You gotta try to keep yourself naive
In spite of all the evidence believed
And volunteer to lose touch with the world
And focus on one solitary girl
Baby, let's not live to see it fade
I'll cancel all the plans I've ever made
I'll drive and you can ride in the back seat
We'll call ourselves the flagship of the fleet
He did try not to think about it: his gun at Dickie Bennett’s head, ready to take the law into his own hands. Taking his hat from Boyd Crowder’s hands like a crooked cop shaking on it, no different from any other below-table deal in Harlan County.
He’d told himself over and over, throughout the years he’d been away, that he had very little in common with his daddy, and that he wasn’t going to be a Givens feuding with the Bennetts and working for the Crowders, because once you crossed state lines no one gave a shit about that kind of thing anymore. Raylan could have recited sixty, maybe seventy years of fucked-up history and all that would happen is his coworker’s, or therapist’s, or wife’s eyes would glaze over from the redundant stupidity of it all. Sure, it was immoral, but plenty of lawmen did plenty of immoral things. The bigger issue, to Raylan, was that it was all deeply stupid and profoundly useless, and he had promised Helen not to replicate Arlo’s mistakes.
And look at him now: in a cubicle in Lexington, Kentucky, with a dead aunt who was also his dead stepmother and a daddy running weed with a bad leg and worse prospects. Hell. But he tried not to think about it all the same, because what else could he do?
Two days after awkwardly telling Winona he was sorry and just as awkwardly being kinda-dumped, the invite came in the mail, classy as all get-out, heavy cardstock like you’d get at a florist’s and no Hallmark logo in sight. Raylan, please join us for dinner on Saturday, July 9th. Below the pretty writing, in chicken scratch: and don’t bring the Marshals - not that kind of date. It was easy enough to tell which of them had written what part; the return address was Ava’s house in Harlan.
It looked like a threat. Or a come-on, but he didn’t think Boyd would send him one of those, after all his upbraiding over how Raylan had talked to Ava, not to mention their myriad other problems. No, it was likely a threat, and while it had been sent to his post office box rather than mailed to the office, he probably should report it.
He did not report it. On Saturday, he double-checked to ensure he was off the on-call schedule, and he drove down to Harlan.
Past the trailers parked on the side of the state highway, past the churches and the Walmart, beyond where industrial suburban decay became rural decay, he pulled into Ava’s driveway. No one shot at him, nor did anyone bloody run towards or away from the house, which he supposed was a good sign. He still did survey the landscape as he got out, looking for trouble.
The only trouble to be found stood on Ava’s front porch. “Boyd,” he said, touching his hat.
“Why am I out here, Boyd?”
“Well, I suppose it’s because you heeded the invitation I sent you. Did you like the card?”
“It was mighty fancy. Ava’s got good penmanship, too.”
“Now, Raylan, I think you’ll find that is a sexist expectation coming out of your fine mouth. I wrote the invitation; Ava wrote the postscript.”
It made sense, even as it didn’t. “Huh.”
“Raylan, it’s so good to see you.” This from Ava, in nothing close to her Sunday best, an old dress and beat-up flip-flops that looked like they’d come from a gas station down the way. It was touching, almost, that she looked so comfortable. It made him wonder if they’d thought he wasn’t gonna show.
Though, then again, Boyd stood next to her in jeans too nice and stiff to be bought for cheap, and a shirt he may very well have ironed. So either they’d disagreed over the likelihood of his showing, or they were dressed nice, in their own way, because they thought he would show. Neither option sat particularly well with him.
“You still in there?” Boyd said, which was how Raylan realized he’d been staring at them.
“Sure. Thank you for inviting me. Oh, I brought this.” He grabbed the wine from the backseat. “For you,” he said, and pressed it into Ava’s hands.
She smiled a little, crookedly, like he’d done something wrong. “You think we’ll drink this, Raylan?”
“No, I figure you’ll offer me some liquor, but you sent me the invitation at my Lexington address, so I brought you a Lexington hostess’s gift.”
Ava’s smile just barely flickered. “Well, all right then.”
They led him inside and performed the niceties: pouring him a drink, fixing him a plate. They sat at the dining room table, opposite the end where Boyd had been when Raylan had shot him. Ava took the head of the table; Raylan and Boyd sat across from one another. It might have been a dinner Helen dragged them to after high school.
Raylan ate some of his slaw. He finished his drink. Then he said, “Why am I here, Boyd?”
Boyd looked at him with those unfathomable eyes of his. When he got like this it was impossible to tell what he might be thinking at any given time; Raylan found it just about as frustrating as anything. “Thought you’d be asking Ava that, Raylan. Ain’t it her house?”
“But it was your invitation.”
“Truthfully, it was our invitation. Ava thought it was a good idea. Cooked, helped me clean.” Boyd lifted one shoulder. “Chased off all our boys for a night, ain’t that right, Ava?”
“Figured you wouldn’t want ’em around,” Ava said.
Her tone was quiet, like it might’ve been when she talked to - deferred to - Bowman; for a moment Raylan felt angrier than anything, seeing Helen and his own mama’s face over Ava’s, feeling as trapped as he might have right before Arlo started in on a beating. But then he took a deep breath and the illusion disappeared.
His hands, he noted very distantly, shook a bit. He tightened his grip on his fork. “Thank you for the food,” he said, and took another bite, grabbing some field peas this time too.
They let him eat. They even made conversation, Boyd talking about some kid he’d met down at the diner and Ava gossiping about the woman who’d burned off half her hair trying to get it to stay curled in the summer humidity. It was nice. They were cute. Raylan didn’t say shit, though, waiting for the other hammer to drop, knowing it would.
Raylan had only just cleared his plate when Boyd said, “In truth, Raylan, we asked you here for another reason. By now you’ll know your daddy helped us regain part of the enterprise my father pissed away and allowed the Bennetts to overtake.”
“I think if you want to stay out of jail you probably don’t want to tell me about this, Boyd.”
“Nevertheless, Arlo has been very useful to us, and for that we are grateful. But -”
Jesus. What had the old man done?
“- as we both know, your father is not given to constancy, nor responsible communication. And so Ava and I find ourselves in a bit of a bind, Raylan, and consequently in need of your help.”
“My help or the law’s help?”
“Your help,” Ava said.
Something rose in him: rage, a bit, but also confusion, the helpless, desperate kind he recalled feeling a hell of a lot down here before he’d left the first time. He couldn’t stop himself from saying, “Ava, what happened?”
“Raylan,” Boyd said.
It was a warning: it always was, when Boyd got laconic, but Raylan found he didn’t care. “No, no, it’s Ava’s turn to tell me what she wants from me. You want me to bring Arlo to heel, I get that, but last I knew Ava only wanted a peaceful house, a life away from all your stinking Crowder shit. So again, I gotta ask: Ava, what the fuck happened?”
Ava looked at him. She looked at Boyd. He watched her beautiful eyes weigh them both, her jaw firm up, and he understood even before she said, “Raylan, I married into the Crowders understanding what they did. I wanted out because I thought they’d lost hold of it. But Boyd…he’s got plans, Raylan, that lead to a holler where we aren’t shooting each other every other weekend.”
“You’re talking about peace from a hillbilly drug dealer, Ava.”
“A businessman,” Ava said, “who knows when to stop. When to call and when to hold. That’s what I’m talking about, thank you very much, and I’ve done quite a bit of work already to make sure that’s what I’m dealing with.”
“You keep asking me my plans,” Boyd said quietly. “Raylan, they’re our plans. For our business.”
Raylan recalled a dozen, a hundred times Helen or Mama or both had hidden in the kitchen while Arlo did his shit. He recalled the day he’d been pulled out of the cellar and dumped in the living room, for negotiations. It was never anything but a bunch of dumbass bickering.
“Your business is gonna end with one or both of you dead or in jail, and you know it.”
Ava reached out and put a hand over Raylan’s. Her palm was warm and dry. “Maybe, but we ain’t asking for your blessing, or your censure. We’re asking for you to keep your daddy in line, because otherwise, he’s gonna be in for a world of hurt.”
“Why do you think I care?” You know what he did to me, he didn’t say.
Ava smiled, a bit, so sad he could hardly square it with the rest of her calm confidence. “He’s your last kin in the world. I don’t think you want to care, but I know you do.”
“I’m not gonna go down there and, what, ask him to behave, to be a good little lawbreaker for the Crowders. I can’t do that. You know I can’t.”
Ava smiled, fake and pretty as anything. “Oh, I apologize, I miscommunicated. You won’t be keeping Arlo in line by talking to him. You’ll just be having dinner with us.”
“Arlo, he’s used to Bo,” Boyd said. “We have you down here for dinner, he thinks you’re aligned with us. He steps out of line too much, he knows we’ll kill you both, that’s all.”
Raylan was sure he’d missed a step. “So you think I’ll be a sacrificial lamb? For Arlo?”
“Oh, come off it, Raylan,” Ava said. “It’s for appearances. Long as you’re down here, he’ll do what he needs to do and everything’ll go fine.”
“Ava, I have a government job. You can look me up on the Internet. He knows I’m not gonna be mixed up in all this.”
“Well, he don’t know,” Boyd said, “as it’s you we’re asking to dinner, and what conversations we have here are and remain private.”
It didn’t make any sense, and worse, Raylan knew that they knew that. There was something they weren’t telling him, but they wanted him to go along with this stupid idea anyhow. “And how do you think I should explain that to my boss? ‘Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just going down to Harlan for weekend dinners with the Crowders. It’s all above-board, except for how I know all the details of their lawbreaking.’”
“Damn it, Ava! I’m being serious here.”
“What on earth makes you think you know the details of our business?”
“You just told me!”
Only they hadn’t, he realized as they watched him with twin amused looks. They’d said very little. If Raylan hadn’t known as much about the Crowders and Givenses as he did, he wouldn’t know anything at all.
Fuck. “Well, then.”
“Well,” Boyd said. “I take it that means you’re amenable to coming down here on weekends? You got family down here, after all. I think Art’d understand.”
It wasn’t okay. Raylan knew that, understood it deep in his bones. It had been his project, after all, to distance himself from his roots, to set up barriers between who he might have been and who he’d turned himself into. Going back to Kentucky alone eroded those barriers, but this? This was stupidity and suicide all in one.
And he wasn’t gonna say no. They had him dead to rights; he hated Arlo and Arlo was all he had left. Damn. Damn.
Boyd didn’t touch him, but he might as well have, looking at Raylan like he was. He smiled a bit, his eyes wide with all that maybe-fake earnestness, and he said, “You have my sincerest thanks, Raylan.”
“Just doing what any Givens would,” he said.
The blow landed; both Crowders flinched. Raylan left before dessert.
He told Art he’d be making it down to Harlan more for non-work purposes. He heavily implied it was due to Helen dying, helping out his father with the transition. Art, who’d had a healthy upbringing in the suburbs of Louisville, was barely suspicious.
Raylan still drove his Town Car down, though.
The dinners were pleasant, better than he’d thought they would be. Boyd was true to his word: Raylan never saw Arlo, and he never saw any of Boyd’s employees, either. Or - Boyd’s and Ava’s employees, he supposed. Once, he heard through the grapevine that the FBI was down in Harlan investigating a shooting. But by Friday, the feds were back up north and Boyd was welcoming Raylan into Ava’s house with a brand new bottle of Jim Beam Black.
Raylan found himself eating Boyd’s corn bread and Ava’s biscuits and never asking the obvious questions: where the money for Ava’s new ring came from, where Boyd had found the first edition of Faulkner that he read a passage from after dinner. He knew, and he didn’t want to know.
It was, by every definition both state and federal, corruption. But for a time it worked okay.
Then, three months into their arrangement, Raylan missed Friday dinner. He had to be on call through Saturday evening, and he told Boyd and Ava and they said it was fine. On Friday morning, though, he’d seen a girl barely fifteen blow her own brains out over her pimp, and he was in no mood to partake in Harlan dramatics at all.
But he’d made an agreement. He knew he couldn’t renege. He took himself down to Harlan and arrived at Ava’s at half past four Saturday afternoon.
“Raylan,” Boyd said. They seemed to trade off on who answered the door, though they were both usually armed. “You look like shit. Why’d you come?”
“Didn’t think the mob gave sick days, Boyd.”
“Shit, the Crowders ain’t the mob and you know it. Damn it. Get in here.”
He knew no such thing, nor had he been as familiar with them as Boyd made him be just then: grabbing his arm, hauling him inside, throwing him on the couch and filling his glass right to the top.
“This isn’t an afternoon pour, Boyd.”
“Well, you don’t look like you’ll be up and at ’em for dinner. Call it medicine if you need to.”
“That’s not our agreement.”
“Lord, Raylan, just drink the damn liquor,” Ava said.
Raylan looked between them. They stood in the doorway together, of a height, Ava with her strong shoulders and Boyd with his sharp eyes. They looked worried and they were both focused, totally, on him; but he saw their hands, too, linked and holding tight.
Not for the first time, he wondered why he was even here, what kind of fucked-up arrangement he’d gotten himself into. But he also drank the booze.
It only took a quarter hour for him to realize Boyd had slipped him something. He got drunk and then he got quiet. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. “What’d you do?” he mumbled into his pillow as the sun began to set.
His pillow shifted and he realized too late, cold running down his spine, that it was Ava’s thigh - that he was collapsed on her, Boyd sitting across from them.
“Nothing you won’t recover from,” Ava said quietly. “But damn it, I almost wish that weren’t true, and we could make you stay long enough to get better.”
That didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t sick.
“Hush now,” Ava said. “Here, drink this.” She held a glass of cool, clear water.
It looked nothing like the girl’s head had - mangled skull, brain matter, bright blood that had dried to dull rust before Raylan had been able to leave the scene. But he still shuddered away from it - shook to remember, and nearly cried.
“It’s okay,” Ava said. Her fingers pressed into the back of his neck, warm points of almost-pain. “No one here’s going to put a gun on you, okay, you’re just fine. Here. Just a little sip.”
Cool water trickled down his throat. It felt so good that he grabbed the glass and finished it on his own, then drank another two that Boyd brought him. Ava didn’t move, stayed under him the whole time, as warm and trusting as anything.
He didn’t intend to fall asleep, and in fact didn’t realize he’d done so until he woke in the middle of the night with an impossibly clear head. Ava had gone, but they’d tucked a pillow under his head and covered him with an old crocheted blanket.
He thought about leaving; surely he’d fulfilled their agreement, and they wouldn’t have drugged him if they wanted his conversation at dinner. But when he sat up, he could see clear to the porch, and Ava was out there.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”
She barely looked up at him. “Just woke up, wanted some fresh air. Gets stuffy up in the master bedroom.”
“Is that so?”
Now she gave him a sharp look. Or, well. It started sharp, before wandering down his body like she liked what she saw. “Sure is. You intend to interrogate me? That’s your Marshal voice, I can tell.”
“Can you blame me? Ava, we could still get you out of all this. Hand us the Crowders and all their conspiracies, and you keep the house and your freedom.”
“We.” Ava snorted. “Raylan, if I hand the feds the Crowders, ain’t I handing them you, too?”
They sat in the quiet. A car drove past on the highway past the front pasture; crickets chirped and flies buzzed.
“Let me ask you something. Boyd and me go to jail, what do you imagine happens to Harlan?”
It was an argument he’d had with himself any number of times, and he answered readily. “Others swarm in to fill the void. I know how this works; why do you think I haven’t arrested you yet?”
“I suppose I can’t count on old friendships to mean much.”
“Ava, your boyfriend drugged me.”
“Wrong again. You always assume it’s him.”
“He poured my drink!”
He watched her shrug. It sent her nightgown a bit further down her shoulder, and he noticed and hated that he did. “I slipped him the pill.”
“No, Raylan. I’m real tired of this. You think I’m just following his instructions. I done told you I have my own plans and I can see you brushing that aside for your bullshit assumptions.”
“Ava, Christ. Can you blame me for wanting to think you’re not in it all that deep?”
“I can and I will! Listen, if it was only up to Boyd he’d have kept you up in Lexington and dropped Arlo in a shallow grave, and you know what? I can’t even blame him. Knowing what he gets up to, how much trouble he’s caused you -”
“You mean how much trouble he’s caused Boyd.”
“No, Raylan, I mean you. You flinched when I went to put that blanket on you.”
Damn. “I’ve seen a lot of people hurt in a lot of other places than Harlan. Sometimes that comes out. Don’t drug a man if you’d rather not deal with that, I suppose.”
“You said his name, you dumb shit.”
Raylan closed his eyes and took some deep breaths. Kentucky air didn’t exactly help his predicament. “Ava, just tell me what y’all want.”
“Well, Boyd would rather you stayed in the city when you’re like this. I think it’s good you came down. But we’re friends, Raylan.”
“Is that what we are.”
“Sure. And we’d like to stay friends.”
“Because I’m a lawman.”
“No. In spite of that.” Ava stood, and Raylan looked at her: her long legs, her smooth thighs, her clever fingers. He’d never had a chance at their thing lasting, but he’d wanted her so badly. He wondered what she was like with Boyd, if she laughed, if she liked to ride him. If she moved in to kiss him like a hound taking down its prey.
He closed his eyes when she brushed past him, and spent the rest of the night on their porch, not quite able to fall asleep.
Being friends with two aspiring crime bosses was surely worse than being blackmailed by them and simply failing to report it. But Raylan knew, when he thought about it -
(and as ever, he tried not to think about it)
- he knew that he was splitting hairs in a manner that would get him laughed out of his own trial.
“Did you get a girlfriend down in Harlan or something?” Rachel said one Thursday evening. “Used to be, you’d look like someone stabbed you in the gut every time the weekend rolled around. Now you can’t wait to go.”
“Things are going better with Arlo,” Raylan said, a lie so thorough he half expected to be struck down then and there.
But things were actually getting better with Ava and Boyd. They could have whole conversations where no one threatened to shoot anyone else, and Raylan had no reason to suspect their operations outside the law were making Harlan any worse than it already was. Or at least, that was what he thought until right before Thanksgiving, when the shooting started.
He’d driven down to Harlan for his usual dinner and had gotten roped into going down to the farmstand for some pumpkins. They apparently had enough guests around - when Raylan wasn’t there - that Ava felt the need for some seasonal decoration. They’d all gone together in Boyd’s Jeep, only to find themselves sidetracked by late-season tomatoes and Ava’s sudden desire for dozens of bouquets of flowers.
It was there, loaded down with flowers and squash, that Raylan was shot at, out the window of a station wagon speeding down the road.
“Shit,” he said, and dropped the flowers.
“Damn it!” Ava said, and pulled a shotgun out of the back of their Jeep.
“Fuck,” Boyd said, and took aim with his Glock.
It was all over within a couple minutes. The shooters drove away; none of them got the plates. Boyd and Ava put their guns back. Raylan said, “Sorry about the flowers.”
And Boyd said, “Holy fucking shit - Ava, Ava, he’s been shot.”
“Oh my God,” Ava said. “Put him in the car, I’ll handle Arlene”
“Might need to go to the hospital before dinner,” Raylan said. It wasn’t that bad a wound; his shoulder would feel like shit for a couple weeks, but he wasn’t gutshot or anything. Maybe he’d take a personal day on Monday.
“Shut the fuck up,” Boyd said.
He was warm and stronger than Raylan would have expected; he maneuvered Raylan into the backseat easily, then climbed in after him like he thought Raylan needed a nurse. “Ow,” Raylan said when Boyd propped him up, his head lolling awkwardly against Boyd’s thigh. He’d taken his hat off; Boyd’s hand landed a scant inch away from it, fingers warm on Raylan’s chest. “Who’s Arlene?”
“Farmstand owner. Ava will make our apologies, pay her for her trouble.”
The pained twist of his stomach was in no way worse than the burning in his shoulder, but it kind of felt just as bad anyway. “I see. So this is y’all’s business, huh?”
“Well, Raylan, unless you’ve got a side job selling amphetamines in Dollywood that I don’t know about, I can’t see that particular group of troublemakers coming after you. Me and Ava, on the other hand, got history with them.”
It didn’t escape Raylan that he hadn’t named any names. “You can go up front. Just drop me off at Harlan ARH, they’ll fix me right up.”
Boyd’s fingers tightened against Raylan’s chest. “We won’t be doing that, and I think you know why.”
“Damn it, Boyd.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. But, still, the plan you’re suggesting will put myself and Ava in considerable danger. I doubt that’s what you want.”
It was getting hard to focus. “You gonna…dig the bullets out yourself, then?”
“Depends on how bad it is. If we need a doctor, we’ll get one.” Boyd’s fingers moved in restless circles. “There she is. How’s Arlene?”
Ava slid into the driver’s seat without hesitation. “Oh, you know, pissed. Not at us, though.”
“Only about a hundred. She likes us anyway, says more folks make their way up here nowadays.”
“Wonderful. Raylan’s not doing so good.”
“Home, and then we’ll see.”
Ava nodded and pulled onto the highway. Raylan couldn’t see the speedometer from his spot, head jammed against the car door and Boyd’s belt buckle as it was, but he’d bet a lot of money they were going at least seventy-five. Neither Ava nor Boyd spoke until they’d gotten him inside and lying down on the coach.
Then Ava said, “Looks like a smaller caliber. Not buckshot. He’ll have a bullet in him, though.”
“Shit. What was it, then, warning shots?”
“We’ll have to figure that out later. Raylan, honey, you awake?”
Raylan managed a grunt. His eyes had fallen closed at some point; he didn’t much care to open them.
“Lord have mercy, he’s exhausted.” This from Boyd. “Here, prop him up.”
If Art could see him right now, Raylan’d never hear the end of it. A clean shoulder wound was hardly the worst thing he’d ever experienced, yet when they poured peroxide on him, it was all he could do to stay quiet. Shit.
“What exactly were you doing all week? Don’t answer that.” Small fingers - Ava - prodded at his shoulder, then a bandage was pressed against his wound. “Do you think we need to call the doctor?”
“Bleeding’s already slowing,” Boyd said. “But he’s real out of it. Reminds me…”
“Never mind. I think he’ll be okay. Let’s let him rest for awhile, see about tomorrow.”
Raylan knew what Boyd had been reminded of. When they’d worked the mines together, Raylan sometimes just collapsed. Not physically, and not in the mines, but after, while they were getting drinks or shooting the shit down at the creek. He was fine until he wasn’t, and there were rarely any warning signs. He’d missed out on at least one promotion thanks to that tendency of his.
He wanted to explain, but the throbbing in his shoulder shut him up. He didn’t open his eyes again, either. He heard them eating, talking in low voices, doing the dishes; then he went to sleep and didn’t hear anything else.
When he woke up the next morning, Boyd was frying bacon and singing Hank Jr, and Ava was sitting in the armchair across from Raylan, watching him with steel in her eyes.
“Mornin’.” He pushed himself upright.
“How’s your shoulder?”
“Oh, fine.” It hurt, but it wasn’t burning him up or anything. He’d be okay.
“You’re lucky we didn’t call in a doctor after all. Gave us a bit of a scare, passing out like you did.”
Raylan really didn’t like beginning his weekend with orneriness. “Calling in a doctor would be inconvenient for you, not me.”
“What I wonder is if you ever would’ve told me, on your own. Boyd says you get like this when you’re stressed, if you don’t go shooting people first.”
“Boyd nearly killed Dickie Bennett in front of a federal marshal. I don’t know that I’d take his word on what my personality’s like.”
“Oh, I disagree. He knew what he was doing then, and he knows you now.”
Jesus. Their united front was a lot to take on a good day, and Raylan wasn’t feeling too good just then.
“He nearly went after Dickie Bennett in jail for shooting me,” Ava said. “Well, and for Mags’ money. But he didn’t. Know why?”
“I get the feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“Well, I asked him not to.”
“And why’d you do that?”
“I knew it’d make you sad if he walked into the marshals’ office and sucker punched you.”
For a moment, Raylan simply couldn’t talk. “Ava, we’re barely friends. If Boyd did something like that to get to Dickie, I’d think it was stupid as shit and I’d refuse to press charges, but he can’t make me sad failing to live up to expectations I never held for him.”
“Sure, I get that.” She clearly didn’t. “But you know, you and he keep telling me the same thing. You dug coal together and all that. We told you we’d be good for Harlan, and that starts with being smart about how and when we get our money.”
“Sure. Where you think I got a hundred dollars to pay off a farmstand owner with?”
“Ava, for reasons I thought were fairly obvious, I had been trying not to think about it.”
“Well, think on it a bit and get back to me.”
“Breakfast is ready, darlin’!”
Raylan blamed the gunshot wound for the way his stomach clenched to hear Boyd talking so sweet to Ava. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been like that, wasn’t like he didn’t know how to be domestic. But something about it didn’t quite sit right to him.
“Come on, you big baby,” Ava said, grabbing his arm and hauling him upright.
“Well, you weren’t moving on your own. Go on, get.”
“Ava, are you manhandling our house guest who so recently was bleeding out in our car?”
Raylan stopped dead in the doorway. Boyd had a towel slung over his shoulder and a frying pan in his hand. He was barefoot; his jeans were so worn that they made Raylan realize abruptly that he hadn’t seen Boyd in something so shabby in a long while, and that he looked really fucking good.
“He wasn’t bleeding out, fuck’s sake.” Ava sat down at their kitchen table and motioned impatiently to Raylan. “C’mon, Boyd’ll whine if we don’t eat all his food. He loves being king of breakfast.”
“Well, it’s going to take me awhile to get to being king of anything else. Good morning, Raylan. How’d you sleep?”
“We have a guest bedroom you should avail yourself of tonight. No reason to sleep on the couch when you aren’t in shock from one wound or another.”
“I wasn’t wounded when I came down here before.”
“Well, being as I’m not a psychologist, I’ll hold off on arguing with that. Bacon?”
“And eggs, please.”
Boyd smiled down at him, the warmest expression Raylan had seen on his face in twenty years. “We’re getting there, don’t worry.”
And damn, damn, damn. Raylan ate his eggs and bacon, his biscuit with butter and honey, and then he said, “I’m gonna go for a walk. I can get the dishes when I’m back.” He high-tailed it out of Ava’s house without waiting for a response.
Did he want Boyd? Was that what was happening here? It seemed impossible, for so many reasons: all the white supremacy shit, the general illegality of all his hobbies and his actual job, the fact that he was with Ava, the fact that he was Boyd. But Raylan was too damn old to just ignore what he felt, how he felt, when Boyd smiled at him like that.
He had to just be confused. He was grieving; he’d only just healed up from being gutshot; he was torn between Harlan and Lexington and dearly wished to not even be in the state; he was a few nights of bad sleep from trying to start things up with Winona again. There were so many reasons for him to be struggling.
Not many of them naturally concluded in a boner for Boyd, though. That much was very true.
He walked until he stopped thinking about Boyd and Ava, walked through a round of redundant shit about what he was going to do about Arlo, walked until his chest no longer felt like it might gave in from thinking about Helen. All told, it was nearly noon by the time he got back to Ava’s house, and he found it empty except for Johnny Crowder.
“Christ, I’d hoped he was joking,” Johnny said.
“Good to see you, too.”
“Fuck you, Raylan.”
“Okay,” Raylan said, and poured himself a drink.
“You know, they told me you was going to be here, but I figured you’d have your badge out like an asshole.”
“Is that a question, or were you just offering running commentary?”
“Why the fuck are you here?”
“Boyd and Ava invited me. You?”
Johnny gritted his teeth and looked away, and a hilarious, horrifying thought occurred to Raylan. “You’re here to make sure I don’t get shot again, that it?”
“Boyd and Ava have some business, and they know folks are feeling daring.”
“They coach you on how to be as vague as possible around me, or does it come natural?”
“Ain’t exactly my first time talking to a cop. Now, if you don’t mind?” Johnny gestured expansively to the TV.
For a moment Raylan had the absolutely insane idea of telling Johnny he was sorry about Bo and all of it, sorry that Johnny had to live with the consequences of Bo Crowder’s shittiness. But Johnny surely would’ve shot him then, and been punished by Boyd for the infraction. It wouldn’t do anyone any good. So Raylan sat and drank and waited.
That night, he took the guest room. He could hear Boyd and Ava, a little, low voices, laughter. He kept his eyes shut and his mind out of the gutter.
“Well, hello there.”
Raylan looked up from his ice cream cone. Boyd was nowhere to be seen, but there stood Ava, at the ice cream place nearest Raylan’s apartment, holding a single scoop with rainbow sprinkles.
“Fancy running into you,” she said, her smile like sunshine.
“Boyd waiting back at my apartment?”
“Honey, please tell me you’re not calling that broke-down motel room an apartment. And no; he’s in a meeting.”
“I’m surprised you’re not there, too.”
“Sometimes one or the other of us goes. You know how it is.”
Raylan didn’t. He’d never done much more than run errands for Arlo, and then only when he had no other choice. He said, “Whatever you say, Ava,” and took another lick of his ice cream.
When he glanced up at her again she was watching him, heat in her eyes. It flipped that switch again, the one that’d had him getting off in the shower the second he’d gotten home, gasping to think of Boyd doing - something - while Ava watched.
Boyd was in a fucking meeting with a member of the Dixie mafia or worse. This whole thing was a terrible idea. Or, more accurately, it wasn’t any idea at all, was just one of the many terrible things Raylan’s no-account sex drive had made him think of. “I should be getting back. Just ’cause it’s almost Christmas doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do.”
“Really? But you took a personal day, Boyd said.”
There was not a single good way for Boyd to know that. Raylan gritted his teeth. “Only ’cause Art told me I had to after I got my eyes dilated, and that’s none of his business anyway.”
“How are your eyes?”
“Fine.” They’d said he might need reading glasses, which was obviously ridiculous.
“Really? ’cause Boyd has these glasses that I think look real cute. You’d look good in some too, I bet.”
“Right, I’ll pass that on to my next girlfriend.”
“Do you think Boyd looks good in his glasses?”
Raylan froze, staring up at Ava and very nearly crushing his ice cream cone. “No,” he said, and told himself that he’d misheard, or misunderstood - that she couldn’t possibly have been asking the question she was asking and meaning what he’d first thought she meant.
Her smile faded, a bit. “Okay, Raylan,” she said. “Want to walk back to your room, then? Me and Boyd figured we’d take you out tonight.”
Raylan wanted no such thing, but he couldn’t figure out how to turn her down gracefully, or at all, which was how he ended up with a Crowder on each arm at a bar & grill near every perp’s favorite strip club.
Ava got a whiskey ginger; Raylan got his bourbon neat; Boyd blinked up at their pretty waitress and said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Do you think Boyd looks good in his glasses? Ava whispered in Raylan’s mind. He stared down at his menu.
The burger he ended up ordering was shit, but that didn’t matter compared to Ava and Boyd, still on either side of him, getting cheerily drunk on what Raylan was starting to suspect was his dime. Still, he thought he had it reasonably under control, until Boyd said, “Hey now, sir, there’s no cause to call my good friend here a faggot, just on account of a tight shirt.”
And then all hell broke loose.
He’d seen Boyd enjoy a fight. Hell, he’d been on the other end of his savage joy. It was terrifying and a little funny; it always made Raylan want to ask Boyd what the fuck had happened and why they couldn’t put their guns down and just talk. This wasn’t a standoff between a US Marshal and a career criminal, though. This was Boyd joyously kicking the shit out of some redneck while Ava cheered him on.
And then Ava joined in, and Raylan’s head just about exploded.
First she slapped away one of the redneck’s friends. Then the redneck went in to grab her, and before Raylan had decided if he should intervene, Ava slammed a pint glass down on the guy’s hand. From there it all went to hell, fists flying and Crowders snarling, ending up back to back as they laid the redneck and his last friend out.
When they looked at Raylan, his whole chest clenched, and he knew exactly what he was feeling. He could’ve arrested them - should’ve, maybe. But he wasn’t going to. They’d come here with him, and they’d be leaving with him.
“Raylan, I don’t suppose you’d mind driving us back to our hotel room? This ought to cover our meal.” Boyd tossed down some twenties.
He had Ava’s arm slung over his shoulder. They both had cuts on their lip, and Boyd bled sluggishly from a gash on his hand, too. Ava was smiling widely; Boyd looked quite solemn, focused entirely on Raylan.
“Sure, Boyd,” Raylan said. “I’ll drive you.”
He did so. Then he went back to his own motel room, locked the door, lay down on the bed, and jerked off until he came, moaning out loud, shaking head to toe.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck.
How did someone even proposition two people?
If Raylan had ever been meaningfully naive about adult relationships, the Marshals had driven it out of him. He understood all kinds of configurations people could get themselves into, some of them more confusing than others. But he truly had no idea how he might go from playing host to Boyd and Ava, to asking them to fuck him and get this ridiculous need out of his system. And for once it wasn’t an internal conflict centering around his job; he just had no idea how to ask about it without sounding like a moron.
Fortunately, they went back to Harlan the next day, their business they couldn’t tell him about apparently concluded. Raylan knew perfectly well that Detroit was trying to move in on Harlan, but the Marshals had no leads to follow up on - and wasn’t that a perfect little illustration of his predicament? They had no leads because Boyd and Ava were somehow, improbably, bringing Harlan’s criminal element under their control. Marshals mostly got involved when idiots tried to break bad. Ava especially seemed very invested in stopping idiots from doing anything without Crowder say-so.
So they went back to Harlan, and thank God for that. It meant Raylan was free to focus on the ordinary course of his job, including investigating an escaped drug runner from Detroit. But Friday came quickly - “Time flies when you love your job,” Art said sarcastically when Raylan mentioned it - and then it was time for him to go do his duty as a Givens again.
That’s all it was, Raylan thought as he took himself down the highway, and he’d do well to remember it. He was getting all kinds of romantic ideas, thinking about Boyd and Ava looking at him, talking over him, taking care of him. But the reality was significantly thornier. If he didn’t go down to Harlan like this, they’d kill Arlo, or make trouble that Raylan would be called upon to answer for. Hell, at this point they might even sell him out to Art, which would be the end of him.
There was no romance here, not even real lust. There was only what there’d always been: Crowders and Givenses and obligations thereof.
Ava’s black eye had already begun healing up. The cut above Boyd’s eyebrow had three stitches, Boyd told him cheerily, and might scar. “And then I’ll look even more dashing. I’m coming for you, Raylan. It’s unjust, you being so suave that they know you for four counties in any given direction. I’m gonna steal your cowboy hat.”
“You know, Boyd, Dewey Crowe tried that. Didn’t end so well for him.”
“Oh, I’m not gonna steal any Oxy with it. Only your girls.”
“I ain’t got a girl, Boyd. You do, though. She might have something to say about all this.”
“I think Boyd’s already dashing.” Ava set down the plate of pilaf and smiled at Raylan. “Don’t you?”
Boyd noticed his blush, damn him. His eyes flickered over Raylan’s face, and for a moment Raylan thought he might say something. His hand itched to go for his gun.
However, Boyd only said, “Everyone thinks I’m dashing, honey,” and took Ava’s hand to say grace.
Raylan let them put him in the guest room without too much complaint. He’d had a few drinks, as usual, and Boyd and Ava had been all cuddly while they shot the shit on the porch. That was normal, too; Raylan’d always figured they liked rubbing in their pseudo-marital bliss. But it bothered him tonight.
It bothered him lying there on the guest bed, too, staring at the ceiling and trying-and-failing not to think about how much he’d be able to overhear if he shared a wall with them. He was hard in his jeans. The room wasn’t quite spinning, but it was a near thing. He was a fucking moron.
The worst part was that he slept better in their guest room than he ever did in his motel room, by a long shot.
Shit fell apart between Winona and Gary, and consequently Raylan and Winona fucked at her soon-to-be-sold house on a Wednesday after work.
Time was Raylan wouldn’t have noted the day of the week, but of course he had to keep track of it now. It was Friday afternoon now, and Raylan had two hickeys high on his neck.
He’d pushed Winona away at first, on the thinking that it wasn’t fair to her to sleep with her when he was hung up with not one, but two separate people. But she’d said, “Raylan, I don’t give a fuck what your hangups are, you’re gonna fuck me right now,” and it turned out he was still exceptionally bad at saying no to her.
Boyd saw the marks first. He said, “Well, well. What have you been doing up in Lexington, Raylan?”
And for all the stupid reasons in the world, that irked him. “I gotta report back on my extra-curricular activities now?”
“Not at all. Most folks would call this making conversation.”
“Most folks wouldn’t ask me about my hickies.”
“Do your coworkers?”
Tim and Rachel had roasted him right to hell over it, and Art had laughed so loudly security had called up to check on them. “No.”
“Tsk, another reason not to go legit. Ava, am I correct in thinking we’re having chicken and dumplings tonight?”
“Right you are, Boyd.”
“In that case, I’d dearly love if you’d help me set the table, Raylan. I know we’ve been eating all casual-like lately, but in this particular case I feel Ava’s chicken and dumplings warrants the good china.”
That was pure bullshit and Raylan knew it, and Boyd must’ve known he knew it too. But Raylan felt the tension in the room that Boyd was so determined to deny existed - the compulsion to do as Boyd and Ava told him, the reminder that here, he wasn’t US Marshal Raylan Givens, but was instead just a Givens in the holler, doing exactly as his daddy had done.
Well, not exactly. Raylan was very confident that Arlo had never sat across the table from Bo and daydreamed about dropping to his knees.
“Thank you, Ava,” Raylan said when she brought out the pan. She cut it up for them, spooning the foot out and pouring them each a drink. She sat at the head of the table this time, Raylan and Boyd knocking knees on either side of her.
It felt nice; it felt like home. Raylan hated them both just a little for that.
“I gotta ask,” Boyd said as they finished up their dinner. “Was it Winona again?”
“What makes you think I’m gonna tell you?”
“Oh, I always figured you for a bragger, Raylan.”
“Plus, you know if you don’t tell us, we’ll just get curious.” Ava kicked him lightly under the table, smiling as mischievously as he’d ever seen her. “Whatever story you’re hiding ain’t gonna be as entertaining as what I dream up, Raylan.”
Something inside him just - snapped. “Yes, it was Winona, and I fucked her because I was horny, because I got no fuckin’ social life right now, coming down to Harlan every weekend as you’re making me. I’d love to date some nice girl, settle down in an apartment, but instead, here I am. Winona gets it. It’s a shame you two don’t.”
“Oh, I think I get it,” Ava said, and kissed him.
It was exactly like it had been before, an inferno of want he didn’t have a hope of dodging. She had him leaning over her table and moaning, desperate for more, and it wasn’t until Boyd said, “Well, aren’t you a picture,” that it sank in how badly he’d just fucked up.
“Fuck. Boyd -”
“Now, now, hold your horses. If I had a problem with Ava kissing you, it’d be Ava, to whom I have made several very serious commitments, that I’d be talking to, Raylan. Not you.”
“You’re telling me you’d sit here and discuss it over me, like I ain’t even in the room.”
“Only if that’s what gets you off,” Ava said.
“Fuck you, Boyd,” Raylan said, even though it didn’t make any sense - even though Ava was the one smiling wickedly, running a finger over his forearm even now.
“Seems like you’re going to be fucking Ava instead, Raylan.”
It was on the tip of Raylan’s tongue to tell Boyd what he really wanted, that he’d rather have both of them, right then and there. But in truth, he didn’t want to ruin a good thing, and he didn’t trust himself not to if he opened his damn mouth.
“You don’t mind if I use our bed, right, baby?” Ava said. Raylan nearly choked on his own tongue.
“And I suppose you’ll want me to do the dishes, too?”
Ava smiled prettily.
And Raylan - Raylan’s heart fell through his shoes, because Boyd was going to do it. He was going to let his girlfriend go off and fuck another guy while he cleaned up after them.
“Are you gonna greet me with a bullet to the head tomorrow morning, Boyd?”
“Believe it or not, Raylan, I like to do nice things for those I love, and Ava has expressed to me that this would be a very nice deed. Ergo, I will load the dishwasher, and Ava will enjoy herself. With you.”
It was a nice little speech, and Boyd looked him in the eye while he said it, for all the good that did them. Boyd believed what he was saying, but Raylan knew damn good and well that didn’t mean it was true.
He almost turned Ava down. But either she was more perceptive than he’d realized, or she was simply very lucky, because when he opened his mouth to say he’d take the guest room, she ran a hand up his thigh and kissed his jaw, wet and open-mouthed.
“Come to bed, Raylan,” Ava said.
He let her pull him upright, kiss him again in full view of a very appreciative Boyd. He let her lead him upstairs, let her push him down on the bed and yank his shirt open. She was so fucking sweet, familiar and all the better for it, just as responsive as she’d been last time, and if anything more demanding. She sat in his lap and guided his mouth to her tits, and when he bit her just a little, sucking the skin to leave a mark, she said, “We’re negotiating with Limehouse and his men soon. I won’t tell you what over. But when I’m sitting there, with Boyd, I’m gonna think about this. About you.”
He was already hard; at this point he felt like he’d been hard since he crossed the county line. He was practically dizzy with it, but he still forced himself to say, “Ava, you can’t tell me shit like that.”
Her hand tightened in his hair, and she pulled his head up so he was forced to look at her. “Listen to me, Raylan Givens, I’ll tell you whatever the fuck I want.” She arched her back, rocking down against him. She was so warm even through their clothes, soft and ready against his cock. “Boyd knows what I want. He asks about us, you know, while he’s fucking me up here. Sometimes he tells me I oughta just scream, get you running in.”
He closed his eyes against the wave of need rushing through him.
“I want you to make it so I can’t even sit straight tomorrow,” Ava said. “Leave something for Boyd to see later.” She pressed a nail against his skin, not quite hard enough to cut him. He moaned. “That’s right. Let yourself have it, baby.”
She had no idea what she was talking about, but Raylan found he didn’t care. He got them both naked and laid her out, her legs spread for him, her laughter turning into a moan when he put his mouth on her. She’d always been bossy, like she thought she might not get what she wanted unless she told him exactly how to do it, like she was making up for lost time. It was a little different this time, though. She didn’t just boss him around; she owned him. She said, “Raylan, get up here and kiss me,” and he obeyed without even thinking. Doing anything else in that moment felt impossible.
He fucked her as hard as she asked, folding her legs back and making her moan. The bed crashed into the wall and she didn’t care, seemed to approve; she said, “You know, he wears an apron while he does dishes, so his fancy outfits will stay fancy,” and something about it - the image, the intimacy, the sheer wrongness of it all - made Raylan’s head spin.
Ava held onto his hair, his shoulder, his neck; she nearly cut off his air and then, when he cried out, she pinched his nipple and said, “Come on, Raylan. Inside me, right now.”
He obeyed. He couldn’t do anything but obey.
After, he slung his jeans and tank top on while Ava sat there watching him. She’d moved with nervous anxiety sometimes, when they’d done this back at his motel, but right now she looked utterly unmovable, as sure in her power as the hills themselves.
He was somehow unsurprised to see Boyd sitting opposite the bedroom door. “Boyd. Um, hey.”
Boyd’s eyes didn’t stray from Raylan’s face, despite how fucked-up he was sure he looked - and despite his own girlfriend sitting topless in the bed Raylan had just helped her despoil. “Well, hello, Raylan.”
“I’m - guest room?”
“You can leave, if you like. Or take the couch. Wherever is your preference.”
There was something there he was too sex-stupid to understand, an implication or a question he didn’t know how to answer. He smiled weakly and said, “Sure, Boyd. I’ll take the guest room.”
Usually he slept after sex. It was a simple thing, made him feel good. But he lay awake that night, thinking about the look on Boyd’s face, the way it had seemed Raylan disappointed him even as he’d only taken what was on offer, what he’d been encouraged to have.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting a divorce again,” Art said the Tuesday after Raylan had fucked Ava upstairs from Boyd.
“You’ve got that look on your face. That sad, lovesick one. I remember it from Glynco, Raylan. It haunts my nightmares.”
Raylan had no idea how to even begin to respond to that. “I’m fine, Art. And I’m not married, so I’m not getting a divorce.”
“See, that right there is how I know you fucked something up. You can be in all kinds of domestic trouble without bothering to involve a wedding.”
“Sure. And you want to know about it…why, exactly?”
“They don’t let us watch cable in the office,” Art said. “And I wanted to make sure you were stable before I sent you down to Harlan again.”
The story was this: the last of the Bennett clan, technically some cousins who were mostly Coopers, had come into Harlan, suspecting the Crowders of stealing Mags Bennett’s money. This was due to the fact that the deeds to all the land in the Black Pike deal were missing. “Everyone thought the deal was off,” Raylan said.
“Right you are,” Art said. “But if that’s the case, well, the mining company hasn’t been informed.”
The Marshals were involved because upwards of two million dollars in land, and tens of millions in rights to unrealized mining residuals, previously owned by a career criminal, were now missing. Rachel suspected the Crowders and Art was inclined to agree. “But if this all ends in another hillbilly shootout, no one gets anything except some uninspiring arrests and another several months of chasing down bullshit,” Art said.
The Marshals’ directive, in Art’s mind, was clear: go to Harlan, lean on the Crowders, recover the money. Raylan was the obvious choice for this task.
He crossed a line, eyes wide open, when he agreed to do it, without telling Art anything about his last several months’ worth of weekends.
They anticipated him being down there several days, so he got a room in Harlan proper before he went over to Ava’s. That was his first mistake. Bo had never been too good at getting regular folks to inform for him, but Raylan had kept tabs on Harlan enough to understand that Ava was changing that, among other things.
He realized his fuckup as soon as he saw Boyd on the porch. “Thought I recognized the front desk lady.”
“That was Amber. She used to work for my daddy doing all sorts of unsavory things.”
“I want to know what kind of fucked-up shit Bo Crowder liked in bed, I’ll find Johnny and ask him. You know why I’m here, Boyd.”
He thought it might go unsaid. That was his second mistake. “I do indeed, Raylan. As I know that you are here as a federal marshal, not a Givens.”
“Come on, Boyd.”
“What should I be coming on, Raylan?”
Raylan didn’t blush, only because he was really too old to be surprised by anything Boyd fuckin’ Crowder said. “I’m the same person.”
“Is that so.”
“Art caught me up on all of it. You’re about to get yourself in a three-way shootout, Limehouse figures out that you’re playing him.”
“Limehouse has already worked that out, Raylan, and we are settling it as men who understand the benefit to a stable county, even a stable region. The marshals don’t need to get involved.”
“Mags Bennett’s blood money belongs to the federal government.”
“By whose decree?”
“Mags sold weed, Boyd. The Marshals, of which I am one, are in the business of recovering ill-gotten gains. Mags sold to criminals, bought from criminals, and was herself a criminal. If you want me to look up the penal code I’m happy to do it, but I can promise you, it’s our money. And I intend to recover it.”
Boyd laughed. “That is a very pretty speech, Raylan. I always did appreciate that about you. But unfortunately, I think you’ll find that regardless of the federal government’s rapacious appetite for wealth recovered from hardworking citizens, the titles to the Black Pike land as well as the remaining cash holdings do indeed belong to us.”
Us again. “Boyd, come off it. You and Ava ain’t even married.”
He didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. “And yet she is a Crowder.”
“You can’t scare me off acting like a sisterfucker, Boyd. You know I know how it is.”
“Indeed I do, for you are a Givens first and foremost, even when you pretend not to be.”
“Hey, Raylan,” Ava said from the doorway, before Raylan could tell Boyd to go fuck himself and haul him down to the station.
“Ava. What’s, uh, up?”
She smiled at him, and he thought: I kissed you, I fucked you, and I want to do it all again with Boyd in the room this time. “Sounds like a lot, judging from your argument. How about y’all come inside and we’ll discuss it there.”
“You behave, now,” Boyd said in a low tone as they followed her instructions. Raylan felt goosebumps rise on the back of his neck. Make me, he didn’t say.
“Talk to me,” Ava said, serving them both from a bottle of Old Grand-dad.
“Pour yourself a drink first, if you’re part of this like I think you are,” Raylan said.
“Is that the Marshal or a Givens telling me?”
“I figure a Givens would threaten to lay a strap on you.”
“Now listen here, Raylan -”
“And Boyd, there’s a reason I moved so fuckin’ far away.” He held Boyd’s gaze until he deflated a bit. Man was a fool; as if Raylan could touch Ava, she didn’t want him to. Like she’d let another man do that to her after she went through so much trouble to get rid of the first one. “I’m asking as your friend, which is what you claimed to be. Not as a Givens, and not as a Marshal neither.”
“Raylan, you’re both those things every time you talk to us,” Boyd said. “I truly wish you could see that. It would make our predicament so much simpler.”
Raylan didn’t see how.
“Anyway,” Ava said, taking a sip of her drink and sitting down across from them, “Raylan, you gotta realize we ain’t gonna give you Mags’ money. Our money. It’s tied up in investments, anyhow.”
“Really? Dixie mafia handing y’all 401ks now?”
“We don’t work for Frankfort,” Ava said. The menace in her voice wasn’t something Raylan had much heard before. She sounded like Boyd. “Raylan, the money’s ours and it’s tied up anyway. Feds won’t see a dime unless you arrest one of us, and we’re legitimate businesspeople carrying out entirely legal real estate and retail transactions. You get what I’m telling you, here?”
“I get that I might as well have fucked Boyd instead of you last weekend.”
He hadn’t meant to say it. For a moment they all just stared at each other. Raylan’s hand itched to go for his gun.
Then Ava said, still very calmly, “Get out of my house.”
So he left. He drove off without looking back to check and see if one of them had him in their shotgun sight. They were right, in a sense; Lexington didn’t have shit on them, and to recover the money they’d have to send lawyers who’d likely charge more than Mags had ever managed to save. That was how Harlan slipped under the radar, why it was a hotbed of crime and bullshit to begin with.
He didn’t drive back to the motel right away. Instead, he headed over to an overlook he’d gone to a lot with Boyd, out past Noble’s Holler, parking his car among the overgrown bushes and staring out at the mountains.
He was in way too fucking deep in twenty different ways. Christ, what a fucking mess.
More than anything, he wished he didn’t trust Boyd quite so much. He knew it was dumb, was the thing. But it had always been like that for him, with Boyd. Even knowing how easily folks double-crossed each other, even watching Boyd go through a bunch of different identities and allegiances - watching Boyd blow up a black church, fuck’s sake - some part of him trusted Boyd not to kill him. To be who he said he was. To care for Ava, to -
To be Raylan’s friend.
When he’d left Harlan, he’d dreamed about Boyd for months. At the time he thought it was regular homesickness. It wasn’t till he fucked a bartender, guy named John, after being accepted to the Marshals that he realized what exactly had been going on. By then he’d already gotten the news from Helen that Boyd had joined the Army, and that had been that.
But he still cared, damn it. Wanting Ava, wanting Boyd, it was all mixed up in him, and it felt impossible less because of the gayness of it all and more because they were god damn Crowders. He felt like he’d picked up an obstreperous goat to carry around, caring for them as he did. He half hoped the lawyers failed and they got to keep building whatever it was they were working on, and wasn’t that just the stupidest thing? They employed Arlo, for fuck’s sake. He couldn’t trust them, but he trusted them anyway.
And they were mad at him, to boot. Fuck.
Eventually he gave up on feeling sorry for himself and drove back to the motel, typing up a report to send to Art. He’d only just hit send when his cell went off with an unlisted number.
“The Coopers have pulled into our front lawn,” Ava said without greeting. “I figure we’ve got about ten minutes before the shooting starts. Cops won’t be called. I’m telling you, Raylan, because I know you’d want to know.”
She hung up, and Raylan - lost it.
There was no other way to describe it. He tore out of his motel room without even grabbing a coat and sped down the road hell-bent for leather, cursing out the Crowders all the while.
The shootout was basically done when he got there. The Coopers pealed off in their truck and Ava and Boyd slumped against each other, guns falling from limp fingers. Ava had a bloody lip and Boyd had taken some punches, but they were otherwise fine. Raylan noted all that distantly as he stomped up to them; as soon as he shouted, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”, hell of a different kind broke loose.
“Don’t fucking tell me how I oughta handle my problems, Marshal!” Boyd said. He stomped inside, slamming Ava’s door back so fast the hinges squealed. Raylan turned to Ava in disbelief. “You’re gonna let this happen? Really? This is who you’ve tied yourself to? You’re kidding yourself you think this ends well.”
“Fuck off, Raylan,” Ava said. “You’re going to get gutshot before you turn forty-five because you can’t accept your reflexes have slowed, and you want to shame me for cleaning up Harlan?”
“Cops clean up Harlan, not career criminals who think they’re better than their daddies ’cause they talk a little nicer.”
“Cops, huh? Cops were paid off by my daddy, Raylan, and you know it well. Now, if you think we’re going to bend over for the fucking law you’ve got another think coming. Ava and my’s plans -”
“The law will bend you over, Boyd, and I don’t want to be around to see it!”
Raylan was out of his mind with fury, but he could never be angry enough not to see the way Boyd’s eyes lit up, the dangerous set of his jaw. He knew that look; Boyd was about to do something stupid. “Well, Raylan, way I see it is, you’re the law. You think it’ll bend us over, how about we start with you?”
“Boyd,” Ava breathed.
It was her tone that guaranteed Raylan couldn’t avoid his double meaning. Ava looked like she’d been walloped - and enjoyed it. “You think I’d fuck a white supremacist hillbilly piece of shit whose biggest claim to fame is running Oxy a little more successfully than his daddy?”
“I think you’d like me to fuck you,” Boyd said, “and it absolutely eats you up from the inside that you didn’t try it before you left me.”
Not you left Harlan. “Jesus, Boyd.”
“I shot Ben Cooper in the neck. Truth be told, I think it’s his body the boys are gonna be taking back to Cumberland. They’ll leave us alone for a long while, now.” Boyd held out his hands, palms up, both wrists pressed together. “Want to take me in for felony murder, lawman?”
“I shot Dean Cooper,” Ava said. “And buyin’ the pawn shops was my idea; we’re laundering cash for anyone who agrees to give us a cut of it, including Frankfort.” Two pale wrists, pressed together. “If you’re taking him in, take me too.”
“Don’t,” Raylan said, feeling like he was choking, not even sure why.
“Don’t, what, Raylan?”
He cast around for things to say. He couldn’t think of any. He couldn’t think. “Arlo -”
“This was never about Arlo, Raylan, not really,” Boyd said. “I think you know that, same as you know you can’t arrest us without destroying what is currently between us. The question is, can you decline to arrest us without destroying yourself?”
Raylan had a job, damn it, and it wasn’t just a job. He believed in it, he needed it. It was the thing that kept him in line. Winona had all but told him exactly this: you’re the angriest man I ever met, and what was an angry man if he stopped being a lawman? If he was just a pissed-off Givens, what the fuck was the difference between him and Arlo, anyway?
“I can’t do this,” he heard himself say. “Any of it. You both can go right on to hell.”
This time, when he got back in his car, he didn’t stop driving till he hit Lexington.
Well, God damn it then.
Ava had known it was a risk, but what could she do? If she hadn’t told Raylan about the shootout he’d have found out about it anyway, and then he’d have been even more pissed. Boyd had thought they could handle it, and so had Ava. In retrospect it was plainly stupid to imagine them handling Raylan Givens.
Especially not when Raylan wasn’t currently on the same page as they were - which was to say, he was decidedly not in love with them.
“I suppose there’s no way we could’ve convinced him to stay,” Boyd said. He’d been sitting with his head on Ava’s shoulder for the past quarter hour; neither of them had even bothered to start picking up the carnage from the Cooper’s visit.
“No,” Ava said.
“Raylan’s always had his own mind, his own problems. Sometimes I wonder if he even considers others’ points of view, beyond the obvious necessity of placing himself in the shoes of others in a manner required by by his chosen career.”
“He does.” She wasn’t sure what he thought of them, but she was all too familiar with Raylan’s talents of projection. “I’d guess he’s wrong about us, this time.”
“Do you think? I had thought, or feared, that he knows our feelings and has simply chosen to reject them.”
“I think he wants us. He knows I want him. I doubt he realizes that we’re in love with him, though.”
Boyd sighed. “I can’t blame him. Time was, I’d have gone to great lengths to deny I was capable of loving him, or any man.”
“And I didn’t want to care about anyone. I know.” Ava sighed. “This is the life we chose. I don’t think he understands that.”
“No, he does. Trust me,” Boyd said when Ava opened her mouth to disagree, “I remember Raylan from before. He understands this life better than anyone except maybe his daddy. If I had to guess, I’d say he nearly chose it for himself a time or two.”
“Then why’s he so disgusted with us?”
“Same reason he hasn’t reached out to me, no matter how available I try to make myself. Almost ain’t it.”
They sat together in silence while Ava thought. She truly did wish she could be angry with Raylan. She’d told herself, when she took up with Boyd like this, that she was out of options. It was true, in a way, but she’d had options before. She could’ve scrimped and saved, could’ve stood up to Bowman at least enough that he couldn’t get his hands on her high school savings. She could’ve gone to college. The truth was a little thornier than ‘no choice’; she had simply made a bunch of little choices until they added up, and then getting out of Harlan with clean hands was truly insurmountable.
Now, she and Boyd were poised to be able to go anywhere in the country - provided they came home in time to keep others from muscling in on their territory.
“We could call him up, talk to him. Or go up to Lexington again.”
“I think you know we can’t till we get this settled with the Coopers.”
“Well, I got a few ideas there. Won’t take more than another week or two.”
“Why, Miss Ava,” Boyd said, sitting up so she could see his expression of mock surprise, “have you been plotting without me?”
She laughed in spite of herself. “Well, Mr. Crowder, if your cousin Johnny’d call me when you two get to drinking, we could plot together.”
So she did. The Coopers had an aunt who mostly directed them, and Ava thought she’d bend if they leaned on her. It was a good plan, and Boyd told her so. Then he kissed her neck and unbuttoned her shirt.
Her heart still ached, and she knew his did too. Spring had come to Kentucky; a damp breeze, smelling of leaf mold and the barest hint of green, drifted in through the front screen. It wasn’t too cold in the house, but it wasn’t warm neither, and she shivered when she climbed onto his lap, her panties pushed to the side to allow him in, skirt pooling around both of them. He gazed up at her with that look of his, the one that said she was something precious to him. She arched her back and drank it in as he stretched her wide open.
“You are the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen in a long time, Miss Ava,” Boyd said.
“Bullshit. Raylan left us not thirty minutes ago.”
“Fuck.” His fingers dug into his hips, and he got that half-wild look that meant he was reminding himself that she’d said she could take it. That she liked it.
She clenched around him, holding onto his shoulders. “See, I wish you’d seen how he got when I told him what to do. He loved it, Boyd. I think we could make him stay like that.”
“Ever the optimist.”
“No. Just good at reading people. He stomps around like he owns the place ’cause he’s scared. I think if you were to just grab him and tell him to get down on his knees, he’d go.”
She felt the effect of that image in the way he tensed up, his hips thrusting into her harder. “Yeah? You think so?”
“I know so. He watches you, Boyd. He hates your preaching ’cause he knows it works on him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I want to watch you fuck him.”
“Oh, God, Ava.”
“You’re good at this, you know. Not everyone is.” She arched her back, moving slowly over him, feeling the drag inside her. “Actually, most people aren’t. I want him to feel this. You, inside him, all nice and thick.”
“And I want to watch it happen, Boyd.” She reached down and caught hold of his neck, smiling when he dropped his head to kiss her shoulder. “I wanna make him eat me out while you fuck him. I want to help you take our boy apart.”
“Fuck, Ava - Raylan, Ava -” He was fucking her frantically now, and she couldn’t keep talking; she felt like she was about to fly all to pieces. He kissed her and held her and pressed his thumb down on her clit, and as soon as she started going over the edge, he followed her.
Raylan stopped by a few days later. Boyd had gone out to deal with a doctor who thought taking his orders direct from Miami was a good idea, so it was just Ava, sitting at her kitchen table and going over their accounts in preparation for a grocery run. When she saw Raylan standing at the door, she closed her notebook and said, “Come on in, honey.”
“What’re you doing there?” Raylan said, nodding to the notebook.
“Just working on some business paperwork, that’s all.”
“Can I see?”
“I don’t think you want to see, Marshal.”
He made a rueful face at her, one of those grimaces that was so damn charming she couldn’t even be mad at him for it. “No, that’s true enough. I’m actually here to ask a couple questions. Seems a murdered deer and five grand of stolen jewelry was found in front of Bo Crowder’s old general store.”
“That’s odd. He ain’t owned that property in, what, ten years? Before he was put away, anyway.”
“Indeed. But if you were an out-of-towner who was familiar with Bo, and less familiar with how his heirs -” Raylan gestured to her with an ironic expression - “do things, you might think that was a good spot for some intimidation.”
“Well, how do you know it wasn’t Boyd, just trying to stir things up enough to justify striking back?”
“That’s a very good question, Ava. How do I know it wasn’t y’all?”
She didn’t miss the pronoun. He’d been over-correcting since she made it obvious she and Boyd were partners in their business. She thought it was kind of cute. “Well, it wasn’t. I’m sure we can provide an alibi. You know how I feel about killing animals you’re not gonna be able to eat.”
“I do, indeed. And the jewelry?”
“Well, Boyd and I own a couple pawn shops night. Might’ve been a message along those lines. Though, honestly, I don’t know how up on our enterprises they can possibly be, if they’re dropping this stuff outside Bo’s old store.”
“That is a concern. Do you mind if I stick around for awhile? Boyd’ll be home soon, won’t he?”
“I’m due to go get some groceries for dinner tonight. You’re welcome to stay in your car.”
“You don’t trust me alone in your home, Ava?”
She smiled, hoping to soften the blow. “I don’t trust anyone alone in my kitchen, Boyd included.”
“Well, all right then. Let’s go grocery shopping.”
Raylan drove her to Don’s. Before he unlocked the car, he paused with his hands in midair, half twisted to unbuckle his seatbelt. He gave her a wry look, then removed his Marshal’s star.
“You know, I told Boyd if I took this off, me and him would be fighting.”
“Well, I hope you’re not planning on fighting me, Raylan. Last standoff I was in didn’t end too well. I got shot by Dickie Bennett.”
“I certainly hope that won’t be a concern here.” He leaned across her to lock his star in the glove box. God help her, her heart and all kinds of other parts fluttered at the nearness of him.
He didn’t evince any surprise at the way folks greeted her - the deli guy, the butcher, even Willa the samples lady. As she perused the cereal aisle, he murmured, “Does Don’s pay y’all now?”
“What business is it of yours, Marshal?”
“Just wondering how far all this extends.”
“Ask your friend Rachel.” She was the one who had the best understanding of all their dealings. It would be Raylan, except of course, he was trying his damndest not to notice.
“I wouldn’t call her my friend, exactly.”
“What, you sleep with her too?”
“Why, Ava, I’m surprised by you. Is that jealousy I hear in your voice?”
“You can fuck whoever you want, Raylan.” She gave up on convincing herself to be adventurous and grabbed some Honey Nut Cheerios. “It’s no business of mine.”
“Oh, I think it might be, a little.”
She grabbed some olive oil, then some pasta. “No. No, it’s not.”
“Bottled olives, really?”
She managed not to blush. Barely. “Unless you want to pay the bill yourself, I’d suggest you not backseat drive.”
Raylan laughed, and a little zing went through her. “Yes, ma’am.”
She enjoyed it far too much, that easygoing obedience. It continued after they checked out. Raylan carried the groceries to the car, and he said, “Miss Ava,” as he opened the passenger’s side door for her. Of course it was all a silly affectation, but she loved it all the same.
She was halfway through putting dinner when Boyd got home. She’d pulled out the bourbon for Raylan awhile ago, and he’d put on the radio. They were laughing together when Boyd came in and said, “My, isn’t this cozy.”
Raylan’s laugh died away, replaced by an uncertain look. It occurred to Ava, for no particular reason, that his Marshal’s star was still locked away in his car. “Boyd.”
“Honey,” Ava said, and kissed him.
She didn’t miss the way Boyd angled her so Raylan could catch the slip of his tongue, the way her welcome-home kiss turned just a little bit heated. “What brings you to our home?” Boyd asked when they parted. His fingers trailed over Ava’s hip as she moved around the counter, turning the heat down on the greens and popping the biscuits into the oven.
“Little bit of this, little bit of that, but mostly an issue with some stolen gold.” Raylan explained what he’d already told Ava. Boyd leaned against the counter, hip cocked, staring into space as Ava pulled the beans off the heat and set a timer.
“I will admit, your instincts are correct,” Boyd said. “The branch of the Coopers that Ava and I had such a strong disagreement with were unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Startlingly so.”
Ava didn’t miss the grimace on Raylan’s face when Boyd mentioned their shootout. He’d been afraid, she thought. She wished - well. She was making dinner, not matchmaking.
“You think you can get them to see sense? The new owner of the store’s tetchy and this has the potential to escalate.”
“Tucker, yeah, he’s not too happy with me. Called me today, in fact. Raylan, I’d love to settle this, but I’m honestly not sure where to start.”
Ava had been thinking on it all afternoon, and she was pretty sure, having dug through the Presbyterian Mountain Cookbook for the beans recipe, that she had an answer. “Layla Cooper.”
Boyd shook his head. “Layla ain’t been involved with the Coopers in going on thirty years now.”
“They’re her kin, though, and the Coopers ain’t been involved with the Coopers, at least not in the way you mean. We have evidence of that in them hitting Bo’s old store - and Mags never mentioned her cousins. Seems to me like they got some dumb kids getting too big for their britches, and Layla can rein them in. I was in a grade with one of her kids. She’s got an iron fist.”
“You’re confident Layla Cooper can stop this? Including whatever transpired to let the culprits get their hands on stolen goods?”
Before Ava could answer, Boyd leaned in close to Raylan, smiling all flirtatiously. “Well, now, do the Marshals really want that to stop? I was given to understand stolen goods only line your coffers. Art might get you a real nice bonus this year if our troubles continue.”
“That’s stupid on too many levels for me to get into right now,” Raylan said.
And Ava couldn’t help it: she laughed. Well, giggled, more like, putting a hand up to cover her mouth as she snorted a little. “Sorry,” she said when both Boyd and Raylan stared at her. “Please, continue your witty repartee. Obviously I’m not bothered.”
Of course, that made them all self-conscious. Raylan even almost turned them down for dinner, though Ava convinced him to stay at the last minute by pulling her biscuits out of the oven and making big sad eyes at Raylan through the steam. By midway through the meal, he was joking with Boyd again, and things felt normal.
She sustained cheerfulness about that until Raylan left. Then she slumped against Boyd while he did the dishes and said, “Boyd, I miss him when he’s not here. I hate knowing he’s going all the way back to Lexington. It’s the damnedest thing.”
“You know, right before he left Harlan the first time ’round, I was going to tell him how I felt?” Boyd kissed the side of her head, then went back to scrubbing out her baking sheet. “I had a script and everything, so I wouldn’t mess up and miscommunicate. I showed up at the mine ready to speak my piece, and he told me he was leaving.”
“Pretty much.” He leaned back into her. She braced herself and held him, fingers locked tight around his waist. “We gotta be careful, Ava. He leaves again, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
She wished she didn’t understand that sentiment quite as well as she did.
There was no reason to delay, so Ava went down to see Layla Cooper the very next day. Their conversation was short and to the point. Layla’d had no idea her grandsons were stirring things up in Harlan, and she had known that Ava and Boyd were running things now. Consequently, she understood exactly what foolishness her kin were getting up to, and she swore there’d be a stop to it as soon as the kids picked up the phone.
When Ava told Boyd, he kissed her furiously, saying, “That’s my girl, that’s my fucking girl.” One thing led to another, and he ended up fucking her on the back porch, whispering filth to her while she came over and over.
They decided to celebrate, and to thank Layla, with a little early spring party. Ava hired Willa to help her turn out the food, and she brought in Layla’s less shitty grandchildren to provide some music. The party was in full swing when Raylan pulled up the drive.
“Ain’t that a fed’s car?” Layla said.
“Worse,” Johnny said. “That’s Raylan Givens’ car.”
Ava felt grimmer than Johnny looked, but she forced herself to smile and go greet him. But the Raylan who got out of the Town Car didn’t look much like the one who swanned into Harlan threatening to arrest folks. He had the hat, sure, but he wore tight blue jeans and an open button-down that had seen better days, the undershirt beneath it clinging to his skin. He looked tired in that way Ava had always loved after they’d fucked, too.
He looked hot, in other words, and Ava disliked being forced to reckon with just how deep in the shit she was.
“Well, hello, Raylan,” Boyd said. “How can I help you?”
Raylan looked around the yard, then back at Boyd. The corner of his mouth turned up. “You could tell me where to get a beer.”
“Right here.” Boyd tossed him one from the cooler. And Raylan, who apparently was determined to remind Ava of being fifteen and having the worst crush in the world, popped it open on the picnic table, sat back, and took a deep drink.
He didn’t explain why he was there. He didn’t arrest anyone, nor did he look particularly interested in doing so. He shot the shit with Boyd for awhile, then went to say hi to Arlo’s old neighbors, then wandered off to help little Jimmy get up on the tire swing. Ava’d had a few by then, and she found herself saying, “Fuck, Boyd, he’s a better hostess than me.”
“How ’bout that,” Boyd said in the flat tones that meant he was drunk, thinking, and not too happy about it.
He put on a good game face, though. Eventually, as the day turned to twilight, folks started leaving; to a man they all thanked Boyd and Ava and said they’d had a wonderful time. Ava was just about to collapse on the porch when she realized something she should’ve noticed before now: Raylan sat on her front steps, nursing a glass of Johnny’s friend’s shine and looking lonesome.
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me why you’re here now,” Boyd said, wandering up to Raylan with purpose in his expression.
“Truth be told, I missed y’all,” Raylan said. “I had no idea you were having a party. Would’ve dressed up if I’d known.”
“I think you look pretty good,” Boyd said. “Don’t you think our Raylan looks good, Ava?”
Her heart wrenched itself in her chest. She was definitely too drunk for this. “He always looks good, Boyd.”
“But he looks especially nice right now.”
“Boyd,” Raylan said, and to Ava’s delight - and horror, a little - she realized he was blushing fire engine red.
“Is this not what you came for?” Boyd asked. “I might not comment on your appearance all that often, but rest assured it’s never far from my mind.”
Raylan’s gaze was darting between them now, and he looked a bit like a cornered animal. Ava decided this game had gone on long enough. She walked down to where Raylan sat and settled on the step above him. He watched her in wide-eyed silence as she took his drink away and kissed him.
It was the kind of kiss she shared with Boyd sometimes, the sort you gave because you wanted to fuck but you also had all kinds of tangled-together feelings. He softened under her, sighing and opening his mouth for her, and her mind flashed back to before, when he’d obeyed her in bed without seeming to even think about it. Boyd was right; he did want this. He wanted them.
Maybe it was the shine, but Ava felt all her prior concerns just melting away. “Come inside, baby,” she whispered, stroking his jaw.
He made a low noise in his throat and nodded in agreement. Boyd came over then, helping haul him upright and guiding the three of them inside.
As soon as the door shut, Raylan slumped against the wall. He looked right at Boyd, and Ava imagined she could see the layers of careful subterfuge falling away. “Damn you, Boyd,” Raylan said.
Boyd reached out and took hold of Ava’s hand, then stepped into Raylan’s space. Slowly, deliberately, despite how drunk she knew him to be. “I won’t do this, Raylan,” he said. “I won’t help you destroy yourself. I want this because I want you both. I need you to tell me it’s like that for you, too.”
“You know it is,” Raylan said. He looked at Ava, then back at Boyd, then at Ava again. “You know,” he said to her.
“I do. But, Raylan, Boyd’s asking you for a reason. He’d like to hear it from you.” She willed him to understand, even as she knew he was dense as granite about these sorts of things.
Maybe it was the booze. He seemed to get it then. He looked back at Boyd and said, “I want you both. I should’ve told you before. I been lying to you for awhile now.”
“You are forgiven,” Boyd said with that peculiar solemnity he was so good at.
Raylan began to shake again as Boyd kissed him.
It looked like a good kiss. Boyd’s hand just about crushed hers when Raylan tilted his hips forward, and she understood why when Raylan pulled away just far enough to kiss Ava. He was on fire.
“Let’s take this upstairs,” Boyd said, his voice low and rough.
Raylan’s eyes were so pretty, wide and disbelieving and almost angry-seeming as they flicked between Boyd and Ava. “Tell me you’re sure,” he said. “Swear to God, if this isn’t - they find out I’m here, I’m not just fired, I’m arrested. Tell me it’s worth it.”
Boyd looked ready to say something stupid, so Ava said, “This has nothing to do with the Marshals or Arlo or any of them, Raylan. This is just about what you want.”
“And what we want,” Boyd said. “Which, conveniently, is you.”
It was more than that, of course. Ava knew that just as well as Boyd did. They loved him, and when he went back to Lexington it would break their hearts. But no one needed to talk about that right now, when they’d already gone too far to pretend things would ever be normal again. “Come on, now. Let’s get going before I decide I’m not interested after all.”
Boyd laughed at that, clear and pretty as hell. Even Raylan smiled a little, and he followed Ava upstairs when she led them up.
She shed her clothes along the way, figuring that it’d be easier for everyone if she reminded them why they were here. And it was: Boyd got his usual poleaxed look and fumbled his pants off, and then they were both pulling Raylan down to the bed, Boyd kissing him while he stripped with shaking hands.
“There you are,” Ava said, kissing him. “Boyd, what do you think?”
“Just as good as you told me,” Boyd said.
“Oh, shit,” Raylan said, and then Boyd was on him, kissing him frantically.
For a second Ava just watched, and it was truly better than she thought it would be. She loved them both so damn much, and it was hot as hell, too, watching Boyd’s back flex as he pressed Raylan into the bed, watching the needy way Raylan’s hands scrabbled on Boyd’s sides. Their cocks, too, pressing together as Boyd lazily thrust against him, gave Ava all kinds of ideas. She had her hand between her legs before long, arousal mixing with her drunkenness and making her feel slow, lazy, full with it all.
“Ava,” Raylan said after some time. “Oh, fuck, Ava.”
“I’m not gonna apologize,” she said, pulling her hand up. She was so wet they’d have to change the sheets, and Raylan already had beard burn. “What else am I supposed to do, with you two all wrapped up in each other?”
“Darling, you’re welcome to keep yourself busy any time you want,” Boyd said. “But…” He grabbed her ankle and pulled her towards him, smiling when she shrieked. “Raylan, honey, play with her tits. I’m sure you already know how much she likes that.”
She did, and she especially loved it when it was Raylan, with his careful hands and observant eye. She smiled at him as he leaned down to kiss her, sucking on her nipples; his eyes all but rolled back in his head when she grabbed his hair and tugged it.
And then Boyd put his mouth on her, and she couldn’t breathe. He slid two fingers in her like it was nothing, laughing against her when she moaned, then sucking her clit until she convulsed on the bed. “Oh, God, oh God oh God,” she said, clutching Raylan to her. She felt like she was going to come out of her skin. “Raylan - Boyd -”
“Good point,” Boyd said, pulling away. She opened her eyes to see him moving to kiss Raylan, his mouth slick from her. Raylan’s hand went slack on Ava; he followed where Boyd led, like Boyd’d tied a string to him.
“Now it’s your turn, honey,” Boyd said to Raylan. “I’d like to talk to my girlfriend.”
“What - oh God, Raylan, fuck - what do you think we’re going to talk about?”
“Only whether or not you’d like to fuck our good friend Raylan, there.”
Raylan thrust into her a little too hard at that, and Ava had her answer. “Yes. God, please, yes.”
“She’d agree to anything right now, Boyd,” Raylan said.
“She knows what she’s gotten herself into, Raylan,” Boyd said. “Now get busy.”
She watched the flush spreading up Raylan’s neck, only stopping when Boyd twisted her nipple almost meanly - and then she realized Boyd had been staring at Raylan, too, and she had to kiss him, to pull him close.
They went like that for awhile, always winding her up till she almost came, then swapping places. By the time Boyd called it for the fourth time, she was ready to kill him. “Boyd Crowder, you get your hand back in me right now,” she said, and kicked him like a mule, connecting solidly with his thigh.
He laughed, all delight. “Well then,” he said, and lowered his head.
After that it was only a matter of time. She came clinging to Raylan, her legs tight around Boyd’s head, keening at the ceiling in a positively humiliating tone. But they loved it, and Boyd made greedy noises of approval when she pulled him up to her, kissing him and then Raylan, the taste of her own come on all their mouths.
“You made me a promise,” she told Boyd when she could talk again. “You said I could fuck him.”
“I did,” Boyd said. “Would you like that, Raylan?”
It sounded dragged out of him: “You know I would.”
“Come on up here, then,” Boyd said, settling against the headboard.
Raylan moved like he expected to be thrown out at any minute. Ava was glad to see Boyd pick up on it, pulling him in and kissing him, then very gently pressing his head down. “Get his hips up, Ava. Is this okay?”
Raylan nodded, his face pressed into Boyd’s thigh.
It was kind of funny, really, Boyd’s hard cock inches from Raylan’s face, Boyd all but ignoring it in favor of stroking Raylan’s hair. But Ava remembered how Boyd had been the first time they’d done this. Raylan probably felt at least as vulnerable as Boyd had said he did. “You don’t like this, you tell me, got it?”
“I’m not known for being shy,” Raylan said in his dry, ‘I’m a badass’ tone.
“Well, I’d say a lot of folks don’t know you too well,” Boyd said.
Ava smiled and trailed her fingers down Raylan’s spine. She’d grabbed the lube while Boyd gentled Raylan, so all she had to do was warm it on her fingers, watching Raylan shiver and brace himself as she traced around his hole.
“You’re so beautiful,” she said. “You look so good like this, Raylan. Tell me if this doesn’t feel good, you hear?”
“I heard the first time, Ava.”
He was nervous. She bit back a smile and paused for a moment, just to admire the view. He’d spread his thighs, his knees pressed into the bed, and his back had just a bit of an arch from it. She wished she could’ve taken a picture, even though she wouldn’t need it. There was no way she’d forget this any time soon. “All right, baby,” she said, and leaned down to kiss the small of his back as she started to press in.
He was so keyed up that she could barely move in him. She ran a hand up and down his back, her fingers occasionally brushing Boyd’s as he did the same thing with Raylan’s shoulders. She’d started to think she should call it off when Raylan said, hoarsely, “More.”
“You done this before?” Boyd asked.
“I…fuck. Fuck.” Raylan dropped his forehead against Boyd’s thigh again, moving restlessly against Ava’s hand. “Once or twice, okay? I know I like it. I know I like y’all. But this is - you’re staring.”
It was the most Ava’d ever heard him say during sex, and it lit her on fire. Of course he was uncomfortable; he liked to have a job. “Raylan, how about you suck Boyd while I get comfortable down here?”
“Ava,” Boyd hissed.
He was nervous, too. It was cute. Ava was too horny to be nervous, herself. “Boyd?”
“Yes,” Raylan said, more air than voice, and he took Boyd into his mouth.
She’d thought it might be a bit boring, being on the giving end of two men, but it wasn’t at all. When she’d done this with Boyd it had always been before she’d come, and she’d known he would take care of her after. But this…
She curled her finger in Raylan and watched the way his shudder traveled all the way through him and to Boyd. She added a second finger and thrust just a little hard, a little mean, and had to press her legs together when Raylan and Boyd moaned in stereo. It felt good, having that kind of control. She felt powerful.
Boyd didn’t manage to be silent for long. Their harsh breathing was drowned out by him saying, “Ava, baby, I just need you to know, you decide to strap it on at any point in time, I’m good with it. You look so fucking good, darling - Raylan, can you feel her tits on you? She’s pressing ’em down when she fucks you, I think she likes it - she looks like she wishes something was in her, too. Next time we can make sure that happens. Fuck, do that again, Raylan, honey.”
The words just tripped out of his mouth, long speeches interspersed with cursing, getting more and more incoherent as Raylan sucked him. Finally, his hand tightened on Raylan’s head and he said, “I’m about to come, sweetheart.”
Raylan didn’t so much as twitch. Ava, possessed of a terrible idea, said, “Raylan, you’re gonna suck him dry if you want to come.”
That did it. Boyd came with a shout, and Raylan - twitched against her, his hips moving frantically against nothing at all, his cock so hard it looked a bit painful. When Boyd was finished, slumped against the bed and babbling praise for them, Ava pulled her hand out and shoved Raylan onto his back.
He slid into her like a dream. She reached out and caught Boyd’s hand as she fucked herself on Raylan, pulling him in close, kissing him as she started to ride. They broke apart and looked down at Raylan at the same time, and Raylan said, “Oh shit,” and came, just like that.
“Ava,” Boyd started to say, but she couldn’t hear it; she knew exactly what she needed just then. A finger on her clit was all it took, a frantic thirty seconds of movement and she was coming too, feeling like she was flying.
Boyd caught her on the way down. She’d always loved this part the most, when he laid her down on the mattress and kissed her forehead; she loved it more when he did the same to Raylan, putting Raylan between the two of them and watching them both with wide, serious eyes.
“Boyd,” Raylan said, sounding just a little petulant.
“I’m right here, honey,” Boyd said. He kissed Raylan gently, the barest brush of lips, then nudged him over so Ava could kiss him, too.
They fell asleep like that, tipsily trading kisses. Ava wasn’t too surprised to find Raylan gone in the morning.
Ava called his cell twice; Raylan didn’t pick up either time. She figured he’d find them when he wanted, so she stopped after that.
Boyd, though, couldn’t let it alone. He didn’t reach out to Raylan because Ava’d asked him not to, but he was visibly agitated about it, spending half his nights staring at the empty spot at the table that had become Raylan’s.
“Think he’ll come for Friday dinner?” Ava asked the Thursday after they’d fucked him.
“If he doesn’t -”
“We can’t kill Arlo, Boyd. You know that as well as I do.”
Boyd put his book down and groaned up at the ceiling. “Damn it, why’d we even do it, then?”
“Well, we wanted him.”
“I know.” They’d never discussed it, but Ava knew they were on the same page about Arlo and Raylan: Arlo sure was unreliable, but the dinners had only ever been a way to get Raylan down to Harlan during quieter periods. Because they missed him; because they loved him.
God, they were in too deep.
“I still want him,” Ava said. “Do you think he thought he was scratching an itch?”
“Raylan’s always been good at denial.” Boyd laughed, sounding hollow. “But maybe it’s not denial for him. Maybe we really are just that, an itch.”
“You know that’s not true.”
She didn’t miss the way despair flickered over his expression. “But for him, Ava? Can you be sure?”
She couldn’t. That was the problem. They had fun together, but Raylan…well, Raylan wasn’t exactly good at commitments, and as far as she knew, he was still hung up on Winona. “I can’t. But I’m sure of you.”
That made him smile a little, at least. “Come here so I can kiss you, Miss Ava.”
She went to him easily. They didn’t talk about Raylan that night, but he was there anyway, a ghost moving between them, an empty spot on their too-big bed.
Raylan didn’t come to dinner that Friday, and neither Ava nor Boyd sent anyone to go track him down. That weekend, Ava took herself down to the salon and submitted her resignation.
Suzanne and Vera were in charge of the salon that day, and Suzanne took her aside, her face all concern. “Is this about the Crowder boy?”
“I killed the Crowder boy, Susie.”
“You know which one I mean.”
“Me and Boyd are - it’s not like that.”
“How do you think I mean?”
“He’s not…moving in where Bowman left off, or anything.”
She could tell Suzanne didn’t believe her. “Plenty of men do. They think their family’s women owe them.”
“Not Boyd. Look, I know you’ve heard about our enterprises.”
“That’s one way to put it. I expect his men to knock on my door any day now.”
That was one of the reasons Ava was resigning, but they didn’t need to get into that part right now. “Me and Boyd are in this together. We don’t want some assholes from Frankfort coming down and trying to run Harlan, and you know as well as I do that no one’s gonna clean the place up. All that’ll happen is all the money people pay for their vices will go out of state.”
Suzanne wasn’t an idiot, and the look she gave Ava made it clear she thought Ava was trying to play her. “Are you shitting me? You want me to believe you and Boyd have some kind of, what, good-hearted local crime enterprise in mind?”
“You can believe what you want, I’m just trying to make sure we’re clear. Boyd ain’t in charge of me; we work together. And if he tried to raise a hand to me like his brother or his daddy, I’d take it clean off, okay?”
Suzanne looked her up and down with a grim expression, then said, “Okay. When should I expect one of y’all’s employees to pay me a visit?”
Damn, she was good. “Few days.”
“I hope you can demonstrate real benefit for what you’re having me pay for, Ava.”
“I swear to you, we will. And in truth, I feel stronger about that than I ever did about giving perms.”
“Well, all right, then. Take care of yourself.”
It was a dismissal - the last of its kind, and they both knew it. The next time they saw each other, Ava’d be the boss. She hugged Suzanne with that in the back of her mind, waved bye to Vera, and then took herself off to Johnny’s bar.
“Give me something that’ll get me really, really drunk,” she said, slapping the bar.
Johnny’d never liked her, and his glance now barely held any interest. “What, someone die?”
“Nah, I just quit my job. And other stuff.”
Johnny pushed her drink across the bar and said, “Don’t try to talk to me about Raylan. I already got that shit from Boyd, I don’t wanna hear it from you, too.”
She just about fell off her stool. “Boyd told you?”
“Wanted me to be prepared for Raylan coming in and doing something stupid.”
“Like, what, shooting up the place? Arresting you?”
“Kissing Boyd in full view of a hundred god-fearing Harlan taxpayers, more like.”
She tossed her entire drink back and pushed the glass back, motioning for more.
Christ. Raylan wouldn’t; Boyd definitely wouldn’t. Would he? They’d never talked about it. Before, it hadn’t seemed likely to matter, and after, Ava could barely bring herself to hope they’d see Raylan again, much less anything else.
But thinking about it had her ready to faint. Imagining Raylan here with them - even not kissing Boyd, that was seriously impossible, but just being with them. Their friend, their -
“Aw, Christ. I’d kind of hoped he was messing with me.”
“It’s none of your business,” Ava said, and took a gulp of the drink he handed her.
“Sure it is. It’s my bar.”
Johnny laughed a little, under his breath. It sounded nicer than anything Ava’d heard from him in a long time.
It was raining cats and dogs the Friday that Raylan pulled up in a beat-up old Ford truck.
Ava and Boyd both had their guns out, of course, but they put them down as soon as Raylan got out of the truck. Ava’s heart was pounding; Boyd looked like he’d been carved from stone.
“Hey, guys,” Raylan said, stopping at the top step of the porch, barely out of the rain. He wore another beat-up shirt and the same jeans he’d had on at the party. He had a gun in a holster, but no badge. He looked tired.
“Nice truck,” Boyd said.
The question was obvious, but Raylan just looked a little rueful. “Didn’t have a ton of notice before I had to buy it.”
“Where’s your star, Marshal?” Ava asked.
“Ava, I’m thinking he might not have his star anymore,” Boyd said.
Raylan dipped his head in acknowledgment. When he lifted it, he took his hat off, too, standing in front of them like a supplicant. “I quit this afternoon. Art was gonna promote me out to Glynco, so I quit.”
“Is that why?” Boyd said.
Raylan’s smile turned crooked again. “That’s part of why.”
“Why else?” Ava said.
“Well,” Raylan said, “I got to missing Harlan, I suppose.”
Inside, Ava’s timer started going off. “Lamb’s ready,” she said, and put her gun aside as she stood up. She walked over and kissed Raylan on the cheek. “Come inside. It’s dinner time.”
Boyd brought up the rear.
For the most part, Boyd’s faith in the Lord was really more of an unsatisfying, worryingly one-ended argument.
He had done what he felt he needed to do in his life, and sometimes his feelings overrode good sense and decency. He could not so much as look down at his hands without remembering that, and so much the better; it reminded him there were worse roads to walk than this one he shared with Ava. He knew hardly anyone would believe him, but he did still pray, and he thought it meant something to him. For a man frequently uncertain as to the question of whether anything had meaning at all, this was quite the benchmark.
Normally, anyway, it was quite the benchmark. Right now, he found himself cast into the shadows of uncertainty once more. Raylan had been back in their lives for going on two weeks, and they didn’t see him any more than they had when he was driving down from Lexington.
He wasn’t even certain where Raylan was staying, though he assumed a hotel. Ava had counseled him not to ask, and he respected her far too much to gainsay her on this. It was a trial for him, though, wishing desperately to communicate his very great esteem for Raylan and knowing that to do so would be to betray Ava’s confidence and, very possibly, push Raylan away from them permanently.
Consequently, he prayed. Their days had become much more complex since purchasing two restaurants in Corbin; they had more product to move now, more ways to move it, and more people who might snitch on them. He spent a lot of time on the road, and even more time waiting for his employees to get their shit together and give him his money, or his product, or simply a half hour of their time. During these gaps in his days, when doubt began to creep in and the evil sludge of envy and rage began to fill his belly, he prayed to the Lord for clarity, for patience, and - well, for Raylan.
It was never anything like ‘Dear Lord, please look down upon my aspirational sodomy with a smile’. Boyd wasn’t an egomaniac - or if he was, he concentrated it in other areas of his life now. It was more praying for Raylan’s calm, for him finding a way to settle in Harlan, for Ava and Boyd to get another beautiful moment with him.
It was beautiful, after all, pure and true, the three of them together. Boyd dearly hoped Raylan could see that.
Raylan had come to dinner in that brokedown truck three weeks in a row when Boyd accepted the inevitability of paying Arlo a visit. It was Ava who made him see sense; “You don’t want to go down there because he’s Raylan’s daddy, but the truth is the man bought a cell phone so he could teleconference with Detroit! It’s past time to shut this down, Boyd.”
Arlo wouldn’t listen to Ava, and they both thought he might be inclined to start shooting if she told him to cut the shit, so it fell to Boyd to lean on Raylan’s shit-for-brains not-really-father. Boyd had always been good at smiling past simmering resentment, talking past the need to scream. This thing with Arlo wasn’t all that different.
Or at least, that’s what he was telling himself, to forestall the aforementioned screaming. He was telling himself it so hard that he didn’t notice all the signs of Raylan’s presence until he stood in front of the man in Arlo’s kitchen.
“Son of a bitch, you’re living here,” Boyd said.
Raylan’s mouth twisted. He looked rough, Boyd realized, dark circles under his eyes and slightly greasy skin.
“You’re a real one step forward, two back kind of guy, huh?” Boyd said, then regretted it right away. “I’m sorry, that was a shitty thing to say. But shit, Raylan, why didn’t you say this is where you were staying?”
“Didn’t want to bother anyone. You’re here for Arlo.”
It wasn’t a question, but Boyd nodded anyway. “He’s been trying to two-time on me and Ava, so the time has come to remind him where his generous payouts are coming from, and to bring him back into the light. I’m hoping it’ll be a short conversation, to be honest, but you never know with Arlo.”
Another bitter smile. “No, you do not.”
“Listen. Do you want to -”
“I’m not gonna live with y’all.”
“If that’s what you were offering,” Raylan said, grimacing like he knew he’d made a fool of himself.
“Well, you’re welcome.” It had been. But - “However, I was mostly thinking there’s some positions we likely have open that are more pleasant than babysitting Arlo Givens.”
“He’s my father.”
“You think I don’t know that? But he ain’t, Raylan, in the ways that matter - and I know you know that. Me and Ava created this mess, so let me fix it.”
Raylan looked like he wanted to argue, but thank the Lord, he didn’t. Boyd decided to test his luck. “Why don’t you drop your things in the truck, and we’ll have you over for dinner and talk over your options?”
“And if I don’t like any of ’em?”
“Well shit, Raylan, I’d be a pretty awful crime boss if I went around making offers folks found easy to refuse - however, if you don’t like any of ’em, I promise you we will permit you to leave. Give you a hug on the way out, even.”
“All right then, Boyd. I’ll do that. Arlo!”
It was a turn on a dime the likes of which Boyd hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years, since the last time he witnessed a Givens fight. One moment Raylan was smiling, looking almost shy, fetching as anything; the next moment, Raylan looked like something dragged out of a hillbilly horror movie. Boyd truly preferred the Raylan who smiled at him.
“What the fuck do you want!”
That was Boyd’s cue. “I’ll meet you out front,” he said, heading into the living room. Doing so brought him past Raylan, and he brushed against him just a little - comfortingly, he hoped.
“You know, when I agreed to work with you, I didn’t realize you’d use me to keep sodomizing my son.”
“That is a vile term, Arlo,” Boyd said. “And you’re drunk to boot. For shame.”
“I’m not drunk! I hardly had a bottle!”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not here to discuss your drinking habits. You’re right, though: you agreed to work with me. And now I find you’ve been dialing up Detroit, testing those frozen waters. Arlo, do we not pay you enough?”
What followed was a conversation as exhausting as it was dull. For all that Boyd loathed him for his own singular reasons, Arlo was a fairly mundane criminal, more predictable than half the wayward Commandos had been. He knew what he’d been doing might draw the Crowders’ attention, and he was prepared to answer sharp questions. He eventually agreed to stop double dipping. Boyd doubted he’d stick to his promises, but that was a problem for a later date.
Finally, Boyd exited the Givens home, agitated as all get-out. Seeing Raylan leaning against his truck - hat down, one foot kicked back, languorous and keyed-up all at once - well, it felt like a cool drink of lemonade in the dog days of August.
Boyd blinked and forced himself to stop staring. “Raylan.”
“And for that I thank you, Raylan. Arlo does know how to make a five-minute conversation last. You know where our house is.”
“I’ll see you there, then.”
For a moment Raylan’s gaze darted between Boyd and the house, and he looked - well. Boyd had to assume he wasn’t the only one remembering what they’d failed to do in this very drive, the horny-teenager failure of it all, the tension that had given way to shyness and fear one too many times.
Boyd also remembered standing here after Raylan had left, kicking himself for not just telling Raylan his feelings, for putting it off until it was truly too late. But that was all in the past now.
Boyd sent Ava a quick text to let her know Raylan would be along, then headed home. Raylan beat him there, not having paused for nostalgic contemplation. When he kicked his shoes off, he saw Raylan’s own boots arranged carefully next to Ava’s Keds. It made something awful in his chest twist.
He went into the kitchen to find Raylan sitting at the island, drinking with Ava, both of them looking lost in their own thoughts. It was a hell of a whammy when they both looked up at him, smiling in completely different, yet eerily similar, ways. “How’s Arlo?” Ava said, grabbing another glass to pour him a drink.
“Oh, he’s the same Arlo he ever was.”
“Ain’t that the problem,” Raylan said.
“Well, to us it’s useful,” Ava said. She sounded cheerful enough, but there was something in her voice - a warning, or at least information for Raylan. A way of reminding him he didn’t know everything about their business. “We know how Arlo is, so we know how to manage him. We don’t need to demand perfection from him - we just want him to be the Arlo he’s always been.”
“And he lives down to those expectations?”
“Regrettably so,” Boyd said. “But you don’t need to worry about that, sweetheart.”
It was the work of seconds to step forward and kiss Raylan, but Boyd wasn’t fool enough to think that meant Raylan’d go along with it. In truth, he expected to get slapped and pushed away; consequently, he felt truly blessed when Raylan moaned and kissed him back immediately, his strong hands coming around Boyd’s shoulders to hold him at close range.
“Fuck, Raylan,” Boyd said, breathing it out like a blessing. Raylan made a low noise, not quite a whimper, and skimmed a hand up Boyd’s side. It might’ve been a precursor to palming a handful, if Boyd were a woman; as it was, there was nothing for Raylan to touch but more muscle, and yet they both groaned when Raylan dug his nails into Boyd’s skin.
“It’s like that, huh?” Raylan said when they broke apart.
“How do you think it’s like, Raylan?” Ava asked.
Raylan licked his lips, looking between them. It was truly remarkable, to Boyd’s mind, that Raylan pulled all his cowboy shit off, given that he was so very tentative with them, given that Boyd could see fear writ large over his whole body. “I think y’all want to kiss me,” Raylan said.
They wanted to do quite a bit more than that, but Ava only had to glance at Boyd for him to know that they were on the same page: they needed to be careful. Ask for too much and Raylan would run. “That’s true enough,” Ava said. “But we figure you already knew that, since we done it so many times. What do you want, Raylan?”
“You know what I want. Like you said, we already done it so many times.” He smiled distantly. It didn’t quite seem sincere, and all Boyd could think was, damn it, Arlo. He’d turned Raylan into a shade of himself.
But Raylan was here and being honest, or mostly honest, which was all Boyd could ask for. He said, “Well then, how about you go show Miss Ava how excited you are for dinner?”
“You make me sound like some kind of schoolteacher,” Ava complained. But she set her drink aside and kissed Raylan, all tongue and tight grip on his collar.
It was so damn good to watch. Boyd had thought he might feel jealous, when him and Ava started talking about this. He’d figured Raylan was his and Ava was his, and them being together might make him feel like he’d been robbed. Reality had proven to be the opposite. Even this, thought it was a pale imitation of the committed, loving three-person relationship that Boyd truly wanted, filled him with joy and lust in equal measure.
Raylan was the first to pull away and consequently the first to notice how intently Boyd watched them. He blushed, bright blotchy color all over his face and down his neck. Boyd hoped he never realized how often he blushed when they did this.
“I apologize,” he told Boyd.
Boyd watched with pleasure as Ava’s fingernails dug into Raylan’s arm. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “If I want to kiss you, Raylan Givens, I’ll kiss you. And I want to kiss you.”
Raylan sighed, a breathy, turned-on kind of noise that had Boyd itching to drop to his knees. “Y’all planning on dinner? Otherwise I could go grab something.”
For a blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment, Ava looked down in the dumps. She put a good face on it, though, smiling as she said, “All right, then, I’ll make you my sous chef. C’mon.”
It fell to Boyd to provide the evening’s entertainment, in the form of shooting the shit on the books he’d been reading lately. He had applied himself to the monumental task of learning about what precisely fueled the financial crisis, and the resultant trip to the library laid him up with a to-read list a mile long. At one point, as he was midway through demonstrating credit default swaps via an elaborate hog metaphor, Raylan cut him off with a kiss.
“Thank you kindly,” Boyd said when he pulled away, like an idiot.
And Raylan, sweet idiot Raylan whose father had already been working hard at poisoning his mind against the very love Boyd wished to express, smiled and blushed and winked.
Boyd watched him do it, then watched him spin the knife in his hand, then said: “Speaking of good debt versus bad, I’ve just had an idea.”
He didn’t go into it till after dinner, mostly because he wanted time to figure out how to frame it up. After another couple hours, though, Raylan was itching with impatience despite the drink they’d gotten in him. “Come on, Boyd, just tell me. If I don’t like it I’ll tell you no.”
“And you’d be one of the only residents of this county to do so in the last several years,” Boyd said, “which isn’t to say I don’t trust you, because I do. You know Mac’s Hardware?”
“That old store down in Evarts? Sure. Ain’t it been closed for awhile?”
“Nigh on three years now, and the Sears in Harlan is glad for it. It closed down because my daddy owned it, mostly legally, and when he died, the previous proprietor moved to Georgia.”
Raylan was very, very still. “What are you saying, Boyd?”
“Well, Raylan, I’m saying I think it would be very useful if we had a hardware store available for folks to go to, and I happen to know someone who just moved back to town and who’s looking for a job.”
“Arlo’ll kill you,” Ava said. She spoke with the abrupt, graceless cadence that meant she hadn’t thought about the consequences of speaking, an inflection Boyd was devoutly grateful for every time it happened. “You know he will. You need something to do, and we - we want to see you happy.”
It hadn’t escaped Boyd that Raylan was talking like a lawman, letting them tell on themselves while they thought they were convincing him of something. Still: “We do, and you know it. I understand your hesitation, as being under the protection of the Crowders is participation in a system you so recently devoted yourself to destroying. However -”
“Technically speaking, the Marshals ain’t got much to do with Mafia shit. That’s FBI.”
“However, our fees are low and the benefits are good, and you really would be running a store. We wouldn’t ask you to launder money or nothing like that - we have the pawn shops for our extracurriculars. This is just a good way to get you settled and out of that damn house.”
He knew he’d said too much. Raylan’s expression got all pinched in that way he had when someone got emotional around him. In his lower moments, Boyd’d wondered if he’d looked like this during his wedding to Winona. He hurried to correct his error: “Or you can just keep on livin’ with Arlo, watching him drink himself into an early grave and getting depressed. It’s up to you.”
“I’ll take the store,” Raylan said, and threw the rest of his drink back in one go.
“That’s no way to treat good bourbon,” Ava said, but she went to refill his glass.
They moved out to the front porch after awhile and sat in silence, staring out at the road. Good thing, too, because Boyd’s mind was whirling; he hadn’t thought of the hardware store till he’d started talking, but it was a damn good plan if Boyd did say so himself. There was a certain satisfaction in it, thinking about Raylan taking over a brokedown store and making something useful out of it. Well, and it did go beyond that; there was also satisfaction in thinking of Raylan in Crowder territory, where Boyd could go and check up on him, watch him, care for him.
Raylan didn’t seem too happy about it, but then again, when was Raylan happy? They had fed him, defended him, lied to him, and fucked him, and through it all Raylan seemed to regard himself and the Crowders as akin to a copperhead that liked your favorite creek. Not quite worth trying to kill, but not safe, neither.
Damn it, Boyd thought, watching the sky above the treeline go from dark purple to navy. He wanted Raylan to like them, to want them. To love them, even, as he and Ava loved Raylan. It seemed very obvious tonight that they’d never get there.
But Raylan was going to take the store: it had to mean something. Him and Ava were building this whole Harlan crime enterprise on the idea that something, however small, was better than nothing. It must be.
Raylan took to running the store like a duck to water - or a Crowder to petty crime. Summer meant he, Ava, and Boyd spent a lot of time going down to the store in the early morning, cleaning it up for a few hours, resting through the worst of the day’s heat, then finishing up as the sun started dipping behind the hills. Boyd at first had wanted to send one of their employees to do the work, but Ava’d given him one of her patient looks and had said, “Let’s help him, Boyd. I think he’ll appreciate it,” and since she was the only one of them who had any chance of making this whole thing work, he figured he had to trust her.
Though, this whole thing was, right now, admittedly not much of a thing at all. Raylan stayed in their guest room for the four days it took to get the store legally signed over to him and not actively full of wasps. Then he moved into the janky apartment above the store, over Boyd’s objections: the utilities were still hooked up, but they hadn’t even put good locks in yet, after all.
Raylan had only smiled faintly and said, “But I’m paying the Crowders protection money, Boyd. What good’s that doing me if I still need to bar my door at night?” And Boyd, breathless with desire at the casual teasing note in Raylan’s voice, had failed to respond satisfactorily, or indeed at all.
The store was up and running before Memorial Day, though. Raylan still wore his hat and still moved like a lawman, just as careful and faux-deferential behind the counter as he’d been interrogating the wife of a fugitive back in the day - or so Boyd imagined, having thought privately on Raylan’s chosen career significantly more than he’d observed him in action. He’d even gotten his own gun; he didn’t have a badge, but the way he moved he might as well have had one. Even Boyd found himself fooled a few times in those early days, watching Raylan advise someone on cut length rope or help them load landscaping supplies into their car. He moved like the law.
“Maybe he’s just still the law to you,” Ava said when Boyd brought it up one night.
Boyd looked at her sharply, and she shrugged. “You ain’t gotta pretend with me, Boyd. I know you thought of him when he was gone. You knew what he was up to. He’s been an idea of a lawman to you longer than he’s been down here with us.”
“He will be.”
“Darling, I wish I could have your faith. I truly do. But I know Raylan, which means I know he’s a squirrelly, self-denying, stubborn son-of-a before he’s anything else.”
Ava smiled a little, sad more than anything else. “Yeah. I know. But he quit, Boyd. He came back down here, and it wasn’t for Arlo, we both know that. Give it time.”
Boyd disagreed, on the certainty of time’s healing powers if not Ava’s overall impression of Raylan’s feelings and motives. But he wanted, more than anything, to believe she was right. He trusted her; he loved both of them. So he nodded, and he said, “Sure as the sun rises, you’ll talk me around to doing the smart thing,” and when she laughed, he kissed her. And if they both thought of Raylan, that night - spoke of him while they fucked - then that was only as it had been between them for quite some time.
Raylan came for dinner after the store had been open for two weeks.
He didn’t come on Friday, when Boyd and Ava were still in the habit of bracing themselves for him. Instead, he came on Wednesday, parking and moseying on up like they didn’t have four shotguns in easy reach of the front porch for just this kind of eventuality: the law knocking on their door a random evening and asking to come in.
But Raylan wasn’t the law. He wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt, looking every inch the Harlan boy - and good enough to eat.
“Brought you something,” he said when Boyd waved him round back, lifting a bottle.
Boyd tilted back his lawn chair as Ava abandoned the grill to kiss Raylan’s cheek. “Raylan, is that illegally purchased moonshine I see in your hand?”
“Absolutely not, Boyd. This moonshine was offered to me in trade for services rendered - and I can assure you, it’s very palatable. Thank you.” This to Ava, who offered him a glass of the liquor she and Boyd had already been sipping. “Can I help with anything?”
“I’m just finishing up the chicken. Nothing fancy tonight, just didn’t want to heat the house up. You’re hungry, I hope.”
How his woman could fit that much implication into a single statement, Boyd would never know. But it was unmistakable: Raylan’s eyes widened a bit, his nostrils flaring, and he said in a voice gone rough, “I am, Ava. Awful hungry.”
And Boyd, whose judgment had apparently been washed away a couple drinks ago, said, “Why don’t you come here, then.”
For a moment he saw Raylan preparing to tell him no. But then Raylan’s gaze flickered between them - his shoulders dropped - and Boyd’s heart flipped over in his chest as Raylan said, “All right, then, Boyd,” walked over to where Boyd sat, bent down and kissed him square on the lips.
The backyard was fairly private, and so Boyd didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing him pull Raylan down with alacrity, biting at his jaw and kissing his neck. Raylan made a tiny noise, a moan of capitulation as he knelt on the ground, and Boyd reached up with one hand to motion Ava over.
When she knelt beside Raylan, he pulled away from Boyd, looking between them with desperation in his gaze. Boyd thought that there were easier ways to have a threesome than to quit your job and move back to your crime-infested hometown; he thought that he and Ava were as hung up on Raylan as they’d ever been on each other; he thought that Raylan might never admit, to himself or to them, the possibility of deeper feeling between the three of them.
He didn’t give voice to any of these thoughts. Instead, he said, “Raylan, how’s about you show Ava how much you missed her?”
They kissed till Ava pulled back, laughing, talking about the chicken getting cold. And then, after dinner, as the sky grew dark and Boyd felt himself go lax after a long day, they went inside and started up again. They traded long, lazy kisses for what felt like hours, till Raylan pulled back and said he’d best be getting home.
That night, Ava rode Boyd to completion, gasping out Raylan’s name, telling Boyd all she’d wanted to do was suck him off with Raylan’s help. Boyd closed his eyes and held onto her, and he prayed.
He did frequently find himself contemplating behavior that could most charitably be described as unreasonable.
It was an impulse that came upon him when he thought about Raylan or Ava - or Raylan and Ava - too hard. He’d spent most of his life falling into fervent belief systems and serving them the only way he knew how, with death and betrayal. That one belief system was Nazism and another was belief in the Lord might seem a contradiction, and Boyd was willing to grand that it truly was one, to strangers. Raylan had had the right of it, though. He convinced himself of true belief and left the reality of his emotions and his mind to the Lord - or the law - to sort out as he would.
As Raylan would.
So he thought about it, now and then. His and Ava’s enterprise grew rapidly without Raylan to chase them down. The other marshals were good at their jobs, but they weren’t of Harlan extraction; they didn’t have Raylan’s subject matter expertise. He and Ava now controlled the Oxy and heroin business clear on over the state line to Virginia. They owned pawn shops and laundromats. They even had their very own Zaxby’s franchise.
In other words, Boyd hardly even hard to work for their empire to grow these days - but he thought about doing so. He thought about killing folks who stepped out of line, starting trouble across the border in Tennessee. He thought about going after Miami or even Detroit. And he thought about doing so in a manner that would draw the attention of the law, give him and Ava someone to shoot at.
He held his impulses in check more often than not, but it helped that frequently, when he began thinking in this manner, Raylan would come to the house and kiss them both till Boyd couldn’t think at all.
It also helped that Ava was always one step ahead of him, even when she did a passable imitation of a woman who followed her man. “Is he keeping you in line?” she asked one night, as Boyd leaned against the front door and watched Raylan drive away.
“I think you know he is, darling.”
“I’d like to think it’s both of us.”
“Insomuch as you have a stronger moral compass than I can lay claim to, you are. However, you and I make similar choices for similar reasons. Raylan’s still a lawman in spite of quitting.”
She understood what he meant, of course. But the conclusions she drew were a bit different. “You don’t think he’d follow you if you started causing trouble?”
“Ava, darlin’, as far as the federal government is concerned, our entire family business is trouble.”
“Come on, you know what I mean.”
He did, and he hated to think of it. Raylan might follow them. Might, might - would, if he and Ava told him what they’d kept carefully secret, and if he wanted to hear it. Raylan had always been willing to do terrible things for people who gave him even a fraction of the love he had been cruelly denied in childhood.
“We could talk to him,” Ava offered. She stepped out onto the porch, letting the screen door fall shut behind her as she embraced Boyd. “Tell him how we feel. He might surprise you.”
He let himself lean back against her. He felt warm in spite of his misgivings. “I am very confident he’d surprise me in one way or another.”
“Not yet, then.”
When he inhaled he could smell the honeysuckle. Summer had begun in earnest, and the humid air seemed to cling to his skin. The sun had dipped below the mountains hours ago, but now the sky moved from purple and yellow to deep navy blue, blending into the treeline. “Not yet.”
Something had to give, and it stood to reason liquor would be involved when it finally happened.
It’d been a good day. He’d overseen the opening of a new supply line up through Tennessee, which stood to net the Crowders well over a million annually, after expenses. To support the supply line, Ava had signed the dotted line on a thrift store just over the Tennessee state line; while in the thrift store, Boyd had found a pair of boots that fit him perfect. When they got back home, Boyd felt downright peppy.
When he saw Raylan sitting on their front porch - boots up, hat tilted forward, napping like he belonged there - something in Boyd’s chest clenched. He smacked Raylan’s leg, laughing when he startled awake. “Get on up now, Ava and me brought steaks.”
“How’d you know I’d be here?”
Boyd paused in his movement out back, just for a moment, to savor the confused burr in Raylan’s voice, evidence that he truly had been asleep. “Just a lucky guess. You’re good to pour the drinks?”
He had to savor Raylan’s smile, too. “You know I am.”
“That I do, Raylan. That I do.”
They cooked up the steaks and griddled some cornbread for good measure, and Ava pulled a mess of greens out of the fridge to round out the meal. They shot the shit about nothing in particular; Raylan had all kinds of stories now, being a shopkeeper, and Boyd had been reading a book on the history of epidemiology, and Ava had been teaching herself to sharpshoot - so they had plenty of topics of conversation.
It was Ava talking about her aim, though, that led to Raylan standing behind her, hands on her hips, guiding her movements in his low voice. And it was that visual, his man’s hands on his woman, that led Boyd to say, “Raylan, you been back in Harlan long enough to let us fuck you?”
Ava drew in a sharp breath and twisted to look at him. Raylan went deathly still. Boyd cocked an eyebrow at them both and waited.
He had not read this moment wrong. Of that he was very sure.
“What are you asking me, Boyd?” Raylan said. His voice was so quiet it was almost drowned out by the grasshoppers and crickets.
“Just what I said, Raylan. Me and Ava, we’d like to fuck you again. We had a good thing going, wouldn’t you say?”
“Some might describe it as you were blackmailing me.”
“I reckon some might. And yet you seemed willing enough.”
Boyd didn’t bother hiding the sharpness in his voice when he said, “I lie. But about this I promise you I am being honest, and you’ll never meet someone with a sharper eye for moral clarity than Ava; she wants this, too.”
“Only if you’re ready,” Ava told Raylan. She looked so sweet, still soft in his arms. Boyd half wished she’d grab Raylan’s jaw, force him to be honest with them. That might be the drink talking; it was certainly the drink that had motived his speech. “Otherwise we can just keep on with the lesson.”
Raylan draw in a ragged breath. He dropped his chin on Ava’s head, and his eyes landed on Boyd. He looked a bit angry, the way he always did when someone pushed him. It wasn’t enough to scare Boyd, nor convince him he was wrong about all this.
“Damn you both,” Raylan said, and then he stepped away from Ava, spinning her around and kissing her, the angle perfect for Boyd to see every desperate detail.
They went upstairs in short order after that. Raylan seemed rudderless if one of them wasn’t touching him; he clung to Ava when she might’ve pulled away, grabbed Boyd when he hung back. Boyd had thought the boy Raylan had once been was long since lost, but he saw him that night, a ghost: nineteen years of neglect and need in the grip of his hand in Ava’s hair, the ragged breath he let out against Boyd’s throat.
“Kiss me,” Raylan whispered to Boyd, and here - in Ava’s bedroom, with the curtains fluttering in the breeze - Boyd did.
They laid him out that night, him and Ava. Ava dug her fingernails into Boyd’s shoulder when he tried to ease off. This was what Raylan needed, she showed him; this was what calmed him down, kept him with them. Biting him hard, fucking him just past what he thought he could take, pinning his head down between Ava’s thighs.
(And Lord, that mental image would stay with Boyd until the day he died. The joy on Ava’s face, the desperation in Raylan’s hands as he gripped her hips. The noises they both made, a symphony Boyd could only appreciate as a supplicant.)
When they all finished, they pinned Raylan quite literally, each sprawling over half his body. He linked his fingers with Ava’s on Raylan’s stomach and closed his eyes against the wave of exhaustion moving through him.
The next morning, their bed only contained the two of them. They went downstairs by mutual agreement to find Raylan sitting at the kitchen table, looking shifty. “I went ahead and moved to the guest room, if that’s all right,” Raylan said. “Figured I’d come back tonight?”
And sleep in the guest room? Boyd knew better than to ask. He said, “Raylan, by now I’d surely hope you know you are welcome here.”
It might’ve been too much anyway, too intense. Raylan smiled, sheepish, and sipped his coffee, looking out the window across the pasture. Looking at neither of them.
One day turned into two turned into a week; Raylan didn’t mention going home. Though Boyd prayed to the Lord for understanding, or failing that patience, or failing that forbearance, he got none of those fine qualities, from heaven or otherwise. He didn’t quite understand Raylan, but he feared opening up a can of worms by asking him about his intentions or motivations or anything like that. He never told Raylan he loved him, and to his knowledge, Ava kept mum as well. But more nights than not, Raylan would look at them with his half-shy smile, and they’d go right along with it, pulling him upstairs for a night in their bed.
Raylan was never there when they woke up the next morning. Boyd supposed that was his way of maintaining distance, despite his seemingly permanent residence in Ava’s guest room.
The dog days of August had settled in when Raylan said, “Limehouse came by to see me today.”
It was Boyd’s turn to cook. At that very moment he was taking kabobs off the grill, and he very nearly dropped them. “Excuse me?”
“Ellstin Limehouse stopped by the hardware store.” Raylan’s mouth lifted in one of his little half-smiles. “He bought a handsaw.”
“You think this is funny?” Ava said. Her voice was higher than usual, thin; she dug the tips of her fingers into the picnic table so hard her hand shook a little. “He was threatening you.”
“Technically speaking, I believe he intended to threaten y’all,” Raylan said. “The Crowders, that is, and your business. I suppose the hardware store is closer to Noble’s Holler than Johnny’s bar, and that’s why I get to be the messenger.”
“No.” Boyd’s mind was already whirling; he could tell just by meeting Ava’s gaze that hers was running along the same track. “He knows what you are to us; he knows he can get to us through you.”
“But why would he want to get to you?” When Boyd and Ava both made incredulous faces at Raylan, he spread his hands in protest. “I’m only saying, I thought your business was settled. Limehouse isn’t the time to try to expand his empire; he told me as much last year. So why y’all?”
“Anyone with the kind of money we’re bringing in is banking with him,” Ava said.
“Well, I did try to bank with him,” Boyd said, “but at the time it seemed to me that he didn’t want my business.”
“Oh gosh,” Raylan said, sarcastic as anything. “I wonder why.”
Boyd grimaced in acknowledgment as Ava said, “The way to make this all go away is for us to give him our money.”
“You open to that?” Boyd asked. He wasn’t, personally, but there was a reason this was a two-person operation; Boyd was too much of a hothead to roll solo.
“We do try to be in community with our neighbors. The real question is what you’re going to do.” This she directed at Raylan, with a steady look that told him not to bullshit them.
Lord, but he did love her. It snuck up on him sometimes.
Boyd was so busy thinking that for a moment he didn’t catch up on the look Raylan was giving them both, the way Ava tilted her head just so. Raylan looked just a bit like he might cry, looking between them, and Boyd knew with bone-deep certainty that he couldn’t fix it for Raylan. Not over this.
“What y’all want me to do,” Raylan said finally, holding Ava’s gaze.
Ava’s lips curved. She didn’t quite smile, but her approval sent relaxation through the room anyway. Boyd even felt his own shoulders slump. “Good. Boyd, looks like the steaks are just about done.”
Everything was just a little different that night, helter-skelter over the new normal they’d managed to piece together. Boyd didn’t talk, and he knew Raylan noticed it, because Boyd always talked. And of course, as he ate his food and drank his liquor, he chattered in his head like a church gossip after too much potluck punch. There was a terrible amount to consider: their business as it related to Limehouse’s ambitions, Ava’s reluctance to go to war with Limehouse, her bringing Raylan into line with them, Raylan letting himself be brought into line. Raylan looking at them, Raylan wanting -
Don’t go there, Boyd told himself, but of course it was too late. Raylan had done it his own damn self. What y’all want me to do. A former US god-damn Marshal had to know what he was offering, what he was agreeing to. Had he meant it? Would he take it back tomorrow?
Was it something that would prevent him from letting Boyd and Ava love him the way they wanted to? What would Boyd give up, were that the case?
His head spun, and for once the liquor wasn’t to blame. He kept his mouth shut through supper, through cleanup, through Raylan and Ava shooting the shit on the porch. He kept his mouth shut until they were all up in bed together, Raylan on his stomach and clearly not intending to instigate a damn thing.
Then he said, “Raylan,” making it as much of a question as he could. Cowardly.
Raylan said, “I’ma sleep here tonight.”
Ava’s hand flexed against Boyd’s shoulder. She had reached across Raylan to place it there.
“All right, then,” Boyd said. He knew when he was out of options; he knew how to acknowledge he’d been beat. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Ava and Raylan said.
Their voices overlapping one another was the kind of music Boyd could never see himself getting tired of.
They were all three at Johnny’s when the trouble started.
Johnny himself was behind the bar. Raylan and Ava had nearly finished making their way through some pretzels; Boyd had stuck to his beer, but that was almost gone too. They were about to pack it in for the night when the fight started.
It was some boys from down in Florida, some boys from West Virginia, and a couple passer-by from Indiana - all together. Not a one of them were ignorant as to the Crowder name and what it meant in this part of Kentucky. To make matters worse, one of them recognized Raylan. “Hey there, lawman,” he sneered. “Didn’t realize they made the Marshals as crooked as the DEA these days.”
“You’re behind the curve: I quit my job.” He set his drink down and cut Boyd and Ava a look. “May I help with this?”
Boyd had not expected the shivering wave of lust that passed through him in reaction to that question. Fuck, fuck.
“You may,” Ava said, her voice betraying the same need Boyd found himself wrestling. Boyd himself could only nod.
Raylan tapped the table in assent and turned back to the brawlers. “I’m gonna need to ask y’all to leave now.”
“Why? What’s a fight in a Crowder bar got to do with you?”
“Everything,” Raylan said. He moved his coat back. A gun the feds had never fingerprinted hung at his waist. “Go on, now.”
Boyd expected everything to erupt into the kind of brawl they’d still be talking about a decade from now. He hadn’t counted on Raylan’s gravitas, the specific way he could promise pain and his own success with the lift of a brow and a slight movement of his hands. The boys from West Virginia caved first, followed by Florida. Indiana went so far as to draw. Raylan put a bullet in Johnny’s wall that carried a scrap of denim from Indiana’s jacket, and then it was all done for the night.
“Lock up once we’re gone,” Boyd told Johnny.
He thought he saw disquiet in Johnny’s gaze, but he nodded obediently enough, which was all Boyd could bring himself to care about. He felt on fire. He grabbed Ava and nodded at Raylan, who trailed them out of the bar and got in the driver’s seat of Boyd’s truck.
It was Raylan who broke the silence, right there on the state highway. “I told y’all I’d be in for you.”
“We expected your loyalty,” Ava said. “I don’t know that I thought it’d be so dramatic.” In the backseat, she leaned against Boyd. Boyd met Raylan’s eyes in the rearview mirror as he reached out and laid his hand against Ava’s shoulder.
Raylan only huffed a laugh. “You break it, you bought it.”
They hadn’t been trying to break him, damn it. But Boyd understood that objection could wait.
Only a fool would be asking himself how he’d gotten here. Raylan wasn’t a fool. He knew damn good and well, could imagine the upbraiding any number of more responsible people might be giving him, had he not ensured their absence in his life by moving back to Harlan.
What would Winona think if she could see him here? He had volunteered himself as an enforcer, using a gun he’d bought with cash, lining himself up in front of Boyd and Ava like he was theirs. He had burned with it, wanting to be theirs, as he’d driven them home.
And now -
Now, Boyd and Ava had him spread out on their bed. They’d bought a new one recently and they hadn’t asked him for his input. He wouldn’t have had anything intelligent to say; he thought he might’ve told them a California King was unnecessary though, maybe, might’ve said linen sheets were a ridiculous expense for two hillbilly crime lords. Now he relished the scratch of the sheets against his shoulder blades, and the extra space the two of them had to move above him.
“Stop thinking,” Boyd said. He’d lifted his head to do so; Ava had busied herself kissing Raylan while Boyd got to work sucking him off.
“Bit hypocritical coming from you, don’t you think?” Raylan said.
Ava laughed against Raylan’s neck. “He’s got a point, Boyd.”
“Ava, I haven’t been thinking since we got past the front door,” Boyd said. “Well, not about anything except the two of you.” He met Raylan’s gaze. “How about you?”
“Nah,” Raylan said, an obvious lie that both Boyd and Ava spotted before he’d even closed his mouth.
“Ava, sweetie, how about you give him something else to think about?” Boyd’s hand trailed down Ava’s side.
It took Raylan a few seconds, painfully slow, to realize what Boyd meant. Ava’s breath caught and she moved against him, tense and so good; it was immediately obvious to Raylan that she wanted it. “C’mere,” he said, arching his neck so she could kiss him.
She smiled at him when they pulled apart, just a little curve of her mouth, and then boosted herself up, straddling his shoulders.
It wasn’t what Raylan had ever expected from them. Boyd went back to sucking his cock, and Ava said, “Now, sweetie, what we want from you is for you to listen to us. You’re gonna have to. If you think we’re giving you back after that little display at Johnny’s, you’ve got another think coming.”
He couldn’t hide his reaction to that. He thrust into Boyd’s mouth with an incoherent moan, his hands tightening on Ava’s thighs. She was wet on his tongue, as turned on as Raylan but twice as controlled. She pressed her own hands over his, her fingernails digging into his skin.
“You’re ours,” she said. Raylan tongued at her clit and closed his eyes, letting it all wash over him. “Every bit of you, Raylan. You could’ve stopped it, but you didn’t, and now we don’t plan to let you.”
He hadn’t realized how badly he needed to hear it. He slipped further then, into the safe place where very little mattered: not what the Lexington office might think of him, not what Winona was getting up to, not even what consequences might be brought down on the Crowders for Raylan’s defense. All that mattered here was the way Ava gasped, the eagerness with which she fucked his face, the wetness pruning his lips. What mattered was the way Boyd pulled off his cock and held him down, leaving him to the mercy of open air; what mattered was the way Boyd chuckled, saying, “That’s right, Raylan. Get her off for me, would you? You look wonderful like this. I am truly thankful you agreed to join us here.”
He’d agree to more if they gave him half a chance. He would agree, he would accede, he would submit, to anything Boyd or Ava asked of him. Right now all they wanted was pleasure, so Raylan gave, and gave, until Ava came sobbing on his face. He let Boyd muscle him into place, too, let Boyd fuck into him while he babbled all kinds of stuff about God and the holler and Raylan’s skin.
Raylan was all in a haze. He could barely think, much less move. Boyd came inside him, filthy as all get-out, and all Raylan could do was take it, fucking very slowly into the mattress as Boyd gasped against his neck.
He still hadn’t come, but he wasn’t feeling terribly inclined to do anything about it until Boyd said, “C’mon, now, roll over,” and Ava tugged his hair. As soon as he obeyed, they were both on him, Ava’s hands playing with his nipples as she bit his neck, Boyd’s hand rough around his cock.
“I’d like you to fuck me,” Ava said, “but I get the feeling that should wait for round two.”
“Round two,” Raylan said, all but wheezing.
“You’ll be up for it,” Boyd said. “We’ll make sure of it, sweetheart.”
Boyd was doing that shit on purpose, damn it. Raylan came, gasping, as Ava kissed him, came all over his own stomach and Boyd’s hand, and then shook his way through a second wave of it when he saw Boyd licking his fingers clean.
“Fuck,” he said.
They laid themselves out on either side of him. Boyd wore the same shit-eating grin he’d always had when he managed to surprise Raylan. It was different this time, though: Ava was the one who laid her hand on Raylan’s shoulder and said, “Swear to God, I wake up in the middle of the night and you’re not here, I’ll tie you to the headboard.”
“You can tie me to the headboard anyway,” Raylan said, and tried not to wince when they laughed - like they still hadn’t quite realized what he’d do for them, with them, to keep this.
He thought they knew, but he didn’t want to ask. He’d gotten accustomed to very little mattering, but he couldn’t push this feeling down or blanket it with rage. It mattered, how they felt about him, and it mattered how he felt about them. He didn’t ask because he was afraid of their answer, and for once he couldn’t reason himself out of being a coward.
But surely they knew. Things had changed since that night at Johnny’s bar. The guest room Raylan had been haunting turned back into a guest room; Raylan brought his shit into the master bedroom, load of laundry by load of laundry, and when he wasn’t paying attention, Boyd had moved his other few belongings. The boxes sat under the desk in the bedroom, unopened, but loud as all hell just in their presence.
Don’t you dare, Ava whispered in his ear sometimes as they all drifted off together. Raylan didn’t bother pretending he didn’t know what she meant.
This went on for a month, and somehow Raylan convinced himself he could continue indefinitely. He blamed Arlo for this particular strain of dumbassery. It didn’t make any sense if it wasn’t inherited. He knew Boyd and Ava had something between them that Raylan only kind of approached sometimes; he knew he had no justification to ask for more. But hell, it was hard not to want it.
Every night now he had dinner with them. He even cooked sometimes, helped with the washing up pretty much every night. It had become his job to prune the trees and run the manual mower over the backyard. He drove Boyd down to Johnny’s at least twice a week and took Ava up to Evarts every Wednesday to pick up the laundromat’s deposit. He was some weird combination of right-hand man and -
Well, what Helen call it? Boyfriend? Arlo’d call him a fucktoy and then only if he was feeling nice. Otherwise he’d just go with whore.
But Raylan felt dangerously happy anyway. Dangerously, because he’d watch Ava and Boyd together and feel positively peppy about it. Boyd slumped against the wall, catching Ava’s hand and pulling her in for a kiss - or Ava sitting on the couch while Boyd brought her a drink, pulling Boyd down to kneel between her legs - or Ava and Boyd making out on the porch and stopping when they saw him, moving as one to beckon Raylan to join them.
Every time, he wanted them. Every time, he went where they wanted him. He’d never been in love like this before. With Winona it had been good, exciting at times but mostly soothing, right-feeling. He’d needed that, back then, when he was fresh out of a childhood full of brutality and had desperately longed for big-city normalcy. It had all fallen apart for the same reasons he’d started it: in the end, they came from different worlds, wanted different things. Winona had been shocked with herself when she’d stolen all that cash from the evidence locker. Raylan had only been shocked it hadn’t happened earlier, that she was so clumsy when she did it.
And now he was with - well, sort of with - two people for whom a quarter million was investment money, not ‘run away to Mexico’ money. What the fuck was he doing? Being a Harlan boy? That excuse might cover bathtub hooch and B&E. Raylan was pretty sure becoming the Crowders’ go-to enforcer did not in any way fall under the generous shade cast by regular Harlan criminality.
He couldn’t make himself stop, though. Not when he was familiar with the even-more-brutal alternatives, and not while he loved them, and carried some pathetic hope that they might see their way clear to loving him back someday.
A month and a half into his stint in their bed, Ava went on a trip.
“Y’all can leave the state?”
“If I need to broker a peace with the boys in Indiana, sure.”
“Crossroads of the country.” Ava smiled. “Don’t tell me you’ll call up the Marshals, Raylan?”
“You know I won’t.”
“That I do.” She kissed him. “Y’all be good, now. Don’t get up to too much trouble without me.”
“Miss Ava, me? Trouble? Truly I cannot fathom why you’d think such a thing of me.” Every syllable Boyd spoke absolutely dripped with smugness. So did his smile, after Ava kissed him, sending Raylan a speaking glance.
“I’ll watch him, don’t worry,” Raylan said.
“Talk sweet like that, you can watch me however you want,” Boyd said.
And so they ensured Ava left with a smile on her lips. Still, Raylan didn’t feel as sanguine as all that. He hadn’t anticipated being stuck alone with Boyd for two and a half weeks, and he wasn’t much looking forward to it.
He made it till lunch. Then, over ham sandwiches, he said, “You want me to move back to the guest room?”
Boyd finished chewing. He put his sandwich down. He took a big gulp of lemonade. He said, “Raylan, I do wonder at your mind sometimes.”
“My understanding, of course, is that you were a productive lawman. Am I correct? You might’ve been dragged in front of internal affairs a bit too frequently to win any awards, but you made plenty of arrests and were a valued member of your team.”
“What is this, annual reviews?”
“My point, Raylan, is that I know you are not stupid; I see evidence to the contrary on a daily basis. And yet, you persist in believing the oddest things about me, Ava, and our life here with you.”
Our life. With you. Jesus Christ. “What’s so odd about my beliefs?”
“What about the past month has led you to deduce that I do not wish to share space with you?”
In spite of himself, Raylan flushed bright red, indignation filling out his chest. “I don’t know, Boyd, it was more the past several years that had me thinking that.”
“I kissed you last night, Raylan. This morning, too. Do you really think a gunfight from a couple years ago outweighs that?”
“Hell if I know! Ava might smooth things over, I know you know I want her, but -”
“I’m gonna ask you not to finish that sentence.”
Boyd’s tone was casual, and it filled Raylan’s gut with ice. He sounded like he did at the negotiating table, like he had when blackmailing Raylan into coming for dinner. Raylan had fucked up, worse than he’d realized at first, and now a weird, unfamiliar kind of terror filled him.
It almost would’ve been easier to deal with if he thought Boyd meant him harm, but that wasn’t it at all. He just briefly stared down the barrel of losing Boyd and felt worse than he had the last time someone had pointed a gun at him in earnest. Fuck. “Boyd -”
“How do you think I feel about Ava, Raylan?”
“I don’t -”
“You were never as good a liar as your daddy. I’d ask you not practice on me right now.”
Fuck Boyd for bringing up Arlo when Raylan already felt like his heart might beat clear out of his chest. Fuck him for it working, too; Raylan spoke the truth he’d hated admitting even to himself, alone in the darkness of his Lexington motel room. “You love her.”
“That I do, most powerfully. How do you feel about Ava?”
“Fuck you, Boyd.”
“Answer the question, sweetheart.”
“I feel…how I feel.”
“Very enlightening, but not good enough. I think you love her.”
Raylan closed his eyes. He thought of Ava kissing him - holding him down - smiling at Boyd as they both made Raylan beg. “I do.”
“And how do you feel about me?”
“Boyd, you already know.” Almost a plea. Don’t make me say it implied in every syllable. He knew Boyd, who could draw correct conclusions from the twitch of an eyelid or a tiny amount of sarcasm in a level tone, understood what he was doing.
But it was Boyd. He knew how to be cruel; he understood what it was to twist the knife, and he had good instincts about when to do it.
“I know we dug coal together,” Boyd said. “I know what that means to me. I know what I’d do to keep you here. But I have made the mistake in the past of assuming our shared experiences imply fellow feeling, and I do not wish to make that mistake here, now, with you. How do you feel about me?”
Raylan closed his eyes. He tried to force the words out; he failed. It wasn’t only that Boyd was a man, or that Boyd was Ava’s, though both those things definitely mattered. It was more than that. Admitting the second piece of his feelings made this real. It stopped him from being a fun little diversion. It stopped his quitting his job from being a midlife crisis. It was commitment. Ava never had to know he’d admitted he loved her, but telling Boyd to his face was a line Raylan couldn’t make himself cross.
He knew it was ridiculous; he knew this was the kind of hair-splitting Ava’d smack him for. He just - couldn’t.
“Oh, Raylan,” Boyd said. He sounded sad, of all things. Raylan reached out, eyes still closed, and grabbed Boyd by the lapels, pulling him close. Their lips crashed together ungracefully; Raylan winced to feel teeth, but gave in when Boyd tilted his head and pressed his tongue against Raylan’s lips.
Thank God, they didn’t talk much after that.
Raylan was on pins and needles the next day, but Boyd just made pancakes and didn’t say anything even vaguely adjacent to feelings. It felt wrong, frankly; normally, Boyd was like a hound that’d treed a cat with conflict. He spent a lot of time on his phone, and Raylan suspected - brooded over it, really - that he was texting Ava about this whole clusterfuck. But Raylan didn’t try to intrude, and Boyd didn’t elaborate, so they spent the remaining two weeks in uneasy peace rather than at each other’s throats.
Though, technically he supposed they spent some time there, too. Boyd had developed an unhealthy enjoyment of giving Raylan visible marks, big old hickeys high on his neck like they were in high school. Raylan should’ve told him no. He couldn’t. That alone should’ve settled it, really; he couldn’t tell Boyd no in even the smallest particular, not when seeing Raylan’s neck all marked up made Boyd smile.
When Ava came back, she looked between them with a raised brow, directing a pointed gaze at Raylan’s neck. “Did you two even leave the house?”
“Oh, a time or two,” Raylan said. “It’s good to see you, Ava.”
She kissed him first, long and filthy. “It’s good to see you too. How ’bout you tell me what you got up to while I was gone?”
Raylan opened his mouth to talk, realizing his mistake only when Ava - gentle, implacable, gorgeous Ava - laughed at him. “Upstairs, sweetie,” she said. “Boyd! You too.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Boyd said, and followed them both upstairs.
Yet somehow, in spite of all that, Raylan hadn’t anticipated Boyd pulling two rings out of his pocket during one of their last dinners outside, a week after Halloween.
“Oh, Boyd,” Ava said quietly.
“I love you,” Boyd told her. “And you know what I asked Raylan when you were gone. What he couldn’t answer.”
“I do. Maybe you oughta ask him again.”
“Oh, I think I’m gonna do just that.” Boyd turned back to Raylan, who did his best not to flinch, and failed. Boyd noticed; of course he noticed. “Here’s how I feel, Raylan. I love you. I will kill for you. I will kill to keep you. I love you no less than Ava, and I know she feels the same. Are you hearing me?”
Raylan nodded, his throat closing up.
“I apologize for my insistence, but I’d like if you could say it.”
“Well, shit,” Raylan managed to force himself to say. “I - we - I love Ava.”
“I love you too, Raylan,” Ava said. She looked just a little amused; Raylan supposed he couldn’t blame her.
Raylan popped the ring box open. It was simple, but unmistakably an engagement ring; it had little sparkly black stones embedded in the silver band. He stared down at that ring and he said, “Boyd, you know I love you too. Shit, I left the marshals for y’all. Both of you.”
He realized when Boyd released a shaky breath that Boyd hadn’t known, or he’d doubted. How? But Raylan had doubted too, every damn day, so he supposed he couldn’t throw stones.
“At least tell me if you like the ring,” Boyd said, all in a rush.
Raylan smiled and put it on his hand. It fit perfectly. “Sure I do. It’s beautiful.”
“Course it is, we don’t own a bunch of pawn shops not to know what nice jewelry looks like” Ava said, and leaned in to kiss Boyd. He clung to her, kissing back, reaching out with his free hand to grab Raylan, keeping him close.
“We used to argue over who’d get to marry you, you know,” Ava said over pilaf and sweet tea.
Raylan had been engaged for a week and found he enjoyed it, even though Ava kept coming up with non sequiturs like this and transparently delighting in catching him unawares. “Is that right.”
“Sure is. I won more often than I didn’t. Know why?”
Ava grinned at him, casual and conspiratorial. Loving. “Boyd can’t keep an argument going after he’s come.”
“You noticed that too, huh?”
“I notice plenty of shit. I had you pegged from day one.”
She had him literally pegged on occasion, too. “That so.”
“Sure is. You ain’t subtle, Raylan. You wanted to belong to us so badly, it came off you like the smell of a pig pit in July.”
“But a little less offputting than all that, I hope.”
“Oh, sure. Most of the time.”
Maybe it was because of Ava’s smile, her small secret one that meant she was feeling happy and comfortable in her home - something Raylan had learned not to take for granted, but one that he fought every day for. Maybe it was because of how fuckin’ full of love he felt, how quietly pleased he was to be theirs in a meaningful sense. Maybe it was just because he was a little drunk. He said, “What about you? What do you want? What did you want? You’re a real crime boss now - is that what you wanted?”
He’d really put his foot in it. Her smile flickered a little; she looked over his shoulder like she thought someone might be coming to cuff her. “If you’re asking if I dreamed about laundering money and selling drugs as a little girl, answer’s no.”
“Not that, Ava. You know what I mean.”
She tilted her head. “Do I?”
“After Bowman -”
For a moment, Raylan felt unaccountably hurt. “I’m sorry?”
“Don’t be. It’s just that plenty’s happened since then, honey. I ain’t thought about him in a long time. You go to sleep dreaming of Winona coming back to you?”
“You know I don’t.”
“The fear’ll always be there.” She shrugged, somehow truly nonchalant. “But it’s not important anymore. What I dreamed of, what I wanted, when I was a little girl and when I was Bowman’s wife, was to have power. The ability to stand on my own two feet. I told myself I wasn’t ever gonna be some shrinking violet in the kitchen - and then I almost turned into one anyway. Boyd helped me fix that.”
Raylan knew he had. He’d even seen Boyd do it, sometimes, willingly ceding the floor to Ava in a quiet, deliberate manner he’d never seen Boyd use with anyone else. Well, anyone aside from Raylan: a secret thought he could let himself have, now. “Right. But is this -”
“Are you asking me if I want to marry you? I promise you, I would in a heartbeat if I didn’t want to get sent to the state penitentiary for bigamy.”
“Forget it.” He hadn’t come up with a satisfactory way to even ask the question. He couldn’t expect Ava to have an answer for him. “I just wanted to check, I suppose.”
“In all honesty, I’m happy with it. Me and Boyd talked about retiring when we hit ten million, but.” Ava shrugged. “It’s a little hard to find a part of Kentucky folks don’t know us in, and I can’t see myself leaving. I didn’t risk my skin with Bo Crowder just to cut and run ten years later. And there’s you, of course.”
Raylan blinked. “Of course?”
“Sure. It’s pretty obvious you don’t want to leave.”
Raylan nearly laughed in her face; force of habit. “Huh.”
Ava waved a hand, like his confirmation or denial didn’t matter so much. “Anyway, doing hair wasn’t my dream. Being my own person was. I got that here, with Boyd. And with you, honey. You see yourself as some kind of postscript with us, I know you do - don’t make that face. But I knew I wanted you the moment I saw you. Nothing’s happened since to change that.”
Raylan felt desperate deep down in his bones. He could recognize it now, having had some practice: he wanted to give Ava the whole world, things that hadn’t even been invented yet. He thought of how she’d brought Boyd into line, the way she directed their money laundering operation, her calm in the face of rival gangs. It ought to bother him; instead it just got him bothered. “Hey, c’mere.”
“Oh, is that how it is? What if I’m still hungry?”
“I’ll feed you after,” Raylan said. Ava didn’t move, but that was okay. Raylan did it himself, dropping down on his knees and pushing her legs apart, kissing her thigh as her hand landed in his hair, closing his eyes to luxuriate in the almost-familiar feeling of belonging.
Raylan had just sold a woman a hammer and some chicken wire when Art came into the store.
He did it the usual way, saying, “How ya doin’,” in a cheerful response to Raylan’s rote greeting, not bothering to hide who he was or his purpose there. It was only then that Raylan realized he’d grown accustomed to ignoring basic operational security. He hadn’t even been watching the door. Shit, did he trust the Crowders’ reputation that much?
“How can I help you?” he said as Art came up to the counter.
“I’m looking for some batteries for my smoke detector. Oh, and a paint scraper. And some putty for my leaky sink.”
“You need help with any of those? Batteries are up here by the counter; paint’s in Aisle 8, and plumbing’s Aisle 2.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting me.”
Raylan paused, took a breath to steady his hands. Just in case. “What?”
“You actually work here?”
“Technically, I own it.” Ava had been very firm on that detail. “But, yeah, I work here.”
“Tim had three hundred on this being some elaborate hostage situation.”
Raylan looked at Art. Art looked back at him. He looked the same as always, which Raylan was grateful for. If he’d been able to somehow extrapolate that Art was losing sleep over him, he’d be pissed. “Rachel?”
“Thought you went willingly.”
“Well, hell, Raylan.”
“I figured you’d broke bad,” Art said. Pissed off sounding, like Raylan had dragged it out of him rather than simply requesting the truth. “Are you telling me I’m wrong?”
“Well.” No. “Depends on how bad you think I got. Mostly I just run this store.”
“Well then, let me be a little clearer. How much money have you laundered for the Crowders, Raylan?”
It was the funhouse mirror version of the question Raylan had asked himself as he’d quit and driven back down to Harlan: how much was he willing to do? How far was he willing to go? By the time he’d acknowledged to himself that the answer to those questions was almost anything and as far as they want, he’d already been in deep, and not once had they asked him to do something he wasn’t comfortable with. In a sense that was its own answer.
“Not much,” he told Art. He wasn’t lying. He’d cooked the books exactly once, and then just so he could demonstrate to Ava that he understood the concept. “You worried about me ending up in the penitentiary?”
“Not particularly,” Art said. “No, Raylan, I had assumed that you’d be at least half a hostage. Our contacts indicated that wasn’t the case, which I found hard to believe, so I came down here to see for myself.”
“We ain’t harboring any fugitives.”
“Well, hell, I know that. I’m here as a private citizen. My shopping list is real; you wanna review it?” Art held up a crinkled yellow sheet of paper. Legal pad, if Raylan was any judge, which of course he was.
Fuck. “I don’t want to be enemies, Art.”
“Neither do I. So let’s be friends. Which one of them did you run away with?”
No definition of friendship that Raylan was familiar with would smooth the way for this particular conversation. “I ran away with both of ’em.”
He raised one shoulder. “Yep.”
“At the same time?”
“You really want to know?”
Art grimaced. “Good point. Well - shit. Shit! Are you happy? Just tell me that. Be honest, and spare me the details, if you don’t mind.”
Raylan had to bite back a laugh. It seemed impossible, somehow, that Art could be asking this - that he could want more information while still being himself, a man who never wanted the details of your personal life unless they were funny. “Yeah, Art. I’m happy.”
“Well. All right then.” Art stood there for a moment, shoulders rounded, looking at Raylan like he still wasn’t quite sure Raylan wasn’t about to pull on him. Raylan had no reason to think he needed to defend Ava and Boyd from Art, so he kept his hand at his side, away from his weapon, and looked back at Art with what he hoped was an honest - and honestly happy - expression.
“I really do need that plumber’s putty,” Art said finally, and went off to Aisle 2.
Raylan left him to the dignity of choosing his own damn putty. Ten minutes later he rang him up for D batteries, putty, a paint scraper, and a couple cans of varnish. “I got a desk in the garage, and people keep asking me if I’ll ever turn the old nursery into a home office,” Art said as Raylan bagged his stuff.
“It’s a good varnish.” Raylan had used the brand on an old chair of Arlo’s. It sat in the sun room, now.
Art took the proffered paper bags. For a moment he hesitated, his eyes flicking down to Raylan’s engagement ring and then back up to his face. “You know if I get a tip on you or the Crowders, I’ll come running.”
“I won’t hesitate. You get zero points for having declined to stay a Marshal.”
“Honestly, Art, I figured I’d get negative points for that.”
“And you’re right.” Art squinted, looking Raylan dead in the eye. “Tell me straight, Raylan. Tell me you understand this.”
Raylan was a Givens. He’d understood the law since before he could talk; he’d known what happened to folks who didn’t outrun the sheriff since he could walk. But he knew that wasn’t quite what Arlo was asking him. Arlo was an auditor just then. He wanted to confirm Raylan had considered all the angles of what he’d walked in to.
Fortunately for them both, he had. Up, down, left, right, staying up all night to think about the various ways in which he had truly fucked himself. Yeah: he’d considered it. “I understand,” he told Arlo, looking him steady in the eyes. “I ever fuck up enough to give you a case, you’ll come for me. Or Boyd, or Ava. I understand.”
“And I’m in the holler now.” He shrugged, very lightly. “I chose this. I get it. Thank you for the warning.”
“And I’d better be on my way?”
Raylan managed, just barely, not to laugh. “I suppose so.”
“Well, then. You have a nice day, Raylan.”
“You too, Art.”
Art took his bag and left. Raylan turned on the radio in the corner, an old boom box that couldn’t hook up to any modern speakers. The speakers Raylan’d bought on eBay started up in each corner of the store.
Raylan kicked back as Hank Jr started to sing. He thought about what Boyd and Ava would say about this whole conversation.