Actions

Work Header

The Night of the Fractured Mask

Work Text:

I’m in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on what promises to be a glorious supper, when I hear a muffled call from the next room. “Artie, where do you keep the face paints you use for your disguises?”

“In the bottom drawer of the sideboard in the wardrobe,” I call back without thinking. It’s not really a sideboard, but then the little room next to the galley isn’t really a wardrobe, either—even though one of its sliding panels houses the majority of Jim’s outerwear, and another barely contains my vast collection of costumes. In the weeks we’ve been on this train together, we’ve already begun to develop our own unique way of communicating, so I know he’ll know which drawer I mean.

I stir more wine into the sauce. For that matter, I wouldn’t classify my specialized theatrical makeup supplies as face paints

I’m intent on cooking, so it takes a moment for my brain to come around to the obvious question. My spoon rests. “Out of curiosity, why do you ask?”

There’s no answer. Only because I’m listening carefully do I detect the faint scuff of feet traveling from the salon, through the swinging door, past the galley to the adjacent room. James can be very quiet when he wants to, in spite of those heavy boot heels and whichever of my gadgets he’s carrying in them today.

“Jim?” I reach across and duck below the cabinets to rap on the wall. The walls are thin and the train is motionless on a siding, so the only sound is the bubbling of the sauce in the cookpot. Straining my ears again, I hear the familiar rattle of a box of theatrical magic. My magic. The rattle retraces the path the boots took, back to the salon.

I turn down the gas—it would be a shame to scorch a fine Marsala—and lean around the open connecting door into the salon. My partner occupies one of the gold velvet settees, facing away from me. He’s dressed in his newest suit, a perfectly-tailored affair of blue wool and gold silk that must have cost Uncle Sam the annual tax revenue of one of the New England states. His broad shoulders roll forward as he hunches over a table.

I can be quiet when I want to, too. I stealthily cross the room to peer over his well-appointed shoulder. The contents of my disguise kit are spread across the low table, and James T. West is wiggling corks and poking his fingers into each of my color pots. I repress a surge of irritation at seeing the sacred palette of my creative art splayed out like a child’s paint set.

I’m about to clear my throat when he catches sight of me in the little stand mirror I keep in my kit. His eyes meet those of my reflection, and he has the decency to look chagrined for a second or two—though no expression abides on James’ face for long, and a moment later his features are back to neutral.

Well, almost neutral. There’s an ugly bruise distorting the perfect line of his chiseled jaw, a souvenir from the six-on-one gavotte Jim danced with the guards at the gate of Don Arturo Hidalgo’s hacienda earlier this afternoon. The swelling has pushed the corner of his mouth into a curl that gives him the look of a man who has tasted a lemon and is trying to pretend it was a peach.

I clasp my hands behind my back and plaster on a smile. “Might I inquire exactly what it is that you’re doing with my disguise kit?” If there was an emphasis on my, it was certainly unconscious.

With characteristic focus on his task, he ignores the question. “Which of these colors should I use?”

“That depends.” I hitch a hip onto the back of the divan and watch him hold my little glass jars up to the lamplight as though he can divine their magic by squinting. It’s amusing, in a way; he really must have no idea how much work it actually takes to build a convincing disguise. “Do you want to look like a Mongolian falconer? An Irish sailor? A wine merchant from Tuscany? A showgirl from St. Louis?” All of which disguises I’ve used within the last month—though the less said about the showgirl, the better.

The lemon scowl deepens. “I want to look like me.”

“Oh, well done, then! I almost recognize you already.”

He turns and gives me a sour look, one that doesn’t owe its origin to any swelling. “Artemus, are you going to help me or not?”

I fold my hands placidly over one knee. “You still haven’t told me what you’re trying to do, James.”

He circles the puffy region of his face with a hand. “I need to hide this,” he mutters, as though the confession costs him something.

I sweep a critical eye over his face. I’m aware that Jim has always possessed a healthier share of vanity than most men—even me, and I’m a lifelong thespian. I suppose in a way, it’s justified: The man wields his good looks like a weapon, and though I would never admit it aloud, his magnetic pull with the fairer sex has gotten him out of nearly as many scrapes as my own clever inventions. It’s downright galling, at times, when women are involved. I’ll research the situation, create a disguise and fabricate a cover story, build special equipment to suit the mission, and work myself nearly to exhaustion setting backup plans and escape routes—and then I watch James West stroll in and defuse the whole situation with a smile and a kiss. He doesn’t need a disguise, with cheekbones like his. It’s so easy for him.

But something is off. James may be vain, but he’s also tough as railroad spikes, and he’s not usually this concerned about a little surface damage. “It doesn’t look that bad, Jim. Why bother covering it up?”

He goes back to opening jars. “I’m supposed to meet Maria Teresa in an hour. She can’t see me like this.”

Maria Teresa is Don Arturo’s daughter, and she’s terrified of her father and his guerrillas, which makes her potentially sympathetic to our cause. Winning her over was the backup plan if the front gate approach failed. “But she was there during the fight. She saw you get hit. What does it matter if you’ve got some color to show for it?” I shrug. “It might even make her more sympathetic. Maternal instinct, and all that. Some women jump at the chance to nurse an injured man.”

“That’s not what she needs,” Jim snaps. It’s sharp, for him, and I take another long look at his face. There’s something unsettled in his eyes, and for once, he doesn’t look happy at the prospect of entertaining a beautiful woman for the evening. A closer examination reveals a narrow, inflamed split in his lip, and I wince. I certainly don’t envy him the kissing he’s in for tonight.

I decide to reassure him, lest he lose confidence in his ability to make any woman swoon at fifty paces. “James, my boy, you needn’t worry about your looks where Señorita Hidalgo is concerned. Remember, I’ve seen your competition up close. Next to those guerrilla fighters, you’d look like Adonis even if your whole face were black and blu—”

“She’s scared, Artie,” Jim cuts me off. “She’s surrounded by rough, cruel men, and she’s too frightened to try to escape. She wants to be rescued. If I’m going to convince her to risk her own safety to help us, she needs to believe that we can get her out of this unharmed. That I can challenge her father directly, and come out unscathed. And coming to see her with a busted jaw and a bloody lip isn’t going to help my sales pitch any.”

I stare at him, and as understanding settles in, it’s as though something transforms my vision. I see him more clearly now: The furtive twitch of muscles around the eyes. The unnatural stillness of the planes of his face. The studied firmness of his mouth. It shames me that it has taken so long for me, the self-proclaimed master of disguise and deception, to realize it.

James West, the perfect, handsome, infallible agent with the inscrutable face, is Jim’s disguise.

The handful of times our paths crossed before our official partnership, I always assumed his untouchable manner was simply his natural character. Sure, since coming aboard for our long-term joint mission, I’ve occasionally seen him laugh or scowl or show fatigue, but it’s rare that he lets his guard down. Those moments always seemed somehow aberrant. A marble god styling himself flesh and blood, to blend in with the mortals.

But in this new light I can see that his suavity and invulnerability are every bit as affected as the mustaches and false noses I paste on my own face. No wonder he preens like a peacock—he needs that eminently decorative facade to do his work. Wooing ladies on a mission isn’t just a side benefit for him; it’s a calculated element of success, just like the breakaway Derringer concealed in his boot heels or the explosive pellet in his belt buckle. And now that the flawless shell is chipped, I can see the worry seeping through: There’s a faint crease between his brows. A crow’s foot of tension at the corner of his eye.

Jim has opened the jar of tint that I mixed when I had to disguise myself as a Chinese laborer a few weeks ago. He dabs a bit on his finger and touches it experimentally to his face. It’s too sallow for his robust, sun-bronzed skin, and he frowns at the mirror.

“Here.” I snatch away the jar and swing my legs over the back of the settee, settling next to him. “Let me.”

It’s the work of a few minutes to mix the appropriate color and blend it over the mottled blue that shadows his freshly-shaved skin. I can’t do anything about the split lip, but if Jim is the consummate actor I’ve now understood him for, I doubt he will let that little discomfort affect his performance.

I finish patting a layer of powder over the color to seal it and pronounce the cover-up finished. Jim examines his face in the mirror, and the confidence is bright in his eyes again. “That looks great. You can hardly see the bruising.” He turns and meets my gaze. “Thanks, Artie.”

I survey my handiwork with pride—not just the artist’s pleasure of a work well rendered, but the deeper satisfaction of knowing how I’ve helped my partner. “Any time.”

Jim sweeps off to collect his special equipment. As I pack my disguise supplies back into their case, I watch him from the corner of my eye. He loads a Derringer into his sleeve spring, inserts a few special charges into the secret compartment in the buckle of his gun belt, slips his favorite revolver into the drop holster, tucks a throwing knife into place at the back of his collar, fits a lockpick into the special pocket beneath his lapel, and slips a length of fuse into a vest pocket. Then he smooths back his hair, collects his fashionable silver-banded hat, and pauses at the mirror to adjust it to the perfect angle. Throughout the whole preparation, his expression doesn’t change a whit. It’s a well-practiced routine, weapons and personal grooming given equal weight.

Jim turns and catches me looking at him. I’m still scrambling to come up with an answer for his unasked question when he suddenly pauses and sniffs the air. “Is something burning?”

The Marsala! I yelp and dash back to the tiny kitchen, but it’s too late. I shut off the gas, wrap the pot in a towel to protect my hands, and trudge to the back door of the car, where I dispatch the scorched remains of my culinary creation over the rail and into the night.

When I reenter the car, Jim’s mouth is a flat, unemotional line. For an instant I resent his lack of sympathy—after all, he was the reason I’d walked away from the stove—but his expression is almost too bland. He’s holding firm, but when I look closer, I see a spark of something in his eyes.

“Don’t you dare laugh,” I order, and that breaks his studied self-control. He bursts into a bright gale of laughter, which last only a second or two before he puts a hand to his bruised cheek. “Ow,” he whimpers, still chuckling.

“Serves you right,” I grouse. I’m not really angry—one pot of sauce was a small price to pay for the spectacle of my normally stoic partner in a moment of free, unrestrained delight—but I’m not about to tell him that.

Jim makes an attempt to be sober, but his eyes still sparkle with amusement. “I’m sorry about your dinner, Artie, but that’s the third time this month. I know you want to learn to make all those fancy French dishes, but maybe you’d best just stick to baking from now on.”

I huff just enough to let him think I’ve muttered something under my breath, but it’s not as though I can argue the point. “Don’t you have some place to be?”

Jim glances at the mantel clock. “Yeah, I do. I’d better get moving.” He checks his reflection one last time, then pauses at the door. “Good night, Artemus. Don’t wait up.” His mouth quirks, and he glances at the pot in my hands. “And try not to set the train on fire while I’m gone.”

“Jim—” The temptation to fire back a snide retort is strong, but what I’ve learned about him tonight has also ignited some protective instinct that urges me to tell him to be careful. I find a compromise between the two sentiments. “Don’t go getting your face any more dented, all right? There’s a limit to what even my master disguise skills can conceal.”

For an instant, I imagine Jim’s smile is due to my concern for his welfare—until he speaks. “Oh, I know that, Artie. You were the only showgirl in that dance hall with half a day’s growth of stubble on your chin.” His face splits into a grin—an honest flash of perfect, even white teeth—before he’s absorbed by the night.

I want to be outraged by the remark, but all I can do is laugh, because it’s clear some barrier has come down between us. In asking for my help, Jim has revealed a vulnerability in himself that he’d been jealously protecting. Now that I understand him better, I know it’s my turn to make the effort.

As I stare into the blackened pot in my hands, I have a good idea what that will be. Jim isn’t particularly inventive in the kitchen, but he’s an adequate cook—and more importantly, he’s never once caused anything to burst into flame on our stove. He’s offered to do the cooking in Tennyson’s absence, but until now my pride wouldn’t bear considering it. Now I wonder if I should ask him for some pointers.

“Artemus, old boy,” I murmur aloud, “if James can do it, so can you. It’s time to admit you’ve been pretending to be something you’re not.” I scrape the charred residue of my supper into the waste bin and reach for the breadbox. “You’ll eat your cheese sandwich and be content.”

I plate my humble meal and place it on the table beside the velvet settee that faces the door. Then I collect the stack of scientific journals I’ve been meaning to work through. It’s early in the evening; I can get in a good few hours’ reading before my partner returns.

Jim told me not to wait up, but I will. We’re partners, after all.