Arthur knows John like he knows his own skin. That’s what happens when you grow up beside someone, even if that someone is a scrawny wharf rat of a boy who isn’t even related to you; even if that someone is coming up on a decade younger than you, with a worse attitude and a tendency to go off dreaming instead of concentrating on work.
Still, he knows John, and he’s pretty sure John knows him right back. So when a what should have been a simple bank job goes wrong -- badly wrong -- and ends with a young girl getting shot, accidentally, bleeding out all over the floor like a stuck pig and screaming the whole time, he knows exactly what John needs.
The camp is quiet, sombre, a mass of shadows under the sliver of new moon, tents pitched hurriedly in the lee of a flinty cliff face to keep the wind off. In the aftermath of the botched job Dutch had split the gang and sent half of them in one direction and the other half in the opposite, with plans to join up over by Bear Creek in three days. They’d been running since the afternoon before, trying to get as much distance between themselves and the local law as possible, until Hosea had finally called a halt.
The air smells like pine needles, sweated horse and wood smoke, and the cold metal bite that tells snow on the way. Arthur drifts through the camp, chewing on the end of a cigarette and trying not to make it too obvious that he’s seeking out a particular tent. Not that anyone pretends it’s a secret, nor do they really care. It’s all part of what you do to keep the family together. Sometimes you glance away from what’s necessary.
Eventually he ends up outside John’s tent. John keeps himself spaced a little way out from the rest of the camp, a mark of his wandering nature that he can’t seem to shake off.
Arthur clears his throat and makes a moment of dropping his cigarette onto the frozen ground and grinding it out under his heel.
“Arthur?” John’s voice drifts out from the darkness. “That you?”
Arthur ducks under the burlap overhang that’s more of an illusion of privacy than anything else. He can just about make out John’s shape sitting up on his camp bed, a deeper shadow among the haphazard shadows of his supplies.
“Yeah, boy. It’s me. Here, make some room.” Arthur drops down onto the end of John’s bed. He digs inside his jacket pocket and brings out a hip flask of the nastiest moonshine he could dig out of Pearson’s supplies. “You want some of this?”
John is silent for a moment, then reaches out and takes the flask. He shifts up in the bed. Coughs after taking a swig. Arthur chuckles.
“Christ, how does Pearson find this stuff?”
“I think he just uses whatever’s left from his wash water,” Arthur replies, accepting the flask back and taking a nip of it himself. It tastes of raw spirits and burns all the way down.
He glances over at John as he settles the flask back in his pocket. The thin moonlight sneaks in around the edges of the burlap, travelling across John’s cheekbones and glinting in his eyes. His breath steams between them.
“Look, about yesterday -- ”
“Save it, Arthur. You don’t need to come ministerin’ to me.”
“John, you can’t just -- ”
It seems to be a good night for John interrupting him, because he doesn’t get much further before John’s mouth is on his, beard scraping his lips, hot and desperate and tasting like moonshine. Arthur groans into the kiss, only a little annoyed that he never gets to do it his way. This is how it always is, between them. Not that it happens often, but when it does it happens this way -- something bad happens, maybe once or twice a season, and they seek each other out, and they fight and most of the time they fuck afterwards. Clinging and clawing at each other like they’re keeping each other from drowning. Two boys against the world, that’s what Dutch used to call them. Dutch’s boys.
John is breathing hard between kisses; his hand scrapes over Arthur’s chest, seeking skin. Arthur pays him back in kind, reaching up to dig his fingers into John’s hair, murmuring nonsense and need against John’s lips.
Arthur’s weight tips them over onto the bed, both of them falling instinctively into a familiar position, John’s legs rising around Arthur’s hips. Arthur shrugs out of his jacket as John’s hands fumble at his belt buckle. Arthur pushes his hand up under John’s shirt, John’s skin almost shockingly warm after the chill winter air. John’s body jumps beneath him.
“Fuck! Arthur, you’re so goddamn cold.”
Arthur dips his head down, pressing his mouth against John’s neck. He licks a circle on salty skin. “So keep me warm, Marston.”
John moans, too loudly. They both ignore the laughter from the direction of the cookfire not thirty yards away. It won’t go beyond laughter or maybe a few ribald jokes about riding steers over breakfast. Just Dutch’s boys letting off some steam.
John finally manages to open Arthur’s belt and jeans and slips his hand inside, and then it’s Arthur’s turn to curse as John wraps his hand around his cock. John grips and squeezes. Arthur can’t stop his hips rocking forward into John’s hand. It’s been a long time. Too long.
“Wait.. John.. damn it,” Arthur growls against John’s throat. John laughs quietly -- Arthur relishes the sound -- and pushes him back, deftly unhooking his belt and shoving down his pants, almost knocking Arthur off of the narrow cot. Arthur drinks in the sight of John in the faint moonlight, jeans around his ankles, his cock bobbing against his stomach. John kicks off his pants and grabs a handful of Arthur’s shirt, pulling him forward. They trade bruising kisses, John dragging his teeth over Arthur’s lower lip until Arthur moans again, his cock sliding over John’s bare hip. John is too good at this, too good at making it about the fucking instead of talking.
Not that Arthur has a particular problem with that.
Reluctantly, Arthur pulls away from John’s mouth and warm skin, shifting on the cot so he’s kneeling between John’s legs. John, used to the routine, settles back, one hand absently drifting across to touch himself while he watches Arthur, who digs a tobacco tin out of his pocket. The bear grease inside started out as hair pomade and is treated with sandalwood oil; it warms quickly in Arthur’s palm, the scent rising up between them. They’ve always used it, him and John. During lonely winters, just the smell of it is enough to make Arthur hard.
He rubs it over his cock, then reaches between John’s legs. John grunts as Arthur pushes a finger inside of him. He’s hot inside, so damn hot. As hot as the world outside is cold.
John doesn’t take long to prepare; the boy is eager, as always, and lifts his legs to wrap around Arthur’s hips as Arthur moves over him.
“Nice and slow, Morgan,” John mutters. His breath clouds the air. Arthur pushes his hands beneath John’s ass, hitching him higher, presses against him, then --
“Ahhh.. fuck.” Arthur buries his face against John’s throat, hips moving slowly, so slowly. The world narrows down to the slick heat around his cock; the smell of John’s skin; the sound of his gasping breaths and grunts as Arthur pushes deeper; the feel of John’s cock throbbing against his stomach.
John’s hands move from Arthur’s hips to his shoulders and back, gripping him close. The cot creaks and complains beneath them. Somewhere outside the wind whistles through the pines and sends a chill breeze skating through the burlap walls and over Arthur’s neck. A horse whinnies; Bill’s voice picks up volume from over by the cookfire, arguing something with Charles.
Inside the tent, it’s just John and Arthur. The heat rising between them; the smell of bear grease mingled with sandalwood mingled with day-old sweat and grime; the way John starts alternately cursing and praising Arthur under his breath with each thrust. All of it, their own narrow little world, their tiny corner of creation carved out from under the misery and the grind.
John slides a hand down between them and his gasps take on a new tone as he jerks himself off in time with Arthur’s thrusts. The feel and sound of it is enough to send a spike of urgent need down Arthur’s spine and into his balls. His thrusts pick up speed; he grips John’s shoulder with one hand and hooks the other under one of John’s knees, half falling off the cot to put a foot on the floor for leverage.
“Ah, ah, fuck, Arthur.” John doesn’t bother trying to stay quiet any more.
“Fuck you too, Marston,” Arthur retorts, punctuating each word with a push of his hips.
John looks up at him. Even in the dim light Arthur can see the mischief glinting in his eyes.
“I thought that’s, ah, what you, ahh, were doing, Morgan.”
Arthur growls in response, leaning down to kiss him, their combined movement turning it into a messy bumping of lips and teeth and shuddering breath. John’s hand begins to move quicker against Arthur’s stomach and Arthur matches it, their bodies thumping against the cot and the crates of supplies in a way that must be audible to the whole damn camp, but neither of them have the wherewithal to care in that moment, in the moment that’s just them alone.
“Harder, Morgan, damn it, ah, fuck, fuck -- ” John gasps. Arthur obliges, ignoring the cramp building in his back because his world is John, now, only John, the feel of him, the grip of his fingers, the heat of his body matching the heat building in the pit of Arthur’s belly, until John makes a noise that’s half a groan and a curse and his hand jerks erratically between them as his other hand clutches Arthur close and his whole body tenses and a scalding wetness soaks Arthur’s front and at the feel of it and the sound of John losing control Arthur comes, too, hard, like a kick from a horse, and for a little while their world slips away into a haze of stars.
Arthur resurfaces to find himself half-collapsed on top of John, both of them breathing like they’ve just run a race, all kinds of muscles starting to protest at their tangled position. John lifts a hand to stroke Arthur’s hair, then raises himself up to kiss him, gently. Arthur allows it, though it’s not often that John is sweet in this way outside of the lead up to their fucking so he’s a little confused.
“Thanks, Arthur.” John closes his eyes and takes a breath like that, forehead pressed against Arthur’s. Arthur wonders what he’s thinking. Then John lets himself fall back onto the cot. “Now get the hell off me before you end up crushin’ me to death.”
Arthur gives him a little shove on the shoulder for that but does as he’s told, wincing as he extracts himself from John and the cold air rushes in to fill the space between them. Lassitude fills his limbs and he just wants to lie back down, but instead he wipes himself off with a corner of the blanket and does his best to dab at the wetness on his shirt. John, unrepentant, leans over to pick up his jeans and his underwear from the ground and fishes in the pocket for a cigarette and a book of matches.
Arthur stands up, his legs only a little shaky, and resettles his clothing. He finds his jacket mostly by accident and slips it on. The light from the cigarette warms the planes of John’s face. John takes a draw on it and hands it over. Arthur nods his gratitude.
“You want to talk about it?” He asks, taking a drag on the cigarette. John rubs his hands over his face. They both know what Arthur is referring to. “It wasn’t your fault, you know. It happens sometimes, you can’t always tell what you’re shootin’ -- ”
“I know, Arthur.” John pulls his jeans up, then swings his legs over to sit on the cot. “I don’t.. I don’t need to talk about it. Really.” He stands up and begins hunting for his boots. Arthur spots one and kicks it towards him.
“Come on, you.” Arthur pats John on the shoulder, almost but not quite pushing him off balance as he tries to get his boots on. “Let’s take a walk. I bet Pearson’s still got some stew left in that bottomless pot of his.”
John catches Arthur’s hand as he turns to go. Gives it a brief but meaningful squeeze. For a moment the world narrows again, the warmth of their shared grip. Then John lets go.
“Sure,” he says, turning to grab his hat. “That sounds just fine.”