Arthur dies in 1899. It ain’t a great death, he supposes, but it also could have been worse. He did good right at the end there. Made amends for some of the mistakes in his life. Mostly, when he closed his eyes for that final time, he remembers feeling relief.
He’s had enough. Let him rest.
He rests for eighty-six years. And then the god forsaken universe has the nerve to spit him back out again.
Arthur had met more than one Incarnate in his life; the unlucky folks who got reborn years after their death. He’d always thought that sounded downright miserable. Why on earth would he ever want to do this again? Once was more than enough.
He’s born for the second time in a Texas hospital in 1985 to a single-mother who had more than enough on her plate already by the time Arthur came along. He knows from the moment he’s capable of thinking beyond pissing and shitting who he is and where he came from.
Incarnate laws in Texas are looser than some of the other states. Record keeping ain’t as strict. One don’t have to report themselves unless they wanna, and Arthur sure as fuck don’t.
By the time he’s thirteen, his mother says to him, “You’re the grimmest teenager I ever saw, child of mine. It’s like you’ve got the whole world on your skinny little shoulders.”
Arthur, who is technically older than his own mother, says, “This is just the face you gave me, ma. I’m doing the best I can with it.”
That gets a small smile out of her at the very least, which is more than Arthur gets on most days. His mother had a bad run of life, and although Arthur has never told her the truth, she’s far too smart not to suspect - and no mother wishes for a child who was never a child at all.
High school is... tolerable. Something Arthur could have done without, honestly. He’s got an alright head on his shoulders, but he never was much for book learning. It’s downright patronizing sitting in a classroom for six hours a day, learning things he ain’t got no need for.
(he does well in art. Hilariously bad in history. It turns out people are more interested in what the records say than the truth.)
He scrapes passing grades for his mother's sake if not his own. She doesn’t make him go to graduation, which goes to prove that he’s not the only one aware that they’re walking a delicate balance of compromises.
Two weeks later, he leaves home. He doesn’t bother telling the one or two friends he’d kept throughout the hell that was the mandatory modern education system. They’d been alright, but Arthur has little interest in spending time with people full decades younger than him.
His ma ain’t say much about it. “Call often,” she insists, pressing a wad of bills into his resisting hands. “I know you like to think you’re above all worldly restraints, but I will hunt you down and skin you alive myself if you try and ghost me.”
“I know, ma,” Arthur says, as patiently as he’s learnt how.
“I did not spend fifteen hours in labour to push out an ungrateful degenerate who doesn’t even know how to call his own mother, old soul or not.”
“I’ll call,” Arthur says. “Jesus, ma.”
Satisfied, she pats him lightly on the cheek and then all but pushes him out the door. “Get gone then. Hopefully you’ll find somebody better equipped to put up with your shit.”
Arthur goes. He works his way across the states. He stops for a few weeks in Missouri when the money he’d left with runs dry. There’s not a lot of work for somebody with barely a high school diploma and unreasonably high standards for employment, so he finds the nearest back-bar poker gamer and cleans it up.
Admittedly, folks ain’t too cheerful about having their savings swept away by a scowling eighteen-year-old, but Arthur still remembers how to throw a mean right hook, and he heads to Tennessee with a pocket full of cash and some fresh bruises he wears with nostalgic pride.
He breezes around the state for the better part of three years, gambling and occasionally working as a ranch hand. He never did lose his touch with horses, and if there’s one thing that time has done right, it’s horse rearing.
Eventually, he leaves there too. He keeps heading east, for no real reason other than he wants to. It’s a strange change of pace, but he thinks he could grow to like it.
In a biker bar in North Carolina a man who looks a good ten years older than him buys him a drink. He’s alright, Arthur supposes. He’s never had high standards when it comes to men, but he hadn’t really been looking.
“What’s your name?” Arthur asks.
The man offers him a smile and says, “John.”
“Aw, shit,” Arthur says, downs the drink, and goes home with him.
The sex is incredibly mediocre, but Arthur’s had worse. He doesn’t honestly remember much about it other than gasping “John” right before he comes.
Arthur sneaks out at just past three in the morning, and by the time the sun rises he’s halfway to Virginia.
On his twenty-eighth birthday, Arthur makes the incredibly drunk choice to register as an Incarnate.
He’s in Iowa, and he’s feeling nauseatingly homesick for a place and people that no longer exists. It’s a dumb thing to think about, but he’s officially older now than John was, that last time he saw him.
He doesn’t know why that should matter. It doesn’t, not really. If there’s a god out there, John hopefully went on to live a long, full life - he got a chance to grow old and die with Abigail and Jack, and live out all the things that were taken from him when he joined the gang.
But Arthur’s mind sticks on it. It sticks on it something fierce. All he can think about is Dutch and the gang - Charles and Lenny and even goddamn Micah Bell, who Arthur wouldn’t have pissed on if he were on fire.
He misses waking up in the morning to the sound of the girls grumbling over the coffee pot, Hosea and Abigail teaching Jack his letters so that he stood a chance at having a better life than the rest of them. The sound of white-tail deer crashing through the trees, Uncle snoring by the fire, Swanson staggering drunkenly around and making a general nuisance of himself.
And, of course, John.
Arthur doesn’t think he’s ever gone a day in either of his lives without missing John Marston one way or another.
He’s always thought that it don’t matter none if he has a piece of paper that told him who he was or not. As long as Arthur knew the truth, that was enough.
Right now, it doesn't feel like enough. Right now, he doesn’t know how anything could possibly ever be enough.
Everybody is dead. His gang - his family - they’re gone. Some of them got to live on without him, grow old without him, and die without him. And he didn’t get to be there for that - but he gets to be here for this?
It ain’t fair. It ain’t fair.
He makes an appointment with the Incarnation Registry Office while he’s drunk off his ass, but the next morning when he’s hungover and miserable he makes the choice to keep it.
The building is neat and small, tucked between a family dentist and some other niche government building Arthur hopes he never has to set foot in. The waiting room smells like bleach and lavender and it makes his eyes water fiercely.
A stern-looking woman with a badge the reads ‘DEBORAH’ collects him after a ten-minute wait. There’s a worn smiley face sticker at the edge of her badge.
He’s taken to a cluttered office and directed to a wobbly looking chair.
“Please take a seat, Mr. Collins,” she says, and Arthur does. “Now, you’re here to register as an Incarnate, is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says awkwardly. He has a thumping headache and he hopes desperately he doesn’t look as sick as he feels.
She looks him up and down. Whatever she sees does not seem to impress her. “If I may ask, you’re awfully old to only be registering now.”
That wasn’t exactly a question, but Arthur humours her. “I didn’t think much of this whole thing,” Arthur says. “Didn’t seem to matter if anybody else knows the truth but me.”
Deborah raises a brow. “What changed?”
Arthur thinks about bullshitting her, giving a canned answer, but he’s tired and he’s still homesick, and he thinks this might just be one of the rare occasions that honesty serves him well. “It was my birthday last night,” he says. “Twenty-eight. Ain’t nothin’ big, not really, but I had - I had a friend. And I realized I’m older now than I ever got the chance to see him be.” Arthur clears his throat and looked fixedly down at the desk. Somebody has etched their initials into it, and he passes his thumb along the rough wood, wondering what lifetime those letters belonged to. “And that’s… that’s something, isn’t it? I’m here, and he ain’t - and that should matter.”
It’s quiet for a moment. Arthur can hear the fan above them spinning squeakily, the outside sound of traffic passing by. It’s so fucking muggy that Arthur can feel sweat beading at his neck, sticking at the collar of the single nice shirt he thought he ought to wear for this.
“Yes,” Deborah says eventually, and her voice is just that little bit softer. “I should think that matters a great deal, Mr. Collins.”
Arthur glances up. She’s looking at him with something that might be understanding and might be pity. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved in this, but you seem like a man who knows what he’s doing, and I’ll be happy to walk you through it.”
Relief is a cool sweep rushing through him.
“Yeah,” Arthur says, voice a little hoarse. He clears his throat. “Yeah, that’d be good, thank you.”
They go through it all together, and she’d been right - it’s nothing short of a nightmare. There’s a lot of questions Arthur doesn’t actually know the answer to (Where was your place of passing? - List any surviving relatives - Were you charged with any crimes at the time of your death?) but in the end he thinks they do alright.
It’s rougher than he thought it would be writing down some of the details of his life. Certainly, he never thought he’d be filling out a little box labeled “date of your death” but here he is.
“Okay,” Deborah says, snapping the filled-out paperwork together into a thick pile. “Only one question left, and I want you to think about this one, alright?”
“I ain’t much good at thinking, but I’ll give it a shot.”
“Do you want your information to be listed on the accessible database for other Incarnates?” Deborah asks. “That way, if anybody from your past life has also been reincarnated, they’ll be able to reach out to you. And you’ll be able to search and reach out for them.”
“No,” Arthur says, immediately and without pause. “No, I - no thanks, ma’am.”
“Are you sure?” Deborah says. “It’s a simple addition.”
Arthur shakes his head fiercely. “I’m sure,” he says. “I don’t - I don’t need that. I know the statistics. I don’t need the temptation to…”
He can’t bring himself to finish the sentence. Arthur does not need to be given false hope. He does not need the reminder that he’s alone out here.
Deborah doesn’t push him further. “Alright,” she says, shuffling the papers together. “I’ll get this sorted for you. We’ll call you once the paperwork has gone through. You do know that you have the legal right to reclaim your name if you so wish?”
Arthur offers her a smile. “I reckon I’m alright,” he says. “I already went through the pain of changing my first name through the normal means as soon as I could.”
She nods and gets to her feet. Arthur hurries to copy her, and she surprises him by sticking out a hand. “It’s been good to meet you, Mr. Collins. I hope everything goes well for you.”
Surprisingly touched, Arthur takes it. “And you,” he says. “Thank you for your help. Means more to me than I reckon you know.”
“It was no trouble,” she insists, and Arthur doesn't argue because he doesn’t think he could ever convey the depth of his gratitude for her small kindnesses.
It doesn’t fix anything, not really. But he thinks this might be the first time in his whole damn life he’s been able to sit down and tell somebody what he is - who is he - and have them understand.
And that, at least, is worth something.
For the next few years, Arthur lives his life in pretty much exactly the same way.
He stays in one place only long enough to get enough money to travel to the next. He calls his mother every other weekend, and she makes sure to keep him posted on the riveting local affairs of their podunk hometown.
By the time he’s thirty, Arthur has the realization that he is, in fact, miserable.
He remembers telling Hosea more than once that he was never one to settle down, and he stands by that, but he’s starting to think that his itchy feet might have had more to do with the company he was in rather than a general inclination towards wandering.
He’s seen more of the country than he ever got to the first time around - even spent a brief stint in Mexico which was nice, and Alaska, which brought up all kinds of bad memories. Arthur’s fucked and fought his way through most of the USA’s continental population at this point, which would have been a dream back when he was dumb twenty-year-old the first time, and yet…
In Florida, he gets a knife pulled on him in a bar fight. Getting stabbed hurts a hell of a lot more than he remembers, and he’s a little disappointed with himself when the blood spurting out of his side takes him to his knees in less than a minute.
The man who stabbed him looks more scared than Arthur feels. When Arthur hits the floor, he books it out of the bar, pushing people aside in his hurry.
“Get back here!” Arthur hollers, making an aborted attempt to get to his feet. “This ain’t over yet!”
He means to give chase, but the world goes wonky and next thing he knows he’s on the ground, back to the bar. There are hands pressed to his side, and Arthur blinks at them stupidly, because unless his skin has gone about six shades darker in the past minute they sure don’t belong to me.
“Stop moving,” says a voice he does not recognize. “An ambulance is on its way, and if you die before they get here, I’m going to kill you even deader.”
Arthur cocks his head back and blinks.
It’s a woman; curly hair framing an incredibly annoyed looking face, as if Arthur has gone out of his way to inconvenience her.
“Who are you?” he slurs.
“Major,” she says shortly.
Arthur tries for a grin that feels deeply uncomfortable. “What’s that short for?”
“It’s short for ‘Stop Being Such A Major Pain In My Ass’,” she says. “Now shut up, you’re making the bleeding worse.”
Arthur makes an affronted noise, but obediently passes out. Distantly, he hopes that this doesn’t kill him. He doesn’t think he could deal with the embarrassment of being taken out by a single knife wielding coward.
Arthur does not die. He wakes up in a hospital bed he almost certainly cannot afford with an attractive and vaguely familiar woman sleeping in the armchair beside him.
“What,” Arthur says, “in the hell?”
The woman blinks awake with the perfect poise that Arthur has only ever seen in wild animals before. “Good morning,” she says. “You were stabbed in a roadside bar about fifteen hours ago. I saved your life.”
Arthur can see the faint remnants of blood crusted under her nails, and it’s a strange feeling to realize that not all that long ago it’d been inside his body. “And why would you do a thing like that?”
She gives him a strange look, and Arthur realizes that was perhaps a strange thing to say.
“My hippocratic oath keeps me from leaving people to bleed out on the floor no matter how incredibly fucking weird they are,” she says. She holds out a hand to him, and Arthur fumbles to take it, even though he feels like he has more pipes and wires plugged into him than is justifiable. “I’m sure you’ve forgotten, so I’ll tell you again; my name’s Major.”
“Major,” Arthur repeats. “It’s, uh. Thank you?”
She gives a wry smile. “Don’t thank me too much, Arthur,” she says. “You’ve still gotta get the bill for the hospital stay.”
“I don’t remember telling you my name.”
“Sweetheart, I’d be surprised if you remember much of anything from last night,” Major says, unsympathetic. “But yeah, I went through your wallet. Wanted to know what to tell the paramedics.”
Arthur thinks he might be madder about that if Major hadn’t earnt all the good grace he was capable of. “Alright,” he says. “I mean… why’d you stick around?”
“Wanted to ask you out for a drink when you woke up,” she says without batting an eye. “Platonically, I mean. Somewhere you won’t get stabbed. You seem like a fun sorta guy. Don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody screaming at the asshole who stabbed them to come back and finish the job.”
Arthur gives her a dry look. “Glad I made a good impression.”
“Go back to sleep,” she says kindly. “When you wake up I’ll introduce you to the good nurses.”
Arthur recovers from the stab wound at an annoyingly sedate pace. Used to be in the golden days he’d take a blade in the gut in the evening and be drinking again by the next morning.
Major, however, decides to stick with him through it all and true to her word introduces him to all the best nurses, including her best friend Steve, who reminds Arthur so much of Kieran Duffy that’s it’s uncanny.
“Why do you have to pick on him so much?” Major complains one day after Arthur mercilessly ribs Steve for the better part of an hour.
Arthur shrugs, watching fondly as Steve fetches their next round of drinks from the bar. “Reminds me of somebody I used to know,” he says, and then refuses to answer any more questions when pushed.
After that, life picks up a bit. Against all odds, he decides to stick around for longer than he’d planned. The good thing about living on the whim of all your choices is that he doesn’t have any commitments one way or another, and when six months in Florida stretches to ten, and then to a year, he surprises himself by not feeling the pull of far off lands.
He continues renting the same shithole of an apartment. He sees Major and Steve nearly every other day. He still refuses to get a steady job, but there’s enough odd-work going in the town that he doesn’t ever have to worry about it.
Arthur becomes a familiar face if not a friendly one. People learn his name. The coffee joint down the street recognizes him on sight. His favourite Chinese place has his regular order memorized.
For the first time in a very long time, he ain’t - he ain’t miserable. He doesn’t know if he’d go so far as to say he was happy, but he sure as hell ain’t thinking idly about stepping in front of a train so much anymore, which has gotta be progress in and of itself.
He’s got friends. He’s got stability.
For Arthur, stability has never been about having his feet on the same stretch of dirt, but about the people who stand there with him. And he hadn’t realized how cripplingly lonely he’d been until the weight of it was lifted from his shoulders.
Arthur has never been a man made for being left alone. How could he have been, when for so long he’d been with his gang, the lot of them living right on top of one another?
It’s not quite the same with Major and Steve, but it’s something, and Arthur had never thought he’d get anything at all ever again.
He don’t know that he’ll ever be happy like this, when all he can think about are the people he misses and the chances he never got to take, but he can make do.
And that’s enough.
Of course, no sooner does Arthur finally feel like things are looking up do things decide to take an incredibly downward turn.
He’s out with Major and Steve at their favourite bar when he hears the news, the lot of them sitting at the counter for once so that they have a clear view of the TV.
“After a decade long debate, all information pertaining to the Incarnate Registration Act will be made a matter of public record,” says the pretty redhead announcer. She sounds perky and cheerful, completely unconcerned that she’s demolishing Arthur’s world. “The bill is expected to pass next week, and as a result anybody will be able to access the names of any and all living Incarnates.”
“Well, shit,” marvels Steve, setting down his beer with a thump. “Never thought they’d go through with it.”
“Shh,” hisses Major, slapping him on the shoulder, eyes glued to the TV. “I want to hear this.”
“Incarnates will be required to lodge their status in their city of residence, and there will be strict punishments for noncompliance including possible jail time. While not all have been happy with this decision, many state that it was only a matter of time.”
There’s more after that, but Arthur isn’t paying attention, too busy fishing enough cash from his pocket to pay for however many drinks he’s had. He’s relatively sure he vastly over tips, but he’s far past caring.
“S’cuse me,” he says to his friends, and then he ducks out back before they can say anything at all.
His hands are steady as he lights up a cigarette but inside he feels shaken to his very core.
Thirty-three fucking years he’s been kicking around, and now they finally decide he ain’t entitled to a bit of privacy. Who do they think they are, making this choice for him? How can anybody who isn’t an Incarnate possibly understand how it feels to lead two lives, so strangely disconnected and present at the same time?
Arthur blows out a fog of smoke. It clears the panicked thrumming drowning out all the thought in his head, but only a little.
Arthur does not consider his status a secret, but he does consider it… his. He has gone well out of his way to keep away prying questions and greedy hands that would muddy the pureness of his memory with their opinions.
He’s done everything he possibly can to keep it all separate because a part of him cannot bear the thought of that heartache seeing the light of day.
The door creaks open behind him and he turns to look.
“Hey,” Steve says, uncomfortable. “You alright, man?”
Arthur flicks the last of the ash from the end of his cigarette and drops it, grinding it furiously beneath the heel of his boot. “Peachy keen,” he says.
Steve hesitates. “You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” Arthur says. “But ask me again in a month.”
Steve doesn’t look any more reassured, but he steps back, allowing Arthur into the bar. He claps him on the shoulder as he passes and says, “Whatever it is, we’re ready to listen when you’re ready to talk.”
Arthur thinks about being twelve years old and killing a man for the first time. He remembers how shockingly warm the blood had felt as it splattered his skin. He remembers being thirty and looting the dead bodies of a couple dozen O’Driscoll’s who had thought they could out gun them. He remembers being thirty-six and dying alone in the dirt, watching the sun rise for the last time of his life.
Sometimes, when he looks into the mirror, he doesn’t recognize himself. He wonders just how Steve and Major will ever be able to look at him the same again once they finally see those parts of himself he’s done his best to keep buried deep.
“We’ll see,” Arthur says. “I guess we’ll see.”
The bill passes. There’s more than one protest, but in the end the weight of government bureaucracy is always far heavier than most people can bear the burden of. He catches snippets of it all in the newspaper and on the radio, but does he level best not to watch it too closely.
Two days after the Incarnate Registry Act officially becomes law, he gets a phone call.
“Mr. Collins,” says the monotone government employee on the other end. “This is a courtesy call to remind you that as of the sixteenth of this month, all Incarnate information is now public record.” The faint sound of papers shuffling through the phone line. “According to your files, you don’t have a current place or residence listed?”
Arthur’s been dreading this call with a fervency that defies description. “Well, you see, I move around a lot. For work. I ain’t got -.”
“What kind of work?”
Arthur glances over his shoulder to the poker table where his opponents are waiting impatiently. “That’s a private matter.”
“You have two weeks to lodge your place of residency with the registry,” says the clerk.
“Or else what?”
“Then you will be sent a warning. After that, you will be fined for each week you’re in violation of the law. After a certain period, you will be facing possible jail time.”
Arthur sighs, rubbing at his eyes. Inexplicably, he feels more exhausted than he can explain. “Alright,” he relents. “Is there paperwork I gotta fill out for this or…?”
“We can have it sent to you in the mail,” says the clerk.
“I gotta tell you my address for you to send it to me, can’t you just use that?”
Arthur swears under his breath. Goddamn bureaucratic bastards and their inability to make anything easy on the people. “Okay, okay,” he says. “Here’s my damn address.”
He can hear the tapping of keys as the clerk copies it down, and then he ends the call with a polite, “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Collins.”
“Oh, go sit on a goddamn rattlesnake,” Arthur says, and hangs up viciously.
Honestly, other than being a pain in his ass, Arthur hadn’t expected much to change. If he keeps his head down and doesn’t cause no trouble he can’t run away from, he should be fine. There ain’t no reason for anybody to actually look him up, not really.
And there ain’t anybody he wants to look up either. He decided a long time ago that the past was better left as just that. He’s got enough scars over the soft parts of himself without picking at them until they bleed.
A week after the act passes, Arthur goes out for drinks with Major and Steve again. It’s been a while, and he’s mighty keen for anything strong enough to settle the faint fracture lines that are starting to grow inside of him, looking more like earthquake potential with every blow that hits.
Major buys the first round, handing Arthur a beer that tastes almost as bad as the piss Uncle used to smuggle back into the camp when nobody was paying enough attention to stop him. “You doing okay?” she asks. “You’ve been looking even more sour than usual lately.”
“Yeah,” Arthur says, settling at their small back room table. “Just had a bit of a rough few weeks.”
“I guess this is going to be another one of those things you don’t feel like talking about it?” Steve asks with a faint smile.
Arthur shrugs, noncommittal, and picks at the label of his bottle. “Ain’t that you lot aren’t good listeners,” he says. “I’m just not a great talker, I think.”
Major laughs. “It’s that southern drawl of yours,” she says. “Makes everything you say sound like it came straight from a cowboy western.”
Arthur pulls a face before he can help it. “Why you always gotta make that joke?” he complains. “Don’t you have any new material?”
“Oh, suck it up, pretty-boy,” Major says cheerfully. “I’m sure you’ve been called worse.”
Arthur goes to reply with something sufficiently biting, but he notices Major’s not looking at him anymore. She’s staring over his shoulder, her smile dimmed and polite as she watches somebody approaching.
There’s no reason for it, but Arthur feels his stomach drop. A wave of premonition hits him with all the subtleness of a truck. Inexplicably, Arthur thinks of the blind old man by the road he’d once thought was a prophet.
For a second, Arthur experiences a very real disconnect - he’s sitting in the back of a bar in the ass-end of Florida in 2018 - he’s nursing a cup of mediocre moonshine beside the campfire in 1890.
It’s not the voice he recognizes, which is softer than he’s used to, but the tone. The harsh sound of his name which is half hero worship and half disdain. So familiar that Arthur recognizes it even after a hundred year without it.
Steve and Major are staring behind him, eyebrows raised in polite inquiry. Arthur feels like he can taste his own heartbeat. Slowly, like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, he turns.
John looks - he looks the same but different. A sharper jaw, an unbroken nose. His eyes aren’t quite as beady. Handsome in that same roguish way though; too rough around the edges to ever bring home to your mother. His hair is cut exactly the same. Arthur really don’t know what to think about that.
You’re alive, he thinks, dizzy with the marvel of it all. Holy shit, you’re here.
He’s so busy uselessly staring that it takes him several long, aching seconds to realize that John looks nothing short of absolutely furious. Even with his new face, it’s a good look on him.
Arthur means to say something useful, honest he does, but when he opens his mouth all that comes out is, “Holy shit.”
If the way John grabs him and hauls him to his feet is anything to go by, it is not the answer he’s looking for. Arthur stumbles and the pair of them knock over a chair. Major barely manages to scramble out of the way in time, shouting, “Woah, hey, what the fuck?”
“Son of a bitch,” John says, slamming him into a wall hard enough to rattle the windows.
“Hold up,” Arthur wheezes, grappling to keep them steady. “John, listen -.”
Arthur doesn't see the punch coming, but he sure as fuck feels it. It’s been a while since he’s been hit by somebody who knows what they’re doing, and John certainly doesn’t hold back. His vision goes wobbly for a second and there’s a faint ringing in his ears. He can just make out Major and Steve behind John’s back - Steve ashen-faced, hands over his mouth, and Major coming at them with the scariest fucking expression Arthur has ever seen. Faintly, he can see a beer bottle in her hand.
He foresees a future where Major brains John before they even get a good minute to talk, and that more than anything is what spurs him into action.
Arthur breaks John’s grip on him, grabbing him by the coat and switching their positions. He throws him against a wall, and then thrusts out a hand to stave off Major. “It’s okay, it’s okay - I got it, Major.”
“You ain’t got nothing, Morgan,” John snarls, and Arthur so very narrowly manages to lean back in time to avoid a spectacular headbutt. He’d forgotten the way John fought dirty - he shouldn’t have. He’d been the one to teach him after all.
From the corner of his eye, he can see Major ever reluctantly lowering her makeshift weapon. “Arthur, what the fuck?”
“Hold on up,” Arthur insists again, and refuses to shift his eyes from John. “This is an old friend.”
John snorts, mouth twisting into a wry, bitter smile. “Old friend, huh? Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“Well, it’s true, ain’t it? Probably truer than most folks can claim.”
“I ain’t your friend, Morgan,” John says, and then spits in his face.
Arthur has to remind himself that he had more than one hand in raising the boy, and John really has more than a right to be mad at him for any number of things.
“No, I guess not,” Arthur agrees. “We’re family. How about we take this reunion somewhere more private.”
He grabs John by the scruff of his coat and hauls him out of the bar, ignoring Major and Steve as they shout after him, and John as he kicks and hollers.
Arthur doesn’t have much to take pride in, but at least he never did run from his problems, expecting other people to fight his battles for him.
There’s a back door leading out to an empty alley that Arthur likes to use when he needs a bit of air to clear his head, and he kicks it open, throwing John out there and slamming the door behind them. John stumbles down the steps and rams his shoulder into the opposing wall.
“Now,” Arthur says, swaggering down the steps. “Can we discuss this?”
John turns around, glaring daggers. Arthur can just see that he’s itching to take another swing at him, so he steps as close as he dares and holds up his hands in a peace offering. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
John looks about as indignant as Arthur has ever seen him. “What the hell’s the matter with me? What the hell’s the matter with you?” John reaches out and seizes Arthur by his shirt front, slamming him back against the wall. “You find out you’re an Incarnate, and you don’t even try to see if anybody from the gang came back around too? And you have the guts to ask why I’m fucking mad?”
“It’s not like that,” Arthur says, grabbing John’s wrists and trying to pry him off. “I wasn’t thinking nothin’ like -.”
“Yeah, you clearly weren’t thinking.” John shoves him, and Arthur winces as the bricks dig in against his shoulder. “If that damn law making all our business public record hadn’t passed, I never would have even found you.”
“Look,” Arthur says, voice rising loud enough that he ought to be worried about the folks inside hearing. He ain’t really worried about much else other than John fucking Marston right now though, which is usually how things went. “The chances -.”
“But there was still a chance,” John says. He opens his arms wide, as if gesturing to the whole word. “I’m standing right here, Arthur. So clearly there was a fucking chance.”
Arthur very suddenly realizes it doesn’t matter what he says, he ain’t got a hope in hell of defusing the angry tension vibrating through them both. They were never the sort to talk out their problems. How could they have been, when they were raised on gunpowder and violence?
John has every right to be angry, and Arthur just don’t have the vocabulary he needs to explain why he did what he did. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the boys of the Van der Linde gang only ever responded to that in one way.
Arthur shrugs out of his coat, dropping it to the filthy alley floor. He turns around, meeting John’s half angry, half puzzled expression. “Well?” Arthur beckons at John with all the confidence that two lives worth of trouble making has taught him. “Are you gonna take a swing at me properly or not, boy?”
He’s barely got the last word out of his mouth before John is on him, knuckles scraping Arthur’s face and knee just barely missing his gut. It’s precisely the kind of fight that Arthur has been looking desperately for these past thirty years - furious and dirty.
Arthur manages to get a hand around the back of John’s neck and holds him still for just long enough to get in a few tight punches. John manages to break his grip and, before Arthur can even realize what he’s going to do, he tackles Arthur straight to the ground.
The shock of it sends the air whistling from his lungs, but Arthur barely gets a second of dazed blinking in before John grabs him by his shirt front and slugs him hard enough in the face that he worries that a tooth might have popped loose.
Arthur gets his arms up to protect his face, and then when John slows for a second in exhaustion, Arthur bucks him off furiously. They grapple on the ground, slamming each other to the concrete. There’s no coordination, just anger and momentum, and Arthur doesn’t even think about it when he slams his elbow into John’s face, sense memory and the instincts of a dozen bar brawls guiding him.
Blood explodes like a fountain, splattering them both, and John rears back, both hands clasped over his face. He looks faintly surprised, and Arthur feels contrite enough for both of them.
“This is the second time you’ve broken my damn nose, Morgan,” John says thickly. “If you’ve got a problem with my face, just come out and say it, you hear?”
Already Arthur can see the beginnings of a truly spectacular black eye blooming on John’s face, and there’s more than one graze freckled faintly with blood. Arthur himself feels like he just went ten rounds in the ring with somebody far out of his weight class, which to be fair is usually how all interactions with John leave him feeling.
With a suddenness that leaves him numb with longing, Arthur realizes just how fucking much he’d missed this - missed John.
“Aw, fuck,” Arthur says gruffly, and reels John in roughly for a biting kiss.
John tastes like fresh blood, and Arthur’s lips are stinging and swollen from that cruel punch John caught him with right near the end there. The shock of it and the flare of pain is enough to make them both hiss, but John’s hands are pulling at him. There’s no grace, no consideration, just bitterness and misery which is exactly how Arthur remembers this being.
It doesn’t go for that long. They’re in a filthy back alley and anybody could come out that door any minute. Also, Arthur thinks he might have a shallow concussion. John hadn’t learnt how to pull his damn punches, that was for sure.
When John feels Arthur pulling back he shoves, knocking them apart. His nose ain’t bleeding anymore, but there’s blood all over his face. Arthur can taste it in his mouth, and it’s a far better feeling than it ought to be.
The light out here is dim at best, and the shadows it casts on John’s bloody face are strangely disorientating. John’s slumped against the wall, and Arthur watches as he rubs at his jaw, flexing it a little to check if Arthur’s broken anything important.
Arthur doesn’t know what to say. They seem to be done throwing punches, and Arthur’s not sure he can stand to kiss John again right now. He feels rattled and overwhelmed, which are feelings that he typically explores by doing something incredibly dumb and risky.
He ain’t sure he can stand to do that right now either. Feels like he’s already done enough dumb and risky shit to last a lifetime - two life times.
Arthur gets to his feet slowly, wincing as his poor old knees protest something fierce. He’s not as limber as he used to be back in the day, and he ain’t had a good tussle in more years than he can count.
“Here,” he says, awkwardly holding out a hand.
John looks at it, Arthur’s bloody and filthy palm, and then back up to meet his eyes. “I don’t get it,” he says. “You was always the one gettin’ on my case about how important family is. I left for one damn year, and you were harping on about it right up until the end.”
Arthur breaks their gaze and reaches down to haul John up. John lets him, staggering a little and using Arthur’s shoulder for support. His hand spasms as it clutches at Arthur’s shirt, and Arthur cannot tell for the life of him whether John’s fighting the impulse to punch or kiss him again.
“How old are you now, Morgan?” John asks. “You look’n like an old man again.”
“Shut your mouth, I’m only thirty-three.”
“Thirty-three,” John says, “and you never once looked for any of us.”
The accusation hurts like a bullet to the gut, which it really shouldn’t on account of it being the damn truth. Arthur steps away, stooping down to pick up his jacket. It’s exactly as filthy as he thought it would be, but Major gave it to him for Christmas and he’d never hear the end of it if he just left it out here to rot.
“Come on,” Arthur says, not meeting John’s eyes as he shrugs it back on and begins to lead the way out of the alley. John doesn’t move and Arthur turns, scowling, and snaps his fingers. “Well? Jesus, Marston - did death make you slow as well as stupid? Let’s get a move on.”
John returns his scowl but falls into step behind him. From the corner of his eyes, Arthur can see the bruised scrapes on his knuckles. He doesn’t mean to stare, but John catches him looking and awkwardly tucks his hands in his pockets.
Probably for the best. Neither of them needs temptation of any sort right now.
“Where are we headed?”
“My place,” Arthur says shortly. “You didn’t let me finish my beer and I think we’re both in the need of a strict drink.”