It wasn’t the kind of place you brought your mother. The bar was only marginally cleaner than the floor, which was only marginally cleaner than the street outside, crushed and churned to the slop of earth and horses. And men.
The men here were the same he had seen anywhere else, but he had never seen so many. Men like these carved space for themselves, scraped the world away for a place to sit briefly, then left anyone who had been there before strewn about, usually ruined in one way or another.
His father had told him chaos didn’t exist. There was always a hidden order to everything, always reason. He couldn’t see reason here. ‘Unreasonable’, he considered, as he watched the third body that hour – unconscious? Dead? – hauled into the street, was a small word, one his mother may have thrown to a butcher unwilling to haggle. They would laugh at it, these men, wouldn’t stop to wonder where it left them in comparison to the wolf or the wind.
A peal of laughter, a slap on the shoulder, then a punch to the face in quick succession. He hadn’t a clue what a single person around him would do next.
It was intoxicating.
He had learned convention the hard way. It didn’t come naturally to him, but was something to be studied carefully, practised, and exercised. At school, he had been quickly singled out as the charity case. He hadn’t known how to speak to the other boys, the professors, even the servants. There was a correct way to do things, to react, to interact; every conversation was an offer and an answer, and which you gave altered your standing.
But here there was no answer. He imagined every one of those boys applying their logic to these men, this bar, to him, now, after everything, and watching it crumble. These creatures were just as likely to find you entertaining as they were infuriating, and there was no way to tell how much trouble either option would bring.
He had become adept at telling other things, though. He could catch glances easily, and return them without offence. This wasn’t something he had had to learn. As it turned out, he was a fucking natural. The secret was moderation. Find the spot between a threat and a liability, a risk and a victim, too sober and too far gone. When you were none of those things, what you were was a prize.
When Arthur Morgan walked into the bar, Archie Downes bought another drink. Then another.
He hated towns like these. They never seemed to leave him alone. But then, Arthur reasoned, he never left them alone either. As far as he rode, as far into the forests or tundra or even the city, it was always places like this he wound up in. Why? To remind himself what people were like, after a week of nothing but fur and claws and snarling teeth? To inevitably feel a fist to the gut, blood in his mouth, the sear of a bullet over his shoulder?
It felt like the sun hadn’t even risen this morning; Arthur had woken to half his camp washed away and his horse knee deep in a stream which hadn’t been there yesterday. The rain hadn’t stopped in hours, and they had come down from the mountains in an attempt to beat the landslides, only just succeeding. When the lights of the harbour town had managed to shine though the downpour, he hadn’t the heart to force his steed any further. She was warm, at least. The stables seemed a lot more appealing than the saloon at this point.
There wasn’t liquor in there, though. As little as the fire was doing, the burn of whisky in his throat and the pit of his stomach would go a ways to making him feel half alive again. The saloon was packed, with no one in any hurry to leave into the storm. Admittedly, this meant there were more chances to anger someone, but Arthur also hoped this meant there were enough other distractions that he would be left in peace.
A shout broke out. This in itself wasn’t unusual, in fact the bar was so noisy Arthur didn’t even hear what was said. The silence which followed, seeping though the cold air far enough that he could actually hear the rain outside, that was a little more strange.
‘You fucking rat,’ a voice snarled, and it still wasn’t enough to get Arthur to turn his head, just another fight in another bar in another state and he was tired and cold and half drowned and then, ‘you queer shit.’
He turned, furious with himself, but he wasn’t the victim of his anger for long.
‘Archie fucking Downes,’ he murmured, before letting his glass thud onto the bar. The man had the boy by the hair, which might have been comical, considering the height difference, had he not also been holding a knife. As Arthur drew closer, he heard Archie whimper.
‘Not you,’ he slurred.
‘Me.’ Arthur turned his attention to the man, a small, stocky breed with a patchy, shorn beard. ‘Let him go, partner. The boy’s drunk.’
‘He moved to...’ flecks of spittle flew towards Arthur, propelled by fury. ‘He suggested–’
‘I think we all know what you thought you heard,’ Arthur said evenly. ‘But it was a mistake.’
‘You’re damn right–’
‘Your mistake, partner.’
The man blinked, then his glower deepened. ‘And what are you gonna do? New in town, walk into our saloon and–’ Arthur rumbled a small laugh.
‘You a popular man, sir? More popular than a good fight? Don’t look like anyone’s stepping up to gang up on little old me. Want to give them a show?’
The man glanced around. Then did it again. He took in the hungry grins of his neighbours, of the sailors in for the evening and looking for sport, of the sheriff and his deputies, as drunk and as bored as the rest. He spat.
‘Have him,’ he snarled, hurling Archie away from him. The boy made to dart away but Arthur had his arm in such a grip he cried out.
‘Get up there,’ Arthur growled, and hauled him towards the stairs.
‘Enjoy him,’ the man hollered after them. ‘Take him with you when you’re done.’ There were a couple of laughs as the crowd realised it was the only amusement to be gleaned. On the whole, a disappointing exchange. Someone reached out and ruffled the instigator’s hair. He beat the arm back and there were more laughs. The noise returned.
Arthur had reached the top of the stairs. He threw Archie into a chair and the boy immediately bounced back to his feet, glaring at him.
‘Leave me alone,’ he hissed, and made for the stairs. Arthur caught him easily, and Archie took another fall into the chair.
‘Don’t need your help,’ he insisted. It would have been more convincing if all the words had kept to themselves, instead of running together like ink in rain. ‘You don’t understand, I’m good at this!’
‘You’re drunk, is what you are.’ When there wasn’t another attempt at escape, Arthur sank into the chair opposite.
‘And whose fault is that?’ As though admitting defeat, the kid sank lower. He was all limbs, the drink loosening his posture so he took up more space. How different he looked. Arthur lent his forearms on his knees to watch.
‘Well from your tone,’ he said breezily, ‘I take it it’s mine, somehow. Though I don’t see how that could possibly be.’
‘‘s your fault,’ the boy agreed. ‘Wouldn’t’ve needed a drink... hadn’t seen your face.’
‘There’s a lot of things my fault,’ Arthur said gruffly. ‘Lot of things. This ain’t one of them.’ The look this earned him made him think perhaps the boy wasn’t as far gone as he appeared. He’d seen the type before, doe eyes and thick eyelashes and hard, cold resolution behind them. It set his teeth on edge, and he threw himself back in his chair to stop himself striking the table.
‘God in Heaven, boy. I got you out of Annesburg, your mother out of Annesburg, just so you could die turnin’ tricks in this hellhole instead?’
Archie had been glaring at the table as he spoke, but as the words sunk in the frown changed.
‘I... I’m not,’ he muttered.
‘I’m not here for money, I...’ he hunched, if possible, even lower and looked back across the railing. ‘Never mind.’
Arthur didn’t move. He didn’t watch the boy sway, somehow, even though he was slumped into an armchair. He didn’t watch him. Not for long, anyway. He looked out the window. Looking back on his doubts that the sun had even bothered today, he saw it must have made an appearance, if only to make the evening seem even bleaker in comparison. The rain tinted the darkness, made it shudder and writhe and, looking toward where he knew the shore had to be, Arthur felt suddenly sick. As though the world were moving and leaving him behind.
‘What... what have you been doing?’ he asked eventually. He tore his eyes away from the trembling night in time to see Archie glance away. The boy shrugged.
‘This. Not this,’ he gestured to Arthur, then, after hesitating, himself. ‘But, that.’ He cast a glance over the bar again. ‘Mostly. I’m working at a printmaker, mother helps the baker on Sundays. We have a chicken.’
Arthur rumbled a non-committal sound. ‘And this?’ Archie met his eyes again.
‘This is dangerous,’ Arthur supplied. ‘These men are dangerous.’ Archie waved a hand.
‘The miners were dangerous. Mother’s guests were dangerous. You’re dangerous.’
‘That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said all night.’
‘I don’t care about dangerous.’
‘And there you go again.’ Arthur sighed. ‘Where has this come from? You were always the voice of reason. Every time I saw your...’ He stopped, but the damage was done. Archie blinked hard, forcing tears and, Arthur supposed, memories away.
‘Annesburg, I guess,’ Archie said, after a pause. ‘It all came from Annesburg. From you, in Annesburg, more specifically.’
‘How do you mean?’
Archie shrugged, heaving his form out of the chair briefly before thudding back. ‘I think about it a lot,’ he said softly. ‘The men. The mouth of the mine at my back, and you, standing there...’
‘And you wanted another show? That it, boy?’
Archie scoffed. ‘I want...’ he dug his nails into the arm chair, and Arthur watched what appeared to be a battle rage in front of him. ‘I want a walk,’ he settled on, and hoisted himself to his feet. ‘It spins worse when you sit.’
‘I remember,’ Arthur chuckled.
Archie was fast, faster than Arthur would have been, five drinks in. He threw open the door to the balcony and darted out, into the rain.
‘What are you doing?’ Arthur yelled over the downpour. He hovered in the doorway as Archie slowly spread his arms, letting himself get soaked. After a while, he turned to Arthur.
‘I feel better,’ he announced, and smiled. It was then Arthur realised he had never seen his smile.
‘You won’t,’ he countered, as Archie drifted back towards the door. ‘Not when you catch your death.’
‘You don’t care,’ Archie said as he passed. He shook his hair from his eyes, catching Arthur with droplets.
‘Of course I do,’ Arthur muttered as he followed him back inside. ‘Gave you all that damned money.’
He wasn’t sure if it was meant to make Archie laugh. Really, if he had been trying, he would have said anything other than that. But it did. The boy laughed so Arthur almost didn’t see him shiver.
‘You need a fire,’ he said, and took him by the arm again.
‘I’ll have the fire soon enough,’ Archie mumbled as he was pulled along, ‘‘all that damned money’.’ And he laughed again.
Arthur already had a room. When he had paid two hours ago, the saloon owner’s daughter had slunk upstairs to prepare it, so the fire was already burning when he unlocked the door. He shoved Archie towards the grate before shrugging off his jacket and glancing around. Not the worst place he’d ever slept in, but definitely the worst room.
‘Who paid for this?’ Archie asked with his back to him.
‘I did,’ Arthur said mildly.
‘And who pays you?’ He peeled his waistcoat and overshirt over his head.
‘Yeah. Maybe.’ Archie dragged a hand through his hair, and instead of plastered to his scalp it curled, sticking out at odd angles. Arthur would have laughed, if they weren’t discussing murder.
‘What would you do?’ he asked slowly. It wasn’t mocking, or coated with anything but curiosity. The boy stood, ignoring the fire, ignoring the food left on the side and the blankets on the bed. He was beginning to lose sensation, Arthur thought. Soon he won’t feel the cold. Won’t need to eat. All he’d need was direction. He knew what that was like.
‘Do you think you could kill him?’ Arthur asked conversationally.
‘Not yet,’ Archie shrugged. ‘I’m weak. You showed me that. Back at the ranch, and in Annesburg. There was nothing I could do to stop you. But one day, I won’t be weak any more. And whoever sent you...’ He trailed off.
‘I guess I’d have to beat you to get to him, though?’ he said suddenly.
‘Me?’ This time he did laugh. ‘We’ll see. I doubt it, though.’
Archie nodded slowly, and slower still sunk down into a chair. Arthur sat on the edge of the bed, watching the boy watch the fire.
‘What about me?’ he asked, after roughly three centuries. He thought maybe Archie had fallen asleep, his eyes were hooded as the glow softened his features. But he glanced up.
‘You.’ It didn’t sound like a question, but Arthur answered it anyway.
‘Where do I fit in this revenge fantasy of yours?’ Archie blinked, but didn’t say anything. Arthur waited, then tried again. ‘I didn’t have to follow orders,’ he said, staring at his hands. ‘I didn’t have to come to your home and...’
‘You didn’t have to follow us to the city,’ Archie said. ‘You didn’t have to fight all those men. Rescue my mother. Give us all your money.’
‘That’s not enough,’ Arthur muttered, and shook his head quickly. ‘That can’t be enough.’
‘No,’ Archie agreed. ‘But... I don’t know. What is?’
‘Nothing,’ Arthur said softly. Archie nodded.
‘At least you know that. And you did it all anyway. Do you make a habit of hopeless causes, Mr Morgan?’
‘Oh, kid.’ Arthur flopped back onto the mattress. ‘If only you knew.’
He stared at the ceiling for a moment, then felt the need to say, ‘I don’t want it to be enough. You should know that. I’m not looking to get off the hook. You should kill me. Or want to, at least. I’d be more okay with that than most of the people gunnin’ for me. You deserve it. That’s why I’m not sorry. Not sorry in the way people say they are when they want to be pardoned. I’m ashamed of what I did, and what I’ve done to you, and I’ll pay for it forever. But I’m not sorry.’
‘That’s alright,’ Archie’s voice came from much closer, and Arthur sat up to find them face to face. ‘You’re not forgiven.’
Who is to say if the things we swear to one another at such times are true. As Archie’s hand brushed his cheek, reaching back to curl into his hair, Arthur could be heard to whisper, ‘you don’t want this.’ Archie laughed, a small, broken laugh, and his breath played across Arthur’s cheek.
‘Tell me what I want.’
‘You–’ was as far as he got, as Archie chose that moment to nip at his throat. The smallest shock of pain took the breath from him. A sudden weight told him Archie had crawled into his lap, and now sat astride him. He couldn’t move. That wasn’t true; Archie was not strong, he’d said so himself, but Arthur was paralysed. Archie noticed.
‘Is...’ he faltered, pulling back suddenly. ‘Is this...?’
‘The worst idea you could have possibly had?’ Arthur asked, still unmoving, still with the boy’s hands in his hair, still. ‘I think so.’
A spark returned to Archie’s eyes and he glared down at him. The kiss, when it came, wasn’t soft, or hesitant, or any of the words he’d have associated with Archie Downes. He still tasted of the rain, of the storm pressing against the windows, and the hands pressing him back onto the bed were not strong but neither was he.
Archie followed him down, replacing the weight on Arthur’s lap with a grind of his hips which caused Arthur to break the kiss with a grunt.
‘I told you I was good at this,’ came a voice by his ear, and then the weight on top of him vanished.
Arthur had just enough time to catch a breath before it was knocked out of him by a new sensation. Archie had undone his belt deftly, without him even noticing, and had applied himself to Arthur with a practised swipe of the tongue. Arthur jerked his head up in time to catch Archie’s eye before he took him entirely in his mouth.
‘Jesus,’ Arthur muttered, trying not to writhe, trying to keep his gaze, but then–
‘Fuck,’ he hissed, falling back to the mattress, his back arching as he fought to keep his hips still. Spots danced across his vision, the firelight swam, the rain pounded in his head and Archie...
‘Archie.’ He wasn’t sure if he managed the name, or if it turned into a cry half way through. Honestly, his attention was elsewhere.
He dreamt of the dark. He stared into it, and knew it to be nothing. In the wisdom only dreams afford us, he knew if he went into the darkness he was over. It was all over.
He felt pressure behind him, the noisy, masculine pressure of a gang of men. They wanted him to go. They wanted him to stop. When he turned to face them, away from the dark, he felt the absence of any pressure on his back instead, and that was worse. But it was light that way. He could see that way.
All he had to do was get past the men, back into the light. As he set his eyes towards home, he saw who was standing in the mouth of the mine.
He woke unable to breathe. It was dark, still, not as dark as nothing but close enough that a sleep-drugged mind takes little power to imagine. He was about to die, it told him. He had gone into the dark and was lost.
There was a hand either side of his face. Through the struggle for air, he saw movement in the darkness. He saw. The shock of new information was enough, and he allowed himself a lungful of air.
Arthur was speaking, murmuring; nothing in particular, just noises as though to soothe a bolted horse.
When his breathing had slowed, Arthur sat back. Archie could tell he was watching him.
‘Can you...’ he rubbed his eyes. Still dark. ‘Can you light a candle?’
The match was struck at once, and the gloom skulked away, leaving the right kind of nothing, the calming nothing, the nothing that couldn’t hurt you. It was a small blossom of light, but enough to see Arthur. So enough.
If he was honest with himself – and really, who else cared for the risk? – Archie had imagined Arthur a fair few times. He had got the body right, the muscles that had thrown his father across a room, that had reduced a team of miners to tears; and the face, for the most part. It had been a face he’d sworn to remember, at first. A face he’d one day find, on his own terms, and make him understand what destruction he had wrought, what pain he had left in his wake. But then he’d seen that face again, and Archie realised he already understood. The eyes had been so tired, and the absence of hope screamed loud enough to rattle his hollow voice, and Archie had forgotten why he had to remember.
The look on Arthur’s face now was a new one. He was still frowning, because when, really, did Arthur Morgan stop frowning? But there was none of the business-like malice Archie had seen at Downes Ranch, and none of the pure, boiling rage from the mine. Archie realised, the irony hitting his chest heavily and making him a little light headed, that Arthur Morgan was worried about him.
‘Annesburg?’ the man asked. Archie let his head drop to the pillow and nodded.
‘You said you thought about it a lot,’ Arthur reminded him, and he was here, again, between him and the dark, here with him. With him.
‘I do,’ Archie murmured. ‘But...’
The world didn’t pay much attention to Archie Downes. He was small, unthreatening, and easily slipped out of any scrutiny, so easily it had become a habit. He ghosted his course and the world didn’t know he’d passed by. He left no mark, offered no opinion. Nobody was interested. Archie had become accustomed to eyes slipping away as soon as his voice stopped, sometimes even before that.
If interactions were an exchange, with time traded for understanding, he wasn’t used to having much of either to offer. Archie Downes was not worth anyone’s time.
Arthur Morgan watched him, and waited.
It took Archie a moment to notice this, wrapped as he was in thoughts of social currency and the precise way the candlelight danced with Arthur’s scars.
‘But?’ the man prompted, settling next to him on his side, never once dropping his gaze.
Archie met his eyes then, and heard himself say, ‘But it has a different effect when I’m awake.’
‘Oh?’ Archie heard the way the question got caught on the way out, and with a thrill he realised Arthur’s throat had gone dry.
He nodded, and took Arthur’s hand, gently pulling it beneath the covers.
‘Ah,’ Arthur breathed into his ear. Archie had expected him to grab him, a rough, immediate resolution, but Arthur seemed to think he was worth even more time.
‘So you do like a show?’ he whispered, running a single finger the along his length, and Archie wasn’t sure if he was answering the question or the touch when he managed, ‘yes.’
Either seemed to please Arthur, if his kiss was anything to go by. His laugh was small, private and appreciative as he swung his weight above Archie and pressed a little harder.
‘Give you a show,’ he muttered, mouthing his neck, his shoulders, his chest. Once, Archie moved to touch him too, and Arthur caught his wrist, pinning it against the pillow. ‘A show just for you,’ he continued as though there had been no interruption, but his meaning was plain.
Archie forgot to breathe again, but acted on instinct, raising his other hand to the pillow. For a moment, he felt Arthur’s thumb circling his pulse, the movement careful, tender. Then that wrist was seized too, and Archie shuddered as Arthur returned his attention lower.
As it turned out, roughness had to be earned, which made it a world away from the usual encounters Archie’s time in this town gleaned. Arthur did nothing without being sure, without encouragement, and though Archie was the one pressed into the bed with his hands bound, he controlled everything. At one buck, he felt Arthur’s teeth on his shoulder. He gritted his own, head swimming, and pressed his mouth to Arthur’s ear.
‘You’re not forgiven,’ he hissed.
‘I’m not repentant,’ Arthur snarled into his collarbone.
Who is to say if the things we swear to one another at such times are true.