on Empty
by Joy K, Winter and Nancy W.

Joy's Note: It's hard to believe this story idea has been evolving for four years, but it was back in May of 2002 when I asked for input from some of the M7 lists on what would happen if a police officer lost his weapon. Thanks to Heidi, Cin, Mitzi, Mady and Jeanne for your input (even if you don't remember since it's been so long!) Thanks also to the Bad AOeLement for continue to beg / badger / bug me to keep writing. (You will never know how many times I heard, "Where's Teen Vin?") Thank you to Winter for stepping in when physical recovery stole my muse and made it very difficult to find the energy to write. She is responsible for writing many of the scenes. Thank you to Nancy for stepping in when we 'thought' we were finished and filling in the spots we'd missed because we were too familiar with the story and read things into it we thought were there (but weren't) because we knew the background ideas.

Thanks to Marnie for the beta reading. It's always fun to read her comments.

Chris stepped out of the diner onto the sidewalk, hearing the sounds of angry voices nearby. The young police officer keyed the microphone on his radio, reporting a disturbance and requesting backup as he jogged to the alley. Chris stopped and peered cautiously around the corner. He cursed to himself as the scene played out in front of him. Four punks had a black man down and were beating him.

"What's up?" asked Buck in a hushed voice as he stopped beside Chris. He had been paying their bill inside the diner when he heard his partner on the radio calling for backup. Chris didn't need to explain as Buck saw the situation for himself. It was foolish to go in without backup, but the guy being beaten may not have that much time left. Chris made the decision for them, drawing his weapon and stepping into the alley with Buck near his right side.

"Freeze! Police!"

Four juveniles half-way down the alley turned their attention toward the cops, dropping the injured man to the pavement. Three of the gang raised their hands in surrender, but the fourth ran toward the far end of the alley.

Seeing that Chris had the situation under control, Buck pursued the fleeing teen. "I got him!" he called as he ran down the alley.

Chris's focus on the three remaining juveniles in front of him kept him from seeing the fifth, who stepped out from a shadowed doorway and bashed him from behind with a hefty board. The three punks that he'd been holding at gunpoint ran past him, but the blow had stunned him and he was powerless to stop the escape.

He stumbled forward, trying to keep his balance as the world blurred in front of him and pain lanced through his head. He dropped to his knees as his legs gave out, and as he fell forward he had the sinking realization that his gun was no longer in his hand.

Though disoriented, Chris was aware as his attacker continued the assault. Vicious kicks robbed air from his heaving lungs, and somehow his mind cataloged pointed toes, probably boots. The sound of a weapon being fired sent a chill of futility through him, until he realized the feet were no longer attacking, but running away.

"Buck," Chris gasped.

But it wasn't his partner's shadow that covered his face, shielding him from the late afternoon sun. Chris blinked in an attempt to clear his vision, staring at a ratty pair of sneakers mere inches from his face. Allowing his vision to drift upwards, he took in the well-worn blue jeans, faded and threadbare in spots, just barely serviceable. He rolled to his side and pushed himself up to his hands and knees, continuing his scrutiny of the delinquent. He cataloged the plain white T-shirt, beat up leather jacket, long brown hair and blue eyes in his mind without being consciously aware that he was memorizing details that would later identify the kid.

Sneakers, not boots. This wasn't his attacker. Where the hell had he come from?

As Chris struggled to his feet, his eyes focused on the gun the kid held. His service weapon. The teenager stood in a traditional firing stance, bracing the gun properly as if he had been trained. Chris focused on the eyes as best he could with the throbbing pain reverberating through his skull. The eyes would tell the intent.

The blue eyes were wide open from the adrenaline rush - and perhaps a bit of fear - but clearly not panic. The teen's vision tracked across the alley continuously, watching for danger. That was when Chris knew with a certainty from his few years of dealing with the bad element that the scruffy kid wasn't going to shoot him.

Of course, he could be wrong.

Noise at the end of the alley grabbed the kid's full attention and Chris stepped forward intending to grab his gun back, but the alley began to spin wildly and he collapsed. Small but strong hands caught him just above his elbows, the right one grinding the gun against the outside of his upper arm as the teen eased him to the ground. A soft curse - spoken with a distinctly Texas drawl - slipped from the boy's mouth, the first word Chris heard him say. Pain lanced through his side as he tried to breathe normally.

"Chris! Chris!" an urgent voice called.

Seeing another officer coming back into the alley, dragging a handcuffed teen with him, the kid jerked away from Chris. Chris watched him with blurred vision as he appeared to look at the injured civilian, then Chris, then back to the end of the alley as if he were trying to decide if it was safe to leave them. Finally, he scrambled away from Chris and ran down the alley in the opposite direction of the approaching officer.

"Chris!" Buck yelled in fear as he sprinted to his fallen partner. "Officer down," he called into his radio, then giving the additional information dispatch needed. He pushed his prisoner face down on the ground, fearing that the few seconds it had taken to pursue, capture and cuff his suspect had cost Chris his life.

"My gun," Chris gasped, "That kid..." He pointed toward the end of the alley, before his arm dropped limply to the pavement.

Buck took aim at the kid clearing the end of the alley.

"Freeze! Police!" called Buck.

The teen turned the corner and disappeared from sight before Buck could fire. He wanted to give chase, but he had two injured men and a prisoner to deal with. Wilmington made sure his suspect was still down before turning his attention to Chris.

"Chris? Chris, where are you hit?" asked Buck anxiously as he searched for the bullet wound.

"Hit?" asked Chris in confusion. He had assumed Buck had fired the shot, warning off the gang. Why would Buck shoot him? "Not shot," mumbled Chris. "Kid took my gun."

"Need some help here!" shouted Buck as two more officers entered the alley and jogged to the fallen men. The officer called in on his radio for paramedics and an ambulance as his partner took control of Buck's suspect.

The civilian victim was now sitting up, leaning against the brick wall. He was bruised and battered with a few cuts on his face from the beating. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his head to stave off some of the bleeding. The other arm he kept tight to his midsection, protecting injured ribs. He didn't look like he was going anywhere soon. Buck nodded to the officer who called for the ambulance to help the civilian.

Chris was still lying on his back. He was struggling to get up, but disorientation and pain kept him from his goal.

"How are you feeling, Pard?" asked Buck, gently pushing Chris back down.

"Did you get him?" asked Chris.

"Nah. Not the kid with your gun. He was too quick," responded Buck. "But I caught the one who ran first."

"How is he?" Chris nodded toward the civilian, quickly regretting the movement.

"I'll be fine, thanks to you," the man said. "I'm Nathan Jackson."

"Chris Larabee," said Chris, trying again to sit up.

"You best stay still, Officer Larabee," said Nathan. "Leastwise until the paramedics take a good look at you. You took a pretty hard hit to the head. Might have a concussion."

"Are you some kind of doctor?" asked Buck, amused by the victim telling Chris what to do.

"I'm a med student," replied Nathan. "I was volunteering in the mobile clinic a couple of blocks over. Just took a break for dinner." Nathan pressed the handkerchief to a cut on his forehead, looked at the handkerchief, noting the blood, then pressed on the wound again. His ribs ached from the brutal kicks. Nathan would be surprised if he didn't have a couple fractured. He shifted his jaw side-to-side trying to ease the ache without success. "They wanted money and drugs. Didn't like my answer." Nathan reached out a trembling hand towards his wallet and its contents, which were strewn on the pavement beside him. Pain stabbed at his side and Nathan winced, leaning back against the wall. He'd get his wallet later...when it didn't hurt like hell. "Hate to think what would have happened if you hadn't come along when you did. You and that kid."

Chris was confused. "What do you mean 'that kid'?"

"Seen him around the mobile clinic a few times. He scared 'em off," said Nathan.

"Buck came back into the alley, fired. That's what scared them," said Chris, wishing that the alley would stop spinning.

"I didn't fire, Chris," said Buck.

Chris turned quickly toward his partner, and then closed his eyes tightly trying to shut out the pain in his head. This whole situation was surreal. He hadn't seen any other weapon, so if Buck hadn't fired, that meant that the kid had used his weapon, had fired it. It was lucky no one was hurt.

They might not be so lucky next time. If the street punk had fired once, he could again and someone could be killed. There was no way to know where his gun would end up and how it would be used, especially in a hellhole like Purgatorio. Chris didn't want to be responsible for someone's death because he had been careless and lost his weapon.

"Kid's got my weapon, Buck," said Chris, unable to disguise his anxiety.

"We'll get it back," assured Buck. He sighed to himself as he thought about how he would feel if he lost his weapon. The ramifications could be deadly. In the wrong hands, the weapon he was responsible for could be used to kill someone, an innocent, maybe even a fellow officer. Buck pasted on a smile. Chris needed a distraction. "First, we're going to make sure all your brains are still inside your head."

Chris grinned in spite of himself and the situation. Buck had a way of making things seem a little better. "Hell of a bedside manner, Buck."

"I got better things to do than be by your bed, Larabee." Buck backed away as the paramedics moved in to help Chris and Nathan. 'Like catching a punk kid who assaulted my best friend and stole his gun,' he thought. Focusing on Chris he said, "There's a world of women out there waiting for Buck Wilmington."

Chris smirked at his friend. He knew Buck was trying to ease the tension, to distract him from worrying about his gun. Chris winced as a paramedic touched his sore ribs. He tried to relax, knowing that going to the hospital was a necessary evil, but he couldn't keep his mind from wondering about a longhaired, blue-eyed teen who had run off with a police officer's gun.

+ + + + + + +

Vin ducked into the abandoned building four blocks from the incident. He slid the board covering the window back into place, chest heaving from the running and the adrenaline rush of what he had run from. He slid down the wall to the floor, leaning forward and resting his arms on his knees, trying to catch his breath and pull himself together.

He looked at the 9mm Glock in his hand, swearing at himself. 'You screwed up royally this time, Tanner,' he though angrily. 'You should have just dropped it in the alley.' He banged the back of his head against the wall in frustration, and muttered, "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Had a simple, instinctual response to a situation cost him everything? He was trying to do the right thing, to stop those punks from killing that cop and the guy that worked in the mobile clinic.

What the hell was he going to do with the gun? His father had taught him to respect firearms and had drilled into him how potentially dangerous they were, especially in the wrong hands. He couldn't just throw it away where someone else might find it. If he tried to return it to the officer, he'd probably end up in Juvie again, or worse. His prints were all over the gun, and it had been fired. If he ended up in juvenile detention, he'd undo everything he and Miss Nettie had been working towards.

Vin sighed and ran his left hand through his hair. He couldn't take it home. He couldn't chance Georgene or Carl finding it and selling it for drug money.

He looked at his watch. Damn. He was already late. He'd have to lay low and keep out of Carl's range if he didn't want another bruise or two to add to his collection. Vin hoped that Carl would tire of Georgene soon and go after some other easy mark, but the lure of future money was strong.

Future money - his money - was the only reason his ex-stepmother, Georgene, had petitioned for custody of Vin after his father had died. Vin received a monthly allowance from his father's insurance - the balance of which he would receive when he reached 21. He also got a check each month from both his mom's and dad's Social Security that would continue until he was 18. He rarely saw a dime of the money that was supposed to be for his living expenses, because Georgene and Carl were using it to support their drug habits. Right now, he was just trying to make it to his seventeenth birthday so he could petition for emancipation and be on his own.

Vin looked at the gun again. What should he do with it? He had to put it somewhere safe until he could figure this out. He considered the list of people he trusted and snorted at himself. It didn't take long. There were only three people he trusted - Miss Nettie, Josiah Sanchez and JD, and if he even mentioned the gun to any of them, it would just bring trouble on them as well.

Vin stood and peered cautiously out the peephole between the boards on the broken out window. When he was sure the alley was clear, he moved the board and slipped out, carefully replacing the board before jogging down the alley and disappearing into Purgatorio.

+ + + + + + +

Buck let out the breath he had been holding as he watched the ambulance pull away from the scene. He tried to push aside the thoughts that flooded into his mind. He didn't want to relive the fear he felt when he'd heard that shot in the alley and hadn't been there for his partner. He shuddered as the image of Chris lying on the pavement forced its way to the front of his mind. It brought back the horrifying memories of the day just a year before when he'd responded to a call outside his patrol area because he recognized the tag number on the vehicle involved. When he had arrived, there were two bodies lying covered on the hot asphalt, one of them agonizingly small. He'd had to be the one to tell Chris that his wife and baby son were dead. He hoped to never experience anything like that again - and now, he almost had. It could have been his best friend lying dead in the street today.

"Are you going to the hospital?" asked the sergeant.

"Uh, yes sir," replied Buck, startled from his thoughts. "But I want to look around first, see if the kid ditched Chris's gun nearby."

The sergeant nodded. "I can understand that, but I've got six men searching right now, so you can ride with me, and we'll go make sure Larabee's all right."

Buck looked longingly down the street where he could see several officers searching. Finding Chris's gun as soon as possible was important to him. He knew Chris wouldn't relax until it was found.

He prayed it wouldn't be used.

"Let's go, Buck," said the sergeant compassionately, laying a hand on Buck's shoulder and steering the shaken officer towards his car.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stepped out into the twilight from the chapel. He hoped God wouldn't mind, but he couldn't think of a safer place to hide the gun than right under a police chaplain's nose. When the time was right, he'd leave an anonymous message for Father Josiah and tell him where it was hidden.

He ground his teeth as he walked down the sidewalk toward his apartment building. He wished he could just walk up to that cop and give it back to him, but he couldn't risk it. His previous juvenile record would not stand up to a weapon possession or theft charge. It was bad enough that he had spent those months in juvenile detention on a false charge. Good ol' Eli Joe had made it look like he was running drugs, when in fact it was Eli who had been the courier. Vin had protested, declaring his innocence, but between a lousy attorney and Eli Joe's incriminating photographs, it didn't seem to matter to anyone that it was his lunch, not drugs in the brown paper bag.

Of course, it didn't help any that Georgene and Carl were users. The judge had taken one look at Vin's home life and assumed that the circumstantial evidence was true.

Vin didn't really blame him. It did look like he was guilty. He wished that just once he could get a break, and have someone who believed him, but that didn't seem to be his lot in life.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. Miss Nettie believed in him. So did his coach. And JD... Vin smiled when he thought of JD... JD was the smartest kid in the school, but he thought anything Vin told him was practically the Gospel itself. His mom was great, too. He figured it was people like them that helped him keep it all together when things got really sketchy.

He stopped at the bottom of the stairway to the apartments, steeling himself to deal with his former stepmother and her live in boyfriend.

"Makes Juvie look better and better," Vin muttered as he headed up the stairs.

+ + + + + + +

"You were very lucky," said the doctor.

Chris didn't feel very lucky. His head pounded and his ribs ached, but worst of all was the fact that his gun was floating around Purgatorio. For all he knew, his gun was being used in a holdup right now. Some terrified convenience store clerk could be staring down its barrel because he had been negligent with his gun.

"You have a mild concussion. No fractures, but your ribs will be tender for a few days. I want you to take it easy for the rest of the week. If everything looks good, I'll clear you to return to work on Monday."

Chris growled internally. It was only Wednesday. How was he supposed to catch the punk who stole his gun if he wasn't allowed to work until Monday?

"Do you know what to look for?" asked the doctor.

"Dizziness, headaches, blurred vision," replied Chris.

"He knows the drill, Doc," added Buck. "Been hit in the head before." Buck grinned at his partner's scowl. "I'll make sure he behaves."

"How's Jackson?" asked Chris.

"I'll check on him while you get dressed," said the doctor as he left the room.

Chris dropped his legs over the edge of the exam table. He closed his eyes for a moment adjusting to the new position. He'd had a concussion before - after a particularly vicious tackle in a high school football game. He'd missed the rest of the season that time, and he hoped recovering from this one didn't take as long.

"You all right?" asked Buck with concern.

"Yeah. Just need to take it a little slower." Chris took the shirt that Buck held out to him and slipped into it, careful to strain his ribs as little as possible. He buttoned up the shirt, finding his thoughts drawn to a skinny teenager somewhere in Purgatorio with his gun.

"A kid has my piece, Buck."

Buck rested his hand on Chris's shoulder. "I know," he tried to reassure his friend. "We'll find him and your gun. He'll get his due for hurting you, but you've got to rest first."

"He didn't hit me," Chris said with certainty.


"The guy kicking me was wearing boots. This kid was wearing sneakers."

Buck looked at him with a frown. "You sure? You were a little groggy out there."

"Pointed toes," Chris added. He touched his ribs gently.

"He could have been one of them," Buck said.

"It's possible, but I don't think so," Chris said before letting out a sigh. "I know things were a little blurry, but that kid was watching the alley for danger. He had no reason to hang around until you came back and he wasn't pointing the gun at me."

"But he still took it," said Buck, not quite ready to believe that maybe Jackson was right about the kid scaring the others off.

"Officer Larabee?" said the doctor as he entered the exam room. "Mister Jackson is doing fine. He'll need a few days rest as well, but he said to tell you, 'Thanks, again,' and that he would like to buy you a drink some time." The doctor made a note on Chris's chart. "But I would recommend no drinking for awhile either." He closed the chart. "You're free to go. I hope I don't see you again," said the doctor with a smile. "But if you experience any problems, I want you back here immediately."

Chris shook hands with the doctor, and then slid off the table onto his feet. He steadied himself briefly, and then followed the doctor and Buck into the corridor. He nodded to the sergeant who joined the procession down the hallway. Chris was a little shaky, but he wanted to stop by the station on his way home.

+ + + + + + +

"Hey, Vin." JD Dunne slapped his lunch tray on the table top, sliding into the seat across from Vin.

Vin looked up, genuinely smiling at his friend. They were an unlikely pair, with few things in common, the biggest being that they were both social misfits. Vin was a loner and struggled with his studies, and was generally ignored by both his teachers and his classmates, and seemed to like it that way. Like Vin, JD was a junior, but unlike his 16-year-old friend, JD had just turned thirteen. He'd graduate at fourteen, the age when most kids were just starting high school. He was mature for his age, mostly out of necessity. His mother had cancer, so JD often took care of things like buying groceries and seeing the bills got paid. But, he was still thirteen, and not much bigger than the average 10-year-old, so he didn't fit in anywhere but academically.

The pairing of the struggling student and the whiz kid had been the brainchild of English teacher and Junior Class counselor, Nettie Wells. She had seen more than a student who needed a tutor and a student who bored easily. She saw two boys who needed each other. Vin had bristled at the idea of a younger kid tutoring him, but after meeting JD and learning that his mom had cancer and was losing her battle, Vin's protective instincts had kicked in and they had become unlikely friends.

JD shoved his lunch tray to the middle of the table, and without any concern or embarrassment, Vin reached for half of JD's sandwich. As JD picked up the other half, he watched Vin eat hungrily. JD got a lunch subsidy, so he filled his tray with as much as he could and shared it with Vin. Vin would have qualified for free lunches, too, but his worthless stepmom was too lazy to go downtown and fill out the paperwork. Never mind that she didn't feed Vin with the money she took from him. JD had never seen Vin come to school with lunch money or a sandwich. Or clean clothes for that matter. Georgene's drugs were more important.

"You comin' over after school?" asked JD as selected from the three pieces of fruit on his tray. He always picked and apple, an orange and a banana. He knew Vin wouldn't take any until he picked his share, so he alternated his choice every day, sometimes taking two and sometimes only one. He never got vegetables, because even though Vin would eat them, he didn't really like them. He picked up the orange and motioned for Vin to take the apple and banana.

"Yeah," said Vin. "Carl's out of town for a couple days."

"Mom had a rough night last night, but she gave me some money to pick up something special for dinner." He grinned at Vin. "She wanted to be sure I told you to come."

Vin laughed. "Your mom is something else, JD."

"She sure is," said JD, before growing somber. He knew his mom wasn't going to live much longer, but he was determined to make the best of what time they had left. Keeping his thoughts from going too dark, JD changed the subject. "How'd you do on the math test?"

Vin shrugged. "Don't know, yet. Felt pretty good about it though. Seemed like most of the questions made sense."

"I'm sure you did great," encouraged JD.

Vin grinned at JD's enthusiasm. His schoolwork had improved greatly since meeting JD. Not only was the younger boy smart, he had a real talent for reducing all the gobbledygook in the textbooks down to something Vin could understand. "Better than I would have a few months ago." Vin popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and brushed off his hands just as the lunch bell rang.

"Meet ya outside the main doors after last class," said Vin as he stood.

"Later," said JD, stuffing the last piece of orange into his mouth before returning his tray.

As Vin headed toward his class, he was distracted by images of yesterday's incident in the alley. He sighed. Everything was screwed up. It was a miracle he'd managed to concentrate on his math test at all. He had to push aside the negative thoughts. English class was next and he'd have to give it his full effort. A track scholarship was in his plans, but he still had to get decent grades to stay on the team.

They were studying The Grapes of Wrath. Unlike most of the "good" students, Vin couldn't afford the Cliff Notes, so he was actually reading the book, which was about folks whose lives sucked even worse than his. He sighed. He was going to have to do something about that gun...

+ + + + + + +

Buck knew it was going to be impossible to keep Chris down until they found his weapon, but the sergeant had helped him out. He told Chris to go home and not come in until the next morning to work on the sketch. They entered a description of Chris's gun and its serial number into the NCIC, notifying law enforcement officers nationwide of the stolen weapon. They had a basic description of the kid, and Nathan Jackson had actually recognized the boy, so it was pretty certain someone in Purgatorio would know who he was. Chris could afford some rest before they worked on the sketch and searched for photographs of the kid in their mug books.

And Chris did 'rest,' but was in the squad room at 7:31 a.m. Thursday morning, ready to start looking. He was interviewed about the incident, and then began to work on identifying the kid.

He started with pictures of all the known juvenile offenders living near the area of the attack. The sheer volume dismayed Chris. He knew Purgatorio was bad, but hadn't expected so many files. He was just about half way through the pile when his body betrayed him. His head was pounding and his vision clouded. There was no way he could continue without resting for a while. He considered just laying his head on the table top where he was, but he knew that would guarantee a trip home.

Too late, he thought as Buck approached.

"Sarge says to go home. They've got the sketch and the description to go on," said Buck. "They're going to interview Jackson at the hospital this afternoon, see if it gives them anything you might have missed."

"I didn't miss anything," snapped Chris defensively.

Buck frowned and then said softly, "Chris, you're a good cop. Hell, you're a great cop. But even great cops miss stuff when they get bashed in the head."

Chris nodded, knowing Buck was right. The combination of the missing gun and his headache was making him edgy. "I gotta get that gun back," he said softly.

"Chris," said Buck, trying to soothe his friend, "You told me yourself you knew that kid wasn't going to shoot you. What makes you think he would shoot anyone else?"

Chris closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, trying to ease the pain. "Maybe he wouldn't. But what if it falls into someone else's hands? What if the gang comes back against him because of what he did?"

Buck nodded. "Those are all concerns, Chris, but you can't do anything about them if you don't take care of yourself." Buck grinned, "If you tried to pursue him right now, you'd be flat on your face the second you stepped out of the squad car."

Chris sighed. Damn, he hated when Buck was right.

"Let's go home. Sarge doesn't want to see your pretty face until Monday."

Chris stood, gathered his balance and began to walk down the hall. Monday was four days away. Four days was an eternity in Purgatorio.

+ + + + + + +

Chaplain Josiah Sanchez was sent to interview Nathan Jackson at the hospital Thursday afternoon. Normally, a regular officer would have collected the information, but he was anxious to check up on his friend.

He entered to find Jackson dressed and packing up his get well cards and belongings.

"Going home?" he asked.

"Josiah? Hi!" said Nathan. "What are you doing here?" Nathan knew Josiah from the Big Brother Program. He had benefited from the program growing up, and now Josiah had recruited him as a Big Brother for another Purgatorio boy.

"Well, I did come to see my friend, but I'm also here in an official capacity. I need to take your statement on what happened yesterday."

"Do I need to go to the station?" asked Nathan. "They'll be wheeling me to the door any minute now."

"No, we could do it here, or if you want, we could stop at the station." Josiah smiled, "You do need a ride, don't you?" He knew the medical student didn't have a car. Nathan walked or took the bus when needed.

"That'd be great. Save me cab fare." Nathan sat gingerly on the bed to wait for his wheelchair ride to the door.

Josiah watched Nathan shift to find a comfortable position. "How are you doing?"

"Breathin' lightly," said Nathan with a grin. "Nothin's broke, but I'm not sure there's anything that isn't bruised." Nathan glanced at Josiah. "And, no, this won't keep me away from the picnic Saturday."

Josiah held up his hands defensively and laughed. "I didn't say anything!"

"I'm not going to disappoint Jamal. He's been looking forward to this since the last one."

Josiah smiled. Nine-year-old Jamal practically worshipped his 'Big Brother'. In his eyes, Nathan could do nothing wrong. He wished all the Brother relationships worked as well. He'd be thrilled if a few more men like Nathan would step up and take on the mentoring friendship with other kids in Purgatorio. The need was tremendous. Buck was his latest addition and he had been working on Chris as well, although knowing that Chris had recently lost his infant son made him careful about how he approached the issue. Now, with the added stress of what had happened, he recognized that maybe it wasn't a good time for Chris to be mentoring a kid.

"What are you thinking about?" asked Nathan as he watched the saddened expression cross Josiah's face.

Josiah shook it off. "Oh, just thinking how great it would be to have a few more Big Brothers."

"I think Buck is going to be great," said Nathan with a grin. "JD took right to him."

Josiah laughed. "Yes, he did. I think it scared Buck a little."

"A kid like JD can use all the help he can get. Remember the first time we saw him?"

Josiah nodded. He remembered all too well the two boys standing in the shadows waiting for the chow line at the last Big Brothers picnic. Josiah had been watching them without their knowledge for quite some time before Nathan saw them and pointed them out.

The taller of the two boys seemed to have to do some convincing to get the younger to join him.

"Come on, JD. Nobody will know the difference."

"Vin, it's for the Big Brother's program. It's supposed to be for those kids," JD protested. He didn't think crashing the picnic was a very good idea.

"It's only food, JD," rationalized Vin. "Why do you think they have the picnic here anyway? They put up all the banners to tell the neighborhood kids about Big Brothers. It's like they're asking us to come." He peered around the corner of the building again.

"I don't know, Vin. It just doesn't seem right to take the food when we don't belong."

Vin's stomach growled and he quickly looked away from JD, embarrassed. "Just forget it, JD," he mumbled, now trying to avoid the issue.

"No," said JD, ashamed at the sudden realization that this wasn't just taking food for the fun of it, Vin was really hungry. "I'm sorry, Vin. I wasn't thinking." It was the weekend. There wasn't any school lunch to split with JD. There weren't any snacks slipped in his locker by Miss Nettie. "Let's go to my house. I'm sure we can find something to eat."

"No, JD. I 'preciate the thought an' all, but I can't mooch all the time off you and your ma. You barely got enough as it is."

"Hell, Vin. Mom doesn't mind at all," said JD. "She likes having you around."

The two boys looked at the picnic tables still covered with food even after the line of hungry boys and their Big Brothers had thinned out.

Vin looked at JD before walking towards the table boldly, as if he belonged there. JD followed. The two boys picked up paper plates at the end of the table and began to walk along, loading them with food.

Josiah grinned as he watched them, slowly making his way to the table. Evidently the boys' hunger was now outweighing their wariness, because neither boy noticed his approach.

"Well, hello there," Josiah's deep voice boomed.

He startled the older boy, who almost dropped his well-filled plate. The younger boy just stared, wide-eyed, too scared to say anything.

"I'm Josiah Sanchez."

Vin balanced his plate with his left hand, wiping his right hand on his jeans before reaching to shake Josiah's hand. "Vin. This is JD. Our Big Brothers are over there." Vin nodded his head toward a group of people eating in the shade of the tree. Vin picked up a fork and started eating.

"I see," said Josiah. The kid had guts, but he wasn't a very good liar. "Well, I run this program..."

Josiah let the sentence hang just to see what the boys would do. Vin kept eating as if it meant nothing that the man in front of him would know every person involved in the program. Josiah had to admire his nerve. The younger boy, though, was obviously less experienced. He quickly caved.

"I'm sorry. We didn't mean anything," he sputtered nervously. "Vin was... We were hungry."

Josiah chuckled as the older boy rolled his eyes. His lie was exposed, but he made no attempt to run.

"So am I," said Josiah. "Let me grab my plate and let's sit at that table." Josiah nodded toward a picnic table in the shade. He watched Vin's wariness expose itself and took that as a good sign. It meant that JD was probably telling the truth. They were just hungry and not doing it for a dare. "Have a seat boys."

Josiah had introduced the boys to the Big Brother program that afternoon, and a few weeks later JD had signed up. Josiah was disappointed that Vin hadn't been able to get parental permission to participate. That was ironic, since the woman apparently didn't care what Vin did or who he was with most of the time. Vin wasn't very open about his home life, and what little Josiah knew of his background, was through what JD let slip, but he knew that Vin was a good kid trying very hard to become a good man.

JD was on his third Big Brother in three months. The first one had decided the commitment was too much for him. The second couldn't deal with the fact that JD was smarter than he was. Amazingly, the first two failures had not jaded JD. He had been disappointed, but in a way he already had a big brother. He had Vin. It may not be blood, and it may not be a formal program, but their bond was strong.

Still, JD threw himself headlong into his latest Big Brother relationship - Buck Wilmington. They had only been 'brothers' for a couple of weeks, but it looked like it would be a long-lasting bond. The tall, affable police officer had taken immediately to the extroverted youngster. Far from finding his intelligence intimidating, Wilmington was able to see the kid in JD, treating him pretty much like any other kid, which was what JD needed.

Josiah's thoughts were interrupted by an orderly entering the room with Nathan's wheelchair.

"Your chariot awaits, Nathan," Josiah said with a sweeping gesture.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan's statement had filled in some of the blanks in Chris's report. He remembered seeing the kid around the mobile clinic, but he didn't know his name. They had him go through a couple of mugshot books, but, Nathan really only recalled that the kid was 'familiar' and was hesitant to positively identify any of the kids in the book based on that.

There were still some uncertainties. Chris insisted that the kid who took his gun wasn't the one who had assaulted him. Nathan's report tended to agree with Chris but he couldn't provide any information on the actual attacker. His view had been blocked by the corner of a dumpster. He had seen Chris fall and heard the board clatter to the ground, and, he'd heard scuffling and someone grunting, "No," and then a gunshot. He had seen the kid step forward and stand over Chris with the gun raised, but not aimed, at the fallen officer.

His testimony confirmed Chris's report, and the statements seemed to indicate that there was another person in the alley, but both witnesses had head injuries leaving the possibility of mistaken perceptions.

Until things were straightened out, the kid was wanted for assaulting a police officer, theft, and unlawful discharge of a firearm. Attempted murder charges were also a possibility.

Chris was bothered by this as he stewed quietly at home. All day Friday he fretted about his gun and not being able to go looking, but the constant headache and the sore ribs reminded him that rest was the best option.

It bothered him that they were going after the kid for more than stealing his gun. He truly believed that the boy had broken up the assault, but everyone was reluctant to believe him because of the concussion. He couldn't really blame them. Someone whacks a cop on the head, his weapon is taken and fired, and then a kid is seen standing over him with the gun - a kid who runs when another officer shows up. What else were people supposed to think?

Chris cursed. It was the running away with the gun that was the problem. That was the thing that created the doubt. If he had done nothing wrong, why would the boy run? Fleeing the scene indicated he was guilty, if not of that incident, then of something prior.

And that meant it was possible the kid might use the gun.

"Here," said Buck holding out a glass of water and his pain medication. "Take 'em."

Chris growled. He didn't want or need to be babied.

"Take them. Let your body heal and we'll hit the ground running on Monday."

Grudgingly Larabee took the pills and glass from his partner and friend. Buck was right. He needed to be at full capacity to get this kid. He'd rest for now, but come Monday, the kid had better have eyes in the back of his head.

+ + + + + + +

JD patiently waited in line for his lunch. There had been a time not long before when simply eating in the cafeteria had been a challenge. There was a certain element in the school who delighted in teasing him because of his small size, or because of his high IQ. But, most of them had laid off when they found out his mom was sick, and the rest had left him alone when he became friends with Vin. The funny thing with Vin - he was not a big kid, and didn't look especially tough, but, not many people dared to make him mad more than once, and teasing JD was a good way to get on his bad side.

JD wasn't sure what was wrong with his friend now, though. Vin had been acting strange for the past few days but he wouldn't tell JD what was wrong.

When his tray was full the thirteen-year-old headed for his usual table. He smiled when he saw Vin waiting for him. The smile quickly faded when Vin looked up at his approach. There was large bruise just below Vin's left eye.

JD knew Carl hit Vin but the man was usually smart enough to hit him where the bruises didn't show. The first time JD had seen the evidence of Carl's beatings, he'd been shocked. His mom had invited Vin to stay the night once and JD accidentally saw Vin's back when he walked in while Vin was changing. Vin had just shrugged it off when JD asked him about it and quickly changed the subject. JD had told his mom the next day after Vin left. His mom told him she suspected Vin was beaten at home and that's why she always asked him to stay over. JD wanted to do something about it, but they were afraid that prying into his personal life would alienate Vin. All they could do was offer their friendship and a place to stay.

"Hey, Vin," JD said as he took a seat across from his friend.

"Hey," Vin replied as he took the apple off JD's tray.

"Coming over later?" JD asked as he cut his sandwich in half.

"Nah," Vin said around a mouthful of apple. "Got practice after school."

"You could come over after," JD offered as he ate his half of the sandwich. He was scared for Vin and didn't want him to go home.

"It'd be too late," Vin replied. "I have to get in before Carl gets back from work."

"Damn it, Vin, there has to be something we can do!" JD exclaimed.

Vin smiled sadly at JD's remark. For the longest time this had been his secret. JD wouldn't know even now if he hadn't seen his bruises when he stayed over that night. He knew his friend hated the fact that Carl hit him and there was nothing he could do.

"I 'preciate you wanting to help," Vin said as he finished the sandwich. "But just let it be."

"But Vin..."

"Please, JD."

"All right," JD sighed. "But you know you can come over anytime don't you?"

"Yeah, JD, I do, an' I 'preciate that, too." Vin smiled as he stood up, grabbing his half of the sandwich. "Thanks for lunch."

JD watched his friend as he left the lunchroom and was joined by some of the other members of the track team. The thirteen-year-old envied them. He'd tried out for the team, and even though he was fast for his size, he just wasn't big enough to compete against the taller varsity runners. He had a couple of inches to grow before he reached five feet, so he was way too short for basketball, even with kids his own age, and football would be like begging to get killed. He was good at baseball, and played first base on a little league team, but district rules required high school players to be 14, so by the time he was old enough to try out for the varsity team, he'd be out of high school. He consoled himself with the truth that most kids didn't make a team, anyway, and besides, he got to compete in Odyssey of the Mind competitions, which were pretty fun, even though nobody was as impressed with those kids as they were with jocks. Oh well, it wasn't like he would need an athletic scholarship to go to college, anyway - he'd had colleges coming to him since he was 11. Vin would have to work hard for his scholarship, though. JD hoped they'd be able to go to college together.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had been distracted through most of practice. He was worried about the gun. Would someone find it before he sent the note? Did he wipe all his prints off the gun before he hid it in the chapel? Was it a mistake to wipe the prints? He'd wiped everyone's prints off the weapon - that probably hadn't been a good idea.

Coach Phillips noticed that Vin's mind seemed to be somewhere else, and told him to get his head out of the clouds or he could leave. He hated to do it, but Vin needed to concentrate on running - everyone knew he was trying for a track scholarship.

At the end of practice he called him over. "Vin, is something bothering you?" he asked.

"Nah," Vin replied. "Just got a test coming up is all."

"Are you sure there isn't anything going on at home?" Mark Phillips said, frowning at the obvious bruise on Vin's cheek. He wanted to report what he suspected was abuse but it was so hard to prove. Vin had insisted he had been wrestling with another kid and it was an accident. He watched as the boy self-consciously ran his hand over the discoloration.

"Nothing's going on at home," Vin said quickly. "I was just messing around, like I said."

"All right," Philips said, hating that he couldn't get Vin to admit what was going on. There was ample evidence that the boy was being neglected, even if he wasn't being abused, which was unlikely. He often wore the same clothes to school for days on end, and even for a runner, he was almost painfully thin. He'd seen him sharing lunch with JD Dunne, and Philips suspected Vin's performance would improve even more if the boy had nutritious food and enough of it. Unfortunately, all he could offer him was encouragement. "The practice was good. You keep it up and that scholarship's in the bag."

"Thank you, sir," Vin said smiling.

Vin headed for the locker room, glad that Coach hadn't pushed him more about things at home. Most of the time he could easily avoid Carl but last night he had been preoccupied thinking about how he was going to get rid of that gun. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

He sat down with his Grapes of Wrath book and deliberately dawdled until most of the other boys had changed and left. Then he carefully removed his running shoes and placed them in his locker. They were expensive, and Vin hadn't believed for one minute Coach's story that he'd bought them and then didn't like the way they fit - unless, of course, he accepted that Coach was dumb enough to buy size 9 shoes for his size 12 feet. He hadn't wanted to accept them, at first, but he knew that with proper shoes, he could train harder and longer. He was saving money to pay Coach back for them, and he wouldn't take no for an answer once he'd saved enough. If Coach wouldn't take it for himself, Vin would tell him to use the money for the next kid who didn't have shoes. He wouldn't able to turn that down.

After making sure everyone was gone, and no one would see the bruises Carl had given him this time, Vin took a quick shower then headed home.


Buck drove around the streets of Purgatorio and shook his head. Sometimes having this beat depressed him. He couldn't understand how the people, especially the kids, could survive in this neighborhood.

"I don't know how they do it."

"Who?" Chris asked turning to his partner. Monday had been a long time coming, but he was finally back at work. His headache was gone and his ribs only bothered him if he lifted something heavy with one hand.

"How these kids can survive," Buck said turning left at the corner. "Jeez, look at that one, he can't be more than seven."

Chris looked out the window to see a young boy sitting on the steps of a brown stone building. Not three feet away from him was a group of older boys from the K Street gang. Chris didn't know the answer to Buck's question, but what he did know was that it was their job to protect the innocent people of this neighborhood. That's why he had to find his gun.

So far they were lucky and there hadn't been any shootings, but he knew that wouldn't last long. As they turned down the road toward the high school Chris noticed a young man wearing faded jeans that were ripped at the knees and a white T-shirt. His shoulder length hair was a light brown color. Something flashed in Larabee's mind.

"Buck! That's him!"

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked down the street trying to figure out what he would write in the note to Mr. Sanchez. He couldn't just write, 'Hi, hid a gun under the altar. Have a nice day.' Or could he? It would be anonymous, so why not?

Vin glanced up when the police cruiser turned onto the block. He didn't pay it much attention, at first. Denver PD sent a lot of patrol cars into the neighborhood but the cops never got out of their cars. It was like they were told to drive around but they wouldn't go that extra step to actually get to know the people in the neighborhood. Vin became concerned when the cruiser started to slow down as it approached him. He glanced around to see if anything was going on around him that he'd missed because he was distracted. When he saw there wasn't, he knew they were looking for him. Vin did the only thing he could, he ran.

+ + + + + + +

"Damn it, Buck, he's running!" Chris exclaimed as he bailed out of the car and gave chase.

Buck called in an officer in foot pursuit of juvenile as he parked the car and got out. It took only a few seconds for him to call in and park, but it was enough for Chris to be half way down the alley and just turning the corner as Wilmington followed. Buck knew Chris was fast but he had a feeling there was no way they were going to catch this kid. Buck tried to put on some speed but he was no match for the head start the duo had on him. He did his best to keep Chris in sight but he never saw the suspect. He finally came around a corner and almost ran right into Chris.

"Where is he?" Buck demanded as gasped for air.

"Vanished," Chris said as he leaned against the building holding his side. "Man, he can run."

"You don't have to tell me," Buck gasped as he placed his hands on his knees trying to slow his breathing. "Are you all right?"

Chris nodded. His ribs were complaining a little, but it was more from the run than the recent beating.

"I was so close," Chris panted. "Next thing I know he turns this corner and he's gone."

Buck looked around the alley. There were two other alleys leading off this one, a fire escape and a very narrow space between two buildings. Buck glanced at the space then shook his head. The kid had been skinny but not that skinny. Finally he straightened up and took a good look at the fire escape.

"You don't suppose?"

Chris looked up and shook his head. "If he did, he's long gone."

"Yeah, you're probably right," Buck agreed. "Let's head back to the car."

"At least we know where he hangs out," Chris said. "He probably goes to the high school."

"Probably," Buck agreed.

"If he's from this area, people should recognize his picture," Chris reasoned as he started back down the alley. "Let's start showing it around."

"We can try," Buck said as he followed. "But you now how these people are. They won't tell you anything."

"I know, but it's worth a try."

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat huddled on the roof above the two officers. He tried to control his breathing so they wouldn't hear him but he was sure his gasps could be heard three blocks away.

He listened as they admired his running skills. Damn straight I run fast, Vin thought. When the blond officer said he'd been close he wasn't joking. Vin was sure he was going to reach out and grab him. That's when he'd given everything he had and pushed harder. If only Coach could have seen me, Vin thought shaking his head.

The two officers got quiet and Vin wondered what they were up to. Finally one of them realized the fire escape was there and Vin panicked. He thought for sure they would come up. If they did he knew he was caught. That last burst of speed had done him in. After practicing hard for two hours and then being chased, he had nothing left.

Finally one of them said that he was probably long gone and the other one agreed. Vin heard their footsteps as they moved back down the alley. When he was sure they were gone he cautiously peered over the side to make sure. When he didn't see them he let out a loud sigh and slid down the wall.

He sat hugging his knees as he tried to decide what to do. It was already too late to head home. Carl had warned him about being late and he didn't want to try to explain away more bruises tomorrow. JD had invited him over but he hated to be a bother. He and his mom were buried in medical bills and didn't need someone sponging off of them. He decided to spend the night in one of his hideouts. It wouldn't be the first time he'd slept on the streets. Vin stretched out on the roof and gave the cops plenty of time to leave the area before he came down. He was just glad it was a warm night.

+ + + + + + +

"Earth to Vin."

JD waved his hand in front of his friend's face. JD knew something was bothering him but he couldn't get Tanner to talk. He knew that Vin was trying to protect him from something but he didn't know what. Sometimes it made him mad that the sixteen-year-old thought he had to look after him all the time, but other times it made him happy. He'd always wanted an older brother and Vin was the best. JD watched as Vin came back from staring into space and looked at him.

"I'm sorry, JD... I was zoning... What did you say?"

"I said, this play sucks. Who can read this crap?"

Vin took JD's book from him. It was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. "Hell, JD, this play rocks!"

JD looked at him askance. "You understand it?"

Vin smiled. JD was a whiz with numbers and science stuff, but that big brain of his just didn't want to deal with something like figuring out all those fancy words Shakespeare used.

"Sure," Vin said. "It's all about deceit and betrayal... all that stuff. He opened it to his favorite passage and had JD read it out loud.

The boy just read the words, with no emotion behind them.

"No, not like that, JD.... it's not eat two, it's 'ett too' - it means 'you, too.' See, Bru-tay - that's how ya say it, by the way, not 'brute' - Caesar and him and are tight buds. Caesar is all stabbed and stuff, assassinated by a bunch of senators, an' he's dyin', and he looks up an' sees his best friend standing there, an' he's holdin' a knife, too." Vin grabbed a pencil and held it so it appeared to be protruding from his chest. He fell to the floor and looked up at JD with pain-stricken eyes. "And you <cough> too <gasp>, Brutus?" he wheezed, then collapsed.

JD applauded appreciatively. "So, his best friend stabbed him?"

"Yeah, along with a bunch of other guys."

"That sucks."

"Well, they all thought they had a good reason, but then, later, this other guy, Mark Antony, he makes a speech about how sometimes, we only remember the bad things folks do an' forget the good stuff."

Sorta like me an' my juvie record, Vin thought.

Remembering the gun he'd stolen caused Vin to suddenly lose his enthusiasm for studying. He closed his math book.

"Something wrong, Vin?" JD asked. He was writing the words betrayal and deceit in his notebook.

Vin sighed. "Got something on my mind. I'll just get an F on this math homework."

"That's okay, I'll do it," JD said. Vin raised his eyebrows and JD laughed. "Don't worry, I'll make enough of them wrong so no one will suspect. I'll even write horrible like you do."

Vin swatted JD with his notebook. "Thanks, JD."

"Where are you going?" JD asked as he watched Vin stack his books.

"Need to talk to Miz Nettie," Vin said.

"About your scholarship?"

"Yeah," Vin lied.

"OK," JD nodded. "Are you coming over to my house for dinner? Mom's making chicken and dumplings."

"Hell, yeah, I'll be there," Vin said smiling. "Your mom makes the best. I'll see ya later." He figured he might have to spend another night on the streets to avoid Carl, but Mrs. Dunne had made a special effort and he didn't want to disappoint her.

He hated lying to JD about what was bothering him, but he just couldn't tell him about this. Hell, he couldn't even tell Miss Nettie but he had to talk to someone. He needed to know if he'd totally messed up all his plans - if there was no way to fix it. He walked down the hall leading to her class trying to figure out how to talk without telling her too much. He hadn't come to any solutions by the time he was standing in the doorway of her classroom.

"Hello, Vin," Nettie said.

"Hi, Miz Nettie," Vin said as he walked in the room.

"I thought you were doing homework with JD."

"Was, but we're finished," Vin lied.

"Vin..." Nettie said giving him a stern look.

"OK, so I'm not finished," Vin said with a sigh. "I couldn't concentrate. I've got something on my mind."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Nettie asked as she sat at her desk.

"I reckon," Vin said as he took a seat at a desk close to hers. "Just not sure where to start."

Nettie waited patiently for Vin to gather his thoughts. He was never a talkative boy but when he did finally speak he usually had something important to say. It was also the quiet ones that were the most poetic. Poetry had been one of the student's assignments this year. It was never an easy one and most students hated it. Vin, on the other hand, had loved it. His poem "A Hero's Heart" had won the county poetry contest. Vin had been embarrassed by all the attention but he took it in stride.

"Miz Nettie," Vin asked hesitantly, "what are my real chances at getting the scholarship?"

"The chances are very good," Nettie said. "Your track coach said that you are doing great. You're keeping your grades at an acceptable level."

"What if I do something really stupid like get into a fight or something?" Vin asked without looking her in the eye.

"Well, it would all depend on what that something is," Nettie said, hoping that Vin would finally tell her what had been bothering him for the past few days.

"I reckon," Vin said with a sigh. He debated whether or not to probe any further, but he was afraid he'd already said too much. "Well, thanks, Miz Nettie," he said as he stood to leave.

"Vin," Nettie said standing up and walking over to Vin. "I know how hard it is to stay out of trouble in Purgatorio." She rested her hand on his forearm. "Just know this, whatever you do, you will always have me to help you. Even if you don't get the track scholarship, I will help you figure out another way to go to college. I just want the best for you."

"Thanks, Miz Nettie," Vin said swallowing the lump in his throat. "I appreciate it." He didn't understand why Nettie Wells cared about him, but he was grateful that she did.

"Somehow I don't think this little talk helped you with your problem," Nettie said looking at Vin.

"Not really," Vin admitted. "But it helped a little. Well, I better let you go. See you in class tomorrow."

Nettie watched one of her favorite students walk out of her classroom. Deep down she knew Vin was in trouble but there was nothing she could do to help. She just hoped she could be there for him when everything hit the fan.

+ + + + + + +

"So what do we want to get for dinner?" Buck asked as the cruised around Purgatorio.

"There's that deli over by the high school," Chris suggested.

"Damn, Chris, just come out and say you want to check for that kid over by the school," Buck said shaking his head as he turned down the next block.

Chris didn't say anything as Buck drove. No one had spotted the kid at all yesterday, but he had a feeling they'd find him near the high school. He really needed to get this kid before his gun could be used in a crime.

Buck parked the car on the side street next to the deli and they got out. They went inside and Buck walked over to the counter and ordered their sandwiches. They'd been friends long enough for Buck to know what Chris wanted.

Larabee hung out by the window and watched the street. There were a few people walking around but for the most part the street was clear. He was about to go join Buck when he saw a scruffy, skinny kid walking down the street. He was too far away for Chris to see if it was the right one. He could see the boy was wearing faded jeans, sneakers and a black T-shirt and had a ball cap on his head. The cap hid his hair so even as the kid drew closer, Chris wasn't sure if it was the one he wanted. He watched as the boy stopped next to a homeless man and as he bent down to put some coins in the vagrant's cup his hat fell off and his shoulder length brown hair was revealed.

"Buck!" Chris called urgently. "There he is!"

"Where?" Buck asked as he rushed over to the window.

"Across the street over by that bum."

Buck looked across the street to see a teen talking to a homeless man. He looked like the kid they had chased last time but he wasn't sure. The teen started walking again and Chris was out the door.

Buck cursed, following his partner.

He followed Chris across the street as they tailed the teen. As they started to get closer, the boy somehow sensed he was being followed and turned to look. When he saw two uniformed police officers behind him, he took off running.

Chris cursed and ran after him.

Buck quickly called in on his shoulder radio as he hurried after the pair. After confirming backup was on the way, he concentrated on the chase.

Chris couldn't believe the way this kid could run. The boy was fast and it was obvious he was a long distance runner, not a sprinter. Otherwise, they would have been able to catch him quickly. Suddenly the boy turned down an alley and Chris followed. It wasn't long before another alley appeared on the right and the teen ducked down that one. Chris followed and turned the corner in time to see the kid climbing the fire escape.

Chris began to climb and was close behind when the kid cleared the top of the building. The chase resumed and Chris could see another building ahead. There was a small gap and he wasn't surprised when the kid jumped the space and continued running. Chris did the same, grateful that he was in good shape. He became alarmed when he saw the edge of the building approaching, but the kid was putting on more speed.

"Noooo!" Chris yelled as he saw the kid jump.

Chris raced to the edge of the building, his heart pounding with fear for the kid. Fearing he'd see a body on the pavement below, he couldn't believe his eyes. Nearly fifteen feet away and about ten feet down was another building. Chris watched as the kid rolled off a pile of dirty mattresses and disappeared behind an elevator shaft on the roof. The mattresses made it clear that jumping from this building to the other was done a lot. Chris heard Buck approach behind him.

"Don't expect me to try that."

"I have a better chance of making it than you," Chris said with a snort.

"You saying I'm fat?" Buck asked.

Chris smiled and shook his head as he headed for the fire escape. "We have to figure another way to catch this kid," he said. "Once he gets up here we have no chance of catching him."

"Not unless we post an officer at every fire escape in a three block radius," Buck said.

Chris stopped so abruptly that Buck bumped into him. "You may have something," he said. "Did you notice the kid took us down the same alley where we chased him last time?"

"Yeah, I did." Buck said. "At least now we know how we lost him last time."

"Maybe we can use that to our advantage," Chris reasoned. "Next time one of us can be here to cut him off."

"If he runs the same way," Buck said. "If he doesn't, one of us is chasing a suspect without backup."

Chris nodded. "I'll talk to the Captain, and see what he says."

+ + + + + + +

Vin tried to stop shaking. That cop had come even closer to catching him this time. There was only one way he could think to get away. He'd only made that jump once, a couple of years before, when he'd done it to prove he wasn't afraid. Except it had scared the hell out of him then and it still did. It was just plain stupid, he knew, but what choice did he have? Vin put his head down on his knees and sighed. If he'd broken his leg making the jump all of his plans would have been ruined. He didn't think Miss Nettie could come up with a new plan if he broke his damned leg. He just didn't have the grades to get an academic scholarship.

Vin stood and made his way over to the fire escape. He promised JD he'd come for dinner. If he didn't show, JD would be upset with him. As he climbed down he noticed the right knee of his jeans was ripped. Vin cursed since this had been his last pair that was still whole. He also noticed that he'd scraped his left arm somewhere during the chase. Now he'd have to think of something to tell JD when he got to his house.

As Vin neared the bottom of the fire escape he carefully looked around to make sure there were no cops. When he was satisfied the coast was clear he climbed down the rest of the way.

It was getting dark but Vin wasn't afraid of walking around Purgatorio at night. He waved to a few of the store owners as they closed their shops. He turned down JD's block and headed for the house. Mrs. Dunne tried her best to keep her small front yard neat. Vin could see where she had tried to do some weeding but hadn't gotten very far. The chemo made her very tired and while JD did his best to help out, between school and studying, he didn't have a lot of spare time. Maybe if Carl wasn't around at home, he could sneak over this weekend and finish the yard work for them.

Vin walked up to the door and knocked.

"Who is it?" JD called through the door.

"It's Vin," he heard the chain and two dead bolts being thrown back before the door opened.

"Hey, Vin!" JD said as he opened the door. "Wasn't sure if you were gonna make it."

"Said I would," Vin smiled and ruffled JD's hair. JD swatted him as Vin walked by. "Hello, Mrs. Dunne. Sorry I'm late."

"Hello, Vin," Rachel said smiling. The smile quickly turned to a frown when she saw the blood on Vin's arm. "What did you do?"

"Aw, it's nothing. I was just clumsy," Vin said. "I knew I was late so I took a short cut over a fence. Fell off the other side coming down."

"JD, go get me the peroxide and some band-aids," Rachel said.

JD slipped out of the room as Rachel led Vin over to the couch. "Sit down and let me take a look at that arm."

"It's really not that bad," Vin protested.

"I'm a mom, humor me," she countered.

Vin smiled. Despite the chemo robbing her of her hair she was a pretty woman. The blue scarf around her head was the one Vin had helped JD pick out at the mall last week. As Vin sat down on the couch his right knee was exposed.

"I see you ripped your jeans, too," Rachel chided.

"Yeah," Vin laughed. "Guess going over the fence wasn't such a good idea."

"Guess not," she smiled. The smile quickly faded as she looked at Vin. "Is there something bothering you?"

"JD told you?"

"JD tells me everything," she said. "You're his best friend. He's worried."

"I know," Vin sighed. "There's nothing for him to worry about. Guess I'm just nervous about the track meet in two weeks. Coach told me there would be scouts from colleges there."

"Oh, Vin, that's wonderful!"

JD returned with the items she requested and she started on his arm. Vin watched her and his eyes teared up remembering his mother tending a scrape on his arm when he was little.

"What is it?" Rachel asked softly.

"Nothing," Vin said quickly looking away. "Just reminded me of my mom."

JD and Rachel both knew without question that he was speaking of his birth mother and not the woman he referred to as his ex-stepmother.

Rachel hugged him and he let her. His mom had been gone a long time but no matter how old he got, there would still be times he missed her. He looked at JD and saw him attempt a smile. It would be far too soon that his friend would feel the loss of his mother.

Vin looked away. He felt terrible lying to JD and his mom about what was going on but what choice did he have? He couldn't get them involved in his mistake. They had so much to deal with already.

"Why don't we eat?" said Rachel. "See if we can put some weight on you."

"He'll just run it off tomorrow," JD said with a laugh.

JD didn't know how true that statement was. Vin just hoped he'd run it off at track practice and not running from the cops.