Illusions of Reality

by Jade

Alternate OW Universe

Ezra Standish had just reached the edge of town when he heard the sound of gunshots. His hand went immediately to the gun resting on his hip but he quickly realized that the shots were being aimed at a black-clad man and another man wearing a sheriff's badge. When he heard another shot coming from the roof of the saloon he glanced up and was shocked to see a long-haired man dressed in buckskin. He muttered a curse as he dismounted from Chaucer and slid along the side of the jail, his pistol clutched in his hand.

He moved quietly until he was behind the shooter, realizing why none of the other men had been able to hit him. The crates that the man was hiding behind effectively shielded him from both the men he had pinned down in the saloon and the sharpshooter above. As the man paused to reload, Ezra cocked his gun and smiled when the shooter froze.

"I would suggest that you carefully deposit your weapon on the ground and put your hands up. I would hate to be forced to shoot you."

The man hesitated for a moment, then dropped his pistol and raised his hands over his head. When he felt the barrel of Ezra's gun against the back of his head, he rose to his feet and slowly walked toward the now silent saloon with Ezra right behind him.

While the young sheriff lead the shooter back to the jail, the man in black glared at Ezra. "Just what did ya think ya were doin' there? Ya could have been shot and ya didn't even know what was goin' on."

Ezra just smiled calmly. "Sir, I was in no real danger. And I knew all that was necessary about what was transpiring." He glanced over the gunslinger's shoulder to the buckskin-clad man coming up behind him. "If Vin was defending you, then I was going to do likewise."

Vin grinned as he pushed past Chris and extended a hand towards Ezra. Instead of clasping hands, the two men gripped each other's forearm. Vin's grin widened as he pulled the other man into a hug. "It's good ta see ya again, Ez. It's been way too long."

Chris turned his frown from Ezra towards Vin. "You know him, Vin?"

Vin let Ezra pull away but kept an arm thrown over his shoulders as he turned back to Chris. "Yep. This is Ezra Standish. He's my cousin, on my mama's side. Only family I got, cowboy." He glanced back at Ezra. "Ez, this is Chris Larabee." He was silent for a moment. "Ya stayin' this time, Ez?"

"Of course I am remaining. I simply could not bear it if something terrible happened to you because I was not available." Ezra grinned. "Someone must be nearby to keep you out of trouble."

Vin cuffed Ezra on the back of the head as he led him past Chris and into the saloon. "Now, Ez, who was the one that got us caught by that hunting party of elves? And how bout that time ya tried ta con that crooked sheriff?"

Chris shook his head as he watched the two men walk into the saloon. He had a feeling that Ezra Standish was going to cause nothing but problems.

Two months later

Vin walked out of the saloon and glanced up at the roof, shaking his head when he realized that Ezra was already up there. He took a quick look around town and when he was certain no one was watching, he scurried up the side of the building and sat next to the gambler. He could feel the slight buzzing from the illusion that his cousin was still projecting.

"Ez, there's no one up here but me. There's no need to keep the illusion up. 'Sides, it's dark out."

Ezra sighed, but did as Vin asked. As the buzzing faded, Ezra's face changed. His cheekbones became more prominent, his green eyes were brighter and his ears now sloped up to gentle points. "I am beginning to get very tired of this, Vin. I do not want to spend my entire life hiding from men I would like to call friends."

Vin smiled sadly, having already dropped his own illusion of human features. "Ya think I like this anymore than you do? I've been wantin' ta tell Chris since I met him, but we both know it ain't safe. For us or them."

"It is times like this that I fervently wish mother had married a nice human man instead of my father." He chuckled dryly. "At least then I would not have to watch my back every day for fear that some over-zealous elf will stick a knife in it. I do so hate being considered an abomination simply because of the circumstances of my birth."

Vin raised an eyebrow and slung an arm around Ezra's shoulders. "Uh, Ez, I'm in the same boat you are, remember? They got a price on my head, too."

"I know, Vin. I watch your back just as fervently as I watch my own." He glanced up at the sky. "That is one of the only good things to come about because of our mixed blood. Without our magic, we both would have been dead long ago."

Vin was silent for a moment, then he grinned. "I think I'm gonna go for a swim and try ta get rid of this gloomy mood ya seem ta like so much. Wanna come?"

Ezra found his lips curving up in a matching grin. "If you insist, Vin. I suppose I could leave my 'gloomy mood' behind, just this once."

"Great." Vin slapped Ezra on the shoulder and disappeared over the edge of the roof. "Bet I'll beat ya there."

Ezra shook his head as he followed Vin off of the roof and headed out of town towards the creek. "You are a bedlamite cheater, Vin. I hope that you realize that."

Both men reached the creek at the same time and began removing their clothes. They dived into the cold water, unaware of the figure that was watching them from the shadows. After about an hour, they both climbed out of the water and began pulling on their clothes.

"I'm glad that you suggested this, Vin. I needed something to take my mind off our problems."

Vin's reply was muffled by the sound of a gunshot. He screamed as he saw a burst of red on Ezra's white shirt. He caught the gambler as he fell and looked around the clearing. He saw the moonlight flash on a pointed ear before the shooter disappeared into the brush.

"Ez, we've got ta get ya ta Nathan. I can't do anything for ya here. Can ya make it if I help ya?"

Ezra coughed, flinching in pain. "I do not have much of a choice, do I? Help me to my feet, and I will find some way to get back to town."

Vin gently pulled Ezra to his feet, frowning when he felt his cousin trying to maintain his illusion. "You can't waste what energy ya got left on that, Ez. We're gonna have ta tell Nathan anyway."

Ezra relaxed slightly, letting the illusion fade away. "I suppose you are right, Vin. This was just not the way that I wanted to tell them."

"Me neither, Ez. Me neither."

+ + + + + + +

As soon as Vin and Ezra managed to stumble into town, Vin began shouting for Nathan. The healer ran out of the saloon with Chris close behind him. He took one look at the bloody mess that was once Ezra's shirt and sprang into action.

"Chris, help Vin get Ezra up to the clinic. Vin, do you know if the bullet's still in there?"

Vin shook his head, thankful for the darkness that hid his and Ezra's elven features from the townspeople who had left the saloon at his shouting. "I don't know, Nate. He's loosin' a lot of blood, though."

The men quickly got Ezra up the stairs and into the clinic. Once they got him to the bed, Nathan began to peel back his now ruined shirt. He hissed at the damage that had been done to the gambler's chest. He glanced up at Ezra's face and his eyes widened when he saw the pointed ears. "You're an elf?"

Chris glanced up at Nathan's shocked question, then turned his eyes to Vin. "You are too, aren't ya?"

"Not exactly." Ezra clenched his teeth in pain when his chest protested.

Vin glared at Chris and knelt next to the bed. "Can't this wait, cowboy?"

Nathan had finally managed to pull his gaze from Ezra's ears back to the hole in his chest. "There's nothing I can do. The bullet's lodged too close to his heart. If I try to get it out, I could easily kill him. I'm sorry."

Vin looked into Ezra's eyes, smiling slightly when he saw the acceptance there. He turned to Nathan. "What if I could get the bullet out without hurtin' him? Could ya save him then?"

"Yeah, but how are ya going to get it out of him, Vin?"

"Magic." Vin closed his eyes, one hand on Ezra's forehead and the other above the gunshot wound. The other two men gasped when Vin's hands began to glow softly. Ezra's face tightened in pain, then relaxed as he passed out. After a few moments, the bullet slowly became visible as it rose out of the wound. The instant Vin's fingers closed around it, he collapsed against the wall.

While Chris knelt to check on Vin, Nathan glanced back at Ezra's chest, amazed to see that with the bullet gone the damage was easily repairable. He looked over at the tracker who was still leaning against the wall. "Whatever you just did, Vin, saved his life. With a little rest, he should be fine."

As soon as Nathan had finished bandaging Ezra's chest, he and Chris helped Vin pull himself to his feet. Vin nearly fell into the nearest chair, absently pushing his hair back and away from his ears. When he looked up, both Chris and Nathan were staring at him. "What?"

"Why didn't you ever tell us, pard? There's nothin' for you or Ezra to be ashamed of."

Vin glared at Chris. "We ain't ashamed of anythin', cowboy. It's them that's ashamed of us." He sighed when he saw the puzzled expression on Chris's face. "Ez and me are half-bloods. The rest of the elves wouldn't mind so much if'n we couldn't do magic." The tracker shrugged. "Once they found out we could, they stuck a bounty on our heads. That's what happened to Ez. Somebody wanted ta collect on the bounty."

Chris frowned. "But why didn't you tell us. We'd of tried to help you."

"It was safer this way."

The three men looked over at the bed, surprised that Ezra was awake.

"Vin and I couldn't risk you or the others knowing. You were in enough danger simply because of our presence." He coughed, wincing when the movement pulled on the stitches in his chest. "And now that we have been found out, I fear that we must leave, and soon."

"No." When Vin and Ezra looked like they were going to protest, Chris held up a hand. "We'll figure something out, but the two of you are not leaving. I'll lock the both of you up if I have to. There are seven of us, and it's going to stay that way."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra bit back a groan as he tried to force his pain-wracked body into a sitting position. He wasn't surprised to feel Vin's supporting arm under his shoulders helping to pull him up. "While I am grateful for the sentiment, Mr. Larabee, I fear that it is not feasible. The elves will not stop until Vin and I are dead, and they will not hesitate to kill any humans who get in their way."

Chris crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. After a moment of silence, his lips started to curve up in a sly smile. "If they won't stop till you're dead, then we'll just have ta kill ya."

"Cowboy, I don't think we're all on the same page here. How's killin' us gonna do anybody any good?"

The gunslinger's smile just widened. "We're not actually gonna kill ya, Vin. We'll just make them bounty hunters think we killed ya."

Ezra frowned. "And just how do you plan to do that, Mr. Larabee? It is incredibly difficult to con an elven bounty hunter." He clenched his fists as a wrong move sent waves of pain through his chest.

"Easy, Ez. Relax." Vin helped ease Ezra back against the pillows, then pulled the blanket up to his shoulders. "You just rest now. Chris can tell us all about his great idea in the mornin'."

Ezra began to argue, but was overtaken by a yawn. He blushed when he saw Vin's knowing grin. "Fine, I will rest, but only if you do likewise. I know that retrieving that bullet took a lot out of you as well."

Even though Vin was quite tired himself, he continued to tease Ezra. "Ah hell, Ez. I can go on like this all night."

Ezra smiled, blinking tiredly. "You are most welcome to try, but please remember that I shall not be available to pick you back up." The gambler's smile widened when he saw Chris reach over and push Vin into a chair.

"Sit down before ya fall down, pard." The gunslinger just grinned at Vin's pout. "The plan'll still be here in the morning. Now take your own advice and get some rest."

Vin leaned his chair back and stretched his arms over his head while he yawned. "Guess yer right, cowboy. I could use a little sleep."

"Well, you're not gonna get it in that chair." Nathan had remained silent until then, content to let Chris handle the stubborn cousins. "There's plenty a room in that bed with Ezra, and you're gonna use it." The healer held up a hand when Vin started to protest. "I'm not gonna argue with ya, Vin. If ya sleep in that chair ya won't be able ta straighten up in the morning."

Vin frowned, but he saw the logic in the healer's statement. He slowly pulled himself out of the chair and headed for the far side of Ezra's bed. They had shared a bed before, but Ezra had always been a restless sleeper so that Vin rarely got any rest. He shrugged as he climbed into the bed under the watchful eyes of the gunslinger and the healer. If he didn't get any sleep, he'd just take it out on them later.

"Don't worry, Vin. I doubt that I am in any condition to keep you awake tonight." Ezra grinned tiredly at the surprise on Chris and Nathan's faces. "I have never been a quiet sleeper. I have an unfortunate tendency to toss and turn."

Chris shook his head. "That's not what I was wonderin' about. How'd ya know what Vin was thinkin'?"

Vin smiled as he rested his head back on his arms. "You mean other than the fact that this ain't the first time we've slept in the same bed? It's part of the magic we got. It don't always work, but when we're close we can sometimes tell what the other's thinkin'. Comes in handy every now and then."

Chris and Nathan both shook their heads when they saw both of the cousins yawning. "You two get some sleep. We'll talk about all this in the morning."

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Ezra awoke feeling an unaccustomed weight over his chest. He gingerly turned over, hissing quietly when the movement pulled on his injury. He quickly found himself face to face with his smiling cousin. "I trust that I did not keep you awake, Vin."

"Nope, not this time. Guess we were both too tired for any tossin' and turnin'." Vin slid out of bed, stretching his arms over his head. "I'm gonna go get Chris so we can find out what this plan of his is."

A few minutes later Vin and Chris walked back into the clinic with Nathan on their heels. "Okay, Ezra. I need to check and make sure that you're not gettin' infected." The healer slowly peeled back the bandages on Ezra's chest and froze in shock when he finally saw where the bullet hole should have been. While Ezra's chest was still red and tender, there was no evidence that he had been shot the night before. "Is there anything else you're not telling us, Ezra?"

Ezra looked down at his chest, then back up at Vin. "I assure you, Mr. Jackson, if I had known that something of this nature would happen, I would have informed you. This is something that I have had no experience with."

Vin was still staring at Ezra's now nearly healed chest but he could feel Nathan's gaze shift to him. "I've never seen anything like this, either. Full-blood elves don't heal that fast, even if'n they do have magic."

Nathan turned his attention back to Ezra. "Does it still hurt, Ezra?"

"The pain is negligible." When he saw the healer's scowl, Ezra sighed. "It is still somewhat uncomfortable if I move unwisely. It is not a severe hindrance." He turned to look at Chris. "Now, Mr. Larabee, what was this wonderful plan of yours that you would not tell us last night."

Chris recognized Ezra's attempt to take the attention off of his injury and allowed it. He sat in the chair next to the bed and stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. An enigmatic grin twisted his lips. "I was thinking of blowing you two up actually."

There was utter silence in the clinic for a moment after the gunslinger's announcement. Then Ezra raised one eyebrow in disbelief. "What did you just say, Mr. Larabee?"

The gunslinger's grin widened. "I said we were gonna blow you and Vin up. You having trouble hearin', Ez?"

"No, Mr. Larabee, simply with my comprehension. What possible good could come of Vin and I being 'blown up?'"

Vin glanced at Chris through narrowed eyes. "Yer plan is ta make the bounty hunters think we got caught in an explosion and died? Ya really think that'd work, cowboy?"

Chris nodded. "If we make it a big enough explosion and the two of ya don't show up anywhere for a few days afterward, it oughta work."

Ezra just frowned darkly. "If it does not kill us first. And where are we going to stage this explosion so that Vin and I will be able to escape without detection?"

"There's an abandoned ranch house not too far from town." Chris slid his hands behind his head and leaned his chair back against the wall. "We can rig the place before hand, then make like we're takin' the two of ya out there ta hide. Ya walk in and the place explodes." He grinned. "The house is on the edge of a really steep hill, so all ya gotta do is run through the house and out the back before it blows."

Vin frowned. "That's gonna take some purty close timing, cowboy. It sounds awful dangerous, if'n ya ask me."

Chris's grin fell and he looked at the cousins seriously. "I know it's a risk, but it's the only thing I can think of. I won't let the two of you leave and I won't let the bounty hunters kill ya, so I gotta do something." He crossed his arms. "If either of ya can think of a better idea, I'm all for it."

Ezra and Vin looked at each other and both men shrugged. "As you wish, Mr. Larabee. But I really must insist that we plan absolutely everything before we attempt this subterfuge." While they were agreeing to Chris's plan, neither man was feeling very confident in it.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra nearly called the whole plan off when he realized that he would be unable to set the explosives himself, and instead would have to rely on the others to do a proper job. When Vin found him, he was still sitting in the bed in the clinic, his arms crossed over his chest and his jaw stuck out in a stubborn scowl. The scowl only grew worse when Vin began laughing.

"I assure you, Vin, that this is no laughing matter. Our very lives, not to mention our various appendages, are at risk with Mr. Larabee's insane plan."

Vin just kept laughing. "Well then, Ez, I guess ya better tell Bucklin exactly how ya want the stuff set up, if'n ya don't wanna blow up with the house."

Ezra finally smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I just have a very bad feeling about all of this, Vin. Something is going to go wrong, and I don't think that there is anything any of us can do about it."

Vin leaned a hip against the side of the bed. "If there ain't nothin' we can do about it, then leave it be. Just make sure that Buck knows how ta rig everything up right."

"Believe me, I intend to."

Nathan finally pulled himself away from the wall he had been leaning against, watching the cousins argue. "Vin, if you'll make sure Ez don't get outa bed, I'll go get Buck so they can talk explosives. Chris wants this done as soon as possible."

The healer was back in only a few minutes with Buck following close behind him. It took nearly an hour, but Ezra was finally convinced that Buck would be able to set all of the explosives just as well as he would have himself. He ran a hand through his hair, carefully hiding the pain that the action caused him. While his wound had mysteriously healed, it still caused him pain if he moved the wrong way.

"While it seems that you do indeed know how to properly set the explosives, Mr. Wilmington, allow me to assure you that if anything unforeseen occurs, I shall return to haunt you for the remainder of your days."

Buck just grinned. "Can ya really do that, Ez?"

The gambler sighed as he rolled his eyes. "Believe me when I say that if it is indeed possible, I shall make it as unpleasant for you as possible."

"Don't worry so much, Ez. Everything's gonna be just fine."

Ezra leaned back against the pillows. "I wish that I had your optimism, Mr. Wilmington. And just when shall Mr. Larabee be implementing this wonderful plan of his?"

"If Nate says it's all right, you and Vin are gonna ride out tomorrow. Chris is gonna ride with ya, and the rest of us are gonna hang back and try to see if the bounty hunters follow ya."

Ezra gazed up at Buck and raised an eyebrow. "Rest assured, Mr. Wilmington, they shall indeed follow us. I only hope that they do not decide to eliminate us and Mr. Larabee before we reach the ranch. I would hate for all of this planning to go to waste."

The ladies' man just gave Ezra a pat on the knee as he walked out of the clinic, the grin never leaving his face. Nathan took one look at Ezra's pale face and began tucking him back in bed, despite the gambler's rather token resistance. "Ya need to get some more sleep, Ezra. If ya don't rest then ya won't be able to ride out tomorrow morning."

"Perhaps I do not want to ride out in the morning, Mr. Jackson." In contrast to his words, the gambler allowed Nathan to pull the blankets higher around his shoulders.

Vin walked over to the bed, placing one hand on Ezra's shoulder. "We gotta do this soon, Ez. They're gonna come after us one way or another, and I'd rather we be ready for 'em."

Ezra nodded as he sank back against the pillows. "I know, Vin. I just wish I felt better about this whole fiasco." As he drifted off to sleep, only one thought ran through his mind: something was about to go terribly wrong, for all of them.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning the three lawmen rode out towards the abandoned ranch, taking their time to insure that the elven bounty hunters were following. It took every ounce of self-control that Ezra and Vin had to keep from twisting in their saddles to look over their shoulders. They were nearly at the ranch when Ezra felt the hair on the back of his neck suddenly come to attention. He glanced over at Vin and saw the same knowledge reflected in his eyes. The elves were there.

Once the rigged ranch house came into sight, the three men dismounted. Chris took the reins of Vin and Ezra's horses, eyes narrowing when he saw Ezra flinch as he dismounted. "Okay, boys, you're gonna have ten seconds after ya walk in there ta get out the back and down the hill." He gave each man a slap on the back and pushed them towards the house. "We won't be back for ya for a few days, so be careful."

"We shall endeavor to be as careful as is possible, Mr. Larabee." Ezra took a deep breath and turned to Vin. "Let us get this insane plan over with before my senses return and I change my mind."

Vin chuckled even though he was beginning to feel nervous as well. "In such a hurry ta blow up, Ez?" He just smiled when Ezra glared at him. "Come on, cousin. The elves are likely startin' ta get suspicious."

Ezra sighed, but followed Vin as the tracker strode toward the house. While the gambler couldn't see any sign of the explosives, he knew that they were there. As they walked through the door Ezra paused, a feeling of dread curling up from the pit of his stomach. He met Vin's eyes, his own wide with horror.

Both men could feel the magic surrounding the ranch, proof that somehow the elves had known where they were going. For an instant, they debated turning and dashing back out the front but quickly realized that there was no time. They could also sense the magic that was binding the ranch's back door firmly shut. There was only one visible way out of the ranch, and only a few seconds before it would explode.

Vin and Ezra both ran for the single window in the back wall, reaching it at the same instant that the explosives went off. The force propelled both men out the window and over the side of the hill where gravity took over, sending them rolling down the steep embankment.

Ezra's movement stopped when the gambler slammed into a large rock, dislocating his shoulder and sending waves of pain down his arm. He clenched his jaw and used his good arm to pull himself up, looking down the hill for Vin. His breath caught in his throat when he finally found his cousin, sprawled on his back at the foot of the hill.

He slowly made his way down the hill, his right arm cradling the left against his chest. When he finally reached Vin, he dropped to his knees next to the unmoving tracker. He paled when he saw the blood matting his cousin's hair. He slid two shaking fingers to Vin's throat, sighing in relief when he felt a weak pulse. He gave thought to calling for Chris, but somehow he knew that the gunslinger had already ridden off, unaware of the snag in his plan.

Ezra lowered himself until he was sitting with Vin's head resting across his legs. It was then that he noticed the odd angle that Vin's right leg was at. He glanced up at the sky, sending a quick prayer to lady luck for what he was about to do.

The pain radiated from his dislocated shoulder as he slowly moved his left hand to rest on Vin's forehead. The other hand was laying over Vin's heart. He closed his eyes and let his breathing even out. His hands slowly began to glow golden as his breathing slowed. The golden glow began to spread across Vin's body, lingering on his head and his broken leg. As the leg straightened and the bleeding stopped, the glow vanished and Ezra's body fell backwards with Vin's head still resting on his legs.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was high overhead when Vin finally returned to consciousness. He blinked up at the sun for a moment, then turned his head and saw Ezra. The gambler was flat on his back, his left arm lying awkwardly at his side. Then a shadow crossed Vin's vision and he glanced back up, gasping when he saw who was standing above him. Somehow, the elves had found them.

Vin was jerked to his feet and his hands were roughly tied behind his back. Only the sight of one of the other elves kneeling next to the unconscious Ezra with a knife at his throat kept the tracker from fighting. "How'd ya know?"

The leader just laughed. "We found the two of you the first time quite by accident. After that, we had a little unwilling help from an acquaintance of yours." He grabbed Vin's arm and pulled him towards one of the horses. "Come on, Tanner. You and your cousin have a date with the hangman."

Vin scowled as he saw Ezra pulled up and tossed on the back of a horse, his hands tied behind his back despite the dislocated shoulder. "Why ya doin' this, Warren? We used ta be friends."

Warren patted the tracker on the shoulder. "Because the two of you are worth a hell of a lot of money. No hard feelings though?" He laughed when Vin just glared at him. "Just wait. We've got a surprise for you two."

They rode for over an hour, with Vin and Ezra constantly surrounded by elven bounty hunters. The elves finally pulled their horses to a halt near a large tree where several others were waiting. Vin noticed another figure sitting bound on a horse and swore when he saw who it was. "Uncle Patrick?"

The other man raised his head, looking at Vin with tired green eyes. "I'm sorry, Vin. I was just trying to help my son, and they used it to find both of you." He glanced over at Ezra who was still slumped in the saddle. "Forgive me?"

Vin tried to smile. "Ain't yer fault. Ya were just tryin' ta help me and Ez."

"How touching. Now say good-bye, because it's time for your hanging."

Vin looked up when Warren spoke and finally saw the three nooses hanging from a stout tree branch above their heads. Apparently, Patrick was to be hung as well. "Ya don't have ta do this, Warren. At least let Uncle Patrick go. He don't have a bounty on him."

Warren smiled as the others slid the noose around Vin's neck. "He got in my way. Besides, none of this would have happened if he'd stuck with his own kind." He dismounted and walked over to Ezra, raising the gambler's head with his hand. "Wake up, Ezra. You wouldn't want to miss your own execution, now would you?"

Ezra groaned as his eyes blinked open and then teared at the fiery pain shooting down his arm. When his eyes finally focused, he glanced at Warren then turned to look at Patrick, wincing when he saw the noose around the older man's neck. "I'm sorry that you got caught in this, Father." Ezra barely flinched as his horse was lead to stand next to the others and a noose was placed around his own neck.

"Well, gentlemen, I am about to become one thousand dollars richer and the world will have two fewer half-bloods." Warren grinned maliciously. "It's like killing two birds with one stone. Good-bye, gentlemen."

There was a sharp whistle and the three horses bolted, leaving the three men swinging from the nooses. The fall hadn't been far enough to break their necks so they simply dangled, the rope choking them. Black began to invade the edge of Vin's vision and he could hear his blood pounding in his ears. Suddenly the pressure on his neck was gone and he fell to the ground, coughing and gasping. He sensed Ezra and Patrick falling next to him, but he could only roll to his side as he tried to get his breath back.

Gunshots filled the air and Vin could see the elves falling, unprepared to defend themselves. After a few moments, a pair of familiar black boots walked into his line of sight. "Bout time, cowboy." His voice was rough and even those few words sent him into a fit of painful coughing.

Chris knelt next to Vin and helped pull him up so that he was sitting instead of lying in the dirt. "Good thing we were following ya. We nearly didn't get here in time."

"How's Ez?"

Chris glanced over to where Nathan was checking the gambler. The healer looked up and smiled, a sure sign that Ezra would be fine. "None the worse for wear. Looks like all of you were lucky."

Vin looked over and saw Patrick sitting next to Ezra, helping Nathan with the gambler's injured shoulder. "Yeah, this time. What about next time?"

"Next time, cowboy, we deal with it together." Chris put a hand on Vin's shoulder and smiled. "As long as we stay seven, we can do anything."

Vin chuckled. "Ya sounds like JD there, cowboy. Reckon he's rubbin' off on ya."

Chris glared at the tracker but there was no heat in it. "I reckon he's got the right idea about us. We stay seven, or everything'll fall apart. Live with it."

"Yes, sir, cowboy." Vin grinned as Chris swatted him on the back of the head. He and Ezra wouldn't break up the seven. After all, anything less wouldn't be the reality but the illusion.


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