[image of James West]

Casting Out

by Taliesin

[image of Artemus Gordon]

"His expression was terrible to see."

I spent the better part of two days with Colonel Roper, tied to a pipe in a filthy attic south of the border. We had nothing better to do than talk, in between escape attempts, and I think I can say with confidence that Roper is less prone to exaggeration than any man I've met. Nevertheless, if I had not seen a pale copy of that exact expression on Jim's face myself, I'd have no recourse but to accuse the good Colonel of hyperbole.

James West simply doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve like that.

"I've been a soldier damn near all my life," the Colonel told me when we were prisoners, "and I've never seen anyone look like that before. Pray to God I never do again."

I heartily concur. If I never see that expression on Jim's face again, it'll be too soon. Though stands to reason that I won't; I'd have to be dead first.

After the week we had, the quarters Roper offered us were about as close to heaven as you could get. In most frontier garrisons, you couldn't hope for more than a bunk in the barracks. Perhaps Roper thought we deserved better after the hand we had in defeating the Pistoleros and preventing a war. I certainly thought we did, but all too often we're simply expected to perform that sort of miracle without much in the way of thanks. I don't ask much: just a safe place to rest my head after it's all over. A bath and a little hot food don't come amiss either. The little cottage inside the fort walls which Roper turned over for our use luxuriated in all three.

Jim brushed roughly past me when I paused for a moment in the doorway. I took a quick look around the small room before I closed and latched the door behind me. There wasn't much to it: the fireplace took up most of the far wall, with a bench pushed up against one wall and a bed crowded against the other, close enough to take advantage of the heat. Finally, a heavily laden table. The smell of hot food made my stomach rumble.

Jim dropped his hat and gunbelt on the sturdy bench and knelt before the small fire which burned in the hearth. His odd singularity of purpose wasn't even disturbed when his gunbelt slithered off onto the floor with a loud clatter. Though the night was warm, he huddled over the tiny fire, pushing his hands out to it.

I draped my gunbelt over the back of a chair at the table and hung my hat over it, wincing as my sleeves rubbed over the rope burns on my wrists. The food smelled even better at close quarters, and I poured myself a cup of coffee from a pot sitting atop a slightly-singed cloth, and stole a biscuit from a plate. Forgetting my manners, I ate half of it in a single bite, and washed it down with a large gulp of coffee.

"Ah, manna from heaven," I praised, after swallowing. Jim gave no indication of having heard me. I leaned my hip against the table and watched him as I polished off the biscuit. By the time I finished, I was deeply concerned. Leaving my coffee on the table, I joined him in front of the fire.

James is a grown man, and perfectly capable of taking care of himself. More than capable, actually. Not many men can routinely take on half a dozen attackers and come out on the top of the heap damn near every time. His physical prowess is unquestionable.

But there are times I think he doesn't have a lick of simple common sense.

Men with sense don't pitch fights with more assailants than they have fists, or get into a fraction of the trouble James can without even trying. And they don't stick their hands in the fire.

"Watch it, James." I pulled him back by the shoulder. "You'll end up in the fire at that rate."

He whirled and grabbed me around the waist. Startled the hell out of me, I can tell you that. For a moment, I thought he'd picked a singularly bad time to try out one of his stunts on me. The man thinks I can't take care of myself in a fight, and constantly instructs me on how to handle myself. He forgets that I looked after myself for thirty years before he came into the picture, and in some of the roughest places in the country. I don't object to the practice, mind you -- Jim's about the best bare-knuckle brawler I've ever met -- just his timing. Suspecting this was another of his lessons, I was prepared to get seriously annoyed, when I realized he wasn't moving.

His face buried in my shirtfront, arms bruising my thighs, Jim knelt unmoving. If this was some mock attack, it was the strangest I'd ever encountered. Jim's moist breath warmed my skin through my shirt, and I realized somewhat belatedly that he was shivering. One of my hands found its way to his shoulder. The other curved around his chin preparatory to coaxing his head up, until I remembered that expression. The one I'd seen when he looked up at me from the bottom of the stairs, a frighteningly blank look in his eyes, and managed to say only "Thanks, Artie."

Jim's never been much for demonstrating his emotions. I know we're more than partners, more than friends even, and I believe he loves me as much as any man loves another, but he's never told me so. Not in words. Rather, in thousands of tiny half-glimpsed smiles, in the strength of his hand clasping mine as he draws me from the abyss, in the veiled amusement which dances in his eyes when he looks at me, as if to say "That's my Artemus, all right." Remembering that familiar expression, and the vastly different one I had seen at the bottom of those stairs, I wondered if I wanted to raise his face and see it again.

Four days ago, I died. Is that a strange thing to hear? It's even stranger to say. I wasn't there, thank the Lord, but I've been told I walked up the stairs after my partner and was shot in the back. Jim checked for a heartbeat three separate times before he believed I was dead, though it must have been obvious. I don't know who he was, my doppelganger, but it's fair to say he more than paid the price for his deception. At least, I thought so until Jim grabbed me. Suddenly, I wasn't sure all the torments in hell would be punishment enough.

Four days ago, James West's partner died before his eyes. Yesterday, he was reborn. That sort of thing has to disturb a man. Even one like Jim.

No. I didn't want to see his face. Not right then. I moved my hand away from his chin and gently smoothed his hair. Cautiously. I know exactly how far I can push my partner, what to say and do to jolly him out of his moods; sometimes, I can even anticipate his next words. This man, shivering and clutching me close, this man I didn't know.

It wasn't cold. Not nearly enough to excuse this fine tremor. Nor could simple cold account for the desperation of Jim's embrace. Not cold, then what? Fatigue. Fever. Shock. Blood loss. I've seen Jim simply ignore injuries which would incapacitate another man, and there are times he seems to think asking for help is a weakness. I didn't sign on to become a nursemaid, but I swear there are times that's what he needs. Somehow, one way or another, I always become what he needs.

I didn't remember seeing any holes or tears in his chaps; there might have been an injury hidden by the black leather, but it was impossible to tell. I settled for examining his torso. I couldn't get my hands between us, and his grip was too strong to break. Not without hurting him. I bent over him and slid my hands under his jacket. His body was warm under my hands, but not, I thought, feverish. Though his shirt was damp, and clung to his back in places, my hands came away clean. No blood.

Before I could attempt another foray, he pulled away, releasing me so suddenly I stumbled. Jim sat back on his heels with a creak of leather as I knelt to examine his shirtfront.

"Are you hurt?" When my fingers touched him, he flinched away, pulling himself up with a strong hand on the bench. He slid onto the bench and leaned back against the wall, eyes half closed.

"James, are you hurt?"


Though I was not inclined to take his word for it, I saw no evidence of blood, and James didn't exactly seem approachable. I considered it prudent to drop the subject. For the moment.

"What was that all about?"

Jim stared at me for a moment, unblinking. Then he turned his face to the fire. A visible shudder rocked through him.

"Are you cold?"


"It's warm in here," I pointed out. I swear, sometimes getting more than one word out of him at a time is like pulling teeth.

"I know," he allowed. There was a pause, then he shrugged with one shoulder. "I'm cold."

I put more wood on the fire. And removed my jacket.

My stomach reminded me again that I'd had very little to eat in the three days I was "dead." I suppose Roper and I were lucky we were fed at all, or released even briefly to take care of necessities. We were even luckier no one thought to test the bar we were tied to, and discovered how we were loosening it, slowly but surely. For the moment, I left Jim to his own devices and turned my attention to satisfying my hunger.

The food was good plain fare, better than I expected from an army garrison. Great Aunt Maude would have fainted at my manners; she always said hunger was no excuse for disporting one's self like an animal. However, as I doubt she's ever been as hungry as I was at that moment, I saw fit to dispense with her sage advice. After helping myself to seconds, I sat back and ate a little slower, my mind turning once again to Jim.

He was still staring into the fire and, though he hadn't moved from the bench, I got the impression he wanted to get closer to it. Crazy as it seemed, I almost thought if I hadn't stopped him earlier, he'd have kept inching closer until he set himself afire.

I thought again about what Colonel Roper told me while we were prisoners. And I wondered what he hadn't told me -- what he couldn't have known. Jim doesn't let people in. Not even me, though I expect I've got my foot further in the door than anyone. What went on behind that handsome face that Roper couldn't read? And what did Jim get up to after Roper ended up tied to a pipe with me?

From what I gathered, he'd spent the last four days running from pillar to post and back again. The ride from Mexico to Fort Challenge takes most of a day, and Jim had made the trip four times in four days. Attended my funeral, tracked down and killed the Pistolero who shot my doppelganger, got himself thrown into jail by the fake Colonel Roper, broke back out again, and capped it off with a brawl with half a dozen Pistoleros. I very much doubted he'd found the time to eat or sleep during all that.

And perhaps that explained it. Four days without sleep.

"Jim, when did you eat last?"

He lifted one shoulder in that same half-hearted shrug.

I shook my head and filled a plate. He didn't take it from me until I tapped the rim against his breastbone, and then he sat holding it with both hands as if he didn't quite know what to do with it. I grabbed his right hand and shoved a fork into it.

"Do I need to feed you?"

That did the trick. The glare he shot me was milder than I expected, but he began slowly eating, shoveling the food in mechanically without much interest. While he ate, I went ahead and put some more wood on the fire. Luckily, the bin near the hearth was full. Fuel for the fire, fuel for the body, and maybe Jim would start acting more like himself.

With the fire blazing merrily, I decided to heat a little wash water. After four days in the same clothes, not to mention a dirty prison, my skin fairly crawled. Someone had anticipated me, for there were towels and soap stacked in a neat pile at one corner of the hearth. The large pot sitting next to them was full to the brim with clear water -- enough for a respectable washing up.

Jim stood awkwardly and carried his plate over to the table as I hung the pot on an iron hook over the fire. My arms, still sore from the effort of loosening that pipe the Colonel and I were tied to, protested the exertion loudly. I shook them to relieve the ache and hissed when the movement rubbed my sleeves solidly against my sore wrists. Four days of rope burns.

Sweat ran teasingly down between my shoulderblades. That, plus the chafing cuffs, was more than enough incentive to remove the offending shirt. Jim turned, touching his fingers lightly to the table for balance, and made his way unsteadily back to the fire. Awkward and unsteady are not words which should be applied to James West.

The fire heated the small room to a rosy glow just shy of uncomfortable. And I was wearing only my pants and boots. Under his jacket, Jim's shirt was plastered to his body, and the heavy leather chaps must have been stifling. Sweat shone on his face, yet he knelt before the fire as if desperate to chase off a chill.

"Ah, James? Do you remember when you slept last?"

After a moment, he shook his head. Now, at least, his attention was directed at me, rather than the flames. Though his regard was uncomfortably intense, I was relieved. At least I wouldn't have to worry about pulling him out of the fire.

I laid out the towels and soap near the hearth, and kicked off my boots. Glancing at Jim, I was shocked at how washed out he looked. As if he might drop at any moment. We'd had some hard missions, some long ones, but I'd never seen him look so desperately in need of a nice clean, warm bed. Speaking of clean...

"I don't suppose I need to ask when you last took a bath. There's water enough for both of us." I checked on the pot over the fire. "Should be warm enough soon. Why don't you take off those clothes?"

Lack of sleep made him clumsy. He got tangled in his jacket and simply stopped with it wrapped around his arms, waiting passively until I got him out of it. I laid it aside and started unbuttoning his shirt. Nursemaid again. Ah well. There was no better way to make certain he wasn't hiding an injury.

"D'you know why all those rich and powerful men always have valets?" I asked, more for something to say than any hope of a response. Suspenders. Tie. "That way, when they come home too drunk or too tired to remember which way is up, there's someone there to put them to bed."

I'd just got his shirt off when he spoke. Scared the life out of me.

"You were dead."

"Guess it looked that way." There was no sign of injury on his chest or arms. Several long bruises showed livid across his back. Someone hit him with something solid from the looks of it. Painful, but hardly more than superficial to a man like Jim.

"I didn't believe it." His eyes were back on the fire, his voice soft, as if he were talking more to himself than me. I started working on his chaps. "Even seeing your body. All that blood. I couldn't hear your heartbeat."

His hand was on my throat suddenly, fingers searching. I held still as his fingers pushed into my neck so hard I could feel my own pulse beating against them. After a minute or two, his hand slid away.

"I didn't believe it," he repeated. His chaps yielded to my fingers, and I loosened them as much as possible. I'd have to get his boots off before I could remove chaps or trousers. "I... made myself believe it. I sat with you -- with the body -- all night."

"Roper didn't tell me that." I winced at my own outburst, afraid it would halt the flow of words. Jim was silent. He sat down and tugged off his boots and stockings, skinning out of the chaps as well.

"He didn't know," Jim answered finally. "By the time they came in the morning... I believed. They put the coffin in the ground. I knew -- I was cold inside... hollow -- I knew you were gone."

The firelight flickered off his tanned chest. Perfect body, perfect face, and all that glory muted by his pain-dulled eyes. Nothing in the world is wholly perfect.

"I'm right here," I offered inanely.


"What do you mean, maybe?!" Perhaps smacking him in the shoulder wasn't the gentlest way of dealing with the situation. He didn't even flinch. But his eyes followed me as I drew the warm water off the fire and soaped up a cloth.

"I'm not sure that I... believe."

"James my boy, if you're saying you think I'm another of those walking imitations..."

"No. You're you."

"Well, thank god for that. Give me your arm, will you?" He obliged, and I applied the wet cloth to four days of Arizona dust. "So, if you're sure I'm me, and I'm not dead, what's the problem?"

"I don't know." Frustration and confusion colored his outburst. I scrubbed each arm, his chest, and his back, being very careful over the bruises.

"You just need sleep, buddy." If he hadn't, he'd never have sat there and let me wash him like a child. "Here." I handed him the warm cloth. He buried his face in it, emerging a little clearer, if no less tired.

I stood and offered him a hand up. He was deadweight on my worn muscles when I pulled him to his feet. "Now, go to bed, James."

For a moment, I thought he was going to turn stubborn on me. Jim swayed a little. He laid one hand very carefully on my chest, just over my heart, and stared at it with fuzzy concentration. Thinking it might reassure him, I stayed still and let him feel the rise and fall of my chest, my heartbeat. Finally, his fingers dropped and he turned to the soft bed next to the hearth. I returned to the fire.

Bending over the bucket, I splashed water over my chest and arms, roughly applying the wet cloth to the more stubborn dirt. The warm water stung my wrists. I vaguely heard the soft stealthy sounds behind me as Jim stripped off his remaining clothing and slid into the bed. Water ran out of my cupped hands as I rubbed them over my face, pressing my fingers into my eyes.

I had slept little in the four days I was kept prisoner. If you can't guess why, you've never sat upright with your hands tied behind you and a pipe forcing your back into unnatural angles. Concern for Jim had distracted me for a time, but my fatigue was quickly taking over.

When I turned out the lamps, the light in the room dimmed only slightly, fed strongly by the fire. I dropped my trousers onto the small pile of filthy clothing Jim and I had made and crawled gratefully into the bed. Jim had taken the side nearest the hearth, and I slipped easily between him and the wall. The bed was soft, sweet smelling. It hardly mattered; I could have slept on a bare plank by that point.

I'd barely begun to doze off when Jim rolled against me. I've shared many a bed with him and never known him to be a restless sleeper, but there's a first time for everything. I gently pushed him away, but he was back before I even got settled. He was shivering again, a little.

"Hold me." Though it was just about the last thing I'd ever thought to hear from him, the touch of command in his tone was pure Jim. I doubt he'd have asked such a thing if he knew how often I long to do exactly that.

Perhaps he really was cold. Hell, after the week we'd had, what did it matter why? I put my arms around him and let him burrow into my side. He curled up against me with a sigh, settled his head on my shoulder, and I'll be damned if he didn't fall asleep between one breath and the next.

Something about the tight grip he had on me made me think of a child seeking shelter from a nightmare. I snorted at the absurdity of the thought. There was nothing whatsoever childlike about Jim. Still, I thought sleepily as he breathed softly against me, sometimes I'm a mother to him. Mother, and father, brother and sister, all rolled into one. I'm about the only family he's got anymore. Nothing so strange about that. He's all I have too.

Don't know when I slept, but I woke to a gentle rocking. It was sweltering in the shelter of the blankets. Would have been bad enough by myself, but with Jim's warm body pushed up against me, it was damn near unbearable. Before I could make a concerned effort to move away from Jim, the motion I'd sleepily identified with rocking began again. James pushed slightly closer, and backed off, then repeated the action, in a pattern that might have been unconscious but for its deliberation.

His legs were entwined with mine, his thigh pressing delicately into my groin in entirely too intimate a manner. My defenses dropped in sleep, my body was already traitorously responding to the gentle stimulation, betraying me to him. Before the matter could worsen, I withdrew all at once from his arms, damn near braining myself on the wall in the process.

He grabbed my arm before I had regained my senses enough to leave the bed. "What's the matter, Artie?"

"What's the...?" I shook my head, forcibly reminding myself that neither of us had caught enough sleep in the last week to be particularly rational and swearing at him would serve no purpose. "Go back to sleep, Jim." I tried to throw back the covers and slip away, but his fingers remained tightly clamped around my wrist.

"I can't."

"Then go find yourself a willing woman, and leave me the bed." I'm not usually so blunt, and especially not so with him, but my head ached with sleep and my body with desire. The fact that Jim was responsible for both didn't help my temper any. With any other man, I might at least have had a chance of remedying the ache of my body, but not Jim.

"That's not... I'm not..." he growled in frustration. James never was very good with words, especially when he meant to reveal himself with them. He released my wrist, only to grab me tight around the waist with both arms and pull me down. I let him bury his face against my neck, and lay in silence with his warm breath fanning over my collarbone for some minutes before I prompted him.

"What is it?"

"Can't sleep. When I close my eyes, you're..." he shrugged against me, his embrace tightening.

I sighed, and let my arms curl around him. Holding James West naked in my arms was high on the list of things I'd never permitted myself to believe possible. His ever allowing himself to be vulnerable, emotionally or otherwise, headed that same list. However, as being dead for four days also qualified, some leeway was called for.

"Well, if holding you doesn't convince you I'm alive, what--?"

"Make love to me."

"What?" I couldn't possibly have heard that softly-voiced request properly.

Jim released me and rolled onto his back, one broad hand lying lax on his bare chest. His eyes did not meet mine, but his voice was strong and certain as he repeated himself. "Make love to me. Make me believe you're here."

"I've never touched you... that way," I couldn't help it; my voice faltered a little on the words. "What the devil makes you think that's going to--"

He rolled back over, pinning me under him. "Make me believe, Artie. I can't get warm. My breath's rattling around inside me, in that empty hollow where you -- where I -- used to be." His eyes burned into mine with an intensity I'd rarely seen in my stoic partner. And, though his words were rushed, frantic even, perfect sanity was still in him. "I don't know how to stop it. It was better when you were... playing valet. Make it better again. You must know how. Make me believe, Artie. Make love to me."

I'm not sure he's ever made such a long speech to me; certainly never one so impassioned.

"I'm not sure I..."

Jim tucked his head under my chin in a move at once artless and knowing. "Try. Please." Little more than a whisper. The one word he almost never uses. The one he knows I can never resist.

I sighed, and felt a tiny movement against my chest. I expect he was smiling. My arms wrapped around him automatically, pulling him a little closer. Regardless of how cold he said he felt, his skin was warm and smooth against mine. Jim's compact hard-muscled body was a delight to cuddle, and I stroked my palm gently over his back as I considered whether I could tear my heart out for his momentary desire. Foolish to hesitate, really; it was a foregone conclusion.

Finally, I put him from me and clambered out of the bed. This time, he let me go. He already knew he'd won; no reason to push it. I wet a cloth in the tepid wash water and wrung it out, then surveyed the table. Any other time in our partnership, I wouldn't have thought twice of walking around naked before Jim's eyes. Under the circumstances, I was forced to shake off a vague embarrassment. The butter would do; I grabbed the small bowl and returned to the bed.

"On your stomach, Jim."

Though his eyes widened a little at my tone, he threw off the covers and rolled obediently onto his belly. I dropped the bowl, along with the damp cloth, at the top of the bed where we wouldn't overturn it, and knelt astride Jim's hips. A small dab of butter on my hands made them slide easily over his back, running soothingly down the long muscles which embraced his spine.

He made a questioning sound, and I smiled at the back of his head. Just because he wins doesn't mean he always gets what he wants. Or thinks he wants.

"Washing you helped, you said. Holding you while I slept wasn't enough. If you just want my hands, and my attention, on you, there are easier ways to get it."

The next sound he made was a deep groan as my fingers dug into the knots he was carrying around in his shoulders. From nursemaid to valet to masseur. He's lucky I'm a man of many talents.

I kept the pressure steady, even when I passed over the darkening bruises. He grunted softly at the touch, but remained still under my hands. Sometimes that sort of pain is a good thing. It reminds you that you're alive. And, perhaps, even that your companion's alive.

When I was finished with Jim's back, I used the damp cloth to wipe away the oily residue of the butter. He rolled unbidden and let me settle over his waist. The detached affection of the massage had restored my equanimity, and I felt no embarrassment in the odd sensation of my soft balls dangling against his furred belly, or even in the feel of his hard cock prodding the back of my thigh. I merely reached over his head for the butter and used a dab more of it to allow my hands to slip more easily over his skin.

I kneaded the muscles of his chest and arms into quiescence, all the way down to the tips of his fingers. His skin flushed rosy and warm under my hands and his fingers fell lax to my manipulation. Concentrating on my task, I only glanced at his face once, to find him watching me lazily through half-closed eyes. When I had finished with his upper half, I slid down and worked the same magic with the rest, until only one part of him had escaped my touch.

I won't deny that I enjoyed it. Humans rarely get the chance to touch perfection on earth. The chance to handle my independent partner with impunity wasn't likely to come again.

Without question, he clearly enjoyed it.

When I was done, I wiped him down again and sat back to wait. The massage should have put him to sleep, if not during then immediately after. Perhaps I should have pulled the blankets back up, but the room was overwarm. And I didn't have the strength to turn aside from the opportunity to look at him. The firelight flickered hungrily over the strong clean lines of him, his skin gleaming with a healthy bronze glow. He was really quite beautiful, though I didn't dare let him know I thought so, for fear it would go straight to his head. Muscular, graceful and, as I was soon to discover, not only still awake, but getting impatient.

"Please, Artie." That word again. Slurred with fatigue, but not pleading. Never really pleading. "Touch me."

I'd been doing nothing but all night. His movements slow and languid, Jim took my hand and drew it to his erection. My fingers curled instinctively around the hot hard length of him, and he arched his back with a faint hiss. His unabashed enjoyment seduced me to his bidding.

My James is undoubtedly a hedonist of the first water. Leather, velvet, silk and satin. Tight pants, thin shirts brushing his torso as he moves, or no shirt and the air caressing him. No other man delights so fully in the use of his own body, in the interplay of muscle, the testing of strength. Sure, it keeps him alive, but he loves it as much for how it feels as what it can do for him. He hides it well, most times. Few people would guess, given his sternly determined and serious demeanor. And me? I know it's under there, but I rarely see it.

How could I resist such an open display of pleasure?

Already hard, Jim relaxed into my touch. His body moved gently to my command, wantonly seeking what it desired. His soft moans and pants led me further into the trap and, when it closed, I was lost.

He spilled over my hands with a muffled cry, letting the powerful contractions take him and shake him with abandon. The milky fluid pooled warmly on his belly, shining in the firelight. I will never forget the look on his face. A new expression. This is James West in the throes of passion. This expression I'd horde away, I'd hope to see again someday, though I knew full well that would never happen.

I didn't even know I was erect until he touched me.

A light touch. One finger skimming up the underside of my cock, sliding gently over the head. My eyes dazzled with the explosion of pleasure.

"More," he whispered, voice thick with spent pleasure.

James always gets what he wants, damn the consequences. I should have remembered. I should have known that I could only redirect him for so long. His hand closed around me and I couldn't restrain my groan.

"More, Artie. Make me whole. Make love to me."

Even if my brain had still been connected to my mouth, I couldn't have argued with him. I could have told him that it would change nothing, that it would change everything, and not for the better. I could have countered that nothing I did could make him more or less than he already was. Even with all the arguments of rationality at my fingertips, I could never have convinced him against the desperation of his need.

Nor would I have been able to try.

He commands and I follow. The man is ten years my junior, but still I obey him without question, most times without thought. Call it the proof of military training. Call it a perfect partnership. Call it the wages of love.

When his hand cupped the back of my neck and drew me down to him, I went without demur. His eyes glittered black with a bedroom look comprised half of sleepy satiation, half of eager anticipation. I let him kiss me, complicit in my own downfall. I know just how deadly Jim's kisses can be. I've witnessed many a woman lose her resolve to him and that perfect mouth; now I know why.

Once he released me, I helped him roll over and reached for the butter. He was sleepy and sated, limbs loose with a deep relaxation which under any other circumstance would have led instantly to sleep. But some part of him, be it mind, heart or soul, struggled fitfully against the darkness. God alone knows why he settled on this method of reassurance, but I no longer had the will to deny him.

Add one more entry to that list of things I have become for him.

My fingers slid easily into the moist darkness of his body, his muscles so relaxed they offered no resistance. I knelt between his splayed legs and prepared my hard flesh with slick hands. He didn't move or make a noise when I slipped sweetly inside him. He was warm and tight and perfect.

"You feel that?" I balanced my weight on my elbows, bracketing his ribs, my mouth almost touching his ear. "Feel me inside you?" He nodded against the bed. I withdrew slightly, punctuating each sentence with a long slow thrust. "No questions. No doubts. Believe."

Jim laced his fingers with mine and tugged my hands under him, crossing his arms and mine around his body and bringing me down fully onto his back. There was no particular urgency in our dance. Just a sleepy slow time of rocking him in my strong embrace. I nuzzled the nape of his neck, and laid my head on his back, listening to the measured beat of his heart, pacing my thrusts to it. When the end came, it was with the same gentle moderation. Yet, for all that, I have never been cast adrift by such overwhelming pleasure as I was at that moment.

I lay on him, and in him, for as long thereafter as was possible. Eventually, of course, I softened and slipped out. Finally, I roused myself and cleaned us both up with a cloth grown quite cool. When I was finished, I tossed it at the bucket, where it plopped unerringly into the water. The fire had burned itself down, and I pulled the blankets back over our spent bodies.

James turned into my arms as I settled next to him. "Thanks Artie," he slurred, already dropping off. "Knew you'd help." He burrowed into my side, not satisfied until he'd pulled me down half on top of him, and murmured a single word, his breath sighing against my skin. "Warm."

I didn't even try to smile. I knew it would come out warped, if I could manage one at all. That's my James. No common sense to speak of.

Never realizes he's playing with fire.


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