Arthur leans against the tree to his left, flicks a match to life with his thumb. He lights a cigarette, eyes still on John. The dumbstruck face he's making is one that Arthur's seen often, in the time he's known him. In a minute, John will say he's confused.
Arthur barks out a mirthless laugh. "Knew you was gonna say that."
John bristles even more, and Arthur figures it's better not to push him, not now. Poor kid looks like he's seen a ghost, which, he sort of has. John looks the same as he did the last time Arthur saw him on that mountain. Still got that stubbly beard and long hair. He's wearing a black shirt and brown ranch pants, and his suspenders are crooked. He looks the same, but he holds himself different. There's something changed in the way he stands, the way he positions himself. Arthur can't tell what it is.
"I didn't ask too many questions. Charles would know more. Or Rains Fall." He takes a long drag of the cigarette, blows the smoke towards John.
John bats it away, annoyed. "You were with the Wapiti? But-"
"All I know is I spent three weeks half-dead in a tent in Canada. Woke up feeling like a damn spring pony. Came to find you."
It's the truth. Arthur had been sure of his own death that morning. He'd watched the sun come up, sure the sunrise would be the last thing he saw in his sorry life. The breaths he'd drawn in had been rough, rattling through his chest and burning all the way through his lungs.
He'd woken up several days later, his union suit soaked to his skin with sweat, coughing and sputtering back to life. The next two weeks had been spent in agony, coughing through his sickness, taking tonics and herbs, trying to recover. Days later, he'd woken up and smelled fresh laundry, and the scent of snow was in the air. When he breathed, his lungs did not punish him for it. It seemed he'd lived to die another day.
He'd done a lot of thinking while he was in that cot, resting.
Mostly, he'd thought about Dutch. About Hosea, John, Bill, the gang he'd lived for, killed for, and been ready to die for. He thought about how Dutch hadn't cared for him, in the end. How he'd spent the better part of his life with Dutch, giving him every aspect of his being-his heart, his aim, his faith- only for him to trust the word of some lying, no-good traitor who'd only run with them for a year. Hosea, the father who had loved them all until the end. Lenny, young and green, Sean, obnoxious and kind, both of them liable to make Arthur laugh at all the worst possible times. Miss Grimshaw. Nagging and rude, but loving all the same.
He'd mourned them all. And he'd mourned himself, as well. That quick, temperamental young man he'd been, the one who'd been likely to draw his pistol long before asking questions. His second chance at having a father, tossed down the drain. He mourned his own long-lasting faith in Dutch, a faith he knew he wasn't likely to ever have in anyone or anything else.
Except, perhaps, one John Marston.
Arthur had been asking for him as soon as he could speak again. As soon as Rains Fall's people would give him answers other than "it is a miracle cure, you should be very grateful," Arthur had glared at the medicine woman until she'd fetched Charles. Charles had confirmed Arthur's hopes: John was nowhere to be found.
But Arthur had taught John Marston everything he knew: how to fish, how to shoot, how to hunt, how to disappear. Once he'd been able to stand, he'd fetched a paint horse from a hitching post at the Wapiti camp and headed south. Arthur knew he'd owe Charles for the rest of his sorry life. When he'd found him that dawn, to tell him he was leaving, Charles had understood immediately.
"Go. Write to me when you find him," Charles had said.
Arthur had ridden back down south to godforsaken Annesberg, to fetch old Hamish Sinclair's war horse, Buell, from the stable. The old horse wasn't very happy to see him, but Arthur had charmed him again with kind words and sugar cubes, and rebuilt his trust. After that, Arthur had spent months chasing leads on John, wandering the countryside in search of a man with scars on his face traveling with his wife and son.
"But- it's been more than a year!"
"Took me a while. You were hidden pretty damn good, Marston. Traced you all the way to the Yukon and back. Jim Milton ain't a very good cover name, y'know. 'Specially if you're keepin' them same initials."
Under his stubble, John's face reddens slightly. "Excuse me for not comin' up with fake names as quick as you, Morgan." He still looks flabbergasted. "I thought... I ain't..."
"Come on. Just say it, John," Arthur says softly, gently. He doesn't want to be the rough, growling man he'd been anymore. That's not him. He tosses his spent cigarette into the grass, crushes it under the heel of his boot. Looks at John.
John's standing stock-still, face ashen. Then the dam breaks. "I thought you were dead, Arthur. Dead." John's voice sounds rougher than usual. "I wouldn't- I never would've left you, I woulda-"
"I never woulda let you stay, you big fool. I was dyin'." Arthur puts a hand on John's shoulder. "I wanted you to go."
John shoves his hand off, angrily. "And you couldn't have sent me a letter or somethin'?"
"Oh, sure. A letter from Arthur Morgan, wanted man, to John Marston, another wanted man. Where should I have addressed it to? Annesberg jail?"
"You shut your damn mouth, Arthur. You can't- I can't just-"
Arthur lets him sputter until he grows quiet. Then, softly, he asks, "Abigail and Jack?"
John's face falls, just slightly. "She left me again. You know how she gets, Arthur. Wants me to go straight. I don't- and you-"
"I know." And Arthur does know. "C'mon. Let's get a fire going. We can camp here tonight."
He doesn't say where they'll head tomorrow. If they'll leave. No point- he doesn't know where they'd go tomorrow. They're up northwest of West Elizabeth, outside of some river town. It's hardly even a town, just a cluster of buildings and hitching posts around a saloon. Moosejaw Landing, it was called. It had been a silver mine, once. Now it was mostly populated by drunks and hunters passing through.
They'd been through with Dutch and the gang when John was still young and naïve, and Arthur was a twenty-something year old punk. Swindled some high-rolling traveler out of a few hundred bucks at a poker game with a seventeen year old John at the table.
It's dusk, and the sky has turned a dusty pink-orange. Arthur and John lead their horses into a copse of evergreen trees and hitch them up.
John's got a new horse, a big black and brown thoroughbred mare with a blaze on her forehead. She's young but big, a beautiful, serene beast who noses up to Arthur and demands he pay attention to her. It makes Arthur chuckle. Makes him miss his old mare, his beautiful white Arabian, lost that night he'd faced his own death. Buell is a good horse. Ornery as all hell, but he and Arthur get along well anyway. Arthur likes the old boy. John's horse nips at Arthur's ear while his attention is turned, and Arthur turns, surprised and amused.
"Heyyyy, miss. Don't do that." John runs a hand down the mare's nose.
"She's a beaut," Arthur says truthfully. "What d'you call her?"
"Rachel. Tamed her myself." John looks proud.
Taming horses was usually Arthur's responsibility, back in their days with the gang. Horses came easily to Arthur. In another life, perhaps he could've made an honest living breeding, selling, and taming horses. Own a ranch somewhere in the heartlands, or up in the mountains. It might have been a nice life. Arthur doesn't know what to do with this new life he's been given, but he knows he wants John Marston to be a part of it.
He'd taught John to tame horses too, taught him to charm them with sweet words and slow movements before mounting them. It was about taming them, not breaking them. Showing the horse that you were the one who was going to feed them, water them, take care of them, show them love. Hosea taught Arthur, and Arthur taught John. He wonders now if John still follows that advice.
"You always talk to your horse like she's a proper lady? Or's that just to impress me, Marston?" Arthur asks him, hand on Buell's velvety neck.
John rolls his eyes at him. "She is a proper lady. Ain't you fine, Miss Rachel?"
The horse doesn't answer, but Arthur huffs a laugh. "Oh, sure. Special gal."
John smiles, clearly satisfied that Arthur approves of his mount. This, Arthur knows: John, the little brother, the constant companion, the tagalong seeking validation from anywhere he can get it. Stubborn and quick to anger. A spitfire since he first spoke. That's how Arthur thought of John still.
He'd found him raising hell in the saloon at Moosejaw Landing, ready to toss fists with some brawny troublemaker by the bar. Although maybe John had been the troublemaker. Riding through town, Arthur had recognized his own hat perched on the horn of John's saddle, and brought Buell to a skidding stop. He'd been following a lead, a rumor about a feller with a scarred face and aim like the devil, all the way west from Valentine. He'd hitched Buell up next to Rachel and strode inside. John's rough voice had been ringing through the saloon, yelling at a feller by the bar about something trivial that Arthur couldn't discern.
The barkeep had just taken a sawed-off shotgun from underneath the bar and was hoisting it up, ready to stop whatever fight was about to take place. John hadn't seen the shotgun yet. Arthur had headed for John, put one hand on John's shoulder and the other on his waist.
"Come on, Johnny boy. No fightin' today. Let's go," he'd said calmly.
John had startled at the sound of his voice, gone stricken when he'd turned and seen Arthur. "Arthur?"
"Yes, boy. Come on, now. You need to cool off."
The man opposite John looked half-relieved and half-annoyed to not have a fight on his hands.
Arthur led the still-sputtering John outside to their horses. Wordlessly, pointedly, he plucked his hat from John's saddle and placed it on his head. With it, he felt more himself than he had in months. Arthur didn't know who he was anymore, for sure, but he felt more like Arthur Morgan with his daddy's hat on. Whoever Arthur Morgan was, now.
John looked pale and confused, standing stock-still where Arthur had placed him beside Rachel. "You- Arthur- you're alive?"
"Yes, boy. Only we won't be for long if we keep standin' around here." Arthur had unhitched Rachel and Buell, handed John his reins, and hoisted himself onto Buell's back. "C'mon. Gotta get going before your friend in there changes his mind 'bout lettin' you leave. Let's go."
Arthur had tutted, and Buell had taken off at a canter. When he looked back, John was a few yards behind him, keeping his seat on Rachel but staring at Arthur, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. They'd ridden for a few miles and ended up in a wooded area not unlike their old camp with the gang in the heartlands. Horseshoe Overlook, Dutch had called it.
Now, north of West Elizabeth, Arthur finishes building the fire and sits down on his bedroll. John's skinning the hare Arthur'd caught a few minutes prior. He still looks shocked and angry. Arthur doesn't know whether it's better to talk to him about it or leave it alone.
"Want me to do it?" Arthur asks. It looks like John's about to ruin their supper, the way he's tearing at the hare.
John looks up at him. The scars on his face look silver in the light of the fire. "What, 'm I doin' it wrong?"
"Naw, not wrong. Just that it looks like you're 'bout to destroy it, 's all," Arthur says wryly.
John looks down at the blood on his hands and frowns. "I'm just- I'm still tryin' to wrap my head around seein' you, I s'pose."
"'cept you don't know, do ya?" John wipes his hands on the grass, lights a cigarette with hands trembling enough that Arthur can see them shake. "You was dead and gone, and now you're waltzin' in like nothin's changed, and I- I don't even know, Arthur."
"And where am I waltzin' into?" Arthur raises an eyebrow, amused.
"Back into my life, ain't you?" John demands. "I mean- you're stayin', right?"
Arthur looks away. Waits a moment, looks back at John across the fire. "D'you want me to?"
John looks right back at him with his jaw set, stubborn as ever. "Course I do." Then his lips curl at the corners, just slightly. "Thing is, though, I ain't been doin much stayin', lately."
"Wanderin'? I been doin' that for the past year, lookin' for your sorry ass. Don't make much difference to me." Arthur gives him a shrug. "Sit down. I'll cook."
It comes as a surprise to Arthur when John flops down on the ground without arguing. Arthur watches him take a long drag from his cigarette before he walks round the other side of the fire and squats down beside John. He finishes preparing the hare, and cooks it up with sage and thyme. Some time after they eat, John passes him a cigarette.
Arthur places the cigarette between his teeth, watches as John flicks the match with his thumb until it lights. Leaning forward, he cups his hands around John's, chasing the tiny flame at the end of the match. When his cigarette lights, John shakes the flame from the match, cursing when it burns his fingertips. Arthur goes still as John leans forward with his own cigarette, touches the ends together to light his. They're so close that Arthur can smell him, the scent of horse, sweat, and tobacco. It makes him feel funny.
Arthur was used to being this close to John, once. Back when they were Dutch's boys, they'd lived in each other's pockets. Sharing bedrolls was a common occurrence on hunting trips and stakeouts, and sleeping together in a tent to conserve warmth wasn't uncommon either, for them. Arthur remembers being holed up in some cabin up in the Grizzlies for three nights with John during a freak storm, barely able to build up a fire in the cabin's tiny grate and relying mostly on each other for heat.
When John was young and new to the gang, he'd often kipped with Arthur in his tent. Poor kid had been troubled by nightmares for a while, and had liked sleeping by Arthur, who'd known how to calm him down.
Then Jack had been born, and John had skipped out on his son and the gang for a whole year, and Arthur had resented him for it. For John to run from Abigail and his boy when Arthur had been so forcibly parted from his own son had driven a rift between the two of them for years. Hell, he'd still get annoyed about it if he thought about it too much. But Arthur understands John's motives a bit more, now. He was scared.
It had taken Blackwater, the botched ferry job and John's sojourn with the wolves for Arthur to really warm up to him again. Arthur'd said he'd gone for Abigail, but it was more than that. He couldn't let John die out there in Colter, freezing to death alone. When he'd seen John's bleeding, wind-bitten face, he'd remembered they were friends, once. After that, it'd been easier to fall back into familiar patterns with him. Made it easier for Arthur to sit next to John at the campfire and not want to knock his teeth out.
Now, when Arthur's been on the move alone for over a year, being so close to someone - so close to John - feels foreign to him. Sure, he's talked to people. He can't go two miles without some sorry sod asking for help with something or other. But he hasn't sat practically in someone's lap around a fire. Hasn't lit his cigarette within someone else's cupped hands and had them light theirs on the end of his own.
Arthur looks at John's crooked nose. He broke it himself, years ago. They'd been fighting over something or other. Probably still trying to win Dutch's favor. Arthur had caught him with a left hook and felt the bone pop, watched John cover his nose as the blood flowed freely, then listened to the string of curses John had thrown at him while Miss Grimshaw led him away. Arthur'd gotten a long lecture from Hosea, afterwards. He didn't point out that his own face was also bruised and bleeding, just listened to Hosea's placating 'you know he looks up to you' nonsense.
"What're you lookin' at me for?" John demands, startling Arthur out of his reverie.
"Hm? Oh, nothin'. Just ain't quite used to seein' your sorry mug again, that's all." Arthur turns his attention back to the fire, puffing on his cigar.
John scoffs. "You're one to talk. You look like shit too, Morgan."
"'least I know I've bathed in the past week, you damn sicko," Arthur bites back.
"Oh, shut up. I was plannin' to pay for a bath in Moosejaw Landing, 'fore you dragged me outta that saloon."
"Well, 's long as you don't drown, we can wash up in the mornin'. 's a creek nearby, I heard it on the ride here." Arthur lays back to look up at the sky. The stars are out in full force tonight. "You got some kind of plan? Man up to get Abigail and Jack back, that sorta thing?"
There's a pause, and Arthur hears John sigh. "I dunno. Was thinkin' I could go find some work as a ranch hand, or somethin'. Make some honest money."
"Cowboy John Marston. Ain't that a pretty picture." Arthur laughs, puffs smoke towards the open sky. Thinking of it, a simple life as a ranch hand actually doesn't sound too bad.
"Damn right it is," John says, and Arthur can hear the smile in his voice. A pause, then, "How'd you find me, Arthur?"
"Asked around. Ugly feller with big scars on his face ain't that hard to trace. Week ago I heard about a shootout outside Rhodes with someone sounded like you. Followed you north. Sounds like your shot's improved a bit."
Beside him, John lays down as well, heaving a sigh. "So you followed me that easy? Don't that mean Dutch and them could find me too? I was thinkin'- I was thinkin' I'd done a damn good job of goin' into hiding."
Arthur turns his head and glances at him. "And who taught ya how to go into hiding, Marston? Me. So seems to me that it makes perfect sense that I could find you even if you thought you'd disappeared."
John barks out a laugh, sounding like he's surprised. "Damn, Morgan. Makes sense to me too, then." Arthur watches as John tosses his spent cigar aside and places his hat over his face. "C'mon. Let's sleep."
In an almighty role reversal, Arthur follows John's lead for once in his life, chucking his cigar into the fire and pillowing his arms under his head. It's not long until Arthur falls asleep to the sound of John's steady breaths.
The sun wakes Arthur first, forcing his eyes to open in the brightness of its glow. Beside him, John is laying on his side, curled in on himself, one hand resting in the middle of the two of them like he's reaching out for something. He's snoring, just softly. In his sleep, John looks younger, more like the boy Arthur spent his twenties rearing. Arthur smiles at the thought and closes his eyes again.
The next time he wakes, it's because John throws Arthur's unused bedroll on his chest. Arthur startles and sits up, sees that John has already broken camp and has his hat back on.
"Well, good mornin' to you too, darlin'." Arthur pushes his hair off his forehead. "Don't I get a good mornin' kiss?"
"Don't you start," John grumbles. "Let's go wash. I'm sick of your smell already, Morgan."
Chucking, Arthur stands. His back cracks loudly as he rises and heads for Buell to secure his bedroll to his saddle. "Good mornin', Mr. Buell. How's my handsome boy?" He mumbles.
Buell looks at him, unimpressed, until Arthur feeds him some oatcakes from his saddlebag. Arthur swings himself into his saddle, patting Buell's neck.
"Oh, I get it now. All them horses like you cause you talk like you're sweet on 'em," John says, mounting his own horse.
Arthur puts his hat on and rolls his eyes at John. "Marston, if I talked to animals like I was sweet on 'em, I'd be behind bars. Let's go."
Buell takes off at a lazy trot, and Arthur steers him towards the creek. When they reach a clearing along the creek, Arthur hops off of Buell and lets him graze freely. It's a pretty area, laden with tall trees and grasses, plenty for the horses to feed on. The creek runs slowly, which is a good thing. Arthur isn't fully awake yet, and he doesn't feel like mounting a rescue mission to keep John from drowning during a routine wash.
After putting his hat on Buell's saddle, Arthur gets undressed, leaving his clothes by the creek. He wades into the water before John, whooping at the temperature. It gives him the waking-up shock he needed, and he dunks himself under before he can think better of it.
When he resurfaces, John is wading into the water as well, naked as the day he was born. Arthur's seen him naked plenty of times before, so he's confused as to why his eyes keep flicking to John's narrow waist, his broad shoulders, the fine dusting of hair on his chest, the sporadic scars on his torso. He doesn't look lower, instead splashes water at John, laughing when he flinches.
"Christ, that's cold!" John shivers and splashes Arthur back. "Give a feller a minute to get used to it, Jesus."
Arthur laughs again and then gets to washing up. A few minutes later, he tracks the movement of John's backside as he gets out of the water and feels embarrassed as his cheeks heat.
"So what's the plan?" Arthur asks, once they've dressed in fresh clothes. "You got a destination we can wander to? Maybe wherever you're plannin' on becomin' a real cowboy?"
John gives Arthur a perfunctory eye roll. "Was thinkin' over in Big Valley somewhere. That work for you, ya horse's ass?"
"Works for me. Try not to start any trouble on the ride, hm?"
"Kiss my ass."
They ride for the horizon.
Along the road, a mangy dog barks at them from the porch of a small homestead. John barks back, and Arthur looks at him and laughs heartily, holds back the urge to quip about inheriting that from his time with the wolves up by Colter. Through the mountains and the thick evergreen forests, across the Little Creek River, into the valley. Along the way, they pick up a few bounties, do some hunting, and on one memorable evening they lead a roaringly drunk gentleman all the way back to his house, which he'd somehow wandered miles and miles from during a bender.
The whole thing takes a little over a week.
It takes just as much time for Arthur to even begin to understand his confusion about John. About living. About coming back to life after the past year of living as a ghost. When he'd woken up in Canada, with Charles and the Wapiti, the first thing he'd done when he could speak was ask Charles where John was.
The whole thing must have started some time after Milton started hunting them, and Dutch had started losing it. Arthur's fall into disillusion with Dutch had been a painful one. It had hurt, and it still hurt. He'd had to come to terms with the fact that his mentor, a man he'd looked up to and loved like a father, was no longer someone he could trust and follow. Maybe, if Hosea had made it, he'd have been able to talk Dutch back into some semblance of the man they'd once known. Maybe Arthur and Hosea and John all could've done it. They'd known Dutch the best, after all. Or so they'd thought.
It's been a scary thing, for Arthur to live without a purpose. Without a be-all, end-all faith in a gang, a family. Here, riding again with John, Arthur feels some sort of purpose returning to him in slow increments, like a spring thaw after a long winter. He doesn't know what that purpose is just yet, but whatever it is, it's better than the unmoored man he'd been before finding John.
Riding with John cross-country makes him feel alive again, somehow.
Arthur isn't sure what it means that he can't seem to stop watching John's narrow waist and broad shoulders when he rides behind him. He doesn't know why he finds himself watching John's mouth as he takes a drag on a cigarette, why he watches his strong, deft hands scrawl delicately in his journal. Arthur's journal. He didn't ask for it back. Hasn't even asked why John's kept the journal, or why Arthur's hat was resting on John's saddle like he'd been wearing it that day in Moosejaw Landing.
Like John Marston had been traversing the countryside wearing Arthur's hat.
Arthur looks at John now, as they ride along the path by the creek, surrounded by valley and mountains on either side. Atop Rachel, John is sitting up straight, looking at something to their right. Arthur follows his gaze and sees a herd of wild horses grazing in a patch of wildflowers. They both stop riding to look at them. There's a pretty brown and white paint, a buckskin stallion, and a few chestnuts. When Buell snorts, the buckskin's head snaps up to look at them. The others follow suit, and then they run off, spooked.
"Great job, you old battle-axe," Arthur chuckles and pats Buell's neck. "Scared off the pretty horses."
"'s an old cabin over there. Let's check it out." John points to a small shack in the direction the horses went.
Arthur pulls his binoculars from his bag and takes a look. It's a tiny place, can't be much more than a kitchen and bedroom, but it looks empty, and there aren't any huge holes in the roof or walls, so he guesses it's sturdy. They approach the house and tie up the horses before taking a look inside. No one bursts out with a shotgun, so they take it as an invitation to move in.
There is, indeed, just a tiny bedroom, washroom, and kitchen in the cottage. The bed's made, and the furniture is worn but functional. There's no food in any of the cabinets or drawers, though, which John takes as a sign that whoever was here doesn't have plans to return. They build a fire in the grate by the table, and Arthur cooks up the venison they'd gotten from a deer the day before.
After supper, they sit on the floor by the fire, each with a bottle in hand, leaning against the legs of the table. John had come inside with a bottle of rum, and Arthur had taken one look at the label before wrinkling his nose and handing it back to him. He can't bring himself to drink rum from Guarma anymore, not without thinking of his terrible little vacation. John had only laughed a little before fetching him a bottle of whiskey from his saddlebag.
John is deep in thought now, Arthur can tell. He's sitting pretty in the firelight, a few buttons on his shirt undone, frowning.
"You think any harder and smoke's gonna come outta your ears, boy," Arthur says, lips curling at the corners. "What're you thinkin' about?"
John blinks a few times and looks at Arthur. His face is flushed, though whether it's from the heat of the fire or the rum Arthur doesn't know. "Just thinkin'. Livin' like this feels like the old days, y'know? Runnin' with Dutch."
"Can't be too similar to the old days. Haven't broken the law in quite some time," Arthur says, satisfied when he gets a laugh out of John.
John's got a nice laugh, Arthur thinks. He thinks maybe he'd like to hear it again. Could be the whiskey talking, though Arthur doesn't think he's had enough for that.
"I missed you, Arthur," John says, suddenly somber. "Missed this. Didn't think... didn't think we'd have this again."
"And what's 'this', John?" Arthur cocks his head, keeps on looking at him.
John doesn't say. He's looking right back at Arthur, jaw set in a stubborn line. He's a real sight, sitting in the light of the fire, rum wet on his lips, leaning back on his hands. He looks like he's ready to argue something.
He's handsome like this, and Arthur understands, then.
Why he was a ghost until he found John. Why he came to life only after reuniting with him. Why he can't ever seem to take his eyes off of him. Why he's always so amused by his terrible attitude.
He takes a long swig of whiskey for a bit of last-minute liquid courage and then reaches up to put the bottle on the table. His heart is hammering in his chest.
In one fluid movement, Arthur leans into John, bracing one hand beside his hip, and cradling the back of his neck with the other. He fits his lips over John's, kisses him softly. He hears John's surprised intake of breath. Arthur starts to back away, but before he can, a hand shoots out and grabs his wrist.
"Where are you goin'?" John's face is red, voice hoarse, and there's mischief in his eyes.
Arthur would do anything for him, looking like that.
So he leans back in, kissing John proper, closing his eyes. The taste of rum is still on his lips, and it makes Arthur chuckle a bit into John's mouth. One of John's hands snakes into Arthur's hair, knocking his hat off and settling at the back of his neck. Their noses bump, once and then twice, and John makes a big show of nudging Arthur's head until he complies and tilts it more. The stubble on their chins rub together roughly, makes Arthur’s lips and face burn in a good way.
They separate a moment later to breathe, foreheads pressed together, panting like they've just ran a mile. Arthur's heart is still pounding, and he can feel from his hand on John's neck that his heart is heart is racing, too. When he moves back to look at John, John smiles at him a little, and Arthur's jackrabbiting heart clenches. He surges forward again, catches John's lips in another searing kiss.
It feels as easy as breathing, as if kissing John is something Arthur's been doing his entire life. John kisses like the stubborn ass he is, all tongue and heat like he's wants to devour Arthur whole.
Arthur thinks he'd probably let him.
Wandering hands traverse Arthur's shoulders, his chest, slip beneath his worn jacket to have him take it off. Arthur breaks their kiss, still breathing heavily, and shrugs off his jacket, motions for John to do the same. When John's is off, Arthur quickly shoves his suspenders down, unbuttons his shirt and union suit and slides his hands underneath, palms meeting warm skin. He settles his hands on John's waist, squeezing at him and pulling him closer.
It's an awkward angle, sitting on the floor without anywhere to put their legs. Luckily, Arthur's not quite as dumb as people seem to think, so he's smart enough to separate his lips from John's and grate out, "Bed."
John's panting loudly, and it sounds like all the air leaves his lungs when Arthur says that. "Jesus, Arthur."
Arthur huffs a laugh and releases John's waist, clambering to his feet. He's careful not to spill John's rum. When he extends a hand, John takes it and lets Arthur haul him to his feet. Arthur kisses him again, hard, before pushing him towards the bedroom none too gently.
"You rushin' me?" John asks, looking satisfied when he sees Arthur's answering grin.
The bedroom of the cottage is a small room with a bed, a side table, and a dresser. With John Marston laying out on the bed, barefoot with his shirt unbuttoned and his face red from drinking and kissing, it's just about the best bedroom Arthur's ever set foot in. Unbuttoning his shirt and union suit, Arthur crawls onto the bed, going down when John hooks a finger in the belt loop of his pants and pulls, settling himself between John's legs, chest to chest.
"Ain't you a pretty sight." Arthur props himself up on his forearms and hovers over John.
Impossibly, John flushes even redder. Arthur runs a hand over his face and strokes his thumb over the deep scars there. John's eyes flutter closed, and he turns his face into Arthur's hand, presses a kiss to the palm.
"You sure about this, then?" John asks, voice breathy and hoarse.
"Came back from the dead for this, Marston," Arthur tells him, and he knows it's true. The second life he was given was gifted to him for the purpose of spending it with John. "You sure about this?"
In answer, John cants his hips up, and Arthur feels the hard outline of his cock in his jeans. "I'm damn sure, Morgan. Get to work."
"Shoulda known you'd want to lay back and look pretty while I do all the work." Arthur tries to say it grudgingly, but he's chuckling.
He gets back up to his knees, pulls off his shirt and tosses it to the floor. Then he tugs his arms from his union suit, shoves it down so his torso is free. Arthur shivers when John runs his hands over his chest and stomach. Hooking one hand under John's back, Arthur flips them both in one motion, laughing at John's surprised face. John ends up on top, and he sits back on his haunches to let Arthur help him take off his shirt and tug down his union suit. He’s pale on his torso and arms, defined lines tanned in from the sun where his skin’s exposed while he rides.
Arthur, still fixated on how broad John's shoulders are compared to his slender waist, fits both hands to his sides and tugs him close. They kiss some more, until Arthur gets impatient. He nudges his hips up, chasing any kind of friction he can get on his hard cock. John lets out a groan and grinds down on Arthur's groin, and Arthur barely bites back a shout when John's hand snakes under his union suit and takes a hold of his dick, stroking it slowly.
Breathing shakily, Arthur slips a hand under John's trousers and underwear and grips his cock, satisfied at John's gasp. Arthur matches the pace that John's setting on his dick, pausing only to spit on his hand and ease the friction on his cock. He's done this before but only a few times, and never before had it been accompanied by such an onslaught of excitement and fondness.
It's good. Damn, it's good.
Arthur is- it's been a while, and John is running his thumb over the head of Arthur's cock in exactly the right way, and he's getting close, fast. Except Arthur doesn't want to finish before John, so he moves his hand faster over John's cock. He pauses for a moment to fondle at John's balls, smiling when John lets out a hoarse shout.
"Arthur- Come on-"
It makes Arthur laugh, and he's never laughed while getting someone off before. He returns his attention to John's dick, spreading precome over the head, delighting in John's panting and curses. It's difficult to focus on making John come when John's trying his damnedest to make Arthur come, but he moves his hand faster anyway, letting a groan escape his lips.
There's no reason to try to be quiet. They're in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, there's no one to hear them. It's clear that John understands that, if the constant string of curses coupled with Arthur's name is anything to go by. As Arthur realizes this fact, he lets out the moans and groans he'd been attempting to hold back.
"Arthur- Arthur- I-"
Arthur can tell that John's getting close, so he speeds up the movements of his hand, squeezes John's waist tighter with the other. "I gotcha. Come on, John."
John's face contorts, mouth opening wide into a perfect 'O', back arching something obscene. He comes with a shout, a strangled cry of Arthur's name, all over his stomach and chest. He braces a hand next to Arthur's head, still panting, still stroking his hand up and down Arthur's cock. Arthur lets out a shaky groan.
"C'mon, Arthur. Come," John says, and Arthur does, adding to the mess on his torso.
After he's come down, Arthur registers that John has collapsed onto his chest, head buried in his neck, mouthing over his throat. They're both still taking heaving breaths. He brings a hand up and strokes it up and down John's back, gives his backside a squeeze.
"Jesus," John says into his neck.
Arthur kisses the side of John's head. "Don't tell me I've made you turn to religion? Bad business, Johnny."
"Don't you make me laugh. I've still got your come on me," John huffs, lifting himself up. Both of their chests are sticky with the mess they've made.
Arthur puts his hands behind his head and smirks as John fetches a shirt and cleans them both off, not even caring to check whether the shirt is his own or Arthur's. While John tosses the shirt into the kitchen, Arthur shimmies out of his jeans and pulls the top of his union suit back on, suddenly chilly without John on top of him. He leaves it unbuttoned and climbs under the blanket, waits for John.
John comes back with another blanket, though Arthur doesn't know where he got it from. "Here." He tosses it to Arthur, who spreads it over the bed, watching as John tugs off his pants and climbs in beside him.
Arthur smiles at John, unable to help it. John smiles back shyly, laying himself next to Arthur, tucking a hand into Arthur's union suit to settle it over his chest. When a cold foot touches Arthur's calf, he tosses a lazy elbow John's way, chuckles when it makes contact and John gets indignant.
He turns, and presses a kiss to the scar on John's crooked nose. John kisses him on the mouth, and Arthur laughs when he breaks the kiss to yawn.
"C'mon, you spoiled brat. Go to sleep."
Arthur tugs John closer, and John swings a leg over Arthur's, lays his head on his chest. Arthur cards his fingers through John's hair until he falls asleep, then succumbs to his own exhaustion and sleeps as well.
In the morning, Arthur wakes to the sun streaming in through the cabin window and John Marston stroking his hand up and down his chest sweetly. Arthur looks up, and John returns his gaze for a brief moment before flushing and looking down, shy. It makes Arthur smile, and he tugs John close to kiss him.
"So now what's the plan, cowboy?" Arthur asks some time later. "Made it to Big Valley. Gonna go find yourself a cowboy job?"
Beside him, John shrugs. "Guess so. Think there's a few ranches nearby. I'll see if anyone's willin' to take on a ranch hand who's only got experience rustlin' and ridin'. What're you gonna do?"
"Stay here with you." Arthur matches John's shrug. "Maybe see if I can get work tamin' horses. Glad I finally found your annoying ass, now I don't have to keep followin' ya. Was gettin' tired of movin'. Think I'm too old to keep on bein' a nomad."
"But not too old to bust your load in thirty seconds like a kid, huh?"
"Next time, I'll put a bullet in your foot instead of kissin' ya," Arthur grumbles.
"I'd like to see you try," John bites back. "But. You mean you're stayin? Here? With me?"
Arthur nods. "Yeah, Marston. I'm gonna stay."
And he does.