“After school a couple of the guys were picking on someone,” Troy said. “Saying mean stuff, pushing. I told them to knock it off but that only made it worse.” He paused. “And then when the person they were teasing was tripped and fell, spilling all their stuff, I stepped in and pushed back for them.”
“The boy you pushed hit the railing and got a cut lip,” the principal said.
Troy didn’t look apologetic about this. In fact, there was a flash of fierce pride.
“How did you get the black eye?” Tanner asked him.
“The kid I pushed jumped up and punched me.”
Tanner made a show of looking around the office. “And where is he?”
The principal folded her fingers together. “He’s not here because he didn’t start it.”
“Yes, he did,” Troy said. “And it’s not the first time. Last week he stole stuff from someone. Important stuff.”
Troy went mutinously silent.
“Troy,” the principal said disapprovingly. “I have four witnesses who say you pushed Caden into that railing. Not a single witness said that you were stopping him from picking on someone. Or that something got stolen.”
“Because you asked the guys that were with Caden. You didn’t ask the person they were picking on,” Troy said. “And anyway, I got their stuff back already so it doesn’t matter.”
“And who are we talking about?” she asked. “Who’s the kid who’s being picked on and stolen from?”
Troy went mum.
Tanner looked into the kid’s stubborn brown eyes, which was more than a little bit like looking into a mirror. I got their stuff back…
Aw, shit. The day Troy had gotten caught climbing out of the girl’s window. He’d gone there to return her stuff. “Juliet,” he said quietly.
Troy’s mouth went hard with determination.
Yeah, Tanner thought. It was the girl. He looked at the principal. “Look, I think it’s clear to both of us that he was protecting someone. It’s also clear you don’t have the entire story.”
The principal looked at Troy for a long beat, then nodded. “Yes, I believe you’re right.”
“What’s going to be done?” Tanner asked.
“What’s going to be done is I’ll get to the bottom of this and then decide. Troy,” she said, “who did you step in to help?”
Troy remained mum.
The principal folded her fingers together. “I can’t help you unless you let me.”
“She won’t talk to you,” Troy said. “She won’t tell you because she’s been in trouble before. But those guys bully her because her brother turned them in for cheating on a test. They’ve been just saying mean stuff but today they touched her, and scared her.”
Troy shook his head.
The principal leaned in. “I want to help you out here, Troy. I want to help whoever it is you’re protecting. But I can’t if you won’t trust me.”
Troy didn’t look impressed by this, and the principal leaned back and blew out a breath. “If what you’re saying is the truth,” she said, “the boys can be suspended, all of them. And if they pull anything like this again, I can expel them next time. Help me stop the cycle, Troy.”
Ten minutes later Troy and Tanner stood on the sidewalk by Tanner’s truck.
“Proud of you,” Tanner said.
Troy looked startled, and Christ, Tanner hated that. Didn’t Troy know by now that Tanner stood at his back no matter what? “So proud,” he said, and willed Troy to believe it.
“For the fight?”
“For protecting your friend. For standing up for someone you care about. For doing the right thing, which is rarely the easy thing.”
“I ratted out those guys.”
“Like I said,” Tanner told him. “You did the right thing. You protected the girl, once by being there for her and again just now by getting help for her so that it doesn’t happen again. But you should have told me all of it, from the beginning.”
“Yeah.” Troy dropped the ice from his eye and looked at him. “You’re really not mad about the fight?”
“Hell, no.” They got into the truck and Tanner leaned toward Troy to check out the bruise. “Does it hurt?”
“Like a mother.”
Tanner smiled grimly. “Other than that, how are you doing?”
“Come on, man. Spit it out.”
“Well, I am kinda starving.”
Tanner stared at him and had to laugh. He’d been afraid Troy would be suffering some long-lasting emotional angst over everything he was going through. But no, he was just hungry.
A damn good outlook on life when it came right down to it.
So Tanner took him to the diner. He intended to get him a quick take-out, but Jane, the diner’s owner, had heard about the fight and insisted they sit down and eat “on the house,” because as it turned out it was her great-niece that Tanner had protected.
Troy was brought a huge tray of food fit for a king and then dessert. When he and Tanner rose to go, Jane hugged Troy tight. “You’re a good boy,” she said fiercely.
Back outside, Troy looked down at his phone in shock. “Kids from school are texting me. Like a bazillion texts. They’re happy Caden finally got in trouble.” He looked up at Tanner in surprise. “Some of these texts are from the kids that wouldn’t give me the time of day ’cause I was the newbie.”