It’s good to be away from Beaver Hollow, if only for a few hours. There’s no light there and the air is heavy and weirdly stagnant, always creeping its way into their their lungs and heads, making it hard to breathe and to think, as if Arthur isn’t struggling enough with those already.
The meadows of the Heartlands are better, open country, wide, and maybe it’s wishful thinking but he feels like his lungs don’t rattle as badly as they do most of the time now.
They’ve left the horses to graze a few feet away and their occasional soft nickers mix nicely with the birdsong and rustling of leaves.
“Feels good, huh?” says Charles, sprawled out flat on his back next to Arthur, watching the clouds move by.
“Sure,” Arthur replies. He means it, but he can still feel this restlessness that has pretty much kept him on his toes ever since Colter (and to be honest, even before that). When he tries to shift his focus to the swift clouds as well, they make him dizzy. He settles on fiddling with the fine blades of grass beneath his hands - that’s better.
They’ve taken their boots off, too, and the cool breeze on his toes is nearly enough to make Arthur cry - how long has it been since he’s truly taken the time to sense something as small and mundane as this? And with the way things are going, this right here might as well be the last time he ever will.
“You alright there?” Charles asks and Arthur can hear that he turns his head.
He nods. “Yeah. ‘s just—”
Charles turns skyward again. “Okay.”
And Arthur knows Charles knows he will eventually talk.
They lie in silence for a while, and the warmth of the sun and of Charles’ shoulder against his own make him drowsy. He closes his eyes.
Arthur has stopped dreaming some time ago.
What may appear alarming to some is a comfort to him. When he shuts his eyes and drifts away there’s nothing but a welcoming darkness. There’s no blood, no guts, no splattered brains.
No screams, shrieks, or whimpers.
There’s just nothing, no Dutch, no Micah.
And although Arthur knows very well that his dreamlessness is probably a real bad sign, he can’t help but feel a little smug when he greets most new days surprisingly well-rested while the others stumble tiny-eyed and grumpy to the coffee pot.
Lately there’s been a recurring … image, though. It’s not really a dream. Just a stag. He’s sure it could count as a symbol or an omen of some sort to someone who knows about these things. But who could he possibly ask about it without making a fool of himself? Marston?
The thought makes him chuckle quietly and just a little breathless, and he feels Charles moving again.
“You know, I dreamt about you last night,” Charles says.
“I was looking for a spot to bury you.”
Arthur opens his eyes and looks at Charles, who’s propped up on one elbow, facing him, and there’s something in his eyes that Arthur can’t name, but that sends a shiver down his spine nonetheless.
“And uh… did you find anything?” he asks and tries to sound lighthearted.
“No, I—” Arthur admires the lines that appear on Charles’ forehead as he furrows his brow, trying to recall blurred images. “I think there was a pack of wolves after me, I had to get out of there quickly.”
“That’s too bad,” Arthur murmurs and Charles nods.
Arthur lets a few seconds pass, then begins to hum a little melody.
Charles laughs. “What’s that? Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie?”
“Is that supposed to be a hint or something?”
Arthur tugs on a few grassy stems. “Maybe. If you want it to.”
Charles laughs again, but it’s more of a snort this time. “You should be good then, considering we’re at least 60 miles away from that.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear.”
Charles sighs and lies back down, and between them, Arthur places his hand on top of Charles’, feeling the fine net of scars. Charles has big hands, good hands, made for working, his father would have said. And he does work. He seems to be doing little else aside from chopping wood, crafting arrows and using these accordingly. Maybe it’s his way to keep his mind off of things, Arthur muses. These hands can fight, too, and they can love. They are almost eerily tender.
Arthur intertwines their fingers. “Wonder what it’s like,” he says, as if to no one in particular.
Charles stays silent and sits up again, frees his hand (not without a grumbled protest) and lights a cigarette. At least he’s considerate enough not to offer it to Arthur. Not that it would make a difference, it’s too far gone for that, but avoiding tobacco certainly won’t do no harm, neither. With a heavy sigh he props himself up on both elbows and watches Charles, who’s seemingly concentrating on a small herd of mustangs in the distance.
“You know,” Arthur tries again, “it’s the worst thing in the world. To lose someone you love.”
Charles takes a drag and Arthur thinks he can see just the hint of a nod.
“Not if it’s yourself, though,” Charles says finally. “It’s the only certainty.”
“I guess I’ve just never seen it like that.”
Smiling, Charles leans over to him and plants a featherlight kiss on his forehead.
“It’ll be alright, Arthur.”
They both know he’s lying, but Arthur hasn’t heard this platitude in far too long; he wants to believe it, and hearing his almost-whispered name in the end nearly does the trick. Maybe a few weeks ago he would have been able to believe.
Charles is still gazing at him with this familiar intensity, and Arthur doesn’t know what to say.
I’m glad you joined the gang when you did.
Sorry you have to witness this god-damn mess.
Thank you for what we had. (Have?)
God, it’s all so wrong . No, it’s right, but it sounds so wrong. It’d probably be best to sort out his thoughts in peace and put it all to paper, but he doubts there’ll be enough time for that.
“You—,” Arthur clears his throat, “you’ve found me just in time.”
“I like to think it was the other way around.”
Arthur knows damn well he doesn’t deserve this. Someone by his side, unconditionally. The whole thing was destined to fail from the start. And although he knows Charles will manage just fine without him, probably even better, he feels like he’s dragging him along to wherever he’s headed. Hell? The void?
“Shit, Charles!” It’s too much. He grabs his hat and pulls on his boots, Charles following suit.
“Is that your way of saying you’re ready to leave?”
“Yeah,” Arthur says and shakes his head.
Minutes later, they’re still resting in the soft grass, and as he tries to collect the thoughts that wreak havoc somewhere in his head, Arthur can hear the wind in the trees, and the mumbling of a nearby creek. He can smell Charles, and cigarette smoke, and the earth. He spots a currant bush across the meadow.
It’s funny, ever since things started going downhill for the gang in general and him in particular, he finds himself often drawn to simple details like this. Little affirmations that he’s alive and feeling and hearing and breathing (if barely). He's grounded.
He takes Charles’ hand again.
“If anything bad happens, will you look for me?”
Charles avoids his eyes. “Arthur…”
Arthur hates the pain in his voice. “Say it. Please.”
“You know I will.”
Arthur nods, content. “And take care of her,” he makes a vague gesture towards the horses, “She’s quite somethin’.”
“Good. I just-- I just wanted to be sure, I guess.”
Groaning, Arthur finally gets up for good, reaches out for Charles and gently pulls him with him. He wants to thank Charles for the afternoon, but after the pact they’ve just made, every remark would seem out of place. In a moment of utter stupidity, Arthur opts for giving him a pat on the shoulder instead. It’s so strange and awkward that they both can’t suppress a grin, and maybe that’s all that matters.
On the way back to camp, the scent of impending rain is almost overwhelming.