on Empty
by Joy K, Winter and Nancy W.

Chris sipped his coffee as he watched the front entrance of the high school. Yesterday, he and Buck had spotted the kid they were looking for. The boy hadn't done anything out of the ordinary but Chris did notice that he kept a wary eye on everything around him. Now they knew why he'd been so hard to sneak up on. Chris figured growing up on the streets of Purgatorio you learned to watch your back.

They also found out why the kid could run so fast. Buck had admired the kid's workout with the track team. Somehow, they hadn't expected him to be a 'jock.' He just didn't look the type. He could run like the wind, though.

Before they had been able to approach the kid, they were called out to a domestic dispute a few blocks away. Today, they had come in an unmarked car and in plain clothes so they wouldn't be recognized.

The dismissal bell rang a mass of students came streaming out of the building.

"Jeez, how are we supposed to spot him?" Buck asked.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Chris commented, shaking his head. There were a lot of scruffy, skinny kids in Purgatorio.

Finally the stream of kids started to dwindle and they watched more closely. Chris noticed some K Street gang members hanging around by the fence. They were just standing around smoking and making comments to some of the prettier girls that walked by. A tall Hispanic boy joined them and then they left.

"Guess we missed him," Buck said.

"Suppose so," Chris said. "Let's just wait a few more minutes."

"Hey, I don't mind. I'm on company time," Buck said smiling.

Their patience was rewarded when the kid stepped out of the school. Chris noticed he wore almost the identical outfit from the day before. Faded jeans, ratty sneakers and a ball cap - but this time he had on a blue T-shirt instead of black. The kid waited by the door and was joined by a younger boy with black hair who looked too young to be in high school. When the fair-haired kid grabbed him in a headlock, Buck suddenly recognized the younger boy.

"Damn, that's JD!" he said as he moved to exit the car.

"Hold on, Buck," Chris said grabbing his arm. "I don't think he's trying to hurt him."

Chris knew JD was the name of Buck's "Little Brother". Buck had joined the Big Brother program that Josiah ran and since then, all he had talked about was JD this, JD that. He knew JD was actually a junior even though most kids his age were still in middle school.

Larabee's guess had been right as they watched the younger boy squirm out of the older kid's hold and try to jump on his back. The older kid was quicker and JD missed. They wrestled on the sidewalk for a while until the older boy called a truce. They could see JD was laughing and was enjoying the older boy's company. The two continued walking down the street and the older boy went quickly back to his habit of keeping an eye on things. Once, the kid looked back and Chris thought for sure they had been made until JD pulled him down the street.

"Damn, that was close," Buck said. "It's like he knows someone's watching him."

"Just a reaction to living in this neighborhood," Chris said. "Has JD ever mentioned that kid?"

"No," Buck said shaking his head. "JD's pretty closed-mouthed when you ask him about things here, so I don't usually press him."

"Think he'll tell you if you ask?"

"Doubt it," Buck said. "Did you see how they acted together? I'm guessing JD is really close to this kid."

"Do you think he knows that the other kid stole my gun?"

"That I don't know," Buck had to admit. "What I can't figure out is why he took it. He doesn't seem to run with any of the gangs..."

"That we know of," Chris said interrupting.

"Do you really think he does?"

"No," Chris reluctantly admitted.

"Neither do I," Buck said.

"So why'd he take it?"

"Guess we'll have to ask him when we catch him," Buck said.

Chris didn't take the bait.

"We're not going after him?" Buck asked.

"Tomorrow," said Chris softly.

Buck looked curiously at his partner. He'd been all hot to catch this kid since he'd been back on duty, and now he was backing off.

"I don't want your Little Brother involved," Chris explained.

"Okay," Buck said gratefully. He didn't want JD in the middle of this mess either.

Chris started the car. He pulled out into traffic and headed back for the precinct.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked JD home but refused his mom's invitation to stay for dinner. He had to make an appearance at his place sooner or later. If he stayed away much longer it would only be worse when he finally did go back. Vin stopped at the store along the way and grabbed a candy bar. He figured that would be his only food for the night if Carl and Georgene were high.

He stepped into the foyer of the apartment building and headed for the stairs, knowing better than to try the elevator since it almost never worked. As he climbed the steps to the third floor, he hoped Carl was too stoned to notice him walk in.

Vin walked down the hallway and stopped in front of his door. He steeled himself and stepped inside, closing the door.

"So you finally decided to come home."

Vin sighed and turned to Carl. "I was here last night."

"No, you weren't, boy!" Carl yelled. "I was here all night and didn't see you."

"That's because you were passed out drunk," Vin said.

Vin didn't know why he always provoked the man. He was 5 foot 6 and 125 pounds - Carl was more than twice his weight and 10 inches taller. He was prepared when Carl slammed him against the wall, but that didn't make it hurt any less.

"Don't sass me, boy!" Carl yelled shoving him against the wall again for emphasis.

"You can't tell me what to do! You're not my father!" That earned him a punch to the stomach. Vin folded to the floor gasping for breath.

"You no good street punk," Carl hissed, grabbing Vin's collar and pulling him to his feet. "You ain't worth shit. Just like your old man."

"My dad was a thousand times better than you," Vin gasped.

Carl grabbed Vin around the neck and slammed his head against the wall. Vin tried to pry Carl's fingers from around his neck as his air was being cut off.

"Your father was nothing!" Carl yelled. "I did him a favor killing him! You keep it up and I'll do the same to you!"

"Carl, stop!" yelled Georgene.

Carl slammed Vin's head hard against the wall then let him go. Vin slid down the wall into a crumpled heap. The liquor on Carl's breath had been strong enough to drop a bull. Vin had no idea what Carl had been talking about when he said he'd killed his father. Georgene had introduced his dad to Carl and Vin remembered them arguing a lot so maybe Carl had killed him.

Carl growled at Georgene and stomped to their bedroom.

"Vin, honey, why do you provoke him? You know he didn't mean it," she said in a weak attempt to appease him.

But Vin saw through it. He knew he was Carl and Georgene's meal ticket and he was stuck with them until he could get emancipated. He rubbed the back of his head and tried to stand.

"Genie, get in here," Carl bellowed.

Georgene sniffed and turned away, leaving her stepson on the floor to fend for himself. She needed a fix.

Vin struggled to his feet and stumbled as he made his way to his room. Once he was inside he locked the door and dropped on the bed.

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched the school closely, pretty sure that neither JD nor the kid they were looking for had gotten past him. The schoolyard was almost empty when Buck noticed JD standing in the parking lot. The other kid wasn't with him so he waited. His patience was rewarded when he saw the older boy join JD. Buck got out of the car and walked towards them.

"Vin, are you alright?" JD asked as he watched Vin rub the back of his head. He'd been worried about his friend all day, especially since Vin hadn't shown up at lunch.

"Ran into Carl last night," Vin said and shrugged. "He decided to knock my head into the wall."

"Damn, Vin, why don't you say something?"

"That's not what's bothering me," Vin said. "It's what he told me. Said he did me a favor by killing my father."

"Vin, was he drunk?" JD asked.

"What do you think?" Vin scoffed.

"Then you can't believe a word he says," JD reasoned.

"I reckon," Vin said and looked behind JD.

Vin squinted at the man walking towards them, then frowned. JD turned to see who Vin was looking at and smiled. It was his Big Brother, Buck. JD could feel a change in Vin and looked back to his friend.

Vin turned and ran and that's when JD remembered Buck was a cop. He heard Buck curse as he chased after Vin. JD didn't know what was going on, but he ran after them.

Vin couldn't believe how stupid he'd been. He was so concerned about what Carl had said that he'd let that cop get too close. He ducked down the alley, hearing the cop right behind him. He had to get to the fire escape. The fire escape was in sight and Vin was just about to jump up when the blond cop stepped out from the shadows.

"I don't think so," Chris said and tried to grab him.

Vin jerked to the left and ran down another alley. He was rattled that the cops had figured out his escape route. He didn't use the same fire escape every time, but they were all off the same series of alleys. And, he didn't normally have to evade the same people multiple times. Vin ran down a side alley, berating himself for his stupidity.

Chris cursed and ran after the kid. He could hear Buck behind him but concentrated on catching the boy. The end of the alley came into view and Chris knew if he got out they'd lose him.

The boy looked back as he hit the end of the alley to gauge how close the cops were.

When he realized that alley opened onto a busy street, Chris froze and yelled "NO!"

But, it was too late. Even if he'd been looking ahead, the kid wouldn't have been able to avoid the oncoming traffic. Larabee watched in helpless horror as a car slammed into him, throwing him onto the hood of car, then into the windshield. The car skidded and swerved, throwing the kid to the ground before the driver lost control and skidded into a utility pole.

The kid lay unmoving on the pavement. The driver of the car staggered out, his head bleeding profusely.

"I.... I never saw him...." the man gasped. "I didn't have time to stop...."

"VIN!" JD screamed, running to his friend.

"JD, no!"

Buck tried to hold the boy back, but JD jerked out of his grasp. He knelt beside Vin and stared at Chris with angry eyes. "Why'd ya chase him!?" JD screamed. "WHY?" He gently touched his friend's broken body. "Aw, Vin... " he sniffed.

Buck and Chris both knelt beside the injured youngster, Buck calling for paramedics on his radio. Chris looked like he'd been kicked in the gut as he continued to stare at the injured boy. He wasn't bleeding, and he was still breathing, so there wasn't really anything they could do for him.

The driver of the car was staggering around, confused and disoriented. Buck sat him down on the curb and hand him press his hand against the bleeding cut on his head. After determining that he had no other apparent injuries, he returned to JD and tried to move the distraught boy away from his friend.

"Let me go!" JD yelled, pulling out of Buck's grip. "Vin!" JD cried. "Can ya hear me, Vin?"

Vin's eyes fluttered open briefly, but then closed again. "Don't touch him," Chris warned JD.

Chris could see the boy's left leg was resting at and odd angle and he sure it was broken. Blood was pooling on the pavement from a cut over his right eye. Chris pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it to the cut.

"Gloves, Chris," Buck warned.

"Vin's clean," JD growled. "If you don't want to do it, I will."

"I got it," Chris said as the boy reached for the cloth.

"Why did you have to chase him?" JD asked, as he gently took Vin's hand into his own trembling hand.

"It's complicated, JD," Buck said softly. "I'll explain it to you later."

JD glared at him, but turned his attention back to Vin as sirens closed in. "You're gonna be okay," he assured his unconscious friend. "The ambulance is coming. You'll be okay, Vin..."

The paramedics arrived followed by two ambulances. They immediately examined both the injured driver and the teenager, and quickly determined that the driver's injuries were minor, and that the boy was in need of immediate attention. Buck pulled JD away as they started to work on Vin. Chris stood, relinquishing his spot next to the kid.

In just minutes, the paramedics had splinted Vin's left leg and immobilized him with a backboard and cervical collar. As they loaded him into the ambulance, Chris identified himself as a police officer and asked where they were taking him. Chris and Buck walked back to get their car, taking JD with them. The hospital was only a short distance away and Chris needed to decide what to do when they got there.

"JD, I'm sorry your friend got hurt," said Buck sincerely. "Do you know his parents, or how we can contact them?"

"Good luck," growled JD angrily.

"Listen, son," said Chris, "I know you're upset, but we have to be able to contact them."

"Go to hell," JD cursed.

Buck grabbed Chris's arm to stop him from grabbing JD. Chris glared at him as JD stomped toward the unmarked unit. "I'll talk to him," Buck said softly.

Chris nodded, acknowledging that Buck had an established relationship with the boy. He'd let Wilmington take the lead this time.


Buck watched Chris prowl the waiting room like a nervous cat. They had been waiting on word about JD's friend for over thirty minutes. During that time Buck had managed to find out the kid's name was Vin Tanner. JD was still very upset and hadn't been willing to tell Buck much more than that, but when the hospital staff had asked for more information, JD had quickly given it to them. If Vin needed surgery, his parents would have to fill out consent forms. JD had laughed bitterly at that, and had wished them luck.

"Is there a problem?" the admitting clerk asked.

"You could say that," JD had sighed. "Vin's folks don't really care nothin' about him."

Buck watched the forlorn figure sitting next to him. Once his anger had abated, worry had emerged full force. JD sat slumped in the hard chair staring into space. There was little Buck could do to console him. Vin was a suspect and Chris's pursuit was justified, but right then, all JD could understand was that if Chris hadn't been chasing him, Vin wouldn't have run in front of that car.

Suddenly JD jerked upright. "I have to call my mom!" JD exclaimed. "Vin and I were going to my house after school!"

"It's okay, Kid," Buck said pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. "Use my phone."

JD flipped open the phone and then stopped. "But if I call she'll want to come over here," he sighed. "She'd have to take the bus and everything. That would be too much for her."

"Why don't we go pick her up?" Buck asked, knowing enough about his Little Brother to understand that his mom had cancer and was physically weak.

"I can't leave Vin!" JD protested as he stood up. "Why'd you have to chase him?"

Buck sighed, unsure of how much detail to go into. "My partner... Chris..." He nodded towards the other officer. "... he was bashed on the head with a 2x4 last week, and someone took his gun." He looked JD in the eye. "We're pretty sure it was Vin."

"Vin wouldn't do that!" JD protested.

Buck tried to calm him. "We don't think he is the one who assaulted Chris, but, at least one other person saw him leave the scene with Chris's weapon."

JD looked crestfallen. "But Vin ain't bad," he sniffed. "He's my best friend... an' you've ruined everything for him!"

JD stalked away and Buck was about to follow him when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Why don't you go pick up his mother?" Josiah suggested.

"Josiah," Buck sighed. "I didn't see you come in."

"Didn't think you did," he smiled. "JD had all your attention."

"Some Big Brother I am," Buck said running his fingers through his hair. "I get his best friend hurt and now he hates me."

"I don't think he hates you," Josiah said. "He's just upset. Go pick up his mother and I'll have a talk with him."

"All right," Buck agreed.

Josiah promised to phone Mrs. Dunne and let her know to expect him and assure her that JD wasn't in any trouble. After Buck was gone, the chaplain glanced toward the exam rooms and saw Chris pacing back and forth. He knew better than to try talking to Chris. When he was in a mood like this, it was best to give him a wide berth. Sanchez walked over to the window and stood next to JD.

"Buck's gone over to pick up your mom," he said.

JD nodded but didn't say anything.

"How's she doing?"

"Some days are better than others," JD said reluctantly. "But she's so proud and never asks for help."

"Yes, your mother is very special," Josiah said.

"She's gonna be upset when she hears about Vin."

"Aren't you upset?" Josiah asked.

"No!" JD growled. "I'm pissed! They had no right to chase Vin like that. He's not a criminal!"

"Then why did he run?" Josiah asked gently.

"Vin's afraid of the cops," JD admitted. "He was sent to Juvie hall once and he told me he never wants to go back again."

"I see," Josiah said. "Did Buck tell you why they were looking for Vin?"

"They said he took Officer Larabee's gun." JD said. "I don't believe them!"

"Why not?"

"'Cause Vin wouldn't do something like that!" JD yelled. "They've ruined everything!"

"What did they ruin, JD?"

"Vin's been working for a track scholarship so he can go to college and get out of this place. But now that's not going to happen..." He sniffed and looked up with pleading eyes. "His leg is all busted up, Josiah."

Tears fell freely from JD's eyes and he turned toward the window to hide them. Josiah put his arm over the boy's shoulder, feeling resistance at first, but then JD turned to him and cried. Sanchez wrapped his arms around the boy, hoping to ease some of the hurt and fear.

Chris stood by the vending machine across the room. He couldn't shake the image of that car slamming into Vin's body. He had never wanted the boy to get hurt. He had just wanted to talk to him and get his gun back. He had known that he would run when he made them as the cops - but he hadn't considered that he might be so scared that he'd run blindly into traffic.

JD seemed adamant that Vin wasn't a bad kid. He had gotten right in Larabee's face and had yelled at him. Twice. Chris had to smile at the boy's guts. There weren't too many adults who stood up to him, let alone a kid. But maybe the boy had been right. If they hadn't chased Vin, he wouldn't be in the hospital. Chris continued pacing and wondered what was taking so long.

"Excuse me."

"What!" Chris yelled and instantly regretted it when the nurse jumped back in alarm. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right," she said.

"No, it isn't and I apologize," Chris said. "Is there any news?"

"Not yet," she said with sympathy. "But we do have a problem."

"What is it?"

"We can't get a hold of the young man's parents," the nurse explained. "We need them to sign some forms."

"Can't the hospital just do what they need to even if they don't come?" Chris asked.

"Yes, we can, but it would be better if they signed the release," she explained.

"I wouldn't hold my breath," JD said from behind Chris. He had come over when he saw the nurse speaking to Chris.

"What do you mean?" Chris asked.

"I wouldn't hold my breath for Vin's stepmother to show up," JD explained. "She's probably off getting high somewhere."

"What about his father?" Chris asked.

"He died a couple years ago," JD answered. "Vin got stuck staying with his stepmom. She only wants him for his money."

"What do you mean, son?" Josiah asked.

"I already said too much," JD said bitterly. "Just don't expect her to show up."


They all turned to see a frail young woman walking towards them. She was dressed in pants and a colorful shirt that seemed too big for her. Her head was covered by a scarf.

"Mom!" JD cried and ran over to her.

They watched as JD carefully hugged his mom. When she hugged him tight, JD tightened his grip as well. Buck was standing behind them watching in concern. Rachel pulled away from her son and held him out in front of her.

"What happened?" she asked.

"It's all their fault!" JD yelled.

"JD, there's no need to yell," Rachel scolded as she led him over to the chairs. "Now tell me what happened."

Chris turned to Buck once JD and his mom were seated. "You didn't tell her what happened?"

"She didn't give me a chance," Buck said. "She opened the door, saw my uniform and grabbed her purse and said, 'Let's go.' So, we went."

'That's Rachel Dunne," Josiah laughed. "She's quite a spitfire."

"Yes, she is," the nurse agreed. "It's what's kept her going for this long."

"What do you mean?" Chris asked.

"Mrs. Dunne comes here for chemo twice a week," Josiah answered, knowing the nurse couldn't divulge patient information.

Chris turned to look at JD's mom. Now he understood the loose clothes and the scarf on her head.

"How bad?" Chris asked.

"Bad," Josiah said. "But she's a fighter."

They stopped talking as Rachel Dunne came walking towards them.

"JD said you need some papers signed."

"Yes, Ma'am, but it has to be his guardian," the nurse said.

"Vin spends more time at my house than he does with that woman," Rachel argued. "He might as well be mine."

"I'm sorry, Ma'am, it still has to be signed by his legal guardian."

Rachel was about to make a scathing remark when a doctor walked over to them.

"I'm looking for Officer Larabee," he said.

"That's me," Chris said quickly. "Officers Sanchez and Wilmington," he added, introducing the others.

The doctor looked at Rachel.

"His aunt," said Buck smoothly.

The doctor nodded. "Well, he's very lucky. His ribs are bruised, but not broken, and there doesn't appear to be any internal injuries. He does have a concussion, but there's no intracranial bleeding. The major injury is to his left leg. Both of the bones in his lower leg are broken. Luckily, we were able to reduce the fractures without surgery, but, there is extensive ligament damage in his left knee. He'll probably need surgery to repair those injuries, but that doesn't have to be done right now. Has anyone been able to contact his parents?"

Buck shook his head. "He's going to be okay, though?"

The doctor smiled. "He'll be in a cast for awhile, and then, following the knee surgery, it will take a couple of months of physical therapy to get him walking again, but he'll be just fine."

"No, he won't!" JD cried. "He's a runner! He was trying for a track scholarship!"

Rachel followed her son as he ran away from them down the hall.

"Will he be able to run again?" Chris asked.

"With a youngster this age, anything is possible... " the doctor sighed. "...but with this type of injury, it might be overly optimistic to think he'll recover all the ability he had before. I'm sorry."

Chris cursed and punched the vending machine. The more he learned about Vin Tanner, the more he was certain that Vin had tried to protect him in that alley. And what thanks had he given him? Chasing him down and crippling him, ruining his future.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt like he was floating. The sensation wasn't all that pleasant and he tried to make sense of what was going on. He could hear voices, very soft - so soft that he couldn't make out the words. He knew if he could just open his eyes everything would be all right, but nothing seemed to work.

"Look, he's moving," JD said as he stood up and moved closer to Vin's bed.

They had moved Vin to his room an hour ago and had drifted in and out of consciousness, but the doctor had told them that it might be a few hours before he was fully alert.

The others moved closer and could see that Vin was struggling to wake. JD wasn't happy that the cops were still here, but Buck said they needed to talk to Vin. And, even though no one had said it, he knew that his friend was under arrest.

Vin moaned and moved his hand. JD grabbed for it, being careful of the IV, and was rewarded with a squeeze.

"Come on, Vin, wake up," JD encouraged softly.

"Don't rush him," Josiah said. "We've got plenty of time."

JD shot Josiah a dirty look that Buck was hard pressed not to laugh at. JD was a little bitty thing, but he had 'Don't mess with me' written all over him. He knew JD didn't want them there and that he blamed Chris for Vin's injury. He quietly hoped that he and JD could work through this incident and continue their Big Brother relationship.

Buck turned to check on Chris. His partner had remained apart from the others, leaning against the wall and watching out the window. It was almost like he was trying to avoid Tanner, but couldn't quite make himself leave the room. Larabee now sported a bandage on his hand from his earlier disagreement with the vending machine. He also owed the vending machine owner for a repair bill on the unlucky appliance.

Vin groaned, pulling Buck's attention back to him. It always amazed him how young these street kids often were. They came off so hard - and old - on the streets, but the hospital bed revealed their vulnerabilities. Vin had a thick bandage covering the cut above his right temple. The resulting bruise was already covering most of the right side of his face. White bandages peeked from below the covers that Rachel had pulled up to his chest. A bright blue cast running from his upper thigh to the tips of his toes rested on a stack of pillows.

"Hey, Vin," JD said quietly.

Vin blinked a few times then turned his head slightly toward his friend.


"I'm here," JD said squeezing Vin's hand. "So is Mom."

Vin groggily turned from JD to survey the others standing around. He was a little confused about who they were and frowned. It took his sluggish brain a few minutes to put together all the pieces.

He cursed softly as he closed his eyes.

"It's okay, Vin," JD said.

"How bad?" Vin asked.

"The doctors say you'll be just fine," JD said.

Vin wanted to believe JD, but the more alert he became, the more acutely he was aware of the stabbing pain in his left leg. "How bad!" he demanded, and instantly regretted it. He closed his eyes tightly trying to ease the throbbing in his head.

No one wanted to be the one to tell Vin he likely never run in competition again, that his scholarship had been wiped away by the car that hit him. But, Chris could tell the kid wanted the truth and stepped over to the bed.

"You have a concussion, and some bruised ribs," he began. Vin looked at him and was grateful for the truth but he could tell there was more. His leg throbbed with what approached agony. "Your left leg's broken and there's ligament damage to your knee."

Vin swallowed hard, maintaining eye contact with the man who had become his nemesis over the past couple of weeks. He wasn't sure what he saw there, but it looked like sorrow.

"Doubt Miz Nettie can fix this," Vin said breaking the eye contact. Hopelessness washed over him. There was no way out. He'd thrown away the chance at a track scholarship, and if his knee was seriously messed up, even his backup plan of joining the army was shot. He wouldn't pass the physical. Tears welled up in his eyes. He'd be stuck with Georgene and Carl until he was 18. No. He couldn't stand that. He wouldn't put up with Carl ever touching him again. Not that he'd see them soon. He was headed for Juvenile Hall if not jail.

"It'll be all right, Vin," JD said.

"Sure," Vin said as tears spilled from his eyes.

"Everything will work out, Vin," Rachel assured as she sat on the edge of the bed. She leaned forward and carefully gathered Vin in her arms. He resisted for a few moments and then hugged her tightly and cried. JD leaned closer and Rachel pulled him into the hug as well.

"Let's go," Chris said gruffly and headed for the door.

Buck and Josiah both looked up in surprise as Chris walked out. They hadn't even questioned the kid yet.

+ + + + + + +

Vin lay in the hospital room trying to figure out what he was going to do. He'd gone through his moments of self-pity and hopelessness and was now looking at what options he had left. Tanners weren't quitters. So life had dealt him another rotten hand. It wasn't like that was unusual. He'd just have to make do like he always did.

He knew he could no longer hope for a track scholarship but that didn't mean he couldn't go to college. Because of his age, JD would probably spend the first two years at the local community college, so maybe Vin could go there. The tuition was reasonable, and it would keep him close to JD who could help him with his homework. He'd have a better chance of finding a job here than if he went to a strange town. He figured he could work for some burger joint if he had to....

Hell, who was he kidding? He couldn't afford any college without a scholarship. Georgene certainly wouldn't help him pay for it. And considering his present situation, it was unlikely the courts would think he was mature enough to grant him emancipation.

Vin cursed and punched the bed. All this trouble because he helped that cop. If he'd just walked away none of this would have happened. But Vin knew he couldn't have done that. It wasn't how his father had raised him. If he had let Eli Joe shoot that cop, he'd never have been able to live with himself. Vin sighed and absently rubbed his leg above the cast.

"Leg hurtin' you, son?"

"Miz Nettie!"

The longing in Vin's voice propelled Mrs. Wells into the room. She barely seated herself on the bed before Vin threw his arms around her.

"It'll be alright, honey," Nettie said as she rubbed his back.

"Why the hell does everyone keep saying that!" Vin said angrily as he pushed her away.

"Vin Tanner," Nettie scolded.

He sighed and mumbled, "Sorry."

"Tell me, son," she said taking his hand in hers.

"All my dreams have gone up in smoke, Miz Nettie."

"So you make new dreams," she said, rubbing his arm.

"I don't want new ones," Vin sniffed, turning his head away as he tried to hold back tears.

"I thought you had more gumption than that," Nettie chided, knowing her boy was hurting, but realizing he needed to look beyond the accident and make a new plan.

"I do," Vin defended. "It's just I had it all figured. Now I'm stuck staying with Georgene. She'll just keep taking my money and letting Carl beat the crap out of me."

"What?" Nettie asked. She suspected Georgene's boyfriend had been beating Vin but had no proof until now. And she didn't think she'd have it now except that Vin was under the influence of pain medication.

"Nothing, just forget it," Vin said trying unsuccessfully to cover his admission.

"Vin, listen to me," Nettie said. "If Carl has been beating you, I can get you away from there."

"You can't guarantee that," Vin said. "And if I lose in the courts it will only make it worse. So just drop it."

"Vin," Nettie said, trying to reason with him.

"Please, Miz Nettie."

Nettie sighed in frustration. Part of her knew Vin was right but she still wanted to help him. She still had some time to get things rolling. Vin would be in the hospital for a few days at least. She watched as he absently rubbed his leg. She took his hand and squeezed it.

"Vin, honey, I need to talk with you about what happened," Nettie said.

Vin was glad Miss Nettie had dropped what he'd said about Carl. He never meant to let that slip. "You mean about me taking the gun?"

"Yes," Nettie said.

"I wasn't trying to steal it. I just didn't want that cop getting hurt."

"His name is Chris Larabee," Nettie said with a smile. "His partner is Buck Wilmington."

"I know about Buck," Vin said. Nettie gave him a surprised look and Vin smiled. "He's all JD talks about. He's his Big Brother."

"Big brother?" Nettie asked.

"Yeah, you know... the Big Brothers program at the community center? They paired JD up with that cop, Buck."

"Is that right?" Nettie nodded. She knew Vin had wanted to participate in the program, too, but hadn't been able to. "Vin, they need to know where the gun is."

"It's safe," Vin said, giving Nettie a suspicious look.

"Vin, you can tell me."

"Sorry, Miz Nettie," Vin said, shaking his head. "I'm not telling anybody but my lawyer."


"No, Miz Nettie," Vin said, angrily. "I know you're tryin' to help but I don't think I should tell you. You'll only go tell that cop."

"The cop has a name, Vin," Nettie scolded.

"I don't care," Vin sighed.

"If you give up the gun, Chris will put a good word in with the judge," Nettie reasoned. "It would help."

"You really think that will help?" Vin growled. "I already got a Juvie record. They'll take one look and not even give me a chance."

"You were innocent."

Vin snorted. "Didn't seem to matter back then. And it won't matter now."


He turned from Nettie and she sighed in frustration. She had warned Chris that Vin didn't easily trust. He had suffered a lot of hard knocks in his young life and had good reason not to. That was one reason Chris wanted her to ask Vin about the gun instead of questioning the boy himself. Vin trusted her.

Nettie had been reluctant at first, not wanting to jeopardize their relationship, but Chris had finally convinced her when he swore he'd talk with whatever judge heard Vin's case. She had told him in her blunt style that he had better think twice before hurting her boy.

Nettie sat patiently on the bed while Vin thought things over. She watched as he absently rubbed his leg above the cast. Finally he turned back towards her and she was surprised to see the lost look in his eyes. It was as if he was giving up.

"Hid the gun in the altar at Mr. Sanchez's chapel," Vin said.

"Oh, Vin..."

"Jus' leave me be, Miz Nettie," Vin said turning away from her. "I'm tired."

Nettie reached out to touch Vin, but drew her hand back when he closed his eyes to shut her out. She knew she had lost him. She had lost his trust.

"You did the right thing, son," she said softly, standing and walking toward the door.

Her heart was heavy. She knew she had done the right thing, but at what price? She stopped at the door and turned for one last look at her boy. What she saw gave her hope.

Vin had turned to watch her leave.

"You'll come back?" he asked in a small voice.

"Wild horses couldn't keep me away, son," she said with a smile.

Vin nodded and closed his eyes. Nettie opened the door and stepped into the hallway letting it close softly behind her. Chris had been casually leaning against the wall but pushed off as she came out.


"You're just damned lucky that boy has a big heart," Nettie said poking Chris in the chest with her bony finger. "If I had lost his trust by helping you, by God, Larabee, there would have been hell to pay!"

Chris stepped back and put up his hands. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Wells. I need to find that gun."

"I know, son," Nettie sighed. "But Vin's special to me."

"He seems to be special to a lot of people."

"That he is," said Nettie. "He's a good boy just trying to make it out of a bad life."

"I swear, Mrs. Wells, I will talk to the judge," Chris assured her. "His giving up the gun voluntarily will go a long way. I know he only meant to do something right."

"He hid the gun in the altar in Josiah's chapel," she said.

Chris laughed.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"What better place to hide it than in a police chaplain's church?" he replied.

Nettie smiled at the irony as Chris walked away. She knew this had been the right thing to do. She turned back to Vin's door and stepped inside. She walked over to the bed and took a seat. Vin held out his hand and she took it. Nettie watched as Vin relaxed and sank deeper into the pillows. It didn't take long for him to fall asleep.

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked briskly out the door of the hospital heading for his truck. He wasn't sure what to think of the kid. At first he had been angry that some punk kid had stolen his gun. But then, he came to realize that if that same kid, Vin, hadn't stepped in he could dead now.

And now that he knew more about Vin - what he was like and the situation he came from, he was wracked by guilt at seeing the boy injured like he was. Chris had never meant for him to get hurt. He knew how much that scholarship must mean to a kid like Vin, because football had paid for most of his college education, and his circumstances were nowhere near as desperate.

Climbing into his truck, Chris realized he was no longer angry with Vin, that his anger was now directed elsewhere. He'd checked with the nurses and Vin's stepmother still hadn't shown up at the hospital, or even called to see how he was doing. The doctors had found - and reported - evidence that the boy had been abused. Chris had seen for himself how much Nettie Wells, and JD and his mom, cared about him. They were good people, and Vin was a good kid, he was sure of that, now. Sighing he turned the key and pulled out of the lot.

Josiah's chapel wasn't that far and Chris was there in less then ten minutes. He pulled into the lot, parking next to Sanchez's ancient Suburban.

As he walked to the door he heard hammering. The church had seen better days and Josiah was always fixing something. The front doors opened into a small vestibule where coats cold be hung. Just past that area. in the sanctuary, Chris found Josiah on a ladder with Nathan at the foot steadying it.

"Preacher, why don't you just ask for more funds?"

"The Lord will provide," Josiah intoned. "Besides, I've asked and they said it's not in the budget for this year."

"Figures," Chris smirked. "Nathan," he said nodding a greeting to his new acquaintance.

"Chris," Nathan said, extending his hand and shaking Larabee's.

"What brings you to my house, Chris?" Josiah asked, climbing down from the ladder. "I haven't seen you here in a long time."

Chris chose not to respond to Josiah's less-than-subtle observation and got down to business. "I came to get something," he said walking over to the altar. "I need the two of you to witness this."

"Witness what?" Nathan asked, curiously.

Chris leaned down and searched under the altar. At first he couldn't find anything until he noticed a space between two pieces of wood.

Josiah watched as Chris carefully pulled on the wood. "You break that, Chris, and you'll build me another."

Larabee grunted and pulled harder. The wood came away to reveal his Glock. Chris reached for it, but Josiah stopped him.

"You'd better let me get that," Josiah said.

"But it's my gun!"

"It's also evidence in that boy's trial." Josiah pulled a screwdriver from off his tool belt and hooked it into the trigger guard. He pulled the gun out and wrapped it in a rag.

"How did you know the gun was here?" Nathan asked.

"The kid told Mrs. Wells," Chris sighed. "I just hope giving up the gun's location will help him. Promised her I'd talk to the judge on Tanner's behalf."

"Any idea who the judge is?" Josiah asked.

"No," Chris said, hoping it wasn't Victor Ross, the 'hanging judge' who snored his way through most juvenile hearings and based his decisions on what mood he was in. The other juvie judge, Orin Travis, was strict, but he was fair.

Josiah watched Chris run one hand through his hair and shake his head.

"Something else is eating at you, Chris," he said.

Larabee looked at him with fire in his eyes. "It's that woman!"

"What woman?" asked Nathan.

"Vin's stepmother," Chris said, pacing. "I asked the nurses and she still hasn't been to the hospital to see him."

"Don't do anything stupid, Chris," Josiah warned.

"How'd you..."

"You have that look in your eyes," Josiah said. "Just don't do anything that will get that boy in more trouble."

"I won't," Chris said. "You'll take care of my gun? Make sure it gets to the right people?"

"Don't worry, I've got it," Josiah assured.

"Well, I have to get down to the station," Chris said. "I'm on duty in half an hour."

Josiah watched as Chris walked out of the church. He hoped Larabee would calm down before he went to see the boy's stepmother. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that was where the blond was headed.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was tying his shoes when he saw Chris walk into the locker room. His partner was tense and Buck knew something was eating him.

"Was wondering if you were coming in today."

"Stopped by to see Vin."

Buck hid a smile as he turned back to his locker and grabbed his belt. "So, how's he doing?"

"He told Mrs. Wells where he hid my gun."

"What?" Buck asked in surprise.

Chris sighed and turned to face Buck. "I knew he wouldn't tell me so I got her to ask him."

"And she agreed?" Buck asked. "I got the impression she was pretty protective of him."

"Wasn't easy," Chris admitted. "She wasn't happy about it, but she knew it was for the best."

"So where was it?"

"He hid it in the altar at Josiah's church."

Buck laughed. "Probably the safest place he could have put it."


Buck finished dressing and watched Chris. He knew the gun wasn't what was bugging Chris.

"Okay, out with it."


"Don't, 'what' me Chris," Buck said. "Something's eating at ya."

"It's Vin," Chris said. Buck just shook his head thinking, 'no big surprise there.' "He's been in the hospital two days and his stepmother hasn't been to see him yet."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Chris said slamming his locker. "The hospital has tried calling her several times. They are going to have to petition to make Vin as a ward of the state so he can have the surgery he needs, unless she comes to sign the papers."

"Maybe she has no insurance," Buck reasoned.

"That's no excuse," Chris growled. "It's a county hospital. It's not like they're going to throw Vin out because he can't pay. Especially considering he's technically in lock-up."

"So what do you plan on doing?"

"I plan on paying her a visit," Chris said as he grabbed his hat and headed for the door. Buck followed, thinking that this might not be such a good idea, but also knowing he had to be there to back his partner.

+ + + + + + +

The police cruiser pulled up to an apartment building in a rough part of town. Buck noticed it was only a few blocks away from JD's house. Chris checked the address.

"You sure this is it?"

"That's the address Vin gave the hospital. Apartment 302."

They both climbed out and placed their hats on their heads before walking towards the building. The gate squeaked as Buck pushed it open. The small courtyard had seen better days and was now choked with weeds. Buck carefully stepped up on the porch avoiding a broken step. Glancing over at his partner, he saw Chris scowling. This wasn't a good sign and Buck knew he better do all the talking. The elevator showed an "out of order" sign, and the three flights of stairs didn't improve Chris's mood.

Ringing the bell didn't seem to do anything so Buck knocked on the door. They waited a few minutes but no one came. Buck knocked louder.

"Quit your pounding. I'm coming!"

A few seconds later the door was opened by a big guy in boxers. He was as tall as Buck but much stockier. He had a scar running from his right eye to his hairline, and Wilmington had the fleeting thought that this wasn't someone he wanted to mess with.

When the man saw they were cops he sneered. "What do you want?"

"Does a Georgene Tanner live here?" Buck asked, stepping in front of Chris. He had sensed Larabee's. hackles going up from the guy's greeting.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Carl, who is it?"

The voice was female and Buck looked over Carl's shoulder to see a woman standing in a short nightgown with a robe thrown over it. The robe wasn't closed and Buck could see she wasn't even trying to hide her state of undress. She didn't look all that steady on her feet and he wondered if she was drunk or high.

"Just some cops, baby," Carl said.

"Send them away," she called.

"Ma'am it's about your son," Buck called.

"I knew that damn kid was no good," Carl growled, turning to Georgene. "He's your problem," he added, walking away from the door.

Georgene pulled her robe together and approached them. "What's he done?"

"He didn't do anything!" Chris said, moving from behind Buck

"That's right, Ma'am, he didn't," Buck said, stepping back in front of Chris. "He was hit by a car two days ago. The hospital has been trying to get a hold of you. We came out to let you know."

"Is he okay?" she asked with an almost bored sigh.

"Broken leg, concussion some other bruises," Buck said. "But that's only part of the problem. He's under arrest for stealing a gun."


"Yes, Ma'am," Buck said. "Do you have a lawyer?"

"Uh.... yes... I'm a part-time secretary at a law firm."

Both Buck and Chris raised their eyes at that. The woman looked like a common street slut, who was clearly on something. But, they kept their thoughts to themselves. "Also, the hospital needs you to sign some papers. Vin will need surgery."

"I'm busy right now," she said, not attempting to hide the annoyance in her voice. "I'll go over this afternoon."

Buck shook his head as she closed the door on them. He was reminded of his own mother, who had a hard life with never an extra dime to her name, working all night and then looking after him in the day time. If that had been him in the hospital, she would have to be pried away from his bedside. No wonder Vin spent most of his time with JD and his mom. Buck turned and followed Chris back to the car in silence. Once they were inside the vehicle away from prying eyes, Chris started cursing.

"What the hell is wrong with that woman!" he yelled. "She's acting like it's an inconvenience that Vin got hurt."

"Chris, just calm down," Buck soothed.

"Calm down?" Chris turned and glared at Buck. "How much do you want to bet that Vin got those bruises we saw from that Neanderthal she's shacked up with?"

"It'd be a sucker's bet," Buck sighed. "But you know we can't do anything about that unless we can get the kid to talk. We have no proof."

"God, Buck, did you see the size of him?" Chris asked banging his fists on the steering wheel. "What chance would a scrawny kid like Vin have against that guy?"

"Not much," Buck admitted.

"Well, I can't just let this one slide under the carpet," Chris said, pulling away from the curb.

Buck gave Chris an appraising look. He'd never seen his partner get so worked up about a case before. Sure, they all got fired up when a kid was involved, especially when abuse was suspected. But this was different. Chris kept referring to Vin by his name and not "the kid who stole my gun." Something about Tanner had caused Chris's protective instincts to surface, something Buck thought Chris had lost after the death of Sarah and Adam. Buck knew that Vin was gaining a protector in Chris, whether he wanted one or not.

+ + + + + + +

Being in the hospital really sucked. Bored and in the hospital sucked even more. Vin leaned his head back and started counting the holes in the acoustic tiles on the ceiling. After a few minutes he sighed and rubbed his eyes. He could hear activity out in the hall and wished the nurse could just prop his door open so he'd at least have something to watch. Georgene had come by earlier and it wasn't something Vin wanted to dwell on. She hadn't been sympathetic at all and had even berated him for getting hit in the first place. When he asked if he might be able to get a TV in the room, Georgene had flipped out. They were already going to have a hefty hospital bill and she didn't want any frivolous charges added to it.

So now he was sitting in his room bored. Visiting hours weren't until five and Vin looked forward to it because he knew JD would come to keep his mind off things for a while. He'd come by yesterday and brought his Grapes of Wrath book, but reading was a chore for Vin under normal circumstances - moderate dyslexia they had called it - and his concussion seemed to make it even worse. Unable to focus, he gave up after an hour.

Vin sighed and wished somebody - anybody - would walk in.

"Pardon the intrusion," said a well-dressed man, poking his head in the door. "Would you be Mr. Tanner?"

"Reckon so."


Vin had never seen this man before but he did remember Georgene mentioning something about a lawyer. The guy seemed kind of young for a lawyer but Vin figured he must be one appointed to him by the state. As he took in the man's attire, he had second thoughts. The guy's clothes looked expensive and the satchel he carried was leather. Vin crossed his arms and waited.

Ezra was nervous. He'd never been sent out on his own to gather information before. Sure, he'd done research in the office, but this was his first field interview. The young man in the bed had piercing blue eyes seemed to look into his soul. Ezra placed his attaché case on the table and pulled out a pad and pen.

"You my lawyer?"

"Not exactly," Ezra admitted.

"Then what, exactly?"

Ezra was good at bluffing but knew he wouldn't be able to get away with anything with this young man. The blue eyes never left his face and Ezra decided to plunge ahead.

"I'm a legal assistant for Russles, Majors and Waddell," Ezra said.

"Figures," Vin sighed. "I don't even rate a real lawyer."

Ezra could see the pain in the young man's eyes. This was a teen who was used to disappointment and rejection. He could relate to this young man and wanted to help him. As he watched, he noticed Vin rubbing his leg just above the cast.

"Are you in pain?"

"Nah," Vin said. "It's startin' to itch."

"Vin... may I call you Vin?"

"It's my name."

"Well, Vin, you know your mother sometimes works..."

"She ain't my mother," Vin said angrily, cutting Ezra off. "She's my ex-stepmother."

Ezra wondered at the odd choice of words. He'd met Georgene a few times at the office and hadn't been impressed. The first time they met she'd hit on him, even though she was at least 10 years older than he was. She also spent an inordinate amount of time in the presence of Andrew Waddell, even though she apparently had a live-in boyfriend at home. Ezra couldn't fault her too much for that, though, since Waddell, while overweight, balding and in his fifties nevertheless had a handsome bank account, while Georgene's boyfriend not-so-vaguely resembled Sasquatch. Ezra suspected that the reason the firm took Vin's case to begin with was because Georgene could make things difficult for Waddell if she had to, though.

"Alright, ex-stepmother," Ezra agreed.

"Let me guess," Vin said, looking Ezra up and down. "She tried hitting on you."


"Ain't surprised," Vin smiled. "Georgene can smell money and you look like you've got some."

"Yes, well..."

Vin smiled again as the guy became flustered. "You got a name?"

"I apologize. That was rather rude of me. I'm Ezra Standish," he said holding out his hand.

"Pleased to meet you, Ezra," Vin said, shaking his hand. "So where do we start?'

"First, let me explain that you do have a lawyer."

"Hell, Mr. Standish, I didn't mean that to come out the way it did."

"It's quite all right - and you may still call me 'Ezra'," he said, pulling the chair closer and sitting. "As I was saying you do have a lawyer. Mr. Waddell will be representing you."

"The name's familiar," Vin admitted.

"Your ex-stepmother is his ex-secretary," Ezra said with a hint of sarcasm for Vin's benefit.

"Right," Vin nodded. "And you might as well call her Georgene. The other name gets to be a bit much after awhile."

Ezra smiled and nodded. "So, as I was saying Mr. Waddell will be your attorney. He had a court appearance this morning so I was sent to get your statement."

"Okay," Vin said, trying to shift to a more comfortable position. "You just want me to tell you what happened?"

"Exactly," Ezra said. "Tell me everything. All the details you can remember or anything that might be useful to help you in this case."

"All right," Vin said closing his eyes.

Ezra listened as Vin told his story. He only interrupted Vin if he needed more information. As Vin told what happened Ezra realized he was really just a good kid caught in a bad situation. While trying to play the Good Samaritan, he'd ended up becoming a wanted man. As Vin's story was coming to an end, he could also see the boy was getting tired.

"And that's everything," Vin said.

"So this Eli Joe Chavez was the individual beating officer Larabee?"


"Are you certain it was him?"

"Yeah," Vin sighed. "Me and Ol' Eli have had run-ins before."

"What types of run-ins?"

"Well, Eli framed me for drug possession and I got sent to Juvie," Vin said angrily.

"You aren't just saying that Eli beat the officer for revenge?"


"Good," Ezra said smiling, knowing the young man was honestly offended at the suggestion that he was lying. "Why didn't you just drop the gun? Why did you take it with you?"

"Aw hell, I've been asking myself the same thing," Vin sighed. "My dad taught me to respect guns. Showed me how to use them, clean them and stuff. Told me never to leave a loaded gun unattended. So I took it with me."

"Why didn't you leave it with officer Larabee?"

"Eli'd hit him pretty good with that board," Vin said. "He was too disoriented."

"But his partner was coming down the alley."

"Yeah, he was," Vin admitted. "But he was too far away. I was afraid something might happen to the gun before he got there. Kinda stupid, huh?"

"No, Vin, it wasn't stupid," Ezra assured him. "You didn't want anyone to get hurt."

"Yeah," Vin said. "After that, I was afraid to bring it back. Thought they throw me back in Juvie. I swore to myself I'd never go back, but I guess I'll end up there anyway."

"We'll try to prevent that," Ezra said, packing up his attaché. "I think I have everything I need."

"You're leaving?"

Ezra looked up in surprise at the longing in Vin's voice. He knew how lonely it could be in the hospital. That's when he noticed Vin didn't even have a TV to combat the boredom. Ezra finished placing everything in his bag and looked up at Vin.

"I can stay for a little longer," Ezra said. "I'm not expected back at the office for an hour or so."

"Nah, it's all right," Vin said shaking his head. "Don't know why I even said that."

"I think I can guess," Ezra said smiling. "It's probably boring as hell here."

"Damn straight," Vin agreed.

"Can I interest you in a game of poker?" Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and showed them to Vin.

"Five card or Texas hold 'em?"

"Five card," Ezra said smiling.

"Nickel ante?" Vin asked. "I've got some change over there in the drawer."

Ezra opened the nightstand and saw Vin's wallet and some change. He gathered the change and the wallet and handed them to Vin. Vin had two dollars worth of coins and he threw a nickel on the blanket. Ezra did the same and started shuffling the cards. They had played a few hands when a nurse came in to give Vin his medication.

When she saw the cards and coins she smiled and nodded to Ezra, then gave Vin the pills and left. Even though he was in this ward, Vin was a sweet kid, and it was nice to see someone visit and spend time with him.

Ezra noticed that shortly after Vin took the pills he started to nod off. He figured the pills must have been for the pain and he knew they could make you drowsy. Ezra was shuffling the deck to deal another hand when he noticed Vin was asleep. Quietly he gathered Vin's winnings and placed them and his wallet back in the drawer. He gathered his attaché case and quietly left the room. As he passed the nurses' station, he saw the nurse who'd come in to give Vin his pills.

"Is he asleep?" she asked.

"Yes, he is," Ezra replied. "I'd like you to do something for me."

Ezra explained what he wanted and the nurse smiled.