TJ asked in advance to be at the front of the room, where everyone else coming in through the door at the back would be less likely to recognize him, and so he's not really expecting, from the corner of his eye, to see someone heading right for him. There's no point keeping his head down – Mom's inauguration was recent enough that the whole 'bad boy reforms' narrative around TJ is still interesting, and the only way to handle it is to make eye contact and hope no-one offers him drugs.
When he sees who's crossing the room, wearing jeans and a turquoise hoodie, he's not sure an offer of drugs wouldn't have been better.
"Really?" he asks as Agent Clark stops at the bench next to his, "This is the thing you guys don't trust me about?"
According to Mom and Dougie, it's not that they, or the Secret Service, don't trust TJ's recovery, it's that they're worried he's going to get into some sort of trouble, even though Columbus is less than a day's drive from DC. According to TJ, that sounds a lot like they don't trust him, but he's slowly learning that it's sometimes easier to just compromise, and so the Secret Service have permission to drop in on him to check he's keeping safe.
He just didn't expect it to happen at a baking class.
Clark smiles, which is annoying, because he has a good smile, and TJ's really trying to be irritated. "I'm actually not here for you." He nods to Yasmin, the teacher, who nods back to him. "I've always wanted to try making a baked Alaska."
"I don't believe you." It's probably not the greatest thing to say, but there's a big difference between dropping in on him and signing up for a baking class to make sure he isn't, what, baking pot brownies? Because he graduated from those before he even turned seventeen.
"I didn't think you would." Clark rests a hip against the bench, close enough that TJ doesn't feel like anyone is going to overhear, even though the class doesn't start for another ten minutes, and the room is empty except for the two of them and Yasmin. "The office found me a six-month instructor post while I'm on medical stand-down."
Even translated from Secret-Service-in-public speak, that raises more questions than it answers. TJ focuses on the key one. "And it's just coincidence that it's here? And that you signed up for the same baking class I did?"
"That part is." Clark smiles again, a little wry, and TJ appreciates that at least he's not trying to pretend like the placement location is. Of course, if Clark was faking it, TJ probably wouldn't know. "Look," Clark says. "If this is a problem for you, I can find something else to do. I don't want to make you uncomfortable."
And, fuck, he looks so genuinely sincere, TJ's impotent irritation fizzles out. "Just promise you're not going to tell Mom if all my cakes are a disaster."
"Promise," Clark says, and okay, apparently TJ's going to be taking Baking for Beginners with his mom's protection agent at the next bench over.
Yasmin promised that, as long as they followed what she was doing, there was no way they'd mess up chocolate brownies, but TJ's still legitimately shocked when his turn out not just edible but good, even if they are burned a little at the edges.
He takes them to the community center down the street from the one-bed apartment he's renting. Janey, the manager, is sitting on the reception desk when he gets there, and gives him a hug when he hands over the brownies. "These smell amazing," she says, peeking into the Tupperware TJ bought just for the baking class. "I didn't know you baked."
TJ shrugs, wishes he could take the box back, just so he'd have something to do with his hands. "I'm taking a class."
Janey's always smiling, but she looks so genuinely pleased when TJ says that, he can't help smiling back, even though it feels awkward. "Does that mean we're going to get goodies like this every week?"
"Maybe." The next session is cupcakes, which TJ is not confident about, whatever Yasmin says about them being a great thing to make with kids.
"Well, make yourself useful until then, and go tell Mae we have treats – she's setting up for the Angels."
"You mean, leave you the brownies and let Mae give me another recruitment pitch?" Janey just grins at the question, no sympathy whatsoever, and TJ feels perfectly justified in taking his brownies with him.
Mae runs the center's child and youth programming, including the LGBT youth group that everyone swears has a real name that isn't the Angels, which she's determined to recruit TJ into helping out with. Presumably as an example of how not to be a gay teenager, since she met him when he was way too early for the recovery group he started coming to the center for.
And because she knows he's TJ Hammond.
"Hey, kiddo," she says when TJ lurks into the open doorway. "Come give me a hand setting up chairs."
TJ obligingly starts unfolding chairs. "You know beanbags would be more comfortable. Or couches." TJ had most of his fun as a kid on couches and beanbags. Mae just looks at him, like she knows what he's thinking, and rolls her eyes in response to TJ's shrug.
"So," she says when they're setting out plastic cups, "How's everything?"
"Uh-uh," TJ says firmly. He has the recovery group, his therapist, and Dougie asking him that regularly. "I'm not one of your kids."
Mae gives him the look he's pretty sure means she thinks he should have been, or wishes he would have been, or – something. "You're young enough that you could have been."
"But old enough not to be any more." Not that he ever could have been: he went from being in the closet to being on the front page to drunken hook-ups. "Can you just do your recruitment pitch instead of worrying about me?"
"Trust me, I can do both," Mae says, which is pretty much what TJ was afraid of.
When they were kids, and Dad's career was taking off, reporters asked, sometimes, if Dougie and TJ wanted to be politicians too when they grew up, and live in Washington DC. Dougie always said yes, even though at the time he mostly wanted to be a fire-fighter or a police officer or an astronaut. TJ always said no, he wanted to be a pianist in New York City, because his piano teacher, who he adored, had played with an orchestra there, and TJ basically wanted to be exactly like him when he grew up.
Even after he realized he wasn't going to be a pianist in New York City, TJ had never planned on ending up in Columbus, Ohio. Sure, it was a city, but it wasn't New York or LA, wasn't even on the other side of the country like he'd sometimes dreamed of being, when things in Washington got really bad.
But, those first few weeks after the hospital, he hadn't been able to shake the feeling that sure, his family had come through, but only after he'd screwed up, only when he needed their help. It felt different, but it had felt different after the first time too, and in the end, it hadn't been any different, had maybe ended up worse. With Mom confirming that she intended to run, with Doug and Anne's marriage all over the society pages – TJ had needed to get out.
When Doug asked, TJ said that the university had a good sociology program and he was thinking of getting his degree, finally, and that Columbus itself was both far enough away for him to have some space and close enough for him to visit if he wanted, which Doug had only seemed to half-buy. What he hadn't said was that, in between the hook-ups and Sean and the guy he kissed in high school who denied being the second person in the photo of them that someone sold to the tabloids – in between all of the disasters, TJ'd had a six week relationship with a Washington intern who grew up in Columbus, and who, sure, had always made it clear they had to be in secret, and only together till his internship ended, but had also just been really nice. Kind.
TJ doesn't need his brand new therapist to tell him how messed up it was that a guy being nice to him was noteworthy, but it had been – still is – and when his google browsing had offered up Columbus, the memory of him had been enough for TJ to start looking at apartments.
Now, he's living in a one-bedroom apartment that gets the morning sun, taking a baking class and teaching himself the guitar, going to therapy and the recovery group, trying out all the local coffee shops and going swimming twice a week. Now, he's keeping track of classical concerts in the area, though he hasn't gone to any yet, and volunteering at the community center foodbank once a week, and starting to make tentative enquiries into taking a class at Ohio State next semester, and it's not the life he thought he'd have, playing music in New York City, but, for the first time in maybe ever, it feels like it's actually his.
Clark, it turns out, is really bad at baking. It's especially weird because his brownies were perfect – even Yasmin said they were the best in the class – but his cupcakes don't rise at all, his banana bread is burned on top and raw in the middle, and the second batch somehow comes out the reverse.
It makes him really popular with the rest of the group, since even in jeans and a hoodie he has an air of definite competence that doesn't match up with his baking failures, and therefore makes it funny.
"Are you doing this on purpose?" TJ asks quietly while Yasmin goes around the room tasting the pound cake everyone else made. "Like an undercover thing?"
"I told you I'm not here for you," Clark says, "Or anyone else. I really do just want to learn to bake."
TJ pokes at the top of the banana bread, leaving the shape of his finger behind. "So you're telling me you're really this bad? How is that possible? Even I'm better at it than you."
"You're better at it than most of the people in the class," Clark says, giving all appearance of sincerity. "I'm much better at cooking than baking. Hence taking a class."
"Sure," TJ says, still distracted by Clark saying something nice about him, or maybe by there being something that he actually is good about, even if it's just baking the simplest things with someone telling him every step and checking he's doing it right.
"But I'm still looking forward to baked Alaska week." Clark winks, smiles his irritatingly great smile, and TJ doesn't have the heart to point out baked Alaska is on the schedule for the intermediate class, not this one.
TJ doesn't usually take his phone with him when he goes out – his therapist's suggestion, after he confessed that he gets really anxious, trying not to check for messages from his family, or reporters – but he hasn't managed to stop checking as soon as he gets home. The best he's managed is putting the results of baking class into the kitchen first.
This time, there's a message from Doug, saying that Mom's trying to get hold of him, and another from Mom, asking TJ to call when he gets chance.
Requests to call, in TJ's experience, are never good, but putting it off only makes things worse, and the recovery group is meeting tomorrow night. TJ calls Doug's number.
They dispense with pleasantries in short order – Anne's fine, Doug's working too much, yes, Doug's half of the return on the club is still coming through – and then Doug says, "Mom wants you to visit."
There were only so many potential options, and that was the most likely. TJ doesn't say anything, just waits for the rest.
"You know it's her birthday soon, and there's going to be a party. She'd like you to be there."
And it would seem weird for the President to have a party with only one of her sons there, which would undoubtedly ramp up the gossipy interest in what TJ's up to, and why he isn't there, and what it means about family relationships, and what it means about Mom's ability to be president and…
The whole thing just makes him tired, but he is grateful to Doug for giving him a heads-up and the chance to figure out his response before Mom asks him directly. "What's she planning?"
"Dad's planning it." Doug sounds like he's laughing. "So it changes every few days. At the moment, a public party at the White House, and then a family thing at the farm."
TJ can maybe do a public 'thing' at the White House, where he'll just have to put on a suit and smile at people; he definitely cannot do a family thing anywhere, not even with his grandma and Anne in attendance for him to cling to.
Doug doesn't say anything else, maybe waiting, maybe distracted with his email or a policy paper. Maybe if TJ stays quiet long enough, Dougie will forget he's there and hang-up.
"TJ?" Doug says right as TJ has that thought. "You still there? Where are you?"
"I just got home. I don't – " They don't talk that much, not for real, not these days, but TJ's trying. "I don't want to come back to DC."
"It's really important to her," Doug says immediately, and TJ has to bite his tongue not to say that the club opening was important to him, and sure, it was screwed up, but they didn't know that when they said they wouldn't come. "It's her first year in the Oval, she hasn't seen you in months, it would really mean a lot to her to have you there."
TJ hates the way they all say the Oval now that Mom's there, and more than that, he hates the instinctive defensiveness that comes with any mention of him moving away. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slow enough that Doug won't hear. "I don't know if I can."
"You –" Doug audibly cuts himself off from whatever he was going to say – probably something about how TJ can't make time for the President's birthday, really, even though they both know that's not really what TJ means. "Let me send you the details," he says instead. "Mom's going to want to talk to you too."
Like TJ couldn't have figured that one out on his own. He makes all the appropriate noises, and Doug says something about a meeting, and then he's stood in the middle of his apartment, phone in his hand, wondering if ignoring it really would have been worse.
His therapist talks all the time about finding ways to cope with his emotions that aren't alcohol or drugs or sex - you never really learned that when you were a child, she tells him – and so he has a list in the back of a secondhand copy of Maurice. He hates the list and hates that he needs it, but he does actually like this therapist, and so he digs it out like a good boy, and reads it.
It's mostly focused on the times that he feels like a failure, too sad and down to figure out what to do next; there's not much that works for the twitchy, anxious feeling he gets thinking about going back. Guitar practice is on there, but the twitchy feeling sometimes turns into real twitching, and so's going for a walk, but it started raining before he left class.
TJ always leaves his baking efforts on the corner of the counter by the fridge, and tucked next to them, the recipe print-outs Yasmin gives them. He doesn't have chocolate, or cupcake foils, but he does have a bunch of slightly browning bananas, and a recipe for banana bread.
TJ puts his phone firmly back on the arm of the couch, where he won't hear if it vibrates, and gets down the measuring cups he bought after the second class.
Three loaves of banana bread and a batch of sugar cookies he found a recipe for online go with him to recovery group on Friday. It's too much – the group's small, and recovering addicts don't always eat as much as they should – but a couple of the guys take cookies home for their kids, and Freya, who only started a couple of weeks ago, asks quietly if she can take some of the banana bread to her grandfather's nursing home. TJ gives her the whole lot, including the Tupperware he brought it in.
Clark always has a take-out cup from Java Loft when he arrives, and usually doesn't drink any till Yasmin's finished introducing the session's bake and started handing out samples. From that, TJ figures he must stop pretty much right before he comes into class, and a quick google search gives him the closest place.
He gets there early enough to garner several suspicious looks as he leans empty-handed against the store window, but he's also early enough to see Clark walk round the corner, clock TJ, and head straight for him.
"Let me get a coffee," he says before TJ can open his mouth, "And we'll talk on the way to class."
He comes back with two take-out cups, hands one to TJ that turns out to be hot chocolate, complete with whipped cream and sprinkles. "Thanks" TJ says, then, "I need to ask you something, and I need you to either tell me the truth or say you can't tell me."
"Okay," Clark says easily. He stops walking, moving them both out of the middle of the sidewalk and meeting TJ's eyes. "I can't promise to be able to answer your question, but I promise I'll tell you if I can't."
He's a Secret Service agent, so even if TJ knew him better, he probably wouldn't be able to tell if Clark was lying. TJ's well aware that he has a tendency to trust too easily, which doesn't help, but if he can't trust a Secret Service agent, then there's really no hope. "Are you reporting back on me to my mom?" he asks.
"No," Clark says, still watching TJ, entirely calm.
"If she was coming here – or my dad – would you know?"
"It's not impossible that one of them would get here without anyone finding out," Clark says, eyes rolling very slightly in evidence of how small he thinks that possibility is, "But generally, yes, I'd know."
"Would you tell me in advance?" TJ's hands start sweating as soon as he asks, because this is basically the only chance he has. Doug has too many years of experience with TJ screwing up not to sometimes decide he knows what's best for TJ, and TJ won't ask Anne to potentially take his side over Doug's. His grandma's the only other option, but she's seeing a retired author who lives next door to the farm, and isn't around TJ's parents enough to reliably know what they're doing.
Clark looks at TJ for long enough that TJ has to look away. "You know that's not my job," Clark says finally, soft enough that TJ can't tell if it's a rebuke or just a reminder.
"It's not anyone's," TJ points out. It's obvious that Clark's gearing up to say no, and TJ feels stupid for asking, but he can't help adding, "Most people worrying about their parents showing up out of the blue aren't worrying about them being the President and the ex-President." Maybe it doesn't make any difference, but his parents' political achievements have been making a difference to TJ for his entire life, and he can't tell any longer.
"If you give me your number," Clark says, "Then yeah, I'll let you know if I find out anyone's coming to town."
TJ blinks, looking up to make sure Clark's not kidding. Clark looks back, serious and unblinking, cell in his hand. "Thank you," TJ says quietly.
He doesn't mean to wait for Clark outside the coffee shop again, but he's a little early for class, and he tells Clark, "I owe you a coffee," when he sees Clark coming down the street. Clark says sure, follows him in, and they don't talk about it, but they're both outside the coffee shop again before the next class, and Clark says it's his turn to buy, does TJ want hot chocolate again, and from there it becomes habit.
It should be weird, and it is, a little, because they've known each other a long time but they're also strangers, and yet, somehow, it feels like one of the most normal things TJ's done in ages. Clark, he finds out, is a hockey fan, after his dad took him to the first ever San Jose Sharks game, which apparently explains the turquoise hoodie he's always wearing, though not why someone would name a hockey team after an oceanic mammal. TJ, in turn, tells Clark about the community center, how he's started taking in whatever he bakes for the queer youth group, and about Janey's constant attempts to talk people into visiting the animal shelter that her wife works at.
"We always had dogs when I was growing up," Clark tells him. "My mom showed poodles."
"Like the little French ones?" TJ asks, amused by the image of Clark with a miniature poodle.
"Standard, mostly." Clark waves a hand at waist height, presumably to indicate the size. The mental image is still funny.
"I don't think I could have a dog in my apartment," TJ says. And dogs are a commitment that TJ's not sure he's ready to make, especially when he still has days where getting out of bed in the morning is an achievement.
"Cats are good too," Clark says, letting it go, and they talk about cake flavors the rest of the way to class.
They've been walking to class together for the better part of a month when Clark catches up to TJ as they're leaving, coffee cake in hand.
"Do you have plans this weekend? Saturday?" Clark asks, weaving them neatly between the parents and kids waiting for Sing and Sign in the next classroom over.
"I'm not sure." TJ's plans consist of swimming, helping out at the foodbank, and trying out the new vegan coffee shop that just opened at the end of his block. Depending on why Clark's asking, those could either become entirely flexible, or set in stone and all-consuming.
"The Sharks are playing the Blue Jackets on Saturday night," Clark tells him, "And I've got a couple of tickets. I wondered if you'd want to go with me?"
That’s – TJ's brain kind of shuts down for a minute, trying to process too many competing thoughts. He's been to a couple of baseball games before, but that’s the extent of his sports attendance; and also, he's pretty sure hockey games get televised, which means there's a chance he'll end up on camera, and even if he doesn't, there's a much higher chance of being recognized at a big event like a hockey game; and also, that's a big jump from getting coffee together before class; and –
"Take a breath," Clark says quietly. "It's fine if the answer's no, for any reason."
Clark's manoeuvred them into one of the weird nooks that line the corridors, angling them so that TJ's tucked into a corner, Clark between him and the world. Clark's looking a little to the side of TJ's head, watching him but not too obviously, and he's got a hand on TJ's arm, which is weirdly reassuring.
"I don't think I've ever watched any hockey," he says.
Clark smiles. "I can explain it to you. It's not that complicated. The tickets are in the away stands, I can lend you a Sharks hat."
"So I blend in?" TJ teases, even though he knows Clark means because it will make him less likely to be identified, when there's no reason for him to be in with the away team fans, even if someone does guess that TJ Hammond might be at a hockey game. He's not surprised that Clark thought of it, but he is touched, enough to relax and actually think about whether he wants to go to a hockey game with Clark.
"And in the interests of full disclosure," Clark adds, dropping his voice a little, "It's their Pride night. I always go to the Capitals' when I'm in Washington, so I would have tried anyway, but…" Clark looks directly at TJ and must see some of TJ's confusion. "I'm bi," he says. "And I'd be completely happy to go as friends, but I'd also be happy if you wanted to consider it a date."
"I've… never really been on a date," TJ says, thrown all over again. Sure, he likes Clark's smile, and how terrible he is at baking, and the easy way they talk on the way to class, but he trained himself a long time ago not to think of people who work for the President in that way. "You're only here temporarily," he says, instead of any of that.
"Yes," Clark agrees. "But cars exist, as do phones." Because he's a nice guy, he doesn't point out that 'temporary' has several months to run, and that TJ hasn't even said yes to a date yet. TJ, because his inner voice is not a particularly nice guy, points that out anyway.
"Um," TJ says. His brain doesn't offer anything else though, just the things he likes about Clark, how happy Doug used to look when he took Anne out somewhere, how weird but sort of nice it sounds to go on a date… "Okay," he says, before he can over-think it any more. "Sure. I'd like that."
Clark smiles, wide and pleased. "Great," he says, and TJ smiles back, lets himself believe it, for once.