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To the Me Who Doesn't Know

Chapter Text

Stranger sits beside John.

John looks up -- man's got some vibrant scars, a low slung hat, a bit of a beard growing in. And in his hand is a fiddle, bow tucked against its neck.

John makes some room.

"Afternoon," stranger says. His voice is rough, quiet. Familiar, somehow. John knows its eerily familiar but he can't place how. He's got a lot to think about anyway.

"Afternoon," he says.

Abigail laughs, chasing after the toddling Jack - and both their heads snap up.

When John looks, just a glance, the man's eyes are soft. Tender.

"That your wife?" the stranger says, the words oddly tight.

"Uh," John says. Still vibrant on his cheek is the feeling of Abigail's fist, how she screamed at him for the year he was missing. He could argue away about five months of it, when he was sick and recovering and repaying debts, but the rest of that year was just cowardice. Plain and simple. "Suppose so."

"She's real beautiful," the stranger says. Quiet.

There's this kind of quiet, still tension, like he's going to say more - but he doesn't. Just kind of nods, eyes following Abigail as she scoops Jack into her embrace.

"That your son?" stranger says, but it's almost not a question.

"Yeah. I-" John stutters. "Least, I think so."

He trusts Abigail. She'd told him that Jack was his. She'd told him she wasn't doing anything with anyone that could get a girl pregnant. She told him she'd stopped visiting others. She had smiled, in the moments after Jack's birth, and wept a little about the eyes that were John's through and through.

But sometimes something curdles inside him -- not possessiveness, per se, not jealousy, but something more visceral. Watching the way Arthur can pick up Jack, hold him close and sing awkward songs to him, the way Jack relaxes in a way he fundamentally can't and doesn't with John - knowing that as much and as tenderly as he loves Arthur, as much and as overwhelmingly as he loves Abigail - if it was just Abigail and Arthur, everything would be better.

That he was irrelevant. That he could disappear and not be missed.

"That's your son." The stranger says, firm. "That's your wife."

He turns, slow, eyes lingering on the stranger. The stranger stares back at him with deep brown eyes.

"How would you-"

But John finds the words don't come past that. This stranger -- knows.

The stranger stands. Looks out on Arthur plucking Jack out of Abby's arms, the way Arthur cheats his body back towards John, the way Arthur's smile falls when his eyes alight on the stranger-

And then the stranger's tucked that fiddle -- that dark fiddle, near-black, with a length of blue ribbon tied up at the tuning pegs -- under his chin, and plays something slow and mournful.

Nearly a drone. And then a voice that is roughshod as an old country road, singing like if he sang clear enough his words could reach some merciful god. A shiver goes down John's spine -- he can feel Arthur and Abigail and Jack all staring at the two of them --

And as that shiver goes down John's spine --

He knows this song. He's never heard it before. But he knows this song, deep in his bones. And together, he and that stranger sing.

"Let em' roll and I'm gone. Take me down, down below. You won't get to heaven with blood on your trail -- I have tried and I have failed."

Singing like his breath could carry across a canyon -- without strain, just with force. If his voice catches along the wear of his throat, in that warble that Abigail had fallen in love with and Arthur teased him gentle about, then it was alright. This was not singing to sound good. This was something else.

The song ends. John breathes deeply. The stranger smiles, soft and quiet, tips his hat. "That was good singing, brother."

Arthur and Abigail stare up at the two of them -- Arthur looks on the edge of words -- Abigail's cheeks are flushed. Arthur- looks like he's going to tell them off-

Jack looks up and says, clear as day, looking at the two of them, "Papa."

The three of them stare down at Jack. It wasn't like Jack was a quiet kid -- he'd already said his first words in the year John was gone, but it was the first time he'd looked at John and called him his father.

Jack reaches his little hand, grasping like he was saying hello to John and the stranger.

John reaches out his hand, dipping along the railing of the porch, and Jack grasps it easy.

When they look back, the stranger is gone. Leaving nothing behind but the words to a song John doesn't know - but will.

Chapter Text

A stranger sits beside Abigail.

She's too dizzy to notice. It's the first time she's gone out this far really pregnant. 

It's all too new. Too scary, sometimes. You'd never see the gals in the business who decided to keep the babies, you'd never see them after their bellies swelled -- Abigail knew the warning signs but not the lived experiences of pregnancy.

She needed fresh air. She needed to be away from Grimshaw, whose motherly hand had turned restrictive once she knew Abigail was pregnant, and Dutch, who couldn't seem to decide if he was playing papa or grandpa. And so she'd gotten Bill to bring her out to this town, while he went to do some under the table trading. 

"Scuse me, miss," the stranger says quietly, "Are you alright?"

Her head snaps to him.

Bad idea. The world spins, and she groans, covering her face as if that would help. 

The stranger chuckles, a little, pulling a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wetting in with water from a canteen. Then, he offers it to her. 

She takes it, hesitantly. He's...

Familiar, somehow. But not familiar, too. Older than her by a decade or so, with silver sparkling at his temples, big scars along his right cheek. But there's his eyes, that are deep and brown and uncomplicated. 

He's handsome. A little flush rises to her cheeks at thinking it, at the image of John that pops into her head, the lean wiry way he is, his broad shoulders, those lovely deep brown eyes that she had fallen in love with.

Ugh. She has a type.

"Miss," he says, a smile breaking along his face. 

"Sorry," she stutters. He's like John, but older, sturdier -- a settled-down John. "I'm just dizzy."

"Pregnancy does that, doesn't it," he says, shifting a little closer.

She stares. "I didn't think it was so obvious," she says, but her hands hover to her stomach. She's been supporting it when it spasms, and it's just become something she does.

"Mm, maybe not to someone else, but I can, uh," he wobbles his head like he has a marble stuck inside his skull, another thing alarmingly like John, "Can just tell, somehow."

She looks at this man who is disturbingly like-John. And as she wipes her brow with his damp handkerchief, any fight in her slips. 

"Yes," she murmurs, "I'm pregnant."

He nods. "And how are you feeling about that?"

She furrows her brow. "You're a stranger, I don't have to tell you."

He laughs, showing off a broken tooth in the back of his mouth. 

...Just like John's broken tooth.

It's... one hell of a coincidence,if it is. Her stomach spasms, but it's not just the pregnancy.

"You're right about that, miss, but I figured I could lend an ear."

Her gut spasms again. Her breath isn't quite coming. This...

This must be John. Older, though. Pleasantly domestic. 

Who was it that had helped him be this? Where were the scars from? Why was he looking at her with this fond smile?

"...It's just scary. It's the first time I've been pregnant."

"Mmhm," he hums.

She opens out the handkerchief, tracing the clumsy embroidery on its surface. It is not skillful, but it's sincere. It definitely is her handiwork. Blue on white, like pretty china.

"I'm excited -- we're excited, my husband and I -- but it's all so much and all something I never expected."

The man -- John -- nods. Leans forward, resting his elbows on his thighs and his chin in his hands. Stares forward into the open land, the sparse green grass that grows between the two shops. Puts a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"You'll be okay," he says. "Kids -- people, really -- they're tough to raise. And well, I don't know the kind of man your husband is-" he glances back at her, the little crook to his eyes that was his half-truth-for-Abigail face, "But I'm sure you'll love each other enough to get over any troubles you might encounter."

"...You speak from experience?" she leads.

He laughs, sitting back again, his feet splaying out. She wonders if he's at all trying to be covert, with the little tells she's learned about him over this past half year. "Yes'm. The wife and I have a darling son, seventeen years old. He's a little fussy, too smart by half -" 

John chuckles, smoothing a thumb over his shaky grin, voice warbling, "Aw, but he's such a good kid."

When his hand falters off her shoulder, she places her own on his.

"I'm sorry," she says, fearing the answer -- whatever had made him cry about his son, their son would only make her cry too. "What happened?"

"Nothin', he says, shaking his head, pressing his thumb to his lips, "Nothin' - I'm just going away for a while." He leans down, elbows on his knees, thumbs pressing to the corners of his eyes. "I'm gonna... gonna miss 'em."

She just gently strokes his back. The dizziness has eased off.

"Sorry," he says, after a moment. He sits back up, sighing. "Just... s'gonna be hard. Waiting until I see 'em again."

She nods, strokes his shoulder more. "But isn't that good? That you love them enough to miss 'em like this?"

"Yeah," he says, settling the fiddle beside him into his lap. "Yeah it is."

And he smiles at her. And it's the same smile as it's ever been, just maybe with more creases. It'd be improper, but she feels the urge to swipe her thumb against those scars gently, give him a kiss.

"Would you like a song?" He asks, softly. Like a secret.

"Yes please," she murmurs back.

He stands, bringing the fiddle -- deep black, with a piece of blue ribbon -- under his chin. "For you, Abigail," he says, smiling real softlike.

Soft like a few weeks ago, when he'd laid down with her, when he'd put his hands on her belly and asked -- seriously -- You're really okay with me being this baby's father? --and she'd said -- yes, of course, I wouldn't want anyone else -- and he had smiled, just like this, like she'd made the Mississippi flow with just a word.

He plays, temperate. It's not the mournful drone he'd hear sometimes, when he'd sing songs about death and and loneliness, but it's not the crazy sawing she'd hear in a song about debauchery. It's something else. Something more tender, without pretension.

When he begins to sing, there's no doubt in her mind that this is John. If she hadn't noticed before, there was no way she'd be fooled now.

He gently spins an image -- something domestic, comfortable. A wide stretch of land. A farmhouse. He doesn't have to say it directly, she feels it burn instead, warm and certain.

"Ring like silver, ring like gold, ring out those ghosts on the old high road -- Ring like clear day wedding bells. Were we the belly of the beast or the sword that fell? We’ll never tell..."

It feels like all the things she wants for her and John but knows she can't have. She knows they're outlaws -- they don't get things like domesticity.

But-

But this John? He doesn't look like an outlaw. Not in the same way he does now.

So there has to be - something.

She is allowed to hope.

At the end of his song, she claps eagerly. He laughs, rubbing the back of his neck. 

"Will you be okay, ma'am?"

She nods, standing up when he offers his hand.

"Do you need a ride home? Or did you come here with someone?" He looks about, quirking his mouth.

"I came with a friend," she says, laughing a little at calling Bill a friend. He is, after the night he tried to hire her but couldn't go through with it. They talked until morning about lovers they've had, and there was now an unshakable trust there.

She doesn't notice Bill strolling by until John calls, "Bill Williamson! Who leaves a pregnant woman by her lonesome!"

Bill's head swivels, looking like a startled chicken. Abigail guffaws as Bill stomps over.

"Who - who said that, Miss Roberts?" he yelps, looking around.

She points as she doubles over giggling.

But there isn't anyone there.

"Are you practicing for a sideshow or something? That sounded just like John!"

She stares at the space where that older John had been. "No, there was... someone here a moment ago."

Bill stares up at her, brows furrowed and a deep frown. After a moment he shrugs and offers his hands to help her down from the porch.

"You're all done?" she asks.

"Yep. No problems. You were okay?"

She shrugs. "I got a little dizzy. Someone sat with me and gave me his handkerchief-"

And she finds that it is still in her hand, her clumsy embroidery giving her hope for a tender future.

Chapter Text

A stranger sits by Arthur.

Except Arthur knows it is not a stranger at all.

His lungs rattle. Each breath hurts, promising a coughing fit that would make him faint again. He is sitting out on the balcony of some place in Saint Denis, and there is this stranger sitting beside him.

Except it is not a stranger.

The man has dark hair, swarthy skin, and bright, vibrant scars along his cheek. Arthur had seen them fresh, just a few months ago. Time has settled them.

The man is lean, lithe -- broad shoulders but a small waist that he had held a thousand times before. Tucked under the man's arm is a fiddle.

It's John. Not now's-John. But a future John.

"You a hallucination?" He asks, knocking his heel into John's leg.

John looks at him, a little incredulous smile coming to his lips.

"You're the first one to recognize me," John says.

"You're the same as you ever was." Arthur reaches for the short scruff of hair at his nape, buries his fingers there, hooks a thumb into the neckerchief John wore sometimes, pulled taut over his Adam's apple.

"I-" John smiles, ducks his head. "I don't think anyone else would say the same. Not even myself."

"Bullshit," Arthur spits, but it dissolves into wet, hacking coughs. John touches his shoulder, watches patiently. Arthur hides the blood in his neckerchief.

"Forgot how bad you sounded," John says, spreading a warm hand along Arthur's ribs.

"Sorry I don't sound like a fuckin' orator. I'm sick."

"I know you are," John says, "TB is one hell of a thing."

Arthur looks at this John. Older. Quietly sure in a way his John is not. Almost dignified.

He hasn't told his John that he's sick. Well, John knows, he guesses, but that John doesn't know it's TB, necessarily. 

"Where are you coming from, anyway?" Arthur asks, quietly.

"Future. Just wrapping some things up," he says, lacing his fingers together and stretching that broad back. John looks even more robust -- with a gentle belly that speaks to comfortable aging. "Just saying goodbye where I can. Already visited Abigail, and myself. Taught myself a song, way I was supposed to."

John takes up the fiddle -- deep brown, with a strip of blue ribbon-

Oh. He's seen this fiddle before.

"Back in 1895?"

John nestles it into his shoulder, pensively plucking each string, tuning. "Mm-hm," he hums, the vibration of it travelling into the body of the fiddle and resonating. 

"I saw you then."

"Of course youdid. You were watching me sing along."

"No," Arthur says, pointedly. Rests a hand on John's thigh. "No -- I saw you."

John's eyes drift across to stare at Arthur. What a sight he must look, gaunt and strange and beaten like a dog. Nothing like the man in 1895, so filled with rage and love and newfound feelings and comfort. Nothing like the man who had felt his family was complete where now it was all undoing itself. 

"I wanted to kiss you," John laughs. Plucks and tunes. "I saw you, hale and healthy again, holding Jack in your arms like you were supposed to, saw you flirting with Abigail the way you were supposed to." He closes his eyes, taking up the neck of the fiddle and his bow and drawing the bow across the strings. "But I couldn't. You then didn't know how much we loved each other."

"I knew how much I loved you two. I know how much I love you two."

John tilts his chin on the fiddle, looking at him with the softest eyes.

"You don't know how much we love you."

John stares out across the rooftops. Fiddles out a simple, quiet tune.

"I didn't know how much I loved you until you were dead. And now, I'm realizing I didn't even know then."

Arthur sits back. Stares out over the rooftops too. "So I die?"

"Of course. We all die, though."

"But I die before you."

"Yes," John says, doing a quick trill with his bow, "And it breaks our hearts. Jack asks for an entire year when Papa Arthur will come back."

Arthur's heart sinks into his stomach. Sweet little Jack. That boy who was almost his son, who he had raised in infancy when John was a fool-

Arthur sits back. Let out a shaky, wheezing breath. The heat -- and the humidity -- sticks to his skin, but there's a chill that won't go away anymore. 

"Do you have a request?" John says, standing tall. Despite the bustle of the city, no one looks up at John, broad and quiet in the light. He looks so much older -- must be about as old as Arthur is now, if not a little older. 

"...Llwyn Onn."

John smiles. The late evening light catches the edge of his face. He looks peaceful. "That old favorite?"

"Yeah." 

"For you? Anything. I'd get up on this railing and crow like a rooster if you asked."

"...I love you," Arthur says, out of turn and without prompting.

"I know," John says, humming along with the melody he plays, confident and sure. How many times had he played it, in those years that separated them? "I love you too."

Arthur closes his eyes. Lets the music wash over him. Lets the sound of John's fiddle play him down.

Just beside the ache in his chest, the knowledge he really is going to die, that John and Abby and Jack will all outlive him like they were always going to, there is a quiet, certain warmth. That John cared about him enough to visit him again. 

"John," Arthur murmurs, voice like gravel.

"Mmhm."

"Should Abby be here?"

"She'd be here if she could," John says quietly. "But she's still busy."

"She knows I love her, right?"

"Of course she does."

"I do -- I love her. I love the two of you so much. I want-"

He's a fool, sitting in some cheap chair in a crowded section of Saint Denis, sobbing to a ghost.

"I want to go with you two. Get out with you. Marry the both of you, raise our boy together." With a great, wheezing breath, he sobs, "I don't want to say goodbye to you."

John is silent for a moment, the sound of the fiddle still playing but wavering. 

"I know, Arthur. I know. But trust me. The time you spend with us from now on -- it's some of my best memories. We know you're dying. We just want to spend the rest of our time with you."

Arthur swallows. It feels like broken glass, how raw his throat is from coughing. His voice is small, pitiful when he finally speaks. "How much longer do I have with you, now?"

"Just one more song."

It's not long enough. It'll never be long enough. Like when he goes into the Marstons' tent each night, lays down between the two of them -- in the morning he has to get up, and it feels like he's ripping an organ out of himself every time he does. When Abby and him play hide and seek with little Jack, when he pulls Abby into his hiding place and they grin at each other. When he and John mumble sleepily over coffee-

John plays a familiar tune. Sings. Sure and certain.

Arthur joins in on "I wish that I was staying here, or I was going with you."

Arthur has so many questions. Will he die peacefully, painfully? Will his family be by his side? Will Dutch even notice he's dead? Will Abby be okay? Will Jack?

"I wish my breast were made of glass, wherein you might behold -- upon my heart your name is etched in letters made of gold."

Arthur is clumsy with timing, starting and stopping out of rhythm, and he's got none of the range John does, and he barely knows the harmony, but...

The words are certain.

"The blackest crow that e'er did flew would surely turn to white; if ever I prove false to you, bright day would turn to night."

John's voice wavers, quiets. The fiddle plays quieter and quieter, until Arthur is left humming by his lonesome.

The city is alive with its usual burble. Something uniquely Saint Denis -- A mix of languages, cadences, joy and sorrow and anger all mushed together. And here, above it all, he sits. Singing to himself, mumbling the words. Words about devotion.

A hand comes to rest on his shoulder. And two little hands rest on his knee.

When he opens his eyes, Jack is peering up at him, his little eyebrows knitted together.

Abby is at his side, leaning over him. 

"There you are," she says, stroking his shoulder, "We couldn't find you."

"I was just up here."

"Papa Arthur," Jack says, gripping at the thick material of Arthur's trousers, "Are you okay?"

"Jack, it's Uncle Arthur," Abby says, but her voice doesn't sound quite convinced.

"Hm?" Arthur says, leaning forwards and mussing Jack's disheveled hair. It feels just like John's. "I'm okay, kiddo. Just thinking about things."

"Weren't you crying?"

This kid. Has eyes like his father, but none of the idiocy. 

Arthur gently cups the kid's cheeks, squishing them until Jack is giggling.

"Your eyes must be tricking you, cyw."

"But-!"

"Jack," Abby warns, her hand a steady beacon. 

"It's okay, Abby." He sets his hands under Jack's arms. "If I was crying, it ain't nothing to worry about. Why don't you come up here and sit with Uncle Arthur, hm?"

Jack nods fiercely, a smile crossing his face.

"What good honesty, kiddo. D'you wanna sit, Abby?" he turns to face her. 

She worries her plush lip between her teeth, looking out over the city for a moment. But then she shrugs. "I guess we can stay a couple minutes."

Jack eagerly clambers up into his lap as Abigail pulls the chair John had sat in just minutes before. Arthur wonders when in time he went to see Abigail. If she remembers the scar-faced, nearly-noble profile of her husband. 

Jack settles against his chest, happy in his arms. Abby leans on his shoulder. The sun is beginning to settle behind the buildings. 

"Abby?" Arthur says, quietly.

"Mmhm," she hums, nuzzling against his shoulder. 

"I love you," he says. Somehow it's easy. Knowing that she loves him too.

She doesn't say much. Just reaches her hand -- stout and unpretentious -- and laces it with his. "Love you too," she responds. 

"Jackie," he says, dipping his head until his lips are just barely touching Jack's wiry hair, "I love you."

Jack cranes his neck, before smiling and throwing his arms around Arthur's neck. "I love you too, P- Uncle Arthur!"

Arthur laughs, softly. It doesn't make him cough, not this time. 

They watch the sunset together, Abby's head on his shoulder, Jack watching the street below from Arthur's lap. 

"Hey," John's voice calls from behind them, "We have to get going. Daylight's almost gone."

They turn. This John is with them, not quite the kid Arthur thinks of him as, but not quite the man that vision was -- 

Abby gestures him over, a little smile on her lips. "We're taking a break. Come and join us."