Ezra paced the small waiting room near the surgical area. Cambria's vitals were good and the EMT's assured him she was holding her own. She'd been examined briefly in the E.R. and taken right into surgery. The bullet was lodged near her spine. Images spilled into his mind like unwelcomed ants at a picnic. Cambria's face over candlelight at Andre's, watching her sleep and wondering how he got so lucky, the hot temptress who left his body stinging and crying for more, her pale face as they wheeled her to surgery and blue-eyed bastard who shot her. The more he paced the angrier he got.
"Where is he?"
J.D. was talking to a trio of policemen when Chris Larabee imploded into the receiving area of the Emergency Bay. The three cops immediately reacted to the harsh hostile force. Chris ignored their comments and threw off their attempts at restraint. He towered over J.D. shooting a green ray into the youth's face.
"Rain's looking him over, in two I think. Buck's with him. He's still unconscious."
"What the hell happened, J.D? Where's Ezra?"
J.D. let out a long breath and ran his hands through his dark hair. "Vin shot Ezra's girlfriend. He's upstairs in the waiting area, near the operating rooms."
"Thanks for filling in the missing pieces," Chris criticized sharply. "Well?"
"Well what do you want me to say, Chris?" J.D. hissed, "That's all there was to it. He walked in the restaurant and shot her. He never said a word. He..."
Chris grabbed the blabbering youth and forced him back out of the earshot of the police.
"Why don't you just go on the P.A. and announce it?" He seethed, "You don't shoot your mouth off for free."
"It's not a secret," J.D. retorted, pulling his arm free from Chris's vice-like grip, "I already gave a statement on the scene."
"To them?" Chris pointed to the trio who were speaking among themselves and eyeing J.D.
"Well...no but..." J.D. stammered, "What difference does it make?"
Chris's reply was to smack the wall and turn his back. J.D. saw every muscle in the dark green designer shirt ripple. He swallowed, waiting for the explosion. Several deafening minutes went by, before Chris finally turned. J.D. knew he'd crossed into dangerous territory when he saw the livid mask on his boss's face.
"You answer when asked by Internal Affairs behind closed doors. You don't fuckin' broadcast it. Vin's career is hanging on a thread and he don't need you hacking at him with a knife. All is takes is for one person to hear you and it's all over town and in the media. That clear enough for you?"
J.D. nodded mutely, feeling the heat of the flush on his face. Chris wheeled and took his long strides through the protesting nurses and receptionists. He didn't stop until he saw Buck leaning against a wall.
Buck knew the tornado was approaching. Years of experience gave him inner Larabee radar. He looked up as Chris approached.
"Rain looked him over and ordered a full skull series. He was still out cold when they wheeled him outta here. She thinks he just has a bad concussion, but she's gonna keep him overnight."
"How bad Buck?"
"It ain't good, Chris," Buck sighed and rubbed the tension pains that were jumping like angry jackhammers on the back of his neck. "Vin said she had a gun, even said it was chrome plated. He said she was gonna shoot Ezra in the head, that he had no choice."
"No trace of the gun?"
"Nada" Buck shook his head.
"How's the girl?"
"In surgery." Buck replied, finishing the can of coke and tossing it in the trash, "Bullet's lodged near her spine. They think she might be paralyzed."
"Shit!" Chris's hands remained on his hips, but his heart slipped to the ground.
Buck saw the flicker of fear appear momentarily in Chris's eyes. Unless they found the missing gun or could prove what Vin believed, his career was done. Not to mention the potential lawsuit or jailtime.
"This could get real ugly, Chris."
"Could?" Chris snorted in sarcasm. "They're gonna crucify him Buck."
"Don't you pick up any nails yet," Buck declared hotly, with a glare of his own, "If Vin said there was a gun, then dammit she had one."
Chris shot his oldest friend a bouquet of silent applause. Buck's unwavering loyalty was the thing he admired most about his oldest friend. People who didn't know him intimately, only saw what they chose to. The rogue, who's smooth talk and good looks led a parade of woman into his bed; and the clown, whose bawdy sense of humor was the life of every party. What they didn't see was this six-foot tidal wave of faith whose presence alone became the calming force in any storm. There was the devotion he wore so proudly, the strong arm in a crisis, the deep voice during despair and the open hand.
"Guess that's one more beer I owe Marty Cross," Chris said quietly, giving Buck a brief grin.
Buck knew that was Chris's way of showing his appreciation. Marty Cross was the director of the Special Operations Team who'd assigned Buck to work with Chris close to fourteen years ago. The rest was history.
"How's Ezra?" Chris voiced, flatly
"Madder than a wounded bear. He damn near killed Vin at the scene."
"I'll talk to him." He sighed, rubbing the pounding pain behind his eyes.
"Ezra? How is she?"
Ezra was staring at the muted chef on the public broadcasting station preparing a typical New England Clam Bake. He stared at the cold coffee in distaste. He raised his painful eyes at the soft voice. It was Caitlin, one of Cambria's friends. He stood and embraced the shaken girl, whose eyes were red-rimmed.
"She's in surgery. Her vital signs were very good and they feel strongly that she will make a full recovery."
"What is it your not saying?"
"There is a possibility she may be paralyzed."
"Oh My God..."
"Easy now," Ezra caught her as her knees buckled. He sat her in the nearest chair and comforted her. "Would you like some water?" He felt the head nod against his shirt and pulled himself away.
When he returned, three more of the girls had joined Caitlin. He nodded at Morgan and Mocha, and turned to face the stoic gaze of Sierra McLeod.
"The police said Vin shot her. How could they make a mistake like that?"
"It is not a mistake. That quick-shooting cretin gunned her down without cause and I intend to see that he pays and pays dearly."
"No...No...He couldn't...He wouldn't...You're wrong..." She gasped, backing out of the room and nearly falling into Chris Larabee.
Chris steadied the staggering beauty and felt her trembling. Her breath came in gasps and she looked like a deer caught in the headlights. He held onto her for a moment and then pulled back, staring hard into her shell-shocked eyes.
"He's going to need you, Sierra. You have to be strong. We'll get through this." He promised, and sent her a message, "You know him."
Sierra looked into the steady gaze of Chris Larabee. Over the six weeks, she'd gotten to know this strong man. It didn't take long for her to see why Vin was so drawn to him. He understood Vin better than Vin did himself sometimes. She'd seen first hand the silent communications. She heard one now, as clear as a bell. Sierra did know Vin Tanner and knew what Chris's unspoken message held. Vin wouldn't shoot an unarmed person down in cold blood. She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and wiped her tears away. She squeezed Chris's hands and sent her own silent message of gratitude. His small grin and nod replied.
"I call Toni and tell her I can't make it," She decided.
"No, I don't think so," Chris drilled the girl's blue eyes. Toni was taking a detour on the West Coast to scare up some new clients. She was having two promotional galas, one in San Francisco and one in Beverly Hills. Sierra was the head caterer and it was the chance of a lifetime. She'd made the commitment several months ago.
"He needs me, Chris..."
"He's got a full plate already, and doesn't need any more guilt." Chris offered. "You gonna tell him you cancelled a chance like this because of him?"
Sierra knew he was right, Vin wouldn't be furious and he didn't need any more stress right now.
"God, I feel like I'm deserting him." She slumped, "I need to be with him..."
"You will be," Chris said softly, tipping her downcast chin up, "no amount of miles can stop that. When's your flight?"
"Leaves for San Francisco at 5 p.m. I'm all packed."
"You still have a little time," Chris squeezed her shoulders, "He has a concussion and their doing some precautionary tests. Buck's waiting for him in the ER. Your smile is the best medicine for him right now." Chris whispered to her.
"Thanks cowboy," She whispered back, grinning at his soft chuckle.
He waited until she disappeared and caught Ezra's eye. He nodded to the hallway outside. Ezra appeared a moment later.
"Did Carlino contact you?"
"I've been a bit preoccupied." Ezra said testily. "Right now, I couldn't give a flying rat's ass for Carlino."
"You listen up and listen good," Chris spat, backing Ezra into the wall, "You are in too deep to back out now. You know how much we have at stake here and how many lives are on the line. You lose that attitude now, Ezra. All the facts aren't in yet. Vin had a damn good reason for what he did."
"As if I expected anything different to pass those rose-tinted glasses. God forbid anyone even looks at that bastard cross-eyed..."
Ezra's train of thought was cut off by the pressure of Chris Larabee's forearm to his throat. "You're damn lucky we're in a public place or you'd be picking up your teeth. You get your act together and get on the goddamn phone and find that fuckin' drug dealer."
Chris pulled away and they stared at each other, both panting in anger. Ezra turned to walk away and bumped to J.D.
"I'll wait here and call as soon as they have news, Ezra."
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne."
+ + + + + + +
Buck peeked his head in the door and slipped inside. He couldn't help but grin. Sierra's head was lying on Vin's chest, her hands entwined with his. Vin's chest rose and fell in an even pattern. He hadn't regained consciousness yet. Buck eyed the clock on the wall and saw it was nearly four p.m. He hated to disturb them; she was such a good fit for Vin and felt awful about leaving. He shook her shoulder gently and her head came up.
"Sorry, Darlin'" he apologized, "It's time for you to make tracks, if you want to catch that plane to Frisco."
"I don't know if I can leave..." She answered, her eyes never leaving Vin's relaxed face. She brushed the hair off his forehead and tenderly stroked his cheek. His head turned instinctively, sensing her near.
"Hey," Buck squeezed both shoulders and pulled her upright, "We both know if you don't go, that boy will be madder than a Mama bear with lost cubs. You'll be able to swing back for a couple of days next week, won't you?"
"I'll make time," She turned and stared at the sleeping prince, "I can't go to Mexico for two weeks without seeing him. It's going to seem like forever."
"Just knowing you got him locked up here," He tapped her heart, "Will get him through."
She nodded, brushing the tears out of her eyes and went to the bathroom to wash her face. She slipped her jacket on and picked up her oversized bag. She pulled the siderail of the bed down and bent over his face.
"Vin?" She tapped his cheek; "I have to leave now. I'll be right here," She tapped his heart, "I love you, Cowboy." She choked, kissing his placid lips.
"Don't you worry, Little Girl," Buck squeezed her shoulders and gave her a hug, "He's gonna come through this fine."
She relaxed in the tall man's arms and drew strength from his embrace. She held on a bit longer, resting her face on his broad shoulder.
"Take care of him, Buck," She whispered, "He's gonna need you."
"I got it covered," Buck said, rubbing her back. "He's family and we look out for our own." He reassured, and then smiled as she kissed his cheek, "I should have made Junior take that bet, I told him I'd win you over." He chuckled.
"You did," She smiled, touching his cheek, "and you care for him too."
"Yeah," Buck said quietly, walking her to the door.
+ + + + + + +
Later that night at the hospital
The dark room seemed to be a fitting shroud. The only light was a sliver of white peeking under the closed door. Through the pounding pain, dizziness and disorientation, Vin kept glancing at the empty chair next to the bed. His head understood the reasoning behind the vacant seat, but his heart didn't. He crossed his eyes at the contraction of pain in his chest. He'd heard enough bits and brief snatches of conversation throughout the day to realize the depth of the mire. An innocent bystander paralyzed by an overworked, gun-happy, ATF hippie. Where did the gun go? Why didn't they find it? He glanced at the empty chair again. Where are you Chris?
He sat up and was pleased that the room wasn't moving. He made the slow, painful journey into the bathroom. His first mistake was turning on the light. The shards of pain lanced through his eyes right into his skull. He doubled over and blindly groped, until his fumbling fingers found the switch. The invasion of unwelcomed illumination into his brain, caused a revolution in his stomach.
When the last dry heave ended, Vin rested. Laying his head on his arm, he took several minutes to catch his breath. He stood on shaky legs and got cleaned up. The cold water on his face was a blessing. Like Lazarus, his headache rose from the dead and punished him. The waves of dizziness reappeared and he eyed the long trip back to the bed. His hand crept over his rocky stomach and he made his decision. He settled in next to the toilet, resting his aching head on his drawn up knees. The gravity of the day's actions sunk in and the small, empty room seemed to be a large, lonely cave. He closed his eyes, waiting for sleep that wouldn't come.
Chris pushed the half-eaten turkey sandwich away and sighed wearily. After battling two police squads, the representative from the Management Control Team, Bureau Director Orin Travis and a bevy of unwanted, bloodthirsty media members, he was exhausted. He finished the last of his large quart container of ice tea. Throughout the barrage of unending questions, confirmations, reports and rumors, the only thing in his mind was the state of mind of his best friend. He stayed as long as he could with the unconscious man, but the outside world and powers that be dictated otherwise. He was about to seek out Vin, when his cellphone rang.
Ezra hadn't called him all day. He'd checked in with J.D. several times, requesting updates on Cambria. The surgery went well and she was resting in good condition. The swelling around her spine was extensive and it was too early to tell if her paralysis was permanent. Finally, around six, J.D. reported that Ezra had a meet scheduled with the Carlino's at nine p.m. Buck and J.D. would do the surveillance work.
"It just broke up," Buck reported of the meet, "Carlino claimed he just pulled up, when he heard a shot and hightailed it outta there. Ezra pushed to be in on the first buy, which is sometime next month. How's Vin?"
"Haven't been able to get free to check on him for hours now. Rain vetoed any discussions with Vin until tomorrow, which didn't make Krieger and the rest of those I.A pricks happy. Mike Ryan went to bat for him too. I met with him and Leon Johnson, the night captain out at the sixth precinct. I filled them in and Mike sympathized, but it looks bad, Buck. Those media assholes have their teeth bared. I'm heading up to Vin's room, you go home and get some sleep."
"Will do, boss," Buck replied, "Hey Chris, tell him we're in his corner."
"I hope he knows that Buck," Chris answered, eyeing the soft drink tap, "See you in the morning."
Buck hung up with a frown on his handsome face. He saw the youth's face darken when he mentioned them being in Vin's corner. J.D. had been unnaturally quiet all night. Buck put the blank tape in and pressed the record button, starting the process of making the backup tape. J.D. continued to transcribe the conversation.
"You about done?" Buck asked, slipping behind the youngest and dropping into the driver's seat.
"No, but go ahead and head back to the garage. I'll finish up later."
"What's wrong J.D? You ain't been yourself all night."
"Nothing. Just drive Buck." J.D. said flatly, eyes never leaving the monitor in front of him.
"It's Vin, isn't it? You've been avoiding talking about it, since we left the scene. J.D., Vin needs us now. They're gonna rip him apart. You know how brutal those I.A dicks are."
"He should have thought of that before he gunned her down." J.D. hissed. "And don't tell me what I should do. I saw what he did, you didn't, so back off."
"Now hold on a minute, J.D..." Buck's anger rose and he reached out.
"No, you hold on a minute," the dark-head spun around, hazel eyes flashing. "You saw what shape he was in yesterday morning before he got knocked out. You can't tell me he was clear and sharp. He had no business being there. There wasn't a gun Buck. I saw him. He walked in, whipped out his piece and shot her. He didn't even flinch."
Buck was too tired and emotionally wrung out to argue. He sat back down and returned the van to base. The ride was deafening in its silence. They filed the tapes and transcriptions and put the equipment away. Buck held the elevator door in the parking garage. He put his hand on J.D.'s shoulder.
"Wanna get a beer?" He invited, more interested in uncorking J.D.'s anger than a brew.
"I'm too tired, Buck," J.D. snapped, then paused as he got to his bike, "But thanks. You heading to the hospital in the morning?"
"Yeah, I guess. See you over there. 'night Kid."
Chris entered the darkened room and froze. The light from the hall displayed the empty bed. He did a slow scan of the room and came up empty. He berated himself for not checking on Vin sooner. Knowing how Vin hated hospitals and being shut in, combined with the enormity of day's events, was enough to send him fleeing. The door partially shut behind him, cloaking the room in a misty darkness. He was about to retrace his steps and start combing the streets, when a pained voice, dripping in sarcasm drifted by.
"Nice of y'all to drop in."
Chris spun and scowled, eyeing the bathroom. He stood in the doorway in the pitch blackness and reached for the light.
"Vin, what are you doing?"
Vin ducked and covered, crying out as the light pierced his brain. Chris shut the harsh reality off and let the gasping man resume his solitary stance. He slowly made his way to the door and opened it a crack. The light from the hall turned the blackness into shadows. He retrieved the soda he'd left on the nightstand. He placed the cold soda near Vin's leg and saw the hand reach out and snatch it. He heard the gasp of relief after the long gulp.
"What the fuck kinda question is that?" Vin snapped, '"I got no idea what time it is...hell I don't even know what day it is. The room won't quit spinnin' around. I kept wakin' up seeing her bleedin'...it was dark...and that chair was always empty." Vin choked, gasping for breath. He eased his pounding head back onto his knees.
Chris winced, feeling like a knife stabbed him in the chest. He knew Vin's anger grew out of fear, but the underlying shadows of the statement read 'loss of faith'. That's why Vin lashed out. He'd made a silent vow a long time ago to stand by this quiet man, not matter what. Vin was such a part of him; he'd just taken it for granted the younger man understood. Hearing the audible gasp and the voice laced with fear tore at his heart. He heard the suck of the soda up the straw and sighed.
"I'm sorry Vin," He said softly, glad the darkness covered the pain he knew was on Vin's face, "Buck never left your side from the time of the shooting. Sierra was here for hours, until her flight. She left under protest, she wanted to cancel."
"Damn good thing she didn't" Vin muttered.
"Buck and J.D. had to do surveillance tonight. I got here at six just as Buck left and ten minutes later, Orin called. Between him, the cops, the I.A. guys, and the media..." He paused, hearing the sharp intake of breath, "You're right Vin, that's a sorry-assed excuse," He said, reading the other man's mind. A few seconds went by and he heard a soft chuckle.
"Nosy Goddamn Cowboy," Vin complained, "Y'all mind stayin' the hell outta my head. Can't even cuss y'all out to myself. Iffen yer gonna stay, you best pull a chair up, I ain't movin'"
"Vin, you can't sleep on the floor," Chris moved slowly until he felt Vin's arm, "Come on, get up."
"I'm stayin' put. It's too damn long a walk back here. I ain't got my legs under me and my stomach's a mite upturned."
Chris disappeared for a few moments. Vin saw the blue square of the television light come up across the room. Several fast pictures flew by, before the dial stopped at the sports report. The light was low enough that they could see shadows. Chris turned the volume up a bit to hear the scores. The team leader pulled the chair just outside the door and settled in, resting his feet on an overturned trash can. Vin could only see the calves of his legs, but that was enough. Chris peeked in a few minutes later and saw the Texan sleeping, his head on his legs.
"In other news today, a local model was shot and possibly crippled by a rogue ATF agent who, according to inside sources, may have been drinking. Initial reports are that it was an unprovoked encounter."
"Fuck!" Chris hissed, fumbling with the power button. He swung his head to where Vin sat. The blue light on the screen faded away, just as the soulful eyes best friend locked his own for a second before resuming their buried state on his knees.
"S'okay, Chris." Vin whispered, "I might as well face the music. Ain't nobody gonna believe me no how. I know what I saw. A silver beretta aimed at Ezra's head. It was a good shoot."
A few seconds went by and Vin felt a hand hauling him upright. The door to the hall sent a beam of light into the room. He didn't fight being led back to bed or the soft pillow under his throbbing head. He took a long draw of the cold soda that was handed to him. He felt the strong pressure of the hand on his shoulder. Finally, as his eyes drifted shut, the voice he'd sought all night returned to it's rightful home.
"I believe you."
Vin nodded in the dark and his heavy eyes flicked to his left. The chair wasn't empty anymore.
Vin tossed fitfully in the hospital bed. He'd slept soundly for several hours, waking up around one a.m. He woke Chris up, feeling stupid for making him feel so guilty. He assured Chris he was fine and sent the tired man home. It was now nearly seven a.m. and he hadn't been back to sleep yet. He tossed the sheet off and decided to get washed and dressed. Rain said he couldn't leave the hospital, until she released him. But she never said anything about leaving the room.
The headache felt even worse with the daylight seeping in, but at least the floor wasn't moving. The lack of food and head injury left him very lightheaded. Vin got dressed and snuck out into the corridor, in search of a vending machine. His body craved a cold coke. He remembered the machines on the surgical floor, which was above his. He made he short trip in the elevator. The doors opened and he headed down the hall, towards the waiting room.
"You must go now," Gia pleaded, through heavy eyes, "You musn't be caught. The nurses will be in any minute."
"I'll kill that cowboy with my bare hands," Roberto promised, seeing the stilled legs of his love.
"No you won't," She hissed, "You need to concentrate on your job. Besides, I have a plan."
"Even doped up, you're a genius," He kissed her, "So?"
"Ezra came to see me last night. I wasn't too perky, but I know he's furious at Tanner. The police came and took a statement. They mentioned Ezra attacking Vin at the restaurant. You let me add some fuel to that fire. Mr. Standish will take care of our problem for us, and your hands will be clean."
"I'll give you until the buy, if Tanner's still around, I'm icing him."
"Fine, now go."
"I'll be back..." He promised, slipping out into the corridor.
Vin finished the soda and bag of chips. Tossing the trash away, he made his way back towards the elevators. A blur of motion down the hall caught his eye. A dark-haired man was walking ahead of him. There was something familiar about the stranger. Vin picked up his pace as the man turned towards the stairwell. Then he turned slightly and Vin saw who it was.
Roberto Carlino opened the door to the stairwell. He turned as he swung the door open and saw Vin Tanner bearing down on him. He slipped inside and took the stairs three at a time. He got off on the next floor. He heard Vin's footsteps fly by and waited. He then proceeded to the elevator and got in.
By the time Vin reached the garage level, his legs were like rubber. His head pounded in furious rhythm and vertigo was smothering him. He staggered to the nearest car and took cover. Gasping for breath, he raised his head and looked around the deserted parking facility; not as much as a stir, the place appeared empty. He spotted an empty bottle of cheap wine on top of the trashcan. He rubbed the blurry eyes and crawled over to retrieve it. He continued crawling, looking under the cars for feet. Then he heard rustling behind him and he flattened himself against the ground. He heard the scuffing feet draw closer and crouched, ready to spring.
"Vin! What the hell... Buck shouted as the body flew at him.
He caught the wayward agent and held him down, glaring furiously. The bottle rolled away and Vin wheezed for several seconds before opening his eyes. They widened in surprise at the sight of his prey.
"Buck?" He croaked, then remembered Carlino, "Let me up...he's gettin' away." Vin wiggled, sapping the little strength he had.
"Calm down, Vin." Buck ordered, sitting him up. "What the hell's going on? What are you doing down here? Where are your shoes?"
"I got thirsty, decided to get a soda. I went upstairs to that room with the vendin' machines. I seen Roberto Carlino in the hall. I followed him." Vin took several deep breaths, and swore softly as the concrete car depository began to spin. "Let go of me, Buck. He's gettin' away."
Buck saw what little energy Vin had seep right out of him. The eyes dulled with pain looked at him in anger. He leaned the feisty agent against a green Chevy. Vin's eyes slid shut and his breath came in short pants. Buck stood up and eyed the empty garage before bending over his friend.
"Vin," He said quietly, shaking the dazed man's shoulder. He waited until the two eyes force their way open, before continuing. "There's nobody here but us, Pard. There's only one exit; I passed right by it when I came in a few minutes ago. I didn't see him, and I had an eye on the entrance from a good few blocks away, while I was heading here. Nobody left. It was probably somebody who looked like him. Come on, let's get you back to your room."
Vin was too worn out to argue. He felt Buck haul him upright and his legs immediately gave out. "Shit..." He rebelled in frustration, trying to throw Buck's arms off.
"Cut that out!" Buck ordered, strengthening his hold, "You ain't running on all cylinders. Them legs of yours are about as good as spaghetti. Now we're going upstairs to the ER and getting a wheelchair. Then I'm taking your sorry ass back to your room."
"I ain't gonna..." Vin's defiant stance was cut off. Buck gripped his collar and glared at him furiously.
"You ain't gonna say one damn thing. You're gonna behave. You're treadin' on thin ice now. You aimin' to give them Internal Affairs pricks more ammunition?" Buck growled, not hiding his anger.
Vin didn't reply, but his eyes held defeat. He slumped forward, sliding down the wall of the garage near the elevator. Buck watched the highlighted numbers on the panel descending and heard the heavy sigh. Squatting down, he saw the blue eyes riddled with fear and pain. Vin's shaggy head disappeared into his trembling hands.
"How things get so fucked up, Buck?" He whispered, "I know she was armed. A saw a silver beretta. They're gonna hang me, Buck. I..." Vin didn't finish and Buck didn't like the abnormal sound of defeat in the warrior's voice. The soft-spoken Texan was one of the most tenacious men he'd ever met. A bloody soldier, whose fierce heart fed his thirst for justice. The blue eyes usually full of fire were gone. It was unnerving to see him cloaked in defeat. He put a hand to the downcast shoulder and gave a hardy tug.
"Now you listen to me Vin Tanner, this ain't over. I'm gonna find that gun, it didn't just walk away. You got hang in there, Son. I know you feel like a sorry carcass right now, with buzzards circling, but you gotta have faith. The Calvarys coming."
Vin raised his throbbing head and looked at Buck with admiration and respect through his bleary blue eyes. Buck's confidence and grip, steadfast and true, gave him hope. He stared hard in the dark blue eyes and saw nothing less than absolute conviction. Buck believed him, despite the lack of evidence and all the rumors. He swallowed hard and nodded, letting the strong man draw him up. The elevator doors open and they staggered inside.
Buck felt the small tug on his sleeve and heard the faint whisper. He grinned and disarmed the sheepish face.
"You wanna turn down the volume, Junior," He boomed, "I can't hear myself think." He peeped down, hoping for a grin that never emerged. "Don't you worry about it, Vin. Them damn eyes of yours do your talking for you."
The door opened on the first floor and Buck dragged Vin over to a nearby plastic chair. Vin was trying to help, but his legs wouldn't work. Buck left the dazed agent with orders to stay put while he got a wheelchair.
Vin finally opened his eyes and felt his heart hammering. He felt his early morning snack threatening to make an unwelcomed appearance. He swallowed it back, clutching his fists. He began to cough, and his dry mouth felt like the Sahara. Desperate for water, and his throat constricting, he looked for Buck. The tall agent was not in sight. He spotted a sign hanging from the ceiling with a restroom illustration. There should be a water fountain nearby. He hung onto the handrails on the wall in a deathgrip and staggered forward. He fell twice, but managed to get to the end of the hall, glad that the early hour left the corridor vacant. He spotted a water fountain in the lobby.
"Hey, there he is, One of the reporters gathering in the lobby for the approaching press conference blurted.
Vin frowned, eyeing the short distance to the fountain. There was nothing to hold onto. He looked back for Buck, but the hall was empty.
"Damn..." He choked, ensuing a coughing fit. Through watering eyes he started forward, just as the reported descended.
"Mr. Tanner, why did shoot an unarmed woman?"
"How much did you have to drink?"
"Is it true you were jealous of her relationship with Ezra Standish?"
"How's it feel to gun down a innocent woman in cold blood?"
Vin gasped, his mouth dropping in muted fury. Where the hell did they all come from? Close to two dozen of them, thrusting microphones at him. He blinked, and left go of the handrail, shielding his eyes as the light from the camera blinded him.
"Aw, hell..." He swore, feeling his legs give out. He dropped to all fours and they closed in, stabbing at him with their vicious innuendos.
Buck finally located a wheelchair and went back to the elevator bank. He swore a blue streak at the empty seat. Then he saw the reporters; in a mad crush around...he peered intently and spotted Vin's bare foot sticking out of the pile.
"Fuckin' sharks..." He swore, flying up the corridor with the chair. "Get the hell away from him, you yellow-bellied pack of wolves." Buck screamed, enraged. Vin was on all fours, trying to breathe. They surrounded him; two reporters were inches away. One thrust a large microphone at Vin, hitting him on the head. Buck saw red and charged, throwing the man hard back into the crowd.
"What the hell's the matter with you?" Buck roared, bending over Vin.
"Buck...get me outta here." Vin gasped, his pleading eyes like blue saucers. Buck felt the younger man's heart hammering. He winced in sympathy, knowing Vin's claustrophobic tendencies. "I was chokin'...needed water...I'm sorry..." Vin whispered.
"Take it easy, Vin. Buck's on the job." He reassured, lifting the shaken man to his feet, placing him in the chair and turning him away. He turned and faced the would-be-lynch-mob "He's already got a concussion, and you're bouncin' a microphone off his head? You can't be as dumb as you look. There must be one brain cell working among the lot of you."
"Why isn't he locked up? Anybody else would be. He's hiding behind that badge. He's no better than the trash you lock up."
Buck wanted to choke the arrogant, pinched-face woman from a local television station. But the agency and Vin didn't need any more bad publicity. He bit his tongue and swallowed his rage. His large frame blocked Vin from their view. He heard the wheezing and knew Vin close to passing out.
"This man risks his life everyday to stop the lunatic drug dealers and gun runners. He's taken bullets and far worse saving these streets. Where the hell are you then? When he's lying in intensive care fighting for every breath? When half the scum in this state are being hauled away to prison because of him. He's spilled blood time and time again for you piranhas and does it because he gives damn. Because honor and integrity make him tick." Buck's strong voice silenced the crowd. He spotted a stray out of the corner of his eye, inching by; his arm sprung out, surprising the young reporter. "You best put that microphone away son, or I'll stick it someplace nice and tight."
The reporter backed off and Buck glared every one of the remaining element down. His blue eyes drilled into each face. "You call yourselves reporters? You're supposed to tell the public about this city. You're supposed to investigate and find the truth. You don't know the meaning of the word." Buck spat in disgust and turned away.
Vin never moved or said a word on the way to the elevator. Buck mistook the pale face and deathgrip on the arms of the chair for something else. "You ain't gonna be sick are you?"
Vin shook his head, indicating he wasn't sick. Buck eyed the refrigerator in the nearby nurses lounge. He spotted Mike filling a cart with small white paper cups of medicine. He patted Vin's shoulder and told him to stand by. Vin didn't move or indicate he even heard Buck. Buck trotted over and caught Mike's eye.
"Tough about Vin," The friendly black nurse said, "I'm pulling for him. How's he doing?"
"He's been better. Just about every yahoo in this town wants to lynch him. He's looking a little peaked, I was wondering if I could bum a coke out of the fridge." Buck asked, peeling out a dollar bill.
"Help yourself and don't be insulting me with any money," Mike scowled. "Guys like him, make my job easier. For every kid that rolls in overdosed, there's a whole lot more walking around because of you guys."
"Thanks, Mike." Buck patted the muscular shoulder and took a coke and a straw.
He wheeled Vin into a deserted waiting room and popped the top. Vin's head came up and his hand snaked out. He nodded in gratitude and took several small sips. Buck saw some of the anxiety leave the tense frame. He sat quietly by Vin's side and offered silent support. Finally, Vin finished his drink and handed the empty can back to his rescuer.
His head rested on his chest and Buck saw the blue eyes riddled with shame. He squeezed the downcast shoulder in a show of support. They were inside the elevator and approached Vin's floor, when Buck saw the head rise from Vin's chest.
"Thanks Bucklin..." Vin whispered, in a voice thick with emotion.
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