After the incident with King, Kristoph I has ruled that her show be cancelled for the entirety of their stay in Las Cruces. The news hit harder than it should have, she shouldn’t have let herself get so bothered by it but she was. It was nearly Christmas and she didn’t have anyone to spend it with save for a group of strangers who now looked at her like she killed their grandma. It’d be snowing back in Montana and all the people she ever loved buried deep within the soil. She never thought it possible but she missed it, she wished she’d never left but now it was too late.
Not many people had been too keen on her since the lion attacked Kerr so she found herself sitting just outside the grounds, looking out into the night sky while everyone else went about their business. A tear welled up in her eye as she thought about how wrong she had been. She didn’t need to leave home, she just needed a change.
Of course Riley was awake.
He knew he should’ve been back in the wagon curled up next to Finn or browsing through one of the large volumes bestowed upon him by his mentor, the Professor, yet he found himself wandering regardless. Part of him was like the wind, nomadic and capricious, and he couldn’t help the need to wander now and then. Never did he stray too far or for too long.
All of the things spoken about during that odd breakfast hadn’t left his mind. It wasn’t hhs business to ask what happened but people had a tendency to talk.
He’d been about to head back when he spotted Jean sitting on the ground just outside where the threshold of the tent was. Curious, Riley padded over to her. He sat down next to Jean as if they were friends all ready, as if they’d planned to meet up to escape on some great adventure.
“Reckon you could use some of this,” he murmured, drawing a bottle of wine from inside the flap of his coat. It would be offered to Jean to take if she wanted it.
Shocked by the sudden presence of someone next to her, Jean wipes away her deers and blew her nose on a handkerchief. Putting it away she turned to regard the stranger yet before she could say anything she saw a bottle of wine before her. For the first time in days she smiled and nodded her head toward the bottle. “Yeah suppose you’re right. Thank you.” She said to him, smiling through the sadness she’d been feeling. She hadn’t met many of the folk yet but so far as she knew they didn’t like her much.
She took the offered wine and pulled out the cork before taking a very long sip of it. Realizing how rude it was just to take a big gulp out of the bottle she laughed a little at herself and passed it back. “Sorry, it’s just been a bad week is all.” She offered his wine back and then her hand. “Names Jean, who might you be?” He was prettier than most of the men folk she flirted with but he still wasn’t a woman.
He was far from the type to just hang back and let things happen without him. Riley never met a stranger; even if you happened to be a stranger it wouldn’t take long before he was striking up a conversation. Whatever was ingrained in him to be personable somehow was always turned on and amplified. That and he felt others were interesting.
“Anytime!” He would chime, taking a moment to peer around at the surroundings. The evening was quiet, the Carnival was preoccupied with those who had ulterior things to do rather than run a few rides or talk up shows.
A smile at her laugh and Riley accepted the bottle back, taking a swig from it himself. “Yeah we have those from time to time,” Riley assured her, grinning like a fool. The bottle would be set down between them with silent invitation to help herself and he would take up her hand, offering a shake. “Pleasure to meet ya, ma’am, I’m Riley. I reckon I saw you at the breakfast table a while back as we were throwing ideas around.”
He would let go of her hand and his smile would brighten a bit, “You got tha short end of the stick if ya ask me, but I ain’t running’ the place either. Didn’t meet to bother you none, you just seemed like you could use a little trouble.” Riley would chuckle a bit.
A real smile came this time, a more hopeful one and she tilted her head to the side. “Thank you. I feel like I been going crazy just walking around the site. I begged Kristoph to give me something to do and my options were watch after the kids or cleaning and I ain’t too keen on either.” She chuckled a little at that. Jean was no ones perfect housewife and she’d never be, though she didn’t fault women who did it. Women who liked men had to worry about pregnancy, not her and she was thankful everyday for it.
“You were right about one thing, I do like a bit of trouble.” She mused, taking another swig of the wine before she placed it back between them. “What sort of trouble to get in on the road like this? Ain’t never been anywhere outside of Montana before this.”
“Yeah?” He inquired, making a face. “Sounds borin’, if ya ask me. I woulda gone plumb crazy by now if I had nothing keepin’ me busy. You know how to fix stuff? You’re always welcome to come by the place we got the trucks and I’ll teach ya to fix ‘m. Keep ya busy for a while, at least.” Being bored was the worst feeling besides the helplessness.
And then Riley laughed, nodding, “Good, cause I got plenty of it to get into.” Trouble tended to find him even when he wasn’t looking for it.
He plucked the bottle up after she had taken her drink, downing a swig of his own. The wine would be settled gently between them. “Oh there’s plenty to get up to. You been to town? Places to go there. Once in a while they got a poker game goin’, bit of magic here and there to be had if you’re feeling’ risky. Town has places that play music real loud if you’re into that, dancin’ folks, places to spend your money. What suits ya?”
“Don’t really know much about fixing, I’m more talented at the art of distraction if you catch my drift.” She could be a bank robber if she really wanted but that kind of risk wasn’t really worth it when she could merely con men out of their coin. Besides which she wouldn’t be able to do it forever, at some point men weren’t going to think she was a pretty young thing since she wouldn’t be anymore. “But I suppose anything’s better than the hell I’ve been going through.”
In her hand was a small note. No indication of who it was from and now Christmas decorations. It simply said her name on the front and Go Home on the inside. Now normally Jean didn’t back down from a fight but she was in a new place where she’d spent who knew how long, the rest of her life? Which couldn’t be too long now, she’d shifted so often in her youth that her time wasn’t as long as others. “Let’s do it all tonight. Why not? You only live once, right?”
“Ain’t much about the fixin’ part,” he replied, shrugging a shoulder, “it’s more about the keepin’ busy part.” But then he got distracted easily and perhaps she was apt to do that too. He couldn’t blame her, life was intriguing. Not everyone was skilled at repair though. Seemed to him she wasn’t of that ilk but he wasn’t judging anyone.
“I get ya. Nothin’ wrong with that at all.” He could’ve used someone like her years ago.
At the suggestion Riley felt a renewed sense of purpose. A deep swig of the wine was taken, he offered it to Jean and then moved to stand up. “I like your spirit. Let’s do it!” He could get a truck easy as the day was long and taking it to town would be simple.
“Fantastic!” She replied and took the offered wine, taking a quick swig from the bottle before handing it back to him. She lifted herself off the ground and used his arm as support as she arose. At least someone was interesting around here. A lot of the folk she’d found herself around tended to be dull and lackluster, but this Riley fella seemed to know how to have a good time.
“What’s first?” She asked the friendly new acquaintance. “I ain’t been into town yet, don’t suppose you know how we can get there?” She asked him, following behind his footfalls.
A cork would be eased into the open neck of the bottle. Wasting a good wine was akin to sinning before God himself and Riley didn’t want to upset the bottle of he didn’t have to. The vessel was tucked into his jacket where it had come from. With that small albeit important bit settled he waited for Jean before turning tail and wandering toward where the trucks would be parked.
“Findin’ a suitable ride,” Riley explained. “I can get the keys to one of the trucks, ain’t no problem. Then we’ll be on our way to town!”
It didn’t take long to reach the parking lot. He went to get a set of keys and then was opening Jean’s door for her. It didn’t matter that he was into men, he was polite regardless and opening the door for a woman was an opportunity he would take when it came because of that. When Jean was settled Riley climbed into the drivers seat, kicked on the engine and began the trek to town.
Jean easily followed him, even though they were clearly strangers, and was happy to hop into the front seat of the truck. She giggled as the engine roared to life, taking a look at this stranger who decided to take pity on her. “I’m guessing you don’t have some old lady tying you down cause she might wonder why you done run off with a pretty lady like myself.” She didn’t mind oozing the self confidence around men, she didn’t truly care if they found her desirable or not.
Then again, it was probably rude to assume he liked women either. It wasn’t like she was alone for that, she knew those two brothers were actually brothers. “You been to this town yet? I ain’t had the chance to explore yet.”
Riley would laugh softly, comfortable behind the wheel. Carefully he backed up before maneuvering the machine toward the road which would lead out of town. The bottle of wine was fished from beneath his clothing, settled in an easy spot for Jean. He wouldn’t drink but he wouldn’t stop her if she wanted a pull or two as long as it was discreet.
“Had I a lady as pretty as you, I reckon I’d be home instead of out chasin’ the sky,” he murmured, casting a glance at Jean. His eyes would find the road again. He didn’t mind being so casual around a woman. There wasn’t any interest in them more than friendship. You couldn’t have too many friends.
“Nah, not this one. Been meaning to get out and explore. I reckon you ain’t a bad one to get into a bit of trouble with though,” he teased.
The automobile would ease onto the road and soon they were leaving the safety of the Carnival behind them.
As the familiar lights of the carnival shrunk in the distance, she set her sights back to the road that Riley was currently driving. Noticing the way he plucked the bottle from his jacket, Jean took the cue to look around before tossing back a swig once they were out of view. “Well I reckon we’d all like someone to go home to.” She replied, holding the wine bottle steady in her lap along the bumpy ride.
It was dark out but she could see plenty. New Mexico didn’t look anything like Montana and she was starting to realize just how big the world was. “And you reckon right. Troubles my middle name. Jean Trouble Ramsey. Got a nice ring to it, don’t you think?” Anyway it was better than her actual middle name which was Barbara.
Another laugh; it was a spurt of a sound that was joyous in tone. “You too?” Riley would inquire, giggling brightly. “I also have the same middle name. Riley trouble Kip at your service, ma’am.” He didn’t remember his middle name. Probably belonged to his Pop anyhow and maybe that was why he’d forgotten it. Shame he had to bear the surname as it was.
Keeping to the road, his gaze would mind the winds and the straightaways. “To your earlier point,” Riley backtracked, shrugging. “I think I wanna meet the right person first. Having’ fun is nice an all but I ain’t gettin’ any younger.”
She watched the road as a town came into view. This must have been Las Cruces. “You’re telling me. I thought I found her once, but now I’m just as alone as I ever been.” She’d already started feeling the wine which explained why she didn’t flinch by saying ‘her’ and a part of her didn’t care if he knew or not. Best get her intentions out of the way before he started taking her friendship the wrong way.
She grabbed the wine before they got too close to the town center and took another swig off the bottle. “I don’t think I’ll ever find someone like that, suppose it’s high time for me to stop trying.” Maybe all she needed was a roll in the hay once in a while to keep her loneliness at bay. Wasn’t going to be easy to find like this but she reckoned there were types like her all over the country.
What came out of her mouth nearly caught him like a fish on a lure. The surprise was plastered all over his face although it faded into a grin after a second or two from processing. “Don’t give up,” he replied, shaking his head. “You’ll find her. I’m partial to the fellas, myself, but the ladies are still beautiful.” He didn’t want Jean getting any ideas.
“Love is a tricky thing,” Riley murmured.
As they eased past the city limits and cruised into town, Riley pulled into a small place that looked like a little store and diner combined. “Figure this is a good place at least to park. Reckon we could get up to all kinds of no good, but I’ll let you do the leadin’ and I’ll follow along.”
It was nice to know this Riley fellow didn’t mind that she wasn’t interested in him, it was like a weight off of her shoulders and she was glad for once not to have to use her powers of seduction on a man. It wore her down. Climbing out of the automobile she pulled her jacket tighter around her body and walked with him through the bustling town. Las Cruces sure didn’t look like Montana. “Where you from? I mean originally of course.” It was clear he wasn’t some big city boy with an accent like his but he didn’t sound like he was from Montana either.
The night was cold but she didn’t mind much, loved it even when she turned into a mountain lion which hadn’t happened much as of late. She was trying to learn how to be like the lion or tiger. “I’m from Montana, came out here to find my brother and just stayed.” She hadn’t been here long but she wasn’t planning on leaving, not yet anyway.
“Texas, ma’am,” he chimed, hands diving into the warmth of his own pockets. Alongside he walked, stride quick in spite of his size, keeping up with Jean well enough. There were too many scattered, small western towns to name a specific one that anyone from up north would know right away. It was easier just to name the place and throw any caution to the wind.
“Don’t reckon I’ve ever been to Montana, but it’s been a few years and we’ve been a lot of places with the circus. You’ll forgive me if I don’t quite recall your place or not. Can you tell me more about Montana?”
He didn’t have siblings. At least not any he knew about. Probably for the best. His pop wasn’t a good man and putting that on any other children seemed wrong. “If you like it here you should stay. Ain’t a bad place. More like a family than I’ve ever had. Has its up and downs but overall we stick together.”
What they happened upon was a small saloon, dry like the rest of the country but a band played in the back and the music was captivating. “Who cares about Montana. Ain’t nothing there as interesting at this right now.” She said with a smile she grabbed his hand and lead him into the saloon to dance.
It’d had been a long time since she’d truly let herself feel free and the wine flowing through her veins made her want to dance the night away without a care in the world.
Riley couldn’t fault her for that. A laugh would escape coupled with a nod. “Boy, I reckon you ain’t wrong at all. Nothin’ like livin’ in the present, yeah?” It was the small moments like these - a few stretches of minutes in the company of someone who he could bond with on a level made for two strangers growing into a friendship.
Montana could wait. The night promised so much and he was not one to squander such a thing.
Hand in hers, Riley twirled Jean around in a playful manner. Anyone who saw them might believe there was more than a growing friendship - why not play the part without getting too close and have a bit of fun in the meantime?
“You ever two step?” He inquired, dancing easily with Jean to the music. When she wanted to stop, they would.
“Have I ever? I practically invented it.” She teased and moved along to it. Riley was a good dancer and unlike most men she danced with, he didn’t seem to have two left feet. Thank Jesus for that cause she was tired of having her toes stepped on.
This felt good, to be away from all the things she thought about and just be able to be free in her own body. No guard up for some grabby man, just pure unadulterated joy. This was what it felt like to truly be free and she was more than glad that this Riley fellow was able to give it to her when she was so down in the dumps.
“The real question is, can you?”
A bellowing laugh would echo though the music drowned it out quickly. “You askin’ for a showdown?” Eyebrows would wiggle without playful challenge, though he knew dancing was meant to be fun.
He moved along with her as if they’d been dancing together for a while, in sync. If they drew close together he kept his hands in respectable places and distance appropriate between them.
She laughed loudly at that and followed along with him. “Best you put your money where your mouth is.” She teased and felt her chill completely dissipate. Luckily dancing had a tendency to bring your body temperature up. Didn’t feel like winter in there and she was so happy for the first time since her daddy died.
Her eyes darted across the room when a pretty young thing caught her eye. Normally, finding ladies in towns she’d leave in a month didn’t seem like her cup of tea but she was so tired of spending her nights alone. Most of the time it was difficult to know if a lady had an eye on you but these days a lot of those same ladies were ashamed of it. By the way this girl was looking at her, she’d say she was anything but ashamed.
“You beat me I’ll buy ya a drink,” he laughed. Not that the wine in the truck wouldn’t do but it was as much as he dared wager without talking to Finn first. What coin they had went to maintaining the wagon or between each other. He wanted things equal between them.
He wasn’t the type that ran hot but he knew a rise in heat when he felt it. Riley had felt like that before in a different context. This wasn’t with obligation, that was the best part about it.
And then he caught Jean’s line of sight and twirled his new friend away. “Go get ‘r,” he purred, shooing Jean away. Riley would find someone else to talk to for a while until the fun was over.
She eyed him with a smile before she wrapped her arms around him before she rushed over to the woman. She didn’t know if they’d get anywhere but she hoped Riley might not mind sticking around for a bit longer. It didn’t take long to find out her name was Aurora and that she was in a house by herself while her husband was out of state. Within minutes she’d gotten an invitation back to their place and she was finding Riley again.
“Hey, Aurora over here lives close by. Thinking I’ll probably been done over there in about an hour or so? Is that alright with you?” She asked, she didn’t want to inconvenience him.
The embrace made Riley grin, and he returned it briefly. Then his arms unwound and he ushered Jean away in a discreet way. “Reckon I could wait for a lady,” he agreed. As she left to talk to the woman, Riley found someone else to chat with - the social butterfly that he was.
Mid story when Jean came back, Riley would turn to the woman. The statement he’d made before still rang true and he would nod at her again. “Yes ma’am. Have a good time. I’ll see ya here later.”
A big smile formed on her face and she leaned up to press a kiss to his cheek before she ran off with Aurora. Jean wasn’t sure what it was with tonight, she never got this bold with women and she hadn’t been with one since Elizabeth. But she felt at ease and happy for the first time in a long time and she was going to live off of that high as much as possible.
Of course the women had their fun, explored each other head to toe and had waves of pleasure but after an hour or so it was time for Jean to get back. Aurora didn’t know she was with Zion, better to keep her distance in case the other woman wanted more from her. They’d be gone soon anyway so what was the point?
When she finally got back to Riley the place had cleared out a bit more and a smile was plastered on her face. “Hey Stranger. Ready to go?”
An hour seemed to whiz by and yet it moved so very slowly in the same circumstance. Riley had found a place nearby to settle with a small group, telling them tall tales of Texas life to a curious crowd and being his personable self. He had no desire at all to pick up any strangers as he was set with what he had already back at the carnival, but being a social butterfly he needed to be actively participating in something. So sharing stories and wild tales, it was.
He was wrapping up a tale as Jean approached. She had good timing.
“Yeehaw, let’s get this wagon train a’movin!” He laughed, nodding at her. An arm would be thrown around Jean’s shoulders in a friendly and respectful manner, then he was leading her out into the cold and back toward the truck they’d brought.
Always the gentleman he got her door and was only in the cab once she was situated.
“Boy that was fun, thanks for comin’ along with me.”
She smiled at him as they drove off back to the site. “It’s me should be thanking you. I’ve been so alone and scared lately that I ain’t been able to relax none.” She folded her hands in her lap and twiddled her thumbs together. Who knew what sort of spiral of depression she’d get herself into if it hadn’t been for Riley bringing her out here? She’d been there before, after she lost Elizabeth and she never wanted to be in that place ever again.
“Truly, you’ve made a very sad woman extremely happy and I owe you one.” Maybe Aurora has put her in a better mood but she suspected it was because she finally found someone she could call a friend.
“Aw,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders in a casual manner. Eyes would stay on the road as he coasted safely back toward the carnival. “I don’t mind, none. Gotta leave the carnival once in a while, see the sights, meet some people. Never know what you’re missin’ if ya never get out an’ see the world. Finn ain’t the type to wanna get out an go dancin’ much, so it’s nice to have a friend to take.” And it was nice having someone looking out for you.
“Anytime you wanna go do stuff I reckon I could move a few things around. Nice to treat yourself, you know what I mean?”
He loved to have fun and finding creative ways became a challenge when you had only the same few things to utilize. Town could offer a fresh perspective.
A smile curled on her lips and she raised a brow at him. When they’d spoken earlier he said he didn’t have the right person, yet he talked about Finn like he was already deeply in love. “Is that your fella? Finn?” She asked, a smirk replacing her smile. Maybe Riley didn’t want people thinking he was the type to fall in love, maybe he didn’t want to jinx it. Either way, Jean was going to bring it up.
It was subtle how she could see. The way smile when he said his name, the far off dreamy look in his eyes. It was all there and she hoped one day someone might look that way when they thought of her. “Seems like it could be the real deal if them stars in your eyes are indication.” She teased.
Red would settle into the high points of his cheeks. Back when he told her he didn’t have anyone they hadn’t yet spilled the underlying secret, but now the cat was out of the bag and there was no sense in backtracking. “Yep,” he uttered, proudly albeit sheepishly. “The only one for me. Been together for a while.” He didn’t want to have anything happen to Finn, either, which prompted caution in who knew and who didn’t.
A soft, dreamy sigh would escape. “Hope you’re right. Ain’t nobody else in the whole world for me. Reckon if somethin’ ever happened to him I don’t think I could be with anyone else.” That was the honest truth.
Jean went silent at those last words. Her lungs felt like they were on fire and her heartbeat sped to inhuman speeds. Her head turned to the window as tears fell from her eyes. Every day she felt that, felt what it was like to lose someone you loved and it hurt so much some times that she couldn’t even bother to get herself out of bed.
Her hand came up to wipe the drops from her eyes and she remained silent for the extent of the ride.
When they arrived she took a deep breath and composed herself. “It’s truly been a pleasure Riley, I hope to meet Finn very soon. He’s a lucky fella.” She beamed and leaned over in the car seat to give him one more hug before she jumped out.
Had he known the emotion his words sparked he would’ve held back, or at least offered support. As it was, his attention remained on getting them back to the carnival safely in the wee hours of the dark morning. Coasting into the parking area was easy enough; the vehicle would idle only a few moments before the engine ceased to purr and only the jingle of metal keys remained.
The bottle of wine was swept up, tucked away. And then his attention went to Jean.
Hugging his new friend in return, Riley beamed and nodded before letting her go. “Pleasure is all mine, ma’am. Next time we are all in the same place I’ll introduce ya. He got a show in the ten-n-one, water escape show. You should catch it. It’s pretty good and I reckon you’d like it.”
Bading Jean farewell with a wave, Riley let her go and scurried off towards the wagons to finish the evening with the man of his dreams and the remainder of his wine.