ATF Universe

Chapter Three

Chris didn't know how long they had been at it, but it was probably a couple of hours since they had started telling stories about their childhood experiences. Buck had some crazy stories and Chris had to admit, his own were pretty wild as well. Ezra had them in stitches as he shared some of his boarding school pranks. Even JD had some tales to share. Chris glanced over at Vin, but the Texan wasn't where he had been. "Where'd Vin go?" he asked, hoping someone had noticed when he left. Vin had a knack for slipping out unseen. He received shrugs and various forms of "I don't know" in response to his question.

Chris tried not to make a big deal out of Vin's disappearance. Vin hated having attention drawn to him, even when it emanated out of concern. Chris casually went and checked the bathroom and the kitchen. As he came back into the living room, he found everyone waiting for him with coats on, ready to help look. 'So much for not making a scene,' Chris thought with a smile. Buck entered from the front door, reporting, "He's not out front."

"Did I say something wrong?" asked JD sincerely. Since he had started the whole discussion of their childhood escapades, he figured he'd said or done something that upset Vin.

Josiah laid his large hand on the kid's shoulder. "No, JD. Vin was probably just feeling a little crowded."

"Why don't you guys head on home. I'll go find him. He's probably mingling with nature by the pool," said Chris.

"Yep. Only place around here that has trees and bushes," grinned Buck.

"You'd think he would have had enough of being outside on this assignment," said JD.

"It's not the outdoors Vin is seeking, JD," said Ezra quietly.

"That's right," added Josiah. "It's the peace that the wide open spaces bring to him that Vin is looking for."

"We'll have a meeting at the office at nine a.m.," said Chris impatiently. He wanted to make sure Vin hadn't run off back to the streets instead of staying the night safely inside on Buck’s couch. "Nine a.m. sharp, Ezra."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I'll be there, Mr. Larabee."

+ + + + + + +

Chris cursed as he tripped over a lounge chair, stumbling in the darkness as he caught himself before he fell flat on his face. That would be all he needed right now - to fall into the pool and get soaked. He turned the flashlight to his left and spied the lump in the next lounge chair. Chris smiled. Vin had fallen asleep. He shook him gently, trying to rouse him enough to get him back into the apartment.

"Mama? Wake up mama!" mumbled Vin, lost in some dream. He curled away from Chris's touch and continued mumbling. Chris sat down on the next chair, watching the troubled man sleep. "What am I going to do with you, cowboy?" he whispered into the night air.

+ + + + + + +

"Mama? Wake up mama!" Five-year-old Vin was terrified. His mama had been very sick, he knew that. She had cried and told him she loved him. She said to remember he was a Tanner and, no matter what happened, to never forget that. Her breathing had gotten all funny-like, where it was almost gurgling when she told him to go to the neighbor's. Then she had gone to sleep.

The little boy with long, curly, dark blonde hair tried to wake up his mother, but she wouldn't wake up. Even in his very young mind, Vin knew something was wrong. He didn't go to the neighbor's next door as his mama said. He couldn't leave her alone. Vin tried again and again to wake her up, shaking her arm. "Mama, wake up! Please Mama. I's scared."

He stood next to the bed in the dingy room, tracing circles in the thick layer of dust that covered the bedside table. Vin's dirty clothes littered the room and no effort had been made to tidy them up since his mother had fallen ill. The pajamas he wore were stained with dirt and peanut butter and jelly. So were his face and hands. His mother had been ill for a long time, but the last few days she couldn’t find the energy she needed to care for her precious baby boy.

Vin tried in vain to wake his mother, but she wouldn't wake up. He had never been so hungry or scared. He was completely alone and he didn’t like that feeling at all. Sobbing silently, the little boy climbed up on the bed to lay down next to his mama. Vin held her cold hand in his small hands and cried himself to sleep, using her lifeless arm as a pillow.

+ + + + + + +

Officer Joe Donlan stood outside the rundown apartment door, checking his notepad. The neighbor had called in a report about a small child crying inside the dark apartment. She had suggested to the dispatcher that it might be a case of neglect. Putting his notepad in his pocket, he rapped on the door. Receiving no answer, he tried the knob and it turned freely. Cautiously, he and his partner entered the apartment with their weapons drawn.

Joe took in the sight before him. Garbage cans overflowing, an empty refrigerator glaring at them with its door ajar. A torn bread wrapper and empty peanut butter and jelly jars sat on the floor near the sink. He could see a drawer pulled open that was likely used as a step stool to reach the barren cupboard above. There was an empty cereal box, dirty bowl and spoon on the cracked countertop. A roach ran across the counter into a box, trying to escape the light coming into the room from the open door. The entire room was dirty and dusty.

Joe sighed. He hated neglect cases and from all the signs, this was clearly another one in a long line of neglect cases that he and his partner had dealt with recently. He cautiously pushed open the bedroom door. "Damn," he gasped at the sight of the dead woman and the child cuddled up next to her. "Call it in, Mark," he said grimly. His partner, Mark Johnson, moved outside to place the call.

Joe checked the woman for a pulse, knowing just from looking at the frail bluish form that he would not find one. He reached over her to check the child for a pulse, but stopped as he saw the steady rise and fall of the little boy’s chest. He scooped up the slight form and carried him into the main room. The boy mumbled and snuggled against the officer but didn't wake as Joe sat in the wooden rocker.

Mark came back into the apartment a few minutes later with an ambulance crew and more officers. He looked at Joe questioningly when he caught sight of his partner holding the small form closely to his chest.

"The mother's dead," said Joe quietly.


He shook his head. "I don't think so. Looks like she was sick. Must have been for a while." The little boy in his arms began to wake at the sound of their voices.

+ + + + + + +

When he woke, Vin was warm. Someone was holding him. He yawned and rubbed the stickiness from his eyes. "Mama?"

"It's all right son," a deep voice rumbled from the person holding him. Vin flinched in fear at the sound of the stranger and struggled to get free.

"Whoa! Hang on, Joe. You got a wild one!" said another voice, laced with humor.

Joe held a little tighter until the boy realized it was useless and stopped fighting him. "It's okay son. My name is Officer Joe Donlan. You can call me Joe."

With frightened eyes, Vin looked up at the kind face of the man who held him. "Where's my mama?" Vin’s eyes widened when the man stopped smiling.

"What's you name, son?" the officer asked gently.

"Vin Tanner. I'se five." Vin looked around the room. He could see that they were in his living room in the rocking chair he and his mama always cuddled in. There were some other people were standing by the bedroom door. "Mama won't wake up." He watched a sad smile cross Officer Joe's face. "She can't wake up no more, can she?" The officer shook his head.

Vin wriggled free of the officer’s arms and padded slowly to the telephone, barefoot. He picked up a blue piece of paper and brought it back to the policeman. "Supposed to call Grampa, but the phone don't work." Vin wiped his tears with the back of his grubby left hand as he held out the note with his right. The officer accepted the note and pulled Vin back on his lap. He looked at the note, which contained only a telephone number. "Is this your grandfather's phone number?" Vin nodded. "What's your grandfather's name?"

"Grampa," said Vin, as if the officer was stupid for not hearing him the first time. Officer Joe nodded with an understanding smile.

"Does your grandpa have any other names that people call him?" asked the officer patiently. Vin nodded. "What are his other names?"

"Just like me," said Vin proudly.

"Your grandpa is named Vin Tanner, too?"

"Vin-cent," corrected Vin. "Some people call him Colonel. He's a Ranger. He lives far away sometimes."

"This is Officer Mark Johnson. He's my partner. Would it be okay if I have him call your grandpa?" Vin nodded and watched as Officer Joe handed the paper to his friend.

When Vin's tummy growled, he quickly wrapped his arms around his stomach.

"Are you hungry, Vin?"

Vin nodded. "I knows how to make cereal, and peanut butter samwiches." He paused, unsure if he should say something more. "It's all gone," he whispered.

Officer Joe had a feeling the cereal and bread had been 'all gone' for awhile. The apartment was cold and the lights didn't work. The power and the telephone had been cut off, probably for awhile. The kid was as skinny as a stick. He looked like he hadn't eaten or taken a bath for a few days but he had the cutest blue eyes that just begged you to love him.

"Joe, I reached the base. They're contacting Colonel Tanner now," said Officer Johnson as he came back into the apartment. "They'll have him call you at home."

"At home?" asked Joe.

"Yeah. I called the County. Darlene cleared it. Since you and Becky's foster parent status is in good standing, they said you can take him home until other arrangements are made."

Joe smiled. Becky was going to kill him. He was always bringing home 'strays'. "Vin, what do you say we get you out of those pajamas and into some clothes? Then I'll take you to breakfast."

Vin's eyes brimmed with tears. He unconsciously leaned a little harder into Officer Joe's chest. Joe wrapped his arms around the little boy offering the security Vin sought. "What is it, Vin?" he asked quietly.

"My clothes are with Mama." Vin's voice broke as a sob escaped. Joe began to rock the boy, running his hand gently, soothingly over Vin's head and neck as the boy cried.

When Vin had calmed somewhat, Joe got the little guy to look up at him. "Vin, I'm going to take you to my house. We'll get you something to eat there. Your grandpa’s going to call us at my house. I'll have Mark bring over some of your clothes later. Okay?"

Vin nodded. "Roger."

"Roger?" asked Joe.

"My bear."

Joe smiled. "Anything else?"

Vin nodded. "My book."

"Which one?" asked Mark.

"There's jist one," replied Vin softly. He snuggled his cheek against Joe's chest wearily. Joe smiled. He'd have to move quickly before Vin fell asleep on him.

"Mark will bring your bear and your book over to the house. Have you ever taken a ride in a police car?" Vin's head popped up and he looked at Joe, eyes filled with excitement. He shook his head, 'no'. "Well, then let's go." He stood up, still holding Vin, and began to walk to the door.

"Are you 'restin' me?"

"No, Vin. I'm not arresting you. We're just going for a ride."

"I can walk."

Mark grinned, listening to the conversation as Joe and Vin started down the hallway.

"I know you can, but you don't have shoes on," said Joe.

"I don't hardly never wear shoes. I can walks without 'em."

"It's cold outside."

"Ain't that cold."

Although Joe was at the end of the hall, Mark knew the look of exasperation that would be on his face. He chuckled at his partner's predicament.

"Just humor me. Maybe I like to carry you. Maybe I need you to keep me warm."

+ + + + + + +

"Vin. Come on, wake up," said Chris again, this time shaking Vin roughly. When Vin opened his eyes and looked at him, Chris said, "You were having a dream. You all right?"

Vin scratched at his arm absently. The dream was so real, he could have reached out and touched it.

"You all right?" Chris asked again, not having received a response from the Texan.

Even though it had happened twenty years ago, the pain in his heart was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. Vin sighed.

"You all right?" Chris asked for the third time.

"Can't ya think of another question?" replied Vin, testily. He knew Chris wasn't asking about his physical condition, but he didn't feel like talking. Drudging up the past wasn't going to change anything, except maybe what his friends thought of him.

"Just concerned."

Vin sighed. "I know, Chris. I'm fine."

They were simple words, spoken with little emotion, but Chris got the unspoken message loud and clear. 'Back off Larabee.' Vin got up and started up the path toward the apartment away from the pool. Chris sighed inwardly and followed. He loved Vin to death, but sometimes it was a pain to deal with his quiet moodiness. He and Vin had an ability to communicate without words on many levels, but there were times when a few words would actually help. Vin was very closed lipped on his past, and Chris figured the childhood stories had stirred up some bad memories for the Texan. He hated to see Vin hurting, but if Tanner wouldn't open up to him, there was nothing he could do to help. Pushing would only make Vin build the walls higher.

Chris tripped over a rock on the path, cursing softly. He could hear Vin's chuckle ahead of him. "Ya blind, Cowboy? You're the one with the flashlight!" Chris shook his head and chuckled.

Chapter Four

As Vin lay on Buck and JD's couch in the darkness, sleep refused to come. He watched the LED clock on the VCR as it ticked its way to two o'clock in the morning. This whole case and the discussion of childhood antics brought up long buried memories in the Texan. He smiled as he thought of Officer Joe. Joe and Becky Donlan had been a real family to Vin. While Vin had lived with them, they had had two other boys, Jim and Charlie, who were in high school. Vin laughed quietly as he remembered rough housing with his "brothers" when they called him "squirt".

Initially, he was only to have stayed with their family for two weeks while his grandfather arranged for the funeral and worked out a transfer back to Texas. Vin was pretty hesitant the first couple of days with the Donlans, memories of his mother being all too fresh in his young mind. But with the resiliency that only children possess, Vin was soon playing happily with the neighborhood kids. But his favorite playmate was Bo, the Donlan's black Labrador puppy. The two would chase and wrestle, the dog would bark, and the boy would squeal with laughter. Then there were quiet moments when Vin would use Bo for a pillow, or when Bo would sense Vin's sadness and lay his big chin on the little boy's lap.

Colonel Tanner had three years remaining before retirement. After many lengthy, difficult discussions with the Donlans and with a caseworker, Colonel Tanner decided it was in Vin's best interest to stay with the Donlans until he retired. Then he would take full responsibility for the boy. In the meantime, he would provide financial support and visit as often as his assignments allowed.

Vin didn't understand why he couldn't go with his 'grampa' and many tears were shed when Colonel Tanner, his only living relative left. Vin stood for nearly an hour at the front window watching for him to come back, silent tears rolling down his cheeks. Bo leaned heavily against the little boy's leg. The dog whined, catching Vin's attention. The boy looked at the dog and received a big, wet Labrador kiss. "Yuck!" he said, wiping his cheek with his sleeve. That earned him three more quick licks and soon boy and dog were wrestling again, with dog barking and boy laughing.

+ + + + + + +

The Donlans did everything they could for Vin, the biggest thing being providing a home where he was loved and secure. He started school three months after coming to live with them. Vin loved recess, lunch, and snack time, but he wasn't too thrilled with class time. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to keep up with the other kids. The letters and numbers he was supposed to learn didn't make any sense. Officer Joe or Mrs. Becky worked with him every night on his alphabet. At first, no one was too concerned with his troubles. Everyone assumed that Vin just wasn't ready for school yet, or that the loss of his mother was affecting his ability to adjust. At the end of the year, Vin was moved on to First Grade with his classmates, assuming that the stigma of being left behind would be harder on him than learning the new material.

Although deeply affected by the loss of his mother, Vin, like most kids, ran and played happily. And when his heart hurt for his mother, he cried. He found out fast that you don't cry at school because the big kids will tease you. He also found out that if you talk a little different from most kids, they would make fun of you. His slight lisp that had been 'cute' when he was four was devastating at seven when he was teased mercilessly.

The Donlans watched as the fun loving, outgoing boy slowly became increasingly withdrawn. They tried to help, but couldn't get Vin to tell them what was going on. His caseworker couldn't get him to talk about it either.

One evening, Joe sat watching Vin work on his homework at the kitchen table. Vin always had homework. A second grader always having homework was not good. He watched Vin as he tried to write his sentences. The boy clenched his pencil tightly, his brow furrowed with concentration. His tongue played back and forth across his lips as he carefully printed the letters on the lined paper. Joe saw the visible relief on Vin's face as he finished the sentence he had been working on. He watched as the boy's eyes went from the paper he had just finished to the line in the book he was working from. Back and forth, Vin intently checked his work. Suddenly, the books went flying off the table as Vin shoved them in frustration. He laid his head on the table, burying his face in his arms.

"Vin?" said Joe, gently but firmly.

Vin looked up with tear-filled eyes. He slowly got up and picked up his book and papers off the floor. He sat back down, re-opened the book up to the page he had been copying and looked up at Officer Joe. He could see that his foster father was waiting for an explanation.

"I hate school," mumbled Vin, ducking his head. As the silence grew, he peeked up at Joe again. His foster father had his eyebrows raised in question. 'Nope. Not a good enough answer.' Knowing that Joe would accept no less, Vin mustered up the courage to say what was really bothering him.

"I'm too stupid to even copy it right," he said as he covered his awkward scrawling with his hands, ashamed to let Officer Joe see his poor work.

"You are not stupid, Vin. I don't ever want to hear you say that again."

"Everyone says I'm stupid."

Joe bristled at the defeat in Vin's tone. "You're having trouble with reading. Lots of people have trouble reading. That doesn't make you stupid."

"I talk like a little kid."

"Is that why you got in the fight today at school?" Joe almost lost himself in Vin's pleading blue eyes. Vin wanted him to fix it and make everything better. He was hard to discipline when he looked at you with those baby blues.

"Yes, sir," answered Vin softly.

Joe grimaced. Scrawny little Vin had taken on a fifth grader and had managed to give the other kid a black eye. While he was proud that Vin was able to hold his own against a bigger kid, hitting someone for teasing you was not the answer.

"You're going to apologize to him tomorrow," Joe said sternly.

"Yes-sir," replied Vin meekly. His "S's" slurred together in his response with a slight whistle.

Again Joe grimaced. "Is that what they are teasing you about?" he asked, referring to the lisped "S's". Tears filled his eyes and Vin nodded. "Well, we'll have to do something about that then. I'll talk to Mrs. Grainger and see if we can talk to a speech pathologist."

Vin's eyes got bigger. He didn't know what a pathologist was, but he knew Mrs. Grainger too well. She was his caseworker. He didn't want to be any trouble. He didn't want to risk being taken away from Officer Joe and Mrs. Becky. Vin sniffed and wiped his tears with the back of his hand.

"And maybe we can check into a reading specialist too," added Joe. "How's that sound?"

" 'spensive," quipped Vin with a slight smile.

Joe smiled and ruffled Vin's hair. "I bet your grandfather will be more than happy to take care of any costs, so I wouldn't be worrying about that. But Vin," Joe paused, making sure he had Vin's full attention, "no more fighting."

Vin nodded.

"Out loud," Joe coaxed the reticent boy.

"I promise. No more fighting."

"Good. Now, how about you letting me help you out with your homework. Maybe we can figure out what the problem is?"

Vin smoothed out the now crumpled paper. He reluctantly pushed it across the table to his foster father. "I copy 'em 'xactly like they are in the book, but they don't match. Miss Thompson gets real upset when she tells me to copy 'em and I can't even do that right."

Joe could almost feel Vin's self-esteem sinking. He looked at the paper. Vin's "N's" and "E's" were consistently backwards. His "P's" and "B's" were reversed. Joe knew it wasn't from lack of concentration or effort on the boy's part. Vin tried with every ounce of his energy to do it right, but he was failing miserably.

Joe had to come up with a temporary fix. He knew Vin needed more help than he knew how to give. "Okay, Vin. Let's try the "N" again. We're going to make a picture in your head. Vin starts at the bottom of the ladder and climbs up." He drew the upward stroke of the "N". "When he gets to the top, he slides down the slide." He made the diagonal stroke of the letter. "Then he climbs back up the ladder again." He made the final upward stroke. "Now you try it."

Vin hesitantly took the pencil. "I starts at the bottom and climb the ladder." He looked up at Joe questioningly. Joe nodded confirmation that he was correct. Vin drew a shaky line. "Then I slides down the slide, and I climb back up the ladder." He looked at what he had drawn and compared it to what Joe had drawn. It was wrong. Tears began to well up in his eyes and he bit his lip.

"No, no. Don't quit on me, Vin," said Joe, lifting the discouraged boy's chin. "We'll try it again. You got all the motions right, they just went the wrong direction. We can fix that." Joe thought for a moment. He knew that Vin was desperate to make his letter right. 'What can we do to make him go to the right instead of the left?' Suddenly it clicked, and he smiled. "Okay, let's try this. Put your left hand flat on the paper."

Vin followed the instructions Officer Joe was giving him. He didn't understand why putting his hand on the paper would make a difference, but he trusted Officer Joe to help him.

"Okay, now, when you make the letter again, you want to make it go away from your hand, not toward it. Try again."

Vin moved his pencil to the far right side of the page trying to keep it away from his other hand.

"No, wait." Joe moved Vin's right hand close to his left. "Start really close to your left hand and go away from it." Vin looked up uncertainly. "Go on. You can do it."

Vin started at the bottom and climbed the ladder with his pencil rubbing against his left hand. 'Okay. This is the hard part,' he thought. 'Slide down the slide.' His pencil bumped against his left hand forcing him to go right. He slid to the right and climbed the ladder again. Vin stopped. He looked at his foster dad's "N" and then his own. He was stunned. He had made an "N" and it was right. "I did it!" he gasped.

Joe grinned. "Yes, you did. I'm so proud of you, Vin. Let's do it again."

By the end of the evening Vin's left hand was gray from the graphite of the pencil lead rubbing against his thumb and index finger, but he had successfully written his name correctly a number of times, with the "N's" and "E's" going the right way. Vin had figured out that all the capital letters loops and sticks moved away from his left hand when it was placed palm down on the paper. And his thumb worked pretty well as a guide for the "E". He even discovered tracing around your hand made a funny looking turkey, if you added legs.

Joe smiled at the contented look on Vin's face as he tucked him in. Some of the self-confidence had returned. The hand game was a temporary fix but it did its job. Hopefully they could get him to a specialist and find the problem and a cure.

+ + + + + + +

Vin watched the VCR clock click to three o'clock, listening to Chris snoring in the nearby recliner. 'No wonder I can't sleep,' he thought. Vin sighed. He really needed some sleep before he went back to the streets in the morning. He began to nod off, and with sleep, the dreams returned.

With his retirement starting and little Vin's school year ending, Colonel Tanner decided it was time that he and Vin make their own home and settle down. On the first day school was out, Colonel Tanner and Vin left Texas for his vacation home in Colorado. Vin was heartbroken to leave Officer Joe and Mrs. Becky, but was especially crushed to leave Bo behind. The dog was his best friend and confidant. His grandfather assured him that they would return to Texas at the end of the summer, and that he would get to visit Bo.

Tears were shed, and not just on Vin's part. Mrs. Donlan was losing her boy whom she loved dearly. The Donlans loved each of their foster children the same as their natural children. Including Vin, they had cared for seventeen foster children along with their own two boys over the past twenty years. Becky and Joe, despite knowing Vin would not stay forever, felt his loss greatly.

Once again, Vin was forced to adjust to new family arrangements. He loved his grandfather and knew that his grandfather loved him. There was no doubt about that, however, life with his grandfather was drastically different from life with the Donlans. Vincent Tanner was a career military man. He was a strict disciplinarian who believed in rules and schedules. While little Vin was not a difficult or disobedient child, his grandfather had higher expectations than he was accustomed to. Vin was expected to rise, complete his chores, and studies each day at a specific time.

As the two Tanners reacquainted, they had a wonderful, adventurous summer. The elder Vincent took little Vin fishing and hunting nearly every day. Vin was a natural with a rifle, but still he practiced shooting as a regular part of his day. His grandpa told him, anything worth doing was worth doing well, and Vin took that to heart. His grandpa was proud of his shooting skills and Vin liked how that made him feel. He didn't read as well as the other kids in class and he may have an annoying lisp, but he could shoot better than many adults could.

The summer ended too soon for Vin. He was looking forward to visiting the Donlans and Bo, but school loomed in the near future, and it was with dread that Vin went back to Texas with his grandfather.

His grandfather was a believer in hard work and felt that if Vin applied himself, he could overcome his speech and reading difficulties without having to call in someone from the outside. He felt Vin's problems were family business and outsiders should keep their noses out of family business.

Being the disciplinarian he was, the elder Vincent was on top of Vin's lisp, correcting him every time it slipped out. He worked with Vin on his homework every night at the kitchen table, just like Joe used to do. His discipline, though well intentioned, had a negative effect on Vin. The boy became more and more self-conscious, causing him to become more of a loner. The senior Vin's belief that discipline would take care of the problem made the next couple of years of school even more difficult for little Vin, but the summers in Colorado were happy memories.

A few days after Thanksgiving during his fifth grade year, Vin's grandfather unexpectedly passed away. Vin found himself alone once again, living in an orphanage for the first time in his young life. Joe and Becky Donlan's house was full since they were caring for a family of four, which was as many as their license allowed. The couple was heartbroken that they couldn't take Vin, but all he knew was that he couldn't go live with them.

At the orphanage, Vin was told rather bluntly by some of the older boys not to expect to be adopted. He might be cute, but people wanted babies, and they sure wouldn't want an eleven-year-old who was failing school. Despite their harsh words, Vin found himself secretly hoping for a family. Life had been good with the Donlans and the little boy thought that maybe it could be again.

Every time that small hope surfaced, Vin was at war within himself. Everyone he had ever loved had been ripped away from him. Some little voice somewhere told him it was his fault. He loved his mom and she died. He loved the Donlans, but they didn't want him anymore. He loved his grandpa and he died. The hope that he could have a family was beaten down by the fear that if he did get a family and he loved them, they would die.

Vin's self-esteem continued to plummet when the caseworkers even had trouble finding him a foster home. The three places he had lived for a few months had been okay, but Vin didn't fit in with the families. He hated school and the humiliation it represented, and he began to rebel against anything and everything. He figured that if he pushed people away, he couldn't be hurt, or so he thought.

With all the moving around from home to home, he had yet to get any real help with his reading problem. At fourteen, he didn't care anymore. School was just a place to be. Fights were frequent, as well as detention and suspension. What was the point? Nobody cared and he certainly didn't care about anyone either. He didn't even have the Donlans to hope for anymore. They had moved away to Colorado, or so he'd heard. Then he had ended up with the Maxwells, and after one too many beatings, Vin ran away and found himself on the streets in Denver when the money ran out.

+ + + + + + +

Vin looked at the clock on the VCR. Four o'clock. He had nodded off a few times, but even in the safety of Buck and JD's apartment he couldn't make himself relax enough to really sleep well. He looked forward to this assignment being over and sleeping for a week.

He looked over at Chris, sleeping awkwardly in the recliner. Why he hadn't just gone home was beyond Vin. No, that wasn't true. If it were Chris undercover, he would have stuck by as close as he could as well. Vin knew that Chris was sensing his turmoil. But he couldn't begin to explain this to Chris. At least not now. Knowing full well that Chris would be ticked off, Vin changed back into his street clothes, raided the donut box and headed out. He needed to get back to work and catch this guy. If he stuck true to his pattern, the arsonist would be setting another fire soon.

Chapter Five

Vin had definitely read Chris right. Chris was angry when he awoke and found that Vin was gone. The Texan had an awful lot of "Lone Ranger" in him, which Chris had thought they had worked out over the past two years as a Team. Sometimes he didn't know who was worse, Vin or Ezra. Both men had been trained to rely only on themselves by the hard circumstances of their lives. Vin had instinctively trusted Chris from the moment they met in that warehouse, but that hadn't made him a team player. They had to work for that. Chris smiled as he remembered how Vin saved Nathan's life by killing the suspect who was about to shoot the ex-medic. Then the Texan had cockily told Chris that he needed the official report to say that he was the one who captured the criminal so he could claim his bounty. That had been the first of many times that Chris had wanted to knock that devil-may-care grin off his face. Chris had known instinctively that he could trust Vin, and from the moment of that first meeting, he set out to recruit him for his specialized ATF Team.

"Where the hell is Ezra?" growled Chris to no one in particular. His bad mood over discovering that Vin had sneaked out during the night was compounded by the fact that Ezra had promised to be on time but wasn’t anywhere to be found. Chris looked at his watch and saw that the southerner was twenty-five minutes late. He was supposed to go undercover today, and Chris wanted him in place right now. He didn't like the way Vin was reacting to the assignment. Getting Ezra in with him would give him a little more security. The insistent ringing of the telephone succeeded in drawing him from his grim thoughts.

"Larabee." Chris listened to the voice on the other end of the line. "What!" The tone of his voice brought Nathan, Buck and JD to his doorway. "Are you all right?"

"Who is it? What's wrong?" asked Buck.

Chris abruptly shushed him with his free hand as he listened to the caller. "Okay. Yes. You want me to send Nathan over? Okay, just stay put." Chris hung up the telephone and closed his eyes.

"Well?" demanded Buck.

"That was Ezra. He was carrying a box out to his car. Missed a step and fell down the stairs."

"Ouch," said JD.

"Is he all right?" asked Nathan.

Buck huffed. "He'd do anything to get out of this assignment."

Chris ignored Buck. He could tell from Ezra's voice that the southerner wasn't faking. He could hear the pain in the way he spoke. "Nathan, go on over to his place. Make sure he hasn't broken his ankle. He says it hurts, but he can move it."

"Right Chris. I'll let you know." Nathan grabbed his jacket and head for the elevator.

"Damn," snarled Chris. "His timing is perfect. I need him in there with Vin."

"I could do it, Chris," said JD.

Chris looked at the young man sitting on the desk, swinging his feet, and looking very much like a kid. Chris's first instinct was to refuse, but it was JD or waste more valuable time in bringing in someone from another team. JD already knew the case and, besides, Vin would be there to back him.

Buck stared at Chris. "You ain't seriously considering this?" he protested.

"Yes, I am. JD, have you been paying attention to what we've been going over with Ezra?"

JD nodded eagerly. 'Undercover! Finally!'

"Chris, no!" said Buck.

"You think I can't do it, Buck?"

Buck's heart sank. It wasn't that he didn't believe JD was capable. The kid had certainly proven that time after time. It simply bothered Buck that he couldn't be there to watch JD's back. Team 7 had a natural order of things that helped it run smoothly. Buck and JD were partners, always covering each other’s back. This situation was messing with that order, making Buck uncomfortable. "No Kid, it's not like that. You're a good agent." Buck was struggling. "It's just that you and me, we're partners, we're a team. That's how we work. I don't like messing with the nature of things."

JD grinned. "I know, Buck. But just think, you could run me into jail like you did Vin."

Buck shook his head. He didn't like this one bit, but they had a job to do. "Let's get you outfitted," he said reluctantly.

"Yes!" said JD eagerly.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sat on the doorstep scuffing his foot harshly on the sidewalk. He was livid. He was keeping his mouth shut because anything he said right now he knew he would regret later. He glanced over at the young agent standing next to him. Why the hell had Chris sent the kid undercover? This was the worst possible place he could have sent JD. The streets were going to eat him alive.

Vin thought back on his own ignorance on the streets, shaking his head. If the guy at the mission hadn't taken the time that day to try to help a kid, Vin would have never found out about the youth shelters. There he met a whole new loosely formed community. The kids watched out for each other. The teens "shared the wealth" as it were. The money they scrounged and the food they found or stole was spread through the group. They made a circuit of the teen shelters. There were four shelters, and you could stay in them for two weeks at a time without parental notification. The kids rotated between the shelters as they were allowed. The shelters were on to their game, and had set rules that said you couldn't come back to the shelter for three months. Still, when the shelters had room, the kids were only on the street a couple months at a time.

Running with those kids, Vin learned the most about street survival, and it was the rules of the kids that he imparted to JD.

"Rule number one. Eat anything," instructed Vin.

JD perked up. It was the first thing Vin had said to him since he showed up. He considered what Vin had said and cringed. "Anything?"

"JD, you can't be picky out here. You take what you can get, even if it's half a day old sandwich from a dumpster."

"Eww!" moaned JD in disgust.

"JD," said Vin harshly, "If you can't do it, get off the street and go back to Larabee. Why the hell did he send you in here anyway?"

JD took an involuntary step back. Vin was really angry. He figured Vin would be upset when he showed up undercover instead of Ezra, but he hadn't expected this.

"Everyone else has been seen, Vin. Chris and Buck as beat cops. Josiah at the mission, Nathan as a paramedic. Ezra sprained his ankle this morning. There was no way he could do it." JD paused. "I didn't mean to piss you off."

"Ah hell, Kid, I ain't mad at you. But Chris and I are going to have a talk when this is over," warned Vin. JD sensed that that conversation may use more fists than words.

"Okay. Eat anything," JD shuddered involuntarily. "What else?"

"Rule number two. Get in line, but behave. The missions won't put up with fighting or causing trouble. You fight, you won't get food or a bed."

Vin watched JD's face to make sure the kid was hearing him. "Find a good spot if yer gonna panhandle. Tourist spots or stores are best. Lotsa people there. But more competition too."

"I won't have to panhandle, will I?" asked JD.

"You might."

JD looked at Vin. He kinda had a lost look in his eyes as if he was thinking about another time. Vin knew too much about all this stuff. JD frowned at the thought that his friend might have had to live in these conditions.

"Rule number three. Save yer money. You get enough, you can get a cheap motel room, get cleaned up and get decent sleep.

JD watched as a funny smiled came to Vin's face. "Keep a tidy and sturdy shopping cart."

"You're kidding, right?" asked JD.

"Hell, no! You can't fit very much in a backpack, and they're too easy to steal. Ya line the cart with cardboard to keep things from falling out. And ya get a tarp to keep your bedding and change of clothes dry. Tie it on the cart with a rope." JD looked over at Vin's cart and saw that it was exactly as he had just described.

"Build your bed with good padding and try to keep out of cold drafts. Make yer bed in a doorway. It can block out some of the wind. Use cardboard as a pad to cover the ground. It can help keep ya from drawin' damp." Vin shook his head. "I tell ya, JD, ya don't want muscle spasms from the cold. And ya sure as hell don't want frostbite." Vin stopped as more painful memories crowded his mind. "On second thought, Kid, why don't ya just get the hell outta here?"

"I can't Vin," said JD in response to the heavyhearted question.

"Sure ya can. Just get up on your feet and go," insisted Vin. He leaned his face heavily into his hands. He didn't want JD to experience any of this horrible life.

"Vin, it's my job. Just like it's yours. I don't see you leavin' either. We've got to get this guy."

Vin sighed heavily. "JD, please. Please go," Vin pleaded.

"Can't do that," said JD softly. He knew Vin wasn't intimating that the younger man wasn't capable of the job. Vin was simply trying to protect JD from the horrors.

"Help me out here, Vin. What else?"

Vin sighed again. "Sleep in doorways or try your luck in the lottery," he mumbled reluctantly.

"The lottery?" asked JD.

"The overnight shelters have a lottery system. You sign up before the shelter opens and then they draw numbers. If they pick your number, you get a bed. They don't pick your number, you don't get a bed." Vin thought for a moment. "I guess I don't have to tell you to respect the police. If they tell you to move, move. They'll usually leave you alone unless someone complains."

"Damn, Vin. How do you know all this?" JD couldn't help it. His curiosity was just too strong.

"I been out here longer than you." It was a simple statement, but the tone told JD not to ask any more.

"Try to keep clean. If yer out here that long, try to find a place to shower and wash your clothes a couple times a week."

"But you..."

Vin cut him off. "I look the part of a guy with no hope. I'm going to hook you up with people who are trying to get out of homelessness."

"I'm supposed to watch your back," protested JD.

"Hell, JD. Do you want lice crawling all over you? Do you want fleas chewing on ya cause yer clothes are filthy? Damn, Kid, I ain't lettin' that happen to you. You hang out with the community I hook you up with. You crowd me and the suspect will never approach me."

JD shuddered. 'No, I don't want bugs crawling on me,' he thought as he absently scratched his arms. 'And I sure as hell don't want to eat out of a dumpster but, dammit, I'm an ATF agent, and this is my job.' JD stood a little taller, settling himself despite Vin's warnings. "Chris is worried about you. Josiah told him you haven't slept in the mission in four days even though they had a bed for you."

"I can take care of myself," growled Vin. "Always have. Always will. Stay the hell away from me and let me do my job." Vin walked away, leaving JD alone in the alley. JD was surprised at Vin's anger, but he followed him.

"I mean it, JD! Stay the hell away from me!" Vin sat down on a doorstep.

JD hesitated, then walked away. He stopped at a doorstep about a half a block away and sat, watching Vin. He was worried about his friend. Vin was never short-tempered with him. Something was definitely wrong. As the hours ticked by, JD realized he was going to have to take care of himself. Vin had been serious. He looked down the street. 'Where am I gonna find a place to sleep?' Looking back to Vin's spot, he cursed when he saw that Vin was gone. JD jumped up and started looking for Vin.


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