sparsenicjade
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1. Huge thanks to Pouncer for the beta, which made the story stronger and more well-put together in every way, all remaining mistakes are mine and only mine.

2. Another big thanks to the mods of WIP Big Bang, without whom this definitely would still be languishing.

3. The art is by Cassandra S. Fisher, who volunteered early for this fic, something that made me really happy. The link to it will be up shortly, please go let her know how lovely it is.

4. This is being used for my "torture" square on my hc_bingo card. From over a year ago. Shush. And hence, for luuv2shop.

***


Doug's still in the office at 11:42 on a Saturday night when all hell breaks loose. It's a familiar type of hell and a similar type of breaking as he's become used to over the course of his life, so it's not until Sondra, his detail, sits him down and says, "Doug, Kelly's dead and TJ's missing," that Doug feels the world tilt off its axis.

He's pretty sure he says, "What?"

Kelly Tiller, a 6'7" hulk of a man, has been TJ's detail for the three years since Mom decided to run. He's also been with TJ since he finally got and stayed clean. Kelly, even to Doug, who's mostly pragmatic about these things, had seemed as invincible as he was gentle with TJ, encouraging with him. So, "What?"

Sondra, her dark brown eyes calm, says, "Doug, hey, Doug, I need you to breathe."

Doug's breathing. Everyone breathes. It's a natural human process and—and there are black spots around the edge of his vision, so maybe he's not breathing. He asks, "Who has him? Who has Tommy?"

Sondra says, "We don't know, Doug. But we're going to find him. He's the president's son. We're going to find him, and then we're going to napalm anyone who dared lay a hand on him."

Doug blinks, and some of the black recedes. "I don't think that's legal."

Sondra's smile isn't happy, but it's full of teeth and vengeance. She tells him, "There are some things it's best the Chief of Staff not know."

*


TJ wakes to the smell of mildew and blood and the feeling of his stomach wrapping itself into a knot. He just manages to get to his hands and knees before he vomits, harsh and hard, until absolutely nothing is coming up. When he can finally stop he's barely able to crawl far away enough to collapse so he's not lying in a pile of his own sick.

Not, admittedly, that it would be the first time, but TJ has been clean for years, almost three now, and he knows he didn't fall off that wagon. He's having trouble remembering exactly what did happen that he's naked and freezing and sick in a…cell? He has no idea where he is. It's too dark to really be certain of anything aside from the fact that the floor he's on is cement.

He struggles to get to his feet, but in the end carefully crawls his way around the perimeter. There's a door: no amount of his weak struggles to get it open are successful, though. In the end he gives up, curling back into a ball.

Trouble remembering or not, he knows he didn't go on a bender last night. Last night? Tonight? Anyway, he knows.

His voice shakes as he asks, "Kelly?"

There's no answer except a vague emptiness to the sound of his question. He's not really expecting one, but it's disappointing nonetheless. Okay, so. He's alone and possibly has a concussion, if the combination of how badly his head hurts and the remaining queasiness are any indication. He's not really an expert on concussions, but it seems like a reasonable possibility.

It takes longer than TJ is comfortable with, but he forces himself into a sitting position so he can curl into a ball and have as little skin as possible touching the floor. It's so cold. He doesn't remember it being this cold when he left the house this morning. Or the—the concert. He'd been at a concert, Nana had gone with him. He really fucking hopes the fact that Nana doesn't seem to be here with him means she's not in some other cell, alone and scared. Then again, Nana would probably make whoever's holding them scared. TJ sometimes thinks all the brass in the family stayed with the female side.

What had he been thinking about? Oh. Cold, right. It's cold. He'd had a jacket on at the concert, definitely, but not, no, it hadn't been this cold. He tries to remember getting in the car after the concert, but there's time missing. He can't even recall if he stayed for the end of the concert or not.

He remembers before the concert, remembers that he'd dropped her off before parking on a side street. Maybe he'd gone to get the car. Maybe she hadn't been with him.

He's so tired. He feels like he could fall asleep even with the cold and the pain in his head. He has a vague sense it's not a good idea. Something about head injuries and—and something.

Working to keep himself awake, he does his best to remember the piece the visiting group had played first at the concert hall. Telemann? Yes, Telemann. One of the trios. After longer than he's comfortable with, he gets his mind to cooperate, can start to recall the separate notes, various pitches, the parts that make the whole. He struggles to keep himself focused on those bits.

He can't remember the second piece they played, no matter how hard he tries. Eventually, the headache causes him to dry-heave again, so he stops attempting to force it. He wants a meeting more than he's ever wanted one in his life, and there's not even anything around to tempt him. The meetings calm him, give him the sense that even if he can't always believe in G-d, G-d might always believe in him.

He could use that right now.

Silently, he reminds himself that he's the son of President Elaine Barrish. If he's as lost as he thinks he is, someone will be looking for him, probably a lot of someones. He'll be fine.

*


The first time they come for TJ, they shine a light that makes him sick all over again. He doesn't bring anything up, of course, but that just means it hurts worse.

They don't blindfold him, they let him see them, which, raised on a healthy diet of American television and movies as he was, scares the everloving shit out of him. There're three of them, at least that first time. There's an older couple: the woman has a severe widow's peak in her cable-gray, curly hair and dark blue eyes that burn cold. She's small, no more than five feet at best.

The older man has a weathered face, but his hair is still a shock of dark brown, his eyes matching, with that same fire-cold tenor. The third man is nondescript: average height, average features, average everything. The only defining feature he has is a birthmark on his left temple, but even that is light, as if it knows it is ruining his overall look.

The woman is holding a smart phone, and Non-Descript pulls TJ to his knees by his hair. He bites his lip and doesn't cry out the way he wants to. TJ doesn't think he's particularly tough, but he's damn good at being contrary. Like hell is he going to let these people just have their way.

He tries to get the man's hand out of his hair, but the man casually snaps TJ's left pinkie out of place. TJ does scream at that.

"Cooperate," the older man says, "and this will be easier."

"What—" TJ begins. "What are you—what do you want?"

The woman's voice crawls up TJ's spine like a spider. "To cleanse our nation."

*


The video is most likely posted at around prime time on the east coast, and probably starts trending around midnight, but Doug finds out about it at roughly 4:00 a.m. EST. He's awake, trying to work, since he can't sleep. Anne's with him, although she is sleeping with her head down on the kitchen table, and he's thought more than once that he should take her to bed.

Susan calls him about it. He asks, "Do you—what the hell are you doing up?"

She says, "Doug. There's a video. It's trending all over social media, and—your secret service guys need to watch, but I—I don't want you to. Not you or your mom. Jesus, not even your dad.""

Doug's stomach twists. Susan, for the most part, doesn't give two shits about Dad, so whatever this is, it isn't good. "Susan—"

"No. Everyone in this fucking country can see this, but not you guys. You let your secret service guys and whoever needs to watch it and get clues from it, but not—not you and your mom."

"Susan. What the hell?"

"They're hurting TJ," she says, and her voice sounds small. "Just. Please. Don't watch."

"I'll…I'll make sure Mom doesn't see."

It's the best he can give her. For himself, he needs to see. For all the times he's been pissed at Tommy, wanted him to grow the fuck up, get his act together, there's never been a time when Tommy was hurting when Doug couldn't get to him, couldn't at least see that he was still there, broken and brittle, but there.

He goes in the living room, away from Anne, and turns the sound down on his computer. Susan's right: it's easy to find. It's trending under a number of things, but at the top of the list are #sickovid and #tjtortureporn. Doug loses time for a few minutes and only knows because the video has run without him seeing it. He presses the play button again.

He can't focus on the diatribe that precedes the action, too focused on TJ, the only visible person on the camera. He looks terrible. There's matted blood in his hair and he's a shade of off-white that makes Doug think of curdled milk. His eyes don't seem to be tracking all that well. He's naked and cuddling one hand to his chest.

And that's before they try and "burn the sins from his flesh."

*


Shaking hurts, it hurts a lot. TJ can't stop. It's cold in this…basement? Cellar? Dungeon? He picks that last one as his descriptor. It makes the fact that he's scared and hungry and in pain a little more heroic.

He wants a drink. Let's be honest—he wants a fucking bottle. More than that, though—and he's as surprised as anyone that there can be a more than that—he wants Dougie and Mom and Nana. Fuck, Nana has to be all right. They wanted him, that's clear. Hopefully they left her alone.

He wants Kelly. He'd even take his dad, right about now. He wants to not be alone.

The burns, the worst of them, are on his chest. He can't look at them. Blistering and sticky, they're going to scar if he makes it out of here. The pain they cause is intense and immediate at every breath he takes, every time he so much as shifts an inch.

Lying down will expose more of his bare skin to the concrete, but he knows he's going to have to sooner or later. Even with the pain, exhaustion is starting to win out. Things are blurry both in his thought patterns and his vision. He still isn't sure he doesn't have a concussion, has no idea how long it's been, if it's safe for him to fall asleep.

The scariest part is, he can't give them what they want. He can't be anything but what he is. Fuck, if he could have liked girls and only girls, he would have done that right off, skipped the whole forcible outing and the media circus that followed. They can burn him to a cinder, but his sex drive is still going to rev mostly for the male half of the species.

And whatever else, TJ is no MacGuyver or ninja or whatever. Unless his captors do something really stupid, he's not getting out of here on his own.

TJ has a complicated relationship with higher powers. AA requires that he accept there is one or at least something along those lines, but for the most part, his utter faith in music, its meticulous organization, and ability to make him feel better has stood in for that belief. The people who are holding him, they obviously believe in some version of a deity TJ can't fathom. He wants to know that if there is a G-d, It's not on their side.

Quietly, he murmurs. "If you're a thing, and you're…at all about love and all that stuff people talk about, I need you to prove it. I need you to get me out of this."

He's not exactly surprised that the answer is the silence and dark of his dungeon. He hunches in, trying to conserve body warmth without touching the blazing, aching parts of his chest. His teeth chatter as he adds, "Or, you know, just some unseasonably warm days. That'd be fine, too."

*


The next video has them trying to "wash the sin" from TJ. They go about it with a high-powered hose and TJ screams, he pleads. They do not stop.

Doug swallows on every time he's wished TJ would go away, would stop being the center of attention for just one moment. He swallows on it, and it all comes back up.

*


TJ's so cold. The water, the water was frigid and it just kept coming, cold and sharp and now he can't stop shivering. He needs to, he needs to because…because they haven’t fed him. They haven't fed him and shivering takes energy.

He just wants to sleep. Every molecule in his body is screaming for rest, but the burns on his chest are throbbing, and he's shaking too hard to actually fall asleep. His head hurts. It hurts more than he can stand, too much to concentrate, which might be a good thing. He thinks they want something from him, something he doesn't want to give them.

He's so, so cold.

*


When they finally feed TJ, it's dog food, the wet kind. It smells rank and TJ refuses, so they hold him down—he can't put up much of a fight anymore—and push it down his throat. He tries to keep it down, because he's afraid of what they'll do if he fails. He tries, but the taste in his mouth is too much.

They push his face in it, the older man reciting biblical passages and calling him an abomination. It's nothing TJ hasn't heard before, but it's different, his face being smeared in his own sick, the words being shouted down at him, his head pounding in time with his heart, too fast and too loud.

They bring the hose back. They call him filth and swine and he wants to yell that they've made him dirty, them, it's not his fault, but the water hurts too much. All he can do is scream and eventually, cry. He says, "Please, please," but evidently, prayers don't matter too much to his captors.

*


They force TJ to watch gay porn as they hit the bottoms of his feet repeatedly with a switch. It's easily the most painful thing TJ has ever experienced, even counting the burns from the other day. It's as if they are ripping the soles of his feet open, stripping them back and then making him walk on muscle and blood and bone.

The porn is the good stuff—high quality, both guys enjoying what's going on—the kind TJ would choose to watch of his own volition. In the small, barren corner of his mind that isn't panicked and breaking down, he wonders if they had to spend hours learning the world of gay porn to find this stuff.

Whenever he closes his eyes, they apply a whip to his back as well. It's not as bad as his feet, but it's bad enough. He keeps his eyes open.

*


They tie TJ on his knees, and Doug hates himself for being grateful he's not standing, equally grateful the camera doesn't show him the bottom of TJ's feet. In the last video, they were covered in blood by the end.

There are sounds Doug can't identify, like moaning, in the background, maybe behind the camera.

TJ's captors take a belt to his testicles. TJ cries and mumbles, but he has stopped screaming. Doug doesn't know if TJ's voice is too weak or if it is a sign of exhaustion. All Doug knows is that it is terrifying.

*


TJ tries to eat the next bowl of dog food they bring him, he does. He doesn't want a repeat of last time, and he's hungry, so incredibly hungry. He can keep it down if he goes fast and doesn't breathe through his nose, but he loses the ability to go fast after four or five bites, and the smell and the texture make themselves known.

He apologizes even as he's sicking up, but it makes no difference.

*


Doug hasn't slept in the six days since TJ's disappearance when they find him. He has very little idea what day it is, or if it is even daytime. There's still been a country to run in TJ's absence, and despite considerable support from his staff, Doug has still been needed. He feels like someone has scraped out his insides, particularly behind his eyeballs, and filled him with sand.

He's kept Mom and Dad from watching the videos, which is a win. He's promised them they don't need to see, do not need to know. He's not sure how they've avoided it, given how viral the videos have been. Thankfully, the news outlets have been judicious in their airing of footage. Doug knows his parents have probably seen the bits and pieces being shown in mainstream media, but that's nothing compared to the full videos.

There's been no ransom letter, no statement of purpose aside from the semi-rational ramblings in the recordings. There's been nothing, no reason. Just TJ missing and scared and in pain. Just Doug being safe and helpless.

They find him, though, and arrest everyone in the compound where he's found—about thirty people—and take him to the nearest hospital, which is the UVA hospital. Doug tells Sondra, "We're going there," and Sondra doesn't argue.

*


TJ passes out when they take a belt to his chest. The burn wounds have begun suppurating around the edges. He's half-crazed with exhaustion and hunger. The pain sears its way straight through him and he loses his grip on consciousness.

He wakes up in a bed with machines beeping all around him. At first, he thinks he's hallucinating. He's been here before of course, twice. And figures his brain would go to his most mortifying moment first for some semblance of comfort.

Then Dougie comes into TJ's field of vision and says, "Oh thank—you're awake. You're—that's good. That's good, Tommy. You want something? You want some water?"

That's definitely not part of his memories of the hospital. It's still possible he's hallucinating—they've definitely got him on the good stuff, since everything is pretty fuzzy around the edges—but he thinks it's less probable. What did Doug ask? Oh, right. Water. Water does sound delicious.

His mouth doesn't seem to be working, so he does his best to turn his head and look wistfully at the water cup. Doug says, "Yeah, I got you," and holds TJ's head up enough that he can sip from the straw. The water tastes as good as it sounded.

With the help of the water, TJ can push sounds out of his mouth. "Nana? She—she was—"

"She's safe, TJ. She was a little roughed up, but she came through just fine."

TJ feels himself start to cry in relief. He'd been three-fourths convinced she'd be dead and he'd never get to tell her how much he loved her. He reaches as best he can for Doug, and it comes out as a weak pawing motion. "C'n…c'n you stay?"

Doug grabs his hand. "Yeah, Teej, I'm here. And if I'm not, Mom or Dad or Nana or Annie is. We're not leaving you alone, okay? Not for a second."

"Good," TJ opines. "S'good."

*


TJ doesn't really wake up, not with any serious coherency, or for any decent length of time, for a few days. He lies in the bed, looking like he's been on the worst bender of his life, and for once Doug wishes that were the truth. It'd be better than this. Anything would be better than this.

Anne tries to get Doug to sleep between the job and TJ—so, three, four hours a night, maybe—but he wakes with nightmares of TJ being pulled from him, just out of reach. He apologizes for waking Anne, who's exhausted in her own right, buffeted around by Hammond-family drama. She kisses his forehead and says, "Go to the hospital," before dropping back off to sleep.

He works at TJ's bedside, his mind a million places at once, stopping at none of them. When Doug had arrived at the hospital around two, Alex, TJ's sponsor, had been there, knitting something. She'd said, "He seems cold. He just—it's like he can't get warm."

Doug tells her to go home. She musses his hair, something he should probably discourage, but she's old enough to be his mom and it feels too comforting to do anything but arch into. She says, "Oh kiddo," and leaves him to it.

There are two Secret Service agents outside the room at any time, but TJ hasn't been reassigned a regular. Doug's glad; it feels wrong enough that Kelly's not there without a replacement.

Mom shows up at four am, looking like she's gotten even less sleep than he has. He says, "Hey," and starts to get up, but she waves a hand, sitting at the end of TJ's bed. Doug says, "We got him back," partly for her, and partly because he needs to keep reminding himself.

She dredges up a smile for him, says, "C'mere," and Doug doesn't resist when she stands and pulls him into her arms. He stays there as long as he can.

*


When TJ wakes, really comes to, it's from a nightmare. He comes up screaming and pleading, and there are voices speaking to him, but there's no pain. Eventually, the lack of pain solidifies in his mind and he's able to breathe, able to calm himself.

Mom and Nana are on either side of him. He grabs on to them, aware he's holding too hard, but unable to loosen his grip. Mom uses her free hand to soothe back the hair from his forehead, saying, "Shh, sh, Tommy, you're safe, you're safe, baby."

He wants to say he knows—logically, he does—but what comes out is a sob. Nana says, "That's it, just get it out."

The sobs are ugly and painful and at one point cause his stomach to turn over. He's still crying when he falls back asleep.

*


The hospital dials back the pain medication, and two things happen at once: TJ starts having a hard time reassuring himself he's really been rescued, and he wants a drink or something, anything that will blur his thought process. It confuses him—everything feels wrong—and sometimes he thinks he's back in the hospital because he's hurt himself again before he realizes everything is too painful for that to be the case.

In some ways, it's better with the medication lessened: he's not forced to stay under, in his nightmares. But it takes so long to pull free of them it's almost as bad.

He's not left alone. If Mom's not there, Dad is, and if Dad isn't, Nana is, and if Nana isn't, Doug, and if not Doug, Anne. It's Anne he frowns at and asks, "Where's Kelly?"

Anne who has to say, "Oh, sweetie," and bite her lip and take a deep breath to tell him, "Kelly—he—they killed him. When they took you."

The words take a while to actually make sense. He's aware of Anne's distress, but not able to completely understand it for several moments on end. Then everything comes together and it feels like the biggest challenge in the world just to breathe.

"No," he says, because he doesn't know how else to get across what is going on in his mind, how to put out there the enormity of wrongness. Nana he had worried about, because she was physically fragile, vulnerable. But Kelly had always stood between TJ and things that would cause him pain. Kelly had always beaten those things back. Kelly—Kelly was strong, and more than that, he was good. Good in the way few people are, just because it was the right thing to be. If anything, between the two of them, there's no question of who should have been killed.

TJ knows even thinking it dishonors Kelly, who'd devoted his life to the service of the President and her family. TJ can't help it. He wants Kelly back worse than he wants a drink.

*


TJ's therapist comes to him a day before they release him. He tells her, "I want a fucking drink," and she says, "Yeah, I bet." She also says, "I think we should bring in a trauma specialist, TJ," and for a second he thinks she's leaving him, too.

Once she's gotten him breathing deeply again, she says, "I'm not going anywhere. And if you want to do this, just me and you, we will. But I'm telling you, honestly, this is a little beyond my area of expertise, and I think we should add a specialist to the roster, okay? It's up to you."

"Don't wanna make decisions right now, doc," he tells her.

She takes pity on him. "This one will wait."

*


TJ's been living on his own for over two years. When the doctors start talking about releasing him, he thinks about his two bedroom condo directly over U Street and promptly has a panic attack. He ends up sedated for another twenty-four hours before they try talking about it with him again, this time with Mom and Nana and Alex all there.

This time, before he can get himself all worked up, Mom asks, "Baby, would you—for me, do you think you could come stay with me for a bit?"

It means staying in the White House, which TJ swore he'd never do again after he moved out the first time. It means being in probably the safest home in all of North America, and right now that's exactly what TJ needs. Also, as wrapped up in himself as he is at the moment, it doesn't take much to know his mom needs it as badly as he does, needs to be able to walk down the hall and see he's really there. He swallows. "Yeah. Let's…yeah."

He moves into a room they hadn't used when he was growing up, something without associations, good or bad. He spends the first two weeks alternating between sleeping and screaming himself awake, still in pain, shaky on his feet, and weakened by the ordeal. Somewhere in the middle of the first week, he notices that the Secret Service agent who checks on him when he's screaming the house down has stopped constantly changing.

He takes the bottle of water the man hands him and asks, "You get assigned to me?"

The man nods. "I asked for the assignment. I'm Miguel, Miguel San Carlos. Kelly and I served in the Rangers together. He stood by me when my wife left me because I spent more time with cheap whiskey than I did with her. And he thought of you like a baby brother. So, I asked. If that's all right with you?"

TJ cries. He feels like he can't stop, lately, like it's his reaction to everything. "How long've you been sober?"

In answer, Miguel palms a five-year token, hands it to TJ. TJ closes it in his fist for a moment, feels the metal warm against his skin. He's got a ways to go before his own and right now, right now he can't imagine making it. He wants that sweet lick of hazy forgetfulness, that type of burn that washes away into quiet nothingness. "You met Alex, my sponsor?"

"We've talked."

Quietly, TJ admits. "I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if-- They fed the reporters a false time I was leaving the hospital, you know? Rushed me out under cover of night. But they're going to get hold of me. Sooner or later, they're going to. Going to ask what happened, going to—"

"They're not."

TJ blinks. "They're not what?"

"They're not going to ask what happened."

TJ opens his mouth to argue, to explain how the feeding frenzy works and then stops, a kernel of understanding shooting through him. "They taped it all. They were always taping it."

Gently, Miguel says, "Yes. They released the tapes. The media—the media knows."

TJ tries to breathe through his nose. He corrects. "Everyone knows. I should've—they didn't ask as many questions at the hospital as they should have, they didn't—I should've known."

"It isn't your job to figure out the lengths of cruelty of your own captors, TJ."

TJ buries his face in his hands. "Fuck I want a drink. I want a drink so bad. I can't—I can't do this, I can't. This won't change the fact that they'll get hold of me, the questions will just be different."

"TJ." Miguel brings TJ's gaze to his face. "Hey, look at me, man. Look at me and listen: you're not going to have to talk to anyone you don't want to. Not a single person. I can't promise much, but that I can promise."

Miguel's calm surety goes a long way toward making TJ believe. They both know it's not completely true. Oh, TJ doesn't have to give anyone an interview, but the Department of Justice has already started trying to get details from him. Doug has hired TJ a lawyer who's running interference and generally looking out for TJ's best interests, but TJ's going to have to talk to them. They've got thirty people in custody according to his lawyer, and TJ's got to at least let them know who was actively involved in the torture.

Still, for the moment, Miguel's protectiveness reassures TJ enough to return to normal breathing. Miguel says, "That's it, there you go, kid."

Into the silence between them when TJ is calm, or at least as calm as he's going to get, Miguel says, "And for what it's worth, I think you can do this. I think so, and Alex thinks so. And we're both pretty smart, if I do say so myself."

TJ laughs, and if it's more sob than chuckle, Miguel doesn't say anything and nobody else is around to hear.

*


Nana gets him a plant. It's a small thing, easily situated atop the front of the baby grand in the music room. He tells her, "I'm not ready," and she says, "Yeah, I know," but she leaves the damn plant.

TJ spends hours at meetings. He can find one at just about any time of the day, and he knows it's not a long-term solution, but for the moment, it works. Miguel stays by him, and when someone at one meeting looks too hard or too long or just a little too curiously at TJ, Miguel finds them a new meeting. It happens more often than not for the first month.

TJ doesn't talk at the meetings. He can't. He doesn't know where to start anymore. He drinks coffee and he listens.

At night when he can't sleep and Miguel is off shift, getting some needed rest, TJ teaches himself the harp. The piano calms him, lets him white things out for whole sonatas at a time, but learning a new instrument takes focus, the kind that drowns everything out except the task at hand.

Doug comes by when he's leaving the office, and sometimes before he goes in in the mornings. TJ worries that Anne's going to give up on all of them one day and leave Doug. He sends her handmade cards and gift certificates to all her favorite boutiques until she comes over and says, "If you keep trying to buy my love, I'm going to have to punch you politely in the face, Thomas Hammond."

TJ tries to smile for her, he does. Instead he finds himself saying, "I've never said I'm sorry to you, not really."

"No," she agrees. "But even if I wanted to hear it now, which I do not, it—" She shakes her head. "Teej, you and Nana, you were the only two members of this family that didn't treat me like I was some kind of bomb that needed to be disarmed while I was in recovery. If I didn't love you for a million reasons, I'd love you for that one, and it would be all I needed. Understand?"

TJ looks away and says, "I mostly just figured that made us even. Maybe."

"That's because you're used to discounting yourself." The comment is quiet, but she means for it to be heard, TJ can tell.

He grimaces. "My shrink agrees."

She grabs him carefully, making every move slowly to give him time to get away. When he doesn't try, she pulls him into a hug. "You're such a good listener, except for all the times when you're not."

*


TJ wakes from a nightmare where not only is he burning, but everyone he loves, as well. He pads down to the music room, but his fingers won't still enough for the piano and he can't concentrate on breathing, let alone harp finger formations.

He wants to go to a meeting, but he doesn't want to wake Miguel, and Eliza, the guard who keeps an eye on him overnight, sticks out at the meetings, not being used to attending them for her own purposes. It's not that TJ doesn't appreciate the way, when he asks to go to one, she ushers him into a car and gets him there with nothing more than a, "Sure, you got it," but it's just more comfortable going with Miguel.

TJ wanders down to the gym that's just for the family and does PT until he's nauseated from the pain of it. Then, too tired and too sore to actually go back to his bed, he curls up into a corner and tries to sleep.

*


Doug tries to get a run in before the work day begins. When it's nice outside, Sondra will run outdoors with him, but otherwise, he just hits the family gym in the White House before heading up to the office. Which is why he's the one to find TJ at four in the morning on a Tuesday, curled into a corner of the gym and whimpering in his sleep.

He gives himself a moment just to watch, to know that TJ's there. A little battered—it hasn't gone unnoticed by Doug that TJ, who used to have no fear of walking around in his pajama pants and nothing else at night, who liked to show a little skin now and then, won't even wear a tank top just in case it dips below the scarring, which is significant and covers over thirty percent of his chest—but there.

Doug sits on his knees across from where TJ has maneuvered himself into a semblance of a defensible position and says, "Teej, wake up."

TJ's reaction is immediate, in that he startles awake, banging his side against the wall and kicking his feet out in an instinctive defensive move. Doug only had to be smacked in the face twice before he learned to give TJ a few feet when waking him up these days, so Doug is safe, but it doesn't stop the sympathetic wince when TJ realizes where he is and mumbles, "Ow," rubbing at the shoulder that just made contact with the wall.

TJ scrunches his face up and then says, "Hey, Dougie." He looks around and follows that up with, "I guess I fell asleep."

"Wanna tell me how that happened in the gym?" Doug asks.

TJ looks down at his knees, then back up at Doug. "Not really?"

Doug swallows down a sigh. "Okay."

"I was sleeping," TJ says, with an uptick to it. Doug will acknowledge it's something. Especially given that, two days earlier, TJ had needed to give an interview with the lawyer running the government's case. The lawyer, who Doug has worked with once or twice, is good at his job, focused, and used to dealing with victims and survivors of violence. He was good with TJ, and TJ's lawyer had been at TJ's side the whole time. All the same, it had been nearly two hours of TJ having to hash out as much as he could of what he remembered. His eating, sleeping, and general interactions with life have been a little spotty since then.

Changing tactics, Doug asks, "You want me to take you to a meeting?"

TJ gives him a Look. "Don't you have to run our fine country?"

"In news that's a harsh blow to my self-worth, the country will run itself for a few hours without me. Also, we'll catch a five o'clock, grab some good donuts on the way back, which Mom'll complain about fucking with her figure but eat anyway, and be a happier President for the sugar rush. In conclusion, we'd be doing the American people a favor."

TJ snorts. "You don't have to take me to a meeting. You were gonna run."

"Yeah," Doug says. "I was. But I'd rather take you to a meeting. Or at least breakfast. Something."

"Sure you're not just using me to slack off your exercise routine?"

"That's obviously what I'm doing, but you're supposed to have the grace not to mention it."

"Grace was never my strong suit."

Doug huffs a laugh and gets to his feet. "C'mon."

TJ looks up at him for a long moment. Doug's beginning to think he's going to get turned down completely when TJ reaches up and lets himself be pulled to his feet. Doug pulls him in a little further, stealing a hug. TJ mumbles, "'m tired, Dougie."

Doug holds on tight and says, "I know, Teej. I know."

*


There's a Wake Up Sober meeting in the Adams Morgan area. Sondra drives them and keeps an eye on them. Doug writes a note in his calendar to make sure she gets a commendation in her file, at the very least. TJ doesn't talk in the meeting, but he sips his coffee and listens. When a woman who calls herself Ksenia stands up and introduces herself and then just stands there, struggling to find words, TJ catches her eyes and keeps his gaze on her, calm and still in a way Doug has never seen. She can't be more than twenty-two, at most, and her bones are sharp, her skin pale blue with visible veins.

Ksenia swallows and says, "Three months ago, police came to where I was…living. Me and the others. The other girls. They were mostly Ukrainian, and new, still speaking Ukrainian and Russian only. I'm Moldovan, so we didn't have a common language."

TJ doesn't seem surprised, but then, Doug imagines the breadth of stories TJ hears, given his regular attendance of meetings, is pretty spectacular. TJ nods as she talks about selling herself to get money for a brother's schooling, talks about almost dying on the way over, about the rapes and the drugs and the liquor and anything she could get her hands on to not have to feel the world around her. When she finishes, talking about how she still wants that, how she's tired of waking up scared and uncertain, of living in a half-way house where they are kind, well-meaning, but removed, of feeling cold and hungry and tired, she rubs a hand over her face, eyes red with tears and anger, TJ murmurs, "Thank you, Ksenia," with the rest of the group. It's the loudest thing he's said all meeting.

A middle-aged man named Kenneth takes his turn after her, a retired engineer with a wife who left him the third time he relapsed and a daughter who won't take his calls. Kenneth is followed by a college-aged guy, Dante, whose father was shot in the line of duty when Dante was twelve. He's got his two year pin and is doing pretty well. He's started dating a girl, a student in the econ department, and he's not sure how or when to tell her about his addiction. An elderly African-American woman by the name of Sophia is the last person to speak. She's been sober for twenty-seven years, but she's struggling with the recent death of her sixteen year-old cat.

TJ thanks all of them for their stories, and Doug wonders what it is he hears that helps. If it's just that others are struggling too, or if there's something more for him, something that allows him to make the choice to keep having nightmares and struggling through days with shaking hands and the fear of leaving the house, let alone the property.

They don't leave immediately. TJ gets another cup of coffee and chats with a tall woman with military bearing. Doug overhears Alex's name being mentioned, so he figures that's how they know each other. The head of the meeting, a guy with a lumberjack beard who looks like he could bench press Doug, stops by the conversation and says a few words. TJ nods, says something that might be, "Yeah, promise."

Eventually, TJ wanders back over to Doug's side and says, "Sorry, I know—"

Doug shakes his head to cut off whatever it is TJ's going to say. "There's a Dunkin Donuts on the corner. Sondra says she'll run in and get us some fried deliciousness if we promise to stay in the car."

TJ at sixteen would have agreed precisely so he could sneak out of the car. TJ at twenty-two would have agreed only if he could go into the store with Sondra and pester her about what he wanted. TJ six months ago would have agreed but at least whined about not getting to go in and consider his options. This TJ digs up a smile that's one hundred percent for Doug's benefit and says, "Sure, sounds good."

This TJ is alive and standing in front of Doug. Doug will fucking take it.

*


TJ kills Nana's plant despite his best efforts. He calls Alex in the middle of hysterics and when she's gotten him to calm down enough, she says, "Sweetheart, some people aren't meant to grow plants. If I'd waited until I could keep a plant alive to work on things with my husband, we'd still be separated."

Alex has been sober for over twenty years. TJ takes a deep breath. "So, what, then?"

"Well, not for nothing, but have you considered a PTSD service dog? You'd have to keep it alive and it'd have to keep you sane, so it's a win for everyone, really."

TJ likes this about Alex, the way she doesn't fuck around. "Don't you have to have, like, I dunno, served in the military to get one of those?"

"You have to have PTSD. A condition your doc has already diagnosed you as having and put you on meds to help handle some of the symptoms of it."

TJ walks over to the window well and curls up on the seat there. He rubs at his chest where the scars that he still can't bear to look at in the mirror lie. "What if I kill the dog?"

"Miguel won't let you kill the dog, and neither will Doug or Anne. And even if they would, you wouldn't kill the dog. You're just not good with plants. The dog's gonna be fine."

TJ wishes he felt as certain as Alex sounds. TJ wishes he felt anything—other than fear—as strongly as Alex seems to feel certain.

"Kid," Alex says after a long moment.

"I'm here," he tells her.

"I know. I know that. I'm not sure you do. You're here. You survived. It was shitty and terrible, and I hope they hang those people by their genitals and let the elements kill them and the crows pick at their flesh and then their bones, but you survived."

"That was…graphic."

"Graphic nothing. Your momma'd rip their hearts out of their chests if anyone'd let her get close enough."

TJ huffs a laugh, but it's probably true. His mom has been a lot of things in her time, especially in regard to him, but her ferocity and protectiveness have never wavered, not once. "Yeah, well, Mom."

Alex sighs. "Not the point, although, nice try. Be here, TJ. You don't have to do anything else, not a thing, but you have to be here, in the now. You have to take steps to keep you here."

"And you think a dog is a step."

"I do."

"I'll think about it," TJ tells her.

"I'm telling Doug," she says.

Yeah, TJ's going to be getting a dog.

*


To TJ's surprise, Doug actually asks, "Do you want a dog?" before just dragging him to a training center, or wherever a person goes to get a PTSD dog, "for his own good." The fact that Doug pauses to consider TJ's desires, combined with the way his voice sounds both uncertain and desperate when he asks, makes TJ shrug and say, "I've always kind of wanted a dog."

It's not exactly a lie. He'd wanted one more than anything in the world when he was a kid, but nobody'd trusted him to take care of it. TJ can acknowledge they might have had a point, since as soon as he was living on his own, he wimped out of trusting himself to take care of a dog. So, yeah, he's always wanted a dog. He's just been terrified of owning one for the breadth of his adult life.

Doug smiles, and if it's just a touch off, neither of them mentions it. Doug's been good, great even, about not smothering TJ, about keeping his pity to himself. TJ knows it's there. In all the ways they're different, there are a million ways they're alike, and TJ knows exactly what he'd be feeling if the situation were reversed. TJ appreciates the way Doug's kept it where TJ can't see more than TJ can rightly say. He does ask, "Are you seeing a therapist?"

Doug blinks. "Huh?"

TJ shakes his head. "Sorry, I—" He waves his hand to try and indicate the way his thoughts were unshaped, free floating. "Just, you should be. Seeing someone. Probably all of us should."

Doug runs a hand over his face and gives TJ a sheepish look. "Nana made an appointment for me a week after you got back. I retaliated by making one for her. So, we're both taken care of. Anne was already going, and all of us are ganging up on Mom and Dad. Mom's this close to cracking, swear."

TJ says, "Okay. Okay, that's good."

Doug tilts his head. "Do you, uh. Do you yell at your therapist a lot?"

"I did at first," TJ admits. "When I was still really getting sober and I was pissed at everyone and everything, most of all myself. Yeah."

"Well. At least it's not just me, then."

TJ twists his lips and says, "You've been angry a long time."

Doug's responding glance is surprised, and then he frowns. "If you knew, why didn't you say anything?"

"You never seemed like you wanted me to. You—you liked being the one who had his shit together."

Doug's frown deepens. "Tommy."

TJ gives him a shaky smile. "I'm…I'm doing okay, right? I mean, better than anyone expected."

He's been out of the hospital for over a month and he's still sober. It's halfway to a miracle, really. Doug sounds like he's going to cry when he says, "Fuck everyone's expectations. You're going great." He takes a deep breath. "I talked to Myrna, on my staff? She's ex-Marine and knew of a good place for service dogs. She said they were professional and circumspect. We should—we should get you a dog."

"Dougie?" TJ fiddles with the knees of his jeans.

"Yeah?"

"Right now, when people see me, they see what was done to me, they see those videos."

"Teej—"

"No, I'm saying, what if, what if I controlled the message this time? What if this wasn't like before, when I was a kid and just wanted to be myself and suddenly I was front page news all the time? What if I went and got this dog and said, 'hey, I have PTSD and other people do too, and there are animals that can help and people who can help, and it's not something anyone should have to deal with alone or be ashamed of'? Just. What if I didn't want circumspect?"

Doug doesn't blink this time, and that takes TJ aback, that Doug might not have been expecting this, but he's not surprised either. Somehow, he saw this potential in TJ, when even TJ hadn't known it was there. Doug says, "Then we talk with Dwayne about how you want the story to go, and we make it happen."

Dwayne is their mom's press secretary. TJ appreciates the man, given that he's mostly left TJ alone for the vast majority of their acquaintance. "Okay. Um. You can make that happen, right?"

"I'm kind of his boss, so, yeah."

TJ screws his face up. "It's weird that adults actually listen to you."

Doug throws a pillow at him.

*


Doug contacts the training center to make an appointment. He calls and says, "This is Doug Hammond, I was hoping to schedule a time to see some PTSD service dogs."

Doug introduces himself by his name all the time. Unless he's talking with someone whose livelihood is in politics, it's never an issue. Nobody remembers the name of the not-gay twin, and most people will never know the name of the President's Chief of Staff. Hammond's a common enough name that nobody automatically thinks he's somehow related to the President. The guy answering the phones for Care Goes Both Ways, though, says, "Certainly, Mr. Hammond, but I think maybe I should let you speak to our director."

Doug doesn't think that's the normal way this goes, so he's probably been made. A minute or so later, a woman picks up the phone and says, "Mr. Hammond, my name is Genevieve, I'm the head trainer and owner here. Greg says you're interested in a PTSD service dog. May I ask if it's for you?"

"It's not."

"The thing is, we require that the dogs meet and interact with their potential owners, it's important—"

"I'm bringing my brother with me. It's for him."

There's a quick pause before she says, "Great. In that case, I need to know if we need to do anything on our end to prevent security issues or press leaks."

"I'm going to have his security detail contact you. Is there anything we should know, anything we need to bring, that sort of thing?"

"No, the first meeting is pretty low-key, just a chance to find some chemistry between dog and person. We'll talk with him about the training and the steps that need to be taken once we've settled on a candidate. Did you have a time and day in mind?"

"Would it be possible to get us in before or after hours?"

"I'm usually here at around four in the morning. Think you could make that happen sometime this week?"

Doug glances over at his schedule. "How's Thursday?"

"You're penciled in. I'll expect to hear from your security people before then."

"Absolutely. Thank you, Genevieve."

There's another one of those quiet hesitations before she says, "It's good that you're helping him with this. I'll see you Thursday."

She hangs up before Doug finds the words, "He's my brother," tumbling out of his mouth. He can only be thankful for that.

*


TJ goes to two meetings the day before he's set to meet the dogs and still can't sleep, hyper vigilant and able to get nothing accomplished aside from driving Eliza crazy. He can't even explain why he's nervous. It's a dog, for fuck's sake. It doesn't watch the news or trawl social media.

By the time Miguel arrives, TJ's had two shots of espresso and is shaking worse than he did in his first few days of withdrawals. Miguel takes one look at him and says, "Yeah, okay," before chivvying TJ into the shower and pouring a bottle of water down his throat when TJ emerges. It helps a little.

They're a couple of minutes late, given the last minute shower, but Genevieve opens the door and when TJ tries to apologize, she waves her hand and says, "Dogs can't tell time."

She introduces herself and shakes TJ's hand with a firmness that he likes. A lot of people nowadays are careful about touching him, and while he sort of appreciates that—touch is tricky, suddenly, when it used to be welcome and easy—it also drives him crazy. She's about his height, and speaks with a slight accent. TJ thinks it might be Haitian, but he's not sure.

Her hair is in braids with little beads at the end, not the cheap plastic kind, either, these are ceramic and metal and a few of them might even be gold. They're different shapes and sizes and they click as she walks. It's rhythmic.

TJ follows her, Doug on one side and Miguel on the other, into a fairly large room with a few windows, cement floors, and a lot of posters about dog breeds on the walls. She says, "Okay, we're gonna try Strawberry first."

She leaves for a moment and comes back with an English cream golden retriever, who's soft and sweet. TJ likes her, but she also reminds him of the couches in Mom's apartments, of the kind of dog who's meant to look good in pictures, and it unsettles him.

Genevieve must see something, because she says, "Let's try something else."

Kade is a German Sheppard, and very regal. He's calm and his fur is thick beneath TJ's fingers, but he looks…official, is the best way TJ can think to explain it, like he's meant to be working for someone doing important things, and that doesn't quite fit, either.

Next is a chocolate lab mix named Swirl, who makes TJ giggle by pressing his cold nose against TJ's cheek, and snuffling at his hair. Genevieve gives them a few minutes and says, "Maybe."

TJ's not sure what she's looking for; Swirl seems like enough of a fit for him. She just brings in another dog, a Malamute named Elf, who's also picture perfect and cuddly, but the kind of white that makes TJ nervous about, like, spilling something on her.

After Elf, a springer spaniel-pit bull mix with brown coloring named Grizzlybella trots in and TJ knows exactly what Genevieve is looking for because everything flies out the window except the idea that this dog is his, and he's hers. She's going to wake him from nightmares and give him his personal space and do all the things he read about, and he's going to trust her to do it. He can't explain how he knows, he just does.

Genevieve says, "Looks like we found our match," smiling but not laughing at the way TJ is on his back on the floor being thoroughly sniffed down by Grizzlybella. TJ grins back up at her without even having to try, the expression just comes to him.

Doug walks away for a second. TJ suspects he's crying, but he lets it happen, he gets it. It's been a long time since he's seen Doug grin, too. After a moment, TJ gets up and goes to wrap himself around Doug's back. Grizzlybella trots after TJ and winds herself around and around their legs.

Doug says, "There's paperwork."

TJ nods. "Mm. In a minute."

*


Nobody is more surprised than TJ when it turns out he's naturally talented at training Grizzlybella. It's a simple mixture of patience, which TJ has always had for the things that matter—music, mostly—and a deep empathy for her need to please him.

He doesn't expect much to change. She's there to help, not to solve his problems. Only, she wakes him up before his nightmares have a chance to really rev up, and the solid warmth of her by his side helps him fall back asleep. TJ has forgotten what it feels like to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, let alone sleep deeply. He's at once both shocked and not by how much more manageable things feel after a decent night's sleep.

He's not an idiot, though, so he starts small. Maybe he's never been recovering from this kind of trauma before, but TJ knows the rhythm of recovery. He has lunch with Doug and Dwayne in the White House cafeteria. Dwayne shakes TJ's hand firmly, wrapping his other over TJ's hand and saying, "You're looking well."

Dwayne's mother is British, and despite having grown up in Little Rock, with a father from Atlanta, he still carries the clipped, somewhat formal intonation of his mother. It's distinguished without being snobbish. TJ thanks him and they sit down, Grizzlybella settling on TJ's right, leaning into him just enough to remind him of her presence, while she gets to the work of making sure nobody startles him.

Dwayne says, "She's beautiful. I thought all service dogs were retrievers and shepherds, which seems silly, now having said it."

TJ shrugs. "I kinda had that impression myself. Turns out pretty much any breed has the possibility of becoming a therapy dog, there are just some more naturally inclined toward it."

"So, like humans and different professions," Doug says.

TJ nods. "It makes sense when you think about it. Just most people don't."

Dwayne takes a sip of his water and says, "Doug suggested that you do small things first. Maybe an exclusive with someone who's friendly in a controlled environment."

TJ's eyes flicker over to Doug, who is studiously not saying anything. Cautiously, TJ asks, "Susan?"

The corners of Doug's lips quirk up. "She'll be responsible about it."

"Yeah," TJ agrees. He knows something happened between the two of them, he just long ago decided not to ask. And whatever else, Susan has been respectful of their family since the upheaval of the President's death and the campaign their mom had to wage. She doesn't always agree with their mom's choices, but she gives them a fair shake in her writings.

Dwayne looks between them. "All right. Susan."

TJ runs a hand through his hair. "I'll try not to, um. Y'know. Embarrass anybody."

Dwayne sets his fork down and says, "While I appreciate the sentiment, unless you're planning on denouncing your mother in some terrible way and doing a line of coke off the coffee table, I'm really not concerned."

TJ blinks at him. Dwayne's not interfering, but he's good at his job, which means he controls the message tightly and is highly protective around anything that might harm the President.

Dwayne keeps his gaze steady. "It's your story, TJ. Tell what you want of it. None, all, somewhere in between. Someone takes issue with it, well, it's their prerogative to be an asshole, but even if I wanted to, even then, your mother would kill me for so much as trying to guide this particular narrative. And she'd be in the right."

"The thing is, I mean, you were in college when I was outed. You know what it was like. You know I have a tendency—"

"No," Doug says. "Just, whatever else was about to come out of your mouth, no."

"Doug—"

"You being you doesn't fuck things up." Doug sounds calm, but TJ knows better. His hands are too still, his breathing too even. Doug continues, "Sometimes you do stupid, hurtful things, and it's terrible. But so do I. So does Mom. Dad is like the world champion in that area. We're all human, sometimes, most of the time, at the end of the day. You had a problem with drugs and alcohol, yes. That made things hard, for all of us, but it didn't ruin things. You being gay doesn't ruin things. Nothing about you ruins things. It never has, it never will."

"Dad'd disagree," TJ says drily.

"Dad wouldn't, but if he would, he could go fuck himself," Doug says without even raising his voice.

TJ sighs and Dwayne cuts back in. "Just tell it the way you want to. Trust me, I'm a professional. I'd never steer you wrong."

Dwayne manages to look like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. TJ snorts. "Famous last words."

*


Susan meets TJ and Grizzlybella in the music room, because TJ feels safe there, or as safe as he ever feels these days. Miguel is with them, and she nods at him, waves a greeting. She's wearing worn in jeans and a button-down flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. TJ thinks he knows why whatever happened between her and Doug happened. She might smell blood in the water, but she doesn't always use that knowledge to cause more harm.

She smiles at TJ and glances down at Grizzlybella. "She's pretty."

TJ forces himself to take a breath in through his mouth, push it out through his nose. This is Susan, and, as much as anyone in the media can be, she's on his side. He's chosen to be here. This doesn't have to be adversarial, the way his relationship with reporters has almost always been. He says, "Yeah. Yeah, she is," and forces himself to smile.

Susan gives him a look that says she's not fooled. TJ, already tense and tired, drops to the floor, resting his back against a chair, and letting Grizzlybella position herself so that she's half in his lap, half between him and Susan.

Susan sits on the floor across from him. She asks, "How're you doing?"

"Fine," he snaps out, instinct taking over. Then he runs a hand over his face. It's shaking. He knows she can see, but pretends she can't. He tries again. "Some days are better than others."

"I bet," she says quietly.

"I'm still clean," he tells her, looking her in the eyes, because that's important.

"That's pretty incredible."

TJ laughs shortly. "I go to like eight meetings a day." After a second he says, "I'd, uh, prefer if you didn't mention that."

"I don't think it's something to be ashamed of, but sure," she agrees.

"I haven't managed to talk in one yet. I used to all the time. It was nice, feeling like people were actually listening to me, instead of just taking my words and doing whatever the hell they felt like."

She smiles sympathetically. TJ nods. "Yeah. Well. I guess, um. This is Grizzlybella."

At her name, the dog turns a little, maneuvering to lick his face. TJ smiles, burying a hand in her hair. "She's a PTSD service dog, trained by Care Goes Both Ways."

"She's helping?"

"Yeah. I, uh. I actually was able to go for a run off the grounds a couple of days ago. I hadn't been off them other than to go to meetings since—since the abduction." The word sticks in his throat, but his therapist will be proud of him for saying it aloud. He'll have to tell her.

"I know it doesn't sound like much," TJ starts, but Susan shakes her head.

"It sounds huge. It's—that's great."

"I thought, um, the reason I wanted you to talk to me, it's because when someone brought the idea of a service dog up, I didn't think someone like me could have one. I thought you had to, you know, serve in the military or have a serious handicap."

"Can you tell me about the process of getting her? Maybe some of the things she does for you?"

TJ looks down at Grizzlybella and then up at Susan. He smiles. "I can. I want to."

*


TJ has been going to meetings, on and off, for almost a decade. He's spoken at one more times than he can count, sometimes just to hear his own voice, other times because he needed the connection, and still other times because it felt like punishment. He's done it for every reason, good and bad, and he's told a million different stories.

When he gets up to the podium the first time since his kidnapping, Grizzlybella presses herself against the backs of his calves and he's still certain he's going to lose his footing, sink to the ground, maybe puke while he's at it. He's thought about what he would say over and over again, considered where he could start. No sooner has he introduced himself, he finds the words sticking in his throat, harsh and painful.

He casts his gaze to where Miguel and Alex are sitting next to each other. Both of them meet his eyes, Miguel's expression calm, patient, and Alex smiling a little. TJ breathes through his nose. "It's been a while since I've done this. I thought I was ready, but now…now I'm not so sure."

Rosalia, who runs this group, says, "Take your time."

TJ tucks his hands under his armpits and rocks back on his heels a bit. Grizzlybella doesn't give at all. He nods and says, "I got a dog. Uh. I guess that's obvious. She's a service dog. She helps me wake up from nightmares and like, um. Leave the house.

"Even with her, and, I mean, I've got a professional bodyguard, and all, I'm scared. Terrified, really. The thought of going to a movie makes me sick to my stomach with fear. When I run now, I push, all the time, because the faster I'm done, the faster I can get back inside, safe."

TJ grimaces. "The thing is, it feels like everyone knows what happened to me, knows what my kidnappers did, but at the same time, it feels like nobody does. Like nobody gets all the hours in between the—the—"

TJ closes his eyes and grips the podium. "The torture. I've been having trouble with that word. It's like…like saying it will somehow make it real, but it was real." He rubs at his face, forces himself to open his eyes. "I'm probably not making any sense."

Start at the beginning. It's what his mom always said when he was trying to get her to understand. He bites at the inside of his cheek and then relaxes his jaw. "I went to a concert with my Nana. At Dumbarton Church. I love the acoustics there. I was wearing a tie. When I woke up, I wasn't wearing anything, and I was alone and it was cold. I was alone for so much of it. Even when they were hurting me, I was alone. Millions of people watched them do it, and I would have given anything for anyone to just…just hold my hand. Tell me I was going to survive."

He wipes angrily at his face. "I'm tired of crying." He rubs the back of his neck. "I'm just tired, really. Before, before when I would drink, it was always about escape, of course. I mean, drinking is escapism, that's just how it is. But before it was because I felt sharper when I drank, like I was the one who could cut people, instead of them always cutting me. Now, now I just want it to help me sleep. To dull all my edges. I want that so bad."

He frowns down at the podium. "Mostly, though, I remember the way it goes. The way people leave when I start drinking, the way I end up alone. And I don't want that. I want—" He laughs, short and unhappy, as so many thoughts fill his head, they're impossible to sort out. "I want to feel loved and safe. I want to file down the edges in a way that doesn't scare everyone off. And I'm not sure I can. I'm not sure I'm strong like that."

He rocks a few times and then shrugs. "So, yeah. That's where I'm at today."

They thank him for sharing, and for the first time since he stood up, he doesn't regret making himself.

*


Letters start coming after Susan publishes the interview. She doesn't put it on the front page. TJ can only imagine how she finagled second page, given that it's the only face time he's granted a reporter since his rescue. It's long, longer than TJ would have imagined. He doesn't remember talking all that much.

There's a quiet respect to it, and the lone picture is more focused on Grizzlybella than TJ. Much of it is about PTSD in non-combatants, and how therapy animals can help. TJ emails Susan, tells her, "I'm glad there are people like you in the world."

TJ knows the letters that come to the White House are read and filtered well before he receives them. It bothered him until he came out, and then it was a boon, not having to read death threats, or the long rants about how he was corrupting all that was good and true about America. Instead, he'd gotten the letters from other gay kids who wanted to tell their stories, parents who'd tried harder with their queer kids after seeing the president's family do it.

This time, he doesn't know if there are negative letters coming in. Probably. For once, he doesn't care. He gets a letter from a kid in Louisiana, who was removed from his home after being nearly beaten to death by his stepfather. He lives with fosters now, who, after reading the article, are learning about getting him a dog to help with the flashbacks his PTSD episodes cause.

There's another one, from a lady in Iowa who survived a hostage situation during a bank robbery, who didn't even realize that some of the symptoms she'd been experiencing in the aftermath were PTSD, but was now getting help for it.

A group of vets in Texas writes to say that they appreciate him "normalizing" PTSD to some extent, making people realize it's not just veterans who suffer from it, and it doesn't necessarily make vets broken, or incapable of functioning within society.

A middle-aged man who lost his wife and child in a car accident sends TJ a photo with a large, happy-looking golden retriever standing in front of the man. On the back, there's a note: "This is Dagne. I was ready to kill myself when I read your interview. She saved my life."

The mother of an adopted child, one who hasn't spoken to anyone in the three years since she was given up to the state, sends TJ a letter that ends in, "it may not be her first word, but her first word to me was 'Brady:' the name of her therapy dog."

He writes back to all of the ones that aren't merely a few simple words of encouragement or thanks. He appreciates those, but the ones with the personal stories, those he feels he can’t just keep for himself without showing his gratitude.

TJ places them all in a book. It's the same book he starts putting new pages of music in. There's nothing good yet, just notes that the letters call out in his mind.

Writing, composing, working with Grizzlybella, doing some limited PR for Caring Goes Both Ways, running once a day, and going to a meeting in the morning and the evening gives TJ's life a sort of shape, almost like a schedule. And somewhere along the way, TJ realizes he's been sleeping through more nights than not. Oh, he can still count on a nightmare a week, if not two, but that's about eighty percent less than he's gotten used to since coming home from the hospital.

He's not standing on his own two feet, yet, not really. If he doesn't see Doug and Mom at least once a day, and Nana, Anne, and Dad once every couple of days, TJ gets freaked out and goes into hyper-vigilance mode. Between Miguel and Grizzlybella, TJ can be pulled out of it in a decent amount of time, rather than the hours it was taking before, but still, it's not pleasant.

So, no, TJ's still on metaphorical crutches, a number of them. But he's standing. He figures it's not nothing.

*


It's Doug who plans the trip out to the Vineyard. Doug who hasn't cared about a birthday since the two of them were ten and Doug really wanted a rocket kit. Back then, Doug had his sights set on a career in NASA and the stars. That was after his policeman phase and before his archeologist phase. TJ had just wanted to play the piano. He couldn’t remember a time when he'd wanted something else.

In any case, Doug asks, "Hey, wanna steal away to the Vineyard for a few days the weekend of our birthday? Just Anne, me, and you, barring Sondra and Miguel and co. Mom and Nana have said they'll come out for a day to celebrate, but other than that, the three of us and the beach."

TJ panics a little at the thought of not having the meetings he's gotten accustomed to nearby, but there are ones near the Vineyard he can go to with Miguel and Grizzlybella there for backup. TJ focuses on the sense memory of water rushing between his toes, both to try and calm down, and to overcome what is a stupid reason to say no.

Doug says, "The answer doesn't have to be yes, Teej."

TJ smiles. It feels battered around the edges, but it's sincere. "I want to go to the beach."

*


TJ sleeps in his first night at the house in the Vineyard, missing the morning meeting. He talks with Miguel over morning coffee and says, "I'm gonna take a run. I'll see how I feel in the afternoon, and if we need to find one earlier than the evening one."

Miguel nods and says, "Run sounds good."

Doug and Anne decide to go with them, so it's a whole entourage by the end of it. TJ expects to feel some level of resentment, the way he always did as a kid and young adult, and even sometimes in the two years before the kidnapping, when TJ just wanted to get out and be and there were always reminders that someone had to watch his back, his life. But Grizzlybella is super excited by the beach, and Anne's laughing at her antics, Doug outpacing them slightly like the overachieving dick TJ loves so much, and in the end it's nothing but fun.

They go in the water afterward, splashing around. TJ can't bring himself to take off his t-shirt, is sickeningly glad it's red and won't show the scars when wet, but he manages not to care that he's not ready for that yet after a few minutes in the water.

When they've exhausted themselves they head inside and shower, raid the refrigerator, and play board games for a few hours. TJ falls asleep on the couch mid-game and wakes up in time to make the evening meeting. He's glad. It's been a good day, but he needs that element of routine.

He doesn't plan on talking. He still rarely talks at his regular meetings. There's a pause, though, after the second person speaks, and TJ finds himself saying, "Hi, I'm TJ, and I'm an alcoholic."

They welcome him, and he buries his hand in Grizzlybella's fur. This particular meeting sits in a circle, so he doesn't have to stand. He's glad for that. He says, "It's my birthday tomorrow. My brother's and mine. We'll be thirty-six."

He takes a sip of the coffee he's nursing with his free hand. It's cold, but it's wet, and he needs that. "Before the alcohol and the drugs and—everything. Before, when I was a kid, I used to think I'd be settled by now. Would've found a nice guy who could deal with my family's drama, gotten a gig playing in a pit or an orchestra, or something."

TJ shrugs. "After the addiction, I—I figured I'd be lucky to be alive this long. And I am. Lucky. I've survived a number of things that could've killed me. My family still loves me, despite all the trouble I've caused. So." He takes another sip.

"Yeah, I'm lucky. And today, today was a good day. I think tomorrow will be a good day. I want it to be. I haven't had a really good day since—since I got kidnapped. I've had okay days. Days where nothing went wrong. There have been a lot of those, really. And I've had days where good things happened. But today was the first day that was just plain good. Right now's the first time I can believe that tomorrow might be, too."

He looks down at his knees. "I still want more. I wish I didn't, I wish I could be happy with knowing there can be good days, but I—I want more. Just the same, it's…it's a nice birthday present, today. It's a starting place, and I'm glad I was there for it, all of me, not just the parts that can manage to get through the alcohol or whatever else I'm mainlining."

He smiles. His eyes sting and the muscles of his face feel tight, but he does it. "That's the first time I've remembered, really remembered that it's not just because there are consequences to the addiction that I don't want it anymore. That I don't want it because there are days when not having filters between me and the world matters, and those days, even if they're rare, are more important than all the days when I miss those filters, want them back." He takes a breath, in through his nose, out through his mouth. "It's nice to know that again."

He nods and leaves off. The meeting goes on around him, grounding and ritualized. When they head back to the car, Miguel tousles his hair and says, "You're doing fine, kid. Just fine."

*


TJ's playing the piano when Mom and Nana arrive the next afternoon. Doug, Anne, and TJ had woken early and run along the beach again. They'd had a quick breakfast on the porch before going out to play in the waves and dry themselves out by lying in the sun.

After lunch they'd showered, and then TJ had sat down and started playing. He's mostly just letting it happen. The pedals are cool against his bare feet, the ivory worn into patterns that are comfortable and familiar under the pads of his fingers. He tools around with some ragtime, a few of the shorter sonatas, riffs on pop songs he enjoys.

When Mom and Nana open the door, he makes to get up, but Mom says, "Don't, Teej," with a soft smile. She's got a bakery box from one of his favorite places, a ways out in Alexandria. He wonders if she actually went there herself. It doesn't matter, the fact that she knew where to send someone is more than enough.

Nana comes and sits next to TJ, plays along at times, warbles at others. Doug and Anne come out from their afternoon "nap," and make everyone mocktails. They gather around the piano, and Doug says, "A toast."

TJ takes his martini glass, filled with something colorful that smells delicious. Doug looks at him for a moment and then says, "To a year where we never forget what's important."

Anne adds on, "To a year where love is always stronger than anger."

Mom pitches in with, "To a year of my boys making the world a better place just by being in it."

Nana snorts, but offers, "To a year of still not having kicked it."

TJ smiles a little. They're all looking at him. He knows if he just takes a drink they'll follow. Instead he says, "To a year of more good days than bad. A year of always getting better. And to this moment. Just this. Us."

Everyone raises their glass in agreement.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile