Arthur didn’t remember passing out.
In fact, Arthur didn’t remember much of anything. Remembered the shootout, sure, the O’Driscoll bullet snapping through his right thigh and sending him tumbling to the ground. Remembered the pain of it, and John yanking him up by an arm and dragging him onto the back of his mare. Remembered sitting on the back of Hickory with one arm wrapped around John, the other holding a gun that was firing again and again, blood streaming down Hickory’s grey flank from where Arthur’s leg rested against it.
But everything went fuzzy after that. Even the doctor’s office that John had dragged him to to get the leg stitched was a haze, and maybe that should’ve prevented him from insisting he was fine to ride Boadicea. They had ridden for miles, after all, enough to put distance between them and any law that might be looking for either outlaw gang involved in the shootout, with little more than binding the wound to treat it during the ride.
But Arthur was stubborn to a fault, and they were separated from the rest of the gang, scattered after the mess that the job had become, and he wasn’t about to let a goddamn bullet wound keep them away from regrouping with their family. Bo was there, after all, followed Hickory all those miles riderless without being called, good horse she was and all, so Arthur hadn’t taken no for an answer.
He did remember the snow starting, heavy flakes catching on Boadicea’s mane, coming fast and hard, coating the landscape. And hopefully that meant that the fall from the saddle Arthur didn’t even remember was to something softer than the frozen dirt.
After that, there was very little. Remembered pain, a wash of it, and the cold, and hands on his face like something burning.
It took a while to wake up. Or, at least, Arthur thought it did, reality only coming in infrequent snatches between the hard grip of pain and dizziness that was apt to drag him back down every time he got close to the surface.
John was there, he thought, the hoarse edge of his voice playing at the edges of each scene. Hands he thought were John’s, pressing a cup to his lips, pulling blankets over him, resting carefully on his forehead. But there were other voices too, Hosea, Dutch, which Arthur might’ve made sense of if they weren’t joined by Mary’s voice, Eliza’s, his father’s, folks gone or dead or both.
But when he woke up, he was alone. Alone, in a place he didn’t recognize, and that alone had him feeling around for his gun belt, which he found, to his displeasure, was nowhere to be seen. He was in what seemed to be a cabin, of all places. One room, bed pressed up against the wall opposite the door. Next to the wood stove, where a fire still smoldered, and that explained why he wasn’t cold anymore. That, and the multitude of blankets stacked on top of him.
The pain was still there, a dull, undercurrent of ache that spiked whenever Arthur attempted to move. But it wasn’t as sharp as he expected, not as fresh. The doctor had given him morphine, but they’d been kicked out too quickly for John to get a lasting supply. Or, maybe Arthur had insisted they leave too quickly. His memory was spotty at best.
If he had to guess, he’d say it was laudanum that was in his system, judging by the way his head was spinning, and maybe the fact that he was familiar enough with it to tell was a bad thing.
He was already easing himself into a sitting position, leg protesting heavily, when none other than John Marston entered the cabin, a rifle in hand, shutting the door hastily behind him as snow tried to swirl into the cabin.
Arthur knew John well enough by now. Knew him enough to know that he looked uncharacteristically harried, dark shadows under his eyes, a tense edge to his movements.
Still, all that melted away when he looked up, saw Arthur sitting up, shifting into some expression Arthur couldn’t identify. And John opened his mouth, paused a moment, then said, “Hey. You’re awake?”
John winced near immediately after he said it, Arthur supposed because he realized just how stupid it sounded, seeing as Arthur was sitting up. Arthur elected to ignore it, though, instead asked “The hell is this?” pressing the heel of a palm into one of his eyes as he did. He felt woozy, loose, almost like he was coming apart at the seams, and whether that was the laudanum or the blood loss, Arthur couldn’t tell.
John just rolled his shoulders, leant the rifle up against the wall of the cabin. “Y’got shot.”
And Arthur couldn’t help rolling his eyes back at John. “Sure, ‘cause I ain’t realized that.”
“Shut up, Arthur.”
“Meant, where are we?”
John just shrugged again. “Some cabin.”
“Ain’t gotta say it like that,” John spat back, and his eyes had taken on the annoyed sort of glare they always had when he was criticized over something. “Abandoned, s’all I know. You was down, bad fever. Snow on top of it, made sense to hunker down first quiet place I could find. Been out near three days, now.”
That made sense enough, and in that way something Arthur couldn’t get after John about. He instead peered up at the other man, squinted, asked, “You been, what, nursemaid?”
“Nursemaid, guard, hunter. Hosea’ll be proud.”
Of course, because Arthur had been sitting on his ass all that time. Meant John had no choice but to do it all. He blinked again, trying to clear his head, go through a mental checklist. “No law?”
“Too far out for that, reckon, but no O’Driscolls neither.”
“No word, though I ain’t even sure he knows where we ended up. Reckon he ‘nd the others are lyin’ low.”
“Course,” Arthur said, and swung his legs over the side of the bed in one fluid movement, ignoring the sharp spike it sent through his right thigh. “Waitin’ for us to find him, no doubt.”
And then John was goddamn there, saying, “Hey, hey—you stay in that goddamn bed, Morgan.”
The annoyance in Arthur’s chest flared hard, and he could hear the indignancy in his own voice as he snapped, “And what, just sit here on my goddamn ass while Dutch’s got no idea where we are? Ain’t gonna go over well, that.”
And that got an eyeroll from John. “Arthur, you’re shot through the damn leg. You try movin’ and let me know how that goes for you.”
And Arthur scoffed, because how dare John try to tell him what he could and couldn’t do, and hauled himself to his feet.
To his credit, Arthur thought he did pretty well. He managed a step or two, and, considering his legs didn’t seem to want to obey what he was telling them, that was something. Then he leaned his full weight on his injured leg, and his vision was engulfed in a sudden white as pain rocketed up the right side of his body.
Next thing he knew, John had him under the shoulders and was hauling him back onto the bed. The force of it threw both of them sprawled across it, Arthur on his back, John on his side, and it sounded like even John had the wind knocked out of him, judging by the way he was panting.
Finally, after a moment trying to catch his breath, John gasped, “Told y’so.”
“Shut it,” Arthur spat back, heaving his leg back up on the bed with a half-stifled groan, trying to ignore the smirk John threw his way.
“Said shut it, Marston.”
John wouldn’t let him goddamn leave.
There was a reason he and Arthur weren’t together alone for any sort of extended amount of time. They fought easily, and tended to fight hard. Back at camp, there was always someone to break it up, redirect their attention, even just force them to sit on opposite sides of the camp, something Susan was fond of doing.
Alone, here, it was constant. They argued over eating, over the quality and the edibility of the food, over sleeping arrangements, John spitting fire from the floor but still insisting he wasn’t moving if it meant Arthur getting off the bed, over the care of the horses, seeing as Arthur knew John wasn’t taking care of Bo right, and even when John was helping Arthur through the thick snow to the goddamn outhouse. It was constant, and Arthur was about ready to put a bullet in something just for some peace and quiet.
But that wouldn’t work either. Because, bubbling in the background, was the thing they didn’t talk about.
There was a bit at the core of them. Something canted, set at an angle to the rest of society. And they both knew it, knew it rippled through everything. That night in a forest a handful of months ago, Arthur on his knees.
Arthur knew the way John looked at him, the glances he thought went unnoticed, the need to be near him. Now that he knew to look, it was plain to see. Arthur didn’t have a problem with the cantedness in himself, not really, but he had a problem with this. John’s want, and the bit down in Arthur that wanted to respond in kind. That night had been a mistake, a moment of surprise-born weakness on Arthur’s part, and yet, since it, those same thoughts had thrummed in every quiet moment.
He needed to get out of here, needed to get on Boadicea and go.
And, yet, John goddamn Marston was in his way, saying, “It’s still goddamn snowin’, you goddamn fool.”
Arthur had refused more laudanum ever since he woke up. He hated the stuff, hated the way it made his head spin, made him tired and heavy and like he was going to fall over any second. John had insisted he take a pain tonic instead, and, while Arthur still didn’t feel quite right on it, at least he was steady on his feet now.
That meant, of course, that he was on his feet in the middle of the cabin, damn near ready to push through John just to get to the horses. “We been here five goddamn days, Marston. You know how outta his goddamn mind Dutch is gonna be? You remember Evansville? ‘cause I sure do.”
“He ain’t gonna want you to get goddamn killed in the process neither.”
Arthur scoffed, jerked his head away. “I ain’t gonna get—”
“Nah, course you ain’t. ‘cause Arthur goddamn Morgan thinks he can take on the force of God and nature and come up on top. You’re a stupid son of a bitch, you know that?”
“I ain’t the goddamn brat who thinks he knows better than every other folk around him.”
“I ain’t sayin’—” John huffed a breath, and Arthur knew he had touched a nerve. “Listen, Morgan, it don’t take a genius to know he ain’t supposed to go out with a shot leg in a goddamn snowstorm.”
The problem was, John was right. That didn’t stop Arthur from wanting so badly to be free from this, from snapping, “You ain’t in goddamn charge of the goddamn world, no matter whatever inflated thoughts you’ve got floating around in that empty goddamn head of yours, and I am going goddamn home. So goddamn move, John.”
There was a beat, and then John snapped, loudly. “No.”
“’cause I ain’t about to let your stupid ass—”
And then Arthur was throwing a punch.
The fight was shorter than Arthur would’ve ever admitted to. Sure, with the experience and sheer mass he had on the man he could beat John easily in a fistfight, had done so many times before, but that was at full strength.
He got one good hit to the jaw in, and then John was tackling him, sending them both down hard to wood floor. And the impact jarred Arthur, sent a thrum of pain down his leg that made him gasp involuntarily. And that was enough for John to get on top of him, sit hard on his hips and pin his arms to the ground.
He still tried to fight, kicked and arched his back and squirmed, but John was goddamn heavier than he looked, especially when Arthur was down a proper leg and nowhere near in his normal fighting shape. He was already starting to run out of energy, starting to flag, when John pinned his arms harder, hissed, “Stay down, Arthur.”
Arthur made a half-hearted attempt at another buck, snapped, “Get the hell off—”
“Stay goddamn down, Morgan, you got goddamn stitches—”
“Can’t just keep me here, you son of a bitch, ain’t—ain’t your goddamn prisoner just ‘cause I got shot.”
“You go out there, you die, Arthur, and I, I can’t—” John let go of one of Arthur’s arms, swiped a hand over his mouth. When he started speaking again, it was a whisper. “Let me take care of you, you goddamn bastard. Please.” And John’s voice broke over the last word, like something shattering. And the weight of it thrummed in Arthur’s chest, leeched the fight right out of him.
Goddamn earnest, John was. Earnest to a fault.
Arthur shouldn’t have. Shouldn’t have, because things like this never ended well. Should’ve snapped back, told John the truth, that he’d had worse, had ridden in and with worse, that he didn’t need to be cared for like some invalid, especially not by some brat who thought he owned everything and everyone around him, that this never goddamn ended well.
But his head was spinning and his leg still a dull ache through the tonic that John had forced into him, and John’s eyebrows were low and angry even with the watery edge to his eyes, and there was nothing more that Arthur wanted than to make that look go away.
He shouldn’t have, but he hooked a hand behind John’s head and hauled him down into a kiss.
At this angle, he could feel the hardness between John’s legs pressed up against his stomach, and, Christ, why was fighting always like this? John’s chapped lips on his, and Arthur was nearly forgetting to breathe with how intoxicating it was.
It took a long time before they broke apart, and then Arthur was left trying to catch his breath again, the world spinning around them. “Bed,” John said, and it was near enough a command that Arthur wanted to protest just for posterity. Goddamn brat.
John needed to haul Arthur up onto the bed, sending a lance of pain up his thigh that forced a sharp inhale of air from him. But then John’s mouth was on his again, and suddenly the pain didn’t matter anymore. The pain wasn’t anything compared to the feel of John’s hand on his jaw, compared to the growing hardness in his own union suit, compared to the need for John’s skin against his.
He’d regret this in the morning. Not for the thoughts of society, for how they felt about men like them, because Arthur hadn’t cared about that for years. No, it was John he’d regret, that they’d already become something irreversibly changed to each other, and all of this was just making things more complicated.
For now, though, he let John settle in between his thighs, work his clothing off of him. Unbuttoned John’s union suit himself, helped the other man roll it off of his shoulders just as John helped Arthur pull his own from off his hips and legs. Let John lean off the edge of the bed and paw through his satchel, emerging with a vial of gun oil. Even let John slick his own fingers despite the smell the oil spread into the air.
Arthur would regret this in the morning, but hell if he didn’t want it now. So when John pressed a finger into him, Arthur couldn’t help the rush of air that escaped him, caught the familiar pain and pleasure of having something inside of him.
He’d done this plenty of times. Let men rest between his thighs, open him up. In cheap hotel rooms, too-quickly erected tents, even once lent up against a wall in an alley, hurried and quiet and dirty.
This wasn’t that. All those hushed dealings, the things men like him would get up to on dark, lonely nights, all of them were a risk. Arthur would let men take him, something not every invert stood for, and so remembered too well times when he wasn’t prepared fully, when a risky encounter would lead to him limping for days. Remembered men who were mean, rough, who didn’t particularly care if what they did hurt him. Remembered intimately an instance where he let a man take him, bend him over and fuck him rough, only to find the man’s hands wrapped around his throat, not intending to let go until Arthur had put a knife in his belly.
Christ, he trusted John. Trusted John with his life, trusted him with this. As young as the man still was, as inexperienced as he likely was, John wouldn’t hurt him, no matter how desperate they were. It was clear enough in how John handled Arthur’s injured leg, draped it gently over his own thigh, trying to handle it as painlessly as possible.
John cared almost too much, and what had Arthur even done to inspire that sort of devotion? His fingers quick but thorough, brow screwed up in a concentrated look that made something flutter in Arthur’s stomach.
And where had John learned this, anyway?
It was his job to keep the kid safe, always had been since Dutch had dumped him in Arthur’s tent, and yet he never thought about this aspect. Wasn’t until that night a few months ago that he’d ever even considered John in the context of sex, let alone with him. Sure, he knew the other man had had whores, knew Dutch went through the selfsame traditions with John as he had Arthur, but that was different, somehow. More detached, removed. John knowing this meant that John had put himself at risk, disappeared into the night with men who would just as well kill him, and hadn’t even been told how to keep himself safe.
And it was almost too much, too much care, too much knowledge, and Arthur wanted that distance back for his own safety. “Ain’t made of goddamn glass,” he found himself muttering, just trying to get back onto stable ground.
But it didn’t get what he wanted. In response, John smirked, curled his fingers in just the right way, and Arthur arched. “Son of a bitch,” Arthur hissed, and John’s smirk only widened.
“Said I’d take care of you.” Ran his spare hand down Arthur’s ribs, and Arthur felt himself shudder.
“Ain’t your goddamn job,” he spat back, but it was just one more futile attempt to claw some distance between them.
It didn’t work, of course. This was a hole Arthur would keep digging himself. Something between them that he’d keep on denying.
After much too long and not long enough, John was pulling his fingers from inside Arthur. And Arthur barely had time to mourn the loss of that contact before John was shifting, lining himself up, and all Arthur could do was take a deep breath before John was pushing his cock into him.
It was slow. Near painfully slow, and Arthur couldn’t stand it, almost wanted the hurt, wanted something he could close in his fist. But John was gentle, and slow, and all things Arthur hadn’t thought it possible for John to be.
It was only once John was fully seated that he paused. Arthur hadn’t even realized he’d closed his own eyes, but once he felt John’s hands dragging down his flank, he peeled one eyelid open.
The look John had on his face was something amazed, something nearly reverent, and Christ, Arthur could feel the flush creeping up his own face, something that hadn’t happened in this capacity since back when he was courting Mary. “Stop,” he murmured, and then, when John didn’t, “Ain’t nothin’ you ain’t seen before.”
“Nah, ain’t no one like you, Arthur,” John said, and, by the sincerity in his voice, John meant it.
This was too much. All those quick, messy fucks, all those years of experience of mutual pleasure with unknown men, and what was making Arthur come completely unstable for the first time was John looking at him like he meant something. He crooked an arm over his face, muttered, “Shut up.”
But John was never one to do as he was told. Almost immediately he was pawing at Arthur’s arm, pulling it away, and even when Arthur shot him a glare, John's expression was still something soft, something entirely unlike John. “Wanna see you,” he said, and the only comfort Arthur got from it was that John’s tone was nearly pleading.
Still couldn’t stand it. Arthur huffed a breath, barely able to breathe, muttered, “’f you’re gonna do it, goddamn do it.”
“Yeah,” John murmured, and then again, “Yeah, okay.”
And then he was moving.
It wasn’t good at first. Never was. Wasn’t bad, of course, but even when he was well prepared, having something inside of him was always an adjustment. Took some settling, some getting used to.
Still, there was something overwhelming about it. John with a look of concentration on his face, even as he breathed in breathy little pants. Trying so hard to make it good, no doubt, and the effort of it was baffling. With who he was, John could have near anyone. And here he was, wanting to give Arthur an enjoyable time.
Arthur leaned his head back, let it rest against the pillow as he tried to relax. And then John hit the right angle, and suddenly Arthur found his head spinning.
He couldn’t help the noise that was wrung from him, something rough and breathy, but he barely heard it, anyway. Barely heard it over the groan John gave him back, above the drifting in his head.
In the back of his mind, he still knew this was a bad idea. That relationships this meaningful never worked out well for him, that there was a part of him that would poison everyone he was with. That John was young and strong and beautiful, and he would never be hard pressed to find folks that loved him. Tying himself to Arthur was a waste, and that wasn’t even considering the potential for eruption when they lived nearly on top of each other.
And, yet, the warmth rocking through Arthur’s body numbed the thoughts, leached every bit of them out and away, left him with only the real. Here was John, above him, and Arthur’s cock lay painfully hard against his own body. There wasn’t room for coherency.
Somewhere in that floating, Arthur found himself reaching up for John. Snaked his arms around John’s neck by feel more than sight, and dragged him down to him. The stutter in John’s hips was minimal, but enough—Arthur found himself drawn back into his own body enough to slip his fingers into John’s hair, pull him into a hard, bruising kiss.
With that, it was like some floodgates had opened, like some permission had been granted. John’s mouth moved from Arthur’s lips to his jaw, and then his neck, making what Arthur knew would be marks they would see tomorrow morning, and then John’s hand was on his cock.
It didn’t take long. Of course it didn’t, seeing as Arthur hadn’t done anything close to this since that night in the woods. There had been something that felt wrong about it, seeking out someone nameless after he’d been on his knees in front of John. And now, with John stroking him hard, his whole body ached for what they were.
He couldn’t help John’s name slipping from his lips, and with the response, a moaned, “Arthur,” something in him gave, and he came, hard, hard enough that his entire world whited out.
It took Arthur a moment to come back to himself, for his vision to come back fully. Still, when he did, staring him right in the face was John goddamn Marston, a smug grin on his face, and Arthur felt the old, familiar urge to wipe it away spark in his chest.
Alright, well. Two could play that game.
Arthur grabbed a handful of John’s hair, brought his face close again. It caused a stutter in the steady thrusting of John’s hips, and that was enough to let him know that John was close, enough to make Arthur forget the way the same thrusting was making him twitch with overstimulation.
John’s mouth was right next to Arthur’s, but Arthur didn’t go for John’s lips. Instead slipped down his neck, mouthing and letting his teeth scrape across John’s skin. And when he bit, lightly, at the crook of John’s neck, John let out a noise so satisfying that Arthur had to do it again, and again, kissing and sucking and biting, his hands thumbing down John’s flank.
And then John was gasping, “Can I—?” and all it took was a nod before John was shoving into him deep, and the shudder as he came made Arthur shiver just the same.
John cleaned them both up. Seeing as Arthur had trouble enough walking even before they’d fucked, it made the most sense. So that didn’t surprise Arthur. What surprised him was when John tossed the rag in the general direction of the sink, and then prodded Arthur to move over on the bed.
“Thought you had your own bed,” Arthur muttered, scooting over carefully. It wasn’t a particularly big bed, but bigger than the cots they had at camp, and John and Arthur both had had bedmates in those on more than one occasion. They could manage.
“Floor was goddamn freezin’,” John said, lifting up the blankets and sliding in next to Arthur. “Ain’t slept at all.”
That got a low snort out of Arthur, something that turned to a wince as John accidentally jostled his injured leg.
“Shit, sorry,” John muttered, and then, when Arthur had settled again, “Why do we only do this when you’re beat to shit?”
That was getting dangerously close to things they didn’t talk about, and John likely knew it. The sort of people they were would always be confined to the dark, to fumbled hands behind bars or in hotel rooms, to things done too quick.
Arthur turned his head, glad that the limited light from the fire burning in the stove hid his expression, hid the moment of cowardice when he muttered, “’cause you ain’t ever asked.”
“The hell is that supposed to mean?” John said right back, and the threat of pain that just edged his voice made Arthur want to shudder.
Instead, he shook his head. “Go to sleep, Marston. Just said you been up all goddamn night.”
“Arthur, I—” A swallow, like there was something in John’s throat. “We’re gonna talk ‘bout this, right?”
If he were a better person, Arthur might’ve talked to John. Told him that he couldn’t stand this, that everything they were doing was a mistake, one that wouldn’t be fixed until they forgot about it. But his eyes were already closed, and all he could say was, “You was just returnin’ a favor. Ain’t more than that.”
“Yeah, okay,” he heard John mutter, and then there was the sound of shifting blankets as John turned away from him. If Arthur opened his eyes, he knew he’d see John’s back, shoulders like a wall.
He kept them closed.
For the first time in a long time, Arthur woke up in someone’s arms.
It was disorienting, more than anything else. A warm weight on his chest, the rasp of someone else’s breathing in his ear. It made Arthur want to struggle, want to push himself up and away, at least until he had a grasp on the situation. Still, when he peeled open his eyes, came face to face with John goddamn Marston draped over his body, something aching inside him stilled, just for a moment.
John forgave easily. Arthur was the one to hold grudges, that he’d easily admit, but John fought quick and made up quicker. For all the shit Arthur had given the other man over the years, the anger he got back was quick and bright, but never the kind that lasted long term.
Whether or not Arthur was forgiven for the previous night’s conversation, he didn’t know, but apparently John hadn’t wanted to spend a whole night denying himself the warmth of another body. He was draped over Arthur, body flush against Arthur’s side, and the prickle that spread through Arthur’s body was a feeling he couldn’t hope to identify.
He could’ve gotten up. He knew John’s sleep patterns, after all, had slept next to him for years before they’d moved into separate tents, and that wasn’t even including all the various times they’d set watches and Arthur had needed to wake John for his go ‘round. John was out, his breath heavy and peaceful, the kind of sleep John only fell into when he thought he was safe.
It was the kind of sleep few things would wake John from, and that meant it was doable—Arthur slipping out from under him, dressing in his spare set of clothes, tacking up Boadicea and setting out to rejoin the gang, damn the older sting in his thigh and the new ache in his lower back, and damn what John said. And Arthur should’ve done that, should’ve forgotten this ever happened, gone back to the way things were when the depth of their relationship was something quick and dirty in the woods outside a no-name town.
But John’s arm lay sprawled over Arthur’s stomach, and his cheek pillowed against Arthur’s sternum, and like this Arthur had a perfect view of John’s face, draped in the light coming in through the windows. Not at all graceful, or picture perfect, not with John’s jaw slightly slack and his hair falling in unwashed locks over his face and an occasional snore on the odd inhale of air, but something John. Unavoidably John.
Arthur could stay, he thought. Huddle under the warmth of the blankets, feel John breathe against him for just a while longer. There was time enough for forgetting later.