FANFIC: Off the Record (Nashville)

Summary: The summer after their wedding, Rayna & Deacon finally write that new album together, but as always the best songs are the ones that the rest of the world will never hear.

(So sorry about the huge font. I don’t have time to fix this now.)

They’re writing together again, and it’s been a long time coming.

In the grand scheme of their careers and their lives, one little song may not seem like the greatest accomplishment, but to Rayna and Deacon, it feels like everything. For one thing, it’s been forever. When they’d first gotten back together for good, they’d both thought that if he came out of surgery alive—and he would, he had to—their new life as a family would look just like this. That big house filled to every corner with nothing but love and music. Impromptu jam sessions before bed a couple nights a week, sometimes with the girls, sometimes without. Of course, the harsh reality those first few months was that they didn’t see as much of each other as they’d hoped to. Deacon was grieving over his late sister, down in Natchez with Scarlett for a week. Then, Rayna was at the studio 24/7 trying keep the wheels rolling for Markus’ album launch. Meanwhile, Deacon started renovating the bar he maybe never should’ve bought into—but time would tell.

Like so many songs they’ve written, the new one starts with a refrain and ends with a bridge. Or rather, depending on how you think about it, it starts with a bridge and ends with a refrain.

Ever since her mother’s death so many years ago, Rayna would walk out along the pedestrian bridge above the Cumberland River whenever she needed to escape from her everyday life. She’d go out there to empty her head, to find clarity and ease in a difficult decision, to look out and marvel at the Nashville skyline. Up there, the city seemed endless and infinite. It made her feel small. But somehow, standing there, she always felt completely and utterly alive.

One autumn night, she and Deacon both end up on that bridge again, the city lights casting an amber glow on the river that flows beneath their feet. They’ve been through it all on this bridge. They’ve fought here in the past, too many times to count. They’ve made up here, too. Again, far too often to count. They’ve had long talks about their futures, their pasts, even the impossible present. It was a place where they’d shared everything from cups of coffee to first kisses to mutual dreams.

The bridge is where they find new beginnings. It’s where she finally admitted out loud that she’s spent the past decade-plus wishing for an alternate life, one where she’d made different choices. It’s also where he proposes for the fourth and final time. Now they have a wedding to plan. A future to live. Everything feels a lot less daunting now that they’re doing it together.

A week before the ceremony, Rayna finds Deacon in the music room after dinner one night. He has a guitar in his hands, as he so often does, just lazily strumming chord progressions. And as they sit side-by-side on that blue couch, a cluster of words worms its way into her mind, grabs hold of her and won’t let go. Meet me on the bridge at midnight. The line feels at home sitting there on her tongue, unsaid.

“Meet me on the bridge at midnight.” She blurts it out loud suddenly, even though she hadn’t meant to, and he looks up at her, startled.

“What, tonight? Why?”

No.” She laughs. “I mean, Meet me on the bridge at midnight. As a lyric. That’s our new song right there.” A playful smirk appears across her face. “Babe, try to keep up.”

Oh yeah?” His eyes crinkle at the outer edges, and his smile is as infectious as it always was. “We’re writin’ a new song? Right here, right now?”

Yeah.” She shrugs, like it hasn’t been two years since their last, and can’t resist teasing him some more. “Don’t think you can handle it now?”

Hey, I’m always game when it comes to writin’ new songs.” He sits up a little straighter, hands poised around his guitar. “I mean, you remember that, don’tcha?”

Oh, I remember,” she says with a chuckle. “All too well. Let’s see then… Won’t you meet me on the bridge at midnight?” She strings the words together with a simple melody. “That could be the refrain.”

Deacon considers that for a moment before continuing the thread: “Got a question to ask / Another chance fix the past…”

She picks up a pad of paper from the table and flips to a new page, burrowing her head further into the curve of his neck. “I’m likin’ this so far. You got a pen?”

He fishes one from his jeans pocket and hands it over. “Always.”

He stares unabashedly at her as she scrawls the lines onto the page: Her slender fingers as they curl around the pen. Her hair as it falls across her arm, his shoulder. The slope of her nose. The way her forehead wrinkles in concentration. If she notices his gaze, she doesn’t seem to mind.

Deacon never thought he’d be jealous of someone like Markus Keen, especially not now, especially not after all they’ve been through in the past few decades. It just feels petty. But when he sees that smug jackass in the studio with Rayna, something snaps. He realizes just how much he misses that intangible intimacy he and Rayna used to share all the time. It was a feeling totally separate from any physical intimacy, but just as exhilarating. And of course, with them, one thing always seemed to lead to the other. So when he witnesses Rayna and Markus bent over a legal pad, discussing lyrics that were once his and rearranging melodies, all he can think is, That used to be us. And he thinks, That could still be us.

Even in the early years, they were a notoriously private couple. Fame was a different beast back then anyhow, not quite the soul-sucking affair that it’s become now. The business itself was different too, the music more old-school country, the relationships less impersonal and tenuous.

In the old days, whenever Rayna and Deacon did press for an upcoming album or tour, reporters would, without fail, dip into their bag of uninspired and insipid questions during interviews. They were always asking the couple what their favorite song was to sing together. A tricky query, no matter the circumstances. Rayna had always had a soft spot for I SHOULDN’T LOVE YOU so for a while that became her default answer whenever asked. After Maddie and Daphne and her marriage to Teddy, her favorite become ALREADY GONE, which felt safer somehow, not so ostensibly about love for anything other than a city and its music. She even started using it to close all her shows. Deacon, on the other hand, would actually give the question real, measured thought each time it was asked. His answer changed depending on his mood. Sometimes he preferred NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU. Other times it was SURRENDER or THAT COULD BE US.

But if they were being entirely honest, none of those songs were the ones they truly treasured.

Okay, so what should happen in the first verse?” Rayna taps the pen against the pad of paper, a nervous habit. “We still haven’t figured out where we want this thing to start.”

The start, Deacon thinks. Where did it all start? “How’d we find ourselves where it all started,” he muses after a few moments of contemplation, while plucking out a few notes on the guitar.

Back at the place where we first parted…” She continues his thought with barely a pause. “That’s good. We can work with that.” With his pen, she scribbles it down.

They keep on like that for a few minutes, each offering a line or two in response to what the other has said. It’s push-and-pull until they settle somewhere in the middle, in that elusive pocket where music magic sometimes happens, and it already feels like yesterday. Songwriting always does for them. It even felt that way in the beginning. I think we wrote songs together in another lifetime, he once said, what seems now like a very long time ago, and she hadn’t disagreed. That was after they’d finished recording their first song together. They had followed it immediately with another.

For the second verse, I say we take the first verse and just flip it so the first two lines are reversed at the very end…” Rayna takes a deep breath. “So instead of what we had in verse one, I could sing…Now we’re back at the place where we first parted / And we find ourselves standing where it all started.” She draws arrows on the lined paper to illustrate the reversal.

…Takin’ us straight into the pre-chorus.” Deacon bites his lip, considers a line, continues strumming the strings of his guitar. “Sometimes I wish I could do it all over / Stop the tourbus and find a four-leaf clover…

Baby, it’s true, sometimes I wish I could do it all over,” she repeats, echoing the melodic rhythm he’s introduced, a musical motif as evocative as it is simple.

Get sober—” His eyes meet hers and she can still see the regret etched there, though it’s faded over time.

Come clean—” After news spilled about Maddie, she’d felt so much lighter knowing there would be no more secrets. Her muscles relaxed, her body no longer tense around him.

Be bolder—” In the pause that follows his words, Deacon leans in to kiss her, and it doesn’t make up for all the times they weren’t there for each other, but somehow it feels like an apology and a pardon and a simple declaration of love and nothing much special, all rolled into one. When they pull apart, it’s not the first time Rayna searches his eyes and finds herself reflected in them.

They’ve reached that point where their minds are completely in tune and two separate songs and ideas merge to become one. They conceive of the same words, the same rhyme. In unison, they sing, “Make time go a helluva lot slower…

They often wonder if people realize they’ve written countless songs together that no one else has ever heard. Songs that were never even properly recorded. But Rayna still remembers them now after all these years. Doesn’t have a clue where the lyrics are written down, doesn’t know if they even still exist on a pad of yellow paper somewhere, but it doesn’t matter because she knows them all by heart all the same, knows the essence of them. Our songs, she thinks. The ones that really belong to them and no one else.

It all began in the infancy of their partnership when they first co-wrote THE END OF THE DAY at the end of what turned out to be a very long day indeed. Even today, the song remains a sentimental favorite that was never released.

Deacon, too, still remembers these songs with pitch-perfect clarity after so many years. He can play the opening notes of their best ones in the dark of night with nothing to guide him but the feel of guitar strings underneath his fingers. And when he does, he’s waiting for Rayna’s clear voice to come in at just the point he knows it will. No matter what time has passed, the right words and notes kick in like muscle memory. AT THE BLUEBIRD (COUNTRY’S GOT A NEW QUEEN), for example, was inspired by the night they first met. They used to sing that one for each other all the time. It’s an unadorned song, just the three chords and two disparate verses, no real chorus. But it’s their truth all the way.

Open mic night at the Bluebird
Rayna Jaymes is up there singin’
No one even dares say a word
But you can bet they’re all thinkin’
Country’s got a new queen

In front of the roaring crowd
Our beating hearts are laid bare
I can hear ’em gettin’ loud
For the best damn guitar player
This world has ever seen

I say country’s got a new queen
The best this world has ever seen
Yeah, she’s the best damn queen
This world has ever seen…

Some of the other songs don’t even have real titles. The lyrics aren’t set in stone. They’re fluid. They evolve with time and each private performance.

Even now that ample time has passed, Rayna still can’t put into words the emotions that went through her when she found out he was sick. I just keep tryna fix it, and then I keep tryna fix all those years, you know? That was what she’d said last spring when they didn’t know if he would make it, if he would live or die. But the fact is that it doesn’t change anything to bury the past, to pretend it doesn’t exist. They have to accept it as part of their complicated history. And love each other all the same. This is what the past year has taught them.

We could start the chorus with a variation of what we wrote before.” He thinks for a moment, switches to a major chord, and sings, “Won’t you meet me on the bridge at midnight? / Wanna fix those years, wanna make them right…

Yeah! But then at the very end, we turn it on its head, like a ‘not so fast!’ sort of deal.” Her script has nearly filled the page, and she flips the page when she reaches the bottom. “That’s it, that’s perfect.”

Deacon grins. “I think we just found our last lines. But,” he breathes in, shifts his fingers on the fretboard, “before that, we gotta bring it back to the pre-chorus. So it goes something like, Sometimes I wish we could do it all over again…

Sometimes I wish our new life could finally begin,” she continues, nodding.

But when you ask me what I would change?

There’s a pause, a stillness in the room. Rayna ponders the next line as if she’s looking for an honest answer to the question. “All those years fly past, and the future starts lookin’ strange…

After that, the remainder of the song comes pouring out in a rush, so fast she can barely get it all down on paper. When they’re finished, they play the whole thing through once, stopping here and there to tinker with the rhythm of the individual words, placing highlights on certain phrases and stresses on certain syllables, experimenting with the marriage of melody and harmony.

Afterwards, they both feel delirious with happiness and relief. It’s a high like no other. The guitar and pad are discarded by the wayside, the pen tossed to the floor where it rolls under the couch. (They’ll find it there a few weeks later, reach down to pick it up, and think better of it. This way it’s always there to remind them of the night they wrote this song.) And yeah, now it’s actually midnight, but this still feels just like yesterday.

They already know the new one will never be released either, like so many others before it. But it’s their first real collaboration in a long, long time—not counting “This Time” because back then she was with Luke and he was with Megan, and neither of them could say what they really wanted to anyway, not even in a song. The track may have won a CMA award, but everyone knew it wasn’t a quintessential Rayna Jaymes & Deacon Claybourne song.

It kind of seems silly now. But when they were younger, they sometimes worried if they might run out of things to write about someday. Nearly thirty years later, it hasn’t happened yet.

In the meantime, the big wedding comes and goes, so quickly they almost feel cheated in a way. Like they’ve waited their whole lives for one day, one moment, and it’s already over in a flash. But now they’re finally married, and the ceremony is so beautiful, and Deacon has to concede that their new venue is far preferable to a cold, nondescript hospital room. He’s glad they waited, and tells her as much.

I love it when I’m right,” Rayna says with a teasing laugh, and all he can do is shut her up with a kiss.

That summer, when the girls are out of school, the newlyweds go on the much-anticipated intimate tour that never came to fruition four years ago, except this time Maddie and Daphne are their opening act. Everything about it feels so right. Like it’s something they should’ve done years ago, except it had to happen now, just the way it does. They mostly sing their old material, but there’s so much of it that the setlist is never an issue. That’s what most fans want to hear anyway—the early hits they know and love.

Being on tour with each other conjures up a host of old memories that somehow still feel too fresh. They’re not all happy memories, though many of them are. When appropriate, they try to share as much of it with the girls as they can. For old time’s sake they still visit the nosebleeds of every venue before every show. Up there, looking down at that tiny stage, they don’t even have to reminisce out loud. Instead, a quiet understanding passes between them, as it so often does.

On the bus, Rayna sometimes wakes early to the bright sun peeking through the curtains and looks at Deacon sleeping next to her in bed, his face serene and peaceful. In the past, he had recurring nightmares that would jar them both awake in the middle of the night. Those were the years when she’d taken to searching him for alcohol each time they re-boarded the bus after a show, which sometimes made him madder than she’d ever seen him. Even so, hotels were the worst. They were supposed to be the more appealing part of tour life, at least in theory. But she grew to dread the overnight stays. There was little she could do then to control a bad situation if it should arise. Before long, Rayna began having nightmares, too—that she would wake up and he would be gone, God knows where; that she would find him passed out somewhere; that the next time he would be dead. Now, Rayna looks in the mirror inside the tourbus’ small bathroom and recalls when a more youthful face stared back at her. She sees that girl with the world at her fingertips, that (mostly) happy girl whose scared eyes often betrayed her, who would stand in a bathroom much like this one, thinking, Something has to change. This has to end tonight or I cut him loose. The problem was that there was always a large part of her that couldn’t bring herself to follow through with the ultimatum. She’d never stopped loving him even after all that hell—the headaches, the heartache—not even for a second.

So sure, a few select memories still feel razor-sharp, like a brand-new knife that could slice them open if they aren’t careful. But most of that seems so far off now, left behind somewhere in another lifetime. And those moments that do still come back to haunt them? They use them in their music. Because it’s when they’re on the road, during those long stretches of time as they travel along deserted interstates where the scenery never changes, that they finally find time to reel off a dozen songs for that new album they’ve been wanting to write together.

They’ll finesse the details later on in the studio, but for now they start off with a tune called TO HAVE, which is answered later on by another one called TO HOLD. In between are a diverse group of tentatively titled songs: HAPPILY EVER BEFORE, THE PRICE OF YOUR LIFE, FLATLINE, WE SAVED EACH OTHER, SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE, POSTCARD FROM MY YOUNGER SELF. Some of the songs are deeply personal, others aren’t, but either way they agree to write them without selling out their privacy. The last track is LIKE I DO, which ends up being a stripped re-recording of NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU, with a few minor changes to the lyrics.

They’ve hit a roadblock in the middle of a writing session one morning (Or is it afternoon? They’ve completely lost track of time) when Rayna suddenly says, “You know, I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else. All of it—touring, writing, living, raisin’ up those girls.” She nods towards the front of the bus, where the girls have spent the past hour covering all the country classics they can think of. “Growin’ old together. You’re the love of my life, babe. Thanks for never giving up on us.”

And Deacon’s sort of incredulous, because— “Ray, you’re the one who never gave up, even when you had every right to, even when I gave you every reason to.” He knows she thinks he doesn’t remember the bad stuff like she does, but it’s not true. Yeah, a lot of it has gotten fuzzy over time, one night of drinking blurring into the next. But he still remembers the pressure he felt when he coming home from yet another stint in rehab, his own belief in himself to stay sober fading more with each failed stay. He still remembers with crystal clarity that look she’d get on her face every time it dawned on her that he’d been drinking, that he’d relapsed—again. You don’t ever forget a look like that.

Now, she just gives him a small smile. “I guess we’ll both just have to share the credit for this one.”

Well,” he says, putting the guitar aside and pulling her close, “we’re used to doing that, aren’t we?”

Yeah.” Neither can argue with that.

When they both leave this world someday—and hopefully it’s sometime in the far off future—those unrecorded songs will die with them. And they’re okay with that. Actually, it seems more fitting than anything else. But they don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. Slowly but surely, they’re learning again to enjoy the present.

A decade later, and Maddie and Daphne have moved out, though they visit often. They still make music, sing and write together as a sibling duo, but they both have other hopes and dreams, too. They’re taking classes part-time at the community college, gradually working towards those degrees. Daphne is interested in the business side of things. She wants to be a label head like her mom. Maddie has become such an accomplished guitarist that Deacon genuinely thinks she has already surpassed him at his best. Of course, it helps that she hasn’t inherited his quick temper and propensity for addiction.

Rayna and Deacon sell the house and move into the cabin permanently, like they always thought they would—spend the rest of their lives together in their dream house. It’s hard being so far away from the heart of the city, especially when they both still work out there occasionally. But the long commute is worth it. And when they have a free afternoon, they still take occasional walks along their bridge, stopping at the overlook to see Nashville and all its beauty laid out before them.

They celebrate their tenth anniversary with a low-key affair that’s perfect, just the two of them together at home with a sweet, sweet, sweet song. It’s everything Deacon ever wanted. They don’t do many big shows these days, though they still have their share of devoted fans who haven’t yet been swept away by all the new, young Juliette Barneses that keep coming down the pipeline.

That night, Rayna and Deacon are lounging in front of the fireplace on the cabin floor, looking out the glass windows at the lake across the way when he starts picking out a few familiar notes on his guitar.

Hey Ray, remember this one?”

She smiles at the sound of the opening bars alone, anticipating what’s to come. “How could I forget?”

And so he starts them off with the first verse they wrote that week before their wedding: “How’d we find ourselves where it all started / Back at the place where we first parted / Tennessee whiskey on my breath / Empty promises swirling inside my chest / But I’ve grown a lot since you met me, babe / I can prove how much if you just let me, babe.” He looks over at her as he sings the last line, a passing of the musical baton. She nods to acknowledge as she accepts it—

“Oh I’ve always told you how much I love you, babe / But we both know that wasn’t enough for you, babe / Cumberland River wind in my hair / Heartbreak recipe twisting in the air / Now we’re back at the place where we first parted / And we find ourselves standing where it all started.”

He comes right in as her verse ends, both of them singing the next part: “Let’s be honest, sometimes I wish I could do it all over / Stop the tourbus by the road and find a four-leaf clover…”

“Make a wish—” Rayna’s solo voice continues, without missing a beat.

My hand around your wrist,” Deacon offers.

Love looks just like this,” she continues, and mirrors his smile.

Together, they sing, “Baby, it’s true, sometimes I wish I could do it all over,”

And one after the other, they alternate expressions of wishes, regrets: “Get sober—”

“Come clean—”

Be bolder—”

Make time go a helluva lot slower…” Deacon comes in early like he always does on that last line—they sing it together.

The song moves effortlessly into a major key, and their voices come together again for the chorus, harmonizing: “Won’t you meet me on the bridge at midnight? / Wanna fix those years, wanna make them right / So won’t you meet me on the bridge at midnight?”

And then the song’s bridge kicks in, the final part they wrote that night, the part that holds all the pieces together.

Mistakes to reverse—” Deacon starts off.

“Excuses to rehearse—“ Rayna continues.

Always wonderin’ why you kept me in your life…”

“Truth is I still thought I’d one day be your wife…”

Again, their voices meet in the middle for the pre-chorus: “Sometimes I wish we could do it all over again / Sometimes I wish our new life could finally begin / But when you ask me what I would change? / All those years fly past, and the future starts lookin’ strange / All I know is I’ve loved you, and that feeling’s always savored / All I know is I still love you, and that feeling’s never wavered…”

“Baby, it’s true,” Deacon sings, “Sometimes I wish I could do it all over.”

“This torch we carry—”

“This pain we bury—”

This time we’ll marry—”

They share a look before continuing, “And this time we’ll make time go a helluva lot slower…”

Finally, they’ve reached the last section of the song, and like they’ve promised each other in the past, as with everything, they do it together: “Won’t you meet me on the bridge at midnight? / Got a new question to ask, but I’ll never give up our past / Don’t need to fix those years, don’t need to make them right / Just need to see your smiling face in the dim light / So why don’t you meet me on the bridge at midnight? / Meet me on the bridge at midnight…”

When the music dies down, the last note played and faded, they both lie back for a while and watch the moonlight hit the water outdoors, through the ghostly reflection of their bodies in the windowpane.

I still love that song so much,” Rayna says finally, turning her head to face Deacon. She sounds so content that it just about breaks his heart. You happy? Yeah, I’m happy. Back then, it never felt entirely sustainable.

Now, he breathes deep. “That makes two of us.”

A minute or two of silence passes, maybe more—they can’t be exact. When he turns to face her again, she has a mischievous look on her face that can only mean one thing. “Wanna write another one?”

He grins at that. “Baby, I thought you’d never ask.”

 

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