There's movement in the corner of his eye, and it's a sad testament to how things are that even here in the 'safety' of their camp Arthur tenses, one hand falling to his gun. Before he'd never been wary unless on watch, and even that had been more a dutiful vigilance than anything more serious. That felt like a lifetime ago, maybe two or three, certainly back before Blackwater and the start of everything falling apart. This camp isn't home, it doesn't feel like a sanctuary against a world that doesn't want outlaws in it anymore. Instead, it feels like a cage, a noose tightening slowly around their necks, and his fingers linger on the weapon as Charles emerges from the shadows and into the flickering light of the fire. It's only when their eyes meet, a fleeting, heavy glance, that Arthur lets his hand shift away from the weapon, a whisper of an apology on his lips, even though he knows that the other man of everyone doesn't need to hear it.
"Anything?" He asks as Charles settles beside him, shifting to make room for him on the ratty blanket so that he's not on the mud, missing the comfort of the old throws left behind…he's not quite sure where. It feels like they've been running so much lately that they must have left a trail of abandoned belongings behind them, more signposts for the people hunting them.
Not yet. It's not the words that he wants to hear, but he doesn't flinch away from them, knows that it's only a matter of time now. There's a guard on the perimeter, they can't afford not to keep watch even with their numbers whittling down day by day, but it's not enough and Arthur has been on edge on all day. Hell, he's been on edge for weeks, months, ever since the moment he realised that everything had fallen apart in Blackwater, he just hadn't been able to admit it until recently. Until it was too late, he thought bitterly, unable to stop his gaze drifting to Dutch's tent – diminished but still the grandest in this shoddy, hastily made camp of theirs – to where the man himself is sat bent over the papers they'd stolen with Micah at his side.
Not Hosea – and there's pain at that thought, an ache that refuses to diminish even in the face of everything else falling apart, and not him or John, or anyone with a lick of sense, or who would say something to at least try to quench the inferno Dutch is spreading in his wake. He grimaces the feeling of it all being too little, too late, pressing in on him. Time slipping between his fingers like the sand on that cursed island, or the ragged, painful breaths that grow a little more painful, a little weaker each day. Not yet, he thinks and turns back to Charles, meeting the quiet gaze, seeing the understanding in the even look the other man gives him. The same expression that had met his quiet, rasping request for Charles to scout beyond the camp, to keep watch where Arthur himself would previously have done so.
It was why he had returned, slipping through the shadows a couple of nights ago to find his place at Arthur's side, ignoring the sharp looks and questions. The doubts and whispers that whirl through the camp, trust as much a ghost of the past as Sean and Lenny, Hosea and Molly. For Arthur, that return, the decision to return despite everything, was a death knell, because he knew that Charles would only have returned if he thought it was the only to keep him alive, for a little while longer at least. It should have hurt, but instead, there had been relief in having the other man beside him once more, in the fleeting touch on his arm, all they can risk at the moment, the lingering glance. The reassurance that this is where he is meant to be, and Arthur knows even without the words that Charles doesn't mean the gang or the camp, but him, his side, and for a moment it had felt like he could breathe again.
"Not yet," he echoes clinging to that feeling of being able to breathe, and Charles smiles. Not like the small, truly happy one that slipped free when they were out hunting together, or late at night when they had snuck away beneath starlit skies to find privacy the camp would never allow them. This one is sad, a sorrow lingering beneath the curve of the other man's lips that Arthur hates and yearns for in equal measure. He doesn't want anyone to mourn for him, least of all Charles who had given him everything even as the world, the gang, Dutch had stripped everything else away from him, Charles who saw him for who he was and still accepted him. But, at the same time, there is comfort in knowing that there is at least one person who will miss him, who will remember him as more than a ghost of a bygone age, as more than a man who had realised too late that he was following the wrong star.
A man trying to do some good, far too late.
Fingers brush his, and its as easy as breathing – easier these days – to turn his hand over, and let Charles twine their fingers together, the warmth grounding him. Not yet. It's a death sentence and a promise, but it's also a whisper of precious minutes and hours with this man, with this fragile bubble around them where Arthur can breathe and pretend that he hasn't lost everything. That his life, and the one that he had lived, wasn't coming to an end. It's a precious gift, far more valuable than the money hidden somewhere in the camp – he drags his thoughts away from that, from the whispered conversation with John that had struck fear into his heart because of Dutch… He shook his head and coughed, shoulders drawing up as his breath caught, and dampness speckled his lips.
Charles doesn't flinch, doesn't watch him with pitying sideways looks. Doesn't ask the questions that people keep asking, even though Arthur knows that they don't want the answers too, because that would be another crack in their world, another threat to their crumbling world. The other man squeezes his hand, silent and steady, waiting with the patience of a man who knows that time is running out but refuses to rush it, savouring each second. Arthur focuses on him, on the calloused fingers tangled with his, warm against his chilled skin, on the watchful gaze that catches the firelight, the face and features that has been the one constant as everything fell apart.
His chest aches, and he's not sure that it's just from the coughing. Not yet, but soon, he thinks, finishing the words that Charles hadn't said, hadn't needed too. Soon, the law or Pinkertons or both and everything in between will be on them again, wolves sensing blood in the air. Soon Dutch would drive them closer to the slaughter with whatever grandiose scheme he is cooking up with Micah. Soon, the shadow in his lungs would claim him.
Helplessness grips him then, even as his throat eases and he manages to breathe a little easier because he can't fight this. He can't stop the inevitable. Oh, he can and will fight, doubts that he will ever get the chance to succumb to the monster in his chest, his gun a leaden weight in his holster, a promise and a curse after a lifetime at his side. He can buy them time. He might even be able to help Dutch's latest scheme succeed, although he doubts it, their bad luck hanging heavy over them even now. But he can't hold back the world alone, or even with Charles at his side, and even if they get past this next hurdle, they might stumble on the next. The noose is tightening, the inevitable slow burn of rope on skin rubbed raw by months of conflict, of living in fear and on the run, and sooner or later it's going to bring everything to an end.
But will I be here to see it?
That was the only question, really. Everything else was as inevitable as the sun rising in the east, and setting in the west, and he closes his eyes. He's afraid. He's already admitted as much, to Swanson when they said their farewells, to Sister Calderón, to Charles when he had finally put a name to the monster in his chest, the shadow stealing his breath. But now it's something more because if he's honest with himself, he's not sure if he's strong enough to hold on just to see it all burn down around him. A small, selfish part of him wants to slip away with Charles' hand warm and solid around his, to close his eyes and pretend one last time that things were normal, to listen to the sounds of the camp – muffled by fear and grief, but still the sounds of home and slip away.
He doesn't want to open his eyes again, to be reminded of everything, but he can't ignore that quiet question, blinking as he turns his gaze towards Charles. He doesn't say anything, he doesn't need to. Charles had always understood him, even without the words, and it's the same now, a flicker of grief and painful knowing. "Not yet…" It's a plea, slipping out in a whispered rush, and he knows that Charles hadn't meant to say it when the other man blinks and winces, and Arthur smiles, small and fragile and leans into the other man. There's no point hiding now, each moment and connection precious, and Charles welcomes him, shifting so that Arthur can rest more comfortably against him.
"Not yet," he agrees and means it. Because, even if he wishes that he could slip away without watching it all burn, he can't. He won't, because there are still people he can protect—pieces of his family that can survive the looming catastrophe.
He glances across to where John is sat with Abigail and Jack, hoping that they are ready, that the younger man will listen to him when the time comes. He looks at where Sadie is cleaning her guns and watching Dutch, wary in her own way, and when she catches him looking, she tilts her head in acknowledgement of the secret they haven't voiced. Susan is bustling about in the background, fear and uncertainty, making her restless, and he doesn't know where she will fall when the time comes, especially after Molly. Tilly is hidden away in her tent, and she's barely said a word all day, and he wonders if she regrets not sneaking away with the rest. Bill and Javier are on watch, and he can't make them out in the darkness, which is probably a good thing, because they're the ones he's least certain of, not sure where they will fall when the dice are cast.
Finally, his gaze lands once more on Dutch and Micah, still at work, oblivious or choosing to ignore that everything else is slipping away around them. He can practically taste the words he should be saying to Dutch, that he has tried over and over to convey since Blackwater…since Valentine and Rhodes…and Saint Denis… and they taste like ash, as though the inferno Dutch seems intent on casting them in to has already reached them. The time for words is over, he knows that, and yet a small, traitorous part of him can't help but wonder what would happen if he could just find the right words if he could channel Hosea's wisdom even for a second.
He wonders if Dutch would listen….
No, the same traitorous part of him whispers with the breath-stealing weight of truth, and he can't argue, because this isn't new. Dutch had stopped listening a long time ago, to him, to John, to Hosea, and they had all been too stubborn or too blind to see it. He wishes that he was blind to it now, and dismisses that thought as quickly as it comes, because despite everything, the guilt the hurt, the feeling of loss at realising he had followed the wrong man, if he didn't know, he wouldn't be able to make a change. He wouldn't be able to save some part of his family, to ensure that something survived…
"After everything we've done, do we even deserve to survive?" Arthur hadn't meant to voice the thought aloud, hadn't even really allowed himself to consider the question even in the safety of his own thoughts. It hurts to doubt so much, to look at Dutch and know that the other man doesn't have the answers anymore, that he is the problem. It's worse than the shadow gnawing at his lungs, the rot of a past sin taking hold, and he swallows, unable to bring himself to look at Charles. Afraid of the answer he might receive, of the one he might see in the eyes that have never been able to lie to him, and instead he looks at the fire, at the flames that flicker against the night sky, barely enough to light the darkness around them. A little like how the air in his lungs now is barely enough to keep him going.
Seconds creep by into minutes, and there's no reply, nothing but his own wheezing breaths, Charles' steadier breathing and the crackling of the flames. Then there are fingers against his cheek, tender with affection rather than pity, and Arthur is powerless to resist the plea in that gentle touch, tilting his head up, peeking at Charles from under the shelter of wayward hair. There's pain in dark eyes that meet his, the grief neither of them can bring themselves to voice simmering close to the surface, but his voice when he speaks is even. "Everyone has the right to survive Arthur." Arthur can feel the tremble in the hand cupping his face at those words, both knowing that it's not an option for him, the truth is written in the copper he can taste as he dampens suddenly dry lips. "Even Micha…" It's a weak stab at humour, and it falls flat before even of them can think to force a chuckle.
"Whatever else we've done," Charles cuts him off, soft and determined, hand steady on his cheek now making sure that he can look away. "We're still people, we're still alive. That's something to be cherished." It's said with the same fire and certainty with which Charles had once told him he didn't kill for fun, and it resonates, echoes with the weight that has built in Arthur's chest with each life lost, each life taken. "You told me once that I am a good man…"
"You are," Arthur won't let Charles think otherwise, he can't, because Charles isn't the only good thing he has left, aware of the Marstons nearby. But he's the last good thing that is purely Arthur's, because this openness, this certainty, is something that only Arthur has ever been privy too. Charles has always been part of the gang, doing what he can, but keeping himself at a distant…but not with him, never with him, and he's kept Arthur human in the face of Dutch's hellfire. It catches, a cough trailing in the wake and he pulls back, leaning to the side. You are a good man. The best, he thinks, feeling the hand that had been on his face moving to his shoulder, supporting him, but not burdening him with pity or worry that he can't assuage.
This fit doesn't last as long thankfully, but his breath is rattling, a deathly drumbeat beating out the time that is slipping away from them. Charles helps him straighten, moves him back to rest against him, just as he had on those nights under the stars when Arthur hadn't quite known how to approach. It's a wonderful, painful echo of what they had before all this, and Arthur's eyes are burning a little as he settles, but he won't let the tears fall. Not yet. Charles waits for a moment or two, aware that another coughing fit could be hovering around the corner, but when the wheezing breathing settles into what passes as a normal pattern these days, he speaks again. "And John?"
"He can be…" Arthur mumbles, fighting the urge to look at them again. Not wanting to draw Dutch's attention, especially when the older man is already looking for secrets and traitors where there are none, and the words came so easily, so naturally that it gives him pause. Whatever animosity there had been between them had vanished, the one thing he was glad to see burnt up by Dutch's inferno, letting him see the younger man more clearly. He's still an idiot, a brat…a brother, words from a different life, a better life, filling the voice between them once more, but he's grown and changed too, and he sees what Arthur sees. Maybe not so clearly, but he sees it, and for all his worries about loyalty and repeating the past, Arthur had seen him packing and planning with Abigail, looking to the future that he never used to think about, becoming the man Arthur had thought he would be before he had taken off. "…he is." He amends because 'good' looks different on everyone, he should know that better than anyone, voices echoing in his head. Last-ditch attempts to make a difference, to change, resorting in words and labels he didn't deserve, not after everything.
Why you're a good man…
"Abigail? Jack?" Charles continues, and in anyone else, it would have sounded smug. "Tilly? Mrs Adler?"
"They're good people…" Arthur replies, knowing where the other man is going with this. Reminding him that the bad isn't in everyone, that the hellfire emanating from Dutch hasn't consumed everyone in the camp yet. They deserve a life free of all this. A life, he blinked. Not just survival…
"So, are you, Arthur Morgan." It's the first time that Charles' voice has wavered during all of this. Arthur has seen his mask crack before, seeing the pain and grief in his smile and eyes, but it's never broken through in his voice before, and it takes his breath away even as he instinctively shakes his head. "Yes." That sounds more like Charles, calm and certain, as immovable as the mountains around them. "You are a good man, Arthur." There are lips on his forehead, a chaste kiss, as Charles leans down, before resting their heads together. "And I would give you the world if I could."
You already have, Arthur thinks, but he's never been good with words, especially when Charles is looking at him like that, and there's a lump in his throat that isn't just from the cough trying to fight free, and he swallows thickly. "Not yet," he manages to whisper instead. I'm not leaving you yet, we still have more time. Not much, but some, he thinks, and it's more than he deserves but less than either of them wants, but it's what they have, and it's the closest he can come to what he really wants to say. And Charles holds him tight, lips pressed to his forehead, understanding the love he can't convey, the words he can't say, his voice as soft as the night breeze as he echoes the words.