After they had dealt with the remains of Dr. Loveless's plan — the drug, the ducks, and the dead bodies of his victims — Jim and Artie, exhausted both physically and mentally, made their way back to the hotel.

Jim balked when he saw it. "I don't want to stay there again," he said.

Artie sighed. "I know, but there's not really any chance of getting another place to stay this late at night. We have to sleep somewhere. The train won't be here to pick us up for another couple of days yet." He briefly lay a hand on his friend's shoulder in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. Jim had been wracked with guilt over what he thought he had done to Artie, even though Artie had demonstrated that he was very much alive and unharmed.

Jim had barely even been able to look at his partner since their reunion at Loveless's hospital. Artie had noticed that Jim would glance at him, probably in an effort to reassure himself that Artie really was there, and then quickly lower his eyes if he saw Artie looking back at him.

Artemus wished there were a way he could tell Jim that he didn't blame him for something that hadn't actually happened, something Jim had hallucinated, but no matter what he'd tried to say, his partner hadn't responded. He'd just sat on his borrowed horse in silence for the entire trip back to the hotel. For his own part, Jim wished he could explain to his partner how he had felt after apparently shooting and killing him the previous day. While he knew intellectually that it hadn't actually happened, it still felt completely real. He couldn't even bear to look into Artie's eyes for fear of seeing some sort of judgment there, or worse, fear. After all, if he'd been able to kill Artie, even though he'd been under the influence of a drug, what did that say about him? Was Artie actually safe with him?

When they arrived at their rooms, Artie walked right into Jim's room without being invited. "Are you okay, Jim? I mean, maybe we could find somewhere else. It might cost a bit more, but if it would make you feel better...."

"I'm fine," Jim snapped, then instantly regretted it. He sounded too much like the way he'd sounded yesterday — had it only been yesterday? — when he'd admitted to Artie that, just for a moment, he'd hated him. Hated Artie, his partner, his best friend, someone he loved. He couldn't believe he'd said that; worse, he couldn't believe that he'd felt it. Even in the hallucination, Artemus had been nothing but kind and helpful, and Jim had treated him like dirt. What kind of a man was he? Hadn't Kitten said that the drug simply made people act like their true selves?

That couldn't be his true self. He knew that he didn't hate Artie. He loved Artie.

"Artie, I'm sorry for snapping at you," he said. "I'm just exhausted, and I imagine you are too. Let's just go to bed and try to forget everything that we don't have to put in our reports."

Artemus smiled. "That sounds like a very good idea." He briefly touched Jim's shoulder again. "See you in the morning."

As the door closed, Jim found himself reaching up to touch the place where his partner's hand had briefly dwelt, wondering if there were a way to encourage Artie to touch him like that more often.

Sometime during the night Artemus woke from his sleep to hear sounds coming from Jim's room next door. Fortunately, he'd managed to lift the clerk's copy of the key to Jim's room on the way in to the hotel, because he'd been worried about his partner and thought he might need it. He let himself into the room to find Jim tossing and turning in bed, apparently still asleep, but crying out Artie's name and the words "no" and "why?"

"Jim, wake up! You're having a nightmare. It's me, Jim — Artie."

Waking up from his dream, Jim saw his partner standing over him, his face full of concern. As always, he was touched by the way Artie cared about him, but he also felt guilty for disturbing the other man's sleep.

"I'm sorry I woke you, Artie. You didn't need to come in. I can deal with my own bad dreams."

But Artemus knew his friend too well. "Are you sure about that, Jim? It didn't sound to me like you were dealing with it very well."

Jim smiled."Really, I'm okay. You can go back to sleep," he lied.

Artie shrugged. "If you insist."

Jim's bravado faltered as he saw Artemus heading for the door. "Artie?"

The older man stopped immediately upon hearing his name. "What is it?"

"Don't.... Don't go. Please."

Artie returned and took a chair by the bed. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Is it the hallucination, about shooting me? I keep telling you that I don't hold it against you. I know that you weren't yourself."

James buried his face in his hands. "I know. I just can't stop thinking about it — dreaming about it."

Artie moved the chair closer to the bed and slipped an arm around Jim. "Why don't you tell me about it," he suggested. "Maybe you can exorcise the demons that way."

Jim explained about the note from Loveless instructing him to go to the stable. "When we were there, you were trying to stop me from running off half-cocked to find Loveless. You were afraid I'd be ambushed. I told you to get out of my way. And then I shot you.

"You came over to me. I had just shot you, but you didn't try to get away from me. You stumbled over to me, and then you collapsed. You were holding on to me as you fell on to the floor.

"The last thing you said was, 'Why?' And then you died." Jim was sobbing now.

Artemus pulled Jim into an embrace and held him there. "Oh, Jim," he sighed. "I know how this makes you feel. I know how I would feel if I saw you die, and if I'd been the cause of it, I think I would want to die myself. But I didn't die. You didn't shoot me. I know you, and I know you would never hurt me. I trust you, Jim. I trust you with my life."

Jim moved back from the embrace. "You shouldn't," he stated.

"Why the hell shouldn't I?" Artemus demanded.

"Because I did hurt you," Jim answered. "Not only did I hurt you, but I killed you. I know you're going to say it wasn't real, but it was real enough to me. I was able to raise my gun and fire at you at point-blank range. How could you possibly trust me after that?" He paused. "Maybe.... Maybe we shouldn't be partners anymore."

Jim instantly regretted his words when he saw the stricken look on Artie's face. Mentally, he cursed Dr. Loveless for what the man had done to them.

Artie stood up and walked away from the bed, his back turned to his partner. Jim wanted to jump up and run to him, apologize, say that he was wrong. But he wasn't entirely certain that he was wrong, and that was what scared him. "Look, Artie, when I'm in my right mind, I know I could never hurt you. But when I was under the influence of that drug, the world was upside-down, black was white, and suddenly, just for a moment, you weren't my friend anymore. You were my enemy.

"What if Loveless did survive, and he has more of that drug stashed somewhere? Or if, god forbid, someone else has it, or something similar? How can you trust me, knowing what I was able to do when I was under the influence?"

An impossibly long period of time went by before Artie spoke, still not looking at Jim. "James West, you are the most amazingly stubborn man I have ever known. I don't know what makes you this way, and I wish you would cut it out.

"Let me say this again. And I will keep saying it until it finally penetrates that god damned thick skull of yours. I trust you. I, Artemus Gordon, trust you, James West, with my life. No matter what."

James finally mustered up the courage to approach Artie and turn him so that they were facing each other. He searched Artie's face — for what, he wasn't certain. "But why do you trust me?" he asked.

Artie stepped forward until he and Jim were almost touching. He reached up and lay a hand on Jim's cheek. "Because, you idiot, I love you."

Jim could not believe what he was hearing. He must be hallucinating again. How else could he explain what he had just heard something he had only dreamed of hearing for the last couple of years? He gulped. "Did.... Did you just say that you love me?" he asked.

The grin on Artemus's face was his answer. "Yes, Jim, I surely did." Then the grin faltered. "Of course, now that you know how I feel, you might decide you really do want to end our partnership."

This time it was Jim's turn to pull Artie into an embrace. "No," he whispered. "I could never end our partnership. That was a stupid thing for me to say. I want us to be partners for the rest of our lives."

Moving back so that he could see his friend properly, but not breaking the embrace, Artie asked, "Jim, what exactly are you saying?"

Taking a deep breath, Jim answered, "I'm saying that I love you too, Artie."

That was when Artemus Gordon kissed James West for the first time. While James was surprised at first, he got over it quickly, and returned the kiss with enthusiasm. He relished the warm, solid feel of his partner in his arms. Artie was undeniably real.

Then again, Artie had been undeniably real in Jim's hallucination, as well. He felt the tears burning the backs of his eyes again.

Artemus immediately sensed the change in Jim's demeanor. "What's wrong, buddy?" he asked gently.

Jim held tightly to his partner. "I'm sorry, Artie. I shouldn't be thinking of it at a time like this, when you've made me so happy, but I still keep seeing you the way you were in my hallucination — dead. Dead by my hand."

Seeing the fatigue written in every line of the other man's face, Artie took Jim by the hand and led him to the bed. "You're worn out, my friend. Get some sleep. We can talk more tomorrow."

Jim immediately grabbed Artie by the arm. "Don't leave," he begged. "I don't want to wake up from that nightmare again without you here."

Artie smiled again, the smile that Jim now knew was reserved only for him. "You don't even have to ask. There's nowhere that I'd rather be than right here with you." He climbed into the bed beside his partner and wrapped his arms around him, holding him close. "How's that?"

Jim smiled sleepily. "That is amazing." He raised his head for another kiss. "I love you, Artie. You know that, don't you?"

"I know. And I love you, too. Think you can sleep now?"

Jim sighed. "I think so. I'm still worried about the nightmares. But as long as you're here when I wake up, then I'll be okay."

"I'll be here as long as you need me. I promise."

"I'll always need you, Artie."

"Then I'll always be here."

END