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It's just a squeeze. A squeeze to his wrist, for fuck's sake. A squeeze that is just-this-side of too much. Clark's skin is rich and gorgeous and dark against the paleness of TJ's skin, his hand easily swallowing the wrist, big but mostly gentle.

TJ tells himself he's touch-starved, after all, since the overdose, he's mostly sequestered himself out at the farm. (It's a lie. Mom and Doug and even Nana haven't stopped touching him since the hospital, as if to make sure he's real.) TJ tells himself it's withdrawal. (Maybe. He's sworn off casual sex with all the rest of his addictions.) TJ tells himself whatever it is, it's not real.

But in that moment where his wristbones ache from the pressure and Clark's smooth voice says with the utmost respect, "No, sir," TJ goes from zero to sixty in a second flat. It's like being a teenager again. His breath catches and he thinks about fighting, but he finds himself tired. Instead he deflates, says, "I'm bored."

Clark's eyes aren't unsympathetic, but they're also complex, filled with emotions TJ can't read. He still doesn't let TJ reach any further, grab the car keys. Instead, his eyes lower to where TJ's jeans aren't doing a damn thing to hide his condition. Clark loosens his grip and it's all TJ can do not to moan, although in loss or relief, he couldn't say. Clark rubs the wrist gently, as if to soothe, and that only makes things worse. He's taller than TJ, broader, the ideal build for the Secret Service, and TJ wishes he could trip and fall into that chest. He stays planted.

Clark says, "Let's take a walk."

"It's freezing outside."

Clark's smile is barely a curve, ironic and amused all at once. "It'll help clear your head."

TJ doesn't think it will, not with Clark looking at him like that, but, well, "Okay."

*

Clark makes him put on a damn hat, and gloves, and wraps him up in a scarf along with his coat. TJ asks, "Jesus, what are you, my mom?"

Clark just gives him a Look, amused and fond and something else, something TJ wishes he understood, and TJ jams on the hat. He's hardly going to admit that it feels kind of…nice, having someone give a shit whether he gets cold or not, and not buckling at the first sign of his charm or discomfort, or anything else TJ might try. TJ thinks of Clark's grip on his wrist and shivers. Clark knows he won't break.

Even with all the paraphernalia, it's cold, but TJ enjoys it. Everything is quiet on the farm, even the cows beyond the pasture fence. Dusk is falling, but it's early enough there's still light, still the ability to see the sky stretch forever over the dead grass of the winter. The bite is helping him think more clearly. "Aren't you supposed to be covering mom? And for that matter, where's my fussbucket?"

He's been assigned a temporary agent since the hospital at the behest of his mother. Clark tells him, "Desmond agreed to switch with me for a shift."

"Are you guys allowed to do that?"

Clark doesn't answer, which is an answer in and of itself. "So then why?"

TJ doesn't really expect an answer to that, either. Clark says, "You know how long I've been watching your family?"

TJ considers telling him one fussbucket is the same as the next, but a) it's not true, and b) given that Clark's risking a lot to take TJ on a walk, relieve his boredom a little, it would be petty. Not that TJ can't be petty, he just doesn't feel like it right then. "I dunno. A decade?"

"Thirteen years. Since you were eighteen."

"Jesus. You've been through the wars."

"Sure." His expression is opaque, unreadable, which makes it hard to figure out the odd lilt of his voice in the answer. "So have you."

TJ shrugs. "Pretty sure I make things more difficult than they need to be."

Clark shakes his head, frowning ever so slightly. "You're not a bad kid. You've never been a bad kid. You just wanted to be the most important thing to someone, and that wasn't how your family worked."

"Selfish kid," TJ points out. "I mean, I wanted to be more important than international geopolitics."

Gently, Clark tells him, "All kids are selfish. It's their right."

The words are a balm. He's had shrinks say them before, but shrinks are supposed to say things like that. To get away from how much that makes him want to cry, he says, "Getting a little cold out here."

Clark smiles, more a quirking of his lips than anything, and says, "Keep walking."

TJ isn’t surprised by how much he wants to obey. He also isn't surprised when the defenses he's built against that particular aspect of his nature rise up and he says, "And if I don't?"

Clark just looks at him. "Then I suppose I follow you back."

And TJ gets it. He can go back inside any time, get warm, maybe start a fire. But whatever this is, it's done. Clark has made it his decision. TJ hesitates, but his thoughts go to the warming properties of good whiskey, and as much as he wants that, he doesn't, not anymore.

He keeps walking.

*

The walks become a thing. Daily, sometimes even at night, when TJ is up, avoiding the piano so as not to wake Nana, unsure of what else to do with himself, since sleeping is straight out. At night, in the dark, it's easier to talk about how he thinks he might have been a concert pianist if he hadn't spent half his adolescence higher than a kite. It's easier to admit he's not selfless enough to tutor other people into that career.

Clark asks him. "Why are those your two options?"

TJ stops himself from snapping something immediate back, makes himself think about it. "There's not really a huge call for classical piano outside of those two things."

"First of all, you play plenty of things that aren't classical, and there are jobs that are between teaching and the stage. And secondly, you're TJ Hammond. For all the shit it's earned you, maybe you ought to take advantage."

TJ never thought the guards paid that much attention to his leisure-time pursuits. It makes him happy in an obscure way, one he's not sure he wants to understand. He shakes his head. "If they're coming to see me play, I want it to be about the music."

Clark is undeterred. "So make it about the music, TJ. Your name only gets them in the door. The experience you give them determines whether they come back."

TJ breathes out, one long smoky billow of frosted air. "And what if they don’t?"

"Then you do exactly what you're doing right now—you start over again."

TJ laughs, because it's between that and sobbing, and he's taught himself to only resort to the latter when all other options have been taken. "And if I can't?"

"You can. You just underestimate what you've got underneath your skin."

*

Part of the walks is the aftermath, when Clark takes TJ down to the kitchen and makes him chai lattes or hot chocolate with peppermint or cayenne or sometimes just hot coffee with a little bit of the child-safe eggnog his mom likes. Whatever is made, it's always decadent, like a cashmere blanket, only over his tongue. TJ sips at whatever he's given, letting himself warm up.

Sometimes he'll stop before he's done, and Clark will say softly, but intently, "Finish up," and TJ never thinks to disobey. He's too interested in the smile Clark gives him when he swallows every last drop.

*

It's on one of their walks that Clark offers what TJ thinks maybe he has been hinting at for a while. When he comes out and says, "I think you're looking for a funnel for the pain, a way out of it, or maybe even through it," in response to TJ talking about how fucking badly he wants a hit. He's been working with clubs, booking shows, and there are quite a few that are interested, but talking to the about keeping alcohol off the menu for that night, assessing which clubs are not going to mean scoring a few grams of whatever, it's exhausting.

TJ rubs his face and tries not to chew through his lip. "Why does it matter why I do it?"

Clark's eyes are full of something that might be pain, but TJ doesn't think he's upset, at least not about this. "Because there are other ways to get what you need, TJ. Other ways to focus pain, have it work for you, give your mind some breathing space away from it."

TJ trips over his own damn feet. "Are you talking—like, sadism?"

"Like two people in a safe, sane, consensual scene, giving each other what they need."

Walking has suddenly become an impossibly hard task, so TJ stops. "I—that's…" He wants to say, I'm not like that, or get the hell away from me or maybe just no, but he's aching with how hard he is, and his chest feels like a hammer is working its way out from the inside. "You think it would help?"

"I think it's something safe to try," Clark says. "I think it won't hurt."

"I need to think," TJ says. "I need to—"

"Yes, of course," Clark says, and the rest of the walk is quiet, the sun cold but bright, a constant.

*

There's every reason to say no. It's a risk for Clark, for his job. If anyone found out the press would literally never get over its gleeful devouring of what little is left of TJ. His mom and dad…best not to think about that. Not least, the desire is abnormal.

But then, TJ's never been normal. Normal would have been straight. Normal would have been…Dougie.

(He actually knows that's not fair. He's just not interested in being fair at the moment. He's interested in figuring out what the hell his answer is.)

He wants it, though. He wants it in his bones, deeper even than the drugs, and it's been a while since he's wanted anything that badly. Fuck, he wants it more than the way the small audiences at the clubs seem to drink in everything he plays, seem to notice the person playing the songs, the way they applaud and holler their approval at the end. He wants those moments of praise that Clark doles out amplified, he wants to show what he can take, he wants the physical pain to wipe away everything else if only for one brief, shimmery moment.

He wants. And he can have. It's novel enough that TJ knows he's not going to say no.

*

"Have you done this before?" Clark asks when they've finally managed to arrange for the two of them to have a few hours at the privacy of Clark's place outside DC. It's a surprisingly domestic bungalow, with a lot of old R&B paraphernalia, as well as more signed baseballs that TJ's seen in his life, and he's slept with at least three major league players. But it's nice: strong colors, old wood, big windows. It's a real home, as much as TJ knows what that is.

TJ has the sense Clark's fellow agents have been giving him shit for how many shifts he's switched with them to take TJ. He knows he should care, should say something, should put Clark before himself, but Nana and mom have both commented on how much better he seems, relief in every line of their bodies. They've both come to shows, seen how he works the crowd, how he's becoming a musician, not just a piano player, how he's got something of his own. The thought of backsliding, of disappointing them, returning to his parasite status, makes his chest fill up with bricks, blocking every breath. And he is better. Clark listens to TJ and when he comes up with solutions, he doesn't demand TJ use them as a condition of their friendship. Clark…takes TJ as he is, and TJ may not be sure what to do with that, but he knows he'll do just about anything to keep it.

TJ cocks an eyebrow at the question he's been asked. "Been with a man? Why, Agent—"

Clark snorts, but his voice is serious when he says, "Let someone hurt you to help you."

It shuts TJ up the way it's meant to. He swallows against the flush of heat in the pit of his stomach, the blush that wants to grace his cheeks. "No."

"How much do you know about it?"

It takes a few breaths for TJ to admit, "I've watched porn. Read some stuff. Online."

"Know about safewords?"

"Green, yellow, red, usually."

"You like that system?"

TJ shrugs. "Seems easy. Hard to fuck up."

Clark looks over at him, but doesn't press the point, doesn't make the implication into something larger. Instead he says, "All right. Why don't I tell you my hard limits, and we can discuss yours?"

"Sure." TJ's not really the one in charge here, at least he doesn't think so.

"I won't do anything that leaves permanent marks, no bloodplay or breathplay. No bodily fluids, in fact, outside of semen, and even then, not internally."

"I'm clean," TJ says, and wishes it didn't sound petulant. But he is. They tested at the hospital, and he tested again a few weeks ago, at the six week mark.

Clark is quiet for a moment. "Maybe if you decide this is what you really want. Maybe then."

TJ laughs, bitter and dull. "Wouldn't want to risk it with a slut, right?"

"Wouldn't want to take your options from you," Clark says, and it's as calm, as gentle, as respectful, as everything else he's said.

TJ blinks. Clark smiles, small and tight. He asks, "Hard limits?"

"Um." TJ's never really thought about it. But he knows there are things he doesn't like, really doesn't like. "No humiliation, okay?"

Clark shakes his head. "This isn't about that."

"But I—I like dirty talk."

"One thing at a time. Right now, what you don't like."

TJ frowns. "That stuff you mentioned. None of that sounds good. And, um, I don't want anyone else to be there—just you and me."

"How about blindfolds or restraints?"

TJ bites his lip. There's no ignoring how hard he is now. "That's…those are fine."

"Maybe more than fine?" Clark asks carefully. He's so fucking careful with TJ. TJ thinks he should hate it, but he doesn't, he can't. It's just another weakness in him.

TJ nods. Clark says, "I like impact play, particularly canes and whips, things that take skill. I like having my sub serve me, in all ways. I like my subs shaved, available to me."

TJ's shivering, but it's not about the cold. Clark pulls him in anyway, rubbing at his back and it's so impossibly good. TJ whispers, "I don't know what I like, not like this."

Clark cups his neck and asks, "Does any of that sound like what you don't want?"

"No," TJ says. "No, not at all."

*

At first, Clark just finds an hour here or there. They can be anywhere. They've done it at the farm, mom's house, Clark's place, wherever they get the time and the privacy. He has TJ kneel beside him, has him hold a cup for him, or play at being a writing desk, draped over Clark's lap. Clark almost never stops touching him during these sessions, always providing a tactile point of reference, a line of connection between them. A hand to the back of his neck, here, the brush of a finger over his cheek, there.

TJ doesn't get it. Not until he starts realizing how quiet his brain goes when he's listening to what Clark wants from him, being what Clark wants him to be. It's like playing the piano, in a way, something apart from everything else.

It's like intoxication, but the come down is easier, and there aren't broken windows and Dougie looking at him like he's fucked up again when he lands.

*

Finding more time is hard, but Clark gets himself transferred to TJ. TJ asks, "Isn't this like all kinds of not-okay, now?"

Clark looks amused. "It wasn't okay before, TJ."

"But, I mean, you could get fired."

"Could've before," Clark says.

TJ blinks, and, for the first time, gets it. "You'd help me out at the cost of your job."

Clark shrugs. "Some things are more important."

TJ feels dumbfounded. "You're in the Secret Service. It's pretty important."

"Yes," Clark agrees calmly. He cups a hand to TJ's face and repeats, "Some things are more important."

TJ doesn't remember the last time he felt like someone noticed him and liked what they were seeing, rather than just the Hammond wallpaper covering up everything inside. He doesn't remember the last time someone told him he was more important than their job, their life, their anything. No, that's not true. He can't remember something that hasn't happened. He feels a little sick with the depth of what Clark has just given him, dizzy and like someone has shaken him until he can barely stand. He whispers, "I don't want you hurt."

Clark smiles, something dark and affectionate in his eyes. "I have a pretty good resume. I'll be all right. I can step down, if it would help."

TJ's drawn into a kiss, their first. He expects fireworks, and to some extent there are, but more than that, there's the absolutely fundamental feeling of acceptance, of being home. When he's gotten his breath back, he says, "I just…I just don't want to be the cause of bad things for you. I'm always—"

"Finish that sentence, and I'm going to punish you," Clark tells him, not a warning, really, just a fact.

TJ doesn't have to consider. He knows what he wants. "I'm always the cause of bad things."

*

They go to Clark's place. He has supplies there, and it's their best bet for privacy.

Clark doesn't get fancy. He has TJ strip, binds his hands together in front, folds them into a prayer position against his chest and binds them there. Just the feel of the rope—knotted silk—is enough to have TJ hard, interested, even through the way his heart is beating a million beats per second. Now that he's here, waiting, Clark still fully dressed with TJ entirely on display, he wonders if maybe he hasn't miscalculated. What if this isn't what he wants?

Clark runs a finger along the line of TJ's spine and asks, "Color?"

TJ can barely breathe to say, "Green."

Clark chuckles, and presses a kiss to the back of TJ's neck. "Okay."

He walks TJ over to the sofa and bends him over the arm of it, gentle with him, which both thrills TJ, and makes him want to laugh, given what is presumably coming.

Clark talks as he walks away, tells TJ he intends to start with the flogger, just a little warm up, and—

"Oh," TJ breathes. The sensation of being hit is odd. Pressure and a caress of sorts, with just a tiny lick of heat. Almost like eating something spicy, that touch of just-right.

The heat builds, along with the pressure, and then there's pain, not bright like he would have expected, more dull and insistent and right. Clark asks, "Color?" and TJ hums, "mmmgreeen."

Clark's laugh isn't mean, and TJ likes the sound of it, likes everything at the moment. Clark says, "I'm switching to the crop."

TJ doesn’t really know what that means for him, but right now he'd agree to just about anything. The crop comes down on the inside of his thigh and he jerks, yelps. This pain is sharp, sharp and short and the heat that suffuses the spot moments after makes TJ suck in a breath and say, "Green, green," without being prompted.

At some point, he loses track of the number of hits, the pain melting into the pleasure morphing back into the pain in an infinity loop that TJ really doesn't want to ever end. He misses when it does. He regains awareness while held in Clark's lap, cuddled, if he's being honest.

Clark says, "So that went well."

TJ blinks down at himself realizing he was so damn high he missed his own orgasm. "You have a knack for understatement."

TJ buries his nose in Clark's neck, soaking in the feeling of being cuddled. Clark looks as though he would be hard as a board with his perfect musculature. Rather he seems to mold to TJ, warm and enveloping, smelling of sandalwood and something not-quite spicy, maybe ginger. TJ licks his neck just a little, wanting a taste, and Clark laughs quietly.

Clark kisses TJ's shoulder. "Will you let me take care of you?"

And just like that, TJ remembers who he is. "You don't have to."

"No," Clark agrees, keeping a hold on TJ, who is still tied, but trying to stiffen, give himself some distance. "No, but it's something I want to do, if you're okay with it."

TJ doesn't understand any of this, but for the first time in a long time something feels safe, real. He says, "Yeah, okay. I'd…that'd be nice."

*

The first time TJ uses a safeword, ironically, he says nothing at all. It's one of the first times they've been able to play at the farm, the house large and conspicuously silent in its emptiness. He's gagged at the time, and that's what does it.

The scene itself is good. Clark's been experimenting with shibari, and he's spent quite a bit of time molding TJ into the exact position he wants, tying the ropes with a competence that turns TJ on as much as the ropes themselves.

He's stopped the instinctive struggle against the ropes, began to slip downward into subspace, when Clark puts the gag in his mouth. It's nothing cruel, actually very simple. But effective. All of TJ's words turn into muted sounds.

Clark is talking to him, telling him how gorgeous he looks, and normally TJ would be basking in it, but at the moment he's trying to convince himself everything is fine, he's fine. Panic is prickling at the inside of his skin, crawling its way into his stomach and for a second he can't remember what he's supposed to do if he can't say his safeword. They've discussed it, but he—

He releases the ball in his right hand. The second he does it he feels the backlash of failure, but it's not as strong as the relief that comes with Clark taking the gag out. Clark pulls quickly at the notches that give way, freeing TJ. He says, "Sorry, I didn't mean, sorry—"

Clark takes TJ's face in his hands, makes TJ look at him. "You did well, TJ. That's what the safeword is for. You did exactly what you're supposed to do."

Still shaking, TJ curls his face into the touch and Clark takes him into a full body hug. TJ's exhausted suddenly, and he slurs, "Don' like not being heard."

Clark rubs his back, his palm large and warm, the rhythmic circles calming. He says in his deepest voice, the one he uses for praise and when at his most serious, "I hear you, TJ. I hear you. You're good."

TJ fists his fingers in Clark's shirt and holds on. Clark never moves so much as an inch away.

*

As much as TJ doesn't like gags, that's how much he loves blindfolds. They try the first one with an abundance of caution, but the dark seeps into TJ's chest like a damn blanket being laid over him and everything is quiet.

The blindfold becomes a reward for particularly good behavior—making it through a dinner with his entire family without a shouting match, playing a successful show, having a club show and not drinking—or a way to bring him down when Clark wants to try something new and intense.

When Clark presses it over TJ's eyes, ties it back at the beginning of a scene in the middle of the week, TJ asks, "Did I do something right?"

Clark kisses his head—TJ tries not to arch too much into it. He knows he's fucked when it comes to Clark, that Clark likes having a sub, and for whatever reason, TJ works in this instance. He gets that this isn't a flowers and forever situation. But the way Clark caresses him, drops those little kisses, lets TJ know he's there with simple affection sends wrong messages to TJ's stupid brain. He has to fight against them pretty hard. He's doing all right. Better than with Sean, so that's something.

Clark tells him, "You do lots of things right, but this isn't about that."

"Mm?" TJ asks, between the way Clark's hands, strong and skilled, are rubbing his shoulders and the dark, he's already falling. It's not a fast descent, kind of leisurely, the way he's learned he likes it best. He hasn't told Clark that. He wonders if Clark knows. Clark can be kind of a mind reader that way.

"Gonna try something, gorgeous. Tell me your safewords."

"Green, yellow, red."

"And right now?"

"Green." It's ritual by now, but TJ likes that moment all the same, those few seconds of reassurance that Clark is listening.

Clark leads him a bit, and presses his hands flat against the wall. "Widen your stance."

TJ moves his feet to shoulder-width apart. Clark runs a hand over his spine, his ass. "Can you keep this position for me?"

"Yes, sir."

"If you need to break, say yellow, all right?" Clark never makes it sound like it would be a failing.

"Yes, sir."

Clark kisses both of his shoulders. "That's my perfect boy."

TJ shudders, but doesn't break position. There's the sound of Clark walking around a bit, and then he says, "Deep breath in."

TJ obeys, and again, when Clark says, "And out."

At the low point of the exhale, pain like TJ has never felt streaks across his upper back. It is fire and knives. It is pure and consuming. TJ loses himself completely in the cold-hot burn of it, the all-encompassing nature. When he comes down, Clark is saying, "TJ, TJ, color."

TJ almost laughs. "Green. Greengreengreen."

The next stripe is even better.

*

TJ likes the play and the sex. Strike that, he loves it. It gives him air to breathe and the space to breathe it in. Clark's hands on TJ's hips as he drives in, slow and sweet, or hard and punishing, are just about everything TJ's ever wanted from sex, and half the time, the sex isn't even the point. TJ's gotten used to not even caring if he gets off or not, although he does more often than not. Sometimes he doesn't even want to, as weird as that seems to him.

He loves all of that. His favorite part, though, is afterward. It's not the way Clark pampers him, although he likes that, too. He enjoys being cleaned up and given water and juice and being cuddled, especially that last.

What really does it for him, though, is the way they talk afterward. Clark is almost terrifyingly open in those moments. He learns, one of the first times, that Clark's first name is Radley, because his mother loves "To Kill A Mockingbird." That's why he prefers to stick with his last name. He learns that Clark has three younger sisters, who are all very concerned about his dating life. He learns Clark is a cat person. He learns Clark likes Sudoku and other number puzzles.

It makes it easy to talk about himself. About wanting to be Dougie and having no idea how to even start. About the way ivory feels underneath his fingers. About always wanting to adopt a dog, something 100% mutt and desperately in need of a home.

Clark laughs, but only when TJ says something funny. It's never at TJ. He listens when TJ admits to how much he misses the high from the drugs and doesn't judge, just says, "You tell me whenever that happens, okay?"

Strangely, TJ finds himself not only agreeing, but actually meaning it.

*

Clark turns in his resignation about four months after he and TJ start…whatever it is they're doing. Mostly, whenever TJ is lonely or scared or happy or bored he tries to find Clark, and whenever Clark can, he cheers TJ up or listens to his triumphs or—

It occurs to TJ to ask, "I realize this probably sounds stupid, but are we dating?"

Clark looks at him, tilting his head ever so slightly. "I miss you when you're not around, I'm disinterested in other people as partners, I love the sounds you make, I think we have fun together. From my end, I'd at least be on board."

"And you quit your job on the chance that I would be as well?" TJ doesn't squeak, exactly, but it's a nearer thing than he's comfortable admitting.

Clark rolls his eyes. "You realize I just took a job at a security consulting firm for more money than I made in the past three years of guarding your family?"

"Don't," TJ says. "Don’t pretend like this didn’t mean something to you. Like being part of the Secret Service wasn’t a…a thing."

"Of course it was, TJ. But you're more of a thing. Much, much more."

TJ blinks rapidly. "Oh."

Clark gives him an amused were-you-dropped-on-your-head glance. "Yes, oh."

As the words begin to really sink in, TJ smiles. "Oh. Um, so we are dating?"

Clark grins, wide and unshadowed, and says, "Yeah. Gonna let me show you off?"

TJ laughs, but he thinks for once, just once, he might enjoy that.