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The Night of the President's Presents

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Artie was so engrossed in the action unfolding on the floor of the bar room below him, that he nearly forgot to make his own grand entrance.

Presumably a man of refinement, if he were to watch fisticuffs for entertainment, would be drawn to the more formalized spectacle of the sweet science. Perhaps Artie had witnessed (and in some cases taken book on) too many bare-knuckle matches to see much sweetness, much less science about the endeavor. On the other hand, he could never get enough of watching what appeared to be a spontaneous melee where random ruffians attempted to inflict grievous harm on a lone defender, particularly when that defender was his own impeccably attired partner. Of course only he and Jim truly knew how little of it was ever truly random and how hard Jim trained to make sure he didn’t get seriously injured. Not that there wouldn’t inevitably be a bit of bruising.

It was either the word “bruising,” or an especially balletic roundhouse kick that took his breath and attention away, allowing the sixth man, a burly fellow who’d already shown a fierce distaste for Jim during an earlier confrontation with the target of their current mission. Mr. 0’Neill was the type of criminal who fancied himself as being above the vulgarity of physical violence, but employed a horde of brutes, whose day seemed incomplete if it didn’t including some form of bloodshed.

Artie had spent the better part of a week swanning around Vacaville in the guise of Dr. Corvus, a rather imperious ornithologist doing research on the Common Guillemot, so it seemed appropriate that he should be observing the battle between Jim and O’Neill’s goons from a perch high in the rafters with the intention of swooping down on O’Neill. The swoop itself had entailed some detailed calculations of height, weight, velocity, and the necessity of Jim being in close enough proximity to convince O’Neill that incarceration was a better option than any of the weapons that Jim would be in position to use with deadly accuracy.

The presence of thug number six threw the whole brilliant scheme into instant disarray. Jim West was nothing short of masterful when it came to fighting five men at a time. Something about a sixth opponent always changed the balance dramatically. One of Jim’s punches glanced off a jaw and Jim lost his footing for a fraction of a second and the big goon pressed the advantage by getting him in a headlock.

The next thing Artie could see clearly was Jim on the ground receiving what appeared to be a fearsome pummeling including some vicious kicks to the sternum.

It was time for Artemus Gordon to take flight.

He lined up the trajectory, did a few mental calculations and said a prayer that the geniuses in the basement of the White House who’d provided the tech for this operation knew what they were doing. Then he focused every fiber of his being on the bastard who appeared to taking so much sheer animal delight in the assault that Artie imagined he could hear the huffing of a wolverine or some such critter.

Artie launched himself at the cretin’s broad posterior region with enough momentum to knock the bastard off his feet and give Jim the time he needed to get at the derringer in his left boot. The delicacy of the weapon’s appearance belied the damage it could do at close range. Within seconds, the sixth assailant had been perforated.

In a welter of adrenaline and theatricality, Artie dove deep into the fray, breaking his carefully built bird-watching cover and at least one nose, thankfully not his own in the process. He spotted O’Neill himself, glaring at his diminished troops, clearly put out by the necessity of fighting his own battle if he wanted to maintain his lucrative and treasonous trade in forged government bonds. He was smart enough to recognize the tensile strength of the cords Artie had used to “fly,” and was now trying to employ them as defensive weapons. Admirably creative, but still in the cause of a crime against the United States of America.

Artie caught Jim’s eye to let him know it was time to wrap things up. A throwing knife made a graceful arc, landing in Artie’s hand as if drawn by a powerful magnet. Without hesitation, Artie decked O’Neill with a mighty roundhouse and loomed over him with the knife poised in a position where they both knew how little effort it would take to end a life. Artie was never keen to kill, but wouldn’t flinch if O’Neill were stupid enough to force the issue. As with so many criminal masterminds before him, this one had the sense to call off his thugs and surrender to the authority of the US government.

The local Sheriff would take care of Mr. O’Neill until the US Marshalls arrived to transport him to Sacramento for trial. The band of uglies who’d protected him would no doubt lay low until the next “genius” with a wad of cash to spend came along, much as Jim and Artie would leave town on the Wanderer and the only trace would be the scars they left on their opponents and perhaps the broken heart of whichever lovely lady Jim had bedazzled with those stunning eyes of his.

Speaking of scars, it was only later that evening, when the train was heading eastward and Artie was delicately applying dressings to the areas of Jim’s body that had received the most damage, that Jim chose to bring up the matter of Artie’s delayed entry into the fray.

The bruises were there, as expected, and Artie hoped the tincture he used for these occasions would do its usual good work, leaving no trace of those vicious kicks or the hard landing that had preceded them. Considering the abuse Jim had taken over the years, there were only a few lasting marks and Artie had mentally catalogued those over and over. It was a pleasant pursuit, enabled by his partner’s proclivity for spending much of their time aboard the Wanderer shirtless, and occasionally in even less than that.

Artie had finished re-wrapping his rolls of gauze and was just closing his medical kit, ready to leave Jim to his whiskey and a night’s rest, when he noticed the smirk.

“Yes?” he asked, suspecting what might be coming and well-armed, as always.

“Little late there Artie. What happened to you?”

There was no anger in Jim’s voice, only curiosity and maybe concern, both for his partner and for his own well-being. In their line of work, those few seconds could have proved lethal.

“Sorry, Jim. I had something important on my mind.”

Raised eyebrows. The natural skepticism of a trained intelligence officer, not to mention years of working together. He’d have to sell this one hard, which meant making it sound as casual and meaningless as possible. He tried not to lie to Jim any more than was absolutely necessary, and never to be caught doing so. Luckily this one was absolutely plausible.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s only two weeks from now until December twenty-fifth. I was planning our Christmas decorations.”

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There wasn’t always money or an actual house, but there were always sparkling reminders of the holiday both inside and outside, even when they were spending Christmas in a wagon barely a mile away from a town that had seen a bit too much of them. It was fitting that the home he’d lived in the longest was a train called the Wanderer.

The man he called Father was an Irish Traveler from County Mayo. The first accent Artie ever mastered was a perfect imitation of Joe Malone’s brogue. Whether Joe believed or not was hard to say, but he could rain down a mean line of fire and brimstone when it served his purposes, including making sure his piety was visible during Yuletide.

Mother loved the Virgin of Guadalupe, Joe and her son, possibly in that order. If either of them could be believed (and Maria was also an accomplished a teller of tales) then one look into Joe’s blue eyes had been enough to pry her away from the convent and into his caravan.

Joe had the gift, or perhaps the curse, of attraction. Without a relative closer than the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, he managed to form a family of loners, losers and lovers. He kept them moving around the territories; doing whatever it took to fend off the poverty had led him to leave Ireland in the first place.

He taught Maria and Artie and anyone else who chose to stay with him the same lesson: Do what it takes to stay alive and stay together. No guilt was attached to these endeavors. The Lord would provide, but He worked in mysterious ways. He made suckers and a friendly confidence game was a damn sight easier than a week of labor on someone else’s land. If survival required bit of dancing for the entertainment of some lusty lads by Maria or even more intimate services, so be it.

By the time Joe went the way of all charming scoundrels; his son was proficient in various dialects, skilled at the art of disguise and could quote the classics as floridly as any actor who’d ever trod the boards. He’d also inherited his mother’s sentimental attachment to making the sparsest of accommodations look beautiful in deference to birth of Jesus. They’d both been born to a Mary and a Joseph; it was the least he could do.

The Wanderer was a far cry from the squalor of the mining camps or some of the rented rooms that he and Maria had decorated right up until her last Christmas, the last one before Fort Sumter. Once Maria was gone and the war was a reality, Arty knew it was time to make a new name and new life for himself.

The first book he read was the King James Bible and his second was the complete works of Shakespeare. The name that he was born with hadn’t been recorded in any legal documents, but it wasn’t Arthur or Arturo and it certainly wasn’t Artemus.

As a child, he was called “Arty” because he drew with whatever medium happened to be around, and even the rough sketches he produced were instantly recognizable as the people or things he intended them to be.

Artemus Gordon was the name he’d chosen for himself when it was time to produce an identity suitable for a commission in the Union Army. He like the way the syllables ran trippingly off the tongue when he introduced himself and the fact that it had an air of divinity about it. His drawing skills had been honed into the ability to create a convincing replica of virtually any type of document, including a diploma from William and Mary.

The Colonel who’d set up a make-shift recruiting office in New Berlin, Wisconsin, hoping to pull rawboned young men from the dairy farms into the front lines as quickly as they could be trained, instead found himself rather taken with the young man he encountered minding the till at the general store. Clearly no mere farm-boy, but rather a misplaced gentleman fallen on hard times. Why, he’d even graduated from the best university in the country, the same one the Colonel himself had attended.

Thus did Artemus Gordon end up serving with honor at the Battle of Cedar Creek, and having a genuine commendation attached to his adopted identity. He wasn’t sure if the Colonel ever twigged to the way he’d been deceived, or didn’t particularly give a damn.

Artemus was quickly elevated from the ranks of fighting soldiers and ordered to perform acts of espionage against the rebel troops. Who else could so perfectly produce the dialects of various parts of the South? In the proper uniform he could walk into any Confederate campsite and have them convinced he was one their own. It was dangerous work, but it suited his temperament.

Once the hostilities had ceased, he drifted a bit. Some acting when he could, a bit of grifting if absolutely necessary. A stint playing piano on a riverboat eventually led to the seedy underbelly of reconstruction politics, when he spotted the Governor of New York sitting down to what he probably believed was a friendly game of poker. He could tell that Morgan was about to be fleeced at the card table by a cheat who was in cahoots with one of the boat’s resident floozies, and no doubt the bartender as well. It took some skill to extricate Governor Morgan from the damage to both his wallet and reputation that might otherwise have ensued and the reward was a lucrative position using his espionage skills to do “research” on anyone who opposed Governor Morgan or the policies of his party.

When Morgan moved to DC to take up the role of Senator, Artemus followed. The Senator was a confidante of President Grant and there was no question that the Secret Service would benefit greatly from having Artemus Gordon join their ranks.

It was the job he’d been born for, giving his new identity the opportunity to assume myriad disguises in the service of his country and lose a bit of the stench that had filled his nostrils as a purely political operative.

As cynical as Joe had been about many things, he’d loved America, if only for, as he liked to put it, “putting’ a boot up the King’s arse.”

Artie had been looking forward to his first mission in this endeavor when he was brought up short by a phrase in the orders that arrived by courier in his rented room on the morning of that memorable day. “Please arrive promptly at 11AM for a briefing with your partner, Mr. James. T. West.”

It hadn’t occurred to him that the Secret Service would require him to work with a partner. During the war he’d carried out his missions alone and preferred it that way. One of Joe’s lessons was trust yourself and family only, although mother also tried to instill a bit of faith in God and the Blessed Virgin. Artemus still carried the cross Maria had given him, but when it came to talking his way out of a jam with a Confederate rifle aimed at his forehead, he’d rely on his own skills, thank you very much.

That wasn’t how it worked in the Secret Service. All right then, a partner it was. James T. West? Clearly a name as bogus as his own. He read over a perfunctory dossier that highlighted Mr. West’s military career, especially his tenure as aide de camp to General Grant. The Battle of Vicksburg loomed large in the record and Artemus wasn’t going to withhold respect from anyone who’d fought at that hell-hole, but he intended to let it be known early on who should be calling the shots in this newly-minted partnership.

The meeting was held in a nondescript building on a street that wasn’t even supposed to exist in the nation’s capital.

Artie gave the coded knock on the door, followed by the password, and waited for whoever was on the inside to verify his identity through the peephole. A ludicrously easy system to fool, especially if someone was blessed with a gift for disguise and vocal impersonation.

Yes, he had many ideas for the improvement of the Secret Service, and he’d share them with anyone who would listen as soon as this ridiculous…

“Good afternoon, Mr. Gordon.”

He recognized Colonel Richmond from previous meetings, along with some of the other political appointees involved in his recruitment. There was a comely young lady stationed discreetly in the corner to take notes.

What immediately and dramatically caught his attention was the sight of the man who was in the process of rising from a chair. His suit was a striking shade of blue, clearly made by the loving hand of a master tailor and setting off a pair of eyes that might have put even Joe Malone’s to shame.

Artemus wasn’t sure he’d be tempted to give up holy orders, but he knew almost instantly that he’d be comfortable putting his trust in this man’s quiet authority and the compact, coiled energy he exuded. He suspected that in the matter of moments he’d needed to assess Mr. James West, the same measure had been taken of him.

Colonel Richmond was making various bureaucratic noises about the gravity of their mission and the level of trust that President Grant was putting in his Secret Service agents. Important stuff, but nothing he wouldn’t be able to glean from a transcript, if necessary. What he’d always remember was the warmth and charm he felt emanating from James West when he smiled and held out a hand as if they’d already fought and won the battles that could only be imagined.

“Artie.”

“Jim.”

After that handshake, there were only a few formalities and within days, they’d set off toward the territories in the Wanderer. Still a Traveler at heart, but this time with the authority of law on his side instead of at his throat.

Despite the inherent danger of their work, he’d never felt so safe. Life with Jim had the best aspects of what he imagined a good marriage would be like, save the obvious.

It had been a long a time since he’d had any intimate relationships beyond the needs of a night, nor was he looking for one. The Colonel had returned to home and hearth after the war, and while Artie would always feel gratitude, he didn’t choose to dwell on what had passed between them, such as it was, a perfect reflection of the first Latin phrase he’d ever learned: quid pro quo.

He had his fair share of lovely ladies on his arm and in his bed when the urge arose, but without the need to use love or its equivalent as a bartering chip for survival, his passions ran to various elements of the job. Artemus was happy to spend hours working on new inventions and disguises, researching the various rogues who imperiled the country as a whole or his and Jim’s well-being in particular, or just enjoying a night in the company of the Bard as Jim polished his guns or kept their correspondence with Colonel Richmond up to date. He also studied in keenest detail the person and persona of James T. West, while keeping his own past hidden behind the line of blarney that was his birthright as a Malone.

He thought he was getting away with it all until that one time he over-embellished a tale of his nonexistent Aunt Maude making a pineapple upside-down cake. Just about the time the baking powder had ignited giving Artie the idea for an incendiary device, Jim had put down the miniature screwdriver he was using to tighten one of the spring-loaded switchblades contained in his left boot-heel and fixed Artie’s gaze with his own.

“Artie?”

“Yes, Jim?”

“Do I look like a rube?”

The question, using that specific word, implied that James West might be something other than the scion of Chicago industrial nobility that his manner suggested.

“Sorry about that.”

From then on, he kept the stories more firmly grounded in truth, except the part where he described Lily Fortune as an old flame from high school, a base canard, given what had actually transpired between them, the lack of any formal high school in his past and the very good reason her mother had to loathe him.

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He’d never bothered to dissemble about his own attachment to Yuletide, so there was no reason for Jim to disbelieve his explanation for being distracted during the fight in Vacaville. Just to settle the matter in Jim’s mind, Artie immediately set about the yearly ritual of festooning the interior of the Wanderer with decorations from his collection including his mother’s treasured Guadalupe, some baubles he’d had sent from Lauscha, and even a few trinkets he’d created himself. It was amazing what he could do with the glass leftover from the brawls that inevitably laid waste to the stock of a town’s main watering hole.

As he hummed a bit of Schubert, he could sense Jim watching him with detached amusement of a tolerant spouse. He wondered what Christmas meant to James beyond their current journey back to Washington DC, with stops along the way to take on a very special cargo. This was their third year as Saint Nicholas by proxy.

In lieu of an actual sleigh, the Wanderer would be taking presents from the President’s admirers and political allies back to the White House, not to mention tribal elders hoping to receive favorable treaties with the Great White Father in Washington. They all pledged loyalty to the President, but Jim and Artie had foiled enough plots against him to know that even the most innocent-looking trinket could harbor a deadly secret.

Elaborately wrapped packages had to be undone and examined for booby traps and then put back to their original condition. Potable gifts, based on Grant’s reputation as a lover of strong drink, had to be opened, tested for all manner of poison and returned to their pristine form. As Jim was fond of pointing out, the “easy” jobs often turned out to be hardest and few easy jobs had more pitfalls than those requiring diplomacy.

The Christmas run proceeded until the Wanderer was filled with boxes, bottles, and bags; each one duly examined and accounted for. The interior of the train was decorated accordingly and Artie felt well pleased with himself. His late swoop hadn’t been revisited; another bullet dodged.

Their last scheduled arrival before arriving at Union Station with the President’s presents was a whistle stop on the outskirts of Fairfax. It was a late addition to the route, advised by a telegraph from one of Colonel Richmond’s underlings, stating that it had to be done under the cover of night to protect the privacy of the gift-giver.

Artie smelled a rat and suspected that Jim was catching a similar whiff, but orders were orders. Their lanterns barely penetrated the snowy darkness, leaving Artie to wonder if what he saw and heard was real. Five young ladies, practically dressed for a cotillion, down to the white gloves and therefore not at all protected against the elements. The girls curtsied, as one and proceeded to, with nary the chattering of a tooth, sing Schubert’s Ave Maria in perfect harmony.

To Artie’s eye, the singers were absolutely lovely and he momentarily wondered if they were the gift themselves. Whatever Grant’s reputation was regarding the bottle, Artie had no reason to suspect him of anything less than utter devotion to the First Lady. If that was the game, the mysterious donor was barking up the wrong tree.

On the other hand, there was Mr. James West himself, a renowned lady’s man.

“I think the mezzo soprano has eyes for you, Artie,” Jim remarked, reminding Artie that he too was no slouch in the romance department, at least for public consumption, and occasionally for his own pleasure.

It was too dark and cold argue the point and it didn’t make sense. Would it really be possible to assemble such talented songstresses and also have them be women of easy virtue? Well…maybe.

Just when he felt his hands were going numb, the blonde alto stepped up to Jim and Artie, and from, somewhere, perhaps the folds of her skirt, produced a tiny square box, as small and exquisite as anything he’d ever seen. She offered it to Artie, who used the hand that wasn’t holding a lantern to take it from her. She dimpled prettily, and kissed him on the cheek, offering up one more curtsy, and leading her sisters in song away from the train and into to the darkness. As the last strains of their voices left his ears, he realized that those too were in danger of frostbite and it was clearly time to re-board the train.

After some scalding coffee had been imbibed, he asked Jim the most obvious question.

“What the hell was that?”

By this time Jim had removed his jacket and vest, taking advantage of how Artie had reconfigured the venting systems of the Wanderer so that the same steam that kept them in motion also provided ample heat throughout their quarters. In fact, he was in the process of unbuttoning his shirt and a trickle of sweat was visibly making its way down Jim’s well defined chest on the way to a point below the waistline, which was not currently visible.

Jim took a more cautious sip of his hot beverage and appeared to give the matter serious thought, before shaking his head.

“Damned if I know. Talented girls though. Too bad we can’t take them to the gala.”

Was that a leer or just a smirk at the idea of finding accommodations for the singers within the confines on the Wanderer? Possibly a mixture. That was Jim for you.

“We still have to make sure it’s safe,” Artie noted. “Even without the femmes, it could prove fatal.”

“You take care of that, Artie. I’m going to grab some shuteye. Can’t be yawning during a White House party.”

Too true, and sadly, almost nothing was more stultifying. The ladies would have livened things up a bit.

“Night, Jim.”

“Night.”

Artie got out a kit he had personally created for working on the smallest scale. Miniature screwdrivers, wire-cutters, pliers and even a tiny, but powerful magnifying lens. He also put on a pair of thick gloves. Couldn’t be too careful. On closer examination the box was even daintier than he’d initially thought. It looked like a confection made of spun sugar that reflected back the candles lighting the compartment.

There was an intricate mechanism visible under the glass lid, which bore further investigation. The clasp was practically miniscule; eluding the grasp of the pliers until Artie grew frustrated enough to pull the gloves off. He wiped his sweaty hands against his trousers and then brought his head down to the box again. So delicate, as if the merest breath would open the whole thing.

He blew softly and the clasp came away allowing the top to open. There was a soft whirring sound of moving parts, followed by a melody. Schubert again. The same soft angelic voices. A music box then, one that could reproduce sound so perfectly, it must be the work of a genius. A genius of epic talents but tiny stature.

By the time Artie realized the gravity of his mistake it was too late. The little box was filling the air with both music and small white granules, as though the snow had come indoors, but didn’t have the mass to reach the ground. The flakes hung in the air and the longer Artie observed the phenomenon, the more he realized his senses were being affected in ways that made no sense.

He was seeing the music. Each of the five voices in the quintet was a different color and their blending harmonies kept the room swirling in a brilliant rainbow that he couldn’t take his eyes off of, or was it his ears? There was a scent like a murky swamp, but he tasted it as sweetness in his mouth. Powerful drug, he observed, but couldn’t overcome the effects. The colors were getting brighter, the taste stronger. That meant the music and smell would reach Jim soon.

Jim.

The magical snow swirled around him, the coloratura took the solo and Artie was nearly blinded with tears at the sharpness of the spectacle. Or was it the overwhelming emotion and physical urge that was being unleashed? The one that he’d avoided admitting to himself since that first handshake.

Jim.

He had to find Jim. Make sure he was all right. Warn him that something was very wrong. Protect him. Make sure he had no idea what Artie’s body (and heart, thank you very much, he tried to protest) was craving with every fiber of his being.

Artie felt dizzy and sweaty. With heavy limbs he pulled himself up from his chair, the thickness in the air still filling his lungs, and went to Jim’s room to warn him.

He knocked. Even in a crisis, there was decorum.

“Jim?”

No answer.

“Jim!”

He tried the door. Unlocked. Either Jim had been rendered invisible or he wasn’t there. At the rate things were going, the former was certainly a possibility. Searching for the unseen James West struck Artie as a poor choice, knowing he was currently impaired. He could feel tremors in his limbs every time he thought of his partner and that was a danger to them both. Maybe he’d just lie down for awhile and hope the musical colors and sweet-sour smells would sort themselves out.

Artie opened the door to his own room and immediately decided that whatever had come out of that little box was the most dangerous substance known to man, based on what had to be a hallucination that appeared absolutely real. Seeing music was nothing compared to believing that James West was lying on his bed naked as a jaybird, casually puffing a cigar.

“Late again, Artie? This is getting to be a bad habit.”

At least Jim wasn’t speaking in colors, although the music must still be going because the full array of Titian’s pallet was dancing around the room. That meant the mind-altering crystals must be affecting Jim as well. He wouldn’t be there, like that on his own, would he?

“Jim, my boy…”

“I like it when you call me that.”

This had to be stopped. Threat to security. To reputation. To their partnership.

At the very least he had try. He wouldn’t take advantage of a lady under the influence; he owed Jim the same consideration.

“The box. Something came out. It’s like snow or maybe a pollen. Either way, it’s causing…” he waved a hand at the colors, the swirls, the music and Jim’s ungodly beautiful body. “This,” he finished, with a flourish including his own longing in the situation. “Loveless must have orchestrated it all.”

“That would be my guess,” Jim agreed, but didn’t seem incline to move, beyond putting the cigar into an ashtray.

“But…”

“We need to find out just how strong this thing is.”

Artie wasn’t sure if Jim was referring to the effect of the pollen or something else, but one detail had him convinced that there was more going on than just his own petty lusts and perversions. He might have indulged in unseemly fantasies of James naked and at his disposal, but he’d swear on his mother’s grave that none of them involved Jim having his hat on.

If nothing else, he’d need to take his own clothing off. There was no reason to be shy. They’d seen each other enough times, especially when a job required one or both of them to make a quick change into or out of disguise, but he’d also never had Jim staring at him so intently in the act.

If this was his one chance, there were several acts he intended to perform. Perhaps he’d manage to knock that hat off. He started by nestling himself next to Jim in the bed, not immediately sure if kissing was on the agenda. Few of the men he’d consorted with wanted that level of intimacy, but Jim had no such qualms. Despite Washington DC coming ever closer, the drug stretched out time, reducing any sense of urgency beyond the desire for release.

While finding out just how good and thorough a kisser Jim was, and moaning his appreciation back into Jim’s mouth, Artie let his hands explore, running over smooth skin and taut muscle. Finding those places where the bruises he found so poignant had hardened into actual scars.

Finally, convinced this was really happening and willing to face whatever the consequences might be, Artie took matters in hand. Jim’s manhood swelled into his touch and a delightfully deep sigh, almost like a purring cat escaped his throat. Artie was gratified by the reaction to his skill and he knew the best was yet to come. What he’d done in slightly sordid transactions or out of lonely desperation took on new levels as he bestowed long, slow strokes on this man he genuinely cared for.

“Artie….”

Jim’s voice was a beautiful, hoarse croon, inspiring Artie to lower his head down to Jim’s crotch and lick his lips in anticipation. He breathed deeply. In a way, this was worse than a mere sin committed in the name of survival. There were names he’d be called if anyone knew, and right now he was going to be the best one ever. He’d show Jim a better time than any of those saloon strumpets, because who but another man could possibly know what would bring the greatest pleasure?

The taste, the smell of him. It was everything Artie hadn’t wanted to admit he’d imagined, and more. He had a rhythm established and sensed that Jim was ready to let go. Breathe, he reminded himself. Artie wanted it to be perfect. There was even a script in his head, right down to the endearments afterwards, but instead of the spasmodic thrusting into the back of his mouth that Artie was anticipating, Jim was easing himself away, leaving Artie with a momentary fear that the drug was wearing off and he was going to be found in a very compromising situation.

Jim still had that damn hat on. And his grin. He was spreading his legs wide in clear invitation, if not outright demand.

As with the hat, the possibility of penetration was so far beyond his own realm of fantasy that he was momentarily taken aback.

“Are you sure? Have you ever…"

Jim’s expression told him it was a ridiculous question. He was staring at Artie’s erection with frank admiration, whereas Artie had been so overwhelmed by the entire mad experience that he’d almost forgotten his own arousal.

“You have something?” Jim asked pointedly and Artie was still rattled enough to think he might mean something to prevent pregnancy. Even in a state of lunacy, that couldn’t be right. Then he looked at Jim, practically begging for Artie to plow him into the middle of next week and realized that even if Jim were used to taking a high hard one on a regular basis, which he doubted, a bit of emollient was still going to be necessary.

There was one close by; his own creation.

“Second drawer from the top. Right hand side. Be generous.”

The sight of Jim slowly and deliberately preparing himself for Artie’s cock, made him wonder if his heart was going to survive this night, and feeling like if he died here and now, it would still have been worth it. A mixture of tantalizing slowness, and absolute focus. Artie knew he was a man of some girth in that area and had never felt so hard. Jim was clearly no neophyte. He used the lubricant on his hands and then applied it directly to the spot that Artie was soon going to plunder. Jim’s hands were lethal with a knife or gun or even ending a man’s life bare-handed, but nothing would ever move Artie as much as seeing him push those delicate fingers inside himself with a soft moan, his cock straining upwards and hips practically rising off the bed.

“Ready?” Jim asked, still a maddening mixture of need and control, spreading his muscular legs even wider to make the point.

Artie had been ready the day they met and he was ready now. He maneuvered himself into position; head of his cock poised against Jim’s asshole, still not sure it was actually happening.

“Oh god!”

Was that him or Jim speaking? What color were the sounds? Was the music still playing or was this just them. Nothing mattered, but the fact that he was fucking Jim and Jim clearly loved it, pushing himself against Artie, to take him deeper.
It was time for his own roar. The build-up had been so long, a lifetime, or maybe just the minutes since he’d walked in to the room.

Long, hard, deep thrusts into the tightness and heat. Gasping and groaning. A few delightful obscenities and maybe some tears. Hands gripping tightly. He suspected that he’d leave a bruise of his own on Jim’s body. Jim, my boy, you are mine, he thought, and shot the happiest load of his life while kissing Jim West with all the passion at his command.

Then came James’ spasms underneath him and the biting of Artie’s lower lip. Artie knew that neither of them would come through unscathed. Perhaps they didn’t want to.

The last thing he saw before he fell asleep was Jim’s hat on the floor next to the bed.

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As expected, the White House Christmas party was the least exciting event possible, exactly what the Secret Service wanted. Little did Colonel Richmond know exactly what kind of social disaster could have unfolded if the “Love Bomb” had gone off anywhere besides the Wanderer. The official record would reflect that Agents West and Gordon had discovered and disarmed (at great danger to themselves) a deadly poison intended to harm the President.

Artie was smirking safely behind his Santa Claus beard as Jim showed Colonel Richmond the offending document, wondering exactly that had sent them to Fairfax in the first place There was great huffing and puffing and a new assignment. Now they had to find the mole.

The plan was to let their prime suspect believe his scheme was working perfectly. If Dr. Loveless was intent on creating embarrassment and scandal, he’d want to be there to witness it himself.

The tiny box, now only a beautiful shell was brought into the White House ballroom, along with the other presents and left ostentatiously unguarded. As Santa, Artie was excellently positioned to intercept any attempts to re-arm or remove the device. He also had convenient camouflage for the slightly swollen lower lip and a small red mark on his neck that might be visible if he were dressed in regular garb.

Any souvenirs of the previous night that Jim might be bearing were covered by the high neck and ruffled shirt of his formal wear. He was every inch the charming gentleman as he waltzed with Julia Grant, eyes peeled all the while for a certain small personage.

There hadn’t been time for a much-needed talk about the night before. The longer the evening at the White House wore on, the more like a dream the amazing events on the Wanderer seemed. Except for his lip, of course. Unless that was the result of a hot beverage consumed too quickly following a sortie in the frigid night air. He tried not to feel jealous of the First Lady, or any of the other Washington Grande Dames, who had the pleasure of a turn on the floor with the handsomest man in the room.

Even if Jim had experienced the same level of ecstasy that Artie had, it was still the result of a powerful drug. Artie could hardly expect a second encounter of that nature, much less a continuing affair. The idea was ridiculous. And distracting. He needed to have his mind on the job, not the tailoring of Jim’s custom-made pants.

Loveless had once again proven himself capable of anything and the gathering of the great and the good of Washington society had to be an irresistible target for his particular brand of mischief.

A commotion was unfolding at the door the main ballroom. Shouting and harrumphing by one of the butlers and several of the military armed guards converging on a small assemblage. Jim managed to steer the Attorney General’s wife in that direction without missing a beat, as the musicians kept playing, either taking no notice of the kerfuffle or not caring.

As Father Christmas, he had to stay in character, but make sure he was close enough to deal with the threat when it arose. The costume was good, but not as practical for fast movement as he would have liked. On the other hand, there was room for concealment and if it were necessary for St. Nicholas to take drastic steps in the protection of the President, he was more than ready.

Artie noted that President Grant himself had excused himself from the festivities. Probably found the whole thing dull as dishwater and preferred poker, cigars and brandy with members of his cabinet and surviving military comrades. Julia Grant, on the other hand, aside from loving a good waltz with her favorite Secret Service agent, was clearly excited by the newest arrivals and wanted them admitted to the soiree, despite the lack of an official invitation.

It couldn’t be, but of course it was. All five of them, looking just as lovely as they had in the snow. They’d brought a letter of introduction, stating that they were from the California Conservatory of Music and had been sent to serenade the first lady.

“Oh, do let them in. They’re absolutely darling!”

Voices of reason argued otherwise.

“Mrs. Grant, this is not a good idea.”

“They have no credentials.”

“It’s a breach of security.”

Mrs. Grant pouted like the Southern belle she once was and turned to Jim.

“Mr. West. Surely you don’t mean to tell me that these girls are a threat you can’t protect us from?”

Jim managed to subtly catch his eye without forcing him to break cover. He shrugged and gave out a slightly too loud, “Ho, ho, ho!”

“Of course we’ll protect you, Mrs. Grant.” Jim was definitely at his flirtatious best when dealing with First Lady. “I do have to ask if the ladies are carrying any items beyond their own delightful presence.”

Artie waited while the blonde alto smiled as she had in the dim light outside the train, reached into the folds of her skirt. If he saw one of those damn boxes, he’d make damn sure it ended up far away from the White House. He might try to figure out the mechanism of the drug or the medium that delivered it, but that was his own business.

No box in sight, but a small envelope. Of course any container could have enough of the pollen to trigger the reaction. The envelope was handed to Mrs. Grant who opened it and read the note within. Her lips pursed with restrained laughter. Damn. It must be the drug. God knew the effect and the level of scandal. She was coming toward him with a keen look in her eye. Would he have to commit career suicide by publicly rejecting the First Lady of the United States? Loveless really was an evil son of a…

She motioned for him to lean over so she could whisper in his ear.

“Santa has been cordially invited to join the patron of the entertainment for a brandy in the cellar.”

He didn’t like the idea of leaving Jim alone with those girls, but if Loveless was actually on the premises, he needed to be contained. Such a mighty ego needed an audience to applaud his genius. With any luck, a few secrets might slip out.

 

Ave Maria! Jungfrau mild.
Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen,
Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild
Soll mein Gebet zu dir hin wehen.

He debated going down in his Santa garb, but that game was over and he’d need to devise a suit with better ventilation and mobility for Christmas future.

The cellar of the White House had a bar, of course. One of many secrets that had probably been breached by whoever it was that Loveless had placed strategically within the Secret Service. He’d have to ask about that too. Maybe that would be his Christmas present. Unless Loveless knew what had gone on aboard the Wanderer, in which case all bets were off and he’d have to silence their nemesis once and for all.

@@@@@@

Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright--

At least that told him their supposition was correct. Only one of the evildoers who regularly appeared to threaten the well-being of the US Government was quite so musical.

Aside from orchestrating the Sirens to befuddle them, Dr. Loveless had brought his usual accomplices into the proceedings. Antoinette sat at an upright piano that Artie hadn’t previously seen in the bar and Voltaire had been enlisted to play the concertina, which looked ridiculously small in his hands and could probably be used as a weapon. Artie could imagine a single note that would paralyze all listeners or create some other level of humiliation.

It was Christmas however, his mother’s holiday and he was a gentleman by bearing, if not by birth.

Loveless stood by the piano in his usual formal wear, looking fondly at his two accompanists and waving Artie towards the bar.

Artie listened and waited patiently, while savoring the drink that was waiting for him, despite the lack of a bartender. A drugged brandy was too obvious for the man who’d gone to the trouble of a fake telegraph, singers and the tiny box.

Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

He wondered briefly what held Antoinette and Voltaire to such a lunatic. Of course some people might ask the same question of his partnership.

“A holly and jolly Christmas, is it not, Mr. Gordon?”

“Not too bad. Sorry you didn’t get an invitation to the party.”

“Come now, Mr. Gordon. If I wanted to be among that crowd, I would have found a way. Perhaps I’d be convincing as one of Santa’s helpers?”

He must be in a good mood to reference his short stature so calmly.

“Why come at all?”

“I wanted to see how my present was received.”

“I’m more curious as to how it was conceived,” Artie replied. The madman must already know that his scheme had been thwarted, so he’d play to Loveless’s vanity.

“So you know what it does?”

This was a tricky chess game.

“Colored hearing.”

“The Greeks called it synesthesia. But there’s so much more, isn’t there, Mr. Gordon.”

“General confusion of the senses.”

He didn’t like Miguelito’s smile at all. Way too knowing.

“Mmmm. I’m not sure you really got the full effect.”

Artie started worrying about the drink again, but Loveless actually shook his head.

“I could kill you with poison, but the compound requires inhalation. So I had to create a pollen mechanism as well.”

“Does it have a name?”

He smiled like a disturbingly proud parent.

“I call it Miguelito’s Dramatic Mental Arouser.”

“And you intended it to arouse…what?”

Loveless stared at him again and shook his head.

“I could have sworn you would…”

“Would what?” Bland. Neutral face. A lifetime of bluffing.

“Never mind. I was actually working on a truth serum. I dislike it when people lie to me, especially when I need them to lie to others.”

“Well, that makes sense.”

“Initial tests were inconclusive because I didn’t know the subjects well enough to determine if they were lying, so I administered doses to my closest companions.”

Artie let that sink in and realized who Dr. Loveless was referring to. As a fond look past between the trio, Artie had a visual he did not want. Whatever he’d done with Jim, at least there were just the two of them involved. How did that even work with Voltaire and…no, he really did not want to know.

“That’s….”

“What Mr. Gordon? Disgusting? Immoral? Or did you think that my name means I am incapable of giving or receiving physical affection of any kind?”

“That’s neither here, nor there. I’m trying to protect my country.”

“Yes, I’m sure that’s what you’re protecting Mr. Gordon.”

“So you have a….’Love Bomb’, then?” Loveless smiled. Perhaps the name hadn’t actually occurred to him before. “And you meant to have it explode in the White House for what reason?”

“I never intended for it to be detonated here, although the results might be most amusing. All I need to do is convince the government it exists. I’m sure they’d pay for something capable of undermining a fighting force or creating a scandal in the ranks.”

“Can it induce these feelings or only enhance them?”

He regretted asking the question, but Loveless was enough of a scientist to take it seriously.

“I was hoping you and Mr. West would answer that question for me.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you. Your MDMA won’t create something that doesn’t already exist. Not much of a weapon really.”

More like Snake Oil, he thought. Joe would have been happy to peddle something that could basically take latent feelings and amplify them into a night of sin that would make the earth stand still, even if it was only for that one night.

“Back to the lab then, I suppose. May I request safe passage for myself and the young ladies?”

“And your other…companions?”

“Of course. When one has found ecstasy, one doesn’t let it go.”

“I hope you three are very happy together.”

“And to you two as well. Merry Christmas, Mr. Gordon.”

Artie left the bar, to the strains of “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal,” and went looking for Jim, to tell him the danger was over, at least for the time being.

@@@@@

The party was over as well.

All the presents, including the small, empty box were still laid out on the long table. Perhaps the President would open them at leisure after church on Christmas day. The papers of record would report that Julia Grant had once again proved herself a superlative hostess and the Attorney General’s wife would probably never be satisfied with her own husband’s dancing again.

They’d been invited to spend the night in the White House, but Artie was reluctant to go upstairs and sleep in their separate assigned rooms. He just wanted to savor a cigar from one of the Presidential humidors and the presence of his partner, friend and compadre. They sat on stairs, smoking and drinking in silence. Artie assumed they had an unspoken agreement not to mention the results of the ‘Love Bomb’. Once again, Jim surprised him.

“You lied to Loveless.”

“He’s a lunatic.”

“And a genius, we know that. He knows that. So he knows you lied.”

“Not exactly. I said the drug can’t create something that isn’t there.”

“Semantics.”

“Or at least pedantry. What of it? I mean it’s not like we want that to happen again. It was the drug, right?” He tried not to sound hopeful or scared or any of the things he felt.

“The drug can’t create something that isn’t there,” Jim reminded him.

“But…but…you…”

“Yeah, Artie. Me. And you.”

“What about…?” He wasn’t sure how to end the question. What about propriety? About their reputations. About Jim’s female conquests? About his own admiration of feminine beauty? About sin? About love? If it was about love, then he was willing. If not, he had to admit, he was probably still willing. “What if someone finds out?”

“Come on, Artie. Who would believe something so ridiculous? James T. West, a deviant? Or Artemus Gordon, for that matter? Tell you what, though. Next time you see your friend Lily, you should propose to her.”

“What?” he asked, genuinely shocked. “She’ll turn me down flat and her mother will never shut up about it.

“Exactly. Now let’s go to bed.”

Artie shook his head in admiration at the sheer audacity. Clearly it was Jim who had a thing or two to teach him about the love that could get them both run out of town on a rail.

Jim reached out a ran a thumb over Artie’s lip, briefly pressing against the swelling he’d caused during their passion and provoking a new round of swelling below the waist.

“Jim, my boy, are you going to defile the home of the President of the United States on the eve of Christmas itself?”

“I certainly hope so.”

Jim West was his boy, he thought, following him up the stairs. Life with him would always be wild and Artie was looking forward to every minute of it.