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whatever differences our lives have been, we together make a limb

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The road to him and Butch was a slow, switchbacking one.

Sundance doesn't remember much about the when of it all, except to know that Butch must've been the one who started things. Would've approached the matter slow, too, like Sundance was some skittish colt unused to the bit, liable to be sent running at a sudden move. He doesn't think he would've bolted if Butch had cut to the quick of the thing instead of meandering around the shape of it, but who knows. Butch has a good eye for reading people, so maybe he saw something different when he read Sundance.

Later, when Sundance considers their history with a fresh set of eyes, he looks back on some of those nights away from camp and sees the way Butch'd been playing coy with him. The two of them bedded down for the evening next to a low-burning fire, Sundance staring off at the shadows of the Wyoming hills and trying to ignore the rock digging into his hip, and there's Butch on the other side of the embers talking up at the stars. Spinning something to the blue-black sky about how he's heard of folks that froze to death in these hills, and you don't want to go out like that, do you, Sundance? Fingers and toes turned blue until the buzzards come to pick the skin from your bones? That ain't a way to go, is it, Kid?

No, Butch, he'd said. S'pose it isn't. And even though it was Butch that brought up the matter in the first place, it was Sundance who'd ended up shifting his bedroll until the two of them were side by side. Ended up being warmer, too, but he never gave Butch the satisfaction of knowing it.

Sundance doesn't remember much of the specifics from those evenings celebrating after a job, pockets heavy with hard-earned coin and a particular kind of fire singing in his blood, but he does remember the night when he first felt something shift between the two of them. No, Sundance couldn't say with any kind of certainty how many drinks he'd had after their third hit on the Union Pacific, or the name of the red-headed girl with her arms slung around Butch's neck after the bank job, but he could pinpoint the moment he first glanced over at Butch from behind the rim of his glass and felt something new, something different, something ugly and hard-edged in his stomach at seeing the blurry stain of pink lipstick smeared across Butch's cheek.

He remembers Butch looking up and catching his eye, wearing that easy grin turned brighter by his third drink of whiskey, and understanding in an instant that this was a notion Butch had stumbled on some time back. Understood that, like with most of the beats in their partnership, Butch had gotten the idea, had maneuvered them into the region of the thing, but had been waiting on the surety of Sundance's hand to pull the trigger.

They'd left early that night, but no one seemed to guess the intent behind it.

 

 

Maybe the strangest thing to Sundance is the way things don't seem to change much, after that first time. It feels something weighty the next morning—something right, something fitting, not unlike when Sundance first picked up a pistol and felt it as an extension of his own hand—but him and Butch don't ever sit opposite and talk about what happened. Not in so many words, at least, not like the paragraphs Butch gives up to planning their latest pull or telling Sundance about the time he broke out of prison with nothing more than a pitcher of water and loaf of bread. But Sundance doesn't ever feel saddled with the weight of unsaid things, either, so doesn't that mean something, too? It must. More than anything, though, it just feels like one more facet of their partnership, one new version of the give-and-take between them. Something already familiar.

They keep things quiet around the rest of the gang—don't cozy up around the campfire like war-torn sweethearts, or nothing—and it didn't require words between the two of them to settle on that. They haven't made it this far by being that sort of foolish. But even when there's a healthy distance between them, even when it's been days or weeks since he's run a thumb over the stubble at Butch's jaw or felt the slight scrape of Butch's callus-roughened fingers against him, it's never gone. Lingers over Sundance like a column of smoke long after the embers have flickered into ash, thick enough he sometimes thinks he could choke on it, could feel it all the way down in his lungs. Like he's breathing in Butch wherever he goes.

Sometimes, when Sundance catches himself thinking of this thing between him'n Butch as something stuck fast in his throat, something gumming up the air in his chest, he wonders if maybe they don't need to exchange words after all. But what's he supposed to say when he doesn't understand it himself? The thoughts tangled and spitting like a rattlesnake nest, and digging his hands into that mess is just asking to get bit.

So they don't talk, really. Or if they do, it never feels like quite enough. Feels something lacking, like plugging up holes in a dam while the water threatens to burst through the center. Feels something unsustainable, and so maybe it was only a matter of time until another shift occurred.

For Sundance, it happens when he meets Etta.

 

 

The idea of love at first sight always struck Sundance as an apparent sort of bullshit, particularly when all of his relationships—and, really, that might just count the one between him and Butch—developed from hard-won trust beating out his better instincts. And so it's not like he sees Etta and is suddenly gone for her or anything. Not like he sees her and feels anything akin to the certainty he feels with Butch, years-long and well earned. No, Sundance wouldn't use words like love or certainty , but he doesn't think it inaccurate to say that he was intrigued. Curiosity sparked when he'd tipped his hat at this dark-haired school teacher, all no-nonsense with her pulled-back shoulders and the starched collar of her shirt, and she'd just raised an eyebrow in response. He wondered whether she'd run with enough outlaw-types not to pay him any mind, or whether she had too much grit in her bones to feel rattled.

Still, setting that moment aside, it's likely as anything that Sundance wouldn't have remembered her. Not like she was the first woman with a pretty face to catch his eye, or even the second. If history was anything to go off of, chances are good he would've left town without ever learning her name, but then it was dusk and he'd decided to call it an early night, and who does he see walking out of the hardware store on the other end of the street? Hair still pulled up into this neat bun and white sleeves buttoned at the wrists, and Sundance's feet are carrying him in her direction before he's even made a decision about it.

(There's a part of him that thinks about Butch, but Sundance tells himself that there's no need to feel guilty. Tells himself that Butch won't mind, because what even are the two of them, really? Not like they've ever put a name to it, and so it doesn't feel like something tangible, something that could be broken by the clumsiness of Sundance's hands. It's a lie, but Sundance still talks himself into believing it.)

She lives close by, as it happens, and Sundance learns her name and a handful of her strong opinions on the walk back, the sun dipping lower behind the hills and turning the sky a dusty shade of pink. Sundance says it reminds him of the blush in her cheeks, and Etta tells him he hasn't done anything yet to make her blush. They spend the rest of the evening sitting on her back porch, trading stories in the quiet and watching the moon pull itself up and over the horizon. At some point, Etta undoes the ribbon holding up her hair, winding the burgundy fabric around her fingers while she tells Sundance about growing up in Montana and learning to climb trees in her aunt's backyard, pulling her skirt up to the knee to show him the shiny stretch of white scar tissue on her right shin. She asks Sundance what he does for a living, and he tells her he works in the railroad business, which only feels like half a lie.

When he leaves in the morning, Etta unwinds the ribbon into his palm and tells him not to be a stranger. Sundance has no intention of doing any such thing.

 

 

He doesn't know what he expects from Butch when he gets back to camp, hair mussed and still wearing yesterday's clothes like he's found someone to keep him company all night. Which, he supposes, he has, but not in the way that Butch would think.

"The schoolteacher, huh?" Butch asks as Sundance takes a seat by the fire. He can't hear any accusation in Butch's tone, but he also can't hear much of anything in Butch's tone, like the words have been leveled out until they're flat as Kansas.

"Somethin' to say about it?"

"I know better than to have an opinion on a thing like that, Kid." Butch doesn't say anything for a moment, swilling a half-full mug in his hands. "You tell her the truth?"

"Told her my name was 'Harry'."

"That's something of the truth."

"Mhm."

There's another moment of quiet after that, where Sundance thinks about telling Butch that nothing really happened with him and Etta, but he doesn't. Whether because it'd feel like something of a lie when he's planning to see Etta again, or because he wants Butch to sit with the idea of Sundance and somebody else, he's not sure.

Whatever Butch is thinking, though, he doesn't voice it. Doesn't do much of anything but give a nod in Sundance's direction and dump out his coffee grounds into the ashes of the fire.

 

 

Sundance would've introduced Etta and Butch at some point—not much use in trying to keep them separate, not when they so often feel like equal halves of his life—but before he has a chance, the universe conspires to bring them together first. He's helping Etta clean up after dinner when she mentions having met an acquaintance of his, some broad-shouldered fellow with bright eyes and an easy smile, and it doesn't take Sundance more than a moment to know she's talking about Butch. At that point, he'd still been playing coy about the somewhat unsavory side to his character, had still been dancing around the fact that it's his face decorating more than a few WANTED posters nailed up at nearby banks, but Etta meeting Butch complicates the matter somewhat. He supposes he could've kept up with the half-truths, but then Etta asks how they know each other—Butch, it seems, hadn't offered much in the way of details—and Sundance finds himself wanting to tell her the whole of it. Maybe not the same version she'd read in the papers, but likely a more honest one.  

She laughs at first, staring at him while he's rinsing her dishes like she's waiting for him to crack a smile and let her in on the joke. Like, look at him in her kitchen with soap suds up to his elbows and that jacket of his that's nearly worn through across the shoulders, and he expects her to believe that he's really some sort of train robber? You mean to tell me that, all this time, the Sundance Kid's been keeping company with a schoolteacher?

Sorry for not mentionin' it sooner, Etta.

Pretty soon her laugh trails off, and Sundance can just about see her turning over every fact he'd mentioned about himself. Sifting through the history that he'd shared to be suitably mad about the places where he'd colored outside the lines, or redrew the picture entirely.

Once that's done, though, she doesn't seem angry—which he takes as a good sign—and she doesn't seem inclined to turn him and Butch over to the sheriff—which he takes as a better sign—and the only real change seems to be that she calls him Sundance instead of Harry, which Sundance prefers anyway.  

 

 

It's a week later that Sundance wakes up in Etta's empty bed to hear voices coming from her kitchen, followed by the sort of laughter he'd expect to hear in a conversation between old friends. Something easy, something shared, like the way he can figure Butch's next move in a fight without more than a look in his direction. (A good thing, too, because Sundance usually ends up being the only one keeping Butch from ruining his pretty face with a black eye or a broken jaw).

He hadn't remembered Etta saying anything about a friend stopping by in the morning, though, and so he's a little cautious as he pulls on his breeches and eases down the hallway connecting her bedroom and the kitchen. Not that there proves to be any need for such measures, not when it's goddamn Butch who's got a chair pulled up at Etta's table, wearing a broad grin while she brews a pot of coffee at the stove.

"You should've seen the Kid," Butch says, leaning forward in his seat. "Four Union Pacific guards between us and the safe, and then one of 'em goes for his gun and—Etta, I swear—I never even saw Sundance move. But then there's the crack of a shot and the poor bastard who'd reached for his piece is lookin' at his Colt on the floor of the train car, one of the Kid's bullets lodged in the grip."

"Way I remember it," Sundance says, pushing off from where he'd been resting his shoulder against the frame to pull up a chair opposite Butch. "It was one bullet in the grip, one between the boots of the man next to him with the twitchy fingers."

"Well, shit—look who finally decided to wake up." He nudges Sundance's leg with his foot. "Got to be any later and I was about ready to head out without you."

"Heaven forbid."

It's then that Etta joins them at the table, fingers crooked through the handles of three mugs that she sets down on the table. Takes a seat next to Sundance like it's an everyday affair to have two outlaws splitting coffee in her kitchen, feet propped up in Sundance's lap as she stirs sugar into her own mug and listens to them mull over the benefits of hitting train safes instead of bank jobs.

"I'll take a vault on wheels over one dug into the basement anyday. Less security, less overview, and no small-town sheriff lookin' to make a name for himself, ain't that right, Kid?"

"He's just sore about the time that fellow in Dubois put a hole through his hat."

"You're damn right I am. If he'd been as good a shot as you, Kid, I wouldn't be sittin' here right now, would I?"

But after that the conversation shifts until Etta and Butch are just chatting, familiar and easy-like. He tells her about growing up in Utah, oldest of thirteen, and it occurs to Sundance that these are pieces of Butch he'd never known before, that he'd never given much thought to who Butch would've been as a younger man. To Etta, though, he offers up these truths like he has no secrets to keep, and Sundance can't help but think back to that first night he'd spent with Etta, burning through the moonlight and getting the sense that there was something right, here. The two of them fit together as easy as a bullet in the chamber of his pistol, or the interlocking teeth of a train-safe door.

He loves Etta, and he'll always love Butch, and Sundance wonders for a flickering moment if he could be so lucky as not to have to choose between them. Maybe it's a selfish notion. Maybe, but sitting there at the table, seeing the spark in Butch's eye and the upturned corners of Etta's mouth, the idea of the three of them together strikes Sundance as the most sensible thing in the world.

 

 

When Sundance finally decides to bring up the matter, he does so first with Butch. It's just the two of them up in the hills, scouting out a new stretch of railroad track for their next hit on the Overland Flyer , and before Etta, it's the sort of moment that would've seen the two of them slotted together, Butch's hand steady on Sundance's hip. But there's been nothing like that between them since Etta, and even laying side-by-side on the shale while they scope out the valley, Sundance is pointedly aware of the newfound distance between them. It's something he'd like desperately to mend.

"Hey, Butch."

"Mhm."

"Wanted to ask you about somethin'."

"Shoot, Kid."

He glances at Butch out the corner of his eye, drumming his fingers against the hard-packed gravel. Feels himself on the precipice of something overwhelming, some ledge that threatens to give way under his feet.

"What if it didn't have to be me and you, or me and her?" Sundance looks away from Butch as he starts talking, counting the trees in the valley instead. "What if it was just the three of us?"

"What, like all at once?" There's a careful levity to the way Butch says the words, like he hasn't figured whether or not this is Sundance's idea of a joke. "Think Etta's bed might be a little small for that."

Sundance smiles. "I'm sure we'd make do." Then he sobers up, voice turned a little more serious. "But more like, what if this thing we have—" this thing they had, maybe, that they've still never really spoken of, never given shape to with words, "—what if Etta was a part of it?"

Butch is quiet for a long while, long enough for Sundance to become acutely aware of the blood beating loud in his ears. Long enough, too, for him to think back to the way he'd first handled the matter of Etta with Butch and start feeling guilty all over again.

"You sure you know what you're sayin', Kid?"

"You like her, don't you?" The words are blunt, but Sundance is careful in the way he says it, careful not to let it sound like there's any accusation.

"Well, yeah," Butch says after a beat, "but I wasn't ever plannin' on—"

"And you like me." It's not a question; Sundance knows it isn't.

Butch lets out a half-laugh. "Only sometimes, Kid."

"So what if you could have both of us?"

"You talked to Etta about this?"

Sundance shakes his head. "Not like I'm talkin' to you now, but I've seen the two of you together." Thinks back to sitting at Etta's kitchen table, or the afternoon they'd taken a picnic to the creek running through the middle of Etta's property, and feeling a new kind of content at seeing the way Butch made Etta laugh. He smiles. "Don't think she'll need much convincin'."

Butch looks over at Sundance fully now and Sundance glances back, the first time he's caught a glimpse of Butch's face since the conversation started. There's something hopeful there, the green bud of a sprout pushing its way through the soil after the frost.

"The three of us, huh?"

"That's right."

"No foolin'?"

"No foolin'."

 

 

Etta barely blinks at learning the history of him and Butch, or when Sundance suggests the notion of the three of them together, and Sundance does love her for that. They'd gone out on her porch to chat—Etta sitting in the rocking chair and Sundance leaning his shoulder against the post holding up the overhang—and in the light of the noon sun, he can see there are more than a few questions she's biting back on her tongue. But she doesn't interrupt him until he's finished, and she doesn't seem as if she's about to disabuse him of the idea, and, in fact, the only thing she says when he's done is: "So you're really asking me if I'd like to do Butch's laundry in addition to yours?"

Sundance laughs. "That your way of sayin' no?"

She lets the chair ease back-and-forth a few times, looking out somewhere past the horizon. "Sometimes it scares me to think what my life would have been if I'd never met you, or Butch. Sometimes, when you two are gone, I get a good look at what would've been, and it's awful, Sundance." Etta drags her heels along the porch until the chair comes to a stop. "It's me in this house, working at that school until my hair goes grey, turned weary by the sameness of it all. But then you and Butch come back, and it's like the sun shining through my bedroom curtains; now the whole world's in front of me."

She pulls herself out of the chair and takes a step forward until she's just in front of him, reaching out a hand to lace her fingers through his. "I've told you before that you're the best thing to happen to me, and I meant it, but I'd be lying if I said Butch wasn't a part of that, too. So the idea of having something with both of you, having something that belongs to the three of us? Sundance, I don't think I'd know how to say no to that."

He looks down at their linked hands and runs his thumb over her knuckles. Wonders, as she leans up to kiss him, how he managed to get quite so lucky.

 

 

After Lefors and Lord Baltimore, after choking down river water and earning bruises a dozen times over from the current, the question of leaving becomes a simple one. They stay for a week in New York before heading to Bolivia, booking two hotel rooms for the sake of decorum, even if most nights see the three of them fit together in one suite. On a whim, Sundance buys a pair of wedding rings and a matching band from some store on Fifth Avenue, feeling half a fool as he gives one box to Etta and tosses the other to Butch.

"Didn't hear a question anywhere in there, Kid," Butch says, after he opens it.

"Didn't think it needed to be asked."

But the rings fit right on Butch and Etta both, and it does something funny to Sundance, looking at those glints of silver. He likes being able to see this tangible link between them, this promise split three equal ways.

 

 

When Etta decides she's had enough of Bolivia, Sundance and Butch together don't know how to let her leave on her own. Likely things would have gone different if there'd only been something between her and Sundance—likely him and Butch would've had enough history to keep going just the two of them—but Sundance never finds out. Etta makes up her mind to go, and even if there's an option of him'n Butch staying behind, they don't discuss it once. Even if Harriman's crew is still waiting for them in Wyoming, even if going back also means going straight, it doesn't feel like a choice so much as a given. Etta's burgundy ribbon is still pressed into a pocket on the side of his luggage, and Sundance would hate for it to be the only piece of her he had left.

(Funny, that there was a point in Sundance's life when he couldn't imagine directing his life for the sake of one person, and now he finds himself saddled with two.)

After they get back from Bolivia, they find a small town that's short of a schoolteacher and sits a healthy distance from any of the Union Pacific routes. Butch talks himself into a job tending bar, and Sundance finds himself drawn to the smith's down the street, spending his days with his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, hammering out nails and horseshoes. It's long work, and it's hard work, and there are nights when he gets home with the muscles of his shoulders knotted into tangles that he gets tempted at the idea of pulling another job. Fishing banded stacks of clean bills out of a dynamite-blown safe instead of earning blisters for dollars and cents a week.

Sometimes — but then there are nights when Etta works the ache out of his back with her palms, or Butch pours free drinks for the three of them in town, and Sundance can't imagine doing anything else. Looks at the ring on his own hand, and then at the matching pair on Butch and Etta, and thinks he'd happily spend the rest of his life working the bellows for the promise of one more day with the both of them.