March 2, 1877
Artemus Gordon stood at the intersection of the Entrance and Cross Halls. It was late in the evening, and most of the White House staff had long since left, leaving Artie alone to admire the portraits of all the presidents past that graced the walls. Soon, very soon, one more would be hung alongside the others. It was the end of an era.
For all the controversy that had surrounded Ulysses Grant, especially of late, in Artie's opinion the man had led the nation well in the post-war years, and he was sorry to see him leave office. On a personal level, he and his partner James West had spent most of their tenure in the Secret Service as special agents under Grant's direct supervision, and while the President had demanded much, he had also respected their work. On the balance, Artie had counted it a privilege to serve at his pleasure.
But the ending of an era meant that a new one would be beginning. Artie was not at all sure he was prepared for that. On the one hand, and not to put too fine a point on it, he was wearying of the life they led. A certain amount of adventure and excitement did add richness to one's existence, but a steady diet of it, especially now that he was past 50, was decidedly an overabundance of riches.
On the other hand, however, there was Jim.
It had been nearly a dozen years since they'd met, and most of those years had been spent together as partners, in more than one sense of the word. Artie valued this relationship above all others, considered the happenstance of their meeting in the aftermath of the War a genuine miracle, and Jim's very presence an amazing gift.
Giving up this life would mean giving up Jim, at least as far as the work was concerned. Beyond that... Artie did not want to contemplate what else he might have to relinquish.
No, Artie was far from prepared for the changes this new beginning would bring, but whether he was ready or not, changes were coming. Rutherford Hayes was, by all accounts, a fine officer and a decent statesman, but the new President could hardly be expected to keep an aging thespian on the government payroll, no matter how well he had played his roles on behalf of God and country.
There was no sense in waiting for the inevitable. Artie patted his waistcoat pocket and squared his shoulders.
The silence was broken by the sound of footsteps behind him, familiar footsteps. He carefully affixed a smile on his face before he turned.
"There you are. I've been looking for you, Artie." Jim's expression was unusually solemn, and Artie grew concerned.
"Is something amiss with the preparations?"
"No, we're set. The private ceremony here tomorrow, then the public swearing-in at the capitol on Monday. All the security arrangements are in place." Jim stood beside Artie, folded his arms, and studied the portrait of Lincoln pensively. Artie knew he was thinking of their first assignment together, back when the agency itself was newly-fledged: they had been part of the contingent that escorted the late President's body to Illinois. A sad task, yet out of that shared sorrow grew the best and brightest friendship Artie had ever known.
A minute or so passed and Jim said nothing. Finally, Artie asked, "Why were you looking for me, then?"
With his eyes still fixed on the painting, Jim said flatly, "You're going to turn in your resignation, aren't you."
Startled, Artie blurted out, "How did you—" before he caught himself. A moment's reflection made him realize that it would not have been very difficult for Jim to figure it all out. So instead he said, "I'm sorry, James. I know I should have told you first."
"Damn right you should've," Jim responded mildly, an observation more than an accusation. "You know my penmanship is awful when I have to rush." He reached into the inside pocket of his coat and drew out a folded sheet of paper.
Artie stared at the letter in consternation. "Oh, no. You don't have to do this. Jim—"
Jim turned at that, and his smile was very wry. "Oh, yes I do. I may be a few years younger than you are, but I'm not exactly a spring chicken. The new agents entering the ranks these days are half my age. Of course, I could take on any one of them in the field and still come out the winner, but..." he shrugged and admitted, "it's not something I'm eager to put to the test. And even if it was, I don't think I'd even be allowed to try."
Artie nodded in understanding. If Jim stayed on, there was a good chance the new administration would have him serve out the rest of his career behind a desk, and that, more than any bullets or bombs, would surely break him.
Still, he had to ask, "James, are you sure?" The firm nod and frank "this is what I want" convinced him that Jim was at peace with his decision, and only then did he allow himself to make peace with his own. He exhaled, feeling his body relax and lighten.
"You've been ready for a while, haven't you?" Jim said. "I can't say I blame you. Your first love has always been the stage, and now you can claim it. Go to New York, London, Paris. Be a star. 'Parting is such sweet sorrow,' eh?" The resignation in his voice was unmistakable, and Artie felt his chest ache with it.
You're wrong. It's only a very poor second.
Although he'd never admitted it, Artie's primary loyalty had always been, not to God and country, but to this man standing before him. As long as Jim had had need of him, he'd been determined to be at his side. But in all their time together, they'd never made promises to each other, never made plans that extended much beyond the next assignment. It had been a life built only upon the moment at hand. Under those conditions, sharing a bed was easy; sharing a future, impossibly hard. Declarations of love undying and forever bound went unspoken, for to give them voice had seemed too much like tempting fate.
However, things were different now. A new beginning. Now that they would both be free to do as they chose, what would they choose?
Artie replied gently, "What about you, James? Aren't you ready to buy that ranch down in Mexico you've talked about?"
"I never expected to run it alone, Artie."
Artie's chest still ached, but he didn't mind now. "Oh, my boy. You won't be alone. Not if you do not wish it."
Jim's eyes took on a hopeful gleam, but he said, "I'm being selfish. You deserve to do the things you want." It was not the most convincing of speeches, and Artie chuckled with relief.
"The two things do not have to be mutually exclusive, you know. Juliet's parting was sweet because she had every intention of seeing her beloved Romeo when the sun rose."
"Did you just call me Juliet?" Jim asked in mock affront.
Stifling a laugh, Artie said, "No, I'm saying all the world's a stage, Jim. I don't need the big cities like New York or London. I would be quite content with the occasional foray in a travelling troupe, so long as I have somewhere and someone to return to."
"You will," Jim promised, and suddenly there it was—a future. Artie almost couldn't believe how simple it had been, how easy.
Then again, how often in their careers had they managed to pull off the near-impossible? Really, he shouldn't have been surprised at all.
It was getting late, the President was waiting for him. (Would Grant be taken aback by two retirements instead of one? No, probably not.) The Entrance Hall, though deserted, was hardly the place for declarations, especially the sort he wanted to make.
But Artie was an actor, a damn good one. He could improvise.
He grasped Jim's hand and held it against his chest. "Pro domo et cor." For home and heart. He pressed a swift but passionate kiss to Jim's palm. "Et pro amor."
Jim smiled, cupping Artie's cheek briefly. "I love you, too."
Artie smiled back, then pulled his letter of resignation decisively out of his waistcoat pocket.
"Time and tide wait for no man, James, and neither does the President. Let's go."