|James jerked awake, bathed in a cold sweat, his clothing
clinging to his damp skin. He lay still and silent, staring into the
dark heavens, until his heartbeat slowed and his breath came easily.
The coldly remote stars were the only witness to his struggle for
He glanced across the embers of their campfire and saw that Artemus still slept. That was a relief; at least his nightmare hadn't woken Artie.
Jim knew it'd be a long time before he could recapture sleep. The nightmare had too strong a grasp on his emotions to banish quickly. His hair was plastered to his forehead, and the clammy embrace of his clothes made his skin crawl. He decided that he could at least be more comfortable: wash off the sweat and fear.
He crept out of camp without a sound, leaving Artie sleeping peacefully in his blankets. Jim didn't need the lantern, or even a match, to see his way. The moon was full, so bright it hurt his eyes to gaze directly at it. The pale light drenched everything in an almost ethereal glow, illuminating his path as clearly as daylight.
When he reached the waterside, Jim stripped off his clothes with an economy of motion, draped them over a convenient branch, and plunged in unhesitatingly. He'd chosen the cold end of the lake, the brisk water instantly cutting away the sticky residue of sweat and jolting him fully awake.
Jim welcomed the invigorating shiver and turned it into determined steady strokes. He swam unhurriedly, working his way slowly toward the warmer water which ebbed and flowed around the hot spring.
Once ensconced in blood-warm water, he closed his eyes to the beauty of reflected moonlight and let himself float, swayed gently by soft currents. His mind picked its way cautiously over the nightmare recall of unpleasant memories, examining them from this perspective and that, before returning them with stolid deliberation to their places, banishing even thought for a time. It was a long time before he righted himself.
He was curiously unsurprised to see Artemus watching him from the shore. Sitting on a flat boulder which overhung the warm end of the lake with his arms wrapped around his knees, he was as still as a statue. The moonlight paled his skin and blackened his hair and eyes, making of him a study in light and shadows.
It wasn't generally appropriate to call a man beautiful, nor did that particular appellation usually apply to Artemus. But, right at that moment, he was.
Jim suppressed a tremor of response and began to lazily swim toward his partner.
Artie had moved off the rock to stand at the water's edge by the time Jim waded to shore. Jim took the towel silently handed to him and used it with an outward show of calm. Inwardly, he experienced a rush of excitement. There was something exhilarating about being naked in the presence of the man he loved, even if that man wasn't inclined to take notice or advantage of what was on display.
Artie's eyes were, in fact, firmly fixed on Jim's face. He was rumpled with sleep, hair becomingly tousled, eyes still a bit hazy. Jim knew him well enough to recognize that a hundred questions danced on those softly parted lips. Not a single one was given voice, however.
Artemus merely handed Jim his shirt and trousers -- the clean ones out of his pack -- and waited silently while he dressed. Jim hung the damp towel on a branch when he was finished, and led the way back to camp, his limbs suddenly weighted heavily with fatigue. Somewhere between the moon-washed lakeside and the ruddy glow of their campfire, Artie's hand came to rest at the small of Jim's back, silently guiding with the faintest of pressure.
They parted at the tiny campfire. Jim settled back into his
blankets and, contrary to expectations, found his eyelids dragged
unprotestingly closed. The warmth of Artie's hand at his back lingered
in ghostly memory as he slid softly back to sleep.
He woke to the delicious smell of coffee.
"'Bout time you woke up." Artie smiled at Jim and handed him a cup.
Jim somehow managed to pushed himself upright in his blankets without spilling the coffee and sat crosslegged, savoring the hot brew. Artie, having watched the procedure with a discernible twinkle in his eye, turned back to the water which bubbled happily over the small fire and set about making breakfast.
Half an hour later, his belly full and another cup of coffee steaming warmly in his hands, Jim sat back and watched Artie wash up. He'd have felt guilty about letting Artemus do everything if he didn't know he'd end up providing dinner. Or perhaps breakfast tomorrow.
"So," Artie didn't look up from putting their meager cookware to rights, "what's the plan for today?"
"Don't have one."
"No?" One of Artie's eyebrows arched eloquently.
"No." Jim stretched until his muscles popped, then subsided again with a yawn.
"Last time we went on vacation, you had us hiking every day."
"Last time we went on vacation, it was voluntary."
"Never mind." Jim glanced away from Artie's expressive face. "Not your fault."
"Colonel Richmond simply thought we needed a break."
"Colonel Richmond thinks I need a break," Jim corrected sourly. "Better than a breakdown, isn't that right? What I don't understand is why you bothered to come along."
"I'm your partner, Jim." Now it was Artie who glanced away, though Jim didn't really need to see his face. Artemus said that as if it explained everything. It probably did.
Jim felt abruptly ashamed. What was he doing fishing for confessions? Hoping against hope that Artie would reveal something he knew wasn't there. As if he needed any more proof of Artie's caring than the simple fact that he was here. He could have stayed with the train, instead of taking this unpaid 'vacation' with Jim. No point in trolling for anything else, anything deeper. He'd only be disappointed.
"Besides," Artie added, "I had fun last time."
"You nearly died last time." Jim concealed a shiver, remembering the abject fear and helplessness he'd felt, nursing his partner through that awful night.
"Don't exaggerate." Artie frowned. "I had a cold."
"You had influenza."
"For one night."
"Yes, and it took you three days to get enough strength back to make the trek out of the mountains."
"I'm sorry I caused so much trouble." Now he sounded hurt.
Jim sighed. "You didn't, Artie."
"Good." Artie's sudden smile was almost dazzling. "So -- to return to the original question -- what're we going to do today?"
God, it was like playing with quicksilver. Infinitely mutable, completely unpredictable and, like as not, liable to prove dangerous without careful handling. Jim squeezed his eyes shut briefly, then reopened them warily. Artie was still grinning at him.
"I see." Artie nodded. "You know, James, it makes one tempted to think I was right about our last vacation."
"You were trying to teach me a lesson for inviting myself along."
"No, James, I've got it all worked out. Two days of hiking and climbing when we might have simply come here," Artie's gesture took in their pleasant surroundings: a sun-dappled meadow, the hot spring-warmed lake a short distance away. "Definitely a lesson."
"No, I wasn't trying to teach you a lesson and no we couldn't have come here." Jim rose and briskly folded his blanket, dropping it on the bedroll, then headed down to the lake.
"Because I didn't fancy getting run off with a load of buckshot in my backside," Jim threw back over his shoulder.
He was idly skipping stones across the calm surface of the water when he heard Artie come up behind him.
"It occurs to me," Artie began, amusement evident in his voice, "that you're going to run out of clothes long before you run out of trees."
Jim was confused until he turned, actually taking in his surroundings this time. The towel from last night hung over a tree branch to his right, and his clothes from another one much farther down on the left. Artie was grinning at him, and he smiled back sheepishly before moving to retrieve his clothing, Artie close on his heels.
"I expected a different comment," Jim admitted as he flipped his trousers off a snag.
Artie shrugged. "I was going to make a different comment. Until I walked down here and saw all your washing on the line."
"Very funny." Jim headed back to collect the towel, then dumped the whole armful of clothing on the ground at his feet, seeing no reason to haul it up to the camp just at that moment.
Artie hoisted himself onto the same flat boulder he'd been sitting on when Jim returned from his midnight swim. Jim was rather grateful, in retrospect, that Artie hadn't asked him to explain himself.
"Well then, I do have a question." Artie said, as if in response to the thought. He appeared unaware of Jim's sudden tension. "Why would coming here last August have resulted in a backside full of buckshot?"
Relieved, Jim laughed softly. "There's an old trapper who camps out near the hot spring during the winter. Name of Nathanial. He's not fond of company."
"Oh... and he usually heads this way in the fall?"
"Uh-huh. I ran into him once. He's not really a bad sort, but he made it clear he wouldn't take kindly to seeing me again." Jim shrugged. "I don't see any point in upsetting the fellow, so I stay away when he might be around. Now that it's midsummer, he's certainly long gone."
Artie nodded. "Good enough. James my boy, I thank you for looking out for me and my backside." He grinned.
Jim refrained from mentioning that he'd be happy to look after, or at, Artie's backside anytime, that being just the sort of thing which would get him in trouble. He settled for a friendly smile. "My pleasure."
"I'm sure," Artie responded, teasing. He pulled one foot up on the boulder and began unlacing his boot. "So, no plans...?"
"Sounds more like my idea of a vacation than yours, but I've no complaints." He removed the boot and stocking and started on the other one.
Jim blinked, suspicious at the sudden capitulation, even more suspicious of Artie's elaborately casual tone. He realized suddenly that, to Artie, his uncharacteristic desire to do nothing only seemed to confirm Richmond's wisdom in sending him on this so-called vacation. He'd have been better off dragging Artemus willy-nilly through the woods on a forced march. At least that way Artie would have been too busy complaining to think. As it was, Jim now no doubt had Artie's entire attention, and the full power of his inventive mind, focused on convincing him to talk about what happened.
"Hand me the towel, would you Jim?"
Racing thoughts interrupted, Jim complied automatically. He watched Artie arrange the towel fussily on the boulder, then lie back with his feet dangling in the warm water. Using the towel as a cushion, he laced his fingers behind his head and closed his eyes, the very image of a contented cat, lazing in the sun.
Jim sighed again and gathered up the rest of his clothing. He
hesitated a moment, captivated by the sweet curl of Artie's lips, then
turned abruptly on his heel and headed back for camp.
James hadn't expected to ever take Artie camping in the Rockies again, not after damn near losing him last time. If nothing else, he'd assumed that Artemus wouldn't be keen on repeating the experience. When he found himself once again shouldering a pack at Artie's insistence, Jim had overcome his surprise enough to head for a different site, more suited to his hedonist partner. And to his own mood.
The spring-warmed lake having been the major draw of their location, Jim soon found himself back on its shores. Ignoring Artie, who appeared to be asleep in any case, he stripped off his clothes and dove in.
He quickly settled into a pattern of laps which took him back and forth across alternately warm and cool eddies, with the occasional detour nearer the hot spring or the mountain stream. The sudden shock of hot or cold set his heart pounding more than the exertion did. It also distracted him from both his too-attractive partner and his not-so-attractive thoughts.
Jim only slowed when his breath came short and heavy, and stroked more calmly for the shore. Artie was sitting on the edge of the boulder, his trousers rolled up and his feet dangling in the water. Jim stopped a few feet out and stood on the sandy bottom, pushing wet hair out of his eyes. The water here was just deep enough for the sake of modesty. Feeling the need for a bit of that often-ignored virtue, Jim refrained from moving into shallower water.
"Have a nice swim?" Artie asked with quiet calm. As they had the night before, his eyes remained fixed on Jim's face, a fact the younger man found suddenly annoying. Women adored his physique. They found him beautiful fully clothed. Irresistible naked. And here, Artie had it all on display, and couldn't even be bothered to look.
"Yes," Jim responded shortly.
"How's your shoulder?" Artie eyes flicked quickly to the dark line of the bullet crease which marred Jim's left biceps, then back to Jim's face. The question held a great deal more than simple concern for a mostly healed wound.
"I seem to remember agreeing to come on... 'vacation' with you on the condition that you stopped fussing." His tone was, perhaps, a bit harsher than intended.
Artie didn't respond immediately. "I get the feeling you wouldn't have agreed at all, if you'd known our destination," he said after a moment.
Jim blinked. "Why should I care where we are?"
"You thought I'd be dragging you off to someplace exciting -- New Orleans, San Francisco. Someplace with lots of people, lots of noise. Someplace you wouldn't have to think and we couldn't talk."
"I'm happy where I am," Jim responded, side-stepping the point.
"Yes, but you'd be happier if I weren't here." Artie sighed. "You need to talk about what happened, Jim."
"No, Artie. We are not going to talk about this."
"It wasn't your fault. She was--"
"One more word, and I'll go back to the train," Jim threatened. His voice and expression were cold, but he knew Artie correctly suspected it merely masked deeper emotions.
"You'd abandon me up here?" His tone suggested he didn't believe it.
"You could find your way back. All you have to do is go down."
Artie sighed. "Very well. I won't talk about it."
"Good." Jim strode out of the water, unconcerned by his nudity. He was past hoping it'd provoke a response. Artie tossed Jim the towel, lay back down on the rock and closed his eyes.
Jim refused to acknowledge his disappointment. He spread the towel on the ground and lay down in the sun, pillowing his head on his crossed arms. As the heat slowly baked into him, he forgot about Artie and dozed off without warning between one moment and the next.
Artie glanced up, his fingers stilling as he caught Jim's eye. Not sure what was meant by the reaction, Jim closed his eyes again, just to be on the safe side. After a moment, the soft whisper of charcoal on paper indicated Artie had returned to his picture.
"What are you drawing?" Jim asked without opening his eyes, sleepy curiosity coloring his voice.
It took a moment to sink in. "Me?"
"Lie still." Artie's voice was soft and calm. Jim, still half-ensnared in the shroud of sleep, obeyed without thinking.
"Why?" he asked after a moment.
"Why did Michelangelo sculpt David?" Artie asked rhetorically in that same soft voice. "Because he was beautiful."
"What?" Jim was startled more than shocked, but Artie apparently assumed it was the latter.
"Don't worry, James. The appreciation is purely artistic, if it'll make you feel any better."
It didn't, but there was no point in telling Artie that. He'd only ask questions Jim couldn't afford to answer.
He could feel Artie's eyes on him: an intense, alert intelligence touching again and again on his bare skin. With an inward groan, Jim felt himself become aroused. Artie's interest may have been purely aesthetic, but Jim's reaction was far more carnal. It was a good thing he was lying on his stomach. Jim was torn between hoping Artie had only just begun his drawing, and would give him an excuse to remain where he was for a while, and wishing he'd get it over with, and let Jim get out from under those arousing eyes.
Jim bit his lip as the sun's rays seemed suddenly magnified on his skin. Or perhaps it was merely Artie's gaze which made his skin prickle with heat. He counseled his muscles into stillness and lay quietly as the sweat dewed his skin, until he felt as if he were on fire inside and out, and he couldn't bear it any longer. His nerves strung as taut as a bow, he was up in an instant, having contrived to rise with his back to his partner to save something of his dignity.
"You can finish it later," he managed shortly.
Jim retreated to the water, taking himself straight away to the very mouth of the stream which fed the lake. The water was frigid, numbing in the intensity of cold. His erection subsided without a whimper. If only he could subdue his mind as easily.
Before long, however, Jim found himself drifting back toward Artie. He was beginning to think he was a masochist.
"Giving up?" he asked, seeing Artie's sketch pad closed, the charcoal neatly centered on top of the small book.
Artie stretched and smiled. "For now. Obviously the only way to sketch you is when you're asleep. It's the only time you stay in one place long enough."
The idea of being watched so closely while he slept was almost as enthralling as it was disturbing. Jim wiggled his toes in the soft sand as he considered whether it was worthwhile to spirit Artie's sketch pad away somewhere. He quickly discarded the notion -- not only would Artie be upset if the drawings disappeared, he'd simply start drawing on whatever was handy, so it wouldn't serve any lasting purpose. With a shrug, Jim returned his attention to Artie, who was unbuttoning his shirt.
"Going to swim?"
"I was thinking about it," Artie admitted sunnily, folding his shirt and laying it on the boulder. "Think I'll stick to the warm water, though. I'm not a masochist like you."
There now, a second opinion. That cinched it: he must be a masochist, even Artie thought so. The very idea of Artie joining him in the water set his heart pounding nine to the dozen, and had his body responding in a way that made him glad the water lapped at his waist. He watched Artie strip, trusting that his candid stare wouldn't seem out of character to his partner, living in each breath as his partner's skin slowly emerged to shine in the warm sunlight. Artie's body was broad, well-formed, fit from exercising with Jim. His skin was pale, for there was little opportunity for sunbathing in polite society, and against the white canvas, the jeweled tones of the blue-green dragon which coiled down his biceps and around his elbow seemed to wink in the sun. It was with a vague sense of desolation that Jim saw that body engulfed and hidden by the water.
He may have been a masochist, but he wasn't stupid. Jim had the presence of mind to retreat from Artie's advance, moving obliquely away through the water, keeping a safe distance between them. But he was ensnared enough by his partner's charms and his own desires to remain in the warmer water.
After a couple of minutes, watching his partner float lazily in the warm water became more of a torture than Jim was willing to bear. He drifted almost aimlessly until he was looking away from the man. Better. And worse. But everything was like that.
A masochist indeed. He should never have agreed to this. Not the vacation -- Dean Richmond made certain he had no choice about that. But he shouldn't have let Artie join him, and he certainly shouldn't have left it up to Artie to decide where they went, even generally. Artie's suspicions had been right there -- Jim would never have consented if he'd known they were going to be alone. Someplace busy, he'd assumed, where he could put everything behind him without interference.
Time off to think, what a waste. What he needed was work -- to be busy and productive, and let things settle of their own accord. Left to his own devices, he'd have come out of this fine. More or less. Sudden unwanted self-knowledge aside, he'd have emerged none the worse for wear. He'd killed before. Often, in fact, in his line of work, and before in the Army. So he'd never killed a woman before; was it really so different? And this... Pure bad luck, nothing more. Jim wasn't adverse to a little introspection, but he didn't need to have his partner prodding away at him like some sort of father confessor. James West solved his own problems. Or learned how to live with them. He neither needed nor wanted to spill them all to someone else, like a child begging his parents to fix everything.
A flutter of white on the far shore caught Jim's wandering eye. He squinted in the bright sunlight, but was unable to make it out. Before he could act on the impulse to swim over that way, something grabbed his foot and dragged him under.
Jim burst to the surface a moment later, sputtering and glaring around him. He caught a quick glimpse of Artie's laughing face before his partner disappeared underwater again. Even though he was forewarned this time, Jim found himself yanked underwater again. Getting into the playful spirit, he grabbed Artie and they rolled dizzyingly in the warm water until he wasn't entirely sure which way was up. Even with his lungs complaining for air, Jim lingered over the smooth, water-slicked skin, glorying in the hard strength captured in his arms. It was better than their sparring on the train. Much better, for they'd before never wrestled like the Greeks, stripped to the skin.
They broke the water again, Artie laughing breathlessly.
"Mercy!" he managed through his chuckles. "I yield."
"You started it!" But he let go and ran his hands through his wet hair to prevent himself from reaching out again.
"You looked far too serious for a man on vacation. What did you see over there?"
Reminded, Jim glanced at the far shore again, but saw nothing now. "I'm not sure. I'd think I'd like to take a walk around the lake."
"After lunch," Artie decreed.
Jim smiled. "After lunch."
Lunch, composed of dried fruit and jerked beef, in no way lived up to the name according to Artie. It also didn't take very long.
It took a less than an hour to work their way around to the opposite side of the lake. The hike would have been much shorter if they hadn't been forced to skirt a series of hot springs which dotted the north lakeshore, no doubt part of the same chain which warmed the lake itself.
Jim stopped in the shade and shrugged the canteen off his shoulder. From his vantage point, he could just make out the boulder Artie had been sleeping on earlier in the day, exactly on the other side of the lake. He took a long drink of cool water and handed the canteen to his partner.
The day was hot and bright, and Jim had left his shirt back at camp. Artie had his sleeves rolled above his elbows and half the buttons undone, but he might as well have been half naked for all that. It was worse, Jim had decided as he followed Artie for the first part of their walk. Seeing Artie so casual, with his forearms and a triangle of chest exposed, was more distracting than a bare chest would have been. Jim walked behind Artie, watching the white linen cling to his broad back, flexing and shifting with the movement of his body, and despaired of himself. He finally opted to lead the way for the sake of his equilibrium, not to mention his uncomfortably tight pants.
For his part, Artemus had been unusually quiet. Jim wasn't certain if Artie had cut down on the chatter for his sake, or because he was trying to work out how to draw Jim out. He sincerely hoped it was the former.
"Well, now what?" Artie asked, after he'd drank his fill.
Jim shrugged. "Look around, I guess."
"Okay... do I know what I'm looking for?"
Jim cocked his head to one side and smiled. "Something white?"
Artie shook his head and wandered off down the lakeshore. Jim watched him go for a moment, then turned and moved inland. To be honest, he wasn't certain what they were doing here. That faint glimpse of... something hardly seemed worth checking out. But he had a feeling. Artie followed his intuition; Jim listened to his gut. Artie would say it was the same thing; Jim wasn't inclined to concede the point. It might be nothing, of course. No matter. If nothing else, at least it gave them something to do. Something safer than wrestling in the water.
At Artie's urgent shout, Jim turned and ran. The direction of Artie's voice clearly indicated he'd abandoned the shore, but it only took a few minutes for Jim to find him. He crashed through the bushes to Artie's side, concerned by the overly pale cast to his features.
"I think this might be what we were looking for." Artie gestured at what lay on the disturbed ground a few feet in front of where he crouched. Jim moved to stand a little closer to his partner.
"I think you may be right."
Even from several feet away, the stench was overpowering. Despite his familiarity with the horrors of the battlefield, Jim heartily wished they'd foregone lunch.
"How long do you think he's been dead?" Jim turned his eyes to his partner, not bothering to deceive himself that it wasn't a relief.
"A month and a half at least. It's only gotten really hot the last week or so, or he'd be little more than a skeleton, instead of..." he gestured vaguely at the corpse.
"Could it be more than two months?" Jim had experience with death in action and by violence, on the battlefield and off, but it was Artie who studied medical books and attended autopsies. He was as close to an expert as they were likely to find in a fifty mile radius.
Artie pursed his lips. His color had improved a little as he became accustomed to the odor and turned his mind to the puzzle, rather than the condition of the body. "Not very likely. He'd definitely be a skeleton by now if he'd been dead that long in this weather." He glanced up at Jim. "Why?"
Jim sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "It's Nathanial."
"The trapper? You're sure?"
"See the necklace?" Jim pointed at the thong which still hung around the partially decomposed neck.
"Uh-huh. What are those?"
"Bear claws." Jim shrugged. "So he said. He also said he always leaves before the snow melts."
"Late April, early May..." Artie nodded, getting the idea. "What was he still doing here?"
"Damn good question."
"I might have been wrong, Jim. It's possible he's been dead longer than that."
"He's not wearing a coat," Jim pointed out, just noticing it himself.
Artie hit his thigh with a closed fist. "Damn! I'm an idiot." He sighed. "The coat's hanging from a tree."
"Back that way, near the water." He looked up at Jim again. "The lining is white."
So that's what he'd seen from the lake: the coat, swaying a bit in the breeze. Jim studied the corpse thoughtfully, not letting his instinctive abhorrence of the ravages of decay prevent him from missing anything else. Pleasant thing to unearth on vacation.
"Be hard to tell how he died, even if the animals hadn't been at him. And we don't have the necessary tools here." Artie sighed. "I suppose we'd better bury him."
"It would be the decent thing to do," Jim agreed. That feeling -- the same one which had brought them here -- was still niggling away at him. He had a suspicion they were far from finished with this.
Artie stood and glanced around. He drug his boot heel through the loose dirt. "Here is as good a place as any." He looked back at the corpse, his hands on his hips as he considered the problem from every angle. "We'll need something bigger than his coat to bury him in, Jim, or we'll never be able to move him in one piece."
Jim restrained a shudder. Something about Artie's casual practicality sent chills up his spine. "A blanket would do. Why don't you go back to camp and get one?"
Artie smiled at him. "You'd make quicker work of it. You get the blanket; I'll see what I can find to dig with and get started here." He was already looking around. Artie glanced up sharply when Jim made no move. "Well? If we don't get started soon, we'll be all day about it. I promise you, I have no desire to be here with him after dark."
"Right." Seeing that Artie assumed it was already decided, Jim turned and headed for the lakeshore, then north. Once out of Artie's sight, he broke into a slow trot which quickly picked up into an all-out sprint.
Jim didn't like it. His feet pounded against the ground, setting up an urgent rhythm with his heartbeat and rasping breath. Didn't like it, didn't like it, didn't like it. He couldn't find his stride -- his heart thundered painfully in his chest and his lungs ached for breath -- but he stopped only when he stumbled, almost falling. Jim bent over, panting hard, and brought himself sternly back under control. When he could breathe evenly, he started off again, in a controlled trot which he refused to let speed up.
He hadn't wanted to leave Artie back there. Back there with a corpse. It was as if leaving him in the presence of death was somehow to let death take him. It was a body, for pity's sake, not even remotely a threat. Its mortality couldn't rub off on Artie like a cheap cologne. It was the same mortality they all shared already, in any case. There lay the problem.
Jim reached camp in short order. He grabbed a shirt and pulled it quickly on, not bothering to do up the buttons. Jim snatched the blanket off his bedroll and started back around the lake in that same ground-eating trot. Artie would be surprised to see him back so soon, he knew; his partner hardly expected him to run both ways. Still, foolish as it was, he wanted back there with him. Now.
As he moved through the sunlit woods, seeing them only as a pale shadow of themselves, like roses by moonlight, Jim tried to clear his mind. To regain his equilibrium and control himself before Artie noticed. It wasn't like him to race off in a panic, or let his emotions carry him away like that. It wasn't safe. He concentrated on his breathing for a moment, losing himself in the swift, effortless motion of his own body. Calming.
Suzanne Barth. Beautiful, graceful. Deadly. And dead. By his hand. By his gun. As Artie had nearly been dead by her hand.
Artie with a corpse. Artie as a corpse. By his hand.
The rhythm of Jim's breath was broken by a sigh. What a muddle. He was good -- very good -- at his job, and he knew it. Richmond knew it. Artie knew it. And there were times when they were all wrong. When his judgment failed him. One of these days, the failure would be fatal. And Jim was increasingly afraid that it would prove fatal to Artie. It almost had.
Miss Suzanne Barth.
It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
Where had he seen that? A tombstone, no doubt. An epitaph carved in cold stone over someone's beloved.
In their job, death always stood just at arm's reach. There was only so much they could do about that, only so many tricks they could pull to keep them safe from that chill embrace just one more time. Jim knew that; he'd always known that. So how had he managed to forget it when he fell in love with Artie? Even that damned fever Artemus had contracted last time they were in the mountains hadn't driven the danger home as firmly as a gun in the hands of beautiful young lady.
Jim snorted, falling into a brisk walk when he was still about a mile distant from Artie.
Artie, who wanted to talk. Wanted Jim to talk. About that. About killing a woman. A woman who tried to kill him, kill Artie. How could he discuss it with the man? Even if he wanted to spill his soul, how could he even get near the heart of the matter, when the heart in question was his own? There was no way to discuss this with Artie without, one way or another, letting out the one secret he couldn't afford to share. Not without letting Artie discover that he loved him. Wanted him.
It would be better to leave the Secret Service. Not because of loving Artie. Or rather, yes, because of loving Artie, but not because Artie didn't love him. Just that, at least then, that fatal mistake would mean only his own death. Not Artie's. But he couldn't. No matter how he tried to deceive himself, he knew he couldn't leave. Because Artie wouldn't stop being a Secret Service agent just because Jim did, and he wouldn't leave the field just because Jim wasn't there to back him up. And maybe that fatal mistake would be Jim's and maybe it would be Artie's, but at least if they were together there was a chance of coming through it alive.
Jim's breathing was calm when he returned to Artie's side.
Artemus glanced up when Jim dropped the blanket next to the hole he had dug. It was roughly five feet long, two feet wide, and Artie was standing in it up to his knees already. He held a short-handled shovel with a metal head and he looked startled.
"That was quick."
Jim shrugged. "Where did you find the shovel?"
"Over there," Artie gestured with his shoulder, already pushing the rusted metal into the compact earth to hoist out another shovelful of dirt. "Just beyond those three trees growing out of the same trunk."
"I can take over now," Jim offered.
Artie shook his head. "Why don't you go look, first? I'm fine."
Jim shrugged, and rambled over to take a look at Nathanial's meager belongings, buttoning his shirt as he went. The camp was small, and there was nothing of any worth in the tiny lean-to. Jim poked around, but didn't find anything that would go very far in explaining Nathanial's death. He headed back over and took the shovel from Artie, making quick work of a couple more feet of topsoil before he hit bedrock.
Artie shrugged. "It's deep enough."
Jim tossed the shovel out of the hole and grabbed Artie's proffered hand to haul himself out. Then they turned to the corpse.
A distinctly unpleasant quarter-hour later, they had Nathanial wrapped in the blanket and lowered into his grave. Jim used the shovel to toss dirt over the corpse as Artie knelt, pushing armfuls of soil back into the hole, getting the job done as quickly as possible. When they finished, Jim planted the shovel as deeply in the undisturbed ground at the head of the grave as he could. A meager sort of marker, but the only one Nathanial would have.
Without a word, they strode to the lakeside, pulled off their boots, and plunged in fully clothed. It was nearly too hot this close to the spring. It seemed to Jim that he could almost feel the stench and corruption blasted out of his clothes. He dived underwater, trying to wash the odor from his hair and skin. Artie did the same next to him.
They swam idly for at least half an hour, aware of the sun
beginning to sink slowly over the mountains, but uncaring. Letting the
water take away the stink of death.
"Jim?" Artie said over his after-dinner coffee.
"What?" Jim lay back on his bedroll with his hands under his head, staring at the stars. Dinner had been the same as lunch -- dried fruit and meat -- neither man feeling like either cooking or eating.
"I was wrong."
"I said he'd been dead close to two months. It couldn't have been more than five weeks."
"Why?" Jim thought he knew the answer, but he wondered if Artie had seen anything he hadn't.
"There was grass growing under his body. Green grass."
"Hm." Yup, that was it. Jim fished in his pocket and produced a small lump of metal. He propped himself on one elbow and handed the object to Artie. "What does this look like to you?"
"A .44 or .45 caliber slug. Probably from a Winchester rifle." He gave it back. "Is that what you picked up from the ground after we moved the body?"
"Uh-huh." Jim returned the spent bullet to his pocket.
"Yes. Murder. Probably won't ever be solved, either."
"That doesn't sound like the Jim I know." It was hard to tell if Artie's tone was teasing or reproving. "What happened to truth, justice--"
"A good night's sleep," Jim interrupted. "We're out of our jurisdiction, or hadn't you noticed?" He hoped Artie would just drop it. Jim wasn't about to admit that the whole thing gave him the willies.
"I noticed. I've never known it to matter before."
"We're on vacation, Artie. And the killer's probably long gone by now." He yawned hugely. "Best get some sleep."
Artie shook his head and laughed softly. "All right, then." He made an elaborately amusing pretense of tucking himself in, no doubt entirely for Jim's benefit. "You want to share my blanket?"
Jim lay down again with an only-slightly forced laugh, and settled on his back with his hands once more behind his head. "I'm fine."
"If you say so. Good night, James," Artie said around a yawn.
The tableau was broken by an almost inaudible creak. Artie, unaware of the danger, pushed open the door and walked straight into the lion's den. The woman turned and fired.
Jim threw himself into Artie. A searing heat scored his left biceps as they tumbled to the floor, pain flashing in the wake of the bullet. Jim rolled and fired in one smooth motion before she could bring the gun to bear again.
And saw his bullet forever obliterate the beauty and the life of Suzanne Barth.
It was suddenly dark and cold. Very cold.
Jim pushed himself to his knees and crawled awkwardly across the rough floor to the crumpled body. When he rolled it onto its back, he was horrified to see a less beautiful, but incalculably beloved, face. As he tried to lift Artie's body, however, it collapsed into decay...
He lay on his side, curled as tightly into himself as he could get, shivering violently. His hands, when he raised them to rub roughly at his face, were ice cold.
It took Jim a couple of minutes to realize that the cold came from outside, and wasn't a result of the nightmare. The night air was considerably colder than it had been when he took his moonlit swim the night before. Without a blanket to keep in his body's heat, Jim found himself shivering uncontrollably.
Jim rose clumsily to his hands and knees and shuffled closer to the dying embers of the fire. He felt around for the small stack of wood and quietly fed some kindling to the coals until a tiny flame caught and held. He added some larger branches and huddled closer to the meager glow. Although he'd been as quiet as he could, Jim saw Artie stir on the other side of the tiny fire.
"Jim?" Artie's voice was thick with sleep. Jim grunted, not daring to open his mouth. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, Artie," he managed after a moment, pleased that he was able to keep his teeth from chattering during the brief utterance.
"You must be freezing." Artie pushed himself up on an elbow, the blanket sliding halfway off him. "Get over here."
"Artie..." Jim hesitated, torn between the warmth and the danger.
"Get over here," Artie repeated, lifting the blanket and shifting back a little on his bedroll to make room for Jim between him and the fire. Jim was too damn cold to argue.
He crawled gratefully into the warm blankets and settled cautiously on his side, facing the fire. Artie immediately curled up around his back, wrapping Jim in his arms and the enveloping warmth of his body.
The shivering stopped almost at once. The dreams had already
mostly faded from his mind. It only took a few minutes for Jim to fall
He woke still cocooned in Artie's blankets. His partner's warm, hard body was pressed up against his back, and Jim had his head pillowed on one of Artie's outflung arms. Being only human, Jim sleepily savored the stolen moments of warm embrace.
Artie's other arm was a solid weight across Jim's hip, the fingers brushing provocatively against his groin. Which, he realized with an inward groan, was very attentive to the featherlight touch.
The sun shone warmly on Jim's face; there was no excuse for returning to sleep, no reason to think Artie wouldn't awaken in mere minutes. And Jim's hard erection showed no intention of softening before that happened. Jim set himself to the task of getting out of Artie's arms before he woke.
A cautious attempt to withdraw, however, only resulted in a grumpy tightening of the embrace. A sleepy mutter rumbled in Jim's ear and Artie pulled Jim closer, his hand sliding down to press more firmly against Jim's hard cock through his trousers. It was all he could do not to groan aloud.
"Morning, Jim," Artie murmured more coherently. He didn't seem at all shocked, but perhaps he hadn't yet noticed the placement of his hand, or what was under it. That theory was blasted away when Artie's fingers rubbed lightly, but deliberately, against Jim's solid erection, then closed over it with a gentle squeeze. "I'd ask if you were awake," Artie said, amusement coloring his still-sleepy tones, "but I can tell at least part of you is." His hand moved again, the stroke sure and purposeful.
Jim rolled onto his back, unsurprised when Artie moved gracefully aside just enough to accommodate him without shifting his hand. He forced himself to meet Artie's warm brown eyes.
"What exactly are you doing?" Jim kept his tone carefully neutral.
Artie managed half a shrug. "Probably just about what you think I'm doing." His fingers shifted again. Jim pushed the knowing hand away, more for the sake of self-preservation than any desire to stop Artie from touching him. "Jim!" Artie grabbed his arm, stopping him before he could move away. "Just hold it a minute, will you?"
Jim searched Artie's face and found no mockery, and more than a touch of concern. He still didn't know what this was, nor did he think it was safe to remain within reach, but he finally nodded slightly. Jim gently removed his arm from Artie's hand and settled back to listen.
Artie ran a hand through his tousled hair and sighed. "I'm sorry, Jim. I wasn't completely awake and," he shrugged, "it seemed like a good idea. I mean," his smile looked a little forced, "you know me: always acting without thinking."
"I thought I knew you," Jim admitted softly. He was surprised at the bleak look with passed over Artie's features, and only then realized how his words might be mistaken. Artie hurried on, however, before he could reassure him.
"Look, I didn't mean anything by it. Just... there aren't exactly any women around, you know? And I know how a man can need a... helping hand. Sometimes."
"Sometimes," Jim repeated. Artie nodded eagerly. He remained silent as Jim thought.
It didn't take long to decide, really. Less than half a minute. Clearly Jim had left his sense of self-preservation elsewhere. Or maybe he really was a masochist. He knew what was being offered, and it was a tiny fraction of what he truly wanted. A helping hand, maybe a bit more, but no words of love spoken, nor none expected. Artie would be shocked to know Jim brought any emotion but friendly camaraderie into this. It was a damn good way to get his heart broken. But how could he resist the chance to touch?
Jim shifted back over silently to lay once again within Artie's arms. His partner recognized the silent assent quickly enough, and a clever hand made short work of the buttons on his shirt and trousers. Jim engaged himself in working loose the fastenings to Artie's clothing.
"Where did you learn this," he asked as Artie's fingers swept lightly over his bare chest, half-gasping at the pleasurable touch, "the theater?"
"No," Artie chuckled, "the merchant marine."
Jim laughed, then groaned as his friend's fingers brushed teasingly over an erect nipple, then on down his lightly furred belly. Artie leaned close, his dark hair tickling Jim's ear as he nudged his head playfully against Jim's cheek. Jim tangled a hand in Artie's curls, rubbing his fingers against his warm scalp. He wrapped his other arm around Artie's waist, pulling Artie's shirt out of his trousers so he could press his palm against the warm, smooth skin at the curve of his back.
Artie's hand found Jim's erection, wrapping unhesitatingly around the hard, hot length of him. Gasping, Jim arched into the fist which held him so wonderfully tight. He twisted and turned under his partner's ministrations, vaguely aware that he was letting Artie do all the work, but unable to manage enough conscious effort to do anything about it. The knowledge that it was Artemus whose hands drove his pleasure brought Jim embarrassingly quickly to flashpoint.
Jim grabbed Artie, pulling the broad body down atop him and wrapping his arms tightly around Artie's waist. There was a moment of absolute stillness, then Artie adjusted their position slightly, and his bare erection suddenly rubbed against Jim's. Moaning, Jim arched, pushing himself into Artie's hard body, letting the slick smooth pleasure of cock against cock carry his mind away. He pressed his open mouth to Artie's collarbone, tasting the salt of his skin. It was as close to a kiss as he dared.
With a muffled scream, Jim came. He was vaguely aware of Artie's body shuddering in like convulsions only a few seconds later. Jim was too wrapped up in the surging pleasure to feel more than a moment's triumph at that. Finally, panting, he came back to himself, savoring the heavy weight of Artie's lax body pinning him to the ground.
All too soon, Artie stirred. He lifted his head and smiled at Jim. "Better?"
"Uhmm." Jim managed a return smile. "Thanks for the... helping hand."
"Anytime, Jim." Artie rolled off Jim and to his feet in an easy motion. "Come on." He offered a hand to help Jim up. "Let's go get cleaned up."
It shouldn't have seemed callous, Jim reflected as he followed Artie down to the water's side. Not even if he was struck by a sudden dislike for the idea of washing off the evidence of their passion. As if it had never happened.
"Did you mean it, Artie?" Jim asked suddenly, without looking up from splashing warm water on himself.
"Hmm? What?" Artie responded distractedly, scrubbing his shirt with both hands.
That got his attention. Artie put down his shirt and gazed seriously at Jim. After a minute, he gave Jim a slow smile. "Anytime."
Jim returned the smile and nodded, then turned away before he could betray himself.
"You know what confuses me, Jim?"
Artie set aside his scientific journal and paddled his feet a bit in the water. Jim watched him through heavy-lidded eyes from where he floated aimlessly in the warm water.
Several days had passed in lazy succession, bringing few changes. It should, perhaps, have been harder to fall into the pattern they did. But Jim was in thrall to his love, and he somehow thought Artie, hedonist that he was, was enjoying the regular pleasure of their morning encounters. For himself, Jim almost appreciated the nightly excuse to curl up in Artie's arms more than the waking result.
"Well, I've been thinking: what does a trapper want with a shovel?"
"You've got me. What?"
"That's just the problem," Artie responded irritably, "I don't know!"
Jim yawned. "I'm sure you'll figure it out eventually."
"You might try to help."
"I'm sorry, Artie. I've got other things on my mind," Jim responded honestly. Artie's instantly contrite expression indicated he'd made the assumption Jim was thinking about a certain young lady's death. As Jim had hoped he might, diverting him from the truth.
It was foolish to want to continue what they'd begun. Jim had no illusions -- once they returned to the train, life would pick up where it had left off. There would be no excuses, no reason to need a "helping hand," as Artie so quaintly put it. And there it would end. The idea was a distinctly unpleasant one.
His own damn fault for going into this with emotions so disparate from his partner's. Jim knew Artie loved him. If he was ever tempted to doubt, all he needed was to see the dragon which swirled in blue and green down his friend's arm to be reassured. That was love and willing sacrifice made physical. But it wasn't the same sort of love Jim felt for Artie. It was the sort which found no wrong in satisfying each others physical needs, but would be astounded to know there was more to it than that.
Jim wasn't afraid Artie would be disgusted if he knew. But he wouldn't understand. Eventually, it would rend partnership and friendship both asunder.
"You must be half-fish," Artie remarked suddenly. Jim shook off his thoughts and glanced up to find Artie watching him, journal closed, elbows braced on his knees. Before he could gather himself to respond, Artemus continued with a chuckle. "Would you rather be served with rice or greens, once you've finished cooking yourself?"
Jim couldn't help but smile. "What, hungry already?"
"Nah, we just had lunch." He leaned back on his hands and kicked at the water, splashing Jim. "Dinner, though, that's another matter."
"Uh-huh. A matter of hours," Jim reminded him. "Do you always think with your stomach?"
"James, James, James, how can you be so cavalier about satisfying the inner man? A growing boy needs his food."
"If you don't watch it, you'll be growing all right."
"Me? Who said I was talking about me?" One thing could definitely be said for Artie: he'd almost perfected that innocent look. "You're the one who's taken to the water like a fish. All that swimming has got to make a man hungry. Speaking of fish..."
"You want me to catch some for supper."
Artie's smile was angelic. "If you would be so kind."
Jim sighed and shook his head. "You might have just said so."
"Where's the fun in that?"
"Don't wander too far."
"I'm just going to look around for something to go with the fish. Assuming you catch any." Artie watched Jim tie fishing line on the end of a long willowy branch, then glanced around him with a calculating expression. "Must be some berries growing around here somewhere. Or maybe wild onion." Clearly he'd be happy with either.
"Just don't get lost." Jim settled on the bank of the cold, clear stream, about half a mile from where it poured into the lake.
"James, would I do that?" He strode off vigorously west, following the stream, his parting words making Jim laugh. "I'll holler if I can't find my way back."
Jim settled back against a tree trunk to wait for a bite. It was curiously relaxing to be on his own for a bit; he and Artie had been living in each other's pockets for the last week, and it could get a bit taxing. Even if he loved Artie. Or maybe especially so. The soft grass, cool water, even the fish, demanded nothing of him. Not even thought. He rested his head back against the tree and closed his eyes, letting the soft ripple of the water clear his mind.
Less than half an hour had slipped away when Jim jerked awake, passing from a light doze to full alertness instantly. He wasn't certain what woke him, but something wasn't right. His first instinct was to glance at the sky, but the clear blue heavens winked back at him without a cloud in sight. Jim set aside his fishing pole and stood, glancing uncertainly around. After a moment, it occurred to him that he could hear Artie's voice. He set off immediately to follow the sound.
Artie wasn't shouting, for help or anything else. But the faint strains of his voice didn't have the cadence of a man talking to himself. Besides, if Artie was talking to himself, he was doing it quite loudly. As an actor, Artie had been trained to pitch his voice to reach the back of the house when he so chose. It was that voice he was using.
Jim was very careful about how he approached. Clearly something was up, and Artie was trying to warn him. He moved cautiously through the trees, keeping in the shadow of the broader trunks, setting his feet down softly and quietly. In only a few minutes, he was close enough to see Artie, and the man who held a gun on him.
"...don't see what the trouble is," Artie was blustering cheerfully. His hands, however, were open and in plain sight, and he was very careful not to move. "I was just looking for berries. Tell me, do blackberries grow in these mountains?"
"I told you to shut up," the other man growled. He had long stringy black hair, and was clad in a patchwork of cast-off clothing. The rifle, however, was a shiny, well-oiled Winchester, and its wielder clearly knew how to use it. "I don't believe this berry-picking thing anyhow. You're here for the gold."
"What gold is that?" Artie asked innocently. Not by a single twitch did he betray his no-doubt clear view of Jim slipping stealthily through the trees around behind the man.
"Don't pretend you don't know. I saw you. Saw you talking to Nate. He told you all about it." The rifle came up a bit in the man's hands. Jim was almost directly behind him, and could see the fear in Artie's eyes. "Well, it's mine and you ain't gettin' any of it."
Jim lunged forward, his arms flying around the man to grab the rifle from behind and yank it up. The gun fired with an thunderous report as Artie dropped flat, a sapling behind him exploding into splinters. A sharp elbow caught Jim in the ribs and he grunted painfully, but didn't let go of the rifle. The man, however, dropped heavily out of his arms, leaving the Winchester behind. Jim tossed the rifle to Artie, who had regained his feet, and spun to face the man.
"It's mine, I tell ya." The man produced a knife from inside his ratty coat. The shiny blade gleamed no less fiercely than his eyes. "No one's takin' it away."
Jim jumped back as the man lashed out with the knife. He heartily wished he hadn't left all his weapons back at the camp. That kind of short-sightedness was how Secret Service agents became ex-Secret Service agents. He spared a quick glance at Artie, who shook his head, reversing his grip on the rifle to rest the butt on the ground. No more ammunition.
In the brief moment of distraction, Jim's attacker darted in, the knife flicking dangerously close. Jim leapt back, but the blade caught his left sleeve, ripping a jagged hole near the shoulder. Shaking his head at his stupidity, Jim circled cautiously, resolved not to take his eyes off the man in the future. Whoever he was, he was clearly at least a little mad, but it didn't slow him down any.
The knife was broad-bladed and very sharp, and the man wielded it with skill, weaving an intricate web of gleaming silver. Jim circled to his right, trying to bring them both around far enough to let Artie have a crack at the man, but his opponent was too crafty. A quick jab forced Jim back to his left again, keeping Artie behind him, within their antagonist's sight. It would have to be up to Jim alone.
He rushed in quickly, timing his assault to the split second. A lightning fast kick knocked his opponent back, and Jim was able to grab his knife hand before he could strike. His fingers closed like steel over the man's wrist, holding the knife safely away with his right hand. His other fist delivered two quick blows to the man's lower ribs.
Howling, the man barreled into Jim, one bony shoulder knocking the wind out of him as he staggered back, his free hand clutching the ragged coat for purchase. Stronger than he ought by rights to have been, the man shoved at Jim, pushing him off balance as they grappled for control. Jim still had the knife-hand, but he could feel the man's wrist jerking against his grip. Jim sensed Artie hovering nearby, but knew he didn't dare risk joining the fray. One of Jim's heels caught on something and he shouted angrily as he felt himself going over backwards, twisting as he fell to retain the upper hand, not daring to let go of the writhing wildcat in his arms.
They landed hard, Jim on his back, for all his attempt to twist in mid-air, the madman lying half on, half off him, upper body on the ground, their legs still tangled together. For a moment, Jim was too winded to move. The other man lay stone still. Jim's right hand was trapped under the other's weight, fingers still banded tight around his wrist. Something warm and wet dripped slowly down the back of his hand.
"Jim!" Artie dropped to his knees at Jim's head as he dazedly pulled his hand out from under the man's body. "Is he...?"
Jim sat up and rolled the man over with Artie's help. "Dead," he confirmed. The knife protruded from the upper left breast of the scarecrow coat at an obscene angle, leaving no doubt. Jim wiped his bloody hand on the coat with poorly concealed disgust.
"Are you okay?"
"Let me see." Artie tugged at Jim's shirt, pulling him around so he could get at the left sleeve.
"Artie, I'm fine."
Ignoring him, Artie pulled apart the flaps of torn cloth to see Jim's arm. Jim peered at it with him. Squarely under the gaping hole, the dark line of a healed bullet crease was clearly visible on the otherwise untouched skin.
"Yes, I guess you are." Artie's relieved grin called forth Jim's own. He was suddenly all energy: ecstatic to be alive, and that Artie was unhurt. Jim pulled Artie into a quick embrace, letting him go before he could make any protest.
"I thought I told you not to get into any trouble," Jim scolded with a smile.
"No, Jim. You told me not to get lost." He shrugged. "And I know exactly where I am."
"Yes. Sitting in a mountain meadow with another body. What is it about you and corpses, Artie?"
"You can't blame me. He was alive when I found him." The black humor failed them both then. Artie glanced at the body, then away. Jim sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"There doesn't seem to be any doubt he killed Nathanial."
"Looks that way." Artie frowned at him. "You said the murderer would be long gone by now."
Jim shrugged. "How was I to know he'd stick around? I wonder why."
"Gold." Artie shifted and began patting the man's pockets gingerly. "He seemed to think we were after his gold."
"There isn't any gold in these mountains."
"You never know," Artie said philosophically. With an expression of distaste, he gave over his fruitless search. "But he apparently didn't find any."
"He killed Nathanial for it." Jim stood and brushed ineffectually at his dusty pants. He offered a hand to help Artie to his feet.
"Yeah. He also thought we were talking to Nathanial the other day when we were burying him. The man's kettle was definitely cracked. There probably wasn't ever any gold."
"Nathanial obviously thought there was." Jim smiled as Artie paused in brushing off his own trousers to raise an eyebrow at Jim. "Why else does a trapper have a shovel?"
"Speaking of which." Artie looked down at the body and sighed. "I guess we'd better dig another grave."
"Remind me," Artie said later as he peeled off his sweat-stained shirt, "that if I ever want a change of careers, gravedigger isn't it."
"But you're getting so good at it," Jim teased, sitting on the ground at the water's side to remove his boots.
"Well, you don't seem to be getting any better at catching fish. What about dinner?"
"We've got another week before Richmond expects us back at the train. I'll catch you some fish another night. Right now, I want to wash off the dust." He glanced sideways at his partner. "Stop frowning, Artie, and join me. How else are you going to get all that dirt out from under your fingernails?"
"Very funny." But he was removing his trousers.
Jim laughed and tossed himself into the water, quickly pushing away from shore. The feel of the lukewarm water on his skin was exhilarating. Or perhaps it was merely the feeling of being alive.
He swam and splashed, diving periodically to hover in the strange silent world under the surface. Jim felt strangely light, unencumbered. For the first time in weeks, he felt the shroud lift. If he'd made the wrong decision with Miss Barth, he'd made the right one this time. He and Artie were still alive. No one had died who didn't deserve to. There was something in that.
Something grabbed his leg, pulling him under. Joy bubbling up inside him, Jim went with it, skimming his hand along the arm that held him until he found Artie's body, then grabbing him tightly in both arms. Artie's soft skin slid against his own in an intoxicating dance until the need for air was too great. Jim broke the surface gasping, and moved a little away, not sure he wanted Artie to notice that he was aroused. He was too full of life, and love, to content himself with the pale pleasure of a friendly release just then.
Artie pushed the wet hair off his forehead and advanced, grinning widely. Jim retreated cautiously, slowly, always just slightly out of reach, until the water grew shallow enough for him to stand on the bottom. Wiggling his toes in the silty mud, he stood his ground then, watching Artie suspiciously. No more wrestling was in the offing, however; Artie merely pulled Jim into a tight embrace. Jim tried not to groan at the slippery pleasure of bare wet skin and the hard pressure of Artie's cock against his thigh.
He was completely unprepared when Artie kissed him full on the mouth.
For all their fooling around the last few days, Artie hadn't ever kissed him. Jim had assumed kisses were too intimate to be excused. Apparently, he was wrong. Artie's lips were soft, the demanding pressure of his mouth hard. Jim parted his lips in response to the determined persuasion and moaned, a deep yearning sound, when Artie's tongue pushed into his mouth. His own tongue countered the assault, tangling erotically with Artie's in a teasing chase through the playground of both mouths. Jim was only vaguely aware of Artie shifting in the circle of his arms, until Artie's hard cock thrust sweetly against his own. He pulled back, gasping at the pleasure, then pulled completely out of Artie's arms.
"I don't... don't want--"
"Sorry," Artie interrupted before Jim could find the right words. His eyes were cast down, a flush creeping over his cheeks. "I didn't mean... I just..."
"No," Jim stopped the fumbling apology with a quick kiss. He wrapped his hands around the curve of Artie's shoulders, liking the way the heavy muscle filled his palms. "I just... don't want it like that." He paused, taking a deep breath before plunging into what might prove a deadly quagmire. "I want you... inside me." He forced a grin at Artie's shocked expression. "You've done that before, haven't you?"
After a moment, Artie nodded jerkily.
"In the merchant marine?" It was no less than he'd guessed, but hot jealousy curled in Jim's chest nonetheless.
Suddenly Artie smiled brilliantly. "In the theater."
Jim laughed. His chest still felt tight with jealousy and fear. The sheer vulnerability of what he wanted was almost insupportable. And he knew it would mean no more to Artie than the rest had, but he couldn't back away from this. The exhilaration of simply being alive, being with Artie, pounded through his veins, intoxicating him with the possibility of more.
Jim drew back, turned and waded toward shore. He stopped in the shallows, before the boulder which overhung the water. His bedroll lay on the rock where Artie had been lounging earlier. Jim pushed it away from the edge. His back to Artie, he braced his spread feet on the sandy bottom and bent forward to press his palms to the rock. He forced himself not to shiver when he felt Artie come up behind him.
A warm hand brushed the small of his back. "Are you sure?"
Unable to speak, Jim nodded once, sharply.
Artie's hands touched him more firmly now, drawing down his back from nape to buttocks, then grabbing his shoulders. Jim forced himself not to fight the pressure, and was surprised when it drew him not down, but around. He let Artie turn him and pull him into a tight embrace. Jim pressed his face into the curve of Artie's neck, relaxing slowly into the knowing hands which rubbed his back.
He was vaguely aware of one of Artie's hands leaving his back for a moment, and the stretch of his partner's muscles as he reached for something behind Jim. Then he was set away from Artie's warm body, and strong hands took him under the arms and lifted him onto cushioned rock. The bedroll, he realized with rueful appreciation for Artie's foresight.
Jim spread his legs to make room for Artie, and shifted forward to the very edge of his perch. One of Artie's hands found its way to the base of Jim's spine and splayed there, warm, pulling him hard into Artie's body. Jim shivered as his half-erect cock pressed against the hard wall of Artie's stomach, his thighs spreading wider to accommodate the breadth of Artie's body between them.
Artie wrapped the other hand around Jim's neck and pulled him down for a kiss. Moaning, Jim grabbed Artie's shoulders and lost himself in the warm, wet interplay of tongues. None of the women he'd passed his time with, even the cyprians, kissed like this, with such intensity, as if to devour him whole. He moaned again, this time in protest, when Artie broke off the kiss, but he merely moved down to kiss Jim's throat. Then down farther to nip his collarbone, and slip stealthily down to lap at an erect nipple. Jim groaned, finally letting himself relax completely into Artie's embrace, releasing Artie's shoulders and letting strong hands support the weight of his body, his head falling back. One hand, just between his shoulderblades now, held him firmly to Artie's mouth, lowering his torso slowly as the mouth slid by maddening degrees farther down his shaking body.
This, then, was how it felt to be at the center of Artie's attention. This, not the playful touch of hands coaxing friendly release from a comrade. This was even, perhaps, what it felt like to be one of his women, to be made love to. Jim's throat felt tight.
Long laps of the tongue over Jim's stomach, firm enough not to tickle. A quick plunge into his navel, which did tickle, surprising a chuckle out of him. Jim barely noticed when his head was gently released into the soft support of the bedroll, too enwrapped in the passage of the skillful mouth over his lower abdomen. Artie's hand remained still and warm at the small of Jim's back, lifting him slightly, as his mouth brushed the inside of each thigh, quick light nips making him jump. His tongue stroked languidly up the underside of Jim's cock, leaving him gasping, and then the hot wet mouth swallowed him whole, and all the air left Jim's lungs in an ecstatic shout.
He was only peripherally aware of Artie's smooth rearrangement, achieved without releasing Jim's cock from the slick haven of his mouth. Suddenly, though, Jim's thighs were over Artie's shoulders, and both strong hands were at the small of his back, supporting the instinctive arch of his body as the pleasure washed through him. Jim's hands found and burrowed into the dark curls, cradling Artie's head between his palms as it rose and fell, wringing merciless pleasure from him. He was whimpering, struggling as the skillful mouth drove him higher and higher.
Once again, Jim was embarrassingly quick to take fire, driven wildly to the brink by his partner's skill, and the simple knowledge that the mouth and hands were Artie's.
"Ah! Artie!" Jim shuddered as the pleasure ripped through him. At once, he was released from the haven of Artie's mouth, to spill milky seed across his belly. Artie's tongue drew slowly up the underside of Jim's cock, coaxing another contraction from him, his hands rubbing calmingly at his back and sides. Jim subsided into a satiated heap, panting for breath.
Artemus straightened up, letting Jim's legs slide bonelessly off his shoulders, catching one in the crook of his elbow. Warm fingers touched Jim's belly, swirling through the slick evidence of his pleasure. He roused a little at the touch, then jerked fully aware when Artie touched his anus, rubbing his slick fingers against the opening to his body.
Jim forced himself to relax. This was what he'd asked for. He closed his eyes and tried to let the bonelessness of satiation envelope him again. Artie's fingers were warm, gentle. His touch, even there, intensely pleasurable. Jim tensed a little when one finger breached him, but there wasn't any pain, and he quickly grew used to the slender invasion. There was a twinge with the second finger, which passed quickly. Artie slid his fingers in and out of Jim's body, stroking him inside until he was trembling again. Three fingers were harder to take, but Artie's free hand rubbed his rousing cock gently until his body's complaint subsided. Jim's arousal wasn't usually so quick to reawaken, but the strange deep pleasure brought him half-erect, made him needy again as if he hadn't just shuddered in climax.
He thought he was ready when Artie's fingers left him aching and incomplete. Panting dizzily, Jim lifted his head to watch Artie gather his free leg into the crook of an elbow and move close, until the heat of his body seemed to burn into Jim's exposed groin. The hot snub head of Artie's cock brushed against his crack, moving slowly down to press lightly against the slick opening. Then it began, and he knew he hadn't been ready at all.
Artie thrust slowly and steadily, the broad head of his cock opening Jim up, pressing inexorably into him. It hurt, but not more than he could take. What he hadn't been prepared for was the bulk of him, the feeling that every empty space in Jim's body was being filled to overflowing. Jim's back arched involuntarily. He threw his head back, gasping for breath, as Artie held him down and impaled him on that hard, hot spear of flesh. His cock wilted, then sprang back to full erection when Artie's invading shaft touched something impossibly pleasurable inside. Jim's whole body jolted with the sudden pleasure, lightning sparking behind his closed eyes. He faintly heard Artie's soft chuckle in response to his startled moan.
"That's it, Jim," Artie whispered. "You've got it all." His fingers flexed on Jim's waist.
"Move," Jim commanded weakly, rocking his hips slightly to feel every inch of Artie in him.
"My pleasure," Artie responded with a trace of a laugh. His fingers tightened slightly on Jim's hips as he began to pull out. Jim couldn't restrain a groan as he felt Artie leave him, a sound which turned into an anguished moan when he returned, pushing solidly home again. One of Artie's hands came around to support the small of Jim's back again, as he arched hard, taking Artie farther into him.
"Jim," Artie moaned, leaning closer to lap at a nipple. He straightened up again, pulled out and slid home, and again. "Jim, oh god, Jim."
With that, his restraint was broken. Using the freedom of movement offered by their position, and the full strength of his powerful thighs, Artie thrust heavily into Jim. Clutching Artie's shoulders, Jim writhed, moaning, as his partner pounded into him. Artie rode him hard and deep and, with what little capacity remained for thinking, Jim wished only that he could take him deeper.
Artie slid his arms out from under Jim's thighs and braced his hands on the rock, leaning farther over his partner. Jim wrapped his legs tightly around Artie's waist and hung on as the hard cock barreled into him. He was gasping, moaning on every breath, with Artie's hot breath fanning over his throat. Jim grabbed Artie's head, pushing himself up with one hand until he could fasten his mouth over his lover's, thrusting his tongue into Artie's mouth in rhythm with their pounding bodies.
His climax flashed through him without warning, throwing his body into a series of violent convulsions. Through the pounding pleasure, Jim heard Artie cry out as his own completion came. He felt his partner's hard jerky thrusts, forcing his way farther into Jim's convulsing body as the hot seed spilled from him. Then the pleasure became too much, and blackness washed over him.
When Jim came to, his lungs were still laboring for breath. Artie was slumped over him, his head resting heavily on Jim's chest. His cock was still buried deep in Jim's body, the pleasure of it no less now that the arousal was spent. Jim tangled his fingers in Artie's hair and pressed his partner's head tightly against his chest in an abbreviated hug. He felt Artie stir, and let his hand slide down to loosely cup the nape of his neck.
"Jim?" Artie moved slowly, rubbing his head against Jim's chest before lifting it to meet Jim's eyes. "You okay?"
"Fine." He smiled. "Wonderful."
"I didn't mean to..."
"Artie. I'm fine."
Artie smiled, almost shyly. He pushed himself shakily upright, rubbing one hand on the center of Jim's chest where his head had been. Then he moved back a little, withdrawing from Jim's body. The aching void left behind loosed a ragged gasp from Jim's throat.
"It'll be okay," Artie reassured him, misunderstanding the source of the pain. "Just give it a minute. Here..." He slid his arms under Jim's body and lifted him gently down into the warm water. "The heat will help. And we can get cleaned up." He smiled fondly. "You're a mess."
Artie moved slowly backward through the water, still holding Jim in the cradle of his arms, taking them both into deeper water.
"I can walk," Jim told him.
"I know. But let me, okay?"
After a moment, Jim nodded. He supposed he ought to have been worried about his manhood, or at least the way Artie saw him. But frankly, James West had never been concerned about his masculinity and he didn't see any reason to start now. As for Artie... Jim sighed a little. If it would make him feel better to coddle Jim a bit, he wouldn't argue. Much. He'd never understood quite why women always wanted to be held after. Now, with Artie's strong arms around him, Jim thought he understood better.
Artie stopped washing sticky semen off Jim's chest and stared at him a moment. "Are you--"
"Yes, I'm sure."
After a minute, Artie nodded seriously. No smile this time.
That was okay. Jim let himself relax in Artie's arms, and allowed
himself to be washed and pampered in the warm water.
"I told you I'd provide fish for dinner, didn't I?"
"Yes, Jim," Artie conceded, hungrily mopping up the last crumbs. "You did. And very good fish too."
"It takes one to know one, I suppose."
Artie laughed. Setting his plate aside, he grabbed Jim, bearing him back onto the bedroll. "You're definitely not half-fish, no matter what I said. Fish are cold and slimy, inside and out." He kissed Jim with great concentration, then moved slowly along the curve of his jaw with tiny nibbles. Artie's next words were spoken softly just at Jim's ear. "You are quite warm, inside and out, as I have reason to know."
Jim laughed, though the soft whisper tightened a hot coil somewhere in his chest. It was hard to keep his equilibrium around Artie now. He had let the man into his body, more than once now; it was difficult not to let him into his heart. He closed his eyes, remembering the last time: only a few hours ago. Standing in warm water up to his chest, his head lolling back on Artie's shoulder as Artie thrust up into him. Jim's cock stirred at the memory and he sternly willed the arousal away. It was too soon: he was still a little sore.
Not that Artie wasn't willing to switch roles -- on the contrary, he'd made it perfectly clear he'd be happy to. It was Jim who wasn't ready. Though this was clearly more involved than that "helping hand" Artie had initially offered, Jim was still more than half-convinced returning to the train would put an end to it. That being the case, he wanted to fix the memory, the feeling of Artie sunk core deep inside him, so perfectly in his mind that he'd never forget.
He wondered briefly if being allowed into Artie's body might mean earning entrance to his heart, but that seemed too great a risk to attempt. So he returned the kiss, and the embrace, then pulled himself upright again and turned his attention to the fire.
"We're due back in two days, you know." Jim prodded at the fire with a branch, then set a few more logs on with careful attention. It responded by roaring up, licking at the wood.
"Yes." Artie lay back on the bedroll and propped his head on his hands, staring at the night sky. "Are you ready?"
"Of course. I'm fine, Artie. I was fine when Dean sent me out here. I told you that."
"Damn it, Jim." Artie rolled up onto one elbow. "You can't just keep going along as if nothing happened. You shot a woman. You killed her. When are you going to come to terms with that?"
"I have." He glanced back at his partner, and something finally clicked. Jim couldn't help it; he started laughing.
"That's it?" Jim managed finally, forcing back the laughter. "That's what you and Dean have been fretting over? That I killed a woman?"
"Artie," Jim said seriously, "I could kill anyone who threatened my country, or me, or you, and not think twice about it. Man, woman or child. She had a gun. She tried to shoot you. Her death does not weight heavy on my soul."
"Then what the hell have you been brooding about!?" Artie demanded, his tone torn between frustration and confusion.
Jim took his time about answering. That was the sticking point, the thing he couldn't tell Artie for fear of exposing everything.
"Does it really matter?"
Jim almost smiled. Artie could have been scolding a truant child in that tone of voice. He took a deep breath. Hell, here was James West -- cool in the face of danger, unmoved by disaster, insouciant in response to his enemies, whatever their ilk -- afraid of a few words. But not, he realized suddenly, his partner. Never Artie. Who would plunge into danger at his side, or disaster to rescue him, and could bandy words with the villains with as much errant flippancy as ever Jim managed. There was no better man to have at his side for all eternity, and Jim knew with sudden clarity that, given his choice, that was precisely where he wanted Artie to be.
No battle was ever won without risk. This risk, he thought, might be well worth the prize. Perhaps it was time. Or perhaps Artie's silent patience simply broke down Jim's resolve.
"She nearly--" Instinctively, he viciously cut off the heated words, then sighed at his inability, even now, to permit such emotional honesty. "I misjudged her," he said finally, absently feeding a handful of twigs to the fire. "I let her beauty blind me, and she almost killed you. She would have killed you. I can't... I couldn't..." he broke off, frustrated at the difficulty of putting it to words, now that he had the courage to try.
A finger brushed lightly over his cheek. "It's okay, Jim," Artie murmured, wrapping his arms around Jim from behind. "I love you too."
"What? I..." Jim twisted, but Artie's embrace was too tight to turn in.
"You think I don't know you, Jim?" Artie's voice sounded in his ear. "You may fool around with the ladies, but you wouldn't offer your body to me if it didn't mean something more. And I wouldn't have accepted if I didn't believe your heart was in it."
Jim sighed shakily, relaxing back against Artie's solid body. "You might have said something."
"I just did." He kissed the tender skin behind Jim's ear and nuzzled against his neck.
His smile tinged with more than a hint of relief, Jim settled more firmly against Artie's chest. He absently brushed his hands up Artie's forearms and biceps, pushing his loosely rolled sleeves out of the way. Jim glanced down to watch his right hand pass over the green and blue hues of the tattoo.
"Why the fascination with that?" Artie asked suddenly.
"Hm?" Keeping one hand still on the intricate design, Jim turned a little to see Artie's face.
"That's not the first time you've done that," Artie explained, a frown drawing his brow into furrows. "I know it's not appropriate decoration for a gentleman, but--"
"That's not it," Jim interrupted, vaguely surprised to realize Artie was a little ashamed of the tattoo. He hesitated before realizing he couldn't and shouldn't keep everything to himself. Not now. And this was harmless enough. "I... like it."
"You do?" Artie's brow cleared as his eyebrows went up.
"Uh-huh." Jim stroked his fingers over it again. "I still remember seeing you in that place. I was more than half drunk, playing the role of busted agent, but it was... reassuring."
"You looked shocked when you saw me," Artie pointed out.
"I never guessed you'd go so far to keep your cover."
"Hell, James, I could hardly turn around and walk out of there. I knew you'd be lured there sooner or later, and you can't wait around a tattoo parlor without getting tattooed." He sighed. "Lot of good it did. They still managed to spirit you away, right under my nose."
"You did what you could, Artie," Jim reassured quietly. "Don't forget you were there when it really mattered."
"So were you," Artie responded.
It only took Jim a moment. "Back to that woman, are we?" He shook his head with a laugh. "Okay, Artie. I get your point."
"Good." Artie nodded decisively. "Now that all that's settled, do you think we might return to the train?"
"We have two more days of vacation," Jim protested.
"Yes, and I'd like to spend them making love to you on something soft," Artie mock-grumbled.
Jim laughed. "I can't argue with that."
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