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

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

"Freeze! Police!"

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

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

Chris's focus on the three remaining juveniles in front of him kept him from seeing the fifth, who stepped out from a shadowed doorway and bashed him from behind with a hefty board.

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

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

"Buck," Chris gasped.

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

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

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

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

Of course, he could be wrong.

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

"Chris! Chris!" an urgent voice called.

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

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

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

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

"Freeze! Police!" called Buck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you get him?" asked Chris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

He prayed it wouldn't be used.

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

"You were very lucky," said the doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How's Jackson?" asked Chris.

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

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

"You all right?" asked Buck with concern.

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

"A kid has my piece, Buck."

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

JD shoved his lunch tray to the middle of the table, and without any concern or embarrassment, Vin reached for half of JD's sandwich. As JD picked up the other half, he watched Vin eat hungrily. JD got a lunch subsidy, so he filled his tray with as much as he could and shared it with Vin. Vin would have qualified for free lunches, too, but his stupid stepmom refused to fill out the paperwork. It was so unfair. The woman Vin was supposed to consider a mother consistently spent the majority of their money on drugs and alcohol. JD  had never seen Vin come to school with lunch money or a sandwich. Or clean clothes for that matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

Too late, he thought as Buck approached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

"Going home?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The taller boy nearly dropped his plate when he jumped. The younger boy just stared, wide-eyed, too scared to say anything.

"I'm Josiah Sanchez."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

Nathan's statement had filled in some of the blanks in Chris's report. He remembered seeing the kid around the mobile clinic, but a check of the records gave them nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But Vin..."

"Please, JD."

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you, sir," Vin said smiling.

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +


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

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

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

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

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

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

"Buck! That's him!"

+ + + + + + +

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You don't suppose?"

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

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

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

"Probably," Buck agreed.

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

"Earth to Vin."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That sucks."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"About your scholarship?"

"Yeah," Vin lied.

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

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

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

"Hello, Vin," Nettie said.

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

"I thought you were doing homework with JD."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Across the street over by that bum."

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

Buck cursed, following his partner.

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

Chris cursed and ran after him.

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't expect me to try that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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

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

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

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

Vin walked up to the door and knocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Its really not that bad," Vin protested.

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

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

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

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

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

"JD told you?"

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

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

"Oh, Vin, that's wonderful!"

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

"What is it?" Rachel asked softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + + + + +

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. Carl was more than twice his weight and stood 6 foot 4 - ten inches taller than he was. 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 got 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 gage 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 gave Buck JD's address and promised to phone Mrs. Dunne and let her know to expect him and assure her that JD wasn't in any troublet. After Buck was gone, the chaplain glanced yowards 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  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 should have known that he would run when he made them as the cops.

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 smilled. "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 optomistic 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 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?"


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


"No, 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..."

"Just go, 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 withJD 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 eye. 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 used to work..."

"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 handome bank account, while Georgene's boyfriend not-so-vaguely resembled Sasquatch.

"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," Ezra 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.

+ + + + + + +

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 encounted 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, Ez," 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 have 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 hungover 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 Murtagh," 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 climbed the steps onto 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 he'd leave 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 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 look 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 careful leaned down to get them. When everything was on the counter she began putting the sandwiches together and deciding what to do about 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 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 knew, 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. Miz Nettie, his counselor from school was here. 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 sport coat , black tie and white dress shirt, looked 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 childish 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 his 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 more clear 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 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 circumstance, 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 Sanches. 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, so effective 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."



"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 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 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 alreadythere. 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 met 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 introdued.

"My Aunt Nettie says your 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 somehow 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.