|It was a good day.
If for no other reason than that he'd succeeded in snatching the great James West right out from under the nose of his startled partner. He'd made it a point to go along with his men, just so he could see the expression on Artemus Gordon's face. Surprise, with just a touch of fear... oh, and frustration, of course, knowing there was nothing he could do without risking Jim's life. That best of all: the look of agonized helplessness.
A good day. And it could only get better.
Doctor Miguelito Loveless watched his men push West to his knees on the plush carpet and began to laugh.
A wonderful day.
He didn't say anything at first. Oh, he knew West was waiting for him to begin; expected a long-winded rant. In the past he'd always obliged him. And, probably, he would do it again. But, for the moment, Loveless was satisfied just looking.
James West was easy on the eyes, his handsome face only the finishing touch on a body sculpted to perfection. For all his studies of the human form, Loveless had yet to explain how West could look so perfectly in proportion. Short, compact, yet infinitely graceful, in motion and in repose. There was something about his bearing, perhaps -- a smoothly arrogant self-awareness. He moved as if he owned the world, and the world too often seemed to agree.
His eyes always gazed levelly into those of every person he spoke to, yet he never seemed to tilt his chin to meet them. West refused to look up at any man; and he'd always done Loveless the inestimable favor of not looking down on him. An unasked courtesy that was as flattering as it was infuriating.
His expression, now as always, gave nothing away. He showed neither chagrin at his capture, nor fear of what might come, nor annoyance at Loveless' silent survey. West's chiseled features were as blank as they were handsome, and Loveless knew they were destined to stay that way, regardless of what he did.
Ever since their first meeting, he'd been alternately fascinated and incensed by that bland expressionless mask. He remembered with bitter pleasure that moment when he'd first caged West. Despite being well and truly trapped, West had allowed none of the annoyance, the self-directed anger at being outmaneuvered which must have been brewing inside, to show. And his refusal to react properly to his confinement took all the joy out of the coup. It had tainted every victorious moment since.
It had become something of an obsession with him: to get a reaction out of James West.
"Well, Mr. West, and how are you this fine day?" Loveless finally asked.
"Fine, Dr. Loveless, and you?"
"Oh fine, fine..." Loveless laughed again, tickled by the conversation: parlor-polite despite the circumstances. The amusement passed quickly, however; West merely gazed calmly at him, not in the least embarrassed by being forced to kneel before his captor. Annoyed, Loveless gestured angrily at his men, who obliged by pulling West off his knees and forcing him back into a chair. "Now," he continued, ignoring West's utter unperturbability with a supreme effort, "aren't you the least bit curious about what I have planned?"
"You'll tell me in time," West responded calmly.
"Ah yes, in time. But how much time, Mr. West? Perhaps I mean to wait. Perhaps I'll tell you next week sometime, or next month."
The corner of West's mouth quirked a little. He knew. Oh yes, he knew as well as Loveless did that there was not so much time. In fact, Loveless had calculated it down to the minute: how long before Gordon could be expected to arrive. It wasn't long. Never long enough.
With a gesture, Loveless sent his men out of the room. He didn't like audiences; at least, not their sort. Even without guards, Loveless knew he'd be safe from West. Physically, at least. West was capable of amazing feats of athleticism and leaps of intuitive logic; he'd attempt every trick in the book to put Loveless behind bars. Except using his fists. His own personal code of ethics would no more allow him to strike a man like Loveless than a woman. Useful, but infuriating. For, though it meant that West would never be able to vanquish Loveless, it also meant he'd never take him completely seriously either.
"Do you think you can keep me prisoner that long?" West asked finally, alluding to what they both knew: that Gordon was already looking for him, and had a history of taking him back from Loveless.
"We are all prisoners, are we not?" he asked philosophically, absently rubbing his fingers over the smooth marble top of his desk. "Bodies are just cages of flesh and bone."
"We've had this conversation before," West reminded him impatiently. He rarely showed much forbearance for philosophical conversation.
"Yes, I suppose we have," Loveless conceded. He wanted to have it again. The last time, West wasn't paying attention. Having just shook off the effects of the hallucinogenic drug, he was understandably short tempered. Loveless had dropped the subject once he realized West wouldn't cooperate. In fact, he'd had to cease the conversation entirely before West made him completely lose his temper and do something he'd regret. For the only time in their history, West had deliberately goaded him.
Understandable, perhaps. Loveless had made West believe he'd killed his partner. He hadn't correctly anticipated the full range of emotional response to that. He'd told Kitty what he was going to do -- "make a man kill the thing he loved," he believed was the phrase -- and somehow forgotten what that would do to the man in question. Or not wanted to remember, or believe. West had been unresponsive and sullen; deliberately trying to work Loveless into a temper. It had taken great restraint to prevent himself from doing what West wanted. Killing him then would have served no purpose.
Unwillingly, he remembered something else West had told him at the time: 'You need me.' A patent untruth.
Realizing suddenly that they'd spent several wordless minutes looking at each other, Loveless grew flustered and angry. "Well, if you mean to sit there in silence, and play childish games--" he whirled at the sound of the door slamming back against the wall. "I thought I told you--"
"Sorry, doctor. They ain't listenin.'" The rough man in the doorway laughed boisterously at his own humor. Two more uncouth types threw Loveless' men through the door to land in bloody heaps on the expensive carpet.
"Who... How dare...?" Loveless stuttered, his eloquence deserting him, as it always did in the height of his fury. The invasion of his house alone was enough to earn them his eternal wrath. But killing his men in the process was entirely uncalled for. They may not have been very good men, not like Voltaire -- silent, loyal Voltaire -- but they were his men. His, and no one but he had the right to damage them.
"Mr. Griffith'll be pleased to see you. Take him, boys."
"Careful, now," Loveless warned, sliding slowly backward with the instinct of a cornered animal; closer to West, as it happened. "Griffith won't want me hurt. I'm worth too much to him."
Knowing he was hopelessly outnumbered, Loveless didn't try to fight. He knew their orders were certainly not to hurt him. Not, at least, until Adam Griffith got what he wanted. He suffered himself to be manhandled, his hands bound before him, and pushed rudely toward the door.
A whirlwind of violence erupted behind him. West, making his bid for freedom. Loveless turned to look -- for once able to take undiluted pleasure in watching West at work. This time, he could actively hope the man would win.
Three against one weren't impossible odds, not for a man like West. He felled one with a solid punch and threw the second off his back like a dog flinging off a rat. Unfortunately, their leader took advantage of the moment West was off balance to bring the butt of his gun down on the back of the young man's skull, sending him crashing to the floor.
"Let me kill him, Martin!" the first man demanded eagerly, his tongue sneaking out to flick his bottom lip, split and bleeding from West's punch, in obscene anticipation.
"No! He's mine!" Loveless bit his tongue savagely, fitting punishment for having lost control of it. He wanted West dead, but at his hands. Only at his hands.
"Well, well, well. What have we here?" Martin waved his man away from West. Roughly, he grabbed the thick hair and forced West's head back, peering into the half-closed, heavily dazed eyes. "A friend of the good doctor? I didn't know he had any." He frowned. "Best bring him along. He could prove useful." He snapped his fingers at the man West had thrown across the room, who was only just regaining his feet. "Tie his hands tightly, mind you."
Martin waved his gun at Loveless, directing him out the door. He walked before Martin docilely, imagining he could feel the cold barrel of the pistol pointed at his back, and listened to the scraping sound of West's feet being dragged over the floor behind him.
Not a good day after all.
Loveless stumbled and fell again. He was quick to regain his feet; it was either that or get dragged over the rocky ground.
Three more ruffians had joined Martin's company, and they took turns "watching" the prisoners. Which merely meant that they alternated which horse the ropes were tied to. They responded to questions with blows and allowed rest and a mouthful of water only when absolutely necessary. Salt Lake City, and Griffith, were a fortnight's travel across the great American desert. Perhaps Griffith didn't want him alive after all.
He lost his footing in the loose soil and fell again. Strong hands grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him back onto his feet. West fell into step beside him. Like Loveless, his hands were tied before him, tethered to a long rope which was fastened securely on Eric's saddle horn. Unlike Loveless, West was better able to keep his feet, and the pace.
"Who's Griffith and what does he want with you?" It was the first thing West had said since they were taken; perhaps his headache had finally subsided.
Loveless was ridiculously reassured by West's calm tone. If he could rely on one thing in this world other than pain, it was that West would always be West.
"A blackguard," Loveless panted, "dirty, ignorant, thieving, murderous--"
"Doctor..." West's tone was warning now.
"A man I did business with," he admitted wearily. "He claims I left without paying him his fair share."
"Of course." Loveless tilted a scandalized expression at West, wondering how he managed to look so unruffled. Even with his shirt and vest open, his bare chest gleaming with sweat as he stumbled along on the end of the rope, he seemed calm and cool. "Did you seriously believe I'd hand a man like Griffith the power that much money can buy? You disappoint me, Mr. West."
Difficult situation and a pounding headache notwithstanding, West threw his head back and laughed, sending a shock of pleasure through Loveless. He had provoked a reaction.
On the heels of this small triumph, a treacherous rock turned under his foot, throwing him once more to the ground. Loveless scrambled for his feet, cursing. The same twisted fate which gave him his grotesque joke of a body had left him with brittle bones. He couldn't take much more of this; something was bound to snap at the rough treatment.
Strong hands once again grabbed and lifted. This time, however, he was hoisted into the air in a dizzying arc which ended on West's broad shoulders. Loveless hated being picked up and carried; it was undignified and terrifying to be swung around like some sort of helpless child. He'd never had any doubt of West's strength, but neither had he ever experienced it first hand. The mere application of it was almost more shocking than the use he'd just put it to.
West had never grabbed Loveless or picked him up. It went along with not hitting him, he supposed. That, then, was the answer. Regardless of his opinion of Dr. Loveless, West was a man of the law. He'd return Loveless to jail without a moment's thought -- would always work actively for that end, in fact -- but he would neither torture him, nor stand by and watch him hurt. It was precisely the same consideration West would show for any other human being in the same predicament. No more, no less.
A fascinating insight.
West carried him all that day, without faltering or complaining.
Martin's men had a good laugh, but didn't interfere. So long as the prisoners kept moving, they didn't care how. And Loveless... he simply hung on.
Night came on fast, without warning. The sun seemed to sink all at once, and they were plunged into inky darkness and cold. Their captors made camp on the scrub-dotted plain, eating their dinner over a small fire before crawling into their bedrolls. They didn't even post a sentry. Who, after all, would be looking for them?
Loveless curled into a small ball on the ground and tried to shiver himself to sleep. As he'd once told West, pain was so close and enduring a friend, he hardly felt it anymore. Nonetheless, he did not like to be uncomfortable. His hands were no longer bound, a relief for the raw abraded skin. In place of the ropes, a metal fetter weighed down his left foot, the short chain passing through a stake driven solidly into the parched earth to end at the manacle's mate on Jim's left ankle. Neither of them would be going anywhere.
As soon as Martin's company had settled firmly into a cacophony of snores, West tested the length and strength of the chain. He couldn't even reach the edge of the light thrown by the fire; nor could he get the stake out of the ground, no matter how hard he kicked at it. Finally, he gave up with a shrug.
Loveless fingered the cuff of iron binding his leg, his sensitive fingers searching the pitted surface for weaknesses. He wished suddenly that he hadn't been so thorough in relieving West of all the little gadgets he'd had secreted about his person. A few of them might have come in handy right about now.
Loveless stiffened when the sound of movement next to him heralded the sudden introduction of West's body heat. The muscled chest, once again buttoned up in the blue jacket, pressed up tight against his back, then retreated slightly. One arm enclosed Loveless' waist, trapping him utterly.
"It's cold," West explained softly, "and it'll get colder."
There was nothing to say. No way to explain that he understood perfectly the sharing of bodily warmth, but would never have anticipated West offering it. Or that his muscles froze at West's nearness for reasons the other man would never understand -- for the proximity of something Loveless could never have. West lay close for warmth, and to keep his would-be prisoner alive until he could get him out of the hands of the criminals and into the hands of the law. For duty's sake, and no other.
"Artie will find us soon," West murmured with simple assurance, his voice slurred with sleep.
Loveless ground his teeth until his jaw hurt. But he stayed where he was, half-suffocated in the heat of West's body.
Loveless hated Gordon. Hated him with a fine hot passion uncluttered by the conflicting impulses West aroused in him. He hated Gordon for his strong healthy body, taller even than West, though not as well conditioned. He hated him for his good looks, for his intelligence. Gordon occasionally stepped on Loveless' inventive toes, never enough to truly threaten his genius, but enough to annoy. He hated Gordon for always showing up at the moment when he was least prepared to see through one of his infernal disguises. He hated him for continually taking West away. But, most of all, he hated Artemus Gordon for having the one thing he never could: the affection of James West. And he felt both anger and contempt for the man who had so much his for the asking, yet never knew it.
Loveless was blasted awake by dazzling lights and deafening explosions. He rather wished he still had his pocketwatch. He wanted to see if Gordon was on time.
The darkness flickered with an unworldly glow, flames and red smoke, broken by brilliant flashes of light. Some of Gordon's fancy fist-sized incendiaries, no doubt. West was on his feet, ranged to the extreme limit of the chain, fighting two or three shadowy figures at once. Even with West fettered, there was no doubt about the outcome of the fight. Loveless had long ago learned respect for West's skill at fisticuffs.
Fists were no match against guns, however, and Martin's men were no fools. Frightened and disorganized by the sudden attack though they were, they found their weapons in no time, and the crack of small-arms fire joined the explosions.
"Jim!" The shout barely preceded the gleaming arc of metal. Loveless lost Gordon's shadow in the flickering melee, but he saw Jim catch the pistol and begin firing about him.
Loveless felt around him on the ground until his hand closed over a fist-sized rock. He brought it down with surgical precision on the tiny flaw he'd felt in the manacle, and the iron cuff fell open with the ease of a cracked walnut. Released, he crawled quickly off into the sparse undergrowth, only stopping once he had a good-sized boulder between himself and the fray.
Finally, the explosions subsided. Loveless peeked around the edge of his boulder. There were only two men standing in the fitful light of burning scrub brush. He couldn't hear their conversation, but their actions told the story clearly enough. They searched around the site, shifting debris and dead bodies aside, and finally ended where they had begun.
West stared out into the darkness, as if he could spot Loveless by sheer force of will, reluctant to return without his prisoner. Gordon touched him on the shoulder and gestured back to where two horses stood placidly waiting. After a moment, West shrugged and turned. Gordon wrapped an arm around his shoulders as they walked away. It seemed to Loveless that West leaned into the embrace, just slightly.
He watched until even their shadows faded into the night.
Loveless curled up in the lee of the boulder and waited for the sun to rise. He'd scavenge what he needed from the ruins of the camp, and make his way back to civilization. It would be arduous but not impossible; Loveless had survived worse.
There would be other days.
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