Finding Comfort
Michelle Perry

Jess slowly poured the last of the boiling water into the tub, then tested the temperature. Perfect. Now if he could just get the intended person into the tub...

Jess went outside and looked toward the corral. Sure enough, Slim was still over there. Now, he was rubbing down Andy's Palomino. Twenty minutes ago, he'd been checking the shoes on his own mare. Before that, he'd been filling the water trough. Jess shook his head. It wasn't as if these things didn't need to be done, but they certainly didn't have to be done all in one evening.

"Slim?" Jess called.

Slim glanced at him. "I told you, I'm not hungry, Jess," he snapped. "We're not going through that again!"

Jess felt himself tense, but he let it slide. Neither one of them was feeling great today. "I'm not trying to feed you, you old sourpuss," he said, trying to keep his tone light. "I need your help with something in here."

"With what?" Slim asked, still rubbing down the beautiful sand-colored horse.

Jess hadn't thought that far. "The grate," he said, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. What grate? "The... the fireplace grate's all messed up, I can't get up there to clear it out." That didn't make a damn bit of sense.

Slim looked at him as if he realized it was complete nonsense. He sighed and looked at the Palomino, which Jess would have bet ten dollars had already been brushed down three times. "Oh, all right," he said ungraciously. He set the brush down, and let Andy's horse back into the corral.

He looked serious - almost angry - as he stormed toward the house. Jess refused to let it bother him, and just smiled when he got near. "Thanks, Slim. I'll help you with the horses first thing tomorrow."

"I don't need help, now what's supposed to be wrong with the chimney? Did you-" Slim stepped inside, and stopped when he saw the full, steaming tub. The fire was crackling away in the fireplace, and a sponge and soap were beside the tub on a night table Jess had moved in from the bedroom. "What in the world? You planning on taking a bath when there's-"

"It's for you, Slim," Jess said.

Slim rounded on him. "Jess there's too much work to do!"

"It's past sundown, Slim," Jess said. "Work's over for the day."

Slim frowned. "You said there was something wrong with the fireplace, but it's going just fine!"

"Sure I did, because I wanted you to come inside. You weren't listenin'." Slim's face reddened, and Jess wondered if the lie had been too much. Slim hated being manipulated. "Look, I'm sorry," Jess said. "But you keep messin' around out there with the horses in the mood you're in, and you're liable to get kicked. Today was real hard for you, Slim. I'm just trying to make you feel a little better." Slim continued to glare at him, his jaw tight, saying nothing.

Jess frowned, his efforts to keep his temper down suddenly failing. "Well, fine, just forget it!" he shouted. He stormed off to the kitchen and yanked the kettle off the stove, then poured the water over the wood in the oven. He jerked out the food he'd been warming, but couldn't bring himself to just toss it to the floor. Furious as he was, food was too precious to waste, and somebody'd have to clean it up anyway. Instead, he slammed the plates onto the top of the stove, then stalked back to the fire and started kicking at it with his booted foot.

"Jess!" Jess ignored him and continued kicking at the fire. "Jess, stop it!" A hand gripped his arm, pulling him away from the fireplace.

Jess jerked his arm away and glared up at Slim. "Why?"

The other man's face was no longer angry. He looked remorseful, and he lowered his eyes as he answered. "Because I'm sorry." Jess gritted his teeth. Slim looked up again, and he sighed. "I'm acting like a kid. Not even like a kid. Worse. Look... today was no easier for you than it was for me, and I'm making it even harder for you. I'm sorry."

Jess let out a short breath, and looked away from Slim. His eyes fell on the disarranged fireplace. The grate was shoved further to the back, and one of the burning logs had been kicked out. It was still inside, but it burned alone on the stone floor of the fireplace. Childish. That had been childish. He could have caused a fire. And he'd wasted the wood in the stove, he'd have to set it out to dry for at least a day before they could use it again. He sighed. "It's alright, Slim," he said. "It's my fault, I should have just let you alone."

Without looking at Slim, he turned and picked up the nightstand, ready to take it back to the bedroom. "Wait, Jess. Leave it there." Jess set it back down and stood there, not sure what to do with himself. He heard Slim's footsteps approach, then stop behind him. After a few seconds, Slim's hand was on his arm again - this time gentle, not grabbing him, or forcing him to turn. Just there. "I'm real sorry, Jess. You're right, I would have ended up kicked in the head for my trouble. Then you'd have had to run to the doctor for something stupid, and I'd have felt like a fool tomorrow." He sighed. "I'm already a fool right now. Will you look at me?" Jess turned around slowly, and Slim gave him a smile. "Can we try again?"

Jess shrugged, but he could feel his anger fading. He was still hurt, but he tried to smile. "Sure. Where from?"

"You needed help with the fireplace? I can fix it for you."

Jess chuckled, and Slim squeezed his arm briefly, before turning toward the fireplace. Jess grabbed Slim's arm and yanked him back. Ignoring Slim's surprised cry, Jess pulled him close and kissed him, holding his face with both hands. Slim wrapped his arms around Jess's waist and returned the kiss, holding Jess tight. After several long moments, they stopped and smiled at each other. "Get to work," Jess said. "I'll fix the stove and put some coffee on."

Slim nodded, and they released each other. While Slim picked up the fireplace tongs and reached in for the stray logs, Jess hurriedly pulled out the wet wood from the stove and laid it out in the back to dry. He replaced it with fresh pieces, filled the kettle, and set it boiling again. He made a half-hearted attempt to make the food on the plates look nice again, then put it back in the oven.

When Jess got back to the living room, Slim was taking off his shirt. His boots were already sitting on the hearth, and his coat was hanging beside the front door. Jess leaned against the wall, and watched Slim undress the rest of the way. When he'd pulled off his long johns, Jess let out a playful whistle. Slim spun to face him, blushing. "How long you been watching me?" he asked.

"Long enough," Jess said.

Slim rolled his eyes, then dipped his toe into the water. He smiled, and eased his leg in the rest of the way. "It's perfect." Jess smiled, and watched him get the rest of the way into the tub. Slim always looked a little scrunched up when he got into the bath. He was quite a bit taller than Jess, and it usually amused Jess to watch Slim fold himself down to fit the tub. Now, he wished the tub was bigger, and thought about buying one of the fancy oval-shaped ones they had in hotels, to replace their round one.

"You comfortable?" Jess asked.

"Oh, fine," Slim said smiling at him.

Jess gathered up Slim's discarded clothes, and took them away to join the other dirty laundry. When he came back, Slim's head was under the water, and his knees showed above the surface, covered with suds. Jess laughed, and as Slim's head re-surfaced, Jess came over and crouched beside the tub. "Want me to get your back?"

"Uh-uh," Slim said, surprising Jess. "I just want to enjoy it for a while," he explained. "If you do my back, then the suds'll disappear."

Jess nodded his understanding, and Slim leaned back and shut his eyes. Jess figured he should go do something. Check on the food, build up the fire - something. But he didn't feel like doing chores. He pulled one of the dining chairs over and sat next to the tub, looking at Slim's peaceful face, and thinking about the day. The afternoon, to be precise. Slim's brow furrowed, and his mouth turned down in a slight frown. Jess had a feeling Slim was thinking about the same thing.

"Slim," he said softly. Slim opened his eyes and looked at Jess. The sadness was back. "He'll be okay. You know he will. He's gonna make a bunch of friends, and he's gonna impress all the teachers. He'll be fine."

Slim sighed. "I know," he said quietly. "Doesn't keep me from worrying."

"I know," Jess answered. "Don't keep me from missing him, either," he said.

The two men sighed. Then, after a few moments, Slim laughed. Jess looked at him quizzically. "We're sitting here like a couple of old women, worrying after him like this. He's been itching to strike out on his own since before you came to us."

Jess smiled. "He's a little spark of fire. He's probably already charmed the pants off everybody on the stage." Slim nodded. Suddenly, he grabbed Jess' arm and tugged him violently down. Jess' limbs splayed, and he fell into the tub with a splash, sending soapy water sloshing out onto the floor. Jess spluttered and coughed, pushing himself up. "_Slim!_"

Slim laughed, and held Jess' arms, partially supporting him, and partly holding him in the tub. "You always did like to bathe with your clothes on," he said with a wink.

"Not all of them!" he snapped. "Besides, there's barely enough room in here for you to bathe, much less both of us. Let me up."

"Stay," Slim said softly, releasing Jess' arms at the same time, and moving to press both hands to the small of his back.

Jess got up, maneuvering to keep his boots from being soaked. He noticed the disappointed frown on Slim's face when he got out of the tub. Jess pulled of his shirt and tossed it onto the already-wet floor. When he looked down again, Slim was smiling. Jess worked his way out of his jeans and long johns, then climbed back into the tub. Slim parted his legs, and Jess nestled himself between, tucking himself down into the warm water. Slim's arms came around him again, and Jess slid a hand behind Slim's head and kissed him tenderly. He felt warm and happy, and pressed himself as close as he could to Slim's body. Maybe they didn't need a bigger tub after all.


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