|"Don't you ever do anything like that to me again!" Artie shoved the telegraph key back into place with a sharp report.
"Do what?" Jim looked up from the newspaper he was reading while waiting for Marie to complete her toilette in the sleeping compartment he shared with Artie, mild confusion on his face.
"Jesus, Jim! You made me think you were him -- what's his name, Janus? You threatened me with my own gun!"
"Serves you right for doubting me." Jim looked back at his paper. "I'd think by now you'd recognize your own partner when you saw him."
"Damn it, Jim, you didn't exactly give me a lot of time to think about it." He rubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. "I'm standing there with my hands in the air, and all I can think is that you killed the other fellow, and if you're not Jim then Jim is dead."
Jim laid the paper aside and rose. "I'm sorry, Artie. I didn't think of that."
"Well, you should have."
"I suppose." He laid a hand on Artie's shoulder. "But I thought you were sure of me -- you said so after Marie kissed me."
Artie shrugged slightly, careful not to dislodge the warm hand on his arm. "Yeah, well... she seemed to think it was you, so..." He sighed. "You know, we really need to come up with some way of making sure this doesn't happen again."
"Artie." Jim grinned at him. "What are the chances?"
"Well, you never know. I mean, sure, Loveless might be the only man in the world who could make another Jim West, but... well, there's always the chance that there's someone out there who looks enough like you -- or me -- to pass."
"You recognized this ringer. You'll recognize the next, if there is one," Jim told him with flattering assurance. He clapped Artie on the shoulder and resumed his seat, picking up his neglected glass of whiskey. He drained it in a single swallow.
"But that was only a fluke, Jim," Artie said earnestly. The whole experience had shaken him badly; it was imperative that Jim understand that. It was imperative that it not happen again. "True, Janus wasn't as well prepared as Loveless probably thought he was. He did make mistakes. But I might have overlooked them all if it weren't for the wire I'd just received from Washington. I might have thought you were just tired, or not paying attention."
Jim stretched his legs out and laced his hands behind his head. "You think we need some sort of code -- something only you and I know, to identify each other if there's any doubt."
Artie sat down next to him. "Yeah, Jim. I do."
"Well, there isn't anything about either of us that someone couldn't find out if he tried hard enough. I'm not sure telling secrets would do it."
"There has got to be something!" Artie wracked his brains.
"Oh, there is. This." Jim grabbed Artie and kissed him heartily. Artie was too stunned to react.
"What was that?" he demanded, when he found his breath again.
"A code." Grinning smugly, Jim leaned back. "If either of us is in doubt about the identity of the other, a kiss would certainly solve the problem, wouldn't it?"
"Why, because no one kisses like James West?" Artie asked, asperity covering confusion.
"Well, partially. Everyone kisses differently, Artie, and tastes differently. But what I really meant was that we could tell by the reaction."
"If he hauls off and hits me--"
"Then it's not me. And by the same token, if he tries to kiss you again, or take it further--"
"Then it's not you." Artie thought for a minute. "James, my boy, that has got to be the strangest notion you've ever come up with." He smiled. "It's brilliant."
"Glad you like it." He sat up. "Now come here."
Jim shrugged. "How are you going to know what I kiss like, or taste like, if you've never kissed me?"
"Ah!" Artie nodded, leaning closer to his partner. "I see what you mean. Some practice is in order."
Jim's lips were soft and very warm. Artie didn't think too much about what they were doing; he was too busy cataloging Jim's actions and trying to make sure, for his own part, that he kissed as naturally as possible. They exchanged several whiskey-flavored kisses. Jim always put his right hand to Artie's face, curling his fingers around the back of Artie's neck, guiding him into the position he desired. He tilted his head to a certain angle, and tended to start with a brief, light kiss, coming back for more and longer kisses. And he tasted... Artie couldn't quite say, but he doubted he was likely to forget.
"Good enough?" Jim asked when they'd broke off for the fourth or fifth time. Both men were breathless for lack of air.
"Good. Because I have a date with Marie." He grinned jauntily. "See you in the morning."
"Right." Artie watched Jim walk down the corridor to the door to their compartment, knock twice, and go in. A date, indeed. Leaving Artie to occupy himself elsewhere for the rest of the evening.
After a while, he got up and went down to his lab, ignoring the breathless moan he heard as he passed the sleeping quarters. He sat down at his work table and pulled out the notes on his latest explosive. It wasn't igniting as fast as he'd like -- that little problem would keep him busy for a few hours. Then he could bed down on the cot in his lab and get some sleep. It was narrow and uncomfortable, but he could be certain Jim would be occupied in the sleeping compartment for the better part of the night.
There was, of course, the stateroom, but they never used it.
Though the stateroom held by far the most comfortable bed on the train,
and was kept ready for immediate accommodation by the very special
[*personages] the Wanderer was often called upon to carry, neither Jim
nor Artie had ever occupied it. One didn't sleep in the bed that the
President might occupy in a month, or a week, or a day. One certainly
didn't have sex in it.
Artie closed the door with careful deliberation. Every muscle, every sinew, every inch of flesh hurt. His eyes burned and itched, his throat was raw, even his brain hurt.
He turned, and Jim kissed him.
Artie blinked. "Jim?"
He stood so close, Artie could feel Jim's breath on his face. Jim blinked, and his eyes seemed suddenly blank and foreign. Artie looked away, and saw Jim's fingers curling into his palms. Artie's breathed seized in his chest. What was it? He closed his eyes and forced thought through the aching between his temples.
It came to him and he breathed out silently. "I didn't think there was any cause for doubt," Artie said as he leaned in to kiss Jim.
Immediately, Jim's hand came up to Artie's neck, as he took control of the kiss. Jim's cool lips warmed quickly under Artie's. The throbbing in Artie's head pulled him away finally.
"Satisfied?" He said. Jim cocked his head; nodded. "Good. I need a drink." As he went to the sideboard, Artie heard the subtle snick of the lock. He appreciated the security of knowing the car was locked, after the events of the last few days, but had to admit to being surprised that Jim felt it necessary. Artie didn't bother to ask if Jim wanted any; he poured brandy into two glasses and handed one to Jim before lowering himself gingerly onto the couch, relaxing with difficulty against the soft cushions. Jim sat close by.
They drank in silence.
"Given," Artie said when the better part of a glass of excellent brandy was warming his insides, "that I don't remember a damn thing after tracking you to the lighthouse, perhaps you'd better fill me in. Did the doctor..."
"Arcularis," Jim supplied.
"Did Dr. Arcularis have Loveless's talent at duplicating people?" He essayed a smile, which felt particularly strained. "Is there another me roaming around?"
Jim shook his head. He leaned back into the cushions, his movements telegraphing a stiffness as great as Artie's. "No," he said to his glass, "his talents lay in other areas." He swallowed the last of his brandy. Artie knew better than to prompt Jim when he looked like that. He sipped his brandy slowly and waited. "He almost succeeded in programming me to kill Ho-Tami."
"Jim?" Artie sat up, immediately regretting it when his ribs protested the sudden movement. Jim shook off his hand.
"It didn't work." He raised his glass to his lips before realizing it was empty. "But I did manage to kill Akima." Jim pushed himself to his feet and went to the sideboard to refill his glass. He turned and leaned against the sideboard, his eyes meeting Artie's with weary defiance. "He was behind the whole thing."
Artie smiled reassuringly. "Can't say I liked the fellow." He watched Jim drink. "What about the treaty?"
"Ho-Tami still wants to go through with it."
"Good." Artie nodded. He winced at the twinge in his neck. "May it bring peace."
"I'm sure it will, but at what price for Ho-Tami and his people?"
"James my boy, you're in a philosophical mood tonight."
Jim shrugged, a small movement of his shoulders which didn't even bring his elbows off the sideboard. Artie looked at the thin film of brandy coating the bottom of his glass with genuine regret. Into the silence, he finally asked. "If a double wasn't likely, why did you kiss me?"
"To see," Jim said, "if you were yourself."
Artie kept his eyes on his glass. "You thought he might have programmed me?"
Artie's head came up sharply at that. Pain exploded behind his right eye, then staged an agonizing retreat down his neck to his shoulder. He bit back an involuntary shout in favor of something more restrained. "Damn! My neck is killing me."
"Sorry about that." Jim brought the decanter over and filled Artie's glass. He set the decanter and his own glass on the low table before the couch.
"How is it your fault?" He grimaced, clumsily trying to rub out the ache.
Jim sat down next to Artie and brushed his hands aside. "Don't you remember?" he asked, his hands biting firmly into Artie's shoulders. "I hit you."
Artie gritted his teeth against the pain, waiting it out as it slowly responded to Jim's ministration. "You hit me," he managed, his voice flat.
"Well, you did have my gun. And I didn't particularly want to kill you."
Artie closed his eyes. He wasn't sure which was more painful: what Jim was doing to his shoulders, or what he was beginning to suspect he tried to do to Jim. "He programmed me to kill you," he said between his teeth, swallowing hard against the bitter words.
"Uh-hmm." His warm fingers stroked Artie's neck, pressing hard against protesting muscle.
"Jesus, Jim." He couldn't manage more than a whisper.
"Okay? How can it be okay?" He tried to turn. Jim's hands prevented him.
"I know what he did. I know what it was like." His breath tickled the back of Artie's neck. His hands were strong and warm, pushing the pain before them, damping it down to something manageable. "I couldn't fight it. Neither could you."
"How can you trust me?" Artie's voice felt rusty; raw.
"Because it's over now." Jim left off his massage, turning to sit beside Artie, both of them facing front. He filled his glass from the decanter, remaining hunched over, his elbows on his knees, glass balanced between his hands.
"Because I kissed you back."
"Uh-hmm." He looked sidelong at Artie, and there was a hint of James West's usual devil-may-care glint in his eye.
From somewhere, Artie found a smile. He leaned forward to mirror Jim's pose, but sat up with a sharp exclamation. "Don't suppose you happened to give me a thump in the ribs, too?" he asked, half-joking.
"Got in a few good ones yourself," Jim replied laconically.
They clinked glasses and drank.
"Finished at the opera?" Jim asked as Artie came through the door.
"Very funny." Artie tossed his cape over the back of the chair at the desk. He ran his right hand through his hair as he studied Jim.
"It's barely midnight. I thought Miss Bessy Bowen would keep you longer." Jim lazily lifted a glass of amber spirits to his mouth. He was lying with his head propped on the arm of the couch, the San Francisco Chronicle abandoned across his legs.
"And I thought you'd still be out with Miss Priscilla Ames."
"Past her bedtime," Jim said dismissively.
Artie tidied the scatter of papers near the telegraph with feigned distraction, keeping a surreptitious eye on his partner. "Any word on Loveless?"
Jim's expression didn't even change. Artie laid the papers with careful deliberation on the desk. He took the two steps to the couch, bent over Jim -- one hand on the back of the couch, one on the arm next to Jim's head -- and kissed him. Jim's breath puffed against Artie's cheek in surprise, or perhaps amusement. Totally relaxed, he kissed Artie back without otherwise moving a muscle, and smiled when Artie raised his head.
"Sure of me now?"
"Perhaps." He dipped down for another kiss. This time, Jim's hand came up to burrow into his hair and hold him in place. And it was Artie who smiled when they broke again. "Shift over and let me sit down. It's been a long night."
"And you didn't even get blown up twice." Jim sat up and swung his legs off the couch. He tossed the newspaper on the floor and drank deeply from his glass, almost draining it. "Any particular reason you were worried?"
"Hm? You mean aside from the fact that this is our first run-in with the good doctor since he tried to make himself a duplicate James West?"
"Well, since he's obviously focused back on California, instead of on me..."
"James my boy, he's always focused on you." Artie propped an elbow on the back of the couch and leaned his head against his hand, trying not to let show on his face how much it disturbed him that Loveless was obsessed with Jim West. And still on the loose.
Jim turned the glass around in his hands. "That the only reason?"
"Aside from the fact that you got blown up twice tonight?"
Jim shot him a startled look. Artie shook his head against his hand, burrowing his fingers into his hair.
"Blown up twice and not a hair out of place to show for it. Can you blame me for thinking that there might be something amiss?"
Jim laughed. "Perhaps not. I think," he said, cocking his head to one side, "that those explosions were all sound and fury. And more than a little knock-out gas."
"That had occurred to me after the first one."
"And then you went to talk to John Crane, and the next time I saw you was in Loveless's shop. Since I'd only just learned where he was from Bessy--"
"You thought maybe I'd been there all along -- or a double of me had been."
"It seemed possible."
"Even when I foiled the good doctor's plans?" He looked mildly curious.
Artie lifted one shoulder. "Loveless's plans are sometimes hard to fathom. Some of them run deeper than others."
Jim shook his head, laughing softly. "Why did you wait so long to allay your suspicions?"
"You'd rather I kissed you in front of Governor Lewis?"
"I suppose not." He stood and carried his glass over to the sideboard. "It occurs to me we've got a test that's..."
"Somewhat limited in its application?"
"Something like that." Jim leaned against the sideboard, crossing his arms over his chest. "So, why didn't you linger with Miss Bowen?"
Artie grimaced. "She wanted me to sing to her."
Jim laughed. "You brought it on yourself."
"It worked, didn't it?" Artie worked his jaw gingerly. It still hurt from when Voltaire hit him. He left off probing the rusty ache at the left corner of his mouth with his tongue to ask: "What about Priscilla?"
Jim's mouth twisted. "She didn't even know what a real kiss was until I gave her one, Artie."
"Yes, ah. Good night, Artie."
"Night, James." He watched the door swing closed and sat for a while in the dimly lit parlor, thinking of innocent beauties, the dictates of honor, and one James West.
"Where the hell have you been?"
"Dammit, James! At least let me get inside first." Artie brushed past Jim into the parlor, bringing a swirl of snow with him. "And shut the door; it's not fit out."
He didn't stop in the parlor, tempting though it was to warm his hands at the fire crackling in the hearth, but went straight back to the sleeping compartment. His clothes were wet through, and he was nearly frozen through. Artie dropped the horse blanket he'd stolen from the mangy stable where he'd been kept and kicked it out into the hall with a curse. The warm air in the car reawakened the stink of horse sweat and worse.
Shivering, he peeled off his shirt and undershirt, draping them over anything convenient. His hands were on the waistband of his pants when he realized Jim had followed him. Artie glared, and sat on his bed to take off his shoes.
"What?" he asked as he tugged on the wet, knotted laces.
Jim leaned his shoulder against the door frame and crossed his arms over his chest. "Where have you been?" he asked again, his voice muted.
"About two miles out of town." Artie grunted, his fingers slipping on the laces. He'd long since lost touch with any feeling in his toes. "Not a pleasant walk in the snow, let me tell you."
There was no response from Jim. Artie ignored him, concentrating on his recalcitrant laces. The cold and wet had shrunk the leather. Swearing didn't help, but at least it made him feel a little better. All the time, Jim's silence seemed to spread and deepen, until the weight of his silent presence seemed to fill up the room. Cold slush dripped from Artie's hair onto his hands and ran down his naked back. He shivered again.
Fingers fumbling again, Artie gave up the unequal struggle and straightened up. "What, Jim? I've had a very unpleasant week. I'm cold, tired, hungry, and not in the mood for this."
Wordlessly, Jim came up to him, fast enough that Artie leaned instinctively away. Warm fingers tangled in his hair and pulled him into a kiss that was neither gentle nor patient. Artie jerked away with a snarl. "I told you I'm not in the mood."
Jim's hand tightened painfully in Artie's hair. Artie saw his lip curl before he was too close to see anymore. Jim's kiss bruised his mouth, cut his lips against his teeth. Artie forced himself to relax, give in. He let Jim's hand guide his head to the side. The kiss softened, broke, was repeated without a pause long enough for words.
The punishing grip on his hair was released. Jim's hands settled on Artie's shoulders, spread fingers warming his bare skin. One hand slid up Artie's neck to cradle the side of his head with the gentleness missing earlier. Finally, Jim lifted his head.
Jim's lips twitched. He sank down onto his haunches in front of Artie and took his right foot in both hands. He had the shoe off in a tug and a twist, the laces still tied. Dropping it, he made short work of the other one, and stood.
"Better get on your dressing gown and come out to the parlor. I'll put more wood on the fire." He was gone before Artie could respond, either to point out that that had been his intention all along or say thank you.
Artie folded his arms around himself, hugging his dressing gown to his chest as he hurried down the corridor. Wind buffeted the train. The parlor was cheery and warm, the light dancing with the lapping of flames. Artie gratefully took the chair Jim had pulled up before the fire, and the glass of cognac pressed into his hand. He remained silent even when Jim tossed a blanket over his legs and tucked it around his feet.
"Perhaps," Artie said to his half-full glass of excellent cognac, "I should have kissed you."
"Hm?" Jim sat on the floor next to the hearth, one leg drawn up, his hands laced around his knee. He looked sidelong at Artie, his eyebrows making a question of the noise.
Artie considered and discarded several remarks about Jim's uncharacteristic coddling. "I hope," he said finally, opting for something relatively safe, "that your part of this mission went better than mine did. It certainly couldn't have gone worse."
"No, it went fine. They're all locked up now; the ones who're still alive." The fire flickered in Jim's eyes. He added a branch and prodded the burning logs into some formation which suited him. "What happened?"
Artie made a noise of disgust. "Damn fool woman recognized my ear, can you believe that?"
"Yes. It's happened before."
Artie grimaced. "Yes, but again? What're the chances?" He rolled a mouthful of cognac around his tongue. "I'll tell one thing, James my boy, I am not going to start trying to disguise my ears."
Jim gave the fire a last poke and laid aside the iron. He didn't respond to Artie's sally. "And then?"
"Oh, they tied me up and made threatening noises," Artie said airily. "Then they all went away and didn't come back. Funny thing is," he said, pausing to savor his drink, "I think they intended to."
Jim glanced up from the fire, then away. "Sorry about that."
Artie blinked. Since when did Jim apologize for doing what he had to do, even if it imperiled his partner? Since when did he think Artie expected it? "Just doing your job, James." He didn't bother to manufacture a smile -- Jim wasn't looking at him. "They tied devilishly good knots," he said, not sure if he was justifying Jim's apology or answering the questions he wasn't asking. Questions Jim never had been one to ask anyway.
Jim turned, his hand taking Artie's suddenly, shaking back the sleeve of the dressing gown. His fingers ghosted over the raw, scraped skin banding Artie's wrist. "How long?"
"Oh, a couple of hours," Artie said. It wasn't much of a lie. Nothing Jim could do about it now, or probably then. The barn had seen better days, and by the time Artie worked his way free, fine snow lay an inch thick on the dirt floor. He shuddered, automatically inching closer to the fire, though he was warm enough now.
Artie raised his glass, but stopped when his lips touched the rim. It belatedly struck him that there had been something different about the kiss. He blinked as it came to him. James had not tasted like whiskey, or brandy, or anything, in fact, but himself. It was, Artie realized, the first time he'd ever tasted Jim without a breath of alcohol on either of them. What it said about the test they'd arranged, he chose not to think on. What the lack of it said now...
He swallowed the last of his cognac and leaned over to place the glass on the carpet by his chair. As he looked around, Artie saw Jim's preparations: the haversack on the table, stuffed with provisions; his holster and gunbelt; Jim's thickest jacket tossed over the back of a chair. He looked back at Jim, quietly feeding the fire.
Jim turned, and smiled, the flicker of the firelight in his eyes turning them opaque and intense.
Jim stopped on the boardwalk in front of the Wilton Hotel.
"Jim?" Artie turned, his hand on the door. It had gotten dark while they rode to town from Dr. Loveless's "hospital," and the street was deserted. A good thing -- neither of them was particularly presentable. When Jim made no reply, Artie walked back to him. Jim stirred at Artie's light touch to his arm. "Jim, what is it?"
"Nothing." He walked stiffly to the door and pushed inside.
At the sight of Jim, the hotel clerk darted behind his counter. The little man blinked uncertainly, wetting his lips with his tongue. Jim walked to the foot of the stairs and stood with his back to the counter, one booted foot on the first riser. In the lamplight, his shirt, still damp from diving in the lake to look for Loveless's body, showed every wrinkle. Artie walked over to the counter, forcing himself not to hitch up his trousers as he did so. Why'd they have to go and forget his suspenders?
"Ah, if we could have our keys," he prompted.
The little man blinked rapidly. "I... I didn't think you'd be back."
"Well, we are." A day of Loveless was enough to rob even the most courteous man of his manners. "Until the next stage, anyway. When is it?"
"When's what?" the man squeaked.
"The next stage," Artie said with as much patience as he could muster.
"Not 'til tomorrow evening."
"Very well. Our keys?"
The clerk turned and snatched a key out of the cubbyholes behind him. He held it in both hands. "I only have the one room. We're all full up. I didn't expect you back," he said again, his eyes darting to Jim.
Artie followed the man's gaze. Now he could see the tension in Jim's back, knew just how close he was to the limits of both his control and his strength, but there was no way the hotel clerk could see what Artie did. He laid both hands flat on the counter and leaned across it. "He was drugged," he said softly, enunciating every word slowly and clearly. "It's worn off now."
He took the key from the man's lax grip and laid a hand on Jim's arm as he joined him at the bottom of the stairs. Jim started up, going ahead of Artie. Artie let his hand slip from Jim's arm. He followed silently.
The room was not particularly large. It was clean and the bed was big enough to be shared which, at that particular moment, was all that Artie cared about. He locked the door and tossed the key next to the lamp on the nightstand which filled the narrow space between the door and the bed. There were matches on the table. In a moment, Artie had coaxed forth a glow which softly filled the room.
"You'd best get out of those wet clothes," he said to Jim's back. He wasn't surprised when Jim didn't even turn from the window. Well, he thought with a sigh, Jim's a big boy; he can take care of himself. He didn't let himself think about how badly taking care of himself had gone for Jim the last few days. With Loveless... well, you never knew.
Artie rubbed his hands over his face, grimacing at the grit. Felt like he picked up most of the dust on the road between Loveless's place and town. He moved to the bureau and set about cleaning himself up.
When Artie reached for the pitcher, Jim's hand closed so tightly on his wrist that he yelped. Jim's grip didn't ease any. Artie looked from the pitcher to Jim's face -- he thought of what Loveless had said about his newest drug -- and nodded slowly.
"I'll take these downstairs and get some clean water, shall I?" With his left hand, he set the pitcher in the washbasin. Then he waited. After a minute, Jim released Artie's right hand. He rubbed ineffectually at his wrist and flexed his tingling fingers. "Get out of those clothes while I'm gone, will you? You'll catch your death."
Downstairs, the clerk watched Artie like a squirrel watches a hawk. Ignoring him, Artie went out the side door. Light from a full moon filled the little courtyard, making it almost as bright as day. As he'd expected, there was a pump in the side yard. A few strong pulls on the handle produced a cascade of clear water. Artie splashed his face and swallowed from his cupped hands. It was cold and sweet. Artie washed and rinsed the pitcher and basin half a dozen times before he was satisfied there could be no remaining trace of Loveless's hallucinogen. He was aware of the hotel clerk watching him through the last several repetitions, but ignored him until he had filled the pitcher and stood to return to the hotel.
"You have my bag, I believe," he said, pushing past the man into the lobby. "I left it with you before going to find Mr. West."
"Oh... yes. Yes, of course." He scampered behind his counter and fished Artie's carpetbag out with a great deal of muttering and banging. "Here we go-- Oh!" he exclaimed, on finding Artie just on the other side of the desk.
Artie set the pitcher and basin on the counter and leaned across, beckoning the little man with one finger and a jerk of the head. "Mr. West," he said, as quietly as before, "was drugged. Here. In your hotel." He tapped the side of the pitcher, making it ring dully. The clerk's eyes grew impossibly round. "Everything is okay now," Artie assured him.
He took his carpetbag in one hand, balanced the pitcher and basin in the other, and went back upstairs. Gossip washed with the speed of the incoming tide through a small town. Perhaps, by the time Jim was forced to leave the room tomorrow morning, they wouldn't look at him like he was a ticking bomb. He was, of course, but not in the way they thought. Now if only Artie could manage to defuse that bomb so they could both get some much-needed rest...
"Here we go," he said with forced cheer as he entered the room. The lamp was out, only the moonlight coming in through the unshuttered window offering any light. Jim's shirt and trousers were hung over the windowsill to dry. Artie didn't comment on it, merely putting the pitcher and basin on the bureau without more than a cursory glance at where Jim sat in the bed, the sheet pulled up to his waist, his arms crossed over his bare chest.
Artie dropped his carpetbag next to the small table. He removed his jacket and gunbelt and hung them on the back of the door next to Jim's. "I have a spare shirt and pants, if you'd like..."
Clouds shrouded the moon, muffling its light and turning the room suddenly dim. Artie could barely make out Jim on the bed.
"Well," he said heartily, "it's not like we need go anywhere until the stage comes. By then, your clothes will certainly be dry."
But he didn't know what to say. Jim had seemed more approachable in Loveless's grasp, teasing Artie about his eating habits and coercing him into giving up his suspenders for a good cause. He'd seemed far more his usual self then, except... Except for those first couple of minutes after Artie was tossed into the room with him. In those first few minutes, Jim had looked like nothing Artie had seen before, or wanted to see again. He had touched Artie fearfully, reverently. He had thought he'd killed him. Artie couldn't imagine what could be worse now than those first few minutes, than the minutes before those minutes.
There was another lamp on the table at Artie's elbow. His fingers not as steady as they might have been, Artie expected it would take him several tries to light it. To his surprise, the wick caught easily.
Jim blinked, and turned his face away from the light. Carefully, Artie replaced the globe. He shook out the match. The chair next to the table looked obscurely inviting. Artie sank wearily into it, stretching his legs out before him. He didn't look at Jim. They sat in silence.
"Don't sit there."
"Why not?" Artie asked in the same midnight tones Jim was using. He made himself continue to study the wallpaper behind the door.
"You... sat there after you arrived yesterday."
Artie looked up at that, but Jim's face was shrouded in deep shadow.
"I shot Loveless from that window, and he fell into the alley, but when I went outside to find the body, it wasn't there. Then you arrived on the stage and we came up here to talk. And you sat in that chair."
Artie stood. He approached the bed slowly, as one might approach an injured animal. Jim's face resolved itself out of the shadows as Artie closed on him. His eyes were still on the chair. "And you killed me," Artie murmured.
"I killed you," Jim whispered.
Artie sat on the edge of the bed. He could feel the fine tremor in his hands. His fingers always shook just before he started trying to defuse a bomb. He reached out and lifted Jim's hand from the counterpane, fitting his fingers into Jim's. Then he leaned forward and fitted his lips to Jim's.
"The hallucination didn't do that," Jim said when Artie drew back far enough for speech.
"Really?" He kissed him again. Loveless had had Jim for the better part of a day. Artie felt the knots in his chest loosen as Jim began to kiss him back. "Maybe," he said when they broke for air, "that's because it wasn't me."
"Maybe." Jim tugged lightly on Artie's hand. Artie bent his head once more to his task.
Suddenly, Jim came alive under him. His free hand burrowing into Artie's hair, he sat up, bending Artie to his will. And Artie let him. Until the hot lick of Jim's tongue flickered against Artie's lower lip, surprising him. He tried to pull away, but Jim held him fast. He pushed his tongue into Artie's mouth, taking a liberty they had never discussed, and certainly never practiced.
Jim's tongue started a lick of flame through Artie's veins, diving deep into the center of him and spreading out in a wash of heat. Jim delved in Artie's mouth, for what Artie couldn't tell, learning the shape of his teeth, tickling against his palate, tangling with Artie's own tongue as he recovered from his surprise and began to kiss back. When he tried to follow back into his partner's mouth, however, Jim broke the kiss. Breathless, awash with a rather stunning arousal he had no desire to feel, Artie stared wordlessly at Jim.
Jim smiled. He stroked the back of his hand down Artie's cheek. His eyes seemed unwilling to accept the smile. "Better blow out the lamp." He shifted over in the bed, settling in for the night, his back to Artie.
It took Artie a very long time to fall asleep that night. He could hear Jim's breathing, feel the subtle heat of his body so close in the bed. For the first time, he was uncomfortable sharing a bed with Jim. His stomach felt light and empty, and the flames Jim had set flickered away for a long time before slowly paling to nothing.
At no time in that long night could Artie forget that Jim slept a mere hand's width from him.
He did it on purpose.
Artie was sure of it. Jim popped that champagne cork just when he did on purpose. Why? Just his occasionally inconvenient sense of humor? Or something else?
Artie lay on his back in his bunk, staring at the darkened ceiling he knew was up there but couldn't see. The gaslights from the trainyard penetrated the curtained window of the car, but not the bedcurtains. A quaint old custom, bedcurtains. Useful for privacy in the small sleeping compartment, though.
Artie wanted it dark and quiet. The heavy curtains muffled the light and the sound. A trainyard rarely slept. New Orleans never slept. It was beginning to look as if Artie was never going to sleep.
He laced his hands under his head and indulged himself in a sigh to the bottom of his lungs. Lily Fortune. Now there was an old and cherished memory. He'd had the chance on the trip down here to pull it out and buff it to a remarkable shine. Jim's "death" had put one hell of a damper on that shine, he had to admit.
For a while there, he wouldn't have cared if someone had taken Lily and stuffed a ticking bomb inside her. The emotion had been unworthy of him, and her, and Artie had regretted it the minute Jim had walked into his cell, alive and well and annoyingly cryptic as always. He'd kissed Artie, fast and hard, so that his lips tingled for minutes afterwards.
So. Jim was alive and well, Artie was alive and well, the madwoman and her mute companion were safe behind bars, and Artie's lady love was a success on the stage. A proposal of marriage seemed exactly the right ending to a perfect mission.
And Jim had fouled it up on purpose. Lily was wavering -- Artie was certainly close enough to tell. She melted under his kiss, her lips soft and giving -- nothing like Jim's -- and Artie knew that he was convincing her, in the oldest way a man had with a woman. Then Jim had popped that champagne cork and frightened her half to death. And that, as they said, was the end of that.
Oh, Jim had pretended that it was an accident, but Artie knew better. He didn't say anything, though -- what good would it do to confront him? Especially when he couldn't even come up with a reasonable guess as to why Jim had done it. When Lily, pleading exhaustion, had retired, and Jim suggested a night on the town, Artie had begged off. He'd come back to the train, undressed in the dim light from the yard, pulled the curtains and climbed into bed to-- brood --think.
There was a footstep in the corridor, a creak as the door opened. Artie sat up, reaching for the bedcurtain, to pull it back, to ask Jim what he'd thought he was doing, to tell him what he thought of interfering in a fellow's romances.
"Here we are."
Artie stopped short, a good handsbreadth from the curtain. He frowned. It was Jim all right, but what--?
A very feminine giggle filled the small compartment, a waft of perfume accompanying the seductive sound. Artie's hand dropped to the mattress. He tilted his head closer to the curtain, and heard what was certainly a woman's voice, though muffled. "...light?"
There was a sound of cloth and rings. Artie could now see the gap where his bedcurtains met, the pale light from outside peeking in. Jim had shoved open the window curtains and let in the faint glow of the gaslights at the station. With another murmur, and the shuffle of feet, Jim and the woman moved further into the room. Artie could see them clearly now.
She was tiny, barely coming up to Jim's shoulder. Her gown was ornate, the skirt full and dripping with lace. Her brown hair cascaded down her back, and there was something indefinable about her dress which proclaimed her a soiled dove. Or perhaps, Artie thought with a curl of the lip, it was the way her bodice was open and hanging off her shoulders. The pale light caressed her smooth white flesh, taking turns with the sweep of Jim's tanned hands.
He should say something. Never mind that he was in his nightshirt and not dressed for company. Neither, at the moment, was the calico girl. She probably didn't even realize there was more than one bed in the room; in the dimness, the dark curtains of Artie's bed were all but invisible. And Jim... it probably hadn't occurred to him to look, though it should have. He hadn't, yet, or he'd have taken his girl elsewhere, or asked that Artie leave.
He should say something, interrupt. Interrupt Jim's tryst as Jim had interrupted Artie's proposal. Hell, it wouldn't even be fair -- what was there to compare here with a proposal of marriage? Artie's hand reached for the gap in the curtains.
"Kiss me," Jim said, and she obliged.
Artie's hand touched the edge of the curtain, slipped downward to the mattress, opening the gap slightly. Words stilled on his lips.
She pressed her lips to Jim's face, his hair, his neck. Every time she approached his lips, he turned his head, and eventually she stopped trying. It seemed to Artie that the silvery light from outside caught and glittered in the flat blue curve of Jim's eyes. He had Jim in profile, but yet he could still see it. She wasn't far enough back to look at his face, and wouldn't have recognized his expression if she had. Artie did. This was Jim amused, untouched.
His hands pushed the clothing from her shoulders, loosened the waistband. She stepped out of her dress, her tiny hands pushing at his jacket. He set her hands aside and shrugged out of the jacket, tossing it over the foot of the bed, his fingers going to work on the buttons of his vest.
"Undress," he told her, his voice neither soft nor loud.
Indecision had lost Artie his chance. He couldn't interrupt now, couldn't explain why he hadn't done so before.
It only took her a moment to slip out of her clothes and stand naked in the combination of moonlight and gaslight which seeped through the window. She was small and lush and perfectly rounded, the upthrust of her breasts as inviting as the dark shadow between her thighs. Jim tilted his head subtly, and she lay on the bed, her body open, beckoning.
Jim stood and looked down at her as he disrobed. His hands moved methodically, unhurried, through the necessary motions. First the vest, shrugged off strong shoulders and set aside. His shirt was open at the throat, framing his strong neck in white linen. He loosened the buttons and tugged it over his head. His skin glowed a soft bronze, the dim light smoothing out the scars Artie knew were there.
Artie's chest hurt. He rolled silently to his stomach, his eyes never leaving the tableau. It was wrong. He knew it was wrong. He couldn't bring himself to care. His heart beat a rapid tattoo in his ears. He drew in a careful, much belayed, breath as Jim's hands moved to his trousers.
The belt clinked as the buckle was released. The soft hiss of leather against cloth seemed loud in the silence of the room. The woman didn't speak, didn't encourage or praise; she lay silently on the bed, ready, waiting. Artie had never known a prostitute who didn't talk. Perhaps Jim had paid her to be quiet. It seemed she took the same indrawn breath Artie did when Jim pushed down his trousers and drawers.
Jim slid onto the bed with the sleek grace of a panther. He settled between her thighs, bending his head over her breast. Artie knew when he took her. She arched, her breast rising to meet Jim's mouth. He kissed her there, and on her neck. The muscles in the smooth sweep of his lower back and the ripe rounds of his buttocks rippled. Sweat dewed his skin.
He wanted to look away. Artie wanted to close his eyes and not see this anymore. Surely he did. He wasn't a voyeur by nature. But he couldn't draw his eyes away as Jim took the woman faster, harder, the sturdy bed creaking in time with his thrusts. She made little noises, curling her limbs around his. Her mouth gaped open in a foolish, fishy expression.
Artie hurt. He pressed his hips against the bed, grinding into the ache. His nightshirt bunched uncomfortably beneath him, but he didn't dare move a hand to pull it free. He panted silently through his mouth. God. Oh God.
"God, lover. Give it to me."
Jim put his hand over her mouth, cutting off any further words. He thrust brutally, her squeal muffled under his palm. His head came up. The faint light from outside fell on his face, showing an animal mask of desire. His eyes were closed. His thrusts became harder, shorter. He bucked erratically into her, then stilled suddenly, groaning between clenched teeth.
Artie clamped his teeth on his forearm. Hot seed spilled under his belly, pleasure flashing through him in a queasy rush. It trampled through his unwilling body, threatening to take off the top of his head. The minute it released him, disgust took its place. Sweaty, clammy, he shivered weakly, devastated.
She was dressed when Artie turned his face again to the gap in the curtains, tears drying stiffly on his cheeks. Jim was wearing only his pants. He laid a hand at the small of her back and guided her with habitual courtesy to the door.
At the threshold, Jim turned, his eyes meeting Artie's unerringly. Amusement touched his lips, and something dark flashed in his eyes.
Artie shuddered convulsively.
Where the hell was he?
Artie paced from the sideboard to the desk, turned precisely on his heel, and paced back.
It wasn't like Jim. He didn't disappear for days on end with no explanation and no word. They weren't even on assignment. It reminded Artie unpleasantly of Dr. Loveless's little foray into dopplegangers. That same foray which was responsible for an agreement they never should have made. Artie licked his lips.
Loveless was dead. Artie had watched him die, drowned in the lake behind his hospital. Still... One never knew with the doctor, somehow. Even if he was alive, surely the little doctor wouldn't try the same trick twice. At least not the same way.
If Loveless didn't have Jim, then where was he?
It wasn't like him to disappear like this.
Artie sat suddenly on the closest chair, dropping his head into his hands. Hell, how should he know what was like Jim? These days, he barely knew what was like Artie. It had been... months since things were normal between them. Artie scrubbed roughly at his face. Truth be told, he didn't think things had been normal since Jim had proposed his ridiculous method of exposing dopplegangers. But they'd certainly gotten worse lately. Ever since that night Artie had proposed to Lily Fortune, things had gone so horribly wrong it seemed they'd never be put right again.
Jim, bringing that Cyprian to the train, to their sleeping compartment, and taking her right before Artie's eyes. Artie still burned with shame to think of it, of the way he watched, of the way he felt. And Jim had known all along that Artie was watching. He'd done it on purpose. God and James West only knew why.
Since then, Artie had barely been able to look Jim in the face. Thank God Jim couldn't have known how Artie had reacted to seeing him with that woman -- that shame, at least, was reserved to the silence of Artie's own breast. As for Jim, he hadn't made any effort to explain himself. Neither of them had mentioned what had happened in their compartment that night. In fact, they barely spoke at all. Artie didn't know if it would be better to talk, or better to remain silent. It hardly seemed to matter -- talking would ruin any partnership they had left, but they could hardly go on as they were.
God, where was Jim? Artie shoved himself to his feet. When Jim got home, Artie was going to-- kiss --kill him.
Hell, why wait? If he started looking now, maybe he could track Jim down. Anything would have to be better that sitting around waiting and worrying.
Artie grabbed his hat and headed for the door, and Jim came in.
"Where the hell have you been?" Artie tossed his hat at the desk.
Jim crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head to one side. A half-smile tugged at his lips. "Here and there."
"Here and..." Artie clenched his teeth. "Well," he said evenly when he could pry them apart again, "glad to know you're safe." He turned on his heel and left the parlor, not stopping until he was as far forward on the train as he could get without leaving the cars.
Artie braced his hands on the sturdy table in his lab and tried to control the temper many people wouldn't have believed he had. Even Jim probably didn't guess the full extent of the rage Artie was capable of, and he knew him better than anyone. Artie breathed deeply, deliberately relaxing his jaw, and eventually straightened up. A minute later, Jim walked into the lab.
He had removed his hat, gunbelt, and jacket. The fine lawn of his shirt clung to his torso like a lover. He stopped at the end of the table and leaned one shoulder against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest.
"What do you want, Jim?" Artie took a seat at the table and pulled a sheaf of notes in front of him. He thought they were probably the plans for his new underwater vessel, but he couldn't make out a single word. "I have things to do here," he added when Jim didn't respond. It took an effort, but he kept his voice utterly calm.
"So do them. Don't mind me."
Artie stared at the notes, not even able to say if they were upsidedown, through the slow count of thirty. Then he looked up. His face, he knew, held his blandest expression; he raised his eyebrows. "Really, James, is there something you wanted?"
Jim's lips tightened. He pushed himself off the wall. "My kiss."
Artie let a small show of surprise surface. The roiling mass of desire, fear, and anger stayed out of sight where it belonged. "Really? Why?"
"I have been gone for three days."
"Was it that long?" Artie asked, as if he hadn't counted every minute.
Jim stepped to Artie's side. Seated, Artie was shorter than his partner. Jim's breath on his temple felt like the slow pant of doom. Artie stood.
The part of him that wanted this and the part that didn't striving queasily against each other, Artie turned to his partner. Jim looked at him expectantly, and if there was an air of triumph about him, surely that was Artie's imagination. He bent and laid a light kiss on Jim's lips.
Jim took Artie's arms in a hard grip and pulled him back. His mouth was strong, determined. His tongue thrust hotly against Artie's lips, piercing them and plundering Artie's mouth. His breath was hot on Artie's face, and his taste was sweet, and Artie kissed him back. When the bruising hands released his arms, Artie swayed closer. His hands slipped around Jim's sturdy shoulders; Jim's chest came flush with Artie's. He was warm, redolent of horse and leather and sweat, the strong muscles under his shirt tempting Artie's fingers. He ran his hands down Jim's back, feeling the muscles tense and quiver like a high-spirited horse. With a soft, inarticulate sound, Artie pressed closer, and felt Jim's hardness. And his own.
Shocked, at his own arousal as much as Jim's -- surely he hadn't really felt Jim's -- Artie jerked away, hoping, praying, that Jim hadn't noticed. Jim's fingers tangled in Artie's hair, halting his attempted escape. Too late; it was too late. Sharp tears fogged Artie's eyes at the painful yank. He tried to twist his head free, but Jim only held tighter. Jim's face was too close to focus on -- all Artie could see was his eyes, hard and black.
"Now I know why you forgot," he hissed. "Impostor."
Oh God, oh God. It was done, now it was done. Artie found still, cold reason inside him and forced it to the surface. He managed a smile. "Come on Jim, don't you think that's a little harsh?" He winced as Jim gave him a shake, still using his hair as a handle.
"Don't you remember what we agreed? Huh, Artie?" He said Artie's name as if it were an accusation. "Of course you don't -- you weren't there." His right hand closed on Artie's lapel, the knuckles putting only the slightest pressure on Artie's throat, yet Artie felt as if there wasn't room to breathe.
"Why don't you remind me?" Artie requested softly.
"Sure," Jim said, showing his teeth, "why not? If someone tried to carry the kiss further, we said, we'd know he was an impostor. And we were right, weren't we?"
"Who tried to take it further, hm?" Jim tugged on Artie's hair for emphasis.
You did. He always had, Artie thought. It was Jim who stepped outside the parameters they had set. He didn't say it. Jim must be drunk, or tired, or mad, to do this. He didn't smell like alcohol, but his eyes were bloodshot and he looked as if he'd had a couple of hard nights. Maybe more than a couple. If Artie could just smooth things over, it would surely come out all right. It had to. "Mistake, huh?" he asked calmly, letting his head follow Jim's hand to minimize the pain. He saw immediately that he'd miscalculated.
"Mistake?" Jim hissed, his face very close to Artie's. "I'll show you a mistake." His right hand left off crushing Artie's lapel and immediately Artie heard the clink of Jim's belt.
"Jim..." Artie said softly. Jim didn't seem to hear.
"You like it so much, finish it." The hand in his hair forced Artie to his knees.
One handed, he pulled himself out. "You wanted to take it further. Now take it." His grip on Artie's hair was relentless.
Artie bent his head so he didn't have to look at Jim's cock. It didn't make any difference. He'd seen it, devoured it with his eyes, burned it into his brain: strong, thick, not very long. Like Jim. The hand in his hair tightened, drawing him forward. He went, not willingly, not struggling.
Artie didn't know what he wanted.
Hot, salty flesh bumped against his lips. Jim hissed. His right hand slid down Artie's cheek. It might have been a caress, but it wasn't. Jim's fingers probed the hinge of Artie's jaw. Artie wouldn't let it be like this, wouldn't let himself be forced. It would destroy Jim, destroy them both, if it became a matter of force. He couldn't let it happen like that. He opened his mouth before Jim could apply any pressure.
Artie knew what he wanted.
Jim's cock was hot, thick, choking. The taste of it burned Artie's tongue. He struggled to take it in. Not just the stiff lance, but the taste, the smell, the sounds Jim made above him. It battered at him, like a wind buffeting his mind.
Artie knew what he wanted, and it was this. But not like this.
He wanted Jim's kiss, his cock, his body. He'd wanted to be the girl Jim paid to fuck, and found the desire appalling. Too appalling to admit to, to discuss, to even think about. Well, now he was getting it, and he wouldn't even be getting paid for it.
Jim barked a guttural curse. His fingers weren't tangled in Artie's hair anymore. His broad hands gripped Artie's head, holding him still as he thrust. In the confines of his trousers, Artie's swollen cock ached shamefully. Tears leaking from his closed eyes, Artie took it, not trying to please, just letting Jim do whatever he wanted. It didn't take long.
Jim stilled. His cock thickened, pulsed. Artie pulled back against the hands holding him, but they didn't let go. He choked on the bitter stream of seed which poured into his mouth and down his throat.
Suddenly, he was free. Artie fell to hands and knees, retching.
The thunder of Jim's bootheels left him in the growing silence.
Eventually he stopped coughing and was able to draw in a full breath. His throat and nose felt raw. They were nothing compared to the state of his mind.
Artie scraped the back of his hand over his mouth. He stood, grabbing the corner of the table for support. Then he started going through drawers. His spare revolver was in the third one.
The heavy metal cold in his hand, he pushed open the door to the parlor. Jim was on one of the long couches, his back to the door. The rhythmic scraping sound he was making didn't falter as Artie came into the room. From the back, Artie could barely make out the tiny movements of Jim's arms, but he knew what Jim was doing. The soft shirr shirr shirr of knife on whetstone made it quite clear.
He didn't try to hide the gun as he came around in front of Jim.
Jim's expression didn't change, but -- for the briefest moment -- his rhythm was broken. He recovered instantly.
"What do you mean to do with that?" he asked, as if the answer meant nothing to him. His eyes dropped back to the knife in his hand and its endless glide over the whetstone.
"I'm supposed to say I don't know, aren't I?" Artie's voice was dead calm, his aim unwavering. The bullet would take Jim right between the eyes.
"Say whatever is the truth. Hasn't it always been truth between us, Artie?" His face might have been a shade pale.
"'Artie,' is it? What happened to 'impostor'?"
Jim nicked himself with the knife, drawing a shallow gash down the side of his right forefinger. He set both knife and whetstone aside and clasped his hands in his lap, the fingers of his left hand smearing the slowly oozing blood on his right.
"You don't need to answer that, by the way," Artie said quietly. "I already know the answer, you see. It's very clever."
Drawing his lips back, Artie nodded. "Beating me to the punch -- it's very clever. An impostor, you see, who was afraid of being caught out, might think to throw off suspicion by accusing his potential accuser. I don't know how you made Jim tell you about our... arrangement, but it doesn't matter. It didn't work."
"Artie? You think I'm an impostor?"
"I know it." He cocked the gun. "You see," he said with gentle certainty, "Jim West would never hurt me."
Jim blanched at the words, as he had not at the sound of the gun being cocked. For the first time, he looked away from Artie. "Go ahead," he rasped. "Shoot."
"I deserve it." He licked his lips, his face still averted. It was the first time Artie had ever seen Jim turn away from a threat. It wasn't the gun he couldn't look at. Artie knew it, as he knew himself, and as fully as he knew his partner.
"Why? Are you an impostor?" Artie asked when Jim didn't answer.
"I wish to God I was."
Artie pulled the trigger. Jim flinched at the overloud crunch of metal on metal as the hammer came down on an empty chamber. "It's not loaded you know." Artie tossed the gun onto the couch next to Jim's knife. "Why don't we see to that finger?"
Jim just looked at him. He jerked away when Artie put out a hand to help him to his feet. Letting his hand drop, Artie stepped back and turned to the door. He could hear Jim behind him as he entered the galley. He didn't turn to face his partner until he'd gathered the necessary supplies.
"Let me see." He took Jim's hand and dabbed at the shallow cut with a rag soaked in carbolic acid. Jim hissed softly, though whether at his touch or the sting, he couldn't tell. "It's already stopped bleeding." Artie swabbed the blood off Jim's right hand, then the left, merely tightening his grip when Jim tried to jerk away.
"I hurt you," Jim said.
"No." Now it was Artie's turn, and he could do taciturn as well as Jim. "Why?" He wasn't unaware that he still had hold of Jim's hand.
"I... You..." Jim's breath shuddered in his lungs. "You were so calm."
"And I wasn't, and..." He breathed out sharply, still not meeting Artie's gaze. "And I wanted you to be... not calm. I was so afraid, Artie, and so angry and you weren't. Why don't you ever get angry?"
Artie couldn't help it. He laughed. He took Jim's face between his hands and turned it, and made Jim meet his eyes. "I was furious. When I let myself get angry, Jim," -- he kissed Jim lightly on the lips, ignoring his indrawn breath -- "bad things happen."
"I forced you."
"Did I ever say no?"
"Artie..." Jim wrested himself from Artie's hands and took a step back, then another. "You know it's not that simple."
"No. No, it's simpler. I could have bitten you."
Not surprisingly, Jim paled at that. He recovered quickly. "That doesn't--"
Artie stalked him to the door. "I'm not weak, Jim. I'm not powerless. And I'm sure as hell not intimidated by you."
Jim smiled weakly. "Good."
Artie smiled back. "Very good. Now," he bent to murmur the rest against Jim's warm skin, "want to tell me what you were mad about?"
Jim shuddered. "Artie..."
"Yes?" His lips touched Jim's cheek.
Jim closed his eyes. "I can't..."
"Let me try." Artie smiled. How foolish they'd both been. And how simple it all was, now that he knew what he wanted, knew what Jim wanted. "This started as a whim, a game. And then you realized you enjoyed it." And being James West, Artie thought, you couldn't leave well enough alone. "And I..." he laughed softly to himself, "more fool I, I tried to propose to Lily Fortune."
"She doesn't deserve you," Jim might have said; his voice was so soft Artie couldn't be certain.
"The girl was an attempt to draw me out."
"Yes," Jim hissed. "Didn't work."
"I was afraid you'd hit me. And I have no desire, James my boy, to find myself on the receiving end of one of your punches if I can possibly help it." The heat of Jim's body felt like a balm on his skin. He nuzzled into Jim's collar and breathed deeply, enjoying the scent.
"I stayed away," Jim said, the words tinged with self-disgust, "so you'd have to kiss me when I got back. You didn't."
"I was angry."
"You were?" His hands rose slowly to clasp Artie around the waist. "I thought--"
"I know what you thought. I was angry because I wanted..." he smiled, "precisely what you want."
"And what do I want?" Jim asked, cocking his head to the side, the arrogant tilt creeping back into his mouth.
"You want..." He brushed his lips over Jim's, barely touching.
"More," Jim breathed.
Jim balked at the door to the sleeping compartment.
"Artie, not here--"
"You'd prefer my lab?" Stupid. The memory was still more raw than Artie wanted to think. He composed himself and held out a hand. "Jim."
Jim averted his face, stepped back. "I forced you--"
"I let you," Artie said, at almost the same moment, anticipating the words.
He took Jim's hand and pulled him into the compartment. Docile, Jim let himself be led. His face was almost completely unreadable. But Artie knew Jim, now better than he'd ever hoped to. He could make a pretty good guess what was going through Jim's mind. He let it pass; it could prove useful, for now.
"Lock the door," Artie said in hushed tones.
He took a gimbaled lamp from its ring on the wall and struck a Lucifer to light it. He heard the muted thud as the doorlatch was engaged and smiled to himself. One-handed, Artie drew the thick curtains over the small window, closing out the waning day. He put the lamp on the bureau before the window, so the light couldn't throw revealing shadows on the shade.
Obediently, Jim came.
"Take off your shoes," Artie said as he toed out of the brogans he usually wore on the train. Jim leaned his hip against the bureau and pulled off his short boots. At a tilt of Artie's head, he sat quietly on the edge of the bed, his hands clasped in his lap. The tension in his body made him stiff and awkward.
Artie shoved the bedcurtains fully open with a jingle of rings. He presented himself before Jim, pushing in between Jim's knees. He bent and, burying his fingers in Jim's thick hair, kissed his mouth. Jim responded cautiously, returning pressure for pressure in careful measure, taking not a single step beyond where Artie led.
Artie drew back and whispered against Jim's lips. "You are not a martyr and this is not retribution."
Jim pulled back as if scalded, his eyes flashing.
Artie smiled. "That's better." He took Jim's shoulders and pulled him to his feet, though he didn't back up far enough to leave any space between them once Jim stood. "I want to make love, not make amends."
Jim blinked. His mouth opened, and closed. Then he smiled brilliantly. "That," he said, "I can do."
"Prove it," Artie whispered.
Jim's eyes caught fire. His mouth took Artie's -- a real kiss this time: hot and slick and satisfying. His tongue swept in like a king into conquered lands, and left, a supplicant to pleasure. Artie felt Jim's hands on his chest, pressing firmly, stroking up to push his jacket from his shoulders. He shrugged it off and broke the kiss.
Jim's smile tipped one corner of his mouth with irony. Artie kissed him soundly and pulled back to look again. The smile spread to the other half of Jim's mouth and shaded into something else entirely. His eyes were seeped in blue flame. Artie let Jim unfasten his shirt and pull it over his head. He brought his hands to the buttons on Jim's shirt and smiled into his eyes as he slowly unfastened every one. Jim shifted on his feet, but let him do it.
Artie deliberately tousled Jim's hair as he pulled the shirt over his head. It fluttered to the floor at their feet.
"Your bed?" Jim asked quietly.
Artie didn't think about it. He just laid himself out on Jim's bed as if he belonged there. He had a moment's unease, as did Jim from the shadow that passed over his eyes, thinking of the calico girl. He didn't want to lie with Jim in the same place she had, and yet he did. He wanted to claim what was his, and wash away all trace of her existence. Artie met Jim's eyes boldly. He smiled. Jim joined him on the bed.
It was impossible not to gasp at the warm press of bare chest to bare chest. Jim lay with his upper body on Artie, his lower on the bed, though there was little enough room for one in the bed, let alone two side by side. Artie shifted toward the wall, turning a little on his side, and Jim moved in to meet him. They kissed.
Artie's skin felt starved. Jim was hot, his skin soft and welcoming. Artie spread his fingers wide on Jim's smooth back, dragging his hands down the sweet length. His tongue delved in Jim's mouth, stalking and trapping and retreating from Jim's. By slow degrees, he shifted over and Jim shifted down, until it was Jim who lay on his back in the bed and Artie who hovered over him.
Artie broke the kiss with reluctant leisure. He looked down at his partner and smiled at Jim's slow blink of surprise at finding himself underneath. Artie put his hand on Jim's shoulder, and watched as it drifted slowly down, tracing a light path with just the tips of his fingers. In an era when men were pale, their skin never knowing the touch of the sun but on the hands and face, Jim was bronze. And he tasted, Artie thought, as he bent to touch his tongue to the tempting feast, of copper, like a metal casting of a man.
But no statue ever gasped so deliciously, or moaned so prettily.
"You," Jim paused to take a breath as Artie lapped delicately at his chest, "ever done this before?"
"No." Artie found the crinkled nub of a nipple and pressed his tongue against it. His hands tightened on Jim's shoulders when the man moved under him. "But actors are notorious gossips."
Jim made a noise like a laugh, bled empty of sound. His hands burrowed into Artie's hair, smoothing through the tousled locks, skating over Artie's scalp, washing away any memory of painful tugs. Gently, they directed Artie to the other nipple.
"You?" Artie said, before bending his mouth willingly to suckle.
"Ah!" Jim arched his back sharply. "Not so different from with a woman, is it?"
"Maybe so." Artie traced his tongue up Jim's breastbone. He brought his mouth back to Jim's and let himself be gathered in and kissed breathless. Jim's arms were uncompromising, one drawn hard across the small of Artie's back, the other rubbing restlessly up and down the long muscles.
Artie shifted to lay his body atop Jim's. The thick jut of Jim's cock pressed hard against his belly, hot even through his trousers. Instinctively, he pressed his own growing erection against Jim's thigh. They both stilled then, for a moment.
It was as if something broke then, some thread of decorum which had held tenuously and ridiculously until that moment. Two pairs of hands scrabbled with recalcitrant fastenings, Artie's working at Jim's trousers while Jim's worked at Artie's. For all the fumbling, it was the work of a moment, and then interfering cloth was shoved down. Artie hissed. Jim groaned.
Bare, hot, perfect. The silky hot press of Jim's cock against Artie's stomach was somehow unreal, and yet almost the only thing he could feel. Jim undulated against Artie's weight, stropping his cock against Artie's tender belly, his thigh pressing so deliciously on Artie's own erection that he thought he might well spend right there. He buried his face in Jim's neck and groaned, and fought for the slender threads of control.
Jim's eyes met Artie's when he pushed up, their blue gaze unflinching. Artie smiled as he bent to lick Jim's lips. He rocked himself against the hard rod which poked imperiously at his belly and caught his lover's hissing breath in his mouth. This kiss Artie controlled, before reluctantly pushing himself from Jim's body, and the bed.
He shucked his trousers and drawers before they could trip him up, and quickly stripped off Jim's before the younger man could even sit up to attend to it himself. For a moment, Jim looked disconcerted; then he laughed.
The jar was in the second drawer of the bureau, where Artie knew he'd find it. The sweet spicy ointment had been a present to Jim six months ago, when his new gloves were rubbing his wrists raw. He hadn't been overly surprised when Jim used it sparingly, if at all, eventually relegating it to the corner of a drawer. Some gifts Jim kept, rather than using, as if to use them up would be profligate. Artie plucked the lid off and dipped his fingers in the silky salve, and brought them to his nose. The smell was pleasant.
He turned to find Jim propped on his elbow, watching him closely. "Artie." He swallowed, his throat bobbing. "What do you mean to do?"
Artie's smile hid his apprehension. "To make us both feel," he said as he approached the bed, "very, very good." He sat on the edge and dabbled slick fingers against Jim's chest, flicking over his nipples. Jim's startled hiss was as pleasurable to Artie's ears as the touch obviously was to him.
Setting the jar on the corner of the bureau, Artie dipped out and rubbed ointment between his hands. He pressed his splayed hands to the bottom of Jim's ribcage, and rubbed up over the firm muscles of his chest. Groaning, Jim fell back. He squirmed as Artie's hands started down, encompassing his narrow waist and rubbing hard over the heavy muscles of his thighs. Artie smiled to himself. His thumbs dipped to Jim's inner thighs as he went upward once more.
"Artie!" Jim curled up. Artie smiled again, sliding his fist back down Jim's thick erection, and up again without pause. Jim thumped back to the bed, panting, his muscles quivering under close restraint.
Artie paused to gather more ointment and went back to stroking Jim's cock. The copper-red length fascinated him: the way it pulsed in his hand, hard and soft at once, like steel in silk; the wide flare of the mushroom capped head; the plump bronze-fleshed balls, somehow both arrogant and vulnerable. Without rancor, he remembered how it tasted, and licked his lips at the thought. Even more arousing, the way Jim tensed and sighed and moved in his hands, a half-tamed thoroughbred.
"Jim," Artie murmured. Jim tossed his head, his eyes squeezed shut as he panted and rocked under Artie's ministrations. Artie bent to Jim's chest. "Jim," he whispered, his breath teasing over an erect nipple.
"Artie...?" he asked, his eyelids fluttering open.
For a moment, he wasn't sure the words would come. "I want you inside me."
And everything about Jim was, quite suddenly, utterly still.
"I heard you." His voice was hoarse. He looked up at Artie, his eyes clear of passion, despite the fact that Artie still held his cock in his hand. "It should," he said finally, "be me."
Artie shook his head, understanding what Jim had said and what he hadn't. "That's not what I want from you." Though he felt a pulse of arousal at the thought of it, he pushed it back. Not like that. "You aren't going to make things right by letting me fuck you."
Jim didn't move, but his eyes flinched at the words. "And what do you get out of letting me fuck you?"
"What I want."
Artie gave him a look. "You, fucking me." He could feel the pulse of blood in Jim's cock.
"I thought you wanted to make love," Jim said with commendable calm.
"That too." Artie stroked his slick thumb over the warm smooth head of Jim's cock. Jim's back arched, a curse falling from his lips.
Artie bent over him to claim those lips. Hard hands grabbed his hips and pulled him down atop Jim. His partner's smooth-muscled limbs wrapped around Artie, as if the merest thought might drag him away if he weren't restrained. Hot skin rubbed frantically against him, threatening to start a conflagration neither of them could control.
Artie tore his lips away, panting. "Jim!" He pressed his forehead against Jim's shoulder. "Jim, please." His plea sounded loud in the still between breaths.
Jim rolled them in the bed, propping himself on a elbow to look down at Artie. He cocked his head to one side. "You mean it," he said, muted, even to the fire in his eyes.
Artie managed a barking sort of laugh. "Would I offer if I didn't?"
Jim didn't answer. His free hand traced lightly up and down Artie's ribs and flank as he looked down at him, his face blank of expression. Even his eyes didn't give anything away. Artie gave himself up to wait, trying for patience, and didn't at first notice when the hand stroking over his skin began to move inward by slow degrees. He gasped explosively when Jim's fingers brushed up the length of his cock. Jim's lips twitched.
Artie's laugh was full-blooded and easy. "Tease." He settled one hand at Jim's waist. "Have you made up your mind, then?"
"I am yours to command, if you want me."
"Oh, I want you." A bubble of arousal, excitement, fear expanded in Artie's chest. He slid his hand around the back of Jim's neck, and tugged him down, and kissed him until between them they drowned the fear.
Jim's hand never stopped moving. His eyes closed, Artie arched into the blunt-fingered caress. Jim obligingly tightened his grip, milking Artie's cock firmly. His lips burned across Artie's jaw, down his throat. He lightly bit the point of Artie's shoulder.
"Jim... let me turn over," Artie managed while he still could.
Jim blinked, and moved back a little. Swallowing his nervousness, Artie rolled to his stomach and spread his legs. For a moment, he didn't think Jim would take up the offer, but then the heat of Jim's body took up residence between Artie's thighs, and rational thought fled. He felt Jim lean over him, saw his hand reach for the jar on the corner of the bureau, and the only word he remembered was "please."
Fingers stroked him intimately, pierced his vulnerability. Artie held his breath, trying not to squirm. Strange -- not painful, not pleasurable -- strange. He spread his legs wider. Actors' gossip. What's it like, a foolish, curious young Artie asks. Nothing in this world, says friend George, not so much older and infinitely wiser. No, but really? George laughing. There's nothing for it but to experience it yourself. Then you'll know.
Oh, God, did he know. Artie thought he could hear George laughing still. Not yet, friend, not yet. But you will.
"Jesus, Jim, stop playing around."
"I won't hurt you."
"You're killing me." Artie grabbed the pillow and hauled it to his chest, taking out his frustrations on the hapless cotton with a hard bite. Then he thought better of it and arched up, shoving it under his groin. Now he could draw his knees up slightly. He lay there feeling foolish, and vulnerable, and aroused -- so much so he shook with it.
The fingers withdrew. Lips touched the small of his back. And then, oh God, and then...
"Oh God," Artie groaned. "Jesus! Sweet Jesus!" His hands fisted in the bedclothes, twisting great handfuls. Pain, yes, but not enough to signify. Thick, cool and slick at first, then hot, so hot. It felt like-- Artie huffed a laugh --nothing in the world.
Jim had stopped.
"Oh damn, Artie..." And the thick invader began to retreat.
Artie flailed a hand, latching onto to one strong hip. "Jesus, Jim, don't you dare!"
"I'm hurting you."
Artie could feel the shaking in the fingers which held his hips so very still. He twisted his upper body to fix Jim with one eye. Jim's face was flushed, gleaming with sweat. Artie struggled to find some remnant of eloquence. "That's the last thing you're doing, James my boy. It's..." he pushed his hips back, groaning at the feel of Jim's cock advancing just a little farther in. Artie shook his head, his eyes squeezed shut with the pleasure. He pressed his forehead against the mattress. "Just move, Jim. Please."
Jim's hands depressed the mattress to either side of Artie's hips. Slowly, his weight came down on Artie's back, driving his cock inch by lingering inch into Artie's body. Artie shuddered under the lengthy assault, gripping the bedclothes until his hands ached. He barely noticed that ache, feeling only the tremendous stretch and pull and pleasure of being filled.
Jim laid his head on Artie's back. His hands skated up Artie's arms, his fingers worming their way into Artie's fists to release the blanket. He laced the fingers of both hands with Artie's.
"You're so hot," Jim whispered, his breath fanning Artie's skin. "So tight and slick. God, Artie, but you feel good."
Artie's laugh shook them both. "I certainly do." He opened his eyes to look at Jim's fingers entwined with his own, then squeezed them shut again to concentrate on the hot flesh throbbing inside him. "Jim..."
Jim's laugh gusted against Artie's back. "I'm moving, Artie, I'm moving."
He was as good as his word. The long slow drag of his cock pulling out drew a deep groan from Artie's chest. Jim's fingers tightened on Artie's, and he pushed back in. Artie cried out. Above him, Jim shuddered, as if Artie's cry broke his tenuous control.
The hot press of his legs shoved Artie's thighs wide, wider, as he barreled into Artie's welcoming body. The thick cock cleaved into Artie, opening him up for waves of shocking pleasure. For the longest time, there was nothing else. Nothing but the slap of flesh, the sound of Jim's growls, Artie's own grunts, their passionate and broken moans. Nothing but Jim's hard, thick cock impaling Artie over and over again.
And in all that time, Jim's hands never left off clasping Artie's.
Finally, Jim's fingers tightened crushingly. He growled, bucked once, again, and stilled. His cock swelled, as if to split Artie in two, and hot seed poured out of Jim, making Artie his in a way Artie doubted he would ever fully understand. He shuddered at the thought. Jim's weight came down heavily on Artie's back, his forehead pressed between Artie's shoulderblades, panting breath gusting over Artie's skin.
Artie was still hard, so hard he ached with a fine hot desperation he'd rarely known. He squirmed, trying to thrust. The soft pillow which cradled his genitals didn't provide any purchase. His muscles clench involuntarily around Jim's buried cock, and they both moaned.
Jim stirred. One broad hand released Artie's and burrowed under him. He sobbed when the pillow was shoved aside and his cock gathered into tight heat. Jim thrust as he stroked Artie, his cock sliding in his own seed, driving Artie's arousal before it. He came suddenly, gasping his pleasure, collapsing under Jim's weight as the world darkened around the edges.
Even now that they were both pleasured, Jim thrust gently, slowly. Coming back to himself, Artie shivered, his cock pulsing. Deep and sweet, the pleasure of Jim's possession rolled through him. Jim slowed, and eventually stilled. It was a long time before he slipped out, a long time before either of them moved.
"God, Artie," Jim said finally. He slid off Artie and dragged him clumsily into his arms. Sated and boneless, Artie went willingly, burying his head in the crook of Jim's neck. "Why didn't we do this sooner?"
Artie chuckled. "Just slow, I suppose." He lifted his head and looked deep into Jim's clear affectionate eyes, and smiled. "I think we're going to have to come up with another way to identify impostors."
Jim's lips quirked upward. "Oh, I don't know. This seems to work well enough."
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