|"Oh my god, no... Jim..."
He could still hear it, that choked despairing sob, in no way like the millions of other times Artie had said his name in the years they'd been partners.
James West shifted restlessly, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position. The bed was not the problem; like everything in the private car, it was luxury itself. Nor was the familiar rocking of the train keeping him awake. The first few days after they'd been assigned the exclusive use of the train, he and Artie had experienced difficulty in sleeping, like new sailors getting their sea-legs. By now, however, the motion was almost second-nature, and he often found it hard to sleep in the absence of the lulling movement. The recent bullet wound in his calf throbbed somewhat, but did not prove a major impediment to his comfort. Nonetheless, awake he was, by his inner clock more than two hours after retiring for the night. Since sleep was obviously going to prove elusive, Jim propped his head on his hands and turned himself over to thought instead.
It had been close, this one. Very close. As Secret Service agents for President Grant, James West and Artemus Gordon had faced any number of apparently hopeless situations and had, every time, managed to pull their, and the country's, proverbial fat out of the fire. There was no exaggeration to their reputation; they were, quite simply, the best. This time had nearly been the end of them.
Though he suffered from the eternal failing of all petty-minded outlaws -- that of blaming interceding lawmen for the failure of his nefarious scheme and subsequent incarceration -- Emmet Stark had proved a very clever man indeed, as the complexity of his plan attested. Only by the merest chance had they escaped his imaginative revenge. West didn't like chance; it operated by its own rules, and in its own good time.
Meticulous planning and the advantage of surprise had guaranteed that everything went Stark's way right from the start. At the time, Jim had counted himself lucky to escape the ambush in Paradox with a bullet in the right calf. He later realized that luck had had nothing whatsoever to do with it. They had wanted him hurting, just slightly out of fighting form, but not overly damaged. By the time Stark's machinations herded him into the deserted town's tiny telegraph office, he knew very well the only answer he'd be receiving was from his enemy. He doubted he would ever forget that message: COUNT THE HOURS MR WEST TOMORROW YOU WILL DIE HATING YOURSELF FOR WHAT YOU WILL HAVE DONE.
What he would have done was kill Artie. Artemus Gordon, his friend and partner, and the other man against whom Stark had vowed revenge. Less than twenty-four hours ago, West would have wagered literally anything against the remotest possibility he might ever harm his friend. However, a devilishly elaborate series of carefully managed events had set the stage for precisely that. Drugs which distorted the senses had made it simplicity itself to convince each of them that the other was Stark's man. Once shots had been fired on both sides, the deadly battle was joined in earnest, with no time for thought. They were lucky that the same combination of drugs and pain which had been necessary to put him into a state where he could mistake Artie for anyone else had also thrown off his normally dead-eye aim. He had only winged Artie before pure chance led him to deduce Stark's plan. Fortunate, really, to have shot him in the leg rather than the heart; still, Jim doubted he could ever forgive himself for hurting his friend. It never occurred to him that he had caused Artie far more pain by pretending to be dead.
The train's swaying gait lulled Jim's racing mind into a twilight stupor. He did not sleep, nor did he awaken, but he knew something had changed. After a moment's perusal, he made out the darker shape in the shadows near the door. Diffuse moonlight leaked through the small windows, faintly reflecting from Artie's dark hair, picking out the contours of his pale face, lost forever in the midnight depths of his eyes. He slouched in a chair near the door, eyes apparently fixed on West.
"Artie?" The name was little more than a whisper on his lips.
"Sorry, Jim. Didn't mean to wake you." Artie's voice was soft, thoughtful. He didn't move.
"You didn't. I was thinking; guess I drifted off a little." Jim smiled; a quick flash of strong white teeth in the darkness. He shifted to light the lamp at his bedside, but Artie's voice reached him before he found the matches.
"Don't. The darkness is nice sometimes, don't you think?" Jim didn't, but he obeyed the wistful note in his partner's voice and left the room to its shadows. Artie shifted; Jim thought he lifted a hand to his face, then let it fall back to his lap, but he wasn't certain.
"Should you be up?" Artie had lost a lot of blood from the bullet wound in his left thigh before they'd found a doctor to stitch him up.
"Couldn't sleep." Which didn't answer the question. Or perhaps it did, all too well.
"Me neither." There was silence between them. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but West thought Artie's eyes remained steady on him. Not knowing quite what to say, he remained silent.
"You took an awful risk, James, my boy," Artemus said finally. "I've seen you do a lot of stupid things, but to stand there, waiting for me to come through that door with a rifle... I'd hoped you thought better of my aim than to believe I couldn't hit a stationary target at thirty feet."
"On the contrary, I was counting on your aim." He flashed that cocky grin again. "I was in Paradox for a day and a half. The first thing I did was check out the Sheriff's office. Every rifle there was miscalibrated. If you so much as pointed the gun directly at me, the bullet was sure to go wide. I knew, as good as you are, it wouldn't take you more than two shots to adjust, so I dropped after the first one."
"Why do suppose they'd stock faulty guns?" West was surprised at the question; Artie was usually better at riddles than he.
"Oh, I expect for the same reason they left you without any spare ammunition. The purpose of the exercise was for me to kill you, not the other way around. Stark must have guessed you might go for the Sheriff's office after your revolver came up empty. Guess he didn't anticipate you throwing your gun at me."
"Or you bothering to look at it." Jim caught a faint glimmer of teeth and grinned back. Artie was in an oddly subdued mood; he was glad to see even that meager hint of a smile.
"Well, your initials engraved on the butt certainly helped." Jim fell silent, remembering that feeling, looking at the shiny gold initials on the gun of the man he'd just shot. That paralyzing moment of realization had shaken him to the core. "You're wrong, you know," he admitted quietly after a moment, "I didn't stand there calmly waiting for you. I was stunned, I guess; there seemed no time at all between when I looked at the gun and when you came out with the rifle. Didn't really make a decision about it, just looked up and saw you."
Artemus was silent; Jim wasn't even sure he was breathing. After a long moment, he released his breath on a sigh. "You mean all that about the guns..."
"Oh, it's true enough. I just don't remember thinking it through at the time."
"You could have called to me to stop."
"I expect they would have shot both of us the instant I did. Stark was waiting for one of us to die. So I died." He shrugged, trying to make light of it.
"Yes, you did, didn't you?" There didn't seem to be anything to say to that. Finally, Artie sighed. "I suppose I ought to try to get some sleep." But he didn't move.
"Can you get back to your room on your own?" Jim prompted gently after a moment.
"Of course. Goodnight, James." Artie shook his head, as if only just awakening, and pushed himself gingerly to his feet.
"Night, Artie." But Artemus stopped with his hand on the door, his face turned away. Jim suddenly understood. He wasn't all that keen on letting Artie out of his sight either. "Artie? Don't leave."
"Jim?" Gordon turned toward him, stepping haltingly forward, then paused hesitantly. He was standing in the brightest shaft of moonlight which penetrated the cabin, allowing Jim to see him clearly. Uncertainty warred with wistful desire in the familiar features.
"Stay, Artie. Please." West made room for Artie in the bed and lifted back the blankets. The invitation was clear.
Artie shed his dressing gown, draping it over the back of the
chair, and climbed under the warm covers. The narrowness of the bed
necessitated their lying in close proximity, though neither was
disposed to complain. Jim turned on his side and propped his head on
one hand to watch Artie settle in. After a moment, he freed a hand to
tuck the blanket more snugly about the older man's shoulders. His eyes
already drooping wearily, Artemus smiled sleepily at the tender
gesture. James let his head rest on the pillow and watched his partner
tumble into slumber. Lulled by the soft steady breath of the sleeping
man, he quickly followed him into Morpheus' embrace.
James dreamed he stood again on the street in Paradox, Artie's gun in hand. He knew he was dreaming, and that what he dreamt was real. Everything proceeded just as it had happened. He lifted his eyes from golden initials to watch Artie lurch out of the Sheriff's office, a rifle clasped tightly in his hands. As if to mock him with his previous inability to recognize his best friend, the dream Artie was undisguised, his face clearly visible. Jim stood unmoving as the rifle lifted to center on his chest, the charge going off with a roar. On cue he staggered and fell.
The silence was absolute. Jim had fallen with his back to Artie, and now wished he had not. After a moment, he was able to make out the faint sound of his partner's shuffling approach. The footsteps faltered just behind him. He strained to hear any movement. Then Artie's voice, sounding thick and oddly muffled, reached him.
"Oh my god, no..." The rifle slid from nerveless fingers to land near Jim's head. Mindless of his injury, Artie dropped to his knees, his hands tightening in a bonecrushing grip on Jim's arm. "Jim..." The name emerged on a pent-up sob.
Artie snatched his hands back as if burned when West shifted enough to look up at him. He was too stunned to smile, but his eyes seemed to sparkle with relief. James assured him he was unhurt in a low voice, then told him to get ready for Stark's arrival.
"Right," Artie had said and bent to press his face against Jim's arm, as West slumped back to the ground. The ferocity of his sobs shook Jim's whole body, and he almost risked telling him not to overdo it. Something niggled at the edges of his dreaming mind, something not quite right.
Before Jim could figure out what it was, the scene shifted on him. With the seamless fluidity of dreams, he stood once again at the beginning, holding Artie's gun as Gordon stepped forth with the rifle. The muzzle of the gun rose to eye him malevolently as he silently cried foul to the heavens. Then the deafening blast came and the world tilted off its axis.
James looked stupidly down at the blossom of red spreading over the shirt which had not been his until he woke in Paradox. The pain hammered into his chest a moment later and this time, when he fell, it was no act. Again he lay, listening to Artie's approach, but this time knew, with the illogic of dreaming, that he was dead. When Artie collapsed like an unstrung marionette next to him and took his arm in a grip of steel, he could not turn and give the lie to his pretense. He tried; oh, how he tried, but though he could hear and see everything, he could not move or speak.
Artemus pulled James into his lap, cradling him against his
chest. His sobs shook them both, his tears washing over Jim's face,
contrarily burning like fire. He held James West with the tenderness of
a young mother, and the ferocity of Death itself. He didn't even glance
up when Stark and his men arrived; did not, in this permutation, swear
his hatred at them. He was aware of no one else. Artemus Gordon cried
and rocked the lifeless body of his best friend until they put a bullet
through his brain.
Jim woke gasping and trembling, covered in a cold sweat. Before he'd even fought his way out of the shroud of sleep, warm security reached out and enfolded him. By the time he opened his eyes, his sobbing breath was already beginning to calm.
He found himself cuddled against Artemus. A strong arm snugly enclosed his shoulders, pulling him close against the security of Artie's warm chest. The steady rise and fall of the ribcage under his cheek convinced him Gordon still slept. Asleep, Artie had reached out to protect Jim, even from his own dreams. It occurred to West, lying there waiting for his heart to stop pounding, that Artie had always taken care of him. The strong, steady beat of Artie's heart lulled Jim's fears, relaxing him against his friend's sturdy frame.
When he felt less shaky, James sought back through his dream to that moment at the end of the first part, comprised purely of memory, when his subconscious had screamed that something was not right. Identifying what felt wrong in any given scenario was one of the talents which made Jim such a superb agent.
He'd told Artemus he was unhurt and suggested they prepare for Stark's entrance onto the scene. Artie had agreed and set about putting on a show. He was good at that. A master of disguise, Artemus Gordon could compel belief in a thousand different voices, mannerisms, personas. Jim occasionally worried that he might not recognize his partner the next time he met him. The characters he created were so complete, so full of life, they constantly startled James. Faking some sobs, a few tears, the anguish of having killed a man "like a brother" to him, was child's play in comparison. So why did something feel wrong about it?
Some sobs, a few tears ...
A few tears ...
His sleeve was wet. Artie had pressed his face into Jim's sleeve and pretended to cry his eyes out. But his sleeve was wet. Pretended tears didn't soak through heavy cloth. Shock stole Jim's breath. How long? How long had Artemus felt that way? And how could he not have known?
Truthfully, he was not in the practice of noticing such things. And what was there to notice, a cold logical voice from somewhere inside scoffed. Well, that Artie loved him. Oh, really? Is that how he feels, James boy, or merely how you want him to feel? He cried, Jim protested silently, he cried over me. A man can't cry for the death of a friend? Yes, but... But he knew I was alive by then. Tears come in many colors, West; relief is one of them. Still... Still and all, if all he feels is friendship, why then this inability to let me out of his sight? More than a day later, he foregoes badly needed rest to sit and watch me sleep. The cruel voice seemed to have nothing to say to this.
Jim breathed in deeply, taking Artie's scent into his lungs and holding it there. He smelled nice, a sharp, clean, spicy kind of scent. And he was warm; James basked in the warmth, the close embrace of Artie's arm. His skin was soft, the tender bud of a nipple against Jim's cheek especially so. Jim dreamily turned his head until his lips brushed the satin nub. Suddenly desirous of the taste of him, his lips parted to tenderly enclose the nipple, tongue questing forward to lap at it. Artemus tasted good too. Jim closed his eyes to better concentrate.
He didn't at first notice the hand shifting from his shoulder up into his hair. Even when a firm grip was taken on the dark locks, Jim ignored it in favor of the tantalizing taste. When the hand tangled in his hair began to pull him away, he growled low in his throat, wresting his head free to return to Artie's chest.
"Jim, no..." It took a minute for Artie's hoarse pleading to penetrate West's distraction. "Stop, Jim, please. Wake up."
He lifted his head, taking in Artie's nearly frantic expression with an affectionate grin. "I am awake, Artie. I have been all along." He rubbed his head against the hand which had finally slacked its grip on his hair.
"Don't tell me you didn't like it." He brushed his thumb teasingly over Artie's other nipple, which stood out as taunt and needy as the one he had suckled. Artemus gaped at him, looking about ready to ask him who he was and what he'd done with James West. He grinned and leaned down to kiss Artie tenderly. "Artemus Gordon at a loss for words? Now I've seen everything!"
"Jim, do you know what you're doing?" Artie managed after a stunned moment. Though his tone was as perfectly neutral as if they were discussing an assignment in the staid confines of the parlor, his arms had wrapped themselves tightly around Jim's waist.
"I should certainly hope so!" Drawn back to the dark honey taste of his mouth, Jim took Artie's lips in another kiss. He lingered long enough, this time, for Artemus to begin returning the pleasure.
"Oh god, Jim..." Artie whispered after they separated for breath. "I never expected..."
"I'm sorry, Artie." Jim rolled them both to their sides, where he could cuddle his friend closer to his chest. "Can you forgive me for being so blind?" His lips conquered Gordon's again before he could frame a reply. None seemed necessary after that. James ran his fingers lightly down Artie's side and over his hip to press warmly against the bandages around his thigh. "Does it hurt?"
"Not anymore, James. Not anymore." Artemus laughed softly, for the sheer joy of being alive, and the unexpected pleasure of being in the arms of the man he loved. Jim's arms pressed him close and he snuggled his head under the strong chin. Though large callused hands traced gently here and there over his body, James seemed content to simply lie there. "Jim, aren't you...?"
"Another time, Artie. When you're not hurt." His arms tightened, pressing the most precious treasure of his life close enough to feel his heartbeat. "For now, I just want to hold you."
It was then Artemus Gordon realized it was to be love between them. He had long settled for friendship and, when Jim unexpectedly made the overture, been willing to accept whatever scraps of physical pleasure might be thrown him. This was more than he'd ever dared dream.
"It's almost too bad we can't thank Stark," he murmured after a moment, drowsy contentment coloring his rich voice. Jim laughed softly.
"Go to sleep, Artie."
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