But all my frozen words agree and say it's time to
Call back all the birds I sent to fly behind her castle walls.
And I'm weary of the nights I've seen
Inside these empty halls.

-Birds of St. Marks, Jackson Browne

It had been four years, two hundred thirty seven days and thirteen hours, give or take. He's never actually gotten around to asking the exact time Rayna and Teddy took their vows. But he kept a running count in his head of exactly how long it had been since he lost her, for real and for good.

The sky outside was a brilliant pink, the sun heading down into its grave for the evening. The last bit of light threw itself behind the white puffy clouds, a final wave goodbye to the day—the last plead before the darkness took over. It rained the day before, the skies dark and cloudy, so today it was exceptionally cold—the air was clean and swift, filling his lungs as he walked up the driveway to knock on her door.

She'd moved to this house with ivy creeping up over its skeleton two years ago, right before everyone started calling her the next Queen of Country. Deacon knew it was everything her true dream house wasn't and, he suspected, that's why she'd chosen it to begin with. Nevertheless, she was building a life inside of it, making it warm in the ways only she could.

He lifts his hand to knock on the door, feeling the heavy wood underneath his knuckles. The doors in this part of town were always too heavy, too intent on doing their sole job: keeping people out.

She opens the door, and he immediately glances down at her right leg, half expecting to see big brown eyes staring back at him—if Maddie's not clinging to Rayna's right leg, she's asleep. Those are the only two places that little girl likes to be these days: attached to Rayna or asleep. He smiles a sad smile; he knows the feeling.

Finding Rayna's leg empty, he brings his eyes back to her face, stopping briefly to stare at her swollen belly, thinking of the life growing inside of her, wondering if it will have Maddie's sweet brown eyes, her curious spirit. When he gets to her face, he sees her shock, followed closely by her apprehension. He hasn't shown up on her doorstep unannounced in years. In at least three platinum records.

"Hey," She whispers.

Deacon nods, "Hey, can I come in?"

She nods, opening the door, turning to the side so he can slip past. He closes his eyes as he slides past her, inhaling her scent—it's been unchanged for years, which he finds oddly comforting and unsettling at the same time. She closes the door behind him.

"Maddie asleep?" He asks, glancing around and stepping into her kitchen. He already knows Teddy is out of town.

Rayna nods, "Out like a light. She'll be up half the night, but…" She trails off, shrugging and smiling, following him into the kitchen.

Deacon offers a curt nod, his eyes darting around the kitchen; he takes in the fancy backsplash, the granite countertops, the new appliances. This isn't the first time he's seen it, he's stood in her kitchen before with his hands wrapped around a mug of coffee or a glass of milk. For some reason, though, it's always the kitchen that gets him; every time he sees it, it feels like he's looking at it for the first time. Like a familiar place that somehow morphs even as you're looking at it into the most foreign place you could ever imagine, something you can't even begin to recognize.

That's how he thinks of her sometimes, too.

He shakes his head, "I can't get over this place."

She laughs, a little embarrassed, knowing he can see right through her—this was never what she wanted. "Yeah," She sighs, "It's a bit much. But," She waves her hand around, "It's home now."

Deacon turns to look at her, taking in her hair falling softly around her face, her black long sleeved shirt pulled over her stomach, her light grey sweatpants. She's as beautiful as he's ever seen her; but then, she always is. Pregnancy suits her more than most—he concluded that the minute she told him she was pregnant four months ago.

He turns his head to the side, considering her, "Is it?"

Rayna's breath catches in her throat, and her smile falters, "Why are you here, Deacon?"

Deacon's voice is quiet, hard when he speaks. "I'm letting you go, Ray." He can't look at her.

"You're…" She puts her hand on her hip, "You're letting me go?" She repeats the words back to him, trying to discern his meaning, unwilling to acknowledge that she already knows.

Deacon nods, feeling a sudden pressure behind his eyes. They feel different than he thought they would, the words, out in the open between them like that. "Yeah." His voice is barely audible.

Rayna nods her head, "Okay." She fixes her eyes on the stove, not trusting herself to look anywhere else. "Okay," She repeats, her voice thick despite her best efforts. She's not pretending she doesn't know what he means anymore.

Deacon hears the undercurrent in her voice; she's never been able to hide it from him, and he feels something shift inside of him, fall into or out of place, he's not sure which. He moves in front of her, and she tears her gaze from the stove to his face.

Her lip trembles.

He picks her hand up from her hip and holds it in his own, looking at her, "I have to, Rayna. I can't…" He feels his voice quiver, and he shakes his head, "I… hurt. It hurts too much."

She stares at him then, her mouth falling slightly open, "I never wanted to hurt you." She has to whisper to keep the sobs at bay.

"I know," He says, and he takes her hand and puts it on his face, nuzzles into the soft warm feeling of her palm. She hasn't touched him in almost three years. He nods, their hands moving with his head, "I know."

And he does know. He's said the same thing to her at least a dozen times, come to her on his knees, his heart cut open for the damage he'd done.

She opens her mouth to speak, but closes it, knowing she can't say what she wants so desperately to say.

He slides her hand with his over his neck, down his chest; he folds his hand over hers into a fist above his heart. They can both feel it beating—it's wild and sad and telling the story they've both been trying to forget. It whispers the words that have been stuck in his throat.

"I been holding on," He explains, "I been holding on to you, Ray, waiting. I've been hoping…" He drops his words, his eyes skating over her stomach then back to her eyes, "Hoping." He feels the tears burn; he feels them fall, but he doesn't let go of her hand, doesn't try to stop them from falling, "But… I can't." His voice is fragile, "I'm lonely."

Her face changes at his word, contorts as a sob escapes her lips, and suddenly she's crying so hard she can't speak. She just nods her head, grips the shirt under her palm in her fist, and pulls on it lightly. He drops his hand, and wraps his arms around her, pulling her close to him. He feels her belly pressing into his stomach, and he runs his hands over her back, burying his nose in her hair. He inhales deeply, trying to make her scent fill his lungs and stay there so she will be the only thing he ever breathes out.

She doesn't know who she is without him loving her, and she doesn't want to find out—but she has asked too much of him already, she won't let herself ask any more of him. She can do at least that much.

So she lets her body melt into his, lets her hands press themselves in small circles on his back—"It's okay." She whispers, the words distorted by her emotion.

They both know that it isn't.

He pulls back to look at her, brings his hand to her face, and traces his thumb along the tears that won't stop coming, "I'm sorry." His voice is raw, and they both know he's apologizing for every single year before this one.

"Shhh." She brings her index finger to his lips, "I know." Her finger is wet with his tears.

He kisses her index finger once, twice, three times, then he speaks against it. "I have to let you go, baby."

He steps away from her, knowing that if he doesn't now, he never will. She closes her eyes, and lets him—she listens to the soft tapping of his shoes on the tile floor of the house she never wanted. She hears him open the door, and she opens her eyes to see him standing in the doorway like it's a precipice.

He's not looking at her, he can't. She can't stop looking at him, and she feels her chest constrict as she stares at him; the way he wears his jeans breaks her heart.

The words hang thick in the air—she'll never be able to un-hear them, he'll never be able to unsay them. I have to let you go.

As he shuts the door behind him, the soft click echoing in his ears like the heavy sound of metal crashing against itself, it's the word she doesn't say that he hears the loudest. It's the word she doesn't say that he will listen to: don't.