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Just Kept Breathing

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After days of trekking through Mexico, John was starting to understand what Uncle was talking about when he complained about being “too old for this”. Mexico seemed like an inhospitable land.  Javier had loved to wax poetic about his homeland back in the day.  His melancholy at being forced to leave had been palpable, enough so that John had wondered what they were all missing out on by not visiting.  Turns out they were missing out on cacti, sand, too much heat, and a revolutionary war.

He wasn’t a young man anymore, and the stakes had risen to an impossible height the moment those government bastards had used Abigail and Jack against him.  Just because she’d left him didn’t mean he’d let them suffer.  After losing Arthur... well...

He wouldn’t go through that pain again.

John let his horse set the pace, they were both sweating under the unforgiving sun.  His bullet wound, courtesy of Bill, was aching something fierce today as well.  Some part of him wondered if he’d walked up to that goddamn fort because he’d wanted to die.  Bill was a cruel moron, and he always had been, so perhaps deep down John had expected to be shot and killed.  He should have known better, Bill had also always been a bad shot.

If anyone had some common sense it was Javier, but John was done talking.  He had to see them dead if Abigail and Jack were going to be released.  Sadie was in South America, Charles was in Canada, Tilly was happily married in Saint Denis.  Arthur was dead.  Everyone John loved was gone; so Dutch, Javier, and Bill could hang for all he cared.

Too much time thinking about the past and not enough time looking at the path because John was completely caught off guard when his horse spooked.  “Whoa!” he tried to yank on the reins but that just made her rear up, a rattlesnake hissing and rattling right in their way.  John grunted as the horse bucked, trying to make up for his wandering mind at lightning speed.  It wasn’t enough.  He was thrown from the saddle with a cry.  Not the first time, except this time when he landed he cracked his head on a rock.

John rolled, feeling blood trickle into his hair as he was immediately ill, throwing up into the dirt as pain shot through every inch of his body.  Spots danced before his eyes.  Don’t pass out.  Don’t pass out.  Don’t-

For the second time in less than a month, John woke up somewhere unfamiliar.  He could feel bandages wrapped around his head, and when he opened his eyes he saw two big brown ones staring right down at him.  The little girl gasped and ran off when John struggled to sit up.  He was in what could generously be described as a hut with only one room, laying in a bed in the far corner.  Outside there was some rapid fire Spanish before a man and woman came in after the little girl.

“Sorry for any inconvenience,” John said, wincing as his head throbbed.

The man said something to him but John could only shake his head slowly.  “Uh, no...habla...”

The woman and man shared a look then left the home with their child in tow.  He sighed heavily and reached up to gingerly touch the bandages on his head.  God he felt like he might throw up again his head hurt so bad.  The man came back in and pointed to the door; were they kicking him out now that John was up?  Well he didn’t want to impose...

He tried to get up and stumbled as the entire world spun around him.  If it weren’t for the man he would have collapsed.  Instead he was dragged outside where the woman was sitting on the bench of a small wagon, to which a mule was hitched.  John’s horse was tied to the side as he was carefully laid out in the back where blankets had been piled up.  Her ears perked up to see him, she looked like she’d been brushed recently, her coat shiny and free of dust.

The man spoke to the woman who nodded and clicked her tongue, sending the mule forward.  John moaned, curling up as his head throbbed.  Where were they taking him? A doctor?  Why had he never bothered to learn Spanish?  Javier probably would have taught him something once upon a time.

Javier was sitting before the fire holding his guitar, looking at him incredulously.  Then he felt a warm thigh pressed up against his and turned to see Arthur nursing a bottle of whiskey.  John held out his hand for it but Arthur smirked and took another drink only to lean over and kiss him, letting the alcohol pour from his mouth right into John’s.  Perversely all he felt was fear, their relationship had always been a secret to the camp and here they were before the fire kissing.

John pulled away with a sound of disgust, heart pounding in his chest--

Opened his eyes to see the unforgiving Mexican sun glaring down on him as he bounced and jostled in the cart.  He’d gotten to see Arthur again and he’d wasted it.  So much time wasted.  John wiped his face off and took a deep breath, trying not to slip away again even as his head throbbed.  Where was he being taken?  It wasn’t like he could go anywhere on his own, he must have hurt his head something fierce because just the thought of walking made him sick.

They’d picked him up and let him sleep in their one bed, so John had to hope they had his best interests in heart.  He was unsure how long they’d been driving when the cart came to a stop.  The woman called out-- vaquero! -- and hopped off the cart, disappearing from John’s limited view as he lay in the cart.  He struggled to sit up enough to peak over the edge, watching her approach an old cabin beside a sluggish river.

She knocked and the door opened but it was too dark inside for John to really make out who she was talking to.  She spoke in very slow Spanish, having to repeat herself a couple times.  Whoever she was talking to spoke a little Spanish but not much and he had a very... American accent.  They’d taken him to someone who spoke English!

The woman came back and the man she was talking to followed her out and John got a full body shock that had him laying back down in the cart.  Arthur.  It couldn’t be because he’d left Arthur to die on that mountain top.  A regret he carried like an anvil on his shoulders to this day.  It was just someone who looked like Arthur and who was the same age Arthur would be and carried himself just like Arthur and had the exact same voice.

“What the- Marston ?!”

It was Arthur.  In the flesh.  Alive.  Looking just as shocked as John felt as they stared at each other.  The woman said something and Arthur seemed to shake himself out of his shock, grabbing John and hauling him over his shoulder like he was a sack of grain. 

“Hey!” he groaned as his head throbbed at the sudden movement.

“Still a complainer, I see,” Arthur said, grabbing the reins of his horse and then walked both of them to his little cabin.  “Goddamn...” the horse was hitched and John was brought inside and gently laid out over the bed.  “You... really made it out.”  Arthur sat down on the edge of the bed, looking down at him like he was trying to decide if he was a hallucination or not.

“I should be sayin’ that to you,” John said, reaching out to touch Arthur’s wrist.  He was real and solid and warm under his hand and Arthur took it one step further by tangling their fingers together.  “When I left... it haunted me.  I thought I’d left you to die... what happened?”

“I just... kept breathin’,” Arthur said quietly, eyes a bit far away as he looked down at their joined hands.  “I was ready to go.  Lookin’ forward to it, after all that shit.  Dutch left me there to die, Micah scurried off like the rat he his an’ I had the sun risin’ right where I could see it.  But I just. Kept. Breathin’.”

John gave Arthur’s hand a small squeeze but otherwise didn’t interrupt.  Maybe he’d died and this was heaven?  Except he knew he didn’t belong in heaven, and Arthur didn’t belong in hell... so it had to be Earth.

“I was beat all to hell but I dragged my sorry ass down the mountain... got found by this old vetran I’d met once before named Hamish Sinclair who took me in.  I figured I might as well die in a bed, Hamish ain’t a doctor or nothin’, but he kept me fed, watered, and warm... and I kept goin’.  I kept healin’.  By the time I could walk around on my own I didn’t know where anyone had gone, so I set off down south because cold air is hell on my lungs.  Too dangerous to stay in the states after that mess with the Pinkertons so I crossed the border... been here ever since ekkin’ out a livin’ as a bounty hunter, trapper, an’ fisher for the nearby village.”

John could hardly believe it.  “I... I didn’t have to leave--”

“Knock that off, John,” Arthur’s voice was sharp, cutting him off immediately.  “If you hadn’t left you would have died... I couldn’t have handled that.  I was at peace, I was glad you left to live another day, it was all I wanted.”

“But-”

“No.  They woulda caught us with me slowin’ you down... I got lucky.  That was all.  It don’t mean you made the wrong choice.”

“You still talk to me like I’m a kid.” John scoffed after a moment.

Arthur smirked down at him, thumb rubbing slowly over his knuckles.  “Well, you still act like a kid.  Tell me what you’ve been up to.  What the hell are you doin’ in Mexico, anyway?”

“That’s a long story.”

“You can’t exactly go anywhere.”

John took a deep breath, and he figured if he was going to tell this story, he was going to tell it from the moment they separated.  His head throbbed now and again but Arthur placed a cool, damp rag over his forehead as he talked.  Then eventually just stretched out beside him on the bed, one hand splayed on his chest.  They couldn’t stop touching each other, John kept a hand on Arthur’s arm or hand, or anywhere else he could reach.  Maybe they both felt like letting go would mean the other would disappear.

Once John talked about Pinkertons taking Abigail and Jack and using them as bait and that he’d been brought to Mexico on his hunt for Javier, he finally fell silent.  A glass of lukewarm water sat on a table beside the bed and he forced himself to sit up enough to take a drink.  Arthur was silent, clearly mulling over everything John had told him.

“You’re such a goddamn fool.”

“Excuse me?” John lay back down with a pained sound, reaching up to adjust the drying rag on his forehead. 

“You never shoulda gone after Micah.”

“I was avengin’ you!” John could not believe they were miraculously reunited and already arguing about something.

“I didn’t need or want it!” Arthur retorted sharply.  “I told you not to look back, now look what you done, led the government right to your family!”

“Like hell I did!  That was all the Pinkertons, they woulda found us regardless, the second we settled at Beacher’s Hope it was like paintin’ a target on us!” John felt his head throb and groaned, closing his eyes like he could will the migraine away.  “Why you givin’ me guff about this?”

“I just found you again.” there was something so raw in Arthur’s voice that John had to open his eyes again to look at him.  “I won’t lose you again I... I can’t.”

“Arthur...” John reached out to take his hand.  “You ain’t gonna lose me, I’ll do this shit for the Pinkertons and maybe...” but he sounded doubtful to his own ears, and Arthur was giving him that look like he was stupid again.  John could see the pain behind that look.

“And maybe all our horses will sprout wings an’ carry us out of danger.”  Arthur sighed heavily and kicked off his boots, slowly laying down beside John on the small bed, their bodies pressed together tightly.  This close John could really see all the new wrinkles around Arthur’s mouth and eyes, which were still the same vibrant blue, unfaded by time. 

“I can’t lose you again either, Arthur.  I never forgave myself for what went down on that last day.”  John spoke softly, it felt like the mood demanded it.

“But we can’t just run off and abandon Abigail or Jack.”

“No.”

They were silent a moment before Arthur spoke up.  “Let me help.  I can still shoot just fine.  We’ll do this one last thing to get Abigail and Jack free, then you an’ me... we’ll disappear over the border, back into Mexico.  We can live here in my cabin, no one knows who I am...no one needs to know you either.”

Would it ever be that simple?  John desperately wanted to believe it, that he and Arthur could get a happy ending together instead of the blood and rain they’d both thought was theirs.  John shifted so he could lean in and kiss him, it had been far too long since he’d felt Arthur’s stubble on his skin as he kissed back.  It felt like a hole in his heart was being mended, stitch by stitch.

“I want to try.” John said once they parted.  He rested his forehead against Arthur’s, looking into his eyes.  “We’ll try it your way... I love you, Arthur.”

“I love you, John.” He grinned and some of the wrinkles beside his eyes deepened as they crinkled a bit.  “If you weren’t still such a piss-poor horseman, we may never have met here.”

John laughed, hauling Arthur into another kiss.  “Shut up, Morgan.”

With Arthur by his side, suddenly everything seemed easier.  Once his head healed up enough, which took about a week to John’s chagrin, they set off together.  When they cornered Javier he looked like he’d seen a ghost when Arthur slipped out of the shadows.  He asked for forgiveness before they handed him over to the authorities.  John was not a man willing to forgive, but Arthur gave it easily.  Dutch, though... Dutch was another matter entirely.  He was the reason everything had gone to hell, the reason people who didn’t need to die had died.  And whoever he was now was far worse than even the man he’d been in Beaver’s Hollow.  It was like the years had hollowed out whatever humanity was left inside of him.

There was no forgiveness in Arthur, or John, but he thought maybe there was at least pity.  The same way one might pity a rabid animal before you put it down.  But when the time came, John couldn’t even do that.  At the end of the day this shell still resembled the man who had saved him as a child, taught him to read, to hunt, to make the right decisions.  Maybe Dutch knew that John couldn’t do it, because he backed off the cliff for him.

It didn’t matter, it was over.  Arthur was never around when the Pinkertons were, something they decided was for the best.  He went back to Mexico once Dutch was dead, and John went to Beecher’s Hope for Abigail and Jack...but he wouldn’t stay.  Even though this was Abigail’s dream he implored her to go somewhere else and disappear with the boy.  Beecher’s Hope was dangerous, even with John no longer there it was possible the government could come back and try to use them as pawns.

Abigail, always a smart and resourceful woman, gave him a kiss on the cheek before heading to MacFarlane Ranch, a place John had insisted she could be safe until she knew where to go properly.  If she wanted to leave at all.  With nothing left tying him there, John left Beecher’s Hope, and the states, for good.  His home was wherever Arthur was, the sorry old bastard.  Even his horse seemed to catch his excitement, speeding up as they got closer and closer to his old cabin.

“Well well well, look who finally decided to show up.” Arthur drawled when John finally rode up and dismounted.  John didn’t bother to say anything, he just took two long strides forward and hauled Arthur into a deep kiss.  Arthur seemed taken off guard for only a second, stumbling back into his cabin and kicking the door shut.  They hadn’t fucked once since meeting up, their situation too precarious for either of them to want more than cuddling.

Now, though?  Now there was nothing hanging over their heads.  John tore impatiently at Arthur’s clothes, trying to devour his mouth with each and every kiss they shared.  All at once he was grabbed by the wrists and twisted around, shoved down onto Arthur’s sagging old bed.  John laughed and scoot back to make room for him.  “Ain’t you a little old to be throwin’ me around like that?”

“You’re still skinny, Marston.  Maybe put on a few pounds and I will.” Arthur finished kicking off the last of his clothes then crawled over John to kiss him again.  It started hard but quickly turned into something far sweeter, their lips brushing and tongues sliding together.

John slid one hand into Arthur’s hair to keep him down for kiss after kiss until he finally had to turn his head to the side for a deep breath.  “Missed this, Arthur.”

“Sure.” Arthur’s voice was a low rumble that John could practically feel where their chests were pressed together.  “I love the hell out of you, John Marston.  We got a lot of lost time to make up for.”

Arthur started to kiss down his body as he stripped him, being far more meticulous and gentle than John had been trying to get his clothes off.  Sometimes they went hard, but it was looking like their first time together after all these years would be soft.  John didn’t care how they were together, just so long as they were.  He sat up to help get his shirt off and shrugged out of the top of his union suit before laying back down and lifting his hips so Arthur could drag it all off him. 

John slid one hand down to stroke his cock lazily, watching Arthur’s face as Arthur watched his hand.  “Bet you missed the taste of this, huh?”

“Missed the sounds you make more.”  Arthur slapped his hand away before laying out on his belly with his mouth now breathing hot air over his shaft.  Thankfully he didn’t tease, gripping the base of John’s cock to slide it into his wet, hot mouth.

John moaned, back arching as pleasure started to curl in his belly.  It had been far too long since he’d had anything but his own hand.  When he was younger a long break between fooling around usually left him coming too soon, but he was hardly that young man anymore.  John was looking forward to savoring the stamina that came with age.

Arthur bobbed his head lazily, hands on John’s hips so whenever he strained up he was held down.  “Mmm.”  When Arthur hummed or groaned it sent vibrations down his cock, causing John to squirm and sweat over the rumpled sheets, hands fisting and tugging at them.  He could moan and gasp as much as he wanted out here, they didn’t have neighbors for miles.  It was just them.

John reached down to grip one of Arthur’s hands, heart throbbing when their fingers were tangled together.  His cock was rock hard and aching when Arthur finally popped off it, licking his lips sinfully as he gave John a heated glance from under his lashes.  Just sucking John off had gotten him hard, his cock bobbing between his thighs as he sat back on his knees.

“I want to fuck you, John,” Arthur said, swiping some precum off the tip of John’s dick with his thumb then bringing it up to his mouth to lick it off.

“Oh goddamn, do it, Arthur.”  John grabbed Arthur’s shoulders to encourage him up into more kisses, he could taste himself on Arthur’s tongue and it made his cock twitch and leak more precum out over his stomach.  There was some vaseline beside Arthur’s bed that they used as slick, John clinging to Arthur’s shoulders as he was stretched open for the first time in a long time.  He remembered the feeling, though, relaxing around his thick, calloused fingers with husky sounds of want.  Normally he liked being on his belly, it was just more comfortable, but for this one time he stayed on his back as Arthur slid his cock into his slick asshole, nice and thick in all the right places.

“God, ain’t nobody could ever fill me like you do, Arthur.”  John groaned, as Arthur started to rock his hips.

“Don’t remember the last time you were this tight.”  Arthur’s tone was teasing, though John could hear a hint of strain, no doubt trying to hold himself back.

“Whose fault was that?  Couldn’t dismount from my horse some days without you dragging me into the woods an’ havin’ your way with me.”  John gasped as Arthur pushed in to the hilt then dragged nearly all the way out again.  Fuck he loved that!

“Way I remember it you were comin’ into camp an’ makin’ a beeline for me.”

“You got selective memory, old man.” He laughed and dragged Arthur down for a kiss.  No matter what the truth, and maybe it was a little bit of both, John had always been crazy about this man.  Strong, honest, handsome, with a heart of gold.  That was Arthur.  Always had been, no matter what he thought about himself.  It almost felt like love wasn’t a strong enough word, but John was no poet, he didn’t know any other words.

John came first, making a mess between their stomachs and scratching down Arthur’s broad back with a cry as the pleasure rushed through him.  Arthur fucked him through it but didn’t last much longer, gasping softly as he filled John up, a mess they’d have to deal with...later.  John cuddled in close against Arthur, catching his breath between soft, shallow kisses.  They had a lot of time to make up for, but for once in their life they had nothing but time left.