After the gators, Arthur figures Mason might need a drink.
They’re not terribly far from Saint Denis, and for all the faults of the city, Arthur’s found the saloon more than amenable. So when they’re back on solid footing, he shakes the water from his boots, turns to Mason, and says, “You a whiskey man or gin?”
Mason breathes out with his whole body and shakes the tension from his shoulders. “Ale for me, I think,” he says, and Arthur nods.
“Let’s get on, then.”
Albert Mason is a different man with a drink or two in him.
All that nervous energy he carries with him, the racing thoughts, the complete disregard for life and limb--well, Arthur can see the outlines of it left on the man, but he certainly does settle . He becomes looser. More relaxed. He leans back in his chair and he laughs easy with the bartender, in a way that doesn’t offend them. Some talent Arthur’s never quite gotten the hang of.
“So this is your paradise, huh?” Arthur asks. He gestures about. “Little narrowed streets, all them people outside shouting?”
Mason laughs. “Paradise may be too strong a term,” he says. “But, sure, I do quite enjoy city living. There is certainly nothing trying to grab a bite of me for lunch here, after all.”
Arthur rolls his shoulders. “‘Cept maybe the bankers.”
A raucous laugh, this time, booming out of that tiny little frame. “Mr. Morgan! Oh, Mr. Morgan. You have a way with words, you know. Quite a way with words.”
Arthur’s face flushes hot, though it’s got no reason to.
“Well, you’ve got a way with pictures,” Arthur tells him. “That photograph of them wolves, that was--it really was something, you know?”
“Oh,” Mason grins. “I couldn’t have done it without you, of course. Well. I suppose I could have, but it would have been my last photograph. Quite a way to go out.”
“Yes,” Arthur agrees, shaking his head. “Quite a way.”
He stares out into the streets; behind him he can hear the shouting in the saloon, the too-big room filled with people who have too much money to be in a place like this but have settled in anyway.
“I dunno,” he mumbles, and swallows down the rest of his drink. “I just can’t get comfortable here, is all. Feels… confined.”
“Oh, no,” Mason says quickly. “No, no, no. Well, perhaps to a man like you, used to the big open country, I can see why it might feel that way upon arrival, but no, I find the city--well. I find it rather freeing.”
Arthur pictures the cobblestone streets of Saint Denis, barely wide enough to ride two horses side-by-side; the smokestacks that rise out of the factory district; the men lying destitute at every corner and the ones sweeping other people’s trash from the sidewalks just to earn a living. When he imagines the sort of man who would find a city like this freeing , he certainly never imagined Albert Mason--the flighty little photographer, the man with a bleeding heart for the struggling American wildlife.
“I’ll have to take you at your word,” Arthur shrugs. “I guess I just can’t see it.” He pauses and then, with the taste of whiskey still on his tongue, he says, “Hell. You seem to be just about the most decent fellow I’ve met from outta the city.”
Arthur can see it from the corner of his eye--Mason looks at him then. Really looks at him. The way he analyzes the scenery for just the right lighting and angle and whatever else goes into one of those pictures of his. He gives Arthur this once-over, then turns back to his drink, and takes a slow, long sip.
“Well,” Mason says finally. “That is one of the draws of the city, after all. I’ve met all sorts of people.”
“Ah, yeah,” Arthur laughs. “You definitely meet all sorts.”
“With many different lifestyles,” Mason presses on. “Men who have spent their lives out in the wild, like yourself. Men who have never worked a day in their lives. Rich men, poor men. Men with the most astounding stories! Men who think they have astounding stories and are really rather quite boring, which, oh, dear, I hope that’s not me. And oh, the women! How could I forget the women. So many of them wearing pants. Can you imagine?”
Arthur’s brain spins, trying to keep up with the man, but he manages to nod and say, “I know a woman like that. Fierce woman. Respect her more than most men I know.”
“Ah,” Mason says, and it sounds oddly like a train coming to a halt. “I see. Your wife, then?”
Arthur nearly chokes on his drink.
“Sadie?” he coughs out. “My wife? Lord, no. She’d eat me for breakfast.” He taps his glass against the counter. “And besides, I’m not--well. I ain’t someone most people would want for marriage.”
Christ, he’s drunker than he thought.
And now Mason’s gone all still and quiet again, lost somewhere in that mechanical head of his. He drinks--finishes off his drink, actually, and slides a coin to the bartender.
“Well,” he says, slowly. “I’m not, either.”
Arthur feels his stomach turn over.
It’s not fear--he’s felt fear. He’s stared fear down. It’s something deeper. Something that drills all the way down to the core of him, freezes his hands in place and screws his jaw shut. He can hear his own heart hammering in his ears. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to think but he’s thinking of it, despite every ounce of his self-will trying hard to press it down.
“Bartender,” Mason calls out, and the world feels like it comes unstuck around Arthur. He breathes out. “I’ll take a room for the night, please.”
The barkeep tosses him the keys. Mason slides another coin, and then he stands.
“Room 5, it looks like,” Mason tells Arthur, with a pat on the shoulder. “If you’d like to come see some other photographs like those of the wolves.”
Arthur spends the next hour sitting on the bed in his own hotel room, feeling his heart twisting in knots.
He thinks about Albert. He thinks about the city, the crowded people in it. He thinks about dirt, and grime. The shine of a knife. A steel-toed boot. He thinks about wolves.
And he is, before he can think better of it, knocking on Mason’s hotel door, seeing himself ushered inside as if watching from above, feeling but not understanding the hands that trace along his cheeks, the kiss that presses itself soft but sure against his lips, his heart beating in his chest at a rabbit’s pace.
“I don’t--” he hears himself saying, and Mason pulls back quickly, a look of fear in his eyes as if he’s misunderstood, and Arthur shakes his head. “I just ain’t done this before,” he says. “I don’t know what--I’m not--”
God, what a fucking fool he sounds, stammering like this--but Mason’s hands stay at his cheeks, his eyes scanning Arthur’s face with determination and a confidence he’s never seen in the man before.
“It’s alright,” Mason says. He leans forward again, another kiss, and Arthur lets his mouth open to accept it. “It’s alright.”
Arthur breathes out. He nods.
Mason takes his shoulders and guides him towards the bed. The man’s already lost his jacket and suspenders; Arthur starts shrugging off his own clothes, all business, until Mason’s hands go to his wrists to stop him.
“May I--” he says, and coaxes Arthur’s hands from his own shirt buttons. “I do so enjoy this part, is all.”
The words knock the wind out of Arthur, even as he says sure, go ahead. How many times has Albert Mason done this? How many men, how many shuttered off and locked hotel rooms? How many confident, calloused hands?
He searches for the name of the emotion blooming in his stomach as Mason fiddles with his collar--and he finds, to his surprise, that it’s jealousy.
Not for Mason; Mason isn’t his, nor does Arthur think he ought to be. But for something else, maybe. This life he lives. The things he’s seen.
“Lay back,” Mason says gently, casting Arthur’s shirt aside, and down Arthur goes.
The wood grain of the ceiling swims over him. The hands that trace down his sides are steady. Gentle. They linger over scars Arthur has long forgotten about, skip carefully past wounds that are yet too fresh to heal.
“You have lived a storied life, Mr. Morgan,” Mason breathes, like it’s something to be proud of, and Arthur can’t help himself but laugh.
“It ain’t all that much,” Arthur protests.
The hands pause; Arthur makes the blinding mistake of looking down. He feels a hot jolt through his body as his eyes meet Mason’s, gazing up at him from between Arthur’s legs, piercing and assured.
“You sell yourself short,” Mason says, and he sets to work at casting off the rest of Arthur’s clothes.
Arthur’s hands stop trembling, and then they find their place: buried in Albert’s hair, tightening and pulling as Albert works his mouth around Arthur’s thighs, his stomach, his cock. Arthur bucks into his mouth more than once, and Albert doesn’t seem to mind, though he presses his hands into Arthur’s hips as if to steady him and hold him there in place.
At some point he turns Arthur over, though it can’t have been on his own--Arthur must have moved for him, but he’s lost somewhere in thought, in a sea of touch and sensation and things he isn’t allowed to have, and there are Albert’s hands again, spread over the expanse of his shoulder blades and pushing his face down to the bed as he pulls Arthur’s hips up.
“Tell me if it’s too much,” Albert says. “I’ll do my best to be slow, but I’ll stop if you wish.”
There’s that feeling again, that deeper-than-fear, but Arthur nods and swallows around it and lets himself bury his face into the pillows and shout as Albert’s hands, warm and slick and soft, work into him.
“Beautiful,” Albert says, and Arthur’s hands clench so tightly he thinks he might tear the sheets. “You are simply beautiful.”
Arthur doesn’t know how long it lasts, or what else Albert says, or what things Arthur himself let fall out of his lips throughout the night--all he knows and remembers is the feeling when Albert is finally moving within him, and the arm that hitches around Arthur’s stomach, and the feeling of warmth at the crook of his neck where Albert’s teeth sink gently in and Arthur cannot imagine him ever letting go.
“Do you smoke?” Arthur asks.
Albert shakes his head. His fingers are still tracing their way up and down Arthur’s hip, from the top of his thigh to just below his ribs. The sun hasn’t quite finished setting yet--Arthur can see the last rays of it filtering over the skyline.
“Feel free, of course,” Albert says. “I don’t mind the smell.”
Arthur leans over the side of the bed to where his clothes are scattered in a pile on the floor. From them he fishes out what he needs: a cigarette and a match. He lights the cigarette, drops the match in a water glass by the bedside, and takes a deep lungful of smoke.
Albert’s palm rests still on his skin as he breathes out.
He lets half the cigarette burn down like that, one slow cycle of breath after another, before he manages to speak.
“What made you think--” Arthur begins, and then stops himself, because he sounds like a fool. “I mean, how did you know--aw, hell.”
“I didn’t,” Albert supplies, in any case. He looks up at Arthur; Arthur focuses on the embers of the cigarette. “We never know these things, Mr. Morgan.”
Arthur laughs so suddenly he sees Albert startle. “I think we are surely on a first name basis by now, Albert.”
Albert smiles. “Well,” he says. “I suppose you’re right. In any case, Arthur. We never know. We simply must… hope. And chance it, once in a while.”
“Chance it,” Arthur repeats.
He lets out a long, steady stream of smoke.
“I did, uh,” Arthur says, and clears his throat. “I did chance it, once before, I guess.”
Something falls suddenly over Albert’s face--or falls away from it, perhaps. That shiny, bright-eyed veneer that’s been laid on since Arthur met him.
“Did you, now,” Albert says quietly, in the voice of a man who knows how the story ends.
“Mm,” Arthur says. He wipes his palm, already clammy, on the bed sheet beside them. “Must’ve been fifteen, sixteen. There was this older boy. A man, I guess. Said some things to me made me think maybe--I dunno. Maybe he wanted some company too. I was young. Dumb. Lonely, I guess. Invited me to come meet him around back of the saloon and went ahead and followed him.”
Albert’s hand stays in place on Arthur’s hip, but his thumb moves slowly back and forth. A comfort, maybe.
“Anyway, you know how it goes,” Arthur sighs. “There were a couple of his friends back there. Weren’t looking for anything except a fight. Tried to kick my teeth right down my throat, callin’ me whatever names they were callin’ me. Don’t know if they intended to kill me or what, or if they were just enjoying the sport of it all.”
Albert breathes out slow. “Well,” he says. “You survived.”
Arthur scoffs. “Yeah, I survived,” he says. “Pulled a knife out of my belt and slit their throats.”
He looks down, expecting Albert to have gone a pale white.
Instead he blinks slowly, tilts his head, and says, “Ah.”
It hadn’t been the first time he’d killed. Not anywhere near it. Wasn’t the bloodiest fight or the closest he’d ever come to death. Wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, really, if you took all the rest out of it--but he couldn’t. He’d stumbled into the woods afterwards and vomited, again and again until it was all just bile, and he hadn’t wanted to go back to camp until morning light came. Hadn’t wanted to go back at all, except that he was cold, and he was hungry, and he was tired, just then, of being alone.
“Well, Arthur,” Albert says, and leans back then on his elbows. “I will say you are perhaps the most unique man I have had the pleasure of meeting.”
Arthur shakes his head. “I’m really not,” he says. “I’m about as common as they come.”
Albert sighs. “Oh, dear,” he says, and fixes Arthur with a mournful look. “What a terrible world that’s made you feel that way.”
Something starts swelling within Arthur’s chest at that--a retort, or a question, or something he needs himself or Albert to understand, really understand, but then--
Albert’s head tilts. “Hold on,” He says, and holds his hands out. “You stay. Give me a moment--” and in a flurry he’s out of bed, still naked as the day he was born, setting up his camera equipment and muttering about the light, the sunset, the perfection of it all.
“Now what are you--” Arthur says, but Albert holds up a hand, insistent.
“Hush,” Albert says. “It’s perfect.”
He clicks the camera, and the room floods suddenly with a bright white light, swallowing everything--Arthur, the sheets at his waist, the cigarette burning down in his hands, and through the opened window, the sunset-coated streets of Saint Denis.
“You see,” Albert says, as Arthur blinks the light from his eyes. “I told you I’d show you another like the wolves.”