"Maybe we shouldn't go," Winona said, doubt in her voice.
"Well, you should've said something before we were forty miles down a holler with hairpin turns every other way," Raylan said testily.
"No need to be a prick about it, Raylan," Winona said drily. "We're just going on a double date with someone you've earnestly tried to shoot once or twice. Why on god's earth would I be stressed out?"
They spent the rest of the car ride in relative silence, just the buzz of the radio fading out and back in as they curved through the hills. Slowly they crept up until the road turned to dirt and the road signs disappeared; they'd left behind streetlights a good half hour before, but the moon was bright in the late summer sky and Raylan could see the porch light of Ava's place from here. Hell, he knew this place like the back of his hand anyhow, no matter the time.
When they finally pulled up onto the Crowder lands, Boyd was standing sentry out on the porch, shirt buttoned and hands tucked loosely into his pockets. He had that odd smile on his face, where you could just about tell it was friendly but couldn't quite see his lips curve upwards. Raylan hopped out of the car and threw up a hand, made to head around to open the door for Winona but she was out, hostess gift in hand, before he could even get to the door handle.
"Well, hello there Winona, Raylan," Boyd said, not moving as he watched them walk up to the house. "Thank you for joining us this fine evening. Ava's just putting the last touches on our meal, but I wanted to come out and greet you myself."
"Boyd," Winona said cordially; she'd only met him the once, maybe twice up in Lexington, but Raylan had told her too many stories in the confidence of wedlock for her to ever be real comfortable around him.
"Mrs. Hawkins," Boyd said just as pleasantly back, not putting any special emphasis on her title but the rebuke was there anyhow. Raylan tried not to show his exasperation at Boyd's man-of-the-book act and held out his hand for Boyd to shake.
"Raylan," Boyd said, grasping his hand tightly and staring right into Raylan's eyes with the same unflinching gaze he'd had when they were boys. He'd never shied away from staring Raylan down; it was both an admirable and annoying quality all in one.
"Thanks for having us up here, Boyd," Raylan said, letting Boyd keep on with the handshake until he seemed fit to let go.
"Well, you'll have to do your thanking rightly with Ava," Boyd said, pulling open the screen door to let them into the house. "I am merely a butler of sorts."
"Now Boyd," Ava admonished, coming out of the kitchen with her hands in a dish towel. "You've been a great help to me, keeping this house up. You've a good reason to be here, and not only because of your association with myself or Raylan." She smiled her sweet smile at Raylan, reached up on her toes to give him a hug. “It’s real nice to see you, Raylan, thank you for coming out all the way from town." She stepped back, gave a lower-wattage smile to Winona. "You too, Winona, thank you for coming to my home. It's not all that often we have company."
Winona kept herself as pleasant and friendly as you please. Raylan gave her a cautious eye as he pulled his hat off his head, hanging it on a peg by the door. She'd wanted to come, even when Raylan had given her an out, so who was he to tell if she was happy to be here or not. Himself, he wanted some of the pork chops Ava had promised when she invited them over, and to spend one night enjoying something like the life he'd left behind when he took off to Miami.
Raylan wasn't all that much for regrets--he'd built himself a good perspective on the notion that he should keep moving forward, never mind the past. But he was a man all the same, and there always was something up inside of him that missed the life he'd left here. Not even the life he'd had with Winona--they'd had some wonderful years together, but she'd always been unwilling to live any further outside of Louisville than inside of 265, and when they lived in Lexington it was Monticello and that was that. What he'd missed was the life he'd had when he was nineteen, too young to know any better of what the world was like outside of Harlan County but counting the dollars until he had enough to take off; old enough to run around with the boys shooting the shit and catching a little trouble after putting a day into the mines. That life was apple-pie moonshine and buttermilk biscuits, cheap beers from the Texaco and long seamless nights out under the stars.
It was nostalgia, plain and simple, and if Raylan had never much been the type to indulge, the desire to have some harkening back to his younger days had recently nestled deep within his chest.
He took the Blue Moon Boyd offered to him with a nod, and kept an ear open as Ava and Winona made small talk back and forth. The dining room where Bo had took his last breath was spread out beautifully, cloth on the table and all the china set out in advance. Raylan suddenly wished he'd elected to wear his tie; but Boyd wasn't wearing one, not that he was ever much for one even when it was appropriate, so perhaps it was just as well.
"Let's all sit down now," Ava said brightly, ushering them into the room. "I hope ya'll are hungry, I made greens and those mashed potatoes I remember you like, Raylan, and the bread you brought will go so well with dinner. Thank you so much, Winona."
"Oh, it's nothing," Winona demurred, but she shot Raylan a look as they went to go sit at the table that told him clearly just how much more effort she expected him to put into this evening's visit.
They passed around the food, in dishes that must have been in Ava’s family for a long time; they were old, the glaze on the ceramic a little faded with time, but still carefully preserved without a crack to be seen. Raylan carefully passed the greens over to Boyd, who took them and laid his steady gaze on Raylan again. It always made Raylan feel like Boyd was seeing something in him Raylan himself couldn’t fathom. It made him a little uncomfortable, not that he’d ever admit to that, but Boyd probably knew it and did it with purpose.
Winona tapped the toe point of her shoe against Raylan’s ankle—not that he could really feel it through his boots—and fed him a small, meaningful look. He cleared his throat and started talking about a case he’d worked earlier in the year with Tim as some backup. It was just a simple bail jump, not too much nevermind, but the felon had gone and tried to hide in a food processing facility outside of Richmond and ended up getting himself doused in corn syrup. It was a funny story, with the part about how his skin got all stuck together when the syrup started to dry. They’d had to tug him out of the back of the car and half-carry him into the station for processing.
Everyone was laughing, Ava hiding her grin behind her hand and Winona taking a second helping of the potatoes. Even Boyd was smiling in his own particular way, and Raylan was pleased that he’d managed to have an evening where one of the three people he was closest to in this state wasn’t pissed at him for some reason or another.
The thought occurred to him, suddenly, that nothing quite compared to the awkwardness of being in a room comprised entirely of people he’d slept with at one point or another. He stole glances around the table, taking a pull off his beer to mask his consternation; no one else seemed to have made the connection that they all had Raylan in common, in the bedclothes fashion.
And then Boyd put that look on him again, and Raylan suspected at least one of the three had put it all together. Of course it was Boyd; the man couldn’t walk into a room without breaking it down and putting it all back together in his mind.
Raylan dragged himself back to the table, where Winona had offered him another piece of bread expectantly and Ava was offering to get him another beer. He took the beer but not the bread, and tried to quell the unsettled feeling in his stomach. He’d be the first to say he hadn’t been the best, well, he’ll call it partner for want of the better word. Raylan knew his own failings and rarely shied away from them, though whether he tried to change or not was another matter entirely. He wasn’t well cut out to be a husband or a lover or a partner. Anyone who’d been with him longer than five minutes could tell that.
Ava, well. She seemed more than fine with Raylan not sticking around; she hadn’t stuck around herself, had just withdrawn to her own matters on her own hilltop. Though Raylan could tell she was still a little sweet on him, that young-girl crush not entirely dimming even with how things had all turned out.
Boyd--they hadn’t been a part of each others’ lives for going on twenty years, and that hadn’t changed for Raylan coming back into town. Certainly not with Raylan being a lawman and Boyd getting god-touched there for a time.
And Winona, Raylan hated to admit it, but this thing with Winona wasn’t going to last. He still loved her, would probably love her as long and as well as he could love a woman, but Raylan knew he was never going to be the man she wanted him to be, the man she needed him to be. They had a good thing going right now, but it was a release valve more than anything. Soon enough Winona would wise up, realize Raylan was the same man she’d divorced all those years ago, and would break it off. Raylan was prepared for that any day now, but he was damn well going to ride it out as long as it kept going.
Ava put a beer in his hand and gave him that beauty pageant smile she’d learned early and well. Raylan smiled back at her; it was a hard thing to help, and he was a guest in her home. There hadn’t been any shots fired and Raylan had a good eye on the door and the window. If that and a pork chop dinner weren’t reasons to smile he didn’t know what could be.
The slow drawl of Patsy Cline crept through the room, light and sweet even as she sung about lost love. Ava started telling stories about the hair salon, gossip from the ladies around Harlan County, and Raylan had learned real quick when to nod and mumble something when women started talking about things he couldn't give two shits about. Boyd was nodding, asking questions with detail, prompting Ava with the ease of familiarity. Raylan tried to hold back his surprise; even when Boyd had been a drug-running asshole stoolie for his father, he'd always known how to hold a conversation, engage with people Raylan wouldn't have known how to give the time of day. It was a damnably admirable trait.
Boyd caught his eye, and Raylan gave him a nod, one that would have felt more natural with his hat on but made Boyd smile all the same.
Winona dropped her hand on top of Raylan's wrist then, and it startled him--not enough that he jerked, but he did stare for a minute. Winona was asking Ava about the salon, about the business, and her shiny red nails wrapped around his wrist seemed odd and out of place on the dinner table.
"If ya'll will excuse me," he said, pushing back his chair and standing up, letting Winona's hand fall away, "I need to make use of the facilities; my apologies."
"You know where it is, Raylan," Ava said, something knowing on her face, a little too familiar. Raylan dipped his head in acknowledgement and went through the front room to where the downstairs bathroom was. He took care of things and washed his hands in the sink, catching his reflection in the mirror and staring just a little. Hell, he just didn't know when he'd gotten so damn old. When he'd gone from being the young guy Ava worshipped and Boyd trusted, the man Winona had agreed to marry.
Now he was on the knife edge of forty and had a badge and unmatched arrest record to show for his time, but not all that much else. Hell, that's as much why he stayed here in Kentucky as anything. He could have gotten another place if he'd really wanted to, crossing the country doing fugitive recovery. They always had trouble putting people on it. But that would have been admitting defeat, in a way; none of the men, or the women, who chose that service had much of a home life, if their spouses didn't divorce them for taking the gig in the first place. It was a hard job, and doing fugitive recovery would have put him about as far from Harlan as he was ever likely to get.
Instead, he was here, and he was just as likely to stay.
He dried off his hands in the embroidered towel on the rack, unbuttoned another button on his shirt, and opened the door. Boyd was standing in the front room, his back to Raylan, looking out on the night sky over the hills. Even in the house you could see some of the stars. Boyd's hair caught the light, soft yellow filtering through the strands, and Raylan remembered suddenly what it had been like to run his hands through it, messing around on an old flannel blanket out in the woods where no one would find them.
"Raylan," Boyd said, his voice the lever between formal and familiar. "I thought you might care to join me out on the porch; it's such a nice night, only a little chill in the air, and I happen to have acquired a pair of fine cigars from a gentleman passing through town."
"Now, these wouldn't happen to be contraband cigars, would they, Boyd?" Raylan asked, knowing perfectly well the answer but unable to resist the bait.
Boyd turned, and he'd also unbuttoned the very top button of his blue shirt. His smile, as always, was slight and unassuming. "Now Raylan," he admonished, "it's not real polite to go asking after the origin of a man's gift to his friend."
Raylan snorted and followed him out the front door to the porch. He turned, saw the women clearing the table and tried to intervene, but Ava waved him off.
"Go on," she said. "Winona and I can deal with this."
Winona gave him an arch look that meant he would catch hell for abandoning her to the dishes with his ex-girlfriend, but she nodded for him to go on out to the porch.
The night was cool, just the promise of autumn around the corner. The soft snick of the cigar cutter seemed loud compared to the chime of the insects nearby. Boyd handed him the cigar and brought out a lighter, an old, tarnished object that had the embellished initials "BC" engraved on the front. A few quick puffs and the cigar was going, bittersweet smoke drawn into his mouth. He coughed a little--Raylan hadn't smoked as a kid, too many dreams of baseball, and he hadn't picked it up later in life. Boyd smiled, his eyes catching the fire-light of his cigar.
"Now isn't that the finest Caribbean tobacco you've ever put to your lips," Boyd said, daring Raylan to protest.
Raylan just shook his head, laughing a little through the half-breaths he was taking. "I've never had better," he said, which was of course the truth.
They spent a good while just working at the cigars, watching the wisps of smoke blow away into the night, mimicking the cats'-tail trace of clouds in the sky. There was nothing like this light elsewhere in the world that Raylan had seen, the fading sun giving way to night-time clarity. A starry night in Kentucky was humbling, the full breadth of stars laid out like a canvas.
"Raylan," Boyd said, breaking the silence. "I'm of a mind to say something to you, though I hope you won't take offense."
Boyd looked at him expectantly, and Raylan looked right back. "Say it then," Raylan said. He'd never seen much point in dissembling, unless it was in a hostage negotiation. To his retroactive disappointment, sometimes his marriage had felt like that. Boyd mostly made him feel like "two truths and a lie" was the Kentucky state sport.
"I've missed you a great deal," Boyd said plainly, setting his eyes on the darkened outline of the hills beyond the Crowder land. "I had never reckoned how much until you returned, like some avenging creature in a ten-gallon hat. I suppose I have always underestimated your ability to affect me, Raylan, a mistake I'm not of a mind to make again."
He set his cigar on the porch railing, the end going a dark umber, and turned to the little table by the door which Raylan now saw held a bottle of Buffalo Trace and two small jelly jars.
"No matter the time that's passed, I believe we're cut from the same cloth, Raylan," Boyd said, pouring the bourbon and offering Raylan a glass. Raylan took it, brought it to his mouth.
Boyd picked up his cigar, wrapped his lips around it. His eyes fell half shut as he drew the smoke in, and the thin stream of smoke he expelled hung between them like a cloud. "You lay us side by side and you begin to see where the patterns meet, don't matter that the shears been through it," he said, drawing Raylan's gaze without seeming to try.
They smoked and drank in silence, until the thing in Raylan that always made him open his mouth when he wanted it shut had him say, "Why now?"
His voice was hoarse. Maybe it was the bourbon.
"Raylan, some part of me waited these twenty years for you to come back," Boyd sighed. He rested the fingertips of his right hand over Raylan's breast, above his heart. "I don't care to wait much longer."
He blew sweet Cuban smoke above their heads, and Raylan felt his heart speed up. From Boyd's smile, so did he.
"Boys! We've got cobbler," came Ava's voice from the house, and Boyd let his hand drop.
Raylan felt hot, like Boyd's words had branded him somehow. He followed Boyd inside the house, Boyd who had just confessed something to him that Raylan was hardly prepared to handle, and watched as Boyd just smiled and made nice, asking what Winona was reading and carrying the cream to the table.
He took the cobbler given to him, ate it but didn't notice the fruit. He nodded, smiled in the right places, but in his own mind there was only the two-fingered touch seared against his skin.
He had always underestimated Boyd's ability to affect him as well.
Ava looked as though she were laughing at him from across the table, something in her eyes that told him she saw more than she was ever meant to. But the woman knew how to keep her peace, Raylan would give her that. Once everyone was done, once his jar of bourbon had been emptied, he stood himself up from the table and said, "I'll get the dishes."
Ava started to protest, and Winona said something about the time, but Raylan just collected the bowls and spoons, the coffee mugs and his jelly jar, and brought it all into the kitchen. The cd player had switched from Patsy Cline to the Rolling Stones, loud in the blessedly empty room.
He ran the water, watching it run into the basin, pouring some soap in there too. He'd always done the dishes when he and Winona were married, not because she did the cooking--most of the time they ordered takeout--but because there was something relaxing about it at the end of the day. Cleaning off the dishes, wiping down the counters, maybe running the dishwasher if there was a need to. Soothing. Something of that same feeling hit him just then, ducking the glasses into the water and wiping away the suds running down the sides.
He could just about feel Boyd enter the room, something about his presence that set off every warning bell Raylan had and more besides. Raylan didn't look up from what he was doing, just kept washing away, but he heard a drawer open on the other side of the room. Boyd stepped carefully close, plucking the glasses from the dish drainer and starting to wipe them down.
Raylan still didn't look up. He didn't know what he would say.
"I am sorry, Raylan," Boyd said, the rumbling tenor of his voice muted in the little space between them. "I didn't mean to give offense. And you should understand that I don't expect you to, well. I don't expect you to do anything, if I'm being honest, which I do try to be. But by the same coin, my honesty is what brought me to this. I waited for you, somehow, and you should know that truth."
Raylan didn't say anything for a moment, just wiped away the crumbs of cobbler from a bowl, but finally he said, "I'm with Winona."
"You're sleeping with Winona," Boyd corrected, as if he had the right to do so. That did cause Raylan to pause in his work, look up with a glare at Boyd, who seemed unruffled.
"Winona will give you happy and safe, if you can bear it," Boyd said, as though he was seriously considering the notion. "But I don't think you can give it back to her, now can you, Raylan?" Boyd's eyes sharpened. "You don't want that at all. You want the chaos, and the thrill of it, the hunting and gun-slinging and finding the trouble." Boyd turned wistful. "Imagine what we might've done if you'd stayed with me, instead of letting the Marshal service take you."
"I don't have to imagine," Raylan said.
Boyd's heavy gaze landed on him. "And Ava--she's trying to figure out who she herself is, before figuring out what to do 'bout it. Like all of us, I suppose."
"And so that just leaves you," Raylan said, damn his fool mouth.
"Yes it does, my friend, yes it does." Boyd rested against the kitchen counter, dish towel in his hand, fork in the other, as if the two were weights and feathers measuring Raylan's life.
He wasn't beautiful, Boyd, not like Winona or Ava or any of the women Raylan had been with in his time. Raylan had never been much for other men, and while once or twice the opportunity had come along, none of those single nights compared much against Boyd either. There was an animation in his face, even at rest, that belied the tempo of his words. Boyd was easy to underestimate. That was what had always made him so damn dangerous.
Even when they were boys, playing with each other like at a game of chicken, Boyd had been dangerous; despite the lessons Raylan had learned at his daddy's knee it had still taken him years to build up his defense around himself. Boyd had been the object lesson: kissing him out in the woods, putting his hand on Raylan's dick, making him feel things he never had felt before, before Boyd showed him how it could be. And then he went into his daddy's world, and Raylan was never going to follow his own father down.
Raylan had thought this was behind him, before he'd started coming back down here, spending his time--Harlan County and his father and Winona and Boyd, all of it gone into a box marked "Raylan's past." He hadn't been happy, exactly, in Florida, but he'd been a damn sight less knotted up down in the Gulf. Kentucky was a mess of failure and disappointment, and even on the nights when he missed the smell of green pasture and mountain sunshine it had never been enough to call him back home.
Of course, it had never stopped being home, either, so maybe that said more than anything else ever could.
Boyd had never turned his face away, half-guarded with the things he was saying. Boyd never gave anything away that he hadn't meant to. Raylan guessed that, regardless of whether he expected Raylan to do anything, Boyd had meant to give Raylan some kind of ultimatum: go back to Boyd and all they might've been to one another, once. Or let it lie fallow between them, like a forgotten promise.
Soap suds dripped from Raylan's hands as he handed a bowl to Boyd, and this time Raylan met his eyes. They were the same soft green he remembered, from when they were boys together and Raylan caught himself staring, the way he knew he was only supposed to with the girls. And then later, when they'd become what they were to each other, pretending most of the time that they weren't anything to each other but some fun and a little danger, crashing against each other with the violence of passion that showed it for the lie it was.
"How do you know this?" Raylan asked, letting himself be plaintive for a moment, letting himself remember how it had felt to be loved by Boyd. "How do you know we could be for one another again?"
Boyd sucked in a breath, sounding like an escaped balloon. "Well, I don't know that, Raylan," he said finally, as though he hadn't wanted to say it but didn't see any other option. "I don't know that for sure, about you and Winona, about you and me. No one knows that but God, and he stopped talking to me some time ago."
"Then why take the chance?" Raylan said, pulling the towel from Boyd's hands to dry off his own, staring at the cracks in the linoleum tiles and the worn toes of Boyd's boots.
Boyd stepped closer, close enough that if Ava or Winona walked in there could be little hiding what they were doing: talking like lovers, or near-lovers. Raylan gripped the edge of the sink and willed himself not to move.
"Raylan," Boyd said, a kindness in his voice when he said Raylan's name, "you'll spend your lifetime trying to answer that question, darlin', and you're never going to find the answer standing on the edge trying to look over and see what's on the other side."
Something caught in Raylan's throat, whether it was laughter or hysteria he didn't know. Boyd had called him that once before, long ago, when they'd driven up to Cincinnati together just to get out of town for the weekend, Labor Day or some such thing. They had gone to the mall, and Boyd had rested his hand on Raylan's shoulder and hadn't moved it, called Raylan darlin' and dragged him over to see the new cassette tapes in the record store.
The memory gripped him like a live thing, and with a shudder he lifted his hand from the counter, dropped it over Boyd's wrist where it rested, and watched the knuckles whiten on his other hand.
"I don't know, Boyd," Raylan said like a confessor. "I just don't know."
"Well, that's alright, Raylan," Boyd said, sounding considerably more sure than Raylan felt. "You go on and think about it in that clockwork brain of yours, and then you come on back and talk to me again."
"Fellas," Ava said from the door, causing Raylan to startle slightly and nearly knock over a freshly washed mason jar. He'd been lost there for a minute.
"I don't know whether talking about how the Wildcats are looking this season is too important to interrupt," she said, "but it's getting late and Winona wants to get on back to the city. Ya'll finish them dishes?" She raised her eyebrow at them both, and Raylan knew how much she saw and didn't say anything about.
"They're all clean and dried, Ava," Boyd said, smooth as whipped cream. "Thank you again for offering to cook for us all, it was real kind of you."
She waved her had. "It weren't nothing," she said dismissively. "Raylan?"
Raylan cleared his throat. "Yes, well. Thank you for dinner. It was a pleasure."
Ava was clearly laughing at him with her eyes. "You know you're welcome at my table, Raylan. Don't be a stranger."
"I won't," he promised, and it didn't feel like a lie. He walked out of the kitchen, not looking back, fisting his hands to keep from shoving them in his pockets like a petulant teenager.
Winona was waiting at the door, her jacket on and a faraway look on her face. She held his hat in her hands. When he walked into the foyer, she looked at him, annoyance streaking across her face for a brief moment.
"You never took that long to wash my dishes," she said, fond and mocking all at once.
"Well, Winona, you would have had to cook for me to do that," he pointed out, taking his hat and placing it on his head. He opened the front door and the screen door for her, and she smacked him lightly on the shoulder as she went though.
"Thank you so much Ava! It was a lovely evening!" she called back into the house.
Ava, trailed by Boyd, followed them out on to the porch. "Ya'll are so welcome," Ava said. "We'll have to do it again sometime."
"On a cold fucking day in hell," Raylan muttered under his breath, but Winona didn't hear him.
Raylan opened the passenger door for Winona, and then got in himself. Just as he went to start the car, he caught sight of Boyd, still standing on the porch, staring straight at him like there wasn't fifty feet between them but instead only three inches and a heartbeat, like earlier in the kitchen. Raylan felt his pulse race slightly, and he turned over the engine and put on the lights.
Boyd watched them leave all the way down the drive; Raylan didn't count the times he looked in the rearview mirror.
Winona kept up a single-sided conversation, all the way back to 119, until finally her thoughts on the meal and the china and Ava's house had all petered out. She looked sidelong at Raylan, considering.
"Raylan, honey," she said finally, "you don't have too many friends. It'd be a good idea to hang on to the ones you've got, no matter how you got 'em."
Raylan didn't respond, just concentrated on the road.
Winona sighed, the same long-suffering noise she'd made a hundred different times when they'd been married and half as many since they'd started back up again. "You're a difficult man, Raylan Givens, God love you."
"Well, hell, I know that much," Raylan said, the same betraying honesty that had cursed him throughout the night freeing his tongue again.
She just patted his thigh and turned up the radio.
Raylan tried not to think about the next time he'd see Boyd, and all the things there were left to say.