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A Fox Among Wolves

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ROYCE

 

Royce hates clocks. Wrist watches, too. But mostly clocks. Particularly the big ones.

She hates the way they have to tick, tick, tick all the time, drawing out the silence in a room that would otherwise have been perfectly comfortable and warping it into something perfectly unsettling.

Royce shifts in her seat, staring down the grandfather clock tucked away in the corner of the study, all but overshadowed by the large, taxidermy bear that occupies the space beside it. Looking over the creature, she notices that its eyes have been removed sometime between her last visit and now, and she isn’t sure if Florian had done it in an attempt to make the thing less creepy, or more so.

Knowing the woman as she did, Royce would probably guess it was an even combination of the two.

Florian ducks through the doorway then, her ever-present wine glass in hand, and offers Royce a welcoming smile. She saunters lazily across the study, bare feet treading light over the ornate carpet, and plops herself down on the settee across from Royce.

“It’s been a while.” Florian notes casually, chasing her sentence with a sip of red wine.

“It has.” Royce agrees, running a hand back through her hair in a valiant attempt to quell the orange tangle of curls that’s fallen into her face again. It goes about as well as it usually does- which is to say, it does absolutely nothing other than provide an outlet for her nerves, “I’ve been… busy.”

That gets Florian’s attention, “Getting back into the swing of things, I hope?” And the way she says it isn’t unkind (it’s spoken gently, more hopeful than anything), but Royce can’t help the shock of ice water it sends running through her veins.

“Not even a little bit.” Royce says, hands fisting over the thighs of her jeans in some vague attempt to contain her temper, “I just- I can’t, alright? Tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to again.” Every time she tries to put pen to paper, she remembers what happened that night—how it all could have been avoided if she’d just kept her songs to herself, safe inside her head.

The session passes in waves of numbness, and, after that, when their hour is up and Royce has finished gutting herself, she can’t get out of Florian’s penthouse apartment fast enough. She’s just… she’s tired—so so tired—of being upset, being angry. Royce can’t ever recall a time in her life when she’s felt so vividly before; known anguish quite so terribly, known hatred, known rage. She’s always been a hothead, sure, used to struggle to control her temper, but the sweltering heat of lividity that would set her ablaze in the face of adversity never used to linger any longer than it would take for her to cool down.

—But now isn’t like that. Royce can’t smother the fire like she used to, and she hates it; hates the way she feels nowadays. Like she’s burning up from the inside-out. It’s like she can feel her organs being overtaken by rot, the blood in her veins churning itself into a sour pitch that drowns her heart in viscous rage.

So, she just. Builds a hearth around that molten core- tries to contain the fire as best she can and hope that nobody notices the heat it gives off. Closes the flue and lets the smoke clog her lungs, doesn’t ever exhale too quickly for fear of it escaping into the open air.

That’s what Royce is doing when she steps out of the elevator into the lobby of Florian’s building: quelling the fire—or trying to. Stomping it down to cinder-strewn ashes in her gut because, nowadays, that’s the best she can ever seem to do.

 


 

At home, Mrs. Vernal welcomes her at the door with a gentle smile, wearied brows drawing tight and sorrowful as Royce kicks off her shoes in the foyer, unconcerned with storing them properly right now. The silence is awkward, but not unusual – Vernal never seems to know what to say to her when she comes back from ‘visiting Killian.’

She finally settles on asking, “I trust you didn’t get caught in the rain, Miss Mercy?”

Royce’s smile is easy, feels familiar on her face despite it not being as genuine as it once was, “No,” She lies, “I left before it got too bad. I’ve done drenched widow before; not a good look for me.”

Nobody ever seems to know how to react when she speaks so casually of her husband’s death, but it’s the only way she knows how to talk about him without bringing the rotting feeling back—and she can’t just not talk about him. He deserves to be remembered, to be talked about, and Royce doesn’t think she has it in her to spend the rest of her life unable to speak his name.

In the end, Vernal is no different than the masses. Her returned smile is awkward, far too confused to be anything close to sincere, “Is there anything I can get for you, Miss?”

Royce, desperately wanting to be alone, shrugs off her coat, turns to hang it on the hook by the door, and says, “No, Vernal, I’m quite alright, thank you. I was actually thinking, why don’t you take the evening off? Your son is home visiting from University this week, isn’t he? You deserve to spend some time with him before his studies whisk him away again.”

Vernal, who knows better than to argue with Royce when it comes to something like this, smiles graciously.

 


 

By midnight, Royce has retreated to the back garden of the manor; wild and overgrown now that Killian’s no longer around to maintain it properly. She’s never seen any point in going to visit him at the cemetery, not when she has his prized garden—his physical body may be buried elsewhere, but it’s here, in the darkness of the night amongst the chirping of crickets, that Royce feels closest to him.

“I know you wouldn’t want me hung up on this,” She says, deluding herself into imagining that somewhere out there in the universe, her words are actually being heard, “You’d never want me to just… put my life on hold like this. Not for you—not for anybody.” The stepping stones winding through the garden are cool against her bare feet, still slightly damp from the afternoon’s rainfall.

“I guess, in some sense, I’m getting better,” She speaks through the prickling sensation behind her eyes, “I’m singing again. New stuff—and it… it feels good. I just. I can’t bring myself to create any record of it, to risk somebody just happening upon it. It’s illogical, I know- the same thing happening twice, but there’s just this fear now.”

Royce winders her arms around herself, feeling small as she speaks into the emptiness of the night, “But that’s the definition of a phobia, isn’t it? An irrational fear?”

Pacing through the maze of trellises and untamed greenery, Royce finds herself wondering, not for the first time, just what the hell she’s supposed to be doing now. Even when her and Killian weren’t together, they were always together- ever since they were children. They’d been practically joined at the hip, and after Royce’s father died… Killian was all she’d had.

It sounds dramatic, but just as she’s never known breathing without lungs, she’s never known living without him.

The whole world just feels haunted now.

Eventually, Royce finds herself in the very depths of Killian’s garden – a romantic little spot carved out in the center of the trellis maze with a koi pond and a cherry tree with a swing and an old wishing well left over from the late 1800’s.

His magic garden – their favorite spot.

 

“-no, I’m telling you, Roy, it’s magic.” And the way Killian says it, so adamant and unwavering in his belief, has Royce laughing.

“Oh really?” Royce says, tone teasing as she dances around to the other side of the well, sun dress shifting pleasantly in the spring breeze. She crosses her arms over the lip of it, then, dropping her chin onto her forearms as she smirks at him from across the well, “Prove it.”

Now it was Killian who looked smug, “It doesn’t work like that, Mercy.”

Royce snorts, “Then, pray tell, how does it work, Alvarez?”

Killian leans over his size of the well, mimicking her pose, “You have to want it.”

“Oh, that’s all?” Royce laughs, incredulous, “I have to want it?”

“You need to want it desperately, more than you’ve ever wanted anything else,” He tells her, digging a quarter from his pocket and holding it between them without looking away from her, “You need to want it more than life itself, until you need more than you want. And as you make your wish and pay the well-” He gives the quarter an unusually fond look before releasing it, letting it fall into the depths of the well.

Royce doesn’t hear it reach the bottom.

When he looks back to her, his eyes – blue as the summer sky – are intense, storming, “-the Universe has to agree.”

Royce feels a chill run the course of her spine, “What’d you wish for?”

Killian smiles at her, eyes fond, and then, as casually as one might inquire after the weather, asks, “You wanna marry me, Mercy?”

Royce just stares at him for a second, every comeback she might’ve had dying on her tongue. Then, unable to do anything else, she laughs, “Ohmygod you walnut,” She half-laughs, half-cries as she buries her face in her arms.

“Too cheesy?” She hears him ask—happily, because he’s a smarmy prick like that.

“Something like that.”

“Soooo,” Killian drawls as Royce feels him tug on a strand of her hair, “You wanna?”

“What, babysit you for the rest of our lives?” Royce peeks out from her arms, tearing up despite herself, “Sure, I got nothin’ better t’ do.”

Killian laughs, loud and mirthful, grinning so big it looks like his face is about to split in two, “See? Magic!

 

Royce leans over the well, the memories of that day running warm through her mind. Feeling melancholic and ever-so-slightly infected by Killian’s childish belief, she fishes her wallet out of her back pocket and digs out a quarter. Holds it out flat in the palm of her hand, lowering herself so she can peer at it from eye level as she holds it out over the well.

What would she wish for, if she could? If Killian’s well really was magic?

Royce thinks about it long and hard – far longer and far harder than a grown woman should be wishing for anything over a thousand-year-old well.

She wishes for a new beginning.

She wishes for a fresh start in a place where she won’t know what tomorrow will bring—and that’ll be a good thing. She wishes for a life where she doesn’t live every day wrapped up in shackles of guilt, wishes for the adventure she never got to have, always too wrapped up in her work. She wishes for the strength to stand on her own, for the will to be happy again.

She wishes to know what it means to be free.

Royce sucks in a breath and closes her eyes as she sets the wish free, turning over her land and letting the coin slide off her palm and into the dark abyss below.

She never hears it reach the bottom.

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

Water clogs Royce’s lungs as she gasps for air that isn’t there, invades her nostrils as she comes to realize her surroundings. Royce is… underwater. Somewhere murky, green; filled with fish and algae. When she kicks down, her bare feet meet the scummy underbelly of what feels to be a lakebed. She surges up through the water, far more uncoordinated than she’d like to be in this kind of situation.

Breaking the surface of the water, Royce gasps, sputters as she coughs up a truly disgusting volume of water. Her sodden hair clings to her face, covering her eyes as she struggles to remain afloat in her wet jeans and oversized sweater, trying desperately to catch her breath. Her mind is playing over a litany of what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck- she’d dropped the damn coin and then she’d just- what the fuck?!

Royce can hear somebody yelling water nearby sloshing, and then she’s being grabbed by the crook of her arm and dragged against a wiry body. In the back of her mind, Royce vaguely registers them as male, probably in their late teens to early twenties. The boy is dragging her through the water—towards the shore, she realizes—and as soon as the water is shallow enough to stand in without feeling like a fish bobber, she’s pushing away from her would-be savior and flopping down into the mud.

“-oh, Christ!” The boy yells, dropping down to he knees as Royce pushes herself up on her elbows, coughing so hard it feels like her throat is bleeding. He grips her by her shoulders and hauls her up against her better wishes, forcing her to brace herself on his forearms as she staggers to her feet, “Jesus, Miss, where in the hell ‘d you come from?!” He’s freaking out, and Royce doesn’t really blame him because boy, she’d like to know the answer to that one herself.

Once Royce is no longer in danger of falling over, she eases the boy off her and uses both hands to push her hair out of her face, slicking the unruly curls back so they’re no longer obstructing her vision. She looks up to the boy, chest heaving as she works through the last of the coughing.

Everything about him screams hillbilly, from the mud-slicked overalls to the almost vintage looking undershirt and work boots. (Living in rural New York, Royce has seen her fair share of rednecks and so she thinks, okay, maybe she’s still in New England.) The boy is gaping at her like she might as well be an alien, and Royce kind of gets it, because this kid was apparently here to witness her just bloody apparate in the middle of a pond.

“Where am I?” She rasps once she manages to find her voice.

The boy’s eyes are glued to her collar, where a good portion of her tattoos are peaking out of her now-ruined sweater. Crisply inked wings, one pair unfurling from her sternum, the other from between her shoulder blades, coming to meet on either side of her neck—one pair for her mother, one for her father, draped around her like a shawl.

When the boy doesn’t respond, Royce lifts a hand and snaps her fingers in his face, gold wedding band gleaming in the light of the sun’s last rays, “Hey, kid. Where’re we at?” As she’s proud to find that she sounds significantly less like a chain smoker this time—though her throat and her sinuses are still burning something awful.

The boy swallows thickly, doesn’t seem to know where to look as he stutters out, “Jus- Just a little ways outta Valentine, Ma’am.”

Royce can feel her brows furrowing—she’s been living in the states since she was twenty-two, but American geography is still largely lost on her; she can name states and sometimes capitals, but that’s about it, “And where would that be?”

His face shrivels, expression an even mix of confusion and embarrassment, “U-Uhm… New Hanover?”

Royce scowls, “The fuck is New Hanover?”

The boy looks positively bamboozled at this. He extends an arm towards her, as if intending to support her should she fall, and asks, “Are you okay, Miss…?”

“-Mercy.” She tells him, “Royce Mercy.” Then, in answer to his question, she says, “And no, no I am not okay—five minutes ago I was at home and now I’m here,” Royce casts their immediate surroundings – literally just a whole lot of nature and nothingness – a cursory glance before amending, “Wherever here is.”

The boy sputters—doesn’t seem to know what to do or say anymore.

Royce gets the distinct feeling that she and Toto aren’t in Kansas anymore.

After what forever, the boy says, “How’s about I take you on home to my folks’ place and you can get yerself cleaned up? It’s gonna be mighty dark soon, Miss Mercy, an’ you’ll catch your death wandrin’ around dressed as you are.”

—If Royce weren’t having an internal meltdown trying her best not to come to the conclusion that fucking magic had ripped her out of her garden and tried to drown her, she’d commend the boy for how well he’s taking all of this.

Now, under normal circumstances, there’s no way in hell Royce would just go home with a stranger, but there’s nothing normal about what just happened, so she’s willing to let her street smarts sit this one out.

Royce looks down, taking in her water-logged attire and grimaces, “I guess I’d be okay with that,” She sounds out slowly, glancing up to look over his figure suspiciously, “Just… don’t try anything funny.” She might have just gone through the ordeal of a lifetime, but she is still wholly capable of breaking this boy’s arm should he try anything untoward.

His eyes widen, and he sputters, “I’d never, Miss Mercy—!” At whatever look she must be giving him, he snaps his mouth shut, kneading at his neck with his hand for a few moments before saying, “My horse is this way.”

Royce looks at him for a moment, unamused, because really? A horse? But the kid is dead serious as he extends his arm to her, and it takes her a hot second to realize he’s trying to escort her like some lady of the court or something, “Uh, no thanks, kid.” She tells him, opting instead to follow behind him as he leads her to where a handsome palomino is grazing by a nearby tree.

There are ropes knotted with fish draped over the animal’s haunches, and when the boy catches her looking at them, he says, “Been fishin’ most of the day. Had just mounted up t’ head home when you—” He clears his throat, “…well.” He climbs up on the horse with practiced ease and looks down to her expectantly.

Royce stares at the creature, wondering just how in the hell she’s supposed to replicate that feat of hillbilly magic, “I’ve never, uh…” She raises a hand, gesturing vaguely towards the animal’s… everything.

A look of understanding washes over the boy’s face, “Oh! Of course,” and then he’s off the horse as fast as he’d climbed it. With little to no preamble, he’s gripping her by her waist—her very sensitive waist, goddamn Killian turning it into an erogenous zone, always jamming his fingers into her sides when they were children—and lifting her up to seat her on the beast’s back just a little ways behind the saddle. He remounts, then, pulling himself up just as easily as he had before.

Royce struggles to bend her left leg up so she can straddle the horse properly, entirely uncomfortable with the idea of siding side-saddle.

“I never got your name, kid.” She says as he takes the reigns and gently begins to steer the horse out of the clearing and away from the pond. The bumpiness of the animals gait isn’t something Royce is used to, and she feels like if she doesn’t hold onto something, she’s going to slide right off its ass, so she begrudgingly reaches forwards, gripping the boy by the waist.

“Oh, right.” He says, sounding bashful, “’m name’s Archie. Archie Downes.”

 


 

The ride is long and uncomfortable and only further confirms Royce’s assumption that this place—she doesn’t know whether to call it Valentine or New Hanover. Doesn’t really know the difference between the two and, frankly, is too afraid to ask—is in the middle of no-where.

The roads aren’t paved and there’s not a sign in sight that isn’t wooden. Every structure they pass (which really isn’t that many) looks like something straight out of an old period piece.

The house that Archie brings them to is a rather cute looking (not so very cute smelling) farmhouse atop a steep hill—probably not nearly as steep as it had felt—that had Royce clinging to the boy for dear life. By the time they reach the little ranch and Archie slides off the horse, Royce can see her breath and night has fully descended, bringing with it the croaking of bullfrogs and the chirping of crickets.

Wherever they are, it seems to be in an entirely different time zone than New York.

As Archie is helping Royce down off the horse, the door opens and a haggard looking woman, perhaps only five or six years older than Royce, rushes down the from steps, “There you are!” She’s yelling, “You was supposed ‘t—Oh!” She notices Royce as she comes to a halt a few feet away.

Archie clears his throat as Royce tries to re-style her now mostly dry hair, reclaiming the hair tie from her wrist and pulling the section of curls above her undercut up into a loose bun, leaving her bangs free to flop back into her face, “Mama, this is Miss Royce Mercy. There was, uh…” He swallows, seeming lost for words, eyes darting around, “An incident out at the lake an’ I told her she could come back with me t’ get herself sorted out.”

Archie’s mother blinks at her owlishly, and Royce thinks she must be in the depths of Amish country or something, because, really, her tattoos don’t warrant anywhere near this much staring.

Feeling self-conscious, Royce tugs at the neck of her sweater, wishing she could turn it into a turtleneck. That seems to snap Mrs. Downes out of her reverie, as her eyes snap up to meet Royce’s and she says, “Of course, dear. Why don’t you come in an’ warm yourself up while Archie takes care of Nisha?”

Warmth. Warmth would be nice. Warmth would be nicer than nice—Royce is pretty sure her clothes are on the verge of frosting. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure feels that way. Royce gives a jittery nod and doesn’t protest when Mrs. Downes takes her by the crook of her arm to lead her inside.

 


 

An hour and a warm bowl of fish soup later, Mrs. Downes has led Royce to her and Mr. Downes’ room and is trifling through her wardrobe in search of something that might fit her. It’s all dresses but Royce doesn’t voice her disappointment at that, and instead gratefully accepts the nightgown that Mrs. Downes finds for her, alongside a faded green and white dress for her to wear tomorrow.

Royce still reeks of pond water, but the Downes’ don’t seem to be in possession of running water, let alone a tub for a bath, so Royce doesn’t bother asking for one. These people have already extended their home to her for the night; to ask for anything more would be rude.

Left alone to change, Royce peels off her still-damp clothing. Her phone tumbles out of her back pocket as she strips her jeans off her legs and she winces, wondering what the changes are of the device still being operable are after being submerged in the lake. Slim to none, she thinks, but there’s no downside to seeing if the Downes’ have a bag of rice or something that she can stick it in overnight just to be sure.

She tosses her phone on the bed, then, and begins the unpleasant process of extracting herself from her sweater. Prior to tonight, it had probably been one of her favorites; soft, thick, and grey with too-long sleeves that she could pull over her hands. She thinks it might have belonged to Killian, once, back when they were teenagers, but those days feel like a lifetime ago and she can hardly be certain—it could just as easily have belonged to her father. When the garment slops into a sodden heap on the floor, its exact origin no longer matters – if the small holes that had already existed in it hasn’t marked it for decommission before, the trip through the well (or whatever the hell that had been) had certainly made sure of it now.

The nightgown Mrs. Downes picked out for Royce is long, white, and warm with teardrop sleeves that button at the wrists and a high neckline. The dry fabric feels like heaven on her still-clammy skin, even though it’s a bit scratchier than the clothing she’s used to. All is well in the world—or at least as much as can be well in Royce’s world, given the turn her evening’s taken—until she goes to retrieve her phone from the bed and her eyes land on the newspaper that’s been discarded on the nightstand.

1899

The numbers stare up at Royce, solemn as death and just as terrifying. Royce wants to find some sort of justification—like anybody would just have a mint condition newspaper circa 1899 sitting around—but deep in her gut the terror is already forming, and she just knows. She wants the paper to be fake or severely outdated or something, but she just knows. Knows because it would explain literally every strange thing that’s happened since she got here.

All of the staring at her tattoos and her piercings, the lack of paved roads and modern road signs, the clothing – it all made since in a world-shattering, deeply terrible sort of way.

Jesus fucking fuck.

Hands shaking, Royce lifts her phone from the bed and clutches it to her chest as she eases out a quivering breath. It can’t be real; she wants to tell herself. It’s got to be a dream, some horrid nightmare—but Royce knows this feeling. This numbness. The disassociation that comes with unfavorable news.

It was a fugue that Royce had stumbled through for weeks after Killian died.

And so, she’s all too familiar with this feeling—the not wanting to know, not wanting to accept, but all the while knowing deep inside that no matter how much she told herself that it wasn’t real, it was and no amount of ignoring it and pretending everything was roses was going to change it.

Fuck.” Royce whispers into the empty room.

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

“Are you alright in there, dear?” Royce startles as Mrs. Downes’ muffled voice sounds through the bedroom door. She doesn’t know how long she’s been standing here by the bed, just staring at the paper, but it’s apparently been long enough to cause some concern.”

“Y-Yes ma’am!” Royce calls back, quickly tucking her phone into the sleeve of her nightgown before collecting her clothes off the floor. When she pulls the door open, Mrs. Downes is waiting for her and Royce ducks her head in a bow, “I’m sorry, I was just… I guess I’m still a bit frazzled.”

Mrs. Downes’ smile is soft and welcoming as she takes Royce by the crook of the arm and offers her bicep a consolatory pat, “Of course, dear, after the night you’ve had—a horse is still a horse, but buckin’ a lady into a lake and just runnin’ off?” Mrs. Downes tuts, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me t’ send Archie out lookin’ for her, dear?”

Inwardly, Royce winces.

Though she and Archie had largely… skirted around the subject of just how they’d found her, they’d acknowledged it enough during the ride back to agree that the truth probably wasn’t what they should tell his parents. So, Royce had let Archie come up with the more believable tale of her being bucked into the pond by her horse—spooked by a snake as she’d been passing through. As for where she’d been headed? She hadn’t been passing through on her way to anyplace in particular, she’d just been headed someplace else and that’s all she’d really care to say on the matter.

Royce has no way of knowing what sort of story Mr. and Mrs. Downes had put together from reading between the lines of that tall tale, but it had been enough that they were more than happy to find a place in their home for her to stay for the next few days until she gets her bearings.

“I’m sure, ma’am.” Royce tells Mrs. Downes as she leads her down the hall to Archie’s room—Royce had insisted that she’d be happy to stay in the loft, but Mrs. Downes had just looked at her like the disappointed mother that Royce had never had and laid out, in no uncertain terms, how much that was absolutely not going to happen under her roof, “That filly was always a wily thing—she’s long gone by now.”

Maybe it was a byproduct of being married to Oscar winning actor Killian Alvarez, but Royce has always been absurdly good at improv.

Archie’s room is, unsurprisingly, smaller than Royce’s closet, but she’s not about to complain as Mrs. Downes leads her inside. Royce discards her dirty clothes by the foot of the bed—the frame splintered and wooden, mattress probably stuffed with straw—to be dealt with later. As she’s coming back up from her partial bend, Mrs. Downes asks, soft and tentative, “Are you sure you’re feeling alright, dear?”

No, she isn’t.

Royce fell through a magic well, materialized at the bottom of a lake, almost drowned, found out that she got punted back in time to the ass-end of the 18th century, and she can’t even figure out if it’s a bad thing yet. Royce’s wish, the one she’d made before she’d dropped the coin…

It’s crazy, but she can’t help but think that, maybe- maybe she’s where she’s supposed to be, now.

“Everything happens for a reason, Angel.”

Royce clears her throat, mouth feeling dry, and schools her face into a soft smile, “I’m fine, ma’am—just saddle sore and knackered. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a good night’s sleep.

Mrs. Downes doesn’t look entirely convinced as she retreats towards the door, but relents nonetheless, “Well, don’t be a stranger, Miss Mercy- y’ let us know if y’need anything.”

“Sure thing, ma—” Not for the first time tonight, Royce has to cut herself off with a cough. She doesn’t know much about The Old West™, but given as she’s been nothing but ‘dear’ and ‘Miss Mercy’ since she got here, she’s got a feeling that calling an older woman ‘mate’ would be something of a faux pas, “—ma’am.”

“A good night to y’ then, Miss Mercy.” Mrs. Downes says softly before retreating out of the room and pulling the door shut.

Royce, not very well knowing what else to do, hides her cell phone in the bedframe underneath the mattress and resigns herself to a long night of staring up at the ceiling, awake, waiting for the fresh horrors of tomorrow.

So, really, nothing entirely new.

 


 

Royce passes out some time around midnight—what would probably be seven or eight in the morning back home, given the apparent time difference—and wakes up with the morning’s first light as it pours into Archie’s bedroom window, which Royce had forgotten to draw the curtains of the night prior. Her hair, forever in her face, absolutely reeks of pond scum, and she decides that she is going to find a way to wash it today if it kills her.

She is not above praying to the universe for rain—if a wishing well can shit her into the past, the sky can surely cough up enough water for her to rinse the parp-stink from her hair.

It’s only fair.

 


 

Royce spends the morning helping Mrs. Downes prepare breakfast while Archie and Mr. Downes tend to the animals and the garden, ends up finally convincing the woman after twenty ‘Miss Mercy’s too many to just call her Royce, and pops the personal hygiene question sometime after that.

When Royce had asked, of course, she’d only inquired after any relatively private streams in the area (that was something people did these days, wasn’t it? Or had American cinema lied to her?) for her to wash up in. Mrs. Downes laughs, saying that there isn’t any need for that, and presses a coin purse into her palm as she tells her, “Archie’s goin’ into town today, you c’n go with ‘im—get yerself a bath at the board house and pick yerself out some fresh clothes.”

Royce tries to protest, but just like last night, Mrs. Downes isn’t having any of it (She’s a very pushy woman, Royce has learned). So, that’s how Royce finds herself riding into town with Archie later that morning. She must look rather odd, she thinks, with one of Archie’s high collared button-up shirts on over her dress and a pair of oversized work gloves on, but it was the only way she could think of to cover her tattoos.

It would be best, she thinks, to try and not draw too much attention to herself.

The town—Valentine—is bigger than Royce had been expecting it to be, which is a rather pleasant surprise. Archie’s got business in town to take care of (he doesn’t say what kind), so he can’t show her around, but he nicely points out the general store and the hotel. He says he’ll likely finish his business before she finishes her’s, and, after pointing that out to her too, tells her that he’ll wait for her by the livery stable.

Royce keeps her time in the general store brief, uncomfortable under the not-at-all subtle staring of the man behind the counter. Their selection of on-hand clothes is surprisingly decent, and Royce ends up picking herself out a light blue button up blouse with a brown leather vest to layer over it, some faded grey jeans, and a pair of black steel-toed cowboy boots (or are they just ‘boots’ these days?). On a whim, she tacks a couple rolls of bandages, a box of safety pins, and a pair of fingerless leather work gloves onto her order.

The man behind the counter, polite despite his blatant staring, is nice enough to give her a basket for her to carry her things in.

The cost of a bath at the hotel is only twenty-five cents, but Royce thinks that it might just be the best twenty-five cents she’s ever spent—or, at the very least, the most gratifying. It feels strange, washing her hair with a bar of soap (she can hear Adelaide—the woman who’d been in charge of doing Royce’s hair and make up for photoshoots—screeching at the absolute inhumanity of it), but it’s far from bad.

Royce doesn’t know when she’s going to get to bathe again—she’d rather this be the last day she uses money that isn’t her own—so she makes the most of it.

Her new clothes fit nicely – her blouse loose, pants and vest snug how she likes them. She thinks that the boots with likely take some time to break in, but they’re more comfortable than the work boots of Archie’s that she’d borrowed (and had to wear three pairs of socks to make fit).

Archie is waiting for Royce at the livery stable when she’s finished making herself presentable, just as he said he would be, and if the pink of his cheeks as he helps her back up onto the carriage is any indication, he likes Royce’s new duds just as much as she does.  

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

Lying in a cold sweat, bundled up in the blankets in Archie’s bed, shaking like a leaf, Royce craves death.

She’d known this would be coming—she’d gone of her meds cold turkey, after all—but, well, she’d forgotten just how bad the withdrawals could be. She’s got a splitting headache, has thrown up three times since waking up this morning, and she can’t stop shaking.

She’s also pretty sure that the Downes’ think she’s dying.

Archie has been with her since sunrise—when she woke him up vomiting out the window—despite her complaints. She’s had to convince him about every twenty minutes that, no, she doesn’t need him to get her a doctor, (First of all, she doubts they’d be able to figure out what was wrong with her—she’d probably be declared sick with the plague or something—and secondly, it’s not like there’s anything they’d be able to do for her, anyways,) and she’s getting very close to asking his mother to forcibly remove him from her general vicinity.

“M-Maybe it’s a- a side effect or something?” Archie is saying from the chair he’d dragged over to her bedside (and, God, way to really make her feel like she is dying), “From- from the—” He makes a general motion with his hands, upwards in the air like somebody breaching the surface of a body of water.

Royce rolls her eyes, would be amused if it didn’t feel like her brain was trying to beat it’s way free out the back of her skull while simultaneously trying to push her eyeballs out of their sockets from the inside, “’s just withdrawal,” She tells him, finally. She’d been avoiding saying anything, simply on the basis that that means that she’ll have to then explain what those are and she just—really doesn’t want to have to, because words, but, God, Archie’s fretting is driving her crazy.

“With...drawal?”

“Happens sometimes.” Royce mumbles, closing her eyes and pressing her face into the pillow, like that will somehow make them stop hurting.

“Often?” Archie asks as he inches closer in his chair, Deeply Concerned.

“Sometimes.” It’s only half a lie. Royce doesn’t miss her meds often, and, when she does, it’s usually an accident—it’s never gotten any worse than a headache and some jittery hands before she realizes her mistake and rectifies it. She’d only gone off them purposely once before, in weeks following her husband’s death. She hadn’t had it in her to get out of bed, much less do anything else—the physical pain of withdrawal had felt appropriate, then; a fitting companion to her grief.

Archie just looks at her with those big puppy eyes of his, “What… what causes it?”

Royce sighs, long but not necessarily heavy, “When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with a… a condition. Nothing bad—” She quickly amends when she realizes that there was, perhaps, a better way to open the explanation, given her company, “—Nothing… nothing fatal. It just… made life difficult for me, sometimes. So, to make things easier, I was given a special medicine that I had to take every day.”

Royce can see the comprehension filling Archie’s face, chased quickly thereafter by fear.

“I’ll be fine in a few days, kid,” Royce assures him with tired smile, “but, for now, my body’s just throwing a bit of a temper tantrum.”

Archie doesn’t look entirely comforted, but he nods. It’s clear that he wants to talk about it some more—that’s the face of a boy with Questions—but he seems to be able to understand that, really, Royce would rather not be having any kind of conversation right now, one-sided or otherwise.

 


 

The days pass quickly once Royce is through the worst of her withdrawals, and before she knows it, two weeks have passed. Every morning she wakes up wondering if today will be the day the Downes’ generosity comes to an end, but they never ask her to leave.

Days turn into weeks, weeks into months.

Royce teaches herself to fish. She’s terrible at it, at first, but she gets the hang of it quickly. It’s relaxing, she thinks, just… taking the time to herself. Royce grows to accept her situation—grows to think of Mr. and Mrs. Downes and Archie as family.

She and Archie sit them down one night and tell them the truth; Royce tells them all where—when—she really came from.

It’s a lot for them to process, naturally, but they aren’t particularly difficult to convince. Royce shows them her phone, the driver’s license from her wallet—pulled from the back pocket of her jeans the morning after she’d come through the well and left on her desk to dry—the now-water damaged pictures of her family she used to carry on her person. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Downes, devout as they are, convince themselves that Royce was sent to them, to their family (it doesn’t help, she thinks, that her surname is Mercy, that her skin is decorated with pairs of angel wings). It should be weird, should make Royce uncomfortable—being seen as some sort of holy gift—but it doesn’t.

She’s just happy to have something to call her own again.

Life goes on.

Despite seeing him as a little brother, Royce is fairly certain that Archie’s developed a crush on her. If the way Mrs. Downes works to get the two of them alone together as often as possible is any indication, Archie’s not the only one who’d like something to happen between them. Were Royce ten years younger and not so damaged, she might’ve entertained the idea—Archie is a sweet young man, attractive in his own way—but Royce still dreams of Killian, wakes in the middle of the night with tears staining her cheeks.

Mr. Downes gets sick.

It starts with a cough here, a cough there- they all think it’s just a cold. Money starts to get tight, so, against Mrs. Downes wishes, Royce gets a job in town cleaning rooms at the board house. She enjoys it well enough, with exception to her additional task of being occasionally called upon to assist patrons in bathing. It tips well, though, so, really, Royce can’t complain too much. It’s better than the strip club she’d waitressed at in her first year of Uni—and she’s much less likely here to get fired for breaking a customer’s jaw.

Mr. Downes gets worse.

Money gets tighter. They have to sell the carriage and all but one horse. Royce wishes she hadn’t wasted so much money on clothes all those months back. She spends her days off fishing, and quickly finds that if she hangs around the butcher’s stall to talk with him for a little while, he’ll give her a few cents more than her catch is worth.

Still, Mr. Downes gets worse.

Royce feels like she’s suffocating. She spends as little time at the house as she can, spends more time than ever fishing along the riverbank. She misses her music more than anything, though, so she sings to herself to pass the time, content in knowing that the chances of somebody hearing her out here in the grapes are slim to none.

Law of averages, though, somebody was bound to happen upon her eventually.

Chapter Text

ARTHUR

 

Truth be told, Arthur isn’t quite sure what he’s doing anymore, these days. It feels like he’s away from camp more than he’s in it, and when he is there, the only thing on his mind is finding a reason to slip away again. Things just don’t feel the same as they used to, is all. Dutch is different than he was—not starkly, but enough that it sets Arthur on edge. Makes hanging around for too long uncomfortable bordering on painful.

So, Arthur keeps away from camp.

He never really finds something to do so much as something to do finds him. He’s always in just the right place that way, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to him that he comes across The Singer the way he does.

The gang hasn’t been in these parts for more than a week now, and Arthur’s been so busy making sure they don’t go hungry that he hasn’t had much reason to stray too far from the overlook yet. He’s farther out than he’s ever been before, the morning he finds her. He’s got his mind set on doing some fishing—it will be a nice change of pace, he thinks, and God knows he could use some peace and quiet, what with the way everybody seems to be squabbling lately.

He’s probably six or seven miles out when he hears the singing.

It’s very clearly a woman’s voice—thick like honey, clear as a summer’s day, and smoky in a way that has Arthur’s hairs standing on end. There are no words, just vocalizations, but it’s hypnotizing, almost, how empathetic the voice is, swelling with emotions so complex that Arthur can’t even begin to decipher them.

And yet, he feels them as if they were his own.

Arthur means to push on and ignore it, but the closer he gets to the fishing hole he’d picked out on his map the clearer the voice gets, and as he turns the downhill bend leading out of the brush towards the pond, he finds the owner of the voice, perched atop an upturned metal bucket on the bank with a fishing rod in hand as she croons into the open air with her back to the woods.

Voice aside, the first thing Arthur notices about the woman is her hair. Thick and wild and vibrantly orange, it’s been tamed into a sloppy bun. What’s strange about it, though, is that from the midpoint of her ears downwards, her mane has been cut away; shaved down close to the skin. Her ears, he can see, are littered with golden piercings the likes of which Arthur’s never seen; rings and beads and bars and spikes, packed together from lobe to cartilage.

Incredibly strange and, Arthur guesses, far from cheap.

Before Arthur’s brain can inform his mouth of his plan to turn around and leave the woman to her crooning, he’s calling out to her, “That’s a mighty nice voice you got, miss.”

The woman’s song cuts off abruptly with a strangled yelp.

She whirls around on her bucket, fishing rod falling into the mud, and for a brief moment the entire world seems to freeze.

The first thing Arthur registers is freckles.

Mapping every inch of exposed skin; more freckles than Arthur could ever dream of counting, fit to the point that she looks more freckles than skin—spreading so far as to reside even on her lips. The second thing Arthur notices are her eyes, big and brown and expressively angular even as they widen in shock.

The third thing he notices is the jewelry.

Reminiscent of her ears, the woman has a golden ring hooked through her left nostril, a small golden ball somehow also affixed to the space beside it. The bridge of her nose, too, is decorated by a pair of small, cone-shaped barbs.

It hardly looks comfortable.

Bloody fucking hell.” She curses, breaking him from his reverie, and Arthur could swear there was a glint of something golden resting over her tongue, “Didn’t your mum teach y’ better’n to go ‘round spookin’ strangers?!” Her accent is strange, not like one Arthur can ever recall hearing before. It sounds almost English, but there a pronounced lilt to it that takes it into a distinctly different direction—one that isn’t nearly as unbearably posh.

Arthur can feel himself smirking as he squints down at her from beneath the brim of his hat, “Can’t rightly say it was very high up on her list ‘a priorities.”

The woman’s frown deepens, twisting into something that borders on aggressive as her gaze flicks pointedly towards the gun on Arthur’s hip before coming back up to his eyes in unspoken question.

Arthur raises his hands, palms outwards, “Ain’t here to cause trouble, just lookin’ to do some fishin’, same ‘s you.”

The Singer doesn’t look entirely convinced, but her demeaner grows distinctly less hostile as she says, “Well, sorry, mate, this spot’s spoken for.” And then, face twisting into a deep-dimpled, too-white smile so radiant that if Arthur didn’t absolutely know better, he’d think it genuine, “You have a nice day now!”

If Arthur had been planning on leaving the singer to her own devices prior to that moment, he sure as hell wasn’t anymore.

 

ROYCE

 

It’s a sad testament to Royce’s luck that she can’t even sing to herself in the middle of no-where without accruing an audience.

“You ain’t never hear of sharin’?” The man is climbing down from his saddle now, and Royce really wishes he wouldn’t. He can’t very well ride off and leave her to her own devices if he’s not on his damn horse, can he?

“Oh, I have,” She tells him shortly, “I’ve just never been much good at it.”

The man is smirking to himself as he flips open his saddlebag and trifles through it for a moment, hands finally emerging with a retractable fishing rod and a brown paper package the size of Royce’s fist, “Well, allow me t’ teach ya, since yer momma was ‘parently too busy teachin’ you not to spook strangers to bother with teachin’ you how to treat ‘em.”

He plods over to her, ignoring the mighty sink-eye she’s giving him to find a place for himself along the bank a few feet from her, “It’s mighty simple, really; you stay where you’re at, doin’ what you were doin’, and I stay where I’m at, an’ we refrain from spittin’ insults at each other like civilized folk and maybe catch us a few fish fer our efforts.

Royce huffs as the stranger makes himself comfortable, struggling to keep her damn mouth shut.

It’s like walking on glass, living in this place—living in this time. She has no idea how she’s allowed to act here- what behavior is safest and what will get her killed or worse and she hates it. Hates this feeling. Royce has never had to pull her punches before, never had to hold her tongue, never bothered to do anything other than whatever the hell she wants because life is too short to be boring.

But here? Now? The rules have changed, and Royce still hasn’t quite figured out just where the hell that leaves her.

She feels like she’s suffocating.

 

ARTHUR

 

They fish for a while—Arthur doesn’t know how long—and eventually, what started as tense silence grows into something more comfortable.

The singer is miles better at fishing than Arthur is. Arthur wants to tell himself that it’s just because she’s more familiar with the area but, really, he’s been painfully aware of his sub-par fishing prowess for a while now. It’s not exactly news.

Still, Arthur finds himself trying to compete with the woman anyways.

It’s a silent, unspoken sort of competition between them. Singer snickers to herself when Arthur’s line breaks (which is embarrassingly often), grants these patronizing looks when he pulls in something mall and smirks around an eyeroll the one rime he lands something big as if conceding, ‘Alright, so you’re not completely terrible at this.’

When it comes to her own catches, the woman just gets to sit there and look smug.

 


 

Some number of hours later, the sky begins to grey over. The singer frowns, pulls her line from the water, and gets to packing up her things.

Arthur recognizes the storm clouds for what they are and follows suit.

By the time the singer has finished transferring her catch from the rocks to the bucket she’d been using as a stool and Arthur’s finished rolling his (admittedly pathetic) catch in paper and tucking it into his saddlebags, a steady rain has begun to fall. The woman doesn’t seem too concerned about it, just tucks her bucket into the crook of her arm and starts back towards the road.

Arthur mounts up and nudges Haunt to follow after her, pulling up slowly beside her and, because he is nothing if not a fool, says, “You need a ride?”

The rain is coming down hard now, slicking the singer’s hair down in her face and plastering the sleeves of her blouse to her skin. Through the fabric, Arthur can make out what looks to be the lines of dozens of overlapping bandages wrapped flush around the length of her arms. The woman frowns up at him, head tilting as she squints up at him as if trying to place his motive.

She must not find one, or, if she does, it isn’t one she likes, “Thanks, but I’d prefer to walk if it’s all the same to you.” She sounds her words out slowly, cautiously, as if expecting her refusal to send Arthur into a violent rage if it isn’t said just so delicately.

Disheartened of the woman’s unease but respecting of it, Arthur just nods and tips the brim of his had to her with a, “Good day t’ you then, Miss.” Before digging his heels into Haunt’s hindquarters and leading the horse to a canter.

Chapter Text

ARTHUR

 

Most folks, if they’re smart, will ride in the opposite direction when they hear gunshots.

Arthur Morgan is not most folks.

A shootout means winners, winners mean losers, and losers mean corpses to relieve of their early possessions—and, given the current state of the camp, they can hardly afford to be picky about the sources of their funds. Unfortunately, Arthur had known riding up on this particular scene that it likely wouldn’t be a shootout; the shots never overlapped, coming in slow intervals of six every few minutes or so.

Hunting or target practice was a more likely scenario.

What Arthur hadn’t been expecting was the shock of orange hair and golden piercings that greeted him once he got there.

It’s clear from her stance that the woman has never handled a gun in her life; holds it like it’s about to turn in her hands and pop her between the eyes. Her aim isn’t terrible—or, rather, ti wouldn’t be terrible if she’d just hold the damn thing like she meant it.

She’s got the idea right, just… entirely the wrong execution.

“You’re holdin’ it wrong.” Arthur drawls blandly, and while he was expecting to spook her, he wasn’t expecting to spook her to the point that she squeezes the trigger again as she fumbles backwards, sending another round into the dirt with a panicked yelp.

She whips the gun away as if trying to rid herself of some sort of incriminating evidence and whirls on Arthur, eyes bugging from her skull in a, frankly, amusing cross between terror and rage, “Fucking—! You Clint Eastwood motherfucker- again?!” And then, as if realizing that she’s just shouted profanities into the face of a stranger, her anger falls behind a carefully constructed curtain, leaving behind something much colder.

Cautious, calculating; the gaze of a fox.

Arthur leans forwards in his saddle, crossing his arms over the back of Haunt’s neck, “It’ll never do what y’want so long ‘s you’re afraid of it.”

The woman eyes him with the same curious hesitance as last they met and informs him, voice dangerously even, “It’s harder than it looks.”

Arthur feels the corners of his mouth tick upwards, “It’s much easier if you do it right.”

Wow, grade-A advice, mate,” The singer scoffs as she paces forwards and bends at the waist to pluck her pistol up out of the grass, “Never would have guessed.”

Arthur watches, mildly amused, as she brandishes the gun, picking torn-up blades of grass from between her fingers. Tossing him a warry glance, she shifts back to her targets—a handful of old cans lined up on the trunk of a fallen tree—mindful of him in the corner of her vision as she aims, pulling back the hammer in an awkward maneuver that has her having to aim again as soon as she’s done.

Unsurprisingly, she misses.

Breathing out around a chuckle, Arthur climbs down from his horse, tossing Haunt’s reigns over the horn of his saddle and trusting his mount not to wander, “Give it here,” He says as he makes his way towards her, extending a hand and flicking up his fingers.

He gets the same screwed up look of suspicion again, but no backtalk. The woman does, however, push open the chamber and dump the remaining three bullets into her hand before she gives it to him. Her hands are bandaged, Arthur realizes; wrapped meticulously up to the second knuckle in thin white fabric so as not to impede movement.

“Your husband not want you t’ learn or somethin’?” He asks instead of questioning the bandages as he closes his hand around the grip, eyes catching on the thin golden band sitting snug on her ring finger over the bandages. At the pinched look the remark gets him, he adds, “Why can’t he teach ya?”

The singer levels him an even look, ever-calculating, “I’m sure he would, if I asked. But he’s got more pressing matters to attend to, an’ I’ve always had better luck teaching myself whatever it is I need to know anyways.” She tosses her chin towards her makeshift targets, “But by all means, impart upon me your marksmanly wisdom.”

Scoffing, Arthur fixes his stance and grips the gun as he would were he about to fire it and points it towards the tree line, “You keep shyin’ away from it—it can’t hurt you when it’s pointed in the opposite direction. Keep yer grip firm and an’ yer trigger placement consistent. You had the right idea with aiming, but a big piece like this kicks up, so you gotta aim a hair low t’ his your target.” He lowers the gun, taking it by the barrel to offer it back to her, “An’ fer the love’a God, stop gogglin’ at it like that.”

“I do not goggle,” She tells him, sounding almost offended as she takes the gun back and slips the missing bullets back into the chamber, “I cautiously assess.”

“Assess less.”

“Fucking cute shit you think you are, eh?”

 

ROYCE

 

Eastwood laughs as Royce takes aim again, trying to mimic his stance as she forces her grip tighter. She still isn’t used to the weight of it—she’d always known guns were heavy, but. Well, she didn’t expect the weight to be so concentrated, “You always curse like your life’s endin’?”

“Depends on what company I’m keeping.” Royce tells him as she pulls the hammer back and takes aim.

“You should give it some practice in your off-time when it’s unloaded,” Eastwood tells her, nodding to the gun before clarifying, “Just pullin’ the hammer back and reset’n it ‘till it feels more natural.”

Royce supposes he’s got a point; as things stand right now, her thumb cramps up whenever she cranes it up to try and get a grip on the hammer. It’s like when she first started teaching herself to play strings—how her fingers always felt like they were on the brink of snapping in two before her hands got used to the stretch.

It would probably help, Royce thinks, if the gun hadn’t been made with a man’s hands in mind.

 

ARTHUR

 

This time, the singer doesn’t flinch back so much as she winces at the kick, closing her eyes and hoping for the best. She misses again, but likely not by nearly as much as she had been, “You let it scare y’ again.”

The look the observation grants him is flat as they come, her gaze not slipping away from him in the slightest as she retrieves another fistful of bullets from her belt and begins loading them into the chamber, “A small explosion is occurring literally two and a half feed from my face. You’ll have to excuse me if I find that sort of thing startling.”

Arthur chuckles as he retreats back to his mount, not wanting to overstay his welcome so long as the woman is still so clearly unnerved by his presence—her being so focused on keeping an eye on him certainly isn’t helping her aim any.

“You’re thinkin’ too much!” he calls as he climbs back into his saddle, “Getting’ too much into yet own head, anticipatin’ the kick till it’s hurtin’ more’n helpin’. Just do everything in one motion; let aimin’ flow into settin’ the hammer flow into pullin’ the trigger.”

The woman doesn’t have anything to say to his advice, just looks at him oddly—head tilted, face scrunched, still trying to pin down that illusive motive as Arthur takes up his reigns and leaves the singer to her business.

 

*****

 

I crossed paths with the singer again. Shooting cans, or trying to. Strange woman, can’t quite get a figure for her story. Has all the makings of a wealthy woman but none of the class.

[Attached picture; a rough sketch of the singer, one knee pulled up nearly to her chest as she’d jolted backwards when Arthur had spoken, free hand flying upwards as she’d discharged a round into the dirt. Also included is a small close-up sketch of the singer’s face as it had been when she’d rounded on Arthur, red faced and livid.]

 

*****

 

The next time Arthur happens across the singer is in the board house, of all places. He’d stayed in town late the night before, late enough that he didn’t rightly feel like riding back to camp, so he’d gone and rented out a room. After waking up at half past noon, he dresses himself and steps out the door only to have someone walk directly into his side.

Arthur almost doesn’t recognize the woman at first. Her hair is down, pillowing loose and thick over her shoulder, covering her ears, and her strange, uncomfortable looking pieces of facial jewelry have been removed. Her blouse remains, but her usual vest is gone, and her trousers have been exchanged for a long, faded maroon skirt and a tie-around white apron.

It’s only after she jerks away, careening backwards while spouting apologies, that Arthur places her accent, “—so sorry, sir!” She’s saying frantically as she raises her bowed head to look at him. A beat of silence passes, then she recoils, face scrunching, “You again?

Arthur takes a moment to process what has happened, dumbly opting to parrot, “Me again.”

The singer lets out a long sigh, straightens the hemline of her skirt where her blouse tucks into it and tells him, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

It’s easy, Arthur finds, to smile in her presence, “Not my fault you spook so easy.”

She huffs under her breath, adjusting the cuffs of her gloves, white but well worn, “Wouldn’t spook if you stopped giving me reasons to.”

Chuckling, Arthur raises his hat as he takes a step towards her, “Well, it was my pleasure scarin’ you again, Miss. Until next time.” As he passes her, making his way to the stairs, the singer scoffs in spite of the reluctantly fond smile creeping at the corners of her mouth.

Next time’ winds up being much sooner than they’d both thought.

 

ROYCE

 

Mr. Pattillo comes to find Royce not even five minutes after she’d stared straightening up her first room of the afternoon, “Got a bath order for you.” He tells her from the doorway with a sympathetic smile.

Royce takes a deep breath, smooths over the sheets of the bed she’d been making, and nods, looking up to offer Mr. Pattillo a reassuring smile, “Sure thing, boss. I’ll finish up here and be right down.”

 

ARTHUR

 

Arthur hurts all over.

He’s still sore from the bar fight last week and he’s been riding around playing errand boy for everybody and their mother for the last three days with practically no sleep. So, when the desk clerk comes knocking at the door asking if Arthur’d like him to send a girl in to give him a hand, he thinks, ‘Fuck it, why not?’ and takes the man up on his offer.

He isn’t expecting it to be the singer.

“Of course,” She says when she steps into the room to find him, “Who else?”

Arthur, feeling awkward in his nudity for the first time in years, manages a, “’Least I didn’t scare y’ this time.”

She mutters, “Debatable,” (though Arthur doesn’t think he was meant to hear that) and lets out a long breath. A professional mask overtakes her features as she paces further into the room, “I’ll be starting with your hair, if that’s alright.” She rounds him, and he can hear her shuffling around for a moment. Wood sliding over wood as she pulls over a stool, more scraping as she arranges the side table into a position that’s more convenient for her.

Arthur catches her hands in the corner of his vision, peeling her gloves off and setting them aside to scoop a small metal cup up from the side table. She reaches around in front of him, dipping the cup into the already clouded bath water and filling it. Her wedding ring has been removed, and before Arthur can stop himself, he’s asking, “What does your husband think’a you doin’ this?”

The singer’s hand stills for a moment before continuing its course and disappearing back out of his sight, “Sit forward, please.” Her other hand presses against the skin between his shoulders, splayed fingers urging him to comply.

“My husband is free to his own opinions,” She sounds out slowly, free hand reaching from his back to his chin, leading him to tip his head back, “just as I am free to my own actions,” She pours the warm bath water out over his hairline, the heel of her hand braced lightly against Arthur’s forehead. His scalp itches, gritty with dust and dirt, “Not that my marriage is any business of yours.”

Arthur is silent as the woman eases him back into a reclined state, taking a moment to soap up her hands before delving into his hair. She does her job thoroughly, her ministrations a welcome massage. Arthur feels fit to fall asleep when she finally says, after what must have been much deliberation, “My husband and his family have gone a long way to accommodate to me. At the time, it didn’t seem such a bothersome expense to them, but times have changed, and their funds are not as plentiful as they used to be.”

“So you work.”

An affirmative hum, “So I work.”

“Can’t imagine this job bein’ too rewardin’.” A huffed laugh sounds from behind him at that and Arthur closes his eyes, enjoying the sound.

“No,” She chuckles blandly, “It’s really not. Mr. Pattillo’s a sweetheart, lets me bathe here free whenever I want, but…” Her hands pull back, dipping into the water to rinse off the thickest of the lather she’d created. He hears her pick up a metal bucket, hang it by the handle on the hook at the head of the tub to catch the soapy water that’s produced as she rinses his hair with another cupful of water, “Fifteen cents an hour, average of four hours a day, six days a week.” She says, pouring out another cup, “So, three dollars and sixty cents a week, plus whatever tips I get from bath orders.” A sigh, “It’s not fast cash, that’s for sure.”

“What about fishin’?” Arthur asks as she rinses out the last of the soap, “You’re good ‘t that.”

“I make more selling my catch than I do working here, that much is true,” The singer says as she plucks a clean rag up from the side table and dunks it in the bath, “But it’s not always a sure thing. Good bait costs money, and more than half of it gets wasted pulling in little things, so I’m not always turning a profit once all is said and done.” She lathers the rag, “This place is a nice, safe, constant,” Taps at his shoulder with two fingers, “Sit up, please.”

Arthur goes as he’s told, giving a little grunt as she begins to scrub the rag over his back, “Consistency’s good, I s’pose.”

“Haven’t the skills to be doing much else.”

The roughness of the rag feels good against Arthur’s skin, even more so with the knowledge that it’s serving to scrape away the grime of the past week, “What about singin’?” He asks, “Yer mighty good ‘t that.”

“I only sing for myself,” The woman informs him stiffly as she takes to washing his shoulders. Arthur thinks it’s a right shame—could see her on a stage in one of them fancy theaters—but the subject is clearly a sore one, if her clipped tone is any indication.

“You been practicin’ like I showed ya?” He inquires rather than pressing.

“Hmm?” The singer hums, only half paying attention as she tosses her rag down on the side table.

“Yer shootin’.”

“Ah,” She fills the tin cup, pours it slowly over Arthur’s back, dragging it along the span of his shoulders, “When I have the time.” The cup gets set down, “I hit a can this morning.” She sounds proud, and so, Arthur finds himself feeling a slight of the same on her behalf, “Not the one I was aiming for, mind, but it was a can, so I’d like to think that it’s an improvement.”

“Keep workin’ at it and you’ll get there.” Arthur tells her as she stands up, wiping her hands on her apron and dragging her stool and the side table over to the right side of the tub, unhooking the bucket to set it by her feet as she sits back down.

The singer grabs for her rag, dips it into the bath and rings it out over the bucket. Lathers it again and reaches to remove Arthur’s arm from its place resting along the lip of the tub. They fall into silence as the woman holds his arm out over her lap by his wrist, gentile but thorough in her cleaning. It’s not as easy of a silence as they’d fallen into when they’d been fishing—Arthur can’t hardly expect it to be, with one of them naked and the two of them being practically strangers—but it’s far from uncomfortable.

She starts humming to herself, after a while—Arthur doesn’t think she even notices that she’s doing it. Just watches the woman with open fascination as she gingerly cleans his bruised knuckles, no longer raw but also not quite healed enough for her to be able to scrub with any sort of force without opening the cuts up again. Her melody is slow and lilting, a relaxing sound that counters how intensely focused she is as she works at her task. The image has Arthur stifling a fond chuckle in the back of his throat.

The spell is broken.

The not-quite-song cuts off. The singer clears her throat awkwardly, ducking her head to re-focus on her task. She seems more aware of herself after that, careful not to space out as she had been. Time passes slowly but favorably, only seeming to have gone by quickly once the singer has finished and stands to dismiss herself, only acknowledging Arthur once as she dries her hands on her apron, locking eyes with him.

Then she’s nodding pointedly, turning on her heels, and walking right back out of his life.

 

*****

 

[Though no mention of the singer is made, several sketches of bandaged hands can be found scattered randomly throughout the next few pages of entries.]

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

Royce has always been cursed to be an early riser. She’s a morning person, yes, (if you can consider when she wakes up ‘morning’) but not by choice. Three a.m. – that’s when Royce wakes up. It doesn’t matter how late she stayed up the night before or how physically draining the previous day was, she wakes at precisely three a.m.

Don’t ask her how her body knows it’s three, it just bloody does.

Back home, Royce would slip out of bed, take a frigid two-minute shower to wake herself up, swish around some mouthwash (not much point in brushing before breakfast), and retreat to the basement gym.

She’d lock herself away, turn the radio up too loud, and just… exist in her own little bubble for a while. Warm up with some ballet stretches and a jump rope, run a mile or two on the treadmill before taping her knuckles and beating on a punching bag until her biceps burn.

Here, that isn’t exactly an option.

Royce finds ways to improvise.

She dumps a bucket of water over her head (fresh from the Downes’ well; surprisingly cold), rings her hair out and pops a handful of mint leaves into her mouth to chew on as she runs laps around the property, barefoot, in her half-soaked night shift, probably looking batshit crazy. But that’s alright—there’s no one around to see her and, really, even if there was, it wouldn’t exactly be false advertising.

Royce stopped feeling sane a long time ago.

After her run, Royce typically retreats to the barn where she’s set up a makeshift punching bag—an old seed bag she’d filled with sand and tied to one of the vertical support beams; it’s far from great but it gets the job done—and goes a few rounds with that, practicing her kicks and punches until the sun shows itself.

Today, though, is a very special day, because today is the day that Royce has finally convinced Archie to spar with her.

It’s been too long since Royce has had a good fight (not that she’s really expecting one out of her mild mannered friend), and she’d be lying if she were to say that she hadn’t briefly entertained the idea of picking a fight with a random man on the street just for the hell of it. It’s not that Royce is a violent person—she doesn’t like hurting people—there’s just something about fighting that she finds deeply, supremely satisfying.

But yeah, nah, that… would probably end poorly for all parties involved.

Hence… Archie.

Royce doesn’t exactly have high hopes (she’ll have to train the boy up a bit before she gets to have any real fun), but it’s something which is better than what she had before, so she’ll have to take it.

Archie is hesitant to come at her at first, clearly nervous about the prospect of hitting a woman—maybe the prospect of hitting anybody—so Royce decides to try and start with something milder, “How about you just try to…” She trails off, thinking, “Try and grab me, and we’ll go from there.” Archie still looks unenthusiastic about the idea, but he bobs his head in a nod before awkwardly raising his hands, entirely unsure of what he’s supposed to be doing with them.

Distantly, Royce wonders if this is what she’d looked like when Eastwood had found her at her makeshift shooting range.

Like a true beginner, Archie charges. Royce parries his oncoming grab to the left and sidesteps, leaving the boy stumbling past her, “You telegraphed too much,” She tells him, grinning, as she habitually shifts her weight forwards and backwards on her toes, letting herself fall easily into a familiar slow-stepping rhythm, “Try again.”

Archie comes back at her, more certain of himself this time, and makes an underhand attempt at her unguarded stomach.

Fish, meet bait.

Royce swivels her forearm down, dismissing his hand and moving in on him. She ducks left kicks right, aiming a quick knee jab at his ribcage, though she’s careful to stop herself before the hit fully makes contact, “Better.” She tells him as she skips backwards out of reach, “Again.”

 


 

ARTHUR

 

It’s unheard of for a married woman with any amount of self-respect to set foot into a saloon, so you can imagine Arthur’s surprise when he pushes through the double doors of the Valentine Saloon one afternoon to find the singer leaning casually against the bar.

Knowing what little Arthur does about the woman, he doesn’t entirely know why he’s surprised that she ignores such taboos (she’s already a pants-wearing, gun toting, job having kind of wife; bar visiting really isn’t much of a stretch) only that it does. She seems perfectly at home with a tumbler of whisky in hand as she looks over the newspaper she’s got spread across the bar before her, dressed a cross between the last two times he’d seen her—hair down around her shoulders, facial jewelry removed, form fitting trousers and a loose blouse layered under a leather vest paired with work gloves and her usual bandages.

Eternally unable to resist the strange pull the woman has over him, Arthur slides up alongside her and says, “You’re just all over the place these days, ain’tcha?”

The woman’s head jerks up in alarm, but if the almost friendly smile that breaks out over her face as she realizes that it’s just him is anything to go off of, she feels much more comfortable speaking to Arthur with witnesses around, “I could say the same t’ you, mate. You new in town or somethin’?”

Arthur grunts, holding up a finger to the barkeep as he wanders past, “Beer,” He tells the man before angling his head towards the singer to answer, “New t’ the area, more like. Ain’t been around for much longer’n two weeks now.”

A brow quirks up, “Passing through or settling down?” She inquires, somehow managing to straddle the line between casual interest and uncaring.

Arthur tosses down a dime, reaches for the pint glass the barkeep had poured out for him and sucks down a long slug as he contemplates his answer. He settles on a safe, “Don’t rightly know, yet.”

The woman tosses back her own drink, “Fair enough.”

And that’s the end of it.

The singer goes back to her newspaper, Arthur sucks down his drink, half-tempted to say something just to try and get her talking again but ultimately deciding against it. Minutes pass, the woman’s drink dwindles to nothing. She stands up straight, folds over her paper and tucks it under her arm, then leaves Arthur with a wink that’s decidedly more friendly than flirtatious, “Catch ‘ya ‘round, cowboy.”

Arthur sees her off with a quirk of his lips, a tip of his chin, and a gentile lift of his glass. And if his eyes drift to her rear as she pushes her way outside? Well, he’s not hurting anybody by looking.

 


 

Arthur finds himself frequenting the singer’s fishing territory after that.

She’s not there, most of the time—Arthur hardly expects her to be, doesn’t even know why he keeps showing up here, to be honest—but sometimes, sometimes, she is.

The first time Arthur sees her after that day, he’s already settled in to fish for the afternoon when the singer comes trampling through the brush.

She takes one look at him and scoffs, though it’s more fond surprise than irritation, “Oh, we’re playing this game, now, are we?”

“I do not know what game that would be, ma’am.” Arthur says, “I am just a man who’s set his mind on catchin’ some fish.”

“Uh huh,” She doesn’t sound convinced as she traipses over, upturns the metal bucket she’d hand hung in the crook of her arm, and sits herself down atop it, “Well, in that case, you should know—your line is broken.”

Arthur snaps his head back towards the water—only to find his line is perfectly intact.

When he looks back to the woman there’s a smile curling at the corners of her mouth, dark eyes glittering with amusement.

So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?

 


 

ROYCE

’yer a’ v’ry pretty l’dy.”

Royce laughs, but if not for the fact that the drunkard currently making moon-eyes at her is half-hanging off of Eastwood—whose expression of dead-eyed exasperation is truly a sight to behold—she would find this situation infinitely more uncomfortable and not nearly as amusing.

“That’s very kind of you to say, sir.” Royce says as she fills out the necessary information in Mr. Pattillo’s record book. She glances up, looking more at Eastwood than his thoroughly munted companion as she asks, “Name?”

Eastwood glances at his counterpart, clearly trying to prompt an answer from him, only to roll his eyes and give the man a jostle when his pointed stare is ignored, “The ‘pretty lady’ just asked yer name, boy. Ya gonna give it to her?”

s’ m’ny freckles,” The drunk man slurs, head lolling to the side as he gestures pathetically in the general direction of where Royce stands across from the men at the front desk of the board house.

Eastwood’s face falls into a deep from. He shakes the man again, a bit more forcefully this time, “C’mon, kid, what’s yer name?”

Royce arches a brow, “You mean you don’t know it?”

Eastwood looks almost comically offended at the assumption, “I didn’t ask his name t’ humor him, lady.” He cuts himself off as soon as the statement leaves his mouth, seemingly upset by the taste of his own words. His tone is markedly less harsh as he goes on to tell her, “Found him stumblin’ around outside the saloon, though it’d be best to get him in ‘t a bed before he can get himself into any trouble.”

Royce just stares at him, unsure of what to think of that. It’s a… a very odd thing—imagining Eastwood just plucking a drunk man up off the street and hauling him over here to get him set up at the hotel for the night. Royce… hadn’t really pegged him as the charitable type.

d’ya think they go all th’ way down?” Eastwood’s not-friend (total bloody stranger, apparently) ponders aloud and, lovely, it’s like Royce is nineteen, serving drinks at Nouveau Riche all over again.

Eastwood heaves a put-upon sigh, frown deepening, “Does it really matter what name you put down?”

Royce takes a moment to think about it.

“… s’pose not.” She murmurs, dipping her head to scrawl Clint Eastwood on the appropriate line (she doesn’t very well know what else to write, and neither of the men across from her are offering up any suggestions). Before Royce can tell them how much the night will cost—it’s written on a card on the counter, yes, but it’s the most polite way she has to prompt somebody to pay; let them know that she’s gotten all she needs from them and they can go on their merry way now—Eastwood slaps the appropriate amount down on the counter.

Well alright, then.

Royce deposits the money into the register, fetches the appropriate room key, and holds it out to Eastwood over the counter, “You gonna need help getting him up the stairs?”

It wasn’t a joke, but Eastwood laughs anyways, “Nah, I can take it from here, ma’am.”

Royce shrugs, “Suit yourself, cuz.”

 


 

“Fancy seein’ you here.”

Royce doesn’t even jolt at the voice anymore, that’s how bloody often she and Eastwood see each other, nowadays. She was wary at first, of course—after everything that’s happened, she doesn’t trust people the way she used to—but, with the man always eyeing her like he’s not quite sure what he’s looking at (or, for that matter, what he’s supposed to be doing with her), it’s relatively easy to separate him from, well.

That.

“Mornin’, cuz.” Royce drawls, half asleep, from her place alongside the riverbank. It’s not her usual spot—she prefers fishing a few miles further downstream, where it’s more private—but she hadn’t felt like walking that far today.

“Was ridin’ down this way with plans t’ hook myself some fish anyways—you mind if I join ya?” Eastwood asks, gesturing vaguely towards the river. For what must be the fifth time, Royce considers asking the man’s name—but they’re kind of beyond that, now. Like, they’ve seen each other so many times, had so many half-conversations and shared so many sort-of silences that it’d be weird to just suddenly ask.

Besides, if Eastwood wanted to play that game, he’d have asked after Royce’s name or offered up his own, by now.

“Knock yourself out.” Royce says, stifling a yawn in the back of her hand.

She can hear Eastwood dismounting from that massive fucking horse of his behind her, leading it around to ross its reigns over the branch of a nearby bramble. No matter how many times Royce sees it, she’ll never get over that bloody thing—black and big as anything with an almost skull-shaped mask of white over its face and matching speckles splattered all the way down its back to its hindquarters.

How fucking fitting, Royce thinks when she hears Eastwood murmur under his breath, “You jus’ stay right here, Haunt,” to the behemoth after pulling his retractable fishing rod from his saddle bags.

“Late night?” Eastwood asks, sounding vaguely amused, as he turns to approach her from the side just as she lets out another yawn.

“Eh,” Royce shrugs, flicking her wrist quickly to make her bobber jump. She still has absolutely no idea whether making her bait dance every once in a while is actually helpful or not in attracting fish, but it feels like something she should do. Well, that, and it’s hard for Royce to sit for long period of time without humming, singing/muttering to herself, or otherwise fidgeting, “Just been a long week.” More truthfully, it’s been a melancholy week; an indifferent week, a numb week.

A week that has Royce wanting to crush a pillow to her face and scream until she passes out.

The hard truth is that Royce has never been content with stability. She can’t just do the same thing every day and be happy with it. She needs an everchanging environment to thrive—it’s precisely why show business appealed to her so much. For a while, being here (in this time) was enough of a change to keep her spirits up, even if she still had bad days (she doesn’t think she’ll ever get to a point in her life where she won’t have bad days), but she’s settled now. Being here has stopped feeling like a fever dream—started feeling normal.

There’s been a shift, now that the dream-like feeling has ended, and a sense of normality has finally begun to set it. That numb, empty feeling of hopelessness has been to creep back in—and with it, the ever-constant need to be doing something every waking hour of her life just to distract herself from it.

Eastwood drops his head in understanding as he finds himself a seat on the rocks a few body-lengths from Royce, which she appreciates more than he could ever begin to understand. It’s that sense of consideration for her space that’s always… disarmed Royce. The non-threatening aura of safety that just seems to radiate off him (which is, honestly, half the reason why she was so adamantly against letting her guard down around him the first few times they met).

He’s just… non-invasive; respectful.

Respectful of Royce’s personal space. Respectful of her personal privacy. Respectful of her wishes; always asking for permission, even if it’s not with words. Respectful of her, but not so respectful that Royce ends up a china doll; something pretty to look at, but impractical to play with.

It’s… refreshing.

 


 

ARTHUR

 

“What’s her name?”

Arthur grimaces, bending over at the waist to foist a sack of grain over his shoulder, “Excuse me?”

John frowns, leaning back against the water barrel behind him and crossing his arms over his chest. His face is healed up now, but the scars look like they hurt like hell when he scrunches his face all up like he is, “You been actin’ weird these past few weeks—calmer, nicer, gentler, less like… well, you.” He sniffs matter o’ factly, “So, what’s her name?”

Arthur rolls his eyes, turning to walk the sack over to where the ladies have begun to prep supper, “I am not havin’ this conversation with you, boy.” Maybe the two of them were there, one—but now? Not even close.

Unsurprisingly, Marston follows after him; an angry puppy nipping at his heels, “So you admit it’s a woman.”

Christ.

“I don’t admit to nothing, Marson,” Arthur informs him, “but seein’ as you’ve already gone and worked yourself up into a tizzy about it, there likely ain’t nothin’ I can say to you right now that’ll change your mind.”

“She’s a married woman, Arthur.”

Arthur’s stride falters under the implication; the idea that John somehow knows exactly who it is that Arthur’s been passing time with. His scowl deepens, and he can’t very well feign complete ignorance anymore, “I know.”

John stalks alongside him, looking like he’s gotten a whiff of something foul, “If you know, then what the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

“I don’t fancy her that way, Marston.” She’s a pretty woman, sure—maybe the most attractive woman Arthur’s ever seen—and maybe he had been thinking that it’d be nice to have her for a night or two in the beginning, but he’s past that. Fucking strangers is all well and good, but once Arthur starts piecing together somebody’s personality—to see them as a person rather than an object to be used for his own pleasure—the urge to take them to bed is quick to evaporate, “She’s just interestin’ to be around, is all.”

“Arthur,” Marston says, far too familiarly, as he moves to cut off Arthur’s path, “Women like that can’t care about men like us—they like to think they can, but they can’t. Not really.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation, “I shouldn’t have to be tellin’ you that.”

“Then don’t.” Arthur snaps, shouldering his way past the younger man with a bit more force than is really necessary.

 


 

ROYCE

           

“You, uh… you alright, Roy?” Archie asks one morning when he pokes his head into Royce’s room to find her starfished out on her bed, her too-long limbs hanging off the sides.

Royce isn’t sure how much longer she can stand to stay here.

Don’t get her wrong, she enjoys life with the Downes family, it’s just. Well. Life here has fallen into an endless loop of monotony—work, fish, sleep, repeat—and when Royce’s life falls into monotony, Royce falls into a deep depression. She’s been trying to ignore that yawning feeling for weeks now, but it’s starting to get to the point that she doesn’t have the emotional drive to want to do anything anymore. What’s the point?

Every day is ‘keep your head down.’

Every day is ‘work hard; earn money.’

Every day is ‘worry because there’s not a damn thing you can do to help these people and you know it.’

On the one hand, Royce is a terrible person for wanting to leave when the family is so blatantly struggling—on the other, at the end of the day, Royce is another mouth to feed, another person to provide for that isn’t even family, no matter how warmly she’s been welcomed into their home.

Besides, wasn’t the whole point of Royce’s being spat out here so she could get a fresh start, be free? Because this doesn’t feel free—this feels like a cage that’s been thrown into the ocean to sink with Royce trapped inside, quickly running out of room to breathe.

Royce heaves a long sigh.

“Peachy keen, cuz.”

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

Royce misses her tattoos.

It’s not like she’s lost them, they’re still there, but it just… hurts, in a way, keeping them covered. It’s strange, looking to her hands and not seeing the crisp black lines decorating her skin. Her heart, her history, her very identity had, quite literally, been mapped out on her skin. Royce may not have been happy in the twenty-first century, towards the end, but the last thing she wants to do is pretend like everything she’s gone through to get to where she is now never happened. To pretend the ink staining her skin no longer exists is like cutting away a part of who she is.

So, yeah, it might be in her best interests right now to keep them covered up, but it still hurts.

Hurts like drowning from the inside out.

Still, Royce finds herself doodling new tattoo designs in her downtime one Saturday morning—actual morning—not Royce’s brain’s sorry excuse for morning. She has no idea how long she’s been parked at there, dot stippling mutated humpback whales of various shapes and sizes, but it’s definitely been a few hours, if the mid-morning light coming in her window is any indication.

She’s halfway through a particularly gothic rendition of an eight finned, six eyed whale when a soft knock sound at her door.

“Yeah.” Royce says more than asks, not bothering to look up from her sketchbook.

The door eases open slowly, and Archie pokes his head into his-now-Royce’s room. At the look on his face—that tentative, ‘I’m about to ask you a question’ look—Royce tucks her pencil behind her ear and drops her chin into the heel of her palm, “Wassup?”

“Was gonna take Nisha to the pond to hook some fish for dinner…” He trails off, seeming less certain of himself with every word that leaves his mouth, “I, ah… thought you might wanna come along?”

Pursing her lips, Royce glances down to her doodles and back up to the boy. After a moment’s deliberation, she pushes the leather-bound sketchbook aside and eases out a long sigh, “Sure, I could do with some air. Gimme a few minutes an’ I’ll be ready to go.”

Archie’s shoulders relax, face stretching into an excited smile that will never not remind Royce of a giddy puppy, “I’ll go get Nish’ saddled up, then.” And with that, the teenager is ducking away, too pleased to even remember to pull the door closed behind him.

Royce cracks a smile at the empty doorway as she stands, shaking her head with a light chuckle.

Royce dresses quickly, stripping off her night gown and stepping into a pair of black denim jeans. She pairs it with a yellow, high-collared blouse, and a brown leather vest—and, after a moment’s deliberation, straps on her gun belt as well.

It was the first thing here that Royce bought with her own money—after Eastwood had happened upon Royce that first time, she’d gotten paranoid. Back home, she’d felt safe walking the streets with the knowledge that she could hold her own in an altercation, if need be. People didn’t (usually) carry guns around in 2018, but here? In 1899, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t have a gun on them at all times.

Royce may be strong and fleet of foot, but agility and a six pack don’t magically make her capable of closing a ten foot plus gap in the time it takes to squeeze a trigger.

 


 

Fishing with Archie is nice—being back at the pond Royce got spat out from? Less so.

Despite it being closer to the ranch than the other bodies of water in the area, this is the first time Royce has been back to the incredibly aptly named Mirror Pond. She hadn’t been avoiding it, per say, she just… she’d just never exactly been in the mood to relive the horrifying feeling that was waking up underwater.

Because that’s what coming through the well had felt like; sleeping, then waking.

—Not sleeping in the traditional sense, though. Coming through the well had been like slipping into a coma, sleeping for a hundred years, and then being snapped out of it without so much as a lick of a warning. Dazed and confused and a dozen feet underwater, not even fully awake and already halfway to drowning.

That aside, Royce tries to make the most of it, if not for herself than for Archie, who’s clearly thrilled that she agreed to come along. Between the two of them, it only takes a little more than an hour to wrangle enough fish for dinner, and soon enough they’re stringing up their catch and getting ready to head home.

They’re nearly there when a scream cuts through the air.

There’s a moment of silence between them, as their brains simultaneously pinpoint the direction the scream is coming from—as well as the distance—before coming to the same chilling conclusion.

“Mama,” Archie whispers at the same time Royce shouts, “That came from the ranch!”

Then Archie is pulling Nisha into a sprint and Royce is scrambling to move her grip from the back of the saddle to Archie’s midsection without toppling off the palomino’s back. It’s the bounciest, most unstable Royce has ever felt on a horse, and she’s focused so much on remaining upright that she doesn’t even realize that they’ve reached their destination and are grinding to a halt before her chin is being knocked hard into the crown of Archie’s head with the force it takes them to stop.

There’s a man in the garden, Royce can see once she collects herself. Tall and stocky, holding Mr. Downes by the collar, beating him down as his Mrs. Downes wails desperately for him to please, please stop!

Royce sees red.

Lacking the finesse to dismount any other way in a timely manner, Royce pushes herself backwards off Nisha’s haunches, boots slopping in the mud as she lands, “Make sure your mum’s okay!” She calls over her shoulder, jamming a finger in the appropriate direction as she takes off towards the garden, vaulting over the fence and not coming to a stop until she’s got her hand fisted in the back collar of the assailant’s shirt and is tearing him away with as much force as she can muster.

 

ARTHUR

 

Enough!” A voice rings out in the form of a livid roar, and suddenly Arthur can’t breathe, is flying backwards to land on his ass in the mud. Air punched straight from his lungs, he gasps to regain his breath, heart racing at the fright.

“Thomas!” Boots slop past him, a woman’s silhouette passing overhead through his sun-blinded vision as Mr. Downes’ defender rushes to his aid, dropping to their knees before him. Arthur pushes himself up on his always and lightning-fast, the woman is drawing her gun from the holster on her hip, setting the hammer back and fixing it on him in one smooth motion.

Arthur stares.

The singer’s molten brown eyes glare back at him, burning with unbridled rage.

Thomas Downes, half-pulled into her lap by her free arm, raises a fist to his lips and cough—a raw, painful sound. Behind him, Arthur hears the garden gate swing open and another pair of footsteps rush over. A lad, no older than twenty, plants himself at the woman’s side wearing an expression that tells of too much worry and not a lick of an idea of what to do with it.

Careful not to shift her gun away from Arthur, the singer guides one of Mr. Downes’ arms around her neck and heaves him up with a surprising amount of strength, his forehead lolling helplessly against her chin as the man in question struggles to cease his coughing, “You take your father and you get him and your mum inside, Archie.”

“Roy—” The boy begins to protest, but the woman—Roy, apparently—is swift to cut him off.

“Do as I say, Archibald.” She speaks, tone cold, leaving no room for argument as she keeps her eyes fixed firmly on Arthur, “This gentleman and I are going to have ourselves a chat.”

 

ROYCE

 

Archie looks anything but persuaded, but he listens well enough, taking his father from Royce and leading him carefully around Eastwood. The man is still laying half-propped up in the mud, looking at Royce like he’s never seen her before in his life.

The feeling’s bloody mutual, only Royce is far too fucking pissed to be shocked.

“Your gun.” She says, “Out and on the ground, right now.”

Still, the man doesn’t move.

Royce can feel her nostrils flare, “May not be the best show, yet, but I can guaran-fucking-tee you, I ain’t gonna miss from this angle. Your pistol, on the ground, right now.” Her final words curl into a feral snarl that spurs Eastwood into action. Has him slowly removing his pistol from his holster, mindful to keep his fingers away from the trigger, and tossing it down at Royce’s feet. Glancing away from him for less than a second, she hooks the steel-capped toe of her boot under the gun and kicks her leg up, catching the pistol out of the air with her free hand.

She pushes the chamber open, empties the bullets into the mud, and discards the gun with a hefty throw over her shoulder.

“Now, on your feet.” Royce gestures with her gun, “And if you so much as twitch in a way I don’t like, it’ll be the last thing your sorry ass ever fucking does.”

Eastwood rises slowly, expression finally shifting from wide-eyed shock to a particularly determined brand of agitation. Once he’s fully to his feet, Royce gestures towards him with the barrel of the gun, not willing to take any chances, “Arms out, feet shoulder width apart.” And, when he hesitated, “Did I fucking stutter?”

Once his arms are out and his stance is open, Royce steps cautiously into his space to frisk him, unwilling to bet her life on the assumption that he’d only been carrying a single gun. When he turns up clean, Royce empties the chamber of her own pistol, tucking her ammo neatly into her belt, and holsters it.

On the off chance he does make a move on her, the last thing Royce wants is for him to swipe her gun and turn the barrel on her.

“Now, we’re both civilized adults, so, would you care to explain to me just what in the bloody fuck it was you thought you were doing, riding up here and beating on a sick, defenseless man?”

Eastwood sets his jaw, “Thomas Downes owes an associate ‘a mine a great deal of money—I’ve come to collect.”

 

ARTHUR

 

The woman’s nose shrivels, “And, what, you thought he’d crap cash if you punched him hard enough?” Her nostrils flare, “—He’s not a friggin’ piñata!

“He borrowed money, he don’t have the means to pay it back—what would you have me do? Pat ‘im on the back?!” Arthur snaps back sarcastically, tipping his head with a vicious cross between a grin and a snarl.

The singer—Roy, Arthur corrects himself—sets her jaw and looks him up and down with a quick flick of her irises, expression cold as death.

Arthur can’t recall the woman ever having such a presence—in his memories of her, she’s smaller, always half bent over or slouching, shoulders curled in as if she was trying to will herself into nonexistence. But, now, with her shoulders squared back and her head held high, she cuts an intimidating sight. What’s more, Arthur realizes for the first time that she’s tall. Standing only a few inches shorter than Arthur, she’s easily able to meet his eyes without having to tilt her head upwards like most folks have to.

“How much?” She asks after what feels like an eternity, “How much does he owe?”

“Three thousand dollars.” Arthur tells her, “Not includin’ interest.”

There’s a long moment of silence, then, “You mean to tell me that you—you, who probably owns a grand total of four different shirts and half as many pants—had three thousand dollars just lying around, waiting to be lent out?”

It’s Arthur’s turn to set his jaw, “Not me, my associate.” Strauss keeps his funds separate from the camp’s with the express purpose of money lending and other such schemes in mind. His numbers often run higher than the camp’s funds ever do, but, (as he’s quick to explain when they’re broke and all but demanding he contribute some of his cash) the money he keeps stockpiled is for investing, not spending.

Roy’s face contorts, the barest hint of sadness leaking out, “The hell’d he even need three thousand for? The family’s far from well off, but they ain’t so broke as to need that kind of cash.”

Arthur sighs, “You said he’s sick, ain’t he? Reckon he wants to pay off his land, pay off his house—leave y’all with somethin’ to your names, ‘case he doesn’t get better.” Because that’s Strauss’ schtick, ain’t it; targeting the desperate, the folks who’ve still got something to lose but not nearly enough to hold onto it. Gives him the perfect excuse to take them for everything they do have in the name of interest.

Deed to whatever land they might own included, more often than not.

“So, what, rather than leave his family owing the bank, he’d leave them owing you? You, who was ready to beat him to death?”

“Desperate men do desperate things.”

The woman’s whole face twitches at that.

For what feels like the first time since the beginning of the encounter, her gaze pulls away from his, “…three thousand dollars…” She breathes, almost a question, but not quite.

“Plus interest,” Arthur says, tone a warning. He doesn’t at all like the distantly methodical look on her face; cautious revelation that quickly gives way to an expression of narrow-eyed thought.

It’s far too similar to the one Sean gets before one of his famous bad ideas.

When Roy does lock eyes with Arthur again, it’s unflinching with a face full of hard-assed determination, “Transfer his debt to me.” She tells him, voice firm, “Transfer it to me, and you’ll have your precious money,” Then, face twisting into a judgmental sneer to rival Marston’s, “Plus interest.”

It’s Arthur’s turn to be skeptical now, “And where the hell ‘re you gonna get three thousand dollars, ‘plus interest’?” He asks, crudely attempting to mimic her accent (and deciding instantly that it was a mistake).

Roy’s face twists into a vicious, tooth baring smirk; a crooked, ugly thing when pitted against the beatific smile Arthur’s seen her wear in the past, “Take me with you and you can find out for yourself.”

 

ROYCE

 

“Absolutely not!” Eastwood snaps, eyes flicking up and down her form in a frantic sort of dismissal.

“—and who the Christ are you to be so picky?!” Royce counters, vehement, “Your associate is down three g’s, don’t you know? Who in the bloody cunt of hell cares who pays it or what they do to get it?! The family may not have enough to pay you, but I know for a fact that I could be worth way more to you than a lousy three grand!”

Royce is surprised at how little she herself is concerned by her sudden epiphany. She should be, she knows. She just offered herself up on a silver platter to a man who is definitely a criminal and who might as well be a stranger, for as well as she apparently knows him. But in the moment the words had left her mouth, it hadn’t felt crazy, or scary.

It had just felt like the right thing to do.

And Royce knows she can do it, too—make the money back, that is. She did the math in her head; three thousand dollars here (assuming she’s got the numbers right) amounts to, give or take, ninety-grand in twenty-first century cash. Which, yeah, that’s a bloody lot of lettuce, but Royce managed to strike it rich once. Sure, it was sort of an exponential growth thing—and getting off the ground had been rough, but she’d done it once, she could do it again.

Probably.

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

“Is this really necessary?” Royce scoffs out of the corner of her mouth as she stalks back to the house, Eastwood following far too closely for her comfort. Not even following so much as he’s looming.

So much for respecting her personal space.

“If you’re ‘talents’ are worth ‘s much as you claim ‘em to be, I ain’t lettin’ you outta my sight.” Comes his jaded reply. They’d gone back and forth, spitting arguments at each other, for the better part of the last half-hour before Royce had finally gotten him to relent and see things her way. (If she’s being honest, she still doesn’t think he’s convinced, just thinks he’s tired of arguing and has reached that perfect mindset of ‘fuck it’ that precedes most – if not all – of Royce’s own questionable life choices.)

She’d given the bastard her gun as a show of good faith, but even that hadn’t been enough to convince him that she wouldn’t bolt at the first given opportunity.

“Just keep your gun holstered and try not to beat the shit out of anybody else.”

 

ARTHUR

 

When Roy steps through the front door, the lad from before—the husband, he presumes—is quick to come rushing towards her, only to stutter to a halt, eyes widening as Arthur ducks through the open doorway behind her. Roy doesn’t give the boy a chance to speak, just addresses him coolly, “Your father alright?”

The lad—Archie, Arthur thinks she called him—looks from his wife to Arthur, gaze lingering for a moment on the latter before returning to the former, “Ma’s got him in the bedroom resting, had t’ set his nose- thinks he may’ve cracked a rib or two.”

Roy’s eyes slide shut, nostrils flaring in a silent show of displeasure. When they open, she offers a clipped nod and tells him, “Keep him in bed, then. Help ‘im up to walk around a bit every now and again, but don’t let him do any heavy lifting or bending.” Then, in a decidedly less neutral tone, “His debt is handled. Make sure he doesn’t do anything else so shit-stupid ‘fore I get back.”

B-back?” He echoes breathlessly, eyes skittering from her to Arthur, “Where… where’re you goin’?”

“Business trip.” She tells him, not bothering to look him in the eye as she shoulders past him down the main hallway.

Wordlessly, Arthur follows her, offering the lad a cursory glance as he goes.

 

ROYCE

 

It’s times like these that Royce misses backpacks.

They still exist here- they’ve got to, surely (if not, well… Royce can’t fathom why—what’s so difficult to figure out? You’d think people would figure out how to strap a bag to a person before they strap one to a horse, but who the fuck knows; humanity can be stupid like that, sometimes) but Royce has yet to see one. Saddlebags, it would seem, are all the goddamn rage here when it comes to transporting items, regardless of whether or not one actually intends on strapping said containment apparatus to a horse.

Royce tries (and probably fails) not to seem agitated by this as she goes about packing her things, all too aware of Eastwood lingering in the doorway.

From what Royce had gathered from her past interactions with Eastwood, he’d been camping out a somewhere out beyond the edge of town – not so close as to be encroaching, but not so far as to make trips from one to the other overly inconvenient. Whether he’s been alone or with his so-called associate, Royce doesn’t know. Was, frankly, a little afraid to ask, but it’s safe to assume that she’ll be sleeping on the ground for the foreseeable future.

With that in mind, she forgoes the packing of any sleepwear—as if she’d allow herself to exist in such a vulnerable state around Eastwood and any of his possible compatriots, anyways—and tries to remain practical in the remainder of her choices.

One extra pair of jeans, two additional blouses, a lovely greenish-teal dress handed down to her by Mrs. Downes (to be worn into town and only into town), and a few pairs of socks. Miscellaneous items include the little drawstring bag she keeps her hairbands and piercings in when she goes into town, spare bandages, a bar of soap, her stash of mint leaves, and-

Jesus, how could she almost forget.

As discretely as possible, Royce also retrieves her cell phone and her wallet from the nightstand, wraps them in a swath of fabric, and shoves them to the bottom of her saddlebags.

It’s not that Royce thinks she was lying to Archie when she told him she’d be back, but she’d rather not leave what little she has left from the twenty-first century behind—especially when her wallet holds the only pictures she has of Killian, Maya, and her parents. She’d never forgive herself if she lost them.

When Royce turns around to retrieve her journal from her desk, she realizes why Eastwood had been content to idle so patiently as she packed.

With perhaps more anger than the situation warrants—he is, after all, not her favorite person right now—Royce tears across the little room and rips her sketchbook from his hands, realizing a moment too late how possibly detrimental it could be to the pages within. With a critical eye, she looks over the pages he’d been inspecting- he’d worked his way backwards from her whale sketches from earlier this morning, which, Royce realizes now, were on full display when she’d lead him into the room because she hadn’t bothered to close the damn book before she’d left.

And of course he’d just had to land on the pages he did.

Eastwood clears his throat awkwardly, eyes flitting to the designs in a vague gesture as Royce smooths the pages down, “Those’re… very nice drawin’s.”

Royce feels her nostrils flare, snaps the book shut, “You don’t get to like my drawings, you backstabbing cunt.” She seethes, driving the spine of the notebook into his sternum with a snap of her wrist, “If you ever go looking through my private things again without my express permission, debt or not, I. Will Break. Your Fucking Fingers.” By the time she’s finished giving voice to the threat, she’s deep into Eastwood’s personal space, pushing hard against his chest with her book, leaning forwards on her toes to put her own gaze above his own as she stares unflinchingly into his eyes.

The effect is almost instant.

For a moment—for some quick, fleeting seconds—he shrinks back, intimidated. Then he’s rebounding with a vengeance, putting himself bodily in her space and forcing Royce back on her heels as he brings up a slow hand to grip her wrist (hard, too goddamn hard) and direct the spine of her sketchbook away from its place dug into his sternum, “You’re gonna wanna watch th’ tone you take with me, Roy.” His voice is low, dangerous; gravel on her ears.

The nickname burns like a hot knife as it works its way into her skull.

But Royce can’t push back- she’s skating on thin ice right now, growing thinner by the second. The man she’s dealing with now is not the same man who’s almost endearingly terrible at fishing and makes a face like he’s swallowed a particularly interesting lemon when Royce does something that throws him through a loop. This man doesn’t know her, isn’t her goddamn weekend fishing buddy who keeps up with her banter and is keenly aware and respecting of her personal boundaries.

This man is just a stranger with bad intentions.

So, Royce backs down.

Pointedly lowering her gaze to his throat and shifting out of his space as she pulls her wrist out of his grip, she swallows, thick like cotton in her throat, before saying, “Mercy.” Then—because, in this context, she must sound like she’s asking for mercy—she tilts her chin to meet his eyes again, no longer aggressive in her glare as she is respectably firm in standing strong on what little ground she has left, “Royce Mercy,” She tells him, then, after giving the name a moment to sink in, “But we aren’t friends, so you’ll call me Mercy.”

Eastwood looks at her for a long moment, expression unreadable, but not nearly as stormy as it had been.

“Arthur Morgan.” He tells her, after what feels like forever.

Chapter Text

ARTHUR

 

“I’ll be back before you know it.” Arthur hears Mercy tell the boy as she presses a kiss down into the top of his head. She murmurs something else to him that Arthur doesn’t catch before offering a deep-dimpled smirk and butting the back of her closed first against his chest. The boy smiles back weakly, heart clearly not in it as he bleats out an almost painfully fake chuckle.

Arthur doesn’t realize he’s rolling his eyes until the woman is turning back to make her way to where Arthur waits idly beside Haunt.

She eyes his mount with trepidation, hesitating for a long moment before tossing her saddlebag over his haunches. Then she just… looks at him, scrutinizing the horse with an expression that most men might wear looking over construction schematics.

“You gon’ mount up any time today?”

“Yeah, I just…” She trails off, not looking away as she makes several aborted gestures towards Haunt.

Please tell me she ain’t serious.

Arthur pulls in a tight breath, pinching at his brows, “You don’t know how ‘t mount a horse.” It’s less a question than it is a declaration, because Arthur knows that look. It was the same look the woman wore when he happened upon her target shooting—a look that, quite confidently, declared that its wearer had absolutely no clue what they were supposed to be doing beyond a thin hope that, if they stared long enough at the object of their curiosities, they’d surely be able figure it out eventually.

“That is not a horse-” Mercy defends, jamming a finger towards the animal in question, “-That is a mountain with eyes!” 

Arthur purses his lips, physically restraining himself from snapping at the woman. Instead, he takes a quick step forwards and grips Mercy tight by the waist—which elects a truly feminine squeak from her—and foists her up onto Haunts hindquarters. He’d have given the woman the forewarning needed for her to sling a leg over the creature, if only he knew she wouldn’t immediately threaten bodily harm if he were to even consider touching her without her express permission. So, as it is, her body flops heavily over Haunt’s, leaving her scrambling to latch onto something before she slides off.

Mercy tugs herself into position after a moment of frantic yanking, finally getting a leg over the horse, then turns to stare down at Arthur with a touch of red coloring her cheeks, mostly hidden behind the thick wall of freckles cluttering her skin, “I fucking hate you.”

“The feelin’ is entirely mutual, I assure you.” Arthur assures dryly her as he pulls the coil of rope from his saddle.

When he makes to pull the woman’s hands behind her back, she balks, leaning forwards and kicking the heel of her boot back into his chest, “The fuck you think you’re doing, mate?!” She shouts, accent growing thick in her agitation.

Arthur glares at the mud deposited onto his shirt and bats her foot away from himself, “Assurin’ you don’t knock me over th’ head an’ run off the second I got my back t’ ya.”

Mercy’s boot comes back with a vengeance as he makes another grab for the crook of her arm, “Honor system, dickweed; I gave you my gun, I keep my hands! How else am I supposed t’ keep from falling off’a this thing?!”

This time when Arthur grabs Mercy’s boot, he shoves it roughly into a resting position against Haunt’s flank and holds it there, grip like a vice, “You should’a thought’a that before you went and threatened to snap m’ fingers.”

Mercy’s nostrils flare, golden jewelry glinting in the light of the mid-day sun, “You should’a thought’a that before you went and snooped through my private things!” She snaps back at him, dropping her accent into a perfect mimicry of Arthur’s own drawl as she tries to rip her ankle out of his grip.

When it fails, her other boot comes around to greet Arthur’s shoulder with its mud-slicked heel.

Arthur wrestles the foot away with his free hand, pinning it against Haunt and snapping his head up to glare at her, “You kick me again, woman, I’mma tie yer ankles, too, an’ ride with you slung over this horse like a sack of goddamn potatoes.”

Mercy levels him with a harsh glare, and for a moment Arthur thinks she’s going to threaten him again, but then she’s snarling in furious defeat and thrusting her wrists behind her back. She turns her gaze forwards as Arthur binds her wrists, looping the rope around between them, too, so she won’t be able to slip free. Staring down her gloved hands—dark brown leather, fingerless—Arthur wonders, not for the first time, after Mercy’s insistence on keeping her hands covered.

He’d ask, if he thought it would get him anything other than a boot to the face.

Unlike the previous silences spent in Mercy’s presence, the silence of the ride to camp is anything but comfortable. It’s stiff, suffocating- painful, almost. Arthur itches to talk, to say something to ease the tension, but he doesn’t know what he could possibly say, and, frankly, he’s much too exhausted by the current circumstances anyways to try and attempt conversation—not that Mercy would do anything other than bite his head off were he to try anything even remotely resembling friendliness with her right now.

At one point, as Arthur leads Haunt up a steep incline, Mercy kicks her legs forwards, hooking her ankles around Arthur’s shins and rearing back. Arthur feels breath, hot and spiteful, on the back of his neck, and then collar of his shirt is being wrenched back with force enough to make breathing uncomfortable.

It takes Arthur a spell longer than it should to realize that the woman’s taken his shirt collar between her teeth to stabilize herself.

Once they’re up the incline, and Mercy’s unhooked her legs and spat out Arthur’s collar—which lands warm and soggy and crumpled against the back of his neck—Arthur sighs and asks, “Was that really necessary?”

Mercy huffs, clearly no more enthused with what just happened than Arthur, “It was either that or a chunk outta your neck, cowboy. Or would you rather I’d taken a tumble and broken my back?”

Arthur’s only response to that is a begrudging sigh, and then it’s back to more silence.

 


 

ROYCE

 

They’re organized, is Royce’s first coherent thought regarding Morgan’s people. She hadn’t known how many to expect—one other at the least (Eas- Morgan’s supposed ‘associate’), four or five more than that at the most—but what Morgan brings Royce to is a much larger operation than that.

The watch-guard had been her first clue. A rough looking man, face littered with fresh looking scars—he might be younger, anywhere from twenty-five to thirty-five, but between the scars and the stubble and weathered lines creasing his features, Royce really can’t say for sure. What Royce can say is that she’s seen the man before. About town, every so often, in and out of the board house on occasion, for use of their bathing room. Gnarly scars aside, he’d never seemed a particularly threatening man, and the one time Royce had conversed with him—stood in line behind her in the general store, a pack of smokes tucked into his palm—he’d been perfectly pleasant, if perhaps a bit too interested in Royce’s personal affairs for her own comfort.

But, as Royce is beginning to learn, she apparently isn’t as good of a character judge here as she’d been in the twenty-first century.

—Not that she’d ever been under the illusion that Morgan was a good man.

No, Royce was smarter than that. She’d seen the cuts on his knuckles that day; fresh as her father’s had ever been on his worst days. Seen the scars that had littered his bared chest—what she presumes to be bullet wounds, both old and new, lacerations that’d never been stitched proper, that had healed in jagged messes. Royce had been aware going into their strange, detached, almost anonymous sort of friendship. She’d always on some level known, had been keenly aware, had realized that Morgan was, perhaps, not the best of men. But he’d been nice enough- had never made Royce feel anything other than safe and respected in his presence- and that had been good enough for her.

That had been her first mistake.

How many times will it take, Royce wonders, before she learns.

 


 

ARTHUR

 

Lenny is the first in camp to notice that Arthur didn’t return alone.

Arthur doesn’t know quite when Lenny noticed Mercy, only that he definitely did at some point, because when Arthur reaches the hitching posts and dismounts, he turns to find Lenny, ready and waiting to take Haunt off Arthur’s hands for a rub down. He’d have to be blind not to have noticed the woman still residing on Haunt’s hindquarters, but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look at her as he greets Arthur like he would any other day.

Arthur greets the lad in kind, but when he turns and reaches out to help Mercy down from the mount, he gets his arm nudged away with the toe of her boot. Arthur snaps his head up, mouth opening to scold her, but takes a pause at the glaring shift her attitude has undergone.

The woman’s expression is carefully neutral, dignified like the look Ms. O’Shea so often wears, but not nearly as condescending. She doesn’t say a word as she shifts, carefully bracing her hands behind her and swinging her opposite leg over to slip down from the horse with as much grace as she can muster, given her restraints. Once she’s landed, she offers Lenny a polite nod, eyes slipping shut for less than a moment as if she were tipping an imaginary hat. Then she’s squaring her shoulders back, holding her head high with an air of detached confidence about her that definitely hadn’t been there a few minutes earlier.

When Arthur turns, puzzled at her change in behavior, she falls into step beside him rather than behind him, gaze flickering about the camp with casual indifference. She meets the eyes of everybody who notices her on their path to Dutch’s tent, attention lingering on each person long enough to assert her lack of intimidation- and perhaps even sow the seeds of her own authority in a few of them.

And Arthur gets it, then—restraints be damned, the woman refuses to look like a prisoner.

By the time they reach Dutch at his tent, the man in question is waiting, arms crossed over his chest with an expression that says he’s ready and willing to lose his temper at a moment’s notice, but is reserving judgement, for now.

“I thought you were working with Strauss today.” The man says when Arthur and Mercy come to a stop before him, “What’s the meaning of this?”

Mercy, eternally able to just listen and obey for once in her damn life (he’d told her to let him do the talking), takes a weighted step forward, looking every bit like a soldier coming to attention, “Your man came by today to collect a debt from the Downes family,” She tells him, tone firm but, thankfully, not aggressive, “A debt they couldn’t hope t’ pay. Now, if I thought it’d do any good, I’d ask you to let ‘em off outta the kindness of your heart, but I think we both know that isn’t how this game works.”

Dutch’s gaze flicks up and down the woman, all business. Then he nods, bidding her to continue.

“I’m here to offer my services in place of the money owed,” She says simply, and then, at Dutch’s pointed silence, she scoffs, rolling her eyes, “Upstairs brain, mate. Pretend for a moment that I’m a man, yeah? Now run that sentence through your head again- that’s what I’m offering. Manual labor in place of payment, complete utilization of my skillset. I’d say, ‘whatever it takes,’ but, well, there are one or two things I’d like to leave off the table. Other than that, though, I’m yours in loyalty, from this day until the day the debt’s been paid.” 

Dutch stares at the woman for a very long time, long enough that even she seems to grow perturbed by his lack of response. Eventually, his tilts his head, calling out, “Charles!”

The man in question appears from somewhere just out of sight.

“Keep an eye on this young lady for a moment while I have a word with Arthur.”

Charles nods, looking perfectly uninterested in the situation as he takes Mercy by the crook of her arm (and Arthur’s surprised she lets him, but he supposes she’s too busy frowning at Dutch) and leads her away as Dutch motions for Arthur to join him in his tent.

Arthur does as bid, letting the flap of the tent fall shut behind him.

“Strauss sent you out on a simple debt collection job.” Dutch says, bracing his hands on his desk, looking down at the papers scattered across it rather than Arthur, “And you managed to come back with an entire person— another mouth to feed.” He pauses to set his jaw, and Arthur can see the muscles of the man’s shoulders tighten through the back of his shirt, “Convince me, Arthur. Walk me through your thought process here.”

Somehow, Arthur doesn’t think Dutch will respond well to, ‘Because I got sick of arguing with the woman and gave up.

Instead, buying himself time to think of an acceptable answer, Arthur says, “Ain’t nothin’ simple about three thousand dollars bein’ owed.”

Dutch’s head snaps around, “Three thousand-” He cuts himself off with an agitated groan, pulls a hand up to pinch at his nose, leaning even more heavily on his desk, “I will be having a talk with that man later, then, I assure you.” Heaving a sigh and letting his hand fall back to his desk, “But the woman, Miss…?” Dutch lifts the hand again to gesture vaguely in prompt.

“Mercy,” Arthur fills in, “Royce Mercy.” Just who in the hell would name their daughter Royce, Arthur doesn’t know.

Mercy,” Dutch echoes dubiously, “Her relation to the Downes family?”

Arthur shifts on his feet, “Married to the son, I think- overheard some folks in town gossipin’ ‘bout her bein’ mail-order. Dunno why she’s clingin’ to ‘er maiden name, still— you’d think she’d wanna be rid of it soon as possible.”

“A glorified whore,” Dutch sighs, pushing away from his desk, “Perfect.”

Something in Arthur prickles at that- not so much at the assertion that Mercy is a whore, but at the implication that a whore is a bad thing to be when there are several perfectly pleasant ladies in their very camp who, based on the day and their whims, could very well be considered as such.

Not that Arthur is about to actually say as much to Dutch.

The man likely doesn’t even make the connection— is too good at distancing the members of the gang from their work. Acts as though the lot of them are somehow above the moral ambiguity of their actions, an exception to the rule, better than the rest.

Different just by the virtue of being them.

“Look at it this way,” Arthur says, disliking the taste of his words before they can even leave his mouth, “They paid for her, yeah, an’ a woman like that, lookin’ like she does? You know she wasn’t cheap. Now, they owe us money, so takin’ her as compensation is like- well, like takin’ the money they paid for her in place a’ the money they owe us.”

Dutch sighs, seeing the sense in Arthur’s argument, but still clearly none too thrilled with it, “There wasn’t any other way you could have collected payment?”

Arthur thinks of Mercy, sincerely ready and willing to shoot him dead if he so much twitched in her general direction without asking first. Thinks of Thomas Downes, so sick he could hardly breathe without devolving into a fit of coughing- certainly in no condition to be rounding up money for debt collectors. Thinks of the half-wilted crops in the garden, of the underfed livestock and of the furniture in the house that had been more splinters than boards, held together with too many nails and a lot of wishful thinking.

But making excuses for the family won’t go over well, either (“You’re too damn nice, Morgan,” and variations thereof seem to be getting thrown at him more and more often, these days), so he hooks a thumb through his belt loop and says, simply, “It was either the woman or nothing at all. This way we’ve at least given them incentive to pay, if they want ‘er back, and if they don’t, well, then at least we got something.”

Dutch kneads the back of his neck, eyes slipping shut as he deliberates. When he opens them, he tells Arthur, firmly, “We don’t need another mouth to take care of. You brought her here, you’ll be responsible for her. That means feeding her, watering her, and making sure she stays out of trouble; no pawning her off on the others unless they explicitly come to you asking to use her. You understand, son?”

Arthur wants to get angry, wants to argue, but he’s had enough arguing for today, so he only gives a resigned sigh and says, “I understand, Dutch.”

Chapter Text

ROYCE

 

Sitting with the man named Charles at a splintered table as she waits for Morgan to finish talking to his boss is… it’s something. Charles seems content to ignore her, for the most part, his hulking frame slouched curled over the table as he meticulously constructs one arrow after the other with a speed and efficiency that Royce can only describe as inhuman. He doesn’t ever look at Royce, but something about the way he’s holding himself tells her that, despite how involved he is in his task, he’s still keenly aware of her presence.

“Don’t suppose you’d be willing t’ untie me?” Royce drawls after she grows bored of sitting in silence.

The man doesn’t react for a moment, but then he’s looking up from his work to where Royce sits across from him. He stares at her for a moment before raising a brow, blinks at her, “No.”

“Figures,” Royce huffs, turning so she’s sitting backwards in her seat, her back to Charles. Then, pulling her knees up to her chest and curling in on herself, she forces her legs through the loop of her arms so that her wrists are bound in front of her rather than behind her. When she turns back around, Charles is looking at her with something like deadpan incredulity and—maybe—just a little bit of amusement, “Look,” Royce tells him, “I dunno if you’ve ever had your hands tied behind your back, but that shit starts to hurt after a while, okay?”

Charles huffs, shakes his head, moves his pile of completed arrows out of Royce’s reach (smart man), and goes back to work.

Uggggh,” Royce groans after ten more minutes of silence, bracing her forearms on the table, bowing her head and craning her neck to look at the tent Morgan and his boss had disappeared into, “What is taking them so long?!

Charles’ eyes flick up from his task briefly, but that’s the only acknowledgement he gives her.

Royce drops her chin into the conjoined heels of her hands, lets the corners of her mouth curl, “You always this conversational, or am I just special?”

Silence.

Royce huffs, rolling her eyes and letting her hands fall back onto the table. Knits her fingers together, taps her thumbs against the tabletop, makes it another three minutes before giving into the urge to break the silence, this time with something she thinks she might—just maybe—get somewhere with, “Pass me those cards?” She asks, nodding to the well-worn deck of cards by her keeper’s elbow. She could probably reach it, if she tried, but she’d rather ask—try and develop some sort of rapport—rather than just scoop them up herself (It’s also entirely possible that the man will see her reaching for the cards and think she’s reaching for him, which could have dangerous ramifications).

The man looks up from his work, brows knit, then follows Royce’s eyes when she flicks them pointedly towards the deck.

“I’m only being so talkative cuz I’m bored—c’mon, mate, you’d be doing yourself a favor.” She says, nodding her chin towards the cards and grabbing at the air. When Charles doesn’t make a move to do anything, she scoffs, levels him a dry look, “What am I gonna do, stab you to death with their rounded corners?” How many paper cuts would it take, Royce wonders, to kill somebody?

Charles’ lips twitch and this time he’s definitely smiling, even if it’s only a wee baby one. He lets a puff of air out through his nose, amused, then shakes his head, slides the deck of cards across the table.

 


 

ARTHUR

 

By the time Arthur leaves Dutch’s tent, the sun has begun to set, leaving the quickly darkening camp lit primarily by firelight and lanterns.

Somehow, inbetween being handed off to Charles and now, Mercy has managed not only to reverse her bindings, but to acquire a deck of playing cards.

She’s sitting cross-legged at a table with Charles—the latter diligently adding fletchings and arrowheads to several quivers worth of freshly carved arrow shafts—playing some sort of game with herself that involves arranging the cards in columns and layering them on top of each other.

“C’mon,” Arthur says, approaching the table, too tired to even ask, “Dutch is callin’ the camp together—you’re gonna introduce yourself.”

Slowly, Mercy sets down the card she’d been holding, “Fine,” Pushes herself up from the table and turns to face Arthur, “On one condition.”

Arthur closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose and wills himself not to snap, “What?”

The woman holds her arms out, hands still bound at the wrist, and flourishes her fingers.

Realistically, Arthur knows that he won’t be able to keep Mercy tied up forever, so he scrubs a hand over his face and reaches down to pull the knife from his boot. Mercy’s eyes follow the motion, narrowing when she sees the blade, “Don’t even think about it,” Arthur tells her, gripping her by the wrist to hold her still while he cuts through her bindings.

Mercy’s eyes leave the knife, fix on Arthur’s face, and for the briefest of seconds, she looks almost confused—then she’s scoffing, “I don’t need a knife to be dangerous,” and turning on her heels, undoing the second half of her bindings on her own as she walks towards where Dutch has begun to gather the camp with long, confident strides.

“Well, this oughtta be interesting.” Charles says like the traitor he is as he pushes himself up from the table to wander off towards the others.

All Arthur really wants to do right now is sleep, but, like Dutch said, Mercy’s his responsibility now. So, Arthur tucks his knife back into his boot and joins the rest of the camp, where Dutch has already begun to explain the situation. Arthur listens quietly, content to let Dutch do the talking while he looks over the gang members to see their thoughts on the matter.

Abagail, Jack, and, begrudgingly, John, are gathered along the fringes of the little semicircle formed around Mercy and Dutch. Abagail looks curious, Jack looks something between intimidated and infatuated, and John just glowers, his eyes quickly cutting over to Arthur before shifting back to Mercy in rapid succession, face growing more screwed up with each pass.

Arthur will be getting an earful from the man later, he’s sure.

Miss O’Shea lingers by Dutch’s tenth, arms crossed over her chest, firelight casting harsh shadows over her face. Arthur can see the wheels turning in her mind, the way her brows twitch together when Dutch places a hand on Mercy’s forearm, the breath she lets out when the woman in question takes a hasty step away from the man and glares at him, accusatory.

Mrs. Adler is idling in the back, far from the rest of the camp. She wears the same haunted expression she’s been wearing since the night they found her, one arm crossed over her chest to clutch at her opposing bicep. Halfway through Dutch’s speech, she sighs, casts her eyes downwards, turns away and slinks back to the tree she can so often be found moping beneath.

Mrs. Grimshaw watches the proceedings with a scowl, no-doubt seeing nothing but another mouth to feed, another woman to look after.

The rest of the women, for the most part, seem more intrigued than anything. Tucked into a tight cluster, they whisper, as they so often do. Arthur see’s Karen reach up to her face and taps her left nostril pointedly, quickly moving her hand to pinch the bridge of her nose before gesturing animatedly towards where Mercy lingers next to Dutch. If the woman is intimidated, she doesn’t show it; just hooks her thumbs through the beltloops of her trousers and idles there, deadpan.

Aside from John, the men seem vaguely interested but nothing more, though Arthur is sure that, were Micah here, he’d certainly have something to say—especially when Dutch tells the camp, “Should you’ve any work you’d like Mrs. Mercy’s assistance with, you may put your request in with Arthur, as she’ll be staying with us under his care.” Then Dutch is clearing his throat, stepping back and gesturing Mercy forwards with a sweep of his hand, asking after any notable strengths that might be of help to the camp.

Mercy’s eyes pass over the faces of the gang members, expression inscrutable, then says, almost begrudgingly, “Manual labor, mostly.” Glares when Javier coughs out a surprised laugh, repositions her stance; makes herself look bigger, “I’m strong and I don’t complain, so—whatever that’s worth to you. I can fish, can cook alright. Never dressed an animal before but I’m good with a blade, I ain’t squeamish, and I’m a helluva quick study, so I doubt it’ll take me long to learn.” A moment of silence, and Arthur thinks she’s done until she adds, as if an afterthought, “Stitches—I can also-” Clears her throat, “-I can suture wounds good, if need be.”

Silence, as the gang perhaps expects another addendum.

Mercy seems to grow irritated with this, eventually shifting her eyes over the group and snaps, with an aggressive—almost defensive—note of finality, “That’s it.”

And so Dutch closes his introduction, dismisses them.

There’s murmuring as the gang disperses, some looks cast in Mercy’s direction. Karen looks like she might want to even walk over to the woman and say something, but Arthur is tugging Mercy away by her arm before she can have the chance to.