One oil lamp still burned on the little side table. It cast a faint glow over the dry wood, and gently sharpened the edges of the few objects in the dark room. Bed, dresser, bed, window, pitcher, window. A photograph hung on one wall, though the subjects were impossible to make out in the darkness. Jess decided he would have to look more closely in the morning. He wondered if he knew the people in the image, or if they were Shermans, folks from before his time.
Before dinner, he'd stared at the photos in the parlor, the matched pair that hung over the roll top desk, and tried to guess who the man and woman were in the set. Andy had been the one to whisper the answer in his ear - "My folks. They had those taken before I was born, before they settled here. There used to be one of them together, but Slim lost it in the war."
So he knew the picture in the bedroom probably wasn't of Matthew and Mary Sherman. But maybe Slim's grandparents? Maybe an aunt and uncle? Hell, could have been Slim and Andy, for all he knew. Too dark to see without getting up and taking the lamp to it. And he still didn't want to touch anything, still didn't feel quite like he slotted into the Jess-shaped spaces in this sprawling, overgrown cabin.
He didn't want to remind them he didn't know them. Again.
The bedroom door swung open, blocking his already near impossible view of the photo, and the sound of voices floated in. Slim's warm, rich, resonate laughter filled the room. It blotted out whatever the boys were saying in the parlor, and made the hairs on the back of Jess' neck stand on end. "Good night," Slim said, his voice happy but tired, and then he appeared in the doorway.
Slim's smile was small, and already fading to drowsy indifference. His breath came slow and hard. It was almost like the man was already asleep on his feet. He turned slow and shut the door behind him, moving like it took the last ounce of his strength. He began pulling off his gloves, fingertip by fingertip, until he shucked the whole thing off one hand, and then the other. He tossed them on the dresser, and went for the buttons on his threadbare shirt. He moved into the room with the same aching slowness that he'd used to close the bedroom door. For the first time, Slim didn't look to Jess like a young sun god, here to rescue a man from the dark blankness in his mind. He seemed like a tired, beaten old man.
Slim stood in the faint halo of the oil lamp, and pulled his shirt tails loose from his jeans. First one shoulder, then the other was bared, and the shirt was slowly peeled down to the elbows. Slim seemed to favor one side as he wriggled an arm free, and then twisted slowly to pull the shirt the rest of the way down. He sighed and lightly tossed the shirt to the far bed, away from where Jess sat watching. Staring.
Slim looked at Jess, and waited patiently. "What is it?"
Yes, what? What the hell possessed him to open his mouth? He sat there, staring at Slim, feeling wild and trapped, like a caught mouse.
"You need something, Jess?"
The concern in Slim's voice, the tender expression on his face... it made Jess' heart swell in his chest with something he knew he couldn't name even if he'd recalled every second of his life with crystal clarity. It gave him the courage to open his mouth. "Do you need help? I mean... are you hurting?"
A corner of Slim's mouth crept up in a slow smile. "You bet your life I'm hurting," he said, his voice strangely rough. "But you know what? I don't think I've ever felt better in my life."
Jess couldn't help his small, shy, answering smile. He ducked his head, and swallowed an embarrassed laugh. "Well, do you need help getting out of your gear?" His own voice sounded strangled.
At first, there was no answer. But then the click of boots on the wooden slats echoed through the room, and before long, a pair of large, camel colored boot tips stood in the space between Jess' own simple black boots. Jess looked up, to see Slim standing over him, watching.
Heat rose in Jess' cheeks. If he leaned forward just a hair, he could nuzzle Slim's hard belly with the tip of his nose. If he made to draw his knees together, they'd knock straight into Slim's legs. If he darted out his tongue to lick his lips nervously, he'd lap right at the smooth patch of skin just under Slim's navel. But he couldn't make himself pull back.
"Do you need help, Jess?" Slim's voice was still rough. It was low and quiet, and made more than the hairs on Jess' neck stand up. Jess' whole body seemed suddenly run through with tension, like he was about to be thrown from a wild mustang.
"Help with what?" Jess could hardly breathe, he couldn't make the words come, couldn't get any sound out past his chattering teeth.
But Slim seemed to have heard him, because he reached out with both hands, and took the hat that still rested on Jess' head. "You look like you plan on sneaking off in the middle of the night, Pard." One hand placed the black hat up on Slim's golden head, while the other carded gently through Jess' tangled hair. "You planning on running off now? Now that I've got you back?"
Jess tried to say no, tried to shake his head, tried to explain that he just didn't know where to leave his hat or his gloves that wouldn't be in the way, and anyway Slim had worn his gloves into the house long after the last coach, and he didn't want to crush the hat because it was new and he still owed the sheriff for the new clothes - but all he could do was stare and pant like a particularly stupid dog.
"God, but I've missed your beautiful face, Jess," Slim said. His hands drifted down to cup Jess' face, to tilt it up to his. Slim leaned forward and pressed his forehead to Jess, and soon the surprising chill of someone else's tears dropped onto Jess' upturned face.
It was enough to loosen the paralysis that took hold of Jess for just a moment, to let him reach up and put a gloved hand to Slim's face, to wipe at his tears with a leather clad thumb. He still had no words, no voice. But in that moment, he knew he could tell Slim what he felt without making a sound. His body knew the way.
He grabbed his gloves in his teeth and yanked each hand free, before clutching at the curls at the nape of Slim's neck, and pulling him close for a soul salving kiss. It was the kind of kiss that pulled a drowning man to shore, that showered a thirsty man with rain, that fed a starving man to bursting. The soft slide of tongues, a sandpaper rough whimper that could have easily been either or both of them, and Jess was lost.
Slim did not pull away. He slid his mouth to the corner of Jess', then to his cheek, his ear, and down his neck. Jess had never felt such bliss, not in his broken memory, and he doubted even before the darkness fell on him. Tremors of delight shuddered through him, and he clutched desperately at Slim's shoulders, heedless of the marks he scratched into the other man's bare skin.
The hands that had caressed his cheeks and chin so tenderly moved down to pull gently at the buttons on his fine linen shirt. Jess took a moment to look down, to watch the long, graceful fingers slip delicate glass buttons through tiny slits in the thin but heavy fabric. It was a marvel to see those hands, working hands, horse ranching hands, move so finely, so easily.
"I promise not to rip it until we pay Mort back, Jess." Slim was laughing quietly. But he didn't pause in his task.
"If you do rip it, you get to fix it," Jess said.
Slim chuckled harder and pressed a kiss to his lips, and moved to slide his hands underneath the opened shirt, to touch freshly exposed skin. But Slim paused when he got his hands on Jess, and he pulled back to study him.
Jess sat quietly, and watched hurt and fear and rage war on Slim's face, as he stared at the scars Mrs. Ward had left on his belly, and at the rangy, stringy figure that surely wasn't a match to Slim's memory. One hand hovered over the scar, while the fingertips of the other danced lightly over Jess' countable ribs.
"I'd kill that thieving girl again if I had the chance," Slim said, almost too quietly to hear. Almost.
"It's alright. I'm alright," Jess said.
"No," Slim said, and pulled back. His tears were falling again, but he scrubbed at them roughly and twisted away from Jess, to perch at the end of the bed. "Jess, you're not alright. You're different. Your body is different. Your memory is different. You're different."
Pain sliced through Jess, but he didn't argue. He was different. He could pretend that the snatches of emotion that grabbed hold of him were enough to power through this minefield of hurt, but the truth was, he had no idea what the hell he was doing, or if he should be doing it.
He watched Slim weep a little longer, and then scowled when Slim moved to work his way out of his boots. Again, he favored one side of his body. "You've been hurt, too," Jess said with a growl, and got up to help Slim get the boot off. "What happened to you? They do that in Buckeye?"
Rather than answer, Slim leaned back on his elbows and stared slack jawed as Jess worked first one boot, and then the other, off his feet.
"You gonna answer me?"
Slim sat up, blinking. "My horse threw me. Before I found her. Hope, I mean. The girl."
Jess smiled tightly. "My memory is gone, but I can still follow a story, Slim." He sat next to Slim and brushed lightly against the side Slim seemed to be protecting. Slim jumped when he pressed gently into the ribs. "You break 'em?"
"Not sure. Probably."
"Should have healed by now."
"I'll be fine. My leg and arm are fine."
Jess grunted, but he didn't press the issue. Instead, he got up and knelt between Slim's knees, and brushed a featherlight kiss over Slim's tender side.
"You don't have to do that," Slim whispered.
Jess rocked back on his heels and looked up at Slim. Of all the hurts he'd endured since coming to in the Ward barn - hearing his life should be forfeited to a pack of dogs, being accused of highway robbery when he was too sick and hurt to move more than a few feet, being turned out on his ear for being startled, being framed, being turned away by damn near everyone he turned to - the idea that Slim thought he might not want to be exactly where he was, doing exactly what he was doing, hurt like nothing else Jess had known. A tight knot formed in his chest, and he struggled to breathe around it, to make words come out, to make Slim understand that just because he didn't know what the hell he was doing, or why he was doing it, that it didn't mean he didn't absolutely want to be doing any of it.
"You should lay down," Slim said softly. "You must be bone tired."
Could a man be bone tired and ready to take on a forty mule team at the same time? Maybe. The bed suddenly looked more inviting than life itself. Jess could crawl into it and sleep for a lifetime, if he thought he wouldn't miss anything.
But he was already missing the warmth of Slim's mouth.
He surged up, and captured Slim's soft, pouting lips with his own. He clamored over Slim's lap, and forced him down across the bed. He hummed a little as he flattened himself out against Slim's chest, skin to skin. He kicked his feet up behind him to hold his balance, while he supported Slim's head, as it hung over the side of the bed.
He felt a stirring deep within, something he hadn't recalled in all his months of waiting, wondering, wishing. A feeling so foreign, yet so heartachingly familiar, it was all he could do not to burst into tears.
Slim pulled back and looked at him with an expression Jess couldn't name. Slim's long, warm fingers danced along his bare back, until they found the back pockets of his jeans. Jess gasped a little when Slim's hands slipped into the pockets and clutched possessively at his behind. And then he all but melted when Slim ground up into him, grinding their denim trapped lengths against one another.
"If this is a dream," Slim said roughly, "then I hope I never wake up."
"Not a dream. I can see you. Touch you." Jess brushed fingertips lightly over Slim's mouth, before dipping in for a breath of a kiss. "Dreams are never so good."
"I suppose not," Slim said. "I just... I never thought..." He trailed off, lost in a nightmarish haze of memories. His eyes clouded over, as he went back to that mountain, or the jail, or maybe the ravine where Jess lost the thread of his life.
Slim looked at Jess with a start.
"Let me up."
Slim blinked, but he slowly released Jess. Jess scrambled back off the bed, and shucked his boots and jeans off as fast as he could. "Get out of those," he said, and tugged at Slim's pant leg while still hopping out of his own.
"Take your clothes off, Slim."
Jess grunted and tugged impatiently at Slim's waistband. "You're thinking. No more thinking. I don't want to think any more. I don't want to wonder, I don't want to wish, I don't want to hope. I want to have, Slim. I want that thing I think I might have had when I knew who the hell I was, when I knew the way back to this room, when I knew this damn room. I want this room. I want the smell in this room. I want a big, strong man in my arms, in my bed."
Slim smiled ruefully as he finished peeling out of his trousers. "Just circumstance and bad luck kept you from having that."
"No." Jess cupped Slim's face, before guiding him down to the pillow. He climbed into the bed and knelt in the v-space between Slim's thighs. "Circumstance and good luck kept me from never having it again." He leaned forward and kissed Slim's neck, his chest, his belly. "You're not hearing me, Slim. I want you."
A slow, soft smile graced Slim's face, and seemed to light him up from within. In the faint glow of the oil lamp, Jess could swear he saw a halo form around Slim's now golden face.
He'd thought his dreams were metaphorical, that he'd simply placed Slim Sherman in the role of guardian angel because of some great affection he held for the great, glowing man. But here in the night, in a small bed not meant for sharing, Jess could see that Slim's halo was real – and that it was his love and desire for Jess Harper which put it there.
A new understanding dawned. Slim, perfect angel though he was, wasn't a guardian. His boundless joy, love, and yes, even protection, were a reflection of the power Jess had over him. And what power it was! The very thought was intoxicating.
If Jess was a monster, he could tear Slim's heart out with the curl of a lip and the twist of a knife, and Slim would probably still beg Jess to return, with promises of forgiveness. If Jess was cold and greedy, he could drink his fill, and then turn a cold shoulder to Slim, having taken what he wanted.
Jess was not cold, greedy, or monstrous. Even while growing slowly mad with the knowledge that Slim was utterly at his mercy, the last thing on Jess' mind was inflicting pain on this glorious creature spread before him. He wanted to make Slim cry, but not in pain. He wanted to drive Slim to the brink of insanity on a crest of seemingly endless pleasure. He wanted to live up to and beyond the joyous expectation written all over Slim's sweetly smiling face.
He placed a hand low on Slim's belly, and raked fingernails down smooth, silken flesh, through fine, golden curls, to the warm, hardening prize waiting for his touch.
"Jess." The sound of his name was a breath of prayer, an offering to some being of supreme power. But the look in Slim's eyes left no question- his prayer was for Jess, and Jess alone.
Jess made no move to quicken his pace. He still wasn't sure what the hell he was doing. But he moved with the confidence that his touch was welcome, and that his body knew the path to pleasure, even if his mind remained stubbornly blank.
He wrapped his fingers around Slim's thick cock, and held it, relishing the weight of it, the throbbing, twitching, weeping aliveness. He felt his own cock growing plump and heavy, felt his balls register every sensation, from the warmth of his thighs to the chill in the air where they hung exposed beneath him.
Someone made a noise of delectable pleasure. He didn't know, or care, which of them it was.
His hand seemed to have a mind of its own. It slid up and down Slim's cock with no rhyme or reason, sometimes swiping through the wetness that formed at the tip, sometimes nudging just under the head, sometimes flattening to the golden base, sometimes pausing to squeeze halfway down. The sensation in the palm of his hand seemed to filter in through a fog of space and time, separate from the motion he watched with rapt attention.
Slow movement in the corner of his eye broke the spell, and Jess paused, and watched Slim readjust his legs, until he was spread open, as exposed as he could be while still on his back. "Jess...?" The soft, blissful smile was still on Slim's face, but the expression changed to match the question in his voice.
Jess didn't know the question. He had no framework for it. But his body seemed to have an answer, because his grip loosened, and he went sliding down, through the thatch of golden curls, over the hot, heavy sacs that called for his touch, down to the dark depths almost impossible to see in the faint glow of the oil lamp. He brushed gently until he found it, the slight puckering that fluttered at his touch, and watched in delight as Slim arched and lifted slightly to give him better access.
He stroked the opening until it relaxed and yielded to his touch. He slid inside, and marveled at the sensation. Warm, smooth, and tight. It felt good, but he was frustrated. The sensation was vaguely familiar, but utterly foreign, and he found the dichotomy disorienting and angering. He felt his patience ebbing, and the delicious tension that had been tightening his loins began to bleed out.
Slim winced, and Jess halted all movement. That wasn't right. Whatever he should have been doing or feeling, causing Slim pain had no place. He placed his free hand over one of Slim's, and was pleased to feel Slim's hand turn to lace their fingers together, squeezing as if in reassurance. Pleasure washed through Jess in waves, and suddenly his uncertainty was meaningless. If Slim liked the touch, then it was right. If he didn't, then it wasn't. Nothing could be simpler.
Jess leaned forward to kiss Slim's mouth, to show him he understood his place in this relationship, and was surprised when Slim's other arm came sweeping around to crush their bodies close. One arm was pinned uncomfortably between them, but he ignored it as Slim's plush mouth met his, butter soft and even now still tasting of the black coffee and strawberry jam they'd had at dessert.
Just when Jess thought his trapped arm might go to sleep, Slim reached between them and shoved impatiently at the arm. They broke the kiss, and Slim's smile turned devilish. Then he got his hand on Jess' cock, and froze. The delighted, naughty smile fell, and he looked at Jess with hurt and even a little fear. "You... don't you...?"
It was Jess' turn to smile indulgently. He dipped his head, nuzzling in the warm spot just under Slim's ear. He kissed his neck gently. "I got mad at myself. Couldn't figure out where to go next," he said.
"You idiot," Slim said affectionately. "You're practically there."
"You were. Gotta wait a minute, now." Slim slid a calloused digit over the sensitive slit, and the heat and the tension came back, almost too fast. "Or, okay, maybe not," Slim said with a chuckle, and began to press at the small of Jess' back with one hand, while obviously guiding him with the other.
Touching that soft, tender flesh with his finger had been good, but nothing like pressing himself up against the hot ring of muscle. He soon felt, rather than heard, Slim chanting encouragement as he scrambled for purchase. He pushed until he felt the head pop through, and waited.
"Don't fucking start that shit, you asshole," Slim said with clenched teeth.
The pressure was fantastic. Jess pressed a little more, not even a hair's worth, and relished every little thing, dragging the movement out for as long as possible.
"Damn you, Jess, move!"
Jess didn't pay Slim any mind. He took his time, easing his way home, until his hips were flush with the backs of Slim's thighs. Then he waited, until Slim actually whined, before slipping back a little, and easing in again. He twisted his hips slightly with each movement, delighted by the friction their hair caused when they tangled together every time they touched.
Jess made on more twist, and Slim's rhythmic chanting turned abruptly to a long string of giberish, punctuated with a very adamant, "There, there, there!" How could Jess refuse? He settled in, all his weight on the ball of one foot, while the other leg braced the back of one of Slim's. Slim clutched roughly, possessively at Jess' ass. There'd be marks in the morning, if they weren't there already.
A shudder wracked his body so suddenly, for a moment he was frightened. But then exquisite pleasure soon followed, and blotted out all coherent thought. For a small eternity, he was nothing but sensation - too little, too much, no more, never stop!
He pulled abruptly away from Slim with a throat shredding growl, and watched the last of his seed spurt over Slim's still red, swollen cock. His arms gave way under him, and he crashed down, narrowly missing crashing into Slim's quivering length. He panted heavily, as sleep threatened to drag him under. He shifted to get closer, intending to take Slim into his mouth.
To his surprise, Slim pressed him away. "Faster if I do it," he said, taking himself in hand in a series of quick jerks.
Before Jess could say more, Slim was grunting through his own pleasure, coating his belly and chest with his efforts. Slim leaned over the side of the bed, and came up with an undershirt. He wiped himself down thoroughly, tossed the shirt far from the bed, away from the immediate sight of the doorway, and then tugged at Jess. "Up."
Jess came up, but he didn't bother to hide his confusion and disappointment. Slim smiled warmly at him. "In the morning, Jess. You can have me in the morning. But we're both tired, and I don't like trying to sleep when I'm feeling poorly towards you, and nothing will make me sorer at you than having you fall asleep with me in your mouth."
Jess snorted a laugh. "I take it this is something you know from experience?"
"We fought about it for years before we reached a compromise we could both live with."
"If you still want to drink me down, you can have it in the morning, first thing." Slim planted a kiss on his forehead. "Funny thing is, after the first couple of times, you found you were perfectly fine with going off to sleep when you were done."
Jess grunted. "I don't know about that."
"That was the first thing you said when I first suggested it."
Jess had to smile at that. He yawned and pressed in closer. "Fine. Gonna make it up to you in the morning, then."
"Whatever you say, pard."
When Jess woke, the sun was just beginning to stream in through the sheer curtains. He was alone in the bed, and could hear the sounds of life in the main parlor on the other side of the bedroom door. He sighed - he really had meant to give Slim his due. Maybe he would later, if they could sneak a moment away from the boys.
He distracted himself from his disappointment by straightening up the room, and dressing himself. He shaved and washed slowly, though he thought he ought to get out there to help with the chores. But he wasn't too sure he'd be able to hide his bad mood, and he knew he didn't want any questions about what was eating him. It didn't matter how at ease Andy or Mike seemed to be when Slim stood close to him - they didn't need the details shoved in their faces.
When there was nothing else for him to do, Jess turned to the door, and told himself to just go ahead and face the day. He took a step, and paused, his eyes trained suddenly on the photo he couldn't see properly in the dark the night before.
Two men, young men, side by side, stared into the camera. The taller, fairer one had his arm around the smaller, darker one with the gunbelt slung low on his hips. There was no notation, no caption, nothing on the picture or the frame to mark the people in the picture. But Jess didn't need it.
The door swung open suddenly, banging into him. "Are you up- oh!" Slim stepped in, and shut the door quietly. "I'm sorry, Jess! I thought..." He looked at the photograph, and then back at Jess. He didn't say anything, just looked worried.
"When's the stage due?"
"Couple hours," Slim said warily.
"What are the boys doing?"
"Uh, I sent Andy to town for supplies, and Mike's working on the laundry. Why?"
Jess smiled and sank to his knees. "I've got unfinished business to tend to."