Sadie and Charles didn’t look quite as bad as Arthur and John did, but they certainly weren’t unruffled either. Sadie had a shallow cut across one palm that came from trying to grab a knife, and Charles had a line of blood running down one cheek from where a punch had split the skin over his cheekbone. But they were all alive, and apparently the other two had followed Arthur’s request about leaving folks alive without managing to beat someone half to death.
The train guards were dead, and the engineer had a head wound nasty enough that he wouldn’t be driving the train. Spared, however, had been the assistant engineer, who Sadie had nearly frightened to death when she pulled him out of his hiding place in a cabinet, as were most of the train staff that had been in the passenger cars at the time. Meant they had someone to get them into a train station and folks to calm the passengers back into a reasonable state for travel. Which was a good thing, because that was something John suspected they were all severely underequipped to handle. If he had to listen to one more stuck-up rich person complain about the fact the robbery inconvenienced them, he was going to find a revolver and hold them up himself, damn what Arthur’d say about it.
And though they were thanked profusely for taking the men down, to the point where the train staff offered any sort of service they needed or wanted, mostly John just felt exhausted. The fact that they’d been on the other side of the moral line this time didn’t mean that a job wasn’t a job, and John was feeling the subsequent drain. Once they freed up one of the horse cars and padlocked the gang members—apparently part of some gang that John’d never heard of and forgot the name of near immediately—into it, John ended up sitting back in one of the luggage cars, tucked up against one of the walls as the train started up again, finally pulled its way out of the tunnel. It wasn’t like someone was going to tell him otherwise, not after what they’d done, and it took him away from the light and the noise that proved to irritate the ache in his head.
This time it was Arthur that sought him out, for once. Two mugs in hand, the real porcelain kind that John had only seen in the houses of folks who could afford to replace them when they broke. Seemed they were trusted enough by the train staff now to be upgraded from the beat up metal cups they’d used in camp.
Arthur passed him one and the smell quickly let John determine it was coffee. Probably rich folk coffee at that. Arthur put his own mug on one of the shorter crates, slowly lowered himself to the floor opposite John. Achy, probably, because John was too and they had every right to be.
“You alright?” Arthur’s voice was near painfully hoarse, and the sound made John want to wince. Arthur’d cleaned the blood from his face, nose long stopped bleeding, but the flecks of red on his cheek—and, now that John looked, spattered in places across his eyelids, brow, temples, probably under the beard too—remained, like little starbursts under his skin.
“Fine,” John said, cupping the mug in his hands, still smeared with dried blood, the same blood that was caught up in the front of Arthur’s shirt from where John’d grabbed it to keep himself upright. “Head hurts but ain’t gettin’ worse. You?”
“Alright. Charles’s got me drinking some tea for the…” and in lieu of continuing Arthur just gestured vaguely at his own throat. “Can’t even tell if it’s helpin’.”
“Don’t sound no better,” John said, and Arthur shrugged in response. John took a swallow of coffee, trying to consider the best way to say it. Ended up just going blunt, stated, “We gotta talk, you know.”
Arthur sighed. “I know. Got the same from Sadie.” And John ducked his head so Arthur couldn’t see him flush at that, because John was still acutely aware that Sadie knew and had talked to Tilly about John’s Arthur mess.
Luckily, Arthur was distracted enough not to notice, or maybe just thought it was John’s normal reaction to other folks being in his business. Glanced John over, eyes landing on his left arm, asked, “You cleaned that up yet?” At John’s head shake, he continued, “Lemme see it. Might as well do somethin’ useful while we’re at it.”
John let him, let Arthur push up the sleeve of his shirt to expose the knife wound, partly because the contact was nice but mostly because he needed time to figure out what he wanted to say.
There was too much, was the problem. Felt like every time he and Arthur talked that something new got dredged from the depths. Like knowing Arthur for near fifteen years meant nothing in the face of everything, because so much had changed. Both who they were and the world they lived in.
This new thing about not killing anyone at all itched at John. Started out as a weird feeling and now, after Arthur’d nearly gotten killed over it, it was a full on itch. He didn’t know where Arthur got off, painting himself as some great paragon of what was good and right. Drawing lines, just expecting the rest of them to follow them without question, to wait indefinitely for potential explanations. Thinking he had the right answer to everything, that he knew the best thing to do in every single situation.
But maybe that wasn’t fair, maybe it was biting just to bite. Because it wasn’t like Arthur was anything like Dutch, not at his core. Because John was stiff and his head hurt and above all he was exhausted, because Arthur was so fucking good now that it wore John out to be around. And trying to measure up to the goodness, trying to be normal was worse. And Arthur’s hands were gentle even when he laid them to either side of where the knife split the skin, trying to gauge the deepness, and when was the last time John’d seen Arthur be gentle to him?
And John was trying. Really goddamn trying. Trying to be better and to be good and to build a life and to make Abigail happy and to give Jack a childhood and, maybe, to be the kind of person Arthur might love back. However vague and unknown that was.
They were talking, and that was good. They could talk, so long as John could figure out what to say. Two things, he decided. The killing thing, and whatever the fuck Arthur kept seeing. That much was enough.
Finally, because Arthur loved telling him what to do, John settled on beginning with asking, “So why’re you mad? What’d I do wrong?”
Arthur’d rested John’s palm on one of his knees, keeping John’s arm still while he cleaned the cut. His eyes flicked only briefly up to John’s and down again before he asked, “’sides beatin’ a man unconscious?”
And though John knew that was what the problem was, still, “I don’t get why you’re mad at me over that. They ain’t good men, Arthur.”
Arthur sighed, reached for the suture kit that had apparently been tucked away in some first-class medicine cabinet. Silk thread, like Renaud had used, rather than the catgut they’d always used back at camp, because rich folks always wanted the best. Arthur waited until he had the needle between his fingers to say, “First of all, I ain’t mad at you.”
“No?” Felt like John’s skin was trying to twitch away from the needle when Arthur pressed the first stitch into his flesh. Wasn’t like it hurt, not really, not against the pain already radiating from the cut, but his skin still didn’t like it. Arthur’d sure seemed mad at him, way he snapped back when it’d all happened.
“Nah. Think you’re a fool, but we knew that already.” Pulled the thread through, looped it around. Drew John’s skin back together. “Wish you’d listen to things the first time I say them and not lose your mind, sure, but I ain’t mad.”
“Got a better chance of listenin’ when you actually say what you mean.”
Arthur didn’t even look up at him, just kept with the needle, quick, efficient little stitches. John had no idea where he’d learned that from. “Sure, ‘cause we had all the time in the world when men with guns were comin’ our way.”
And John knew that too, but it didn’t mean he didn’t have a right to be annoyed over it. “Yeah, well, we got time now.”
Arthur tied off the last stitch, cut the thread close to John’s skin. Took a mouthful of tea before saying, “Let me put it this way. Say it was us, robbin’ the train, and some folks got it in their heads to stop us, protect the folks here, and by whatever strange miracle, they do. Turn us all in to the law alive, let the law decide to hang us. Now, what do you think Dutch would do, word got back to him?”
“Break us out?” Kinda irked John that Arthur was back to treating him like a kid, like some fool still learning the basics of what they did. Because he’d always be a kid in Arthur’s eyes, always be in over his head. Because he’d never be anything more than the fool younger brother that needed to be told what to do.
“Sure, probably. Wouldn’t give a second thought to the men what turned us in for the bounty.” Arthur’d switched over to bandages now, enough to catch what little blood leaked through the stitches before it clotted. “Now say instead they end up killin’ one, maybe a couple of us. And Dutch, he knows what folks did it, ‘cause the passengers on that train been laudin’ them like heroes, and he manages to get wind of where they came from, where they live, who their family are. What d’you think he’d do then? ‘cause me, I reckon even with all that pretty talk about not wantin’ revenge, Dutch would make sure all those folks with hero complexes learn not to take his family away from him.”
Sure, but it weren’t like they were some average folks that wanted to play hero. “Can handle a few men with guns, Arthur.”
And that got Arthur’s face to snap up at John, his voice to go as sharp as the hoarseness would let it. “I ain’t done. See Dutch, as things go, weren’t the worst of it. Say a man like Colm O’Driscoll finds out his men had been killed. He don’t care about the men themselves, more the idea of bein’ disrespected. He finds out where you live, John, and he finds out you got a wife and child. What do you think a man like that might do?”
And that caused sickness to ripple across John’s stomach, because he knew the aftermath of what Colm did for revenge. Annabelle was before his time, but even then, he knew the details, knew the way Dutch went angry when talking about it, how it colored everything after. “Christ, Arthur—”
Arthur’s eyes unyielding as he continued, “Whole goddamn world runs on revenge, John, been on the bad side of enough ambushes to know that. Most men who’d rob a train are men like Colm was. You wanna gamble Abigail and Jack on that?”
John wanted to yank his arm away from where Arthur was holding it, paused halfway through wrapping the bandage, wanted to curl into himself. “No—no, I don’t, I—Arthur, I get your point, but—but, so, what, we let all those bad folks live? Let them keep hurtin’ people? Ain’t that just as bad?”
After a moment, maybe enough for Arthur to decide he was satisfied with John’s answer, Arthur’s eyes dropped back down and he resumed wrapping the bandage. “I ain’t sayin’ there ain’t a time and a place for a bad man meetin’ his end, and I ain’t even sayin’ that we’ll never need to be the ones doin’ it, if need be. But sometimes y’gotta at least use the brain you got in your head, elsewise it’s gonna dry up completely.”
And John thought that would be the end of it. Arthur tucked the end of the bandage over itself, secured it with a bit of tape. John took his arm back, rolled his sleeve back down, said, “Yeah, yeah okay. Use my brain. Think it through.” He could do that much, right, thinking through something before he did it?
But Arthur sighed, looked John straight in the eye and said, “Y’lost control back there, John.” Nodded towards John’s busted knuckles to make clear what he meant.
John’s brain went stuttery. Because no—
No, he’d just—
All he’d wanted—
Shit, hadn’t he?
“Why does that matter?” And John knew immediately that it was the wrong thing to say, that of course losing his head was a bad thing, because that—that was what Dutch’d kept doing, wasn’t it?
“Why does it matter?” Arthur’s eyes gone hard, cold, the train car jittering beneath them. “What happens, John, the next time some fool gets it in his head to hold you up? Hell, next time you’re in a bar fight? You beat a man’s face in because he looked at you funny? We gotta be better than that, or this thing we’re doin’, it ain’t gonna get very far.”
“C’mon, like you don’t know what it’s like.” Sure, Arthur’d gotten better about it, but it wasn’t like he was some paragon of self-control either. John’d lost count of how many times he’d watched Arthur lose it on someone, seeing as he’d been the recipient of such on more than one occasion.
“I do, and I’m workin’ on it, ‘cause you can’t stop it without a goddamn effort.” Still staring John down like a hunting dog, and why the hell did he think John wasn’t making an effort?
“I’m tryin’, I’m—” Of course he hadn’t meant to lose it, but Arthur—Arthur’d been on the ground— “It ain’t—it ain’t like I had a goddamn choice, alright?”
Arthur scoffed, head turning away, and the noise sent a prickle through John’s skin. “We always got a choice.”
Dismissive, even now, like John was some fool with as little self control as Micah Bell, like there wasn’t a reason he’d gotten caught up in in himself. “He had his hands on your goddamn throat. He coulda killed you, Arthur, you think I got a choice there? Think I was gonna sit back and watch you die again?”
“That ain’t the problem—”
“No, the problem is that I ain’t allowed to get mad ‘bout how you mighta been strangled by some two-bit outlaw while I was knocked out on the goddamn ground.”
“John.” He’d turned away, but at Arthur’s voice John pulled his head back to face Arthur. And Arthur’d gone softer, his head just slightly turned, eyebrows low, and John couldn’t for the life of him figure why until Arthur said, slow, “John, that weren’t your fault.”
“I—what?” John felt the confusion creep onto his own face, because—because was he…?
“It weren’t your fault, man got me on my back.” Arthur’s eyes were now searching John’s face, though what he was looking for, John didn’t know. Arthur’s voice low, near hard to understand with the noise of the train as he asked, “Is that—is that what this is about? Lettin’ him up?”
Was—was he guilty? John hadn’t considered it, but— “No—no, it ain’t—” But it didn’t even sound convincing to John himself, and from the way Arthur continued, he didn’t buy it either.
“John, we ain’t done anythin’ like that in near half a year. We’re gonna make mistakes. So he got away from you, so what?”
It was John’s turn to scoff. “Sure, easy for you to say. Ain’t like you were the one fuckin’ things up.”
Arthur sighed at that, turned his head to the side. Thought a moment between the hum of the train over the tracks before turning back, said, “You know why he got me down?” And John opened his mouth to say because the man had slipped out of John’s blood-slicked grip, but Arthur shook his head before he could. “Ain’t all your doin’, as much as you still like to think everythin’ starts and stops with you. I got—got distracted. I wasn’t thinkin’ and paid for it.”
“Distracted by what?” John asked, because he always got caught on the less important details.
Arthur had his arms resting on his bent knees, and it wasn’t until he shifted, brought a hand to the back of his neck, that John realized Arthur’d been worrying at the one shirt sleeve, opening and closing the button repeatedly. “Don’t really matter now. Listen, you didn’t see a guy that was hidin’, I got distracted. I got choked out, you got concussed. We’re even. That’s why we got each other, John, so we can get out hurt but not dead. Ain’t so you can beat men to death when they’ve already given up.”
“I thought…” John nearly bit his tongue, nearly let it trail off there. But—but it needed to be said, he needed Arthur to know— “Thought you were dyin’ again. Can’t—can’t live with the thought of that.”
If John didn’t know better, he’d say Arthur was the one looking guilty now, way he was biting his cheek. Arthur’s voice even softer, buzzing with gravel when he said, “I know—know you don’t wanna lose folks, John.” Funny how it was always folks when it was Arthur saying it, like he wasn’t any more important than anyone else. “But losin’ yourself to it ain’t good neither. We can’t be that sort of folk, not any more. ‘cause you don’t wanna be Dutch, and neither do I.”
“I know, I—I get it.” Christ, and here John was the one who’d wanted to have this conversation.
“‘sides, I’m made of sturdier stuff than that.” Arthur’d grabbed the mug of tea again, let it rest in one palm as he said, “Let’s make a deal, okay? We’ll compromise, make Hosea proud that somethin’ he taught us finally got through our thick skulls. You don’t want me to throw myself in front of bullets? Fine, I can do that. But my condition is you use more than half your brain and keep your mind in your head. Fair?”
John considered it for a handful of seconds, couldn’t find any fault in it. “Fair enough.” One more thing for John to work on. Felt near overwhelming at this point, being a different person, but it wasn’t like he wasn’t asking the same thing of Arthur.
“Deal, then.” Arthur held out his hand to shake, and John took it, forgetting completely the busted knuckles. Arthur, to his credit, let go immediately when John winced with a quick, “Sorry,” and then, while John shook his hand out in a fruitless attempt to ease the pain, said, “Can look at that too, if you want.”
“Nah,” John said, scraping his left thumb over one of the splits. “Ain’t that bad, I can handle it.” As much as he liked the contact with Arthur, he thought he might about explode if there was much more of it, for multiple reasons he could only half identify.
“Sure?” Arthur asked, scooting back so he was leaning against the wall opposite John again anyway. “Station ain’t for another half hour at least, least from what whatever his name said. Need somethin’ to do.”
And John had a solution to that, for once. “There was another thing, actually.”
“Back on the train, even before with the wolves, you—you saw somethin’, right?”
He asked it careful, but even then the change in Arthur was near immediate. His face, previously a light sort of curious, immediately closed off, falling into something partly wary, partly annoyed, but mostly just downright exhausted. He sighed, tilted his head back to rest against the wall of the train car. Murmured, “John, I…”
The angle gave John a better view of the darkening bruises against his neck, the fingerprint bruises and the two streaks where webbing between the man’s thumb and forefinger had cut into Arthur’s windpipe. The way John’s stomach rolled at the sight only made him want to press further. “I mean it, Arthur. We can’t keep avoidin’ shit like this.”
“Ain’t tryin’ to avoid it, just… just trying to figure out how to word it.” Arthur took another sip from the mug, winced. John might’ve felt guiltier about making Arthur continue to talk through a sore throat if this talk wasn’t so far overdue. “Listen, John, you either ain’t gonna believe me or you’re gonna think I’m crazy, and I ain’t particularly inclined towards either.”
“We thrive on unbelievable shit, Arthur, just try me.”
“You’ll believe me.” It was a command more than a question.
“Yeah, sure. Ain’t sure I can deny somethin’ only you’re seein’.” God, this was cagey, even for Arthur.
“I…”Arthur paused again, eyebrows pressed low, before finally murmuring, low, quiet, “I been—been seein’ a stag.”
A stag? “What d’you mean?” And at Arthur’s look, John said, “Hey, ain’t—ain’t me doubtin’ you or nothin’, just—like a deer?”
“A goddamn deer,” Arthur confirmed, voice like it was a painful thing to admit.
“I…” John trailed off, because that—that didn’t make sense, right? A deer? Sure, out when they were chasing down the sheep, but, “Like just a deer in—in the train?”
In lieu of an answer, Arthur instead reached for his satchel, still lying open from what little they’d needed from it when wrapping John’s arm, and pulled out his journal. Flipped through it before landing on a page, turned it around to face John. Said, “This is it.”
It was, indeed, a stag. A normal enough stag, at least as far as John knew. Long legs, tapered snout, big ears and tail. Sharp, sloping antlers, split into so many points that they faded into one another in the flat grey lines across the paper. Eyes—eyes like they were looking through John, and John had no idea how Arthur’d managed that with just a pencil.
Arthur lay the journal on the floor between them, smoothed the paper out so it stayed open. “Started with dreams. Earliest was after the mess with Colm, far as I can recall. Then in Guarma, and a couple more times after. Then…” Arthur heaved a sigh, one deep enough that it seemed like it rattled through his bruised throat. “Then it started showin’ up when I was awake too.”
“What d’you mean?”
“What it sounds like. Goddamn stag shows up in places it got no right bein’. First happened in Saint Denis. I—uh. Hm.” Arthur paused before leaning back, sucking air in through his teeth in a displeased sort of way.
“Just realized I ain’t never told you ‘bout this. Y’ain’t gonna like it.”
And that could mean one of only a few things. “What’d you do, Arthur?”
Arthur scraped a boot heel against the wooden floor of the train car before saying, almost gingerly, “Passed out in the saddle in the middle of Saint Denis.”
“Was just off the boat from Guarma, hadn’t slept in days ‘sides a few hours in Lakay ‘fore goddamn Milton showed up with that gattlin’ gun and ruined that. Supposed to be meetin’ Sadie and just—just went dizzy and—alright,” Arthur said, because he’d finally turned his eyes back on John and caught the look John was giving him, and John hoped it conveyed every little bit of frustration he felt, “alright, listen, I said you weren’t gonna like it, and it ain’t like we can change the past, okay? ‘sides, only reason I was there in the first place was ‘cause you were in Sisika and Dutch weren’t doin’ nothin’ to fix that and we wasn’t sure when they was gonna hang you, so get mad at Dutch, not me.”
John was mad at Dutch, a constant rolling anger bubbling just below the surface, but that wasn’t what was important here. “Can’t believe you fainted in the street and still didn’t think you should stop runnin’ ragged.” Goddamn right, John didn’t like it.
“Had a lot of other shit on my mind.” But Arthur didn’t seem entirely convinced by his own words, and maybe that was one victory for the past few months, that Arthur could see it now.
John sighed, rubbed the side of his face with a palm. Got them back on topic, because they could argue about this all day if they really got into it and John’s head still hurt. “You saw it then?”
Arthur shook his head. “Later, after I fell off the horse and some fool dragged me to the doctor. Man gave me somethin’ was supposed to wake me up enough to get home, only I got back out and there was a buck standing clear in the middle of the street, just—just lookin’ at me.”
“Don’t know how much more you want than a deer in the middle of Saint Denis.”
“No, I mean—didn’t do nothin’?”
“Nah,” Arthur said, rolling his shoulders, “just looked a minute, then turned a corner and was gone. Don’t think the other folks could see it neither, seein’ as city folk make noise about that sort of thing.”
John traced his eyes over the drawing, trying to imagine it. A stag on a Saint Denis street, hooves splayed on the cobblestone, antlers stretching up against the brick and iron. Like something from one of Jack’s books, and equally hard to picture. “And that—that happened again?”
Arthur hummed a little affirmative noise. He seemed resigned to it now, to telling it fully, and John wasn’t so much a fool that he couldn’t be grateful they wouldn’t have to fight through it. “Thought—thought maybe I was seein’ things, what with the drugs, only it kept on showin’ up. ‘fore the Cornwall mess with Dutch, then again in the oil fields. Night it went bad it was there more’n once, though reckon I started actually seein’ things near the end there.”
Wait—that meant that the morning with the wolves wasn’t the first time Arthur’d seen it with John right with him. The thought made him unnerved, though he couldn’t really place why. “And you ain’t never said nothin’?”
Arthur shrugged. “Weren’t like I was particularly excited to tell folks I was seein’ things no one else was. ‘sides, thought it was gone up until that mornin’ with the sheep.”
That explained why Arthur had reacted as harshly as he did, if he thought they were suddenly in danger again. “And then just now.”
Arthur only nodded, once again lifting the tea up to his lips.
John tried to push past the ache in his head, think through what information he’d been given. A deer. A buck that only Arthur could see, one that showed up and disappeared at random. Started in dreams, eventually showed in the waking world. “So—so what, you’re, you’re haunted?”
“Think what I am is crazy,” Arthur said with an eyebrow raise, pulling the journal back towards him.
But that didn’t sound right, because it seemed—seemed too consistent, almost, like there was a logic to it. After Arthur’d passed out, before Dutch shot Cornwall. On the night Dutch nearly killed Arthur, on the morning of the wolves— “Back with the sheep, you said somethin’ was wrong, right? When you saw it?”
Arthur wasn’t looking at him, had his eyes down on the journal in his hand. “So far as I can tell, thing only seems to show up when somethin’ bad’s gonna happen or—or is already goin’ wrong.”
“So… so it’s protectin’ you?” And when Arthur’s eyes drifted up to him, John continued, “Like… a warnin’?”
“Y’seem awfully quick to believe this thing’s real.” Arthur’s voice quiet again, hard to hear under the noise of the train.
“Why wouldn’t it be? We seen all sorts of crazy shit and this is the one that ain’t?”
“You ain’t exactly the one seein’ it, John.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy, Arthur.” And when Arthur scoffed under his breath, John insisted, “I don’t. Think you’re a lot of things, a goddamn annoyin’ closed-off bastard chief among them, but crazy ain’t one. Not for some stag that only seems interested in warnin’ you.”
“So glad I got your endorsement.” A flat deadpan, which meant Arthur didn’t believe him.
“Listen, Arthur, way I see it, there’s two things, right? Either it’s like—like some sort of ghost or whatever and all it seems to want to do is let you when shit’s goin’ south, or it’s—it’s you knowin’ somethin’s wrong, okay, but the stag—it’s like you can see your instincts, right? Neither—neither of those seem like a bad thing to me.”
“That makes one of us.”
“You ain’t crazy, Arthur. No more’n the rest of us, not ‘cause you see some deer sometimes.”
“Sure.” But it seemed like a bit of the tension had gone out of Arthur’s shoulders as he snapped the journal shut.
“You’ll tell me if you see it again?” If this thing was really a spirit of some kind that had fixated on Arthur, if it knew when things were about to go wrong, that was valuable, like a forewarning system.
“Sure, I guess,” Arthur said, lifting one hand in a dismissive sort of gesture. “Don’t really think you’re gonna let me say no.”
“Christ, yes, John, are we five year olds?” And Arthur sighed, rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Your head still okay?”
“Fine,” John said, finally starting on cleaning his right hand. The pain had faded some, maybe a combination of the coffee and not doing anything to irritate it.
“Right, be right back then.”
“Where’re you going?” John asked, watching Arthur pull himself to his feet. Stiff, sore, because they’d both been out of practice with the whole train robbery thing.
“Goin’ to get us some company.”
As ominous as that sounded, John didn’t look up when he heard Arthur reenter the boxcar. As such, he jumped near out of his skin when Arthur deposited the border collie puppy in his lap.
Arthur snorted, and John shot him a glare as the puppy immediately made herself busy tugging on the bandages John was trying to wrap around his hand. “Was kinda in the middle of somethin’ here.”
“Don’t be like that, she saved your life today,” Arthur said, this time sitting himself next to John, leaning up against the wall with him in the space between two crates.
“Don’t mean I gotta like her eatin’ the goddamn—give it,” John said, wresting the cloth from the puppy’s mouth. “Why don’t any of your dogs got manners?”
Arthur, just watching the spectacle, did nothing to help. “Listen, just ‘cause you still got that stupid grudge against Copper don’t mean you gotta take that out on her.”
The dog was now scaling John’s chest as he tried to tie off the bandage in time to pull her off. “Nah, it’s your fault you let that goddamn dog run wild. He ate my goddamn boot, Arthur.”
“He ate everyone’s boots, don’t go thinkin’ you’re special.”
“’cause you ain’t never had single ounce of control over him your entire—hey,” John said, as the dog had chosen that very moment to decide that all she wanted was stick the cold wet of her nose right where John’s neck met his collarbone. But the noise seemed to only serve to draw her attention because suddenly the puppy was licking him. All over the few parts of his face and neck that weren’t covered by the beard, on his ears and cheeks and lips, a sensation that made John squirm.
And John would’ve pushed her away if not for the fact that Arthur was laughing. A bright, near uncontrollable noise, and the warmth that spread up from John’s chest made his skin tingle. Real, genuine laughter, and even when the laughter broke into coughing, Arthur’s bruised throat not ready for the strain, the coughing was rippled with half-stifled giggles.
And John ducked his head, because he knew the smile that had broken across his face was incredibly fond, too goofy and ridiculous to seem like a normal reaction to Arthur laughing at him being harassed by a puppy.
Finally the hacking eased and Arthur got enough air back in his lungs to mutter, “Ah, Christ,” an amused tone to his voice even as he coughed one last time, brought a hand up to rub at his throat.
“You alright?” John asked, though it was mostly for consistency at this point.
“Fine, fine,” Arthur waved his concern away, waggled his fingers to get the puppy’s attention, eventually scooping her off of John when she seemed hell bent on getting her nose as far under the collar of John’s shirt as she could. “Listen, alright, we’re alive, John. And we got land, and we got folks here with us, and we got us goddamn puppy. All that other shit, we can figure that out. But we’re gonna be okay.”
“We’re gonna be okay,” John confirmed. We. Because for all the fighting, the concussion and the choking, the bleeding and the screaming and the stag, they were together. They were together, and they were going to stay that way, and they were going to be okay.
The rest of the ride slipped by in a hazy sort of blur. By the time the train pulled into the station, the dog was sleeping soundly in the space between their outstretched legs.