And what does it say about you?
That everything you still call love, he now calls Rock Bottom.

-The Fidelity of the Fourth Step, Clementine von Radics


She knew the touch of his hand on her bare flesh like she knew the sweeping trails that used to swing behind her Daddy's house back when her Momma was still alive. She could remember, in full detail, the first time she ever felt his hands on her the same way she remembered the unending joy she experienced on those trails in those days, the sun splashing on her face, her freckles absorbing the light and multiplying as the day drove on. She could remember the last time she felt his hands on her body the same way she remembered her first skinned knee—how she'd cried out at the sight of blood and screamed from the searing pain, so real and raw back then. She'd never imagined anything could hurt so much.

If she could go back to the little girl she was then, she'd cradle her head in her hands and whisper into her ear: just wait, sweet girl. Just wait. Then she'd clean the blood off and dress the wound, reveling in how easy some wounds were to heal. Others, she knew now, were not. Some gaped so wide and so far that it felt like you were pouring out of your skin; and as you looked at your heart on the floor, you'd wonder how you'd ever get everything back inside yourself again—knowing that even if you did, it wouldn't fit back the same anyway, that everything would feel different, somehow out of place. He'd taught her that, his hands had given the lesson her heart would never forget, couldn't even if it tried.

The way he touched her scared her sometimes back then, the same way how little he touched her these days scared her now. She remembered in days gone by watching his rough fingers trail up her body, smooth over her skin; she remembered his touch making her feel like she was on the edge of something brave and dangerous. She'd never understood what that thing was, no matter how many times she tried to dissect it in the years that followed. She only knew that she would follow him over the edge time and time again back then. She'd fooled herself into thinking that she wouldn't anymore, that she'd taught herself to stop following him—but deep down, in the place she pretended didn't exist, she knew the truth: she would follow him anywhere, still. Maybe that was the problem.

She'd spent years trying to pretend that his name didn't mean love to her. Pretending she could ever hear his name and not think of love. She'd spent years convincing herself that in the worst times she'd hated his whiskey breath on her neck, hated his glassy eyes as they looked at her with too much punch-drunk love, too much plain drunk love, when really, it was all she knew of love. He was all she knew of love. And she hadn't hated it, anyway. She'd loved it, every time, even when her name sounded so foreign on his lips.

He had loved her. With his mouth, with his body, with his eyes, with his tattered heart as best as he could back then. And she had loved him. With her cautionary tale heart, with her open mouth, with her soft hands, her wet tongue. She'd never listened to anyone who told her not to love him, who told her that the alleys he walked down were too dark for her, that they'd both stumble and fall, that they'd break bones never mind their hearts—she always had a flashlight in her pocket, anyway.

These people who told her that (and there were many) didn't know the language the two of them spoke, they didn't know how her heart filled the exact holes in his, how his hands made her forget every bad thing that had ever happened to her, how her hands did the same for him.

So, when he came to her to make amends—the second time, after he relapsed and threw fourteen years of sobriety down the drain with a bottle of whiskey or three—she let him in to her dressing room.

"I'm sorry, Ray." He said, as he'd said so many, many times before.

She cried. "I know." She whispered, nodding.

"I spent so many years waiting." He didn't have to tell her what he'd been waiting for. She already knew. "But, I get it now."

Her brow furrowed, trying to discern his meaning, "Get what?"

"It was never gonna work, Ray." He pushed his hand out between them, moving it in the space between them that felt wider than it had in years, "You and me." He sighed, "I finally get what everyone said back then."

"What do you mean?" She tilted her head to the side, considering him.

"It wasn't love, you and me. I thought it was, but I know now that it wasn't." His eyes were sad, "It was rock bottom, for both of us. It just took us over two decades to finally hit."

His words invaded her, swam across her moat, stormed her castle walls until she could feel the sharp sting of injury, until she swore she could taste the blood in her mouth.

Before she could control herself, she felt her hand leave her side, and the next thing she knew her palm was stinging, heavy with the weight of the side of his face, of his dark stubble. His face turned to the side from the force of her blow, and it took him a moment to readjust his head, another moment before he looked at her, his eyes staring into hers.

Her words were venomous, "How dare you?" She leaned into his face, her gaze hot.

He brought his hand up to his cheek, soothing the stinging flesh. "What the hell, Rayna?" He glanced down at her hand to see her fist in a ball, her knuckles white with the effort.

He was all she'd ever known of love, and he was standing before her in a dressing room with a hundred people milling about outside telling her that it wasn't ever, actually, love that was between them after all.

If his hands on her body weren't love, what were they?

The raw pain hit her next, and she unclenched her fist, "How can you say that? How can you fucking say that to me, Deacon?" The tears burned the back of her eyes, and she blinked them back. "I loved you." She said, her voice a desperate whisper, "And you? You loved me." The anger seeped into her words, "Don't you dare stand there in front of me now and tell me that you never did."

"Rayna, I…" He trailed off, his teeth clenched, but not out of anger.

She backed up and sat on the couch, thankful that it caught her weight, scared that it wouldn't and she would sink through to the ground; briefly, she wondered what was on the other side, if what was there would hurt as much as this.

He stood there, halfway between her and the door, and she wondered when he did which way he would move.

"You loved me." She said, her heart in her throat, "You loved me." She whispered again, her tongue hanging onto the words, scared to put them out there, knowing she didn't have a choice, "You loved me?" The third time, it was a question, and it left her body on a breath.

The third time, he finally understood. He looked at her face, at the lines that age and heartache had wrought and he thought she'd never been more beautiful, not when she was sixteen, and not any day in between then and now. He took a step towards her, then another; three more, and he was in front of her, kneeling before her as she sat on the couch.

His hand found her knee, and his voice was thick with emotion, and he told her the truth this time, "I loved you, baby." He said, his thumb drawing circles on her knee. She wouldn't look at him, staring over his shoulder instead. He swore under his breath, "I still love you, baby."

She looked at him then, brought her hand up to his face to smooth the skin of his cheek before dropping her hand back into her lap. "You're it." Her voice was barely a whisper, "You're the only man who's ever loved me." Her eyes dropped to her lap, "You're the only man I've ever loved."

He didn't remind her that she was married to someone else for nearly thirteen years; he didn't need to. She'd spent every single day of those years trying to love the man lying next to her, trying to forget that his hands weren't the calloused ones that taught her about her body, the ones that danced along her skin making her feel like she was on fire; trying to forget that his heart wasn't the broken one that had taught her about love, all the joys and pains of it, all the scars of it. She never wanted those scars, but she wouldn't have traded them for anything, not when the love that fell from Deacon Claybourne's lips sounded so much like salvation. The love from anyone else's lips didn't stand a chance, and she knew it, even back then—the same way she knew it now.

"I'm sorry," He said again, and she'd heard that phrase from him so many times she couldn't even begin to count the number. But this time, it was a revelation.

His hand slid up her knee, under the hem of her dress and she gasped when his fingers grazed against the sensitive skin of her inner thigh. He leaned his head forward and pressed his lips against hers, his tongue sliding into her mouth as he tangled his hand in her hair, pulling her to him. She whimpered in the back of her throat, and then moaned as his tongue slid across hers, tasting her—tasting Rayna.

And so, if this was rock bottom, he would gladly revel in it—he would build a house there with a wraparound porch and a walk-in closet; he would build a picket fence, digging deep holes into the barren earth for the fence-posts while she brought him glasses of lemonade and then sat on the porch watching him dig, playing his guitar badly and knowing it was still the sweetest sound he'd ever heard save for the way she whispered his name every night, the way he whispered hers.

He would build a damn life in rock bottom and spend the days holding her hand as they swung on the creaky porch swing he'd always promise to fix, but which she knew he never would. And they would be happy, even if nothing else grew there but their love.

She was all he'd ever known of love, too; she was all he ever wanted to know of love.