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The Proverbial Gold Star

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Tim watched Raylan’s little girl as she hopped along with the tiny frog she had released from its plastic container.

“Hop. Hop,” Willa announced before every jump, giggling at the frog that was probably trying to make a getaway.

Tim had to wonder how he got to this point: in Miami with Raylan (of all people) as his boyfriend, and the blessing of his ex-wife to watch over their daughter as she went on a date with her husband, while Raylan was off chasing down some asshole on a sandy beach.

The frog landed on his shoe. Tim reached down and scooped it up before it could go anywhere else, lest he accidently squashed it later. Willa reached her hand out for the frog and Tim gladly handed it over, feeling it bounce around in his enclosed hands.

“Play time’s over,” Willa said to the frog, putting it back in it’s temporary home. “Say thank you to Tim.”

“Thank you, Tim,” Willa said in a high-pitched voice, gesturing with the container, before she left it on the ground and ran to the kitchen. She dragged a stool Raylan had bought specifically for her so she could reach the sink and wash her hands.

It’s a good thing Willa was so proactive about cleanliness, because Tim sure as hell forgot. He’s never had to take care of a kid before—more so, Raylan’s kid.

“What do you usually do with your dad?” Tim asked as he picked up the container and placed it somewhere safer.

“He takes me to the park, and then we get ice cream.” After a thoughtful deliberation, she added “He buys me two ice creams.”

Tim smirked. “Two cones, huh? Let’s start with the park.” He knows where the park was. Raylan and he made out in that park.

It was one year after Tim got transferred to the Miami branch where Raylan was, when the new chief that replaced Art was a pain in the ass, and thought Tim’s laconic sarcasm to be disrespectful and unfitting of the Marshal star. Tim bitched about it to Raylan and Rachel. Raylan told his chief, Dan, about the sharp shooter in the Lexington office that could replace the one that was transferring out to SOG full-time, and then Dan plucked Tim from the wild bluegrass State to the everglades of the strangest news stories Tim’s ever heard from anywhere on US soil.

Tim couldn’t choose if beating an employee with a lizard, or the man sexually assaulting an alligator for revenge was the ‘best’ of the bunch.

Maybe Florida just has something against its animals.

“Ribbit!” Willa shouted, getting the other kids to act like frogs along with her. A minute ago they were dogs when another kid was the leader. Tim was trying to peg down which kid was going to choose the flamingo, a monkey, or even a manatee.

Tim looked over at the swing set where Raylan pushed him against the metal bars and kissed him, giving him one hell of a proclamation of interest. He wasn’t picky with gender, but he never thought Raylan would ever look his way and go, ‘yeah, you’ll do.’ Before that, Tim had only wondered, when he’d catch the briefest of glances Raylan would send his way.

“The fuck you doing?” Tim had asked between kisses, willing to let the intimacy continue even if it didn’t make sense.

Raylan answered by pressing his crotch into Tim’s.

They would talk later, catching their breaths on Raylan’s bed while Tim tried to suss out what was going through his head. “I’d never labelled bi-curious as one of your stunning personal qualities.”

“That is what college is for,” Raylan joked.

“And here I thought it was for the higher education.” Tim licked his lips at the thought of Raylan ‘experimenting,’ and very acutely noted Raylan following the action of his tongue. “Seriously though, what’s with the sudden interest?”

“Honestly?” Raylan paused, stretching back and thinking something over. “I’ve always liked woman. There’s nothing better. But sometimes I’d get to know a guy and….” Raylan shrugged. “Sometimes there are exceptions.”

Tim paused. “What are you saying? I swayed my ass one day and you decided it was good enough.”

Raylan frowned at Tim, huffing. “I’m saying despite your lower than normal possession of favourable qualities, I like you.” He rolled over, leaning to check him out, and slipping his hands lower. “You do have a nice ass. You especially look good when you’re in that snipe prone position.”

Tim had watched Raylan like a hawk during his admission, and saw that he wasn’t faking his attraction—wasn’t pulling a joke on him, and it made him feel awkward. “This better not be a marshal stiffy,” Tim relented.

“How ‘bout a regular stiffy?”

“Sounds like something I can suck on.”

Raylan sighed. “Jesus. Should I be regretting this already?”

Tim initiated the kiss, catching Raylan by surprise. “No take backs.”

Nothing much changed after that. Their dates looked like their regular hanging out, but with more frequency and ending in sex. Their relationship became open knowledge to their colleagues and they could no longer ‘officially’ work together as partners. Eventually Winona and her husband, Richard, learned of Raylan’s new boyfriend, which was followed by some questioning, then a dinner, then Willa getting the official “Tim is more than daddy’s friend….”

Shit. A lot had changed.

Tim heard the ice cream truck before the children’s screams of excitement.

“Ice cream?” Willa was already on him, kneeling on the bench so she was at least eye level with Tim.

“Two cones?”

“No, I said three,” Willa said, quick as a whip.

Tim raised an eyebrow. He already knew he was being played at two cones, but three was pushing it.

“How ‘bout we start off with one?”

Willa giggled, knowingly caught. “Okay.”

Tim let Willa grab his hand to pull him along to the truck where other kids and parents were gathered. He looked at the choices, seeing a variety of decisions between popsicles and soft-serve ice cream. Knowing Raylan though, “Vanilla, right?”

Willa nodded enthusiastically, using Tim’s arm like a rope while she lightly swung around. Tim made the order, casually counter-balancing to Willa’s swinging.

“Well, hello there Willa,” a woman said off to the side.

Willa pulled away as Tim was paying. There was a franticness Tim hadn’t experience in a long time, as he attempted to catch up to Willa, and not lose Raylan’s daughter in the small crowd.

“Hi, Miss Ferris,” Willa greeted, waving her hand at an immaculately dressed woman and her bored son, whom was picking at the grass stains on his pants. He looked to be the same age as Willa, while the mother looked to have everything from her hair to her shoes in perfect order.

“Where’s your daddy today?” Miss Ferris asked, searching around the park.

Tim would know that tone anywhere. He’d seen women figuratively dive for Raylan, and it’d figured that even when Raylan wasn’t around, Tim had to be facing up against the competition. He could see it more clearly now: the low cut blouse, tousled bedroom hair, and carefully placed make-up.

“He’s at work. I’m here with Tim,” Willa answered.

“Hi,” Tim lazily said, handing Willa the already dripping ice cream.

“Are you the babysitter?” Miss Ferris questioned in confusion, as Tim figured he looked a bit too old to be taking on babysitting jobs.

Tim was about to answer, yet Willa beat him to it in the most unexpected way.

“Tim is daddy’s boyfriend!” Willa proudly announced, before taking the first lick of her treat.

He was sure he could hear the crack of Miss Ferris’s heart breaking, now smiling too wide, and eyeing Tim with bewilderment and masked contempt. “Boyfriend?”

“Mmm-hmm,” Willa answered, which made Tim frown. Willa was taking licks of her ice cream, but was watching Miss Ferris much too closely. “Tim bought me the aquarium for my froggies.”

Tim attempted to keep his face flawlessly placid, but what? It wasn’t an aquarium. He helped Raylan pick out a glass fish bowl, considering Willa’s frequent cycle of capture and release with her frogs. But what?

Willa continued to smile prettily to Miss Ferris, making sure to not let the drops of her ice cream drip too far down the cone. It suddenly dawned on him what Willa was doing.

“Well, you got your ice cream. I think it’s time to go home. Time to make dinner,” Tim suddenly declared.

“Really? What’s for dinner?” Miss Ferris asked, head tipped with a stiff smile, and eyes mean.

Shit if that wasn’t condescending. Tim knew he was being sized up, and he didn’t give a fuck what this woman thought as he answered, “Grilled cheese sandwiches.”

He’s pretty sure Willa’s excitement over his dinner choice was genuine. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have handed over the cone so readily with a delighted, “all done.”

Tim and Willa walked away hand in hand.

“Does Miss Ferris talk to your daddy often?” Tim asked as they reach the car, easily finishing off the cone in a couple of bites.

“All the time.” Willa hugged Tim’s leg before getting in the car.

Tim felt like he missed something, because he not quite sure when Willa became attached to him, or gave him the proverbial gold star.

Willa was five when he and Raylan got together, and apparently one day crawled onto Raylan’s lap and asked, “Why does Tim never stay for dinner?” She apparently caught their goodbye kiss when Tim was leaving to let Raylan spend the day with his daughter.

And then Willa knowing meant that Winona was then purview to the news. Winona wanted a dinner, a sort of getting-to-know-one-another (this isn’t going to be weird at all) type of dinner, where they spent the majority of the time trying to make awkward conversation, while Willa played with her dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.

The night ended with Raylan trying to give Willa a talk, and his little girl heaving a sigh, standing with her arms on her hips, and looking at her father with such affront. “Of course I know that daddy!”

Everyone recognized it to be a Winona thing.

“Thank god she’s not taking after you.” It was probably the only thing Tim said all night without being prompted to talk by a question. Raylan gave him that look whenever Tim said something to annoy him, especially since Tim wasn’t going to stop because they were fucking. Somehow that was enough for Winona to accept what they were to each other.

The recurrent times he and Winona met for lunch to chat probably only bettered their relationship.

Raylan still wasn’t privy to that information quite yet.

From there Tim stayed whenever Willa was over for a day or more, though he never quite knew what he was supposed to be doing. He watched Raylan play with Willa, chat with her, help her when she suddenly wanted to make pancakes.

Willa would sometimes follow him around Raylan’s apartment, watching him read a book, or attempting to count Tim’s reps as he exercised. She had a tendency to wake up early as well, something Winona and Raylan were hoping would one day abate.

One time she wanted to follow Tim to the gun range, and the both of them made a pretty firm stance on that. It’s one of those times Tim doesn’t feel sorry for making a kid cry.

“Tim,” Willa called from the backseat.

“Yep?”

“Can we finish off the story tonight?”

“Well that’ll depend if you fall asleep.”

“Well daddy’s not there to play hide and seek with me so we have a lot of time for story time.”

Tim looked at Willa in the rear-view mirror, watching her take pride in her reasoning skills. “I guess we do,” he replied, smiling when Willa raised both hands and exclaimed her excitement.

They were reading The Hero and the Crown. It was an older book that Tim had from his collection, now sitting along with Raylan’s collection of books, and altogether taking up half the bookshelf. He had a very nice bookshelf in his home. There were other things beside books, like movies and music, but Raylan liked to read. It was something he never would have pegged with Raylan, when they got to know each other in Kentucky. And it wasn’t till the end of Raylan’s stint in Kentucky that Tim even knew Raylan enjoyed reading at all.

“Is Aerin going to beat Agsded?” Willa asked.

“She better,” Tim replied.

They were laid out on one end of the reclining couch, the footrest extended all the way out. Tim had grabbed one of the throw pillows so he didn’t have to crane his neck, while Willa rested her head on this chest. She watched as Tim flipped the pages of the book and followed along as Tim read out the heroine’s attempts to defeat the evil sorcerer.

“Do you think I could learn how to swordfight?”

Tim wondered.

Raylan made it pretty clear how he felt about Willa having to handle a gun. Tim had the inclination that Raylan’s disapproval extended to something Arlo had said or done in the past, but how would Raylan feel about Willa running off to join a renaissance fair.

“Wouldn’t you need a dragon to fight?” Tim answered.

“Well, there are alligators.”

“Alligators are dragons?”

“No,” Willa admonished, “alligators came from dragons, like puppies are from doggies. Billy told me so.”

Everything screeched to a halt. “Who’s Billy?”

“A boy.”

“Huh,” Tim said, as the front door opened.

“Daddy!” Willa crawled off Tim and ran to Raylan.

She jumped to him, and Raylan deftly caught her, despite his surprise at seeing her there. He was happy nonetheless, swinging her around. Tim liked watching Raylan with Willa. There was an element of freedom to Raylan when he was with his daughter.

“Mommy!” Willa shouted.

Winona was right outside the doorway, probably arriving a few seconds before Raylan. Willa went to hug her as well, while Raylan raised an eyebrow at Tim.

“How’d you get roped into babysitting duty?” Raylan asked.

Winona answered. “Margaret cancelled at the last minute, and I knew Tim had a day off.”

They both watched as Raylan processed that sentence over, briefly making eye contact with each other before looking away innocently. Raylan eyed them suspiciously. “You two been meeting up with each other.”

“Winona’s happily married. How could you suggest such a thing?” Tim deadpanned, and then smiled at Raylan’s annoyed frown.

“Not everything’s about you Raylan,” Winona said.

Tim kept his face blank as Raylan looked between the two of them again.

“Daddy, Tim took me to the park and bought me ice cream,” Willa said, unknowingly interrupting Raylan as he opened his mouth to say something else.

Raylan crouched down. “Did he? Did you have fun?”

Willa nodded vigorously. “And then I got to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and read The Hero and the Crown.”

“Uh, I did the reading,” Tim jokingly corrected.

“I was following along,” Willa insisted.

“I’m sure you did your best to make sure Tim said every word right,” Raylan said, picking up Willa to hold her one more time.

“Yep, I did.”

“Hearsay!” Tim said, listening to her giggle at his objection as he grabbed Willa’s things.

“Say goodnight to daddy,” Winona said, grabbing the school bag Tim handed over.

“Goodnight daddy.” Willa kissed Raylan on the cheek.

“Goodnight.” Raylan’s face grew soft once again, watching Willa like she was the stars in the sky, before placing her back on the ground.

“Come on,” Winona said. “Richard’s waiting downstairs.”

“Wait!” Willa ran over to Tim, who was back to a sprawl on the couch, and nimbly climbed up to kiss him on the cheek as well. “Goodnight Tim.”

Then Willa was out the door, Winona giving a quick goodbye before she lost track of her daughter running down the hall.

Tim was frozen on the couch, hearing the front door close in the periphery of his senses, as he was once again shocked by Willa’s affection.

“You can’t tell me you didn’t see that coming.” Raylan plopped down beside Tim, putting his feet on the coffee table and almost knocking over Willa’s fish bowl. “Why’s the fish bowl on the coffee table?”

“Willa wanted to make sure Leaper could listen to the story as well.” They looked at the frog inside.

“Leaper? That’s not the best name she’s come up with.”

“It’s better than Frog.” Tim seemed to come out of his state, drawing the reclined footrest back in, and stretched out along the couch, letting Raylan settle over him.

Raylan’s lips are warm and dry, probably from running around all day on the chase. Tim could taste vanilla ice cream, and he wondered if Raylan could taste his share of the ice cream at the park. Or the grilled cheese sandwich he ate for dinner.

Speaking of grilled cheese, “There’s a cold sandwich on the kitchen table for you.”

“How thoughtful.” Raylan got up and ambled to the kitchen.

“Thank your daughter, she insisted. I would have let you scrounge for your own food.”

“That’s my little girl,” Raylan called back.

Tim could hear Raylan biting into the sandwich, probably finishing it off in a few bites. He was probably starving.

“Should I assume the park was her idea?” Raylan asked, sucking the greasy butter left on his fingers as he walked back into the room.

“Yup. The park and two ice cream cones. Tried to change it to three in the end.”

“She can’t even finish one.”

“Biting off more than she can chew? Maybe she gets it from you.”

“Is there gonna be a day where you aren’t going to try and purposely annoy me at my expense?”

“I think you secretly like it.” Tim lets a leg drop to the ground, effectively spreading them apart.

Raylan hummed, enjoying the view. “You’re overestimating.”

“Well consider it practice. I think your daughter used me to scare off a potential step-mother.”

“What?” Raylan laughed disbelievingly.

Tim told the whole story, watching Raylan’s pride for his daughter somehow grow even more. He should feel annoyed about being used—even if she was six-nearing-seven—but he had to hand it to Willa it was clever for a six-year-old.

“I think she gets that from you,” Raylan said.

Tim was about to rebuke, but stopped at Raylan’s fond look. He never considered the possibility of having a kid, or in this case, a kid taking after him. There was an underlying wave of nervousness, as he simultaneously thought about having a look into this kid, Billy, who was telling lies that alligators came from dragons.

He stretched out a hand to Raylan in a playful, begrudging manner. “I would feel insulted, but I think you’re overestimating.”

Raylan took Tim’s hand, pulling him up and into the bedroom.