Arthur woke uneasily, sensing something amiss. Opening his eyes, there was Miss Schofield, standing just inside his tent, holding a tin cup with both hands, watching him.
Watching him sleep?
“What is it? What’s wrong?” He groaned out, throwing back his wool blanket to sit up and put his boots on.
Even as he brought a hand up to rub at his eyes, he could see her shifting on her feet. Her voice was a little more than a whisper, “Nothing… I… I need to talk to you, is all.”
“… Now?” If nothing was wrong, he couldn’t understand what in the world would be so important to talk about so early in the damn morning she couldn’t even wait for him to wake up at his usual hour...
Hearing his impatience tightened the line of her mouth, drawing her full lips thin. It was then that Arthur noticed the bruised look around her eyes, and he wondered if she’d slept at all. Though, he supposed, he’d observed already that she really hadn’t seemed to sleep well ever since being shooed of out Dutch’s bed. He wondered momentarily if she had conflicting feelings about that incident, itself, or if her lack of rest had more to do with the situations in camp. Or perhaps fancy Miss Catherine-Louise just couldn’t tolerate sleeping on the ground?
“Yes, now,” She answered, not allowing any of the tension her face betrayed to be revealed in her hushed voice, “Before anybody else wakes up and the day’s demands need addressing.”
Arthur didn’t like it. Whatever she had to say was certain to trouble him. He’d been doing well enough with the two of them not interfering in the business of the other these past few days. It’d been a struggle, of course— he cared for her, there was no way he could outright ignore her, but he could keep his distance and keep busy and do his damndest to not turn his head every time he heard her voice. She’d seemed content enough with the situation, too, after their brief talk at the campfire both too many and not enough nights ago. Why was she disrupting that unspoken truce between them, now?
Noticing his prolonged hesitation, she insisted, “Will you please just walk with me a bit and hear what I have to say? You asked me a question, and I didn’t give you a proper answer. That’s all I want to do.”
Sighing heavily, both wondering and dreading which question she’d never answered him straight she’d be addressing so early this morning, and how it might shape the rest of this long day for the worse, Arthur nodded resignedly and gestured toward Pearson’s wagon.
“Can I get some coffee first…?”
“I brought you some here…” She looked aside uncomfortably and held out the tin cup.
“… Is it still hot?” He asked, lurching to his feet with a loud crack that could either have been from his pallet or his joints, in truth.
“Cup’s warm enough. I… I made the coffee fresh this morning, so it should be good.”
“Hm.” He grunted noncommittally. After taking the, indeed still quite warm, cup from her, he indicated she precede him out of the tent and grabbed his hat before following her out.
It was early— still pre-dawn, and the light was thin and gray across the desert. Their breath came out in icy clouds in the chill. Winter seemed closer and closer every day, and watching the lady fold her arms tightly to her body, Arthur thought again about how she had no coat. She’d bought for herself a tent and bedroll, but no coat, and had put more than fifty dollars in the box.
He thought about that more than he probably ought.
He left it to Hosea and the ladies to chide her about getting a coat— with winter coming— but she’d said her next monies would go toward another riding skirt, as hers had been torn and, though mended, was in sore need of replacing.
They walked in silence between the wagons and tents, and the sounds of snoring bodies, past where she’d set up her little solitary canvas just beyond the women’s tent and their wagon. It was far from the fires, and as it didn’t look like she’d built one of her own; he wondered if she were cold at night.
She’d made clear she wanted to do for herself, but Arthur couldn’t help but think she didn’t rightly know how, and with how things had changed in camp, might be too proud to ask as she’d done before. As it was, she’d put the little tent together by herself, but by Arthur’s estimate, only one good storm rushing through would do in for that.
Maybe… he could fix it for her next time she was out of camp…
Though it was none of his business. She wanted to do for herself— had told him plainly she didn’t need looking after, hadn’t she? If she’d rather be proud than dry and warm, that was her business.
The coffee was hot, and brewed nicely. If she’d intended to try and butter him up for whatever it was she wanted… this wasn’t a bad start— even despite the strange waking and early hour.
They’d walked beyond where the horses were tied— well outside earshot if they kept their voices low, and immediate eye-line of the camp, unless someone came looking. Slim nickered at him, and at the war horse’s greeting, the other horses also looked up, expecting breakfast. Their disappointment was obvious as the two people simply walked past, and Catherine muttered a sheepish apology to them under her breath.
Stopping beside her in a small, bare space between some scrub and a large boulder, Arthur sipped his coffee and watched the lady’s face, waiting for her to start. When she didn’t immediately speak up, he prompted, in a soft voice.
“Alright, let’s hear it.”
She hesitated a moment more, worrying her lip with her teeth and scanning the scattered desert floor, as if for the pieces of her courage to gather up. Which troubled the outlaw considerably, as it seemed she always had it close at hand— at least in his experience. Once she’d composed herself, however, she faced him, chin raised in the way he loved, despite himself, her eyes on his, “You asked me, some time ago, at the campfire, what had happened in Tumbleweed…”
Oh. She wanted to talk about that. No wonder she didn’t want anybody else awake or around to hear or see them. Immediately, Arthur’s belly clenched into a painful knot, and he lowered the tin, only barely keeping from choking on the coffee he swallowed.
“I didn’t give you a proper answer, then. I hadn’t really thought about it— had decided it was better not to think about it, but—”
“No, miss, you were probably right… Probably better not to think about—”
“—But now I have, Arthur. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since you asked me.” She gave him a wry, somewhat helpless smile, “… You know I can’t stand to not know something…”
He couldn’t stop staring at her, and yet he knew if she looked him in the eye longer than a moment that he’d look away. His heart was hammering hard in his chest.
She was going to tell him what he already knew: it was a mistake. She didn’t know what she’d been thinking, and regret was eating her up on the inside like it was him. He knew it already, but if she said it out loud…
Well, he wasn’t sure what it’d do to him… Nothing good.
“Will you hear my answer?”
“… I don’ suppose I have much choice now that—”
“—Of course you have a choice.”
She looked so lovely and delicate in the gray light, and the strength of the sincerity in her eyes and expression only increased her vulnerability. Arthur knew, looking at her, that he really had no other option. He was already a man half conquered.
“… I’ll hear you, Miss Schofield.” He said quietly, ignoring the desire to hurry away in self-preservation.
“… I was well-aware of what was happening. I am… far from a naive girl on those matters. I was, in fact, a girl of twelve when I went to the bed of the first man my father instructed me to seduce. I know this part of my… upbringing and education… are not news to you. I told you already, myself, that… I was accustomed to a certain treatment, by men. I am well-acquainted with what men usually think when they look at me. I’ve known since the beginning that you, also, desired me.”
He couldn’t look at her. All Arthur could do was clamp his jaw shut and try to hush the sound of blood roaring in his ears.
“… You know already that I am not afraid to intercede in matters to ensure that… you are receiving what is necessary. Things that you need. You have been kind to me. Kind, and respectful, and obliging to even my more… unusual and perhaps irritating proclivities. You have humored me and my interests far and above even what the man who claimed affections for me, at the time, had done. To my knowledge, you’ve never uttered an ungenerous thing about me, though I know at times I’ve tasked your time and patience. Therefore, when… when the lightning affected you, and I knew your desires were in earnest… I… I went with you because I thought it was what you wanted. I wanted— it was important to me to give you what you wanted. But… it wasn’t what you wanted. Nor was it something you needed.”
“I was mistaken, and confused and humiliated by my error, which only caused me to continue to behave wrongly. I wronged you, Mister Morgan, by thinking I understood matters when I… clearly did not.”
“It’s alright.” He told her, “I had no business sayin’ anything to you when it was me who took you to that room…”
“Arthur, I was fully aware of how such a liaison between us might affect your relationship with Mister van der Linde. I was prepared to suffer his displeasure for my own behavior due to our… enduring disagreements… but I… I am sorry if what has transpired has soured things between you two. I know you value his trust. I do think he knows already the blame lies with me… but I will be certain to speak with him if—”
“—You don’t have to do that. Things between Dutch an’ I are fine. I’d rather you… work on fixin’ whatever it is between you two but… I suppose that’s your business, not mine, Miss Schofield.”
He still couldn’t look her in the face, or even look at her for longer than a moment, not with how the weight of her pale gaze weighed on his chest as if to crush his racing, thundering heart.
Suddenly, he felt her cool, delicate fingers brush the back of his hand, and he looked down to see her place her hand on his wrist.
“… Is that what you want from me?”
Arthur quaked inside, his chest clenching like a vice, forcing his words out breathlessly, “You shouldn’t trouble yerself over me or what I might want…”
“I told you just now, didn’t I? What you want has… becoming important to me. I don’t know whether it’s… profound gratitude or… a more arrogant and selfish desire to think your kindness fairly repaid— to settle the debt, as it were. I’ve never been in this position, before, Arthur. I’m accustomed to knowing what others want from me, and understanding clearly that they treat me well because they want those things. Unless it pleases you to watch me fumble uselessly, won’t you tell me what it is you want from me?”
He frowned, “… Has it ever occurred to you, Miss Catherine, that someone might treat you well because they cared for you?”
“…It’s a rare occurrence from the life I’ve left, and hardly ever in earnest,” She answered with a small smile after a brief hesitation, “But yes. It has.”
She stepped nearer then, and when she propped up on her toes and he felt her breath on his face, he knew she meant to kiss him, and he only barely managed to turn his face away. She was not discouraged, and her full, perfect lips pressed against the scruff of his cheek.
...Then the line of his jaw, near his chin.
Then she pulled away, again, and the outlaw was once more able to draw breath.
“… I won’t presume to speak for you, but know that I am in earnest: I want to please you, though I am not certain I can vouch for the purity of my motivations. It has… troubled me, lately… how much I displease you. I will not compromise my own desires for what I want with my life, Mister Morgan, but if I can work toward my goals in a way that is pleasing to you… I would be glad to try. Please think on this.”
She stood there, then, and it became clear even to him— despite the utter and complete absence of any sense in his head at all at the moment— that she was waiting for him to say something.
“… I-I will, then…”
Catherine left first, and he watched her go, the vice in his chest slow to release him.
She wanted to please him. What he wanted had become important to her…
Davey was already mounted, complaining loudly under his breath about how long it was taking the lady to saddle up her horse after she’d asked him to wait so she could go with him into town.
He shut up at his approach.
Touching her shoulder, Arthur watched her turn and look up at him, confusion sketched across her face.
“Let me— You need a coat,” He told her, the words tumbling haphazardly out of his mouth in a rush while his throat and face heated, “… Let me buy you a coat.”
Davey was staring at them.
Catherine blinked at him, then lowered her pale eyes demurely, the barest hint of rose at her cheeks below where her long dark lashes seemed to brush, “… If you insist.”