"In here, Jim," Artie called from his cabin.
Jim stuck his head Artie's door to find Artie running a brush through his hair, shaping his curls with his other hand. Jim smiled, watching him, and leaned against the door jamb. "I can't get this damn thing to look right." He tugged on his cravat. "Are you sure we need to get this dressed up?" He sounded a little peevish, even to himself.
Artie rolled his eyes. "Come here, you cretin." He pulled Jim's cravat loose and looked despairing. "No wonder you can't get it to tie right, the way you've manhandled it." He tossed it to the side and pulled out one of his own, fresh and unwrinkled. "And I told you that you don't have to come with me if you don't want to." He pulled the silk around Jim's neck and started tying it as casually as Jim loaded his gun. "Alex is an old friend of mine, but there's no reason you need to go out in the cold. You can stay home and finish going over the security reports."
Jim narrowed his eyes at the twinkle in Artie's. They were in Denver to check security arrangements for the President's planned visit, celebrating Colorado Territory's admission to the Union. Artie knew that the necessary reading of reports was one of Jim's least favorite activities, one of the few things that could make live theatrical entertainment sound appealing. That was usually Artie's job, while Jim spent more time checking out the buildings and personnel. "I just don't see why it's necessary to go all out. It's not like this is Washington, or New York."
"Stop slouching, you're ruining the lines of your jacket." Artie finished the knot and took a minute to tug and smooth Jim's coat into place. "And don't let the natives hear you say that! No one is quite so aware of social status as the man who worries that he is second class to start with. Anyway, the Denver Theatre is Denver's primary theatrical venue, and it's the premiering night of the play, with an outside troupe. Everyone who's anyone in Denver society will be there, and in their minds, we're representing the President."
"He'd probably be on my side," Jim muttered.
"Are you going to behave badly all evening?" Artie asked with a smile. "I'm fine with you staying home, you know. We haven't found any sign of conspiracies or plots, so I'm unlikely to be kidnapped or assaulted." He stepped back and looked Jim up and down with a critical eye. "I did want Alexander to meet you, but not if you're going to be miserable."
Jim pushed himself upright and forced a smile. "I'll behave, I promise. You're always saying I should expand my cultural boundaries."
Artie's grin was brilliant, and Jim's smile became more genuine in response. "That's my boy!"
As guests of one of the primary actors of the touring company, Artie and Jim had comfortable box seats, allowing Jim to fidget and watch the crowd without disturbing any of his fellow audience members, save Artie. But after a single token hissed admonition and a hand on Jim's arm, Artie was so focused on the stage that he seemed to forget Jim was even there. Jim felt faintly ridiculous that this bothered him.
As far as Jim could tell, Alexander Hollingsworth and his touring company put on a credible Hamlet, but judging by Artie's rapt attention throughout the play and the way he leapt to his feet, wildly applauding, as the curtain dropped, it surpassed even his sometimes particular tastes.
As for Jim, he'd spent almost as much time watching Artie as he had the stage. Artie's mobile features had reflected what was happening on stage in a manner Jim had found charming, and much more interesting than the play itself. Artie's absorption in the story let Jim indulge himself without feeling ridiculous.
After the applause died down, they gathered their things, and Artie led the way backstage to find Hollingsworth. Stagehands were keeping most people away from the dressing rooms – rather grandiose terminology for the tiny spaces that were available – but Artie's name worked like magic to get them through. Artie found something to say to everyone they passed, from comments to players from the crowd scenes to knowledgeable accolades on the changing of scenes and stage settings. The atmosphere was full of laughter and excitement, and clearly the company was happy with their performance, as well as its reception.
They reached Hollingsworth's room, more of a curtained-off corner of a larger room, only to find that he already had visitors. "We'll come back," Artie told the boy who had nervously stopped them. "Just tell him that Artemus Gordon is here, and that if he leaves without seeing me, I'll make sure that Maxwell finds out what happened that New Year's Eve." The boy looked confused, but nodded.
"C'mon, Jim, I want to check out the stage." Artie headed back down the hall.
"So, who is Maxwell, and what happened on New Year's Eve?"
Artie smiled slightly. "Maxwell is another... old friend, someone very close to Alexander." His smile widened, wickedly. "And nothing at all happened, sadly, but it would be very easy to make Maxwell believe differently."
Jim wasn't sure exactly what Artie meant, but having been on the receiving end of his storytelling and his sense of humor, he felt some sympathy for Hollingsworth.
Artie walked out into the now nearly empty theater and paced up and down the stage. It wasn't a large theater, and it seemed even shabbier without the crowds. Seeing some of the stage pieces up close, Jim could see the patches and fixes that had been invisible from the audience. Even as distracted as he'd been, he did appreciate the magic the performance had woven over the crowd, pulling them into a different time and place and making them part of it, even if it was only for the duration of the play.
He watched Artie move nearer to the edge of the stage and stand there for a time. When he heard Artie's voice, it took him a moment to realize that Artie was quoting from the play they'd just seen. He listened intently to that rich voice, and thought that if it had been Artie in the role, he probably wouldn't have been so distracted.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd....
Artie continued, and Jim listened and both better understood Hamlet's state of mind, and realized that Artie was a better actor than Jim had ever realized. He could hear the temptation of death in Artie's voice, the voice of a man more alive and in love with life than anyone Jim had ever known. Artie currently spent that life by Jim's side, opposing that "sea of troubles," but for the first time Jim wondered what sacrifice Artie had made, leaving the stage so completely. The thought was an uncomfortable one.
His thoughts were interrupted by the applause from a single pair of hands, and he turned to see a man who he assumed to be Hollingsworth walking forward, clapping his hands and smiling. He could almost recognize the night's Hamlet, but Hollingsworth's hair was longer and his face subtly different, and he was older than Jim had expected, perhaps Jim's age, or a bit younger. Out of makeup, his features were pleasant, if undistinguished, and his build was sturdy, yet fit. As he neared Artie, Jim judged his height to be a couple inches above Artie's own.
"Artemus, the stage lost a true talent when you turned to the arts of war instead!" He clasped Artie's hands in his own, then pulled him into a tight embrace. Hollingsworth's thoughts simply echoed Jim's own, but for some reason hearing this man say it out loud rubbed Jim the wrong way.
Hollingsworth stepped back to drop a kiss on each of Artie's cheeks, then another, slightly more lingering one on Artie's mouth, startling Jim. He looked away, uncomfortable with the displayed intimacy.
"Some nerve you have, Gordon, threatening my boy." Hollingsworth was laughing, clearly unphased by the threat.
"I wasn't threatening him, you duffer. Or has that particular threat outlived its usefulness?"
Jim looked back in time to see Hollingsworth look a little uncomfortable himself, rubbing the underside of his chin. "Um, nooo, no, that would still work, if I thought you meant it. Maxwell and have our arrangements when I'm on the road, but seeing as it was you--"
Artie cleared his throat, interrupting Hollingsworth. "Good to hear it, I hate to waste words."
Jim's mouth fell open at this outright falsehood. "Artemus Gordon, that is possibly the most outrageous lie I have ever heard you tell."
Artie assumed a look of mock outrage, steering Hollingsworth towards Jim. "I never waste words! I just sometimes use more of them than someone as laconic and succinct as yourself feels is strictly necessary." He moved to stand next to Jim, one hand lightly resting on Jim's shoulder, facing Hollingsworth.
"Alexander, I'd like to introduce you to my partner, James West. Jim, this is Alex Hollingsworth, an old friend and former understudy to my own Hamlet."
Hollingsworth swept a ridiculous bow. "Everything I learned, I learned at the feet of Artemus, Mr. West. Any friend of his is sure to be a fine fellow, indeed."
Jim stuck his hand out, feeling the awkward one. Hollingsworth's grip was firm, but he made no attempt to tighten his grip, so Jim resisted his own urge to do so. "So, you were Artie's understudy?"
Hollingsworth nodded. "When we first met, I was but a callow youth, and Artemus took me under his wing. I was serious about his teaching me everything I know, Mr. West. I couldn't have been in better hands."
Artie looked pleased and embarrassed. "You've clearly surpassed my limited talents, Alex. That was an outstanding job tonight."
"Do you really think so?" Hollingsworth dropped the exaggerated manner and sounded genuinely delighted, and a bit insecure. "I admit, it all felt just right, but you never know how it's going to play to the audience."
"You did a wonderful job. Don't you think so, Jim?"
Jim blinked, but Artie just looked at him blandly. "I can honestly say that that was probably the finest production of Hamlet that I've ever seen in its entirety."
Artie narrowed his eyes, but Hollingsworth flushed and looked happy. After all, the fact that Jim had never seen a complete production of Hamlet really wasn't relevant, was it?
"Unfortunately, I have to be going," Hollingsworth said. "One of the theater's patrons is hosting a reception for us at his home, and I'm expected to be there. Won't you join me?"
Jim couldn't think of anything more tedious at the moment than having to smile and make nice to a bunch of society hacks when it wasn't part of the job. "Actually, I don't mean to offend, but if it's okay with you, Artie, I think I'll see you back at the train. Tomorrow is going to be a long day, and--"
"Nonsense, Mr. West, I'm sure Artemus would much rather you were there." When Jim opened his mouth to deny that Artie had any need of him to enjoy himself, Hollingsworth cut him off. "No, I insist. I'll have to make the rounds and chat up a few lonely wives, but I won't be denied the opportunity to get to know the man that domesticated Artemus Gordon."
Jim closed his mouth, at a loss for words, and not quite sure what Hollingsworth was implying. He turned to Artie, but Artie was looking fixedly off into the distance, ignoring Jim's stare. "Then how can I refuse?"
They rode to the party in a carriage provided by the Bealls, the patrons of the Denver Theatre. Artie and Hollingsworth spent it catching up on mutual friends and reminiscing about old times. Jim felt like he should have been bored spitless, but there was something he liked about this insight into Artie's past.
When they arrived, Hollingsworth went in immediately, but Jim waited for Artie.
"You look happy," Jim said, as they walked up the steps.
"Do I? I forget sometimes how much I miss the stage. There's nothing quite like it."
"Do you ever consider going back to it?" Jim asked, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Artie stopped and looked at him seriously for a moment, then smiled. "No," he said quietly. "I'm right where I belong."
Jim's chest felt tight, and the warmth brought by Artie's words eased through his body. "If you wanted to, there's not really anything keeping you here."
Artie was silent for a moment, then turned towards the door, his words drifting back to Jim. "Isn't there?" For a moment Jim thought he sounded almost sad.
The party was larger than Jim had expected, and he suspected that the premiere of Hamlet was more an occasion to throw a party than the purpose of the party itself. Their hostess, Mrs. Oliver Beall, was delighted to welcome them, and immediately asked them to call her Margaret. It soon became clear that Margaret was the driving force behind their theater patronage, and that the theater was something she took quite seriously. After she had introduced Hollingsworth around, she, Artie, and Hollingsworth were soon embroiled in an in-depth discussion of the performance of the evening. As he had in the coach, Jim found himself surprisingly enjoying his position as observer, only contributing if forced by a direct question. He was very aware of Artie's smiling eyes on him from time to time.
The talk turned to other plays of Shakespeare, including one that Margaret Beall somewhat archly referred to as "the Scottish play".
"I'm hoping that we can put on a production in the next year," she said. "But some of our actors are opposed, due to the history."
"What sort of history?" Jim asked. "And what play are we talking about?"
"MacBeth," Artie said, "but don't get caught saying that name inside a theater."
"I tend to avoid it altogether," Hollingsworth said. "I figure better safe than sorry, where the Scottish play is concerned."
Jim looked back and forth between them, then at Margaret, who seemed quite thrilled at the turn in conversation. "You can't be serious."
Artie shrugged. "It's thought to be bad luck to call that play by name."
"Bad luck, Artie? You're not telling me you're superstitious, are you? That just saying the name of the play is bad luck? I didn't know you believed in luck."
Artie grinned. "Everyone in the theater is superstitious – besides, part of the reaction is probably quite logically based."
Jim rubbed his mouth lightly, looking skeptical, but before he could voice his disbelief, Alexander Hollingsworth spoke up. "It's quite true, Mr. West. It's generally a quite profitable play to produce, very popular, so any mention of it has an actor in a production that's not doing well fearing that his job is in jeopardy."
"That sounds to me like a matter of reasonable anxiety, not superstition," Jim said.
Artie grinned again. "Yes, but then there's the thought that Shakespeare incorporated true black magic into his spells, and that therefore the play itself cursed!"
"Oh, my!" Margaret said, her eyes wide.
Jim tilted his head slightly, looking up at Artie out of the corner of his eye, opening his mouth to speak, but Artie held up one finger and continued--
"--and it is true that productions of the play often seem prone to tragedy and disaster. There was a performance put on at the Astor Place Opera House in New York before the war that ended with a riot that left dozens dead or wounded. Not that ego didn't play a large part in that, as well."
Jim raised an eyebrow, and Artie made a gracious movement with his hand that indicated Jim could speak now. "Then why is MacBeth ever produced at all?" Jim said.
Alexander smiled wryly. "We're superstitious, but practical, and it does make good money. And what actor or actress would give up the chance to play the lead roles? We all crave fame and hope for fortune, after all, Mr. West, or we wouldn't be on stage at all!"
He then swept them a bow. "And now you must excuse me, dear lady, I believe it is time for us to retire, myself to prepare for tomorrow's short moment in pursuit of said fame and fortune, and these fine gentlemen to prepare for their no less onerous, albeit less romantic, duties." He bent and kissed Mrs. Beall's hand, which left her fluttering girlishly. "I do hope you forgive us our early departure, dear madam. Your table is fine, and your company finer, but there are ever lines to practice and improvements to be made!"
"Your dedication is admirable, Mr. Hollingsworth, and only to be encouraged." She turned to Artie and Jim, and offered her hand. Artie's flourish was every bit as dramatic and giggle-inducing as Hollingsworth's, and Jim didn't even try to compete, just threw her a look from under his lashes, and smiled when her breath stuttered slightly.
Artie shook his head at the smug smile. "Show off," he murmured fondly as they moved toward the door.
The Bealls carriage was again at their disposal, and Hollingsworth directed it first to his hotel. Once there, he invited them in for a nightcap, but while it was clear he meant it, it was also clear that the buoyancy of his successful performance had faded, and he was visibly wilting. So Artie declined for them both, but they did descend from the carriage long enough to say goodnight.
Hollingsworth pulled Artie into his embrace again, forgoing the kisses this time. Then he stood back, holding Artie at arm's length, smiling and shaking his head. "It was so good to see you again, Artemus--" he said, sweeping his eyes up and down Artie's fine frame "—to see that you're doing so very well." He turned to Jim and offered his hand. "And it was my very great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. West. See that you keep my friend Artemus safe and happy. He deserves no less."
Jim's lips quirked slightly, and he glanced over at Artie as he bowed slightly from the waist in return. "That is definitely something we can agree on. I shall do my best."
Hollingsworth took a few steps towards the door, then turned back to gaily say, "Oh, and Mr. West? Be sure not to whistle while you're in the theater, either. That might truly be bad luck for someone."
Artie watched him walk off, then turned to meet Jim's speculative gaze. "No whistling?" Jim asked.
"You'll approve of that one, actually, it's completely practical. The cues for scene changes are sometimes indicated by whistling, so if they hear what they think is the cue... It could get very confusing, sandbags falling at the wrong time, scenery dropping. But it's really not a problem if you don't go backstage."
Jim told the driver to take them to the train yard, then followed Artie back into the carriage. They were silent during the trip, but it was a comfortable silence.
Jim shed his coat and poured them each a drink, setting Artie's down on the desk, where he had already started looking at the new reports that had come in. Jim leaned against the fireplace, watching him, restless for some reason.
"Hollingsworth seems like a decent fellow," he said casually.
Artie smiled. "I'm glad you think so. He's not nearly as flighty as he may have come across. He's a serious actor, very committed to his profession."
"And a good friend."
"You've kept in touch, over the years?"
Artie nodded again, leaning back in his chair. "Not consistently, but enough to know what the other is doing, and to figure out if we're ever in the same place at the same time." He smiled warmly at Jim. "Thanks for humoring me this evening. I know the theater isn't your favorite kind of entertainment."
"I enjoyed it," Jim said, only slightly surprised to find that he meant it. His enjoyment had had very little to do with the play itself, though. "This was all fascinating, seeing you in that environment, learning more about your life before the war." He grinned. "Finding out how superstitious you are."
Artie shot him a sharp look. "You mean there's nothing you're the slightest bit superstitious about?"
Jim rubbed his cheek, considering. "Mmmm, no, not that I can think of."
"No little rituals, no good luck charms?"
Jim looked at him and smiled. "Why, Artie, you know that you're my good luck charm."
Artie laughed and shook his head, and turned back to the reports.
Jim watched him for a while, thinking about the evening, about Hollingsworth, about Artie. "Artie... I meant what I said earlier, if that's what you really want, there's nothing keeping you here."
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, Jim." Artie sounded irritated. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No! Of course not. But... Hollingsworth had a point. I mean, I knew you were a good actor, after all, I've seen you pull off some of the most unlikely impersonations in very difficult circumstances. But listening to you tonight, I... I wish I could have seen you perform."
Artie looked at him seriously. "Thank you, Jim. That... That means a lot to me."
Jim looked down at his drink, swirling it around in his glass, feeling his way carefully. "I don't like to think that you stay in this job out of some kind of obligation. That maybe it's just a job, and that your— That your heart is somewhere else." He chanced a look at Artie, only to see that Artie was frozen, looking at Jim blankly.
Artie blinked. "I'm just not sure what you mean."
"I want you to be happy, Artie. Are you happy?"
"I... I like what I do. What we do. I think it's important."
Jim downed the rest of his drink, and moved to refill it. "But are you happy. I really want to know."
He moved to stand by the desk, looking down at Artie, who looked wary.
"Do I seem unhappy?"
"You're avoiding the question. So, here's a different one: What did Hollingsworth mean when he said he wanted to meet 'the man that domesticated Artemus Gordon'."
"Um." Artie looked down and moved some reports around on the desk.
Jim put a hand over one of Artie's. Artie stilled, but didn't look up. "Artie."
There was a significant pause before Artie spoke, and Jim could see the tension in his shoulders. "Alex... may think that our relationship is something other than entirely... platonic."
Jim felt conflicting urges to grip Artie's hand more tightly, and to let go entirely. He was suddenly aware of his heart thumping in his chest, and the need to move, but he held still.
"And why would he think that?" he said carefully.
Artie solved Jim's problem by pulling his hand away first and standing up to get himself another drink, which he tossed off in a single gulp before refilling his glass again. Then he looked directly at Jim, somewhat belligerently.
"He doesn't know exactly what I do, just that it can sometimes be dangerous. He does know that we live together, and travel all over the country in rather close quarters, and he knows that..." He paused. "He knows that I have previously been involved with men, because once, for a short time, he and I were lovers." He took a deep breath. "And he knows that I...care about you. So you do the math."
Then he just stood there, looking at Jim, waiting. Jim stared back at him silently, now feeling that if he moved, he'd fracture into a thousand pieces. So many thoughts and feelings competed for attention that he couldn't speak, and he wasn't sure what he felt. Except that in some strange way, it was like he was seeing Artie for the first time.
"...you know where to find me."
Jim blinked, realizing that Artie was talking to him. "Artie—"
Artie paused briefly, waiting, but when Jim said nothing more, still unable to find the words, he continued on into his cabin, shutting the door.
Jim sat on the couch for nearly an hour, another drink in front of him on the table, untouched. The riot of emotions finally calmed to the point that he could sort at least some of them out: uneasiness at Artie's revelations, but strangely, no real surprise; jealousy at the confirmation of his relationship with Hollingsworth; and something that he wasn't quite ready to name, that was causing that tightness in his chest that seemed to be the only thing holding him together, at this point. All of it was admixed with a bit of admittedly unreasonable anger at Artie for keeping things from him and a totally reasonable sheer terror at the decision he had to make.
He was pretty sure the uneasiness had nothing to do with what he'd learned about Artie, and almost everything to do with how that new knowledge impacted one James West.
His thoughts were much simpler. He wanted Artie to be safe and happy, just like he'd told Hollingsworth, and the only way he could see to make that happen was to keep Artie as close as possible. The fact that Jim had realized that this would make him happy, as well, was a significant bonus.
When he knocked on Artie's door, Artie just said, "It's open." Jim opened the door, then closed it and leaned back against it. Artie was still dressed, though he'd taken off his coat and loosened his cravat, sitting in the chair beside his bed with his glasses on, reading one of the stack of reports he must have carried off with him.
"Isn't it a bit late for working?" Jim asked.
Artie shrugged, putting down the report and taking off his glasses. To a casual observer, he might have looked relaxed, at ease. Jim could see the tightness in his shoulders, the tension in the overly precise way he moved as he put his folded his glasses and placed them on top of the stack of reports.
"I knew what Alex thought, and I never disabused him," he said quietly, as if an hour hadn't passed since their conversation.
Artie crossed one leg over the other very deliberately, then smoothed the leg of his pants. "There was no harm in it, and I knew it made him happy to think that I was happy."
"Are you saying you aren't happy?"
"...No, I'm not saying that."
"Then you are happy. Here, with me." Jim caught the slight clenching of hands on the arms of the chair that Artie immediately relaxed.
"Are you happy, Artie? You keep avoiding that question. Isn't it a simple question?" Jim could still feel the whiskey warm in the pit of his stomach, little flickers of heat and nervousness.
"Are you happy, Jim?" The question seemed to burst out of Artie.
"Yeah. Yeah, I am happy. In fact, I don't think I realized exactly how happy until tonight...and how much that happiness depends on you."
Artie looked up, clearly startled.
Jim chose his words carefully, because he knew the words would be important to Artie. "You were in your element tonight, around other actors, talking about the theater, and I'd never realized how much you missed it. And I was... afraid. That you missed it so much that whatever I had to offer wouldn't be enough. A dangerous job, no place to put down roots or call home..." Jim smoothed damp palms down his thighs. "You're my home, Artie," he said roughly, diffidently. "I need you to stay with me, but more than that, I need you to be happy."
Artie went very still and looked up at him. "What are you saying, Jim?"
But Jim had always been a man of action, over words, and suddenly the words abandoned him again. And while he was still terrified, he had never been a man driven by his fears, and this instance was no exception. In a few short steps he pulled Artie out of his chair, and then he kissed him, his hands still bunched in Artie's shirt.
Artie shuddered, and Jim felt the tension leave his body, and then Artie was kissing him back and Jim lost track of everything else. Jim knew that Artie wasn't entirely unskilled in this area, having observed him on occasion, but he could not have imagined being the focus of that skill, nor of the hunger behind it.
They were both breathing heavily when Artie pulled back to rest his forehead against Jim's. "Are you sure about this? Wait, don't answer that," he said. "If you aren't sure, at this point, I don't think I want to know." He pulled back and looked into Jim's eyes, his own hot and wanting, but still a little uncertain. "I want you, Jim, in all the ways a man can want a man. I have, for a very long time. But if this is all something you're doing, thinking that you need to, to make me happy, then—"
Jim brushed his lips over Artie's, then took one of Artie's hands and drew it down to press against his hardness, arching into Artie's palm. "I'm not humoring you, Artie," he said raggedly. "Not earlier, not now." He closed his eyes as Artie's hand moved against him and leaned back against the circle of Artie's other arm. "Do you believe me?"
Artie laughed, breathlessly. "I think I do." He stepped back to tug on the fastenings of Jim's vest. Jim saw that his hands were shaking, and moved to help. Artie moved to pull at the cravat he had so carefully tied just hours earlier.
"Be careful with that, it's genuine silk," Jim said, smiling. "And it belongs to a friend of mine."
Artie growled at him a little, pulling the cravat away from his throat and moving to drop it on the floor. "I think he'll understand."
Jim stopped him, taking the cravat and tucking it into his pocket. "I think I'll keep it. Kind of a good luck charm. After all, I can't keep you with me all the time."
Artie grinned, and curved one hand around Jim's now naked throat. "Oh, Jim. 'Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love'." The passion in his voice shivered through Jim like another shot of fine whiskey. "You just try and get rid of me, James West, and I'll show you bad luck. The Scottish play won't have anything on me."