Jim came around slow.
There was something strange about it, disorienting—more so than usual. Jim had been unconscious his fair share of times and then some, and by now he had a sense for how it had gone, depending on how it felt to come out of it. And this time was different. His head didn't hurt; that usually meant he'd been drugged, not struck. If he tried, he almost remembered it. A woman offering him a drink, and he'd drunk it not because he didn't think it was a trap but because sometimes the best way to find out who'd set one was to spring it on yourself and see who came to gloat.
But even so, there was something about the way he felt that made him think he'd been hit anyway. Some kind of—of unsteadiness in him, a sense that his head was too-large and unwieldy; an odd tender feeling that wasn't quite an ache or a soreness, creeping up the back of his neck and prickling over his scalp.
He came up out of the dark a bit at a time, and it clung to him like mud, hard to shake, not wanting to give him up. It felt like a titanic effort to pry his eyes open at last, and hardly worth it: his reward was the sight of none other than Dr. Loveless, peering at Jim in that intrigued and half-solicitous way he sometimes got after he'd performed one of his procedures. Not solicitous of Jim himself, but of his experiment, its results—anxious that Jim, as its subject, shouldn't fail to deliver something of profound scientific utility by, say, dying strapped to a table and foaming at the mouth.
That odd tender feeling had only increased in strength as Jim drew closer to awareness, and now it was almost overwhelming. He had a moment's clarity to assess his position—not strapped to a table after all, but rather standing, tied, back to a wall, and Loveless standing on the table in front of him. And then he had to—to squirm a little, awkward and uncomfortable, shifting his weight and pressing his shoulders back against stone. It was like a too-bright light was shining in his eyes, a too-loud sound ringing in his ears; he couldn't help but think of the lighthouse, Dr. Arcularis and his damned bells. Except it wasn't actually light or sound, of course. It was—it was sensation, somehow. Jim couldn't even define it to his own satisfaction. He just felt strangely raw, as if some protection he relied upon had been peeled from him.
"—listening to me, Mr. West?" Loveless was saying.
Jim hadn't been; but he said, "Of course," anyway, because sometimes Loveless could be placated into carrying on for a while, and the more time Jim had to work out how to get out of this, the better.
"And I'm sure you agree," Loveless said. "With the work you do—you must know at least as well as I the casual brutality of man."
"Yes," Jim said, in tones of blithe and innocent agreement. "Yes, I think Voltaire's given me a taste of it once or twice."
Loveless smiled at him. "Even you, Mr. West," he murmured. "Such clumsiness—such a disappointing failure to grasp the subtleties before you. But who could blame you? It would hardly be fair to ask a blind man to master calligraphy, after all, or demand that a mute sing me an aria. And yet at heart I'm a philanthropist, Mr. West, and I could never leave humanity to stumble along in the dark! I want everyone to be able to feel what I feel when I'm struck by inspiration, when science advances before my very eyes as I work—when I hear Antoinette at the piano. Do you know what that means?"
"Oh, by all means, enlighten me, Doctor," Jim said flatly.
"Sensitivity, that's the answer! Sensitivity."
Jim was only half attending, and heard this as if from a distance. He felt—crowded, somehow, though Loveless had moved no closer to him and there was no one else in the room. There was a chill in the air, and a heaviness, a presence, that seemed to weigh on him.
"Yes," Loveless murmured, "that's right," and Jim looked at him and suddenly the chill was unbearable. The chill, and a quiet sense of movement, steady but almost lifeless, that made Jim think of the insides of clocks ticking away.
And there was something else beyond it. Not rage; that would have burned. Jim didn't know what to call it: thwarted entitlement, maybe. A clear cold sense that something owed hadn't been delivered, that all who had withheld it would pay and pay and pay until they grasped the magnitude of the cold thing's dissatisfaction—
"That's it, Mr. West. I can see it in your eyes," and Jim flinched away, but there was nowhere to go; he could close his eyes, cover his ears, but he couldn't make himself stop perceiving this, whatever it was. "My little formula is working," Loveless said, bright with glee, and Jim grasped it all at once, sudden and terrible, and shuddered. He'd been right after all: he had been stripped raw, pried open, except it seemed somehow it wasn't his body or his skin but his mind.
Loveless kept talking, but Jim stopped listening. It wasn't as though he needed to, anyway, because he could—he could feel it, clearer every moment as whatever Loveless had injected him with began to achieve its true potency. Loveless's thoughts were there, and to Jim it was something like overhearing voices in another room, or holding knotted string in his hands and knowing he could grasp a bit and pull, and yet like neither of those things at all. He'd been cut open, the bare nerve at the heart of him helplessly exposed; it was all he could do to swallow down his nausea, hanging there with the vast frigid clockwork labyrinth of Loveless close enough to touch pieces of Jim nobody ever could have—should have—been able to touch except Jim himself.
He should have been thinking of this as a tactical advantage. This—this thought-transference, however it worked, had immediately obvious uses. Like this, there was nothing to stop him from rifling through Loveless's mind for anything he chose, secrets or weaknesses, blind spots. Even their location, which of Loveless's hideouts this was, its layout—something that could help Jim get out of here.
But he couldn't. He couldn't do any of it, couldn't bring himself to. He couldn't bear to touch the huge cold thing that was Loveless, let alone press his way inside it to look closer.
He closed his eyes and went the other way instead: as far back inside himself as he could get. Loveless might have cracked the shell of Jim's self open, but he couldn't make Jim leave the broken husk behind. Jim folded all that he could grasp of himself up as tight as he could get it, so none of it spilled over his newly-open edges, and held on, and like that it was almost all right. He was almost safe again, shut up inside himself the way he was supposed to be.
He went far enough to get himself a little distance. Loveless's words were going by without registering, and his thoughts likewise; Jim hung there, tucked away from it all, and sooner or later Loveless must've gotten sick of talking to someone who wasn't listening or responding, and left.
Jim could feel him go. And then, gradually, Jim started feeling other things, too.
It was how drugs worked, at least in Jim's experience. They didn't take effect right away, and when they did take effect it might still be a little while before that effect was maximized. Then there was usually a plateau, until at last everything began to wear off.
Jim had hoped, dimly, that it was the end of that first uphill, the plateau coming to a level, that had struck him while Loveless had been talking to him. But instead, it was—it only got worse, over what Jim guessed was the next hour or so. He'd been tied somewhere underground, he began to suspect, because he could feel Loveless's staff moving around above him. One floor away, and then two, the acuity of this artificial sensitivity increasing steadily.
But the further away they were, the more breathing room there was to stay clear of them. There was no denying that Loveless was a genius, and Jim began to think that that, too, might have contributed to the overwhelming intensity of him in Jim's strange new perception.
He didn't bother reaching for them. Loveless wouldn't dose him up with this thought-transference formula and give him that easy an out. They'd probably all been blindfolded before they were brought here, and didn't know much more about this place than Jim. And honestly it was a relief to think so, because Jim didn't want to touch them; he remembered Loveless's sickening cold ticking with such visceral disgust that he wasn't sure he could've made himself do it even if he'd decided it was necessary.
There had to be another way. There always was. But in this particular instance, Jim was saved the trouble of having to figure it out himself, because he'd only just decided the sensitivity was leveling off at last when something exploded.
He felt it more ways than one—the explosion itself shook the foundations, right down to the stone wall at Jim's back, and he could hear it, too; and the wash of bright sharp shock from half a dozen people overhead swept down on him like a flash flood, dizzying, knocking the breath clean out of him.
He was grateful, almost, to be tied where he was. The feeling of the rope around his wrists gave him something to hang onto, a sensation he knew for sure was only physical, and a fixed point in the universe besides: his hands were above him. He wasn't falling, hadn't tumbled to the floor like the woman in the kitchen halfway through preparing Loveless's supper, wasn't being struck across the face even now like—like the guard who'd been surprised at the rear door, other side of the building from the explosion—
"Artie," Jim said dazedly, unthinking.
"Jim," Artie said again, and then he was there; there and also there, and for a split second Jim flinched away. Because what if it hadn't been Loveless that had been sick and frightening, but the drug itself? What if that was just what it was like, this thought transference? What if other people's minds just felt that way—unwelcoming, strange and incomprehensible? Because it wasn't supposed to happen, after all. No one was supposed to have to try to understand any mind but their own, or think any thoughts but their own, or feel anyone else's feelings. Maybe it couldn't help but be awful. And of course Jim could never blame Artie for it, but god—god, if Artie felt like that to him, Jim didn't know what he'd do—
Artie came dashing down the steps, shoving past the table Loveless had been standing on so fiercely he almost knocked it over, and then he was even closer than Loveless, quick hands at Jim's face. "Jim! James, James, my boy, you heard me—I know you did. Come on, come on—"
He'd already looked Jim up and down, he'd already seen how Jim was tied, and reached up right away to cut the ropes off; Jim's ragged laugh of relief ended up half-muffled against Artie's shoulder.
Because of course. Of course Jim had been foolish to think the worst.
He knew Artie better than he knew anyone. Almost as well as he knew himself. And if Loveless had felt like the thin cold press of a knife to your throat, then Artie was—
Artie was three fingers poured out of a damned expensive bottle at the end of a long day's work saving the country, the feeling of settling at last into your own bed again after. Artie was rest and warmth, Artie was comfort. Jim had retreated desperately into himself, faced with Loveless; but abruptly he couldn't stand the distance. The moment his hands were free, he leaned into Artie, and his body was—was only the clumsiest echo of what he was able to do with his mind, pressing in as close as he could get. Artie's relief, his care, the tender sweet concern he had for Jim, poured out over Jim like afternoon sunshine, and Jim squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face into it and could have just about wept for how good it felt.
"All right, Jim," Artie was murmuring, "all right, come on. Let's get you out of here," and Jim didn't even have to ask to know, because the answers were all right there in Artie's head, blocked out clear as the letters on a saloon sign: that he was safe, because Artie had him; and all the things Artie would do to get Jim out of here alive; and the rock-solid certainty that even the worst of those things would be well worth it.
It wasn't true, of course. The worst thing Artie would do for Jim was die. If Jim had had anything vital to President Grant, or to the safety of the nation—maybe then it could be argued for, at least. But like this, tit for tat, only Jim's life alone to show for it? Hardly.
It wasn't true. But Artie thought it was. Jim could see it, Jim could feel it. After years as an agent, dozens of covers, lies slipped off Jim's tongue more easily than truth; he knew exactly how easy it was to say what you needed someone else to hear. Words couldn't help but feel thin to him: counterfeit all too easily forged. Immeasurably more valuable, to have gold bullion set right into his hands like this instead, and he pressed his face into Artie's shoulder and almost wished Loveless had left him a syringe—so he could have shot up Artie, too, with whatever this was, and given Artie the same gift in return.
The ride through the dark to the Wanderer was wonderful.
Desperate, too, of course; but less so the further they got from Loveless with no sign of pursuit. Jim wasn't looking for it, still dazed with gladness. But Artie was, and Jim could feel his urgency, the sheer diamond-hard sense of purpose that had gotten him to Jim, transmuting itself slowly into satisfaction, with the wild sharp edge of joy that came of escaping intact one more time.
He'd been worried. But Jim hadn't been, and still wasn't. He supposed if anyone had been after them, he'd have been able to tell: he'd have heard their thoughts through the night. But all he could hear was Artie.
Everything was Artie. Jim soaked it up, he was drunk with it; he'd reached out as far as he could through the place where Loveless had broken him open and wrapped himself around Artie. The sensation was so real to him that it came as a dim surprise when it was time to dismount, and he discovered that he'd been the one in front, and—physically, at least—it was Artie who'd been wrapped around him, holding him in place on the saddle.
The horses were well-trained, now. It barely took five minutes to load the one Artie'd brought back into the stable car, and then they were off, the Wanderer easing into motion without hesitation.
Artie had helped Jim up into the main car, and hadn't let go, though Jim was steadier on his feet now than he'd been stumbling through Loveless's hideout. He felt steadier all over, his mind clearer; it occurred to him for the first time that he must still have been coming free of whatever sedation Loveless had used to keep him knocked out. He thought of how he'd flinched from Loveless, how he'd thrown himself at Artie, and told himself wryly that he should have known. Usually he could depend on his own self-control a little bit better than that.
Except he couldn't entirely blame the sedative, because it must have worn off by now and yet even as Artie herded him onto the train, settled him carefully on the sofa, Jim couldn't quit touching him. Not with his hands, but the other way.
"All right, James, my boy," Artie was murmuring—that made twice, Jim thought, twice he'd said my boy tonight. Evidence enough that Artie had been deeply concerned for Jim, even if the sweet cool relief flowing through him hadn't been mingled with lingering worry; even if Jim couldn't feel both just as clearly as he could feel Artie's grip on his shoulders.
Artie's mind was full of all the same things: not words but thoughts, half-articulated at best, stripped down to the essential sentiment. A roil of how it had felt to realize Jim was gone, taken, laid over with the still-sharp memory of the moment Artie had rushed down those stairs and touched Jim's face, and known he was alive—thank god. And a soft but persistent murmur running underneath it all: what had Loveless done to Jim this time? Had he been hurt? Was he bleeding somewhere Artie hadn't seen yet, or bruised, or something else less visible? And a whisper, deeper still below, asking whether this was Jim at all—whether Loveless had done it again, changed someone else's face into Jim's—
"It's me," Jim said aloud, reaching at the same time, wanting to coax some of that fierce gladness he'd felt in Artie on the ride here back into life. "I'm all right. He didn't hurt me, Artie."
And there it was, the relief welling up sweeter still and spilling out on Jim like water, fresh and clear. God, Jim had to—had to stop this. He shouldn't be enjoying it so much, gulping everything Artie gave him down so greedily. He'd already known Artie cared about him; they were friends, it was hardly a secret. But—
But it was so different being able to feel it like this. And Artie cared about him, yes, but Jim wanted that in ways he didn't dare assume Artie was willing to give. Wanted to be told it, shown it—it embarrassed Jim sometimes even though he'd never breathed a word of it, because he could hide his terrible desperate longing from Artie but not from himself; and he'd made a career of being strong, capable, stoic, which only made him feel childish and ashamed for wanting such tenderness from Artie.
Except like this, he didn't have to ask. It was handed to him, surrounding him, and if it wasn't quite what he longed for most, it was damned close.
Just a little longer, he told himself. A few more minutes of it. That would be enough. He'd let Artie look him over like a mother hen, and then tell him what Loveless had done instead of just what he hadn't. He'd tell him that distance dulled the effect, and send Artie up front with the engineers; and Artie could stay there until Loveless's drug wore off, far enough away that Jim wouldn't get anything but a vague impression. Jim would apologize for having let Artie stick so close without telling him, for invading such a fundamental privacy in a way Artie couldn't have expected. And Artie would be generous, would blame Loveless and forgive Jim and say no more about it, because Artie was kind that way and always had been.
So he sat there and let Artie fuss a bit, check his hands and his arms, his shoulders where he'd been hanging by them—not for long, as far as Artie could tell, because they ached a little but that was the worst that could be said about them. He let Artie check his head, fingertips careful against Jim's forehead and temples and the nape of his neck, and make sure his eyes were moving right and his pupils were the same size.
And then he braced himself and reached up to grip Artie's wrist, just where Artie had been about to let go of him. He was going to say it. He held onto Artie, Artie's hand against the side of his throat, thumb just brushing the hinge of his jaw; and he opened his mouth—and then he stopped.
Artie was looking down at him. He could see Jim meant to speak, he knew the moment was about to end, and he was sorry for it. He liked looking after Jim, liked being permitted to, and even beyond all that it was a pleasure, after a thing like this, to have Jim here under his hands and to feel for himself that Jim was whole and well. James, Artie thought, and Jim heard it—heard it, and felt what came along with it, what to Artie was inevitable and expected: an instant's sharp crescendo of wanting, hot and wistful and resigned.
It was gone almost as fast, only the faintest echo left behind to show where it had been, but that didn't matter. Jim didn't need more than that to recognize it, because that was just the way it happened to him, too. What he felt about Artie, more often than not, was simply there in the background, endless and unchanging, a distant horizon; he didn't think about it, didn't linger on it. Late at night, sometimes, alone—he'd wallow in it then, once in a while. And occasionally—when a bullet got too close to Artie for comfort, when Artie was in pain and Jim couldn't help him yet, when Artie smiled at him just right—occasionally it gripped him all at once, pressed the air from his chest and clenched tight around his heart, all that longing seizing up at once so that it was nearly unbearable.
Except of course after so long living with it, Jim knew better. He knew how to wait it out, how to let the moment pass so it would ease and let him be, at least until the next time.
And Artie knew, too; because nothing in the look on his face had changed. Jim still hadn't spoken, and Artie tilted his head and raised his eyebrows a little and said, "Jim?"
Jim thought a moment, and wet his lips, and didn't let go of Artie's wrist. "Loveless was working on a new formula," he said, carefully level. "He gave it to me. He'd done it by the time I woke up, and he was waiting there and watching me—maybe to see how it interacted with the sedative. I don't know."
"A new formula?" Artie said, and urgency was rising up in him again, a frown creasing his brow. "But what for? Jim, it could be doing anything to you—"
"No. I know what it's done to me," Jim said, and then he explained.
He kept it quick, short, because Artie was a clever man and Jim didn't know much about how it worked anyway. Artie's face went still; it looked strange, when he was usually so expressive. And then he stared down at Jim and repeated, "Thought transference," quietly, and Jim couldn't help but flinch a little at the cold sick weight that was filling Artie then.
"Yes," Jim said, quick, before it could get any worse. "I was going to tell you so you could go up to the other end of the train—it doesn't work so well with enough distance. But now I'm telling you so you'll understand what I'm about to do," and Artie's eyes went wide as Jim came up off the couch; Jim still had him by the wrist, and caught one of Artie's shoulders with his free hand, and kissed him.
And of course it was terribly strange, but Jim loved it, too: feeling not just Artie's mouth against his, the way Artie's breath caught, the warmth of his fingertips still tentatively resting along the side of Jim's throat—but Artie's startlement, bewilderment, as they smoothed out into uncertain pleasure. And Artie's big brain still working away underneath it all. Maybe this was what Loveless had really done; made Jim lose his mind, or see a woman in Artie's place, or mindlessly do what Artie wanted, and when it was over Jim wouldn't want to be partnered with him anymore—
"Stop that," Jim said against Artie's lips, and then broke away to shake his head, to look Artie in the eye. "I haven't lost my mind," he added, because if Artie needed proof that the thought transference was working, well, Jim could give him plenty. "I don't think you're a woman," and he ran his hand all the way up the strong line of Artie's shoulder, eyebrows raised—so Artie could see that he could tell where Artie began and ended, that he wasn't seeing someone else's body instead of Artie's—before he curled it around the back of Artie's neck and brushed his mouth over Artie's again. "And you aren't making me, either. Artie—I didn't know, that's all. I didn't know until I saw it," and he tugged Artie close and kissed him harder, suddenly desperate. All the ways he'd imagined this going wrong, and this had never been one of them: that Artie might want it just as much, but wouldn't believe him.
Except then it happened. For a moment Artie was frozen, unsure; and then Jim felt it change, felt him give himself over, bright with reckless hope, with love—like the break of dawn, abrupt and beautiful, filling both of them up with light.