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Hell of A Good Universe Next Door (Let's Go)

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Sometimes, TJ thought the course of his life was a special art form, like a Groundhog Day that he could never leave.

Only that it was set in the White House.

On any given morning, one of his parents was always a President of the United States or plotting to run for office. His grandmother was always glamorously wasted or about to be. His twin brother Doug was always somewhere on the curve between seething and simmering down without ever really blowing up that capable facade.

TJ himself was always going to bed with one of his whirlwind, toxic love affairs with a boy or an addiction, and then waking up in his childhood room and knowing it was rehab time again.

At one point, he had stopped caring if there was a tomorrow because he knew it would always be exactly like today. Except that this time, after this overdose, TJ stared at a familiar crack on the ceiling and decided to try something radical.

Like making an effort.

 

 

~~~

 

It was one of TJ's more exciting birthrights as a Barrish-Hammond to attend state dinners at the White House. This time around, his mom happened to be the President and TJ was officially three months clean and sober.

He was expertly navigating through flurries of sheikhs, a lineup of Leonardo DiCaprio's ex-girlfriends, a couple of former revolutionaries turned dictators, the perky Ellen Berg who was always having an affair with either of TJ's parents (but never at the same time), the president of Russia with a posse, and an Avenger.

Doug couldn't shut up about Captain America being on the invitation list, for days. He used to collect World War II memorabilia in his teenage geek phase - and Steve Rogers was one of his specialties. They'd spoken on the phone here and there about veteran events, and every time after, Doug would stagger around looking starstruck.

So by the time his brother was finally jostling TJ and Nana towards his childhood hero, TJ was sincerely hoping the legend was a foot shorter, a hundred pounds lighter, and ridden with pimples. Because hero worship was a grave flaw in a great politician Doug was aspiring to be.

He turned out to be very, very wrong.

Captain America had stepped off a page of a comic book: tall, clear-faced, young. He managed to look caged in a suit even though it was clearly cut to flatter the impossible geometry of his lab-enhanced frame. Add an attractive strong jaw, long sooty eyelashes, decisive curve of the mouth - TJ was turning into a damn poet here and the strongest thing he'd had tonight was the second sugar in his coffee.

The guy turned all the way around to meet them - and for some reason practically stumbled when he met TJ's eyes.

"Bucky?" Captain America blurted out.

TJ heard 'lucky'. He could roll with odd conversation openings, like that one time he was sixteen and a French porn star asked him for his dad's private phone number.

"You might be. The night is still young." He flashed his best smile that made Nana kick his shin and Doug pull his sleeve as the secret family code for coming on too strong.

An ever vigilant helicopter of damage control, Doug instantly intervened, "Captain, this is my twin brother Thomas. And my grandmother Margaret. We're all big fans. Of your work."

Steve Rogers' face fell and he moved his spectacular shoulders like he wanted to rip those seams. These were fucking beautiful shoulders. Doug seemed to be lost for words, overwhelmed by a fit of a silent fanboying. Nana was clearly about to say something astronomically inappropriate. TJ's head was snapping between the three of them. This meeting was spiraling from peculiar to surreal.

"You must be very proud of your family, Ma'am. Good to finally put a face to your name, Douglas." Captain saved the moment by gracefully acknowledging Nana and visibly crushing all bones in Doug's hand.

What TJ got was only a stare from those bright eyes and, "My pleasure." Then, Steve Rogers turned around, and left so abruptly that it would have been rude if anyone on the Barrish-Hammond side of this awkward conversation was actually paying any attention to anything except his retreating backview and the mind-boggling shoulder to waist ratio.

Three heads tilted in a reverent silence.

"You can bounce a nickel off that ass," announced Margaret loudly as she was expertly swirling orange peel and ice cubes in her bourbon.

"Have any coin on you, little bro?" asked TJ. "I volunteer to prove it. For science."

Doug groaned, put both of his arms on their shoulders and steered them towards salmon canapes and virtue, "This is Steve Rogers. He is practically an American institution. I still have a box of books about him in the attic. Don't you two ruin my childhood."

"Oh, honey." Margaret's smile was dripping with more knowing than she was with diamonds. "The boy's flesh and blood and bone. Surely just trying to figure shit out. Like we're all here, beating on..."

"...Boats against the current," finished TJ and Doug together. Nana only quoted Fitzgerald on special occasions.

"You know he's older than I am?" She shook her head. "Poo! I'm making myself sad. TJ, let's get this show on the road."

They did a song from Anastasia, TJ at the keys and Margaret majestic with her raspy voice and golden couture. It was chosen to poke fun at the Russian delegation as Nana believed the president to be a total boor, and TJ could see his mom staring them down suspiciously across the sea of balding heads and clouds of expensive perfume.

He was more interested to notice Steve Rogers of the fine ass stealing looks his way. Longer and longer, until the guy seemed to forget that openly staring at anyone important at the White House was at best, an international incident and at worst, the Secret Service combing through contents of your trash and your subconscious. TJ was barely important on the important scale, but important enough. There was a intense, bottled mixture of regret and feeling in Steve's blue eyes that TJ couldn't understand but decided to simplify as desire.

Sometime between the veep speech and dessert, Steve suddenly looked around as if he didn't know what he was doing here and headed away from the crowd towards the corridor which would only lead to the East Garden Room and to the men's bathroom. As TJ doubted any suitably inclined red-blooded male would be interested in admiring flora while he could be admiring TJ, it was his cue.

Predictably, he didn't find Steve actually doing anything bathroom-related. The guy was staring blankly into the mirror as if he was seeing something miles beyond his own reflection. There were a couple of dignitaries finishing up their business and this had to be why TJ's superhero hookup looked startled upon his arrival.

Soon enough, the third wheels left and the bathroom seemed as quiet and enormous as an empty concert hall. It didn't look like Steve was going to make the first move, but this wasn't a problem: TJ was used to the performance jitters. From other guys when it came to him.

"Oh no," TJ said dramatically, looking inside a pristine cubicle where absolutely nothing was amiss. "Steve, right? Could you help me with something?"

Polite apprehension instantly turning to a helpful frown, Steve approached TJ with a light-footed readiness of a heavy fighter that made TJ's wildly beating heart drop right into his boxers, "Sure." It was an endearing, earnest expression and TJ felt - only a little - guilty for what he was about to to do.

He decided that it was surely because Steve Rogers wanted this - that someone like TJ was able to body-check Captain America into the wall of a bathroom cubicle and kick the door shut behind them.

Without wasting air, TJ planted a kiss on Steve and - yeah. This perfect, full mouth would be messed up in more way than one, in a minute.

His hands were grabbing Steve's shirt and suit lapels and, under the metropolitan veneer, the guy was built like a brick wall. All solid muscle, broad shoulders, spreading far to the left and right, as far as hands could reach, from sea to shining sea. Fucking him would be like riding a tornado, and TJ was aching for this. Getting pounded by a body that was built for impact. Maybe they go to a hotel somewhere, get a room and room service, find out how far Captain America's stamina really stretched.

He moaned into Steve's parted mouth, and suddenly, he was being whooshed through the air and held at an arm's distance. TJ wasn't entirely sure his feet were touching the floor.

"I'm sorry." Steve's entire face was red. "You've got a wrong impression."

"Put me down," said TJ distinctly, after a heartbeat of a piercing disappointment. If there was one skill he learned from his formerly presidential and always philandering father, it was a convincing display of authority in the most undignified of circumstances. "You were staring at me all night, man."

Steve's flushed face now entirely shut down on some emotion. "You look like someone I knew during the war." His strong, capable, fucking beautiful hands released TJ onto his feet, and then he just stood there and watched as TJ was making himself presentable and dusting off the invisible flakes of crushed expectations. The silence and the staring were sticky on his skin, awkward.

There was a surge of voices right outside the door. TJ quickly pushed past Steve's immovable frame and put on a show of washing his hands. He shot a commanding glance through the gilded mirror. "Look alive, soldier. You don't want to give another wrong impression tonight. They might think we were being gay together."

"It's not like that." TJ heard the protest when he was one foot out of the door. Behind, Steve was looking flustered. It was a particularly attractive look.

Any other day in the not really distant past, TJ would have left the party without any regard for manners, found his emergency stash behind the portrait of Alexander Hamilton in the Red Room, and proceeded to snort some long white lines to wipe the taste of rejection. Then, a mess of snotty bravado and bourbon fumes, he would have crashed at Doug and Anne's to a silent thunder of their disapproval and woken up at noon to Anne fussing over him with a cup of good coffee and Doug splitting his hurting brain with the latest headlines. His mom would call and her tone would drip parental disappointment over the phone line, intravenously right into TJ's bloodstream. Nana would tell him the juicy party gossip that he'd missed, and his dad wouldn't even have noticed.

TJ didn't want to be this guy anymore. Not even for Captain America.

Keep your hands busy, he reminded himself, and made a beeline for the piano. He smiled and played show tunes for the rest of the night; he tucked Nana in after she declared to the Chinese ambassador that Elaine Barrish learned to read when she was three, the little shit; and he resolutely didn't find a consolation prize to sleep with.

TJ knew, without having to look up, that all night, Steve Rogers' blue eyes were for him only.

 

 

~~~

 

On this wintry December night, a peculiar combination of meteorological events rushed everyone indoors and turned The Weather Channel into a most-watched thriller. Mom and Bud were circling the wagons in the Oval in response to a yet-another Senate stand-off, Nana Barrish was visiting a friend in Vegas away from all shitstorms and snowstorms. After wandering around the hysterically busy and equally impersonal halls of the White House at midnight, TJ had a sudden craving for some human connection. 'Twas the season, after all.

This had to be why he was now sitting at a hand-carved bar at Town Danceboutique, twirling designer water in his glass, and looking to pick up the most attractive warm body because it was the only way TJ knew how to be close to someone outside of support group meetings. He might have traded in cocaine and booze for smokes and soda, but sex was the last rush left and he treasured the vivid, clumsy flow of fucking sober.

He had his eye on a guy, a good dancer and stacked, and he was just waiting for the song to end because there was no way TJ was coming on to someone to a last year's remix.

Suddenly, there was a commotion when many necks turned in the same direction at once, like sunflowers towards the sun.

A vision was coming down the light-studded wide staircase. A plain white tee, grandpa khakis, leather jacket. Clear blue eyes and shoulders strong enough to hold another man's weight. Steve fucking Rogers was in the house.

TJ put his glass down thoughtfully.

Had Steve come out of the closet in the last months and Doug hid all the papers, blocked websites, and ordered the assassination of all happy bearers of this tremendous news - to keep it from TJ? It wouldn't have been past Dougie to use the government machinery for the greater good of protecting the shards of family's reputation, but Nana, Nana wouldn't do this to TJ.

Steve stopped like a deer in the headlights and took a somewhat startled measure of the place as he was caught in the crosshairs of spotlights - and noticed TJ with what looked like relief. He waved and began to make his way through the crowd. Which was parting for him like waves.

TJ's jaw was slowly dropping. Had Steve changed his mind and come to take TJ up on his proposal? Dreams did come true sometimes, even if this one seemed way, way too good to be true, but TJ could be a believer. In any case, he was so going to make Steve Rogers beg for it.

His heart was wild in his chest and his brain was mush, but TJ had a good instinct to sprawl with a whole lotta invitation on the bar stool.

"We have to get you out of here," was the first thing that came out of Steve's mouth.

TJ was not going to argue with that because 'we' meant Steve was coming along.

"Took you long enough," he smiled with more enthusiasm than it was cool to show. "Your place? Mine is too full of the Secret Service and breakable antiques."

There was something going on with Steve's face, the same intense emotion as before, condensed into one second of weakness, and loss, and longing. Finally, he blinked with those crazy eyelashes and looked like his mind had caught only part of what TJ was saying. "You can't go back home or anywhere you usually go. We have intel that Dr. Pointless plans to kidnap one of Ms. Barrish's sons tonight."

Was the universe mocking him?! TJ wanted to bang his head against something hard that wasn't Steve Rogers' sculpted chest. They simply had to stop meeting like this.

"What about Dougie?" At the thought, he was instantly awash with worry, even though he had never heard of Dr. Pointless and if this wasn't Steve Rogers, TJ would have called a practical joke and hidden cameras. "Let's go get him and Anne first. They're having their one monthly date night at JoJo's."

"He is already safe with the other team," Steve said sheepishly. "It took me a while to find you."

The thought of Captain America looking all around the town and Hill for TJ, mentioning TJ's name to other people and stirring up juicy gossip, made this a little more bearable.

"Fine," said TJ. "Take me wherever you want." And he didn't even mean it as a double entendre.

Still, to the cameras born and bred, he managed a playful wink and a royal wave into the crowd as he was riding off into the snowstorm with an absolute fucking dreamboat.

 

 

~~~

 

The car accident was officially the deer's fault, TJ finally decided.

He really wanted to blame it on the goddamn blizzard, and on him being the goddamn First Son, and on the goddamn bad guys who ruined a perfectly fine night out as usual, and most of all, on the goddamn Steve. Especially on Steve who had been patient and collected while driving TJ to what he assumed must be a safe house. Steve had historically shown no obvious faults to the point that, in comparison, TJ's entire existence seemed like an exercise in fucking up. After the incident in the men's bathroom, great expectations left on the club floor, and now a few sulky hours of driving on the dark snowy roads, TJ had a lot of bottled-up feelings about Steve and they needed to come out.

It didn't matter that, having been the first to notice a skittish animal silhouette in the middle of the road, TJ was the one who started shouting and grabbing the wheel. This made Steve lose control of the car - between avoiding the deer and getting startled by TJ who suddenly came to life after a long bout of silent treatment, provoked by Steve throwing away TJ's phone for 'security reasons'. TJ was so angry that he was dying to kick - or kiss - Steve, but he damn well knew that he would fail on both accounts.

It was best for everyone involved if TJ could blame the deer. Especially considering that the deer fled unscathed, on its merry way to have a grand time doing whatever a lone deer did in the middle of a cold night in the wilderness of Western Maryland.

He was thinking all that as Steve was dragging him from the suddenly upside-down world and then into the headlights of their overturned SUV. Steve was looking genuinely concerned and he was patting TJ down, asking him if he was okay, while TJ just stood there, unsteady on his feet from the shock and the jostling. There were no lights anywhere, the snow was blowing in earnest, and it looked like Steve, the brainiac, took the scenic route on purpose to avoid the bad guys. The bottom line: help wasn't coming.

"This is so stupid," yelled TJ into the howling wind. "My whole life is stupid."

Steve took his face into his hands and shouted, enunciating every word quite unnecessarily, "Are you alright?"

"No," yelled back TJ. "I am never alright. It's my job to fuck up."

Steve was visibly taken aback, like he had something to say to that, but instead, he waved his hand, "I saw a cabin, this way. About half a click back. Can you walk?"

"You are so not carrying me," said TJ and set off in his nice city fuck-me leather boots over the snow drifts.

The cabin could have been realtor speak for a shack in the woods. The only thing it had going for it was that the wind and the snow weren't getting in. The only thing in it was a pile of drab blankets that looked like a well-loved raccoon's nest.

Steve checked out all corners for, TJ didn't even know, jack-in-the-box villains or skeletons of stranded travelers or hidden passages to Narnia. "Gotta spend the night here," he confirmed what TJ already knew. "Tomorrow, we'll go back to that diner we passed way back."

TJ collapsed right where he stood and pulled the blankets on top of himself. It was like being trapped in a hut inside a snowglobe world. He'd walked off the simmering anger at his fate and at Steve's inadvertent hand in it, but he was freezing, and he missed the city, and he was craving a double bourbon, neat; but all he had was Steve. Steve who just stood there, at ease.

"Do you even get cold?" TJ asked up from the floor.

"I feel it," Steve had good manners to sound apologetic and so TJ resisted sneering at this acknowledgment of vast physical superiority. "The heat, too. It just doesn't affect me like it does you."

"Sit down, will you?" said TJ. "Let's pretend we're okay."

Steve sat next to him, looking grateful. "I'm sorry." He glanced sideways. "For wrecking the car. And for the other time. I think we got off on the wrong foot."

TJ wasn't sure what it meant, so he laughed, a short huff of incredulity and frozen breath. "I don't think you've seen my best side either." He thought a little and gallantly offered Steve half of his chewed-up blankets. "We can start over. I'm Thomas Hammond, but everyone calls me TJ. I'm the gay one in the White House, a recovering addict, and a serial non-serious person. Your turn."

"Steve," said Steve. "Rogers. I'm actually 94 years old. I hated driving that car. Too many bells and whistles."

Now it felt like a real conversation and TJ perked up.

"The bad news is that I smashed my phone in the crash. The good news is that now even the bad guys wouldn't be able to find us," Steve volunteered next, in an unusual explosion of wit and words.

"They might not be looking. Dougie is the more important one anyway," said TJ. "All I do for the country is provide entertainment. Sometimes, it's for foreign dignitaries. Sometimes, I fuck up and headline. It's a good distraction from whatever economic or international crisis we're in."

"You can't be all that bad." Steve shrugged. Like he knew anything. "You play well. It was good of you to do to that charity concert for gay kids."

TJ stared openly for a moment. A couple of weeks ago, he had herded some celebrities into a charity concert and donated the proceeds to jazz up the It Gets Better website. Still, he had no idea how Steve could know this much less mediatized fact of TJ's happening biography. "Have you Googled me?" he blurted out.

Instead of a response, Steve looked back, with those same haunted eyes as on the previous occasions, only now something else was mixed in with that. Like Steve had finally learned how to look at TJ instead of right through him, into something painful and far away.

"Who do I look like?' asked TJ bluntly.

"My best friend," said Steve after a long moment when only wind howled outside. "He died in the war."

Well, this explained everything. TJ seriously had the worst luck ever when it came to crushing on guys. If it wasn't a wife, then it was a dead friend. That's what Nana had always said: lucky in cards, unlucky in love, you little shit. Trouble was, TJ was also crap at poker.

"What was he like?"

"He had my back before I was - changed, and after. Till the end of the line, he said. He always took care of me. Hard to find friends like that when you wake up in another century. Relationships move at a different speed."

Suddenly, TJ really wanted to know how to take time - and take care of people. And of things. And especially of Steve, because it sounded like even the bulletproof, competent, super-person Steve could use someone like that at his side. Not that TJ had a good track record of taking care of anything. Even plants died on his watch. Come to think of it, he didn't even think he had close friends, only family and people on the family books. They weren't bad, but he chose none of them. He certainly knew more people than most, but they all moved fast past each other until sometimes they'd collide in bed and then keep on moving on.

Suddenly, it seemed like TJ had a lot of catching up to do. If the cold didn't kill him first. By now, he couldn't stop shivering.

"Now that I know you, you're really not like him, though," Steve was finishing up. "Not in a bad way. You're just you. You keep saying that you're messing up but that's not what I've seen. You're good to your gran, your brother, those kids. You just haven't found yourself yet. Gotta keep looking."

TJ didn't want Steve to stop talking. Ever. But the chill was getting to him and his shivers turned to shudders.

"You're freezing," suddenly realized Steve, clapping TJ on the back and inadvertently making him slide forward half a foot on the floor. "And you need sleep. Get your strength back for the walk tomorrow morning."

He lifted his blankets and explained, "Lay down and scoot over. Nothing's like body heat."

This wasn't at all how TJ had imagined sleeping with Steve, but that night, it couldn't have been better. Steve's warmth seeped protectively through TJ's clothes, and his arm was a loose, pleasant weight across the chest. Even with all that muscle, nothing about his spooning body and tucked-in knees felt like that of a super soldier, and all of it was solid and real - he even snored softly in his sleep. Flesh, blood, and bone, Nana Barrish was never wrong about those three things.

In the morning, all of TJ's stiff limbs ached and complained, but they were alive and the sun was out in all its blinding winter glory. Neither the weather nor the bad guys got to them.

"I feel like I'm 94 years old myself," groaned TJ, slipping clumsily all over the winter wonderland that the road had become in the aftermath of the storm. Steve was following him closely, probably on the lookout for the bad guys and ready to fight them with some improvised weaponry. Like really mean snowballs. "Keep up, old man," TJ urged him on. "I can smell the bacon from here."

It was the best of the greasy breakfasts, a thousand calories a bite. The diner looked like it had never moved on from the sixties, and TJ knew that it was way after Steve's time, but the all-around presence of a well-lived past was comforting, spreading cheer and loosening their tongues.

Halfway through his chicken-fried steak, TJ realized that Steve wasn't getting most of his childhood references, so he poked around his jacket and produced a black pocket journal. He'd been supposed to write down his small successes on the road of recovery, but putting such things to paper seemed so Barrish to someone who was largely Hammond. He took a pencil from the waitress and scribbled down 'The Simpsons,' then added 'Star Wars', 'Star Trek', and 'The Shining' for no other reason is that many good things began with an S.

"Keep it." He moved it across the table to Steve, past the fast disappearing biscuits and gravy. "And report back."

Steve grinned, grabbed the pencil and started sketching the diner's interior on the clean pages. It was coming out surprisingly well. In a companionable silence of two people comatose from food and not watching the clock, TJ was falling in love a hundred different times in a hundred different ways with Steve's beautifully moving hands and those heart-stopping eyelashes. His better mornings might have been spent with guys he hadn't slept with.

Eventually, Steve warmed up enough to thaw out his professional conscience and went to use the payphone (of course, this place would have an old-fashioned payphone - and a banged-up jukebox), and TJ got the check.

"The coffee is free for you lovebirds," said the waitress, reaching for the plates and baring a flower power tattoo on her arm. Flattered, TJ flashed her a neither-confirm-nor-deny grin. He selected Magic Man on the jukebox and sat, squinting happily into the sun and the novel idea of being together with someone at breakfasts, until Steve slid back into his seat.

"The team will be here soon," Steve reported with his usual competence. "Your brother and his wife are in the safe house. I hear he also gave them a hard time about his cellphone. I really don't understand why your family wants to be reached all the time."

"Not all the time," TJ said bitterly. "I guess it was too much to hope for that the stupid payphone was broken."

Steve's eyes narrowed and got this very intense shade of honest blue and TJ suddenly grew aware of the electric attraction thick in the air between them, and that it'd been building up since he couldn't even tell when. Steve was clearly going to say something earth-shaking, and TJ shivered with the prickly static of anticipation on his skin, and--

Sure enough, spiking the powdery snow into the crystal blue sky, a black helicopter was landing in the parking lot.

The cavalry had arrived and ruined TJ's love life as usual.

 

 

~~~

 

Life went on, without any superheroes.

TJ landed a gig helping to arrange Star Wars music for a National Symphony Orchestra's Pops series. The orchestra wanted to get hip and drum up the capital's nostalgia for the Star Wars VII release. If anyone thought TJ's involvement shouted nepotism, they didn't think it to his face and he was dead set on making sure he would be trying twice as hard as someone who wasn't cursed with two Presidents of the United States of America as parents.

This meant that he was getting up early, dressing classy, and going to the Kennedy Center from eight to five like clockwork on weekdays and once on a weekend. It was fun to take the musical notes apart, to let them spread their wings through different instruments, and then to herd them gently back into the recognizable, dun dun dun dun-DA-dun dun-DA-dun melodies that tasted of teenage fantasy and movie popcorn. The bones of those pieces were great, but fleshing them out with a 100-musician orchestra was bringing them out of this world and into the stratosphere.

If TJ wasn't getting paid for this, he would have worked for free, grateful for an opportunity. His dad was proud, said in an interview that his eldest was finally leaving a mark.

Whenever he was having a composer's block, TJ would lay his head back on a red seat of the empty concert hall and get lost in the Milky Way cluster of the overhead lights, looking like a spaceship landing.

He wondered if Steve Rogers had already watched Star Wars and if he'd liked the original trilogy best.

 

 

~~~

 

Dr. Pointless made an attempt on President Barrish's life which coincided with an early morning tour of the White House. As S.H.I.E.L.D. had been aware of this possibility, they always had an Avenger in town.

Apparently, TJ wasn't in the right circle of trust when it came to potential threats to his mother or to the Avengers' whereabouts, because when all the screaming and the shooting and what sounded like the wall-breaking started, he was still lying in bed and debating between allegro and allegretto. And by how either would have made a great Starbucks size.

When he ran out into this minor apocalypse, he found out that a) Mom was 300% safe, b) only because Captain America literally held up a collapsing wall over her head, and c) it was Steve on a stretcher, being carried out because a megaton wall was nothing to him, but he wasn't bulletproof after all.

Without a second's thought, TJ ran after, still barefoot and skidding on the wet slush over the polished wood floors. From the rubble, he picked up and almost dropped Captain America's shield, its paint freshly scratched up. Somebody had to be there for Steve. TJ knew firsthand that a familiar face meant the world when one woke up in a hospital ward.

He jumped into the ambulance and burly paramedics turned around with a mute question. "President Barrish sent me," he lied breathlessly, craning his neck to see how Steve was doing, but all he could see was the military blue of the costume, damp splotches of red, and some skin. "I'm her son. She wants me to report back. For personal touch." They were already busy with Steve, ignoring TJ's presence and he made himself small, feeling all too conspicuous in his vintage rock tour t-shirt and worn sweatpants in a crisp white-and-chrome universe.

He didn't remember any of his own two trips in an ambulance as a patient. Unresponsive, they had told him later. Steve was moving and making sounds, so TJ supposed this was good news. He wished he could catch the fingers of Steve's dangling hand, but the van was lurching in the peak hour morning traffic and he knew better than to be a civilian in the way of professionals.

In the hospital, a kind soul gave him ridiculous pink hospital slippers; TJ paced in the corridor for a few hours and smoked a few outside while awkwardly holding the heavy shield under his arm, and then they let him into Steve's room.

Steve was asleep. People kept coming and going, in medical gear and in military uniforms, and some vaguely recognizable Avengers passed by. TJ kept scowling at all of them because they kept breathing on Steve and making noise with their feet and their phones. What he remembered from his hospital stays was the all-encompassing feeling of having fucked up, so TJ couldn't make himself entirely comfortable no matter how he tried. Luckily, no-one spoke to him or questioned his role here, and he assumed this invisible force field was created by his powerful desire not to fuck this one up as well.

By the end of the day, the flow of visitors ebbed, then stopped. TJ propped the shield in the corner, pulled up a chair to Steve's bedside, and fully prepared to wait all night, so Steve would instantly know that someone was here to take care of him. None of these hired nurses or people on S.H.I.E.L.D. books. Someone with a personal touch.

Of course, sometime between the half-darkness of a big city and the crack of dawn, TJ slumped and passed out, worn out by the events of the day.

He woke up to Steve's voice softly calling, "Tommy?" TJ wasn't quite sure he wasn't dreaming this, but the room was grey with morning and that was indeed his name.

"Yup," said TJ, straightening himself with a shake of his head and hoping he hadn't been drooling unattractively. "Need anything? I can bring it to you. Or call a hot nurse in one of these retro uniforms that you must like. We can probably find one in a Halloween costume store."

Steve made a sound which started like a laugh and turned into a groan. "I thought I was dreaming again. But that's definitely you."

TJ didn't have an answer to that, so he started organizing the hanging IV tubes by size and color. There were a lot of drugs in the room, and he had seen them, easily there for the taking, but he didn't care about any kind of bullshit right now. "Sleep," he said. "The doctor said rest is the best medicine for your wacky body chemistry."

Obediently, Steve fell asleep until midday.

Next time he was awake, TJ actually let the hospital staff know and this time he was kicked out to make space for all the rubbernecking doctors trying to fit into Steve's room. Someone named Natasha offered TJ a ride home and he took it, and she was great to be silent with.

When TJ returned to the hospital actually wearing shoes this time, Steve was bantering with the nurses, both hot and okay-looking. A healthier glow was smudging his cheekbones, and it was like the sun shone on everything, except that outside, it was the most disgusting part of neither winter nor spring. Everyone trickled out of the room, and TJ got a lot of back pats and hellos, probably earned by his recent crazed vigil. This wasn't like one of his own hospital stays at all.

"You're back," said Steve with a lot more enthusiasm than TJ was used to get from his hopeless crushes - and passed a hand through his blond bedhead hair, back and forth. "I was thinking. Actually, since awhile. Could I take you out when this is over? For a dinner. It doesn't have to be a date."

"But it can be?" asked TJ when he remembered how to speak. His heart was jumping out of his chest so violently that he was glad he wasn't the one hooked up to the monitors. They'd have had to sedate him.

"Only if you want." Steve had this maddening habit to be a gentleman.

"I think we've been extra clear on what I want," said TJ. "What do you want? Out with it. You're not that loopy."

"I want to go somewhere with you which is not a bathroom stall or a shack in the woods, and I don't want anything to explode or break down." Apparently, Steve was all or nothing kind of guy with words. "Starting with a dinner and then getting lucky would be great."

"You're funny," said TJ, settling himself into a chair and putting his feet up on another. "No-one knows that. And yes, it's still called a date."

Steve was still staring at him like one big human question mark, and TJ remembered that he'd forgotten to accept or decline. "We'll see how it goes. Ever heard of a three-date rule? I might not put out on the first."

His grin could light up the entire Eastern seaboard.

 

 

~~~

 

Nothing about the first time with Steve went as expected.

Whenever Steve wasn't on a mission, they would make it a habit to go on a dinner (and a movie) Friday night date and talk. About everything. About Steve who didn't care for labels but believed in attraction. About TJ who explained how recovery was a journey and not a destination. Sometimes, about how two most loved women in their lives were called Margaret and wore their lipstick as a superhero cape. Never about Sean because Steve made sounds he would make a point of not saving one Ohio representative in case of a Congressional rescue job. Sometimes, about Bucky and how TJ wasn't a stand-in.

But in all this time, it never came up where the hell Steve learned to be so damn good at the goddamn sex.

TJ wasn't expecting the way Steve would crowd him against the door the moment after it closed, and the dirty way Steve knew how to slide his strong thigh between TJ's legs. Considering how Steve was otherwise the poster boy for good manners, TJ would have expected to at least make it to the bed.

Not that anyone in TJ's position - too hot in his skin, whole body tight and eager for hours - would care. TJ was down with doing it standing up, right there, the door handle digging in the small of his back.

It was just that he wasn't expecting to feel so fucking turned on by the slow, excruciating way Steve was kissing, sucking at his neck. He wasn't expecting Steve's hands finding their way in this intimate warm space under his jacket, and yanking at the thin cotton of the t-shirt, getting to skin. And he wasn't expecting to start obscenely half-riding along Steve's pressing, hard thigh and threatening Steve with bodily harm if he was even thinking of moving this anywhere more comfortable.

This was where Steve fell on his knees in front of him, and looked up with those blue eyes, and TJ was failing to grab onto the smooth, vertical surface of the door because damn.

"Yes, there was sex in the dark ages before you were born," informed Steve, the fucker.

"We didn't tweet about it." He popped the button of TJ's jeans.

"Or used apps to find a date." Smug fingers on the zipper. "Some of us sent nude selfies though. By snail mail."

This was where TJ's knees buckled because Steve took him out, hard and eager; and shit it definitely looked like Steve knew what he was doing.

The way Steve's sooty eyelashes would flutter when he was sucking him down, wet and strong and oh dear god. And the way Steve's hands would span and dig into the back of TJ's trembling thighs. And then, TJ wasn't expecting how soon the world would explode, black out, and pretty much end.

For Steve's turn, TJ did take him to bed, all nice and slow.

Mostly because he thought that Steve wasn't expecting this from him.

The smooth talk was gone all out of Steve, oddly self-conscious in his own nakedness. Knees fallen apart, eyelashes fanning out against his cheeks, Steve was somehow looking very doubtful about why anyone would want his unfairly hot body and his beautiful jutting dick. TJ knew better than start asking about why, now. In any case, awkward Steve was one of the best Steves, along with decisive Steve and Steve vs. the 21st century.

Already knowing how gently to tread, TJ put a hand on Steve's hard, shivering lower belly and he was struck by the softness of the skin next to the rough cusp of hair. He said, dipping his head low, "I've got you."

It was the wettest, slowest blowjob ever as TJ made it his mission to wring Steve out. He wanted to remember: the sound of hitching breath, those white-knuckled fists against the sheets - and soon enough, wordless begging.

Steve had the hottest dick, and TJ wanted to be fucked by it, by all of its fucking long and slow inches, and he wanted to fuck Steve and see what made him fall apart, and it was extremely annoying that this wasn't going to happen tonight and even more annoying that TJ wouldn't have it any other way. He was loving the wait, the slow burn of the build-up, the peeling of the layers.

"What's my name?" asked TJ breathlessly at some point, remembering his resemblance to the old wartime friend and all. He never said he didn't have trust issues.

"Tommy," moaned Steve, throwing his head backwards. "Tommy, Tommy, Tommy."

And TJ died a little at that, with every time.

When Steve came, he practically threw TJ off the bed, crazy with it, finally loud. It was like something unlocked in him, slid back into place - and TJ drank it all in, every last sound.

"Steve," said TJ in a few hours, watching the dawn break instead of even trying to sleep. "I gotta ask. Why me?"

"I was confused, for so long. I didn't want this. Afraid to get close to anyone. Afraid something in me didn't get thawed out right," Steve settled behind, putting his arms around and tugging TJ into the sex-warm nook of his body with tenderness that was melting TJ's bones. "And you came, and you were all out there. Not afraid of getting hurt. Don't know what I expected, I certainly didn't expect you."

He shifted and TJ could hear him blush, "And- why me?"

"Somebody's gotta watch after your hot ass as you're running around saving the world," said TJ. "You don't even know how to program a DVR and you think Grindr is a kitchen appliance. I thought I'd volunteer."

Steve turned TJ's face around, into a kiss. Softly, but without hesitation; taking his time, like kissing TJ's mouth was the only thing Steve was planning to do for the rest of the day. For the rest of all days. Until the line between kissing and fucking would become blurry and unimportant, lost in the sweet, wet crush of lips and tongues. Steve had been like that since their first date; and the way Steve's breath would catch just before their mouths would touch, it seemed like it was the first time to him, every time.

Tomorrow was definitely going to be a very different day.

 

 

~~~

 

"Have I packed my leather pants? Both pairs?" asked TJ as Steve was throwing two enormous duffels in the trunk of an old Mustang. "I can't believe you made me fit my entire life in one bag. And in half of yours."

Even on this peaceful and shaded Logan Circle street, another car was already impatiently hovering for their parking spot. On top of the townhouse stairs, Nana was winning an uneven battle with an old lock as temperamental as herself.

"Are you going to throw wild themed parties at my place while I'm gone?" TJ asked her. "Please do. Keep the flag flying."

"Someone's got to keep your mother on her toes now that you've gone and got yourself settled down," she said with a dismissive shrug of the kind she didn't mean. "Not that I mind monopolizing the gossip rags, sweetie."

Steve came up to offer her an arm and really, he had no business exchanging buddy-buddy looks with TJ's own grandmother while helping her, her kitten heels, and her tiny handbag (which probably only held a flask of bourbon and makeup) down the stairs.

On the curb, Nana gave Steve one of these good hugs, reserved only for family and those who did well by family. True to form, she winked at TJ over Steve's broad shoulder and gave him two eloquent thumbs-up before letting go. TJ approved: the more people grope-hugged the masterpiece that was Steve Rogers' muscular body the better it was for the general karma flow in the universe.

"Drive safe. TJ, remember to call your parents, but not too often. They need to get used to the fact that you've left the nest for good." She ran her fingers down the racing stripes of the car. "Steve, remember to send a postcard to Doug. That boy doesn't need much to make him happy. Unlike TJ here."

Steve blushed because no matter how many times he had been invited to the Barrish-Hammond family gatherings, he invariably felt awkward in the presence of Doug's barely disguised glee at partying it up with Captain America.

He ruffled TJ's dark hair, introducing even more disorder into its artful mayhem. "Tommy's alright when he forgets he needs to keep up with his punk reputation." TJ laughed, briefly leaning his cheek into Steve's warm, familiar hand. And Steve touched his mouth, his lips; like he couldn't help himself.

Suddenly, Nana began to blink too fast. "Kids, kids," she muttered, turned on her heels without a goodbye and made a proud, flowy exit down the the street, looking every inch like royalty in exile.

"Once a showgirl, always a showgirl. And we're off on Steve and TJ's excellent adventure." TJ got in and started to fiddle with the car radio which was blissfully modern unlike the rest of the car which Steve wanted free of electronic clutter.

"I know that reference," said Steve, soon confidently sliding the Mustang into the downtown traffic. "You made me watch it the other time when I was in New York and you wanted to have a Skype all-nighter."

TJ's hand came to rest on Steve's strong thigh, fingers soaking in the rough heat of denim. "Is it the only thing you remember from our Skype sessions?"

"No," said Steve. "I also remember you falling asleep twice, falling off the bed, and pretending it didn't happen."

Smacking Steve's leg made a great sound, so TJ did it twice. Then he kicked back, steepled his fingers, and began to plot revenge. Good thing this was a long drive, and hopefully free of any deer encounters.

They were going down south, way south. What happened was that a few months into their slow dating thing with Steve, TJ realized that while Steve was saving the world on a weekly basis, he had too much free time and idle thought. He threw himself with all he had, TJ-style, into getting his master's in Music Education, and even came up with a project to research and record bluegrass bands for the American Folklife Center. Days flew by now, each one completely different.

Steve volunteered only as a driver on this adventure, but TJ was hoping Steve's delicate pencil drawings would help to make this roadtrip into a book one day. More people needed to know that Steve's hands could do other things than punching tanks unconscious.

Soon, they were coming up a highway ramp. TJ glanced at Steve's sunlit profile, opened a real printed map to fulfil his duties as co-pilot, and sincerely hoped that the world wouldn't need saved this summer.