His hands were shaking but he managed to punch the code in correctly. He looked around one more time to make sure none of them were watching before he ducked inside. He shut the door to James’ room and slumped against it. “None of them know the code. I’m safe until Mrs. Frederic shows up.”
He bowed his head. He squeezed his eyes shut. He sighed heavily and ran his hands through his hair.
“Back so soon. I am popular,” James drawled. His voice seemed to come from everywhere in the room. “And if that woman walks through that door, I’ll beat it back into the cosmic ether.”
Artie clenched his hands against his head. His breath came out in shaky gasps. “I wish they would stop hovering.”
“Breathe, Arthur,” James ordered softly.
“And don’t tell me it’s because they care,” Artie muttered through clenched teeth. “I know they care.”
James chuckled. “All is not well with the Scooby gang?”
Artie raised his head. His curls were even more disheveled than usual and his glasses were crooked. His brow furrowed and he was still trying to catch his breath. “What?” he asked at a loss.
James materialized a couple feet in front of Artie. He wore an amused smirk. “Well, they are a bunch of nauseatingly sweet do-gooders.”
Artie let out a startled laugh. “You mean you would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those kids and that dog. Claudia could be Thelma.”
“She’d kill you again for saying that,” Artie answered, completely deadpan. “Myka would be Daphne if Daphne learned to defend herself.”
“And your new boy?”
“Steve would have to be Freddy.”
James grinned. “That fits. The way Freddy dressed, I always thought he was gay.”
Artie arched an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Absolutely,” James answered readily. “And Lattimer would be a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of Shaggy and Scooby.”
Artie winced but laughed at the same time. “Oh, God. What does that make me? You haven’t left me any characters besides Scrappy.”
James grinned wider. “Oh no, my friend. I’m not that cruel. If I had to pick a cartoon hero for you, it would be Dr. Quest or Professor Xavier.”
Artie smiled and put his head back to rest against the door. “Well, at least you picked two geniuses. That’s not so bad.”
“You may be neurotic but I’ve always admitted that you are a genius,” James pointed out dryly.
“Gee thanks,” Artie replied in the same tone.
James took a long moment just to watch Artie. He frowned. “You look like hell.”
Artie snorted. “How nice of you to notice.”
“Why don’t you have a seat and tell me why you’ve sought refuge here again.”
Artie shuffled to the bed. He sat down heavily and his shoulders slumped. “I can’t get away from them. Every time I turn around, one of them is there.” He paused. He took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. “They want to ask if I’m okay and if I’ve been sleeping.”
“Of course you’re not.” James sank down next to Artie. “All they have to do is open their eyes and look at you. I can understand the annoying nature of stupid questions.”
“As if I don’t try to sleep.” Artie sighed in frustration and threw his glasses on the nearby stand. He sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’m exhausted, but every time I try to sleep I see everything. I remember everything I did, everything I said to Claudia, Myka, and Pete.”
“Arthur,” James tried to interrupt.
Artie kept going. “And then I see her. How is it just that I’m here and she’s not?”
“Who said the world is fair or just? We’ve both been around long enough to know that it isn’t.” James smiled sadly. “We all know the life of a Warehouse agent is perilous. She knew the risks when she signed on. We all do.” He chuckled bitterly. “There aren’t many who have your staying power, Arthur. Most die, go insane, and/or join the dark side.”
Artie shook his head. For the first time, he raised his voice. “I just…I just can’t stand them looking at me with pity in their eyes.” He buried his face in his hands and his voice was small again. “I don’t deserve it.”
James looked up, as if expecting divine intervention from a god he never believed in. Then he mirrored Artie’s position. His voice was low and compelling. “If you don’t learn to forgive yourself, you will be vulnerable to the darkness again.”
“I don’t know how,” Artie whispered. “And I’m so tired. Of everything. Everyone keeps saying how much the warehouse needs me, but sometimes I think I’ve given all that I am. After everything I’ve been through, seen, and done, what’s left of me?”
“I wish I could…” James voice trailed off. Before he realized it, he rested a hand on Artie’s back. It took a moment to register that he felt cloth and the solid muscle beneath. His eyes got wide.
Artie gasped at the warm touch. He sat up quickly. “James, you…you’re touching me,” he stuttered.
James rubbed Artie’s back. He smiled. “Yes, I am.”
James shrugged. He didn’t stop touching Artie. “I’m not sure. We always talked about the warehouse being alive.”
Artie leaned closer to James’ new warmth. “And?”
James rested his forehead against Artie’s. “Don’t ask me how I know, but I can’t leave this room and I know this won’t last. Perhaps the warehouse knows that you need me right now. You can sleep here. You’re safe with me.”
“What a change from the last fifteen years. I still bear the scars from you,” Artie said quietly and without malice.
James cupped the side of Artie’s face with his free hand. “I’m here because we’re bound together because of the Phoenix and I have this form because the warehouse knows I won’t hurt you.”
Artie reached up to squeeze James’ hand. “James, I…” he breathed out at a loss.
“It’s okay. Let me help you.”
James felt Artie’s chuckle. “What’s so funny?”
“Even in the afterlife, your breath still smells like those mints.”