Love Is A Battlefield
by VampyrAlex


Pairing: Ezra/Chris
Category: ATF
Rating: R
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Sequel/Series: Sequel to Against All Odds
Author's notes: A huge thank you to Kimber for allowing me to pick her brain for her medical knowledge. Also my humble thanks to my diva betas Sherri and Tess for polishing this story for me. Any final mistakes are mine.  

Summary: Ella Gaines comes back again to haunt the boys.  

The ringing of the phone interrupted the discussion taking place in the conference room. Chris pressed speaker, scowling down at the phone as if he could see the person at the other end of the line.

"That better be you, Ezra," he gritted out roughly.

"It is," the familiar voice drawled.

"Where the hell are you? You were supposed to get the new Jag and drive straight to work. You're over an hour late."

"I know. I'm sorry. There was a slight problem with the paperwork and it took longer than expected to get everything signed. That's not why I am calling."

Something in his lover's voice made Chris frown. "What's wrong?"

A soft sigh came through the speaker, reaching the six men sitting at the table clearly. "I've got a tail. I spotted it as I was leaving the car lot." He paused. "Chris, the truck following me resembles the vehicle which ran me off the road near the ranch two months ago. Same color, same smoked windows, no license plate."

Chris closed his eyes, worry and rage stabbing at him. Two months earlier someone had ran Ezra over the steep cliff leading into the river running on Chris' land. The Jag's plunge into the strong current signaled the car's demise and Ezra had escaped by sheer luck alone.

Weeks of going through Ezra's cases had turned up no suspects, no clue as to whom was trying to kill the undercover agent. Days of watching over him had proved worthless, as there were no further attempts on his life. Now, left for the first time unguarded, Ezra was once again in harm's way.

"Where are ya, Ez?" Vin asked, leaning towards the phone.

"I just reached Speer Boulevard. It will take me a few minutes to make it to Lawrence Street, then 19th Street."

Chris rose from his chair, ready to rush to his lover's rescue, when Josiah shook his head grimly. "It would take us too long to reach him, Chris. Let me call the police."

Chris froze for a moment, and then nodded curtly. He hated having his hands tied, hated not being able to do anything to help Ezra. He had come close to losing his lover once; the idea of having to go through it all again was too much to take.

Taking firm control of his wayward emotions, he spoke into the phone. "Josiah is callin' the cops, Ez. Is the truck still tailin' you?"

Ezra's voice sounded calm and level as he replied, "Yes. It's right behind me."

"I talked with Sergeant Mullins," Josiah said, pocketing his cell phone, referring to one of the DPD cops they had regular dealings with and actually liked. "He's handling this one himself. There are two squad cars in the area, they're on their way."

"Ya hear that, Ez?" Nathan asked.

"Loud and clear, Mr. Jackson. I can hear the sirens in the distance."

Chris sat back down on his chair, resisting the urge to pace around the room. He needed a clear head to see the situation through. Once he knew his lover was safe and sound, then he would lash out, preferably at the bastard trying to kill the most important person in his life.

Ezra looked at the rearview mirror for what had to be the hundredth time. The truck was still following close behind, its hidden driver apparently uncaring of the squad cars rapidly approaching.

He couldn't believe his luck. After weeks of putting up with his friends' constant hovering, his first day as a free man and what happens? His would-be murderer strikes anew. And it had to be the day Ezra finally got his hands on a brand new Jaguar! Lady Luck must be laughing her head off.

He tensed as the truck got impossibly closer. Instead of ramming into the Jag as Ezra expected, the other vehicle changed lanes, coming to Ezra's right side, obviously trying to place them side by side.

Ezra looked ahead, and realized he was boxed in. There was a van in front of him, the backseat sporting three small children, and the spot behind him, left vacant as the truck had changed lanes, was already filled by a jeep. There was no way out.

He swallowed thickly as he noted the window on the truck's driver side was halfway down. Squinting his eyes, he tried to look inside the vehicle, hoping to catch a glimpse of the person at the wheel. All he was able to see was a slim body, its face covered by a ski mask.

"Chris?" he called out to the phone, as the connection was still open.

"Yeah, Ez?"

"We are practically side by side now. I think whoever it is, is going to try to shoot me. The police won't reach us in time."

"Can you see anythin'?" Buck asked, the worry clear in his voice.

"Not much. One of the windows is halfway open. I can see someone, but can't tell whether it's a man or a woman. The face is covered by a ski mask."

He held his breath as a gun was abruptly visible in the driver's hand. Before he could react to the new threat, a single shot blew out one of the front tires of the Jag. Ezra cursed, trying hard to control the suddenly swerving car, ignoring his lover's anguished shouts over the phone as the Jag impacted against the guardrail at his left side.

A new shot shattered his passenger side window, but he barely noticed, his blood turning cold in his veins at the impending tragedy about to take place. The van with the children in front of him came to a sudden halt, probably alerted by the sound of the gunshots, the squeal of tires abnormally loud in the morning air.

Ezra slammed frantically on the brakes, but was unable to prevent the collision with the other vehicle, moaning painfully as, in turn, the jeep crashed into him violently, deploying the airbag on the driver's side. Glass shattered as two more shots shattered what was left of the windshield. The broken glass shards flew like knives to cut his hands and face. Closing his eyes at the burning pain, dizzy from the brutal force of the crash, he whispered his lover's name, and then surrendered to the darkness overpowering him.

Chris jumped out of the Ram, not caring that the door was standing wide open or that the keys were still in the ignition. He made it through the roadblock, pushing aside whoever dared to try to stop him, leaving it to the men following him to show their ID's.

He glanced at the chaos around him with dismay and growing fear. At least eight cars had been involved in the crash, a deadly chain of twisted metal and fiberglass spread out on the asphalt. Dozens of cops, paramedics and firemen could be seen at the scene; ambulances, squad cars and fire trucks parked in every available nook.

But no Ezra.

"Chris, over there!" JD called.

He swung around, seeing JD gesture towards one of the ambulances. Chris swayed slightly, fierce relief washing over him as he spotted Ezra standing by one of the ambulances, a white bandage wrapped around his head, talking with three kids who were being examined by a paramedic. Whatever story his lover was currently spouting, it had both the children and the paramedic giggling helplessly.

As if sensing Chris' stare, Ezra turned, eyes focusing immediately on Chris. He winked at the kids, and then made his way over to the newcomers.

"Hey," he breathed when he was inches away from Chris.

Chris wouldn't have been able to say a word if his life depended on it. Instead, he reached for Ezra, pulling him roughly against his body, arms embracing him tightly. He didn't care who might be watching or what they thought, but breathed easier as the others formed a protective curtain around them.

He felt Ezra's arms go around his waist, tightening slightly before he whispered, "I'm all right, Chris. It's just a lot of bumps, superficial cuts and bruises. I have a mild concussion from hitting the headrest, that's all. I won't even need to go through the usual dreaded visit to the hospital. And," he added, forestalling Chris' protests. "I will even allow you to call Mr. Jackson should any problems develop."

Chris loosened his hold on the other man, although he still didn't let go. The adrenaline and the mindless panic were finally leaving his system, allowing him to relax and get his brain functioning again.

"The bastard in the truck?" Chris asked.

"Escaped. Sergeant Mullins is around here somewhere. I gave him all the necessary information for an APB along with my statement. Every police officer in Denver will be on the lookout for that truck."

"You do realize I'll never leave you alone again, don't you?" Chris whispered into Ezra's ear. "I'll follow you to the john, if I have to."

He felt, more than heard, Ezra laughing quietly against him. "As long as you keep me company in bed and maybe in the shower once in a while, I believe I can put up with your constant presence. I'm sure you will make it worth my while." Ezra quipped, and then groaned pitifully. "My brand new Jag!" he bemoaned. "Chris, my insurance company is going to drop me. No one is going to believe this!"

"We'll handle it when the time comes. Right now I want to take you home and love the stuffin' outta you." Chris told him, the last remnants of fear making his voice husky. He needed to connect with his lover, to make sure he was safe, whole.

Ezra pulled back to look at him, understanding shining in his eyes. "Yeah?" he drawled with a slight smile.

Chris grinned back, "Yeah."

"In that case, what are we still doing here?"

And with that they made their way back to the Ram, the others close behind, patting Ezra on the back, or teasing him about the totaled Jaguar, happy to have their seventh safely back within their midst.

Ella Gaines threw her backpack on the floor with a disgusted grimace. Two months of watching her target, of waiting patiently for a break: and, when it finally came, she blew it! It had all seemed so simple in her mind - follow Standish, place their vehicles side-by-side, shoot a tire, and when he was too busy trying to control his car and couldn't fire back, kill him.

She lay down on the bed, hands behind her head, looking up at the ceiling. The hotel room she was currently living in was a pigsty, but it provided a safe haven for her plotting. No one knew she was back in Denver, and she planned to keep it that way, which meant using an alias.

She could use her real name; it wasn't as if she was wanted or anything, but she wasn't ready to let Chris know she had returned. The last time they had seen each other had been a mistake, a miscalculation on her part. Sarah and Adam had been dead for a few months and Ella decided the perfect time had come for her to make an appearance, to be the warm, comforting shoulder Chris could cry on and if that led to something more between them, then she wouldn't say no.

Chris had been obsessed with his family's death, his grief a living thing, a bottle his constant companion. She doubted the man had even been fully aware of her presence. Furious beyond belief at her failure to reach Chris, she thought to tell him the truth. Tell him that he was wrong, that they were all wrong. Tell him that car bomb was meant to kill Sarah and the brat, not Chris. Tell him she had never forgiven him for abandoning her and marrying Sarah instead. Tell him that she had been the one to hire the man who planted the bomb.

At the last minute she managed to control her anger and keep silent. Chris would kill her should he ever find out the truth, when all she wanted was for him to love her again.

So she had disappeared again, moving to Washington, her mind already working on a new strategy. What she needed was for something to bring Chris out of his depression, something to bring him back to the world of the living.

The solution came to her at a party. While mingling with the crowd, she overheard two congressmen speaking about the implementation of a new task force within the ATF. Everything was set; all they were lacking was a leader capable of handling such a strenuous position.

It had been child's play, meddling in and subtly mentioning Chris' name. It worked; not three months later the team assembled with Chris as the new ATF leader.

Her plan well on the way, she decided to take her time showing up, allowing over a year to pass before she returned to Denver. When she finally arrived back in town, she watched Chris for a while, trying to gauge his state of mind. She hadn't been prepared for the fact Chris might have someone new in his life, and a man at that.

Standish had to go.

A loud honking on the street brought her back to the present. Her first two attempts at killing Standish had failed, but in a few days, she would try again. The truck was already gone and she knew she had left no prints or clues leading back to her; she was in the clear.

Sooner or later she would have Chris back in her bed, in her life, where he belonged.

Ezra woke up to the feeling of being watched. Opening his eyes, he realized he was lying on the bed, fully dressed, Chris stretched out beside him.

"I fell asleep on you, didn't I?" he asked apologetically.

Chris smiled, brushing his fingers over Ezra's face gently. "S'okay. I enjoy watchin' you sleep. Besides, you needed it. Head still hurt?"

"A bit, nothing I can't handle. My body, however, is a completely different matter. The only part of me that doesn't feel sore at the moment is my eyelashes," he admitted with a rueful grin. "I dread to think what might have happened if not for the air bag deploying."

Chris shuddered. "Don't remind me. When we got to the site and I saw all that destruction.... I still can't believe nobody died."

Ezra closed his eyes. "We have to catch whoever is trying to kill me, Chris, and quickly. It's bad enough I am the intended target, but this person seems to have no regard whatsoever for human life. I can still see the look of absolute terror on those children's faces as I crashed into their van." He swallowed painfully. "It was one of the most terrifying moments in my life. Everything happened so fast; the bullets, the agonizing sound of metal tearing, glass shattering.... Then, for an excruciatingly long second, there was this unbearable silence, as if I were the last person on Earth... as if I had gone suddenly deaf. It's almost a relief when you start hearing the crying and the moans...." He exhaled slowly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so melodramatic."

Chris shook his head. "You're entitled, Ezra. I was involved in a car accident some years back and it took me days before I managed to shake the anxiety. And it was nothin' like what you went through this mornin'. The lack of control, not bein' able to act, to prevent what ya know is about to happen. Even in our jobs, usually there's a way, somethin' you can do to avoid a dangerous situation." He leaned down and kissed Ezra tenderly, not meant to arouse, but to comfort. "How about we go out for dinner? Nice meal, candlelight, good wine... You must be starvin' since you missed lunch."

Ezra found himself smiling at his lover. "Sounds delightful," he agreed softly. "Perhaps a special dessert afterwards is in order?"

His lover looked at him suspiciously. "What do you have in mind?"

Ezra knew his smile was turning mischievous, but didn't care. "Well, seeing as I fell asleep after Mr. Jackson examined my wounds and ordered me to get some rest, use ice on the areas that hurt the most, and buy stock in Advil, and since you failed to, and I quote, 'love the stuffin' outta me', I thought perhaps you could make good on your promise once dinner was over."

Chris chuckled. "When you put it that way... how can I say no?"

"Excellent!" Ezra rose from the bed. "You taste divine with chocolate syrup and whip cream," he added wickedly, laughing as Chris mock glared at him from a flushed face.

He ran to the bathroom, escaping the pillow thrown at him. He felt a lot better, as he always did when Chris was beside him. It had been hard at first, having someone so close almost constantly, having to share his most inner thoughts and emotions. Now, it was easier and he cherished their closeness. He knew Chris would always be there, no matter what.

They found the abandoned truck the next morning on the outskirts of Denver. The police had it taken to the ATF building, so the forensics team could do a total sweep for fingerprints or anything left behind that might lead them to the shooter.

Hours later, a disheartened Buck came back to the office with the results; they hadn't found a thing. They hadn't really been expecting any new leads; that would have been too easy, but still....

Now it meant they would have to wait for a new attempt on Ezra's life. And none of them were comfortable with those odds at all.

Two days later Ezra left the townhouse to go to work, with Chris and JD as his bodyguards. One of the drawbacks of having someone escort him to the office everyday was he couldn't indulge, as was his habit, in rising late. Chris was particularly ruthless about the whole affair, waking him up at the crack of dawn, absolute glee shining in his eyes as he tore the covers away from Ezra's warm body, exposing him to the cruel chill of the morning.

Ezra watched Chris walk slowly to the Ram, eyes scanning the surrounding area, scouting for anything suspicious or out of place, while JD remained close to Ezra. A nod from Chris and they made their way to the car as well.

Time moved in slow motion as Ezra suddenly saw his lover tense. "Get down!" Chris shouted, running back to him and throwing Ezra to the ground in one swift movement.

Ezra heard the shots and watched helplessly as a bullet struck Chris in the back as they fell. He never heard JD returning fire, never heard him run across the street in hopes of catching the sniper. All he could see was the crimson stain spreading over the back of Chris' shirt as he lay motionless in his arms.

For one foggy moment he wondered if Chris had died, absolute terror striking his heart at the very idea of losing his lover. He crawled blindly from under Chris' body, rising to his knees and lifting the bleeding form gently into his lap with an anguished whimper.

"Call an ambulance!" he shouted to the blurry faces all around him. "For God's sake, call an ambulance!"

He looked down at his lover. He could hear Chris' pained breaths clearly, could feel him struggling against the growing weakness. There was so much blood. He tried to staunch the abundant flow, but it wasn't working. Soon his hands were bright red and the precious liquid covered his clothes.

Jerking his coat off his body, he took off his shirt, pressing it firmly to the wound. Too much blood, there was too much blood; the bullet must have nicked an artery.

He could feel panic building inside. He wanted to embrace Chris, wanted to keep him warm, safe. But he knew any further movement could do more damage. Instead, he placed a shaking hand over the soft blond hair. "Hang in there, Chris, please. Don't you dare run out on me now!"

JD watched as in a blink of an eye the world as he knew it turned into chaos. One minute everything was fine, the next Chris was lying bleeding in Ezra's arms. It was like something out of his worst nightmares.

Forcing his mind back online, he followed the direction the shots were coming from, spotting a figure firing from the rooftop of the building directly in front of the townhouse. Gritting his teeth against the anger bubbling inside, he fired back, but he was too far away to get a clear shot.

Taking a deep breath, he ran to the building, several shots landing at his feet, a few so close he could feel the air shifting just before the bullets hit the concrete. He made it to the front door, kicking it open. Seeing both an elevator and stairs, and not wanting to lose the bastard who shot Chris, he called for the elevator, blocking the doors with a flowerpot when it opened.

Satisfied the shooter wouldn't be able to make it down on the elevator, he rushed up the stairs, a near murderous rage taking over him. He knew the others thought him to be too young and somewhat naive, but he was an ATF agent after all, and had seen his share of action. Besides, these were his friends getting hurt.

He made it to the roof, only to find it deserted. The unknown assailant had escaped, using the back stairs. He was probably long gone.

Swallowing the frustrated shout wanting to break free, he got back to Ezra and Chris as fast as he could, gasping at the sight that greeted him. Chris looked too pale and still. Lifeless. If not for the panting breaths leaving the slightly parted lips, JD would have thought any help would come too late. Ezra was nearly in shock, almost as pale as Chris, eyes glazed as they focused unblinkingly on the wounded man.

JD knelt beside Ezra, a hand resting gently on his shoulder, lending Ezra some strength and offering what little comfort he could. He remained silent, watching Ezra murmuring soothingly to Chris, fingers brushing over the blond hair. He found himself praying for a miracle. If Chris died, they would not only lose him, but Ezra as well.

After what felt like forever, the ambulance finally arrived. JD dragged a struggling Ezra away from Chris so the paramedics could do their job. The examination was quick and actions were taken to prevent further blood loss. The paramedics placed Chris onto a stretcher and immediately loaded it into the ambulance. Ezra clambered in right on their heels and they took off.

Suddenly alone, JD felt almost dizzy, whether from the adrenaline or fear, he didn't know. It was probably both. Knowing he was temporarily in charge, he went back to the townhouse, used his spare key, and grabbed some clean clothes for Ezra. He also called the others, letting them know what was happening. A few minutes later he was driving the Ram to the hospital, hoping for some good news when he got there.

Ella gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. Damn that Standish, this was all his fault. God, she had shot Chris. She had *shot* Chris! What if he died because of her? She had never meant to hurt him, never. She loved him. Chris was hers, he belonged to her, and she would never do such a terrible thing to him. Standish deserved it, not Chris.

That damn ATF pup! Who would have thought the kid had such spunk in him? She had escaped not a minute too soon.

Now what? What should she do? Leave Denver? Wait a few more days and try again? Was Chris even alive? If he died.... She took a deep, calming breath, trying to rein in her emotions. If he was dead, there would be no place on Earth that Ezra Standish could hide from her. He would pay for causing this to happen, for making her hurt Chris. She would kill the little catamite... very, very slowly.

Ezra looked out the window of the waiting room, staring blankly at the traffic buzzing by. He

knew he was trembling slightly, knew his anxiety and fear were evident in his stricken features, knew his grief must be showing in his eyes. It didn't matter; nothing mattered. Not until someone told him that Chris had made it through surgery and would be all right. Until then, he didn't care about anything.

He felt Josiah sit behind him, his voice hushed and concerned as he asked, "You okay, son?"

"Ask me again in a few hours," he replied softly.

How could he explain it to them? How could he make them understand that if Chris didn't make it, he would go on through life much as he had before, doing all those things everyone always took for granted, but that his heart would have died along with Chris? That there would be nothing left worth fighting for, nothing to live for, that waking up in the morning would become unbearable?

Josiah touched his shoulder gently. "You should change clothes, clean the blood away. Nathan said it's going to be some time before we hear anything. Come on, I'll go with you."

Ezra allowed the bigger man to guide him to the bathroom. Looking down at his hands he saw they were covered in dried blood. Suddenly, he just had to get it off, couldn't stand the sight of it. He scrubbed at his skin until it hurt, exhaling slowly as the last of the red stains vanished in the water.

Raising his head, he caught his reflection in the mirror, his eyes filling at the crimson smear on his cheek. How the hell had he managed to get blood on his face? He tried to wipe it away, but only managed to spread it even further. A whimper escaped his lips as he began to scrub angrily at his face, desperate to get clean again.

Josiah wrapped strong arms around his torso from behind, effectively holding him still and preventing him from hurting himself. "Stop it, Ezra! I know you're hurting, I know you're scared, but this isn't going to solve anything! Stop it," he said, gentling his voice.

Ezra stopped struggling, relaxing against the tight hold, his head slumping back until it was resting on Josiah's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"I know, Ezra. I know," came the rumbling bass whisper in his ear.

"Josiah?" he called out tiredly.


"Could you say a prayer? For me? I don't think the good Lord would listen to me," he said, hating the defeat in his voice, but unable to prevent it.

"I have been pleading our case with Him for the last two hours, brother, and I'll keep on trying for as long as it takes," Josiah promised with a smile. "But perhaps you should try it as well, Ezra. It might take all of our prayers to bring Chris back to us."

Ezra nodded quietly. He managed to clean his face without doing any damage to himself and changed into the clothes JD had been thoughtful enough to bring with him. All he could do now was join the others and wait.

"Doctor's comin'," Vin announced suddenly.

They rose immediately, the doctor walking in seconds after Vin's warning. It was the same doctor who had tended to Ezra two months earlier. She glanced at them, obviously realizing she had seen them before.

Her blue eyes settled on Ezra. "Mr. Standish, right? You were here about two months ago, car accident?" When Ezra nodded, she proceeded, "You are here for Mr. Larabee?"

"Yes. How is he?"

She grimaced slightly. "I won't lie; it was touch and go for a moment there. He came into the ER in respiratory failure. The bullet entered his lung, causing it to collapse. In addition, there was a nick in the pulmonary artery, causing his chest cavity to fill up with air and blood. We were able to place a tube into his lungs, to help him breathe. We also placed a chest tube in the pleural cavity to maintain air pressure in his lungs. Once the lung was re-inflated, he kept bleeding out of the chest tube, which let us know that further surgical intervention was needed to repair the damage done to the artery."

"My God..." Buck whispered.

"I have to say that, in spite of all this, he was extremely lucky," the doctor continued. "It's a miracle the artery was merely nicked, most likely from a piece of bone, or he would have died before making it to us. How long he went without oxygen is our most pressing concern. Accordingly, over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours we will be monitoring his brain and kidney function, along with his respiratory function. Be prepared when you see him, as he is currently on an artificial ventilator. It's more to give him a chance to rest than anything else. If everything goes well and his vitals stay strong, we will remove the breathing tube, most likely within the next 12 hours. We're doing our very best, and I am cautiously optimistic. Please remember, he has sustained serious injuries and is in critical condition. It's all up to him now."

Ezra felt his whole body go cold at her words. "Can I see him? Please?" he begged, seeing her hesitate.

She nodded. "It's highly irregular, but then I've never been one to follow the rules. I have heard about the close relationship you all share. My advice to you is to talk to him. Studies prove that comatose patients can hear what's going on around them. Maybe listening to you will give him the strength he needs to fight back. They're taking him to a room at this moment; I'll have a nurse call you when he's settled. Anything you need, don't hesitate to ask for me."

She left after that, leaving six grim-looking men behind.

Chris was lying on his back in the middle of the bed, a large bandage covering his chest, endless machines surrounding him. A semi-rigid tube snaked between his teeth, the soft hiss-thump indicating that it was providing his oxygen. Under his arm, the skin puckered around another tube twisting from the side of his nipple and allowing air to escape from his lungs. His arms were lax at his side, resting on the bedding. Connected to his hand was a thin tube, standing out from all the others, its contents red and alive, replacing Chris' lost blood.

Ezra's heart lurched in his chest as he gazed at his lover, looking so vulnerable and frail -- not two words easily associated with the mighty Chris Larabee -- in the impersonal hospital bed. Grief, panic and pain all fought for supremacy in his soul as Ezra approached the other man.

Tenderly, he touched Chris' face with the back of his hand, before sitting by the bed and laying his head close to his lover's, needing to be as close as possible to him.

"Love you," he whispered softly, knowing Chris would hear him somehow. "He's going to make it," he said firmly to the men hovering behind him. "I won't let him go. I can't."

He began to talk, sharing a few of his more happy childhood memories. He described some of the most exotic places where he had traveled. Then he moved on to speak about some of the oddest undercover characters he played while undercover with the FBI. There was his role as a dishwasher in a retirement home, where an old lady insisted on mauling him every chance she got. He told about the assignment where he portrayed a very lively and bright makeup artist at a porno movie studio, and the one when he substituted for a receptionist in a hotel for dogs and even when he acted as a clown in a circus.

And as he talked, he waited.

Twenty-four hours later, Chris had made the transition from a drugged state into natural sleep. They removed the respirator, now that he was breathing on his own. Although he had been conscious for a few minutes, he hadn't really been awake or coherent, so they still had no definite answers as to the possible damage done by the lack of oxygen to his brain.

The doctor told them the lack of awareness was not unusual in such cases, and warned them Chris would sleep a lot in the next few days, probably with a few scattered moments of wakefulness in between. His throat would also be sore from the respirator tube so there were prohibitions on trying to persuade her patient to talk. The IVs continued to provide fluids, nourishment, and mild pain relief. And as each moment passed, the danger diminished and his chances to make a full recovery increased. As for the brain damage, the wait continued.

It took two days before Chris fully regained consciousness, his body needing the time to repair itself. Ezra had been flicking through a sports car magazine when a sudden change in the room made him aware there was something different. Putting down the magazine, he found Chris awake and gazing up at him with a weak smile.

"Hey," Ezra breathed softly, taking hold of Chris' hand. "You're awake. Are you in pain? Do you want me to summon the doctor? Or perhaps you would like some ice chips? Nathan refilled the cup not ten minutes ago, before he departed for the office."

"Chips, pain." Chris replied with a raspy voice.

Ezra nodded. He reached for the plastic cup, spooning a small quantity of the ice chips and holding it to Chris' lips. Gently, he made sure Chris swallowed a few chips, a portion at a time, until his lover signaled he had had enough.

"One down, one to go," Ezra said with a smile. "I will call the doctor and see about getting you something for the pain."

As he made to leave the room, a surprisingly strong hand caught his wrist. "Look awful." Chris gushed out, eyes shining with amusement.

Ezra found himself laughing for the first time in nearly a week. "Well, you don't exactly resemble your usual dark-self either, Mr. Larabee," he drawled, his heart doing flip-flops inside his chest in contentment.

"How long? Here?"

"Two days, six hours, thirty-two minutes and seven seconds. But who's counting?" Ezra's smile faded; his expression troubled. "Had me worried for a moment there, love." He leaned down slowly, brushing his lips over Chris'. "Love you."

Chris grinned at him. "Not goin' anywhere, Ez. I love ya, too." He tilted his head quizzically. "Others?"

"At the office. We still have no leads regarding the shooter," Ezra explained, eyes darkening as he remembered the mindless fear he had felt the morning Chris was shot. "We have been trying everything, but it doesn't look good."

"Be careful," Chris half-pleaded.

Ezra gave him a lopsided smile. "I always am. Now, I should seek the good doctor, before she realizes her patient has awakened. I will return shortly."

A parting, chaste kiss and he was roaming the hospital corridors, his gait light, and an unstoppable grin on his lips. Chris would be all right, and there was no sign of brain damage; he couldn't have asked for anything more.

"Well?" Ezra asked anxiously, as the doctor finished her examination.

She gave him a wide smile. "He's going to be fine. There doesn't appear to be any brain damage and the wounds are healing nicely. If he behaves and follows doctor's orders," she winked at her glaring patient, "he should be discharged in about a week's time. But -- and this is very important -- I'll release him on the condition that he *will* rest until he's fully healed and that he *will* have someone watching over him."

"I will see to it," Ezra promised.

"Good. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few more patients to see before the end of my shift. I'll come back later."

After the doctor left the room, Ezra turned to his lover. "I guess that settles it."

Chris frowned. "What?"

Ezra sat by the bed, moving as close to Chris as possible. "Remember our conversation the morning you were shot? About us moving in together?"

Chris nodded. "You said you needed time to think about it."

Ezra exhaled slowly. "I thought of little else while you were unconscious. When you asked me to move in with you, I wanted nothing more than to say yes. But... I love you, Chris. The truth of the matter is I was afraid this might not work. It's one thing to divide our time between the ranch and the townhouse, but to live together, to work together? I'm not an easy person to live with. And to make things even more complicated, we not only work together, but you are my boss."

Chris tried to interrupt. "Ezra..."

"Wait, let me finish. What I mentioned before were the cons against living with you. But there are also the pros and after analyzing both the pros and cons, I decided that I *do* want to move in with you. I want to share my life with you, to share the good and the bad, to wake up by your side every morning."

"Ya sure the first thing you want to see in the mornin' is my ugly mug?" Chris asked, but there was an easy smile on his face.

Ezra chuckled. "Stop fishing for compliments, loverboy. Your 'mug', as you call it, is hardly ugly. Your disposition on the other hand...." He grew serious again. "So, you still want me to live with you at the ranch?"

"Yeah, Ez, I do," Chris replied, reaching for Ezra's hand and kissing the palm tenderly.

"All right," Ezra began somewhat breathlessly, "how about a compromise? You do everything the doctor demands of you this coming week, and in turn, I will take the time to carry all of my belongings to your abode. That way we will both be settled by the time you leave this dreadful place."

"Ya got yourself a deal," Chris told him, just before a puzzled expression crossed his face.

"What?" Ezra asked.

"I just had this odd image of an old lady pawin' at you. What were you doin' in a retirement home?"

Ezra grinned; pleased his voice had reached his lover even while unconscious. "The owner was using the establishment to conceal stolen weaponry which he later sold. I infiltrated the home in hopes of finding the exact location of the weapons. Mrs. Kowalski was a sweet old lady who resided there. I loved her dearly, but my Lord, I swear she had more hands than an octopus! Not to mention a firm grip!" he added, smiling at his lover's laughter, a sound he had sorely missed.

"Hello! Someone's finally awake!" Buck exclaimed happily, as he walked in the room with JD in tow.

"Mr. Wilmington, I assume everything is running smoothly at the office?" Ezra asked, nodding his greeting to the two men.

"Yep. The others should be up in a minute; they were lookin' for a place ta park. I caught the last one," Buck smirked.

"What Buck means is that he nearly killed us both, overtaking the others so he could steal the parking spot from Vin," JD glared at the mustached man, and then focused on their leader. "Chris, how ya doin'?"

"I'm fine, JD. Listen, Ezra told me how you handled the situation when I got shot. Ya did good, kid."

JD flushed slightly, looking embarrassed. "As I told Ezra, it was nothin'. I just wish I could've gotten that bastard."

"We will get him next time, JD," Buck vowed fiercely.

The others walked in at that moment, wide smiles gracing their faces as they saw Chris awake and coherent. Ezra watched them hovering close to his lover, their happiness at knowing the other man was all right mirroring his own. He allowed himself to enjoy the warmth they were projecting, relaxing, and letting it wash over him.

A surge of pure joy pierced his heart, making him realize he had done the right thing by accepting Chris' request to move in with him. It wouldn't be easy; they were too different, not to mention proud and headstrong. But if he got to experience even a tiny portion of the happiness he was feeling at that moment, it would be well worth it.

All he had to do now was discover who was trying to kill him and stop that person before anyone else got hurt. Then his new life would truly begin.

Ezra felt an unexpected sadness as he gazed around the townhouse he had called home for the last three years. Most of his belongings were already at the ranch, the move made easier by the fact that he'd never opened many of the boxes he had brought from Atlanta in the first place.

It never ceased to amaze him, how life worked. He had never really expected to stay in Denver long; believing the rumors about him being corrupt would eventually take root in the ATF office and generate the same suspicious environment of Atlanta. Instead, his team welcomed him, as had all the agents working there, until it finally dawned on him that he was a part of the whole, one of their own. It was a heady feeling, a first for him. The wild card had finally found a place within the deck.

A series of rhythmic taps on the door brought him back from his musings. Knowing, from the coded knock, that it was Buck and Nathan, he went to answer.

"We're all set, Ez," Nathan told him as he made his way into the living room. "The last of the boxes are packed in Buck's truck. Anything else we need to take with us?"

"Some garments that will fit in a small suitcase and the bottles at the bar. I can finish it myself tomorrow, when I come to lock up the house. We are done for today, gentlemen. I can't thank you enough for your proficient help."

Buck grinned. "Think nothin' of it, pard. So, you ready to spring the ol' dog from hospital? Today is the day."

Ezra found himself smiling brightly. "I know. He wasn't too pleased to know the doctor wished to perform a final set of exams in the morning and that he would only be released after lunch. I pity Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez, who will have to put up with him during the wait."

Nathan chuckled. "Ain't that the truth! Come on, let's go. The drive to the ranch is still a long one and it's mid-mornin' already."

"Dreadfully early, Mr. Jackson. A gentleman such as myself should still find himself within the sanctity of his feather bed," Ezra drawled with a mock grimace of distaste.

The three men shared a laugh as they left the house, Ezra strategically placed between his two bigger friends. After all, his would-be killer was still at large.

Outside, the sun was shining brightly and Ezra cursed inwardly as he remembered he had left his sunglasses at the ranch. He lowered his head in the vain hope of protecting his eyes from the fierce glare, then wished he hadn't, as he spotted the fading red stain on the ground.

His heart lurched in his chest at the vivid image of Chris being shot, of the blood flowing freely from his wound. He froze in his tracks, recalling his desperation as he tried to prevent his lover from bleeding to death, as he shouted for an ambulance. He was so caught up in the memory that, for a moment, he thought the sound of shots were part of the picture.

It wasn't until Buck pushed him into the doorway, gun in hand and firing at a figure hidden behind a car, that Ezra realized someone was trying to kill him yet again.

"Get back inside, Ezra!" Nathan growled, crouching behind a large vase at the entrance, also squeezing the occasional shot. "We'll handle 'em."

"Them?" he asked in confusion.

"Two men," Buck explained breathlessly. "Behind the Ford. Get inside; we'll take care of this. Chris would strangle us if ya got hurt."

"What?" he huffed, affronted. "But..."

"Ezra!" Nathan snapped. "Inside! Now!"

He gritted his teeth at the harsh command. He wanted to help, wanted to get the men responsible for all his heartache of late, for almost costing him Chris. But he knew the others were right. It would be too dangerous for him to be out in the open, and Chris would go crazy if something happened to him.

Swallowing back a curse, he nodded, making it back inside the townhouse. The gunfire lasted for a few minutes, the sound of sirens growing louder in the distance, and then suddenly he could hear someone running away. He sighed wearily. The two men must be trying to make a break for it and Buck and Nathan were chasing after them.

Resisting the urge to join the fray and security be damned, he poured himself a drink, waiting anxiously for his friends' return. Time dragged slowly and he began to fear the worse, a cold shudder running over him at the thought the others might be injured somewhere and at the mercy of the two criminals.

About to run for the door, he heard a hesitant knock - not his friends. "Who is it?" he asked, hand reaching for his gun.

"Please, I must speak with Mr. Standish," a female voice replied, distress clear in the tone.

Ezra opened the door cautiously, relieved to see only a woman there. "Yes?"

"Are you Mr. Standish?" she asked, a quiver in her voice. When he nodded, she released a heavy sigh. "Thank God! My name's Ellen Gainer, Mr. Standish. It's very important I speak with you."

Ezra raised an eyebrow in query. "What about?"

"The person trying to kill you, I know who it is. Please," she begged. "I don't wish to be seen out here. Can I come in?"

Wanting the information desperately, especially in case Nathan and Buck didn't apprehend the shooters, Ezra nodded silently, opening the door wide to allow her entrance.

"Thank you," she whispered, hands twisting together nervously. "It was a risk coming here, you see? If he were to know...."

"No one needs to be aware of our conversation, Ms. Gainer. Please, sit down," he gestured towards the couch. "Perhaps you would like a drink? It would help you relax."

She gave him a weak smile. "Yes, please. Whiskey?"

"Whiskey, it is." He moved to the bar, reaching for the whiskey bottle and a glass. "So, you are acquainted with the person trying to kill me?"

Not receiving an answer, Ezra raised his head to look at his visitor through the bar mirror. His heart nearly stopped beating as he saw her coming at him with a large knife. He jumped to the right, moving away just in time to avoid being stabbed in the back. Even so, he felt the blade tear into his left shoulder blade, intense pain invading his body as it slashed deeply into his flesh.

Making sure he was far enough away to prevent a further attack, he snatched his gun from the holster, aiming at the obviously madwoman. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?" he asked, panting from the pain in his back.

"Ella Gaines, and if not for that little bitch, Sarah, and now you, I'd be Mrs. Larabee!" she spat at him.

"W-what?" he stammered in confusion. "You mean, you are the one..."

"Who's been trying to kill you? Yes. Just like I had Sarah and the little brat killed; although, they were a lot easier to get rid of. All I had to do was hire Fowler and have him plant the bomb. You, on the other hand, you're like a cat, always landing on your feet."

"You had Chris' family killed?" he asked in shock.

She gave him an almost fond smile. "Had to. I couldn't let her take Chris away from me. I did what I had to do so we could be together. You see, I'll kill anyone who comes between us. Sarah should've known better." Her eyes hardened. "And so should you."

Seeing her take a step closer, knife held high in her hand, Ezra forced himself to ignore the pain as he trained his gun firmly on her. "If you come any closer, I will shoot. Please, put the knife down."

Ella laughed. "I don't think so, Standish."

An almost inhuman cry escaped her lips and she was charging at him, knife ready to draw blood. Ezra backpedaled a few steps in surprise, his finger squeezing the trigger almost before he realized what he was doing. He saw the bullet hit Ella in the shoulder, but she kept advancing, unstoppable in her madness.

He fired again, this time hitting her in the chest. She screamed, swaying dangerously, but refused to give up. Step by tortuous step, she moved forward, eyes never leaving Ezra's.

"Please," he whispered, "don't do this."

"Die!" she snarled, making one last attempt at his life, by jumping the last few feet separating them.

Ezra had no choice. Dodging her desperate lunge, he fired for a third time, the bullet shooting straight through the heart, killing her. She finally stood still, her body half-covering his as they lay entwined on the floor.

He remained there for a long time, eyes closed, trying to control both the physical pain as well as the cold hand twisting his heart. It felt like forever before he heard his door burst open; before he heard Buck and Nathan rush over to him.

"Ez, ya okay?" Nathan asked.

"Could be better, Mr. Jackson," he whispered.

"Oh, my God!" Buck exclaimed as he moved the body out of the way. "That's Ella!"

"Ella?" Nathan echoed, turning Ezra on his side and examining the wound.

"One of Chris' old flames, before Sarah. A little crazy, if ya ask me. What's she's doin' here?"

"Tryin' to kill me, obviously," Ezra drawled, a bit breathlessly, unable to help the sarcasm. "She was the one behind the attempts. The two men must have been an excuse to lure you away."

"Yeah, we know," Nathan agreed as he applied pressure to Ezra's injury. "We caught the two 'miscreants' and they spilled the beans," he said with a smile. "She hired them to get us away from the house, so she could have her wicked way with ya. Almost worked, too."

"Glad you find all this so amusing, Mr. Jackson." Ezra said, giving the other man a halfhearted glare.

"Don't," Nathan said, suddenly serious. "Just relieved you're okay, you cuss." His voice was surprisingly gentle. "The knife tore into the muscle, so it's gonna give ya some trouble in the near future. But it missed anythin' vital. Buck, called an ambulance yet?"

"Yep. On their way," Buck replied, fingers combing through Ezra's hair. "You're gonna be okay, hoss."

Ezra nodded, allowing his eyes to close again and take him away from the pain.


Ezra brushed his fingers over the sling protecting his left side, wishing he could take it off, but knowing it wasn't worth the aggravation. Nathan would be there soon to check on them, and Ezra had no desire to do battle with the man. Not until he was feeling better anyway.

He threw a concerned glance at his lover. Chris was sitting on the porch, a blanket snuggled tightly around him, eyes lost on the horizon. Ever since leaving the hospital three days earlier, it was all Chris did; sit there alone, silent, still. Distant.

Ezra had debated with himself in the ambulance, and later in the ER as his shoulder was being tended to, if he should tell Chris the whole truth. That Ella had been the one responsible for Sarah and Adam's deaths. He knew how much that particular wound still festered, knew the revelation would be like rubbing salt on raw flesh. In the end, he decided to tell the whole truth, heart breaking as he watched the old pain return to Chris' eyes.

Days later, he could feel Chris slowly slipping away from him, building walls to keep him outside, to keep everyone at arm's length. He knew he had to do something before Chris was lost, not only to him, but to the others as well.

Sitting beside the other man on the porch, Ezra kept his silence, watching the beautiful scenery surrounding the ranch. "It won't work, you know?" he finally stated softly, eyes locked on the forest not far from where they stood. "Those layers you are trying to build. I should know, you are looking at the master. I have been constructing barriers to keep everyone at a distance since I can remember. Yet, it never stopped me from hurting, from feeling... from loving. I can't begin to imagine what you must be experiencing at this moment, and I am *so* sorry I was the bearer of such terrible news, but pushing us all away is only going to hurt you more in the long run."

When Chris remained silent, Ezra kept speaking. "It wasn't your fault. Even if you had never married Sarah, even if you had stayed with Ella, what kind of life would you two have had together? She was unbalanced, unpredictable. Chances are she might have ended up hurting you instead. And, as ruthless as it might seem, at least now it's over. You know who did it, and why." He hesitated, and then decided to risk it all. "I know this probably isn't what you want to hear now, but I love you. I know this is something that will never go away, that will always be a part of you, that it will always hurt you. But I want to help, to be here for you. Don't shut me out. I don't think I could stand it, not now." He gave a self-derogatory grin. "And please, feel free to stop me anytime, before I make a complete fool of myself with all this sap."

Heart racing in his chest, Ezra finally fell silent, hoping his words would reach his lover. He almost startled as Chris began to speak.

"I'm just so damned angry, so damned frustrated. All these years, I thought this fuckin' job had killed them. I mean, it was my car that blew up; we were investigatin' some dangerous bastards, there were threats rainin' down on us from all sides. What was I supposed to think? And part of me hated it because it had cost me my family. Now I find that *I* was the one to blame."

"Chris..." Ezra began with a frown.

"I know, I know. Not my fault, nothin' I could've done," Chris interrupted with an impatient wave of a hand. "My mind knows all that, but my heart... And what's worse, I can't even do anythin' about it. Before, I had this, this blind faith that one day I would find whoever was responsible for their deaths. That I would get my revenge. That belief kept me goin' for a long, long time. Now Ella's dead, I can't face her, or talk to her, or try to understand why!" The last words were spat through gritted teeth.

"There's still Fowler," Ezra reminded him gently. "I'm sure it shouldn't be too difficult to find someone with that surname, who is an expert on explosives. JD and Vin are already searching every known agency's databank, trying to find him."

"You mean they're hackin' their way into government computers, don't you?" Chris said with sudden humor.

Ezra chuckled. "Something like that, yes."

"Ya know, the insurance money from your Jag should be available soon," Chris said, causing Ezra to blink at the abrupt change in topic. "Are you sure you want to buy a third Jaguar?"

Ezra scowled. "Of course! I love that car! Why?"

"Well, I just thought ya might want to try somethin' new, maybe a SUV or somethin' like that."

Ezra shuddered in revulsion. "A sport utility vehicle? Are you mad? I, sir, am an undercover agent, the best in the field. How would it look if I were to meet with gunrunners and the like, driving a... a... thing like that! I would become the laughingstock of my profession."

Chris shrugged, amusement clear in his eyes. "Could be worse; I might have suggested a Volkswagen Beetle. You never know, it might come in handy durin' a bust."

"Oh, I'm sure! The miscreants would be too busy laughing to see you gentlemen arriving." Ezra narrowed his eyes in a mock glare. "You just wait until we are both declared a hundred percent healthy. I will make you pay for that dreadful suggestion."

Chris leaned back in the chair, smirking as he stretched his legs in front of him. "Lookin' forward to it, Ez." He grabbed hold of Ezra's hand, squeezing it gently. "Thank you," he said seriously.

Ezra smiled. "You are quite welcome. If I do recall correctly, you spent several months trying to 'drill into my thick skull' the fact that we are now a couple, thus sharing life's problems. Perhaps you needed a little reminder as well?" he prodded.

"Definitely," Chris agreed with an easy nod.

The two settled together, comfortable in their silence, as they watched the sun slowly set behind the mountains to the west, their hands still linked together.





Magnificent Seven