lovebirds are giving me diabetes…”

Nana’s moved, standing by the door and making faces at the two of them. T.J’s smile dies, looking from Nana to Aiden.

“You gonna leave?”

“Have to. Visiting hours are over, I can’t stay longer.”

T.J nods solemnly. This is the part he’s always hated about hospitals; the eventual moment when he’d be left alone. For some visits, he was lucky, his family was all in one place and they could take shifts, make sure he was alone as little as possible. Now, he’s not sure how long he was even out to begin with, the time he got to spend with Aiden and Nana was so brief, and now he’s about the be left alone?

“Hey… I’ll be back tomorrow. The doc came in again while you were sleeping. If you’re looking okay tomorrow, they’ll let you come home.”

“Jail break me if they won’t discharge me?” he manages, forcing a small quirk of his lips.

“Only if you make a break for it in the hospital gown.”

They both snort, and Aiden presses a kiss to the corner of T.J’s mouth, careful to avoid any of the bruising and abrasions on his face. Humming, T.J settles back into the bed, receiving a light kiss on the cheek from Nana before his two visitors say goodbye and exit the room. Taking a deep breath, he lets his eyes flutter close and tries to keep his mind focused on every positive thing he can think of until he slowly falls asleep.

It’s an uneasy sleep, the nurses coming in to wake him and check on his condition throughout the night, reminding him of the fact that he’s here alone. The last couple of hours before morning rounds are fitful and even though T.J’s probably slept for a decent amount of hours if you count all the little bits together, he feels like he’s been awake for days. The doctor comes back, and for a moment he’s hopeful, waiting for the magical word “discharge” to come up in their stilted conversation, but nothing.

He sulks through something that passes for breakfast, wanting nothing more than to be home and watch Aiden curse through half a dozen eggs before he manages two good eggs Benedict to go with their toast and bacon and orange juice. They have been talking about moving together, about how ridiculous it is to have two places when they could make do with one. It’s been…

His head feels sluggish trying to count the months, but finally arrives at just under one and a half years. One and a half years of loving the same man and having it torn apart, a little over a year of staying clean. He’s never been at this point before, where his life feels like it’s all coming together, like he has a future that won’t end with his ultimate misfortune splattered over the front pages of the newspapers.

“Knock, knock.”

It’s two hours later when Aiden’s voice reaches him, and T.J smiles at his attempt to hide behind the door. It would’ve worked, but in trying to peek around it to see if T.J had spotted him, his hair stuck out.

“I swear to god, you’re ten,” T.J snickers, lifting the tray of picked apart breakfast food to the small nightstand.

“Excuse you, I’m twelve and you know it,” Aiden shoots back, coming out from behind the door.

He takes in T.J’s state, which admittedly hasn’t improved a lot since last night, giving him a warm smile before kissing him softly. T.J doesn’t want to break the kiss, stretching as far as his battered body allows before the pain wins out and their lips part.

“How you feeling?”

“Same. Better,” T.J answers, only to get a look from Aiden that has him conceding: “I don’t know really. Same? Sort of same?”

“Has the doc been in to check on you?”

“Came in before breakfast.”

“And?” Aiden presses, taking his seat next to the bed.

“She’s an excellent hummer.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“There was a lot of humming,” T.J clarifies, suppressing a snicker at the inadvertent innuendo. “She asked me a bit about how I was feeling, what I remembered.”

“And? Did she say anything about discharging you?”

“No.”

“No? Did you ask?”

“Well, no…”

Aiden groans, smacking his hand against his forehead in exasperation “T.J!”

“What? I figured she’d tell me if I was going home!”

“Jesus Christ… I may be twelve, but at least I’m older than you, you child!”

Shaking his head, Aiden rises and disappears out the door, no doubt to hunt down T.J’s doctor for answers. T.J kinda hopes he’ll force her to discharge him, but he knows better than to hold out hopes for anything hospital-related. It hasn’t served him well in the past. However, he hasn’t had Aiden with him in the past, because not ten minutes later, his boyfriend returns with the doctor in tow, looking far too pleased with himself.

Another round of humming and examining and questions begin, and T.J is itching to just go home. He tries to play nice and not sigh exaggeratedly when he’s asked the same question for what feels like the fiftieth time, or when the little flashlight is waved back and forth in front of his eyes.

“So, mr. Hammond, how are you feeling?”

“I’m…” He hesitates for a moment, gives himself a second to actually take stock of his body and injuries. “I’m okay. Doesn’t hurt as much as yesterday.”

“But you’re still in pain?” the doctor prods, making a note in the chart.

“Well, a little, I guess?”

“Any dizziness?” T.J shakes his head, and another note is made. “Nausea? How’s your memory?”

“No nausea. And I’m not sure about the memory,” he admits, wringing his hands.

“Can you remember what happened?”

“Aiden told me, and I kinda remember bits and pieces. It’s getting clearer. I know what day it is today, I don’t get confused over that, I remember my name, my address, my phone number, all those things.”

A nod is all he gets, and it is infuriating. She looks over his chart again, humming and looking and not giving away anything about whether he can go home or not. T.J is about ready to flip his lid and scream, when he finally speaks.

“I’d like to keep you here for another hour, just in case. If you’re still feeling okay then, I see no reason why you can’t go home, mr. Hammond.”

It’s the longest hour of his life, of just lying there with nothing to do, while Aiden keeps glancing at the clock, reminding him how long until he can go home and asking if he feels okay every ten minutes. He’s fine, or as fine as one can be after having been assaulted. Probably won’t be skipping down the street anytime soon, but he can live with that. He can accept the bedrest he is prescribed, because he will be home. He will go along with Aiden’s likely request of staying with him so he won’t be alone in case something happens. Trouble will probably park on his chest and make him ache, but he doesn’t care.

He wants to go home.

When he’s finally approved to leave, he hates the fact that any major movement causes him pain because he wants to fucking tap dance because he’s so happy. Aiden fusses over him, to the point where he has to ask him to go call a cab for them so they can go home because he’s a grown man and has been able to dress himself for a major part of his life.

He regrets sending away Aiden about five minutes later when he’s trying to get his pants on, grunting with each and every dip and bend, hissing when the waist of his jeans cling too tightly to his bruised and swollen skin. Getting into his t-shirt and blazer brings another round of shooting pain that makes him reconsider Aiden’s quip about jailbreaking in the hospital gown. He has a nice ass, who cares if people see it as he walks out?

T.J catches his reflection in the window as he moves to exit. Despite little sleep and bruises and the awkward way he holds himself to keep the pain in check, he still looks as dapper as the night before. He’d just wanted a nice night out, movie and dinner that did not come in a greasy carton. His hand flies up to the buttoned inside pocket of his blazer, fingers running over the little bump there, the memory returning. He’d had a plan. Now he can’t even kneel like he is supposed to.

With a sigh, T.J walks out of the room to sign his discharge papers and go home.

It’ll have to wait.

Chapter Text

He gets swept up in life. Or rather, they do. Life has decided to move on, and T.J is all too happy to follow along, holding on to Aiden’s hand at every new twist and turn. As soon as he’s recuperated from the concussion, they start looking at apartments. It’s not so much a discussion as a realization that they’re already living together and it’s not enough space for the two of them and Trouble. With a little help, they find a place not far from Aiden’s apartment. It’s spacious and light with wood floors, and something catches in T.J’s throat as he and Aiden stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the empty living room area. “Home” has been such a strange concept. It carried no true sense of safety and roots for him growing up, flitting between houses, between schools, between apartments. His own apartment had only been home in the sense that it was a roof over his head and a place to be alone.

“Teej?”

Aiden’s voice is soft and inquiring, his hand warm against T.J’s own. He wonders if Aiden sees it, if he paints the same picture of lazy Sunday mornings on the couch with off-brand cereal, of his piano and Aiden’s cello in that corner, of Trouble skidding into the kitchen at the faintest sound of a cupboard door opening, of hurried goodbye kisses and long hugs at the end of a busy day. T.J wonders if Aiden sees what he sees right now.

“It’s…” Voice faltering, he looks out once again at the empty space, the dust mites dancing in the light falling in from one of the large windows.

“Home,” Aiden supplies, hand drifting down to clasp T.J’s.

It is. It is all of those things, all those wonderful dreams and illusions. It is also real life. It is actually living with someone else, it is hobbling through finding a rhythm, it’s stepping in cat piss on a Monday morning, it’s saying goodbye with a kiss and greeting each other with deafening silence, it’s expired milk on a day when almost everything has already closed and getting locked out. It’s home as T.J’s never truly experienced it.

Life brings commitments and plans and structure. He’s still a Hammond, he’s expected to turn up for certain events, try as he might to limit himself. Aiden’s all too happy to accompany him most times, but T.J’s still intent on shielding him, to keep him out of the press, out of people’s mouths. It’s easier said than done, especially when your mother is the President of the goddamn country.

With the club behind him comes another challenge. A slot in his life, in his daily routine has disappeared, leaving behind a vacuum he itches to fill. His parents once again nudges him to pursue the one passion that has stayed with him, but he’s adamant, his resolve as steady as ever. You don’t become a concert pianist at his age, he still doesn’t want to teach. It’s a challenge to find something, to make himself useful, to make himself busy.

“Will you step outside the door today, please?” Aiden told him a month after they moved. “I swear, if I come home and find you on the couch, I will make sure the next time Trouble pees on something, it will be on your socks.”

So he went. Reluctantly, muttering under his breath, but still. Hands shoved deep in the pockets of his jeans, T.J walked the all too familiar blocks, not sure what he was looking for. He’d seen his fair share of D.C, knew the neighbourhood enough to find his way back home, but now he was searching, finding little things he hadn’t noticed before. The near Matrix-like feeling of a street with identical houses adorned with identical flower arrangements. The people, walking about and not giving a shit about him. The community center, doors open, people crowding in front of it. He only meant to go see if there were any upcoming events that might be interesting to check out. Introducing himself was only polite, so was offering to help out because the place was understaffed. Not like he had anything else to do, right?

He ended up helming most of the event. Sure, he had help, but he got to take charge and it felt… good. It was productive and people appreciated him and he even got a hug. When Aiden got home that day, T.J had such a wide smile on his face he almost broke down in tears.

He thinks he’s on to something, wants to feel that sensation of being of use, of being needed again. The media branded him an entrepreneur during Elaine’s first campaign. It was as good a moniker as anything, far kinder than a lot of the names he’d been called, though T.J did feel - still feels - it was for lack of a better option. Whatever people would tell him, T.J knew he hadn’t amounted to much, not compared to Doug. Maybe it was too late to make something of his musical talents, but this was something he had unknowingly cultivated all his life.

He starts making lists; chaotic notes on paper, scratched out ideas and what-ifs bleeding onto paper. Drafts have never been an issue, his head is full of ideas, but gathering them into something cohesive… that’s a different story. Weeks pass, and he grows more and more frustrated by the lack of breakthrough, the self-imposed pressure of needing this to work out grating on his nerves. Aiden has stopped asking, merely pressing comforting kisses to his head when he finds T.J browsing for ideas and reworking his plans; a silent encouragement that carries no demand for result.

In the end, he doesn’t come to a conclusion. It comes to him in a godawful early phone call, a woman who seems to speak more in apologies than anything until T.J can roll out of bed and shock his system into wakefulness with his bare feet against the wood floors. She works at the community center, was she perchance speaking to the T.J Hammond, and was he indeed the young man who helped out about a month ago? As soon as he confirms, the woman goes off on a whirlwind. A project manager dropping off at the most inopportune moment, and so many positive compliments on his ability to manage the event last time that T.J has to lean up against the bedroom doorway.

“It’s very last minute, but could you perhaps consider coming down, maybe just look at the plans and see if it seems up to scratch? I fully understand if you don’t have time to manage the entire event, but if we could get the green light for the plans as they stand right now, it would help us out a lot.”

He doesn’t even pretend to not be excited, promising to come down after breakfast. Aiden finds him humming with a silly smile on his face, shuffling around scrambled eggs in the pan and kissing him sweetly when he spots his boyfriend. It feels like… like what he imagines a good life is supposed to feel like. The exciting promise of a future, the sweet comfort of the present. Is this what normal people feel?

The planning isn’t half bad. He suggests a couple of changes on the spot, asking to take the rest home and promising to get back with a more comprehensive list of changes and possible additions the day after, promising in the same breath that he’ll helm the event.

One project becomes two, becomes three, becomes an offer to take on all of their planned projects for the rest of the year with the option to sign on for more. The first night after, T.J can’t sleep, doesn’t dare to let his eyes fall shut for fear he will wake up and everything will be gone. His rapid breaths pull Aiden from his sleep, a wordless glance shared between the two of them before Aiden holds out his arms for T.J to seek refuge in until the wee hours of the morning when his breath is once again even and his mind too clouded to stay awake.

The first project he helms from start to finish has him itching, the memory of his presentation about the club rearing its ugly head and leaving him in a cold sweat and with hands trembling so bad he has to keep them shoved into the pockets of his jeans while he goes over his plan with the small team he’d assembled. By the time he asks if there are any questions, he’s drenched, feeling like he’s run a marathon, panics when someone raises their hand only to nearly deflate when it’s someone asking about a detail they missed earlier.

It gets easier from then on. His nerves still trip him up sometimes, he spends a couple of nights frantically fixing things he forgot to take into account, breathing deeply into Trouble’s soft fur when he doesn’t want to wake up Aiden. It calms him down to think of what he gets in return. Not necessarily money, although there is that, too. Earning a living from something he cares about is a fucking great feeling to be honest. But the best thing, the absolutely best thing is the looks he gets. His second project was pulling together a decades dance for a group of elderly people. It was mostly tying things together, confirming orders, making sure vendors got to the place on time. Halfway through the evening, the smallest, most fragile-looking little grandma came up to him, asking if he was the young man who had coordinated the event. The look and the hug she gave him when he nodded was enough to have him fighting tears of joy all evening.

It gets easier, and he grows. He grows and yes, he falters a little. Someone who attended a function he put together calls him, asks if he would consider planning a gathering they’re hosting. It sounds so great over the phone, and even by T.J’s standards the money offered makes his eyes bug a little. The first meeting is great, he’s full of ideas, he pulls strings and makes things happen. He contacts caterers, checks orders for beverages, chuckling to himself that with the amount he’s ordering, even Nana would have her work cut out for her. It’s great. It is.

It’s great until he’s there, until it’s a full scale party, and it takes him ten minutes to clock someone coming out of a bathroom and a shiver runs up his spine. They’re doing blow in the bathroom. Suddenly the room is a trap, he feels out of his depth, and he can’t just leave. The hostess keeps coming up to him, introducing him to people, praising him for his work, and all he can do is revert. Fake smile, false bravado, all while keeping a close eye on the person he knows is experiencing a high he once craved so hard. He fears what will happen if they get too close. He fears what will happen, period, because he’s here alone. It’s a monster that sets its claws into his spine, has him jittery for the rest of the evening until he can’t take it anymore. Around midnight he feigns a call that pulls him out, apologizing profusely, insisting that everything is taken care of and that the staff knows what they’re doing. If he wasn’t so far from home, he’d run the itch and worry off. As is, he calls an Uber, trying to keep himself together until he gets home. Aiden has to talk him down from an anxiety attack.

After that, he doesn’t do any more private events. It’s all community center projects, nothing else. His soul rests easier, and the little old ladies keep patting his cheek and thanking him for being a dear. Aiden smiles when he gets home. Trouble usually curls up near his chest just to be sure.

It doesn’t mean T.J sleeps through the nights. There are instances when he wakes up, sometimes from a nightmare, sometimes because he’s getting kicked in the shins, sometimes because Trouble wants to be really sure he’s okay and sleeps on his chest. They are nights he lie in the dusky room, breathing deep and long, looking at the little life he’s got. Aiden lightly snoring next to him, Trouble somewhere nearby. It makes him think of the evening he’d planned out, the question he had finally worked up enough courage to ask. For a long time, the ring he’d bought and planned an entire evening around stays hidden, out of sight and out of mind through their move, through events hosted, through opportunities given and missed.

He keeps thinking he will make it happen. He’ll plan something new. It’s what he does for a living now. One plan after another, he’s good at it. Did pretty well the first time, right up until it landed him in the hospital. It’s not as if he doesn’t try, because he does. It’s just… life. It pulls them along, and life as T.J knows it can’t be planned down to the most minor detail.

In the end, it’s neither planned, nor particularly romantic. At least not in the sense that anyone will ooh or aah much. He proposes in the middle of the night the day before Thanksgiving right as they’re finishing up the pie Elaine asked them to bring. It’s not suave, it’s not polished. It trips out after Aiden burns his finger on the pie tin and he’s running cold water over it. Aiden just stares at him, prompting more words to follow, one stumbling over the other until T.J’s not sure what he’s just said.

“Yeah. Yeah, I- God, yes.”

It’s awkward and perfect. He has to run into the bedroom to get the ring, and for a second he panics because he draws a temporary blank on where he put it after the move. Holding it feels like he’s tethering the last shredded part to himself, and a lump rises in his throat. His life has come together; a little hobbled sure, but it’s there. He’s got a job, a home, someone who loves him. When he gets back to kitchen, there are already tears running from his eyes, and for a moment he manages to scare Aiden that he’s regretted the proposal. The pie almost gets squashed in their eager reassurances.

Maybe they’re a little selfish, leaving the rings at home and not telling anyone. It’s something they want to keep to themselves, to savour for a little while until they can sit down and talk about how and when. That doesn’t stop them from lavishing each other when it’s their turn to talk about what they’re grateful for. T.J has to tell himself not to cry because Nana will know, they’ll all know for sure. This is theirs. That moment in the kitchen will forever belong to them.

It takes a few days for them to get to the point where they can talk. The day after Thanksgiving goes by in a haze; sleepy kisses and soft flannel pajamas and leftovers piled into sandwiches that defy gravity and sanity. T.J can’t remember a time when he felt this… this happy. No high has led him to this place, to this strange mix of tranquility and elation. It stays through their talk, refuses to let go even as they discuss the pros and cons of the choices they face. Neither one of them wants a spectacle, there’s been enough of unwelcome intrusions in their lives as is. Church is out because, well…

“I don’t care how,” Aiden tells him, pressing a kiss to the corner of T.J’s mouth when they close down their laptop. “I don’t care if it’s just you and me. So long as you’re there beside me. Nothing more I could want.”

His words ends their discussion. They’ll have a wedding much like their proposal; an intimate affair. Not a spectacle, but something that belongs to them. It’s a naivë hope in T.J’s mind that they could just go down to the courthouse the next day, file for a marriage licence, get in front of a judge and be declared husbands and partners for life. The licence is no trouble, but the clerk heaves a sigh at their eagerness, telling them in a tired, monotonous voice that the next available appointment is no sooner than two weeks. It’ll do. They can wait.

Waiting is horrible. Each day drags on for an eternity while they try to act like their lives aren’t about to change. Aiden buys a new suit, tells himself it’s because his old one is starting to look too worn. T.J finds himself straying into the margins of his notes during a meeting for an event that will incidentally take place the day after they get married. He should be focusing on the checklist, but every possible permutation of vows flood his mind. The two of them lie awake at night, the tangible excitement bubbling just below the surface while they hold hands, T.J stroking over Aiden’s ring.

It’s hardest to keep things from their families. Or rather, from T.J’s family. Aiden’s parents and siblings don’t seem to notice anything different. Then again, they don’t see them much in the two weeks before. Aiden’s mother is on a business trip, his father all too happy to putter around in the office. T.J’s family is a different story. They don’t ask outright, but they observe, some more than other.

“Are you two planning something?”

Nana corners them by the door the night before just as they’re leaving. T.J swears they haven’t been acting strange. Or at least not much. Okay, maybe a little then.

“What do you mean, Nana?”

She squints at them, at their hands clasped together. Before they can blink, she has pushed them out onto the porch, closing the door behind them before fixing them both with a hard stare.

“If you two tell me you’ve eloped and married already, I will kick you down these stairs,” she all but growls at them.

“Nana-”

“Don’t you Nana me, T.J! Your mother might be blind, your brother, too, but I am not missing out again, so you think long and hard about the next words coming out your mouth.”

Aiden glances nervously at him. This is a side of Nana he hasn’t quite seen yet, a miracle really given their time together. T.J tries to communicate as subtly as he can. It’s the day before. They will need a witness, and sure, the courthouse will provide one if needed, but they might as well…

“Tomorrow,” T.J replies, turning to his grandmother, gripping Aiden’s hand tighter. “We’d be honoured if you came with us as our witness, Nana.”

Her stern features melt into something soft, something that makes T.J wanna hug her and promise her everything is okay. Really, it is, things are more than okay. Margaret lets out a huffing breath, bringing them both in for a hug. It’s enough of an answer. They part ways after giving her the pertinent details, walking home to a night with little sleep but more kisses than ever.

It’s all so wonderfully undramatic. Tying each other’s tie, hugging each other long and hard before walking out the door. Nana waits for them outside the courthouse, and T.J can’t help but smirk because Margaret shows up looking the image of prim and proper… and wearing sunglasses.

“I didn’t want anyone to recognize me and think something was up!”

“Nana, it’s December. You look like you’re trying to fit into an old-timey spy movie,” T.J laughs, pressing kisses to her cheeks only to be rewarded with a playful slap across his head.

“You two lovebirds ready?” she asks, pulling the glasses off and tucking them into the breast pocket of her coat.

T.J exchanges a look with Aiden. “Ready as we’ll ever be.”

It’s strange how something so short and simple can encompass so much. The officiant says a few choice words, lets the two of them recite their vows. T.J can’t even remember half of what he said in hindsight, but he remembers Aiden tearing up, biting down on his lips and his voice quivering when he declares his love. Neither of them manage more than a whispered “I do” when the questions are asked.

They tumble out of the courthouse, Nana not even bothering to hide her own tears of joy. It’s a short cab ride home, their joy rubbing off on their cabbie, who congratulates them with a big grin and tries to deny their tips when they arrive. Nana shoos them inside, joking about paparazzis in every bush. T.J laughs, feeling so incredibly free and joyful that he can’t even linger on the possibility. He crashes in the couch, pulling Aiden with him and into a kiss that fizzles against his lips.

“Oh, come on, you two, save my delicate sensibilities!”

Nana comes at them with three wine glasses, then pulls a champagne bottle from her purse. “Remind me to gift you proper glasses for Christmas.”

“You walked around with a bottle of champagne in your purse, Margaret?” Aiden questions, taking his glass and T.J’s.

“Coulda had it in worse places,” she replies with a wink, setting down her own glass to pop the bottle open.

T.J hesitates, twirling the stem of his glass between his fingers. His mother still tries to avoid alcohol at their dinners as much as possible, not wanting to inadvertently provide any temptation. After his one and only forage into private party planning, he was almost grateful for it. He eyes the bottle, eyebrows knitting together.

“Is… Is that the bottle the French ambassador gifted mom and dad?”

“Maybe…” Nana drags out the m, pouring the bubbling drink into their glasses.

“You stole it? Mom is gonna kill you for this, you know that right?”

“Yeah, well, what else is new.” She fires off another one of her splendid smiles, holding up her glass. “You’ll only get married once. And I mean it. This bottle has been sitting in that house for years, darling. If ever there was cause for real French champagne, it’s now.”

They clink glasses, emptying them in a long gulp, savouring the taste as it tickles their tongues. Margaret excuses herself after another glass, giving them each a kiss to the cheek. The quiet that follows is strange, somehow alive and vibrant, shattering like fireworks when they look at each other, ties a little loose and glasses of expensive champagne in their hands.

Hours later, dizzy from the day and the champagne, takeout ordered and Trouble purring in Aiden’s lap, T.J breathes deeply, letting his thumb stroke over Aiden’s knuckles, straying every now and again over the wedding band.

“I love this,” he mumbles, brushing his cheek against his husband’s hair. “I love you. You… Three years ago, I would have laughed at the idea of me having this.” Aiden takes his hand, kissing each knuckle before pressing it to his chest. “Didn’t seem like it could be me, like it could be real. I was… so far from myself. You make me feel so much better. You make me feel like I’m real, like I’m- like I’m the person I’m supposed to be.”

“I’m proud of you, Teej,” Aiden answers, tilting his head to look up at him, the smile on his lips so earnest it tugs at T.J’s heartstrings. “For all you’ve accomplished. I knew, going in, it wouldn’t be easy, but god, I’ve never once regretted it.” His lips pull up into a big, loopy grin, his eyes falling on the sleeping cat at his feet. “I am so glad he ran off.”

“So am I, baby.”

They stay like that, wrapped up in their happiness, in each other for another couple of hours. Their phones ring a couple of times, but they make no attempt at answering. The world can wait. When they at long last rise to go to bed, leaving Trouble still snoozing on the couch, T.J turns to look out at the livingroom. It’s not exactly the anonymous suburban house he may have once childishly imagined. Three hundred million people probably  still have opinions on him. But today he gets to go to bed knowing he’ll wake up with the only person who matters. Today, he’ll go to bed feeling more like a person than he has in years.