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Training Ground

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After work on Thursday evening, Tim goes out and buys an actual bed. He’s been making do with just a mattress and box spring on the floor, but damn it, he’s not going to ask Raylan to stay at his place for two days and not have a real bed to offer him.

He’s in and out of Ikea in 30 minutes, including a hot dog. He could have done it in 15 but Ikea likes to mess with your head.

The whole damn store is a maze, and Tim hates it. He doesn’t want to look at sofas and lamps and shit. He just wants a fucking bed. He should have looked at the map at the front lobby and planned a more direct route, instead of following the walkway and getting distracted by all the different options and decorative crap.

He resigns himself to just working his way through the place at a steady clip, until he gets to the kid section. There are little castle and circus tents, and rugs with race car tracks. Blankets with alligators on them. Kid size chairs in bright colors.

When he was a kid, he’d never seen anything like this stuff. Even if it had been around, his old man had never bought him anything he didn’t basically pay for later, in one way or another.

Right at the end of the kid department, there’s a bin of plush green dragons. Tim can’t help picking one up, and stroking its fur.

The first time Tim remembers the old man really smacking him around, not just being rough, he’d been about five. His momma had a couple months before, and his grandmomma was ailing, so she wasn’t around to shield him. Tim had found the book of fairytales his momma had read to him, sometimes, when she was feeling okay, and he was looking at the pictures, telling himself the stories, trying to remember the way she used to sound.

The old man had hauled five year old Tim out of the old armchair, cracked him across the face, and shoved him to the floor. Astonished and betrayed, Tim had lain there, curled up to make a smaller target, as the old man lurched across the old three season room, drunk and hateful.

First time Tim had been called faggot.

Tim had hidden the book, before the old man could burn it, like he’d threatened, and by the time the old fart had sobered up, he’d forgotten about it. Hadn’t forgotten about hitting Tim, or calling him a faggot, though.

Grown up Tim tucks the dragon under his arm, defiant, and plows on.

The rest of the massive store passes him in a blur: a million different kinds of glasses, vases, curtains with different shit printed on them, more kinds of kitchen stuff than anyone could use. Twenty different styles of coffee table. An orange couch. Decorative cushions, for fuck’s sake.

Comparatively, picking a bed is simple. Nothing fussy, nothing particle board. He finds one that’s real wood, in dark brown, notes the warehouse code, and gets out of there.

When Tim goes through check out, he lays the plush dragon down on the conveyer belt, and silently dares anyone to say anything, but the girl takes his credit card with barely a look at what he’s buying. He loads the bed into the SUV, sets the dragon on the passenger seat, goes back in for a hot dog, and heads home.

 

Back at the apartment, Tim puts the dragon on an unpacked box of books, and goes to turn on his iPod in its dock. The one drawback to Ikea is having to put that shit together. Tim likes himself some hard rock, bluegrass, country, but sometimes you’ve just got to turn up the punk.The Clash’s first album should carry him through this.

Putting the bed together takes for-fucking-ever. Tim goes through a six pack of good beer and tears the hell out of one knuckle. He wraps toilet paper around it because his medical kit is still packed, in a box, in the living room, and he does not have the patience to unearth it.

By the time Tim sets the box spring and mattress on the slats, it’s nearly 10:30. He does the sheets and blankets thing, tosses the pillows into place, and goes to take a shower.

Can’t settle into his night time routine after. His book doesn’t hold his attention. He can’t summon any interest in TV or a movie, or the Internet. Finally, he takes a glass of orange juice out to the little patio, and sits, wrapped up in an oversized Army sweatshirt, and smokes.

Tim thinks, as he watches the time click later on his phone, minute by minute, realizes Raylan is probably still up. With one hand, Tim taps out a text: Can’t sleep.

He gets a text back in a few minutes: You want some company? I’m not doing anything.

Tim: Then I’ll be up even later.

Raylan: OK… Stupid question...garlic bread?

Right, Raylan’s making dinner tomorrow night. He texts back, Stupid ass question. DUH.

Raylan: Well, OK then.

Tim: You know how to make meatloaf? Can’t get the hang of that.

Raylan: Think I can figure it out. We’ll do that next time.

Tim: Sounds good.

The new bed sounds pretty good to him now, too, the quick exchange taking him down to where he can sleep. He doesn’t understand why, but he’ll take it.

Tim takes a last drag off his smoke, where it’s down to the butt, and stubs it out in the old plate on the patio table. Takes a lungful of clean, cold air.

Tim: Going to bed. CU.

Raylan: OK. Night.

 

 

On Friday, Tim heads back to his place as soon as he’s off the clock, sort of anxious. He wants to hide the stuffed dragon, but he’s got nowhere to put him, so fuck it.

Raylan brings spaghetti fixings. He brings garlic bread, and a salad, and dressing. He brings red wine.

“You’ll like it. Everyone likes this stuff, the guy at the store said. Plus, I’ll put some in the sauce.” Raylan sets a box on the counter. Wine glasses. “I figured you wouldn’t have any.”

“Try anything once.” Tim hands Raylan a beer, one of his own favorite Stone Horse IPAs. Hell, if someone else cooks, Tim’ll drink ouzo with dinner, and he hates that shit.

Raylan accepts the bottle, and takes the opportunity to press Tim back against the kitchen counter, using his greater height and weight to his advantage, for a long hello kiss.

A sort of slow light bulb of a thought for Tim: he’s allowed to touch, not just to turn him on, but because it feels good. Just because he wants to.

Tim abandons his beer on the counter, and wraps his arms around Raylan’s back.

Dinner gets a little delayed.

 

A bit later, Raylan tips his head toward the open door of the bedroom. “Hey, you got a real bed.” He’s got Italian sausage and ground beef browning in one of Tim’s new pans, a jar of sauce and the bottle of wine wait on the counter next to the stove.

“Can’t camp out forever,” Tim says, leaning against the little breakfast bar, pleased that Raylan said something.

Raylan doesn’t mention the plush dragon sitting on the dresser, just visible through the doorway.

Tim isn’t sure how to explain the dragon. He’s got a story, about those fleeting moments in the store, his mother’s fairy tale book, and Raylan might understand. But Raylan doesn’t ask, and Tim is grateful. There are some things he’s not ready to talk about, and might never be.

“So what are we doing tomorrow? I feel it’s only fair to warn you, they’re calling for rain, and if you want to go hiking, I will be very, very cranky.” Raylan dumps the sauce into the pan, works the cork out of the wine with the blade of his pocketknife, and pours a generous measure in. He stirs the pan a few times, 'til everything blends together, and turns to lean back against the counter.

“Would you go? If I want to go hiking in the rain?”

“Well, I brought my hiking boots, so that should tell you something,” Raylan says, taking a swallow off his second Stone Horse. “But I feel sure I could persuade you to stay in bed if the weather looked really bad.”

For a second, Tim contemplates seeing if Raylan will go hiking anyway, but discards it. If he doesn’t have orders to go out in a downpour, he’d just as soon keep his feet dry. “Shit, I had my fill of marching in the rain in Basic.”

“Okay. Maybe we should go get you a TV instead.”

“You don’t like watching movies on the laptop?”

“Movies , sure. But what are you going to watch the game on?”

“What game?”

“Any game.”

“I was planning on going to the aquarium store, if you didn’t mind.” Tim nods to the open living room of the converted garage that makes up his apartment. “I picked this place because it’s on a concrete slab. I can get one of those big ones ‘cause the floor will hold it.”

“Sure. TV, aquarium store. Fool around before hand, fool around after?”

“You’re a tactical genius.”

They clink beer bottles.

 

Tim’s had two cups of coffee and read three chapters in his book when Raylan stumbles out of the bedroom the next morning, hair sticking up like he’d forced his fingers through it in an effort to rouse himself awake. He stands in the kitchen and blinks.

Tim checks his watch - 7:30 a.m. “Go back to bed, man. It’s way too early for you.”

“Okay.” Raylan keeps standing there.

Tim sticks his bookmark in and gets up, book in hand. He turns Raylan around and nudges him back towards the bedroom. “C’mon, you can warm me up.”

Raylan climbs back under the covers without fuss, and Tim joins him on the other side. Raylan slides up close, puts his head back down on the pillow, and is asleep again in minutes.

Tim props himself up with another pillow - he’d bought four, when he got the mattress and boxspring, telling himself that the extras would come in handy if any of his buddies ever stayed over on the couch, and not because of Raylan - and opens his book. He might not be able to sleep in, but it’s the weekend, and there’s no point in rushing around.

It’s another hour or so before Raylan really stirs again, says, gravel in his voice, “Hey.”

“Morning.” Tim sets his down. “You can go back to sleep if you want. We don’t have to be anywhere.”

“Mmm. No, I’m awake.” Raylan yawns.

“Sounds like it. There’s coffee on the counter.”

“You going to bring it to me?”

“Hell no.”

“Then nope.” Raylan levers himself up, heads into the bathroom. The toilet flushes, water runs. He comes back out and slides in under the blankets, presses right up on Tim. “I can think of a better pick me up.”

“Not one of your best lines.” But Tim turns toward him, and Raylan yanks, and a few minutes later they’re somehow getting out of clothes without throwing the covers back - easy for Raylan, in boxers and a tee shirt, but Tim’s in sweats and a flannel. There are some buttons and all that extra fabric, and some probably stupid looking wriggling. Tim’s book ends up on the floor, probably losing his place.

By the time Tim’s finally naked, they’re both snickering. Tim kisses Raylan, sloppy and pushy, just to hush him up, in fact.

They rub off against each other without much finesse, lazy and slow in the heat created between them, kept close and warm by the bedding. Tim takes the lead, pressed over Raylan, while Raylan shifts to accommodate him, returns Tim’s kisses, strokes his hands over Tim’s shoulders and ass, the backs of his thigh. Right under the curve of his asscheeks, which makes Tim gasp, so sensitive there, somewhere he’s hardly ever been touched.

It’s not long before Tim reaches his peak with a low grunt, Raylan following just as quiet, and Tim just goes limp and sprawls his weight all out over Raylan.

Raylan strokes Tim behind the ear and Tim sighs, content. After a few minutes, Raylan shifts under Tim. “Alright, getting a bit heavy there.”

Somewhere Tim finds the energy to slide off Raylan and faceplant in the bed next to him. He’s going to have to change the sheets, but he’s too comfortable to care right now.

“I’m going to get a shower.” Raylan throws the covers back.

“‘kay.” Tim’s just going to take a little nap. He dozes off, never truly asleep. He registers water turning on, shower curtain rings, and a bit later, the bathroom door opening, then the soft sounds of a zipper and clothes being pulled out of a duffel.

“Up and at ‘em, lazybones.” Raylan smacks Tim on the ass.

Tim is out of the bed and on his feet. The cold wash of adrenaline snaps him into focus, ready to assess and eliminate the threat.

Raylan’s against the wall, backed away from him, with his hands raised. “Shit, sorry.”

Tim follows Raylan’s look to his own hand, hovering at his naked hip, like he’d been searching for a gun butt. He force slows his breathing, relaxes his hand and drops it. “It’s okay. I’m going to shower. Coffee’s in the pot.”

He brushes past Raylan and shuts the bathroom door tight behind him.

When Tim emerges from the bathroom, there’s a steaming mug of coffee on the dresser - right next to Tim’s dragon . He dresses one slow piece at a time, drawing it out. He’s not sure what to say to Raylan. Give him what for? Apologize? Nothing?

Tim’s not used to anyone in his private space, anymore. Not used to people being around when he’s truly relaxed. He hasn’t shared housing with anyone who wasn’t acutely aware of his training, either from first hand, parallel, experience, or reputation, since the military, either. One of his fellow Rangers, most soldiers, would have known to wake him with a careful hand.

Raylan was just being playful. Tim doesn’t blame him, but he feels exposed, showing weakness, and that puts his back up.

Before heading out into the main room, Tim takes his time setting the bed to rights. He strips the sheets, puts them in the hamper with the wet towels, and remakes the bed with the clean set. After that, he throws the comforter over it all, tweaks the corners to line it up. Then he pulls on socks and boots, ties careful knots in the laces, and makes himself go out into the kitchen.

Raylan’s at the front windows, sipping coffee and staring out at the falling-as-predicted rain.

“You want some scrambled eggs?” Tim gets out the skillet.

“Sure.” Raylan turns around and drifts over to the short breakfast bar.

Tim throws some cheese in the eggs, puts toast in the toaster.

Raylan watches him cook, never quite meeting his eyes. Goes around the breakfast bar once to freshen his coffee without saying anything or getting in Tim’s space.

Finally, Tim says, still standing over the eggs, “It’s okay, man. You didn’t know.”

“I ain’t an idiot, Tim. I know better. Especially -” He stops there.

“Especially when maybe I’ve got PTSD?” Tim scrapes up the eggs and turns them over. The second set of toast pops up.

“I don’t want to assume, and you don’t have to say.”

Tim gets out a couple of plates. “I have some shit going on because of Afghanistan. I don’t talk about it because there’s no reason. It’s under control. Just - ”

“Don’t wake you suddenly? Got it.” Raylan tilts his head, little smile. “I can think of better things to do with your ass.”

Tim sets a plate in front of him. “How you have women panting after you, lines like that, I don’t know.”

“It’s the hat.” Raylan digs in.

“I knew it.”

For all the banter, things between them are a little stiff and awkward, as they clear up after breakfast and head out to the Best Buy. It’s easy to fall back on what feels more like their professional relationship, debating the merits of LCD vs. plasma screens, and how big a screen is too big for his living room.

At first, the saleswoman, who is wearing a discreet labrys on a gold chain around her neck, seems to be treating them like a couple, and Tim makes sure to set her straight, as subtle as he can, talking about my place and that Raylan is there to help him carry his new toy out to the truck, and that they work together.

It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Even with someone he’ll probably never see again, someone who’s on his side, Tim can’t be open.

Not in Kentucky.

Can’t think about this right now. Not much point in trying to solve an unsolvable problem.

Tim lets the saleswoman and Raylan persuade him into a 55” top of the line flatscreen. He doesn’t mind spending the extra money; he’s kept his expenses pretty low for a long time. Raylan goes to poke around in the DVDs, while Tim gets in line to pay, unable to shake the complications that come with this deeper thing with Raylan.

“We should drop the TV off at your place,” Raylan says, getting into the passenger side of the SUV after they load the TV in the back. “Before we go to the aquarium store.”

“Okay,” Tim says, and turns left instead of right out of the shopping center. He reaches into the console and comes up with a Dave Alvin CD, takes a glance at it to make sure it’s the one he wants, and slips it into the CD player. Music was invented to cover up awkward silences.

“If you decide to get the surround sound system to go with the TV, I can set that up for you,” Raylan says. “I’ve got something like that in Miami.”

Tim’s gut twists, that simple offer striking home to Tim that Raylan has a real life in Florida, doesn’t want to be here, in Kentucky; a fact Tim’s been conveniently ignoring for the last few weeks, ever since he’d realized he wanted something more with Raylan.

“Sure,” Tim says, finally, and navigates the rain soaked streets back to his little foothold, his little attempt at staking a claim on a life.

They get the TV into the apartment just before a downpour really opens up. Tim looks out the propped open door, shakes his head, and shuts it. “Think we’ll sit tight for a bit.”

“Let’s get this bad boy set up, then.”

Tim brews more coffee, and Raylan gets the box open. They spend the next hour in slightly strained silence, broken here and there by directions or requests or swear words, as they get the TV set up and hung on the wall.

Raylan connects the last cable and hands the clicker to Tim. “Maestro?”

Tim turns it on. The Weather Channel has never looked better. He flips through the rest - sports, movies, some local game show - all in a kind of gorgeous splendor Tim associates with movie theaters, and sports bars..

“You’re never getting rid of me now,” Raylan says, apparently transfixed by the nature program Tim stopped on. “I’m coming over to watch...everything. Basketball, baseball, football. Curling. I will get into curling for this TV.”

“You bring the beer,” Tim says, disquiet settling a little. Maybe he can bribe Raylan into sticking around with the TV. Not realistic, but he’ll take it until he comes up with something better. “Hell, if you cook, I’ll even let you watch rhythmic gymnastics.”

They heat up leftover spaghetti for lunch and watch an hour of college football. Tim barely registers the game, a few ideas slow churning behind his eyes. He tracks the movements of the players and the commercials without really taking anything in, eats what he has in front of him, spares a thought to appreciate that the spaghetti is even better the second day. Lets his other thoughts percolate.

Raylan takes their dishes over to the kitchen when the game ends. Tim gets the steaks out and puts them on the counter so they come to room temp before he puts them on the grill for dinner, and checks to make sure he has the rest of the dinner fixings.

His stomach is clenching a little, but when those few chores are finished, he has to say something, and here in the kitchen is as good as anywhere. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Raylan says, scrubbing sauce off a plate.

“Are we - is this a thing, us, I mean? More than just fucking around?” Way to be articulate Gutterson. And he used to get As in English class, too.

Raylan turns the water off. “Seems that way.”

“I’m cool with that,” Tim says. “You?”

“Yeah. What we’ve got right now, it’s good.” Raylan reaches for the blue dish towel hanging on the oven handle and starts drying.

The knots in Tim’s spine loosen all at once. “Yeah, me too. I think so, too.”

“Good speech.” Raylan stacks the dry plates in the cabinet and drapes the damp towel over the faucet.

“You know, I used to make straight As in English,” Tim says, rueful.

“Everybody has off days,” Raylan says, and crooks his arm around Tim’s neck, drags him close. “Anything else? Or can we declare this meeting closed?”

“We need to talk,” Tim says, “about what we’re going to tell people. Who we’re going to tell. If we are.”

Raylan’s ribcage rises and falls against Tim’s side, where they’re leaning together. Tim hopes he’s just thinking, not freaking out.

“Not at work,” Raylan says, finally. “Art would be okay, Rachel. Personally, I think everybody would be okay, or they’d act that way. But if it gets out to other law enforcement -”

Tim nods, wraps his arm around Raylan’s waist. “I can’t see the Harlan cops being too helpful to a couple queers,” he says, getting a little pissed, trying to shoo the anger away. He doesn’t want to spend the day hacked off about stuff he can’t control. He exhales, pushes it away.

“I don’t want to be without reliable back up,” Raylan says. “I don’t want you to be out there without dependable back up.”

“What, you think I need it more than you?”

“In coal country?” Raylan snorts. “Most of ‘em already dislike me. Probably be thrilled to have another reason to roll up slow. I’d just worry about you, that’s all.”

Raylan tightens his arm a little, and Tim leans in, surprised and little pleased. People don’t worry about him, not him personally. He supposes Art worries over him, like he does all his deputies, and Rachel thinks he’s still wet behind the ears, but it’s not the same.

“You know I can handle myself. Survived a war zone just fine.”

“That ain’t what I mean. Asshole.”

“Whatever. But it’s okay with you, if someone, like that girl at the Best Buy, thinks we’re together?”

“Don’t see how it matters. Doubt we’ll see her again.”

True. Tim can always go to another store for his electronic needs, or get stuff from the Internet. “What about friends?”

“Well, all my friends here are work friends, and then there’s Boyd. Don't think I’ll be saying much to him. But your friends, that’s up to you.”

Shit, Tim doesn’t know who he can talk to. Mark talks a lot of shit, but then again, so did Tim, back in the day. Mendoza might be okay. He’s definitely hinted at it. Denny and Markov and Buffalo, the other guys, shit knows. He’ll have to think about it.

“Come on,” Raylan says, “let’s go to the aquarium store. The sooner we’re back, the sooner we can fool around again.”

 

Tim manages to leave the aquarium store without buying everything in sight, though it’s hard. He’s wanted this for a long time, and he doesn’t want to wait. But he wants to set it all up properly, and he’s read half a dozen books on saltwater aquariums, and he knows the best way is to take it slow.

He has a serious conversation with three store employees about filters, live rock, power heads, and the like, and Raylan amuses himself with a thorough look at the store’s inhabitants. He seems to be enjoying himself, Tim notes out of the corner of his eye, stooping to look very carefully at some freshwater tea cup stingrays, and the octopus inside a container inside an even bigger tank, tentacles searching for the exit.

The store is a labyrinth of tanks two and three high on wooden shelves, busy with a lot of families with young kids who seem to be treating the place as a free aquarium visit. Tim’s done that himself, on occasion.

In the end, Tim decides on a 90 gallon tank and cabinet. He’d like something a little bigger, but this one will just fit in the spot of wall he’s got for it. He can’t make up his mind about how he wants to set up the filter, and figures it’ll wait while he does some more research. Then he goes to look at the fish, and find Raylan.

Who is backed up against a tank of rainbowfish by a woman with a little girl on her hip, flirting in a sort of sweet, but determined way. The aisles are so narrow that two people can barely pass, and there’re a couple teenage boys on the other side, so Raylan is stuck.

Tim could be jealous, except that Raylan isn’t flirting back at all.

Raylan catches Tim's eye and shrugs.

“Hey, man, you ready to go?” Tim steps up behind the woman, not too close, he’s not an asshole, but close enough that he’s clearly talking to Raylan.

“You were going to show me the fish you want to get,” Raylan says, with a crooked sort of smile, and straightens up. “Excuse me, ma’am.”

Everyone has to back up, then, and shuffle around; the aisles between the rows of tanks are pretty tight.

When they’re all sorted out, Raylan turns Tim around with fingers spread over his shoulder, then drops the touch, but Tim feels like, like part of a couple, and man, that’s good. He has to stuff his hands into his jacket pockets to keep from reaching out for him.

“You help me set up the tank, I’ll let you pick one out,” Tim says. A promise.Then adds, because he knows Raylan, “Within reason.”

 

Sunday, they don’t bother with breakfast, just grab coffee and doughnuts at a convenience store and go for a drive. In Louisville, they get out of the car to stretch their legs and poke around some used book stores, walk around town, going nowhere in particular. Look in the windows of art galleries, some paintings of the Kentucky hills. Tim likes those a lot.

The sky has cleared up, the temperature warming to almost 60 degrees, unusual for November. Lunch is sandwiches from a deli, and then another meandering drive back to Tim’s place. Talk is music, travel, shitty jobs, war stories. Nothing important, but everything important, a dimension beyond getting-to-know-you on stake out or over the cubicle divider.

The sky grays the closer they get to Lexington, and fat drops splatter on the windshield just as Tim parks the SUV.

“Think I’m going to need a nap.” Raylan follows Tim inside, crowding close up against his back.

Tim drops his keys on the kitchen counter. “How about a workout first?”

After a lazy round of sex, and then an actual nap, Tim finds a football game on the TV. Raylan sprawls out on the couch reading one of Tim’s aquarium books, while Tim finishes his fantasy novel on the other end, feet almost touching, propped on the coffee table, beers at their elbows. Here and there one of them looks up at the screen, makes a comment.

Tim doesn’t want to think about it, just wants to feel good. He learned early and well to keep that shit within his own head, but nurses the little ember down deep.

They rummage dinner out of the various leftovers in the fridge, and have messy, clumsy sex on the couch for dessert.

Raylan sighs, under Tim’s post orgasm sprawl, and scratches the back of Tim’s neck. “I oughta head out,” he says.

Tim makes a noise of protest.

“Hey, I don’t want to get up either,” Raylan says. “But if we don’t want everybody at the office to know what we’ve been doing when we walk in tomorrow - well, I reckon I ought to spend the night in my own bed.”

Damn it. He’s right. Tim rolls off him, taking care not to land an elbow in his face or knee in his groin, and perches on the edge of the coffee table as Raylan sits up and swings his legs to the floor.

Raylan ruffles Tim’s hair. Tim smacks at his hand.

“I’m going to get my stuff together.” Raylan disappears into the bedroom.

Tim gathers beer bottles and plates and takes them over to the kitchen, tosses the bottles into the recycling box and puts the dishes and such in the sink and runs some water in.

Raylan comes out of the bedroom with his duffel slung over his shoulder. Tim reaches for him, wet hands be damned, and Raylan presses up against him for a long goodbye kiss, slow and sure. Somehow, this means more than their hello kiss from Friday night, and Tim - stops thinking, and just enjoys it.

“Weekend’s been great,” Raylan says, when they ease apart.

“Yeah,” Tim says. “Have to do it again sometime.” And if he sounds wistful as he says it, he doesn’t care.

“See you Wednesday night? If nothing comes up.”

Tim nods. “Go on. Get out of here.”

Raylan shrugs into his coat, finds his hat, on the back of the couch, settles it on his head, and tips it to Tim. Hesitates, then just says, “See you,” and he’s out the door.

Tim locks up after him, doesn’t look out to watch the Lincoln drive away.

Right now, he’s not going to worry about anything. He’s going to enjoy this, the, the afterglow, and he grabs another beer, and settles down to watch Wall*E on his big new TV.

Chapter Text

Great weekend. Sunday night alone, after Raylan went home, still pretty good.

Monday, shortly after midnight, is crap.

Tim swaps out pillows with the cool ones on the other side of the bed - Raylan’s side - and tries a different meditation exercise. Nothing is working to keep him asleep. Drop off, doze, wake up. Brain racing.

Nightmares fuck up his sleep on the regular, and he’s used to dealing with those, but this is different. Tim can’t stop thinking about telling people about being queer, can’t stop his worries about Raylan packing up for Miami.

Somehow, it’s all worse because everything with Raylan is so good.

The third time he wakes, Tim gets out of bed, goes into the living room, and settles in for a hundred sit ups, mindless, and follows up with a hundred push ups. He doesn’t know if the exercise actually helps him sleep on bad nights, but at least it passes the time. By the time he finishes, he’s chilled out, head a lot emptier. Ready to give it another try.

Before he goes back to bed, Tim sets the blankets to rights, puts the pillows in place. He sets the stuffed dragon on the other side, for company, and gets under the covers. His muscles are pleasantly warmed up, and he closes his eyes, hoping to drop off fast.

Right before he loses all consciousness, his brain drives in the knife: one day you’re going to walk into the office and Raylan will just be gone.

Mother. Fucker.

Tim summons Raylan up in his memory, all the things they’d done the last few days. The sex, sure, and standing over the grill arguing over the best way to cook a steak, and driving around with his hand on Raylan’s knee. The way Raylan so often seems to find that spot behind Tim’s ear, and stroke there with careful fingers.

Okay, this is okay. Then his brain does it again: Mark, calling him a pansy for bitching about going on patrol in an ice storm.

Desperate, Tim summons up images of Afghanistan, sniper’s nests, and the calm of a little hamlet in the snow, the perfect balance of ready and steady before kicking in the door of some poppy farmer. This, he knows how to handle, and somehow, he closes his eyes and the uneasy memories take him down into sleep.

And if Tim wakes up the next morning with the soft, plush dragon tucked under his chin, half strangled by his tight grip, no one ever has to know.

Through every morning task, Tim is dogged by exhaustion, and what he later names as dread. Feels the way he used to when the old man’s step around the house was getting a little too heavy, drink and meanness looking for a target, while little Tim just tried to stay out of sight.

Nothing tastes good, coffee bitter and flat, toast dry. He can’t choke any of it down.

Tim goes into the office earlier even than usual, stopping only for a Coke at a convenience store. He’s jumpy, wary of anybody walking up behind him in line. While he waits to pay, Tim keeps an eye on the store in the anti-shoplifting mirrors.

When his Coke is paid for, Tim pushes outside, thumb hooked in his right pocket, just in front of his gun and scans the parking lot. He’s not flashing back, he knows exactly where he is, but he hasn’t gotten this far in his life by ignoring his instincts, even when his subconscious is maybe getting bad information.

He hopes like hell that Art’s got something to keep him busy today.

The office is empty and dark when he gets there at 7:15. Bubba seems happy to see him, and Tim drops in five pellets instead of three, and settles down with some paperwork. By the time Rachel walks in around 8 a.m., Tim’s already finished up and submitted one report from last week, and is proofing the second.

Rachel hands him a cup of coffee - Mondays are her days to bring in the good stuff - with a quiet good morning and heads over to her own desk. They both like these quiet moments before the office gets busy, and have an unspoken policy to leave each other alone.

Art and Nelson and the support staff trickle in a little before nine. Raylan strolls in at fifteen minutes after without apology, sets his hat on the desk, and takes his coffee over to the microwave to heat it up.

Tim’s shoulders drop, a little, tension draining out, when he catches the familiar amble from the side of his eye. He has to bend his head over a file to stop his instinctive glance and smile. Thank God Raylan had the sense to go back to his place last night. If they’d woken up together, Tim doesn’t know how he could have hidden his reactions to the man.

Not long after Raylan shows up, Art leans out of his doorway. “Tim, come in here for a minute.”

Tim hides a flinch. There’s no way Art knows about him and Raylan. He calls Tim into his office all the time, and he just needs to get over his paranoia. Shit. Paranoia. Just what he needs, to have that come back.

At least Tim gets his wish to be busy when Art assigns him the threat analysis on Judge Riordan’s hate mail. Once Art hands out the other assignments and the others scatter, Tim settles in the conference room to start sorting the pissed off from the dangerous. The hate letters, from convicts and their families, are almost entertaining, if you enjoy profanity and crimes against grammar.

The first few times, Tim just skims over it. The swearing and name calling don’t interest him. He’s looking for threats, especially detailed action plans, from writers with a history of violence.

It’s slow going, and he starts skimming through for key words. He’s not surprised by just how many people, men and women, sent Riordan hate mail saying not only that they hate him, but want him dead. The amount of detail on how they’d like to achieve that goal is a bit strange, though. Even the criminal shitkickers of Kentucky have to have some idea that threatening a federal judge is a crime, and putting it down on paper is beyond stupid. Riordan must really have a talent for pissing people off.

But. Death threats and pure nastiness (I hope you get ass cancer, I’m going to feed your dick to my cats) aside, one thing starts piling up for Tim. One thing over and over, thrown in not because it was true, but because it’s one of the worst things they can think to call Riordon.

Faggot.

Queer.

Pansy.

And those are just the single word slurs.

Tim folds up the current letter, sets it on top of the ‘middling threat level’ stack, and shoves back from conference room table to take a coffee break.

He elects to head out of the building to a Starbucks down the street just to clear his head. He doesn’t bother to grab a jacket, just fast walks the two blocks, gets a mocha and a big cookie, and returns the way he came.

Art eyes the pastry bag in Tim’s hand when he comes in. “If I’d known you were making a coffee run -”

“-I would have asked for a signed note from your wife,” Tim says. Leslie had passed the word that she preferred they not enable Art in his occasional detours from the path to good cholesterol.

Tim takes a seat at his desk to check his email, takes the lid off his coffee, and unwraps the chocolate chip cookie. Bubba mosies over to the side of the jar, hoping for a handout.

Hatred isn’t new to Tim. He’d been hated by Taliban who feared his rifle, who’d lost comrades, sons and brothers and fathers, to him. Hated by ordinary Afghans and Taliban alike for simply being an American soldier, part of an occupying force. Been hated by a few of his soldiers, when he was their Sergeant.

Those hates make sense to Tim.

Hell, when it came to the enemy, Tim and his fellow Rangers had relished being hated. Meant they were doing their job right. Meant they were the biggest assholes on the block, and Tim won’t lie to himself, he’d needed that at the time. Made it easier to do what he had to, as a soldier. Had even bragged about the bounties on his head to the others. They’ll pay thousands to kill me. Even more to torture me. I am badass.

But this. This. Somehow, who he loves is worse to these people than just about anything. Something he is, just breathing, working, sleeping, is enough to condemn.

And sometimes, that gets Tim in a place where he’s still tiny, still curled in the bottom of the linen closet listening for the old man’s step on the stairs, so he doesn’t hear him crying about Momma, dead and gone now these six months.

Boys don’t cry. Only faggots cry.

Tim take the top off his coffee and stirs it, breathing slowly to bring his heart rate down, like he’d been taught in sniper school. Concentrates on the steam and swirls of foam on top of the coffee, like the counselor he’d seen after the military, before training at Glynco, had suggested.

Just as he gets down to sorting his e-mail, Winona breezes through the doors of the office like a woman on a mission. Tim looks around for Rachel or Raylan - both out of the office - and tries not to catch her eye.

Today is not his lucky day. She stops in front of his desk with her hands on his hips. “They’re trying to get Gary to wear a wire. Raylan’s got to stop this.”

“Not my business,” Tim says, leans back in his chair, the little voice in the back of his head saying, what is she running from?. “Talk to Art or Rachel.”

He doesn’t see anything in the hallway, but he’s not quite ready to give the all clear. Yeah, it’s ridiculous, but sometimes, you just have to surf the paranoia as light as possible, to get to the other side. Resistance just drags it out.

Winona pulls out the extra chair by the corner of his desk and flops into it. “He can’t just palm me off on the other Marshalls.”

Tim suppresses a sigh, annoyed.Shouldn’t have divorced him. “You know he can’t work on anything involving you. Did you try talking to Gary?”

Winona looks away. Licks her lips. She’s either terrible at hiding her tells, or not even trying: Winona and Gary aren’t doing too well.

Tim wonders if she’s trying to get Raylan back with this cry for help. Over his dead fucking body. Startled at his own surge of anger, even a little alarmed, given the way his head is right now, Tim tries to dial it back.

“Look,” Tim says, eying his barely touched cookie and wondering if he can use it to bribe Art into talking to Winona himself, “I’m not involved in your case. I literally can’t do anything for you. But it looks like Art might be free in a few minutes, you want to wait.”

Art is in his office on the phone, leaning back in the banter stage of the conversation.

“It’s hard to talk to Art. Officially. I mean, I knew him when we, when Raylan and I, were still married,” Winona says, like that somehow means she knows Art better. A little hint of superiority? Or maybe Tim’s just having a shitty day and there’s nothing to read into it.

Still, Tim can’t help but dislike her a little. Sounds to him like she hadn’t approved of what Raylan was when it came to making a life with him, and had expected Raylan to magically become different.

Well, Tim likes Raylan how he is, fast gun and obsessive tendencies and all. And he does not have the bandwidth for this shit today. He shrugs, and says, “That's your only option right now. Rachel won’t be back today.”

“No, I - I don’t want to interrupt. I mean -”

Tim catches Art’s eye, and tilts his head a few degrees in Winona’s direction.

Art puts down the phone, and comes to his office door. “Winona? You got some questions about your case?”

Winona pushes up from the chair, smooths her skirt over her hips, and pastes on a smile. “If you’ve got time.”

“Come on in.” Art steps back to let Winona pass, narrows his eyes at Tim, who breaks the cookie in half and wraps it in a napkin, sets it at the edge of his desk where Art can grab it later. He pays his debts.

 

Day two of the Judge Riordan situation, and Tim got a solid four hours of sleep, courtesy of a five mile run right before he went to bed, more melatonin pills than the label recommends, and half a drinking glass of bourbon.

Today has been better than yesterday, with some sleep under his belt, but the thread of paranoia still runs through tim’s subconscious, maybe even more tenacious. Tim wonders if he should go back to the anti-anxiety meds just to root the damn thing out. Probably take longer to get back on the meds than this episode will last, though.

Stress does this to him, once in awhile. Happened before, it’ll happen again. Experience says he needs to just ride it out. Maybe he can get some sit-ups in at lunch, or go down to the range. Something mindless and meditative.

Before he can do any of that, he partners up with Raylan to track down some leads on the asshole targeting Riordan, and he follows Raylan downstairs, gets into the Lincoln.

“Talk to the wife, get some lunch after?” Raylan clicks the seatbelt in place, and fires the car up.

“Ex-wife,” Tim says. “Sure - take 75 south - I could eat.”

“Ten four.” Raylan slides the car into traffic, hands sure and smooth on the wheel.

“Winona came into the office yesterday. Seemed all worked up - they want Gary to wear a wire?” Tim lets the question hang in the air, like he isn’t concerned about any of that shit. Well, he doesn’t give even a sliver of a fuck about Gary, it’s true.

Raylan shrugs, bears right into the 75 on ramp. “Art mentioned something. Not my case.”

“She asked for you.”

For a few seconds, Tim doesn’t think Raylan will respond.

Then, “Sounds like something she would do.”

Evasive? Tim sighs, decides to drop it. He’s still a little on edge, and maybe a little too inclined to see things in a bad light. Speaking of, the verges on the highway aren’t looking too safe. Tim reaches for his coffee, slotted into the center console, and tries to let it all slide by.

“You think she’s trying to get me back?” Raylan asks. Mild, a little curious.

Not an accusation, and Tim carefully tries not to take it as one. “I get the impression she’s done with Gary.”

“Maybe. But that’s her look out.” Raylan sets the cruise control, settles back in his seat, one hand draped over the top of the steering wheel. Casual. “You worried about me? Me and her?”

Tim licks his lips. “No. Maybe. A little.”

Rayan looks over at him, corner of his mouth curling up. “You want to settle on an answer?”

Tim settles on a partial truth. “Shitty couple days, that’s all.”

“You okay?”

“Didn’t sleep well, last few nights. And I’m feeling a little. Too alert.” Tim stares down the edge of the road.

“You must have missed me.” Raylan changes lanes. "Anything I can do? Aside from blow off the judge to come over and wear you out.”

“No. I don’t think so. I just gotta get some sleep.” Tim sits up straighter, turns half around and stares at something - some boxes - on the side of the road. There’s a bag of trash half under them, and Tim can’t stop seeing it as a prone rifleman.

“Tim. Tim. Tim. Eyes front, buddy. Nothing over there.”

“Shit.” Tim straightens in his seat and scrubs his hand over his eyes.

Raylan takes the exit leading to the slightly run down neighborhood where the suspect’s ex-wife lives.

Back to business, Tim. “Take Chickpea St. It cuts through to Hennessy.”

 

An accident on 75 slows the return drive to a crawl. At the first chance, Raylan takes the off ramp and ducks back down onto surface streets. This route probably won’t save any time, but at least they’re moving.

Tim hates the weakness, but he has to ask. “You’re seriously not interested in going back to Winona?”

“No.” Raylan breathes out, a slow, drawn out exhale. “We’d have the same problems as we did the first time around. Hell, we have the same problems. You’re probably stuck with me.”

“Well, I guess I can put up with you, for awhile.” Tim exhales, the little jagged edges of worry smoothing out.

Raylan detours to a taco stand, and they eat in the car, like fifty times before.

Tim starts to wonder if it seems weird, the two of them eating lunch on the car. Together. He hadn’t worried about it before, but now that he and Raylan are an item, now that the idea of telling people is on the table, Tim can’t stop thinking about people knowing. “Do you ever feel like people are watching you? And I don’t mean because of how your ass looks in your jeans.”

Raylan unwraps his second taco. “My ass does look pretty good.”

Tim nods. Raylan’s ass is fantastic. “But I mean -”

“I know what you mean.” Raylan chews, takes a hit off his iced tea. “Not really. I decided everyone could just fuck off a long time ago.”

“I feel like I’ve had a target on my back since high school.” Well, earlier than that. But that’s not the same thing. Maybe. “In the Army, we had to be careful. Really, really, careful. Most of the guys were cool, but there’s always someone who cares more about the regs than the guys in his unit.”

Tim had really wanted to serve, and his ingrained caution had done right by him. But he’d never been able to relax. Shit, that explains a lot, when he thinks of it like that. “Before that. East Texas, you know?”

Raylan breathes, for a minute, the way he does when he’s trying not to let someone have it.

Tim probably deserves it, after starting all this shit, and during work too. He doesn’t expect what Raylan says next.

“That really sucks. I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”

Tim shrugs and looks out across the parking lot, not used to the sympathy.

“Tim. I know it’s probably hard to believe, but people aren’t trying to hunt you down. Or catch you out. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell does not apply out here.” Raylan reaches out to his forearm, a light touch. “We both got reasons not to say anything at work, but other than that, it’s no one’s fucking business who they think you are.”

“People make it their business. The first time I ever got called a faggot, I was five years old,” Tim says.

Raylan’s hand slides down to hold onto Tim’s. “I’m sorry. Kids can be cruel.”

“My old man. He found me reading a book.” Tim squeezes Raylan’s hand, then pulls his away. “Look, I don’t really want to talk about it. We better head back to the office. It’ll all pass in day or two.”

Raylan pats at Tim’s knee. “Sure.” He gets back on the road, and says, casual, as they get into the flow of traffic, “You’re old man still alive?”

Tim’s mouth twists. “Nah. Died while I was in Basic.”

Raylan smiles, the cold smile of a man used to dealing violence. “Good.”

 

Back at the office, Tim writes up his analysis of the Riordan threats, for the file, and takes it over to Rachel, since Art’s out, for a quick run through before he makes it official.

She takes the print outs and sets them in her inbox “Hey wait a minute,” she says.

Tim turns around.

“We should have lunch soon,” Rachel says. “Catch up.”

She’s looking away from him, at her computer screen, and Tim’s pretty good at reading people. This isn’t just a check in, is it? Or maybe it is. Tim unofficially reports to her, an arrangement he’s always been fine with, as a relatively new Marshal who wants to excel. Between Rachel and Art mentoring him, he’s learned a lot about this job.

“Sure,” Tim says. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“Nothing in particular,” Rachel says, still a little off. “You’ve been working with Raylan so much I’ve barely seen you.”

“Okay. Maybe tomorrow?”

“We’ll work something out,” Rachel takes the draft of Tim’s analysis out of the inbox and reaches for a red pen.

Tim heads back to his desk, wondering what that was about. Feeling a little uneasy. It can’t be about him and Raylan. Can it?

 

With Nelson and Raylan on Judge guarding duty, more than usual falls on Tim and Rachel’s plates, and they don’t get out of the office ‘til seven. Things are pretty quiet right now, at least. Tim heads home, shucks his work clothes, and pulls on old gray pants and a flannel shirt. He hooks a beer out of the fridge, drinks it standing in the kitchen

Makes a decision. He won't let this thing have the upper hand anymore. He gets an old jacket out and shrugs it on, considers his side arm, and decides to take it. The neighborhood he’s going to ain’t that great, plus he finds it comforting. He scoops up his phone and sends a fast text.

Mark’s sitting on the steps of the halfway house in Louisville, waiting for him.

“Can you get loose?” Tim slides out of the SUV, eye fucks a couple of guys hanging out on the corner half a block away. If anything happens to the company car while he’s off duty he’ll never live it down.

“Hey, man.” Mark stands up, and they embrace. Mark feels a lot less fragile, or so Tim tells himself. They break apart. “If you sign me out, I’m all yours.”

Tim goes inside, talks to the guys in charge, signs something taking responsibility for Mark. Smacks him on the arm where he's leaning against the office wall. “Let’s go, asshole. Your daddy says I have to get you back by 10. Going to be sitting out on the porch with his shotgun.”

“Not my fault you look like the kind of boy who won’t take no.” Mark follows Tim outside.

The SUV is unharmed, and the rational part of Tim isn’t surprised. Tim beeps it open, and they climb in. They get a sack of burgers and fries and a couple of Cokes from a drive through, and find a parking spot by the river.

“How’s rehab?” Tim unwraps his cheeseburger, and carefully sets his fries in the console drink holder.

Mark is doing the same in the passenger seat. Says, around a few fries, “Sucks ass.”

Tim gives him a Look. A you-better-be-taking-this-seriously-fuckwad Look. After the trouble Tim had taken to get him back into rehab after the last time Mark had wandered off from the ER, he better not be fucking around.

Mark adds, fast, “I’m doing it all. Okay? meetings, steps, counseling, all that shit. Okay?”

“I better not get a call.” Tim’s voice is hard. Not a voice he breaks out much, since the Rangers. But last year, Mark had asked Tim to be his emergency contact after his family refused to handle his shit anymore, so Mark had better deal.

“You won’t, I swear.” Mark’s got a set to his jaw that Tim has learned to believe.

Tim nods, satisfied, and changes the subject. “You hear about Denny?”

“Sabra’s divorcing him? Yeah, Markov told me. Talked to him last week.”

“Told him not to marry her.”

“Everybody told him not to marry her,” Mark says. “You can’t tell a guy anything when he’s in love...”

“...on leave,” they chorus together, and share a smirk.

“What about you? What’s been going on in Tim-world? Catch any serial killers?”.

Tim rattles the ice in his cup. This is what he came here for. Man up, Gutterson. “I’ve been seeing someone.”

“Other than me? I’m hurt.”

“For real, man. I’m dating this guy.”

“Seriously? Like, dating? More than once?”

“Yep.” Tim lets it stand there. He said it, and now he has to deal with the fall out.

“That’s. That’s good. Is it? I mean, are you happy?”

“With him, yeah. Feel kind of like I have a target on my back. So we have to keep things quiet.”

“You don’t have to hide it. You never had to hide it, not from me,” Mark says, with that square jawed determination that makes Tim think of helicopter dust and cold, clear air, of bright bursts of gunfire and hiking through a war zone.

Tim doesn’t know what he feels, right now. A little relief, but he knows for sure that keeping it to himself was the only thing he could do. “Sorry,” Tim says. “I didn’t want to lie to you. But there’s DADT. And before that, where I grew up, it was impossible.”

“You didn’t want to talk about it, so we didn’t,” Mark says. “But all the guys knew. Or we figured it, anyway. And it don’t matter to us.”

Tim rattles the ice in his cup again, against the dryness of his mouth. Mark passes over his own half finished drink, and Tim sucks in great swallows.

From all the years they were in and out of warzones together, Tim should have known they’d have his back.

“So does this guy have a name?”

Steady, supportive Mark. This is what he misses when Mark’s using.

Tim takes a deep breath. “His name’s Raylan. He’s a Marshall, too.”

“You going to get in trouble for shopping at the company store?”

Tim licks his lips. “Ain’t against the rules. But. Nobody knows. Not about us. Me or him.”

Mark doesn’t say anything right away, rare in their usual back and forth. Then: “So I’m the first person you told?”

“First and only,” Tim says.

“I’m honored. I mean it.” Mark holds up his fist, and Tim bumps it.

“I figured you couldn’t get too mad at me,” Tim says.

Mark nods. “Haven’t really heard you say it though.”

“Say it?”

“That you’re gay.”

“I told you, man.”

“No you didn’t. You said, quote, I’m dating a guy. Say it,” Mark says, smirking. “Come on. It’s easy. Three syllables. I am gay. Even Sgt. Saves His Words can manage that.”

“Oh my god, you are such an asshole.” Tim is, is, somehow, he’s laughing, out loud, free and loose. Release, and relief, that Mark is cool with this, that they can laugh about it. “Okay, okay. I am gay. Dickwad.”

“See? Not so hard.” Mark snickers. “Or is that what he said?”

Tim slugs him in the upper arm. “See if I take you out for burgers again.”

Tim checks his watch. 9:30. Have to get going soon. Grabs up some food wrappers and stuffs them in the bag, takes the ones Mark hands him and bundles them in. “I’d like to bring Raylan around some time, so you can meet him.”

“Sounds good,” Mark says. “I got some stories to tell him.”

“I’m going to get you a muzzle.” Tim turns the key. “Speaking of, you got everything you need?”

“Yeah, I’m good, man. Maybe you could come by soon, we could go to the bookstore? I’m about done with Lord of the Rings.”

“Sure. I could bring you some, too. I got a stack I’ve already finished.” Tim and Mark used to trade books back and forth all the time, mostly liking the same ones, though Mark liked the Harry Potter books way more than Tim did.

The road back to the halfway house takes too much time and too little. Tim has a lot of things he wants to say, and no idea how to say any of them. So he doesn’t say anything at all. Mark probably knows. He’s always been good at understanding the stuff Tim doesn’t say.

When they get back, Tim pulls up to the curb.

Mark reaches for the door, but doesn’t open it. “Tim. Thanks for trusting me. I know I haven’t been there for you, since, since the Oxy.”

“Don’t worry about it, man. You were sick. I’m just glad you’re doing better.”

Mark leans over the seat, gives Tim an awkward half hug. “Don’t be a stranger. You better bring your man around soon.”

“Yeah, okay. Go on. Going to be late.” Tim watches until the door shuts behind Mark, and then spins the wheel to head back to Lexington.

Man, it feels good to get that over with. To, to tell someone, outright, he’s not quite sure how he feels about that.

In the Rangers, he’d relied on Mark’s support, personal and professional, had come to expect it. The last few years, that support had been shaky, with Mark addicted to Oxy, but it had never entirely disappeared.

He should have trusted Mark.

Maybe he should trust Raylan, too.