"C'mon pard, you ain't said two words all night. You up for ribs? Or maybe Italian?"
Chris didn't look at Buck. He didn't care what he ate. Buck knew it too, he was just being Buck, filling the long silences with his chatter when he couldn't stand Chris' silence and darkness any longer.
Buck tilted his head skyward and let the light rain pour down on his face. "Feels good," he said when he caught Chris shaking his head. "I told JD I'd bring him home some of whatever we end up havin. Kid pouted half the night last night when I told him we were having a late night with 'Uncle Nathan' and 'Aunt Raine.' You were already in your room so you didn't get the hang-dog look."
Chris let Buck keep up his monologue. Buck was used to it, could keep it going all night if he was in the mood.
"That boy and his computers. I tell you, Chris, when we were that age, we could find things to do besides sit behind a desk and fiddle with blinking lights and monitors. That boy would rather spend his time doing homework than be with his big brother."
Chris finally remembered what Buck was going on about. JD's science fair project and Chris suspected there was a lot more to it than blinking lights. The ten year old could take apart and reassemble a computer faster than Chris could break down his Glock. Chris didn't spend much time with the boy; he couldn't look at him and not see his own son.
JD knew not to knock on Chris' door when it was locked. Spending the first seven years of his life in a brothel taught him that. The child, thankfully, knew about death too. He didn't need any explanations when grief took Chris down hard. His mother died only a few months before Chris' wife and son. Buck took the two of them in, only months apart. Sometimes, Chris thought JD was the easier of the two to handle, too. At least JD didn't spend all of his downtime getting so drunk he couldn't remember where or when he was.
But Chris still made it to work everyday, still performed his job, still did what he had to do to get through the days. He wouldn't have made it without Buck. Some days he didn't want to make it and on those days, he thought he might have hated Buck, just a little bit. Or maybe a lot.
"Snap out of it, Chris. Hell, this part of town, you'd better keep your eyes and ears open. Why Raine keeps her clinic in this part of town when she could be somewhere safer ain't something I'm ever gonna understand."
"Where do you think the patients come from?" Chris asked, a little harsher than he'd intended.
"I was tellin Nathan today that he oughta just tell her she's moving a few blocks north. At least away from all these empty warehouses."
"I thought you were going through back files today?"
"I was... well most of the day, anyways. Nathan gave me a hand gettin the boxes over to the long term evidence lock-up."
Chris spied the lights of the clinic in the distance and he quickened his pace. He just wanted to get there, grab Nathan and Raine and meet up with Josiah for dinner. He knew they'd be having Mexican. They wouldn't leave the neighborhood. Raine's clinic would be open until ten and both Nathan and Raine would stay until it closed. Raine spent all of her spare time there and if her husband wanted to see her, he did too.
"Ole Nate's going to run himself into the ground, he keeps this up," Buck said just as Chris was thinking the same thing. "Hell, even on days we get some action, he spends his evenings here."
Chris walked a little faster, stepping around a couple of people huddled on the sidewalk. They were either waiting to see Dr. Jackson or they had just come from seeing Dr. Jackson. The little clinic drew misery off the streets and Chris hated coming here. Only reason he did now was because Nathan wanted help moving boxes into storage.
He and Buck would get a free meal out of the deal and the four senior members of his SWAT team would get time out of the office together. They didn't do it enough. Between the job, Nathan's volunteer EMT work and Josiah's caseload, only he and Buck spent any significant amount of time together. Sometimes too much.
He thought about moving back out to his place, but with only the ancient adobe homestead, it wasn't really an option. He didn't think he could look at the burned out shell of his house. He wasn't ready to face those ghosts just yet. He would be thirty-two in another six months and he didn't even have his own home anymore.
He still had his work though. His work and his bottle. And Buck, he thought, as he watched the man's long legged strides. Always Buck. Since they met in boot camp, Buck a gangly seventeen year old and Chris a confident nineteen year old. Six years as marines, most of it spent together, and then they'd gone their separate ways.
But not for long. Buck stood up for him at his wedding, while they were still in the corps, and then showed up for the birth of his son, two years after they were back in civvies. Chris got him on with the Albuquerque PD and the rest was history. Chris moved to SWAT two years later, Buck followed and now they were the one and two men. Not bad for one of them just over thirty and the other just under.
Would have been perfect if his wife and son hadn't been killed in a wildfire, three years before. Chris should have been dead. Would have been there, maybe wouldn't have died. Maybe they'd all have gotten out, if he was there, before the winds kicked up and sent the supposedly controlled burn from the BLM land onto his property.
SWAT training in Texas and he and Buck stayed an extra day, too drunk to drive home and having too much fun to try too hard. He would have been home, should have been home. He'd be dead or they'd be alive. Instead, he walked somewhere in between. And tonight he walked through the slums of the city, on his way to have dinner like he had a right to some kind of life.
"Are you listening, Larabee?"
"You told Nate he should try to tell Raine what she can and can't do. Doesn't sound like too smart of a plan."
"So that's where my husband got that harebrained idea?" Raine ushered two young women out the door, one heavily pregnant, the other carrying a baby on her hip. She held the door for them and Chris and Buck ducked inside, following her back to her office and away from the bustle.
"Busy night," Buck said, looking around. "Do you still want to do dinner?"
"I'm starving!" Raine said as she hugged first Buck, then gave Chris a quick hug. "If I waited until there were no more patients before I grabbed dinner, I would starve to death. We're the only free clinic for ten miles now."
Chris stepped back as a nurse popped his head into Raine's office.
"Dr. Jackson? Nathan said to tell you he's over at the warehouse."
"Thanks, Miguel." Raine pulled off her coat and dropped it onto her desk before settling into the chair. "I'll look over my notes for a few minutes if you two want to give him a hand now. He's wrestling with reams of paper over in our storage area. If we don't have those records sorted by the time the state health services come tomorrow, we could lose our funding."
"Don't worry, darling," Buck drawled, "we'll make it quick. You look half-starved and dead on your feet."
"Thanks you two. I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't important. They only gave us two days notice."
Chris walked out without waiting for Buck. The space was too small for the number of people in there and he needed out. The rain started coming down again just as he stepped outside.
"Wait up, Chris!" Buck called and Chris did wait for him. The entrance to the warehouse was around the side. It was nestled against the run down building that housed the clinic and it was the only warehouse in the row of old buildings that actually still had more windows with glass in them than without. It still was mostly empty, only the clinic actually using space in it. They'd built the secure storage area themselves, after Josiah persuaded the absentee owner to donate the space.
"Raine's one of a kind, ain't she, pard, Nathan's lucky to have her."
Chris didn't answer. Most people didn't make statements like that around him. But, as Buck liked to remind him, Buck wasn't most people.
"Funny they met in the Army and us in the Corps, ain't it?"
"Really funny, Buck," Chris said as he stepped inside the warehouse. A lone bulb, a few hundred feet up the central aisle, provided the only light until they reached the storage space, halfway through the warehouse.
He kept his mouth shut as he led them to the storage area. He wanted to get the chore done and get some food. Then he wanted whiskey and his bed. Didn't matter which order. He sometimes worried over his drinking, but it didn't affect his job and that's all that really mattered. A sharp cry rang out off to his left and he pulled his gun from its holster without checking Buck.
"I've got left," Buck whispered and Chris headed to the right, working his way around the suspicious noise to come up from behind.
Another twenty yards, around some old, rotting pallets and he got a glimpse of five figures. Knowing one might be Nathan, pretty sure one wasn't Buck, he took up position.
"Put it down, boy," from one of the men and Chris peered around the crate he used for cover.
Nathan on his knees, struggling to keep upright and he was ready to go in guns blazing.
He spotted Buck in position on their other side, his gun pointed straight at them and Chris shouted. "Freeze! APD!"
Gunshots and he instinctively fired at the figure holding the gun to Nathan's bleeding head. The man flew backward and Chris moved in closer. He took a bead on another man, this one much smaller, and cocked his gun. "Police, put it down. slowly," he yelled.
"I got two down over here, Chris," from Buck and Chris' gun didn't waver.
"I said drop your weapon!" Chris yelled and the gun clattered to the floor. "Raise your hands and turn around!"
Slowly, the suspect did as he was told and Chris swore softly. A boy. Kids were as dangerous as adults, these days, and Chris treated him as such. "On your knees!"
The kid raised his head and their eyes met.
Defiance and something else Chris couldn't name stared back at him. A young face, unmarked by time and too innocent looking to be out on the streets. Long hair, frayed clothes, skinny, he couldn't have been more than twelve.
They locked gazes for a long moment before shouts from Buck had Chris pulling back from the long look. "I said on your knees," Chris said again.
The boy complied, going down onto one knee, then both were on the floor.
"Buck?" Chris shouted, still keeping his gun on the suspect.
"Fine, I'm fine. Nate's taken a good knock to the head though."
"Can you get him over to the clinic? Call it in from there?"
"Already calling it in. It doesn't look that bad, should probably wait to move him."
"One's dead, the other's cuffed. All secure."
Chris kept his eye on the boy, he didn't want to get too close until he was done with Buck. He didn't need his attention wandering. Last time he didn't take an unarmed kid seriously and he'd ended up in the hospital with a knife wound that could have meant the end of his life.
"Face down," Chris ordered and the kid obeyed.
He moved closer, kicking the gun aside before kneeling over the kid and locking the cuffs on him. They were too big, though, and Chris swore. "Buck," he yelled.
"You got any ties on you?"
"Sheesh, we were going to dinner. I don't carry 'em around."
"Kid's too small for the cuffs," Chris said. "How's Nate?"
"Not really with us, pard, but I think he'll be okay."
If Nathan was still out of it, he could have a serious head injury. He grabbed the kid's laced hands and hauled him to his feet. "Stay still," Chris said as the kid squirmed in his grip. The boy hadn't made a sound and Chris almost didn't know what to make of him. Most street punks he dealt with, almost daily, had fast mouths to go along with their fast lives.
Sirens in the distance and Chris hoped they'd get there quick. He had a man down and he needed to get to the bottom of things. The sirens stopped pretty quick and Chris' head snapped up toward the door. Running feet, jangling equipment and he was distracted just long enough for the kid to squirm out of his grip.
"Buck!" he shouted as he took off after the kid.
The boy dove past Buck and Chris followed him, right on his heels. He had at least a foot on the kid, most of it in leg and he chased him down, tackling him when he was close enough. He barely had a grip on him and the kid turned on him, fire in his eyes.
It didn't take long to subdue him, Chris finally resorting to pinning him with his body. He got control of the flailing arms and legs, pinned him to the floor, harder, and held on for all he was worth. For a scrawny kid, he was a wildcat.
More running and a uniformed officer helped him get hold of the kid, then slapped the ties on him. The kid kicked a booted foot out, catching the uniform in the shin and Chris grabbed hold of his legs until the officer could secure his feet, too.
"Wild one," the cop panted as Chris climbed to his feet.
He hauled the kid upright and shoved him at the other cop. "Get him out of my sight. Fucking kids. Don't want to live long enough to have to learn how to shave, I guess."
"What's the charge?"
"Start with resisting, add illegal firearms possession and I'll take over when I get in. Going to be a couple of hours at least. Got a cop down and at least two dead perps."
"Crazy night tonight," the uniform said and Chris nodded.
"You going to walk?" Chris asked the kid, giving him a little shake.
"Don't put me in me lock-up, please... leave me in yer car or something..." the kid pleaded and Chris took another look at him. His voice, deeper than Chris expected, came out in a rasp.
"How old are you?" Chris asked him.
"Fourteen," the boy said and Chris shook his head. Too fucking young.
The boy clamped his mouth shut and Chris looked back to the other cop. "Put him in the kiddie holding cell until this is sorted out and we can question him."
The kid started struggling again and the cop almost lifted him off his feet, leading him away.
"Chris," Buck called out and jogged over. "Nate'll be okay. Josiah's going to meet him at the hospital and stay there until we can get there. You all right?"
"Me?" Chris asked, still picturing the defiant, blue-eyed boy.
"You're filthy and your shirt's ripped."
"Just went a round with a flyweight. Kid thought he could get away from two grown men. Nate tell you what happened?"
"Not yet, he was still seein stars."
"We'll talk to him after we finish the clean up," Chris said as he started back to where it all began.
"Detectives," Buck said, nudging him and pointing.
"Good, we'll only be responsible for our own statements, then. Won't be stuck here all night."
"Yeah, right," Buck snorted.
Movement in his peripheral vision and Chris dove for cover, knocking Buck out of the way.
"Come out with your hands up!" Chris shouted.
"Don't shoot, don't shoot!" from behind a pile of crates and Buck rushed over and hauled a man out of from behind the pile. "Officers! Help! They were shooting and it was loud and that boy!" the man started babbling and Chris wanted to slap him, but wisely moved back a step, instead.
Buck held up his hand. "Whoa there, little fellow, breathe."
An unpleasant scent wafted through Chris' senses: urine. He sighed and turned around to see the kid struggling with the cop, making slow time back toward the warehouse entrance.
"I'm a victim!" the whiny little man nearly cried and Chris nodded to Buck.
"Why don't you tell us what happened," Buck said, much nicer than Chris would have.
"I was mugged by that boy, that one over there!" the man pointed to the kid being dragged away and to Chris, something didn't add up.
"He took me from the street at gunpoint and made me come in here and then all the shooting started!"
The guy was dressed a little nice for this part of town, but Chris kept that to himself for the time being.
"Officer," Chris called out. "Bring that kid back here."
A few moments later and the struggling kid was once again the subject of Chris' scrutiny.
"He the one mugged you?"
"That's him! Can I go now?" the man sniveled out through tears.
"He's a fucking liar! I ain't done nothin wrong!" the kid yelled and started fighting the cop again.
He wasn't big enough to put up much of a fight and the officer hauled him off, but not before he stared at Chris, giving him a look that only said one thing, "help me!"
"Take him back to the station," Chris called out. "We'll let the detectives sort this out, hell this part of the job's theirs." Chris shook off the feeling that he was the one in the wrong and turned back to the mugging victim. "You aren't going anywhere until someone gets your statement and things get sorted out. One of the detectives will take your statement. Sit right there until they do."
Chris nodded to one of the uniformed officers, then gestured to the witness before he walked off back to the scene. Something wasn't adding up and he aimed to find out what.
"Lieutenant Larabee?" Detective Sergeant Flores, violent crimes task force, Chris knew him from joint ops. "You were first on the scene?"
"That body's mine," Chris pointed to the one he'd shot in the head, "and that one over there belongs to Buck."
"Do you know who they are?"
"Nope, should I?"
"Yours is Mariano Martinez. Ring any bells?"
"Shit. This is more than some random mugging."
"Yeah. I'll need your statements and your witnesses."
"The two living perps are being transported now. My man is on the way to the hospital and there's a witness giving his statement to Stein," Chris waved in the general direction of the witness.
"Good. We'll take it from here. Think you can help with the evidence sweep?"
"I'm waiting to hear from the hospital, but Buck and I can stay."
"Captain will want both yours and Wilmington's guns. Officer involved, so he'll probably make an appearance."
"Right," Chris muttered as he walked away. So much for dinner.
Buck flipped his phone shut as Chris approached, a tight smile on his face. "JD's going to spend the night at Mrs. Potter's. Raine's with Nathan - it'll be awhile before we can talk to him."
"Good, we're on evidence."
"Aw hell, Chris. Our night's ruined. One night of relaxation and we gotta walk into a mugging."
"Bigger than a mugging, Buck," Chris said as he pulled on his gloves.
"... and I ran and hid over there," the witness pointed to a stack of crates to Chris' left. Something wasn't right about that man and he aimed to find out just what it was. The officer led him to another part of the warehouse and Chris watched them go, staring hard after them.
"Buck," Chris called. Buck met his eyes and Chris nodded to the area the witness pointed out. He went back to his sweep of the floor, looking for shell casings. Each shot fired would be assigned a gun and every angle would be mapped until the entire story was down on paper. He'd been in enough shoot-outs to know how these things went down. One of the reasons he liked SWAT so much was the fact he didn't usually have to participate in the tedium that followed.
"Chris!" from Buck and Chris turned to see what was so urgent.
Buck held an evidence bag in the air. His lips pressed in a thin line, Chris knew Buck's body language well enough to know anger when he saw it. He glanced around to see if they had an audience before hurrying over to Buck's side.
"Nice and fresh," Chris said as he saw what Buck held.
"That kid didn't mug that guy."
"Nope," Chris said as he took the evidence bag into his gloved hand. "But it looks like we might have two witnesses to what went down. Get everything you can from this section. We need to take a closer look at that gun I took off the kid. Something isn't adding up." Chris went off in search of the witness, make that perp.
He found him sitting on a packing crate, still shaking, his pants still wet. Chris nodded to the cop standing over the witness. The officer backed off a bit and Chris loomed over the man. "You want to tell me the truth now?"
"Wh-wha- truth?" he sputtered. It only made Chris angrier.
"You aren't some victim of a random mugging and we both know it."
"I don't know what you're talking about," and he did start crying.
"You're under arrest," Chris said. "Stand up and put your hands behind your back."
"You can't arrest me! What's the charge?"
"Criminal sexual penetration of a minor," Chris said, keeping his tone even. "Fourth degree felony and that carries a mandatory eighteen month sentence, asshole." Chris held up the evidence bag, turning it around so the guy could see exactly what he held. "I would lay odds that your DNA is inside the condom and the kid's spit outside. Now tell me what went down here and you might get the DA to reduce the charge."
"I didn't know he wasn't eighteen and you can't prove I did!" the perp shouted and Chris had enough.
"Take him downtown and book him," He said to the officer. He turned back to the perp and gave him the once over. "The man that interrupted the little party is a police officer. We'll have his statement soon enough, we don't need you."
"Wait!" the man yelled, voice going high and pleading. "I picked up the kid about half a mile down, in the park, and it was raining and the restrooms were locked and I didn't want him in my car. He said he knew a place, so we came here."
Throat clearing just behind him and Chris turned his head enough to see Buck backing him.
"Find something, Buck?" Chris asked him.
"Nice little piece that kid had. How do 'ya think a fourteen year old, probably a street kid, got his hands on a Baretta?"
Chris didn't let his surprise show, instead went along with Buck. "Kid looked like he missed a few meals. Maybe he was saving for that gun."
"Now I wonder what we'll come up with when we run this little beauty, what do you think, Chris?"
"I'm not saying another word until I speak to my lawyer," the handcuffed perp whined and Chris glared at him.
He would get to the bottom of this, one way or another. "You heard the man," Chris said to the cop. "Take him to lock up. Let's go, Buck, we finish up here, we'll go see what Nathan has to say." Chris grabbed some evidence markers from the pile and went back to work on his section of the grid. He knew he was in for a long night and put his head into work mode. It wasn't hard, it was all he had, really.
Chris let Buck out at the door to the emergency room and went to park the truck. Fours hours of going over the crime scene and they still didn't have the whole story. Maybe Nathan could fill in the blanks.
As Chris walked into the brightly lit emergency room, he spotted Raine and Buck, locked in a tight hug. Raine's face a mask of calm, she looked right at home. She should, this was the hospital where she spent her days working.
"He's all right?" Chris asked.
"He'll be released soon," Raine told him. She released Buck and gave Chris one of the quick hugs she'd learned he'd tolerate. "He has a concussion, but with his hard head, he'll be fine."
"Good," Chris said, backing off another step. "He up for a talk?"
"He's been asking for you two since about an hour after he was brought in," Raine said, her face still a mask of calm. A brief break in the mask and Chris led her down the corridor.
"He's part of the most dangerous unit in the city and he's attacked working at the clinic! It's not right, Chris."
He tightened his grip around her shoulders and headed back toward the treatment area. He let her lead them once he passed the nursing station. A few steps into the emergency room and Raine led them to a private treatment area.
The lights low, Chris could barely make out Nathan's outline in the bed.
"Chris, Buck," Nathan called softly. "Everyone all right? How about that kid? I don't know where he came from, but if he wasn't there, I'd be in the morgue 'bout now, instead of wishing I was there."
"Head hurt that bad?" Buck asked as he took a seat.
"What do you mean if it weren't for the kid?" Chris asked.
"I started pulling boxes out of storage and I heard voices. Followed them and saw a kid... a different kid... and Martinez and his crew. Went closer for a better look and got made. Kid lit outta there and one of Martinez's guys got the drop on me. Shoulda waited for backup." Nathan shrugged, then leaned back against the pillows.
"Damn right you should have," Buck said, adding a punch to Nathan's shoulder.
"Hey! Like you would have," Nathan said, smacking Buck back.
"What happened, Nate?"
"One of the other ones came at me with some rope... think he planned on strangling me with it, when that other kid, the little one, popped up from behind some crates, waving a pretty big piece."
"Kept that ugly fellow from garroting me, but Martinez didn't like his party being interrupted and he pistol-whipped me. Don't remember much after that 'cept your ugly mugs." Raine made a face at him and Nathan held up his hands. "Not you, sweetheart, those two ugly mugs," Nathan said as he made a face at Chris and Buck. "Should never have asked for your help. Trouble follows you two around."
"Weren't us, this time, Nate. Maybe you'll have some sympathy for us, next time something like this happens to us!" Buck joked.
Chris held up his hand for quiet. "Wait a minute - you're saying the long haired kid saved your ass?"
"Sure did. Gotta thank him. Where's he at?"
"I sent him to lockup."
"What?" Nathan asked.
"It looked like he was one of them from where we stood."
"He was in the right place at the right time to save my ass, Chris. I think he might have known the other kid too... kept looking around like he was looking for someone. Had nerves of steel for such a little guy."
Buck snorted. "Yeah, well, he ain't no innocent, no matter how little he is. Kid was turning a trick."
Raine pushed forward from where she stood against the wall. "Are you talking about a boy about this tall, long, wavy, brown hair? Pretty blue eyes, real good looking boy?"
"That's him," Chris said. "You know him?"
"Sure do. His friend is probably the other kid you're looking for. Reddish brown hair, a little older, green eyes. Dresses nice for a street kid."
"You got names, Raine?"
"The younger one is Vin. Comes in a couple times a month for free condoms and he's had some blood tests. He won't ever let us examine him, but from what I could see, he's doing all right, health wise. I've tried to talk him into going to Safe Haven, but he doesn't want to hear it. He's a nice kid. I don't hear ma'am from too many of the kids I see at the clinic."
"I need to talk to him," Chris said. "And his friend."
"Wait for me, pard," Buck called as Chris headed out.
Chris broke the speeding laws getting back to the station house. Hell, the kid was telling him the truth and he didn't listen, just sent him away to lock up. Little kid like that, living on the streets, turning tricks; he had enough problems, but he stepped up and faced down three armed adults to save a man's life. And Chris treated him like a criminal. And he knew better. He knew the second he locked eyes with that boy that the kid wasn't a thief or a drug-runner or a mugger. But he'd ignored his gut because he'd been too busy. He'd made a snap judgment and it had been wrong. But he could still fix things.
He pushed away the little voice that asked him why he cared. Why he wasn't just heading home to his bed and bottle like he'd promised himself earlier.
He'd talk the kid into going to Safe Haven and then once he had his statement and testimony, maybe he could talk him into going home, or maybe set him up with a case worker. Get him back in the system. Fourteen was too damn young to be on his own and no one should have to sell their body to eat, least of all a little boy who looked all of twelve.
Whoa, there, pard," Buck called out as he took the corner into the police department parking lot a little too quickly. "Where's the damn fire. Kid's probably asleep by now. Can't just set him loose, anyway. Not this time of night and not without a guardian."
"I called Safe Haven while I was waiting for you, they're waiting up for us. Kid doesn't belong in jail."
"You're assuming he'll go. Little guy doesn't seem all that cooperative." Buck went silent for a minute, gathering his thoughts.
Must have had something to say that Chris might not want to hear. Buck didn't usually take his time before speaking.
"Chris," Buck sighed. "Kids like that... they usually can't be saved. It's too late for them. God knows, I seen it enough. He might be a lost cause already. I don't want to see you get hurt, Chris. First person you take interest in in three years and I don't want to see it go bad."
"Can't be saved? I'm not trying to save him, just get him out of lockup because he doesn't belong there, Buck. And when did you start giving up on people? He's only fourteen."
"You ain't seen what I have, Chris. I don't care how long you're a cop. You ain't never gonna know these street kids and what their lives are like like I do. Sometimes, you see too much too early and there ain't never any getting over it."
Chris tried to remember the talks he had with Buck before Buck agreed to take in his little half-brother. Buck tried to tell him something like this back then, too. But Buck was ready to fight the devil himself to take in that boy. Must be different when it's family.
"I know what you're thinking and JD ain't the same. He saw some stuff a little kid shouldn't. But, Chris... I never told you this. One of the reasons I went in the Corps was to get off the streets of Vegas. Sure I had a home, and a mother, but I spent all my time running the streets. I'd be a big old Mack Daddy by now if I stayed. I didn't want that life, Chris. You don't know what it does to these kids to be chewed up and spit out until there ain't nothin left but little pieces. Most always there ain't enough left to put 'em back together. Always missing a few pieces that they ain't ever gonna get back."
Chris gave him a sideways look. "You know that from experience?"
Buck cleared his throat, but his voice was still tight when he answered. "Yeah, I do. And let me tell you... when you try to help one of these kids, and you let yourself care, only to realize there's nothin' you can do, it tears you up inside. You got to trust me. You let yourself get too caught up in these kids, you end up raw from it."
Chris sighed, thought on that for minute. Buck might be right about investing too much, but it didn't mean they shouldn't do the right thing when the time came. "I think you're thinking about this too much, Buck. I'm getting him out of lock up for the night."
"Why? He's fine there. He'll be in the juvie holding area. Nothing going to happen to him. Probably safer there than where he usually sleeps, Chris."
Chris shook his head. "You didn't see his face when he begged me not to send him there."
"For someone who don't give a shit, Chris, you sure got guilt down pat."
"It isn't guilt. It's... well... I can't explain. It's just a feeling in my gut."
Stepping into the booking and holding area proved a surreal experience, this Friday night. Not since he worked a regular shift had Chris been in central booking on a Friday night. SWAT only worked nights and weekends on call and they never had a reason to come into this madhouse on a friday night.
Chris sidestepped a bickering group of transvestites, who seemed to be there only to take up space. Buck tried to get past them too, but one reached out to him, calling 'darling.' She was six inches taller than Buck in her pumps.
"How's that animal magnetism working for you now, Buck?"
It took a full ten minutes for them to make their way to the desk sergeant, through the sea of bodies and the ear-splitting noise. Ringing phones, shouting people, drunks, men, women, kids in gang colors. Chris wished he had a weapon to shoot in the air. Well, that he could *think* about shooting in the air to call for quiet. Sometimes he wished he lived in simpler times.
He finally fought his way to the desk, calling out over the noise, "I'm looking for a kid brought in between seven and eight. You probably couldn't get a name out of him. Claims to be fourteen, looks about twelve?"
It took him a minute, but the sergeant finally placed him. "Booked on resisting arrest and a firearms charge?"
"That'd be him.
"It's been a crazy night in here Lieutenant. It might take awhile to track him down."
"Track him down? What about the juvenile detention cells?"
"Full to over flowing. The gang task force pulled in a passel of gangbangers tonight."
Chris waited for the information, glancing at Buck every so often, watching the room the rest of the time. What a madhouse! Crime was down all over the city, so far this year, but you'd never guess that from the looks of this place tonight.
"Found him. John Doe, still waiting on prints to come back, but we could have them by now. We're jammed up tight here, guys."
"Can someone bring him to interrogation?"
"Can you go get him yourself? I got no one to spare."
"Where is he?"
"Down in three. We had to put about half the juvies into the adult units -- but with each other, not the adults."
"He's not with the bangers, is he?"
"We couldn't put the violent kids in with the drunks, Lieutenant, you know that."
"That's a yes, then?"
The sergeant nodded to Chris before someone else grabbed his attention.
"C'mon, Buck, we have to get him out of there. Shit."
Chris hurried down the hallways, toward the holding cells, he didn't wait to see if Buck was behind him. Through three secure areas and he was facing the officer on duty.
"We need to get a kid out of there," Chris said as soon as he had the officer's attention.
"Just got them tucked in Lieu, you sure you want to wake 'em up? I've been running my ass off down here all night."
"It's important," Chris told him and the officer shrugged.
The place reeked of vomit and urine and sweat and Chris set himself as the bars swung open. A long corridor stretched out ahead of him, holding cells on one side, grey, dirty wall on the other.
Halfway down the hallway and they could hear cat calls and whistling.
"Damn it, I was here ten minutes ago and it was quiet. I've already broken up three fights tonight. Kids are worse than the adults."
Chris kept pace as the officer increased his strides, getting a bad feeling in his gut again.
Bodies blocked their view into the cell. At least ten of them, all shapes and sizes, most wearing gang colors.
Yelling, whistling and Chris' gut feeling ratcheted a notch higher.
One voice, over the ruckus, clearly ringing out, "Puto! Meterla de mira quien viene, then I'm going to kill you, guero maricon."
"Get him Flavio," another voice followed by cheers and catcalls.
"Think you can take me, guero? You gonna wish you was dead!"
"Fuck!" the officer yelled, startling Chris. He reached for his radio, clicking the mouthpiece attached to his uniform. "Open three, open three, now!" He pulled his nightstick and hit the bars a couple of times. "Back me," he called over his shoulder to Chris and Buck.
Chris didn't think, he waded into the melee behind the guard, pushing bodies aside.
Oh god, there he was.
"Back off," the officer yelled, "get off him!"
Chris let the officer handle the attacker and he crouched to help Vin to his feet. The boy wouldn't look at him, and Chris gave him a moment to pull up his pants and wipe the blood off his face before reaching out to help him to his feet.
"Don't touch me, asshole!"
Chris looked back over his shoulder, made eye contact with Buck, who was busy keeping the rest of the teens back. Buck shook his head, slightly, then went back to corralling the rest of the boys against the bars.
"Can you walk?" Chris asked quietly.
"Of course I kin walk," he panted out.
"Lieutenant? I gotta take this one to isolation. Can you get him," he pointed to Vin, who was sitting against the wall, arms wrapped around himself, "up front? He's going to need to be transported to the hospital. Fuck, what a night," he said as he led the bigger boy away.
Buck held the rest of the kids back while Chris decided how to handle this particular kid.
"Let's get you out of here," he finally said.
Chris reached out a hand to calm the kid's shaking but he darted away from Chris' outstretched hand. Chris moved slower, reaching for him again and gently placed two fingers on his chin. He didn't flinch this time and Chris applied a little pressure, getting him to look up.
No tears, and that shocked Chris more than the blood and the nicely blackening eye.
"Looks like you might need some stitches," Chris said quietly. "Why don't you get up off that filthy floor and we'll get you taken care of."
"I begged you not to send me here!" Anger, defiance, and more hurt than Chris cared to see, met him stare for stare and Chris had enough.
"Well I came back for you, kid, and it's a good thing too, let's go."
The boy got himself to his feet, violently pushing away Chris' offered arm. Chris resisted the urge to put a hand on his shoulder and guide him out of the cell.
The walk up front passed in silence, even from Buck. About to leave the holding area, Buck called, "Once we're up front, I'll go get your truck."
Chris turned to the silent boy. He walked between them, head ducked, shoulders bowed. He flinched every time someone walked by and Chris used his body to block the boy off from the rest of the room. Buck took up position on his other side and Chris bent over so he was eye to eye with the kid.
"Do you need an ambulance?" he asked softly.
A slight shake of his head and Chris couldn't let it go just yet.
"You going to be all right for a few minutes? I need to take care of a couple of things before I can take you to be looked at."
This time a slight nod and Chris straightened up. What he wanted to do was get an ambulance there, pronto, and turn the kid over, but he couldn't do it. Not to the kid and not to himself.
Chris led the kid to an interrogation room and pointed at the table. "Have a seat, I'm going to sign you out, then we're going to the clinic."
"Then what?" the kid spat out.
"We'll take it from there, all right? Chris Larabee, by the way," Chris said before closing the door and locking the boy in the room.
He stopped at the duty desk on the way to his office. "I need someone to keep an eye on the kid in two. He got roughed up pretty bad, sexually assaulted, possibly raped. Don't leave him unobserved for more than a minute at a time, but don't go in there. And," Chris said, holding up his hand before the sergeant could protest, "I don't care how busy it is. All that happened to him, *here.* We have a responsibility to that boy."
No argument and Chris headed off to finish his errand.
He wound his way to his own office, looking for a little relief from the insanity around him. What if he was just five minutes later? Hell, it looked like he was five minutes too late as it was. Kid prone, face pushed into the floor, bleeding, pants around his knees, bigger body pushing him into the filth, maybe pushing into him and Chris reached out blindly, swept everything off his desk and slammed his fist onto it. He got ahold of himself a minute later and snagged his desk phone from the floor.
He checked his watch; almost one but he had to make the phone call, no matter the time.
"Judge Travis," he said when a sleep-filled voice came over the line. "Chris Larabee."
He took his time explaining the situation, asked for a material witness warrant and a temporary placement. Fifteen minutes later and he stood at the door to the interrogation room, soda in hand. He hadn't meant to leave the kid for so long, but someone would have called him if there was a problem.
"Thanks for letting me bring him here, Buck."
"You didn't leave me much choice. Why didn't you take him to Safe Haven like you planned?" Buck threw his arms out wide, obviously exasperated.
"Did you look in his eyes, Buck?" Chris asked softly. He took a sip of his coffee, hiding his face with the large mug.
"Don't need to. I seen it already, too many times." Buck turned his back to him.
"Why are you being such an ass?"
Buck swung back around to look at him, and Chris was a little thrown by the sadness written on his face. "Because I got JD to look out for. Kid like that will bring nothing but trouble and I can't afford to care that it ain't his fault, Chris!"
"You could have been him, Buck."
Buck shook a finger at him, working himself up but good, Chris thought. "Don't even think about trying that guilt crap with me. You think I don't know how lucky I was? That's exactly why I was so hell bent on making a difference once I got out of the Corps, and why I spent those next two years in Vegas."
"So did you?" Chris asked, needing to know. "Make a difference?"
Buck swiped his hands over his face. "I tried, anyway. Enough that I can sleep at night."
Chris nodded. That meant that Buck had given it his damnedest and come out of it bruised inside when he failed. Chris cocked his head, listening. Shower was still running and so they had a few more minutes to talk before the kid showed up. Much as he understood Buck's reluctance to take another chance after all he'd seen, Chris felt in his gut that they owed this kid something, even if Chris didn't know exactly what.
And he just couldn't get Raine's report out of his head. She'd examined the boy earlier; Chris knew she'd be gentle with him, wouldn't spook him. He'd been to her clinic before, knew her on sight. Raine wanted to help, wanted to volunteer even though she'd had a rough night, too.
No signs of drug use, initial tox screen clear. Three stitches to his brow, five in his lower lip, bruises all over his torso and back, no broken ribs or internal injuries. Pictures taken, evidence collected and the kid had been surprisingly docile, according to Raine.
Her opinion was he'd gone somewhere else during the medical exam - it was quite common, she assured him. He balked at the pictures, but if Chris wanted to take him home, they needed before pictures. Buck's idea, Captain's orders. No way could the kid later claim Chris or Buck inflicted any of his injuries.
Chris read the last page of the report three times before it sunk in. Standard rape kit. Negative, but with scarring consistent with a prior violent sexual assault. That one line kept flashing in his head. What was wrong with people, they could do that?
"That his file?" Buck asked with a sigh.
Chris held back his grin... he had a feeling Buck wouldn't turn his back on that kid. He also understood now just what kind of risk it was for Buck, and for more than JD.
"Hand it over, let's see what we invited into our house."
Chris handed over the file, but kept the medical file in front of him. Buck didn't need to read it to know what it said.
"Vin Tanner. Fourteen, almost fifteen. He sure is little, ain't he?" Buck asked with a grin. "When I was that age, I was near on six feet already."
"Not me," Chris said. His voice felt rusty, unused and he cleared his throat. "It's why I played baseball and hockey instead of football and basketball. Going into my sophomore year, I wasn't more than 5'4"."
"So there's still hope for JD?" Buck asked with a chuckle. He read silently for a few minutes, shaking his head now and then.
"He's never done anything violent, Buck. Only been arrested twice, never charged."
"You mean he's never been caught. Why aren't we shipping him back to Texas?"
Chris sighed. He knew Buck had to play tough, for his own protection. A heart that big needed to be guarded now and then. "He's a material witness now. I called their twenty-four hour hotline and, well, they don't want him."
"But he's theirs."
"Yeah, and he spent four years in orphanages because they didn't have enough foster homes. The woman on the phone said that since it's been two years since his first arrest, he's a legal resident of New Mexico now."
Buck snorted. "Ain't that just convenient."
"It won't be permanent, Buck. If we put him in care, he'd take off and we'd lose our witness. He's a chronic runaway, going back before he was nine years old."
"Fine. He can stay here for a spell, but he's never alone with JD, you got that?"
Chris nodded. It was something, at least. "I don't want to put JD at risk any more than you do."
Buck shot him a narrow look. "You don't even know what kinda risk this is. All we know about that boy is what he did tonight, and what's in these files. What I'm seeing here in these reports don't exactly inspire confidence, Chris."
Movement in the shadows and he glanced up in time to see Vin backing away from the doorway, jeans on, but his shirt wrapped in a tight fist. Shit, he forgot to listen for the shower turning off.
"Oh no you don't," Buck shouted to the retreating figure. "Come in here, we got some talking to do, kid."
Chris waited while Vin hesitated in the doorway; he was sure the boy was going to bolt, and wasn't sure he'd hold it against him.
Buck sighed big, but made no move toward the boy. "First things first, Vin. You're in our custody. That means we're in charge whether you like it or not."
"Buck," Chris warned. It was too much, too soon.
Buck surprised him, though, by following up in a slightly gentler tone. "Vin, go finished getting dressed then come back in here and I'll cook you up some eggs. I can't cook nothing fancy like Chris does, but I make a mean pile of eggs."
A moment of hesitation and Vin was gone, presumably to go get dressed, like he'd been told.
Buck turned an angry glare at him, then. "Dammit, Chris. You got no clue."
Chris felt his blood pressure rising, felt himself getting angry, wanted a drink, but didn't feel like fighting with Buck about that, too.
"That kid ain't used to listenin to no one but himself. You let him do that now, too, and he's gonna be a handful and a half. Hell, it ain't like we're going to make him do anything that ain't right for him, but he's a child, not a man. He needs guidance. Fastest way to lose that boy is to give him too much space. He had that already and look where it got him."
Chris stood with his hands on his hips. "You call having to live on the streets having too much space? Well, I won't let you terrorize him, he's had too much of that, too. Or have you forgotten he was nearly raped just a few hours ago?"
"No I ain't forgotten. He's fine."
"What the hell do you mean, he's fine. He was seconds away from being raped in front of an audience!"
"Whenever it happened to my mother, it didn't really affect her, either. Not on the outside, anyway. Risk of the trade, Chris. I'm sure it wasn't the first time."
Chris' mind flashed back to the medical report. He was right, Buck didn't need to read it. "How the fuck can you sit there so calm and say those words, Buck. What is your problem tonight!"
"My problem is I'm getting pulled into something I made a point of leaving behind! Why do you think I almost quit back when they wanted to put me on vice! We gotta lay down the law with this kid, let him know where we stand and where he stands."
"Just remember what I said, don't you dare terrorize that boy!"
Buck rolled his eyes. "Aw hell, Chris. You ever known me to terrorize anyone? We both know that's your department." Buck's expression softened and he let out a sigh. "'Sides, I couldn't terrorize that boy if I tried. Kid ain't afraid of much, I seen that already. Hard to be afraid of something when you already survived the worst life has to offer. My momma used to laugh at this one pimp when he beat her... used to get right in his face and scream 'That all you got!' - short of killing her, he couldn't do anything hadn't already been done to her. That leaves a person pretty much unafraid of anything."
"I had no idea, Buck. Shit, I didn't want to dredge this shit up on you... just... you saw him, Buck. We couldn't leave him there."
"Well, you'd best prepare yourself then, that boy's got an attitude." Buck raised his hand, prepared for Chris' renewed anger. "I'm not sayin he ain't got the right to that attitude, Chris. Damn it, hear me out!"
"Tell me something that makes sense and doesn't include the fact that he's a lost cause and we may as well toss him out with the trash, and maybe I'll listen. "
Buck's hard stare softened, and the pain was easier to see. "You don't understand these kids. You don't understand what it is they learn to do, just to survive. They're like... caged animals sometimes, Chris. Unpredictable. You never know when they're gonna decide to steal from you and sneak off in the night, or when they'll do something worse. It's all they know, and they know it because it's what they've had to do, just to make sure they'd wake up in the morning. Life or death, and these kids choose life. The ones who survive aren't kids anymore, Chris."
Chris dropped his head for a second, as Buck's words hit home. "And you blame them for that?"
Buck's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. "No, I don't blame 'em. Not at all. And that's kinda my whole point. Can't blame 'em for having survival instincts, but knowing they have them, we have to be realistic about them, or this will go sour faster than I already suspect it will."
Chris got that. He wasn't trying to pin unrealistic expectations on Vin-- or themselves. He just wanted to give the kid a chance, and he wanted Buck to do the same.
At that thought, he peered around the corner, wondering if Vin was trying to listen again. Buck caught his eyes, and Chris nodded to him. He and Buck could finish this later.
"You can come back in here, kid," Buck called out.
Just a couple seconds later, he came around the corner. "Name ain't kid. It's Vin."
"We know," Buck told him as he kicked a chair out.
Buck rose and stretched, patting Vin on the shoulder as he walked past him. It was the first sympathetic gesture he'd made, and Chris was aware that it hadn't been easy. "Now what do you want to drink while I cook you some eggs? We got milk, apple juice and I think we might have some juice boxes back in there somewhere."
"Coke's good," Vin said, his voice still hard and tight.
"I didn't say coke, did I?" Buck asked him, smiling a smile Chris knew was fake. So much for sympathy, Chris thought, shooting Buck a not-so-nice smile of his own.
"Milk," Vin mumbled.
"All right," Buck answered, his expression loosening a little as he poured, then put the glass on the table.
"You like cheese in your eggs?" Buck asked.
Vin shook his head no.
Buck stood in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open."You gotta speak up, tell me what you like or you ain't gonna get it."
"Salsa," Vin answered, so soft Chris wasn't sure if Buck could hear him.
"That's better. Got some right here. Got hot, red hot and take the hair off your balls."
"Hot's good," Vin said, a little louder this time.
"See, now we're communicating," Buck said with a little more genuine smile. "And while we're at it, no hiding in doorways listening to other people's talk. I know you want to get the lay of the land before you commit, but it's disrespectful. You want to know what we're talking about, you come in the room."
Vin hung his head, but didn't argue. Look on the kid's face almost had Chris out of his chair, ready to stop whatever Buck thought he was doing. Hell, if Chris had walked in and heard people talking about him, he'd sure as hell stand there and listen, and Buck sure as hell would, too. If Buck wanted to lay down the law, fine, but he could damn well pick something better than that.
Hell. Then again, maybe Buck was feeling his way through this, same as Chris. He decided maybe he could cut Buck the break that he wanted Buck to cut Vin. So he kept quiet, letting Buck get his legs under himself.
Buck scrambled a dozen eggs and set them out on the table. "You take what you want and you fill your belly. Don't worry about what it costs or what we want from you for it. We both got jobs and the only thing we want outta you is the truth."
Vin mumbled something, but Chris didn't hear what it was, and obviously Buck didn't either.
"Either speak, or don't, but no in between."
Vin didn't say anything else, just ate what was on his plate, not looking at either of them. Chris dug into the eggs he scooped out onto his own plate. He needed his mouth full or he would jump in.
"Chris took a liking to you, kid. That don't happen very often. Hardly never and I known him a long time."
Vin's head shot up and he looked first to Buck, then to Chris, then back down to his plate.
Buck sighed, ran his hands through his hair, then spoke. "You probably think I don't like you and that just ain't the truth." Buck took a big bite of his own meal, knocked some more around on his plate for a second before he started in again. "I got a little brother I'm responsible for. And I don't know you. You don't know me. I'm not askin you to trust *me* because I know you won't until you know me. Two way street, kid. That's all I'm saying."
Chris could see where Buck was going with this. Fact was, though, the kid earned some of their trust already. Just as he was about to remind Buck of that little bit of truth, Buck put down his fork and leaned forward towards Vin.
"I'm giving you straight talk cause I reckon you can spot a con or a snowjob a mile away. I'm not gonna blow smoke up your ass, Vin. But I will tell you one thing. Only reason you're sitting here in this house instead of lock-up right now is because you saved Nathan. Now don't be getting all mad at me, there. It's not because you saved Nathan so we figure we owe you. That's not it. It's because you coulda just walked away but something inside you told you to risk your own scrawny neck for someone you don't even know. I reckon that says more about you than anything else we know. Or anything else we seen."
Chris looked at Buck, gave him a small smile of thanks for the acknowledgement he'd given Vin. Buck shrugged back at him, then cleared his throat and picked up his fork again. Chris was at a loss, thinking about which of the three of them was having the roughest time at the moment.
Vin finished the eggs on his plate, but it looked like he was having to swallow harder to get them down, and he still wasn't looking at either of them.
"Eat more if you're hungry. Have another glass of milk if you're thirsty. I know you ain't used to the idea, but you'll get used to it."
"Buck," Chris said softly. "he's had a long day."
Buck looked at him, nodded, then looked back at Vin. "You hurting, Vin?" Buck asked.
He shook his head no, still not looking at either of them.
"All right, then," Chris said. "Let's get you settled on the couch. I think we could all use a little sleep."
Vin finally looked up, surprise on his face. "You ain't gonna make me talk first?"
"It'll keep till morning," Chris answered, holding Vin's eyes long enough for Vin to get a good look and judge that he meant what he said.
Buck stood, and reached for Vin's plate. "I'll take care of this. You two get the couch ready. It's pretty big, and I've crashed on it enough to know you'll be comfortable."
Vin nodded, then hung his head again, and it looked to Chris like the boy was trying to shrink on himself, make himself smaller and less noticeable. Good move on the street, Chris thought, but not too useful in a house this small, with only a few people in it. No way would Vin go unnoticed here.
And that reminded him. "Just so you know, the security system is set. If you make a break for it, we'll know it the second you do. So just do yourself a favor, and get a good, long sleep."
Vin didn't look up, but Chris didn't miss the way his shoulders hunched, hearing Chris' words. Chris looked up at Buck and grinned at his raised eyebrows. Chris wanted to give the boy a chance, but he wasn't an idiot. He was a cop, after all. Didn't have to have been a street kid to know that escape would be on Vin's mind.
Chris looked expectantly at the boy, waiting for him to follow. Instead he went and stood in front of Buck. "Thanks for dinner, it was good," Vin said to Buck before following Chris.
"You're welcome," Buck said in return. "Now if that don't beat all," Chris heard him mutter as he led Vin to the living room.
He made up the sofa with sheets and blankets, added a fresh pillowcase to one of his own pillows and pointed at the couch. "Hop in," he said as he reached for the light.
"You want me to leave the light on?" Chris asked quietly, not wanting to make a big deal over the boy's fear.
"Please," came out as nearly a whisper.
"Tough waking up in a strange place, it's all right."
Chris turned to see what the kid needed. The pure, naked fear rolling off him in waves nearly knocked Chris over.
"Thanks," Vin whispered, tears streaming down his face as he choked out the word.
Chris never was good with emotional tears. Tears over a skinned knee, a caught finger, he was good with those, knew how to sooth the hurt, but this, he didn't even know where to begin.
Buck popped his head in while Chris stood there, trying to figure out how to give the boy something he obviously needed.
"Hey, going to bed," Buck called out. One look at the kid's face and Buck came to his side and pulled him into a hug, completely engulfing him.
Chris would have given him space to get himself together and he would have been wrong.
Long minutes passed and Chris dropped into the chair next to the couch. Finally, exhaustion won out and Vin fell asleep, still wrapped in Buck's arms.
Buck leaned him back into the cushions, pulled his feet up and covered him with a blanket. He gave Chris a strange look and shook his head.
"Didn't figure the kid had any tears left in him. Might be some hope for that boy yet. Night."
Buck left before Chris could ask him anything else. Chris spent long minutes staring at Vin before he too decided enough was enough and called it a night.
Vin rolled over and sighed, snuggling down into the soft bedding. He couldn't remember ever being so comfortable. His bed downtown sure as hell didn't feel this nice. His eyes shot open then, and he bolted up to sitting, with a soft gasp. He looked all around the room, trying to get his bearings.
Hell. He was at those cops' place, he remembered. He flopped back to his pillow, then, relaxing. At least he was safe enough, here. He didn't quite have Chris and Buck figured out, but he'd seen enough of them to believe they genuinely cared that he was off the street and fed, at least for the night.
He even believed they didn't want anything else out of him, except what they wanted from him as a witness. He groaned at that thought, wishing he could put his hands around Ezra's neck right then. Vin knew he'd have to rat on Ezra, but he didn't have to like it. As big a pain in the ass as Ezra could be, he was a friend, and it really wasn't in Vin's nature to rat on friends. It was Ezra's own fault this time, though, and that made the decision easier.
Vin rolled on his side again, looking around the room until he spotted the time lit up on the VCR across from him. Coming up on 5:30am, so of course Ezra would have only recently crawled into bed. Too bad, Vin decided, and quietly moved his blankets aside.
He couldn't get out of there, and didn't know where he'd go if he could since the first place they'd look was his hangout by the warehouse, so he'd just have to warn Ezra by phone. Besides, Vin needed to do something to make sure Ezra didn't get any ideas about raiding his stuff. Could only trust friends like Ezra so far, Vin knew.
Vin tiptoed to the kitchen, then lifted the receiver from the wall unit. He punched in Ezra's cell number, then leaned against the wall and slid down. Cord was plenty long enough.
Mumbling in his ear was definitely Ezra.
"Ezra. It's Vin."
"It is a deplorable hour, Vin. It better be important."
"Oh, it's important, asshole. You fucked up this time," Vin whispered harshly.
"Care to explain that, or am I a clairvoyant this morning. This very early morning, I remind you," Ezra said, snooty as ever.
"You just had to play like you was one of the big boys, huh," Vin told him, his patience thin.
"I have no idea what you're going on about," Ezra said, sounding bored.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about! I saw you. I saw you sneaking out of the warehouse last night!"
"Will you calm yourself, Vin?"
Vin gritted his teeth. "I ain't in any mood to be calm. You got me mixed up in your dirty business, you idiot."
Ezra sighed. "I wasn't expecting rain, Vin. I thought you'd be conducting your own filthy little trade in the park."
"You ain't changing the subject that easy. You didn't just get me mixed up in this, you brought that shady shit to some good people," Vin said, trying to keep his voice down.
"Ah, so that's it again. Our little whore with the social conscience," Ezra replied, getting snide.
Vin's jaw clenched. "Call me whore all you want. I don't take what don't belong to me, and I don't let my business hurt good people."
"No, you just let whoever has enough cash debase your body. You are a picture of nobility." Ezra's sarcasm bit, but Vin had to let it go. Couldn't let himself get distracted, even if Ezra was damn good at that.
"Ezra... you ain't even asked where I am," Vin said, taunting just a little. Ezra kept his mouth shut at that, and Vin knew he had his attention. "I got picked up, dumbass."
"Where exactly are you?" Ezra asked, and finally Vin sensed nervousness.
"Couple of cops got me with them. I'm a witness, now Ezra; they got me in what they call protective custody," Vin told him, matter of fact.
"Good lord. Don't tell me you talked?" Ezra hissed.
"I talked enough. But I figured I owed your sorry ass just enough to warn you not to go poking around my place. That's the first place they'll be watchin out for you."
Ezra was quiet for a second. "I don't understand. You betray me, and yet you warn me?"
"I only owe you so much, Ezra. Letting you know is the best I can do. If you hadn't got me pulled into your mess, and if your games with them criminals hadn't got a good man hurt, you wouldn't be in trouble right now. You got nobody to blame but you," Vin told him, and he meant every word.
"Good man? There are no good men in those business dealings," Ezra argued.
"That was Dr. Jackson's husband those thugs got, Ezra. Them people at the clinic are the only decent people within miles of that neighborhood. I done warned you that if you wanted to play gangster, you best not bring it to that block," Vin grated.
"And I have told you that I will do what I have to," Ezra replied, sounding really frustrated. Too bad, Vin thought.
"Worked out real good, too, didn't it? Them big time players weren't takin you seriously then, and they ain't gonna take you seriously now. Hell, one of 'em is dead now. That make you happy?" Vin asked, feeling himself get worked up, despite trying to keep his cool.
"All right, all right! You want to hear me admit that I wasn't exactly successful? I admit it. Does that make *you* happy?"
"I ain't happy at all, Ezra. I done talked to them cops, and when they get up in a while, I'm gonna have to tell them the rest. I don't like ratting you out, but you ain't giving me any choice. I'm doing what's right by them, and I'm telling you now, so I can do what's right by you."
Vin swallowed hard, a knot having formed in his throat to match the one in his stomach.
Ezra sighed hard, then finally spoke, breaking the tense silence. "I take it you're all right, at least?"
"Didn't have the best time in lock-up, but I'll live," Vin answered him softly.
"And the doctor's husband?" Ezra asked, sounding just a little bit anxious.
"Got a good knock on the head, but he'll be all right, too."
"What the--" Ezra's voice became muffled, and it sounded like the phone got dropped.
More muffled sounds, and then Vin heard Ezra's voice, clearly but distantly. "Take your hands off me, you philistine!"
"Ezra!" Vin called out. "What the hell's going on?"
Movement out of the corner of his eye, and Vin scrambled to his knees, turning. Chris stood there, leaning against the kitchen doorway, arms crossed over his chest.
"That'd be a few uniforms come to pick him up," Chris said, amused grin on his face. He waved a cell phone in his hand, then put it in his pocket. "Figured you'd try to contact him, so we had an officer ready to trace the call."
Vin stood, replaced the phone on the cradle, and cocked his head, more curious than anything, now that his damn heartbeat was slowing down to normal. "How'd you know it was him? I ain't told you nothing yet."
Chris raised one eyebrow at him. "Yet? So, you meant it when you told him you were going to talk to us?"
Vin sighed, dropped his head, and nodded. So Chris had heard a hell of a lot, then. He was a little bit irritated though, and that grin that wouldn't leave Chris' face wasn't helping. "What happened to not eavesdropping?" Chris laughed at him that, and Vin crossed his own arms over his chest, waiting for an answer.
"You're in a cop's house, Vin. When you're talking to perps, all bets are off, kiddo."
Chris was right, and fair was fair, Vin decided. He was staying at Chris' house, and Vin *had* been calling someone who'd set up some kind meeting with a bunch of dangerous men. Vin shook his head, then looked to the ceiling. When he looked at Chris again, he saw the same understanding and compassion that he'd gotten a glimpse of last night.
His gut was telling him that this man could be trusted, same as it had last night. Vin knew guilt when he saw it, and Chris had felt guilty that he'd gone to lock-up. The trust though, that came from the fact that Chris did come back for him, did try to make that right. Weren't too many people in the world who bothered with that kind of thing, so Vin had learned to appreciate it.
Same as he appreciated Buck being straight with him about not trusting him till he knew him. Didn't like it that the man kept calling him 'kid' or 'boy', but at least he wasn't raising a hand to him when he did it. And Buck hadn't made fun of him when he'd got knotted up last night and cried like a sissy. These two were different from any cops he'd seen, and even if it made him uncomfortable, he owed 'em.
Vin sighed, and finally broke eye contact with Chris.
"I think it's time we had that talk now, Vin. Don't you?" Chris said.
Vin looked up at him again, and shrugged. "Now's as good a time as any."
Chris nodded, and pushed off from the doorway, heading for the counter. "You drink coffee?"
That got Vin's attention. Good cup of coffee was always welcome. "When I can."
Chris gave him another small grin. "I'll make us a pot. I get the feeling this is going to take a while."
Chris put the creamer and sugar bowl on the table, along with a couple spoons. He was about to sit, when he remembered the donuts from yesterday. He pulled the pastry box out of the pantry, opened the lid, and put that on the table, too.
"They're a day old, but I think they're still fine," he said, sitting and reaching for the creamer.
Vin looked into the pastry box, and Chris swore the kid was going to drool any second. He glanced at Chris, as though for asking permission, so Chris nodded again towards the box. Vin finally reached in, and pulled out a jelly-filled, licking his lips in anticipation. Jesus, looking at him now, Chris would never have placed him a street kid who turned tricks to survive. He looked strikingly normal.
But, since that wasn't the case, he had work to do. "You want to tell me about Ezra now, Vin?" Chris asked, trying to keep as casual as possible.
Vin shrugged, didn't appear put-out at all. "You want to know why he was mixed up in that stuff last night?"
"That'd be a good start," Chris answered, and got himself a chocolate covered.
Vin swallowed his bite of donut, then looked Chris in the eye, his expression startlingly open. "Ezra ain't as connected as he likes to pretend. He knows big time people, and they know him, but he don't really do business with them. He's just a wannabe to them. But he thought he could make himself important, if he could get a couple of these big-timers together."
Chris nodded, deciding to let Vin do whatever talking he was willing to do, and to keep his own questions brief. "So he's not in tight with Martinez?"
Vin snorted. "Hell, no. Martinez put up with him hangin around, 'cause he thought he might get Ezra to start dealing for him some time. Ezra'll never admit that, though. And I'm guessing that thing they had setup at the warehouse went bad because whoever that other big shot was, he didn't show up. Martinez is the only big name I know of who lets Ezra hang around. I don't know who that other big name from last night was supposed to be, Ezra wouldn't tell me, but I told him he'd send a flunkie, and it would all turn to shit on him."
Chris nodded again, casually sipping his coffee. He'd heard enough of Vin's conversation with Ezra to know that Vin hadn't known when or where Ezra planned to try this little meeting, and that he'd been surprised and angry that it took place at the warehouse next to the clinic. But he was intensely curious about this other player that Vin was talking about but couldn't name. As of last check-in, the other dead man and other perps hadn't been associated with any other big names. If they were flunkies for another player in town, as Vin suggested, they didn't know who that player was yet. They'd probably be getting that out of Ezra real soon, though.
"So you think it went bad before Nathan got made?" Chris asked.
Vin swallowed another big bite, nodding. "Oh yeah. That loser trick of mine was already done when I heard those guys getting loud. I took the loser's Beretta off him, 'cause he just pissed his pants and hid, and you have to look after yourself when folks like that're around. Nathan didn't get found till a few minutes after that."
The donut in Chris' belly lay like a brick when he heard that. How could a kid with an obviously strong sense of right and wrong be so casual about being a prostitute?
"Vin? Why did you jump in like that, to save Nathan? Obviously, you'd have saved yourself a lot of trouble, let alone saved yourself from maybe being shot."
Vin shrugged again, stirred more sugar in his coffee. "He's a good guy. He and Dr. Jackson look after people in my neighborhood. Ain't too many people want to spend their time tending the drunks, the crack whores and other poor folk, let alone pain-in-the-ass kids like me. Just ain't right for good people to get treated bad by criminals."
Damn, but this kid was complex. There didn't seem to be an ounce of guile in him, and Chris' instincts-- along with deductive reasoning-- were telling him that the kid was telling him the truth; at least as the kid saw it.
And yet, how did a kid without guile make it as a prostitute, he wondered? Sadly, there was competition amongst the street prostitutes. They had to be the one to work it best in order to draw in the tricks. Those were the ones who put on a show, and dripped with the promise of the best blowjobs or best fucks of their lives. Vin was a good looking kid, no doubt, and he could imagine he got a lot of second looks. But when it came to horny johns, they generally homed in on the artificial promises of ecstasy.
Vin sighed, obviously deep in thought, and picked at his donut. He scooped a bit of the powdered sugar off of it, and then put the tip of his finger in his mouth. He did the same with a finger-scoop of the jelly in the middle, pink tongue lapping at it eagerly.
Christ. The pangs Chris got from watching the boy, who was all unknowing that his gestures were utterly provocative, were a big clue. He was just a boy, absently playing with his food, the way boys tended to do. And yet... The innocence Vin projected at times, all unconscious, had to be a devastating lure to those on the prowl. Vin was tender prey for such predators. The very fact that he didn't even have to work it, was apparently what kept him in business. It was a realization that left Chris reeling inside, because suddenly he knew-- really knew-- what Buck meant when he'd told him that investing too much in these kids could break your heart.
Chris sipped his coffee, needing to feel the warmth inside of him. He also really needed to get himself together and ask the other questions that needed asking.
"You know," Chris said quietly after a moment, "I don't think anybody's actually come out and said thank you, yet. So... Thank you, Vin."
Vin darted a quick glance at him over his cup, slowly put the cup down, then met his eyes with more confidence. "You're welcome," he finally replied. Chris smiled at him, wondering how long it'd been since Vin had gotten a thank you like that.
Chris let out a deep breath, and started his unconventional interrogation again. "So, how long have you known Ezra?"
Vin's eyes flicked upward, as he thought about it. "Few months shy of a year, I guess. He was just gettin his driver's license-- his real one-- after we started gettin to be friends."
Damn. This kid Ezra was turning out to be a curious one. "So, Ezra doesn't work the streets?"
Vin snorted hard at that. "Ezra thinks an awful lot of himself. Thinks he's too good to do any kind of honest work, especially that kind. He'd rather be a thief and a con than do that."
Jesus. Honest work? This boy thought selling his body for sex was honest work? That one was too big to tackle over coffee and donuts, though. Chris knew he'd have to stick to what went down, and this Ezra character, before he could even think about addressing Vin's views of prostitution as an honest way to make a living.
"Sounds to me like you and Ezra don't have much in common. How'd you get to be friends?" Chris asked, genuinely curious.
Vin gave him a small grin and uncertain shrug. "Every now and then, Ezra does the decent thing, even if he don't like people knowing it. We helped each other out a couple times, and then we kinda got to know each other better. Neither of us likes what the other one does with his life, but when we can, we watch each other's backs."
"I guess that's important to someone in your situation," Chris said, watching Vin sip at his coffee.
Vin put the cup down and sighed softly. "It's better when you don't have to rely on anybody, but it's sort of a relief when you got someone around to help out now and then."
Chris nodded. He could relate. "So, if Ezra won't work the streets, and he's not a very successful thief or con, how does he get by? Word is that he dresses a little better than some of the other kids out there. And if he can get a hold of phony ID's at his age... I'm guessing he has more cash than most, too."
Vin scooted his chair out and went for the coffee pot. He poured more for himself, then looked at Chris' cup, eyebrows raised. Chris nodded yes in response, and Vin topped off his cup. Once the pot was back on the maker, Vin turned, and answered.
"He didn't grow up too good, Chris. Has a momma out there, but she ain't much of one. Only thing she ever give him was some money. He's supposed to be staying with some cousin in Santa Fe, but the guy didn't much want him around. Ezra took the hint and left. He's got money stashed away somewhere, but he never told me where, and I never asked. I think he's worried about it runnin out, though, since he can't find his momma to get more, now."
"He doesn't know where his mother is?" Chris asked, more out of wanting to keep the conversation of parents and family going, than trying to ferret out information about this Ezra kid. He couldn't help but hope that Vin might end up talking about himself and his own past. Reports were one thing, but Chris wanted to hear it from Vin, and hear what wasn't in the reports.
"She ran off with some new boyfriend before she dumped him at that cousin's. From what he says, he ain't heard from her since," Vin said with a sympathetic shrug.
Chris sighed. "Must be tough, knowing you have a mother out there but not be able to find her."
"I guess," Vin said, and his expression told Chris that he couldn't relate. "Chris?" Vin said after a short silence.
"They ain't gonna put him lock-up, are they? Ezra ain't like me. I don't know how he'd take it."
Chris' stomach flipped. He'd heard for himself just how angry Vin was with his friend. And yet here he was seeing that the word friend held a lot of meaning for the boy. "They'll be keeping a real close eye on him, Vin, I promise. They won't let him get hurt."
Vin's expression grew even more serious. "Is Ezra in a whole lot of trouble?"
Chris gave him a sympathetic smile. "I imagine whoever that other mysterious big name is, he's pretty upset right about now." When Vin just looked at him curiously, Chris explained. "Ezra tried to get this man to take a meet, but that meet went bad. Ezra's not going to be his favorite person right now. That man is going to suspect that Ezra set him up. Word's going to get out, if it hasn't already. And word will probably get out that you were there, too."
Vin's brows knitted together as he thought about it. "Damn," he whispered.
"Yeah. Damn," Chris said back, grinning at him again. "You know what that means, right? This protective custody thing is the real deal now, Vin, and not just a way to get you out of lock-up. Buck and I are going to take that seriously, and we need you to do the same."
Vin nodded, but it was absently; Chris able to see the wheels turning in that young mind, as he thought about his situation.
Vin got up then, and wandered over to the sink. "Might as well make myself useful," he said softly.
"I guess when Buck said he'd take care of the dishes, he meant getting them as far as the sink."
"He got dish soap around here?" Vin asked, glancing around.
Chris grinned big. Attitude. Right. Buck might see it that way, but Chris didn't; at least not at the moment. "Under the sink, Vin."
Vin turned on the taps, getting the water hot, and got the soap from under the sink. Chris sipped at his coffee, openly studying the boy while at the same time examined his own feelings on him. One minute Vin amused him, one minute impressed him, but the next minute saddened him like he couldn't believe. It would be easy-- too easy-- to forget the uglier parts of him. The parts that allowed Vin to talk brazenly about sexual exploits with strange men.
Vin had the three dinner plates washed and rinsed, and was working on the skillet, when Buck padded into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. "What are you two doin up so early?"
"Just having a chat, Buck," Chris said, watching as shock formed on Buck's face.
"What the--" Buck's head inclined to the side, and he looked confused, standing there watching Vin finish the dishes.
Vin turned to him then, holding soapy hands over the sink. Chris could tell that Vin was worried he'd done something wrong. "Just earnin' my keep for the night, is all," Vin said, more than a little defensive.
Buck's face cleared, and Chris fought not to laugh. "No, it's all right," Buck said, "I just, uh, wasn't expecting anybody to be up and doing anything."
Vin nodded and turned back to the skillet. Chris grinned at Buck. "Coffee?"
Buck nodded, and pulled out a chair, sitting, still looking perplexed. Vin had managed to surprise him again, it was obvious. Chris grabbed a cup, poured it for Buck, and set it in front of him. After replacing the pot, he stopped and rested his hands on Vin's shoulders. "You can try to catch another couple hours sleep after this, if you want. We can wait till a little later today before we get your statements all official."
Vin's head twisted around a little for a second, long enough to give him a small grin. "Nah, that's all right. After all that sugar and caffeine, I ain't gonna be sleeping for a while."
Chris nodded, and Buck cleared his throat. "Statements?"
"Yeah. Vin and I had a good, long talk, and we got pretty much all we need from him on his friend Ezra, and what happened at the warehouse. Ezra's been picked up, and Josiah's probably with him now."
Buck looked stunned, and just a tad suspicious. "I guess I got some catching up to do."
Chris grinned. "Yep, you do."
Vin put the rinsed skillet onto the dish rack to dry, and wiped his hands on the dish towel.
"Vin?" Chris said, catching the boy's eye. "Why don't you go see if you can catch something interesting on TV? You've only had a couple hours' sleep, and even if you can't nod off again just yet, you should unwind a little."
Vin shrugged. "Can I take this with me?" he asked, pointing to his coffee cup.
"Sure," Chris said, watching as Vin refilled and loaded up on sugar for it.
He nodded at Buck as he passed, and a second later, he heard the television come on, sound fairly low.
"You gonna fill me in?" Buck asked, eyebrows high on his head.
Chris grinned. "He's a hell of a kid, Buck."
Buck shook his head, looking disgusted. "Now, Chris. I know you've taken a liking to him, and I know it's for good reason. But don't go forgetting what he is, and what he does."
Chris felt his face heat. "I haven't forgotten any of that, Buck. I'm just not ignoring that there's more to him than that."
Buck's jaw clenched before he answered. "You're idealizing that boy, and it's not going to do you or him a bit of good."
"No, I'm not. I've spent all damn morning trying to reconcile in my head what Vin does, with the boy I've seen in the last twelve hours. There's a chance this kid could make it, Buck, but you don't want to see that. You had a shitty life, and you saw some shitty things. But that's your hang-up, not his. You don't want to help me give Vin a chance, fine. That's up to you. But I'm not going to watch him slip through the cracks again just because you've got bad memories."
Chris dumped the coffee left in his cup down the drain, shoulders tight and his head beginning to ache. He kept his back turned, but Buck didn't make a sound. After a long moment, he finally looked around at Buck.
The hurt on his friend's face made Chris' stomach knot again, but he didn't regret what he'd said.
"Chris, you know me. I'm going to give the kid a chance no matter how bad I think it's gonna turn out. But if we're gonna do this, we have to do it right, and that means being realistic."
Chris let out a long breath. Buck wanted him to be realistic, and he wanted Buck to be fair. Didn't sound too complicated, so why the hell were the two of them having such a hard time finding common ground?
"Okay, so how about this. I make sure I stay realistic, and you make sure that you don't make your own issues Vin's issues."
Buck glared at him, but didn't say anything for a while. Finally, he looked at Chris sideways, and answered. "I got a bad feeling about this, but it's a deal."
Chris couldn't remember the last time he'd had a day as completely crazy as this one. First, they'd had the circus at the station to deal with, getting Vin's statement on record and dealing with Ezra, including setting up Josiah taking temporary guardianship of him. Then there'd been the trip to the downtown warehouse to let Vin gather his things. Chris was still reeling from that, unable to get the image out of his mind of when he'd first stepped around that dingy corner and seen where Vin had been living.
Chris pulled his truck into the alley as Vin asked, though it made him a little nervous. He'd rather have the vehicle-- and themselves-- in more plain view as they came and went from the building.
"Don't need the whole neighborhood knowing my business," Vin said, obviously sensing Chris' unease. "Anyway, don't hardly anybody use this ally."
Chris turned a questioning look Vin's way. "What do you mean? Why?"
Vin just shrugged casually. "This one can be seen better from the street. Anybody needs to do business in an ally, they don't want to be seen that good."
Chris' stomach flipped a little. He didn't have to ask what kind of business went on in this neighborhood. He suppressed a sigh, turned off the engine, and unfastened his seat belt. "Let's get to it, then."
Vin hopped out, too, and led Chris into the warehouse through a door just beyond a dumpster. From the looks of it, the lock had been jammed out of that door years ago, rust having long formed along the edges of where the knob had been.
There was minimal light, narrow beams coming through the partially boarded windows. Chris swept the whole, open room with his eyes, unable to fathom where in the building Vin had been living. He glanced at Vin, nodded, and Vin led the way. They wound their way past empty crates, sidestepping the occasional shards of broken glass, and toward a concrete and steel staircase on the far side of the building. It was a little darker in the stairwell, but not too terrible, as there was a tiny unboarded window at every level. Vin led him up four flights, where they finally went through yet another door with a rusty hole where there had once been a knob.
Whereas the first level had been mostly one, huge room, this floor was divided into smaller rooms. Had probably been offices for what used to be a distribution center or factory of some kind decades ago. Chris followed Vin along a stretch of hallway, until Vin turned into a room on the right. The door to this room was completely missing. But there were more crates stacked inside, close enough to the doorway to make it a squeeze to get in.
When Chris turned the corner of the crates to see into the room, his heart fell through the floor. Graffiti marked the walls, and the musty smell made Chris reflexively pinch his nostrils.
The tidiness of Vin's room contrasted profoundly with the dinginess all around. In the midst of the filth, was a neatly organized corner in which Vin had made himself the closest thing to a habitable home as he could.
Two smaller crates sat at the head of Vin's smoothly-made army cot. On one of the crates, a large, angle-head flashlight sat upright, obviously used as Vin's lamp. On the other crate, Chris recognized a rolled up Mummy-style sleeping bag, a decent 15 degree bag, if he was right.
The cot was made up with a standard army wool blanket-- a good one. Chris couldn't help but think of how Vin had earned the money for these things. He had to have gotten them from the surplus store around the corner, and even if he thought Vin had it in him to steal-- which he didn't-- he knew those stores were run by people who knew every trick in the book.
He watched silently as Vin put his flashlight on the cot and turned one of the crates around. Stuffed inside of the sideways-turned crate was a duffel. "My grandfather gave me this on the last birthday I had before he died."
It was a little worn, but not in badshape otherwise. "Looks like a good one," Chris said, at a loss for anything else to say.
Vin nodded absently, a lost look on his face. His fingers brushed over the bag lightly for a second, before he put that on the cot as well. Then he turned to the other crate, and moved it from the wall, too.
Chris was surprised to see a small collection of books stacked inside that one, and he knelt down, pushing away thoughts of what his knees would look like when he rose again. He examined the spines of the books as Vin moved them to the cot. Some were much too young for Vin now, obviously books he'd kept over the years. Others looked like typical reading for a teenaged boy; a couple of books with Dragons in the title, a couple of cowboy books, and one with a picture of a spaceship on the worn cover.
The last book Vin pulled out was a heavy, paperback dictionary.
"You like to read?" Chris asked softly.
Vin shrugged, but offered him a soft grin. "When I can. I gotta look up words more often than I'd like."
Chris didn't know what to say to that, and it seemed Vin didn't expect him to say anything. He just kept putting his things on the cot, stuffing them in the duffle. Chris assumed that what was already in the duffle were Vin's clothes, but he knew he'd have to watch while Vin unpacked, to be sure there wasn't something in there that the boy shouldn't have.
"Best start getting it all down there. Truck's safe-- but only for so long," Vin finally said, throwing his duffle over his shoulder and grabbing his flashlight in one hand and the hand-strap to his sleeping back in the other. "Can you get that for me? It folds, and it ain't heavy."
"You sure you want to take your cot and bedding? You don't have to worry about having a comfortable place to sleep anymore" Chris said, pulling up the blanket and sheets and quickly folding them.
"Yep. I paid for it all fair and square, so it's mine."
"All right, just asking," Chris said, smiling at him to keep him assured that he wasn't trying to take anything away from him. He found that the cot folded easily enough, and soon he had it and Vin's blankets and sheets all under one arm, with his other hand supporting them.
He glanced around one more time, and sure enough, they'd gotten everything. It was a depressing thought, that everything Vin owned could be carried out of there in just one trip between the two of them. It was even more depressing to look at the now empty room that Vin had called home for too long.
He didn't look for long, though. He was ready to leave it behind, and so he followed Vin out of there without a backward glance.
Sure enough when they made it back out into the ally, a few kids had gathered at the entrance of the ally and were watching the truck. When they spotted him and Vin, though, they dashed back around the corner onto the street.
Chris clicked the car alarm on his keychain, and pulled open his door, balancing his load on his knee. "It'll fit behind the seats," he said, but Vin was still looking out toward the street, not paying much attention to him. "What?" Chris asked.
Vin finally turned to him, snapped out of his deep thought. "Just wondered who that new one was with the others."
"You like knowing who's around, huh."
"Around here, you got to."
"I can imagine," Chris answered, and sadly, he could. These kids competed for what they needed to survive, while at the same time looked out for each other in some ways. A threat to one could be a threat to all, Chris thought, but that wouldn't stop these kids from stealing from each other, if meant food or safety for the night. Suddenly, those survival instincts Buck was talking about were a grim reality.
Chris took Vin's things from him and put them in the cab with the rest. He turned back to Vin, and put a gentle hand on his shoulder, getting his attention again. "Let's get of here, okay? Head home?"
Vin cocked his head a little, looking a bit confused, but answered softly, "Okay."
Most of the drive was made in silence, but it didn't feel uncomfortable to Chris. When they did speak, it was small talk; weather was going to go from warm to hot as summer gradually approached, the days were slowly getting longer, the bats so populace in New Mexico would be setting up their seasonal roosts. It seemed right to Chris that if they were driving into a situation that was changing everything for both of them so monumentally, that they keep the conversation as unmonumental as possible.
So when they walked through the front door of the condo, rather relaxed as they brought in Vin's things, Chris wasn't completely prepared to face two-hundred pounds of walking, talking tension.
But Vin and JD meeting for the first time ended up being fairly anticlimactic, Chris thought in hindsight, and that was probably for the best. Buck had been pretty damned tense with that one, but so far so good. At least, Chris hoped so. Buck obviously wasn't quite ready for the reality of Vin staying with them for a while, or he wouldn't have sent JD off for a second night in a row, this time finagling an invitation from one of JD's friends to sleep over. Chris couldn't blame him, really.
Buck was having a hard time with Vin staying there at all. He'd seen too much and been betrayed and disappointed too many times already, by any number of kids who could've been Vin. And Buck didn't have the same gut instinct that Chris had, wasn't compelled the same way Chris was. Chris wished he could ease Buck's mind about all this, but the fact was, Buck was just going to have to see for himself that Chris was right on this one.
Chris sat at the kitchen table, sipping on some coffee, wondering just how long it would be before Buck had to eat his words, while Buck took his turn with the supper dishes.
"Kid sure wasn't shy about seconds," Buck said, grinning over his shoulder.
Chris grinned back, appreciating not only Buck's effort, but the good cheer that couldn't be suppressed for long. "He took you at your word, Buck."
"And I'm glad he did. That boy needs to put some meat on them bones."
"He keeps eating like that, it won't be long," Chris replied with a soft chuckle.
"It's nearly the end of the year, but he's going to have to be placed in school anyway. You're gonna have to get as much of his records together as you can," Buck said, scouring the pot that still had remnants of their roast clinging to it.
Chris let out a long sigh. "I know. What little we could get from Texas Child Services so far doesn't have anything about his education. I'm not too sure where they'd place him, tell you the truth."
Buck craned his neck around, and shook his head. "They're gonna put him where his age fits best, and probably put him with the kids who aren't doing so good. He's gonna be way behind, Chris."
Chris winced. "I know. Couple years on the streets, not getting any schooling at all. Who knows what kind of education he got in the system in Texas. I'm also a little worried about the influence kids like that'll have on him."
Buck whirled around at that, his eyebrows damn near reaching his scalp. "You're kidding me, right? Tell me you're kidding?"
Chris narrowed his eyes. "No, I'm not kidding. What's with you?"
Buck shook his head again, then glanced to the ceiling before looking at him again. "You're putting a child prostitute and street kid into a suburban school, and you're worried about *their* influence on *him*?" Buck whispered, looking intently at the doorway to make sure Vin wasn't there.
Chris' jaw tightened as he fought back the hundredth wave of anger at Buck for the day. "You're damn right I am. He's a good kid, Buck. And he'll be behind because the system screwed him and he didn't get the education he needed. Those kids in that nice, little suburban school you're talking about will be behind either because they just don't have the smarts, or because they're spoiled and lazy and natural born trouble-makers. Those are the ones I'm worried about."
Buck put the pot back in the sink, wiped his hands and sat at the table, his face drawn tight. "I'm worried, too, Chris. About the boy, and about you."
A small grin pulled at Chris' mouth. "I know you are. So I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to think about it before you answer."
Buck nodded. "Okay, then."
"When was the last time I had a gut feeling this strong that turned out to be wrong? Just think a minute."
Buck bowed his head, radiating tension, but didn't answer for long moment. When he raised his eyes, there was still doubt in them, but a little more trust, too. "Chris. I'm seeing what you mean about him being a good kid. There's something special inside him, and I can see that, too. But that's kind of the problem, you know?"
"How?" Chris asked, confused, and frankly frustrated.
"Because special as he may be, he's still a kid who's had to sell himself for money, and who's been without a family for a long time. If you go expecting too much of him, you're setting him up for a fall-- one that could do both of you some serious damage. It ain't fair to him if you do that."
Chris closed his eyes a second, owing it to Buck to really listen to him. In some ways, he was right. "I hear you. And I'm going to try not expect more of him than he's capable of. But I don't want to underestimate him, either. It isn't fair to have expectations for him to live *down* to, either."
Buck gave him a sad smile. "I just hope that between the low expectations and the high ones, we don't tear the boy in two."
Chris met Buck's eyes, trying to share some of the confidence he felt. "We'll work it out."
"Looks like we're both willing to try, anyway," Buck said, grinning back before he got up to pick up the pot again. "Ah hell, I'm gonna leave this to soak overnight. Last thing a macho thing like me needs is dishpan hands."
Chris chuckled at him, and scooted back from the table. Buck wiped his hands dry again, and the two of them headed into the living room.
"Looks like it finally caught up to him," Chris whispered, looking at Vin, sound asleep on the couch, still sitting up, but with his head nestled into the back cushion of the couch. "I'm gonna get him up and settled in my room for the night."
"Chris, are you sure you got everything all locked up and put away?" Buck asked, uncertainty in his voice again.
"Buck, I've had some practice, if you remember, keeping everything safe from JD. I've got my liquor stash locked in one closet, and my weapons, ammo and gear locked in the other, same as always."
Buck held up his palms. "I'm just checking, now. It'd be easy to forget something, what with all the day's hooey."
Chris cocked an eyebrow. "Hooey? You've had a long day yourself, pard."
Buck grinned. "I'll do better tomorrow."
Chris laughed softly, then went to the couch. "Vin... Vin?"
He gently shook the boy's shoulder, careful not to get too close and spook him. Chris knew what it was like, sleeping knowing you might have to wake up swinging.
Vin's eyes pryed open, and he yawned big, belatedly covering his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You're gonna take my bed tonight, kiddo."
"Don't have to do that. This couch is comfortable," Vin answered, his eyes still unfocused.
"I don't mind trading off, and I want you to sleep as late as you want, no matter what's going on here in the morning. So go on, now. We'll see you in the morning."
Vin pulled himself up, stretched his back, and trodded off. "Night," he said over his shoulder as he turned the corner into the hall.
Chris took Vin's place on the couch, and Buck sat across from him in the chair.
Buck picked up the remote, moving it from the Discovery Channel to ESPN. He turned down the volume, though, and twisted in the chair a little to face Chris. "I'm still gonna set the system tonight for exit and entry," he said quietly.
Chris just nodded, knowing this was something he was going to have to be realistic about. As much as Vin seemed content to stay with them for now, who knew what could happen or go through the boy's mind that would suddenly give him the urge to take off.
Memories had a way of stirring people up, Chris knew. And he also knew there had to be lots of fresh memories and feelings that Vin was dealing with. Despite Buck's insistence that Vin wasn't fazed by his near-rape in lockup, Chris couldn't get past the worry that it was more troublesome to Vin than Buck wanted to believe.
Panic, cold and tight, suddenly gripped Chris by the throat. "Fuck!" he whispered harshly, jumping from the couch. "I did leave something out, dammit."
"What?" Buck asked, on his heels toward the bedroom.
"Rain's medical report on him."
"Ah, shit," Buck mumbled.
The bedroom door was ajar, so Chris slowly pushed it open.
Vin stood in the middle of the room, at the foot of the bed, the file shaking in his hands. He tore his eyes from the page, and slowly met Chris' eyes. A deep flush broke out on his face, and his eyes glittered.
"You aint... you ain't supposed to know this stuff about me," Vin choked quietly.
Chris heart leapt into his throat. He knew the burn of humiliation, and knew how excruciating it could be to a fourteen year old boy. "Vin, I'm sor--"
"No! Don't say it! Don't say you're sorry!" Vin's shout was strangled. "You ain't supposed to know personal stuff about me!"
"Vin, we had to have your medical report, it's a police thing," Chris said calmly, slowly moving into the room, seeing Vin's nerves make him shake harder.
Vin shook his head at him, part in anger, part in denial, Chris thought. Vin turned away from him then, held the file to his chest, and crossed his arms. "She had no right! She shouldn'ta given you this. Ain't your business. Ain't nobody's business!" he yelled in a tight rasp.
Chris couldn't begin to imagine how Vin felt at the moment. Rain said he'd sorta 'gone away' during the exam, meaning he'd been able to shelter his emotions from it, and yet here he was, confronted anyway with what he'd been through over the years, in black and white, in harsh, clinical terms that were the way of official reports.
Vin had been ambushed, plain and simple, and forced to acknowledge that he and Buck knew intensely personal things about him like the fact that he had anal scarring. It was one thing for he and Buck to know that he'd had sex, and had had sex for money. It was another thing for them to have intimate details about his body. To a boy that age, it couldn't be anything less than devastating.
Chris glanced to Buck, who just shrugged helplessly, his eyes saying he didn't know what to do. Chris eased further into the room, giving Buck room to follow, which he did, as Vin began pacing, muttering quietly to himself.
He flung the folder on the bed then, pages scattering, and his pacing grew more agitated. "Stupid, stupid, stupid," he whispered harshly to himself. "Should never have let her touch me. Never let her look at me." He panted hard, as he about wore a path in the carpet.
"Quit looking at me," he yelled louder, seemingly at no one, then pounded his hand on the wall near the head of the bed. "Stupid! Fucking stupid!" he screamed, pounding twice more.
Buck shoved Chris aside, and got to Vin, stopping his hand before he make contact again. "Easy now, you'll punch a hole right through to Old Ms. Peterson's next door," Buck said, his everyday voice surreal in the situation.
"Don't touch me!" Vin cried, his panic obvious as he jerked his already reddened hand out of Buck's grip. His eyes leaked at the corners, and his chest rose and fell rapidly as he fought for breath.
Chris moved next to Buck, subtly waving him back. Wouldn't do to crowd the boy in his state of mind. Vin blinked, and one tear managed to escape, sliding over his cheekbone. Vin turned his back on them then, facing the wall, and the fist came up again, just as a soft whimper broke free.
Chris caught caught him by the wrist this time, and he quickly, but carefully, spun Vin around with his other hand on Vin's shoulder.
Vin's mouth opened, but no sound came out. Chris inclined his head to meet Vin's watery eyes. "Enough!" Firm, but not so loud as to frighten. "Enough," he said again, a little softer.
Vin's head inclined a little, too, then. He sniffled, kept his eyes on Chris', and whispered, "Ain't fair."
"What'm I supposed to do now?" Vin asked, his voice so soft Chris could barely hear it.
Chris shrugged, feeling helpless. "You let it go, and you move on."
Vin's brows narrowed at him furiously, forcing another tear out of the corner of his eye. "Move on? Let it go? That's a lot of fuckin' help!"
Chris sighed, shook his head. "Hey, at least I'm trying."
Vin took a shuddering breath, bowed his head and turned his back on him. Chris looked over to Buck, but his eyes, intense and desperately sad, were glued on Vin. After a long moment, Buck finally looked his way. Chris tossed his head in the direction of the scattered papers. Buck finally seemed to snap out of it, nodded his head and began gathering them.
"Vin," Chris said quietly, but not touching him yet. "Vin, I *am* sorry that this hurt you. But it... it doesn't change anything."
Vin came around slowly, but his eyes still held so much hurt and anger. "Changes everything."
"You know things you got no business knowin," Vin hissed.
Chris had to swallow hard before he could answer. "Yeah, I know those things. But there's a lot about you I don't know yet. Knowing things written in some file isn't the same thing as knowing *you*, Vin. You still got a lot inside you, and you're the one who gets to decide how much of it to tell. You still got a lot you can keep private."
Chris hoped to hell this didn't land him a lecture from Buck, for encouraging the boy to keep secrets. But all Chris could think of was that Vin needed to feel like there were parts of himself that were all his own, not for anybody else's eyes or ears.
Vin didn't answer, just crawled on the bed, and pulled his knees to his chest.
Chris slowly moved to sit on the bed, but not too close. "It's gonna get better."
Vin snorted, swiping his eyes with his knuckles. "Don't see how," he answered, not looking at him.
"Well, how about this? If we get some kind of file or report about you, we show it to you. So if we know something about you, you'll know that we know it."
Chris took a quick look at Buck, just long enough to catch one raised eyebrow, then looked back at Vin, who didn't seem convinced, though Chris couldn't tell for sure, considering he wouldn't even look Chris' way.
"Vin, there are things that we're going to have to know because we're responsible for you. There isn't anything we can do about that. But we can try to help by being honest about what we do know. Everything we see about you, you have a right to know."
Vin finally turned his head Chris' way. There was still fury in his eyes, but at least he'd banked it a little. "I ain't gonna let her look at me again."
"You don't have to. If you need to see a doctor again for some reason, we'll find someone else," Chris promised.
"If you're gonna read every damned detail they put in their reports, I won't be seeing no more doctors period," Vin said.
"Vin, it doesn't usually work that way. We needed to have that report because of what happened in lock-up. If you need to go to a doctor again, I suspect the only thing we'll see is a bill and maybe a prescription."
Vin's face scrunched a little as he thought. He looked up at him, but only as far as looking through his lashes. "Still don't like it."
Chris tried to muster a smile, but knew he failed. "I know. But like I said, I'm trying."
Vin closed his eyes and let out a long breath through his nose. "I know," he said softly, grudgingly. A second later, he looked at him again, this time without hiding, and said with more conviction, "I know."
Chris nodded, and the tension seemed to dissipate a little more. He sighed in relief, and turned to look at Buck again, but he was gone.
"He slipped outta here a minute ago," Vin told him.
Chris glanced at him sideways. "You're observant."
"I've had to be," Vin answered, matter-of-fact.
"Yeah," Chris whispered in agreement, and then the two of them fell silent. Vin idly rubbed his hand-- the one that had done the pounding, and Chris could see already that it was going to bruise. "Starting to hurt?" he asked.
"Just a tad," Vin said, giving him a one-shoulder shrug.
"Well, it's no wonder, son!" Buck said, coming back in with small, terrycloth bundle. "These walls are made of old-fashioned veneer plaster, with concrete blocks behind 'em. Put this on it for a while."
He handed over the towel, and Chris heard the scrape of the ice cubes against each other.
"Thanks," Vin said softly, even a bit sheepish.
"You're welcome. 'Night, now." Buck nodded to both, and quietly slipped out again.
Chris watched Vin ice his hand for a minute, then finally stood, and moved towards the door. The file with the reports was on the dresser, where Buck had left them. "I'm gonna leave this here for you. Read what you want from it, or ignore it all. It's up to you."
Vin gave him a short nod. As Chris was about to pull the door shut, Vin stopped him. "Chris?"
"I'm tryin', too."
Chris' smile came immediately. "I know. And you're doing good."
Vin gave him a small smile right back. Wasn't a smile filled with happiness, but Chris thought it had a little hope in it, and that was all he could ask for, for now.
"Night," Chris said softly, and pulled the door shut.
He didn't want to think about Buck being possibly right in this. He didn't want to think of that boy, hurting so bad, Chris could feel it across the room. He didn't want to think about anything. The future would sort itself out.