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Cowboy Casanova

Chapter Text

Arthur watched the train speed away into the distance. It glinted silver and copper beneath the wide blue sky, to the point that he had to hold a hand in front of his face to stave off the worst of the glare. Once it was gone from sight he sighed and hefted his duffel bag over his shoulder, turning to focus on his more immediate surroundings.

The train station was one of the only two buildings in sight, the other being quarters for the station master. Arthur adjusted the straw hat on his head before stepping into the shade of the building. The station was bigger than he’d expected and quite airy, with wide windows and double doors opening onto both the platform and out into the desert on the other side. It looked elegant despite being made solely of dusty wood.

“Hello?” he called.

“In ‘ere!” came a shout from inside.

Arthur followed it to find a burly man behind the counter. The man’s clothes were dusty and worn as well, but his eyes watched Arthur sharply. A steaming tin cup sat before him, next to a pile of wood shavings. He held the knife and piece of wood he was whittling in his hands.

“You’re new around here.” It wasn’t a question. “Stayin’ or movin’ on?”

“Staying. How far to the nearest town?”

“Ten miles. S’called Willow Springs. Where you from?”

“I came from New York City.”

“That ain’t a New York accent.”

“Ah. Originally I’m from London, England.” Arthur said the words cautiously, unsure where this round of questioning was going.

The man just grunted. “There’s no transportation. You’ll have to walk.”

“That’s fine by me. Which direction is Willow Springs?”

“There’s a signpost outside. Follow it in a straight line.”

“Thank you for your help.” Arthur received another grunt and took that as his cue to leave.

He paused momentarily on the porch before he stepped back out under the sun. Dry desert surrounded him, though he could see scatterings of blue and purple hills in the distance, contrasted against the reddish ground. Clumps of grey-green grasses sprouted every there and then across the earth. They were more concentrated around the train station and tracks. Bushes and cacti dotted the landscape as well. Arthur smiled.

“Watch your footing for snakes!” the station master called.

“Thank you!” Arthur replied, then started forward.

The signpost had only one marker on it, with the faded lettering for Willow Springs engraved into the metal. It pointed westward, so Arthur adjusted his hat further down his forehead and set off. He kept his eyes glued to the ground, watching for snakes as the station master had warned him, though occasionally he would glance upward to check the sun’s position.

He had sweat running down his back within fifteen minutes. He tried to ignore it as best he could and resisted reaching for his water canister more than once every five hundred steps. Counting them helped pass the time and gave him a goal to work towards. As beautiful as the desert around him was, he wanted to find the town as soon as possible. He had to adjust his hat a few more times as the sun sank lower in the horizon, and every now and then he’d take it off entirely to fan at his face. Though his pace had remained slow and steady for most of his walk, it picked up once he saw the faint silhouettes of buildings in the distance.

Arthur stopped briefly about a mile away from the town to drink again as well as splash some water on his face. He also straightened out his clothes and tried to brush his fingers through his hair to smooth it down a bit. It wouldn’t do to present himself so unfavourably in a new area, so he tried his best to make himself look tidier. After two minutes he gave up on the hair and jammed his hat back down over it before starting off again.

He didn’t get very far, though. The outermost buildings of the town were visible in detail when, seemingly out of nowhere, he was surrounded by a group of five men on horseback. A tall, imposing blond man with purple eyes astride a pure white horse seemed to be the leader. An albino, a brunet, and two darker blonds were seated on darker horses a few feet behind him. At the leader’s nod, the four surrounded Arthur on all sides.

Arthur sighed. “And I suppose you expect me to hand over all of my valuables to you now, yes?”

“Yes, that would be nice,” the pale-haired leader said, smiling cheerfully.

Arthur blinked at the light accent in his voice. “Sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but I don’t have any valuables on me.” He patted his pockets to emphasize this.

The outlaw’s eyes narrowed. “Is that true? Gilbert, search him.”

The albino snickered as he swung down. “With pleasure.”

“That won’t be necessary.” A clear voice rang out from behind them, stopping Gilbert in his tracks. “Leave him be.”

Arthur turned to see a young blond man sitting on a tricolour pinto horse a few feet away. He was smiling easily, but his bright blue eyes were hard behind his glasses as he toyed with the gun at his hip. He looked like he knew how to use it.

“I do not believe this is your business, Alfred,” the leader said softly.

“‘Course it is, Ivan,” Alfred replied, matching his tone. “You’re tormentin’ an innocent traveller outside the town. As the protector of this town, it’s my duty to stop ya.” His eyes passed over Arthur and then the other outlaws surrounding him. His expression darkened when he saw the brunet. “Toris, what are ya doin’ with these guys?”

“Do not answer, Toris, or you will regret it,” Ivan growled.

Toris looked torn for a moment, before lowering his gaze and staying silent as he played with some loose leather on his saddle horn.

Alfred looked sad. Then, the brief moment passed and his expression brightened again. “Right, let me say it again. Let the nice traveller be, and give yourselves up,” he said cheerfully, but it seemed forced now.

“And what will you do if we don’t?” Ivan challenged.

Alfred drew his gun and cocked it. “It won’t be pretty.”

Gilbert took another step towards Arthur. Alfred caught the movement and urged his horse forward, simultaneously firing. The bullet would have taken Ivan through the shoulder, except his horse spooked. It grazed his arm instead, leaving a long, shallow gash diagonally across his forearm. Alfred stopped the pinto when he was right next to Arthur. The horse reared, and Arthur cursed under his breath as he ducked away from the flying hooves. Gilbert also cursed and scrambled backwards, back to his horse.

Ivan’s forearm was bleeding at this point, but he was still smiling. “That was-” He stopped as his gaze focused on something off to the side, in the direction of the town. “Come on.” He wheeled his horse around, creating a large dust cloud around them. His companions did the same, and the dust cloud grew.

Arthur coughed, covering his mouth with his sleeve. When the dust settled, he was alone with Alfred. “Wh-Where did they go?” he asked, looking around with some awe.

“Damnit!” Alfred cursed, smacking the pommel of his saddle. “I dunno, they’re good at that. But I’ll catch ‘em one day,” he vowed. He looked over his shoulder to see two men approaching him. “Hiya, Ludwig!”

The serious-looking blond in front nodded as he reined in. “What happened? Adam noticed the commotion, and we heard a shot.” A shiny Sheriff’s badge was pinned to his chest.

“It was Ivan. But he’s gone now, the bastard.”

The other man swung down and bounced over to Arthur. “Hello! I’m Feliciano Vargas, but you can call me Feli! You’re new around here, aren’t you? What’s your name?” he had reddish-brown hair and warm amber eyes.

“Yes, I am. My name is Arthur Kirkland. Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Arthur replied, inclining his head slightly.

“Whoa, you’re English! Cool!” Alfred said, grinning more brightly. “My full name is Alfred F. Jones, by the way, though I’m also known as the local hero. Or protector of the town, but hero sounds better.”

“No one calls you that, you know,” Ludwig said. “I’m Ludwig Beilschmidt. Are you coming to our town, or just passing through?”

“No, I was planning on staying here for a while,” Arthur replied, noting their accents as well. “Get some work to support myself.”

“Do you need an escort?” Feliciano asked brightly. “We’ll give you one if you want!”

“I’ll take him!” Alfred called out. “Got nothin’ else to do.” He suddenly nudged his horse closer to Ludwig and leaned in, so that Arthur barely caught the words. “Gilbert was with them. Just thought you’d wanna know.”

Ludwig frowned and nodded tensely, but said nothing. He motioned to Feliciano, who smiled one last time at Arthur and mounted. The two of them rode off, leaving Alfred and Arthur alone again.

“Thank you for your assistance earlier, but I can find my way now. I can see the buildings, after all,” Arthur said, starting to walk after them. He was suddenly blocked off as Alfred brought his horse directly in his way, forcing him to stop.

“Naw, I said I’d take ya, so I will. And ‘sides, what if Ivan comes back? I can’t leave you all defenceless-like.”

“I am not defenceless!” Arthur snapped, looking up at him. He didn’t relish the idea of meeting the group of outlaws again anytime soon, though. After a moment, he sighed. “Well if you absolutely insist, I suppose it would be rude of me to refuse.”

Alfred chuckled and pointed to the duffel bag slung over the Englishman’s shoulder. “That all ya got?”

“Yes. Is there anything wrong with that?” Arthur asked, adjusting the strap over his shoulder.

“No, just wanted to make sure that the load wouldn’t be too much for Star,” Alfred replied, patting the pinto’s neck.

Arthur understood the implication immediately. “No. I am not getting up on that creature’s back,” he said firmly.

“Aww, don’t hurt her feelings! C’mon, I’ll hold ya still and make sure you don’t fall off.” Alfred held out his hand.

Arthur stared at it dubiously before reaching out to take it. The cowboy heaved him up behind himself, and Arthur had to grab him around the waist so he wouldn’t fall off the other side. Colour rose to his cheeks as he felt Alfred’s toned, firm muscles beneath his shirt, and he was happy that he could hide his face in said shirt to keep his blush concealed.

“So are ya really as poor as you told ‘em, or were you just bluffin’?” Alfred asked, pushing Star into an easy-paced walk.

“I-I’ve got about twenty dollars left?” Arthur managed to get out. The sudden movement of the horse startled him, and he ended up clinging to the American even more.

Alfred chuckled as he felt the arms around him tighten and twisted around a bit to look at Arthur. “That’s a little more than ‘nothin’ valuable’. Where do ya wanna go?”

“Just take me to the nearest hotel or someplace I could spend the night.”

“Right. Elizaveta, my Hungarian friend, has a saloon with some rooms above it. You could rent out one of those for a bit.”

Arthur nodded. “Would you happen to also know a place I could find some work?”

“Huh… Do ya know how to handle cattle? Or ride?” Alfred asked, patting one of the arms around his waist.

Arthur immediately loosened his hold. “Of course I know how to ride. I just know how to ride well-trained English horses.”

“And the cattle?”

“No. I’d prefer something inside, if possible.”

Alfred laughed. “Good luck with that.”

They were coming to the town now, and Alfred turned down a small side alley towards a two storey, plain wooden building at the end of the street and at the outskirts of town.

“So you won’t help me?” Arthur asked, disappointment lacing his voice.

“I gave you a ride, didn’t I? But don’t worry, Liz might be able to help you with that. She may be in need of a new barkeep. They’ve been rotatin’ a lot since the original one…left,” Alfred said, hesitating a bit at the end.

“Left?”

“It’s a long story. Liz’ll tell ya, maybe, if you ask her.” Alfred stopped in front of the building and motioned for the other to get off.

Arthur had some difficulties with that due to his duffel bag, and after a few moments of struggling he simply lowered it to the ground before swinging down. “Thank you for the ride. And…for back there,” he said as he slung it over his shoulder again.

“No problem! It’s what heroes do!” Alfred replied cheerfully, dismounting as well and tying Star to a nearby hitching post.

Arthur blinked, surprised that the cowboy was still there. “And I suppose you fancy yourself one?” he asked, recovering quickly. Ludwig’s words rang faintly in his ears.

“‘Course I’m a hero! Don’t pay attention to what Ludwig says. I’m awesome at savin’ people, and the girls all love me,” Alfred replied, winking at the Englishman. “Some guys too.” He gave him a challenging look. “You’ve got no problem with that, do ya?”

“What, that you fancy men occasionally? It’s part of the reason I left England,” Arthur said, shrugging.

“So you’re a queer too?”

“Yes, but I’d appreciate if you refrained from spreading that information around.”

Alfred laughed again. “Quit bein’ so formal, this ain’t the big city or nothin’. But don’t worry, people here are pretty accepting.” He caught the look on Arthur’s face. “Fine, fine. I’ll keep my mouth shut. Now c’mon, you need a room and a job, and I need a nice cold drink.”

Arthur nodded and flushed a bit at the last part, but luckily for him, Alfred had already turned away and was pushing through the doors to get inside. He hurried after him and entered right behind.

“Hiya! Hero’s here!” Alfred announced, drawing everyone’s attention to him, and consequently Arthur.

Luckily for him – again – though, it was just after noon so there weren’t that many people there, most of them being at the local mines. The saloon itself was tidy and well kept. The main drinking and dining room had about fifteen round wooden tables scattered around it, and a piano in the corner. A dark-haired man was playing a slow tune on it. There was a bar in the back, next to a door that presumably led to the kitchen. A short, dirty-blond man stood behind the bar, while a green-eyed woman was coming out of the kitchen with a platter of food in her arms. It smelled delicious.

The woman smiled at Alfred, while the other people went back to what they were doing before, clearly used to the routine. “Hello, Alfred! Did you sort out the trouble? What was it?”

“Oh, hey Liz.” Alfred strode over to her, dragging Arthur behind him. The Englishman received some curious stares, but he tuned them out. “It was Ivan again. He was terrorizin’ Mister Kirkland here, but I saved him!”

Elizaveta’s gaze turned to Arthur, who by now managed to get out of Alfred’s grip. “Hello there, Mr. Kirkland. Are you new here?”

“Please, call me Arthur, miss,” Arthur said, inclining his head to her. “And yes, I am new to the area.”

Alfred burst out laughing at the action, holding his stomach and trying to keep it quiet. Elizaveta promptly whacked him with a ladle she had whipped out of seemingly nowhere. The tray of food was balanced on one arm.

“Don’t you laugh, you great big oaf! There’s nothin’ wrong with being polite!” she scolded him. She then went on to hit Arthur over the head in the same fashion.

“Wha- Ow! M-Miss, what was that for?” Arthur cried, hands going up to gingerly touch his forehead. “Have I offended you in some way?”

Elizaveta brandished the ladle at him, clipping him on the shoulder with it. “Yes, you have. My name is Elizaveta, or Liz, or even Lizzie. Not ‘miss’. Got it?”

“Yes, mi- err, Liz,” Arthur said, quickly backing out of her reach.

Alfred chuckled again. “You’re still good with that thing, Lizzie.”

Elizaveta twirled the ladle expertly before hooking it back onto her belt. “I had a lot of practice,” she said, then abruptly sobered up. “Excuse me. I’ll be right with you, Arthur.” She hurried off to deliver the food.

Arthur glanced at Alfred, but the other man simply smiled. “C’mon, Artie, there are two stools open by the bar,” he said, going to the free seats at the end of the long counter.

Arthur followed him and sat down, ordering some tea. The barkeep gave him a strange look but went off to make it, sliding Alfred a mug of cold beer along the way. When he did get his tea, Arthur sat there quietly, taking small sips. The tea was nowhere near the quality back home, but he had to admit it wasn’t awful. Alfred was telling him some story about how he’d rescued some girl from a group of outlaws – not Ivan – but he tuned the American out.

Elizaveta returned a few minutes later, and Alfred shut up when she got close. “So, Arthur, what are you looking for here?”

“Well, a room would be nice, if you have one, and a job,” Arthur replied immediately. “Preferably inside.”

“I should have a spare room upstairs for fifty cents a night,” Elizaveta said after a moment of thinking. “And you could always work in the mine. It’s inside, and they could always use a new worker. Alfred helps out sometimes, when he’s not off doing who knows what.”

“Hey! You know I help with the cattle over in Ashton when they need it! And I rescue people! Especially pretty lasses in desperate need of a cowboy on a great black stallion…” Alfred trailed off, thinking about all the beautiful girls that would be throwing themselves at him, thanking him profusely for saving them and then going on to kiss him. Oh, and the occasional cute guy, too.

Arthur, who had been frozen in shock since the word ‘mine’, recovered now. “You really are an airhead, aren’t you?” he asked Alfred. Well, that didn’t help his pride at all. It had already been shot by the very fact that he had needed to be rescued, and the realization that Alfred was kind of an idiot killed it off entirely. A noble idiot, it seemed, but an idiot nonetheless.

Said idiot blinked. “Wha?”

“You can’t just go around expecting that pretty ladies will pop up out of the blue in need of saving, give you a kiss, and then vanish. Plus you have a pinto mare, not a black stallion.”

“Why not? It’s worked a few times before,” Alfred said happily, downing the rest of his beer and standing up. He ignored the comment about his horse.

Arthur rolled his eyes and took another small sip of tea. “You’re leaving?” he asked once he’d realized Alfred’s position.

Alfred looked down and flashed him a brilliant smile. “Yeah. Liz’ll take care of ya now, and I got some stuff to do. If you’re stayin’ in town, I’ll see you around later!” He slid the mug to the barkeep and walked out, waving to Arthur and Elizaveta as he left.

Elizaveta had gotten a strange glint in her eye, but no one noticed it. “So no mines then, Arthur?” she asked with a chuckle.

“No. You wouldn’t need an extra hand around here, would you? I can cook, and I worked as a bartended in the city for a while,” Arthur suggested.

The woman raised an eyebrow. “You can cook?”

“Yes. My mother taught me a few recipes when I was younger.”

“Alright,” Elizaveta said, clapping her hands together. “I’ll show you to your room so you can get settled in, and then tomorrow you can demonstrate your cooking skills to me.”

Arthur nodded and she led him up the staircase in the back to the upper floor, which had eight small rooms down the one corridor. Elizaveta explained that one of them was the bathroom and that she and her husband Roderich, the piano player, stayed in the first room. The remaining six were rented out to travellers. She gave Arthur the room next to theirs and told him that if he ended up with a job she’d let him permanently rent it out, docking the fee from his salary. The Englishman readily accepted the offer, and she left him to unpack his possessions.

The room was simply furnished, with nothing but a bed, a small dresser, a desk, and a rickety chair. Arthur had a few extra sets of clothes, which he promptly refolded and placed away carefully in the dresser. The only other things he had brought were two small boxes of tea leaves, for emergencies, and a few books including a sketchbook. Those he organized according to thickness and length on the desk. Then he was done. He walked over to the window and was pleased to see a pretty desert view.

Suddenly, there was a commotion from downstairs. Being used to such arguments from back home, Arthur easily ignored it as he fell back on the bed and closed his eyes. Elizaveta knocked on his door a while later.

“Arthur?” she asked. “Are you done?”

Arthur woke with a start. “Huh-? Yes, yes, I’m finished.” He got up and opened the door, letting her into the room.

She looked tired, but there was a small smile on her face. “You said earlier that you were good at mixing drinks?”

“Yes…why? What happened?”

“Well, we need a new barkeep. If you can mix and serve drinks well enough, the job’s yours,” she replied, a shadow over her eyes.

Arthur deliberated for a moment. He could recall Alfred saying something about the barkeeps changing around a lot lately, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be just another one who left quickly. But then again, a job was a job, and he needed the money.

“When would I start?” he finally asked.

Elizaveta’s smile grew wider. “Perfect! You’d have to start right now. Do you have a white shirt and a vest with you?”

“Yes to the shirt, no to the vest,” Arthur said after taking a quick mental inventory of his clothing.

“Oh that’s no problem, I have something that will fit you perfectly.”

Arthur was slightly worried by the tone her voice had taken on, but he didn’t resist when she dragged him down. A while later, he ended up behind of the bar in his best shirt and a tight, form-fitting dark red vest that showed off his slight curves and muscles, and oddly accentuated his eyes.

A short line of angry cowboys and miners who had come from their work in need of a drink had formed while the new barkeep was getting ready, but Arthur soon got the hand of the drinks and everyone got what they wanted. Some of the names and dialect confused him at first, but he was a quick learner and had some help from the customers themselves, so after about an hour and a half he was working quickly and smoothly. His knowledge of English and eastern American drinks didn’t hurt either.

Elizaveta was just glad she had managed to find a new barkeep so quickly. Things had been difficult since- no. She shook her head to stop her mind from going down that path. What she didn’t know was that, by giving Arthur this job, she had saved the residents of Willow Springs from a great evil- Arthur’s cooking.

When there was a lull in the traffic by the bar – everyone wanted to test out the new barkeep’s skills and luckily Arthur managed to pass all of their criteria – she walked over and explained how their system of pay and rent would work. She set the rent for eight dollars a month, which she would automatically deduct from his pay at the end of the month, right in front of him even, if he didn’t trust her. Since at the moment Arthur didn’t have too much money to spare, she would pay him weekly, with a two dollar deduction. After he’d saved up a bit, the pay check would be monthly. His pay would change and fluctuate a bit every month depending on how much traffic there was, but it generally stayed around the same amount, and she reassured him that if he was smart with it, he would have enough for his needs. Plus, he got to keep whatever small tips he received each night.

Arthur nodded after taking in the information. “That works for me,” he said, and then had to go back to the drinks as a few more people entered.

Elizaveta returned to the kitchen after that, those same people wanting food to go with their alcohol.

Roderich’s playing soothed Arthur into a pleasant rhythm as the evening turned into the later hours of the night. Elizaveta twice brought him food, a hearty meal in the late afternoon just as he started, and then a lighter snack later on to keep his energy up. Arthur was a bit disappointed when he was closing up that Alfred hadn’t come back, but he did his best to banish such thoughts from his mind as he cleaned up the bar, bid Elizaveta and Roderich good night, and went up to his room. Exhausted from the day’s actions, he fell asleep almost immediately.

Chapter Text

The windows to his room faced east and had no blinds, so Arthur was woken up early by the blinding rays of the sun. Cursing the bed’s position, he stretched and got up, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again. He could hear faint noises from downstairs, so he went down to investigate. He peeked into the kitchen and saw Elizaveta working alongside a few other women, preparing breakfast.

“Good morning Liz, misses,” he said, bowing slightly to them.

Elizaveta looked up from her work and smiled at him. “Good morning, Arthur! Did you sleep well?”

“It was fine during the night, but the sun was a tad strong this morning. Would you mind if I moved the bed later?”

“Oh, sure. Meanwhile, do you want to help with breakfast?”

Arthur eagerly agreed and stepped into the kitchen, ready to show them what he knew. A few minutes and a minor fire later, he was politely thrown out of the room.

“Stick to mixing drinks, Mister Englishman,” one of them called after him.

“I can cook! Your materials are just different to what I’m used to!” Arthur protested as the swinging doors closed behind him.

Elizaveta emerged a few seconds later, an amused glint in her eyes. “I’m sure that’s the case, Arthur. But I think it’s best you stick to barkeeping.”

After eating a quick breakfast, Arthur moved back behind the bar to prepare for any people who wanted tea or coffee. There weren’t that many people there, so after a while and with Elizaveta’s permission, he closed it and went off to take a look around the town. It wasn’t a very big settlement, so he walked around all of it fairly quickly, and when he was on his way back he ran into Alfred. The American was leading Star, and it looked as if he was going out of town. Arthur was glad to see a familiar face because some of the other people had been giving him strange looks.

“Hiya, Artie!” Alfred called out when he noticed him, leading the pinto mare over.

Arthur felt a small smile come to his face. Alfred wasn’t wearing his hat, and the Englishman noticed that there was one strand of his hair that stuck up into the air. “Hello, Alfred,” he said pleasantly. “Where are you headed off to?”

“Oh, just some personal stuff,” Alfred responded, grinning. Star took the opportunity to push forward and nose around Arthur’s pockets for treats, lipping at his sleeve along the way. “Hah, she likes you! That means you’re a good guy!”

“Of course I am.” Arthur scoffed, but smiled at the mare and reached up to scratch her neck. She responded by leaning into him and nearly knocking him over.

Alfred quickly reached out and grasp his arm, steadying him before he tipped over too much. “Whoa there, steady on,” he said with a small chuckle and a firm push at Star’s withers, sending her back a step. “So, Artie, did ya have any luck with that job?”

“My name is Arthur, not Artie. And yes, I’m the new barkeep at Elizaveta’s saloon,” Arthur said, flushing slightly at the contact.

“New barkeep, huh?” Alfred frowned at the news. Then, his brow furrowed even more as he leaned in close to him. “Hey, are you feeling okay? You got a bit red in the face there.” He let go of Star’s reins and placed his other hand on Arthur’s shoulder, inspecting him from all angles. “Is it the sun?”

Arthur turned even redder at this. “N-No, I’m fine. Why did you frown before?”

“See? Now you’re even worse! Bet you’re not used to the sun in England, right? Come on, into the shade we go.” Alfred led him into the canopy of a nearby saloon porch, Star following obediently behind.

“No, I’m fine- You really don’t need to- Alfred, really- Oh, sod it,” Arthur muttered. The cowboy was much stronger than him, so his protests didn’t stand much of a chance. “There, I’m out of the sun, so will you tell me what you bloody meant about the barkeeping thing?”

“Oh, that. I’ll tell ya about it later, okay? Now let’s get you some water.” Alfred disappeared inside the saloon before Arthur had time to protest him again, leaving him alone with the pinto. He was back moments later with a glass half full of water. “Here ya go!”

“Thank you…” Arthur took it and drank, but his blush had disappeared the moment Alfred had let him go.

“Yup. See, you look better already! I gotta go now, but I’ll stop by Lizzie’s later. When you’re done with that, just return the glass inside.” With a final grin, he mounted up and rode away.

“Bye…” Arthur looked after him for a moment before refocusing intensely at his glass, lost in thought.

After a few moments, he finally finished it and carried the glass back inside before heading back to Elizaveta’s. The saloon was mostly empty, the men still being at the mines, but there was a small group of women in the corner, chatting. Arthur quickly strode up to his room to grab his sketchbook and then opened up the bar. He served the women tea and coffee, made some tea for himself, and settled down behind the bar with the book.

He first sketched out the inside of the saloon, to get warmed up and back in practice. Once he was done with that, he moved onto people. To begin, he drew the likenesses of the women in the corner, then Elizaveta, and finally he tried out Alfred’s face from memory. He could recall what the blond looked like quite well, and the charcoal moved smoothly across the paper. The women didn’t call him over for a refill and the saloon was otherwise empty, so he was left undisturbed. It was nearing the late afternoon when the doors swung inwards and Arthur caught a flash of familiar blond hair.

“Alfred!” he called out, a smile coming to his face as he hid the book behind the bar.

Well, perhaps the blond hair wasn’t all that familiar. The man turned to him and Arthur saw that it wasn’t Alfred at all, although they looked very similar. There were noticeable differences as he approached. This man’s eyes were a deeper, purpler blue, and his hair was longer and wavier. He also had a stray strand of hair, but instead of sticking up, it fell forward over his face and somehow managed to loop at the end.

“Hello,” the man said, and Arthur could immediately tell the difference in the voice. “You must have me confused with my brother. I’m Matthew Williams, but you can call me Mattie if you wish.” Matthew held out his hand.

“I’m terribly sorry for that, Matthew, but you look very much alike, especially from a distance,” Arthur said, taking the proffered hand and shaking it. “Hold on a tick, did you say Williams?” he suddenly asked. “I thought Alfred’s last name was Jones.”

Matthew just smiled. “Happens all the time. And it’s a long story, but I took our mother’s last name while Alfred kept our father’s.”

Arthur thought he could detect the slightest hint of bitterness behind that smile, but he didn’t press the matter. “Would you like anything to drink?” he asked instead.

“Coffee please, thanks.” Once it was ready, Matthew took the steaming cup to a corner of the room.

More people came and went as the day went on, and Arthur forgot about him in the rush. However, when he looked into the corner about an hour later it was vacant, and the empty coffee cup was sitting on the edge of the bar. Alfred did come in later, and Arthur brightened again.

“Hello, Alfred,” he said, glad he had the right sibling this time.

“Hey, Artie! Lookin’ good there, but isn’t that Gilbert’s?” Alfred replied, settling down onto a stool in front of him.

Arthur paused in his motions. “Gilbert? Wasn’t he one of the outlaws? I heard Elizaveta mention him as well. Who is he?”

Alfred shifted on his seat, looking uncomfortable. “It ain’t really my place to tell that story…”

“It’s alright, he deserves to know if he’ll be staying and working here,” Elizaveta said as she passed them.

“Are you sure, Liz? Wouldn’t you rather tell him yourself?” Alfred asked.

“No. I don’t mind if you do, and I don’t really have time right now anyway.” She went off to the corner to deliver her platter to the women.

“So?” Arthur prodded lightly. “What’s the story with this Gilbert character?”

“A beer first, Artie,” Alfred said with a wink. “Gotta keep up the appearance of work, after all.”

Arthur flushed lightly and got him the drink before taking a seat on his own stool behind the bar. “Right. There you are.”

“Thanks!” Alfred said cheerfully, but then sobered up. “Okay, so y’know how there are a lotta different types of people here? The town’s like a homing beacon for immigrants. Queers too,” he muttered, then shook his head. “Well, Liz, Roderich, Gilbert, and Ludwig came here together a few years ago. Ludwig’s Gilbert’s younger brother, see. They used to live together, but Ludwig went off on his own soon after that, didn’t want that much to do with the other three. I guess he could sense all the tension. Liz and Roddy weren’t married yet, and there was a lot of stress between the three of ‘em for a while. I don’t really know the details that well, but one thing led to another, and Liz married Roderich and Gilbert was left alone and pissed off. He was the original barkeep here, you know. He was good, and everyone liked him. But you could see the stress getting to him from watchin’ Liz and Roderich together. I guess eventually he snapped, and lucky for him, Ivan was in need of a new right-hand man, so Gilbert went off with him and now they’re outlaws together.”

Arthur stayed silent for the whole story, and he bit his lip thoughtfully when the American finished. “You seem to know a lot about the going-ons of this place. And about Ivan.”

“I had a history with Ivan,” Alfred replied shortly. “But that’s long over and done with.”

Arthur flinched back at the venom in his voice. “I see. Thank you for telling me.” He stood and busied himself with cleaning glasses.

“No problem. How are ya liking it here so far?” Alfred asked, back to his usual cheerful self after a few moments.

“It’s nice here. I think I’ll stay for a while. I can see myself getting used to this lifestyle and these people, surprisingly.”

“Why’s it such a surprise?”

“It’s so different to the city here,” Arthur said. “A good different,” he added quickly as he noticed the defensive look on Alfred’s face.

Alfred brightened, accepting the answer. “I think we could all get used to you too. You know how I said the barkeeps rotated a lot ‘round here? I think you’ll last pretty long,” he said with a wink.

Colour rose to the Englishman’s cheeks again. “Thank you, Alfred. Oh, I met your brother earlier. He seemed nice.”

“Mattie? Yeah, he’s awesome. Quiet, but awesome. I help him run the livery when I’ve got time.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Mattie owns the livery?”

“Yeah. He’s got a real soft touch with the wild horses. You should see him work, he’s like a whole different person. Everyone goes to him if their horse has got issues.” Alfred’s eyes shone when he talked, the pride for his brother ringing clearly in them.

“And you?”

The cowboy grinned. “I go huntin’ for new horses in the desert and break ‘em in if they’re too much for even Mattie to handle. Star used to be a broomtail, but she’s a dream now.”

“Broomtail?”

“Wild mare. She was the toughest to break. You wouldn’t tell by her now, would ya?” Alfred chuckled.

Arthur echoed his chuckles, smiling a bit. “No, she’s really well-mannered.”

“You got a real nice smile, Artie,” Alfred said softly, his blue eyes fixed on the Englishman.

Arthur coughed and flushed, averting his eyes. “T-Thank you,” he said, taking a new glass and furiously cleaning it as well.

Alfred finished the beer and slid the glass over to him, along with a few coins. Thanks, Artie. I gotta go now, help out a bit.”

“Wait- One more question. What were doing this morning, if you don’t mind me asking?” Arthur called out, recovered. He set down the glass and reached out over the bar as if to stop the taller blond.

“I spotted this real nice-looking mare a few days ago. I’m gonna try and catch her. No luck today, but I’ll be out there again tomorrow,” Alfred replied, backtracking towards the door. “G’night, Artie!” He spun around, raised a hand in farewell, and was gone.

Arthur raised his hand in return, though Alfred didn’t see it. “Good night,” he said softy and was somewhat surprised to notice a warm feeling in his chest. He pushed the feeling down and turned his attention back to the bar.

The group of women left soon after that, but one of them stayed behind and went up to the bar. She was a little shorter than Arthur, and had pale blond hair and brown eyes. She was wearing a ruffled red and black dress that was tight-fitting on top and poofy on the bottom.

“Hello there. Artie, right?”

“It’s Arthur, actually.”

“I’m Jane. I’d be careful around Alfred, if I were you,” she said sweetly.

Arthur stared at her. “I- Excuse me?”

“You fancy him, right?” Jane asked, not skipping a beat. She leaned on the counter. “Don’t worry, no one really cares if you’re queer or not. Seems half the town is. But just be on your guard around him. I know him, and he ain’t as sweet and innocent as he seems.” With that, she left.

Arthur was left staring still. He did suppose he fancied Alfred, now that he thought about it. The cowboy had a near perfect body after all, and he’d been nothing but amicable towards Arthur since the Englishman had arrived at the town. Granted, that was only yesterday, but Arthur had of course heard of crushes. He was also not above being shallow enough to appreciate someone’s good lucks. Yes, Alfred was definitely handsome and cheerful. And God, that smile… He quickly quashed those thoughts. Don’t get too ahead of yourself, Arthur, he scolded himself. You don’t even know for sure yet.

Luckily for Arthur, a few more people entered the bar then and busied him, including a few travellers. The Englishman chatted with them and from them learned that Ivan had robbed a bank in a nearby town that day, injuring three people. He made a mental note to tell Alfred later and tried to pump the travellers for information on the Russian’s whereabouts, but they didn’t know too many details. They left a few minutes later, and Arthur closed down not long after that.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, Arthur adjusted even more to life around the town. Alfred would come around almost every day and spend some time with him. Those were his favourite moments. The American would drag him off sometimes to show him certain areas. By the end of his first two weeks there, Arthur had visited the livery, the barber’s, the sheriff’s office, the jail, and all other saloons and bars in town. He also met, or was reintroduced to, all of Alfred’s acquaintances; Mattie; Feliks, the barber; Ludwig and Feliciano, the sheriff and his assistant; Antonio and Lovino, the jailkeep and his assistant; and a few other barkeeps, most of whose names Arthur soon forgot.

By the end of the first two weeks he’d also learned his way around town and no longer needed a guide, a fact that Alfred looked almost disappointed at, and gotten into a routine at the bar. He learned that while Elizaveta owned the saloon, the bar was Arthur’s to do with what he would, and he didn’t really need to ask her permission about when to open or close. He could decide that on his own, and with his new discovery came a night off every now and then. If his bar wasn’t open, then the people simply went to another one, but they always came back the next night. All in all, he liked this development very much and didn’t regret coming here or taking up the position.

“Arthur!” Matthew burst into Elizaveta’s saloon one day, looking panicked.

The barkeep looked at him, brow furrowed. “Oh, Matthew. What can I do for you? A drink, perhaps?”

“No, it’s not me, it’s Alfred!”

“What?” Arthur nearly dropped the glass he was holding. “What happened? Is he alright?”

“I don’t know what happened, he went out this morning into the desert and came back a few minutes ago all bloodied and covered in scratches. He passed out and I don’t really know what to do. I’m no doctor, and I don’t want to make him worse,” Matthew explained in a rush, intertwining his hands nervously as he spoke. “Do you know any medicine or anything that could help him?”

Arthur immediately shut down the bar and strode over to the blond. “Yes. My brothers always played rough, so I have some experience in bandaging. Where is he?”

“At home. I managed to get him into bed, and then came running. Follow me.” Looking relieved, Matthew led the way to the small house he shared with Alfred.

“Does no one else here know how to treat injuries?”

“I only know how to take care of horses, and they’re different than humans. And, well… Toris was our doctor, but he was dragged off by Ivan, so no, not really.”

“Wait a minute, did you say dragged off?”

Matthew looked back briefly. “Yeah. He never wanted to be a part of Ivan’s group, but he and his two friends, Raivis and Eduard, were forced. Alfred’s the only one who ever went willingly-” He stopped talking and cleared his throat. “Yeah, so how much do you know about treating someone, exactly?”

Arthur frowned. “Alfred went willingly? With Ivan? Doesn’t Alfred want to catch him?”

“Alfred and Ivan have a history together. But it’s past, and Alfred will tell you if he wants to,” Matthew told him, and Arthur was surprised at the force behind the words.

“Alright, I won’t pry. I can treat scratches and burns, along with most breaks and fractures. I’m afraid I don’t know more than that.”

“That should be more than enough.” Matthew stepped up to the porch of the house and held the door open for the Englishman. “Alfred’s right through that last door on the left. I’ll be right there, just gonna get some bandages and alcohol and the like.”

Arthur nodded and moved off in the direction indicated, looking around as he went. The home was simply furnished, with just a touch of decoration without going overboard with unnecessary objects. Alfred’s room was messy. Clothes and pieces of leather were strewn over the floor, and what seemed like a horse feeder sat in the corner.

The cowboy himself was laid out on the bed, on top of the covers and still in his clothes. He was passed out and breathing softly. Blood seeped through his shirt and trousers, and both garments were ripped in a few places. Scratches coursed up Alfred’s arms, and Arthur could see an area around the blond’s ribs where some of the skin had been rubbed off, leaving behind a nasty chafe. As Arthur approached the bed, he could also see a thin scratch down Alfred’s cheek.

“What the bloody hell happened to you?” Arthur murmured, unable to resist running a hand through the other’s hair. It was soft. Even with all the blood and dust coating him, Alfred still somehow managed to look incredibly sexy. Wait, where did that come from?

“I found some old, but clean bandages and some pure alcohol, will that be alright?” Matthew asked, coming into the room with his arms full.

Arthur hurriedly leapt away from the bed and tried to keep his face neutral. “Yes, that should do splendidly. But…I cannot work with those clothes still on him. They’re in the way, and will just continue to get dirt into his injuries. Could you take his shirt off, at least?”

Matthew gave him a curious glance, but then nodded. “Just a sec.” He set down the bandages and alcohol and then carefully took off the torn shirt. “Do you need me to stay? I was working with some horses before and…”

“I should be fine on my own.” Arthur, focusing intensely at not staring at Alfred’s bare chest, took a closer look at the injuries around his ribs. There was one area that was particularly red and seemed to be starting to bruise. He reached out and lightly pressed on it, and Alfred’s face twisted up as he groaned.

He barely heard when Matthew left. Turning his attention to Alfred’s other injuries, he lightly washed the chafe and scratches with some water to get the dirt out, and then with a bit of alcohol. Alfred groaned again, and his frown became more pronounced.

“Sorry, sorry, but it’s necessary,” Arthur told him. Not surprisingly, the cowboy didn’t respond.

He then moved on to the bruised area around the chafe. It extended a good few inches outwards in every direction. He guessed that while there probably weren’t any broken bones, any sort of strain on the area would bring Alfred a good deal of pain. Taking a few longer strips, he wrapped Alfred’s chest tightly with them so that there wouldn’t be too much room for movement. He had some trouble getting the bandages around the blond’s back, but he somehow managed to lift him in order to do it.

“God, you’re heavy. How much do you eat?” he grunted as he lowered Alfred down for the last time. “There’s nothing more I can do for you…”

Arthur picked up the leftover bandages and alcohol and carried the bundle to the kitchen. Glancing out the window, he saw Matthew in the middle of a corral, a buckskin horse galloping madly around the perimeter. As he watched, the horse slowed and eventually after about fifteen minutes, allowed Matthew to touch it. The blond let the horse out into a bigger paddock and came into the house.

“You’re done with him?”

“Yes. I bound his ribs and washed out his injuries, but there’s not much else to do but keep watch over him and make sure he doesn’t move too much,” Arthur replied. “There’s a possibility that he might develop a fever because of all the dirt that already got into the wounds. If he does, call me back.”

“You’re going now?” Matthew asked.

Arthur shrugged. “There’s no reason for me to stay.”

“Before you go, let me make you some pancakes. As a thank you for helping him.”

“Pancakes? It’s past noon.”

“So?” Matthew smiled. “It’s never too late for pancakes. Trust me, my pancakes are good.”

“If you insist, I suppose it would be rude for me to refuse your offer.”

The other man chuckled. “Are you always this uptight, Arthur?” he asked as he moved to the stove.

Arthur stiffened. “I was raised to be polite to people.”

“There’s a difference between polite and stick-up-the-ass uptight!” Alfred called out, and then he was at the entrance to the kitchen, leaning heavily on the doorframe.

“Alfred, you shouldn’t be up,” Arthur immediately scolded. “I am not uptight, nor do I have a stick up my ass, as you so eloquently put it.”

“But it’s boring lying down, and I feel fine!” Alfred protested. “It’s just a few scratches, that’s all.”

“But-”

“Arthur, he isn’t going back to bed, trust me. Could you help the idiot to a chair before he calls over? My hands are full,” Matthew interrupted.

The Englishman sighed and stood, his face heating up slightly as he approached the still shirtless Alfred. He slung one of the cowboy’s arms around his shoulders and pulled him away from the wall.

Alfred leaned heavily on him and smiled down at Arthur as he allowed himself to be led to a chair. “Thanks!” He smelled the air appreciatively. “Oh man, Mattie, you’re making pancakes? Great, I’m glad I woke up.”

As soon as Alfred was safely in a chair, Arthur backed away from him and took a seat on the opposite side of the table from him. “Of course you’d wake up at the smell of food.”

“You know me well.” Alfred grinned, winking at him.

“Not at all,” Arthur replied, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know your past.”

Alfred froze, and his eyes narrowed. “There’s nothin’ much to know. What’s past is past, best to leave it alone.”

Arthur recoiled again at the hardness of his tone. He bit his lip, but looked away and didn’t say anything else on the matter.

“What were you even doing out there?” Matthew suddenly asked. “How’d you get so cut up?”

“I was chasin’ after a mare. That mare I told you about, Artie,” Alfred replied, slowly brightening again. “I finally caught her, and boy can she buck! She’ll be a dream once she’s tamed.”

“Just don’t kill yourself trying to break her,” Matthew told him.

“‘Course I’ll be careful. I know what she’s got now, so she won’t be able to throw me so easily next time.”

“Next time?” Arthur interjected. “And just when do you think that next time will be?”

“Tomorrow, probably.” Alfred shrugged.

“You’re joking, right?” Arthur turned to Matthew. “Tell me he’s joking.”

Matthew gave a helpless gesture over his shoulder. “Unfortunately, he’s not joking. He’d probably be right back out there today if he had half the chance.

Arthur rounded on the cowboy. “Oh no you don’t. You have to rest, Alfred!” His crush on Alfred was all but forgotten as he stared him down, daring the other man to try and complain.

Alfred, for what it was worth, put up a good fight. He held the stare stubbornly for a good five minutes before finally shifting, lowering his gaze, and muttering his agreement to one day’s rest.

“Good.” Some of the fire left Arthur’s eyes and travelled to his cheeks, lighting his face up with a pleasant flush. The Englishman looked away and focused on Matthew, who was keeping a watchful eye on the pancakes on the stove.

They were done soon, and Arthur just managed to get one for himself before the rest disappeared from the platter onto Alfred’s plate and then into his stomach. But Matthew already had more on the way, so there ended up enough for everyone. Arthur himself ate five, finding them too good to resist.

“Thank you,” Matthew said softly, accepting the most recent in a string of compliments from Arthur.

“…Uh, Arthur? Are these supposed to be pink?” Alfred suddenly asked, poking at his bandages.

“No they’re not, and stop stabbing at them, you’re making it worse.” Arthur moved his plate to the sink before stepping to Alfred’s side. “Come on, I’ll change them.”

Alfred finished up the last bit of his pancake and stood up, leaning heavily on Arthur again when he was walked to his room. He was unceremoniously dropped onto the bed and groaned up at the Englishman. “What was that for? I’m injured!”

“Not injured enough that you can’t walk on your own, as you so kindly demonstrated before,” Arthur shot back, massaging his shoulder for a moment before starting on the bandages. “This will hurt.” He immediately ripped the dirty bandage away, not giving Alfred any time to prepare himself.

“Ow fuck- Arthur!” Alfred winced and curled up on himself a bit, but Arthur kept pressure on his shoulder and forced him back down on the sheets. “What was that for?!”

“I warned you. And it would have hurt more if I did it slowly.” Arthur patted an uninjured spot on his arm. “Oh come off it, you’re fine.” He ripped off the other bandages, eliciting smaller cries from Alfred since he knew what was coming this time, and then carefully washed out the injuries with the water and alcohol. He could feel Alfred’s eyes on him the whole time, but he refused to look up and meet them.

“You sure know a lot of stuff, huh?” Alfred asked when he was done.

Arthur finally looked up and saw that Alfred was focused on the bandage now. “Not much more than this, I’m afraid. Not too terribly exciting.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Alfred’s eyes flicked up to meet his and he gave a lopsided grin.

Arthur felt a tightening warmth in his stomach and a strange feeling pooling in his chest, but he quickly quelled it and scooted off the bed. “That should do it for now. Matthew can change it for you from here on out, but if you or he need anything or are unsure about something, come get me,” he said, backing across the room. “Good bye, Alfred. Remember, stay in bed tomorrow. Those injuries need time to heal.”

“Wait, Arthur-”

But Arthur didn’t stop to hear the rest of his words. He closed the door and strode off to find Matthew, repeating his instructions. When Matthew nodded his assent, he left the house and made his way back to the bar. He had a job to do, after all.

“So how is he?” Elizaveta honed in on him the moment he stepped through the door.

“The idiot fell off a broomtail and was dragged behind her for a few feet. He’s got a few scratches and bruises, but he’ll be fine.” Arthur shook his head as he answered.

Elizaveta smirked. “Aww, is that affection I detect in your voice?” She sidled up to him and winked.

“W-What? No, of course not! Alfred’s an utter hero with a misguided hero complex, why would I ever-”

“Pity.” Elizaveta cut across Arthur’s sputtering. “You probably would have been a good influence on him.”

Arthur paused, the red fading from his cheeks as curiosity overtook him. “What do you mean?”

“Alfred wasn’t always such a hero.” Elizaveta shrugged.

Arthur frowned, thinking. “Was it because of Ivan?”

“Yes. Did he tell you about his past?”

“No. And when I mentioned it, he got cold and distant.”

Elizaveta scoffed. “I’m not surprised. It’s not much to be proud of.” Seeing the look on Arthur’s face, she patted his arm. “He’ll tell you eventually.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Arthur asked, doubtful. The look on Alfred’s face hadn’t been very encouraging about the distribution of any information on that particular subject matter.

“Then you’ll find out another way. It’s common knowledge around here. You just have to ask the right person.” A shout rang out across the saloon, and Elizaveta turned towards it. “Work is calling the both of us. You might want to open up soon.” She walked off.

Still thinking about everything he’d found out that day, Arthur changed into his uniform and opened the bar. It seemed that all of the people he knew closely here had some sort of dark past. He chuckled humourlessly. That was just his luck. But he figured what Alfred had done wasn’t too terrible. After all, it was hard to imagine such a bubbly person going off on a killing spree…

Matthew came in later in the evening, looking tired and somewhat irritated. He ordered coffee again, but sat at the bar this time. “I swear if that broomtail doesn’t kill him, I will,” he muttered viciously into his cup.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Alfred? Don’t tell me he got up.”

“He didn’t get up, but he won’t shut up. He’s been complaining the whole time since you left. About you, the wild mare, his injuries, the sheets, the heat. He won’t stop.” Matthew groaned and took a sip of the coffee.

“He was complaining about me?” Arthur asked, an eyebrow raised.

“How you just left him there.” Matthew shook his head.

Arthur thought it looked like there was more to say on that matter, but the quiet blond didn’t offer anything else. He nodded sympathetically; he knew what constantly complaining – not to mention fighting – brothers could be like. Matthew didn’t speak directly to him anymore, but he kept up a constant stream of muttering, and when Arthur leaned in close for a moment, it sounded like he was grumbling about every little thing Alfred had done wrong in his life. He quickly moved away when he heard Ivan’s name, though. He wanted to find out what happened from Alfred himself.

He was called back the next day. Matthew would only tell him that it was important, but when he arrived he discovered it was only to change the bandages again. He stared down unamusedly at the cowboy.

“What?” Alfred grinned up at him, holding out an arm.

“I said to call me back if you needed something or were unsure. This isn’t important,” Arthur said flatly.

“Yes it is! I need you to change my bandages again!”

“Matthew can do that just fine.”

“I didn’t wanna bother him with it.”

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. “So you decided to bother me? Besides, you already made him come and get me. That was bothering him. So wouldn’t it have been easier to just ask him to do it for you then?”

“Nope!”

“…Just this once, Alfred. Don’t call me for this again.” Arthur took the offered hand and ripped the bandages off again before washing and rewrapping it. He used perhaps a bit more force than necessary on the arms and leg, but he was gentler with the chafe on the ribs.

Alfred was once again watching him the whole time, but Arthur still didn’t look up to meet his eyes. When Arthur rose to leave, though, he grabbed his wrist and forced him to stay. “Wait, don’t leave so quickly.”

“I have to get back to the saloon.” Arthur tried freeing his hand, but Alfred’s grip was too tight.

“It’s boring here. Stay for a bit and talk to me.”

Arthur turned to tell him no again, but was met with pleading eyes and somehow couldn’t. The same cycle was repeated the next two days. Arthur had originally told him to stay that one day in bed because he knew Alfred wouldn’t be able to lie still for longer than that, but he surprisingly did whatever Arthur asked him to. Except not call him over, of course. But Arthur always went. He and Alfred would talk for a few hours before he managed to slip away. Arthur talked about England and New York. Alfred told him about taming Star and some of the other horses he and Matthew had broken in together, but the topic of his past was never breached. Arthur didn’t offer anything about himself or his family either.

Elizaveta smiled and winked at him whenever he left for the Jones-Williams residence, but he’d huff and roll his eyes at her and continue on his way with renewed speed.

“I really don’t see why you think that Alfred and I are together. I’m just changing his bandages,” Arthur told her the second day.

“Mhm,” Elizaveta replied, whistling as she walked away.

The fifth morning, Arthur was taking an early cup of tea on the front porch when Star galloped past, a fully clothed and armed Alfred on her back. The teacup was forgotten as Arthur shot up and dashed to the edge of the porch.

“Alfred!” he yelled.

Alfred barely glanced back. “It’s Ivan!” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll be back later!”

Arthur watched the cowboy disappear down the road and into the desert. He wrenched himself away from the barricade eventually and returned to his tea. He kept a close eye on the door the whole day, but Alfred didn’t come back. By evening, he was getting worried, but he didn’t think he could just dash over to the American’s house and see if he was alright. He didn’t know Alfred that well yet. It was a slow night too, so he didn’t even have customers to distract him.

He stayed open as late as he dared, but after falling asleep at the empty bar for the second time, he sighed and headed off to bed. He’d moved it across the room days ago, so he wasn’t woken by the sun until a more reasonable time. When he opened his eyes the next morning, he glanced around the room as if hoping that Alfred was leaning up against the doorframe or wall, but there was no sign of the cowboy. His heart settled heavy in his chest.

“Why the long look, Arthur?” Elizaveta asked later on when he was open for the morning.

“Alfred galloped off after Ivan yesterday morning and hasn’t come back since then.”

“Ah.” The Hungarian woman smiled. “Worried for your fancy, are we? Don’t worry, he’ll pop by eventually.”

“He’s not my fancy! I don’t fancy him!” Arthur protested, but Elizaveta merely shrugged off his words and continued on her way.

The Englishman shook his head and moved closer to the bar top, leaning on the counter and huffing as he watched the comings and goings. A few people came in, but they preferred food and talk to alcohol. Nearing noon, two older ladies came in to sit by the bar, ordering a pot of tea to share. Arthur prepared it and settled down nearby, hoping to catch some good gossip or information.

He was rewarded, though not necessarily in a good way.

“Oh, have you heard?” One of the ladies asked the other, moving off the topic of sewing patterns. “Alfred came back late and all bloodied up. But there was a pretty lass behind him.”

The other woman nodded thoughtfully. “I heard the commotion outside, but didn’t make it out to the porch in time to see what was going on.”

“And I heard she later used her own dress to bandage up his injuries! How romantic…”

Arthur’s fingers tightened on the rim of his own cup, but he kept his eyes down and focused on the newspaper lying open before him.

“Do you think she’ll stay for long?”

“She might.” Another, younger voice joined the conversation. Jane. “If Alfred takes a shine to her.” She was staring right at Arthur, who felt her gaze but didn’t look up.

“But doesn’t Alfred…” The first woman’s voice lowered so Arthur couldn’t hear the rest of what she was saying.

“Maybe. But they’d better watch out too,” Jane answered, and then moved away from them with a soft, ‘Excuse me.’ “Hello, Arthur.” She stepped up to him with a smile.

Arthur finally looked at her, removing his fingers from the teacup and flexing them. “Hello. Can I get you anything to drink?”

“No thanks. I just came to talk.”

“About?” Arthur raised an eyebrow.

“My warning. I see you’re still not staying away from him.” Jane tsked at him.

“Why are you warning me again? I’m sorry, but I fail to see how it’s any of your business.”

“Look, I just don’t want you to get hurt. I know Alfred, I fell in love with him once too. And I thought he could love me back, but days later he was saving and kissing and declaring his affections for another girl.”

“He saved you too?”

Jane nodded. “From Ivan, about six or so months back. It’s like a game between those two. A game that’ll end when one of them dies.”

“Right. Well. Thank you very much for the warnings, but I have no such feelings for him. I’m a friend, nothing more. And I can handle myself,” Arthur told her, moving off to serve someone who had just come in.

“Liar,” Jane murmured. “But suit yourself.” She huffed once more at him and then left.

Arthur watched her out of the corner of his eye and shook his head. He put her warnings out of his head – he didn’t need them – but he was furious at Alfred. He didn’t even really know why. What the cowboy did and who he spent time with was his business, not Arthur’s, but the information he’d heard concerning the girl made his mood sour completely. Elizaveta, noticing his scowl, at one point came over to ask him what was wrong, but after receiving brusque answers and glares, she walked off with a sigh.

As the hours passed his black mood slowly faded, but it came back full force when Alfred stepped through the door. He had his sleeves rolled up so Arthur could see the makeshift bandages around his arms. The Englishman sniffed and turned away as he approached, pretending to be busy with the bottles behind the counter.

“Hey, Arthur!” Alfred called cheerfully, leaning on the bar with a bright smile on his face.

Arthur turned his head to shoot him a glare, then resumed ignoring him. The wooden shelves really were so interesting.

The grin slowly dropped from Alfred’s lips. “Arthur?” he asked again, more subdued this time.

There was still no reaction.

“…Artie?”

Nothing.

“Arthur, what’s wrong? Why’re ya mad at me?” When he still received no answer or reaction, Alfred sighed. “Can I get a beer, at least?”

Arthur was only galvanized into action because of the mention of business. He filled a tall glass with the amber-coloured liquid and set it down on the counter loudly. He gestured for Alfred to pay and at the same time slid a bottle down the counter to a regular who had signalled for a refill.

“Thanks…” Alfred rummaged around in his pocket and threw some coins down onto the tabletop.

Arthur reached out to take them, but froze when a hand shot out to grab him, clamping down on his wrist like a vice. He recovered quickly and glared, green eyes boring into blue. “Unhand me.”

“Tell me why you’re mad,” Alfred shot back.

“Let me go!” Arthur’s voice rose in pitch and he put as much authority into it as he could muster.

“No. Not until you tell me. C’mon, Arthur,” Alfred pleaded, staring right back at him. “Is it yesterday?”

Arthur looked away.

“It is, ain’t it? I wanted to come here, but I was bleedin’ all over the place an’ Mattie wasn’t even there to come get you-”

“Don’t you have someone to get back to?”

“Wha- Oh. No, she’s restin’ now.” Alfred tried out a hopeful grin. “I sa-”

“I swear, if you say ‘I saved her’, then so help me God I will throw you out,” Arthur snapped. Alfred’s grip loosened then, and he used the opportunity to tear his hand free.

“Sorry, sorry.” Alfred took a sip of his beer. Arthur had gotten out a rag and was cleaning the counter, back to ignoring the American. “I didn’t really want her to do it.”

There was no response.

“I told her to go get you, but she wouldn’t listen. She insisted, sayin’ cuz she needed to repay me cuz I sav-” Alfred stopped and quickly took another drink. “I swear, honest, I wanted to let you do it but she literally wouldn’t go an’ get you.”

Arthur didn’t look at him. “Just finish your drink and go home. You need rest,” he muttered.

Alfred smiled a bit then and gulped down the rest of the glass. “See ya around then, Artie?” he asked as he stood.

“Yes, if you don’t call me that,” Arthur replied calmly, his attention still focused on everything but the cowboy in front of him.

“Bye.” Cracking a final, though still somewhat muted grin, Alfred slid the glass across the bar top to Arthur and left.

Letting out a small sigh of relief, Arthur went back to work. The rest of the night was fairly busy for him so he didn’t have to dwell on Alfred too much. A small part of him hoped that what Alfred had said was true, that he did want only Arthur to bind his injuries. Another part was worried they might have only been words Alfred spewed out to redeem himself. But the Englishman quelled all thoughts concerning Alfred and instead focused on his drinks. He had no intention of seeing Alfred in the near future anyway.

Chapter Text

Intentions or not, Matthew was in the bar the next day around noon, once again asking Arthur to come over their house right away because Alfred urgently needed him.

“No. I’m not going,” Arthur said flatly.

“Arthur, please. He won’t let anyone else touch him.”

“What about the girl he rescued?”

“I haven’t seen her since morning. I came back from working with the horses and she was gone.” Matthew shrugged. “And then the idiot wouldn’t stop moaning at me to get you because he needs you. Again.” He rolled his eyes, and then looked back to Arthur with a softer gaze. “Please come. He really wants you to be there.”

Arthur sighed heavily. “Alright. Tell him I’ll be there as soon as I’ve finished my tea.” He gestured to the half-full cup.

“Thank you.” Matthew gave him a relieved smile before taking his leave.

Arthur looked down at the tea as he drank it, and then up around the saloon. There were barely any people in, and none who hadn’t been served yet, so he closed it down. Before leaving, he quickly dashed up to his room to shed the vest, and just before leaving he bumped into Elizaveta.

“Going off to your Alfred?” she asked.

“He’s not my Alfred,” Arthur muttered back.

“Not yet,” Elizaveta said with a wink and a pat to his shoulder.

Arthur reddened but didn’t respond. Giving her a light nod, he left the saloon and stepped out into the sunlight. It was the hottest part of the day and Arthur could certainly feel it, his back breaking into a sweat within minutes. As he walked down the familiar road to Alfred and Matthew’s house, he unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt and let out a quiet sigh when a faint breeze washed over his throat.

When he approached the house he spotted Matthew in the circular corral, working with the same buckskin horse as before. He veered off slightly towards the figure but Matthew waved him away, calling for Arthur to just let himself in. Arthur nodded and did so, the cool shade of the house a welcome relief. The house was still so Arthur assumed Alfred was in his bed, and that was indeed where he found him.

“Arthur!” Alfred lit up when he saw him, and broke into a giant grin. “You came!”

Arthur found he had to look away. “Yes, well, you’re lucky Matthew has good persuasive skills,” he said softly, moving towards the bed and fingering the freshly boiled and dried bandages set out on the bedside table.

“Well thanks for coming.” Alfred’s smile softened, becoming more private. “Could you change ‘em?” he asked, gesturing to the soiled pieces of rag covering his arms and chest.”

“Give your arm here.” Arthur sat on the edge of the bed and took one of the fresh bandage rolls into his lap before holding out his hand to Alfred.

With a broad grin once more on his face, Alfred gently slipped his hand into Arthur’s, lacing their fingers together. “Here ya go!”

Reddening, Arthur untangled his hand and drew it more towards him so he had easier access to the injured parts. He took off the rags and scowled at them before tossing them aside. “What happened to you this time?”

“Uh, Ivan,” Alfred muttered, wincing when Arthur washed out the fresh cuts on his arm. “Went after him an’ caught him a few miles outside town. He shot but missed but then the gun broke or somethin’ so he used a knife instead.” Alfred shrugged. “Got me a few times because Star spooked.”

“Where did he cut you?”

“Just arms an’ left shoulder.” Alfred pointed to the spots with his free hand.

Arthur followed the movements, quickly stripping off the old makeshift bandages, cleaning the injuries with water and some alcohol, and then rebinding them. “And the girl? Why couldn’t she do this again, where is she?”

“She left,” Alfred said quietly. “Went to the train station this morning. I told her to go.”

“You weren’t going to pursue her?” Arthur asked scathingly.

“No, why would I? She’s a nice girl, but not like, romantically or anything.” The cowboy squinted for a moment and then grinned. “Why, are ya jealous?”

“Of course not, why would-”

“It’s okay, Arthur. I like you best,” Alfred said, patting Arthur’s hand. “I really-”

“How are your other injuries?” Arthur interrupted him, jerking his hand out of reach.

Alfred frowned. “They’re fine. I hardly feel ‘em anymore. But Arthur-”

“That’s good, very good.” Arthur stood, gathering up the soiled pieces of dress and moving away. “Don’t get out of bed for the rest of the day and take it easy, alright?”

“Arthur, please stay-”

“I can’t, I have to get back to work. Good bye.” Arthur exited the room and shut the door, breathing hard. He didn’t know why, but Jane’s warning was at the forefront of his mind.

After disposing of the rags – into the fireplace, where they’d be burned – he went out to the corral to tell Matthew to try and keep Alfred in bed and still as much as possible. Matthew was confused by the short visit but he nodded and bid Arthur farewell. Arthur returned the nod and left, going back to his bar. Elizaveta tried to question him about his visit, a twinkle in her eye, but he wearily brushed her off and opened the bar again.

He had to close it down halfway through the evening, though, because Elizaveta needed him to deliver a package to the train station. She let him borrow her horse and pointed him off in the right direction.

“Just keep heading straight. After a few miles, you should see the lights of the station,” she told him.

“And coming back?” Arthur asked, shifting slightly in the saddle. He was a bit nervous riding out at night on his own, but he’d just take it slow.

“Dusty’ll know the way back home,” Elizaveta said, patting the chestnut stallion’s withers. “I really am sorry about this, I completely forgot about it earlier and it needs to get sent off back home as soon as possible…”

“I know, Liz. I’m sure I’ll be fine, or at least able to outrun anything out there. Dusty looks built for speed.”

Elizaveta smiled. “Oh he is. Good luck out there. If you’re not back by midnight I’ll send Ludwig and his hounds out after you.”

Arthur nodded, checking one final time to make sure the parcel was secured inside the saddlebags, and set off across the desert. The air was cool and the stars were twinkling brightly overhead, and Arthur shivered slightly. He still marvelled at the drastic changes in temperature between day and night out here.

He kept Dusty going at a steady but brisk walk. He knew he should probably go faster so as more quickly to return to the bar, but he didn’t fully trust American horses yet. They were certainly wilder, even the domesticated ones. A few minutes after he left, the lights of the town faded away, leaving only the silvery light of the moon. The horizon was dark and full of darker lumps, giving Arthur no target to aim for. He didn’t even know if he was heading straight. The only sounds around him were the soft hoofbeats from Dusty’s hooves and the occasional far-off animal call from across the landscape.

“There don’t happen to be any…predators here?” Arthur asked softly, then immediately felt foolish for talking to a horse. Nonetheless, a small ball of fear settled itself in his stomach and pushed him into a trot. He had to resist the urge to glance back behind him.

Dusty’s gait was smooth and relaxing, and his head swung low as he searched for any faults or holes in the ground ahead. Arthur soon loosened up entirely, the faster pace driving away his fears. His breath came in puffs and after another few minutes he was confident enough to urge the stallion into a canter.

The landscape seemed to fly by after that, and Arthur thought he could distinguish a small pinprick of light in the distance; the station. A faint whistle off to his left startled him, but Dusty didn’t even blink. Glancing that way, Arthur could see another light racing across the earth, heading in the same direction he was. With a start, the Englishman realized he didn’t even know where the train tracks were out there, but luckily the lone horse and rider didn’t cross any. They were still almost a mile away from the station when the train blew past it, not even slowing down.

Arthur lightly pulled on the reins, bringing Dusty down to a trot and then a walk as they approached the building. He dismounted and quickly dropped the package off, back and mounted again in under two minutes. The train was just a faint speck in the distance, though other movement near it caught Arthur’s attention. A pale white form, followed by four darker blurs, raced towards the speeding contraption. Both grew more distant with each passing second.

“Ivan…” Arthur whispered, a shiver crawling down his spine.

He waited until both the train and its pursuers were gone from sight, and then dug his heels into Dusty’s sides. The horse shot off at a gallop, Arthur hanging onto the saddle tightly but moving well enough with the chestnut’s motions. The desert passed in a blur of black and silver, and Arthur seemed to be in a daze until Dusty finally slowed. Blinking back into the present, Arthur realized they were just outside the town and Dusty was breathing hard beneath him.

“Good boy.” Arthur patted the stallion’s neck and gave him a good brushing down when they made it back to Elizaveta’s small stable.

“You delivered it?” Elizaveta asked, coming up to him the instant he stepped behind the bar. “Were there any problems?”

“Yes and no,” Arthur replied, getting right into serving the people there. “I caught a glimpse of Ivan and his gang.”

“Really?” Elizaveta grew concerned. “Did he see you?”

“I don’t think so. They were chasing a train.”

The Hungarian woman sighed. “I guess we’ll find out if they caught it or not tomorrow.”

“I suppose so. Alfred will want to hear about it.”

“Speaking of which-” She was interrupted by a shout from across the room and went off to take care of it, gesturing for Arthur to wait. “So,” she said brightly when she returned. “How’s it going with Alfred?”

“S-Same as usual.” Arthur reddened again. “We’re friends.”

“Just friends?” Elizaveta leaned in closer to him.

Arthur leaned away. “Yes. And that’s all we’ll stay.” He knew his feelings for the American, but if he was only going to be another one of Alfred’s passing fancies, then it wouldn’t be worth it.

“He was in here earlier,” Elizaveta said casually.

What?”

“Looking for you. Didn’t stay very long, Matthew was in not long after to drag him back.”

“He’s an idiot.”

“Who? Alfred, or Matthew?”

“Alfred, who else?” Arthur continued mumbling profanities under his breath, and after a few moments of watching him amusedly, Elizaveta left.

Arthur calmed down by the end of the night, though he worked much later than usual because of his quick trip. A lot of people had gathered while he was gone, and they stayed longer than they normally would have. He went to bed drained, barely remembering to change his clothes, and slept in the next morning.

“Arthur.”

“Wha-” Arthur shot up, blinking and gazing around. His eyes landed on a familiar figure standing by the door. “Matthew?”

“Good morning.” Matthew approached, glancing out the window. “Or should I say afternoon?”

“Huh?” Arthur looked after him for a moment. “It’s that late?” He stumbled out of bed and gestured for Matthew to turn around before dressing. “Why are you here?”

“Why do you think?” Matthew snorted.

“…No,” Arthur said softly. “I’m not his personal nurse.”

Matthew sighed. “Arthur, you know he won’t let anyone else do it. He’s stubborn.” He hesitated. “Did uh… Did something happen between you two?”

“No, nothing.”

“Come on, Arthur. Forget what he wants, I’m asking you to come and change them. You know the idiot would be content to just run around as he is.”

“I do.” Arthur huffed. “And that’s the only reason I’ll go do it. That, and your asking. Lead the way.”

Matthew smiled. “Thanks,”

Grumbling, the Englishman followed him to their house once more. And so the cycle was repeated. Arthur changed the bandages while lightly berating Alfred, and the two of them would talk a while. If Alfred entered dangerous territory, Arthur would cut off and they would exchange a few more tense phrases before Arthur would excuse himself and quickly leave. He always went back, though, ready to go even before Matthew entered the saloon. For the next seven days Arthur tended to the cowboy, until the wounds healed almost completely and Alfred could manage without such heavy bandaging.

Chapter Text

Arthur woke in the middle of the night. He lay there, in the dark and confused, until he heard a soft tap coming from the direction of his window. He sat up but didn’t get out of bed and waited. A small round pebble flew up and hit the windowpane, producing the tapping noise. Warily, Arthur rose and approached the window, opening it. He stuck his head out and his eyes widened.

“Alfred?” he hissed.

The cowboy, seated atop Star, looked up and grinned. “Hey, Artie!” he called brightly.

“Keep it down!” Arthur whispered to him, listening to make sure no one had woken up. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Wanna join me?”

“What?”

“I’m patrolling ‘round the town an’ got bored so I wondered if you’d wanna come out and keep me company?” Alfred tilted his head back and smiled, his eyes sparkling even in the moonlight.

“So you just come here in the middle of the night and wake me-”

“Please?”

Arthur stopped. He looked closely at Alfred and then sighed. He quickly shut the window and moved back to the bed. Stripping from his night clothes he pulled on the clothing he wore the day before. After grabbing a slightly thicker coat from the dresser, he carefully opened the door. Here came the tricky part; getting down without waking Elizaveta and Roderich, or anyone else who happened to be staying for the night.

He was pretty sure he knew where all the rickety spots were by now, after being her so long. The hallway wasn’t as big a problem as the stairs, and indeed he stepped on one of the squeaky spots as he was nearing the bottom. He froze, and only resumed when he was sure nothing had stirred. It felt odd to see the saloon when it was completely dark and empty, and it was even a bit creepy so he hurried outside. Turning and walking to where his window was located, he was startled to see Star slowly walking away from the building, Alfred slumped on her back.

“Oi, Alfred!” Arthur hissed, brows furrowing in indignation.

Alfred twisted around in the saddle and brightened considerably when he spotted Arthur. Whirling Star around, he trotted towards him, grinning broadly. “You came!”

“Of course I did!” Arthur huffed and took a step back as Star came to a halt before him.

“Well, ya kinda just vanished on me so I figured you didn’t wanna do it.”

“Oh.” Arthur shifted on his feet. “Well I apologize for misleading you.”

“It’s alright!” Alfred urged the mare forward another two steps. “Here, c’mon, I’ll pull you up.” He held out his hand.

Arthur looked up at it apprehensively for a moment before taking it and letting out a gasp when Alfred easily pulled him up. He found himself sitting in front of the cowboy, with Alfred’s chest and stomach pressed against his back. “Y-You really couldn’t have done this on your own?” he asked, and cursed the way his voice faltered.

“Well I guess I could… But it’d be boring!” Alfred lightly nuzzled to him.

Arthur further stiffened. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Your affections.” Hearing a train far off in the distance, he recalled what had happened during his delivery. “I saw Ivan recently.”

“What?!” Alfred’s protests to Arthur’s previous words immediately cut off. “Where was he, what was he doing?”

“He was going after a train. I don’t think he saw me.”

Alfred gritted his teeth. “This is why I gotta patrol, even if Ludwig thinks he’s got it and I’m wasting my time.” He spurred Star into a canter to do a loop around the town.

“Wh- Alfred!” Arthur gasped and leaned back against him. “A little warning would be appreciated!” He heard a low chuckle next to his ear as Alfred leaned forward.

“You gotta relax- Move with her and with me.”

“I know how to ride,” Arthur snapped at him.

“Then ride.”

Huffing, Arthur relaxed and leaned forward as well, starting to move his hips to the motions of Star’s gait. He blushed a bit – horseback riding could look and feel so sexual, and Alfred moving with him did little to help – but he tried to ignore what was going on with their bodies and focused on where they were going. The landscape passed by in a blur, and in less than half an hour they were right back where they started.

“Phew, nothin’ so far!” Alfred crowed, voice victorious.

“May I go back to sleep now?”

“No!” Alfred wound his arms around Arthur’s waist, keeping him there. “I…I wanna tell you a story.”

“A story?” Squirming slightly in the sudden grip, Arthur tilted his head back to look at him. “About what?” He was startled to see Alfred looking so nervous.

“About me.”

“…Oh.” Arthur’s brows furrowed. “Your past?”

Alfred nodded.

“Why now?”

“Seemed like a good time now,” Alfred explained. “If we’re gonna be together, I figured you should know. Plus, you’d find out anywa-”

“Pardon me?” Arthur interrupted him and twisted more around. “What did you just say? Together? We aren’t together, nor are we going to be.”

Alfred’s face turned to one of hurt. “Well we aren’t now, but in the future? I like you, Arthur.”

“I…I will not be one of your passing fancies, Alfred,” Arthur said.

“You won’t be! But- Can we talk about that later? Before I lose my nerve about the past thing?”

Arthur stared at him. A part of him refused to let the issue go, but another realized he might not get another chance to hear about Alfred’s past for a while. “…Fine.” He turned back around to face forward.

“Thanks.” Alfred’s voice was quiet next to his ear. He dug his heels into Star’s sides and turned her head back out into the desert. She shot off in that direction, heading for a small dead tree about half a mile away.

When they reached it he slowed the horse to a stop and dismounted, leading her over to the tree. He slung the reins loosely over Star’s neck and lay down on the ground beneath the tree’s branches, staring up at the stars. He patted the ground next to him as a gesture for Arthur to join him.

Arthur got off slowly and sat down next to him, bringing his knees up to his chest. “Well?”

“C’mon, lay down too, the stars are pretty.” Alfred tugged on Arthur’s shoulder until the Englishman obliged. “So…what have you heard so far?”

“That you were involved with Ivan.” Arthur lay rigidly on the ground, very aware that Alfred hadn’t removed his hand from his shoulder.

“Yeah, that’s basically it.” Alfred let out a low laugh. “I was kinda raised hearing about all these awesome and heroic cowboys out here an’ I wanted to be just like ‘em when I grew up. There have always been a lot of foreigners here. Toris’s family has been here for a long time, over twenty years, and Feliks had come with him. After that it was Lizzy, Roddy, Gil, and Ludwig. Well, you know what happened with them. But they came from Western Europe through New York and stuff, but-”

“This is all very interesting,” Arthur interrupted, “but what’s it got to do with Ivan?”

“I was getting to that.” Alfred shifted slightly, and his hand finally moved away from Arthur’s shoulder. His eyes never left the stars. “As I was sayin’, not many people ever came out here from the west. None from California for some reason. But then Ivan arrived. He was with two sisters, one crazy and the other sweet but overworried. People were wary of them at first cuz they were kinda weird and from Russia, but then I started tryin’ to be friendly with Ivan. Y’know, be nice an’ stuff.”

“I see…”

“Eventually I told him about my dreams an’ he said they were cool. Things were quiet for a while, but then Ivan was caught almost killing a man. He told us it was a criminal and we all believed him, but now I kinda doubt it. But he managed to convince all of us and everyone loved him for it and when I didn’t really believe him at first he told me he was just being a hero and saving the town so of course that got my attention and became alright. He started going off on these adventures and then told me I could join him and we could be heroes together, catching criminals and outlaws and stuff like that. And of course I agreed, cuz it was my chance to live out my dream. At first we’d just ride out into the desert for a few days, do the stuff, an’ then come back, but then he convinced me we could do more by staying out all the time and again I agreed. I stayed out for maybe a year and a half; he influenced me a lot in the beginning, seemed to always know what to do. But slowly, without my realizing it, we started to attack innocent people.” Alfred’s fists clenched and his voice became somewhat strained. “Rich people were bad because they had money and didn’t share it, the poorer were evil because they were coming here and taking over and stuff, everyone did something wrong.” He cut off and closed his eyes for a long while.

“…Alfred?” Arthur asked lowly.

“Huh-” Alfred’s eyes shot open and he looked over at Arthur, his gaze bright and sad. “Right, right. I noticed after a while that what we were doing was really screwed up and tried to get him to stop, but he wouldn’t and he threatened me a little bit, but at that point it just pissed me off more. Eventually the tension became too much, and I left him. I came back to find my parents dead and Mattie fending for himself. They- They didn’t trust me at first, but Mattie convinced ‘em to give me a chance. Around the same time, Gil got pissed off at Lizzie and Roderich, and Ivan picked him up by fuelling his anger. They also took Toris, said he’d come in handy due to his medical training. I dunno where the other two came from though. Since then I- I warned him I’d take him down for what he did, and I plan to.”

“…And you’re doing all this good to clear your name, I suppose?” Arthur asked neutrally.

“Yeah. I gotta fix what I did wrong and someone’s gotta be the actual hero, y’know?”

Arthur shook his head. Alfred was Alfred, he supposed. He suddenly paused. “Wait, what happened to Ivan’s sisters?”

“The crazy one got killed and the other left once things got kinda insane,” Alfred said, shrugging lightly.

“I see. Well, thank you for telling me. I appreciate it.”

Alfred turned to look at him again. “‘Course, Artie. You- You don’t think anythin’ different now?”

“We all do things we’re not proud of.”

“Heh. Guess that’s true.” Alfred rolled over onto his side, so he was right up against Arthur, and smiled softly at him.

“Wh-What?” Arthur was startled by the sudden attention.

“Thanks. And well…you look real pretty in the starlight.” Alfred’s smile softened further, and he leaned over.

Arthur leaned away at the same time. “What are you doing?” His cheeks filled with red at the compliment, and he only hoped it was dark enough that Alfred wouldn’t see. “Don’t just go tossing around such words.”

“Why not?” Alfred leaned in even more, so he was looming over Arthur. “You know I like you. An’ I know you like me, cuz if you didn’t then why would you keep comin’ to bandage me, and why would you come out here?” He lowered his head more, until their noses were just barely brushing.

“I told you, I’ve no intention-”

“I know.” Alfred gently cut across him. “You’re different, Arthur. I swear. I look at you and I just- I promise you, I won’t hurt you.”

“…And I’m just supposed to believe that?”

“What do you want me to do to prove it to you?” Alfred asked, drawing away from him to look him properly in the eye.

“I- I don’t know.” Arthur looked away. “Could you take me back now?”

A flicker of hurt passed over Alfred’s face, but was soon gone, replaced with attempted neutrality. He moved away and got up, then offered his hand to Arthur to help pull him up as well.

Taking it, Arthur allowed himself to be tugged upwards, and once he was standing he dusted himself off. He was surprised when, as he approached Star, the horse seemed to look at him with reproach. He patted her neck in an attempt to placate her and then mounted.

A moment later, Alfred swung up behind him, though he wasn’t quite as close as before. “…Sorry,” he muttered as he kicked Star into a gallop.

“Alf-” But the motions and whistling of the wind cut off the rest of his words. He waited until he was back on the ground to quickly place a hand on the cowboy’s knee. “Alfred.”

“Yeah.” Alfred met his gaze with some difficulty.

“Thank you for telling me,” Arthur said. “Really. I just- I don’t know about…”

“Yeah.” Alfred attempted a smile and then leaned down to press a quick kiss to Arthur’s cheek. “See ya ‘round, then.”

Arthur didn’t have time to react to it before Alfred spun Star around and galloped off. He stood, frozen for a moment, and then slowly headed back inside. His thoughts were in a whirl, and it took him a while to fall asleep. He didn’t sleep much even after he did manage to drift off, and woke just after dawn.

“Good morning!” Elizaveta said cheerfully to him during the morning rush.

Simply nodding to her, Arthur turned back to his work. In the mornings he had a high demand for tea and coffee, with only an occasional request for a morning beer or spirit. He found himself glad for the distraction of many people, and then thought it wasn’t the first time he’d felt that way- and he didn’t know whether that was sad or not.

Elizaveta glanced at him worriedly, but couldn’t stop. She did slip him an extra piece of bacon in his breakfast, though.

“Thank you,” Arthur told her at the next opportune moment, and she grinned.

“Arthur.”

The Englishman glanced around and started slightly to find Matthew seated before him. He hadn’t even noticed the seat vacating. “Hello, Matthew.”

“Good morning,” Matthew replied. There was a small smirk on his face.

“What?” Arthur raised an eyebrow.

“I dunno what you did to Alfred last night, but he’s been moping since he returned. Give me an extra strong coffee, I’ve been up since the middle of the night,” he said, sliding money across the counter.

“Oh.” Arthur frowned as he turned to make the coffee. “I merely told him that I wouldn’t be another of his passing interests.”

“You wouldn’t be.”

Arthur stilled.

“Really. Trust me, I’ve been in a house with him for weeks.”

“W-Well…” Arthur trailed off and jolted back into action. Moments later, he slid the cup across the bar. He glanced up to meet Matthew’s eyes and immediately regretted it; the other man’s face was truthful and sombre, with a hint of encouragement.

“He’ll probably still be sulking later, if you’d like to come by.” Matthew took the cup and rose, smiling, before he turned and walked to the corner table to talk with another man.

Arthur watched him, brow furrowed, until someone else came up to the bar. He didn’t notice Matthew leaving, and was busy until past noon. After that the saloon emptied, and Elizaveta closed it down so she could go visit Feliks. It was the perfect opportunity for him.

Sighing, Arthur pulled on a hat and exited the building. The sun was beating down harshly as usual, but Arthur took his time, thinking heavily about what he should do or say. He trusted Matthew and Alfred had seemed sincere, but could he really risk his heart like that? But then he had no more time to think because he was in front of their house. Matthew wasn’t anywhere to be seen and no one answered when he knocked, so he hesitantly entered.

“…Alfred?” he called. He made his way to Alfred’s room and stopped in shock in the doorway. “Star?!”

Indeed, the pinto mare was standing in the corner of the room, quietly snuffling around a bucket mounted into the wall. When Arthur spoke, she nickered and nodded at him, stomping her hoof.

“Wha-?” The lump on the bed stirred and blue eyes poked out. The American drew back slightly when he saw who it was. “Whatcha want?”

“May I come in?” Arthur asked, tearing his gaze from the horse to the human.

“Bit late to ask that, ain’t it?” Alfred let out a too-loud chuckle.

“Still.”

“Yeah, guesso. Whatcha want?”

“To talk. Alfred, last night…” Arthur moved to the bed and sat down lightly on the edge. “Matthew came in this morning. Said you were sulking- I can see that’s true.”

“What about last night?” Alfred asked, voice muffled by the sheet covering his mouth.

“Tch.” Arthur reached up and gently removed the sheet from Alfred’s head, exposing his face. “At least stop hiding when you’re talking to me.”

Unconsciously, Alfred leaned his head into Arthur’s hand. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It’s alright.” Arthur traced light patterns into Alfred’s skin. “Matthew, he convinced me to take your words more seriously… Do you really mean what you said?”

“‘Course I did.” Alfred’s reply was instantaneous. “You really are different, Artie, I really, really like you.” He moved forward, the sheet slipping further down his body to expose his bare chest.

“I’ll admit I’ve been interested as well.” Arthur reached out with a hand to stop him before he got too close. On the side, he noticed how warm the American's skin was. “I also realized it wasn’t fair of me to judge you on rumours and whispers that came from other people instead of by your actions.”

“Oh, I know.” Alfred grinned, but it soon softened. “But thanks. That really means a lot.” His arms shot out to wrap around Arthur’s waist. At the same time he moved back so he was resting against the headboard, Arthur held against his chest.

Letting out a low gasp, Arthur glared up at him, though his expression held no real bite. “A little warning, please! And…are you naked?”

“Heh, nah, I got pants on. Can I finally kiss you?”

“You’re so crude,” Arthur told him, but tilted his head up. “You may, however, kiss me.”

Alfred smiled, his previous sulky mood gone, and leaned up to brush his lips to Arthur’s. He was pleased when Arthur moved to meet him halfway, and pulled the Englishman closer in a way that he ended up practically straddled by him.

It wasn’t a particularly long kiss, as Arthur pulled away after a few seconds, but that made it no less sweet. Alfred refused to stop grinning, and he ran his hands over Arthur’s back and sides as if memorizing all of the curves and dips beneath his fingers. There was extreme care in his touches, and reverence usually reserved for priceless treasures, and he only paused when he felt Arthur chuckling on top of him.

“…What?” he asked.

“No, nothing.” Arthur shifted a bit so he was off to the side, and he lightly traced the faint outline of the chafe scar. “Does it hurt?”

“It’s fine, not one bit of pain. You healed it up real nice.”

“Yes, well you be careful so not to undo all that,” Arthur warned gently.

“Yeah, yeah.”

After a moment, the smaller man shifted again. “I’d like to tell you about my past, if that’s okay.”

Alfred’s brows furrowed. “Do you have a secret dark past too?”

“No,” Arthur said with a chuckle. “Well, perhaps it can be seen as a bit sad. It’s more that I want to tell you to return the favour. I know about you now, so you should know about me. If you’d like to, of course.”

Alfred reached up to cup his cheek. “I’d love to know all about you.”

Arthur smiled a bit and shifted atop him. “Are you comfortable like this?”

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“I was born in England, as you well know. My family is my mother, father, and four brothers. Three are older, and one is younger.” As he spoke, Arthur kept his eyes on Alfred’s throat, and his hands were splayed over the tanned chest to prop himself up. “The Kirkland family is very old and prominent in high-class London society. There are…certain rules and customs we must follow when it comes to public appearances and relationships. I know that must seem ridiculous to you and looking back on it now it’s not a pleasant way to live, but at the time I was perfectly content to stay where I was.”

“It kinda…sounds like you were in a cage or somethin’.”

“A cage, yes. That’s an accurate way to put it. It’s a beautiful cage, all gilded and luxurious, but a cage nonetheless.” Arthur glanced up to meet his eyes for a moment. “I was very privileged. Probably someone you and Ivan would have robbed in a heartbeat had we met two years ago.”

Alfred’s gaze hardened, and his sudden grip on Arthur’s wrists was tight. “Don’t say that, not in that tone.”

“Tone?” Arthur’s eyes went wide.

“Like you think you would’ve deserved it or somethin’. Bein’ born rich ain’t a crime. It’s how you use your money is what matters, is what I think. ‘Sides, I wasn’t a good person either two years ago, dunno if I could’ve been a good judge of character.” Alfred gave him a crooked smile.

Arthur leaned down to press a kiss to the corner of that smile. “A little misguided, perhaps. But I think you were still a good person.”

“So were you,” Alfred challenged, though his grip on Arthur’s skin loosened.

“It’s okay, Alfred,” Arthur murmured as he straightened up again. “I never said I thought I wasn’t. I was just closed off to the world, indifferent to anything outside my bubble.” He looked down again, traced the line of Alfred’s collarbone with his index finger. “As with most good things, it didn’t last. My brother Scott fell in love with a Frenchman and vanished off the map. My father was furious and tried to conceal it. Then one of my other brothers found me…in a somewhat compromising position a few months later.”

“Hell yeah, Artie, get it!”

“O-Oh hush.” Arthur reddened and pinched his skin. He couldn’t help the small smile from appearing on his face, though it was gone a few moments later. “One Kirkland being queer was bad enough, but two? Dear Father couldn’t handle that. My remaining older brothers gleefully informed me that I was to be disowned and sent off somewhere ‘to live out the rest of my life in disgrace’. I grabbed what I could and took off for America before that could happen. I stayed in New York for close to a year, and then slowly started making my way out West.”

“Your brothers sound great.” Alfred grimaced.

Arthur laughed. “They were always like that, even as children. I spent many an afternoon tending to my own scrapes. We were supposed to be the perfect family, so I suppose I thought it was my fault that they picked on me, that I’d done something wrong. That guilt kept me from seeking help from anyone.”

“Arthur…” Alfred’s eyes saddened.

The Englishman just shook his head. “It’s alright. I had a better childhood than a lot of other people, it was just lonely. And I’m here now, hmm? Far away from them.”

Though Alfred looked as though he wanted to argue, in the end he sighed and nodded. “How’d you end up here specifically?”

“I was in Chicago with no clue where to go next, so I walked up to the ticket counter, got out all the spare change I had, and asked the clerk for a ticket as far as I could go on the next train out of there. I suppose that ended up being here.”

“Lucky for me,” Alfred said, grinning. He slung an arm around Arthur’s shoulders to better hold him close.

“Lucky for me, too.” Arthur allowed himself to be tugged down and rested his head against Alfred's chest.

Alfred pressed a soft kiss into his hair.

They laid there for a few minutes, but eventually Arthur started shifting around again. “As nice as this is, were you planning on rising today at all?”

“Nope. That’s why Star’s in here.” At the sound of her name, the mare glanced over at them and nickered. “Plus it’s cooler.”

“…I see.” Arthur still found the set up incredibly odd, but the area seemed clean enough and the pinto was quiet so he saw no real problem with it. “Well I for one have work to return to soon, so I can’t stay and laze around here all day.”

“I wasn’t lazing around! I was moping!” Alfred protested.

“Was.”

“Ugh, fine, I’ll go help Mattie when you leave. But for now we res-” He was interrupted by a loud grumble from the direction of his stomach. “Eat.”

“Do you have food?” Arthur asked, fighting to keep a straight face.

Alfred noticed the twitch of his lips. “Don’t laugh at me! I was busy! But yeah, Mattie left some pancakes. I can heat ‘em up real easy.” He gently pushed Arthur away and flung the sheets off, exposing the rest of his body.

“Busy with what? Moping?” Arthur’s eyes admittedly flicked downwards, but he masked it by turning his head to the side and sitting up himself.

“It’s hard work.” Alfred pouted and hopped out of the bed. He grabbed Arthur’s arm and pulled him up. Before stepping out of the room, he also took hold of Star’s lead to take her outside.

The sound of the mare’s hooves was loud in the enclosed hallway, and Arthur felt a bit nervous in the small space, but Alfred was relaxed. Star also was walking with her head down, stepping deliberately. They entered the kitchen moments later and Alfred let go of him to let the mare out.

“So!” he said cheerfully, turning to Arthur again. “Take a seat and enjoy the view!”

“The view?” Arthur raised an eyebrow.

Alfred just winked, bustling around with the leftovers. He had them ready in less than ten minutes. Sliding the two plates across the table, he settled down and flashed Arthur a quick smile before digging in. “Good?” he asked after a few bites.

“Yes, of course.”

When they were finished, Alfred just placed the plates to the side and disappeared down the hall to get dressed. Upon his return he offered to give Arthur a ride back to the saloon, which was accepted. It took a little while to get Star saddled because the mare put up more resistance than usual – after all, her promised rest day was taken away – but eventually she was set and Arthur mounted. Alfred settled down behind him, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s waist.

“Mmm, Artie…” he mumbled, pressing his nose to the skin of Arthur’s neck while his lips grazed the Englishman’s shoulder. His arms tightened.

“Alfred…we have…somewhere to be,” Arthur returned, but he leaned back against him more.

“There’s no hurry.” Alfred unabashedly peppered his shoulder with kisses.

“There is for…” Arthur’s eyes fluttered shut. “For me…”

Alfred let out a low groan. “You’re spoiling it, Artie,” he complained, but moved his head away and took the reins. A moment later, Star was moving at a steady walk.

“Patience is a virtue, and besides, we’re out in public.”

“Patience is stupid.”

“Of course you’d think that.” Arthur ignored the few looks sent their way, concentrating on the motions of the horse and the feel of Alfred’s hips rubbing against his backsi- He turned his attention to the passing buildings.

Luckily, Alfred didn’t do anything else, simply pressing a kiss to his cheek before helping him off when they arrived. “I’ll come by later, okay?”

“Sure.” Arthur looked up and gave his knee a pat. “See you then.” He turned and walked into the saloon, receding hoofbeats ringing in his ears as Alfred and Star galloped off.

“Aww, are you and Alfred finally together?” Elizaveta popped up behind him, a large smirk on her face.

“Wh- What?” Arthur jumped. “Were you watching us?”

“I just happened to glance outside, and who do I see but you two coming slowly down the road, looking adorable?” The Hungarian woman gave a content sigh. “Congratulations!”

“It’s still tentative,” Arthur muttered, his face reddening.

“It’ll all turn out well, you’ll see,” Elizaveta assured him. “Anyone can see he cares very deeply about you. And besides, he’s always preferred boys to girls, at least when it came to being serious about them.”

“We’ll see,” Arthur told her as he straightened his clothes and took up his position behind the bar.

“You’re so cynical,” Elizaveta said, but she left him alone and disappeared into the kitchen.

Arthur huffed after her and made himself some tea. He was lucky that he came back when he did because the afternoon crowd had started trickling in not long after that. The number of people steadily grew, as usual, and the time flew by quickly for him. It was late in the evening when the cowboy came in and he immediately smiled, going right to the stool in front of Arthur.

“Hey there,” he said brightly.

“Evening, Alfred.” Arthur gave him a small smile of his own. “Would you like anything to drink?”

“The light beer.” Alfred looked at him, a twinkle in his eye. “But I’m more hungry, if anything…”

“Oh. Would you like me to call Elizaveta…?”

Alfred rolled his eyes. “Hungry for you,” he explained. “Give me a kiss?”

Arthur blinked. “…I see.” He glanced around, and only when he saw no one was paying them any attention did he lean in a bit, eyes fluttering shut.

A moment later, a pair of warm, surprisingly soft lips was on his. Alfred’s mouth moved slowly, sensually, against his own, and then he felt the American's fingers tangle into his hair. He was pulled forward slightly, and heard Alfred moan into him. He pulled back again not long after that, and after a moment of resistance from the grip in his hair, he was allowed back. They pulled away slowly, and Arthur’s eyes opened at the same time Alfred’s did. They stared at each other, both of their gazes warm.

“That was nice,” Alfred said softly, licking his lips.

“I suppose so.” Arthur swallowed and pulled back more, Alfred’s hand slipping from his hair.

“Heh.” Alfred’s grin broadened and he leaned back in his seat, letting out a sigh of contentment. “The drink?” he probed.

“Right.” Arthur moved down the bar to get the bottle, and as he glanced around to see if anyone else was in need of assistance, he caught Jane’s eye. She was standing by the door, looking right at him and shaking her head in disappointment before leaving.

Pausing for a moment, Arthur then shook his head and dismissed the thoughts that came to mind. He quickly got the beer and strode back to the cowboy, setting the glass down before him. He watched Alfred quaff it for a moment before getting himself some tea.

“What did you do today?” he asked. “Did you find Matthew?”

“Oh, yeah!” Alfred dragged the stool a little closer to the bar and draped himself across it, one arm stretching out to start playing with and touching Arthur’s hand. “He was with Feliks- his horse started bucking and stuff. When I got there they sent me on him and set him loose.” He chuckled. “Almost fell off but eventually we calmed him down – seems he was just missing company – and he an’ Toris’s horse were real friendly and now that Toris is gone… Anyway, Mattie left his mare with him, so it should be fine for now.”

“I see. Well, that’s good, then.” Arthur smiled. “But are you alright? You didn’t actually fall, did you?”

“No, ‘course not. You worry too much.”

“I worry just enough. You have to be one of the most reckless people I’ve ever come across, if not the most reckless.”

“Heh, you do know I managed perfectly fine before you came here.”

“Yes, but now I am here.” Arthur brought his hand down lightly but firmly atop Alfred’s hair. “And you would do well not to foolishly put yourself in danger.”

Alfred rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I think I’m gonna go out lookin’ for the broomtail tomorrow, see if I can find her.”

“Y- You-” Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s exactly the opposite of staying out of danger! Why are you so obsessed with that horse?”

“Well…you need a horse, yeah?”

“So you’re going to stick me on a wild mare?”

“No!” Alfred sat up, grabbing Arthur’s hand between his two as it fell. “I’m gonna catch her and train her, and you can come along too! Just not tomorrow, though, cuz I have to go see if she’s there. I know she looks like just a buncha wild crazy muscle, but I can feel she’s gonna be awesome once we work with her.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow and surreptitiously curled his fingers to lace them with Alfred’s. “If I do go, it’ll be to keep an eye on you.”

Chuckling, Alfred brought their hands to his mouth and nuzzled to Arthur’s fingertips. “Sounds like a plan, though I don’t need it!” He abruptly let go and drained the rest of his bottle. “I should get going- I’m gonna need an early start tomorrow.

Arthur leaned in to kiss him goodnight and tasted the alcohol. “Good night, then,” he told him as he pulled away. “You stay safe tomorrow, you hear?”

“Mhm!”

Once Alfred was gone, Arthur closed down not long after that. When he climbed up to his room, a small smile appeared on his face and wouldn’t go away no matter what he did. In fact, as he thought about the events of the day, it only grew. He absolutely did not let out a little squeal, nor did he fall back into his bed with a happy sigh. Not at all.

Chapter Text

“…You have got to be kidding me,” Arthur said flatly as he watched Alfred limp in the next evening.

Alfred grinned sheepishly, gingerly holding a bloodied cloth to his arm. “It’s not that bad, I just-”

“Not that bad?” Arthur stomped around the bar and over to him, though there was half-hidden concern on his face. “You- You’re limping, you’ve got a bloody arm, what happened?” His eyes suddenly narrowed. “You said you were just going to look for that blasted horse, nothing more.”

“She was taunting me, I couldn’t help it!” Alfred hurried to explain. “So I got on her back and she took off and I fell and almost landed on a cactus- my arm hit it, I think there’s one or two spines left in there. Also kinda landed awkwardly on my leg which is why the limp…”

Arthur gritted his teeth. “You are such an idiot-” He took a deep breath and looked around. Not too many people. He tossed his vest onto the stool behind the bar and grabbed Alfred’s uninjured arm. “Come on,” he snapped, dragging him up to his room.

“Artie, I’m fine-”

“Don’t you ‘Artie’ me now, Jones. Sit.” Arthur pointed to the bed as he let go to lock the door, tone leaving no room for argument.

Alfred put his hands up in a defensive position, but did as was asked. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he watched Arthur bustle around, gathering supplies, with a mixture of amusement and endearment on his face. As he waited for the Englishman to get everything ready, he unrolled the cloth from around his arm, revealing a cluster of long gashes cutting diagonally across his skin. A few thin spikes were embedded in some of them.

“Do you even know how to stay out of danger?” Arthur asked as he settled next to him. Almost immediately, he plucked out the spines in rapid succession, ignoring Alfred’s winces. He placed them all into a bowl on the side and started cleaning the cuts. Luckily, they weren’t very deep, so it only took a few brushes to get them clean. Then it was only a matter of wrapping the arm up in a fresh bandage and kissing the area lightly when he was done.

“Well, I’ve got you to patch me up afterwards, haven’t I?” Alfred grinned over at him crookedly.

“That’s no excuse. Are you sure your leg isn’t chafed or anything?”

“Yup! Though you can check if you’d like.” Alfred’s hands moved to the buckle of his belt.

“No!” Arthur reached over to still his motions. “That won’t be necessary; I trust you’re telling the truth.”

Laughing, Alfred leaned back onto the bed. “So what now?”

“Now you will rest, and I will go down for another hour or so. Do not move.”

“I won’t, I won’t. So I get to stay here for the night?” he asked, staring hopefully at the Englishman.

Arthur met his gaze for a moment before turning stiffly away. “Yes. It’ll be good for you to rest your leg for the night, keep you from doing something stupid and injuring it further.”

“Heh, I wouldn’t,” Alfred told him, settling down beneath the covers.

Arthur tucked him in and moved away before he could do anything else. After warning him again to stay put, he made his way downstairs and re-donned his vest. Not long passed, however, before Elizaveta came over to him and told him to go back upstairs. As she spoke, she was smiling and even winked at one point, but Arthur chose to ignore the implications. When he was crossing the floor to get to the stairs he paused, noticing Star waiting so patiently outside.

“Hey, Liz?”

“Yeah?”

“Could I put Alfred’s horse in your stable for the night? You can dock the pay from my pay check if it’s necessary.”

“It’s not. It’s Alfred’s horse, and one night is fine.”

“Thank you.” Arthur gave her a soft smile and walked out to Star.

The mare raised her head when he approached, and nickered. He stopped by her head and gave her a pat, which she returned by nudging his side. Talking quietly to her the entire time, he led her to the stable in the back and got her settled in the stall next to Dusty. With a final pat to her nose, he left and walked back to his room.

Alfred’s eyes were closed, but he opened them and grinned when the door closed. “You’re back early.”

“Elizaveta chased me out and then I placed Star in the stable. I hope that’s alright?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Alfred motioned him closer. “Come on, come here.”

“Give me a moment to change, please?” Arthur shot him a soft glare and retreated behind his changing screen – for once, it would be used since he got it – to get into his night clothes. When he emerged, he saw Alfred gesturing at him again, and with a roll of his eyes he climbed into the bed.

Immediately, Alfred put an arm around him and shoved his nose against Arthur’s neck. “This is nice.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah!” Alfred shifted them so they were even closer.

“Oh stop that-” Arthur shoved against his chest, but it was half-hearted and at the same time he leaned against the cowboy. “We’re close enough, get to sleep now.”

“Fine, g’night then.” Alfred pressed a kiss beneath his ear and closed his eyes, snuggling down with him.

“…Good night, love.”

In the morning, Arthur woke first and tried to get up, but Alfred had a steel-tight grip on him so there wasn’t much he could do. In the end, he simply twisted around and watched the cowboy, memorizing the contours of his sleeping face. When Alfred’s eyes opened, they focused right on him and Arthur, distracted by the blue, wasn’t able to look away in time.

“Hey there.” Alfred gave a sleepy grin. “Whatcha lookin’ at?”

“An idiot.”

“Ouch.” The American’s voice turned mournful. “That hurts.”

“Good. Let go, I have work to do.”

Slowly, Alfred released him, the pouty look still on his face. “I’m thinkin’ of goin’ out again. To get her.”

Arthur froze. “No.” He turned back and grabbed the collar of Alfred’s shirt, pulling him up so their faces were inches apart. “Don’t you bloody dare, Jones.”

“Heh.” Alfred leaned forward and pecked him on the lips, grinning when he pulled back. “Whatcha gonna do to stop me?”

Frowning slightly at the kiss, Arthur wasn’t able to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching up, or a challenging glint from appearing in his eye. “You’ll stay with me. Sit right on the other side of the bar and not move the entire day, and in the evening I shall walk you home.”

“As sweet as hangin’ out with you all day sounds, it’ll be boring!” Alfred protested, trying to pin him with a sad, wide-eyed look.

Arthur was undeterred. “Then talk to me, or the other customers.”

Alfred gave up when he saw it wasn’t working. “Fine. I’ll do that if you promise to do somethin’ in return.”

“…What?” Arthur gave him a guarded glance.

“You gotta come out with me next time I look for her. And- And you also gotta go with me at night again!”

Arthur watched him, mulling it over for a moment before shrugging. He didn’t see the harm in it. “Alright. Now get up and get ready, you lump.” He disappeared behind the screen again and sighed when he saw Alfred hadn’t moved by the time he emerged. “Alfred…”

The cowboy grinned at him.

“Come on.” Arthur grabbed his hand and tugged on it, desperate to try and get him up. “Alfred-!”

Alfred resisted for a moment and then suddenly rushed forward, unbalancing the other. Arthur yelped and tripped over, but Alfred’s arms were already around his body, steadying him. “I got ya, Artie.”

“Don’t- Don’t do that!” Arthur told him. His grip was a little tighter than he would have liked. “Sodding idiot, think you’re so clever and cool…”

Alfred just laughed at his dark mutters. “I am. And you gotta loosen up.” He let go once he was sure on his feet. “These clothes’ll do for now, let’s go.”

Still muttering under his breath about stupid American cowboys, Arthur led the way downstairs. He settled Alfred down on a stool at the edge of the bar and, with a final warning glare for him to stay put, started his work. Occasionally, he’d look over at him, and when there was a quiet moment in the saloon they’d talk.

“You think you’d ever want to see Scott again?” Alfred asked during one of those pauses.

“What?” Arthur looked at him sharply. “Why do you think I would?”

“Well. It’s been a few years, right? And you’re both queer so it might be somethin’ you can bond over.” Alfred gave him a small smile as he sprawled over the countertop.

But Arthur only scowled. “No. Queer or not, he was still a shit brother. If by some miracle we ran into each other I might not ignore him, but I definitely wouldn’t seek him out.” He raised a hand when Alfred opened his mouth again. “I don’t need him back in my life. Any of them. Are you thirsty or hungry?”

Alfred pouted, but dropped the matter. “Lil bit hungry.” He took out some coins. “Is Lizzie still doing those breakfast omelettes?”

“I think so. I’ll let her know you want one.” Arthur rang up the order and informed the Hungarian woman.

She was smiling when she came out of the back a few minutes later, placing a steaming plate before him. “So, how’s it with you and Arthur?” she asked, leaning against the bar right next to him.

“It’s goin’ well,” Alfred replied easily. He dug into his food, effectively cutting off the conversation.

“That’s good.” Elizaveta gave him a meaningful glance before leaving, going in the direction of the piano. Moments later, the playing faltered with a loud, off-key clang, as well as a shriek from Roderich. Elizaveta’s laugh rang out across the saloon before she retreated.

Both Arthur and Alfred jumped at the sudden noise. Their eyes met and they chuckled. Arthur was the first to look away in slight embarrassment, though his gaze was pulled back when Alfred offered him some of the omelette. Not having eaten yet, Arthur accepted and allowed the cowboy to feed him.

“Oh, you got a bit of egg there…” Alfred mumbled, reaching out with his thumb to wipe away the small mess from the corner of Arthur’s mouth.

“Thank you.” Arthur reached up to quickly wipe his face with a handkerchief. “And thank you for the food.”

“No problem. It’s almost noon and none of us got food before. But c’mon, can’t I go out? Even for a bit?” Alfred stared pleadingly up at him.

“…You’re a snake and a devil, Jones,” Arthur told him as he closed the bar down. “Come on, since apparently you need exercise.” He grabbed Arthur’s hand and led him out back to where the stable was.

“Heh, only for you.” Alfred narrowed his eyes and leaned forward to nip at the back of Arthur’s neck.

Arthur’s steps faltered, and he turned around to shoot him a soft glare. “You stop that. Come on, we can give Star some exercise as well.”

The stable was situated at the very edge of town, and the flat hot desert spread outward to the horizon just past the wooden fences of the corrals. Alfred let Star out into one of them and frolicked with her as Arthur watched from his perch on the top rail. Star came up to him at one point and almost knocked him over, and even the cowboy nuzzled playfully to his knees. Looking at him now, bright-eyed and smiling with pleasure as Arthur ran his fingers through his golden hair, the Englishman found it hard to believe that Alfred had done what he had in the past. But then he recalled the cool confidence the American had displayed during their first meeting and he amended his previous thought.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Alfred asked, jolting him out of his thoughts.

“Nothing much, just the past,” Arthur replied. “Nothing to worry about. But your horse looks offended so I would worry about her.”

Even as he said this, Star pawed at the ground and mock charged them, shaking her head. Though he knew there was no real danger, Alfred still placed himself between her and Arthur, just in case. The mare stopped right before them and nudged Alfred’s chest.

“Hey there, Star.” Alfred patted her nose. “Hey, hey listen,” he stage-whispered. “You’re still my favourite girl, but I gotta have some time with my favourite guy.” He didn’t even have to turn around to know that Arthur was flushed.

“Git,” Arthur muttered, lightly whacking the back of Alfred’s head.

Alfred just chuckled and bumped against Arthur’s knees. “What? You are!”

“No need to trumpet the fact.”

“I’m not! S’just you an’ me an’ Star here.” Alfred grinned, but the smile faded as the pinto suddenly bolted to the other side of the ring. “Star?! What’s wrong, girl?” He followed her, approaching the mare cautiously with a wide arc to the side.

Star snorted and whinnied. A moment later, the echo of a reply rang out across the desert. The pinto mare whinnied again, and again an answer was heard. Alfred stepped up to the fence and peered out in the direction that Star was looking. He spotted a dark form on the horizon- a wild horse. Squinting, he was able to make out some details and whooped.

“Artie! Hey, Arthur, come here!” he called, eyes trained on the distant horse.

“Tch, stop shouting. I’m right here,” Arthur replied from almost directly behind him. He had slipped off the fence and approached, curious himself as to what was going on.

“Oh. Alright, sorry.” Alfred turned and grabbed his hand, tugging him closer. “Look, that’s the horse I’m gonna get you!” He pointed out the shape of the horse just as she started running.

“Hm. She seems like she has a nice gait,” Arthur murmured, watching her. “But really, there’s no need for such an obsession.”

“Yeah, she moves real nice. Real elegant, too. I think she’s mixed breed, a wild horse with one of those fancy breeds from out east.” Alfred watched the broomtail race across the ground, incidentally in the direction of Matthew’s and his house. “I’m not obsessed. I just wanna get her for you. Wanna go out there with me tomorrow?”

Arthur sighed and shook his head. “You’re adamant about going out there, aren’t you? I promised I would, so I suppose tomorrow it is.”

“Awesome.” Alfred turned to him and grinned broadly. “You’re gonna love her, I know you will.”

“Well, right now I’m angry at her for hurting you so much,” Arthur muttered, eyes trained firmly on the distant figure until it vanished beyond the horizon.

“Aww, that’s sweet,” Alfred said. He suddenly nodded to Star and sprang away. “Come play with us!”

And Arthur found himself almost barrelled over by the pinto, while Alfred stood laughing on the other side of the ring. Enraged but unable to keep a tiny smile off his face, Arthur gave chase to the both of them, and ended up playing for about half an hour before they headed back into the saloon.

 


 

Matthew, meanwhile, also saw the broomtail. He was out in the corral working with one of the newer horses when it started acting strange and stopped listening to him. The younger stallion ran up to the fence and whinnied loudly. At first he thought it was maybe Alfred and Star returning, but when he stepped up to the fence – a good distance away, of course, he didn’t trust this stallion wholly yet, especially since it was a young stallion – he found himself to be wrong.

He recognized the mare from Alfred’s descriptions of her, but this was the first time he had seen her even remotely up close. The mare showed no signs of stopping and gave a little buck when she passed near the corral. The stallion inside squealed and pawed the ground. Matthew swore the mare flicked her ears suggestively at him, and with a swish of her tail galloped off.

As he watched her grow smaller and eventually disappear, a flash of movement off to the side caught his eye.

He turned slightly so he was facing the direction it had come from, and after a moment, spotted a lone figure on a horse under a dead tree a good distance away. He couldn’t make out too many details, only that the horse was a dark colour and was turned towards him. His first thought again was Alfred, but the evidence didn’t make sense. The horse was too dark for Star, and why would his brother watch him from afar?

An unsettling feeling crawling into his stomach, Matthew watched the distant figure until the person wheeled the horse around and galloped off as well. Once the horizon cleared, he attempted to resume training, but it soon proved impossible as the stallion refused to settle down. Eventually, he had to give up with it and worked with a mare until Alfred returned in the evening. The cowboy hadn’t come home last night, and now – unsurprisingly – he was with Arthur.

The two of them were walking down the road leading Star, so close together their sides occasionally brushed. When they got closer, Matthew let the mare out into the main paddock and stepped to meet them. There was a bandage around Alfred’s arm, and he was limping ever so slightly.

“What did you do now?” Matthew asked, giving a sigh.

“He fell onto a cactus,” Arthur replied, rolling his eyes.

“Not directly! I brushed against it!”

“A cactus, Alfred?” Matthew raised a brow. “What were you doing?”

“The broomtail! She came this way a lil bit before. Did you see her?” After receiving a nod of affirmation from Matthew, Alfred stepped away from Arthur. “Yeah, I was goin’ after her yesterday an’ today Arthur made me rest an’ tomorrow we’re gonna go after her together.”

“Sounds like a nice date, chasing wild, unpredictable horses,” Matthew commented.

Both Alfred and Arthur turned red. “Wh- What?” Arthur sputtered out, looking at Alfred. “Is it a date?”

“Well…I suppose it could be, if you want it to be,” Alfred replied, grinning down to him.

“Right.” Arthur avoided looking at him and stroked Star’s neck. “I trust you’ll keep him from doing anything stupid for the rest of the day?” he directed at Matthew.

“Of course. It’s too late for him to do anything now,” Matthew said, laughing at Alfred’s offended expression.

“Stop being mean!”

“I’m merely looking out for you, fool,” Arthur said. “As I said before.”

“Still mean!” Alfred insisted.

Arthur rolled his eyes again. “And you’re impossible,” he murmured, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. “Good night. I’ll come by early tomorrow and we can head out.”

“Okay.” Alfred hugged him in return.

“And don’t you dare show up at my window tonight, I won’t be coming out,” Arthur warned.

“Yeah, yeah.” Alfred grinned easily and waved as Arthur turned and walked away. “So how was your day?” he asked when he and Matthew were alone.

“Calm.”

“…S’that an insult?” Alfred narrowed his eyes.

“Is it?”

“Ugh, it’s too late for your mind games, Mattie,” Alfred moaned, throwing his arm around his brother as they turned back to the house.

Chapter Text

True to his word, Arthur was at their door early the next morning. He knocked and wasn’t too surprised when Matthew answered it. “Is he up yet?”

“No,” Matthew replied, backing away so Arthur could enter. “Did you expect him to be?”

“Not really, but one can hope.”

“True, I suppose. He’s in his room.” Matthew shut the door and vanished down the hallway.

“Thank you.” Arthur stepped as quietly as he could, half expecting to see Star standing in the corner once again, but the American was alone in the room. “…Alfred,” he murmured as he approached the bed. When he was close enough, a hand shot out and clamped down on his wrist, pulling him down. “A-Alfred!”

The blankets shifted to engulf him, and Alfred curled around his body. The cowboy shoved his nose into its customary spot between Arthur’s neck and shoulder before settling down. “Hey, Artie,” he said, the words somewhat muffled by their closeness.

“What, exactly, are you doing?”

“Sayin’ hello.” Alfred yawned, his tongue flicking out to press against Arthur’s neck.

Arthur started and tried moving away from him, but Alfred’s grip was too strong. “There- There are better ways!”

“Well, this is my way.”

“Alfred…” But Arthur couldn’t get angry with him. “We have somewhere to be.”

“The broomtail can wait.”

“You are so lazy in the mornings,” Arthur told him. However, he ceased struggling and simply allowed Alfred to hold him. Eventually, after what seemed like an hour, the American stirred and rose. “Finally.”

“Oh c’mon.” Alfred shot him a pout. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?” he asked as he disappeared into his small bathroom to change.

“I suppose not,” Arthur grumbled back. He stood himself and straightened out his clothing, and then with nothing better to do, made the bed while he waited.

“Did ya eat already?” Alfred came back into the room and tucked his sleeping pants beneath the pillow. After grabbing his hat from its hook, he took hold of Arthur’s hand and tugged him to the kitchen.

“Yes, Elizaveta gave me some porridge.”

Well then make us food for later!” Alfred pointed to the ice box. “There’s some meat and butter in there, and the bread is over there. Somethin’ simple will be okay.” He himself started on making a quick breakfast.

“Alright.” Arthur bit his lip in concentration as he started working on the food. After a few minutes he had four sandwiches ready. Perhaps there was a little too much butter on them, but overall he felt they weren’t that bad.

When Alfred finished his breakfast, he nodded and appraised the sandwiches, and they headed out. Arthur helped him groom and saddle Star, and before long they were racing along in the desert. They visited all of the spots the mare had been seen in, but found her in an open stretch of land about five miles away from the town in the opposite direction of the train station. She was nibbling at some tough desert grass, but looked up and sized them up when they came near enough.

“What do you usually do now?” Arthur asked, looking closely at the horse for the first time.

She was indeed elegant, and almost didn’t seem to belong in the harsh environment of the desert. She was thinner and less stocky than the other horses, and her limbs were longer. Her coat was a silvery grey, and her eyes sparkled with intelligence. Not to say that Star wasn’t smart, but the broomtail possessed a more cunning gleam. She nickered lightly to Star and watched the two humans warily.

“Usually I either charge her or just approach on foot. I’m not gonna charge today, I don’t want you to get hurt or anything.”

“Alright.” Arthur switched his gaze from the mare to Alfred. “Thank you for your consideration.”

“Of course.” Alfred helped him down before getting off himself. After tying Star’s reins together, he approached the other mare. “So. Are ya gonna be good or not today, girl?”

Things happened quickly after that. The broomtail allowed Alfred to approach within a few feet of her before squealing and taking off. She led Alfred around the area in a merry dance before the cowboy finally snapped and called for Star. After shouting a ‘Wait here, Artie!’ to Arthur, he swung up and kicked the pinto after her. They vanished over the horizon after a few moments, Alfred whooping gleefully from atop his horse.

Arthur sighed. “Idiot, just don’t try to get on her back…” he said, though it was far too late for Alfred to hear him. He adjusted his own hat so it was covering his face more and shifted so his weight was on one leg while he waited.

Minutes passed, and then he felt faint tremors within the ground. Glancing around, he soon spotted a rapidly approaching pale dot on the horizon, which proved to be the broomtail. And from the direction she was headed, Arthur judged she was coming right at him. He felt a small trill of fear flash through him, though it was soon replaced by annoyance and a glare. This horse had caused Alfred pain and trouble, and he refused to let her win with him. She thundered closer, and Alfred came into view as well. In his peripheral, Arthur saw his face change from determined to panicked as he realized neither the Englishman nor the mare were shifting out of the way.

The whole time, Arthur just stood and glared.

“Arthur!” Alfred yelled to him, but he wasn’t sure Arthur heard him because he still didn’t budge. He urged Star to even greater speeds.

As the broomtail neared Arthur, she also seemed to realize that the human wasn’t going to move, and she locked her legs to slide to a stop, kicking up a large dust cloud in the process. Alfred let Star run a little longer to close the distance between them before pulling her back to a stop, dust billowing up from beneath her hooves as well. The cowboy was scared almost to death at what he would see when all the dust settled. There was no way the mare could have stopped in time… Eventually the dust cleared, oh so slowly, and Alfred gasped.

Arthur was still standing- and still glaring. The wild mare had managed to stop just in time and was standing right before him, panting. Her head was lowered slightly under the intensity of Arthur’s gaze. Neither of them moved a muscle until Alfred spoke.

“…Arthur?” he asked incredulously.

The spell was broken. Arthur blinked and looked over at him, his anger fading, while the mare shied away a few steps. She didn’t leave, though, but watched Star and Alfred with suspicion.

“Alfred…” Arthur took a small step towards him.

The American hurtled out of the saddle and at Arthur, wrapping him in a tight hug. “I thought you were gonna die- don’t do that!” he mumbled against his neck. “What happened to keepin’ out of unnecessary danger? What the hell were you tryn’a prove?”

“I- I-” Arthur hugged back hesitantly, his whole body sagging. “I wasn’t… I just got angry…”

“So you- You stood in the way of a runnin’ wild horse?!” Alfred lightly shoved him away to cup his face and stare down into it.

“Nothing happened,” Arthur murmured. “And I could have moved out of the way at the last second if anything.” Though he probably wouldn’t have.

“Arthur!” A pleading light came into Alfred’s eyes.

“I’m sorry for worrying you,” Arthur said after giving a soft sigh.

Alfred’s shoulders slumped, and he pulled Arthur into a hug again. “Don’t do that again,” he whispered. “Ever. Please.”

“I won’t, alright?” Arthur wasn’t used to anyone caring quite so much about his safety, though he couldn’t say it wasn’t a pleasant feeling.

“Good. Okay. That’s good.” Alfred held him for another few seconds before an impatient snort broke them apart. He looked over at the broomtail, who was standing a few feet away, looking innocent. He remembered the force of Arthur’s glare and shuddered a bit. “I ain’t the devil, Artie, she is,” he muttered.

Chuckling slightly, Arthur turned to look at her as well. “She seems to have calmed down some now.”

“Yeah.” Alfred gave him a pout. “Here I am, chasin’ her ‘round for you, and you come ‘round and she’s docile as a little sheep,” he said, though there was a friendly spark in his eyes.

Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. “She’s not completely docile- she’s still a wild horse.”

“Heh, I was joking.” Alfred studied the mare for a while before taking a peppermint out of his pocket. “Here, try an’ give her that. We can try an’ bring her in and start training her up!”

“Alright.” Arthur took the mint and approached the mare. She snorted and stepped away, but Arthur kept eye contact as well as a soft stream of murmured reassurances.

She stomped her hoof and snorted at him once more, nostrils flaring as the scent of the candy wafted over to her. She allowed Arthur to get close and delicately took the sweet from his hand, but when he tried to touch her she whinnied and jumped away. Her tail rising like an Arabian’s, she trotted away from the two of them and then glanced back. Arthur took a step towards her, frowning, but she only danced off again.

The Englishman sighed in frustration. “See? Alfred, I highly doubt she’ll let us take her in. Just because I got her to stop doesn’t mean she’ll listen to me.” Even as he said that, the broomtail gave a final snort and cantered off.

Alfred watched her go critically. “Well, at least we made some progress!” He took Arthur’s hand and whistled for Star. “Let’s go follow her.” When the pinto trotted up, he lifted Arthur onto her back and mounted up behind him.

“Oh, alright.” Arthur blinked as he replied. Not like he had much of a choice, seeing as Alfred was already in motion. He felt the American’s stomach pressing against his back and was surprised at just how right it seemed.

Alfred grinned and urged Star into a canter as well, and they set off after the broomtail.

The silver mare seemed to notice them after a while and picked up speed, but not enough to lose them. She led them across the desert for about twenty minutes before rushing straight through the middle of a herd of wild horses. They all scattered and ran, except a small foal that couldn’t keep up. It ran for a little bit but then slowed and merely called after the rest. One or two turned back, but by that time Star had come close so after a moment of hesitation they kept going.

“Whoa, whoa, Star.” Alfred pulled back on the reins and Star came to a slightly awkward stop near the foal. He looked to Arthur. “What do we do?”

“Can’t we just leave it?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Alfred went back to studying the foal. “Look how small it is- you can practically see all its ribs. And then the herd’s gone…he might not find it again.” Quickly leaning over for a moment, he found the colt was indeed male.

“So we should take him back with us?” Arthur looked at him as well. The colt was a roan appaloosa, with dark blue fur and white splatters all over his rear, white socks on all four legs, and white spots over both eyes. “I suppose he’s alright looking.”

“Just alright? He’s a total cutie!” Alfred wriggled a bit in his seat, to the half-amusement, half-irritation of Arthur. “He shall be known as Alfred Junior, and of course he’s coming with us! We gotta save him!”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Can you get any more egotistical?” he asked scathingly, watching the colt step closer to Star. “I refuse to call him Alfred, or Alfie, or any other variation. But Junior will do.”

“Aah, you’re so mean,” Alfred moaned, draping himself over the other man. “But alright, I guess he looks like a Junior.”

“Get off.” Alfred elbowed him lightly. “And if we’re to bring him back, we’d best catch him before he runs away.”

Reluctantly, Alfred straightened up and rummaged around in the saddlebags for some rope. Along the way, he came across the sandwiches Arthur had made, and his stomach growled. Ignoring it for now, he grabbed the rope and made a quick loop with it before handing it to Arthur. “You go get ‘im, I’ll stay on Star here just in case.”

“Why me?” Arthur asked, holding in a shriek as he was prodded off the pinto. He almost managed to keep his balance, but in the end fell flat onto his ass. “Alfred!” He glared up at the cowboy, the look intensifying when a peppermint was dropped into his lap.

“Go get ‘im!” Alfred told him cheerfully.

But Arthur didn’t even have to move for the colt came right up to him, curious about the strange creature on the ground. Junior stepped delicately in his direction and stopped when he was right in front of him, head stretching out to lip at Arthur’s face. The Englishman couldn’t hold back a chuckle at the colt’s soft lips wandering over his cheek.

“Oh, shove off, you,” Arthur murmured, pushing the horse’s face away before he could bite. Junior, however, shoved his nose right back, this time nibbling at the blond hair. “Oi! Here, you little rascal, eat this!” Pushing again against the insistent muzzle, he pressed the peppermint up against the appaloosa’s mouth. It was gone in less than a second, and while Junior was munching on the candy, Arthur slipped the rope over his head.

Junior paused and sniffed at the foreign object, but after a moment he continued eating. He snuffled around for more mints, and when he found none, he simply went back to shoving his nose against the human. Arthur hesitantly patted his neck as Alfred gave a cheer from atop Star.

“You did it! Nice job!” Alfred grinned at him.

“Thank you.” Arthur shot him another glare. He got up slowly, keeping a tight grip on the rope in case the colt shied. He didn’t, and the barkeep tied the end to the saddle.

“Wanna eat now?” Alfred reached out and ran his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “We’ll go back afterwards.”

“Now?” Arthur looked around. “There’s not really a place to sit and eat…”

“We can do it in the saddle! It’s not real romantic, I know… We could look around for a spot if you want?”

Arthur couldn’t hold back a small smile; Alfred could be so endearing sometimes, if he tried. “It’s alright. Atop Star will be fine. Help me up?” He held out his hand.

Alfred took it and easily heaved him up, settling him down and immediately hugging him. He saw the colt start at the sudden movement, but Star calmed him down so he focused on Arthur, and more specifically rubbing their cheeks together.

“Alfred…” Arthur murmured. He couldn’t help rubbing back, though. “The food.”

“Right, right.” With a final nudge, Alfred passed him two of the sandwiches before starting on his own. He was surprised at the amount of butter on them at first, but once he got past it he found they were fine. He finished his two before Arthur could get through half of his, and then proceeded to beg the Englishman’s other one off of him. With a great sigh from the green-eyed blond, he received it.

“I wouldn’t have finished it anyway.” Arthur sniffed. He received a sloppy kiss of thanks either way.

“That stops it going to waste even more now!”

“Yes, yes.” Arthur quickly finished his own sandwich and looked down at the colt. “Hurry up, we should be getting back. How are we even going to feed him? Doesn’t he need milk?”

Alfred looked down at the appaloosa as well, and smiled at the sight of him nuzzling around Star’s hind legs. “Star’ll make milk for him soon,” he assured.

He kicked Star into an easy trot, and they headed home. Junior kept up well with them and was quiet after some initial resistance. They reached the house in less than an hour, and it was still early afternoon. The sun was beating down harshly on them, and Arthur felt admittedly faint. He didn’t think he’d ever spent so much time out at this part of the day, and he could feel the back of his neck – at least the sliver that was exposed – already burned. He winced at the feeling whenever he moved even a little bit, and then started when something cool was pressed against the spot. Upon further inspection, the thing turned out to be Alfred’s dampened bandana.

“I’ll give you some aloe extract thing when we get into the house, ‘kay?” Alfred murmured into his ear, tying the bandana off around his neck.

“Thank you,” Arthur replied shivering as a few drops of water slid down his chest and back.

“No problem. Go get in the shade now, I’ll take Junior and Star back. Don’t want ya gettin’ any more burned,” Alfred told him, helping him down from the horse when they arrived back at the house.

“Are you sure? I’ll be fine.”

Alfred nodded and gave him a gentle push. He watched the Englishman walk onto the porch but no further and sighed with a smile. The colt walked along quietly behind Star, though he looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings with wide eyes. He spooked slightly when they entered the barn, but Alfred got him into Star’s stall with the mare without creating too much of a fuss.

Matthew emerged from one of the stalls further down. “That’s not the broomtail,” he said upon seeing the colt.

“Nope! But we saw her, though. And oh God, she almost ran Arthur over cuz she didn’t stray an’ he wouldn’t move but then she stopped and I was so scared-”

“Is he alright?”

“Yeah, though he got a bit burned when we were coming back.” Alfred slumped against the stall. “She ran away after that, but we picked up this lil guy.” Right on cue, Junior lifted his nose over the door of the stall, and the cowboy grinned at him.

“He’s a nice looking horse,” Matthew agreed. “But I have to get back to work, and I think you have someone waiting for you.” He nodded at the house.

“Yeah. See ya later, Mattie!” Alfred gave Junior a final pat and then dashed out of the stable. He grinned widely when he saw Arthur leaning against the wall and approached him with arms outstretched.

“All done?” Arthur asked, humouring him with a hug.

“Yup!” Alfred squeezed him tight and rubbed his cheek against Arthur’s. “Now come on, let’s get you tended to, yeah?”

“Alright.” Arthur stepped away and studied him critically for a moment. “But you too- just a quick look over those cactus wounds.”

“Artie…” Alfred groaned, but allowed Arthur to drag him to his room. He sat down on the bed and watched the barkeep as he bustled around to gather the supplies.

“You have to take care of yourself,” Arthur said softly, coming to sit next to him with the first aid kit.

“I’ve got you for that, yeah?” Alfred asked with a smirk, taking off his shirt and unravelling the bandages.

“I’m not your nurse, Jones,” Arthur told him sharply, tending to the still-healing injuries. “And I might not always be around.”

“Don’t say that,” Alfred muttered, tugging at the cloth. “And turn around, let me tend to you.”

“Well it’s true. And I don’t necessarily mean dying.” Arthur gave him a smile and a stroke to the cheek before turning around. He slowly undid the bandana and reached up to touch the burned spot, though he felt Alfred’s hand wrap around his own before he could properly feel it.

“It’s not too bad, should heal in a few days,” Alfred kissed Arthur’s fingers before starting on tending to the burn. The cream was something that Matthew had made to use on the horses and themselves. “Do you want me to bandage your neck? It’ll help it heal faster, but it might look funny.”

“That’s fine. Just not too tight,” Arthur said, tilting his head down more so Alfred would have easier access.

“Okay, lemme know if it is, okay?” Alfred picked up one of the thinner bandages and loosely wrapped it around the Englishman’s neck. Once it was in place, he gave it a pat and immediately wrapped his arms around Arthur’s waist.

“Oh-” Arthur started a bit, but he soon relaxed and leaned into the touch. “Hello there.”

“Hi,” Alfred purred into his ear, smiling as Arthur shivered. “Do you gotta go back yet, or can you stay some more?”

“I think I can stay until around five or six, when the worst heat has passed, but I should open the bar for a little bit later.” Arthur leaned his cheek into Alfred’s.

“Okay. Let’s move to the kitchen and eat and drink, yeah?”

“…Didn’t you eat three sandwiches not two hours ago?” Arthur asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m hungry again! Well, starting to be…” Alfred pulled him up and off to the kitchen.

“You’re a bottomless pit.” Arthur shook his head. “Have you got any tea?” He sat down on one of the chairs, not quite comfortable enough yet to look through the cabinets himself.

“I am not! And yeah, we should. Mattie likes to have it sometimes. It’s not the best quality though, sorry.” Alfred took down the tin with the tea leaves and gave it to him. “And you’ll most like wanna make it, cuz I have no idea how to.”

“Thank you, I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Arthur took the tin from him and set about boiling some water.

By the time they had the drinks and food – Alfred made some bean and meat stew – Matthew entered, driven inside by the heat. He nodded at the two of them and grabbed a glass of water and a bowl before joining them at the table.

“How are you, Arthur? I heard what happened earlier with the wild mare.”

“I- I didn’t mean for it to happen…” Arthur turned a bit red and focused on his food. “I was merely angry, and she happened to be charging.”

“Just don’t repeat it. Next time you might not be so fortunate,” Matthew cautioned.

“I know. I’ve no desire to repeat those actions,” Arthur replied. “How are you?”

“I’m alright. Well…” Matthew suddenly trailed off.

“Well what?” Alfred looked to him sharply.

“…I think someone’s been watching me,” the quiet blond admitted. “There’s been a rider on the horizon…”

What?!” Alfred slammed his glass down on the table. “Who the hell would- Did you recognize them at all?”

“No, they were too far away for me to distinguish any details. I only noticed that the horse was dark,” Matthew explained.

“Well damn, why the hell would they do that?” Alfred frowned and stirred the food around his plate. “If it continues then tell me, okay? I’ll get rid of them.”

“Okay.” Matthew paused. “What if… What if they’re involved with Ivan? He’s been oddly quiet lately.”

Alfred gritted his teeth. “I know. I haven’t seen him anywhere in ages. I don’t like it. I feel like he’s planning something, but I don’t know what.”

“A raid, maybe?” Matthew suggested.

“Maybe. But let’s not talk about Ivan now, okay?” Alfred said, looking between the two of them. “How’s the progress with the horses, Mattie?”

“Oh, it’s going well. One of the mares is just about ready to sell. You can take her down within a week, and two more are almost there.” Matthew looked pleased with himself.

“Yeah, that’s good. And Artie? You liking your job still?”

“It’s quite nice, and I think that I’ve adjusted well,” Arthur said. He looked at Alfred and frowned slightly, suspecting that the cowboy was just trying very hard not to think about Ivan. “And you?” he murmured, a hand under the table moving to rest on Alfred’s knee.

Alfred looked started at the touch, though after a moment he relaxed. “I’m okay. Worried, but there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”

“Then it won’t do you any good to worry,” Matthew cut in. “Relax, but stay prepared in case anything does happen.”

“Y-Yeah, that’s good advice,” Alfred said softly, his shoulders slumping from their tensed position.

“Of course it is.” Matthew cleared up his spoon and bowl and moved towards the hall. “I’m off to rest until the evening. Try and keep quiet, will you?” And he was gone.

“You wanna get rest too?” Alfred asked.

“Actually, I think I should get going…” Arthur murmured, not rising.

The cowboy paused. “What? Now?” At Arthur’s affirmative nod, he shook his head. “No, no, but you said you’d stay! At least wait until the heat passes, okay?”

“Alfred…”

“Really! There wouldn’t be that much business at this hour anyway! Please?”

“I was going to say alright. I did promise, and a few more hours with you won’t hurt.” Arthur reached over again and gave his hand a squeeze. “What have you got planned for this time, then?”

“Same thing as Mattie’s doing. Rest!” Grabbing Arthur’s hand in return, Alfred gently tugged him off to his bedroom.

Arthur allowed it with minimal protest, though in the end he ended up watching Alfred’s face while the American slept. Once the sun started its downward arc in the sky, Matthew stirred and rose for the continuation of his day. The quiet footsteps paused outside their room for a moment before resuming. Arthur looked down at Alfred’s face once more and kissed his forehead, then rose. He met Matthew in the kitchen.

“Is Alfred still asleep, then?”

“Yes. Tell him that I’ve gone when he wakes up?” Arthur retrieved his hat from the peg by the door.

“Will do. Here, I’ll walk you to the main road.”

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself-”

“I want to,” Matthew interrupted gently. “Besides, it’ll be a nice stretch of the legs for me.”

“Well, I won’t stop you.” Arthur led the way out. “How many horses have you got now?”

“About ten, not including mine or Alfred’s. Most are wild that we’re breaking, but a couple are just problematic that need a fix.” They were well along the path now, and a few moments later, Matthew paused.

“What’s wrong?” Arthur stopped with him and looked around.

“Do you feel that? Like we’re being watched…” Matthew scanned the horizon, trying to find the source of the feeling. “There. It’s the same figure as before.”

“Is it?” Arthur squinted in the direction of said figure. “I could try and figure out who it is for you, if you’d like me to.”

“How?” Matthew turned to look at him.

“We’ll go back to the stable and saddle up a horse for me, and I’ll quickly ride out. I might be able to get closer.”

“Sounds good. Come on, walk with me a little further, then look around.” Matthew did as he’d said, and then knelt on the ground, seeming to search for something.

Catching onto the idea, Arthur did similar before they headed back.

Matthew saddled up his own horse, Maple, for him. “I don’t mind, plus it’ll be some good exercise for him.”

Maple was different to the other horses in the stable, a tall and sleek Thoroughbred with a calm personality, so Matthew figured Arthur would feel more comfortable atop him alone. Once Maple was set, Matthew led him to the entrance of the stable that was facing the open desert. The stallion pranced forward a few steps, sensing that something was going to happen.

“Easy, boy.” Arthur allowed him to sniff his hand and patted his neck before mounting up. Now this was the kind of horse he was used to. He reached down and patted Maple’s shoulder for good measure.

“Don’t go past the tree,” Matthew warned. “I don’t know who that is. They’ll either flee or shoot. Stay low on Maple’s back, and try and serpentine a bit once you get closer. And do not give chase.”

“I won’t.” Arthur glanced down at him. He hadn’t considered the possibility of the strange horseman shooting at him, but now that he did think about it, the prospect was probable. But he shook those thoughts from his head. It would all turn out fine.

Matthew looked up at his face. “You don’t have to do this… Not if you don’t want to.”

“It’s fine, the chances of something actually happening are small, yes? And I’d like to help you,” Arthur said.

“Thank you.” Matthew smiled at him. “I’ll have a horse ready in case you need help.” He grabbed a bridle but no saddle and walked into another stall.

“That would be good, thank you.” Arthur tightened his grip on the reins. “See you in a few minutes, then.” He put his heels into Maple’s side and pointed his nose out into the desert.

The stallion shot off at a gallop, Arthur hanging on for dear life. Maple couldn’t accelerate quite as quickly as Star, but before long he was thundering across the ground just as fast. Arthur soon adjusted to his rhythm and urged him even faster. They headed straight for the tree the strange horseman was under; for a moment there was nothing, and then the other horse jumped into action. Arthur saw a flash of silver as the rider either dropped something or fired a weapon, and ducked lower. But nothing came at them as the rider scrambled to flee.

“Faster, Maple, come on!” Arthur urged the Thoroughbred, who obligingly increased his speed. The fact that he still could and the sheer ease with which he was running pointed to racing bloodlines. However, by the time they reached the tree, the stranger was well across the desert.

Maple wanted to keep going, but Arthur managed to slow him and circle around back towards the tree. The stranger was too far away to see any details, but Arthur did notice the hair was light in colour and contrasted sharply with the dark horse. Turning around again to face the tree, Arthur urged Maple closer to it so he could see what the flash had been. And there, amidst the rocks and dead brush, lay a silver canteen, glinting dully in the sunlight.

“Whoa, there…” Arthur dismounted and walked over, picking it up. Maple came up behind him and he showed the horse the object. The top was unscrewed, so the horse took a sniff and snorted. “Heh, probably alcohol in there- not the best scent for you.” He capped it again and inspected the bottle, noticing a small engraving in the side of it. GWB.

The Thoroughbred snorted again and took a step in the direction of the stable. Arthur looked back out into the desert once more, but by then the horizon was empty. Sighing, he swung up onto Maple’s back and let him trot off in the direction of home. It was a leisurely pace at first, but after a few taps from Arthur’s heels, the stallion slid into an easy canter.

Matthew was waiting for him anxiously, one hand on the neck of a nearby bridled horse. “Are you alright? Did you see anything?”

“I’m fine. And while I didn’t really see any details, he did drop this.” Arthur dismounted again and showed him the flask.

“I can’t think of anyone with those initials…” Matthew ran his fingers over the engraving. He opened the container and took a sniff, wrinkling his nose at the scent.

“Should we show Alfred? He might-”

“No. Alfred would get angry that I put you in danger. He can’t know about this.”

“But it was my choice.”

Matthew shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Plus, he’ll sulk that he wasn’t the one to ride out.” He chuckled. “That’s just the way he works.”

“Alright. Better hide that, then.” Arthur nodded to the flask.

Once he’d stowed the flask in a nearby trunk, Matthew slipped the bridle from the other horse’s head and, after, hanging it up, took Maple’s reins from Arthur. “How was he?”

“Wonderful. It reminded me of the rides I’d take back home. Though I am surprised to see a Thoroughbred here of all places.”

Matthew smiled and stroked Maple’s neck. “Got him from an auction a few years back. Apparently he didn’t make it as a racehorse out east, but he’s more than good enough for me. Thank you, again.”

“Thanks for what?” Alfred asked, ambling into the stable. “What’s going on?”

The two other men froze, though Matthew shook it off more quickly. “Arthur was just getting ready to leave,” he said, smoothly redirecting the conversation. “And I thought I’d accompany him while you slept.”

“Oh.” Alfred walked up to Arthur and pulled him into a hug. “I woke up to see you gone and got so worried…”

Arthur smiled and hugged back. “You worry too much. I can take care of myself, you know.”

“I know, I know. I can’t help to wanna worry, though.” Alfred let him go and stifled a yawn. “So I can go with you to drop you off.”

“You look tired, love, best if you go back to sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Arthur gently pushed him off towards the house.

“But- I- alright…” Alfred resisted for a moment, but that was only so he could kiss Arthur and reach over to pet Star in her stall. “See you tomorrow, then. Stay safe.”

“Until tomorrow,” Arthur murmured.

Alfred waved once more before disappearing into the house.

“That was close,” Matthew said, sighing with relief. “Though now it seems I’m going into town.”

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Arthur told him quickly. “I can get back on my own.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Matthew gestured for Arthur to mount, then followed suit behind him. “It would be a good idea to stop by the store either way.”

“If you’re sure.” It felt odd having someone behind him who wasn’t Alfred, but Arthur shook the feeling off.

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Matthew tapped his heels to Maple’s sides.

They trotted leisurely into town, though Arthur felt Matthew twisting and peering around for the strange rider. No one appeared on the horizon, though, and they made it to the store with no problem. There, the Englishman said good bye to Matthew and continued onward to the bar on foot.

He half expected Alfred to come in at some point during the night, but the American never showed. Arthur was both relieved and a little crestfallen. He pushed his feelings down and focused on his work, then went to bed and slept undisturbed. The next morning, he woke with a body wrapped around his.

Chapter Text

“What the bloody-” Arthur tried to scramble away, though he paused his movements as soon as he recognized the figure as Alfred.

The American let out a low groan when he was suddenly jostled. His arms tightened around Arthur’s torso, and he snuggled into the crook of his neck.

“Alfred…” Arthur murmured, moving back into his previous spot and ever so slightly leaning into him. Elizaveta must have let him in.

Once Alfred had woken, the two of them started going about their day. After a quick morning shift at the bar, they headed out into the desert once more at the cowboy’s insistence. They saw the wild mare again and got close, but weren’t able to touch her. Alfred refused to let that affect him, though, and instead took Arthur to see an interesting place farther out in the desert.

“It’s a ghost town!” Alfred said proudly, stopping Star just outside it.

“A what?” Arthur looked from him to the collection of buildings and back, interested. “Are there really ghosts here?”

Alfred’s face paled. “No, of course not! No such things as ghosts!”

Arthur, having felt him tense up, raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of ghosts.”

“I’m not!” Alfred huffed. “And it’s not called a ghost town cuz there’d be ghosts! Which don’t exist.”

“Of course not.” Arthur chuckled, shaking his head. “But do tell me, why is it called a ghost town?”

“Okay, so mining towns and cattle towns and stuff pop up all over the place out here if someone finds even a lick of somethin’ worth making a profit off.” As he spoke, Alfred urged Star into a slow walk towards the town. “They’re called boom towns too, cuz they appear whenever there’s a boom for something. People flood there, build houses and stores and stables and stuff, and then live off the resource that the first person found. But if there isn’t a lot of the resource, then once it’s gone the people realize there’s nothing left to live off and the town is just abandoned. Sometimes it’ll last for years, sometimes months, sometimes even weeks. But usually, eventually, most of ‘em do become ghost towns and you’re left with this.” He pointed to the buildings around them.

“…And Willow Springs?” Arthur looked around as well, intrigued by their surroundings. It didn’t feel ghostly or spooky, just…empty.

“We almost became a ghost town too, but then we got lucky cuz someone stumbled across a new, larger vein of silver. This all happened before Mattie and my family moved here. By that time the town had grown larger and more prosperous than just the mining- which is why Mattie and I can do what we do with the wild horses.” Alfred stopped in the centre of town, before an empty general store. “…It’s kinda sad, ain’t it?”

“Hmm?” Arthur tilted his head to look at him. “What is?”

“People worked so hard to build this little town… They had dreams of gettin’ rich and making lives for themselves, but then they had to give it all up and leave when they realized there was nothing here for them…”

Arthur shook his head a little bit and squeezed Alfred’s hand. “They just picked the wrong place to settle. But that’s life in general, isn’t it? Some have it better than others.”

“Well said,” a smooth voice called from off to the side.

The two of them froze. Alfred was the first to move, and he gripped Arthur’s arms more tightly while at the same time whirling Star around. Ivan was standing, mounted, in the mouth of an alley nearby. Toris was the only one of his gang nearby, though the cowboy didn’t trust that the others weren’t around somewhere.

“Arthur, was it?” Ivan urged his horse forward. “That was a nice small phrase. You speak well, yes?”

“What the hell are you doing here, Ivan?” Alfred growled, shifting atop Star and causing the pinto mare to dance in place.

“Tch, such language…” Ivan shook his head as if her were reprimanding a small child. “The larger question is what do you want? You are the one who came to where I am.”

“This is where you’ve been?” Alfred asked.

“Among other places.” Ivan smiled more, and nudged his horse even closer. “But Arthur, it is nice to see you again.”

Alfred immediately turned Star around so he was between Ivan and Arthur. “Don’t talk to him, bastard,” he snapped.

“Ouch, so cruel.” Ivan looked hurt. “I mean him no harm.”

“Yeah, right.” Alfred’s eyes narrowed. His hand moved to his hip, only to close around empty air.

Ivan followed his movements and noticed the lack of gun. “You are unprepared.”

“Yeah, I got that, thanks.”

“Alfred…” Arthur murmured, wrapping his arms more tightly around Alfred’s waist. He could feel the American’s rigid back muscles against his cheek and stomach.

“Well, hero?” Ivan smirked. “Will you face me unarmed?”

“…No.” With that, Alfred turned Star around and galloped out of the town, away from Ivan.

Both Ivan and Arthur were surprised, the latter clinging to the cowboy while the former stared after them. Arthur was shocked- Alfred, fleeing from a chance of catching Ivan? There was the sound of pursuit behind them, but Alfred only put his heels more harshly into Star’s side. A gunshot rang out and the pinto mare swerved. Arthur gasped, but he felt no pain, and Star quickly recollected herself. The Englishman held onto Alfred more tightly, and he felt Alfred give his arm a brief squeeze back.

Under Alfred’s direction, Star entered a slalom-like path, aiming for the safety of the nearby hills. Glancing over his shoulder, Arthur saw Ivan and Toris fall back, and finally give up. He breathed a small sigh of relief, though Alfred didn’t stop until they were deep within the hills. Only then did he ease up the pressure on Star’s sides and allow the mare to slow.

“…Alfred?” Arthur asked. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.” Alfred’s reply was short.

Not believing him, Arthur stayed silent. He leaned forward slowly, so his cheek was resting against Alfred’s broad shoulder. He could feel the muscles there tensed still, so he reached his hands up to caress the cowboy’s cheek and neck. Eventually, Alfred sighed.

“…I’m not fine,” he mumbled, shoulders slumping.

Arthur blinked, and his arms tightened around the man. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m not. But I’m so stupid! If I had my gun-” Alfred froze. “Are you hurt?”

“Alfred, love, I’m fine. But your concern is touching.”

“Get off.”

“Pardon me?”

“The horse. Get off the horse, Artie.”

Puzzled but not too concerned – Alfred had said ‘Artie’, not ‘Arthur’ – Arthur dismounted and stepped away from Star. A second later, Alfred joined him on the ground and tugged him into a crushing embrace. Chuckling, Arthur wound his arms around Alfred’s waist once more.

“It’s alright, Al,” he murmured.

“No…” Alfred’s voice was less than a whisper, and further muffled by the fact he had his face pressed against Arthur’s neck. “I- I was a coward, Artie… I ran away from my enemy.”

“You were not.” Arthur gently lifted his head, staring softly into those blue eyes. They were so innocent, so honest, that Arthur found it impossible to believe any of the rumours Jane and the other women spread about him. How could they call him so cruel? “You ran away, yes, but that was to protect us. We’re both unarmed, and there was no telling what Ivan could have done.”

Alfred gazed back at him, still unsure. A moment later, after Arthur gave him an encouraging nod, he finally allowed himself to relax. “The one damn day I couldn’t do anything…”

“Don’t worry about it too much.” Arthur stroked his cheek. “You’ll have plenty of other chances to catch him, and at the very least you’ll know the general area of where to look for him,” he soothed.

“I guess you’re right. But Arthur…he knows your name.” Alfred moved closer to him. “I’m afraid he’s gonna try something with you.”

“Don’t worry. If anything, I’ll be able to take care of myself. Now come on, I think the coast is clear. Let’s go home,” Arthur suggested. He wanted to get Alfred moving, distract him from what had happened.

“O-Okay. Let’s go. You sit in front this time.”

“Why?”

“I wanna hold you.” Alfred gestured to the saddle.

Arthur nodded and mounted up. He felt Alfred swing up behind him and leaned back against the American’s chest. Alfred’s arms wound around his waist as Star started to walk. The both of them were tense on the way home, constantly vigilant for any signs of Ivan. They were left alone and arrived at Alfred’s house with no problems. The Englishman could see Alfred was still agitated as he unsaddled the mare, so he stepped closer and placed a hand on his arm.

“It’s a pity we weren’t able to stay in the ghost town for longer,” he murmured. “It seemed fascinating. Maybe we could go back there sometime after Ivan is caught?”

Alfred glanced back at him and forced a smile. “Yeah.”

Even though Arthur sensed something was wrong, Alfred wasn’t quite back to his usual self, he said nothing. He nodded and stepped away. “I should get going back. The workers will be back soon and rush hour will start.” At Alfred’s pause, he hurried on. “I can walk myself, don’t worry. You get some rest.”

“…Fine.” Alfred leaned over and gave him a kiss. “See you.”

Surprised by the cowboy’s lack of protest but once again not commenting, he nodded and left the stable. Alfred clearly needed to be alone. Matthew was working with a horse in the corral and Arthur called out a greeting, but didn’t approach. He reached Elizaveta’s saloon within twenty minutes, and not long after he changed, he got his first big influx of customers. Alfred wasn’t among them.

 


 

In fact, Arthur barely saw Alfred at all over the next few days. At first he figured it had something to do with the encounter they’d had with Ivan, but as the days dragged on he started to get worried. On the fourth day during the afternoon he took off and visited the man’s house to find him gone. Matthew was there, in the middle of preparing a light lunch.

“Is Alfred…anywhere?” he asked as he slowly stepped into the kitchen.

Matthew looked up at him and gestured for him to sit. “No. He rode out this morning. Didn’t he come see you?”

“No.” Arthur frowned. “He hasn’t come see me in days. I’ve only caught glimpses of him.”

Matthew’s brow furrowed as well. “That’s odd… Did something happen?”

“Well, he took me to a ghost town and Ivan surprised us there. Alfred wasn’t armed, so he fled.”

“Oh. I see how that could…” Matthew grew deep in thought. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Alfred just has to get back into stride. I think the trip will help.”

“Trip?”

“Ah, he’s going to take two of my horses off to sell. He’ll be gone for a day and a night, get back tomorrow around the afternoon.”

“I see.” Arthur stood. “I’ll get going now. Thank you for the information.”

“Why don’t you stay for lunch?” Matthew asked. “I made plenty, and some company is always nice.”

Hesitating for a moment, Arthur then nodded. “I could stay, yeah.” He sat down again and gazed at the worn table.

After a moment of silence, Matthew glanced at him and frowned. He didn’t say anything about it until he had set the bowls of broth onto the table. “Here.” Handing him a spoon, the quiet man sat down opposite him. “What’s on your mind?”

“Alfred.”

A glint of understanding dawned in Matthew’s eyes. “There’s still a part of you that’s worried the rumours are true. That he’s found someone else.”

“Perhaps a little,” Arthur admitted. “But right now, more so I’m wondering why he’s avoided me. Why he didn’t say good bye. Could the incident at the ghost town really have impacted him so much?”

“Yes.” Matthew gazed at him evenly. “It’s not my place to explain Alfred’s actions for him, but I know he’d be heartbroken that you still trust him so little- not that he doesn’t deserve it a bit. He’s done some less than heroic things, but he genuinely cares about you.”

“I know.” Arthur slowly picked the spoon up and stirred his broth. “But what about Ivan?”

“I think there’s more to the story – more to that family’s past – than Alfred told you or even knows. But Alfred’s time with him affected him deeply. It really destroyed his perception of what was wrong for the longest time, and I think he’s scared he’s still not forgiven for what he’s done.”

Arthur sighed softly. “He’s such a hypocritical person sometimes.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Heh, I suppose we are.” Arthur finally lifted the spoon to his mouth.

Matthew smiled and started eating as well. “Really, don’t worry about Alfred’s loyalty to you. He just needs some time on his own to gather his thoughts.”

“Alright.” Arthur’s shoulders relaxed. “When he gets back, if he’s not too tired, could you ask him to see me?”

“Of course. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if he visited you before coming home.” Matthew finished his broth a few minutes later and stood up to take both bowls to the sink. “Are you going to stay longer?”

“Is there anything I could help you with?”

“Thanks for the offer, but no. I’ve got it covered.”

“Alright then. I’ll be off.”

“See you around, Arthur.”

 


 

When the Englishman left, Matthew sighed and sat back down. Alfred had dug himself into a pretty little hole. He only hoped that the cowboy would be able to get out of it before it was too late. But Matthew had other things to take care of, so he pushed the thoughts of his brother out of his mind and focused on his own tasks. After clearing the table and washing the dishes, he stepped out into the hot afternoon sun, quickly striding into the barn. It seemed quieter than usual, with three of the stalls empty.

The horses still there looked up when he entered, and a few of them nickered welcomes. The quiet blond slowly walked down the aisle until he had reached Junior’s stall. The young horse was still wary of him, especially now that he was alone, but Matthew could see he was warming up to him. The appaloosa backed into a corner, strangely silent.

“Hey there…” Matthew whispered as he settled down in the opposite corner. He frowned as he noticed the colt’s behaviour. Nostrils flared, chest heaving, ears constantly swivelling around. He was scared, but not of Matthew. “What’s wrong?”

There was a whinny from another stall – Junior wasn’t the only restless one – and Junior bolted to Matthew’s side. The man started for a moment, but he relaxed when he realized Junior was only seeking comfort. The little horse was pressed right up against him, with his head shoved under Matthew’s arm.

“It’s alright, boy,” Matthew told him gently. “You’re fine, you’re safe.” He reached into his pocket and took out a peppermint candy. “Here.”

Junior slowly raised his head, nostrils flaring, and snuffled around for the candy. Smiling, Matthew gave it to him. The appaloosa settled down even more after that, allowing Matthew to place a hand on his side and stroke him. He stayed like that for a long while- he had nothing else to do anyway. The house was all clean, and it was still too hot to do any proper training. And such bonding was important for Junior as well. The horse was younger than all of the others Alfred had ever brought him, so the sooner he got over his fear of humans, the easier it would be to train him.

Eventually, however, the sun started sinking in the sky, the great afternoon heat lessened, and Matthew had to return to work. He stood and left Junior – who had weaselled all of his remaining peppermints out of his pockets – instead going to work with one of the townspeople’s horses that was misbehaving. The horses were still more skittish than usual, though now Matthew only had to look to the horizon to see why.

There was a massive storm gathering in the east, and it was slowly approaching the town. The air grew heavy and thick, and after half an hour the trainer had to give up. The gelding was just too high-strung to make any progress. When he had taken him back to his stall, Matthew stayed in the stable, preparing for the storm and tying down anything that could possibly go flying.

“It’ll be fine, guys,” he told the horses softly after finishing his tasks. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

But there would be no tomorrow. At least, not in the way Matthew had known up until then. That night, Matthew was woken by screams.

Chapter Text

The blond bolted out of bed and to the window and gasped. There were people running around in the town, one of the buildings was on fire, and at one point he glimpsed Ivan’s white horse galloping down the main street. However, he didn’t have too long to dwell on that for another scream, this one closer and more animalistic, rang out in the heavy night air. Mathew turned and almost fainted. His stable was also going up in flames, and all of the horses were inside.

“No!” Matthew tore from the house and to the stable, having to go around the back since the front entrance was the one burning.

He threw open the door and the horses all turned to him, eyes rolling with fear. Murmuring soft reassurances over the roar of the flames, Matthew haltered the nearest horse and led it out, tying it to a post about twenty feet away. Then he moved stall by stall, letting all of the horses out and tying them to the same post. He hoped that the company would help calm them down, and the tactic did seem to work a little bit. Finally, there was one horse left in the stable- Matthew’s.

Matthew wiped the sweat from his face and approached the panicked stallion. “Hey, boy. I’m gonna get you out of here, okay?” he told him reassuringly, his voice dropping to a tone he only used with his horses.

He focused on just Maple- ignoring the flames, the heat, and his sweat. The side of Maple’s stall was burning so he kicked the door open, clipping a lead to him before he could bolt. He was a good horse, well-trained due to his racing background and normally Matthew trusted him with his life, but fire and fear could change any living thing so he knew he had to be careful.

A crack of thunder sounded from the pregnant sky and Maple tried to bolt, a shrill whinny bursting from his mouth, but Matthew stood his ground and halted him for a moment. An answering whinny from outside didn’t help the situation, but a burning piece of wood had fallen from the roof and into their path. After kicking it aside, the man carefully led the prancing stallion out. The path was clear, they were almost out-

Another piece of wood fell, this time directly onto Maple’s rump. He bolted again, this time screaming in pain, and knocked Matthew to the ground. He let go of the rope and lay there, winded for a moment. With that moment was Matthew’s salvation, for as soon as he started pushing himself up the part of the roof between him and freedom collapsed from instability and flames.

“N-No-” Matthew was up a moment later, but the heat and fear of burning drove him back to the centre of the aisle.

His world narrowed to the section of burning stable he was trapped in, and his stomach churned with the knowledge that he probably wouldn’t get out. The flames had spread, consuming the wood and turning it a bright cherry red. Matthew’s skin was also slowly turning red from the high heat, and sweat dampened his body. He strode from one end of the space to the other, searching for a way out, any way, but there were none.

Then there was a crash from behind him and Matthew turned, fearing the worst. What he saw almost made him scream. A dark horse, its rider clad in black clothes with white hair and red eyes. Devil was Matthew’s initial thought, but then he realized that it was simply a man and his mind was just exaggerating due to fear. He also realized that he knew this man. Gilbert Beilschmidt.

“Wh- What do you want?” Matthew called to him. “Come to get a final laugh?”

Instead of answering, Gilbert urged his horse forward, closer to the other man. The dark horse’s eyes rolled with fear, but the albino kept him firmly under control. A piece of burning timber fell from the ceiling, almost brushing against the stallion’s flank, but the horse merely hopped out of the way.

“Grab on,” Gilbert said, holding out his hand.

Matthew hesitated, coughing from the smoke going down his throat. This was Gilbert, one of Ivan’s partners. What could the red-eyed man possibly want from him? But Gilbert was also his way out. As another section of roof collapsed, Matthew reached out and took the proffered limb.

The albino easily pulled Matthew up in front of him, and once the blond was settled, turned his horse’s nose towards the hole they had created when coming in. Just as they burst through, the rest of the roof collapsed where the stable was burning, creating an opening in the structure.

“Whoa there, Captain.” Once they were a good distance away from the building, Gilbert slowed his horse and dismounted, taking Matthew with him. He lowered the blond to the ground, carefully laying him out on his back.

“What-” Matthew broke off his rasp to cough, gulping down lungfuls of fresh air. He shivered too, at the difference in temperature. “What do you want with me?”

“Nothing.” Gilbert watched him with glittering eyes. He was knelt by Matthew’s side. “I jus-”

He was interrupted as the heavens opened and then rain that had been gathering all afternoon fell from the heavy clouds. The two of them were soaked through instantly, and Matthew started shaking.

“You just what?” the blond asked, looking up at the other man defiantly.

“I just wanted to save your life. It wasn’t the plan to burn your stable.” Gilbert shrugged. “I’ve watched you for a while now, Birdie, and I didn’t want you to die.”

“You-!”

“Yeah, yeah, I was watching you.” Gilbert looked over at the stable- the rain had put most of the fire out by then, and past that the horses were all huddled together in a group.

“My name isn’t Birdie. And I don’t believe you when you-” Matthew paused to cough again. “When you say you don’t want anything from me.”

“Believe what you want, Matthew Williams.” The albino snickered at Matthew’s widening eyes. “And you looked like a little birdie there, so panicked and fluttering to get out. So Birdie you are. As for what I want, it’s simple-”

He was interrupted again, this time by distant shouts and hoofbeats rather than natural forces. Sighing, Gilbert stood and mounted his horse.

“Wh- Where-”

“You’re safe, Birdie. They’ll find you soon enough. I’ll come back for my flask some other time.” With a smile, he was gone.

Matthew struggled up into a sitting position, watching him and blinking past the rain running down into his eyes. He caught sight of the half-destroyed stable and started crying. A few minutes later, he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into Ludwig’s face. The sheriff said something, but Matthew couldn’t make it out due to the roaring both outside and inside his ears.

“Matthew!” Ludwig’s voice finally reached him. “Matthew, are you alright? What happened?”

“Stable…on fire…” Now that all of the excitement had been finished, Matthew felt exhausted. His eyes started closing.

“Were you in there?” At a nod from the other, Ludwig’s eyes widened. “How did you get out? By yourself?” A shake of the head. “Who helped you?”

Matthew hesitated. “…I didn’t see his face,” he eventually lied. He didn’t quite know why he didn’t just tell Ludwig that his brother had done good, but he wanted to keep this as his and Gilbert’s little secret. Besides, he couldn’t help being a little curious.

Ludwig sighed, but helped Matthew up and to his house, where he passed the man a towel. “We’ll have to wait until the morning to check the damage, but the rest of the night should be quiet. No one will be out there in such rain. Do you need me to stay with you?”

“I’ll be fine.” Matthew wrapped the towel more tightly around himself. “What was the other burning building?”

“A small bar on the outskirts of town- not Elizaveta’s, don’t worry.”

“Okay. Before you go, could you put my horses in the main paddock, and make sure Maple’s among them?”

“I will.” Ludwig nodded sharply and left. “Good night,” he said before he went through the door.

“Night…” Matthew collapsed into one of his kitchen chairs, shaken but too tired at the moment to feel the effects. He was so tired, in fact, that he didn’t notice the person in his house until there was a hand over his mouth.

“Shh…” the owner of the hand whispered, pressing down more to stifle the blond’s scream. Then he walked around the chair, smirking when he saw Matthew’s eyes widen. “Miss me, Birdie?” Gilbert asked.

“What are you doing here?” Matthew shot right back at him the moment the hand had been lifted from his mouth.

“I told you I’d be back. But I didn’t want Luddy to find me so I waited until you were alone.” Grinning, the renegade took a seat opposite Matthew.

“Why? Why the interest in me?”

That made Gilbert pause for a moment. Eventually, he just shrugged. “You’re interesting. You look cool when you work with the horses and overall you’re cute too.”

“Is- Is this your attempt at wooing me?” Matthew’s eyes were wide.

“Heh, see, that’s what I mean! You look cute now.” Gilbert smiled. “And nah, this is the start of my attempt at wooing you.”

“…I think you should leave.”

“What?”

“Go away, Beilschmidt. You and your friends have done enough to me tonight.”

“I saved your life!”

“Yes. You did. So thank you for that, but you should leave now.” Matthew stood up and started heading for his bedroom.

Gilbert, however, wasn’t finished. He tailed Matthew like a lost dog, not flinching when the blond turned around and weakly slammed his fist into the wall. “I’m not going. Not yet.”

“And why do you think you aren’t?”

“Let me make sure you get into bed fine, alright?”

Matthew blinked. “What? I can do that on my own.” He didn’t trust Gilbert at all still- after all, he worked for Ivan. Speaking of which… “Does Ivan know you’re here?”

“No.” Ignoring Matthew’s protests, Gilbert scooped him up and carried him down the hall. “Which door is your room?” The blond stayed silent. “Fine then, guess I’ll pick one.” He nudged the nearest door open and recoiled- there was clothing on the floor, the bed was unmade, and was that a horse feeder in the corner? “I really hope this isn’t your room.”

“It’s not.”

“Good.” Gilbert turned on his heel and happily left the mess behind. The next door he opened led to the bathroom, which he quickly passed by as well. Then he finally came to Matthew’s room. It was smaller than Alfred’s, but not by much, and a whole lot cleaner. “I like your room.”

“Don’t think you can stay.”

“I don’t.” Gilbert smirked. “At least, not yet.”

“Not ever,” Matthew said firmly. “And I’m in my room now, so you can let me go.” He struggled a bit, gritting his teeth when Gilbert held onto him more tightly.

“Nah. I said I’d tuck you in, remember?”

Gilbert lowered him down to the edge of the bed, then rummaged around the dresser for dry and clean clothes. Ignoring Matthew’s glare, he gently stripped him down to his underwear and turned away while the blond changed. Once Matthew was dressed, Gilbert threw the covers open and manoeuvred him onto the mattress. Smiling, he quickly wiped around Matthew’s face with a damp rag to get rid of any soot that would inhibit his breathing before pulling the sheets over him. He could feel violet eyes watching him, but kept his own gaze down on his task. After tucking the covers around Matthew’s body, Gilbert sat back and looked over his handiwork. Once again, he pretended not to see the other’s dark look.

“Want me to give you a good night kiss?”

“…No.”

But Gilbert grinned at the hesitation and leaned down to give Matthew’s forehead a quick kiss. Snickering at the weak smack sent his way, he straightened up again and stood. “Night for now, Birdie. I’ll be back soon though, don’t you worry.”

“Alfred won’t let you anywhere near me.”

“Alfred won’t know a thing. He won’t see me, and you won’t tell him.”

“How do you-” Matthew broke off for a moment to cough. “How do you know that for sure?”

“One moment.” Gilbert strode from the room, returning when he had located a glass of water. He placed the glass on Matthew’s bedside table and smirked down at the blond. “I know you’re interested. See ya later.” Then he was gone.

Matthew sighed when he was alone. Yeah, he had noticed Gilbert before, but he himself had been invisible to the red-eyed barkeep. Then the shit went down with Elizaveta and Roderich, and Gilbert joined Ivan and all had seemed lost. Now, with these new turns of events, he wasn’t so sure anymore. However, he still couldn’t let his guard down. The smell of smoke was still in the air despite the heavy rain, and when Matthew fell asleep his dreams were turbulent.

 


 

When Matthew looked over the damage done the next day, he wanted to cry again. Just under half of the stable had been burned to the ground, and another good part of it had black streaks through the wood. All of the horses were there, though they had spread out during the night to graze. Matthew tossed some hay to them and then moved back into bed, where he stayed the rest of the day. He didn’t feel up to anything.

When Alfred got home that afternoon, he was scared, then furious. Riding down the road he had received looks and heard whispers. Then he came into sight of his home, and he swore his heart stopped for a moment. Star shied away as well, but the cowboy kicked her into a gallop. He burst into the house, trembling all over, and only calmed down when he had Matthew in his arms.

“What happened?!” he demanded hoarsely, rocking his brother back and forth.

“There was a raid last night. And a storm. Two buildings were burning-” Matthew ducked his head and coughed. “The storm put it out before they were completely destroyed.”

Alfred’s eyes widened and he leaned back to more closely inspect him. Reddened skin in some places, the coughing, a slightly more gravelly voice than usual… “Did- Did you go in there?!”

“I had to save the horses. They were trapped.”

“But you’re okay?” Alfred’s voice was low and urgent.

“I almost got trapped, but then someone saved me.” Matthew’s eyes half closed, and he leaned his head forward onto Alfred’s shoulder.

“Who was it?” Alfred forced himself to be calm, to have a gentle voice, even though there was a cold fury building up inside him. He stroked Matthew’s hair with a soft hand, trying to soothe his brother.

“I-” Matthew found himself thinking about Gilbert’s words. Alfred won’t know a thing… You won’t tell him… He closed his eyes fully. “I don’t know. I didn’t see their face.”

“That’s too bad. Maybe they’ll reveal themselves later,” Alfred murmured. He let go of Matthew and sighed.

“How was your trip?” Matthew asked quietly, leaning back against his pillow.

“It was good.” Alfred’s hands settled on his knees and clenched. “There was a rich buyer, got both of the ones I brought. Paid me near double. Heh, guess we can use the money to rebuild the stable…”

“Yeah.” Matthew glanced to him, worried. “Arthur was here earlier.”

“He was?” Alfred brightened. “Did he come to help you clean up? How long ago was it?”

“This morning.” Matthew looked incredibly tired. “He made me tea and stayed to keep me company for a while. He left about three or so hours ago to open up the bar.” The blond winced as he shifted on the bed.

“Wh- What’s wrong? Did you get burned?” Alfred was immediately up and about, smoothing out the covers and trying to make Matthew more comfortable.

While Matthew appreciated the thought, all Alfred was doing was agitating his tender skin. He reached out and caught his brother’s arm, stilling him. “Calm down. I didn’t get burned, but it still hurts. If you want to help you can get me a fresh glass of water. And that cream.”

Alfred nodded fervently. “Yeah, you got it.” He retrieved the requested items and then left to go see Arthur. He had been hesitant about going, but Matthew insisted that he would be fine for the time being.

 


 

Arthur looked up whenever someone new walked into the bar, hoping to see Alfred’s figure in the doorway. All morning he was disappointed, but around late afternoon, the cowboy stepped inside the building. “Alfred!”

Grunting as the Englishman hurled himself into his arms, Alfred laughed and wrapped him up into a hug. “Hey there, Artie. Ya miss me?”

“I was worried, you idiot! Of course I missed you!” Arthur held him tightly, and his voice was muffled by Alfred’s shirt. “I’d thought you’d gotten yourself captured.”

“Nah, I ain’t that stupid. ‘Sides, I was sellin’ the horses.”

“You are, Alfred F. Jones. And how was I supposed to bloody know that if you didn’t tell me?” Arthur lifted his head to give the other man a glare, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the relief in his eyes.

“Heh, maybe. I’m sorry, though…” Alfred looked like he wanted to say more, but ultimately stayed silent on the matter. “Thanks for visiting Mattie this morning,” he said instead.

Arthur didn’t comment on the subject change. That was a conversation better had in the privacy of one of their rooms. “Of course. Did you see the damage?” He lowered his head again, and rested it against Alfred’s shoulder. “Everybody that can is already saying that they’ll help you guys rebuild.”

“I saw,” Alfred replied quietly. “It’s pretty damn bad, but maybe we won’t have to redo the whole structure. But we’ll see later, I guess.” The bigger blond let out a soft sigh. “When you talked to Mattie this morning, did he say anything about the guy that rescued him from the burning stable?”

Stepping out of the embrace, Arthur shook his head. “He didn’t even mention it. I don’t think he wants to talk about that particular incident. I wouldn’t pressure him.”

“Yeah, I guess…” Alfred looked unconvinced, but a moment later nodded. “I just wanna thank the guy.”

Alfred placed a hand on his arm. “Well, maybe one day the person will come forward. But for now, come on. Sit down, eat and drink, and tell me about your trip.”

The American agreed, happy that any tensions – to him – he’d had with Arthur before were gone now. He let Arthur lead him to the counter and kissed him on the cheek before the other man could retreat. Arthur sputtered softly, but Alfred could tell he didn’t mind too much. The barkeep placed some stew down before him, and he started his little story.

“…so really, it wasn’t that interesting,” he finished a few minutes later.

“That’s not a bad thing.” Arthur thought back to the previous night. “Sometimes dull is better.”

Alfred stabbed a piece of meat onto his fork and pointed it at Arthur, waving it around. “Sometimes. But not always.” His mouth dropped open when Arthur stole the beef. “Hey, that was mine!”

“And now it’s not.” Arthur’s expression just hinted at smugness. “Elizaveta is a good cook.”

“Indeed she is.” The woman herself appeared at Alfred’s elbow and grinned before sitting down. She cleared her throat and then her expression grew serious. “Alfred, we have to lock Ivan up soon. Ludwig’s getting worried. We’ve been a secluded community, practically doing our own thing, but the longer Ivan is out there and the more he steals, the more national authorities will take notice.”

“Yeah, I know.” Alfred groaned and allowed his head to fall into his hands. “We need to set a trap.”

Arthur’s mind was racing. He hadn’t liked dealing with English authorities, and he figured the American ones weren’t much better. He didn’t want any close scrutiny on the town. Same sex love wasn’t something that even flitted across the backs of their minds, and it certainly wouldn’t be condoned outside the safe haven that was Willow Springs. They’d be lucky to get locked away into a mental health hospital and not killed. He spoke up.

“Use me.”

Alfred stopped in the middle of his sentence. “What?”

“For the trap,” Arthur explained. “You could use me to lure Ivan in and then capture him.”

“Absolutely not.” And then Alfred kept on talking quietly to Elizaveta.

Indignant, Arthur grabbed onto Alfred’s wrist and pulled him closer. “And why not? Ivan will want to get to you, or maybe even talk to me to get me off your side, so it makes sense to use me.”

The two stared at each other in silence, the unspoken tension between them growing tenfold. Elizaveta felt she would have been able to cut it with a spoon if she wanted to. She remained silent, watching them and briefly wondering which one would break first. In the end, it was Alfred. The blue-eyed man gave a sigh and leaned back, dropping his gaze briefly to the table. He picked up his tankard and took a swig before speaking.

“No, Arthur. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I’m not your damsel, Alfred.” Arthur’s voice was cooler than either Alfred or Elizaveta expected. “You seem to forget that fact a lot. I can take care of myself. And I’m tired of this little circus you two are putting on. Use me to end it.”

Alfred’s mouth gaped open for a few moments, and then he stood. “Come on.” Grabbing onto Arthur’s hand, he pulled the Englishman up as well and started off towards the stairs.

“Hey!” Arthur tried to resist, but his struggles did nothing to help him. “Where are we going?”

“Somewhere private.”

Alfred dragged him up to the room he was staying in. He shut the door and backed Arthur onto the bed. Arthur sat down and shifted away from the larger man. Not about to let him go, Alfred leaned after him and raised a hand to touch Arthur’s cheek. He paused when Arthur turned his face away in an obvious dismissal of the affection.

“We’re somewhere private.” Arthur’s back was stiff. “What do you want?”

“Arthur…” Alfred’s shoulders slumped, and he shifted even closer. His hands were gentle as he cupped Arthur’s cheeks. “I know you can take care of yourself. I was there with the broomtail, remember? And you took care of me lots, too. But I don’t want you to be in even the slightest path of danger when it comes to Ivan. He’s not exactly evil, but he just- He gets off on this kind of stuff.”

“I know the risks very well.” Arthur remained adamant. “And I told you, I just want this stupid game of yours to-”

“To end, I know! I want all of this to end too, and it’s not a game!”

“Well it sure seems like it!” Arthur cried. “And you know, sometimes it seems like you get off on this stuff too.”

“Arthur-”

“You always act like everything’s just this massive game and there will always be more players or everything will be alright again afterwards! It doesn’t work that way, and not everything will have a happy end. Didn’t you realize how much the stakes have been raised after your fucking barn burned down? After your brother nearly died?!”

Alfred jerked away then. “That’s a low blow,” he warned.

Arthur paused momentarily. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have involved Matthew in this,” he eventually conceded. “But right now, I want you to understand. This isn’t some story or- or fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending These are our lives you’re tampering with. Everyone in this town and in the surrounding towns is at risk. Not to mention the ease with which you were toying with my own emotions… Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?” His voice lowered, and he clenched his hands. “Nothing for nearly an entire week from you, and then you’re gone? And I have to find out from Matthew where you were to stop from worrying that you might have died? That’s not alright. I had thought you would at least have enough respect for me to be honest.”

Alfred bit his lip and hunched over. “I do have respect for you,” he choked out. “I respect you so much and care about you so much I- I got shaken, okay?”

“Why?” Arthur took in a deep breath and tried to relax his shoulders. No matter what, he owed Alfred a chance to explain himself.

“The ghost town. I couldn’t do anything. And yeah, you might say ‘oh Alfred’s just down cuz he couldn’t look like a man or hero or whatever’ but…I could have lost you that day. If Ivan had really wanted to hurt or kill us, he easily could have done it and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. I didn’t take my gun and you don’t own one, and I’m not a knight with a shield or whatever.” Alfred gave a little jolt as Arthur’s hand came to rest on his thigh, but he didn’t look up. “And yeah, you’re right. Maybe I had been treating this like a game or some grand adventure with little consequences, but that day it stopped being like that. You being in danger put it into perspective, and God I’m so sorry that it had to happen like that. I stayed away cuz I was ashamed that I’d been so defenceless with you there, and I thought the trip would be a way to clear my head. I didn’t think how it could come across to you, and coming back to see what they’d done to Mattie… I do wanna end this, I really do.” He pulled one of Arthur’s arms closer to his chest.

“You know I’m your best shot, then,” Arthur murmured. Most of the anger had gone, but his chest still felt raw.

Alfred slowly kissed up the soft skin of his inner forearm. “I just don’t want you to get hurt,” he whispered against the skin, squeezing his eyes shut.

“I’m going to end up hurt anyway at some point, whether you’re there to protect me or not,” Arthur replied evenly. “But…your concern is touching, love.”

“Thanks.” Alfred finally peered up to him. “I know we’re not good, but are we alright? Or on the road to it?”

This time, it was Arthur who cupped Alfred’s cheeks, and when he smiled his expression was fond. “Definitely on the road to it. Now let me make my own decisions, hmm? I’m just as much a part of this town as anyone here now, and I want to do what I can to help.”

“I know.” Alfred straightened up and pulled him into a hug. “Alright, you can help. But if there’s any chance of you getting hurt or anything, I’m getting you out of there, Ivan be damned.

“Thank you.” Arthur allowed his smile to brighten, and he leaned up to kiss Alfred’s cheek. “Come on, let’s go back down and try to figure this out.”

Elizaveta only spared them a brief glance when they went back down a couple of minutes later. She, too, was eager to help them put an end to all of it, tired of all the tension. At first the three of them wanted to take matters into their own hands, but after seeing Feliciano out on patrol, they decided to talk to Ludwig about it as well. The blond sheriff was sceptical at first, but after some consideration he agreed to offer his help. Their little group was soon joined by Antonio, Feliciano, and Lovino, and the seven of them retired to Ludwig’s study to hatch a plan.

Chapter Text

Across town, Matthew was more focused on healing and rebuilding the stable. He had stayed in bed until noon, until plaguing thoughts of the fire and Gilbert drove him to near madness. Body aching and still tender, he got up and started performing simple tasks like making the bed and washing Alfred’s dirty plates. Glancing out the window, he saw the horses milling around the paddock and sighed. He would have to go out and check on them, especially Junior and the other younger ones.

“No use standing here and wasting time,” he mumbled to himself, then picked up a small handful of carrots and stepped out. The sooner he faced everything, the sooner he and Alfred could start rebuilding their normal lives.

As he had expected, the horses were skittish when he strode up to the wooden fence. Maple seemed to be the calmest of the bunch, though Matthew could see his nostrils flaring every so often and his haunches trembling. The stallion also had burns on his rump from the falling beam, but they weren’t as deep as Matthew had feared. The blond was confident that he would be able to heal them completely within a few weeks and that the horse would have minimal scarring.

Holding out one of the carrots, Matthew clicked his tongue. “Hey boy… C’mere, Maple.”

The stallion sniffed the air, warm brown eyes rolling towards Matthew, and he took a hesitant step forward. Matthew wiggled the carrot around a tiny bit, trying to entice the horse closer. For a moment it worked, but then the wind shifted and brought with it the heavy musk of burned wood. The rain had somewhat smothered the smell, but it was still there, and would be for a couple of days. Maple screamed and reared, thrashing the air with his hooves. The other horses were whipped up into a frenzy and raced around the edges of the paddock.

“Whoa there! Calm down, easy, easy…” Matthew tried to placate the animals, but his actions had no effect. He stepped away from the fence after a painful swish from one of the horses’ tails knocked the carrots to the ground.

He heard faint hoofbeats from behind him and turned, expecting Alfred and about to call out to him for help. His blood ran cold, however, when he saw a dark brown horse instead of the tricoloured Star. He gripped the fence tightly as he waited for details of the rider to become clear, and was surprised to feel relief when he recognized Gilbert. Gilbert, the man he still didn’t know how he felt about.

“Hey there, Birdie,” Gilbert called as he stopped his horse in front of the blond. Dismounting, he stretched and undid the top two buttons of his shirt. “Nice day, isn’t it?”

The nice day suddenly seemed hot and dry to Matthew, or maybe that was just his mouth. Matthew couldn’t help but to look down at the newly exposed pale flesh. Even though the sun beat down on the land nearly every day, Gilbert remained untanned. He was caught up in the sight for a moment, and when he raised his gaze he found Gilbert’s red eyes piercing into him. It was then that he realized the albino had done that on purpose. His cheeks tinted with pink.

“What do you want from me?”

Gilbert’s catlike grin only widened. “I think a better question is what you want from me.”

“I don’t want anything from you,” Matthew spat softly, trying to appear defiant. “I’m on my land, and Alfred will be back soon. I’d suggest you leave.”

To his indignation, Gilbert ignored him. The German tied his horse to a nearby fence post and took Matthew’s arm. Matthew balked and tried to resist, but he was easily and gently pulled off towards the house. Gilbert shrugged off the complaints flying from Matthew’s mouth until the blond was seated.

“It’s dangerous for you to be out in the sunlight like that, especially with your injuries. They might get really irritated and then you won’t be able to move at all.”

“You’re still pretending to care?”

At those words, Gilbert paused. “You think I’m just pretending?”

“Well, of course. You’re one of Ivan’s partners.” Matthew crossed his arms and tried not to wince. “Look, I don’t know why you saved me from the fire or why you keep hanging around-”

“Matthew.” Gilbert looked annoyed then. “I’m not one of Ivan’s partners, I just chase whatever train or wagon he points at. Which is getting boring, by the way. The guy doesn’t know I’m here, and I’m here because I want to be and because you’re cute.”

“You noticed me?” Matthew almost whispered.

“Not all the time in that way. I always thought you were cute, yeah, but there was a lot of… Just a lot going on, as you probably know.”

“I think everyone knows by now,” Matthew quipped, then looked ashamed. “Sorry.”

Gilbert laughed, though. “Let ‘em know. Doesn’t matter too much to me. But come on, now. You have to lie down and rub some more of that medicine into the tender areas.” He scooped Matthew up into his arms and marched off to the bedroom.

“H-Hey!” Matthew squeaked, squirming for a moment before Gilbert tightened his arms and the blond had to hang onto his neck. “Put me down! And stop picking me up!”

The German ignored him until he had Matthew laid out on to the bed. “Please, as if you don’t enjoy it. Now, where’s the paste you put on to soothe the burns?” He undid Matthew’s shirt and pushed it open before looking around for the container.

“It’s in the dresser. Top drawer.” Matthew, realizing that Gilbert wasn’t going to leave him alone until he had finished what he started, lay back and went limp.

Humming happily at Matthew’s acceptance, Gilbert unscrewed the lid from the pot and started smearing it thinly over the other man’s chest. He was staring at Matthew the entire time, though Matthew had his eyes firmly locked onto the mattress. Gilbert wasn’t pleased with that and wished that Matthew would just talk to him normally, but he also knew that if he forced anything, he’d only diminish his chances. Matthew thought lowly enough of him as it was. He had just gotten settled into a comfortable routine when he heard the sound of hoofbeats.

“Who’s that?” Matthew’s eyes snapped to the window.

“How should I know?” Rising, Gilbert stalked to the window. He cursed. “It’s your brother.”

“Alfred?” Matthew’s heart jumped. “Is he alone?”

“Yeah.” Gilbert looked back at Matthew. “Are you gonna tell him?”

“A-About what?”

“About me!” Gilbert gave him an exasperated look. “Should I hide or not? Quick, there’s not a lot of time!” The hoofbeats outside had stopped.

Matthew stared at him with wide eyes for a moment before a sudden possessiveness rose in his chest for the albino. “Hide,” he whispered. Who knew what Alfred would do to him if he found Gilbert there?

Gilbert nodded and looked around, cursing again when he couldn’t find a good hiding place. They heard the front door open and close, and panicking, the German darted under the bed. He heard a groan from above him and thumped the bed frame. There wasn’t a better place! He curled up in the far corner, out of sight, just as the door to the room opened.

“Hey there, Mattie.” Alfred’s voice was softer than Gilbert expected it to be, and he tracked the American’s boots across the floor with his eyes.

“Hi. You’re back earlier than I expected. Did something happen?” Matthew watched Alfred as well, shifting his legs a bit to make room for him on the narrow bed.

“Kind of.” Alfred eagerly sat. “But first, how do you feel? Better?”

“Yeah. The cream’s helping a lot.”

“That’s good.” Alfred smiled at his brother, then started fidgeting. He wanted to tell Matthew about what he was planning, but he also didn’t want to seem like he didn’t care about Matthew’s condition.

Matthew, though, was perceptive as ever. “You’re planning something. Spit it out, Al.”

Flushing softly but glad nevertheless, Alfred nodded. “We’re gonna end this once and for all. We’re gonna use Arthur as bait – don’t look at me like that, he’s the one who suggested it – anyway, we’re gonna use him to get Ivan here and then lock him up. We’re still hammering out the details, though…”

“That’s still very dangerous.” Matthew shifted uncomfortably on the bed. Gilbert was right below them, and yet here Alfred was practically hurling information around. He still didn’t trust the albino fully, but he didn’t want his brother to know about him. So he had to pass it off as concern for Arthur, and luckily it worked.

“Arthur will be fine,” Alfred assured him. “You really think I’d agree to him doing it if I didn’t make sure that he’d be as safe as possible? I don’t want to lose the man I love,” he said seriously.

“I know…”

“This has been going on too long.” Alfred’s voice hardened. “Everyone’s tired, and burning the buildings was really the final straw.”

“I understand that.” Matthew gently shook his head. “I just hope that it all turns out well… You don’t mean to kill him?”

“No, of course not. He’s gonna get locked up in jail, like I said.” Alfred bit his lip. “He’s… He’s just been angry and hurt and feeding off that, and it’s time he calmed down.”

“…And the others in his group?”

“Toris and the two unwilling guys will get off with nothing, of course. They didn’t wanna do it.” Alfred ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “As to Gilbert Beilschmidt, I don’t know. I guess it all depends on how he acts and how Ludwig decides to deal with him.”

“That’s fair, I guess.” Matthew’s voice was quiet, and there was silence between them for a moment.

“…Well then!” Alfred stood up and moved to the door. “I’ll leave you to rest, okay? I only came back to check up on you and get some maps.”

“Okay. Don’t stay out too late, and tell Arthur I said hi,” Matthew told him, leaning back against the pillows and closing his eyes. He heard the door click shut and then nothing.

The silence continued until Matthew heard Alfred’s receding hoofbeats. Then, the floor beneath the bed creaked, and moments later a slightly ruffled Gilbert emerged. The albino froze, then crept over to the window to watch Alfred gallop away until he was lost from sight.

“So,” he said once he was satisfied. He moved over to the bed. “You guys are going to end it.”

Matthew watched him suspiciously. “Well I’m not, personally… Are you going to tell Ivan?”

“About what?” Gilbert looked innocent as he took a seat, right where Alfred had been sitting moments before. He received a whack with one of Matthew’s pillows.

“Don’t play me, Gilbert.” Matthew’s voice and eyes were hard. “You heard him just as well as I did. Now, are you going to tell your master of their plan?”

“Hey.” All of a sudden, Gilbert’s face was inches from Matthew’s. “I am not Ivan’s dog.”

Though he internally flinched, Matthew met his gaze evenly. “Then why do you act like it?”

“I don’t.”

“You do.”

“Not anymore.”

“Don’t you?”

Yes.” Huffing, Gilbert leaned back. “I won’t tell him. I want all this shit to end too. I want to go home.”

At that, Matthew paused and took a good look at the albino. For maybe the first time, he saw Gilbert not as an outlaw or some unattainable object, but as a person who had made a mistake. It was funny, really, how similar he and Alfred were. Both had been led awry by schemes of twisted anger. Both had wanted to come back and sought forgiveness. The blond smiled softly and reached out to take Gilbert’s hand.

“What?” Gilbert looked surprised.

“I’ll support you,” Matthew told him.

Gilbert smirked then. “And what made you change your mind, little Birdie? Just a minute ago you thought I would betray you and your friends.”

“I had a change of opinion,” Matthew murmured. “I’m surprised he didn’t notice your horse.”

“Captain? I bet he thought it was just a new horse you had to take care of. He doesn’t stand out much.” Gilbert shrugged and slowly moved closer to Matthew, giving the other plenty of time to push him away if he desired. He grinned more when Matthew didn’t.

“Maybe.” Matthew couldn’t help leaning into Gilbert’s warmth, even though it irritated his tender spots a bit. He found it much easier to talk to Gilbert now, and the German stayed for another hour and a half. Before leaving, Gilbert made sure Matthew was comfortable.

“Okay, you’ve got tea and extra blankets in case you get cold, and everything in the kitchen is cleared.”

“Thank you, Gil.” Matthew gave him a small smile.

“No problem, Birdie.” Gilbert leaned over and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Sleep well, see ya later.”

Matthew did sleep well, at least for that night. He didn’t hear Alfred enter, though his brother was there in the morning. He healed quickly, within a week, and immediately hurled himself into work rebuilding the stable with Alfred, Ludwig, and a few other men who’d volunteered to help. Nights were spent with Gilbert, who would sneak in once Alfred, and occasionally Arthur, were asleep. Matthew found himself looking more and more forward to the albino’s visits, as much as he denied it even within himself at first. And, true to his word, Gilbert hadn’t breathed a word about Alfred’s plan to Ivan.

 


 

It was almost two weeks before Matthew allowed Gilbert to kiss him properly. That night, Matthew was almost bouncing around on his bed as he waited- he didn’t think he’d be able to fall asleep without Gilbert visiting him. There was always the slight fear that Gilbert wouldn’t come, that he’d gotten bored or that this had all just been a game.

But no, a little after midnight he heard hoofbeats, and then Gilbert was climbing into his window. “Evening, Birdie.” The German grinned, immediately diving under Matthew’s covers.

“Ah…” Still not quite used to Gilbert’s rather extravagant and commandeering actions, Matthew froze for a moment, but he soon relaxed at the extra warmth. “Hello, Gil.”

“How do you feel today?” Gilbert cocked an eyebrow and gently slung an arm around the other man’s shoulders.

“I’m alright. Same as I was yesterday.” Matthew rolled his eyes, but leaned into the touch. “You know I’ve healed good as new since last Sunday.”

“Just making sure.” Gilbert sighed. “How’s the plan going? Ivan’s becoming unbearable. I think he wants to end it too, go out with a massive bang.

Matthew shuddered. “Speaking of which, what has Ivan said of you being gone every night? Did he even notice?”

The white-haired man shrugged. “He doesn’t keep track of me every second, if that’s what you mean. Like I said before, I’m not his dog.”

“Okay.” Matthew still looked nervous. If Ivan was to ever discover that Gilbert was coming to see him, he had a sickening feeling he would be part of the outlaw’s ‘massive bang’. “Please be careful, though. When you come here.”

Gilbert seemed to know what he was hinting at immediately.”Birdie, I am. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you if anything happens, but I’ll try to make sure nothing does.” He tightened his arm around Matthew’s shoulder and leaned over to press a kiss to the side of the blond’s head.

Then, he froze, and at the same time he felt Matthew stiffen beneath him. What had he done? Kisses were on the forehead and when he left, and far too intimate otherwise for what they were now. Gilbert didn’t even know what they were. He thought Matthew was cute and entertained the notion of starting something, but wasn’t sure whether the other man would reciprocate. But then Matthew raised his gaze, and Gilbert was trapped. For a brief moment they were both still. The spell was broken when Matthew smiled and nodded- an invitation.

Taking a chance, Gilbert leaned forward and kissed him. It was a gentle kiss, chaste and close-mouthed, with the German pulling away after only a few seconds. He was left staring at Matthew, who still had a hint of a smile on his face.

“That was…”

“Nice,” Matthew finished for him. The blond brushed some hair back behind his own ear and looked away, suddenly shy.

A nervous tension filled the room, neither of them really knowing what to say after that. “…I guess your brother really will have my hide if he finds us now,” Gilbert eventually said.

Matthew let out a laugh and leaned his head against Gilbert’s shoulder. “Then I suppose you’ll just have to be more careful when you sneak in,” he teased.

Gilbert laughed as well. “I guess so, Birdie.”

And he was. Over the next couple of nights they had a few close calls, but each time the albino managed to avoid Alfred. About two weeks later, the plan was ready and everything was falling into place. Matthew was getting nervous, worrying over whether it would work despite both Alfred and Gilbert’s reassurances. And how could he not worry, when there were people he cared about on both sides of the conflict?

Chapter Text

No one was more worried than Arthur, though. He had been confident while suggesting the idea those weeks ago, but now he wasn’t so sure about it. What if Ivan just shot him? He was to ride out into the desert alone and wander around until the outlaws found him. He would stay close to the ghost town and flee to it once he was spotted, and hopefully Ivan and his group would give chase. Alfred and the others would be waiting to catch them.

The day of it dawned bright and clear, though that didn’t help with Arthur’s worries. It would only give better visibility to anyone with a gun. Arthur had slept in Alfred’s bed that night for comfort, and in the morning he cuddled with the American for a few minutes.

“Are you ready, Artie?” Alfred asked softly.

“I hope so,” Arthur murmured back. “But there’s no other choice, is there? There’s no going back now- and I wouldn’t want to, even if there was.”

“We’ll keep a close eye on you, Art. You’ll be as safe as possible,” Alfred promised.

“I know, I trust you. But you understand why I can’t help to worry, right?”

“Yeah. But c’mon, maybe going off and doing some stuff to prepare will help keep your mind off what’s to come.” Alfred got out of bed and pulled Arthur up immediately behind him.

“Whoa there-” Arthur gasped softly, thumping against Alfred’s chest. He glanced to the corner of the room and shook his head. “So which horse will I be riding?”

“Hmm…” The cowboy brought his hand up to rub at the back of his neck. “I was gonna put you on Star, but I guess she’s a bit distinctive… So Mattie’s probably gonna give you his horse for it.”

“Does Matthew know that?” One of Arthur’s eyebrows rose.

“…Not yet. But he’ll be fine with it!”

“If you’re sure.” Arthur rummaged around on the floor for his clothes, sighing once he was dressed. “I’ll be glad when this is all over. We can finally relax together.”

Alfred smiled at him and nodded. “Yeah.” He suddenly looked nervous and opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed it and shook his head. “C’mon, let’s get some food in you and head out.”

They met Matthew in the kitchen, where he already had some breakfast ready. There was oatmeal mixed with honey and a steaming pot of tea. Arthur took his place gratefully, spooning down the food with vigour. Matthew was good at cooking, and he possessed the talent of making even something simple taste good. The Englishman noticed that Matthew was nervous and kept glancing at him, so he smiled and patted the shyer man’s hand.

“It’s okay,” he assured him. “It’ll be just fine.”

“I know.” Matthew seemed to jolt from his thoughts. “Come on, I’ll help you saddle up Maple.” He rose from the seat and strode to the door.

Arthur was quick to follow, though before he left he sent a confused back at Alfred. The American only shrugged back. “Matthew, are you alright?” he asked when they answered the stable.

Glancing around to make sure they were alone, Matthew closed the door after them. “Where are you heading today? To lay the trap?”

“The plan was to start out in the direction of the train station and then look around,” Arthur said slowly, blinking in bewilderment. “Why do you ask?”

“Don’t do that.”

“…Pardon me?”

“Start off in the opposite direction. That’s where they’ll be coming from.”

Arthur felt his blood run cold. “H-How do you know that?” he asked, his voice cracking with fear. Matthew surely wasn’t working against them. He wouldn’t have betrayed his own brother, would he?”

“No, Arthur!” Matthew stepped forward, arms up. “It’s not what you think!”

At the same time, Arthur was stepping back. “Then what is it?”

Sensing that maybe moving wasn’t a good idea, Matthew stopped. “Can you keep a secret?”

“It depends on the secret.”

“Okay. That’s fair.” Matthew took a deep breath. “It was Gilbert Beilschmidt who saved me from the burning barn, and who’d been watching me those days.” He told Arthur the story, assuring him that Gilbert was on their side, finishing with the information he’d been given. “Gil knows the plan and said that he’d try to help position Ivan in a way it would all be over quick.”

Arthur still didn’t look fully convinced at the end of it. “But how can you be sure he’s on our side? He could be using you.”

“He’s not!” Matthew immediately replied. “If he’d wanted to hurt me or tell Ivan of the plan, he would have done it weeks ago! Please, just trust me on this.”

“Matthew…” Arthur gazed at him levelly. After a moment, he let out the breath he’d been holding and nodded. “Alright. I’ll trust you. Though I don’t think Alfred would appreciate the two of you being together.”

“That’s why you have to keep us a secret,” Matthew pleaded. “He won’t understand right now- he’ll just see Gil as the enemy.” The blond took another small step towards Arthur and was relieved when he stood still. “Will you keep this secret?”

Arthur took a few deep breaths. “Alright. I won’t tell Alfred – or anyone – about you and Gilbert.”

Matthew’s face slackened, and he hugged Arthur tightly. “Thank you. Thank you so much…” he whispered, then pulled back and strode towards the tack room. “Come on, or Alfred will start to get suspicious.”

With Matthew’s help, Arthur quickly tacked up the Thoroughbred and led him out. Alfred was waiting for them on the porch, a bright smile appearing on his face when he saw Arthur. He met them at the bottom of the steps and immediately pulled Arthur into a tight hug. Though he was surprised for a brief moment, the Englishman quickly embraced him back.

“It’ll be okay,” Alfred murmured, stroking through Arthur’s hair.

“I know.” Arthur relaxed for as long as possible in those arms, but all too soon they had to go.

Star was to stay in the stable entirely. Though she was probably the best horse for Arthur to ride in this situation – she was fast and smart, and able to turn on a dime – she was just too distinguishable. Alfred would ride with Arthur until they reached the ghost town, where he’d hide himself among the buildings along with the others. Matthew would be riding one of the horses he was almost finished training. The quieter man led the sorrel horse up to them and mounted.

“Come on, you two. You’ll have plenty of time to celebrate once this is over.”

Arthur separated from Alfred and mounted Maple. Once he was sitting, he looked down and extended a hand out for Alfred to take.

Swinging up with ease, Alfred took his place behind the saddle and wrapped his arms around Arthur’s waist. “Let’s go.”

The ride to the centre of the ghost town passed quickly, and soon enough Ludwig greeted them. He delivered his instructions quickly and precisely, then sent Arthur on his way. Alfred had looked like he wanted to pause for a moment and give Arthur a final kiss goodbye, or at least some final token of affection, but one sharp look from Ludwig put a stop to that. This was no time for playing around.

As Arthur rode out into the desert to loop around – hopefully getting spotted along the way – he had to resist the urge to glance around. He knew that Alfred and the others would be hiding in strategic places along the buildings, but there was still the fear of something going wrong. What if Alfred or Ludwig or one of the others weren’t quite in the right position if something happened? There was a gun at his hip, but he didn’t know if he would be able to draw it fast enough to defend himself. He tried to clear his head as he turned Maple’s head back towards to town.

Before he could think too much more, a group of five horsemen appeared on the horizon. He instantly recognized Ivan’s white horse. He put his heels into Maple’s sides, his heart in his throat as they raced across the landscape. A glance over his shoulder showed Ivan’s group in pursuit. Lost in thought, he’d gone out farther than he’d intended, and the sick feeling in his stomach only increased when, the next time he looked behind himself, he saw only four horses.

Gilbert was waiting for him in the ghost town, blocking the way. Both he and his dark mount were breathing heavily, though his red eyes glittered with interest as he examined the Englishman. Arthur managed to stop about twenty feet away from the albino, and he half-turned Maple so he could keep an eye on Ivan as the outlaw came up behind him. His remaining companions fanned out behind him, though their expressions were carefully blank.

“My, my, what’s this? Alfred’s little pet out on his own? How…fortunate for us.”

Arthur bristled. “I am not a pet. Though, that’s more than I can say for the ones behind you.” His hands tightened around the reins, and Maple sidestepped beneath him.

“Ivan!” Gilbert suddenly called. “This seems a little bit too convenient, don’t you think? I’ll go scout the perimeter, just in case. And pet?”

It took Arthur a moment to realize that he was being spoken to. His face was a shade paler than before as he glanced to Gilbert.

“If you try to run, I will catch you.” He spun his horse around and galloped off.

Arthur hoped it was all an act. He turned Maple’s head to face Ivan head-on and backed the stallion up a few steps, then let go of the reins to show that he wasn’t planning on trying to escape.

Ivan turned his eyes from the spot Gilbert had vanished back to Arthur. “What are you doing out here on your own?”

“I came here to escape for a moment.”

“Escape?” One of Ivan’s eyebrows shot up. “And what would you need to escape from? Why here?”

Arthur’s mind was racing. “Just…everything. I needed a moment to think. Collect myself. The air here seems much easier to breathe than in town, don’t you think?”

“…Yes.” The suspicion faded somewhat from Ivan’s face.

“And this ghost town intrigued me.” Arthur tried a smile. “I didn’t get much of a chance to look around last time, as you well know.”

“It is one of many in the desert.” Ivan shrugged dismissively, then tilted his head. “I still don’t understand why you have to clear your head. You are not happy?”

“It’s…complicated.” Arthur glanced away for a moment.

“Ah.” Ivan’s expression suddenly brightened. “It is something to do with Alfred, yes? Is he losing interest in you already?”

“What?” Arthur’s eyes narrowed, and the façade cracked. “Of course he’s not.”

At that, the Russian man looked almost…sad. “Not yet. Alfred is the type of boy to never settle. He sees a shiny person and chases them, then later, poof. New shiny person,” he explained softly.

Arthur stared at him, mouth slack. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I was once a shiny person, did you know?”

“I…did not,” Arthur said, trying not to reel in the saddle. That was certainly something Alfred hadn’t mentioned, though thinking back to his story, it made sense.

“So you see, I know very well what I am talking about. I know what you are feeling better than anyone. I thought I could trust him, but-”

“You may have experienced similar things, but we’re different people. Alfred is different now.” From the corner of his eye, Arthur spotted Gilbert peering at him from one of the windows in an abandoned building. The Englishman didn’t avert his gaze from Ivan’s face, defiant once more.

“Is he?” Ivan seemed to have enough of the conversation. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter what delusions you have. Come with me, and less people will get hurt.”

“What?” Arthur’s eyes widened and he stared at the other man. He saw Gilbert gesture for him to move back and then vanish. “What makes you think I’ll come with you?”

“Because if you don’t come with me willingly, I will force you. And I’m not afraid to shoot you. Bleeding or not, you’re a worthy prize.”

Ivan’s hand slowly reached down towards his gun, and that was the moment Arthur fled. He wheeled Maple around and kicked the stallion into a gallop. He heard Ivan shout behind him but kept going, occasionally giving a swerve to deter the outlaw from shooting at him. There were sounds of pursuit from behind him, and after a moment he did hear a gun go off. One of the support beams from a porch he was passing exploded, and Arthur had to shield his face from flying splinters. Maple spooked, veering off to the side and throwing Arthur from the saddle.

He landed on the ground a few feet away, his leg blossoming with pain. Immediately, Alfred leapt out from his place a few buildings down and fired a warning shot over Ivan’s head to stop him. The outlaw paused, momentarily surprised by Alfred’s appearance, though he soon recovered.

“Well, well…” Ivan smiled. “Were you listening all along?”

As Alfred and Ivan spoke, dancing dangerously around each other, Arthur tried to crawl off to the side, to Gilbert and to safety. His heart was still pounding from that one shot – it had come so close to him – and the blood roared in his ears. Everything was going wrong- He had to get out-

And suddenly, Alfred was screaming. “NO!”

Then a gunshot rang out again, and almost at the exact same time, Arthur felt a body slam into his own. He was knocked to the ground again, eyes squeezed shut, expecting to feel pain and surprised when he didn’t.

He opened his eyes slowly and looked around. Alfred was frozen a few feet away, an expression of surprise and horror engraved on his face. In the other direction, Ivan sat still on his horse, still-smoking gun outstretched. And spread over Arthur’s legs, panting and limp, was Gilbert. At first the Englishman was confused, but once he saw the spreading crimson patch over the side of the pale man’s shirt, everything fell into place.

“G-Gilbert?” His voice cracked a bit, and the spell was broken.

“Don’t move, Ivan!” In an instant, Alfred’s own gun was out, and pointed at Ivan’s chest.

The outlaw, though, was still staring at the German. “Gilbert? Why would you do that?” He looked confused and suddenly unsure of the situation.

“Because-” Gilbert groaned and turned to face his former boss with Arthur’s help. “Because you’re driving yourself insane. And you’re gonna hurt a lot of people before you’re done. And I’m not angry anymore.”

Before Gilbert could say too much more, Matthew broke from his own cover and rushed to his side. “Gil! Gilbert, oh God, are you okay?” His eyes were wide, and his voice almost hoarse with desperation. “Gil, please…”

“Hey, hey, Birdie.” Gilbert gave a pained grin and reached out to touch his shoulder. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

“But Gil…”

“Mattie! Get away from him!” Alfred had half been watching the two of them, and now he shifted towards the trio.

Ivan took advantage of Alfred’s wandering attention to try and shift back, though within seconds he was surrounded by gun barrels. Alfred’s – who had turned back to him – Ludwig’s, Antonio’s, and surprisingly enough, the rest of his group’s.

“Toris? Raivis? Eduard?” He looked confused again. “Why are you doing this?”

“We know you’re hurt,” Toris said, his eyes determined despite the slight tremble in his arm. “But we’re not going to let you ruin people’s lives because of it anymore. What happened with Natalia wasn’t Alfred’s fault, and no one should have to suffer.”

Ivan clenched his jaw. “No one else will suffer once I’m done with Alfred,” he spat, adjusting his hold on his gun.

He whirled his horse to create a dust cloud so he could get away, but before he could completely vanish, a single gunshot rang out. Everyone held their breath, and when the dust cleared, Ivan was on the ground. There was blood seeping from his arm, and his pale horse was prancing nervously a few feet away. Gilbert lowered Arthur’s gun with a sigh.

“Gil-” Matthew’s eyes widened even more, and his hand trembled softly as he reached for the weapon.

“Don’t touch him!” Alfred cried, moving to Ivan’s side to tie him up. “Arthur, hold him still! Matt, get away! Ludwig, come help me get him wrapped up and on the horse. Will you take him back to the station, Antonio? Give him a cell and some water.” Everyone jumped to his orders and within moments, Ivan and his horse were being led away.

Toris dismounted and knelt by Gilbert’s side, examining him. He murmured a few instructions to Arthur and Matthew, then stood again. “I’ll go along with Antonio in case Ivan needs emergency treatment.”

Raivis and Eduard were quick to agree. “We’ll stay in the jail afterwards to wait on Ludwig’s judgement.” Once Toris was mounted, the three of them urged their horses into a trot after Antonio and Lovino.

Arthur, Gilbert, Matthew, Ludwig, and Alfred were left. Arthur had shifted, mindful of his own bruised leg, and placed Gilbert’s head in his lap while Matthew took a closer look at the injury. Luckily, the bullet had passed cleanly through the side of his body, tearing only through muscle. Gilbert was smiling faintly and had his hand on Matthew’s thigh, but he let it slip to the ground when Alfred and Ludwig approached.

“Mattie! I thought I told you to-”

“Be quiet, Al.” Matthew’s voice was quiet, but hard. “Can’t you see he’s injured?”

Ludwig knelt on Gilbert’s other side and reached out to touch his arm. “Gil…” he murmured, voice thick and awkward with emotion. He looked like he wanted to say more, but simply couldn’t find the words.

“Hey, Luddy.” Gilbert grinned up at him. “Haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it going?”

“I’m deciding whether to strangle or hug you right now,” Ludwig said, taking a firm hold on the albino’s shirt.

Gilbert let out a wheezy chuckle. “I’d prefer it you let Birdie work his magic and heal me up first.”

Alfred stepped forward again and knelt, his eyes flashing and a hand each on Arthur and Matthew’s shoulders. “What are you talking about? ‘Birdie’ had better not be my brother.”

A hot flash of rebellion passed through Gilbert’s eyes. “He is. Not that you’d have ever noticed, being so caught up with your toy-”

Sensing Alfred about to snap, Arthur quickly cut in. “Gilbert’s on our side. He was the one who told me which direction to go in so that Ivan would come and get caught.”

“What?”

“Yes,” Matthew added quickly. “And he was the one who saved me when the stable burned.”

Alfred paused, then seemed to look at Gilbert with new eyes. There was still mistrust in them, but also hints of gratitude. “You did?”

“Yeah,” Gilbert replied, closing his eyes and relaxing. “Now can I please get some treatment before I bleed out here?”

Not waiting for Alfred’s answer, Matthew started to look at Gilbert’s injury again, bandaging it up for the journey home. “He’ll stay at our house, okay? It’s clean and I’ll be there to look after him if anything happens.” He silenced Alfred with a look when the cowboy looked like he was about to protest.

Ludwig helped Alfred to heft his brother up and insisted that he ride on his horse. Once the two of them were up he allowed the albino to rest against his chest and started off at a walk. Matthew followed them, though Alfred and Arthur stayed behind for the moment.

“Arthur,” Alfred whispered, the tension draining from his shoulders. He knelt down beside Arthur and pulled him into a tight hug.

Arthur winced as he was shifted, then leaned into the touch. “Easy there.”

“Are you hurt?” Alfred’s eyes were wide as he pulled back and looked over the Englishman. His eyes zeroed in on his left leg. The trousers were torn and there were a few spots of blood against the fabric. “Is that yours? Is it your leg?”

“It’s just been scratched up and bruised, I think. I’ll be fine, but you need to be careful. Help me stand?” Arthur wasn’t at all surprised when Alfred pulled him into another embrace once they were both standing. “Yes, hello. It’s alright, it’s all over now…”

“I know.” Alfred buried his head into the crook of Arthur’s neck. “When I heard the shot I just- Artie, if I’d lost you…”

Arthur held him close. “Speaking of loss, what did Toris mean about Natalia? Who was she?”

“Oh.” Alfred winced and pulled away. “Remember how I said Ivan had a sister who got killed? That was her. It…kinda was my fault.” His hands were clenched at his sides.

“What happened?” Arthur guided him over to a nearby porch and sat with him. “Tell me.” His mind was still churning with everything that had happened, but he tried to quell it enough to listen properly.

“Remember how Ivan was caught nearly killing someone? Well, turns out that guy had a partner who didn’t take kindly to what Ivan had done. He knocked Natalia out and kidnapped her like a month or two after that. It’s a miracle he managed to do it, but no one was expecting it so that’s probably why he got her. I told Ivan I’d get her back. I didn’t want him to have to do anything questionable so soon after the first guy, and I also hoped that by rescuing her, Nat would like me.” Alfred gave a short laugh. “She hated my guts because Ivan didn’t.”

“You and Ivan were…together at that time?” Arthur asked softly.

Alfred stared at the ground. “Yeah. Like I said before, he just knew how to draw me in. He was the first person who didn’t laugh when I told him my dreams, and he even said he’d help me make them come true. Sorry I didn’t tell you before. It gets…real nasty inside if I think about it too long.” He pressed a hand to his chest.

Arthur watched him, but didn’t reach out. “You couldn’t save her.”

“No. It happened so fast, I didn’t really have a plan and I just rushed in. I took him by surprise, but he was quick and before I knew it Nat was dangling over a cliff and I was trying to hold on to her but she…she slipped. No, she let go. She had a smile on her face and she let go and when I turned around Ivan was there because he’d followed me.” Alfred’s shoulders hunched. “Thinking back on it, I gotta wonder if she hated me so much she’d be willing to die to get Ivan to hate me.”

“I’m sure that’s not… I’m sorry it happened.”

“Yeah, me too.” Alfred sighed before standing up. “Let’s go home? I’m exhausted.”

“Alright.” Arthur was quiet as he and Alfred mounted Maple and cantered off after everyone else.

Gilbert was set up in Matthew’s room by the time they got home, and Matthew himself was just finishing bandaging him up. Ludwig hovered around a few more minutes until Gilbert was taken care of, and then he had to return to his responsibilities.

When it was just the four of them in the house again, Alfred pulled Matthew aside to talk to him. “I don’t like Gilbert,” he said when they were alone in the kitchen.

“I know,” Matthew replied, gazing at his brother evenly. “But I like him, and will continue to be with him. He saved me, and he’s a good guy.”

“Yeah, but he was on the wrong side-”

“Don’t you talk about being on the wrong side, Al,” Matthew warned, slumping into a chair. “You have no right to judge Gilbert’s decisions when your own were very similar.”

Alfred went silent. “…I guess you’re right,” he eventually muttered. “But I still don’t trust him completely.”

“I know.” Matthew patted his arm. “Just don’t treat him like dirt.”

“I won’t.” Alfred could indeed see the reasoning behind Matthew’s words, but he still couldn’t shake the lingering distrust. “Are you two really…together?”

“Yes.” Matthew’s reply was calm and cool, but he suddenly had an amused glint in his eyes. “You didn’t even notice him sneaking in or out for the past month or so.”

“Wh-” Alfred’s mouth fell open. “A- A month?!”

“Mhm.” Matthew looked downright smug.

“Mattie! Why didn’t you tell me about it earlier?”

“Because I know you would react exactly like you did today. And if there wasn’t something that would have given you pause, like Gilbert saving Arthur, then you wouldn’t have listened to reason,” Matthew said, and Alfred felt some stirrings of guilt when he realized that he was right.

Before he could say anything else, though, Arthur entered the room and told them that Ludwig was waiting outside. Alfred started – he hadn’t heard the sheriff approach – but he quickly recovered and left the house to see what was going on. Ludwig was still seated on his horse, so this must’ve been a quick visit.

“What’s up?”

The German shifted. “We were going to hold a meeting to finalize what to do with Ivan.”

“Oh. Alright- Give me a moment?” At Ludwig’s nod, he quickly darted into the house and grabbed his hat. He offered a ride to Arthur and Matthew, but both of them declined. So he tacked up Star and swung up, trotting after the other blond.

Chapter Text

“Well?” Arthur was still at Alfred and Matthew’s house in the evening, and he stood when Alfred walked back in. “What did you decide to do?”

“Food.” Alfred ignored the question, looking to Matthew. He was soon settled down with some leftovers, and he looked up at Arthur once he’d taken some bites. “Well, no real big authority figure has taken notice yet, so basically we can do whatever we want with him.” He fell silent after that, deep in thought.

Watching him for a moment and still affronted at getting blown off earlier, Arthur rose and moved to his side. “Alfred. What did you decide to do with Ivan?”

“He’s gonna stay in jail,” Alfred murmured, his voice almost dead. Then, he snapped out of it and looked up at Arthur with a smile. “Yeah, so he’s just gonna stay here and live the rest of his life in his cell. No need to get any bigger governments involved.” He reached out for the Englishman.

But Arthur moved away again. “Yes. Well, I should be off. I reckon people are going to want to celebrate.”

Alfred looked surprised for a moment, but then dropped his arms. “The big celebration is tomorrow night, though.”

“Still, I should be getting back.” Arthur quickly left, and as he was closing the door he heard Alfred mutter, ‘What’s his problem?’

As he walked along, his mind fell back on pensive thoughts. He had thought, finally thought, that his place by Alfred’s side had been secure. Now though… Alfred had met him by defending him from Ivan. It was twisted, but in a way, it had been the outlaw who kept them together. The constant danger had forced Alfred to keep close to him, and now that it was gone, what if Alfred realized that his attraction to Arthur had only been spur of the moment and temporary? He didn’t think he could face Alfred if the cowboy moved on, and the casualty with which Alfred had dismissed him earlier didn’t bode well.

He shivered gently as he finally got to Elizaveta’s saloon. There were already people lined up and lounging around on the stools, waiting for him to open up, so Arthur didn’t even bother getting changed. The busy night helped him get his doubts from his mind, though they returned again when he was lying awake at night. As the hours passed, he watched the moon make its trek through the night sky.

“Hey, Artie?”

Arthur started at the faint voice and crawled over to his window. Alfred was standing there, Stars reins in his hand. The Englishman considered turning away, but then stopped himself. No need to make something out of nothing. At least, he hoped it was nothing. So instead, he gestured for Alfred to come up and retreated back to his bed to wait. All was silent for a moment, but soon Arthur heard soft footsteps on the stairs. Alfred had never quite learned where the squeaky spots were. The door opened and Alfred stood in the doorway, pausing to survey the room before moving forward.

He stepped slowly across the room, watching Arthur who was staring at him. His footsteps sounded near-deafening in the still air of the room, and for some reason the look on Arthur’s face made him very nervous. The bed creaked as he settled on the edge of it. Arthur hadn’t moved in all this time, and though he was a little afraid to do it, Alfred reached out to take Arthur’s hand in his own. He sighed in relief when the pale fingers only twitched in his grip.

“Arthur?” He made the effort to keep his voice low and soothing, as if he was talking to a frightened horse. “Is something the matter?”

“I- I’m not sure.” Arthur kept looking down at their joined hands. “What’s going to happen now? Between us, I mean…”

Alfred frowned. “What do you mean? Why would anything change between us?” He placed his other hand on the other side of Arthur’s, and squeezed it between them.

“Well… Ivan’s taken care of now. I’m not in any danger anymore, no one is, so what if…”

“What if what?”

“What if you lose interest in me now?” He gently tried to pull his hand away and was surprised when Alfred only held on tighter.

“Oh Artie…” The cowboy let out a slow sigh. “You’re still scared, aren’t you? That the rumours about me are true. Heh, though I guess I did that to myself.”

“Alfred-”

“Shh.” Alfred leaned forward, his eyes glimmering impossibly blue in the thin patch of moonlight. “That was me before. I’ve changed now, grown up, and the only person I want is you.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Alfred smiled softly and tilted his head, wanting to appear as open as possible so Arthur would believe him. It looked to be working, since Arthur relaxed more and squeezed his hand a bit.

“I- I’ll try to have faith in you. I’m sorry for any doubts.”

“Heh, it’s alright. I’d probably doubt myself a little too, if I was in your situation.” Alfred leaned back and spread himself out on Arthur’s bed. “But just know that I’d never hurt you knowingly.”

“I know.” It was the ‘unknowingly’ part that scared him, but Arthur didn’t voice his worries. He lay down as well, curling up against Alfred’s side. “Is that the only reason you came here? To tell me that?”

Alfred shook his head. “No, of course not. Can’t I come see you? And… There’s something that I wanna ask you.”

“What is it?” Arthur asked, shifting a bit to get a better look at him.

“Well,” Alfred said. “I was just thinking that you’ve been here quite some time and you’ve just been staying here in the bar. And that eats up some of your monthly money. So…why don’t you stay with me?”

Arthur froze, his eyes wide and staring. “Stay- Stay with you?”

“Yeah.” Alfred’s large hands moved to encircle Arthur’s wrist, the pads of his thumbs rubbing against the soft skin. “You can sleep in my bed and we’ll cuddle and just live together. It’s the next step in a relationship, right? Moving in together so we get even closer?”

“You really mean that?” It took a few moments for Arthur to find his voice, and when he finally did the words came out shaky.

“Of course.” Alfred smiled and pressed even closer to Arthur. “Did you really believe that I only stayed with you because of Ivan? I think you’re a good man and you balance me well. What do ya say, Artie?”

“I- Well, it’s certainly a surprise.” Arthur was smiling, though. “I’d have to think about it,” he teased.

The cowboy’s face fell until Alfred realized Arthur was only joking, and then he pulled Arthur against his chest. “Don’t be mean! And the celebration’s tomorrow, so you’ll move in and everything on the next day. Would that be good?”

Having let out a huff of surprise at the sudden change in position, Arthur then nodded. “Yes, that would be fine.” He smiled broadly at the thought of living under the same roof as Alfred. Their relationship was changing, but for the better. It would allow the two of them to grow closer, like Alfred had said, and it would also eradicate any doubts Arthur had about Alfred’s faithfulness.

“Good.” Now that that was settled, Alfred relaxed and squeezed Arthur even more tightly. “Can I stay the night?”

“Oh, go ahead,” Arthur murmured, happily curling into the cowboy’s strong front. “Good night, now.”

 


 

Everyone was excited for the celebrations taking place the following evening. The town fizzled with bright energy and a sense of security that hadn’t been there before. The mines even closed an hour early- they’d been having good hauls the past few weeks, so the foreman had agreed to turn a blind eye. Consequently, Arthur’s bar was full, though he didn’t mind it if it kept him busy. And Alfred had promised to stop by later, so Arthur was looking forward to it when the telltale mop of blond hair appeared through the door.

Many people approached him over the course of the evening, wanting to know about the capture. What was it like being the bait? Was he afraid at any point? What exactly happened? At first Arthur was happy to retell the story, but after the twelfth time he became a little snappish and started going through it as quickly as possible. Elizaveta noticed his change in mood, of course, and came over to him during a lull.

“It gets tiring after a while, huh?” she asked with a knowing grin.

“I don’t understand how Alfred can bear being in the spotlight all the time,” Arthur replied, rolling his eyes and offering her a drink.

She took it and laughed. “Some people thrive on it. Has he been in yet?”

“No, but he said he would be and I’m confident he’ll keep his promise.” Arthur couldn’t help glancing at the door, though.

Elizaveta patted his arm. “He’ll turn up sooner or later,” she said. Moments later, she was pulled off by a customer and left Arthur alone with his thoughts.

The Englishman was in high spirits when it came to Alfred for about another hour. After that, it was harder. It was getting later now- what if Alfred had passed out on the street in some dark alleyway? He realized that particular scenario wasn’t likely to have happened, but he couldn’t help worrying. An hour after that, Elizaveta once more noticed his tenseness and headed over to him. Talking to her helped calm him down some, though he did ask to go out and search for the cowboy.

“Oh, go off with you. I can take over the bar for the time that you’re gone.”

“Thank you, Liz!” Arthur called, flashing her a smile before running out.

The streets were mostly dark, but full of people. Music played from all the bars and shops, and laughter drifted through the air. Arthur roved from one bar to another, searching for Alfred but not seeing him anywhere. He was starting to lose hope when he caught sight of the man in a smaller bar on the outskirts of town. Immediately, Arthur wished he hadn’t.

There was a dance floor in that bar, and Alfred was on it, dancing with a girl Arthur had seen around the town a few times but never talked to. The two of them were flush together, and Alfred had a broad smile on his face. Alcohol flowed freely through the whole bar, and as Arthur watched, the cowboy took a deep drought of beer. The Englishman himself felt his heart sink lower and lower the more he saw. About to take a step forward and make his presence known, he froze again when Alfred reached out for her and they started kissing passionately for all to see.

Reeling from the whirlwind of emotion flowing through his mind and body, Arthur staggered back. He didn’t know what to feel. Betrayal, pain, and anger bit at him like a swarm of flies, leaving him lightheaded. Alfred pulled back from the girl, blinking, and Arthur felt a rush of hope. But his emotions settled on anger when Alfred allowed her to bite at his neck and run her hands over his body. The crowd swelled and the two were lost among the bodies for a few moments, emerging on the other side and heading for the back.

Ivan was right, was all he could think.

Hot tears almost blinded him as Arthur stumbled back to Elizaveta’s saloon. Alfred was a dirty, filthy liar and Arthur didn’t mean anything to him at all. Arthur had been drunk himself many times, had witnessed couples when they were drunk, and people generally didn’t look at others even when they were intoxicated if they really cared about each other. Arthur had ignored the warnings, taken a risk, and now he was paying for it. He didn’t know how he could face Alfred after that, or Matthew, or Elizaveta, or anyone in the town. He had to go.

Mind made up, Arthur slipped through the bar through the back, avoiding Elizaveta’s sight and climbing up to his room in silence. He pulled out his duffel bag and started packing everything away in it, not that he’d accumulated any more possessions during his stay. Tears continued to blur his eyesight until he was blind and he stopped then, simply sitting on the bed and clutching his thin pillow to his chest until the squeeze to his heart abated. A part of him had always known Alfred was a bit too good to be true.

His mind flashed back to the times when he had to patch Alfred up after his run ins with the broomtail and he felt like he was suffocating. Those blue eyes had been so open… But, Arthur supposed, that was how Alfred lured them in.  The Englishman fell back, staring at the ceiling in a stupor, until a particularly rowdy round of laughter roused him. He felt bad for just taking off without letting Elizaveta know, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to last through telling her what had happened, and he certainly didn’t want to stick around for her pity.

So with a heavy but empty heart, Arthur finished packing, left a note on the bed where someone was sure to come across it, and snuck out again with his bag. He had all night to get to the station.

Chapter Text

“Alfred F. Jones, you open up this door right now!”

Alfred jerked awake, gasping and staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling blearily. His mind was a blank and he struggled to remember what had happened the night before. As his head cleared and he woke up more, little snippets of the previous night came back to him, and he groaned. He also realized he was spread out on the floor of the room instead of a bed. Another flurry of knocks sounded out from the door and the cowboy froze when he heard the bed creak.

“What’s going on?” a feminine voice asked, sitting up. She was dressed but her clothes were rumpled, and she had a few marks on her neck.

Panicking, Alfred scrambled further away from the bed, wincing when his back hit the wall. A glance downward showed himself in a similar state; clothed, but rumpled. He was still screwed, but not as screwed as he could have been. He knew it was Elizaveta behind the door and he really didn’t want to face her, but he also knew she wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. He struggled to his feet and moved to the door, opening it a crack.

“Alfred,” Elizaveta growled at him as she flung the door wide open. Her green eyes swept the room as she entered, simultaneously forcing Alfred back, and narrowed when they fell on the girl on the bed.

“Hey,” the girl began, scooting back against the headboard. “What are you-”

“Get out,” Elizaveta snapped at her.

“What?”

“Get. Out.”

The two women stared each other down for a moment, but then the younger fled the room, sending a dark glare in Alfred’s direction. When Alfred and Elizaveta were alone, the Hungarian woman glared at him and placed her hands on her hips. Cowed, Alfred stumbled back until he’d sprawled on the bed. Elizaveta took another step forward and removed a slip of paper from her pocket. She played with it, staring straight at him.

“I don’t even know what to say.”

“Liz, I know this looks bad, but I swear I didn’t-”

“I expected more from you,” she continued, steamrolling right over him. “Arthur expected more from you. He was good for you.” Elizaveta sighed, and her shoulders slumped a bit.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t-” Alfred froze. “Wait, ‘was’?” The blood drained from his face. “Liz,” he said, voice very soft. “Where’s Arthur? I promised I’d stop by but then I kept getting alcohol shoved at me…”

Elizaveta wordlessly handed him the slip of paper.

Liz,

I do apologize that I wasn’t able to say goodbye in person, but I don’t think I would have been able to face you. I was stupid and naïve, and now I’m paying for it. It turns out Alfred played me like all the others. I hope he’s happy with her, and I wish you luck with finding a new barkeep. I’m taking the first train out of here in the morning. Thank you for everything. Please don’t worry about me.

Arthur Kirkland

Alfred stared at the note for a good two minutes before dragging his wide eyes to his friend’s face. Something cold and hard clenched around his heart, and he found it hard to breathe. “…He’s gone?”

Elizaveta nodded. “You have only yourself to blame, you foolish boy.” She watched him fall back into the bed and curl up, mourning. Letting him stay like that for long enough for it to really sink in, she then sighed. “You said earlier that you didn’t something. What was it?”

“I didn’t sleep with her,” Alfred immediately said. “I didn’t- I’d never…not to anyone, but definitely not to Arthur.” He sat up again and stared down at his clenched hands. “She asked me for a dance and kept giving me alcohol and by the time she was kissing me I barely knew what was happening. We came up here but I knew I was missing something and she wanted to do it but she was drunk too and she passed out and I was going to leave her but then I passed out too. But we didn’t have sex. Please believe me, Liz. I never- I never wanted this.” He buried his face in his hands. “He must have seen, oh God, and now he’s gone and it’s my fucking fault-”

“Alfred.” Elizaveta took some pity on him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “This was an honest to God mistake? You have no feelings for her? You absolutely didn’t sleep with her?”

The American’s eyes were tortured as he stared up at her. “I don’t want anyone but Arthur. Even Ivan was different- Arthur never wanted…well, maybe he did want me to be less of- Less, I don’t know. Hooked on other people. But he never wanted me to change who I was and even though he was scared I felt like he accepted me and then I had to prove everyone right. I didn’t sleep with her. I’ll swear it on whatever you want me to, the Bible, my life, Mattie’s life, anything.”

“No need to get so dramatic,” Elizaveta said mildly. “But I believe you. And I’m only telling you this because I believe you. The earliest train leaves in just over half an hour.”

“What?” Alfred blinked, though this time his face was lit up with the barest hints of hope.

Elizaveta rolled her eyes. “You can still try to prove to him that you love him. I don’t know if he’ll take you back or even listen, but his train doesn’t leave for another half an hour at least. Go after him.” She tossed him a bandana.

Slowly, a smile spread over Alfred’s face. “Really?”

“Yes. Go!”

Alfred scrambled out of bed, tying the bandana around his neck before rushing out the door. The few people who were up and not at work gave him strange looks as he passed, but he didn’t stop to chat. Cursing that he hadn’t thought to bring Star out with him the previous night, he ran to the stable, out of breath and in a slight panic by the time he burst through the doors. The horses all started and stared at him, but he ignored that as well.

He figured there was no time for a saddle, so he just grabbed Star’s bridle and strode to her. “This isn’t the day for games, c’mon, girl,” he murmured as he approached.

Luckily, the horse seemed to understand his tone and behaved perfectly as he bridled her. A minute later he was on her back and out of the stable, galloping across the desert. It was a while since he’d ridden bareback, but right now Alfred couldn’t enjoy it. The landscape seemed to crawl by at a snail’s pace, and he never thought that the desert seemed bigger.

His thoughts were racing along equally as fast as his horse. He hadn’t messed up this badly in many years, and he never would have wanted Arthur to be on the receiving end of such a mistake, but he refused to give up hope that it was irreversible. All he had to do was get Arthur to stop for a moment to listen. The train! If Arthur missed his train, then he would have to wait for another one, and Alfred knew for a fact the next one came during the late afternoon. It was perfect.

Then his hopes were dashed. As the train station came into view, Alfred saw a train slowing down to pull up to it. Panic seized him, and he urged Star on. No, no! He had to make it, he just had to! Star sped up, almost flying across the ground, and slid to a halt in front of the station.

Alfred flew off her back, rolling and springing back up almost right away. His head was pounding from the alcohol he’d consumed, but he ignored everything in favour of running. He dashed up the steps just as a whistle sounded, and a ‘No!’ wrenched itself from his throat. The station master gave him an odd look, but he ignored it. He reached the platform to see the train pulling out and gasped again, running with it for a few seconds. But it had picked up too much speed for him to make a safe jump, so he was forced to let it slip away.

“No… Arthur…” He sank to his knees at the edge of the platform, wheezing as he looked after the train. The knowledge that he’d failed, again, crushed him. Maybe if he’d run a bit faster, or taken some sort of shortcut-

“Alfred?”

The cowboy whipped around to see Arthur standing just outside the door to the waiting room, one hand holding his duffel bag together. The Englishman looked wary, but curious. Standing, Alfred took a few steps towards him. He didn’t miss Arthur tensing or stepping back.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur took a firmer hold on his bag.

“I just- Arthur, God, I’m so sorry,” Alfred rushed to get out. “Last night I was just- It meant nothing!”

Arthur’s voice was frosty. “I know very well we meant nothing. What more do you want from me?”

“No! Artie, that’s not what I meant, please! That night meant nothing!” Alfred took another few steps closer, until Arthur was pressed against the wall. “Please, Art, you gotta listen to me.”

Arthur looked around with wide eyes, but the station master had gone back inside so they were alone. “Why should I believe you? Everyone says-”

“To hell with that!” Alfred pressed up closer. “I rode out to try and stop you leaving, are you really gonna still believe rumours about me rather than me? Arthur…”

“Well, you seem to be living up to them just dandy!” Arthur snapped, pushing back against Alfred’s chest.

“I changed since then!”

“Did you, now? Did you really?” Arthur shoved at him again, sending him back a few steps. “Is that why I saw you dancing and kissing and draping yourself over someone else last night? Is that what you call change?”

Alfred stumbled and fell to the floor. He didn’t get up, though his hands clenched against the wood beneath him. “I didn’t mean for that to happen. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen, you gotta believe me, please…” His vision blurred, but he didn’t dare look up.

Arthur drew himself up, dropping the duffel bag to cross his arms over his chest. “Two nights ago you asked me to move in with you and the very next night you were with someone else. You still kissed her, you still kissed someone else after promising me you wouldn’t hurt me. How could you think I’d take you back after that?”

“I don’t.” Alfred sniffled. “If I’d gone farther with her I wouldn’t dare go after you because I’d deserve you leaving but I didn’t want this to happen. You don’t- You don’t have to take me back, but please just listen to me?”

Staring down at him for a moment more, Arthur eventually sighed. “Well, the train’s gone now anyway so I might as well. Explain.”

Alfred’s head shot up, but he quickly ducked it again to hide his tears. “I didn’t sleep with her or anything like that. I just want you to know that. I was going to go see you but everyone was asking me to tell them what happened. I lost count of how many drinks people gave me after the second bar. I was drunk, she and everyone got me drunk and that’s no excuse but I’d never cheat on you. I don’t know what she wanted from me, but all I wanted was to see you but then everything was blurred…”

“You’re right, that is no excuse. And, you know, kissing still counts as cheating.”

“I’m sorry.” Alfred’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t…really know what to do now. I’d say more but then I’d just be repeatin’ myself and I think that would make you even more mad at me.” His whole body then tensed as Arthur moved to sit next to him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to ask you some questions. You’re going to answer them honestly.”

“Of course.” Alfred straightened a bit, though he still kept his eyes hidden behind his fringe.

“Did you want to kiss her?”

“No.”

“Why did you?”

“The room was spinnin’ by the time she asked me to dance. My mind was goin’ real slow and, it’s stupid, but she had blond hair and greenish eyes and she was small like you and…I guess…my mind thought she was you. Every time I started thinkin’ something was wrong we’d spin and I’d see blond hair and green eyes and I’d stop resisting.”

Arthur watched the floorboards between Alfred’s legs grow more splotched. “The last thing I saw was you and her heading towards the back. What happened then?”

“It’s still fuzzy, but I remember she felt wrong and I wanted to get away but she passed out on the bed and I passed out on the floor and next thing I know Lizzie’s at the door ready to kick my ass.”

“She felt wrong?”

“Yeah.” Alfred let out a short laugh. “Softer. More curvy. Not flat-chested. Not you.”

“Alfred…” Arthur looked away from him and clenched his hands in his lap. “Do you love me?”

“More than anything in the world.” Alfred’s reply was immediate.

“More than Ivan?”

Alfred’s head lifted again, though this time he kept staring at the Englishman. “That’s not- That’s not even a question. I fell for Ivan once but he warped me and used me. It wasn’t love at the end. I know you’d never do that. What I once felt for Ivan doesn’t even come close to what I feel for you.”

“You can’t exactly blame me for asking, though.”

“No, I can’t. I meant it when I said I changed. You changed me, Arthur. You made me a better man. Before I met you, I would have been happy to play Ivan’s game until one or both of us were dead. I would have let him destroy me, destroy everything, because I didn’t care. And then you came along and you didn’t take any of my shit. You didn’t judge me for what I did. You made me want to end it with him, for good.” Alfred averted his eyes, though he didn’t try to hide his face again. “I always did want to impress you.”

Arthur’s eyebrows shot up. “You did?”

“Yeah, hah. Especially with the broomtail and stuff. I wanted you to look at me, to like me.”

That wouldn’t have been an issue. I was a goner after our first meeting,” Arthur muttered.

“Really?” Alfred looked surprised. “Wow. I think I fell for you when I was showing you around.” He suddenly winced and tried to school his face into something more neutral, though his reddened cheeks and eyes somewhat took away from that image. “Sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing?”

“Well, you just…you hate me now, right? Sorry for talkin’ about when I fell for you and stuff,” Alfred said thickly. His lungs felt tight and more tears welled in his eyes. “Shit. Sorry.”

Arthur let out a soft breath. “You hurt me, but I don’t hate you. Don’t you want me to give you another chance?”

“‘Course I do. I don’t want you to leave me, but I ain’t gonna force you.”

“…There would be conditions.”

Alfred blinked. “Con- Conditions?”

“One, we examine your alcohol consumption and whittle it down until a repeat of last night will never happen. Two, next time you tell me you’ll come visit me, you come straight to me. No detours. Three, no flirting with anyone, no matter if you saved them. I realize it’s hard for you to turn off your charm, but you make it damn clear that you’re unavailable.”

Alfred’s eyes steadily grew wider as Arthur kept talking. “Y-You mean…?”

“I will give you another chance, on those conditions. But be warned, there won’t be a third chance.”

“I won’t need one I- I swear I’m yours, I’m all yours. I’ll do anything to make it up to you.”

Arthur’s expression finally softened. “I know. I might not be able to trust you fully right off the bat. I hope you understand.”

“I do, and that’s okay.”

“Good.” Arthur reached out and gently cupped Alfred’s cheeks, wiping away the tears there with his thumbs. “Oh, Alfred…”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Art.” Alfred inched closer to him.

“I know.”

“It’ll never happen again.”

“I- I hope it won’t.”

“It won’t.”

Arthur gave him a small smile. “Alright. Come here.”

Alfred flung himself forward, arms wrapping around Arthur’s sides as he crushed the Englishman to his chest. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed, hiding his face into Alfred’s neck. “I’m so sorry.”

“I know. Stop apologizing now, love,” Arthur murmured to him. Alfred’s fingers were digging into his back painfully, but he didn’t shy away from it. His own chest was tight and he pressed his face into Alfred’s hair as he let the other man cry. There would still be a lot to work through over the next few days, possibly weeks, but for the moment he was happy to be held.

“Okay.” Alfred didn’t know how long they stayed like that. It seemed like ages until he could breathe properly again. His breaths still rattled in his throat when he finally pulled away, but the panic from before had faded. Arthur was still here. Arthur had listened. He paused suddenly, his brows drawing together. “Hey. Why weren’t you on that train?”

“Ah.” Arthur’s cheeks pinked. “Well. I’d fallen asleep and was woken by the train whistle. As I got up, my bag snagged on some nails and tore.” He reached for the duffel bag and showed Alfred the rather large hole in its side. “I was trying to hurry, but by the time I managed to figure out how to carry it without any spillage, the train was moving. And then I saw you on the edge of the platform and called out before I could stop myself.” Seeing how Alfred’s expression fell, he hurried to reassure him. “I’m glad I did, though.”

“I’m glad too. Also, I think I love your bag.”

Arthur snorted. “Of course.” Still, he couldn’t help being a bit pleased. He shifted the bag into his arms and found his feet. “Come on. We’ve sat here long enough. Take me home, then?”

“To Elizaveta’s…?” Alfred asked, standing as well and stretching out his arms.

“No! I mean- to your house. If that offer still stands, of course,” Arthur said, stepping closer to him. The move seemed to be unconsciously done, because Arthur then blinked and looked away.

Alfred, though, was smiling broadly. “I’d want nothin’ less. C’mon, Artie.” One hand holding Arthur’s arm to help steady the duffel bag, he wrapped his other arm around the Englishman’s body and held him close. “Let’s go home.”

“We can’t go when you’re holding onto me like that, idiot,” Arthur said, though he leaned into the hug.

Alfred laughed. “I meant after this!” Letting go moments later, the cowboy gently steered Arthur out of the station.

Star was standing patiently where Alfred had left her, looking confused and shifting her weight from one hind leg to the other. Her worn reins half-trailed against the ground and were looped over one ear. When the two men emerged she perked up and stepped towards them. Her nostrils flared with her curious snuffles, and she shoved her nose against Arthur’s stomach almost accusingly. When the Englishman stumbled back, she pushed more.

“A-Alfred!” Arthur cried, letting go of his bag in favour of grabbing onto Alfred’s arm. “What’s gotten into her?!”

“Hah!” Alfred threw back his head and laughed, only stopping when Arthur looked about to fall over. He steadied his lover and pushed Star away. “Why, she’s just welcoming you back! Feels insulted that you thought about leaving ol’ Star behind.”

“There are ways of doing that that don’t involve bodily harm,” Arthur muttered, but he reached out to pat Star’s nose. He smiled when the mare leaned into him.

“Come on, then.” Alfred gestured to Star’s back. “Sorry there’s no saddle,” he said, chuckling. “I was in a bit of a rush.”

Huffing gently and rolling his eyes, Arthur stepped up to the horse. “Help me up? I don’t remember the last time I rode without a saddle.”

“Neither can I,” Alfred said, nodding in agreement and helping Arthur scramble up. Once Arthur’s duffel bag was safely in his arms, he swung up himself. “But we can walk slowly. There’s no rush now.” He was sat behind Arthur, and he scooted up to press against the thinner man.

“Indeed.” Arthur leaned back against him, head on Alfred’s shoulders. He closed his eyes, relaxing into the feeling and smiling when Alfred’s arms snaked around him to take the reins.

Nudging Star into an easy-paced walk, Alfred allowed his eyes to close as well. The air seemed more peaceful now, and Alfred could take the time to enjoy it since he wasn’t in a hurry. He wrapped his arms more securely around Arthur’s waist and rubbed his nose against the other man’s neck.

Elizaveta was waiting for them at the edge of the town. She was mounted on Dusty and rode out to meet them when she saw they were together. “Arthur! You didn’t leave!”

“Yes, I happened to miss my train,” Arthur replied, giving her a small smile. He looked over at Alfred and nudged him. “And this one convinced me to give him another chance.”

The Hungarian woman gave an approving nod. “Good. Or else I would have spent the next ten years trying to knock some sense into him for letting you go.”

“Oh, feel free to do that anyway,” Arthur told her politely. “God knows he could probably use it.” He and Elizaveta both laughed at Alfred’s squawks.

“Do you still want to work at the bar?” Elizaveta asked him.

“If I can,” Arthur replied, leaning back against Alfred’s chest. “Though I won’t be living in the saloon anymore.”

“That’s fine,” Elizaveta said, smiling at the pair of them again. “Did Alfred offer…?”

“Yes. I don’t believe I left anything behind.”

“You didn’t.” Shaking her head, Elizaveta turned her horse around to fall in step with them as they continued into town. “Though if you’re going to stay for good, I have something for you.”

“Really?” Arthur’s eyebrows shot up.

“Well, you can’t go around wearing Gilbert’s old vest all the time. I think green matches you better.”

Arthur blinked. “I get a new vest?”

“Yes. I think it’s time you got your own.”

The Englishman was frozen in surprise for a moment before smiling brightly. “I think that would be fine. Thank you, Liz.” He closed his eyes, soaking up the sun and feeling like he truly had a place in this little town. “But…” His eyes opened again as a thought struck him. “What about Gilbert? He’s back now.”

“It would be better if Gilbert wasn’t in close quarters with Roderich again. And besides, it might be a long time before he fully recovers.” Elizaveta shrugged. “But tell him he’s welcome to come in and catch up.”

Arthur knew she meant the old jealousy between her husband and Gilbert, and he smiled. “I don’t think you have to worry about Gilbert and Roderich anymore. Gilbert’s found someone else for himself.” He felt Alfred stiffen behind him and leaned back, pressing a kiss to the cowboy’s jaw. “Someone that’s good for him,” he continued, and his words were ever so slightly more forceful.

If Elizaveta was surprised by the news, she didn’t show it. “Really, now? Good for him.” She smiled and nodded once more at the pair, then spurred her horse on and galloped off in the direction of her saloon.

When they were alone, Alfred leaned more heavily on Arthur. “I still don’t like it that Mattie and Gilbert are together,” he grumbled.

“I know you don’t. Everyone knows you don’t.” Alfred patted his cheek. “But Matthew is his own person, and old enough to make his own decisions, so don’t you interfere.”

“I won’t,” Alfred mumbled, turning Star’s nose in the direction of his house and nudging her forward. He rested his chin on Arthur’s shoulder once more, and his hand played with the button of the smaller man’s trousers.

Arthur shot him a semi-amused look. “Oh, are we finally going to have sex?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.

Alfred reddened. “The only reason we haven’t yet was so you knew I wasn’t in it only for the sex!”

“Heh, I know. Now come on,” Arthur said, tapping his heels into Star’s sides, “let’s go home.”

 


 

In the weeks after, Arthur truly settled into both Alfred’s house and his new life. He got his vest and continued to work for Elizaveta, and he loved the job. Gilbert was slowly healing, though he could stand and walk around with help by then. His favourite spot was on the porch, where he could watch Matthew work with the horses. Arthur would sit with him sometimes, finding the German brash and unapologetic, but good company nonetheless. Alfred also slowly got used to the albino, treating him more kindly and even joking around with him. There were still spots of tension sometimes, but they were becoming few and far in between.

Arthur looked up in surprise when, on a slow afternoon, the doors to the saloon crashed open. Matthew stood between them, chest heaving. “Matthew? Are you alright?”

“Alfred-” Matthew gasped out. “Come home- Dirty and hurt-”

“What?” Arthur was over the bar in an instant. “What happened to him?”

“I think-” Matthew held up a hand, catching his breath. He straightened and finally continued. “I think you should see for yourself.” There was a twinkle in his eye that gave Arthur pause.

“…Matthew, what’s going on?” Arthur glanced at Elizaveta, who’d just emerged from the other room, but she had a similarly confused look on her face.

“Just come.”

After receiving permission from the Hungarian, Arthur started after Matthew. The other blond was walking at a leisurely pace, and Arthur frowned at him. “Isn’t it serious?”

“He can suffer for a bit. You’ll see when you see him.” Matthew chuckled and shook his head.

And Arthur did see. When he stepped into their bedroom, he almost walked right back out. The cowboy was laid out on the bed, shirtless, with dust all over his body and angry red scratches and chafes across his hands. The red continued up his arms, and there was a bruise forming near his hip.

“What the bloody hell did you do to yourself this time, Jones?”

Alfred just grinned at him. “Well, since the whole fiasco with Ivan is over, I figured I’d go after that broomtail again! I meant it when I said she’d be a good mount for you when she’s broken in.”

In Arthur’s opinion, Alfred looked entirely too cheerful for the situation. “You’re mad. Absolutely insane,” he said incredulously, shaking his head.

“But you love it!” Alfred said, beaming happily. “And you’ll fix me up now, right?”

“No” Arthur said flatly, smirking and crossing his arms. “I don’t think I will.”

Alfred’s eyes bugged out. “What? Why not?!”

“I should let you suffer because you’ll be wanting to go out again the moment I wrap you up.”

“No, actually I won’t.” It was Alfred’s turn to smirk, though the expression was marred by pain.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Do I dare believe that this fall knocked some sense into you?” he asked, taking a step closer to the bed.

“Nope! But I caught her! She’s in one of the pens, which means I won’t have to go out after her again! Take a look for yourself.”

“Really?” Eyebrows still arched high, the Englishman strode to the window and peered out of it, squinting against the sun.

The mare was in one of the closer, more closed in pens. She was standing stock still, staring at the horizon, but as Arthur watched she started galloping the perimeter, head tossed high. The light glinted off her coat and she kicked up a dust cloud, whinnying loudly. The other horses in the stable answered her, and she slowed her movements to an easy trot. Arthur stared at her, mesmerized, and as he watched he knew she would be a dream to ride. Sensing his gaze, the broomtail stopped again and turned her head to stare regally at him.

“She’s a pretty one, ain’t she?” Alfred whispered into Arthur’s ear.

Startling, Arthur whipped around and stared at Alfred, who had somehow managed to get out of bed and shuffled to the window. He promptly whacked the cowboy on the shoulder and turned him around. “What are you doing? Get back to bed!”

Alfred laughed and allowed Arthur to guide him back, holding in his winces whenever his injuries were pressed against. “I just wanted to ask you that!”

“You could have waited until I’d come back to the bedside, you sod. Don’t blame me if you’ve made your injuries worse.” Still grumbling under his breath, Arthur bustled around and gathered up all the necessary materials for cleaning Alfred’s wounds.

“I didn’t want to,” Alfred said simply. His eyes were wide and innocent as he stared up at Arthur from the bed. “Will you answer my question now?”

“The one about the horse?” Arthur rolled his eyes, but conceded. “Yes, I think she’ll be a lovely horse when you and Matthew are done with her.” He moved to start tending to Alfred’s injuries, but the American stopped him.

“There’s one thing, though. I wanna train her with you.” Taking in Arthur’s surprised expression, Alfred smiled. “She’ll have a closer connection with you if you’re there for the training.”

“I…I suppose that does make sense,” Arthur said, face screwed up in thought for a moment before evening out.

Alfred looked incredibly pleased at that. “You should name her, too.”

“Me? Really?”

“Yeah! She’ll be yours, so you get to name her.”

“Hmm…” Arthur peered out the window for a moment, studying the mare critically. “She looks like silver. Quicksilver, when she moves.”

“So Quicksilver, then?” Alfred asked, reaching out to take Arthur’s hand in his own.

Arthur turned to him and smiled, squeezing the hand softly. “Yes.”

“Good choice, Art! I like it!” Alfred finally leaned back and allowed Arthur to treat his wounds.

The Englishman first washed his upper torso of the dust and dirt, dragging a cloth along the curve of each muscle and cooing softly whenever Alfred winced. His hands slowed when they came to the angry purple-red bruise, and green eyes flicked up to meet blue. He was reminded again of the other times he had come to bind Alfred up. This time, though, there was no awkwardness between them, and both men met each other’s gazes evenly.

“What happened here?” Arthur asked, his voice as soft as the fingers that traced the edges of the blemish.

“Got kicked.” Alfred’s hand enveloped Arthur’s, and his thumb circled along the inside of the paler wrist. “She bucked me and kicked out, but I rolled out of the way so she just nicked my side.”

Bending down, Arthur pressed a chaste kiss to the area before washing it clean. He was happy to see Alfred grinning broadly as he worked, so he started kissing all of the injuries. Some of them tickled the cowboy and Alfred pushed at Arthur’s cheek, but Arthur only chuckled and rubbed against the hand. By the time Arthur moved on to actually disinfecting the scratches and bandaging them up, the air in the room was still and the atmosphere content. He treated the bruise last, and only smeared some cream on the area before helping Alfred pull a shirt over his head.

“There we go,” he said, leaning back and giving Alfred a severe look. “Now, do I have to order you to stay put in bed while you heal up?”

Alfred looked thoughtful, as though he was actually considering listening, but then only grinned and nodded. “Yeah! You’ll have to order me, Artie! You’re really hot when you get bossy.”

“Wh-” Arthur gave up and rolled his eyes. “Fine. I order you to stay in bed and rest until your injuries have healed.”

“Mmm… One condition, though.”

Arthur sputtered. “What? There was no mention of conditions before this!”

“Well there are now!” Alfred called, taking Arthur’s hand into his own. “C’mon, it’s a really simple condition!”

Heaving a sigh, Arthur smiled a tiny bit and shook his head. “Oh, alright. Out with it, what’s your condition?”

Alfred smiled winningly. “I’ll stay in bed and not move until I’m healed…if you stay with me?”

The Englishman’s own smile widened. “You don’t even have to ask. Obviously, I’ll have to go for a few hours in the evening because of the bar, but I will stay with you as much as possible.”

The sun was still high up in the sky, but inside the air was cool and comfortable against the uninjured side of Alfred’s chest. He closed his eyes, relaxing into the feeling of Arthur stroking his shoulder. Silence stretched between them. It was a comfortable silence, one that neither of them wanted to break. Eventually, though, Alfred did. Arthur had thought the American was asleep, and he himself was slowly drifting off when the low voice roused him.

“Artie? When I’m all healed up, what do ya say we go take a closer look at that mare of yours together?”

Arthur smiled and snuggled closer to him. “Yes. Together sounds nice.”