on Empty
by Joy K, Winter and Nancy W.

JD walked through the hospital visitors' entrance, exchanging smiles with the nurse at the front desk as he headed for the elevator that would take him to the restricted ward where Vin was a patient. He hit the button for the fifth floor, digging his ID out of his pocket on the way up. As soon as the elevator opened, he encountered an armed guard who searched him with a hand-held metal detector and then checked his ID against a list of approved visitors. When he was satisfied that JD was allowed to be there, he returned his ID back and then asked to search his backpack. JD opened it and waited while the guard inspected it. He hated that Vin was on this floor, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. He was just glad that Buck had arranged it so he could see Vin. Normally, patients on this ward were allowed visits only from immediate family and their lawyer.

When the guard was done, he waved JD through. JD waved as he passed the nurse's station headed for Vin's room. The nurses were pretty cool about Vin. They knew he wasn't a criminal.

As he pushed open the door he saw Vin watching TV. "Hey, when'd you get that?" he asked.

"They gave it to me this morning after my lawyer left," Vin said, hitting the off button on the remote. "You didn't have to come this late to visit me."

"When you're on this floor it's the only time you can come."

"What do you mean?"

JD looked away and mentally kicked himself.


"It's nothing," JD stammered.

"Out with it, JD," Vin insisted.

"Wellyouseeyou'reontheprisonfloor," JD said so quickly his words were strung together.

"Whoa!" Vin yelled. "I'm where?"

JD sighed and looked at Vin. "You're on the prison floor."

"Prison floor?" Vin asked.

"Well, not really. It's the high security floor," JD said. "That's why I can only come at certain times to see you."

"So, in other words, this is the floor where they put the criminals," Vin said, angrily.

"Yeah," JD admitted.

"Son of a bitch!" Vin cursed.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I wasn't supposed to tell you."

"What, did they think I was flight risk?" Vin laughed bitterly. "News flash for ya, I can't run anymore!"

"I'm sorry, Vin."

Vin rubbed his eyes and clamped down on his emotions. He knew this wasn't JD's fault but he felt helpless. JD wasn't to blame for any of this but he was the only one here for Vin to lash out against.

"I'll just go then."

Vin's hand whipped out and grabbed JD's arm. "I'm sorry, JD," he sighed. "I'm just mad and I took it out on you."

"I understand," JD nodded. "I'd be mad, too."

"Guess things don't look good for me if they put me on this floor."

JD shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "Can we talk about something else?"

"Sure, JD. How was school?"

Vin listened as JD described his day. Everything seemed to be going along normally except his life. Vin knew Georgene hadn't come by the hospital except when they found her to sign the papers. He hadn't expected her to come visit, which was fine by him. They had never been close and she was the last person he wanted to see. When JD was done telling him about his day Vin explained about the lawyer. JD thought it was cool the Ezra had arranged for Vin to have a TV. Vin really liked Ezra, even though he wasn't certain why.

"Miss Nettie sent these for you," JD said, pulling a ziploc baggie full of oatmeal cookies out of his backpack.

"Awesome!" Vin exclaimed as he opened the bag.

"She also had me bring your school work," JD said, taking one of the cookies Vin offered.

Vin groaned as JD pulled out his math books. They worked on his assignments for a few minutes but Vin just wasn't up to thinking right now. Between the medications and worries over his situation, he was too tired to concentrate. He promised JD he'd do the math problems later, but right now he just wanted to relax. Vin flipped through the channels and found a baseball game. He shifted over in the bed so JD could climb up next to him. They were so engrossed in the game they hadn't realized the time until the nurse poked her head in.

"JD, visiting time is over," she said.

"Yeah, you don't want us prisoners having any extra time," Vin said sarcastically.

"I have to get home anyway," JD said, gathering up his books. "I won't be able to see you before school tomorrow."

"That's okay."

"But, I'll come in the afternoon, I promise."

"No, JD, you need to stay with your mom."

"She said it was alright," JD said, hurt.

"I know she did," Vin smiled. "That's what I love about your mom. Always thinking about others first."

"She wanted to come herself, but...."

"Don't you dare let her!" Vin said forcefully. "It's too much. Besides I'll probably be out in a few days."

"You know she'll insist when she comes for her chemo day after tomorrow."

"I know," Vin sighed. "Sometimes I wish..."

"What Vin?" JD stopped putting his books away and looked at his friend.

"It's stupid."

"Tell me anyway."

"I wish my dad had met your mom instead of Georgene," Vin sighed. "Wish your mom was mine."

"Yeah, me too," JD said sadly.

"Aw hell, JD, now look what I've done," Vin laughed. "Gotten all girly. Go home. Say hi to your mom for me."

JD left and Vin tried to watch the game but his heart wasn't in it. He turned off the TV and shifted to a more comfortable position. After a few minutes he drifted off to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning Ezra pulled into the courthouse parking lot looking for a place to park. Mr. Waddell had listened to Ezra's report on Vin Tanner. He had been pleased with the work Ezra had done and had sent him off to court to have Vin's bail set. Ezra drove around the lot until he found a spot where his beloved Jag wouldn't be harmed. Once parked, Ezra leaned back and took a deep breath. This was his first official time in court and he was nervous. Ezra mentally shook himself, straightened his tie in the mirror and climbed out of the car.

Ezra's heart sank when he saw that the Juvenile and Family Court room was full. He grabbed a seat in the back and knew he'd be there awhile. To pass the time, he pulled out his notes and looked them over. Vin Tanner had a juvenile record, but other than the one infraction for which he claimed he was framed, his record was clean. Eli Joe Chavez, the boy Vin alleged had framed him, on the other hand, had a record going back to age 7. Ezra believed Vin's story, which would make it easier to represent him.

The judge arrived promptly at nine and immediately got started. A young ADA stood at one of the podiums as defense lawyers for various people approached the other. The ADA was a pretty brunette who efficiently defined bail for each of the cases. Ezra was watching her so intently that he almost missed his call.

"State vs. Vin Tanner, age 16."

Ezra moved to the podium and placed his notes on it. The ADA flipped open her folder and scanned it.

"Mr. Tanner has a previous record and due to the nature of the case the state sets bail at $15,000."

"You're honor my client poses no flight threat," Ezra stated.

"The state sees otherwise," the brunette said. "Mr. Tanner is accused of assaulting a police officer and stealing his weapon."

"Allegedly assaulting and allegedly stealing," Ezra corrected. "But at this time my client is in the hospital with a severely broken leg, bruised ribs and a concussion. He's hardly a flight risk."

"Do you have hospital records backing your claim?" the judge asked.

"I do, Your Honor," Ezra said, handing over a copy to the ADA and the bailiff.

The bailiff handed the paper to the judge who read it carefully. While they waited for the judge to read the doctor's report Ezra glanced over at the ADA. She was watching him and Ezra smiled. He was pleased when she smiled back.

"After reviewing the report I must agree with the defense," the judge said. "Bail is set at $5,000."

"Pardon me, Your Honor," Ezra said.

"Was there something else?"

"Yes," Ezra said. "They are keeping Mr. Tanner in the high security ward at the hospital. This makes it difficult for his family to visit at the set times required by that floor."

"You'd like him to be moved?"

"I would, Your Honor."

"Does the District Attorney office have a problem with this request?"

"We don't, Your Honor."

"So be it," the judge said looking at her watch and hitting her gavel. "This court is adjourned until 1:00pm."

"All rise."

Ezra waited for the judge to leave before approaching the ADA. "I couldn't help admiring the way you handled yourself in court."

"You weren't so bad yourself," she said, putting papers in her brief case.

"Allow me to introduce myself, Ezra Standish."

"Melanie Wentworth," she said holding out her hand.

Ezra shook her hand and smiled. "Ms. Wentworth, may I buy you lunch?'

"I'd like that," she said. "But I can't go far. I have to be back here at one."

"Do you like sushi?"


"Excellent," Ezra smiled taking her arm. "There is a wonderful little place just down the road."

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat flipping the channels on the TV. Now he knew why he never bothered watching at home. There was nothing on but talk shows and morning news. He finally found a Scooby Doo cartoon and left it on that. He was watching the cartoon and finishing off the pudding from his lunch when his doctor walked in.

"Good morning, Vin."

"Hate to tell you, Doc Harris, but it's afternoon already."

Dr. Harris looked at his watch and smiled. "So it is. Time sure flies when you're making rounds."

"Time sure drags when you're stuck here with Scooby Doo."

He laughed and checked Vin's records. "Well, you'll only have to spend today with Scooby. You're getting out of here in the morning."


"Yes," he said. "We only wanted to keep you here for a few days because of the concussion."

"I've got a pretty hard head."

"Yes, you do," Doc Harris said with a smile. "How's the leg?'

"Pains me some," Vin admitted, "but it's not too bad."

"That's to be expected," the doctor said. "It will probably hurt more as you start to move around on the crutches."

"How long will I be in this thing?" Vin said, tapping the cast. "It's starting to itch."

"A long time I'm afraid," Dr. Harris answered. "We're going to let the bone set for a couple of weeks before we do the ligament surgery on your knee."

"So soon?"

"The sooner the better," he replied. "We could have done it the night you were brought in, but with the concussion we didn't want to put you under anesthetic."

"So, how long after that will I be in this thing?"

"You'll probably be in a cast for a good six to eight weeks," he said. "Then after that a knee brace."

"I guess I'll just have to get used to hobbling around for awhile," Vin said, smiling.

"You'll probably be a champion hobbler by the time you're done," Dr. Harris said looking at his watch. "Well, I have sick patients to see."

"So, what time tomorrow, so I can tell Georgene to pick me up?"

"Rounds start at seven, I should be done around nine."

"OK, later, Doc."

After the doctor left Vin continued flipping channels. As he was flipping through a familiar theme could be heard.

"All right!" Vin said throwing down the remote.

+ + + + + + +

After dropping Melanie back at the courthouse, and getting her number, Ezra headed over to the hospital. He wanted to get Vin moved as soon as possible. The restriction on visitation made it difficult for Vin's friend, JD, to come visit. Ezra knew Vin had to be lonely and wanted to make his stay more pleasant.

As he walked through the security checkpoint, he handed over a bag from Burger King. They took a quick look and then waved him on his way. As he got closer he could hear Elmer Bernstein's 'Magnificent Seven' theme coming from Vin's room. Ezra pushed the door open to see the familiar western on TV.

"Excellent choice, Mr. Tanner."

"Hey, Ezra," Vin said picking up the remote to turn off the TV.

"No, leave it," Ezra said. "It's one of my favorites."

"My Dad's, too. He liked everything Steve McQueen did."

"I've brought you something," Ezra said, holding up the bag from Burger King.

"Thanks, Ezra," Vin said, grabbing the bag. "I'm starving."

"I figured you were," Ezra said taking a seat. "Hospital food is atrocious."

Vin actually thought the hospital's food was pretty good, compared to the Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches he got at home. A Whopper, though... that was like Heaven.

"I have some good news for you," Ezra said. "The judge set the bail at $5,000."

Vin choked on his chocolate shake and started coughing. When he finally found his voice he was shocked. "I don't have that kind of money." It may has well been five million dollars.

"It's alright," Ezra assured him. "Mr. Waddell's firm will put up the bond. I assured the judge you weren't a flight risk."

"Hardly," Vin smiled. "I do a mean hobble but an old lady with a walker could catch me."

Ezra smiled. He was glad to see Vin was in better spirits. The first day he had met the young man Vin had been pretty down. Ezra wasn't sure why he cared, but he did. His mother would be mortified.

"I also got permission to move you off the high security ward."

"Yeah... about that..." Vin said, chewing a French fry. "How come no one told me I was up here?"

"You never knew?"

"Nah," Vin said. "JD let it slip yesterday. It doesn't matter though. They're springing me tomorrow, so one more day won't matter."

"Excellent!" Ezra exclaimed. "But are you sure you don't want me to have you moved?"

"Nah," Vin shrugged, popping another fry in his mouth. "Silly to go through all the trouble for one more day."

"As you wish," Ezra said, gathering his things. "I have to get back to the office to file the court's decision and take the bond over to the clerk's office."

"Thanks, Ezra," Vin said, holding out his hand.

"My pleasure," Ezra said, shaking the offered hand.

"Can you do me one more favor?"

"Of course, Vin."

"Can someone tell Georgene they'll be springing me in the morning? Around 9:00 o'clock? I tried calling her, but no one answers."

"I can relay the message," Ezra said. "Good day, Mr. Tanner."

Vin waved as Ezra left. He crumpled the wrapper for the Whopper and looked in the bag. Vin smiled when he saw there was another burger as well as a couple of apple pies. He pulled the second Whopper out and leaned back to watch the movie.

+ + + + + + +

Vin couldn't wait to get out of the hospital. The smells and the noises were starting to get to him. He just wanted to sleep in his own bed for a change. Except going back to the apartment he'd have to worry about Carl. Sighing he sat down on the bed and sulked. With his broken leg he'd be stuck at the apartment with no way of getting away from him. At least when he was at school he didn't have to deal with him. Maybe he'd be better off staying at the hospital. He glanced down at his watch again and sighed. Why did he even expect Georgene to be on time? It crossed his mind to give her a call but he didn't feel like dealing with her raving about how selfish he was. He waited another ten minutes then picked up the phone. He started to dial when the door opened.

"Good morning, Vin."

"Ezra, what are you doing here?"

"I'm here to pick you up," he explained. "Your stepmother has been delayed."

"That's a nice way to say she's hung over and forgot."


"I'm sorry, didn't mean to embarrass ya."

"Are you up for some breakfast?" Ezra asked, grabbing his bag.

"Sure," Vin said, enthusiastically.

Ezra held the door as Vin hobbled out. When the nurse saw them she had a fit.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Mr. Tanner has been signed out," Ezra said. "I'm taking him home."

"Nobody walks out of the hospital," the nurse said, pushing a wheelchair. "Now get in."

Vin sighed and did as he was told. Actually he didn't mind. It hurt his ribs to use the crutches so he was perfectly content to be pushed. He knew he'd be stuck in the apartment for at least a week until his ribs healed a bit more. Ezra went ahead so he could pull the car up right outside the doors, saving Vin from having to walk even further. As the nurse pushed Vin out the doors he saw a sleek black Jaguar pulled up to the curb. Ezra climbed out the driver's side as Vin whistled.

"Nice ride."

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner."

"You don't mind me riding in this?" Vin teased. "Might go and get the inside dirty."

"It's perfectly alright, I can have car service clean it."

Vin smiled. He really liked that Ezra didn't mind his teasing. He didn't know why but he felt he could trust Ezra.

The low sports car was more difficult to get into than Vin had anticipated, but the nurse showed him how to lift his cast so he could manage it.

"So, Mr. Tanner..."


"Vin, where would you like to go for breakfast?"

"There's an IHOP a few blocks away," Vin said, looking uncertainly at Ezra. Somehow, he didn't look like the IHOP type. "If'n ya like pancakes an' stuff," he added hesitantly.

"I'm quiet familiar with the International House of Pancakes," Ezra said, pulling away from the curb. "The stuffed French toast is a favorite of mine."

Vin wasn't sure if Ezra was pulling his leg or not. As Ezra drove Vin glanced around at the car. The inside was all bright chrome and wood. Vin had to admire a man who took such good care of his car. He remembered his dad's pick-up. It wasn't much to look at but his father kept it spotless and in good repair.

"Is your leg bothering you?" Ezra asked, seeing Vin frown. "I could take you straight home if you wish."

"No, it's alright," Vin assured him. "I was just thinking about my dad. His truck was always spotless. Just like your Jag. He sure loved that old truck."

"What happened to it?"

"Georgene sold it," Vin said bitterly.

Ezra gritted his teeth in frustration. The more he learned about Vin's stepmother, the more he disliked her.

"I'm truly sorry."

"Hell, it ain't your fault," Vin smiled. "But if you feel that bad you could always buy me a new one."

Ezra laughed as he pulled into the IHOP parking lot. He may not like what he was learning about Georgene but he did like the young man who was her stepson. After parking the car, Ezra came around to the passenger side to help Vin out. First, Vin handed out his crutches, which Ezra leaned against the car. Next, they maneuvered the ungainly casted leg out so that Vin was sitting sideways on the seat.

"You ready?" Ezra asked, and Vin nodded. "On three."

"On three or is it one, two then go?" Vin asked.

"You are not Martin Riggs and I'm certainly not Sergeant Murtaugh," Ezra glared.

Vin laughed as Ezra helped haul him to his feet. He yelped in pain as his ribs protested the move.

"Are you alright?"

"I reckon," Vin scowled. "My damned ribs are gonna be more of a pain than my leg."

Vin hobbled up the handicap ramp and into the restaurant. It was quiet and they were immediately seated. The next hour was spent swapping stories of school and all the trouble one can get into. Vin laughed at some of the stunts Ezra had pulled while going to college. Ezra said his mother had been mortified the one time he'd been caught. He laughed even harder when Ezra told him his mother wasn't mad that he'd done the prank but that he had been caught at it - that she thought she had taught him better. As Vin learned more about Ezra's mother, he hoped he could meet her one day. She sounded like an interesting lady.

All too soon, breakfast was over and Ezra was dropping Vin off at his apartment.

"Are you going to be alright getting inside?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine," Vin said. "Thanks for the breakfast."

"It was my pleasure."

Vin hobbled towards the apartment and up the steps. He turned and wasn't surprised to see Ezra still sitting there. He waved and Ezra waved back before he went inside the lobby. Hobbling towards the elevator, Vin just hoped the stupid thing was working. Trying to get up three flights of steps on crutches wasn't his idea of fun. For once the elevator was working and Vin rode it up to his floor. He pulled his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. The apartment was quiet and he closed the door and locked it. He was tired and the couch sure looked inviting. Once there Vin dropped onto the couch and hauled his casted leg onto the cushions. He leaned back with a sigh and fell asleep.

Several hours later Vin was awakened by noises in the kitchen. He rubbed his eyes and struggled to sit up. His leg was throbbing and he knew it was time for his pain meds. Trying to get to his feet was a struggle, but once he was up he headed for the kitchen. Georgene was by the stove making dinner - if you could call it that. Mac and cheese from a box with some cheap hot dogs sliced into it was her idea of home cooking. Vin hobbled over to the sink and grabbed a glass from the cabinet. He filled it with water and placed it on the counter. The medicine was in his pocket and Vin leaned against the counter as he pulled them out.

"What've you got there?"

Vin cringed as Carl grabbed the bottles from his hand. He should have known he would be there. If the pain from his ribs and leg hadn't clouded his judgment Vin would have headed for the bathroom instead. He knew he couldn't afford to provoke Carl in his condition. The big goon had already been drinking and Vin knew from past experience that was when Carl was at his worst.

"Hey, this is some good stuff," Carl said reading the bottle. "We can sell these and get what we want."

"Just give them back, Carl," Georgene said. "If the hospital sent them home with Vin, then he needs them more."

"Did I just hear you right?" Carl growled.

"You heard me," Georgene said, standing her ground. "Give them back."

Vin jumped as Carl backhanded Georgene and then threw the bottles on the counter before walking out of the kitchen. When Carl turned back Vin was afraid of the look in his eyes.

"One of these days your gonna have to chose between him or me!"

Carl stormed out of the apartment slamming the door behind him. Vin turned to Georgene as she rubbed her bruised cheek. She turned from Vin and gathered the pill bottles. She read the labels and took out the pills Vin needed.

"Here ya go," Georgene said handing them to Vin.

Vin accepted them from her, but didn't take them. "Why do you stay with him?"

"It's complicated," Georgene said, handing him the glass of water.

"What's complicated about the fact the he knocks us both around?"

"He doesn't mean it," Georgene said defensively.

"Whatever," Vin said popping the pills in his mouth and taking a drink.

Vin grabbed his crutches and headed back for the living room. He'd never be able to figure Georgene out.


Vin was exhausted. He never knew physical therapy would be so hard. It wasn't like they had him do a lot, but it sure took effort on his part. The bruised ribs didn't help matters. Neither did his other contusions. Vin's whole right side was one huge black and blue mark. He waited for the medical bus the clinic had provided for him, along with another kid about his age who also had a busted leg. That kid's mom was with him, though, fussing over him and making sure he was comfortable. From the looks of it, they didn't have any money, either, but he hoped that kid appreciated what he did have - someone who gave a damn. With a heavy heart, he stepped onto the ramp that lifted him into the bus, took a seat and promptly fell asleep.

It felt like he just closed his eyes when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Vin." Vin cracked his eyes open to see Marco, the bus driver, leaning over him. "You're home."

"Man, I'm sorry," Vin said, gathering his crutches.

"Not a problem," Marco said smiling. "Physical therapy can be a bitch."

"Always thought I was in good shape," Vin complained.

"You going to be alright getting to your apartment?" Marco asked as he helped Vin out of the van.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," Vin said. "Thanks."

"See you the day after tomorrow."

"Yeah, see ya," Vin said as Marco pulled away.

Vin hobbled to the door of the apartment building and hoped the damn elevator was still working. So far, his luck with it had held out. As he went down the hall he heard the ding of the elevator and sighed in relief as the doors opened and Mrs. Walker stepped out. He sometimes watched her kids when she had to work late.

"Hello, Vin," she said, holding the door.

"Thanks, Mrs. Walker," Vin said.

"How's the leg?"

"Hurts," Vin said, "but, it's gettin' better."

She smiled and patted his shoulder lightly. "You take care of yourself."

Vin punched three and waited patiently as the elevator made its torturous, slow climb to the third floor. Vin had to admit he was hurting, and couldn't wait to take one of his pain pills and sleep for a few hours. He just hoped Carl wasn't at the apartment.

He got a bad feeling when he discovered that the door was open. Cautiously, he made his way inside. The appearance of the apartment was a shock. The TV and stereo were missing along with some other items Georgene kept in the living room. Vin knew he should probably call the cops but he figured the burglars were long gone. He made his way to Georgene's room and opened the door. Everything there was gone, including her clothes and Carl's. But, when he went to his room, everything was as he left it. Except the boom box his father had given him years ago him was gone. He noticed a note on his dresser.

Vin, I couldn't take it any more. Carl made me make a choice and I chose him.

"Bitch!" Vin cursed, crumbling the note and throwing it across the room.

Vin sat on his bed wondering what the hell he was going to do now. If he called the cops they would either send him to Juvie or foster care. Vin wasn't about to go to either one. Not only didn't he have a place to go, but his leg was killing him. Well, he could at least take care of one thing. Vin scooted over to the bedside table and opened the drawer. He found the antibiotics but not the pain pills. He rummaged around the drawer but he knew they were gone.

Vin cursed. He knew Carl had taken them since they were worth some money on the street.

He knew he couldn't stay here. If someone came to check on him they'd see Georgene was gone and they'd put him in the system. Vin knew once you were in, it was nearly impossible to get out. He got to his feet and hobbled to the closet for his duffel bag. He threw it on the bed then went over to his dresser and started pulling out his clothes. It was pretty ironic that all his possessions could fit in that one bag. He carefully put the pictures of his mom and dad between some of the clothes so they wouldn't break. A pitiful few other keepsakes were added - his track ribbons, his old Cub Scout badges, a framed copy of A Hero's Heart and the first place certificate he'd won for writing it. Carefully, gritting his teeth against pain that was approaching agony, he lowered himself to the floor so he could crawl into the closet. Way in the very back corner, hidden under a torn piece of carpet, was a little plush Scooby Doo, about six inches high. He wasn't sure who had given it to him, because he'd had it ever since he could remember. No way I'm leavin' Scooby, he thought, sniffing back the tears that threatened to fall. Also hidden there was the money he had been saving to pay Coach back for the track shoes. He stuffed that into his pocket along with Scooby and then struggled to get back on his feet. He stood there a few moments, panting as beads of sweat broke on his forehead.

Unbidden, the memory of the boy on the bus flooded back to him. How could Georgene just leave him like this? He quickly swallowed a sob. He hurt so bad, and not just his battered body. He bet that other kid was home in his bed with his mom bringing him chicken soup or something. How come he didn't deserve that? What had he done that was so horrible that he'd be left all alone like this?

No time for a pity party, he thought, pulling himself together. He looked around the room. There really wasn't anything else he needed except his toothbrush and comb. He'd grab those on the way out. Hefting the duffel bag, he was almost thrown off balance by the weight of it, and bolts of pain shot through his protesting muscles, as he gritted his teeth and headed for the living room.

He checked his pocket to see how much money he had. Thirty-one dollars. There was no way he could make it the four blocks to the bus stop, so he hoped that was enough for a cab. Georgene's driver's license had been suspended ages ago, so the cab company's number was next to the phone. Vin called and then hobbled out the door with his belongings.

Getting down to the sidewalk was such an effort that he had to stop to catch his breath. His leg hurt so bad it was making him nauseous. Vin closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. When he was feeling better, he hobbled to the curb just as the taxi pulled up. The driver got out and helped him with his duffel bag, tossing it in the back seat as Vin climbed in the opposite door. He almost passed out from the pain in his leg.

"You alright?" asked the cabbie.

"Yeah," Vin said, breathlessly. "123 Foster Way."

"You got it."

Vin leaned back against the seat and could feel the sting of tears threatening to fall. Taking a deep breath, which hurt like hell, he tried to collect himself. He really hated what he was about to do but what other choice did he have? The address he asked to go to was only a few blocks away and the cab pulled up to the curb within a few minutes. Vin paid the fare, hoping the cabbie wouldn't be too pissed at not getting a tip. Vin just couldn't afford to be that generous. He struggled getting the duffle out and over his shoulder. The short walk up to the house just about did him in and he was shocked to see his hand shaking as he rang the bell. He struggled to stay on his feet as he waited for the door to be answered. He saw curtains being pushed back and quickly dropped.

"Vin! What are you doing here?" Rachel Dunne asked.

"I got no place to go."

The tears Vin had been holding back finally broke through and Rachel quickly helped him into the house. She eased him down on the couch and gathered him into her frail arms as he related what had happened that morning. Between Vin's sobs and labored breathing Rachel tried to soothe his fears even as anger flared inside her. How could a woman be so cruel? Georgene may not have been Vin's real mom but she had married his father. She had a responsibility to care for Vin. No child should be treated this way.

Vin finally composed himself and pulled away from Rachel. "I'm sorry," he said, wiping the tears from his face. "Didn't mean to bring this down on you."

"It's alright, Vin," Rachel assured him. "Why don't you just relax and put your leg up and I'll make you something to eat?"

Vin nodded and Rachel stood up. She gently took Vin's leg and started to raise it when Vin cried out in pain. The color drained from Vin's face and she was afraid he was going to pass out. Rachel ordered Vin to lay down on the couch while she finished raising his leg. When he was settled, she started rummaging through his bag looking for his pain medication. She found the antibiotics but nothing else.

"Where's the pain pills?"

"It's all right. I don't need them."

Rachel looked at Vin and frowned. "Where are the pills, Vin?"

Vin sighed as he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. He knew he couldn't lie to JD's mom. He took his hands down and looked her in the eyes.

"Carl took them."

"That bastard!"

Vin snickered as he watched Rachel disappear down the hall. It was then that he realized she wasn't wearing a scarf on her head. He knew she was bald form the chemo but he'd never seen her without a scarf. As she came back Vin took a good look at her. Even without hair and no makeup JD's mom was very pretty.


Vin smiled as Rachel sat on the edge of the couch. "Just thinkin' how lucky JD is."

"No, I'm the lucky one," Rachel said handing Vin some pills and a glass of water.

"What are these?"

"Pain medication," she answered. "It's probably the same stuff they prescribed for you."

"I can't!" Vin said mortified. "These are yours. I can't take something that you might need."

"Vin, darling, you're in pain," Rachel reasoned. "I haven't needed to take one in over a month now. This is just until we can get your prescription replaced." She wasn't sure how they were going to do that. She'd dealt with the hospital enough to know they wouldn't just hand Vin more potent pain killers.

Vin really didn't want to take something that was for JD's mom, but his leg was hurting something fierce. He popped the pills in his mouth and washed them down. Rachel patted his arm and stood up.

"I'll go make us some lunch."

Rachel still couldn't believe Georgene had walked out on Vin. She opened the fridge and wrinkled her nose. Something had gone bad and she sighed. JD did the best he could helping her around the house but sometimes she was too tired to do much. The sandwich meats were on the bottom shelf and she carefully leaned down to get them. When everything was on the counter she began putting the sandwiches together and thinking about what to do for Vin. She knew she'd have to tell someone he was here but who could she trust? She thought about all the people she knew and there was only one person she could logically call. When the sandwiches were finished she brought a plate out to Vin. As she got close to the couch she could see he'd fallen asleep. She knew Vin was on the verge of manhood, but lying there, he looked so much like a child that it broke her heart. She smiled sadly as she pulled the quilt off the back of the couch and covered him with it.

"Don't worry, baby, I won't let anyone hurt you again," Rachel said as she kissed his forehead.

+ + + + + + +

JD was chewing his bottom lip trying to work out a problem as he walked home from school. The Big Brothers had a meeting this afternoon and he was supposed to go with Buck. Only problem was he wanted to spend some time with Vin. He knew his friend must be going crazy sitting in his apartment alone. Also, JD was afraid of what Carl might do to Vin now that he really couldn't stand up to the brute. It always bothered JD that Vin wouldn't let him tell anyone about what Carl did. Vin insisted there was nothing anyone could do. JD tried to argue that the cops would help but Vin wanted no part of them. Sometimes JD didn't understand Vin's wariness of law enforcement. His dad had been a ranger in a national park, and that was almost like a cop. Surely Vin didn't hate them all.

As he tuned on his street JD jogged the short distance to his house then raced up the steps

"Mom! I'm home!"

"Shhh! JD!"

JD was surprised as his mom walked out of the kitchen with her finger to her lips. She gestured towards the couch and JD saw Vin sleeping.

"What's going on?"

"Come into the kitchen and I'll explain," Rachel said taking JD's hand. "Vin showed up this afternoon. Georgene has skipped town and Vin didn't know where else to go."

"He can stay here, can't he?" JD asked hopefully.

"Of course he can, honey," Rachel said, rubbing JD's arm. "I'm just not sure what the law will say."

"We don't have to tell them," JD insisted.

"But we do," Rachel said. "Vin's out on bond and they're pretty specific on what Vin can and can't do, and where he's supposed to be."

"But I thought it was just so Vin wouldn't skip town."

"It's a little more complicated than that," Rachel sighed.

"What are we going to do?"

"I contacted Nettie," Rachel said. "She's going to get in touch with Vin's lawyer."

"Okay," JD nodded. "Vin won't mind that we called Miss Nettie."

"Are you hungry?" JD just smiled at his mom. "Silly question right?"


JD wandered over to the couch while his mom made him a sandwich. Vin didn't look so good. He was pale and his breathing didn't sound right.

"Mom, is he okay?" JD asked as he walked back to the kitchen.

"Yes, I think so," she said. "He was hurting really bad when he got here, so I gave him some of my pain medication."

"Didn't the hospital send Vin home with some?"

"Carl took it."

JD seethed. "I hate him!"

"I hate him, too," Rachel smiled as she put a sandwich in front of JD. "But he's gone now. Nobody will hurt Vin any more."

JD took a bite of his sandwich and sighed. "Think they'll let Vin stay here forever?"

"If I have my way he will."

JD smiled as he continued eating. He knew if his mother set her mind to something there was no stopping her. It was kinda funny how things were working out. Vin had let slip that he wished JD's mom was his mom. Now he might just get that wish.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat in the courtroom, his crutches tucked neatly against the rail behind his chair. He taken care to wash and neatly comb his long hair, and he wore a navy blue sports jacket, pale blue dress shirt and a tie, all provided by Ezra Standish. He hadn't had much of a choice for the pants, though. He had to wear what he could get on over the cast, which meant either sweat pants , a pair of worn jeans with one leg cut off above the knee, or ruining a brand new pair of slacks. Vin chose to wear the jeans, even though Ezra had offered to sacrifice a pair of his own slacks. He felt a little conspicuous, but Ezra assured him he looked fine, and he trusted Ezra to know these things. He drummed his fingers nervously on the table top as they waited for the judge to come into the courtroom.

Ezra Standish sat next to him, shuffling papers in his briefcase. Vin flicked a nervous glance at Ezra. Standish probably knew more about Vin than his attorney, but he was just a clerk in Andrew Waddell's Law Office, he wasn't an attorney. Waddell had been fairly confident of Vin's case, but Vin knew that the judge, Orin Travis, was tough. He'd been told the man was fair, but, only by police officers - which meant he tended to side with them, not the accused. Vin sighed. Waddell was probably in a bar somewhere with his stepmother, commiserating. Whatever the cause, Andrew Waddell was not present and the judge would arrive any moment.

Vin turned and glanced over his shoulder. Miss Nettie was there. She winked at Vin and he nodded in response. Nettie had assured him that whatever the outcome of today's proceedings, she would be there to help him.

He looked to Mrs. Dunne and JD. JD's mom looked tired, and he was grateful she'd thought enough of him to be there. She tried to smile reassuringly at Vin, but JD, in his grey dress slacks, black tie and white dress shirt, looked like a scared little nerd. All that was missing was the pocket protector. Vin smiled, thinking his friend's expression was probably a mirror of his own.

As he turned back toward the front of the courtroom, he paused as his eyes found Officers Larabee and Wilmington, Nathan Jackson and Chaplain Josiah Sanchez. The fact that they all sat behind the prosecutor's bench spoke volumes to Vin. He had hoped that Officer Wilmington might sit with JD and calm his fears, or at least that Josiah would be on his side. But that obviously was not the case.

Looking again at Ezra and knowing everything was against him, Vin sighed and steeled himself to face whatever was to come. He had messed up big time and it was time to face the consequences.

"All rise."

The bailiff's voice shook Vin from his thoughts. He struggled to stand and balanced himself, resting his hand on the back of the chair as Judge Travis entered the courtroom. The judge appeared to be in his sixties, with graying hair, wire frame glasses, and a stern demeanor.

"The honorable Orin Travis presiding. You may be seated."

Vin's leg began to tremble. This was it. Today would determine his future. He dropped gracelessly into the chair when his good leg decided it had had enough. The bailiff's words became a blur as he announced the case number to the judge. Vin felt like he couldn't breathe. He struggled with short gasps, until he felt Ezra's hand resting gently on his shoulder. "Relax, Mr. Tanner," he said softly. "Breathe..."

"Mr. Waddell, Mr. Conklin, are you ready to proceed?" the Judge addressed the two attorneys, without looking up from his papers.

Ezra stood. "Your Honor? Mr. Waddell is not present."

Judge Travis looked up from his report, sizing up the young man in front of him. "And you are..."

"Ezra Standish, Sir. I work for the Russles, Majors and Waddell Law office."

"Are you representing Mr. Tanner?" asked the judge. His voice made it clear that he was displeased with this turn of events. If Ezra even considered misrepresenting himself, he knew this judge would throw the book at him.

"No, Sir. I am not an attorney."

Judge Travis leaned back in his chair. "Where is Mr. Waddell?"

"Uh..." Ezra uncharacteristically stammered, "He was detained."

"Where?" pressed the judge.

"Probably in a bar with my ex-stepmother," said Vin softly.

The judge looked down his nose at Vin. "Speak up, Mr. Tanner."

Ezra shook his head, trying to discourage Vin from repeating himself.

Vin sat up straight in his chair, ignoring Ezra, and looked the judge straight in the eyes. "Sir, I said he's probably in a bar somewhere with my ex-stepmother."

The judge sized up the sixteen-year-old before him. There was no challenge to authority in his words. Perhaps an unintentional disrespect for court procedures, but no insolence. "I'm reluctant to delay these procedures, but without proper representation..."

"Excuse me, Sir?" said Vin.

"Young man, proper court procedure is to wait until I address you," scolded the judge.

"Yes, Sir," said Vin apologetically.

The judge smiled to himself. It was a rarity to find a teenager in a courtroom who actually used words like 'sir' and showed respect for authority. He softened his tone. "Now, Mr. Tanner, what is it that you want to say to me?"

"Your honor, if it's all the same to you, I don't see any point in waiting. I mean, the facts are the facts, the truth is the truth. We don't need a lawyer putting on a dog and pony show trying to convince you otherwise." Vin paused and looked at Judge Travis. "Sir, I'd like to settle this now. If it would be all right, Ezra here could speak for me. He isn't an attorney, but he knows more about me than Mr. Waddles ever will." Hank Conklin, the county prosecutor, tittered at Vin's mispronunciation of his attorney's name, but Travis silenced him with a glare. A child's mistake could be overlooked, there was no point in embarrassing the Tanner boy.

"Mr. Tanner, I appreciate your thinking, but your rights need to be protected. If you were of age, perhaps I would permit it."

"Begging your pardon, Sir," said Vin, "I've been pretty much fending for myself for a couple of years now."

"You live with your stepmother?" asked Travis.

"It's my address, Sir," replied Vin. "I spend more time at Mrs. Dunne's place than I ever do with my ex-stepmother. I was hoping to gain emancipation..." He looked up hopefully, but when Travis' expression didn't change, he added, "...but I guess that won't happen now."

The situation was highly irregular, but Orin Travis was impressed with the honesty of the young man sitting before him, a young man who seemed willing to accept the consequences of his actions. Without hesitation, he decided to explore Vin Tanner's circumstances further. He instructed Conklin to begin despite their protest that the case would likely be appealed if they won.

Officer Chris Larabee was the first witness for the prosecution. Judge Travis listened closely as Larabee described the events in the alley. He was straightforward and truthful, but Travis sensed a reluctance in the officer to lay blame on the defendant.

The judge smiled to himself as Ezra Standish cross-examined Chris, making an admirable attempt to trip up the officer as he pointed out that Larabee had a head injury at the time, and wanting to know how he could possibly make a positive ID if his vision was blurred.

Standish used the same argument with Mr. Jackson when he testified. The young man was sharp, and eloquent. He had the potential to become a good attorney someday. Unfortunately, all of his legalese was for naught when Vin Tanner took the stand and openly admitted he had taken the gun.

"Now, Mr. Tanner," said Conklin, "Did you steal officer Larabee's weapon?"

Vin shifted uncomfortably on the stand. He knew what the prosecutor was doing. He wanted him to admit to stealing the gun and wouldn't give him opportunity to explain.

"Your Honor, would you instruct him to answer the question?" Conklin asked

"Son, answer the question," said Judge Travis.

"Sir, I took the gun, but it wasn't..."

"Just answer the question, yes or no," demanded the prosecutor.

Vin looked at the judge, who nodded to him, affirming that he needed to answer.

"Did you steal officer Larabee's gun?" Conklin repeated.

"No, Sir. I did not steal Officer Larabee's gun."

Conklin turned away dramatically. "But the gun was in your possession?"

"Yes, Sir."

"So if you didn't take the gun, and officer Larabee didn't give it to you, how did it come to be in your possession?"

"I never said I didn't take the gun. I said I didn't steal it from Officer Larabee," said Vin truthfully.

"Your Honor!" the prosecutor protested. "I would like Mr. Tanner considered a hostile witness..."

"No," answered the judge. "Proceed."

"But Your Honor..."

"He's answering your questions, Mr. Conklin."

Conklin walked back to his table and looked through a file. "So, you had the weapon in your possession?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And you fired it."

"No, Sir."

"Mr. Tanner," Conklin scolded, "the weapon was fired. A simple check of the weapon told us that it was fired. The witnesses in this room told us they heard the shot. Are you claiming you had possession of the weapon, but didn't fire it?"

"That's correct, Sir."

Conklin slapped his hand on the table top in frustration.

"Mr. Tanner," said Judge Travis, "you are under oath."

"Yes, Sir, and I am telling the truth," replied Vin. He shifted slightly in the chair, trying to stretch his casted leg.

"Explain to me what happened in the alley. From the beginning," ordered Travis.

"I was going back to my ex-stepmother's place from the Dunne's." Vin watched curiously as Judge Travis made a note about his statement. "I always go through that alley. It's a short cut. I was going through when these guys dragged Mr. Jackson in and were beating him. They were blocking the way I was going... and there was five of them and only one of me." Vin looked to Nathan for understanding. Nathan nodded to him.

"Then Officer Larabee and Officer Wilmington came into the alley, so I just stayed in the shadows where I was. One of the guys took off running and Officer Wilmington chased him. Then..." Vin hesitated. This is where the truth would hurt. If he named names, his past could come back to haunt him.

"Mr. Tanner?" said Judge Travis. He had been watching the boy's demeanor while testifying. Something about what he was about to say was troubling to the young man. He watched Vin steel himself and proceed.

"Eli Joe was in the shadows. When Officer Wilmington ran after the kid, Eli came out from behind Officer Larabee and hit him in the back and the head with a two-by-four. He dropped like a rock. I thought he might be dead, but I could see him moving. Then Eli..." Vin rubbed his hand across his face nervously. "Eli Joe picked up the gun." Vin gulped a drink of water from the glass in front of him. He took a few deep breaths. "He... he was going to shoot Officer Larabee."

"Your Honor, this is preposterous," Conklin protested. "No witness has mentioned anything about anyone holding a gun on Officer Larabee. This is simply an attempt at misdirection."

"Sit down, Mr. Conklin," said Travis. He looked at Vin. The boy looked upset, but not as if he were trying to spin a tale. "Go on, Mr. Tanner."

"Maybe Mr. Jackson couldn't see him. I couldn't see Mr. Jackson from where I was. Officer Larabee sure couldn't see him. He was face down on the ground." Vin swallowed. "I grabbed Eli Joe's arm and we struggled with the gun. It went off." Vin looked at the judge trying to read if the judge believed him. "When it went off, I got it away from Eli Joe, and he and the others took off."

"Officer Larabee testified that you were standing over him with the gun," said Travis.

"Yes, Sir. I was standing by him. I was afraid that they would come back."

"But they didn't?" prodded Travis.

"No, Sir. Officer Wilmington came back into the alley and I ran." Vin gulped down some more water.

"Why did you run?"

There it was. The big question. Why did he run? Vin wasn't sure he really knew the answer to that.

"I don't know, Sir. I was afraid. I guess I figured I'd be in trouble. I reckon I didn't think it out very good."

"Why did you take the gun with you? Why didn't you just drop it?"

"Begging your pardon, Sir, but you don't 'just drop' a gun. It could go off. Someone could be hurt or killed. Officer Larabee was in no position to control his gun and I didn't want someone else to get it." Vin looked down at his folded hands in his lap. He used one thumbnail to pick at the other for a moment. "It was stupid, Your Honor. I shouldn't have run, and I shouldn't have taken the gun, but I did and I can't change that."

"Your Honor! This boy is obviously playing on the sympathies of the court!"

A simple glare from the judge silenced Conklin.

"What did you do with the gun?" asked Judge Travis.

"I hid it."


Vin couldn't look up this time. He picked at the top of his cast. "I wanted to give it back, but I figured I was an accessory or something. I mean, I was there when all this happened and I didn't stop it."

"No!" called a voice from the courtroom. "There was nothing he could have done..." Vin looked up in surprise.

The judge tapped his gavel. "I will tolerate no outbursts from the courtroom, even from you, Officer Larabee." He directed his attention to Vin. "Go on."

Vin looked away from Chris, returning his attention to the judge. "I couldn't take the gun home, and I couldn't chance hiding it in some place where some kid might find it. So I hid it in Josiah's... I mean, Chaplain Sanchez's chapel. I was going to leave a note to tell him where it was, but, well... " He looked down at his cast. "...other stuff happened first."

"Mr. Tanner, you seem to know a lot about handling guns. Where did you learn?"

Vin hesitated. He didn't want to dredge up old memories, but he knew his future was riding on Judge Travis's decision.

"My father, mostly," he answered. "He worked for the National Parks as a Ranger. He taught me how to use a gun properly." Vin smiled at a memory. "He even went to all the gun safety classes with me."

Judge Travis looked at the file in front of him, quickly confirming his next question before he asked it. James Tanner was dead. The boy was living with his stepmother, who was curiously absent from the day's proceedings. From some of Vin's comments, she seemed to be pretty much absent from his life as well.

Orin Travis had already made his ruling in his mind. Vin Tanner was technically guilty of possession of a handgun as a minor, but he was certain the boy hadn't assaulted either Mr. Jackson or Officer Larabee. The testimony of both men as well as Vin's had been persuasive and the circumstances were swaying the judge in favor of giving the teen a second chance.

"Mr. Conklin, I am dismissing the charges." A look from Travis silenced the protest before it was voiced. "I do not see a need for Detention in this case, however, I will proceed with a juvenile assessment in order to determine proper guardianship for Mr. Tanner."

Conklin nodded and closed his file folder. He was slightly surprised at Judge Travis going easy on an offender, but even he'd had doubts about this case, and now he had bigger fish to go after than Vin Tanner. Fish like Eli Joe, who had assaulted a police officer.

Judge Travis looked at Vin. The teen was clearly confused. He had obviously been expecting to do time in Juvenile detention, or worse. "Mr. Tanner, this room is quite stuffy and uncomfortable. I would like you to join me in my chambers. You can put your foot up on my couch while we talk."

Vin nodded uncertainly, taking his crutches as the bailiff returned them to him.

"I would also like to see..." the Judge paused as he checked names in his file, "Nettie Wells, Officer Sanchez, Officer Larabee and Rachel Dunne." The Judge looked up. "Mr. Standish, you may as well come also since for all intents and purposes, you are Mr. Tanner's representative."

As everyone got up to follow the Judge, JD grabbed his mother's arm. "Mom?"

"You'll have to stay here, honey," she told her son.

Buck walked over to them. "Mrs. Dunne? I'd be glad to hang around with JD while you're with the judge."

"Thank you, Buck."

"No problem," he said with a smile. "That's what Big Brothers are for."

JD stood beside Buck and watched his mother walk slowly toward the judge's chamber. She seemed unsteady, but that happened more often lately.

"Is Vin going to be all right?" asked JD.

Buck nodded towards the chairs and they sat down again.

"Judge Travis is a good man, JD. He wants what's best for Vin and he'll try to help keep him from falling into situations like this again."

"But what if he puts him in the system, and Vin has to go away and can't be at my school, and..." JD didn't finish. He realized how childish he sounded.

"Let's not worry about that unless it happens. Okay?" Buck hooked an arm around JD's shoulder.

"'kay," the youngster said without much enthusiasm.

"What say we go down and raid the snack machine? My treat." JD nodded and somewhat reluctantly followed Buck.

+ + + + + + +

"Are you comfortable, Mr. Tanner?" asked Judge Travis, slightly amused. Vin was lying on his back on the couch with his foot propped on the arm. The pressure in his leg eased as it was elevated.

Realizing everyone else was seated around the table, Vin self-consciously sat up.

"No," said Judge Travis. "Please stay. Your leg must be uncomfortable."

Vin nodded. "Yes, Sir."

"Mr. Tanner, I am going to ask you some additional questions. Some will be very personal. I hope that you feel that you can answer honestly in the presence of these people."

Vin nodded. He didn't want his dirty laundry aired for the world, but with the exception of Chris Larabee, he knew for certain that the others cared about him.

"First, I'd like to know why your stepmother is not here today," said Travis.

"My ex-stepmother is not here because she's drunk or high or sleeping it off somewhere," said Vin with little emotion.

"Why do you call her that?" asked the judge. "You continually refer to her as your ex-stepmother."

"That's what she is. My dad was divorcing her. He died before the divorce was final. The only reason I'm with her is because I had nowhere else to go." Vin shook his head. "My dad would hate this."

"Do you know where she is?"

"No, Sir," replied Vin. He sat up and gently shifted his broken leg, setting it on the floor. "She disappeared a few days ago."

"Is this a normal routine?"

Vin shrugged. "Well, she usually ain't around much." Vin didn't add that this time, Georgene had taken all her stuff, and he didn't expect her back, at least, not until she realized that she could no longer get her hands on his money if she wasn't actually living with him.

"Is this why you say you spend most of your time at the Dunne home?"

"Yeah," Vin said softly. "That, an' because I really like JD and his mom. They're good to me."

"Vin's more than welcome to continue staying with us," said Rachel. "He's family."

"Continue staying with you?" asked Travis.

"Vin's stepmother left him with nothing. He had to take the bus to his therapy appointment and when he got home everything was gone."

Judge Travis frowned. "Is that true, son?"

Vin nodded but kept his eyes glued to the floor.

It was becoming clearer by the moment that Vin could not remain in the custody of his stepmother, even if they could find her.

"You mentioned emancipation," Travis said. "Tell me about that."

Vin looked up, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. "Well, I know it's tough to get approval for emancipation, but I figured if I brought my grades up and worked hard, I might get approved. Living on my own wouldn't be any different than it is now, 'cept I wouldn't have to worry about Carl taking a swing at me because he didn't like the color of my shirt."

The judge held up a finger, signaling him to stop talking for a moment. "Who is Carl?"

"Georgene's boyfriend. He lives with us."

"Are you telling me that this man is physically abusive toward you?"

Vin looked down, not quite sure why he was ashamed. He didn't want to answer the judge.

Sensing Vin's reluctance to speak, Rachel said, "I've seen bruises, Your Honor."

"I have as well," added Nettie Wells. "But until a few days ago I never had enough evidence to report it."

"What happened a few days ago?" the Judge asked.

"Vin told me Carl had beaten him," Nettie answered.

Vin looked up at Mrs. Wells with anger and betrayal evident on his face.

"Son," she said softly, "everyone here wants what's best for you. And right now you need to tell the judge everything so he can do what's in your best interests."

Vin's shoulders slumped. "I didn't tell anyone. I just figured it was my problem and I could get through it. I could hold on until I got emancipated."

"It wasn't your fault," Chris defended. "I've seen the son of a... Sorry, Your Honor. I've seen this 'Carl.' Someone Vin's size wouldn't stand a chance against him."

Travis hid a smile. Officer Larabee was wound up in this kid and he didn't even know it yet.

"I want his full name," said the Judge.

"I don't know his last name," said Vin honestly. "Just Carl."

Travis made a few notes in his folder. He'd be sending some people out to find Georgene and Carl.

"Well, it goes without question," he told Vin, "that you will not be returning to their supervision."

Vin wanted to be glad about that, but, the only other option he saw was Juvie or maybe a foster family with strangers. He didn't have any relatives in Denver.

The judge continued. "Emancipation is generally awarded to minors who have independent source of income. How would you support yourself?" Travis already knew about Vin's trust fund, insurance, and social security, but he wanted to see if the boy really understood how much it would take to live on his own. The few hundred dollars Vin received each month might sound like a fortune to a 16-year-old, but, it wasn't enough to live on.

Vin's shoulders slumped. "I have a little money coming in, now, 'cept Georgene and Carl usually spend it on drugs. I even had a good chance at a track scholarship, but I guess I really just threw that whole dream away." Vin rubbed his thigh, trying to ease the ache from the extra weight and the lack of activity.

"Well, even in view of the circumstances, at this point I am reluctant to grant emancipation..."

Tanner slumped lower. There went another option.

"...because I see no need for it since a qualified person is willing to take custody of the minor."

Vin looked at the judge.

"Mrs. Dunne has approached me and asked for you to be placed in her care."

Vin's mouth dropped open in surprise as he turned to look at JD's mom.

She nodded at him. "I would love you like my own son." She smiled. "I already do."

Vin swallowed hard and hastily wiped away a tear. He hadn't dared hope that the secret dream he'd so recently admitted to JD could come true. His money would be big help to Rachel and JD, but, she had no reason to think she'd see any of it when she'd volunteered to take him in. She wanted him no matter what.

"Placement with Rachel Dunne would enable you to continue therapy, to remain in the same school, and to be supervised in a safe, caring environment," said the Judge. "My only concern is her health..."

"But that's why I need to be there," said Vin. "As soon as I'm on my feet I can help them take care of the house and the yard. Do the stuff they can't get to. I can be there for JD... An' the money Geogene is throwing away on drugs can make a big difference for all of us."

Orin was finding it difficult to maintain his stern demeanor. It was obvious, despite Rachel Dunne's health, that her loving home was what Vin Tanner needed - and wanted - right now. He needed stability even if it was short term. And no one really knew how long Rachel Dunne would survive. It was still possible her cancer would go into remission, but even if that didn't happen, Travis would have a backup plan in place.

"My ruling is that Rachel Dunne be named Vin Tanner's legal guardian and that he be placed in her care with one stipulation," said the judge.

All eyes turned to him, curious. "The condition is that Mr. Tanner have a positive male role model in his life. I am ordering that Mr. Tanner join the Big Brother program supervised by Chaplain Sanchez. I assume you can handle that, Officer Sanchez?"

"Yes, Your Honor," Josiah answered with a big smile.

"And I'm also ordering that Officer Larabee be assigned as his Big Brother."

"Now, hold on, Judge!" Chris protested.

"Is there a problem, Officer Larabee?" asked Travis. He had seen enough interaction between Chris and the Tanner boy to know that they would be a good match. It would help Chris move past the grief of losing his own family as well as the guilt he suffered because of Vin's injuries. And somehow, he just knew that the young officer was just the role model Vin needed.

"When am I supposed to find time for this?" asked Chris. "I have a ranch to tend. Chores need to be done. Horses that need to be fed..."

Vin perked up. "You have horses?" he asked eagerly.

"Yeah," said Chris, his lips quirking into a grin. "Do you ride?"

"Used to," said Vin, looking away, "before my Dad died."

"Gentlemen?" asked the Judge.

Chris nodded. "As long as he doesn't mind a few occasional chores."

Vin grinned. He couldn't believe the Judge was going to let him live with the Dunnes. Being able to visit a horse ranch was just a bonus. And Officer Larabee? Well, he seemed like someone Vin could get used to.

But then, his smile faded into a frown.

"Problem, Mr. Tanner?" asked the Judge.

"My Dad's insurance money," Vin answered. "It should go to Mrs. Dunne to help pay my keep, but Georgene's name is on the checks with mine."

"Duly noted, Mr. Tanner," said Travis. "But, the state will pay Mrs. Dunne a specified amount for your room and board effective immediately, and as soon as it can be arranged, your money will be placed in an account to be presided over jointly by yourself, Mrs. Dunne and Mr. Standish."

Vin nodded. That sounded fair enough.

The judge continued, "I hereby order that any legal ties Georgene Tanner may have to the minor, Vin Tanner, be completely and permanently severed. Her custody is herewith revoked. Mr. Standish, I am tasking you with the responsibility for seeing that she is denied further access to Mr. Tanner and Mr. Tanner's income. "

Ezra grinned. "That, your honor, would be a pleasure."

HOME (Epilogue)

"Vin says Chris's place is really big," JD commented. "that he has land as far as the eyes can see. Seven horses, too, and some cattle."

Buck smiled as JD rambled on to his mother about Chris's ranch. Granted, the boy had never been there before, but Vin obviously was painting quite a picture. Vin Tanner was turning out to be as good for Chris as Chris was for him. The boy loved the horses and being outdoors as much as Chris did, and with him around, Chris didn't spend his weekends riding off into the mountains alone to mope. Buck figured maybe it was Fate that had put Chris's gun in Vin's hands that day.

"Buck, do you think Chris will let me ride one of the horses?"

"I don't know, JD, have you ever been up on a horse?"

"No, sir."

Buck could see JD slump in his seat, disappointed. "We can ask Chris, but I can't make any promises."

"He lets Vin ride and he's got a broken leg," JD grumbled.

Buck laughed outright at that. Chris hadn't exactly let Vin ride - the boy decided that all on his own. Vin's leg was still in a cast, but he was getting around pretty good with the crutches. He'd been helping Chris for the past three weeks, doing simple tasks so he wouldn't aggravate his injuries. But, two days ago, Chris was on a run to the feed store when a sudden storm came up, with thunder and lighting. Vin had quickly hobbled out to bring in the horses, but knowing he'd never get all seven to the barn before it poured, he had bridled Peso - the most mischievous horse Chris owned - and jumped on his back. He opened the corrals and used Peso to herd the other horses into the barn. Chris had pulled up just in time to see the last tail disappear through the barn door.

Chris, worried that Vin would do further damage to his knee, admitted that he'd yelled at Vin. But, the boy didn't back down. He thought he'd done the right thing, and truth be told, he had, so Chris couldn't argue with him. Buck knew Chris would have his hands full with the boy, but, he could also see a mutual trust and respect forming between the two of them.

"Is Chris's house as big as Vin says?"

"JD, why don't you wait to see," Rachel said.

"I'm just curious," JD sighed. "Vin says it's huge!"

"Well I suppose to a boy who was living in a small apartment that it would be huge," Rachel laughed.

"Vin says it's bigger than our house."

Buck knew that when JD called the house 'ours,' he was including Vin. When Vin had been given into the care of Rachel Dunne, it was as if the boys had been brothers their whole lives.

Buck pulled into the drive and he heard JD gasp.

"Wow, it is huge!"

The log home was set back amongst some pines. The house was ranch style and spread out over a wide area, making the house look even bigger than it was. Everyone else was already there. JD got out and helped his mom. Whether it was the chemo working, or the fact that she now knew JD would be cared for should anything happen to her, she seemed to have improved a bit.

As they made their way to the back yard, Josiah came out to meet them.

"Buck! It's about time you got here."

"That was my fault, Josiah," Rachel said. "I'm a bit slow these days."

"That's not your fault, mom," JD said quickly.

"Of course it isn't, Rachel," Josiah said, taking her hands and looking at her apologetically.

"Come on, now," Rachel scoffed. "This is supposed to be a fun day."

The backyard was alive with people. Nathan and Ezra were over by the grill, lifting the lid. Josiah bellowed at them to leave it alone, and Rachel laughed as the big man ran over and shooed them away.

Nettie introduced her niece, Casey, who was also 13 and even smaller than JD. JD looked away bashfully when he was introduced.

"My Aunt Nettie says you're just 13 and a junior in high school," Casey challenged, looking JD up and down.

JD nodded uncertainly. "Yeah."

"So, how'd you get so smart?"

JD was at an uncharacteristic loss for words. "Dunno," he shrugged. Casey sure was pretty.

Abruptly, she changed the subject. "Race ya to the barn," she challenged.

JD wasn't about to be outdone by a girl, and without a moment's hesitation, he raced after.

Vin sighed as he leaned on the crutches.

"Won't be long before you're running after them," Orin Travis assured him.

"Been too long already," Vin sighed.

"Have they set a date for the ligament surgery?" Nettie asked.

"Two weeks," Vin answered. "Then I get to be in this thing for another three weeks after that."

"That's what you get for running into traffic," Chris said, ruffling Vin's hair.

Everyone cringed at the remark until Vin retorted, "Yeah, well, if some cop hadn't been chasing me..."

Chris cuffed the back of Vin's head and Vin smiled. To everyone's relief, it was apparent that somehow, the near tragedy that had brought the man and boy together had become a private joke between them.

Vin took a seat next to Rachel and propped up his leg. Chris brought them drinks and Vin sat quietly with his frail foster mom, neither seeming to need words as they shared their enjoyment of the serene setting and good company.

They didn't have long to wait before Josiah was calling everyone to the table. Buck yelled for JD and Casey and they raced back to the porch, giggling and exchanging glances that Buck recognized as the first symptom of that joyous malady known as young love.

Once everyone was seated, Josiah said a blessing.

"Dear Lord, bless this food we are about to receive, and thank you for the blessings you have bestowed on us this day. Bless this, our family, perhaps not in blood, but in spirit. Amen."

After a collective 'Amen' from those gathered, Buck announced, "Now let's eat!"

Food was passed around the table as the talk and laughter resumed.

Vin looked at the faces around him and realized Josiah was right. Everyone gathered there had entered his life from different backgrounds, but they had all come together because they cared about him. For the first time in a long time, he truly had a family.