“Artie, it occurs to me - we could’ve just tossed the escargot out the back and saved a trip,” Jim mused as he limped down the varnish car corridor toward the stable car.
“An excellent idea, James. You go on; it’ll take some time for the, ah, aroma to dissipate.”
Artemus stopped and turned slowly, gingerly testing his leg before hobbling off to remove the offending item.
As Jim watched him go, guilt trailed up his spine and reached spindly fingers around his throat.
He welcomed his old friend. There were many things in his line of work that brought guilt, and Jim had long ago learned to master it as he had his marksmanship and his poise. The choice, as Jim saw it, was either master it, or be crushed under its weight. But this particular guilt? This rankled. And Jim knew why. He just didn’t know what to do about it.
Artie, who had been so gracious despite the injury Jim inflicted. Artie, who had stared at Jim in wonder while they drove Stark and his daughter to prison. Artie, who had not wanted to tear his eyes away from Jim seemingly in fear that he might disappear. Artie, who had found him and saved him again.
And yet guilt strangled Jim, choking off the apology that beat against his sealed lips. He’d escaped from countless traps but couldn’t escape from the guilt. He knew Artie would shrug off an apology, but that wouldn’t do. Jim hurt the man he loved, which, in his mind, was unforgivable.
Not that Artie had any idea Jim loved him.
His horse whinnied as soon as he opened the stable car door, and Jim felt yet another pang of guilt. He’d not been able to care for his horse as he normally would because of his leg injury. Maybe just a quick curry. With a glance towards the varnish car and a moment to steel himself against the inevitable lecture from his partner, Jim grabbed a curry comb.
“Hey, buddy,” he cooed as he petted his horse, hiding behind him from Artie as best he could.
“The deed is done,” Artie announced as he entered, shuffling to sit on his lab bench.
Hearing no response, and seeing no Jim, Artie cast his eye about the car.
“Jim, sit,” Artie commanded as soon as he spotted his obstinate partner brushing his horse. “I know this word isn’t in your vocabulary, but you're supposed to be resting.”
Jim glared at him, clicked at his horse, who moved closer to permit Jim to lean against him, taking some of the weight off his injured leg. Jim continued currying but allowed a smug grin to spread slowly across his lips, prompting Artie to roll his eyes.
Those two were inseparable and insufferable. Artie was almost jealous of that horse. Almost.
He’d allow Jim the simple pleasure of caring for his horse for a little while. Artie didn’t want Jim straining his leg more than necessary, especially after having spent nearly a day without treatment in Paradox, but he considered that maybe this sense of normalcy would do Jim some good. Something had been off with Jim since then, but he wasn’t sure how to approach it with his partner. Though never loquacious, Jim had been more quiet than usual - a heaviness in his shoulders, unease clouding his celadon eyes, a furrowed brow.
They settled into a comfortable silence as Artie tinkered with a new type of lock pick, having momentarily given up on knocking sense into Jim. Pushing Jim too hard may spook him, causing him to retreat behind his walls entirely.
Jim watched Artie from over his horse’s back. Watching Artie work was one of his biggest joys; his partner’s mind was incredible and never ceased to amaze or save Jim from almost certain death on numerous occasions. But the weight of guilt grew heavier in the silence.
His heart acted without the consent of his head and before he could think better of it, his mouth quietly uttered: “Artie.”
Artie looked up from his tools, alarmed by the uncharacteristic timidity in Jim’s voice.
Now that he had Artie’s attention, Jim hesitated. “I...I’m sorry for,” he gestured at Artie’s leg, “shooting you in Paradox.”
That’s what had been bothering Jim? Of all the permutations and combinations Artie had configured, that had not factored into any of them.
If Artie was taken aback, he tried not to let it show.
“It’s fine, Jim. All in the line of duty. Just another day at the office.”
“No, Artie, it’s not fine,” he rubbed a hand across his face in frustration. Words were never his strong suit, and he was suddenly overcome with feeling he’d brought a knife to a gunfight - he could never outsmart Artie using language. But if he wanted to convey the sincerity of his apology without jeopardizing their partnership by revealing too much, he needed to find them.
“I shot you. I - I tried to kill you, and -”
“Jim, none of what you did was intentional. I trust you.” Of all the things Artie had considered as the source of Jim’s unease in the, this had never crossed his mind. The events in Paradox had thrown Artie into an internal struggle over the prospect of losing Jim - not to mention by his own hand - and never having told him he loved him. But he needed to push that aside and gather more information about why this, of all things, was troubling Jim.
Artie shifted tactics. “Jim, I’m sorry for nearly killing you in Paradox. I apologize.”
“There’s no need, Artie.”
“Because you didn’t know it was me.”
This response simultaneously pleased and worried Artie - pleased that he’d managed to talk Jim into a trap, but worried that his partner had allowed him to gain the upper hand without a fight. Now to get his reticent partner to talk - a herculean task, even on the best days.
“Then why is there a need for you to apologize to me? Must I remind you that I’d been disguised as Stark?”
“How? How is it different? Please, enlighten me.”
Emotions flickered in rapid succession across Jim’s face, too quickly for Artie to pinpoint as Jim struggled to regain control.
He dropped the curry comb and limped away from his horse to lean against the wall of the stall. He briefly looked down before meeting Artie’s gaze. “I hurt you,” Jim stated, barely above a whisper, as if that was explanation enough.
“Not intentionally. Or at least, I hope not. I daresay you have ample opportunity to attack me given our living quarters,” Artie grinned. “James, I do believe this conversation is going in circles,” Artie gently cajoled.
“I could never - I would never intentionally hurt -”
“I know. I know you would never hurt me. And you haven’t hurt me. Why are you apologizing? Please, Jim, let me in.”
To ease his own guilt and make amends, Jim had dug a hole that he could not escape without revealing the truth. And it was reckless to give voice to his love - it would make it real, inescapable, true. But it was the only way to heal the fractures he’d caused and to erase the confusion knitting together Artie’s brows. He realized in that moment that he would need to lay his cards on the table. And no amount of training or willpower - nothing - could prepare him for this moment. Reckless, Jim thought; he was nothing if not reckless.
Artemus watched as James West transformed from the weary, conflicted man in front of him to the dangerous Secret Service Agent he’d worked with for years. It was evident in the set of his jaw, his clenched fists, the defiance blazing in his eyes.
“I love you.”
Those three words. With a sharp intake of breath, Artie felt his world tilt on its axle.
If Jim noticed, he didn’t let it show. Instead, he plowed on. “And I hurt you. I don’t know how you can forgive me...for either.”
“...Reason and love keep little company together nowadays,” Artie’s mind helpfully supplied as a response. Artie looked at Jim carefully. He looked every bit his youth in this moment. Underneath a mask of bravado, Artie saw a terrified young man who had just confessed his love. A love he evidently felt would be unrequited.
“James, my boy, are you asking me to forgive you for loving me?”
“I - Yeah, Artie, I guess I am.”
“There’s no need, Jim.”
“Why not, Artie? Seeing as how I’ve splintered our partnership. Seeing as how you don’t feel the same way.”
Jim’s unusual lack of self-confidence broke Artie’s heart. And he needn’t be uncertain. It was beyond time to let Jim know the truth.
Artie got up from his bench and inched towards Jim, who looked ready to bolt. “The course of true love never did run smooth, James,” Artie murmured, a soft smile illuminating his face.
In spite of himself, a small smirk graced Jim’s lips. “Shakespeare, Artie? Really?”
“Yes, really. Because I couldn’t possibly match his eloquence or his meaning.”
Artie reached out and took Jim’s hand, easing the fingers out of a clenched fist to fit in between his own. “I love you, Jim. I have for some time. There’s nothing to forgive.”
The dark cloud that had been hanging over Jim since Paradox dissipated, leaving in its place a brilliant ray of hope.
“Can I kiss you?” And there were those damned dimples.
“I thought you’d never ask, James.”
As their lips met, the guilt relinquished its grip on Jim’s throat, and he smiled.