Author's Note: This story is set pre-series.
Raylan doesn't bother looking up, just takes another draw off his beer and continues staring at the creek, watching some cloudy water move around the rocks, slowly wearing them smooth. This is his place, the place he comes to think, but he's not surprised to see her.
"What are you doing here?" he drawls, as Ava drops to sit on the grass beside him. "Shouldn't you be having a tea party with your teddy somewhere?"
"Don't be mean," she says, refusing the bait. "I haven't had a tea party in years."
Raylan gulps down the last of the bottle, sets it back in the box with its empty companions. "That's a shame."
Ava's eyes move over the beer's remains. "What are you doing here?"
Raylan leans back on his elbows, offers her a sideways glance. "Well, until you came along, I was enjoying the peace and quiet."
"Doesn't look that way," she says, her fingers grazing the bruise forming under his left eye. Raylan ducks away from the gentle touch. He isn't some pathetic stray meant for little girls to cuddle and soothe. He's a Givens, and they're known to bite.
Ava drops her hand, frowns at him. "Arlo's looking for you."
Raylan's lips twist cynically. "You don't say." Man must be looking for his beer.
"Why don't you hit him back?"
It's not like Raylan's never thought about it. Sometimes it's damn hard to think of anything else. But he never wants to be that man. And it's a damn sight easier to swallow his pride and walk away from trouble than it is to put that look on his momma's face. The woman's suffered enough, and Raylan won't be adding to it. In two years, he'll be eighteen, and he'll leave this place and never look back.
Ava's forehead crinkles, like the girl is reading his mind. "Bright as a button," his momma would say. Sometimes Raylan swears she sees right though him.
"You cut your hair," he says, nodding at the shorter length, and she breaks into a smile. It's a wonder, how easy she is to please.
"I did," she says. "Do you like it? Marty Hewitt says it makes me look at least fifteen."
"Did he, now?"
"He wants to take me out."
That raises Raylan's brows. "Really."
"Don't act so surprised," Ava says. "It's no big thing. I think he just wants under my shirt."
Raylan shifts on his elbow to face her. "You don't let anyone talk you into doing something you don't want to do," he tells her. Raylan's seen how that ends, and it's not pretty.
"No; you hear?"
"Okay," she concedes, with a faint roll of her eyes.
"What?" Raylan asks, and Ava shakes her head.
She shrugs. "You sound just like my daddy."
"Well," he says, settling back onto his elbows and flushing just a bit. "Your daddy is a very wise man."
Ava doesn't disagree. "I hear there's a party this weekend."
She drops her eyes to the grass, her fingers absently combing the green strands. "You taking Rhonda Bingham?"
Raylan's brow furrows. "How do you know about Rhonda?"
"Everybody knows about Rhonda."
Don't that just figure. "People talk too damn much about too damn little," he mutters.
"That's deep, Raylan," she says. "You taking her?"
"No. We broke up," he admits, sitting up and rubbing the back of his neck.
She glances over at him. "Why?"
"'Why?' she asks." He shakes his head, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his knees. "Because I don't talk."
Ava bursts into giggles. She tries to bite her lip, but Raylan holds up his hands. "No, please; don't mind me. Laugh it up
" A reluctant smile tugs at his mouth as the girl gets it out of her system. He thinks this is what conversation must be for some folks; teasing, laughter. Words that don't come with a fist or a belt. His smile fades as he watches sunlight glint from Ava's hair. The imprint of Arlo's knuckles runs deep; he's marked. And as the twig bends, the tree's inclined.
"She's right, you know." Ava looks up, surprised. "Never been much good at talking." He shrugs. "Now, not talking? I'm a damn genius," he tells her. "Even Arlo will tell you that
Know what scares me most?" he asks, the alcohol now bitter on his tongue. "That maybe somehow, in spite of everything, I'll end up just like him; some mean, old drunk who stumbles home singing and manages to drive every damn person who cares for him away."
Cool fingers slip over his own. "That won't happen, Raylan."
He huffs softly. "It won't, huh?"
"Course not," Ava assures him, squeezing his hand, the conviction in her words humbling. "Everyone knows you can't sing."
What? Oh. "Oh; that's funny," Raylan says, as a slow grin spreads over her face. This is what he gets for confiding in a thirteen year-old.
"I thought so. You feel better, though, don't you?" she asks, suddenly shoving to her feet.
"I'm not sure. My self-esteem has suffered a near-fatal blow
" He squints up at her. "Where are you going?"
"I'm late for a tea party," she replies smartly, and Raylan knows he's been had.
"You still have that teddy, don't you?"
"A girl has to have some secrets."
"Right." Then, "What kind of secrets do you have, anyway?"
"Marty asked me to marry him someday."
"Well, that is something." Something that's going to find Marty at the wrong end of Ev McBain's deer rifle.
"I told him no."
Raylan hides a smile against his shoulder. "I'm glad to hear it."
Ava's backing away step by step, still talking a blue streak. "I mean, can you imagine me married to someone like Marty?"
"No, I can't."
"Besides, I've already decided to marry someone else," she tells him.
"Yeah?" Raylan asks, absently slapping a sweat bee from his forearm. "Which dumb redneck is it you've got in mind?"
His gaze swings to her in surprise, and she flashes him a wide grin before taking to her heels toward the road. Raylan blinks the sun from his eyes.
"Now, that's trouble," he tells himself, but for once, it doesn't worry him. He leans forward again, turns back to the creek. It looks clearer now, cleaner as the water tumbles over the worn rocks, winding through the brush and disappearing somewhere green and new. Wearing its own path. Because it's never the same creek, and there's never a river without a bend.
No, he thinks, and settles in for the evening. Just now, he's not going to worry at all.
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