They'd told them to make up stories. That the time would pass quicker-- like bringing a book to a waiting room. And Tim likes stories, so he didn’t have any trouble with that, even if his favorite novels were a little more alien-inclined than the Afghanistan desert life permitted-- and it worked at first, it really did. He’d assign names to his targets, their families; he’d come up with jobs for the older ones and hobbies for the younger ones; he’d craft illicit love triangles or forbidden crushes, and he’d felt almost like a writer, more airport gift shop paperback than Shakespeare, sure, but he still enjoyed it.
But then, like with all good books, when you really get into them-- time slows. The weeks wear on into ragged months. You forget the outside world, you get consumed, and if and when you do manage to drag your head up out of the water, you can’t quite let go of the narrative you've been clinging to. Sometimes you even crave the fiction more than the fact.
The worst part of it all, though, was even though he was the writer, the ending was predetermined. And you start to get real sick of every story ending in tragedy. After a while, you can’t help but think your own will end that way, too.
Tim’s been back in the States for three months, and he’s still not used to it. To be fair, he can’t say he’s been trying to get used to it, either.
It’s mostly a practice in ignoring the passage of time. Trying to ball it up together even as it stretches like taffy. The social worker assigned to his “reacclimation” case said to think of it as taking time to heal, not rushing something that doesn’t need to be rushed, but no one tells you how boring “healing” is.
He spent the first month in San Francisco, crashed on his sister’s couch, catching up on a tour’s worth of sleep. After that, sleep was harder to hold onto, now that he wasn’t so exhausted as to escape REM and its subsequent nightmares, so he spent the next three weeks drinking all her beer and bingeing Game of Thrones and flicking bottle caps at pigeons from the balcony, and generally driving his sister up the wall before she finally kicked him out to go blow off steam in ways that weren’t terrorizing the neighborhood birds.
So he borrowed her boyfriend’s shitty Chevy and decided to drive across the country. His sister tossed a copy of Eat Pray Love in his duffel bag just to spite him.
In the army, he’d always had a wake-up time, an order to follow, a target to aim at. But there’s nothing tying him anywhere here now that he’s back, and he has no idea what the voice in his head is supposed to be telling him, now that it’s not telling stories. Maybe some Julia Roberts-esque soul-searching could actually help.
One of the post-tour social workers that was assigned to Tim’s “reacclimation” case had asked if he’d be willing to make an appearance at a Fourth of July baseball game the next week in Miami, at the Marlins’ stadium, one of those jumbotron events to honor veterans, and Tim had agreed in an only slightly beer-fueled fog but had denied the offer of free airfare, so this was the best time for a road trip, if there ever was one. San Fran to Florida, look at some mountains, look at some lakes, leave a wide berth around Kentucky, sleep in the truck, listen to mindless radio. Tim had been in close quarters for the better part of two years now. He could do with some time alone, he reasons.
It only takes him a week, though, and he doesn’t really look at the mountains, though he does make it through the first three audiobooks of Harry Potter. Heck, he even reads his sister’s Eat Pray Love, usually during meals at truck stop diners, before heading out back behind the building with some guy trying not to make eyes at him and failing.
He supposes you could call it reacclimating to America: he sees its people, in various states of undress; he sees a bunch of paved roads and tall buildings and green forests and blue rivers. But he gets a little anxious in the Middle America states. There’s a shit ton of brown, and a shit ton of nothingness, and his palms sweat on the wheel and he finds himself glancing in his rearview mirror for his convoy enough times for him to almost rear-end a minivan outside Des Moines. He didn’t even bother with a half-hearted apology wave in response to the soccer mom’s middle finger, just pulled over at a rest area and sat staring at his knees for a while.
The audiobooks and radio and civilian driving do the trick in distracting him, for the most part, but it’s not exactly easy to quit your overactive imagination cold-turkey, especially when you’ve been using it every second of every day for the length of three tours. It comes in flashes at unexpected times, his brain supplying the cheesy plotlines: the portly lady with the Porsche walking her dog at the rest stop is a middle school secretary on the run after embezzling money from the state. The hitchhiker with the rain boots is fleeing his abusive ex on the West Coast, trying to make it to his brother’s place in New York. The little girl with the pigtails sticking her tongue out at Tim from the back seat of her family’s Jeep is going to grow up and study abroad in France and get married to a politician thirty years her senior and never come back to America. Funny-not-funny how all the characters he imagines are running from something. Of course he’s projecting. It’s what got him in trouble in the first place.
And then, suddenly, he’s in Miami, where it’s hot and the sweat skitters down his spine like a million bugs, and he still doesn’t have any idea where to go or what to do next.
He’s never been to Miami, so from what little of it he knows from Dexter, he’d thought it would be colorful, tropical, like a blown-up postcard, palm trees and turquoise water and pastel houses from the 70s. Heck, a coconut cocktail or two. Instead, it’s still brown. That all too familiar brown. The sun-baked ground crunches under his feet as he climbs out of the car in the hotel parking lot, and he physically has to stop himself from wincing.
The Marlins PR team had arranged for the visiting vets to room at a cushy city hotel rather than some two-bit motel. Tim is given a key card to a room on the ninth floor. When he shoulders open the door, he’s faced with an enormous window overlooking the stadium, which is already surrounded by people scalping tickets and pregaming at the ballpark village next door. Tim tosses his duffel on the pristine white bed, which he already knows is going to be too soft to sleep in, and sure enough, it bounces.
He showers, to try to cool off, before pulling on a plain white shirt and jeans-- he’s a (albeit begrudging) Kentucky boy, he doesn’t wear shorts -- and heading back down to ground level.
Tim honestly couldn’t tell you who the Marlins were up against, just that the opposing team’s fans were far and few between in the orange-saturated lines leading up to the stadium. Baseball loyalists are intense, Tim knows from watching his sister’s boyfriend and his interpretive victory dances, but it seems the Miami heat is the one thing that can make the non-native legions decide this game is probably best cheered for from their couches. He wishes he could follow suit.
He swallows hard and tastes sand. He needs a drink.
Following his little email of instructions, he breezes his way through bag check and the ticket scanners. At the special events booth he’s handed a cinch sack of various “goodies” by a middle-aged woman with dyed blonde hair and a bedazzled American flag across her chest, who makes him promise on his first born to meet her at the designated spot before first pitch. He wonders what shit she’s running from to have ended up at this point in her life, but the only thing his heat-addled brain conjures up at the moment is a dark wizard lord is on her tail, and now she’s trying to blend into muggle society, which just makes his temples start to pound, foretelling a migraine if he doesn’t get some alcohol, pronto.
With all but a pinky-promise, he extracts himself and navigates his way through the flood of tanned Marlins fans pouring through the stadium halls, following the traffic until he manages to break free from the tide, circling around to the cluster of food stands behind the bullpen. He forgoes the crowded, noisy bar practically wallpapered with flat screens and spouting rock music, and ducks into a shadowed bar at the end of the row.
Its occupants are mostly silver-haired season ticket holders, it looks like; the quieter regulars who’ve probably been coming to the games since they were kids in the 50s. They don’t bother to look up from their Heinekens as Tim crosses to the counter and slides onto a creaky wooden stool.
“A Budweiser, thanks,” Tim says to the bartender, who nods sagely in acknowledgement. There’s the crack and fizz of the cap dislodging, and he sets the bottle down in front of Tim in exchange for Tim’s credit card. Game doesn’t start for forty-five minutes-- he might as well start up a tab.
The overhead music is unintelligible country, and there’s a TV in the corner showing the last game’s highlight reels, which Tim stares at absently for a while. The colors kind of blur as his eyes unfocus. There’d been a guy in his squad who would listen to the Dodgers games on his satellite radio when they’d camped for the night, who Tim used to lay his bedroll out next to. “Nothing more American than baseball,” he’d tell him. Tim fell asleep to the announcers’ steady voices more nights than he could count.
Fifteen minutes later his second beer is almost empty, and Tim is admittedly buzzed because he hasn’t eaten a thing all day, and he’s also almost halfway to dozing, though it’s more just fading out of alertness. It’s partly because of the lull and partly due to the steady heat, despite the air conditioning’s best attempts to scare it off. Doesn’t really help when your bar is missing the front half of its building.
A shadow cutting across his field of vision has Tim glancing up, though, in time to catch yet another tan guy in a Marlins jersey and cap duck out of the passing current of black, orange, and blue, to slip onto a barstool a couple away.
“Can I get a bourbon, please?” the man drawls, and Tim’s ears perk up like a dog’s. It’s like being abroad again and being hyper-alert to anyone speaking English. Here in Miami, the man’s Southern accent sticks out like a sore thumb, smokey as whiskey and thick as molasses, and hitting Tim like a punch to the gut with something a little too akin to a homesickness he hasn’t let himself feel in years.
The bartender slides the guy a glass, amber liquid sloshing, and the man practically breathes it in, setting his cap down on the bartop with a glance back at the entry. His hair tufts out ridiculously like he’s just rolled out of bed. “Put it on my tab, Jer,” he says around the rim of the glass, getting a nod in return.
Tim’s brain immediately starts working to fill in the gaps. Although younger than the rest of the crowd, the guy must definitely be a season ticket holder, to be on first names with the bartender. And an alcoholic, not that Tim is one to judge. He darts a quick glance at the guy again, watches his stubbled throat bob as he swallows another pull. In the dim light of the bar, Tim can still tell he’s ruggedly handsome, a Butch Cassidy type, or Magnum PI. Tim could probably cut himself on that jawline. He’d at least feel that beard burn for a week. The guy peers at the TV in the corner cycling through its pre-game ESPN panels, unaware of Tim.
The bar is quiet for another long minute, and Tim can’t help wishing the guy would have another reason to speak, just so Tim could hear that lilt one more time. God, he needs to just suck it up and get back to Kentucky. This wandering ain’t doing nothing for him. He’ll apologize to his sister when he sends back her copy of Eat Pray Love.
Fuck it, he thinks, blaming the booze and supposing what happens in Miami can stay in Miami, and he takes a swig for courage before saying, “I’m guessing you’re not from here.”
He says it loud enough that the guy will get he’s talking to him. He knows his own accent is stronger when he’s not in Kentucky, maybe just because it’s so out of place, or maybe because he’s afraid of it slipping away, so he overcompensates. They’d teasingly called him “KFC” in Basic, or “Colonel Sanders” when there wasn’t an actual authority figure around.
Regardless, the guy startles slightly when he flicks his gaze over at him, brows raised. His eyes are green and stupidly pretty.
He considers Tim for a moment, before nodding slowly. “Guessed right.” If Tim were any more melodramatic, he might close his eyes, just for the sound to wash over him. He keeps his cool.
“Kentucky,” the guy answers, and now it’s Tim’s turn to raise his eyebrows. He’d known it was similar to his, but he hadn’t expected it to be exact.
“No shit. I’m from Lexington.”
“Yeah?” the guy huffs, looking down into his glass. “Long way from home.”
“Likewise. What about you?”
The guy seems to hesitate for a moment, squinting at Tim, before his jaw sets with a tick. “Harlan,” he says tightly, and Tim immediately understands his hesitation, and also why the accent set off such bells in his head. Harlan has a reputation, after all, and its mountain-dwellers have a thicker accent than their neighbors, developed almost out of spite, a final f-you to a state that snubbed its nose at them.
But a man isn’t his hometown, as Tim well knows. He offers a tilt of his bottle in acknowledgment, but doesn’t comment, and the man’s eyes get a strange light to them. He seems to look at Tim in a different way, assessing instead of suspicious. Tim instinctively straightens up like he’s on parade.
“I’m Tim,” he introduces himself.
The guy lifts his glass in greeting. “Raylan.”
They lapse back into quiet, but Raylan shifts subtly, tilts his shoulders towards Tim rather than the TV set. Maybe he’s as keen for home as Tim is. Emboldened, Tim asks, “What’re you drinking to?”
Maybe it’s the wrong question, because Raylan sighs down at his glass. But maybe because they’ve established their common roots, he doesn’t brush Tim off. Instead, he downs the rest of his drink and gestures to the bartender for a top-up.
“Divorce just finalized this morning,” he says. Tim chances a glance at the guy’s left hand: sure enough, there’s a thin pale circle around his fourth finger, disrupting his tan, where a ring used to sit.
“She cheat?” Tim asks bluntly, because he doesn’t do dances.
Raylan barks a bitter, surprised laugh, as his new glass is set before him. “What makes you say that?”
“Guy cheats, he orders a beer. Woman cheats, he orders bourbon.”
Raylan squints at him again. “Maybe I don’t like beer.”
Tim doesn’t say anything. Then Raylan grins crookedly in assent.
“Yeah, well. Lucky guess.”
“Doesn’t take guessing. Or luck.” Tim knows he’s pushing his, but he’ll be blazing out of Miami before the morning dew even settles. Worst he’ll leave Miami with is a black eye, but he’ll probably never see this guy again, so why not toe the line of less-than-polite conversation?
Raylan shakes his head but his grin widens, and he lifts his drink again in cheers. “To being unlucky.”
Tim lifts his in response. “Hear hear.”
They drink. Raylan clears his throat against the burn of the liquor, before turning entirely towards Tim.
“Nah,” he continues, “it ain’t her fault it fell apart. We’d hit our end a long time ago, but I think we were just too scared to say anything.” He runs a hand through his hair, which only makes it stick out more. God, this guy must have insane sex hair. The thought pops up before Tim can veer around it, but he knew that’s where his mind was going, no use pretending it wasn’t. “If anything I’m glad she gave us an excuse. We were all out of reasons.”
“You didn’t tell me you were a poet,” Tim deadpans, which makes Raylan laugh, a scratchy sound brighter than Tim had expected. “How long were you married?” He pulls his eyes from Raylan’s hands in his hair-- he’s got long fingers, which make Tim’s insides do something funny-- and tries to ask an appropriate question.
“Long enough,” Raylan exhales. “What about you? What brings you to this overpriced watering hole? Hopefully you’ve got more luck than me.”
Tim knew this was coming, as is the natural course of bar conversations, but he still finds the words drying up on his tongue. His face must do something complicated, because Raylan jumps in.
“You don’t have to say,” he starts, but Tim cuts him off with a shake of his head, searches for something vague enough it won’t make his heart start to race.
“I just got home from a long trip, and decided to take another,” he settles on. “Not sure about the luck.”
“I’m gonna hazard business, not pleasure,” Raylan says.
“That’s for damn sure.” Now it’s Tim’s turn to chuckle bitterly, lifting the bottle to his lips to chase the final lukewarm drops.
“Can I buy you another?” Raylan nods towards Tim’s beer.
Tim nods, and Raylan flicks a hand towards the bartender, who pops the cap off a fresh bottle with another hiss. He sets it down in front of Tim, and Tim curls his hand around the cool glass. Sweat is starting to drip down the back of his shirt. He resists the urge to squirm.
“Thanks,” he says, and Raylan inclines his head again.
“First game?” Raylan asks, as Tim takes a sip. He raises his eyebrows at Raylan.
“What makes you think I’m not a baseball fan?”
“Certainly not Marlins.”
Raylan just smiles, eyes twinkling like he’s laughing at Tim, but not unkindly. “You’re not the only one who can read people.”
He gives Tim a not so subtle look of appraisal, eyes scanning over his plain white t-shirt, his blue jeans, his thick-soled working boots, and there’s something in his expression that’s a smidge too heavy to be casual. Tim feels the gaze like a physical touch, and the back of his neck heats up. So maybe this isn’t as one-sided as he’d thought.
“So you’re not a baseball fan. What are you a fan of?” Raylan asks, eyes having traveled back up to Tim’s face. That smile still plays across his lips. Tim clears his throat, takes another sip.
“Not the heat, that’s for sure.”
“Then why destination: Miami? Something waiting for you here?” He rests an elbow on the bar. Having Raylan’s full attention is like standing in direct sunlight, and suddenly Tim wonders at this ex-wife, how she possibly wanted to leave when Tim suddenly feels more seen and tangible and real than he has in a year. “Job? Girl?”
“Never been to Florida. I’m between jobs.” He tries to keep his features aloof as he dodges the pronoun game. “No one.”
It’s met with another flicker in Raylan’s eyes. “I’m thinking of a career change myself,” Raylan says, granting mercy and giving him an out of his side of the conversation. “My boss has been trying to get rid of me for years, I’m thinking of finally letting him.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Getting old,” Raylan says, even though Tim knows he can’t be more than mid-thirties. “Not as big a fan of the heat as I used to be.”
“Thinking of going back to Kentucky?”
Raylan barks a laugh, loudly, then looks kind of startled, like he’s surprised himself. “And what? Go back to the mine?” He gets a faraway look in his eye, and there’s a story there, Tim knows, but he’s not sure if he’ll be able to coax it out of Raylan today, or if he even wants to try. That way be ghosts. Tim doesn’t want anyone leading him down that road, he isn’t gonna drag some stranger down it.
“So what would you do? If not-- whatever it is you currently do.” It’s an invitation to clarify his profession, but Raylan either doesn’t notice, or ignores it.
“Always been interested in law enforcement, to be perfectly honest.” And that is-- not what Tim expected him to say, not that he’d been expecting anything in particular. Let’s just say it was an odd statement for a guy from Harlan. Tim’s dad had been a state trooper, and he’d had his fair share of entanglements with Harlan’s motley crew when Tim was a kid. Tim had had a front row seat to many a lecture on the importance of avoiding Harlan and its inhabitants like the plague. Not worth the trouble , his dad always said.
Raylan looks like a different kind of trouble. Trouble Tim wouldn’t mind getting up to.
“Never too late. Seeing as you’re a free agent again,” Tim says, keeping his voice light. Raylan’s eyes are back locked with his, and Tim tries to rein in his imagination, but he’s running at an 80% certainty he’s not misreading the look Raylan’s giving him. Tim licks his lips, and Raylan’s eyes flicker down to his mouth. 85%.
“Seeing as I am,” Raylan echoes in confirmation, and Tim is about to ask if Raylan wants to blow this popsicle stand (among other things) and maybe find a burger and a beer that doesn’t cost $14, or hell, maybe just an unoccupied bathroom stall, and from the twist of Raylan’s lips it looks like he’s thinking similar things, but they’re interrupted by a buzzing sound coming from around Raylan’s hip.
Raylan breaks eye contact and sighs, tossing back the rest of his drink and licking quickly at the rim for the last drop, making Tim’s mouth go a little dry. He sets the glass on the bar and smiles a little wistfully, tugging the phone from his back pocket to silence the buzz. “That’s my cue.” He tugs the cap back on his head and taps his fingers to the brim like it’s a Stetson. “Pleasure to meet you, Tim. Enjoy the game.”
He sounds genuinely regretful, which Tim would appreciate, if he weren’t so disappointed. Raylan brings the phone to his ear as he turns away, and Tim watches him as he leaves. There’s a little sway to Raylan’s hips, that Tim wonders if is for his benefit. “Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way. Pit stop,” Raylan says to the person on the other end. A pause— “‘Course I’m still good, fuck you—” before he’s too far away for Tim to hear.
Well, fuck. There goes Tim’s chance at actually having a good time at this thing.
He debates making his way over to the noisy bar, see if there’s someone boozy and floozy who wants to find that aforementioned bathroom stall with him, just to get rid of this restless energy under his skin, but thinks better of it. It wouldn’t be quite the same, if he’ll just end up thinking about Raylan’s mouth. Instead he downs the rest of his drink, closes his tab, and leaves with a nod of thanks to the bartender. Five minutes till first pitch. He should find that bedazzled flag lady before he inadvertently gives her a panic attack.
He thinks of Raylan as he makes his way to the meeting spot. Maybe Tim can escape to the bar again after first bat, more than slightly in the hopes Raylan will show at halftime. How long is halftime anyway? It’d be long enough for a quick fumble, right? If he doesn’t show, Tim can always just head out and find a proper bar downtown, or hell, raid the minibar in his hotel room.
Bedazzled flag lady waves at him with a cheery, only slightly-manic grin when he rounds the corner. There’s a group of about eight other vets already there, most of them older folk like the patrons of the quiet bar, and they’re decked out in red white and blue Marlins gear. Tim seems to be the youngest one there. He reaches into the cinch bag he (luckily) hadn’t discarded yet, and pulls out a matching wrinkled jersey. Biting back a sigh, he tugs it on over his shirt.
The lady herds their little cluster down the stairs towards the Marlins dugout as the announcers begin their welcoming banter. As they descend, Tim can’t help glancing into the stands to see if he can catch sight of where Raylan’s sitting, since he’d be up close as a season-ticket holder, but he’s nowhere in sight, so maybe he has box seats or, hell, maybe he ditched the whole thing for whoever was on the phone. Tim envies him, briefly. But he knows his sister is streaming the game online-- he can’t slip away now.
A short gate opens to the field, and as Tim is led past the Marlins’ dugout, he casts a curious glance inside-- and finds none other than Raylan himself staring back at him, eyebrows raised in surprise.
Tim stares back. That mouth of Raylan’s is hanging partly open, and a voice in Tim’s head that sounds suspiciously like his mother’s says to close that trap before you start collecting flies , but it doesn’t look silly on Raylan, Tim thinks. It’s kind of endearing.
He looks a little like a cartoon character, but also incredibly, absurdly hot. Raylan’s jersey-- not just a fan’s, and now he gets the line about Tim not following the Marlins-- is tucked into what Tim now recognizes as baseball pants, and he’s got on grey knee-high socks and cleats he’s likely just stepped into, as he’s got one shoe up on the dugout railing, fingers gripping the laces. Tim watches as Raylan’s face splits into a grin, and then as a short, silent laugh bubbles out of his mouth, until Raylan’s whole body is shaking with it, but before Tim can think to say anything, there’s a hand on his shoulder guiding him onto the field, and yanking him from Raylan’s eyes.
He’s maneuvered into place before home plate for the national anthem, and the players file out nearby, removing their caps. Tim steps into parade rest on instinct as the teen pop star the stadium hired to sing starts her first notes. Tim casts a wary glance up-- there they are, projected on the jumbotron, thirty feet tall before God and Raylan and everybody. There’s a fish tank in front of them, inexplicably, behind first plate and the cameras shoved in their faces, and Tim’s starting to doubt if he’s awake. But this would be a weird fucking dream. Not even his imagination could conjure up this.
The anthem ends with the pop star belting her lungs out, and Tim is gathered with the other veterans to sit on display in the front row, just over the dugout, so Tim can’t see Raylan until he jogs out for the first inning. He turns around mid-run, looking right back at Tim, that smile still on his face. If Tim’s cheeks heat, it’s because of the sun.
The announcers shout his name, Raylan Givens, for Marlins’ pitcher, and he’s actually a pretty damn good ballplayer, even two bourbons deep, proving himself deserving of the cheers that thunder through the stadium when he steps to the pitcher’s mound. He strikes out the first two guys, the third hitting a pop-up that an outfielder catches easily. Bottom half, as Raylan steps up to bat, his first swing gets him a double, and despite his earlier admission that he’s “getting old,” he can still run like the fucking wind, as far as Tim can tell. And he’s a crowd favorite, it seems, judging by the cheers.
After that, the game flies by. Tim buys a hot dog and another beer during the fourth inning, learning that there is no halftime in baseball. Sixth inning, he gets a text from his sister of a bunch of flag and baseball and smiley face emojis and a grainy picture of Tim looking awkward in his flag paraphernalia, to which Tim replies with just the one of a middle finger. This scores him a laughing face. At least he’s back in her good books.
As Tim watches Raylan clear bases and strike out batters left and right, he suddenly realizes that the story he’d dreamt up for Raylan at first glance had been nothing close to the truth. Tim is used to knowing all the endings, because the endings are usually him putting a bullet in a skull and splitting, and it’s kind of thrilling, kind of mind-boggling and terrifying but also a relief, the most unexpected kind, to come across a story he doesn’t know the ending to. And maybe he doesn’t know the ending to his own story, either, but. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a sad one.
It’s the eighth inning, the sun setting in purples and oranges over the stadium lights, when Raylan honest to God cracks a bat hitting a homerun. He stands there for a moment, body still tilted, arm outstretched holding half a bat, following the little white ball as it sails off into the cheap seats, and Tim just watches him. His hair shines gold in the lights, and the breath catches in Tim’s throat a little.
Marlins win 6-2, and as the players head back to the dugouts, and Tim starts gathering up his things, he hears someone call his name and turns, pretending he hadn’t been listening for it. Raylan jumps up on the railing between the dugout and the stands, resting his chin on his arms as he leans on the bar. A group of ten year olds just about faint behind Tim, and Raylan’s eyes go a little wide as they scramble through the plastic seats to get to him.
“You feel like another drink?” he asks Tim quickly, over their hollers of his name.
Tim shrugs. “Could do.” Raylan just smiles wider, like Tim can’t fool him. A kid shoves a ball a sharpie into his face, and Tim bites back a laugh.
“Hang around the west entrance, I’ll find you,” Raylan says over the kid’s head. “Gimme fifteen.” He signs the ball and tosses it back to the kid, as Tim nods and Raylan actually winks, before jumping down and disappearing into the dugout, breaking the hearts of the children stampede that had finally arrived.
The blonde lady thanks him as he files out with the others, and Tim actually smiles back, before departing. He winds his way around the building until he reaches the West entrance, significantly emptier than the others, and he leans against the brick wall of the stadium and watches the last clouds of the day disappear with the sunset, and the red taillights of cars streaming away from the parking lot.
“Tim,” he hears, and he turns to see Raylan sauntering towards him, lit by the parking lot lights. He’s out of uniform and sans hat, changed into grey sweats and a blue t-shirt, and his hair is damp from a shower. He’s still glowing gold.
Tim’s chest tightens, randomly.
“Good game,” he says, and Raylan grins.
“Make you a Marlins fan?”
“Wouldn’t go that far.”
Silence lapses again, and Raylan brings a hand up to scratch sheepishly at the nape of his neck, looking way too adorable for a grown man. “Ah,” he says, “I don’t know if you’re too tired, or, uh, sunned out, but my place isn’t far, if you’d like to go there? Bars get kind of nuts ‘round here after a game lets out.”
Tim wasn’t gonna make the guy wade through a crowd of zealous fans, and besides, he wouldn’t mind having Raylan to himself.
“That sounds good to me,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady. His mouth still dries up when Raylan’s nervous smile turns mega-watt.
“Good. My car is this way,” he jabs a thumb over his shoulder, and they go.
Raylan drives a hulking ‘77 Lincoln. “Damn, you are an old man,” Tim says when he sees it.
Raylan only pats the roof affectionately as he opens the door for Tim, which makes Tim blush, though it’s dark enough he hopes Raylan can’t see. “Were you expecting a Mustang? A Firebird?”
“Country boy like you? I was just praying it wasn’t a pickup.”
Raylan lives about fifteen minutes from the stadium-- “I tend to oversleep a lot, figured I should live close to work” --high up in an upscale apartment building, his flat almost comically-empty, a stereotypical bachelor’s place. Raylan doesn’t turn on the lights beyond the front hall, ‘cause the place has floor to ceiling windows that give an impressive view of Miami’s glittering nightlife without the reflection being ruined. Tim can spot the inky smudge of water beyond the lights, swallowing the horizon. Even having only met him a few hours ago, Tim can already tell the whole place is way too modern for Raylan, too sleek and full of sharp corners, and the man doesn’t seem to feel at home as he moves through the dimly-lit space to the bar, because of course this place has a bar.
He pours two bourbons as Tim wanders over to the windows for a better look, bringing the drinks over with single spheres of ice clinking inside. Tim accepts it with a thanks, and they sip in the dark and quiet for a bit, just watching the lights below. It’s not uncomfortable, Tim notes to himself.
He still breaks it, though, with the burning question. “So I get the Kentucky-bred baseball thing,” Tim says, “but why Miami? ” He angles for humor. “You into masochism?”
It earns him a laugh. “It’s not all bad. ‘Should show you the beach before you leave town, the water’s bluer than anything.” Tim pictures Raylan in swim trunks and has to shift his weight to the other foot. Flushes when the thought includes going to the beach with Raylan. Making plans. Acknowledging a tomorrow, which he’s spent three months resolutely trying not to do. “Nah,” Raylan continues, not noticing Tim’s little brain fry, “I got out of Harlan on a sports scholarship, took it without looking back. If I’d have stayed, I’d have died digging coal. I didn’t have that in mind.”
“Your folks proud?”’
“Not so much,” Raylan says again with a shake of his head. “Dad thinks I think I’m too hoighty-toighty to go back. Wouldn’t be worth trying to prove him wrong.” He taps a knuckle of his free hand to his temple. “Almost quit baseball in high school, though.”
“Got hit in the head with a pitch. Caved the guy’s knee in with the bat when he came over to finish the job. Thought I’d ruined everything before I had the chance to get started. Instead a scout came to the hospital next day and said if I could swing like that with a concussion, his boss would kill him if he didn’t sign me.”
Tim huffs a laugh, because that’s just the kind of story a guy like Raylan would have. And again, it’s not a story Tim would have written himself. He’s kind of enjoying being kept on his toes. It’s a new change of pace.
It’s Raylan’s turn to interrogate. He does it gently, but Tim still braces himself. “So. Military.”
Tim hums. “Similar story. Joined up outta high school.”
“Eh. Figured I’d fight an actual war, than a pretend one.” Closeted gay kid in Kentucky wasn’t a great narrative, so Tim did what Tim did best and ran, tried to get to a place where he didn’t have to think. Just his luck though, he ended up in a place where he had to think too much. Raylan’s quiet, almost like he’s reading Tim’s silence.
“Our old marriage counselor suggested this one thing, when all Winona and I used to do was fight about little mistakes,” Raylan says, apropos of nothing. Winona must be the ex, then. “She said to picture life as this big staircase, coming out of a basement that’s flooding. And each step brings us to the next place we’re supposed to go, and I can’t turn around, because it’s all water. But that’s good. Because I suck at swimming, and I’d rather see what’s at the top of the stairs.”
He says it without looking at Tim, like he’s embarrassed, so Tim just stares at the side of Raylan’s head.
“Forget poetry, you’re a philosopher,” Tim quips. “You’re wasted in baseball.”
A grin, and those eyes finally flash to meet Tim’s. “I’m just saying, maybe it’s not right to think of it as running from something, but to something.” He shrugs. “It’s not a perfect metaphor, 'cause you’ve still got a flooded basement, but at least you’re not drowning when you don’t have to be.”
Tim sucks in a breath. For the first time in a long time, it feels like it fills his lungs.
He takes Raylan’s glass from his hand, and sets it on the floor with his own. Raylan watches him, eyes dark and tracking every movement as Tim reaches up and curls a hand around the back of Raylan’s neck, fingers sliding into the short hair there, before tugging him down. Raylan goes willingly. Their mouths meet, and it’s hot and deep, and Tim lets him in when Raylan licks at the seam of Tim’s lips, like he’s trying to chase the traces of bourbon on Tim’s tongue. One of Raylan’s hands goes to Tim’s waist, digs in enough that Tim prays he’ll leave marks, while the other reaches down and twines with the fingers of Tim’s other hand, a small gesture of intimacy that’s somehow even more flooring than the kiss, yet fits perfectly with who Raylan is. Sweet as whiskey, honest and unflinching as the burn down your throat.
“Bed’s this way,” Raylan murmurs when they part for air, tugging lightly at Tim’s hand, and Tim follows.
He doesn’t have this story written yet. He doesn’t know what tomorrow’s gonna look like. He doesn’t know that Raylan will take him to the beach, where they’ll make out in the sand and in the waves like teenagers, and Raylan will give him every perfect seashell he finds along the shore like a little kid, and those shells will find their way into Tim’s duffle, getting sand in all his clothes. He doesn’t know that he’ll end up staying another week in Raylan’s flat, attend another game on Raylan’s guest tickets, see Raylan seek him out in the stands every time he scores a run, grinning that sunbeam grin. Doesn’t know that Raylan will call him three times a day as Tim drives back across the country to return his sister’s boyfriend’s car, to talk about everything and nothing, as he makes his way to a plane ticket waiting for him at SFO, to take him back to Miami.
Maybe they’ll end up going back to Kentucky. Maybe they won’t. Tim doesn’t know any of these things. All he knows in this moment is Raylan’s hands spread wide on his skin, lips hot on his neck, his chest, his stomach, lower. All he knows is Raylan’s laugh and Raylan’s moans and Raylan’s eyes.
And he knows that he’s looking forward to tomorrow, and all he doesn’t know.