Harlan In The Rearview Mirror

Harlan In The Rearview

Title: Harlan In The Rearview Mirror
Fandoms: Justified
Characters/Pairings: Raylan Givens/Boyd Crowder, Raylan Givens/Tim Gutterson, Ava Crowder, Boyd Crowder/Raylan Givens/Tim Gutterson, Robert Quarles, Art Mullen, Ellstin Limehouse, Tom Bergen, Shelby Parlow, Helen Givens, Original Characters
Ratings: PG-15
Word Count: 6,814
Summary: Raylan Givens joins the Army instead of the US Marshals. Boyd Crowder follows. How do they meet up with Tim? Justified is ‘The Units’ A-Team. Will Raylan’s brand of mountain justice unravel the layers of misconduct inside his squad or get them all killed?

By the time he was nineteen, Raylan Givens had lived more life than most men at thirty. His mother’s bouts of ill health along with his father, Arlo’s continuing efforts to separate the good people of Harlan, Kentucky from their hard earned money forced the teen into responsibilities beyond his years. Playing football and baseball and keeping his grades high in hopes of a scholarship that would pull him out of Harlan, Raylan picked up the slack left by Arlo’s spotty employment and failed con jobs. Every spare moment was spent working odd jobs around Harlan’s mines and sawmills.

Raylan’s hatred of his daddy’s criminal activities didn’t stop him from being best friends with Boyd Crowder, son of Harlan’s crime ‘kingpin’ Bo Crowder. Raylan and Boyd were but six months apart in age … Their mamas’ deep friendship carried the women and their children through many a dark time.

Frances Givens lost her battle with cancer when Raylan was twelve and was barely cold in the ground when Arlo brought his mama’s sister, Helen, home as his new bride ’cause a boy needs a woman in his life.‘ Raylan clung harder to his best friend than his aunt.

A rift formed between the boys when Boyd and his older brother, Beaumont, began spouting their daddy’s white supremacist rhetoric. Driven by the loneliness of being separated from his best friend, Raylan confronted Boyd who said he was doing it because he was afraid one more hit to the head was going to scramble the few brains he did have, and to keep his daddy from putting hands on his mama.

Soon it wasn’t the only secret the best friends shared.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Tall, good looking sports heroes, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder were heir apparents to Beaumont Crowder, who with the beautiful blonde cheerleader, Ava at his side, was the prince of Harlan County … Feted by colleges from all over the country.

Raylan hated the superficiality of the college scouts, but it was all part of the game he had to play if he wanted to get away. He turned eighteen shortly before graduation allowing him to go underground in the mines, which allowed him to bring home more money for his getaway from Harlan.

Graduation day found Raylan sitting on the back porch a beer dangling between his fingers as he stared across the backyard. Familiar footsteps moved through the house, familiar warmth settled against his side.

“Something with a little kick for a chaser?” Boyd asked.

The soft spoken question sent a shiver down Raylan’s spine.

“Sure.”

Taking the quart Mason jar from Boyd, their fingers brushed raising goose flesh on his arms.

“Figured you’d be enjoying the bounty of the Crowder family’s celebration of Beaumont actually graduating.”

Boyd rolled his eyes.

“Family knows Beau only passed ’cause I did his work. Don’t know what’ll happen once he actually goes to college.”

“Alumni’ll take care of him unless he’s a total loser.”

Raylan muttered as he took a long swallow from the jar.

“So what has Raylan Givens, new made man of the world contemplating his nirvana through the bottom of a beer bottle?” Boyd teased gently.

Raylan passed the jar back to Boyd.

“As you can see there’s no sports agents milling through the house waving letters of intent to transport my ass out of Harlan … So I’m contemplating my life choices.”

“Such as?”

Two sets of brown eyes met as Raylan leaned over and covered Boyd’s mouth with his own. The kiss was short and chaste, but heartfelt. Raylan pulled back took a drink a beer and grinned.

“Huh.”

Boyd blinked owlishly for several minutes.

“Raylan, what in creation possessed you to kiss me?”

“Just something I’ve been studyin’ on for a while.”

“How long’s a while?”

“Couple years.”

Boyd took a deep pull on the moonshine jar.

“What about Winona?”

“She was built enough like a boy to make a good cover.”

Boyd spit out the beer he’d started to swallow.

“It’s obvious there’ll be no scholarship … So no need for a cover.”

Raylan turned his head to study his best friend.

“You don’t seem overly upset. I was expecting to be stretched in the grass sporting a busted lip.”

“I admit to being taken by surprise but found it not unpleasant.” Boyd sounded confused.

“My face is grateful for that.”

“So now what?”

Boyd passed the jar back to Raylan.

“Nothing… Everything … Whatever you want.”

Boyd nodded, and the two young men went back to their quiet celebration.

Monday morning Boyd stood at Raylan’s side as they climbed into the elevator to drop into the bowels of the mountain to dig for black diamonds.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Summer faded to autumn, and if Boyd was practically in Raylan’s back pocket, no one made mention. Working shoulder to shoulder thousands of feet under an ancient mountain stealing her treasure is a tricky business. Raylan had shielded Boyd with his body when a bad top had caused a roof fall, and Boyd had kept Raylan from being swept away when the long wall machine dug into a water pocket caused by the heavy autumn rains.

Their physical relationship was moving at a snail’s pace, the comfort garnered from their evenings on the couch acting more married couple than horny teenagers while their emotional ties deepened and grew stronger as their perceived eccentricities opened a rift between them and Harlan at large.

Raylan and Boyd had spent the day in the woods hunting squirrels. The bountiful mess of squirrels made a fine feast prepared by Raylan’s aunt. Both young men pushed back from the table with a groan.

“Fantastic as always, Aunt Helen.”

He leveled an ornery grin at Boyd.

“Boyd and I’ll take care of the dishes while you rest yourself a spell.”

Complaining loudly and with a litany of words that would have made a college professor proud, Boyd harangued Raylan as he helped clear the dishes.

With the kitchen set to rights, the three took their coffee to enjoy the cool of the evening on the back porch.

“You doing okay, Aunt Helen? I know I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should.” Raylan reached for his wallet.

“Boy, you’re giving me a good part your check now. I’m fine.”

Boyd laid a quiet hand on Raylan’s arm. He rubbed his hands over his face then reached for Boyd’s. He planted a kiss on the back before straightening to face his aunt.

“Y’all know me …  I ain’t scared of heights, snakes or red-headed women, but the thought of going down in that hole one more day than I have to scares the hell out me.”

Taking a minute to center himself, he turned to look at Boyd.

“Considering how I feel about you what I’m about to say is probably the craziest thing I could do, but I’m going to enlist.”

“Instead of hiding in plain sight in Harlan you’re going to hide in plain sight in the military?”

Boyd cocked his head as he waited for Raylan’s answer.

“No one sneakier.” His grin was a little sad. “I’ve spent the whole summer trying to figure what to do since there’s no college money. This is the best of the bunch.”

“Can’t say as I agree, but you’ll always have a home here, Raylan.” His Aunt Helen said as she stood and collected their cups.

As the kitchen door closed behind her, Boyd studied his best friend. Raylan Givens was a tall drink of water whose hate ran hot as hell’s brimstone, whose anger ran cold as arctic snow, who lived by his instinct and wits, but didn’t give a hoot in a holler about another person’s opinion.

“Boyd …”

Boyd covered Raylan’s mouth with his fingertips.

“You’ve had an opportunity to have your say … Now it’s my turn.”

A calloused thumb with coal dust embedded around the cuticle and under the nail moved soft and slow across Raylan’s bottom lip.

“I know we’ve been moving slower than molasses in January … I know you’re starting to think I’m humoring you, and I don’t carry the depth of feelings for you as you do for me.” Dark eyes flashed with ire. “If you’re running off to the military to keep from pressuring me … Then you’re leaving Harlan for no reason at all. You leave out of here for Lexington without me and I will chase you down like a dog after a bitch in heat.”

Raylan stared dumbstruck for several seconds before a smile crept over his face.

“I’m going Monday morning before our shift at the mine.”

Long fingers clamped around Boyd’s head and pulled him in for a kiss that left no nook or cranny of his mouth unexplored. When Raylan pulled back both men were huffing like a steam engine.

“I’ll be in the shotgun seat.”

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

That had been twenty years ago. Home was Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, when they weren’t in some hellhole doing things so classified they probably couldn’t read their own files. The ‘Unit’s’ A-Team was jokingly referred to as ‘Justified’. Every time Command Sergeant Major Raylan Givens was called to account for his team’s actions his standard answer was they were ‘justified’.

Colonel Art Mullen wiped the sweat out of his eyes as he looked over his rosters to see where he needed to fill in or move people. Some of the units weren’t meshing as well as he hoped, and Givens had lost a weapons specialist on their last mission. Most of the people under his command in Afghanistan could actually pass for light skinned natives unless you counted Boyd Crowder speaking Pashto with a Kentucky drawl, but someone had outed the only blond-haired person on the team and Sergeant First Class Wynn Duffy was going home in a coffin.

They were all due to rotate back to the States at the end of the month, so the Colonel sent his aide to find Captain Limehouse to brainstorm the changes they needed to make.

“If we get out of here by the end of the month, Crowder may make it home for the birth of Ava’s kid.” Limehouse commented.

“You hear the stories going around about Givens and Crowder?” Mullen asked.

“Yeah. I don’t think those two have been separated more than a few weeks since their mamas gave birth to them.”

“Think there’s any truth to them?”

“Don’t care as long as they keep getting the job done … With that hot little sister-in-law of Crowder’s living in the house with them … Who knows what goes on. I for one am not losing sleep over Givens and Crowder’s sex life.”

Ellstin sat back in his chair as the aide brought in a fresh pot of coffee.

“I asked him about that and he spouted some Bible verse about taking in his dead brother’s widow.”

“Just a strange family dynamic … Boyd always glued to Rayland side. Kinda gives me the creeps.”

“I look for them both to retire soon. They have their twenty.”

“Heard any scuttlebutt on that, Ellstin?”

The Captain looked sharply at his CO.

“What’s with the questions, Sir?”

“Just putting feelers out to see if they might be persuaded to take instructor positions in a civilian capacity. I hate losing all that talent.”

Limehouse’s expression said he didn’t believe it for a minute, but let it go. He picked up the next file.

“So, what are we going to do about Sergeant Quarles? The man’s getting downright sadistic even with his own team. Word has it the team’s sniper and demolitions man seems to be getting the worst of it.”

Mullen took the file from Limehouse.

“The men saying anything?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Just keep an eye on the situation, and step in if it gets bad.”

“Probably won’t have to step in … Givens is likely to shoot Quarles any day now.”

Captain Limehouse shook his head as gathered his files and with a smart salute left the Colonel to chew on what he’d learned.

Sprawled in the shade of their quarters, long legs stretched out, Raylan Givens’ sharp brown eyes watched the activity around the compound. For all that most of the others in the compound thought he was just a laid back country boy there wasn’t much going on in his part of the world that he didn’t know. As he watched a tension stole into the lanky frame though he appeared relaxed.

Calloused fingers trailed lightly across the skin above his t-shirt collar.

“How’s Ava?” He asked seeing the letter in Boyd’s hand.

“Feeling fat and cranky, commiserating with Tom’s wife, and looking forward to us getting home. I’ll give her your regards when next I write.”

Raylan ran a finger across the back of Boyd’s hand, a soft smile on his face. His partner since high school had a unique way of stating the obvious. Their understanding of one another had kept them flying under not only the military’s radar, but society’s in general.

“You do that.” He said softly.

“Raylan?” Boyd’s expression was confused

“I’m feeling like it’s time.”

Boyd followed Raylan’s line of sight. He could feel his partner bristling as he watched the albino blond, Sergeant Quarles, from Detroit berating his sniper, Tim Gutterson, for some imagined slight.

“We need a weapons specialist.”

“He has some time left on his hitch. I’d hate to take him on and then abandon him. Why watch that boy so close? You looking to trade me in on a younger model?”

He turned toward Boyd alarmed.

“What!? No! It’s like he fills that space where something’s been missing …”

“Raylan, what ruminations are going wild in that head of yours?”

“Not a trade-in … Dammit Boyd, he fills that space. Hell, we’ll probably never be more than friends. I been thinking on how things are changing. You have as much regard for him as I do. He always looks so confused when we shelter him from Quarles. Making Quarles crazy is an added bonus, but I hate that he takes it out on Tim and Reeves.”

Boyd sputtered, but Raylan had caught his reaction to the younger man. He thought he’d hidden the fact that he found the sniper attractive.

“What other things? You mean Ava and the baby?”

“The baby, retirement … Life in general. Even adrenaline junkies get tired.”

“You do not get to do this, Raylan. We talked this out on the way back to Harlan for Beau’s funeral. We’ve made a family. It’s a strange family, but it works. Ava feels safe for the first time since she married Beau. We’ll be the best uncles ever. We got out of Harlan alive and away from our daddies’ insanity and are the better for it.”

Raylan gave Boyd a small smile.

“Don’t mind my crazy ass. I’m just ready to be home sleeping in my own bed, wrapped around people I love without looking over my shoulder.”

His attention wandered back to Quarles and his squad.

Boyd sighed. He thought after the knock down drag out they had after Beau’s funeral, and bringing Ava back to Ft. Bragg with them, that Raylan had been convinced he was not on the outside looking in because he offered Ava a safe haven from his father. Why he was getting insecure? He understood wanting to retire. Twenty years of missions and killing was wearing on all of them.

Then there was Tim. Boyd wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers, but Raylan seemed to have formed a deeper connection with the younger man. One that was making him want to add Tim to their odd little family.

Boyd laid a hand on Raylan shoulder to pull his attention away from Quarles. Raylan hated the man the first time he laid eyes on him, and it was close to a full-time job to keep his volatile partner from shooting the albino. Raylan shook like a hound coming in from the rain before giving Boyd a grin.

“That grin hasn’t worked since we were kids, try again.”

Before they could continue, the unit’s communications specialists approached.

“Boss?”

“Tom.”

“A word.”

“Sure.”

Raylan collected himself from his sprawl and followed his communications specialist toward the office.

“Tom, what didn’t you want Boyd to hear?”

He was confused, because whatever he knew, Boyd knew, so Tom not wanting to talk in front of his SIC didn’t bode well.

“I just got off the phone with Melinda. She said Ava’s started having problems a few days ago. Doctor put her on bed rest, and the wives are taking turns helping her out, but she really needs one of you boys home since this could go bad fast.”

“I’ll talk to Captain Limehouse. See if we can’t get Boyd home early.”

“That’ll put us two men down.”

“No worries. I got my eye on a couple guys, so I’ll also be talking to the Captain about transferring them into the unit.”

“You’re going to poach from Quarles?”

“Did I mention any names?” Raylan’s face turned hard.

“You didn’t have to.”

“Maybe the Afghanis’ll get lucky and I’ll inherit them.”

Raylan’s smile was almost happy as he headed toward command.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Captain Ellstin Limehouse watched the man standing in front of his desk. He seemed calm and relaxed, but Raylan Givens was one of those crazy individuals that the more insane the situation was the more relaxed he seemed. Trouble always found him as though it was his personal mission to bring it to an end.

“What can I do for you, Givens?”

“Bergen just got off the phone with his wife. She told him that Ava’s pregnancy has developed serious health issues and she’s been ordered on bed rest. I’d like to see about getting Boyd sent home now instead of with the rest of the unit.”

“That’ll leave you two men down.”

“I’m aware.”

“You have someone in mind?

“I’m making evaluations now, Sir. I’ll have the names to you tomorrow.”

“Very good. I’ll speak to the Colonel about the Crowder situation … Dismissed.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Giving a smart salute, Raylan headed back to where he’d left Boyd.

“What’d Tom want?” Boyd looked up when Raylan’s shadow fell over him.

“He had some news from home. You need to start packing.”

“Why?”

“Ava’s pregnancy’s taken a turn and the doctor put her to bed. I asked Limehouse to send you home now.”

“Raylan …”

“No. Ava comes first. You’re her brother-in-law so you get to go. She needs you there to keep your daddy away from that baby. By the time I get home the little one will be there healthy and happy. You can work on those retirement papers and start deciding on whether we stay or move.”

“Raylan …”

“Oh look … Here comes the Colonel’s aide.”

“Master Sergeant Crowder, Colonel Mullen would like to see you.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Boyd glared at Raylan as he started for the command office.

“This conversation isn’t over.”

Raylan blew Boyd a kiss as he grumbled across the compound.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Boyd’s emotions were in a tumble. After Colonel Mullen had given him his orders he’d been able to call home and talk to Ava. When he’d complained about having to leave Raylan behind, his ever practical sister-in-law had reminded him that in the eyes of the Army Raylan rented a room from them. They were kin even if it was by marriage.

“I feel like I’m being torn in two, Ava.”

“I know, Boyd. What’s Raylan say?”

“He just smiles that mule eatin’ thistles smile and makes plans to poach Gutterson and Reeves from Quarles, all the while packing my bags.”

“Boyd, he’ll be home in a month. You’ll both retire, and we can get on with raising this baby.”

“Thought about where you’d like to do that?”

“I’d hate leaving our friends, but a fresh start might be good. We’ll have time to decide while I’m stuck in bed with the baby kicking my bladder like a soccer ball.”

Boyd chuckled at the blonde’s disgruntled tone.

“I’m flying out in the morning. I’ll be home before you know it.”

“Good. I’m tired of these women stumbling around me like headless chickens.”

He laughed out loud at that picture.

“Behave ’til I get there.”

“Love you, too. Give Raylan a kiss for me.”

She cut the connection before he could answer. His mind calmer, he headed to the quarters he shared with Raylan and Duffy. Raylan had already packed the dead soldier’s gear and turned it over to the Quartermaster. It would give them a little privacy to say their goodbyes.

The next morning, bruised, scratched, sore and smiling, Master Sergeant Boyd Crowder climbed on a plane for Germany. Raylan was already meeting with the Captain about the units’ newest additions.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

He sorely missed Raylan beside him as Melinda Bergen opened the door.

“There’s beef stew on the stove and bread warming in the oven whenever you want to eat.”

“Melinda, you’ve been a godsend.”

Boyd dug into his duffel and pulled out a box.

“Tom wanted me to give you this.”

The joy on Melinda’s face tugged at Boyd’s heart. Sometimes he forgot how hard it was on those sitting at home especially when their missions were so classified their wives often didn’t know if they were dead or alive.

“He was fine when I left. Not a nick or scratch on him anywhere. It won’t be long until they’re all home.” Boyd laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Eyes shining, she hugged the box to her chest.

“I’ll drop by after I get the kids off in the morning.”

“No rush. I’m on leave ’til the unit gets home.” Boyd said as he followed her to the door.

“I’m sure Ava will rest better now that you’re here.”

Locking the door, Boyd hefted his bag and moved to the master bedroom.

“BOYD!”Ava squealed when he walked in the room

“Easy, Girl. You’ll have the baby doing somersaults.”

He settled on the bed and pulled Ava into a hug.

“I missed you.” He breathed against her hair.

He felt her slender frame relax against his chest.

“I’ve been so scared.”

They rested together for a few minutes.

“As glad as I am to have you here, you really need a shower.” Ava teased shoving him off the bed.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Jocelyn Raylene Crowder was born by Cesarean section two weeks early and with a set of lungs that would have made any Drill Sergeant proud.

Boyd was cuddling his niece when Ava’s doctor came in the room, her face grim.

“Something wrong, Doctor?” Boyd asked as he exchanged a look with Ava.

“What? … No … I mean everything went fine with the delivery. Ava will need to take it easy until her incision heals …” The doctor closed the file she was carrying.

“I’m afraid we had to remove your uterus. There was damage we weren’t aware of and there was no way I could repair it.”

“We were always aware that Ava getting pregnant was a miracle.” Boyd assured her.

“My dead husband was abusive.” Ava added.

“A miracle baby?” The doctor asked.

“One of many miracles in our lives.” Boyd smiled at the blonde bundle in his arms.

“Oh, I almost forgot the reason I stopped by … You’re doing so well we’ll be discharging you and Jocelyn tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” Ava grinned at Boyd and Jocelyn.

“Guess I’m going to be busy with a few last minute details after I go home.” Boyd frowned.

“Like everything isn’t already perfect, Mr. OCD.” Ava teased as she loosened her top and took the Jocelyn from her uncle.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Boyd settled Ava on the couch with Jocelyn when the doorbell rang. Seeing Melinda Bergen with tears running down her cheeks, Boyd opened the door and pulled her inside.

“Melinda, what’s wrong. Has something happened to one of the children?”

The dark head shook in the negative.

“I just got a call from Captain Limehouse. Raylan and Quarles’ units were ambushed. Quarles and two others are dead. Tom, Shelby, Reeves, and Quarles’ medic made it back to base with minor injuries. Raylan and a sniper… Gutterson are MIA.”

Boyd pulled Melinda into the living room and held her while she cried. He saw the tears welling in Ava’s green eyes. Jocelyn began to fuss at the charged emotions in the room.

“Are they still shipping home at the end of the week?” Boyd asked.

“They’ll be home as soon as they’re debriefed. Their replacements got there today.”

Boyd nodded and released Melinda.

“I’m sorry. You just got home, and here I am crying all over your shirt …”

“It’s fine. We’re here for you and the kids.” Boyd assured.

“I wish I had better news about Raylan. Tom said they just disappeared. There were no bodies or anything. They sent people out to search, but there was no trace of them.”

“I’m sure someone will be around to brief us about Raylan since we’re listed as his contacts.”

“I’ve got to get back … The kids will be home soon.”

Melinda stood, and Boyd gave her a brief hug.

“Thank you for coming by and sharing with us.”

“Let me know if you hear anything about Raylan.”

“We will.” Boyd assured her.

Boyd locked the door behind and went to the comfort of his family.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Driving along the dusty track toward the mountain villages, Raylan looked at his watch and figuring the time difference knew Boyd was probably walking in the front door. His thoughts were rudely interrupted by a curse from Doc Shelby.

“What is that stupid son-of-a-bitch doing?”

Raylan turned around to see Quarles standing in the bed of the truck behind them his pale hair shining like a beacon in the desert sun.

“God damn it.”

Raylan grabbed the radio.

“Look sharp, everyone! Our position may be compromised, and somebody get that albino asshole under cover!”

“YOU WON’T GET THEM GIVENS! I’LL MAKE SURE WE ALL DIE FIRST!” Quarles shouted.

The blond’s body jerked and went over the side of the truck as his shout faded. Gunfire came from the hillside above while the drivers scrambled to find cover. Bullets killed the Hummer’s engine where Raylan, Tom and Shelby rode at the front of the line. The three commandos grabbed their gear and ran for the truck behind them.

“Out! Out! Find cover! NOW!”

Confusion reigned as the units returned fire from behind their vehicles. Several grenades landed in and around the troops before the heavy return fire drove the insurgents further into the rocks. When they took a head count of the dead and wounded there were two bodies missing.

“Anyone seen Givens or Gutterson!?” Tom Bergen yelled.

“I saw their position take a grenade strike.” Quarles’ driver offered.

“Where?”

“That line of rocks by the front vehicle.”

“See if any of these pieces of shit still runs.” Bergen ordered as he headed for the front of the convoy.

The earth was scorched but there were no bodies, body parts or blood in the sand around the rocks … Only scorch and pock marks from the explosion.

Mullen and Limehouse were going to have ten little rag doll babies over this mess.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

The first thing he noticed was everything hurt, blood running in his eyes. The second thing he noticed was somebody lying on top of him that was too small and light to be Boyd. The next two things he noticed were they were no longer on the mountain, and he still had his weapons and his gear … So not prisoners.

He shifted and the body on top of him groaned. Well that was promising. He pulled his helmet off, so he could look around. He remembered seeing the grenade coming at them … Pushing Tim behind the rocks … An explosion and then falling. The explosion must have opened a crevice because now they were lying in a tunnel that appeared to go further down into a cave.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Colonel Art Mullen rubbed his hand over his bald head. The reports from their spy satellites were bordering on unbelievable. He sent his admin to find Limehouse.

“You wanted to see me, Sir?”

Mullen handed him the reports.

“You don’t think …”

“Givens and Gutterson.”

“It’s been six months. Why wouldn’t he come in?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t have a better explanation. These strikes have all been on insurgent camps … Only the fighters are targeted, and they’re in locations that could only be approached on foot. All our ops have been in every direction except that one.”

“You think he’s hunting someone?”

“Could be. No one had eyes on him and Gutterson after they were hit. He could be batshit crazy from a head injury.” The Colonel speculated.

“He was already crazy …” Limehouse paused.

“What are you thinking, Ellstin?”

“Crowder shipped out the day before …What if he thinks the insurgents took him?”

“Shit. Why hasn’t Sergeant Gutterson returned?”

“We find them, we can ask him.” Limehouse snarked.

“Smart mouth. Get me Bergen. I think I know how we can get our feral hunter back.”

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Sergeant First Class Tim Gutterson scoured the area through the scope of his sniper rifle. There had been activity around the spot where their convoy had been attacked six months prior, and it was agitating Raylan. The concussion from the grenade blast along with the shaking his brain took when they fell into the cave had put a blank spot in his commanding officer’s memory.

Tim had tried to convince Raylan that Boyd had shipped home a few days before the attack, but he was convinced that Boyd had been taken prisoner. Tim even tried to convince Givens to go back to camp for help, but the man had torn through the tribes in the mountains looking for Crowder.

As scary as Raylan was on the hunt, Tim had not wanted to leave him alone. There were times when he was sure his presence was the only thing grounding the older man to reality. The man had protected him with his body when the grenade hit, so Tim would not leave him until he could convince Raylan to go back to base.

There were days when Tim was content with it being just the two of them. Raylan’s odd brand of courtship had won Tim’s heart then body. He protested that he didn’t want to be the ‘other man’ in his and Crowder’s partnership, Raylan had assured him that Boyd would not have a problem taking Tim to his bed when they got Boyd back.

“There’s no one around, Sir. The insignia is from our guys.” Tim reported.

“Cover me.”

Raylan never broke cover as he moved toward the two packs. Grabbing them he moved away from Tim’s position to one of the many cave entrances in the area. Gutterson joined him a few minutes later, and they began to sort through the packs.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Three sets of eyes watched from the blind several hundred yards from the drop point. They remained silent until Raylan Givens disappeared.

“Jesus, Joseph and Mary.” Limehouse muttered.

“I hope this works.” His aide commented.

“You and me both.” Limehouse answered.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Waking up before his alarm was nothing new for Ellstin Limehouse. He swung his feet off the bed and rubbed his hands over his face to wipe the cobwebs from his mind. His quarters looked bare as most everything was packed in his foot locker and duffel in preparation for going home. Remembering the papers laying on his desk, he rushed through his morning ablutions. A quick breakfast at the mess hall, his coffee mug filled, he stepped through the door of his office and stopped.

He stopped because a pistol was resting against his temple.

“Sorry, Sir.” Tim Gutterson whispered. “Raylan’s a little agitated. I felt it best to humor him.”

“Understood, Sergeant. Where’s my admin?”

“He pulled a gun on Raylan, Sir. He’s hogtied and gagged behind your desk. If you could sit at your desk with your hands flat on top I think this will work out just fine.”

“Master Sergeant Givens?”

“Catching up on his reading, Sir.”

“Tim?” A quiet voice asked from the file room.

“Clear, Sir.”

Captain Limehouse took in the sight of the man that walked into the room. Raylan Givens had always been a tall drink of water, lanky and whipcord thin … Wiry his mama would have said. Now both men were pared down to muscle and bone. A scar ran down the left side of the handsome face from his temple to the tip of his earlobe. He pushed the keffiyeh off his head exposing the streak of white in the dark hair.

“Givens.”

Limehouse hoped twenty plus years of military discipline would prompt the man to listen. Dark eyes narrowed.

“Captain.”

“Time to stand down, Soldier.”

“Can I go home?”

“Soon as the docs check you out.”

“Tim? …. He stayed … He didn’t have to … Could have left me.” Raylan rubbed his temple.

“Sergeant Gutterson will be taken care of, Master Sergeant.” Limehouse coaxed. “Let me take you to Medical.”

“Boyd really home with Ava?”

“Yes. He put in his retirement papers after you were reported missing.”

“They think I’m dead?”

“I couldn’t say what they think. Come on, Son, let’s get you to the docs.”

Limehouse reached out, but the man shied from the touch. The Captain looked to the sniper who shook his head.

“I’m right behind you, Boss.” Tim said softly.

Everything stopped as the three men walked through the camp. When they would have rushed forward Limehouse shook his head. He saw several men run for his and the Colonel’s office.

While Raylan was undergoing tests and exams, Tim debriefed with Limehouse and Mullen, after his own exam. They were just about finished when the Colonel asked a question that had been nagging him.

“Where’s your gear, Son?”

“Raylan’s quarters.”

The officers exchanged a look.

“How did it get there?”

Tim gave them an unrepentant grin.

“For a base full of black ops grunts … Your security sucks.”

Mullen glared at his and Limehouse’s admins. Limehouse’s still grumbling about the manhandling by Givens but scurried out to round up the people in charge of base security as the doctor followed by Givens came into the waiting room.

“What’s the word, Doctor?” Mullen asked.

“Other than the aftereffects of a severe concussion, the Master Sergeant is in good health. Regular meals and sleep will take care of the under nourishment and exhaustion, which I’m positive, will also help Sergeant Gutterson … Otherwise, I have no reason to keep them.”

“Gutterson, you’ll bunk with Givens until we can get you both back stateside. Until then consider yourselves off duty.” The Colonel ordered.

“Yes Sir.” Both men answered.

A week later, Raylan and Tim were on a transport home.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Tim was back with ‘Justified’ squad, and Command Sergeant Major Raylan Givens was US Army Retired. A cab waited as he walked through the gate, his few possessions in his duffel.

Twilight had moved into dusk when the cab stopped two blocks from the house he’d shared with Boyd and Ava Crowder. Shouldering his bag, he kept to the shadows as he walked the rest of the way. Turning up the alley behind the house, he stopped in the shadows of the old pine that shaded the backyard. Christmas lights twinkled up and down the street adding color to the drab December landscape.

Boyd and Ava sat at the kitchen table, Ava feeding six month old Jocelyn. The little girl had a head full of blonde curls was laughing as Ava tried to get as much food in her as on her. Raylan wondered if her eyes were green as her mama’s. Boyd stood and headed for the back door, a bag of trash in his hand. He merged deeper into the shadows. After dropping the bag in the trash can, Boyd sprawled in the chair on the back porch. Ava joined him with the fresh washed baby.

“We’ve got to get the tree up tomorrow.” Ava admonished.

“I’m sorry, Sweetheart. My heart’s just not in it this year. Jocelyn’s still young enough to not care …”

“I miss him, too, Boyd, but Raylan loved Christmas and he’d kick your butt if he knew you were being a Scrooge.” Ava’s expression turned sly. “You never did give Santa your Christmas list.”

“There’s only one thing on my list, but I don’t see it happening so …”

Boyd left Ava and the baby on the porch as he bolted back in the house.

She stood her cheek resting against Jocelyn’s blonde curls. She looked in the house then looked to the sky.

“Bring Raylan and Tim back one way or the other … We have to know.”

She started in the house when she paused and looked back at the sky.

“We prefer them walking through the door.”

The backyard went dark. Raylan picked up his bag. He had a lot to think about. He needed to talk to Tim.

<*> <*> <*> <*> <*>

Boyd and Ava got part of their Christmas wish when they answered the door the next day and saw Tim on the porch looking a bit sheepish. He couldn’t settle in the barracks and didn’t know where else to turn. They gave him their spare room, grilled him about Raylan, and after a week of finding him on the couch, Boyd got him to sheepishly admit he couldn’t sleep soundly without Raylan wrapped around him.

A stammered explanation of the relationship that had developed between him and Raylan had Boyd admitting that he and Raylan had talked about approaching the sniper before the world had gone to pieces. Suddenly shy with each other, Boyd invited Tim to move into his and Raylan’s room.

The ‘Justified’ unit was gathered at the Bergen’s for their annual Christmas party. Melinda even cajoled Boyd, Ava, and Tim into helping. Every surface was covered in food and Christmas goodies scattered through the house, the youngsters having their own party in the basement.

The joy felt by the families at having their loved ones home for the holidays was tinged with sadness for those who’d been lost.

Ava, Boyd, and Tim had talked to everyone, and were in the foyer preparing to leave. It was good to see everyone, but the absence of Raylan weighed heavily on their hearts. Tom was retrieving their coats while they made their goodbyes to Melinda, who asked Boyd to answer the door when someone rang the bell.

The men and their wives stood back as Ava watched Boyd move to the door. Boyd took in the cowboy boots, worn jeans and black wool coat. Dark eyes continued their perusal to the Stetson shadowing a man’s face. Something was tugging at Boyd’s memory, but the grief always sitting in the front of his brain had him turning away.

“Merry Christmas, come on in.”

He moved toward Ava and Tim who was gawking at the new arrival. Ava hugged Jocelyn tighter as the man took off his coat, a gold horseshoe ring sparkling on his right hand.

“Boyd …” Her whisper was choked.

“Ava, what …”

He looked to see what had her attention. The hand she watched rested on the hat crown. His breath stopped. He knew that ring … Had given it to Raylan for his promotion to Master Sergeant, Raylan always wore it with his dog tags. His breath started again when Melinda darted forward to take the hat and coat.

“Merry Christmas to you, Boyd … Ava … Tim.”

The three stared for so long that Raylan glanced at the group then back to his family. Getting nervous when they didn’t say anything, he turned back to Melinda reaching for his coat and hat.

“I’m sorry. This was …”

He was cut off when Boyd grabbed his arm and spun him around.

“You still in the Army?”

Confused, Raylan shook his head.

“Retired.”

Boyd jerked him against his chest and covered his mouth with his own. When Boyd relinquished his lips, Raylan wrapped an arm around Tim while Boyd pulled Ava close. They stood huddled together until Jocelyn began to complain about being squeezed in the middle of the adults. Crude comments from the rest of the unit broke them apart.

“Good to see you, Kid.”

“Glad you came in, Sir.”

Shadows crossed the rugged face until Tim’s movement brought Raylan to the present.

Raylan grinned and moved to greet the surviving members of his unit, taking time to thank them all for looking out for his family. He turned around surprised to see Tom and Melinda standing behind them with their coats.

“I’m sure you’d like to get home and celebrate your Christmas miracle.” Melinda smiled with tear filled eyes.

Three sets of eyes shone with tears of happiness as they said goodnight.

“All our miracles right where they belong.”

Boyd smiled as Jocelyn went into Raylan’s arms like she’d always known him. Wrapping his arms around Ava and Tim, Raylan and Boyd took their family home.

~ Fini ~

 

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