Chapter 1: Modern AU
“Did you speak with John already?”, asks Hosea, cutting into his eggs while studiously avoiding Arthur’s gaze.
He knows exactly how he’s watching him, the shrewd old man, that’s why he evades it. Arthur sighs through his nose, forcing himself to entertain him.
On Sundays, when they’re both not too busy or tired for it, Hosea likes to meet Arthur for breakfast. It makes them look “positively bourgeois”, he had snickered once, and it’s the perfect occasion for the old man to strongarm his son into answering questions he would otherwise avoid on the phone.
Arthur doesn’t mind. Hosea’s not a bad father, or an overbearing one. He’s just… nosy.
“You know I haven’t”, he answers him. “He doesn’t need me babysitting him -you know, he actually shouldn’t need me to remind him at all”, he adds, with a frown.
Hosea hums, unperturbed by the display. “You’re not wrong. Parenting can get a bit chaotic though, you know.”.
“I don’t. In fact, it’s not my problem -why should I be the one to call him? You or Dutch can do that. Dutch would love it, I’m sure.”.
The older man actually looks up from his plate at that, fixes him with one of his looks from under his eyebrows. “Arthur”, he adds, sternly, for good measure.
Arthur’s been out of his teenage years for a very long while now, but the eyerolls still haven’t abandoned him. ”I’m just sayin’, you two always poke your nose into my business, you can do the same to him. ‘s not fair.”.
“It’s plenty fair. I call him too, you know.”.
Arthur scoffs. “Does he even bother answering?”.
“Sometimes”, Hosea replies, mildly.
Arthur knows what the old man is trying to do. He's not even really that angry with John anymore, truth to be told. He only feels the urge to beat the living daylights out of him once or twice during a given conversation -that's progress enough, in his opinion.
Hosea and Dutch had been a lot quicker in handing out their forgiveness, though. In fact, Arthur doubted Dutch had been actually angry with John, at any point. As soon as he showed up back home, months after he up and left, as far as the old man was concerned everything was forgotten and forgiven. At least Hosea had had the decency to still play the disappointment card for a few weeks after the return of their prodigal son.
Arthur is not so easy with such matters. It took months for him to even acknowledge the fact that his adoptive brother was back in town. Even now when they see each other, or Arthur swings by their place to pick Jack up for Abigail -for despite having her partner back, the woman still doesn't trust him alone with their kid, proof of how smart of a cookie she is-, it still feels weird for Arthur to bring himself to acknowledge the stuttered hellos of his stepbrother. But he forces himself to do so -at least for the sake of their parents.
Now, their annual camping trip is coming up, and for some reason Hosea's gotten into his head that he wants Arthur to be the one to call John and make sure he's gonna show up.
After that comment, Arthur stays stubbornly quiet. As far as he's concerned the topic is closed-John knows damn well what time of the year it is, kid or no kid. If he can't be bothered to show up without someone urging him along, that's gonna be his own problem. He grabs a sip of coffee, looking into the cup almost morosely as he contemplates the possibility (a very real one, in his opinion) that he might not even show up at all. It would break their old men’s hearts.
That, he reckons, would be worth at least a broken nose. Maybe a few teeth knocked loose as well, just to make sure that this time the lesson sticks.
"And what about that fine young man of yours? Mister Smith, was it?", Hosea goes on, the fiend that he is, snapping him from his thoughts.
Now, mind you, Arthur was wishing for a change of topic, but he's not so sure he likes where the conversation is going now. "What about him?", he asks warily, pausing as he lifts the mug.
Hosea looks up from his eggs, his face the picture of perfect innocence. "Why, I thought you mentioned you two went camping a couple of times already? I assumed he was coming, of course.".
Arthur blinks slowly, then puts the mug back down on the table. Carefully. Just in case he needs to make a break for it. "You assumed?", he parrots back.
It's Hosea's turn to scoff, although not unkindly. "Of course! Abigail and Jack are coming too", (so the old man has already called the Marstons himself, the sneaky bastard), "-and they're family, after all! Dutch would be delighted-".
"Oh, I'm sure he would", Arthur mumbles around a bite of toast, enduring the onslaught.
"I'm just saying, we wouldn't mind him coming along at all. You seem just… so happy, lately", goes on Hosea, unperturbed by his mutterings. He pauses for a second then, enough for Arthur to look up from his plate and find him looking pensive -almost a bit sad. "We just... I just want you to be happy, Arthur. Charles seems like a fine man -we would love to meet him properly, is all.".
The implications of what his father is suggesting aren't lost on him. There's a reason people like Javier, or Bill, or even that bloody menace of an Irishman are welcome on every other trip -but not on this one. There's times when the whole gang is just too much -when they all need to sit back a little and enjoy some time when it's just them, and them alone. The gang's family, but the Van Der Linde's are family.
And truth to be told, he has already considered asking Charles about the trip. It's been sort of a nagging thought, those past few days.
But he's not sure it's the right time yet. They've been seeing each other for months, and Arthur's pretty sure they're exclusive -at least, as far as he's concerned they are-, but they never really talked about it, and he doesn't want to fuck up… whatever it is that they have.
He has a tendency to do that, after all. He feels like he's walking a very thin line, but he has no clue of where he’s going.
They could very well become... Something, he supposes. They're a bit too old to throw the term "boyfriends" around like lovesick teens. But, despite his own gripes with it, that's another thought that's been eating at him.
Bringing him to a family trip would make them official. Part of the family. It's... It's sort of a big step.
Arthur's not sure Charles would understand the significance of it without prompting. He's not even sure he would appreciate it, as well -the topic just... Never really came up. And by now, Arthur's getting scared of asking.
He wants him to come. He’d like that, a lot.
But would Charles want it? What if he's not in for that kind of a long haul? He doesn't want to push him into something he's not... Really into, and risk pushing him away completely. He likes what they have now -it's not Charles' fault if Arthur’s a greedy bastard, and wants more.
"I can see the cogs turning in there", Hosea tuts, bringing him back to the conversation at hand. "Careful not to hurt yourself.".
Arthur sighs again, ignoring the gentle ribbing. "I... I don't know, Hosea. It's sort of a big deal.".
"Is it?", his father asks, earnestly. "How long has it been since you two started seeing each other -seven, eight months?".
"I'm not saying you have to marry him, or go by some half-assed time table someone stuck into your head, every relationship has its own time", Hosea continues. "It's just... Very clear that you like this person a lot -we'd love to meet him. It's just a camping trip, after all.".
"You know it's not", argues Arthur.
"It's what you want it to be", Hosea insists. "Nothing more. If he makes you happy, we'd still like to get to know him.".
"Even if he doesn't stick around?", asks Arthur.
Hosea huffs a laugh at that. "Forgive me for my bluntness, Arthur, but as you said, it's been eight months -if your mug and that temper of yours haven't scared him off already, you might have truly stumbled onto a keeper, here.". His expression grows gentler as the smirk turns into a more genuine smile. "But you should really give yourself more credit, Arthur. I'm sure Charles isn't just sticking around because he likes your pooch, or out of some misguided sense of pity, isn't he? You don't really need me to tell you that, son. Not anymore.".
Arthur scoffs and huffs as he feels his cheeks warm up. Hosea's not wrong, after all. But he won't tell him that. He’d just get even more insufferable.
"I'll think about it", he resolves to say, instead. For some reason, his father still wears a secretive, pleased little smirk for the rest of the morning.
Charles comes over a couple of nights after, on a Tuesday, after work. Arthur isn't exactly much of a cook, so he knows to expect takeout, and copious amounts of it -and he doesn't mind one bit.
"Smells great", he mumbles against his mouth, after Arthur takes his coat and they kiss in the doorway.
"Smells like Takahashi's", Arthur corrects him. "But I'll take it anyway.".
"Oh, you will, will you?", Charles smirks as they sidestep the dog dancing at their feet.
I love this, he thinks, after dinner and a movie because for all of his tall words, Charles is exhausted and is not really up for anything more than being a soft pillow for Arthur for the rest of the evening. He's sorta laying on top of him on the couch, feeling Charles' fingers drawing lazy circles on his back. They're both turned towards the TV, but Arthur tuned out the movie ages ago.
This easy back and forth they fell into over the weeks. The closeness, the banter. How comfortable Arthur feels around him -warm, appreciated, loved. The way he lights up like a damn Christmas tree when his dog comes to greet him, every time as if it's the first.
I want this, he thinks.
And he reckons, he has it already. It's right there, under him, all around him.
Why does he want more?
"I can hear you thinking", Charles rumbles under him. He can feel the words in his chest under his head, along his steady heartbeat.
"Must be a helluva racket.".
Charles chuckles at that, the hand drawing circles rising to cup his head, tangling his fingers into his hair. He doesn't relent. "Wanna share some of it?".
"It's nothing bad.". Arthur pauses. He's not an idiot -well, he sorta is, but he's not that dense. He realizes that this is technically the perfect opening.
Yet, he hesitates. Long enough that Charles slowly withdraws his hand -and at that, Arthur panics.
He raises his head a little, catching Charles' eyes. "Family's got a camping trip coming up in a couple of weeks", he blurts out.
The other man just blinks at him, and waits, and Arthur scrambles even further.
"It's... Uh... It's a family thing", he goes on. "Dutch's idea. He wants... Time off, y'know? To be back when it was just us. Me, Hosea, 'n John.".
Charles hums. The hand returns to his hair. "Is this about John?", he asks. "You don't want him there?".
"No -well, yes , but- that's another thing. It's not... I wasn't thinkin' about that.".
He has to say it now. He's filled with trepidation but there’s never going to be a better occasion, right? He shouldn't wait. He shouldn't sweep this conversation under a rug and pretend it never happened. Charles is still listening -waiting patiently for him to get out of his own head.
"Would you... Come with me?", Arthur asks.
The other frowns slightly, confused. "Where to?".
"The camping trip.".
"I thought you said it was a family thing?".
"Abigail and Jack will be there", says Arthur.
Silence falls at that point, for a few moments. Arthur doesn't dare breaking it -he falls quiet, carefully observing Charles' reaction.
He blinks again, the hand in his hair now still. "You want me to come to your family's camping trip", he says, again -it doesn't sound like a question, but Arthur isn't really great at reading the room anyway, so he clings onto that like a lifeline.
"Yeah.". For a second, he feels like ranting. Like piling up excuses as to why it would be great for Charles to come along, to have some fun, go to Cumberland’s like they said they should do at some point, rent a couple of horses and take a ride all the way to Cattail Pond, to let go and enjoy some downtime-
But he doesn't. "I'd love for you to be there", he says, instead.
Something vulnerable and raw blooms behind Charles' dark eyes, then. So strong and powerful that Arthur feels somehow humbled by it, despite not having a word for it. Not one he dares to speak aloud, yet.
"I'd love to come", answers Charles, placing both hands on his cheeks and drawing him in for a kiss. Arthur complies, the warmth in his chest eliciting a rumbling purr to tumble out of his lips.
They don't speak much for the rest of the night. They aren't big talkers. What needs to be said remains quiet, spoken with eyes and touches, and when they sleep Arthur lets himself be held in a way, he thinks, it's somehow more for Charles’ benefit than his own. He doesn't mind.
It's enough for him to know that he made him happy.
Chapter 2: Under the stars
The party has died down considerably when Arthur stumbles out of camp, at a pace that someone might call hurried. And if that someone happened to ask, he has a very, very good reason for it.
He’s not quite drunk anymore. After the dance with Mary-Beth, spent twirling the girl around and fighting down wave after wave of nausea at the exercise, he thought it in his best interests to slow down with the booze, and by now he would barely call himself tipsy. Happy, maybe, as Uncle is so fond to yap at people when they question his drinking habits.
Hell, he'd been feeling positively ancient as he’d been laying on his cot just a few minutes ago, thumbing through his journal, settling himself down to sleep while the other boys were still deep into partying when... Well. The necessity of putting himself as far as he could from John’s tent suddenly hit him, and for once it has nothing to do with his bladder.
A walk in the woods is in order, he reckons. Not a long one, mind you. He doesn’t really think they have more than five, maybe ten minutes in them, combined.
Still, those are five, maybe ten minutes he’d rather spend anywhere but in their vicinity.
The air is cool and nippy, but not unpleasantly cold. The moon hangs high and brilliant, and he can see the stars twinkle over the tree canopy. It’s a beautiful night, all in all. The only problem he can see is, in fact, that he can’t quite see. The woods around Horseshoe Overlook are thick and overgrown, and cast long shadows on the ground -long enough that he can barely see his feet, let alone where he’s putting them. It makes for an unwieldy trip down the slope one that takes a lot of concentration to avoid ending up eating dirt.
“Party’s back over that way, Arthur”, calls a voice from the dark, fond.
He doesn't jump. Maybe he gets a little surprised, but he definitely doesn’t jump.
He knows the voice. He noticed Charles’ somewhat conspicuous (at least to his eyes) absence from the party, wondered about it. He had spotted Taima grazing along with the rest of the herd when he’d come back to camp earlier that evening, so he knew he couldn't have gone too far. This answers the mystery of his whereabouts, he supposes.
Charles is leaning against a tree, standing watch over the dirt path that leads deeper into the woods. Arthur can’t see much -he knows it’s him by the voice and the dappled moonlight that shines on them both, bobbing charmingly when the wind disturbs the branches overhead.
Even that little light is more than enough to make Arthur painfully aware of how beautiful Charles is.
And it’s not even the first time -he’d noticed it back when he first walked into camp and Dutch introduced him to the rest of the gang. Since then he just sort of… kept noticing.
In his defense, it's really hard not to.
Arthur has no trouble admitting to himself that he finds Charles handsome. Growing up around Hosea and Dutch took care of that issue for him; and while the former had enjoyed teaching him flowery words in an attempt to woo the fairer sex (words he'd always end up stumbling upon anyway), Dutch had been the one to introduce him to the intricacies of quoting Whitman and getting something out of it. Arthur's not really that more proficient at that, compared to his efforts with women especially -but he's at least familiar with the technicalities.
And it’s not like he’s just been hopelessly pining from a distance, either. There’s… not exactly a tension, between them, he guesses: in fact, if anything it's quite the opposite of that. Charles felt like an easy person to get along with right from the start, enough that even Sean commented on it, on how “ the Englishman has finally found his tongue”. Even though they’re not exactly big talkers, and most of their time together is spent in silence -but that just goes to show how much of an idiot Sean is.
Charles feels more like a kindred spirit than a conversation partner. Someone he can spend time with without having to talk or engage in meaningless pleasantries -someone who enjoys quiet company, either when working or resting, just as much as he does. And he knows it’s not only in his head. If given the choice, he had observed the other man decide to gravitate closer to him than anyone else in camp plenty of times, too many to be just a coincidence. Arthur is dense, but not that dense: Charles is a good friend to him, and by now he’s reasonably sure the other man thinks the same.
As he stumbles closer, he wonders if Charles ever read Whitman.
"Oh, I'm aware, Mister Smith", he answers, smiling around an unlit cigarette. "Is just… I couldn't really bring myself to stick around longer, y'see.".
Charles' long hair is untied and the breeze pushes it a bit over his face, but that doesn't obscure it enough that Arthur can't tell how puzzled he grows at his answer. "How so?".
In his approach, a jutting root almost sends Arthur flat on his face, so he decides to go for the safest option and ends up leaning against Charles' tree as well. Can't break his face on a rock if he's not stumbling around to hit it. "Well, you see, Miss Jones is feeling rather charitable it would seem, and so she took upon herself the burden of getting young Sean… reacquainted with the facilities in camp. Starting with Marston's tent", he replies.
He watches carefully as the implications sink in, his smirk growing wider as the expression on Charles' face eventually goes from puzzled to stunned. A wheezing chuckle escapes Arthur as the other man asks, in a disbelieving whisper: "In Marston's tent?", as if he isn't quite sure he heard him right.
"Yessir", he chortles, unable to keep a straight face anymore. "Now, I don't expect it to take more than a minute, two at most -but those really are two minutes I'd rather spend licking the chuckwagon squeaky clean than anywhere near that place, so. Here I am.".
At that Charles, who had been valiantly trying to stifle his own laughter until then, finally breaks.
His composure breaks as he wheezes and doubles over, a hand reaching out to steady himself on Arthur's shoulder, shaking in an effort to keep it down. Charles' laugh is quiet but vibrant, a warm, soft and unexpected sound. Arthur's tipsy brain can't stop him from laughing along, but it's not too gone to realize that this is the first time he actually heard Charles give in into a full, all out laugh in all of those weeks, and not just one of his usual dry chuckles; and that, in his humble opinion, is a wonder.
The solid weight of his hand against his shoulder and that beautiful sound make Arthur pause -but what truly stops him in his tracks is the way his dark eyes glint when he straightens, alight with moonlight and mirth. His own laughter slowly dies on his lips and he finds himself staring, curiously feeling quite parched all of a sudden. He’s also lost his cigarette at some point, he realizes, but he also realizes he can’t really find it in himself to care.
Charles really is handsome.
He feels a pull, then, something he’s learned long ago to repress but feels somehow still surprising when it rears its head up once again, so many years after the last time. His eyes wander to his plump, chapped lips, the dark stubble on his cheeks and the silver, spidery scar over his throat, stretching his skin just so, and for a second he pauses and just can't help but wonder…
But then Charles' expression changes so quickly that it almost gives him whiplash, and his mouth goes dry over something quite different: the blind terror that he, somehow, managed to read his foolish thoughts.
The soft smile freezes as his gaze travels down, somewhere around their feet. Suddenly the hand on his shoulder grips him way too tight to be pleasant, effectively stopping Arthur from lurching in surprise -or from doing anything at all. "Don't move", he murmurs, tension seeping into his voice.
Arthur doesn't really have much of a choice at that point. He can’t even see what Charles is even looking at, it’s too dark and his arm blocks his view: however, the man’s tight expression and his strangling grip on his shoulders are more than enough to elicit a cold surge of anxiety to rise in him. “What? What is it?!”, he whispers, blue eyes wide in the dark as he searches every bush and cranny for shapes -did Charles see intruders? Pursuers? Marshals? Pinkertons, perhaps, following them all the way from Blackwater?
The other man doesn't answer, doesn't even bother lifting his eyes -and that unnerves Arthur even further, but not as much as the speed at which he moves just a fraction later. Charles' free hand goes to his hip holster, fast as a whip, brandishing his shotgun; no need to waste time with aiming, not at point blank as he is, and fires a deafening shot right into the ground. It's close enough that Arthur can feel it reverberate in his bones, just shy of his left foot, close enough that he can imagine to have felt the blast of hot air even through his boot. He hears something give, with a wet, disgusting squelch -but it’s not his own toes, he realizes, once he can get his rabbit pulse back under control.
He peers down as Charles pulls him closer.
It was just a damn snake.
The shot has blasted its head off entirely, but in the faint light he can barely make out the fiery red scales of his body -too stout to be just a corn snake. Probably a copperhead. Not a good guest to have, so close to camp where Jack likes to wander around barefoot -good riddance. And a damn good shot.
He exhales as Charles breathes out, “That was close”, and Arthur realizes two things: one, yes, that had been indeed very close; two, Charles is now very, very close to him as well. The night air is still nippy enough that he can feel the warmth radiating from his body; even catch a whiff of his scent, something hard to accomplish in camp with all of the smoke and the manure -unless it's something as overpowering as Dutch's cologne or Bill's acrid stench.
Charles' is nothing like that. Arthur can't even put a name to it, his brain too addled to put together more than a couple of words at a time, let alone flowery ones. The only thing he's acutely aware of, other than all of Charles himself in his own, overpowering entirety, is that as soon as he senses it -the faint musk of sweat, the cigarettes he likes to smoke and something woodsy, earthy underneath- his first animal thought is that he wants more.
He feels too much. It's not as cold anymore, for some reason -Arthur feels antsy, almost ensnared, and he doesn't dare to raise his eyes from his feet until he does, doomed by his own restlessness -and there Charles' are, close enough that he can count his eyelashes in the fucking dark, and ain't that just a sight.
It would be real easy, just then -to pitch just a bit forward, to just follow the wind and lean in. The other man isn’t moving away, and -he can’t find it in himself to say anything, his brain feels so addled he’s almost drunk and why the hell did I drink so much, never again -
Voices float down to them from camp then, and that is enough to make them move -Charles dips his head away, Arthur just outright jumps and he's too jittery at this point to even bother pretending he hasn't.
Of course, the gang must have heard the gunshot.
“What was that?”.
“I... I think I heard shootin’-”.
“Who’s standing guard?!”.
“Douse the fires…”.
There’s fear ringing clear in every word, even if they speak all over each other, whispering frantically -and Arthur suddenly feels for his family. Hell, if he wasn’t here and aware of what truly happened, he would be scared shitless too. After Blackwater, despite Dutch’s grand promises, they’re all still so rattled that every shadow looks like a bounty hunter -no wonder they all got spooked now.
He’s about to raise his voice, reassure his folks that everything’s fine, when something warm touches his lips and he freezes. Charles shuts him up with his hand, only needing a delicate touch of his fingers, and speaks up instead. “It’s all good! Just a snake. Almost stepped on it in the dark.”.
The rest of the gang is surely settling down at that -Charles is trustworthy, he's gotten everyone wrapped around his little finger by now, and if he's standing guard, there's no reason they shouldn't be safe, right?
(And then he wonders, is that truly what they think of him? Or is that just his own traitorous mind, voicing out his own wishful thinking as if he's not already too aware of how hopelessly smitten he is?)
Arthur finds he doesn’t really care, that way or another. As his hand leaves his lips, Charles’ eyes catch his once again and instead of steadfastly holding his gaze as he usually does he averts it -giving Arthur just enough time to catch a glimpse of something soft unfurling in them before he hides away. And maybe he is drunker than he first thought, because he cannot quite wrap his head around the implications of what he has just seen. In fact, he can’t do much but stand there, looking probably quite foolish.
He can see Charles’ throat work where it pokes out from his scarf as he swallows (and isn’t that something new and grand to fixate himself on), before he speaks again, lowering his voice back down to a murmur, and: “You should get some rest, Arthur”, he says.
Arthur’s brain is still too scrambled to work properly, almost feeling as if it’s trying to follow too many trains of thoughts to manage to parse even one properly, and those few words are enough to send it scrambling even more off course. Well, it makes sense, Charles has to stand guard - but it wouldn’t be the first time he fooled with someone in the dark -unless he read the room wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time for that either - but Charles is not the kind of ass to leave his post for that, not even for him, not after Blackwater -and yet this still feels like a refusal, and the ugly spike of anxiety comes back in force with a vengeance…
“How about you and I go out hunting, tomorrow? Hangover willing”, whispers Charles, and that’s enough to make his brain finally, blessedly shut up . “I’ve spotted some bison east of here, around Emerald Ranch. We’d need a couple of days out, to do things properly -the way my people do. I could show you how.”.
A hunting trip. Away from camp, voices, wandering eyes -and hopefully snakes.
But, most importantly, there’s an uncertainty in Charles’ voice as he asks something apparently so easy and meaningless, that makes Arthur’s heart sing.
“I’d like that”, he manages to stutter out, and Charles looks up again, smiling that soft smile of his that’s enough to make him feel like the sun’s come right back up in the dead of the night, and he knows that for once in his life he hasn’t fucked up.
“Go get some sleep then”, he advises, impossibly softer than before. “I’ll bring you coffee first thing.”.
Dutch might have been onto something back then, all those years ago, with all of his poetry and quotes. They had certainly landed him some lays after all, back when he was just a kid, still figuring out life. As he walks back to his cot, Marston’s tent finally, blessedly quiet, Arthur’s pretty sure that he won’t need Whitman’s help this time, and that thought alone is enough to make him giddy like he’s just been brought back years in time. Maybe Dutch really is right, this time, he thinks; maybe things are really looking up.
Chapter 3: Campfire
Technically, there’s no need for fires down in Clemens Point. Lemoyne’s weather already borders on the side of hot, sticky and miserable enough by itself, without the need of adding the heat of campfires to it.
But for a gang like theirs, it’s hard to give them up.
Sitting around a fire after a long day of chores, robbery and debauchery is a treat. Sharing meals, words, music too sometimes it’s something that even the least socially-inclined gang members will eventually indulge in. Every night, like clockwork, people will find their way to a fire, the smell of cigarette smoke hanging heavy around them, and that, even more than the particular kinship that comes with spilling blood together, truly is the beating heart of the gang.
As the weeks morphed into months, Charles has found himself joining them more and more often. He tolerates most people at camp, he even likes some: he enjoys spending time with Lenny and John, he likes listening to the girls chatting and singing the day away as they work, he even doesn’t mind playing a hand or two of poker with Javier and Bill if the latter’s not drunk enough to be a nuisance. He’ll only ever actively go out of his way to avoid Micah, if he can -though not because he’s got a problem with him, mind you. It’s mostly just because he’d like to avoid getting an earful from Dutch if the man decides to rile him up again and earn himself a proper beating, this time.
And, of course, he likes being around Arthur.
Lately the man’s been running himself even more ragged than usual. While Dutch and Hosea scheme, Arthur seems to be the one tasked with seeing to completion most of said schemes -often enough that lately they’ve barely had enough time to share murmured “hellos” over coffee in the mornings before the other man had to run off for this or that errand, so early that the sun had barely peaked over the horizon.
It’s driving Charles mad. Mad that he can’t help him out as much as he’d like to, because this is, after all, the South, and Arthur already has enough trouble in dealing with the locals without adding their issues with his heritage; and of course, mad with longing and loneliness as well.
He’s far from being a blushing maiden or a tumultuous young man, dominated more by his desires than his brains, and yet he finds himself missing Arthur something fierce just the same.
For that reason, when he spots the man sitting on the soft grass, listening to one of Hosea’s tall tales well into the late hours of the evening, he doesn’t think twice about joining them. Lenny being there as well is the only reason Charles doesn’t go straight to Arthur’s side: while they’re not exactly being secretive (and it’s hard to keep a secret while living with so many people in such close quarters, besides) they’re both not ones for flaunting.
And so he stomps down on his longing, the sting made even worse when Arthur turns to watch him approach with a smile and a fond twinkle in his eye, greets the rest of the gentlemen with a murmur and plops down onto the nearest log. And despite everything, for a while, he’s at peace.
Hosea tells a story about their years in Oregon. He talks himself hoarse, reminiscing about the good years they had there -fishing for both salmon and fools, as it was their wont. Lenny listens, enraptured, while Arthur rarely speaks up and only does so to correct a few “embellishments” that Hosea took just a tad too far to be credible.
He looks tired, thinks Charles as he watches him. He has bags under his eyes, and without the bulk of his jacket he can see his shirt hanging just a bit looser than he’s used to see. But the way he smiles and laughs at the old man’s tales is just the same. He always looks down when he smiles, as if attempting to hide under the brim of a hat that tonight, however, he’s not wearing: it’s a blessing, really, and Charles takes full advantage of it as he watches. He watches as his dimples deepens with laughter when Hosea prods and pokes fun at him; he watches the way his brows furrow when he catches him telling a particularly grand lie; how his hair, dampened with sweat, curls attractively at the nape of his neck; how his eyes gleams and twinkle when they catch the light of the fire, and how blue they are when they catch his own. They share a long, quiet look over the fire as Hosea and Lenny chatter on, and Charles can’t stop himself from smiling.
Arthur responds in kind, in that bashful way that’s just his, and averts his eyes.
By the time the others decide to finally go to sleep, it’s so late it ends up being early. The camp is quiet, the silence broken only by a few snores, the lapping of the water on the shore, and the calls of the crickets. The fire is slowly dying out, embers popping only once in a while.
There’s nobody around to see if Charles decides to get up and plop himself down behind Arthur, stretching his legs around his body, arms coming up to hold him by his middle. No one to hoot or holler if he leans his head against his shoulder, breathing in his scent and the smell of his cigarettes. Nobody to bother them, if Arthur leans back and lets himself be held, kissing him deeply in the dying firelight; doing nothing, but enjoying a moment of respite.
There’s not enough time for Charles to do what he wishes he could, to get up and whisk him away from their duties, to rest and ride and map the planes of Arthur’s body again and again, far away from the rest of the world and it's worries; but if this is what they can afford, for now, then it is what he will take.
Chapter 4: Cuddling for warmth
They have been riding only for a couple of hours when Arthur starts coughing.
By now, Charles is very familiar with the sound. Those wheezing, wet hacks keep him up at night almost as much as Arthur himself the rare times he comes back to sleep at camp, in the Hollow. Charles hopes that the rest of those nights he doesn't see him around are just spent resting elsewhere, but-
Who knows, really.
And that cough sounds bad -it's worse than he’s ever heard it so far, it sounds outright painful. He knows Arthur will just curl in on himself even more if he asks -they always talk stuff out (at their own pace) but now? After the bank job, after Guarma, with whatever's happening to Dutch and the constant fights? Charles can see the anxiety in his eyes, his fear, and he knows Arthur enough to know that that particular sentiment is not at all directed at himself -he's scared for the others.
It worries Charles, and the worst thing is that he knows that if he shows it, Arthur will turn that fear onto him as well, and attempt to shield him from it in any way he can.
So he must be patient. He must wait for Arthur to come to him, at his own pace. He knows he will. He just needs time.
And yet, when the coughing gets faint and Charles turns just in time to see him slip from Fergus’ saddle, crumpling in a helpless heap on the road, lips shiny with mucus and blood -he wishes he’d said something sooner.
He gathers him up, wheezing and unconscious, and takes him to an abandoned cabin north of Roanoke Ridge, one he scouted and took advantage of plenty of times already while making treks up to the reservation on his own. The sun is going down, and as fall crawls closer the nights grow colder and darker. But they can’t afford a fire -not when the Pinkertons are crawling all around the state like ants, sniffing around every corner. A lone plume of smoke in the mountains could very well be a death sentence.
When Arthur wakes, in the nest of bedrolls and saddle blankets Charles has prepared and laid him in, he needs only a look. Arthur cringes, tries to somehow curl in on himself even further -but, eventually, talks.
Charles has paid attention to his voice in the last few days; he knows already how it’s been slowly degenerating into an unnatural, pitiful croak . But he doesn’t think he’s ever heard him speak after a fit that violent, and the way the words have to claw their way out of his throat to come out, weak and trembling, is a direct stab to his heart with every syllable. His blue eyes are glassy, somewhat unfocused in the dark, as he talks without looking at him directly -still bashful, still somewhat ashamed. He doesn’t speak much -he doesn’t have the breath for it, and Charles understands that, after all, there’s not much to say. It is what it is -no need, and not enough breath, to embellish the matter.
When he eventually falls quiet Charles talks in his place, fills the silence with his piece.
Arthur's pretty eyes focus on him as he speaks; he spots a spark in them, and realizes, somewhat dumbfounded, that he's grateful.
Charles wonders if he spoke to anyone else about this -if he’s had to hear reassurances and promises about how he’s “going to be alright”, maybe from the same people who are so far gone they're barely even able to save themselves. Maybe they were the ones that needed the reassurances: to believe that the only person who's actually giving a damn about them was not going to leave.
He thinks, this is probably the realest thing he’s heard in a long while. And it's grim. It’s not exactly as reassuring as Charles wishes it could be -but he can't bring himself to lie, not even for his loved ones.
And yet, Arthur’s still grateful for it.
They can’t keep riding into the night, it’s just too cold and the paths are too treacherous, even for rides as smart as theirs. As the hour grows late and darker, they share a miserable cold meal of canned beans and jerky, and then Charles shuffles closer.
At first, Arthur is uncertain.
“I won’t get you sick”, he whispers, stubbornly.
“I won’t let you freeze to death”, counters Charles. “Besides, you won’t get me sick. If I had to get it from you, I would’ve gotten it ages ago.”.
He doesn’t know if he’s too tired to argue or if he’s just accepting that he’s right, but Arthur stops fighting him on this and Charles wraps them both in the warm, scratchy blanket he’s pulled from Taima’s saddle. It’s easy to fit them both in it, he realizes with a start. Too easy, even: and when he wraps his arms around his body, he knows why. His coat is bulky, but the man himself is swimming in it. He curls up easily in his hold, fits in it like he never could just a few weeks before.
And so Charles holds him.
Arthur falls asleep very quickly. He fits right under the crook of his arm, nestled close enough that he can feel his breath tickle his throat -and that is a welcome comfort. He sleeps, and Charles prepares himself to keep a long vigil.
He commits this night to memory. He has no talent like Arthur’s, for bringing images to life with his hands and a few tools alone; he cannot carve this, he has nothing to print this image on for posterity -except for his own mind’s eye.
He relishes in the way Arthur fits into his embrace, the sharp jut of his bony shoulder into his own; the way he smells, of herbs and sweat with the slightest twinge of something metallic underneath; the pink spots on his cheeks, the reddened tip of his nose barely poking out of the blanket. The way his long eyelashes fan over sunken eyes, the bags under them more prominent and darker than ever. He quietens his own breathing and listens to the wheeze in his, like it’s a sermon.
A few hours in, he realizes that the smell of cigarette smoke that usually hung around Arthur and his clothing is gone. He probably stopped smoking for good, he reckons.
How much will that give him? A few weeks, maybe? Days?
His own breathing catches into his chest at the thought and he squeezes his eyes shut, willing his temper to get back under control. His eyes feel wet, but it's not grief that makes his heart race, it is anger.
It's just not fair.
He raises a hand, slowly dragging it out of the blanket so to not jostle the sleeping man in his arms. Arthur’s cheek feels cool under his palm. He used to be as warm as Charles himself -a walking furnace, always burning hot, bright and strong. His cheekbones feel sharper, the stubble scratchier than he’s used to, as if all the softness in him has somehow shrunk and withered away.
So much sickness, and so much hurt on top of it.
Charles is familiar with the worries that plague him, and hates being the one that has to pile even more trouble on top of them, when Arthur is the only one willing to attempt to control the damage Dutch is attempting to wreak over the tribe. And yet, Arthur still pushes forward -despite the fits, and the sickness, and the hurt. Working himself to the bone, and despite that it feels like it's never enough.
But, at least for tonight, he doesn’t wake in a coughing fit. In fact, he doesn’t wake at any point at all. He sleeps, quiet and unmoving, so deeply that Charles thinks he probably doesn’t even dream. He holds him, close and warm and safe, until he can’t any longer -when the birds start chirping and the light pokes out from the hills to the east.
They have to ride to Fort Wallace later, under the cover of the next night -to get Eagle Flies out of the clutches of the army before they can do him any more harm. But Charles can still press his lips to his beloved’s forehead, wake him up with a kiss in a warm embrace, safe and sound -for the moment. And that's just what he does -for as long as he can.
Chapter 5: Patching up wounds
Arthur’s been hearing all kinds of noises from the shed for a while now, from his quiet spot on the porch. He’s been sort of unceremoniously parked there earlier that morning, although he can’t really say he minds: he’s taken up enough of both Mrs Balfour and Charles’ time to have them play babysitters to him any longer; and besides he’d rather bore himself outside, with fresh air and sun and the sky, than stuffed indoors in the room that the widow has been so kind to lend them for his recovery.
It’s been a few weeks now, as far as Charles has told him, since they’ve started taking advantage of Mrs Balfour’s hospitality. That fool of a man, instead of sticking with the people who needed him as he should’ve done, had ridden all the way back to Roanoke as soon as he got news of the Pinkerton raid. Arthur doesn’t really remember much of what went down after the fight with Micah; but, as far as they can reconstruct, he somehow managed to drag himself off the mountainside and into a shelter, where he survived on fever and rainwater long enough for Charles to be able to track him down.
He's been awake for almost a fortnight -on his feet, for roughly a week. He still feels as weak and as unwieldy on his legs as a newborn kitten, but Mrs Balfour swears he’s definitely come a long way since she quite literally stumbled onto them on her doorstep.
It’s not like he’s bound to get much better than this, Arthur reckons. The bruises and the cuts have faded away, but he knows, with a somewhat grim certainty, that the rattling in his lungs is not something he’ll manage to get rid of so easily, if ever -and ain't that just the prettiest of thoughts.
Although it does certainly feel a little easier to breathe, now that he’s not running himself ragged to try to save his family from the gallows.
“Oh Mister Smith, would you please just keep still!”.
The voice and the plain exasperation in it are enough to snap Arthur out of his sad reminiscing, alright. He heaves himself up from the chair (a plush monstrosity that Charles dragged out from the living room for his sake and that he refuses to admit, to his own, deep dismay, is actually quite comfortable) and limps across the small yard.
That's one thing that's still refusing to fade away, despite all of his resting and supposed healing.
He pushes the discomfort to the back of his mind and peeks from the shed's small window, right next to the still ajar door.
Charles is sitting on a crate, his back turned to him. His bulk is enough to block out most of the tiny room, but he can tell Charlotte’s with him: he can see the hem of her gown poking out near his ankles.
Charles then lets out a sound that by now, to Arthur’s well trained ears, is undoubtedly pain, and that’s enough for the other man to shoulder his way inside, sneakiness be damned. “What’s goin’ on? What happened?”, he rasps out, tone demanding.
Two sets of wide eyes turn to regard him, and both seem to hesitate for a fraction.
Arthur surmises the small room. There’s an overturned crate nearby, the wooden lid snapped off and splintered, its content strewn across the shed: tins and jars full of preserved food mostly, it seems. Charlotte is kneeling in front of the sitting form of Charles, his right hand held in both of hers; he can see a tiny bit of red on her paler skin, but she seems to be unharmed.
She sighs as Charles attempts, somewhat hilariously for a man of his bulk, to curl in on himself even further with a sigh of his own. “We dropped a crate”, she explains, standing up and gathering her gown back in order. “But the lid was weak and it broke off -Mister Smith got a hand all scraped up, and I think I saw a splinter in it... But he insists he's fine, just bleeding all over my shed.”.
“Ouch”, is all Arthur can muster at the outburst, although sympathetically. Charles acknowledges it with a quiet nod.
“Yes, ouch indeed”, goes on Charlotte with a long-suffering look. “Now, I’m sure Mister Smith has everything under control, but just in case I’m going pop into the house for a second -get the kit, maybe a pair of tweezers as well”, she adds, conversationally. “Mister Morgan, would you be so kind as to keep an eye on him for me? Just in case Mister Smith needs some help.”.
Arthur wheezes out a chuckle at her tone, shaking his head with mirth. “Why, I’m sure I can handle it, Mrs Balfour.”.
She smiles again as she leaves, with no playful animosity this time, leaving them finally alone in the tiny, dusty room. Charles stubbornly stays quiet.
Fine. He'll coax him into cooperating, then. “And how’s that hand looking, Mister Smith?”, Arthur asks, teasingly.
Charles’ hair has been regrowing where he shaved himself in those last few weeks of madness, back with the gang. It’s still not much more than a fuzz at this point, but it’s endearing enough for Arthur that he just can’t get enough of petting it. He does so as he walks in, seating himself in front of him on another crate. And, as usual, the other man leans into his touch just like a damn cat despite the sourness on his face.
“I don’t need tweezers”, he mumbles, cradling his injured hand away. “A splash of whiskey and some bandages, and I’ll be fine.”.
Arthur knows him enough by now that he doesn't buy it.
“That the same method you used for all my scrapes?”, he asks innocently, busying himself with an undone thread on his sleeve.
“What? No, of course not!”.
Got him. Charles is bothered enough by the implication that the façade of uncaringness falls immediately at the slightest insinuation -so easily too, he almost feels bad for it.
Arthur just smiles, smug as a cat that found its way into the cream, as Charles’ expression pinches even further when he realizes he’s been had. He huffs. “You don’t get to do that. That’s cheating.”.
“Lies and slander, you know I never cheated once in my whole damn life.”.
For all of his posturing, he knows Charles can’t stay sour at him for long. Arthur watches him huff again, failing to fight a smile from forming on his lips -Charles knows it's a losing battle, it always is, and his attempts at hiding it are futile to boot.
Arthur gently paws at his hand then and he lets him have it, sufficiently mollified.
He knows that Charles’ got a thing for splinters. He remembers a hot day in Clemens Point, working together on getting the wheel of the chuckwagon level so that Pearson would finally stop whining about shit rolling around, and the sudden hiss as Charles caught a rather nasty one in his palm -like right now.
It took Arthur a while, then, to realize that Charles wasn’t going to be able to take it out by himself. Not because he couldn’t get it, but because he was actively refusing to even try, insisting that he was fine, to the point that eventually Tilly grew tired of their bickering and plucked it out herself.
The lighting is not exactly optimal in the shed, but even so he can clearly spot the splinter in Charles' scraped up palm. It’s dark and jagged and not the worst thing Arthur has ever seen, to be honest; but he's got a thing for needles himself, so who even is he to say anything about splinters.
“You sound a lot like Mister Matthews when you do that”, Charles says then, softly, and that’s enough to draw Arthur’s attention away from his palm for a moment only to find him pointedly not looking back at him. He knows, however, that he's not being teased. He knows Charles wouldn’t do that, not about that -and then there’s that soft expression on his face, almost tender.
It doesn’t exactly lessen the blow of the hurt that surges in Arthur at the memories. But it does draw out a smile of his own, even if it's a bitter one.
“You’re gonna get him rollin’ all over his grave, talkin’ like that”, Arthur cautions him, moving his attention back to the scrape. “Now that’s lies and slander.”.
Charles chuckles but he doesn’t argue. He squirms a little, however, when Arthur fails his first attempt at retrieving the splinter -although he does still himself immediately after a very pointed look, so Arthur guesses he can give him points for trying. He watches him lick his lips, still refusing to look down at his palm, eyes wandering everywhere and nowhere. “Sadie helped me get him, you know. Him and Lenny", he goes on.
Arthur didn't know. The girls had told him they’d buried them, but they hadn’t really gone into much detail about the whole thing. He hadn’t even had the time to go back and find their graves before everything went to shit.
He sighs through his nose, filing that among the other, numerous regrets he’s been hoarding as of late. “Thank you", he replies, sincerely.
Charles hums. For a while, he’s quiet again, and Arthur dares to hope he's gonna drop it -but then: “You did good. You know that, right? He would’ve thought so too. All of them”.
Arthur’s shaking his head before he’s even done talking. “Charles, that’s all fine and good, but you don’t really have to say things…”.
“I’m saying things like I see them.”.
“Then you know I ain't done nothing to be praised about.”.
“Nobody’s ever thought of blaming you for anything.”.
“That don’t change nothing!”, Arthur insists, getting genuinely frustrated. He knows Charles means well, but he’s tired of arguing about this -tired of trying to stop him from shifting fault where it doesn’t belong. “Besides, you didn’t even know him that well”, he adds after a brief pause, letting go of his hand.
“I know a decent man when I see one”, Charles argues back, and this time he's the one brandishing a pointed look against him.
Arthur’s about to reply, his stubborn streak stomping and huffing, but as soon as he raises his eyes back up to match Charles, something in them gives him pause.
They're both fools, he reckons, letting out another sigh. He gestures for his uninjured hand, then. Charles extends it, puzzled, then blinks when Arthur deposits in his palm the splinter he’s pulled out from the other one -and shoulders visibly slump in relief.
“Thank you”, he says as he gets up, voice all soft.
Arthur grumbles, but he lets himself be pulled upright into a hug. He breathes in Charles’ scent as much as his lungs will allow, reveling in the warmth of his hold, the solid wall of his body against his own.
Back on that mountainside, bleeding and hurting he remembers feeling so cold he thought, I'll never be warm again. He still feels cold most nights -last time he ever needed a blanket to sleep was back when he was nothing but an underfed runt, back when Dutch and Hosea had just stumbled onto him.
Now he can't even fall asleep without having Charles in the bed with him, holding him close enough to warm him down to his bones. And Charles told him he can't sleep if he's not close enough to hear him breathe.
What fools they are, indeed.
They’ll probably never agree on that matter, he reckons. There’s too much hurt, on every side of it, for things to ever settle down all quiet and peaceful-like in his head. He’s too much of a brooder, and there’s just too much pain and anger involved in it to just… find some measure of peace in the way things went down. Not yet, at the very least.
But right now? He's still alive. The Ridge is mostly Pinkerton-free, and as far as the old US of A is concerned, Arthur Morgan died weeks ago -his body eaten away by scavengers, a fitting end for an outlaw as nefarious as he was.
Still, despite their best efforts he’s still breathing, somewhat unimpededly. He’s still kicking, and Charles is still putting up with him.
That alone is enough of a miracle, in Arthur’s eyes, to hush down the hurt, the dead and the regrets for a long while.
It's been a while since he had the cravings, so when the itch for a cigarette hits Arthur, it's a powerful one.
He'd do anything to keep his hands busy, to take the edge off. He's been pacing the porch for hours now, not unlike a prowling beast, his thoughts all jumbled and in disarray -he imagines, at this point, that he must be quite a sight.
Bitter Creek is a sleepy, deadbeat town enough that his presence seems to be enough to deter anyone from walking on the doctor's street.
He doesn't mind. It's probably better that way, so he doesn't have to deal with hicks getting on his nerves. He knows that, at this point, he'd take anything as a welcome distraction -even a fight, despite his rational brain knowing how bad of an idea that is.
Problem is, the images are just seared into his brain. He can't stop replaying the events of last night into his mind, just like a broken record -and he feels like he's going insane with it.
Charles has stricken the oddest friendship with the hotel's resident cat. Damn thing had nearly tore Arthur's hand off when he tried to pet it once -in his defense, it had seemed friendly enough just moments before it started yowling.
Watching it purr and flop on its back like a damn dog, offering its belly to Charles' scratching fingers like it’s the tamest beast in the world feels outright insulting at this point.
Arthur sets down the plates on the table in front of him. His bandaged leg is resting on a footstool under it, out of sight -but it’s hard to forget about when he catches Charles trying to sit up straighter and wincing at the gesture. He doesn’t offer help. He knows that when he needs it, he’ll ask for it.
Charles made it abundantly clear after he tried to step in, unwanted, one time too many.
At least the cat doesn’t try to steal their food. It jumps off Charles’ lap, unsettled, and sits its fluffy behind on the dresser, looking somewhat bored.
“Thank you”, Charles says as Arthur pulls the chair next to him.
They’ve been staying into Bitter Creek for a week now -and that’s not gonna change for a while if they want Charles’ broken leg to heal right, the doctor said. They’ve got enough money to rent a room thanks to that last bounty, at the very least, so they’re technically set -comfortable and fed, just having to wait for nature to run its course.
Of course, the whole situation has been driving both men mad.
Arthur can only guess at Charles’ reasons, but he thinks he can safely assume that having next to none mobility, a hole in his leg and a healing broken bone are probably not the most pleasant combination of things to have to experience. The first few days after they tapered off the strongest pain medicines, he was particularly sour and hard to deal with.
Now, he seems calmer. Not happier, mind you -if Arthur has to guess, he supposes he’s come to terms with the fact that there’s nothing much he can do about it other than wait. Vengeance is definitely off the table.
They’ve got the guy who shot him, anyway. Arthur unloaded an entire pistol cartridge into him as soon as he’d heard Charles crying out in pain, mind blank-
And that was just the thing, wasn’t it?
It’s hard to say if Charles has noticed anything, because Arthur knows very well how much of a quiet man he is -they both are, that’s part of what makes them click together so easily. But even if he doesn’t show it, those last few days have been… challenging.
Ever since he dropped him at the doctor, in the middle of the night, pacing the street while still soaked in blood (Charles' blood)-his mind has been stuck in a loop. Stiffly replaying those seconds when he watched Charles rise from cover, stumble on his bad knee and get shot for it.
If that asshole had aimed better, or if he’d struck just a bit closer to that big vein in his leg… he would’ve lost him.
He knows it’s a possibility. Ever since they left the East, moved deep into Nevada -it’s been years, and they haven’t exactly lived the quietest life possible. Sure, he still has to deal with his lungs acting up; but as the months went by during his treatment, Arthur knew he would’ve never been able to shake off his wanderlust -not anytime soon. And Charles, well, he's much of the same.
Bounty hunting was, after all, a good way to keep up with who the badges were after to ensure they were not amongst them, while also keeping on their good side.
But it’s been years. Literal years. Arthur’s shoulder has taken up the habit of locking up when the weather turns sour, which was what kicked them into moving south from Washington in the first place; Charles took a bad fall from Falmouth a year ago, and his knee has been giving him pain ever since -and now it got him shot, too.
Although to be fair there are a lot of other, less dramatic signs of them turning just a tad too old to keep up with the demands of the job. Creaky joints, cold weather getting harder and harder to bear, the uuhmps and oohmps of getting into tall saddle-
-and, well, squinting. A lot of squinting.
So, yeah. Maybe they’re getting older.
And that’s something that Arthur is ill-equipped to deal with. He always assumed he’d go out… well, violently. Guns blazing, fighting against the law, bringing as many as he could down with him.
He always thought, he would die as he lived -as an outlaw.
Funny to think, he’d come very close to that end at one point.
But now things are different. And even if Charles would hate to hear him say that, well, it doesn’t make it any less true: Arthur doesn’t really gives much of a fuck about what happens to himself.
But what happened a week ago was one hell of a stark reminder that he doesn’t live alone and… and, well…
That he cares a lot more about what happens to Charles, relatively speaking. It’s not like he didn’t care about it before, mind you -it’s just, well. Being put face to face with the grim reminder that he could very well die-
A dark hand floats into his field of view, snapping fingers catches his attention. He looks up, finding Charles watching him expectantly. “Whu… what?”, he rasps out, eloquently.
The other man points at his plate. “You haven’t touched anything. Are you sick?”, he asks.
And it’s true. He’d pushed around the food a bit, but he was so distracted, Arthur just now realizes he’d barely eaten anything and is, in fact, quite hungry.
He can’t really stand the soft worry he can see behind Charles’ amused expression, so he averts his eyes and tucks in. “No. Just thinkin’.”.
“That’s a welcome change”, Charles answers around a bite of meat, the heathen that he is.
Arthur rolls his eyes, but doesn’t rise to the bait.
They’ve been talking about stuff in the past. Hypotheticals, of course -the idea of stopping somewhere, anywhere, always felt so far away. But they’d gone through possibilities -states, laws they’d have to dance around.
He’s not exactly hesitant to bring this up. But he knows he’s not the most eloquent of talkers, and the last thing he wants is to make Charles think he’s bringing the topic up because he thinks he’s not capable.
It would be a worry of his, if their roles were reversed. So he can’t quite help but take that into consideration as he chooses his next words.
“Do you think Dutch ever really, really wanted to settle down in California?”, he asks.
Charles looks up from his own plate, and amongst his numerous blinks Arthur has learned to know over the years, this one is the one for utter confusion. “What”, he asks, voice flat.
“You know, he always wanted to settle down, didn’t he? Or, well. So he said”, Arthur replied. “He mentioned California -he sent Abigail and John over there once, back when we were around New Austin, to check out land. He chickened out of buying it, though.”.
Charles still looks dubious. “That should be enough of an answer”, he says.
“No, no, hear me out.”. Arthur isn’t exactly scrambling (yet), but he definitely feels like the conversation is somewhat slipping through his fingers. “Dutch got the idea to retire a long while after he picked me and John up. An’ he didn’t pick it up from Hosea neither, ‘cause you know, after Bessie died -I think they tried to settle down at some point, but it didn’t stick and, well. I don’t know, maybe he thought he never could.
“And Dutch, well, he mentioned it, though, and that was the goal, the whole idea -we were savin’ up for that, right? The money, all of it we’ve lost, it was all supposed to go to California, or, well. Whatever it was he changed it to eventually. And we had a lot after all, didn’t we? Sure, we had a lot of people as well, but even with today’s prices we could’ve easily afforded-”.
He closes his mouth with a click, properly and instantly chastised by the tone.
His silence seems to be enough for Charles at first, because the bastard takes his sweet time to put his cutlery down and actually wipe at his face before talking again. He regards him with an expression that is nothing less of scathing. “Is this a very roundabout way of saying you want to settle down?”, he asks.
Arthur hesitates. “... is that something you wouldn’t find... agreeable?”, he replies, tentatively.
“I am not an invalid, Arthur Morgan”, starts Charles and hey, would you look at that, that’s exactly how he didn’t want this particular conversation to go. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make decisions for us based on that assumption.”.
“That’s not what I was on about…”.
“Then please, do enlighten me.”.
“Well, I haven’t decided shit, for starters”, argues Arthur, turning slightly to face him more comfortably, tone getting heated before deflating almost immediately, “And, c’mon Charles, it’s been eight years. You know I wouldn’t do that to you.”.
Charles seems to consider his words, although the fire in his eyes doesn’t really diminish. “I know that. I still don’t understand how my broken leg is relevant to this. You do know it’ll heal, right?”.
“Charles, I pumped that asshole full of lead the moment I realized I was going on. We were lucky he didn’t have back up - you were lucky he had a shitty aim, too. But it still took me almost an hour to manage to put you on a horse and ride back into town. Because of my damn shoulder. You could’ve bled out right there and then, for Christ’s sake!”.
“We aren’t bankers”, points out Charles. “I know the risks of the job, you know the risks of the job -probably even better than me, you dabbled in bounty hunting years before I did.”.
“Yeah, I know ‘em. That’s why I’m thinking, maybe it just… ain’t really the thing for us no more.”.
Charles huffs a laugh that sounds bitterly disbelieving. “I didn’t realize you enjoyed it that much in the first place.”.
“I don’t”, replies Arthur. “I wasn’t talking about the job. I’m talking about the risks.”.
It takes a bit, but Charles’ expression softens. Marginally. Eventually. “Arthur, I can take care of myself”, he starts.
“I know you can”, the other stops him. “I just… don’t really think I could take care of myself , if something was to happen to you. Something worse”, he adds. Even though the mere thought is enough to give him shudders.
Charles’ hand finds its way again into his field of view after a long silence, startling him slightly -then its searing warmth touches his cheek as he cups his face, lifting it up.
“I don’t think I could either, if things were… the other way around”, he says, slowly, carefully, dark eyes fixed straight into his as he leans over his own chair. Like he’s scared of spooking a shy thing off -and Arthur can’t really get why the hesitance, to be honest, but it’s making him nervous. He doesn’t want Charles to think he has to be careful to talk to him -but he also can’t fathom what could be so bad to require such level of care, and it makes him anxious. “But I know you, Arthur. I know the way you like to live”, he goes on, watching him right in the eye, keeping him there and ensnared. There’s a pained expression on his face, and more than anything Arthur wants to wipe it away, but he has no idea how. “The open road is our home, but it’s yours more than anything. You’d think I never noticed how jumpy you get in cities? How uncomfortable they are to you? I saw you, Arthur. I’ve been watching nothing else for the past eight years.”.
“You love the open skies, the plains. Sleeping under the stars. Having nothing to block your view for miles and miles. I’ve seen you happy. That’s your home, not a basement in a flophouse in fucking California . You can’t tell me you want to throw all of this away just because you’re too scared of getting hurt -it’s not you . I won’t let you do that.”.
Arthur knows, right there and then, that he’s a fool.
I mean, he always knew it. It’s not like he forgets about it. Charles is bright enough to remind him of that almost constantly -and he loves to bask in that shine, truth to be told.
But, he guesses, foolishness can rub off. You spend enough time around fools, you can get a little fool yourself, sometimes.
Charles seems to be going through that, right now.
What fools they both are.
He cups his hand with his own with a sigh, body slightly slumping as he releases a tension he didn’t know he was holding until it went away. He licks his lips, eyes finally escaping Charles’ as he points out, almost humbly: “You’re wrong.”.
He can almost hear Charles blink again. “Excuse me?”.
Arthur wheezes out a chuckle at his perplexed tone. “I said, you’re wrong”, he repeats, squeezing his hand. “I mean, sure -I’d hate a flophouse just the same as the next guy. But if you think that in these last eight, goddamn years I was happy -jus’ because I had a little nightly breeze tickle my balls as I took a leak, instead of pissing in some Californian gutter -Charles, Jesus, you’re dead wrong.”.
“Charming picture you painted there.”.
Arthur ignores the jab. “It’s true. Why do you think I’m making up such a fuss of you getting hurt in the first place?”.
When Charles doesn’t answer, the silence is enough to bring his own gaze back up. He doesn’t know what to call what he sees there, he spoke the word aloud plenty of times in those last few years but the raw power of it always gets more and more intense and surprising. He presses on, trying to not let that vulnerability deter him. “Charles, I don’t give a shit about roads and plains and skies -sure, those things are pretty enough. But I don’t care about pretty things. I would be happy, just the same, anywhere else, ‘s long as I knew you were around with me. I don’t give a shit about anything else. And, well, alright, maybe you ain’t wrong on that thing. I got scared, sure. Scared shitless. And alright, I want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. But it’s not like I’m retiring a horse in its prime -you see that too, we’re both a little… well…”, and he trails off.
“Seasoned?”, offers Charles, smiling that damned small smile of his.
“Yeah. That works.”. His voice got a bit hoarse, just then. Nothing to do with his lungs. It’s just…
His brains do funny things to him when they are reminded how they really, really like the way Charles smiles. Like making him lose his train of thought entirely.
Luckily for him, the object of his transfixion is helpful enough to pick up the pieces. “So, what you’re saying is that you’d build a home for me if it was to keep me around, Mister Morgan.”.
“For us. I mean -well, yeah. Sure. Whatever it is that you want, really”, Arthur replies, dumb and agreeable and all kinds of gone.
“Do you even know how to build a house?”, asks Charles, dubiously.
There’s a playful edge in his voice. It’s enough to know that, for now, Arthur has his forgiveness for being a lumbering fool.
“Not really”, he admits. “But I reckon, if we both get our minds on it -we’ll come up with something. Eventually.”.
“Even if it’s hard? Even if it takes a long time?”.
“Even if it takes ‘til the end of times, sure. Ain’t no way in the world I’m gonna let down the feller I love”, Arthur replies, leaning over just a bit further to close the distance and press his lips against Charles’. He feels him smile against him, and his heart does something funny against his ribs in response -as it usually does.
It’s hard to keep himself from smiling right back -and why should he, really?
As far as he’s concerned, there’s no reason to hold back. His love is still around, and willing to put up with him to boot. That’s more mercies he would’ve ever expected from the world.
They’ve got the rest of their lives to figure out everything else, he reckons. Including how to shoo the damn cat out of the room, lest it gets given a show.
And that's a wrap! I won't go into how hard these last few days have been -well, they haven't been hard, but writing definitely has. Life has a way of just. Yknow. /*frantic hand gestures*
I want to take a moment to thank everyone that left a comment, a kudos or even just took the time to read this thing. I am beyond humbled by the reception it got, sorta overwhelmed to be honest, even if. Well. It really wasn't that big of a reception compared to other, more deserving works -but it's the first time for me writing for a fandom that's not been somewhat dead for a long time, so, well, yep! It gets a bit overwhelming. The good kind, though.
Thank you all, again, for taking the time to read and interact. Y'all literally made my week. Thanks to providentialeyes as well for hosting this work in their Charthur week collection -it was a pleasure writing for this, and thanks to my dearest, stinkiest kadan for always putting up with all of my shit. You're way too good for me.
And, well, that's all! See you all next time.