The heat was coming down in waves, the brilliant sunlight soaking into every surface; the surfaces spit the heat back up so that everything felt enveloped in a thick warm fog. For a minute, Deacon wondered if he'd crawled out of rehab and directly into the sun… or, you know, hell. Either one fit the bill, really. His shirt clung to him, his sweat acting like some makeshift adhesive he never asked for and didn't want.
It seemed his life was full of things he never asked for and didn't want these days, though, so the realization shouldn't have surprised him.
The sweat rolled down his back and he shook his head.
Reminds you that you're alive. He could hear Coleman's booming voice in his head and he smiled. For the first time in a long time being alive felt like a good thing, like something he wasn't trying to change with a bottle; for the first time, it didn't feel like something he wasn't sure he deserved.
He shook his head again and wondered if he should even try to pretend that he was embracing life especially hard today because he was sober, because the sun was shining, because somewhere a bullfrog was croaking, and kids were playing in a creek. He wondered if he should even try to pretend that it wasn't because he got to see her today for the first time in ten months and sixteen days. They'd spoken exactly once and only about the daughter she'd had since they'd last met. Maddie, he'd said, what a pretty name.
He thought maybe covered in sweat with stubble a couple of days past its prime might not be the best way to reintroduce himself to the woman he'd spent the last decade unabashedly in desperate soul-crushing love with, but she'd finally called him back and he'd long stopped pretending that he wouldn't take her any way he could get her.
He'd gotten to their spot early, spent twenty minutes trying to adopt a casual pose on the picnic table, another five trying to untangle the knots that had somehow situated themselves in his stomach. He'd missed her. He'd missed her for ten months and sixteen days—he'd missed her for longer than that, actually; he'd missed her from the moment he could feel her starting to pull away from him, the first echoes of goodbye falling from her lips.
He'd tried to stop it back then, tried to draw her in close to him, but it hadn't worked—it had been too late, and the real truth, he knew, was that he had been too not sober.
I don't understand how you won't quit drinking, Deacon. Why won't you quit for me? The tears in her eyes had damn near stopped his heart.
I will, he'd said, I'm gonna be the man you know I am, baby. And they both knew it was a lie, but he'd never wanted anything to be truer in his life.
He'd kissed her anyway, slipped inside her, loved her slowly and devoutly like she was a temple and he had come to worship at her altar. She was, and he had.
A car door slamming pulled him from his reverie—he didn't have to look to know it was her. He waited a beat to turn to see her, not sure if his heart could handle it; she'd always been a shock to his system. When he finally looked, she was coming down the little hill, her teal sundress billowing in a small breeze passing by.
There hadn't been a breeze all day, and suddenly a brief respite from the heat was offering itself. Deacon smiled, of course it shows up when she does.
She walked over to him silently, perched herself up on the picnic table next to him, her sandaled feet resting on the bench. Her toes were a light pink, and they wiggled a bit as the breeze continued, throwing itself through her hair.
"Hey," She said, looking at him.
Deacon was glad she spoke first, because his breath was gone to whatever place his breath always stole away to when he saw her.
"Hey," He said, lifting his hand to shade his eyes from the sun coming from behind her.
Deacon watched as her eyes skittered over his face, searching it, watching him. Tilting her head to the side, she smiled, "You look good."
Deacon chuckled and ran his hand across his stubble, "Liar."
Rayna laughed, "No," She shook her head, "I mean it."
She was looking at his eyes, no longer clouded by some substance, no longer clouded by the dark pool of self-hatred that had followed him since Vince died. That last one came back sometimes, especially at night, especially in his dreams.
He only dreamed of two things these days: Vince or Rayna. He'd only dreamed of those two things for years, but with her out of his life, he no longer knew which one he preferred. There was something almost worse about waking up from a happy dream about Rayna and the life they'd once talked of sharing to a world without her than waking from the graphic nightmares he had about Vince's death. Sometimes he was in the car, feeling metal wrap around a tree, feeling blood seep into the sheepskin seat covers. They both felt real, the dreams of Vince and the dreams of Rayna. Sometimes he felt like he preferred the nightmares, like he preferred dying over and over again nightly than clinging to a happiness that would no longer be his.
"Thanks." Deacon replied, "You do, too."
His eyes took her in; her breasts were a little fuller, her hips and waist slightly different. She wasn't wearing any makeup and her freckles spread across her nose; she looked exhausted. She'd never looked more beautiful to him.
Rayna smiled, "Liar." She whispered, her gaze falling to the river in front of them.
Deacon shook his head, "Not anymore." He reached out and touched his thumb to her chin, dropping it when she turned to look at him, "You look beautiful, Ray."
The color spread through her cheeks, and Deacon wondered if the heat was catching up to her; when she smiled shyly, he knew that wasn't it.
"Thanks," She cleared her throat, "Sorry I didn't call you back right away, I just…" She trailed off, giving a little shrug.
"Hey, it's okay." He said, wrenching his gaze away from her. He couldn't look at her for too long, it had been too long since he'd felt her mouth under his, since he felt her tremble beneath him. He stared at the river instead, wondering where it was going and wishing that it would take them with it—away from Nashville, away from the past he'd singlehandedly turned into something they both had to escape.
"Bucky said you wanted to talk..." She bit her lip.
Deacon nodded once, "Yeah." He turned to look at her, "I still got a job, Rayna?"
Deacon watched as her eyes widened, the blue just as bright and soft as he'd remembered. He wondered if he should be proud or sad that he could recall her with such detail after nearly a year of not laying eyes on her.
"Deacon…" She let his name out on a breath, "I don't think… I don't think that's a good idea," She shook her head, "I mean, do you?"
Deacon felt a quick flash of anger surge through him, but he tamped it down, let the sadness float in instead. "I get it," He nodded, his voice tight. "You don't want me anymore, even as a friend." He shook his head, "Message received, Rayna."
Rayna's mouth fell open a little bit and Deacon watched her decide between anger and something else, "Deacon," She shook her head, "I never stopped wanting you. That's exactly the problem," She pushed her hair back, her long fingers running through it, "I have a husband now."
Deacon felt the word like a dagger in his heart; he swore he would start bleeding out right then and there, hearing that word fall from Rayna's lips in relation to someone who wasn't him, "Damn, that's a pretty switchblade," He said, under his breath.
"What?" She cocked her head to the side.
He shook his head, "Nothing." His eyes fell to her ring, the diamonds catching the sun, throwing fractals of light into the Nashville day; with nothing to catch them and reflect them back, they didn't seem so impressive, "I know you got a husband, Rayna." His gaze stayed on her ring; he was unable to look away—it looked so unlike anything he would have ever considered giving her; he wondered if she hated it, wondered if she looked down at her hand and wondered who it belonged to, "Why'd you do it, Ray?"
She sighed. He didn't have to clarify what he meant, she already knew—he suspected she asked herself that at night, too. He'd told himself he wouldn't ask, but when he'd seen her coming down that hill every promise he made to himself went right out the proverbial window.
"I was pregnant." She said it simply, like it was an answer, like it explained everything, like it explained anything at all.
Deacon smirked at her, the anger bubbling up again, "I didn't really picture you as a traditionalist, Rayna," His gaze purposefully flitted down her body, then snapped back to her eyes. He raised his eyebrows.
The images came to both of them: her, hot and sweaty, writhing underneath him; her legs wrapped around him, whispering dirty things into his ear while he whispered even dirtier things right back into hers, her screaming his name, begging him, moaning and crying out to God, taking his name very, very much in vain.
She looked slightly embarrassed, "I'm not," She said, shaking her head.
"Oh, I know," He said, his voice dropping suggestively.
She smiled then, let out a small laugh, and Deacon felt the knot in his stomach loosen.
"Look." Deacon said, turning to face her, "You're going back out in a couple of months. Do you want me there?"
Rayna dropped her head into her hands, her hair falling in a curtain around her face, "Deacon, it… can't.. I have a…"
Deacon sighed, "I know you have a husband," He spit the word out, the taste of it sickeningly sour in his mouth, "But that wasn't exactly my question." He spoke slowly, deliberately, "Your tour. Do you want me there?"
Rayna blew air out of her mouth and her hair floated up a bit, and she reminded him of the girl he'd met so many years ago.
"Yes." She said, turning her head to the side to look at him through her hair. "Of course I do." Her voice was quiet, "You know I can't do this without you."
Deacon smiled and reached out to brush her hair out of her face. He tucked it behind her ear, "Yes," He nodded, "You can." He smoothed his hand down her hair, resting his hand lightly on her shoulder, "I think we both needed a minute to figure that out." His gaze was tender, "Personally, though, I'm done with living without you in my life." He dropped his hand, "But you can do this without me."
Rayna smiled, "I know," She whispered, "But, I don't want to." She admitted, quietly.
Deacon's heart leapt into his throat, unexpected emotion flooding through him, "Okay then." He stood up and held his hand out to her. She took it and stepped down off the picnic table.
Deacon leaned down and placed a soft kiss on her cheek, lingering a bit longer than he should have. He smiled when she leaned into him. When he pulled back to look at her, her eyes were closed.
Deacon watched as Rayna's brow furrowed, the little worry line he'd come to know so well making itself known. She had a small wrinkle there now and he briefly wondered if she'd still have it if she'd never met him.
She opened her eyes and they were wet with unshed tears, "But, I have…" She started, but stopped when she saw Deacon's face.
Deacon shook his head, pressing his eyes tightly closed, "Jesus, Rayna, stop saying that. I know you have a husband, okay? Ain't a day that goes by I don't think about that," He opened his eyes to look at her, emboldened by the switchblade she felt the need to keep jamming in his heart: husband, "And I know he loves you; hell, I know better than anyone how hard it is not to love you." He gave her a sad smile, "But, let me just get one thing real clear here and then I'll drop it for good: He doesn't love you like I love you. No one does."
Rayna sucked in a breath, then shook her head, "If only it were that simple." She whispered, and he knew that what she really meant was if only it were enough. Before his drinking, he knew, it was.
Deacon stared at her, "It is."
Rayna considered him, "Is it?" Her eyes searched his, "Because look at what we've done to each other, loving each other like we do."
Deacon froze; he didn't always pay attention in elementary school, he was too busy worrying about where his next meal would come from, too busy trying to dodge the fists of a grown man, but he damn sure did know about the past and present tense.
Deacon stared at her, a small smile on his lips, "I'll come on your tour, Ray, and I'll behave. I'll keep my hands to myself—" He let his eyes wander up and down her form, "Can't make any promises about my eyes, though." He winked at her and she let out a small laugh, rolling her eyes, "And I'll even be civil to Teddy. Hell, I'll be nice to him if you really want me to."
She smiled up at him, nodding a bit, "Okay," She said, biting her lip.
"But, just so you know," He smiled, "I'm waiting." At her confused look, he continued, "I'm done living without you, Rayna," He brushed his thumb along her cheek, "And I'll take you any way I can have you," He dropped his mouth to her ear, "At least… until I can have you again the way I want you."
His breath was hot in her ear and Deacon felt her knees nearly give out as he pulled away from her, smiling.
He stepped away from her, "See ya later, Ray." He said, walking past her heading up to his truck. "I'll call Bucky about the details." He called over his shoulder.
When he got to his truck, he watched her—she hadn't moved, but her hand was on her stomach. He started his truck and she turned to face him, catching his eyes as he put it in drive. The breeze slid her hair across her face and she pushed it away to look at him.
Her ring caught the light again, but this time he smiled. He waved as he pulled away and she returned his wave. His truck rambled down the road, past every bar in town, edging him closer to finally becoming that man he'd always promised her he would.
He didn't see Rayna slide down onto her knees in the grass, hunch herself over and cry. He didn't see the grass dig hard into her knees so that when she finally stood a half hour later her knees looked violent and martyred. He didn't see her hand press against her now-empty womb as she tried desperately to catch her breath, as the tears came fast and hard, sliding off her cheeks and rooting themselves in the grass.
Rayna imagined that her tears would foster something as they slid into the soil; she imagined that something beautiful might grow from her pain, might grow from the only love she'd ever known; what, after all, was pain if something could not grow from it? What, after all, was love?
In two months, they would go back out on tour together. They wouldn't come back to this spot until next winter, so they would not this season see the creeping buttercup sprawled out along the bank of the river, nearly dipping into the shore where the water lapped. They would not see the small children who picked the flowers try to make crowns out of them, would not see them crush the flowers in their tiny unsure hands until they could paint the picnic bench with color that would fade long before day's end. They would not see a little girl pick a flower and give it to her mother, smiling shyly as her mother cried, 'This flower is beautiful.' They wouldn't hear people who fancied themselves casual botanists say 'that's a weed, actually.'
And so what if it was? It still came back every spring, dancing in the wind on every light breeze that stuttered by. Still, you could not kill it.