He couldn’t leave.
Of course he couldn’t leave. How he ever, for even the barest hint of a second, thought he could is beyond him.
Leaving would, without a doubt, be more practical. A life with Abigail, who he would always care deeply for even if he couldn’t love, and Jack, who deserved a life far better than what he’d had so far, would be more practical. They could get out of here and start over. They could be safe, maybe. It sounded too good to be true, but it wasn’t impossible. Improbable, maybe, but not impossible. They could build an honest life and put down some permanent roots. Even if that plan didn’t work out, they would still be together, and that would be best for the boy. The boy was the most important thing, because, even though John had tried his hardest to pretend otherwise, he was John’s blood and, therefore, John’s responsibility. Abigail was a more than fine mother, but she shouldn’t have to do it alone. John should help raise the boy right and see to his health and happiness. Whether he wanted it or not, John had a family, and leaving with them would be more practical.
Leaving would also be more practical because staying here meant dying. There were still gunshots ringing out, too close for comfort. They wound find John and they wouldn’t hesitate before killing him. John knew that. John knew he needed to leave. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t because of Arthur.
Even thinking the name sent a wave of mixed emotions through him. The first emotion was, always, one that made his heart flutter and his stomach clench like he was a schoolgirl with her first crush. He knew what this emotion was, but he refused to name it. He refused to even acknowledge it. Instead, he focused on the second emotion, a newer one. Fear. Ever since the first cough, John knew something was wrong. He knew, and he worried. Nothing good could come from a cough like that, and, as time went on, the fear was followed by sinking realization: Arthur was dying. Arthur was dying, and there were so, so many reasons why John couldn’t let that happen. The third emotion was also the final emotion in this wave, and the strongest. It was despair, so overwhelming that it could’ve easily brought him to the ground if he wasn’t leaning against the hard trunk of a tree. Despair because Arthur was dying now. As John ran to his family, Arthur was dying. He helped pave a new life for John and his family, and then he was dying. He was dying, and John didn’t even begin to know how to process that. He couldn’t process it, but he also couldn’t fight the sadness so consuming he honestly thought it might kill him.
But it may not be over yet. It hasn’t been too long, and Arthur could still be alive. He could still be alive up there, all alone. Dying all alone. What had John been a thinking? Walking away, even if it was more or less Arthur’s dying wish, had been a mistake. John couldn’t do anything about Arthur’s affliction, of course. But he could be there. He could tear up the world searching for a cure. He could do what he could to ease Arthur’s suffering. He could try.
He could, and he was going to.
He was turning around and going back the way he came before he could think of the reasons he shouldn’t. Because, honestly, as important as those reasons were, they didn’t matter. Nothing mattered more to him than Arthur, as stupid as that was. And he was not going to let Arthur die alone. If he had his way, he was not going to let Arthur die period.
John wasn’t a religious person, but he was praying. With every step he took, he was quietly repeating a prayer for Arthur to be alive. He meant to keep the prayer internal so he wouldn’t give away his location, but the words slipped out. And, really, he was too busy trying to steady his labored breathing to care. He was nearly hyperventilating, the thought he was too late creeping into the corners of his mind. He picked up his pace.
It was a miracle that he avoided detection. He didn’t know how, but he was back where he had left, where Arthur had given him his hat and said his goodbye. He thinks he may be crying, but his hands are shaking too hard to reach up to his cheeks and check. It was almost ridiculous that he didn’t know whether or not he was crying, but his face was tingling with his fear.
“Arthur!” John shouted out as he climbed, not caring who he was alerting to his presence. “Arthur!”
When John’s eyes finally found what they were looking for, he swears his heart stopped. Arthur was on the ground, on his back, his face turned away.
He was too late.
Arthur was dead, and he was too late.
He would’ve let a sob loose if he psychically could, but his throat had closed up. Time had stopped, and all John knew was his grief.
But, still, he had to make sure.
He stepped forward and sank - more like fell, really - to his knees. Oh, God. Arthur wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t breathing and, when John peered over to see if there was life on Arthur’s face, there was damage there that hadn’t been there earlier. Someone else had been here. Unconsciously, one of John’s hands reached to the gun at his hip. But, with his other hand, he shakily reached out to Arthur’s neck.
There was blood on Arthur’s neck from a cut on his jaw, and it was still wet. Fresh. Realistically, John knew the blood had to be fresh: he hadn’t been gone for long, so whatever battle Arthur had fought had to have been recent. But, nonetheless, the wetness of the blood startled John back into reality. Time moved again, and John frantically searched for Arthur’s pulse.
There had to be a pulse.
Nothing. John moved his fingers to the right and pressed in harder. Nothing. To the left. Nothing. Up. Nothing. Down. Nothing.
John kept searching, his hand still shaking distractingly hard. How could he feel a pulse when he was trembling like this? He needed to focus. He forced himself to swallow, take a deep breath, and sit back on his heels. Another deep breath. Another. Then, he curled his fingers into a fist and willed them to steady themselves. Another deep breath. Another swallow. Unclench.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. This time, he took his time, trying not to let his desperation get the better of him. He tried to keep his breathing steady as he pressed his fingers into warm flesh, praying again.
And, then, once his heart had sunken farther than he knew it could, something.
It’s faint, of course. Alarmingly faint. But it’s there. It’s there, under his fingers. A sign of life. A sign that Arthur is, somehow, alive.
This time, a sob does manage to escape, and, before he can consider whether or not this is a good idea, he’s shaking Arthur’s shoulders, urging him awake.
“Come on,” he hisses, his voice much higher than he would’ve liked it to be. “Come on.” He was pushing at Arthur’s shoulders almost violently, trying to will him awake with the desperation seeping from his again shaking hands.
In the distance, the sun was starting to rise.
There was a cough, and it wasn’t from John. It was from Arthur, who was suddenly very alive, reaching up to clutch at his chest as wheezing coughs racked his body. Without thinking, John reached out to cover Arthur’s hands with his own, rubbing soothing circles in an useless attempt to ease the fit.
Once the coughs subsided, Arthur took a minute to catch his breath. Through all of this, his eyes were closed. But then, he slowly opened them and let them adjust to being awake. Through this process, John continued his feeble attempt at comfort through his thumbs on Arthur’s rough palms. Finally, Arthur, with unfocused eyes, looked down at his hands. Everything about Arthur’s demeanor screamed exhaustion, so John stayed patient. Arthur was alive, and that’s all that mattered. Not the people out for their heads. Not the coughs that still plagued Arthur. What mattered was the here and now, Arthur peeling his way into consciousness while John looked on.
And then, finally, Arthur was back enough to notice the hands clutching his. His eyebrows furrowed in weak confusion, and then he turned his head. John wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but it wasn’t the single sickly laugh that feebly interrupted the silence.
“H-how the hell a-am I in Heaven?” His words were spoken like a man close to death: slow, deliberate, pained. His voice was so raspy it put John’s to shame, but he was still speaking. He was alive. No matter how sick and close to death he was, he was alive. There was still time.
When Arthur’s words registered with John, he almost laughed himself. Heaven? On this cliff, with John of all people holding his hands and kneeling on the hard rock? “Not Heaven,” John said, a smile slipping onto his face. “You’re not dead,” he added, giving one of Arthur’s hands a soft squeeze. “You’re not dead,” he repeated, more to himself than to Arthur. He still couldn’t believe it. He’d really gotten here in time. Arthur was really alive.
Arthur laughed again, but this one turned into another coughing fit. John pulled his hands from Arthur’s and carefully used them to sit Arthur up a little in hopes of making the fit easier. After a minute of coughing, Arthur raised a hand to wipe some blood from his mouth. When he was done, he gazed curiously at the red on his black glove. “I’m not dead?”
“You’re not dead,” John promised, using one hand to push the hair out of Arthur’s face. Arthur had started cutting his hair short a while back, but, lately, it had gotten longer again. Arthur met John’s eyes, and John was almost knocked breathless with the utter hope he saw shining in those sick, red eyes.
But the hope vanished. In the blink of an eye, the hope was replaced with confusion. “Then what the hell are you doin’ here? Abigail and Jack are —“
“Abigail and Jack don’t even know I’m alive.”
The confusion turned into anger. “I told you to get outta here,” he said, his voice rising with each word. Another cough. “I told you —“
“I know what you told me,” John replied, exasperation creeping into his voice despite himself. He understood Arthur’s point of view, of course. He practically sacrificed his life to see that John, Abigail, and Jack were reunited and moved far away from here. But, there wasn’t time to debate this now. John was here and he wasn’t going anywhere, not this time. Before Arthur could say anything else, he added, “I did leave. But I came back.”
“And why -“ another cough “— would you do that?”
John could lie. John should lie. If the situation had been any different, John would have lied. But, as it was, John bit his lip and then sighed. Breath in, breath out. Confess. “‘Cause I’m in love with you.”
He spoke the words fast, too fast. He also couldn’t meet Arthur’s eyes, instead looking down at his knees. His hands were still on Arthur, though, and he felt it the moment that his words were processed. Arthur tensed, barely but noticeably. John swallowed hard, breathing in and breathing out. Even if Arthur is disgusted by him, even if Arthur hates him, it’s okay. It’s okay because Arthur is alive, and that’s what matters. Getting Arthur out of here and to safety is what matters. Making sure Arthur somehow gets to stay alive, that’s what’s important. Not how Arthur feels about him. But, even though, John’s stomach twisted in anticipation.
Arthur didn’t say anything for a long moment, but he didn’t pull away from John’s touches. He gave a small cough without opening his mouth, one of those that lives and dies inside the throat. And then, when John began to wonder if silence could kill a man, Arthur repeated his words back to him as a question: “Y-you’re in love with me?” Again, his words were rough and sounded painful, but there was something else in his voice this time. An emotion. John wanted to call the emotion hope, like what he had seen in Arthur’s eyes just minutes earlier. But he wasn’t that foolish. Of course there wasn’t hope in Arthur’s voice. If there was, it was hope that he’d heard John wrong. But he hasn’t. Because John meant what he said.
“Yes, John confirmed, his voice giving his nerves away and shaking slightly. “I’m sorry, but I can’t keep lyin’ when….” He trailed off, purposely ending his sentence without finishing it. He refused to admit Arthur was dying, even if the fragility of the strong man in front of him said otherwise.
“When I’m dyin’,” Arthur finished, matter of fact. He sounded so defeated, like he had accepted there was nothing that could be done to save him. Because of this conviction he heard in Arthur’s voice, John finally risked a glance into Arthur’s eyes. There wasn’t any trace of what John had been expecting: hatred, revulsion, maybe even pity. Instead, his eyes conveyed something that was close to awestruck. John could’ve pondered that, what the expression meant. He wanted to know what was going through Arthur’s head right now as a result of his confession. But, there wasn’t time. There wasn’t time because Arthur had sounded so sure he was dying and John wasn’t going to let that happen. Arthur was going to survive.
“You ain’t dying,” John said, his voice now steady and full of conviction. He didn’t have a plan, but he was going to do something. “I ain’t gonna let you die.”
Once again, Arthur laughed. It was the most beautiful sound in the entire world, even if it was followed up by another few coughs. John rubbed his back through them, and, when the coughs stopped, Arthur was smiling. “I reckon you ain’t got no choice.”
John didn’t return Arthur’s smile. “It don’t matter. I’ll figure something out, but we gotta get outta here first.”
Arthur’s smile didn’t falter, but he shook his head. “John, you know — “
“I don’t know nothin’,” John interrupted. “Well, except that I didn’t come all the way back here to watch you die on this goddamn rock.”
Now Arthur’s smile disappeared. His eyes filled with pity, which boiled John’s blood slightly. “It don’t matter where I die. But….” He paused and took a deep breath. John rubbed another circle on his back. “But...if you’re here...I don’t know. Since you’re already here, maybe I don’t gotta die alone.” He spoke the words slowly, but this time John didn’t think the pace was because he was sick. He spoke the words as if he were afraid to speak them. He had also turned his face away as he was talking, choosing to look out at the rising sun instead of at John’s reaction to his request. Which was, frankly, ridiculous. Did Arthur really think that, at a time like this, after John had confessed to being in love with him, John would do anything other than abide by this request? Well, he would abide by this request. If Arthur was dying. Which he wasn’t. But, nonetheless, the nervousness in the words made John’s heart hurt. Was Arthur truly afraid to ask someone to be by his side during one of the worst possible things? If Arthur was dying, John would do anything he could to bring Arthur comfort in his final moments. To make it easier on Arthur, if such a thing was possible. Of course he would. How could he not?
He tentatively reached out a hand to Arthur’s face and gently turned his face back so he was looking at John again. “As long as I’m breathin’, you ain’t never gonna die alone. But you ain’t dyin’. Not today. We’re gonna get you outta here and to Rains Fall. He’ll help you, okay? He’ll help you, and you’ll be right fine. But we gotta go now.” John didn’t know where he pulled Rains Fall’s name from, but the idea slipped out before he even knew he had it. He didn’t know what Rains Fall could do for what Arthur had, but it was the only idea he has, however flimsy it was. They couldn’t go into a town with a doctor, and they were short on allies.
Arthur, whether meaning to or not, leaned his cheek into John’s palm. He smiled again. “You’re crazy, John Marston,” he said.
John tilted his head slightly to one side. “Is that a yes? Because….” John ran his tongue over his lips, stealing himself to say what he knew he needed to. “Because it’s your call. I don’t think it’s your time just yet. I don’t know why, I just don’t. But, I won’t force you off this rock. If you really think there ain’t nothing that can be done, I’ll stay. Here. With you.” The words were physically painful to say, but they were true. Arthur wasn’t dying, not in John’s mind. But if Arthur felt like he was at the end of his rope, John wouldn’t force Arthur anywhere. If he wanted to die here, John would let him go peacefully. John loved him too much to do anything else.
Arthur didn’t answer right away. He seemed to be searching for something on John’s face. Whatever he was looking for, he must have found, because he said, “Okay. You’re a crazy bastard, but okay. Let’s go.”
Arthur still looked like death, but there was now a conviction in his features that somehow overshadowed his sickness. He coughed again, but only once. “You know,” he started as he pushed to his knees, waiting for John to stand up and help him to his feet, “you’re probably gonna have to carry me most of the way.”
John made sure Arthur was steady on his feet and then slung an arm over Arthur’s shoulder, drawing him close. “Yeah, well, you’ll just owe me one,” he said. Truth was, he had no idea how was going to get himself and Arthur to Rains Fall without any horses. But, he wasn’t going to let that slow him down. He’d find a way.
They had managed to stumble their way off the cliff and onto solid ground before Arthur went slack in his arms. “Arthur?” John hissed, giving Arthur a rough shake.
“I’m gonna pass out here in a minute,” Arthur slurred, his words weak and quiet. “If I die — “
“You ain’t gonna die,” John insisted.
“If I die,” Arthur repeated, louder but just as weak. “I want you to know...I’m in love with you, too.”