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woke with the mourning sound

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The dust settles like it always does. One thing leading into another, like phases of the goddamn moon. Three months with the weight of his fancy promotion hanging over his head before Roland just can't shake it any longer. He hands his badge off to a superior right there on the job and goes home. Starts packing.

Writes a pair of letters.

One he doesn't expect to do any good, that particular bridge long since burned even if Roland can't quite bring himself to stop from trying to hop across, a scab never quite left alone long enough to scar up.

The other's little more than a shot in the dark. Regret made manifest, or something like it. A tangible thing that he can point to as he lies to himself about having tried. As if this or anything else he’s done comes close to being enough.

Says a lot about a man who's able to pack his life into a couple boxes.

None of it good.

 

 

His daddy's place hasn't changed since Roland threw his lot in with the war, his means of getting the hell out of dodge. He walks the line dividing it from their neighbor's lot, existent on paper if not so much on the ground. Time was that it was Roland's chore to keep up the fence. Doesn't seem like it's gotten any much more minding in his absence than it'd had when Roland neglected it on purpose.

The house is in decent enough shape, if only thanks to how it shapes up in comparison to the rest of the property. Wood damage here and there. None of it so bad that Roland'll need to contract out.

He spends the first night in the backseat of his car, too tired to deal with what needs doing.

Roland wakes before sunrise, as if being back on the land has rekindled a sense of duty even the army hadn't been able to drill into him. His daddy would just love that.

 

 

He spends the next few weeks fucking around on the roof, tearing up floorboards, patching the fence. Isn't long before he swaps his Coronet for a Ford pickup, and it's that as much anything that cements for Roland that this is his life now.

Word gets out. West boy back in town, sniffing around like he's planning to make something of his family's stake.

Nobody stops in to be neighborly, which is just about what Roland expected. Closest thing to it comes when a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses darken his doorstep, preaching the good Lord's word, or some approximation whereabouts. Even a man as sociable as Roland isn't so desperate that he needs their conversation; still, there's no pretending you aren't home in the county. Roland greets them at the door and shares his being an atheist right before he slams it shut in their faces.

Instead, for his trouble, Roland’s left with a constant barrage of depressing reunions whenever he's forced to venture off past his property line.

Roland's postman played point guard on the basketball team with him. The woman stationed at the checkout of the only grocery store in town worked up the nerve to ask Roland out a good three times from middle to high school, and each time he turned her down. The gas station manager was the star of the football team — sorta shit like that, over and over again, every which way he turns. Seems like the majority of Roland's high school class collectively failed to get farther than the county line.

They ask about the Purcell case, every one of them. Roland directs what might generously be labeled credit exclusively to Purple, citing his own contributions as minuscule. "You know how it goes," he says, accent thicker than it ever managed to be up in Arkansas. "Brass tried to make it seem like I was the one figurin’ shit out, me being white."

Used to be that Roland would get his ass kicked on the regular for talking like this. Saying the things that people didn't care to hear.

It's a few hours drive to find a store that sells sheets with enough quality to be worth sleeping on. That's about the one kind word Roland's ever been able to muster for his hometown; that Houston’s in driving distance.

He can clock the moment they realize he hasn't changed, their eyes glazing over. Some of them still seem to have that urge in them from way back when, getting hot and bothered under their collars. He can see them doing ass-kickin' calculus in their empty little heads, weighing their options. Roland stares them dead in the eye knowing full well that cowards of their sort are more likely to strike when a man isn't expecting it, especially in these parts.

He keeps a gun under his pillow, resting on his nice sheets, and wishes that one of them would.

 

 

Roland has the phone reconnected for the sole purpose of serving as a lifeline should a fire break out. Though he can't say if the odds of it occurring lean toward a lightning strike or his own shoddy electrical work. Time'll tell on that one.

The payout from his parent's life insurance policy's been sitting in an account at the bank in town since they passed, collecting interest. Roland dips into it to buy cattle up from local auctions, a horse or two when he can tell the man selling them is too ignorant to know their eventual worth. The AT&T bill becomes one of many, expenses he jots down in a ledger after balancing his checkbook at the end of each month.

He spends his time making trips here and there over to Houston, reconnecting with fellas he knew during his rodeo days, making friends with restaurant suppliers. Gaging interest. Mindful of what it is a man can do on his own.

His days roll, one into the other, until winter landing down actually comes as a surprise, changing up his routine. Roland makes an attempt at Thanksgiving and finds the whole affair more trouble than it's worth. Christmas exists as something beyond the threshold of his attention, only registering the times it’s brought up on TV or the radio, everyone talking about gifts, gifts, gifts.

Phone rings for the first time just after midnight o'clock on a Friday. Roland stares at the thing like it’s snuck its way into the house while his back was turned. He hadn't thought to bother with an answering machine, and so it rings and rings until Roland remembers how this dance is supposed to go.

He picks the handset up out the cradle, holding it to his ear. "Roland West."

The other side of the line is quiet and loud at the same time. Roland wonders if it's a wrong number. There's breathing. Far off voices behind it. A muffled sob.

Every good feeling that somehow managed to take root inside Roland these past six months vanishes right-quick.

"Hey now," he says, voice taking on a specific sort of timbre that he hasn't found much use for with people these days. Once was a time he trotted it out whenever he had cause to interact with spooked children, or, well —

There's a couple pathetic sniffs before Tom Purcell himself croaks out, "Detective West."

It doesn't need commenting on, but there's only so much Roland can do over the phone, so he asks it all the same, "You doing alright, sir?"

He listens to Tom breathe, miserable somewhere hundreds of miles away. Tom starts muttering, words blending together that Roland can't make out. He's drunk, that much is obvious, and Roland isn't sure what to do. "What d'you need, Mr. Purcell?" he asks. "Just say, and I'll make it happen."

Roland's never been altogether good with talking over the phone. He needs to look a person in their eyes, see what their body is doing, adjust his approach to their reactions.

He doesn't know what he'd been thinking, sending Tom that letter. You ever need anything, he'd written, just call. He hadn't bothered with that much for the one he'd sent Purple. Just put down the number for his parents' place along with his signature, figuring that it'd get the point across.

"I'm so fucking tired." Tom's voice is thick. With drink, Roland supposes, if Tom hasn't moved on to harder means of losing himself since he last set sights on him.

Roland pretends like he doesn't understand, mostly in hope that Tom might be suggestible enough to do the same. "Well that's alright," he says. "It’s pretty late. Why don't you go on home to rest, huh?"

Tom's swallow carries across the line. "Ain't rested in months." His breathing starts coming in rapid little gasps. "How can I? Those kids was my entire life. My kids—"

Roland starts shushing, staring at his keys hung up beside the front door. "Where you at?"

"Ain't sure." He sounds lost, fear creeping in. "Got tired of everyone looking like they knew my soul." Anger joins that fear, tangling together. "So I goes driving. I'm down in Alma, I suppose. Some street called Collum."

It's enough. "Tom," Roland says, "What's the callback on the payphone?" He flips over a piece of mail near the phone and writes down what Tom reads off to him. "That's just fine. You give me about ten minutes and I'll call you right back, alright? Don't move."

Roland dials over long-distance to the main station office in West Finger, still having the number memorized. Asks the officer on duty if he knows the direct line for the office in Alma and then calls them right up next once he’s got the number. There're few things Roland likes less than trading on his name, but he does it now, stressing his role in the Purcell case before asking them to send someone out along Collum to pick up a drunk and disorderly.

"I tell you fellas, I'd owe you one if you could keep this thing quiet." He's stepping into his boots as he says it, thinking about how far he can make it before he'll need to stop for coffee. "I'll be there with the sun."

 

 

It's a different officer that greets him at the station than the one he spoke to hours ago, but it seems the knowledge of Roland's purpose got passed over easy enough. Roland says his name and gets buzzed past the door in the lobby without any sort of fuss.

They've got Tom locked up in one of the cells, as requested. He isn't the least bit surprised that the big ring of keys next to the cell opens the door to Tom's when he gives it a go. Curls framing his face like they are, Tom might pass for something like an angel if it weren't for the mustache and stubble.

Roland's never minded a mustache, though he hasn't the patience to grow one himself. He crouches down next to the cot Tom's passed out in and wonders just when it came to be that he made a habit of watching Tom Purcell sleep.

No good to come outta thinking about that now. He takes Tom's shoulder into his hand, giving him a shake. "Mr. Purcell," he says. "Time to get up now."

Tom's eyes slit open. "You called the police on me."

"Seemed like the best thing to do at the time," Roland says. "Didn't seem like you were gonna take my advice to head home on your own." Tom's answer is to close his eyes, mustache twitching up near his nose. "Way you was sounding, didn't wanna risk you doing something either of us would come to regret."

"Fuck's that supposed to mean?"

Roland doesn't want them fighting. From the way Tom's still got his eyes clamped shut, shoulders around his ears, Roland figures that Tom is of a similar mind, for all that he's acting like an asshole despite it. "You hear about me leaving the force?"

Tom's eyes open again, fully this time. "No," Tom says, sounding confused. "Was it my fault?"

He shakes his head. For a brief moment Roland wants nothing more than to push back some of the too-long hair that's fallen into Tom's eyes, but thinks the better of it in the end. "Nah," he says, "Just got tired. I'm down in Texas these days, taking care of my family's spread." He stands up and slides his hands into his pockets. "What you think of that?"

"Of you down in Texas?" Tom is much slower to rise, the thin blanket that'd been tossed over him falling to his lap, pushing his curls back from his face with much less care than Roland would’ve used.

"Of you down in Texas?" Roland says. "What d’you say to helpin' me out for a bit? Lord knows I could use it."

It really isn't all that fair, asking something of a man when he's at his lowest, nevermind Tom still being caught up in the transition between fall-down drunk and whatever hangover is waiting on the other end of that particular horizon.

Roland's never once thought of himself as fair, and he's certainly done worse things than this.

Something lights up behind the dead look in Tom's eyes. "You won't make me go home?" He sounds downright hopeful.

"No," Roland says it like a promise.

 

 

They do stop by the Purcell house for practical reasons, though Roland doesn't bother to wake Tom as it happens, feeling like it may be too close to breaking his word. He fishes the keys out from Tom's pants and lets himself in the front door.

It's clear enough that it's just Tom there now, no traces of Lucy to be found. Roland packs a trash bag with the few clean-smelling items he can find in the master bedroom and locks the door behind him as he leaves. All in all, he isn’t there for more than five, ten minutes tops.

With nearly ten hours of driving behind him and much the same staring him down the return trip, Roland finds himself making coffee stops far more than he had coming up. Tom sleeps for the majority of it, though there are times when he jolts awake, eyes empty even as he blinks wildly around the cabin of Roland's truck. He calms whenever he spots Roland behind the wheel, something in him settling before he drops back into unconsciousness.

The sun's up high by the time they hit the state line, visor doing fuck-all to keep it from getting into Tom's eyes, leaving his face all scrunched up and annoyed even as he sleeps. Roland shrugs off his jacket and tosses it over Tom's head at the next pit-stop, not letting himself think too much over the way Tom holds it to himself for the rest of the drive.

There's never enough sunlight come wintertime; sure enough, it's dark again by the time Roland pulls up on his property. He knows the animals won't be happy to see him, if they haven't made a break for it already. Roland knows better than to expect loyalty from their sort. Still, his body aches from the long drive, and he has no plans on attending to them until morning.

He has to clear his throat a few times after so much time being silent. "Get up now, Tom," he calls, walking over to open the door on Tom's side. "Didn't drive all this way just for you to sleep in the truck."

Tom is amendable as he steps out onto the dirt and lets Roland guide him through the house back into Roland's bedroom. Tom makes a good job of taking off his boots before he seems to stall out, looking half-asleep as he sits down onto the bed with Roland’s coat still clutched to his chest.

Roland doesn't see any harm in spelling things out for Tom, given the state of him. "How about you take yourself to bed? Figure we're alright writin' today off as a loss."

Tom sets the jacket down on the duvet and stands up again, hands going to his belt. Stood up tall, a couple feet worth of space between them, Tom's got about an inch or so on Roland. It isn't remotely close to being useful information, but his mind went and retained it anyway.

Chin pointed up slightly as he looks to Tom's face, not wanting to be suspected of staring at a man as he changes, Roland recalls the information now.

"Where you sleepin'?" Tom pushes his jeans down his hips, bending to pick them up and fold them in half. There's a healthy spread of hair that goes from halfway up his thighs down to above his ankles.

Roland doesn't let his eyes drop from where they’re fixed on Tom's face, but his peripheral vision’s been trained well enough that he doesn't exactly need to. "Couch isn't half bad."

"House seemed big, from the outside." Tom pulls the sweater he's got on up and over his head, so that he's stood there wearing nothing but his skivvies. Healthy amount of hair to be found there as well. "You ain't got no second room?"

Roland had taken his parent's master bedroom as his own when he'd come back; it brings a smile to his face to think about them now. What they'd do if they'd known Roland had another man in the room with him, only a pair of boxers to keep his modesty from Roland's gaze. "Hadn't thought to set it up."

Tom sits back down on the mattress, his thighs spread apart. "Thought you said you was thinkin' of having me come down here?"

"Hell, Tom." Roland shakes his head, stuffing his hands into his pockets, trying to look more casual than he feels. Relaxed, if in posture only. "Suppose it was the spur-of-the-moment sort of thinkin'." He nods at the pillow, just to the right of Tom's hip. "What are your feelings toward taking your ass back to sleep?"

"Slept all damn day, didn't I?"

Roland recognizes something in the curve of Tom's lips, seeing an echo of himself there. It occurs to him that he's never actually seen Tom smile, and he certainly doesn't want to have that change in the dark of his bedroom, Tom only just having been pulled back from the edge, likely still somewhat drunk, no other friend in the world.

"Yessir," Roland agrees, shoring up his resolve. "Seeing as you're so good at it, how's about you get back on that horse and I'll see you in the morning."

It takes a special kind of resolve for him to leave the room, but Roland's always been good at that sorta thing.

 

 

"I pay my way," Tom says, right after he's sat down in front of the plate Roland's done up for him. "I ain't lookin’ for no charity. I can work."

It's not even past breakfast and Roland can feel a headache settling in behind his temples. "You got any ranchin' experience, Tom?"

It turns out that he hasn't.

Worse than that, it doesn't seem that Tom possesses a natural affinity for it neither.

Despite the extra pair of hands, Roland gets half as much done as he usually does. He's distracted, watching as Tom keeps getting underfoot the animals, pissing them off. It doesn't take an epiphany on his end to realize that something'll have to be done if he really is planning on keeping Tom around for the long-haul.

The one upside to it all is that Tom's dead on his feet come dinner time, tired enough that he doesn't put up a fuss as Roland directs him back to the bedroom. Roland spends another night on the couch, mulling things over and coming up with a plan.

 

 

They hit the road just after breakfast, Roland patting to make sure his checkbook is in his coat pocket before he locks the door.

He doesn't bother filling Tom in on his decision, pulling onto the Lloyd Bentsen heading north and not saying much more about it. Tom isn't altogether the chatty sort, but Roland's used to that sort of thing after all his years with Hays. What sets Tom apart from Wayne is that he gets mouthy when he's pissed off, so Roland leans forward to turn down the volume on the radio about twenty minutes into the drive, providing silence that Tom can't seem to help himself from filling up.

The Farm Lot comes into view about an hour later. Tom perks right the fuck up once he clocks that it's where Roland is headed, switching lanes so that he can take the exit that'll lead right up to it.

There isn't a single thing there that Roland needs, exactly, not at the level he's operating at now. But keeping Tom around will mean keeping Tom busy, and so Roland follows after him as he makes his rounds through row after row of used machinery. Tom provides commentary on which ones are about as handy on hip pockets on a hog, and which are the ones he'd actually like to get his hands on. To Roland's eye it's difficult to guess which category a machine will fall into before Tom opens his mouth, but — and Roland isn't exactly proud that he's so sure of this fact, but time was that it was his job to remember these sorts of details, or so he tells himself — for the first time in their tortured acquaintance, Tom's got a smile on his face, not a fucking care in the goddamn world.

Only one sales rep seems to be on shift, some poor bastard that clearly drew the short straw when it came time to set the holiday roster. He starts sniffing around them the minute they step out from Roland's truck, promptly turns sore once he realizes that there's no getting a word in edge-wise with Tom, and that Roland's little more than the platonic ideal of a disinterested party, happy to be a billfold on legs as he led along by Tom's excited grin.

And that's exactly what he is; Roland signs his name to a check once Tom's settled on a price with the rep, haggling them down for a song and a promise for them to be delivered first thing after the holiday.

There's something in Roland that wants to keep that grin on Tom's face, so he asks, "You feel like stoppin’ for lunch?"

Tom gives him a look across the hood of the truck. "What about them animals of yours?"

Roland shrugs. "Fuck 'em." He gets behind the wheel and slams the door shut. "They'll keep."

Tom's much more gentle as he gets inside, pulling the seatbelt across his chest. "You something of a bastard, ain't you, Roland West?"

"Nice of you to finally notice."

They end up at a barbecue place if only because Roland knows better than to look for nicer at this time of day, lest anyone start getting ideas. Tom included.

Hell, Roland wishes that he himself would get the memo; giddiness wells up inside as he settles down across from Tom in the booth they get sat at. He fucks around with the lid of his lighter just to have an outlet for the energy.

"Used to come down this way, when I was a kid."

Roland's glad for the conversation. "You and your folks?"

Tom shakes his head. "Not likely," he says, and the smile that's still lingering underneath the shadow of his mustache goes a little maudlin. "Just me and some boys I knew, back in high school."

"Up to no good, I'm sure."

It earns him a look, firm. Roland recalls that there was a time where Tom was a father, and what seemed to be a rather dour one at that, towards the end. He’s holding himself in that way, now. Disappointed, in a done-up sort of way, like he’s yanking Roland’s chain. "I'll have you know I was a good boy."

Roland can certainly imagine that. As it stands, Tom already looks a good ten years younger than he is. Roland can only picture what Tom passed for back when he actually was little more than a boy, curls like his and no mustache to hide behind. "My mistake," he agrees. "Inspiring trouble, more like." It occurs to him that it's an odd thing to say to another man. After a beat too long for it to come off as the punchline he's pretending it to be, Roland adds, "With the girls."

Tom sniffs. "Women never had much time for me, all told."

Roland can imagine that too. Fast girls usually the first to sniff Tom’s sort out, certainly so in Roland's experience. The ones who still went for it were certainly of Lucy's make, saddled with a bad lot and hitching their wagon to a better class of man than the ones who got them into that sorta mess to begin with. A compromise for all parties involved.

 

 

Roland's luck doesn't keep; Tom insisting that it isn’t right for him to keep ownership of Roland's bed that night.

Soon as the department stores open again, Roland plans to get a spare to set up in what used to be his childhood room, seeing everything put nice and official for Tom to move into. "It's only until after Christmas," Roland argues. "It's not like I mind. Honest."

"It ain't right." Tom cuts hard enough through the steak Roland's grilled that his knife scrapes against the plate. "You out there bustin' your ass with the animals, cookin' and all. You need your rest." He drops the cutlery and finishes off his beer, heading for the fridge to fetch another.

Roland's only had the one pull of his own. "Not as if that couch's got nails in it, Tom." Tom uses the edge of the counter to get the cap off his bottle, and Roland bites back from adding on that he wishes Tom would cut that out.

Picking at a man like that wouldn't do no good curbing off this argument, and Roland isn't sure what he'd mean by it either. Wishes that Tom would cut out fucking up what Roland's only just finished fixing. That Tom wouldn't prime himself to be blackout drunk after the nice day they've shared. That Tom would stop making such a damn fuss about where it is Roland sleeps.

"Ain't like your bed’s all that small, neither," Tom says. "No reason we can't share." It's said like a challenge, and Roland supposes that it's fair.

There isn't any reason, no, except for how Roland and Tom really don't know one another that well, once you take away the fact that Roland saw Tom at his lowest.

Tom certainly doesn't know Roland well enough for it not to be odd. Hardly anyone does, granted, as Roland generally makes it his business to see that people don't get much opportunity to know him. Closest person to Roland likely would be Hays, even now, and Purple would be the last to insist on the two of them sharing a bed.

Bastard likely would set up outside rather than lower himself to sleep in Roland's bed, even if it was all his for the taking.

Roland mulls it over, watching as that second beer disappears and is replaced by a couple fingers of Jack, Tom having discovered where Roland keeps his stronger supply on top of the fridge. "Just don't think it's all that good of an idea, Tom."

"Why?" Tom shouts it, which Roland expected with how Tom's been knocking back his fluids without much touching the supper Roland fixed up. "You think I can't control myself? That it?"

Well. He hadn't expected that, he'll give Tom that much.

Roland licks his lips, running a hand over the stubble along his cheek. "More worried about my resolve than yours, Tom," he says. "If we're speaking plain now."

"Oh." Tom fiddles with the coffee cup he's poured near half of Roland's remaining SoCo supply into, fingering a chip at the rim. He knocks it back, setting it down in the basin of the sink. "Weatherman on the radio said there’d be rain. Suppose I better move that wheelbarrow back into the shed, 'fore it starts coming down."

Just like that he's gone. Roland finishes up his plate and wraps some foil over Tom's, putting it in the fridge to keep until tomorrow. Tom's still fucking around outside by the time that Roland runs out of things to do in the kitchen, dishes settled in the drying rack and table wiped down.

Roland supposes that there isn't any way this night ends without him in the bed. A return to the couch after a conversation like that is sure to be taken as a statement that'll ruin whatever ground he's made with Tom today.

He climbs into the side of the bed he usually sleeps on after changing into a t-shirt and sweats, knowing better than to risk anything less despite his general inclination to sleep damn-near nude.

Tom's returned to the house, front door rattling. He stepping into the bedroom about a minute later, heading straight for the en suite, closing the door behind him. Roland stares up at the ceiling, listening as Tom showers. The water cuts off after about five minutes.

Roland expects what comes next. He's always been a good detective that way.

Bathroom door opens just a crack, steam leaking out. "Roland," Tom calls, "Could you hand me somethin' to put on?”

"Oh?" Roland says, pretending at sounding surprised. "Now you want my charity?"

"Fuck you," Tom says, heat behind it. Roland’s chuckling even as he gets up and heads for his dresser, pulling out a pair of shorts and what ends up being an old gym t-shirt. He holds them up to the crack in the bathroom door and smiles when Tom snatches them from him, slamming it closed once he has.

"That fit alright?" Roland asks through the door, just to be an asshole.

It reopens, Tom standing there damp, hair pushed back away from his forehead. Practically face to face with Roland. His eyes are sharper than Roland would've expected, given how much Tom's drank tonight. "Alright enough to sleep in." The shirt hangs too short from where the waist of the shorts land on Tom's hips, revealing a healthy amount of his pelvis, nearly bone-white skin dusted with hair that looks like it'd be soft if Roland touched his fingers to it.

Roland swallows. "Used to be my PE outfit, back when I was in school."

Tom looks down at himself, considering. "Suppose that means you was always short then, huh?"

Shoulda known that Tom would be a little shit. "I could take it back, you know." Their eyes catch. "Don't," Roland says. "Man,” he sighs, long. “I'm fucking beat." He turns and climbs back into the bed. Tom turns off the bathroom light, casting the bedroom into darkness, and comes to join him.

They lay there, side by side, stiff.

"Something about this feels pathetic, you ask me."

"Well I didn't," Tom says. "So thanks."

Roland snorts. "Alright." He drums his fingers over his stomach, listening to the clock in the kitchen tick down the hallway. "Can't sleep on my back like this," he says, rolling over. "You usually the big or little spoon, in situations like this?"

"Christ above," Tom huffs. "You gon’ be like this all night? Maybe I will go sleep on the fucking couch."

Roland wishes there was enough light for Tom to see him roll his eyes. "Oh alright, I'll shut up." And then, since Tom opened the fucking door for it, earlier, "You seemed up for it that first night, is all."

The temperature in the room drops about fifteen degrees, give or take. "I was drunk."

It isn't that Roland means to be unkind, but he's always had opinions on this sort of thing. "Oh," he says. "So that how it's gotta be for you?"

"Fuck off, Roland." It's said with enough venom that Roland knows better than to push his luck further. He recalls that Tom isn't exactly sober, and finds that he isn’t of a mind for either of them to get their asses kicked.

"Fine." He turns onto his side, back to Tom, and shuts his eyes.

About a minute later, the mattress dips. Roland can feel Tom's breath slightly along the skin at his neck. About a minute after that, fingertips touch the line of his shoulders.

"You the sort to do it without being drunk?" There's something like terror running through his voice, but Tom gets the words out without stumbling, muttered as they are.

"Suppose there's something to be said for loosening things up," Roland shrugs, deliberating for a moment before pushing himself up to lay on his other side, facing Tom in the dark. "But I guess you could label me a romantic that way, yeah."

The new moon'd hit only just yesterday, so there isn't enough light coming in from the window over Roland's bed for him to make out Tom's expression. "You're full of shit."

Roland supposes that's fair. "Alright, you got me," he says. "Dick set out in front of me, I've been known to suck it, sober as a judge."

"Yeah?" Tom's breath is warm on Roland’s face, his latest exhale suddenly breathier than the ones that came before.

"You calling me a liar?"

Tom shifts closer, and Roland can feel it when he nods.

It occurs to him that he shouldn't be doing this, even as he slides under the covers. He explores Tom's body by touch, tracing a hand up his legs, feeling Tom's muscles from knee to thigh.

Tom starts breathing hard right away, the sound of it filling the room. Roland takes his time, rubbing his fingers over the hair on Tom's thighs, his groin, Roland feeling himself get hard as it dawns on him that that fine dust of hair shadowing Tom’s body is just as soft as he'd imagined it to be.

Beneath the blankets, hardly any of it seems real. Tom with Roland's old high school gym shorts down around his thighs, spread out in Roland's bed, fresh and clean and gripping at Roland's hair as Roland takes his balls into his mouth. Roland focuses on him, the taste of Tom's skin once Roland finally starts attending to his dick properly, the sound of his moans, the scent of him.

Roland lets everything fall aside until Tom's all he can think about, all he knows.

 

 

"Do me a favor and mind the animals."

Tom grunts where his face is buried in the pillow, body taking up most of the bed. Roland stares down at him with a smirk on his face. He pulls the blanket back, looking over his handiwork: the mottled bruises dotting Tom's thighs, dick half-hard near a particularly angry looking mark Roland put at Tom's hip, Roland's shirt still pushed up near Tom's armpits.

Roland's ready for the day, cigarette in one hand, the few remaining mouthfuls of his coffee in the other. "Mr. Purcell," he says. "I'm speakin’ to you."

"Go die, Roland." It's muffled, but Roland can make it out clear enough.

"Just so you know," Roland sits down on the mattress, taking a drag. Hand freed, he runs his fingers along Tom's flank. "This is generally why it's best to do these sorts of things sober, to my mind. Makes you far more pleasant come morning."

One of Tom's eyes pops open, squinting at him. "This you being pleasant!?" He sits up, coughing, and then snatches the cigarette from Roland's lips, taking a hit for himself. He rubs at his eye as he exhales, registering that Roland's dressed. "You got somewhere to be?"

"Matter of fact, I do. 's why I asked you to handle the animals." He sees the way that Tom's eyeing his coffee, so he hands it over, feeling a wave of fondness wash over him at the face Tom makes when he tries it.

"You put ice cream in this shit?" Roland hasn't, but it's not that bad an idea. He lets his considering show on his face, and Tom sighs. "Nevermind. Yeah, sure."

There's never any kind of guide for these things. Roland takes his cup back from Tom, killing the rest and settling it on the bedside table once he’s finished. The two of them sort of observe one another for a minute, clearly of a mind. Roland decides to be the one to break their stand-still, pulling his cigarette from Tom's lips and replacing it with his own.

It isn't their first. After he'd gotten Tom off and settled himself up with his own hand the night prior, he'd climbed up Tom's body and kissed him deeply, over and over again, until they'd passed out. His lips ache from Tom's mustache even now, that tingling feeling coming again as Roland licks into his mouth.

He pulls away before it turns into something more, knocking the build-up of ash off his neglected cigarette into the coffee cup before stuffing it back between Tom's lips, figuring that they must be lonely without Roland’s to keep them company. "I'll be back before dark."

"Before dark?" Tom sits up straighter, speaking around the cigarette. "Fuck you going?"

Roland stands up, adjusting his belt. "Houston," he says. "Stores in town'll be closed up, this close to Christmas."

 

 

He makes it back with hours to spare, traffic light, hardly any highway troopers around to keep Roland from speeding.

A part of him misses the siren, misses the hours sat out in the middle of nowhere with Hays, killing time until their shift was up, torn between hoping for a call and enjoying some goddamn peace for once.

Tom's out in the pin with some of the horses when Roland pulls up to park, frowning and jumping every time one of them gets too close for his liking as he sets out their feed.

Roland grins at the sight of him. He raises his hands to his mouth and calls, "You got anything goin' on the stove?"

"You leave me with all the work and you expect me to fuckin' cook for you too?" Tom's shouting spooks the horses, Roland's newest purchase rising on her hind legs, causing Tom to curse at it as he dashes away.

He leaves Tom to finish up, heading into the house with his purchases, two bags of which he stashes in the little hallway closet where his mama always kept the extra linens. Roland had enough sense to recall that the meager amount of groceries he'd picked up the weekend before wasn't stretching as far as they usually did now that he has Tom underfoot, and so he'd stopped in at Randalls before leaving the city to go grocery shopping.

Roland decides on pasta and sets a pot to boil while he puts away the rest of his purchases. Tom comes in right as Roland's finished plating everything, almost like they'd coordinated it.

He'd set out glasses of water next to their plates at the table, but Tom goes straight for the fridge, pulling out a beer and using his sweater to help twist off the cap. He takes a long pull before dropping down into what’s become his seat. "Smells good."

"Taste it first," Roland says, "I don't wanna hear you bitchin' about false advertising."

They eat and then gravitate into the living room, Tom taking along a fresh drink with him. Roland isn't much for tv, and this far from a city the reception isn't worth much of damn. Tom still turns it on, fiddling with the ears up top until one of those old black and white pictures blinks onto the screen.

Roland grabs the book he's been chipping away at for the last month as Tom settles in at the other end of the couch. "My daddy never let me watch that, growing up."

It gets him a surprised look from Tom. "That so?" he asks. "How come?"

"Communist propaganda, some bullshit."

Tom snorts and takes a sip of his beer. "Sounds like a piece of fucking work." Roland gives him a hum in agreement, then gets lost in the pages for a few minutes. Tom clears his throat, drawing Roland back into the world. "My kids —," he licks his lips, fingers picking at the label on the bottle. "They loved it. Every fuckin' Christmas, you know. They'd trap me on the couch to watch it with 'em, even though I've had to've seen it a hundred fuckin' times in my life, easy."

Roland sets his book down. "You know," he says, keeping his tone even. "Don't think I've actually seen it."

Tom sniffs, mustache jumping. "Don't seem possible."

"Couldn't watch it as a kid, then I went right into the army. Did just about everything I could not spend any time with children, and most Christmases I volunteered to work the job so the guys with kids didn't have to; suppose I never had the opportunity. Guess now's as good a time as any."

"Yeah?" Darkness seems to creep away from Tom's body, his back straightening.

Roland shrugs. "Sure, why not." He stretches his arm over the back of his couch and uses his fingers to play with Tom's curls, staring at the screen.

 

 

He wakes up in the middle of the night, slumped awkwardly on the couch with his neck aching. The majority of his body is freezing, save for his lap. The room is lit up with the sign-off screen buzzing on the tv, and he can see that Tom's head is what's warming him, cheek resting on the denim of Roland's jeans, the rest of him spread cozy-as-you-please across the couch.

Roland snorts in disbelief at what his life has become, running a hand across his face before bending in half. He takes Tom's face into his hands, enjoying the way that the stubble at his cheeks seems to be of a mind to turn that mustache of his into a beard, pressing a kiss to Tom's soft lips, over and over until Tom huffs and starts kissing back, still more than half-asleep.

"Damn," Roland says, speaking into Tom's mouth. "That what you do for everybody, or am I special?"

Tom's hands close over Roland's where they’re cradling Tom's face, linking their fingers together. "Knew it was you, Roland," he says, not bothering to open his eyes.

"Suppose that's something." Roland kisses him again then pulls back, lifting Tom's head so that he can stand, ignoring the wounded noises Tom makes at his leaving. "I'll be right back, settle down."

He walks to the linen cupboard and pulls out the two bags he stashed away, returning to the couch and sitting on the end by Tom's feet. "Merry Christmas."

It gets Tom to open his eyes, sitting up fast enough that Roland likely would've felt dizzy had it been him moving so quick. Tom's expression is something Roland's only ever seen the once before. Unguarded and terrified, like it'd been that night when Hays and he had walked up to Tom's house and Tom’d looked right at Roland like he was meant to make everything alright.

"Well, shit, Tom," he says. "Isn't like I bought you a car or anything."

"Didn't have to get me nothing," Tom says it like an accusation.

Roland shakes his head. "Like I says," he passes one of the bags over, holding it in front of Tom until he finally takes it from him. "See what it is first, ‘fore you get all bent outta shape."

Tom undoes the knot Roland tied the handles into like he's diffusing a bomb. The tension drops from him once he sees what he actually is. "A sweater, wow." Tom's voice wavers a little, watery and thin, but his gaze is sharp when he levels it at Roland. "Thanks, grandma."

"Fuck off," Roland says it in the sorta tone another person might say you're welcome. "Woulda got you a bed, but I think we've established why you're so keen on sharing." He tosses the other bag in Tom's lap before he can say anything in response, heavier than the one with the sweater.

Tom gets to the box inside with more enthusiasm than he showed the first, though what's inside pulls him up short. "Damn," he says, blinking and stoking the detailing along the leather. "These are real fine boots, Roland." He swallows, and it's loud enough in the quiet of the living room for Roland to hear it. "Thank you."

Everything feels too heavy, all of a sudden. Roland taps his knuckle against his thigh a few times before standing up. "Yeah, well," he says, trailing off. "Think I'll fix myself some eggnog. You want some?"

Tom nods. Roland can feel the weight of Tom’s gaze on his back as he goes into the kitchen and pulls down two of his nicer tumblers, fixing them up a drink. He got another bottle of SoCo while he was in Houston, and he doctors their eggnog until it's practically ready to spill over the rim, giving him something to focus on as he carries them carefully to the couch.

"I didn't get you nothing," Tom says, once Roland's handed over his drink. He sounds genuinely distraught at the prospect.

Roland knocks back half his glass in one go, licking his lips as he leans forward to set it on the coffee table. He sucks on his teeth, settling his hand high on his thigh, fingers grazing the zipper of his jeans.

"I can think of something you can give me." He gives Tom a look. "Won't cost you a dime."

 

 

Things are good. The machines Roland bought get dropped off mid-week and Tom spends his days fixing them up. A client comes by to inspect some of Roland's horses, and it ends up being that the man’s looking for a compact Posi-Track like Roland's got sitting out in his field, and so Tom flips it. Some of Roland's more busy-body neighbors come around not long after, and Tom starts hiring himself out as a mechanic, breathing life into broken-down tractors, balers, anything with an engine.

So they do that, with their nights spent taking turns making dinner, and then fucking as many times as they can until the work catches up with them and they’re forced to pass out for the evening, eager to have another go at it all in the morning.

They carry on that way, doing just fine, until one afternoon Tom snaps, right around the time Roland's house dries up. Roland isn't even sure what it is that sets Tom off. They'd been having a pleasant enough conversation, Tom teasing Roland over just how much he seems to enjoy Tom having let his mustache grow into a full-on beard, Roland teasing him right back, and then next thing they're shouting at one another.

Tom takes off out the front door, cursing Roland's name after Roland's shouted that Tom can go take a long walk off a short fucking bridge if he thinks he's going anywhere with Roland's truck.

So Roland sits on the couch and smokes, flicking the lid of his lighter as his anger dulls down into the throb of worry. He makes his way through two packs, darkness coming quick and hunkering in for the night, clock ticking until dinnertime has long since passed and Roland's left wondering just when it'll be acceptable for him to go searching.

He stares at the clock over the tv and gives himself one hour. One more, and then he's going out.

Tom drags himself through the door with about fifteen minutes to spare, give or take, completely wasted.

Roland's up like a shot, catching Tom right as he's about to spill onto the floor, feet tripping over themselves in the boots Roland got him. He's absolutely freezing.

It takes all of Roland's strength for him to shoulder Tom's near-dead weight, dragging him back towards the bathroom. Tom comes back to himself once they reach the hallway, clutching at Roland's shoulders and refusing to be further moved.

His lips cause shivers to race up Roland's spine as they brush against the skin of his neck. "Why don't you make me stop?" Tom slurs.

He sounds far too self-aware for the state he's in, and it's that as much as anything else that has Roland being straight with him. "You'll stop when you want to, Tom." He stands there, shouldering Tom's weight, trying to get his feet back under him so that he can finish dragging him the rest of the way to the bedroom. "I don't get much say in the matter."

 

 

The rain starts up in the latter part of January, but that doesn't mean the work stops. Roland goes and catches himself a cold, his own stubbornness and the goddamn animals sharing responsibility for its cause.

Tom, for all that he's spent the last week fucking nagging Roland to set aside his goddamn pride and wear the damn rubber coat meant for this sort of weather, is kind enough that he doesn't so much as mutter an I told you so.

He's the one to spot Roland's fever, frowning at Roland first thing in the morning and bringing a blissfully cool hand to Roland's forehead. Roland's mind feels like it's stuffed full of cotton, and he experiences things more than he thinks about them: Tom bringing him a cup of coffee done up just how he likes, giving Roland his own pillow to help prop him up so he can drink it; Tom being patient, hands soft and warm as they help Roland get into a pair of sweats, gentle as they handle Roland's feet into a pair of socks, mindful of Roland being ticklish.

Roland goes back to sleep and wakes to Tom bringing him lunch, hushing him nevermind when Roland mutters about the animals, finally awake enough that he remembers that his life isn't so pie-in-the-sky that he doesn't actually have work that he should be doing, despite how fine Tom’s treating him.

"If I did have a manservant or whatever," Roland says, already starting to feel a bit high from the Nyquil Tom'd fed him right before he'd started in on his lunch, on top of his too-high temperature. "I'd want him to look just like you, though."

Tom gives an amused sort of snort. "I'll go ahead and pretend that's sweet, Roland." Tom leans in to kiss him, but Roland turns away at the last minute, remembering himself. "What?"

"Don't wanna get you sick."

It earns him an eye-roll. "Don't you worry your blond little head," Tom says. "I'll have you well by the time I catch whatever you've got. You'll be more than healthy enough to look after me, you can count on that."

Roland likes the sound of it. He hooks his finger in the neckline of Tom's t-shirt, pulling him closer. "Deal," he says, and seals it by licking right into Tom's mouth.

 

 

Cattleman from a few towns over purchases about half of Roland's heifers come spring, and he pays extra for Roland to drop them off once the sale goes through. It's a few hours drive either way, and Roland takes his time, enjoying the mild weather, knowing that summer’s misery will be upon him soon enough.

He gets back to the house around lunchtime, praying that Tom's been replaced by a better man, one that isn't ornery enough to keep from fixing lunch just to spite Roland having left him behind for a few hours. He's surprised to find a pair of bicycles leaned against the porch.

Inside Tom's leaning against the counter, cup of coffee in his hand, no lunch to be seen. Instead there's what looks to be a pair of Jehova's Witnesses sat on the only chairs around the dining room table, speaking with him. He gives a distracted smile to Roland when he spots him stepping through the door. Even halfway across the house, Roland’s able to clock the way Tom’s knuckles go white, grip tightening on the cup.

"Hey Roland," he calls. "These here fellas worship out in town."

Roland nods at them. "We've met."

"We'll go," one of them says. Roland thinks they might've gone to high school together, once upon a time. Though he looks young, more Tom's age, which means it's likely that he was a few years behind Roland, if anything. "It was lovely speaking with you, Mr. Purcell. Sorry again, ‘bout your children."

Bad feeling curdles up in Roland's gut, instantaneous.

"Ah." Tom nods, blinking hard. "Sure 'nough. Thank you."

Roland stares at them hard as they filter past him and through the front door. He doesn't make any sort of secret out’ve watching as they get back on their bicycles and ride out towards the main road, only closing the front door once he's sure they've gone.

He looks at Tom, not keeping the confusion from his voice. "You alright?" He steps across the room, taking Tom by his elbow. It'd be ridiculous to pat him down, but the knowledge doesn't keep Roland from wanting to anyway. "Can't believe they came sniffing 'round here after I already told them to fuck off. You didn't have to let 'em in, Tom."

He's avoiding Roland's eyes, shoulders curved in. Rage simmers inside of Roland at the thought of them dragging up Tom's kids. Manipulating him.

"They said you was an atheist," Tom says, outta nowhere. "That true?"

Roland shifts his hand from Tom's elbow, stepping back to get a better look at him. "Dunno," he says. "I suppose. Truth? Folks brought me up Baptist; not sure you can ever shake religion once its got in you."

Tom looks more uncomfortable as Roland speaks. "I was thinking of maybe going to their services," he says. "Just to scope things out."

Roland gives a noncommittal sound. "Thought you were Catholic."

It gets him a small smile. "No Catholic's 'round here. Almost like you planned it."

Not as well as I goddamn should've, apparently, Roland thinks. "Ah, well," he says, and leaves it at that. "Whatever you think'll help." He leans in, and Tom hesitates just for a second before he steps close and kisses Roland back, closing his eyes.

Roland keeps his open, accessing Tom from up close. "You sure you're alright?" he asks, gentle. Tom haunched in on himself like he is, Roland's able to nuzzle his nose along Tom's hairline, still feeling him out. He wishes Hays were around, suddenly, as stupid a thought as it is. He wants to step back, tilt his head up and ask for Wayne’s read on the situation, get his opinion on just where he thinks Tom’ll end up, how this thing’ll shake out.

"They didn't upset you none, did they?” he asks. “Bringing up the kids."

Tom shakes his head, sighing. "You don't gotta worry about me so much, Roland. Been looking after myself for a long time."

Any other time, Roland would ask Tom to share with the class on just how well he's fared, looking after himself.

Instead he stays quiet and sets out fixing them up lunch.

 

 

Tom goes to a service that very week. Roland loans him the truck to do it, though he wants nothing more than to forbid Tom from so much as stepping out the goddamn door.

It becomes a routine, Tom setting off first thing Sunday mornings. Used to be Sundays stood as the one morning a week Roland looked forward to most, he and Tom leaving the animals to their own devices for a few hours while they devoted themselves to fooling around, no guilt on Roland's conscience. Now, it’s just about the one day he could stand to do without altogether, eager for it to be over before it’s even begun.

Tom's back around the middle of the afternoon, closer to supper time more often than not. He spares a muttered hello for Roland before heading for the bedroom, door closed behind him so that he can focus on the latest copy of the Watchtower without Roland's noise bothering him, as if Roland is especially noisy to begin with.

Somewhere along the way he shaves off his beard, not even leaving the mustache. His hair gets tamed too, cut short and slicked back so that it’s hardly got any sort of curl to it. Feels to Roland like a personal sort of fuck you, and it isn't long after that before Tom's going to Tuesday evening service as well, more hours stolen away from Roland's company.

Roland insists on driving him those nights, dropping Tom off after they’ve had an early supper, not driving away until he's seen Tom step inside the Kingdom Hall. Roland doesn’t miss the way that every fucking member of the congregation can't help from frowning at the sight of him.

No reason to assume it's anything less than their disapproving words that have Tom pulling away, shying away from Roland's touch as days wear on, each more miserable than the last. Right around the time that Roland figures it can’t get any worse, this new routine of theirs, Tom goes and proves him wrong.

First breakfast they've shared in nearly two months, and Tom says he's thinking on moving out.

Roland sighs and can't claim that he didn't see it coming.

"C'mon, Tom," he says. "It don't gotta be like that. I can read the fucking mood, alright? You want us to stop, we’ve stopped, haven’t we? Simple."

Tom's biting his nails, not meeting Roland's eye. He laughs, and the last thing it sounds like is amusement. "You sound like an addict," he says. "What you say about coming to a service with me, Roland?"

Roland feels his hackles going up, even though he knows that he shouldn't. Self-control’s always been an issue of his, and he's happy in this particular instance to let Tom be the only one between them picking up new tricks, feel that old anger of his welling up inside like it never really left. Likely, it hasn’t; Roland just found cause not to need it.

Nice while it lasted, he supposes. "Whatever you wanna do with your life, man? It make you happy? You go for it, no judgment on my end.” He sucks his teeth, raising a hand. “I'd appreciate you going through the trouble of giving me the same fucking courtesy, however."

 

 

July marks Tom's first month of sobriety.

To celebrate, Roland buys a bed for the second room.

 

 

It goes on like that for a while. Tom keeps making noises like he’s finna to move, but with hardly any apartment complexes in town and a snowball’s chance at a bank giving him a loan, it doesn’t seem likely.

Roland spends the majority of his time with the fucking animals, enjoying the feeling of being around something that actually seems happier when he's around.

Tom and he pass like ships in the night, exchanging banal pleasantries the few odd times a day they'll run into one another in the kitchen, like they're strangers.

Like Roland didn't save Tom's godforsaken life, pulling him from Little Finger.

Like he doesn't know what Tom's face looks like when he comes, like he can't still recall the warm, earthy scent of Tom after he's worked a full day and Roland still can’t think of anything he’d like to do more than bury himself in the space between Tom's legs, under his arms, no better fucking place in the world.

There's a guilt in Roland that keeps him from commenting on any of it, no matter how much he might want to, because what good did he do for Tom, really?

Looking at Tom now, racking up months of sobriety, seeming more sure of himself with each fucking meeting he attends out in Kingdom Hall, Roland starts to suspect that all he was really doing was holding Tom back, using Tom to fill up his own life without doing anything to help Tom make something of his.

So he starts making friends with the fucking horses and cows and leaves Tom to it. With the days running longer and no reason to want to hurry to the house, Roland actually builds a fucking chicken coop, and goes as far as to actually start raising chickens inside of it. Once that’s done, he's started thinking about getting a dog.

A fucking dog.

The girl who works at the bank mentioned a litter of cats, last time he was depositing checks. Maybe he'll ask her about them the next time he's in town. She still has them, maybe it's a sign.

He doesn't even realize it's come up on Will's birthday until the day's nearly over, practically doing a double-take after he's dragged himself inside the house and spotted the calendar.

The door to Tom's room is closed, but Roland can see light’s on under it, leaking into the hallway. He stands outside of and listens, straining to hear anything. After a second he does, a muffled sob, like Tom's got his face buried in a pillow to keep from making too much noise.

None of the inside doors have got locks on them, and Roland doesn't bother knocking. He sits on the floor beside the bed, watching Tom's shuddering back for a long few minutes before he gets up the nerve to rest the palm on the center of Tom’s back, touching him through his shirt.

Tom stills, motionless, before he turns. Though his eyes are red, Roland doesn't actually see any trace of tears on his face or staining the pillow. He wonders just how long Tom's been laying like that, gasping through fabric and feathers like he’s dying.

"I'm here." Roland has to clear his throat, rough with disuse. "Shoulda come lookin' for me if you was feeling this way. No sense in you sufferin' alone when I'm right here." He shakes his head, disgusted with himself. "Shit, I shoulda known. Shoulda come lookin' for you, fuck."

Tom surges forward. The kiss comes as a shock. Roland's been so desperate for this, for any show of affection from Tom at all, that he doesn't so much as question it, kissing Tom back, clutching Tom just as hard as Tom's holding on to him.

Hungry for it. Aching.

“I was so fucking happy,” Tom’s voice is trembling, wet, like he’s underwater, but Roland can’t say if it’s really him or his own ears, the world sounding too-loud to him, all of a sudden. “Them first couple months, Roland. I loved it, but then I fucked it up and —”

He gasps again, hiccuping, choking on air. The taste of him occurs to Roland then, sharp. Jim Beam if it’s anything, but Roland doesn’t keep it or any sort of liquor in the house any longer. He wonders just how long. If it’s because of the day, or if Tom’s been sneaking it under his and the goddamn Witnesses noses, Roland too caught up in his own shit to spot the signs like he should’ve.

Some goddamn detective he is.

“Now I’m miserable,” Tom finally chokes it out. His forehead is pressed to Roland’s cheek, feverish. “Why does God want me miserable?”

Breaks his fucking heart. Roland shushes him, climbing on the mattress and holding Tom to him, unsure of what to say that won’t make this ten times worse. “Don’t reckon God really cares what we do, Tom.” He starts pressing kisses to Tom’s lips again, pulling back whenever Tom tries to make them deep, terrified of what’ll happen come morning should he succumb. “Just gotta look out for one another, by my measure.”

Tom’s trembling all over. Roland tips them so that Tom’s on his back, Roland’s weight over him, pushing him into the mattress so that he hasn’t got anywhere to go. “I was happy too,” he says, trying to fill up space, keep a conversation going. “Fuck, Tom, even miserable with your Jesus-freak ass, I was happier than I’d been on my own.”

“Fuck.” Tom’s laugh is weak, tired, but at least it’s there, a gust near Roland’s ear. Best sound he’s ever heard in his goddamn life. “That’s pathetic.”

“Yeah, well,” Roland finally starts to feel his heart rate slowing down, adrenaline leeching from his system and leaving him feeling wrung-out, stretched thin. “Look at the company I keep.”

 

 

Roland wakes up the next morning to an empty bed.

It’s usually his move. Sneaking out in the early morning, always one to get while the gettin’s still good, or close enough to turning bad that it isn’t worth the trouble. He finds that he doesn’t much enjoy being on the receiving end, laid out in a bed he hadn’t ever wanted to buy. Left in the wake of a man he can’t seem to shake, not for the life of him.

The rooster crows out in the coop, reminding him that he does still have responsibilities. No good to stay laid up, going over what-ifs. Roland gets up and picks his underwear off the floor, stepping into them one leg at a time.

Funny thing is, for all that Roland’s built himself up for the opposite, stupid-ass pep talks running through his mind about how he’s been through worse, that he never came back home to settle down with someone, that this was always meant to be penance, and how dare he think otherwise — Tom’s there in the kitchen, pouring coffee into two cups, Roland’s sweater a loose fit over his shoulders, furry little legs standing barefoot on the wood floor.

He’s terrified to say anything, rooted in the hallway. Tom catches sight of him and gives a thin smile. “Mornin’.”

It gets Roland moving, at least. He steps into the room proper, awkwardly lowering himself into his usual seat at the table. Tom finishes up with the cups, setting the one that’s nearly white from how it’s done up with cream in front of Roland before he takes his own seat.

“How you feelin’?” Roland asks, unable to shake the feeling he has. Like a bomb’s set to go off, or something like it. Doesn’t seem possible, for things to keep going on as they was.

Tom takes a sip of his coffee, long fingers doubled up as he clutches it in front of his mouth. Roland clocks the fine tremors in his hands, barely there, but noticeable all the same. “Reckon it’s time I give goin’ sober a shot,” he says.

Even terrified at fucking things up as he is, Roland can’t help from giving Tom a look. It makes him smile, shrugging at his own self. “An honest shot.”

Roland buys himself some time, taking a sip of his own mug. It’s almost enough to make him goddamn weep, how perfect Tom’s able to do up his usual. “Hear Mormon’s are good for that sorta thing.”

Tom kicks him underneath the table, setting down his coffee. “Not talkin’ to a fucking Mormon,” he nods at Roland. “Talkin’ to you, ain’t I?”

Roland figure’s that’s true enough. “What makes you figure this time will be different?”

His foot settles over Tom’s on the floor, and he presses down when Tom angles his up, their toes brushing together. Up above, Tom levels him with an expression that’s far older than his years. “What makes anything different?” It’s a question, but Roland gets the feeling that Tom doesn’t expect him to have an answer. “You try something and see if it takes, I suppose.”

Man’s been through as much as Tom has and still sees fit to wake up each morning, Roland doesn’t see any sort of cause to doubt just how well he knows himself, all things considered. “Makes sense.” He picks up his cup, angling it in Tom’s direction and holding it still as Tom brings his own close. “Here’s to seein’ if it takes.”