"Buck!" JD bellowed as the door opened up and the big man strode in.
"JD!" Buck hollered back, sending an apologetic wince to Mrs. Potter as he stooped down and grabbed up the boy, swinging him around once before settling him on his hip.
"I'm glad you're home," JD told him.
"Well, I'm glad I'm home, too, JD. Whatcha been up to all day?"
"We went to school, was at school, and came home from school," JD informed him.
"Ah," Buck acknowledged with a grin. "What about since you've been home?"
"Well, we was gonna wash Ringo and Elvis but Mrs. Potter said to wait for you."
"Wash them again?"
"They still skinked."
"I've told you that it just has to wear off now. Washing them everyday isn't really going to help with the smell anymore. It'll just take time," Buck consoled the boy.
"Where's Chris?" Vin asked hesitantly as he entered the room and saw Buck and JD alone.
"Sorry, Junior, he had that special meeting to go to. Remember he told you this morning he'd probably be late," Buck explained as he leaned over to put down a bouncing JD.
"I'm glad you didn't have to go to no stupid meetin'," JD declared as he wrapped his arms snugly around Buck's legs.
"Me, too," Buck agreed as he patted the boy's head. "They can be pretty boring sometimes."
"How much longer till Chris gets home?"
"I'm not sure, Vin. Why? Something you need?"
Vin looked sadly down at his shoes for a moment, trying to think of a reason other than just 'I want him home'. "He's gonna help me with my homework."
"Well, we'll give it a little time and if he doesn't get back, maybe I can help you."
"It's math," Vin challenged, lifting his head and gazing at Buck through doubtful eyes.
Buck smiled and tried to sound reassuring, "Well, I know I'm not as good with my numbers as Chris is but I think I might be able to help you if you need it, okay?"
"Okay," Vin agreed, though his tone was less than happy.
"Dinner is just about ready," Mrs. Potter told Buck as she collected her belongings and pulled her car keys out of her purse. "Another five minutes then take it out of the oven."
"I helped set the table," JD announced as he bounded over to stand beside his work.
Buck looked appreciatively at the table, noticing the slightly skewed silverware and the careful placement of the dish of broccoli, located as far from JD's seat as it could be and still be on the table. "It looks mighty fine, JD. Good job," Buck praised, then looked over at Mrs. Potter. "Thanks, Gloria."
"Everything should reheat just fine so be sure to save some dinner for Chris," she said as she headed towards the door. "Good night, boys. See you tomorrow."
"Night, Mrs. Potter," both boys called out.
"Night, Gloria," Buck said and watched as she left the house. He stepped over to the oven and peeked inside. "Mmmm, this looks good, guys. Why don't you two go wash up for dinner and I'll get this set up."
"Mrs. Potter said 'five minutes'," JD said defiantly, hands on his hips.
Buck smiled down at the boy. "I know she did, JD, but by the time the two of you get washed up and I get the drinks poured, it will be five minutes and we can eat. Okay?"
JD let the explanation sink in before he nodded vigorously. "Okay." The two boys made their way to the bathroom and Buck could hear the splashing and tussling over the bar of soap from the kitchen. He leaned back against the counter and listened for a moment, then laughed to himself as he thought of a time, not so long ago, when the antics of two small children would have been of no concern to him. Shaking his head in wonder at the direction his life had taken, he pushed himself up and started filling glasses.
"Boys," he called in warning, knowing they were making a mess that he would have to clean up later.
"Coming," was the answering call followed shortly by the sound of running feet.
"It that the last one?" Buck asked, hope spilling into his tone.
Vin sighed in relief. "Yep. All done."
Buck smiled and rubbed a hand down his face. "See, that wasn't so bad. You did almost all of them all on your own." Buck leaned forward and tapped his fingertip on the homework paper. "And I'm pretty sure they're all right. You did good, Vin."
Vin smiled shyly. "Thanks, Buck. And thanks for helping me."
"Anytime, little pard. Guess I was almost as good as Chris with the math, huh?"
"Yeah," Vin agreed and then looked a little worried. "Wonder why he ain't home yet."
Buck reached out and placed his hand on Vin's head. "You know, him being the boss, sometimes he has a lot more work than just catching the bad guys. I'm sure he'll be home as soon as he can." Buck ruffled Vin's hair and let his hand drop to Vin's arm. "Unfortunately, now that the homework is done, it's time for you and JD to start getting ready for bed."
"Aww, Buck," Vin whined.
"Sorry, Junior, happens every night about this time. No getting out of it. You pack up your school work and I'll go drag JD away from his video, okay?"
Vin frowned for a moment, then blew out a breath and nodded a reluctant agreement.
"Good boy," Buck said as he pushed himself to his feet and went in search of the other child.
Buck wondered what Chris was doing. He'd seen the headlights of what he presumed was Chris' truck reflect through the window over ten minutes ago and still Chris hadn't entered the house. Getting up and stretching thoroughly, Buck wandered to where he could look out the window to see what he could see. He saw immediately that the lights were on in the barn.
Buck took a deep breath and sighed. "Musta been a hellava meeting," he mumbled to himself. After a quick trip to the boys' room to make sure they were both asleep, Buck headed for the barn.
Chris stood at one of the stalls, the backs of his curled fingers stroking gently up and down the nose of the horse, the horse's eyes half closed in contentment.
"Hey, Pard," Buck greeted softly as he stepped up to the man. "Startin' to wonder if you'd be gettin' back tonight."
"Sorry," Chris replied sullenly. "Shoulda called."
Buck immediately knew the news wasn't good. "No problem. I managed the wrangle the boys into bed without too much fightin'." Buck moved around Chris and leaned his back against the stall door. "So, wanna tell me what's goin' on?"
Chris blew out a long, slow breath before his one word answer. "Can't"
Buck narrowed his eyes. "That whiskey I smell on your breath? Thought we agreed, now that we got the boys, that we weren't gonna do stupid stuff like that no more."
"Had one shot," Chris supplied, still gently stroking the horse's nose. "Inez wouldn't let me have more."
"Good for her." Buck looked down at his feet and toed the dirt on the floor. "Anything you can talk about?"
"How much I hate my job sometimes?" Chris posed as he finally turned to look at his friend.
Buck stared at him, shocked, for a moment then let out a nervous laugh, "Now, I know you don't mean that. You love this job."
Chris regarded Buck briefly then started nodding sadly. "Yeah, I do...most of the time. I love the feeling I get when we take some scumbag off the street. I love the whole process, the research, the surveillance, the adrenaline rush at the take-down. It's just this stuff I hate." Chris waved his hand randomly through the air.
"Oh, now, you can't leave it like that. You gotta tell me what's going on."
"Buck," Chris shook his head and turned away.
"Come on, you know me, I won't say anything to anybody. Maybe it'll help you to talk it out with someone."
"I can't, Buck..."
"Not a word," Buck told him, then mimicked locking his lips and throwing away a key.
Chris closed his eyes and let out a breath, knowing he should keep his mouth shut but also knowing it might lighten the load to tell someone about what was going on.
"Travis pulled the team leaders aside after this afternoon's meeting. Seems the higher-ups are talking about restructuring the agency."
Buck wrinkled his nose. "Now, that's never good."
"No, it's not. Nothing is definite yet but Travis thinks they're going to reduce the manpower on the teams." Chris looked over at Buck to see if the meaning was clear.
Buck remained still, his expression not changing for a long time. Finally, he started bobbing his head as if he'd come to a decision. "Make it me."
"What?" Chris asked, his tired mind trying to make the connection between what he had said and what Buck had said.
"Lay me off. It's the only thing that makes sense. I can be a stay-at-home dad."
"No, think about it, Chris. You're bringing home the bigger paycheck now so the boys will still be taken care of. My paycheck paid for the extras so we just cut out those until things settle down."
"Buck," Chris began.
"BUCK! YOU THERE!"
Both men jumped at the sound then looked over at the walkie-talkie that connected the barn to the house. Buck was the first to move to grab the device and he spoke into it as he started running towards the house, Chris on his heels.
"We're comin'. What is it, JD?"
"The toilet! I had to go and when I flushed it, the water kept comin' and it's flowin' over." JD was panicked, sure he'd caused some great catastrophe.
"It's okay, JD. It's just a water," Buck relayed into the walkie-talkie as he was opening the backdoor of the house. JD was standing at the window staring out at the barn with the house's walkie-talkie clutched in his hand. Buck headed for JD as Chris headed for the bathroom.
"It's okay, Little Bit. It's just water and we know how to fix it, okay?" Buck picked up the boy and squeezed him tight as he made his own way to the bathroom.
Chris was just finishing turning off the water to the fixture as Buck appeared in the doorway.
"How's it look?" Buck asked as he set JD on the floor in the hallway, indicating with his hand that JD was to stay there.
Chris took the top off the tank and looked in. He saw the problem immediately. "Float broke. Easy to fix, once we get a new one." Chris replaced the tank top and then started soaking up the water on the floor with a sponge and tossing down all the towels he could reach.
"Good. We don't really need any major repairs right now," Buck sighed. Chris grunted an agreement. "I'm going to put JD back to bed and then I'll come help you."
Buck led JD back to the boys' bedroom and guided him into the bottom bunk. Taking the walkie-talkie from him, he settled him under the covers.
"Did I break it?" JD asked in a concerned whisper.
"No, Little Bit, things just wear out sometimes. It could have happened anytime to anyone."
JD stared silently, looking at the shadowy face standing by him, the dim light from the night light making it hard to read the expression. Finally, he sighed and nodded. "Okay."
"You go back to sleep now, JD. School tomorrow."
JD wrinkled his nose at the mention of school, even though it wasn't the dreaded place it once was. "Okay. Night, Buck."
"Night, JD." Buck leaned over and kissed the boy lightly on the cheek before he made some final adjustments to the covers, took a peek at the older boy still asleep in the upper bunk, and then slowly left the room. Heading back to the bathroom, he stepped in to find Chris on his knees, sopping up water then squeezing it out into the sink. "How's it going?"
"Not bad. A lot of water, though," Chris replied, then turned to face Buck, a gleam in his eye, and an extra sponge in his hand, "care to join me?"
Buck took a deep breath and sighed in resignation. "Sure," he said as he grabbed the sponge, eased himself down onto his knees and began wiping up the water. "Oh, the joys of home ownership," he muttered as he squeezed water out of his sponge.
"Yeah," Chris agreed as he squeezed his sponge out into the sink. "Oh, Buck, not a word about what I said before."
Buck mumbled something through tightly clenched lips that sounded something like, "not a peep."
Chris and Buck were both distracted the next morning but the boys didn't seem to notice. The morning ritual was altered because of the broken toilet but the four managed to work around it and get out of the house on schedule. They dropped the boys at school and headed off into the morning rush hour traffic towards downtown.
"Guess I'll run out at lunch time and pick up the parts to fix the john," Buck said idly as they turned into the parking garage.
"Mmmm," Chris semi-acknowledged.
"You still frettin' about cuttin' me loose? Don't worry about it, Chris. I can handle it."
It took a moment for Buck's comment to make it through Chris' faraway thoughts. "I'm not cutting you loose, Buck," he began as they pulled into the parking spot. "I mean, I don't know what I'm doing."
"Hey," Buck began, leaning back in his seat and looking over at his friend, "I've already got it all figured out. I'm just waiting for you to get on board."
Chris sighed heavily. "There's not even anything to get 'on board' with, not officially anyway."
"Yeah, well, maybe, but when it does, officially, you'll already have things taken care of."
Chris sighed again. "Buck, don't say a word to anyone about all this. It's not supposed to be public knowledge."
"Hey, I can keep a secret."
Chris yanked on the door handle to open the door. "I mean it, Buck. Not a word." With that, he climbed out of the truck and headed off towards the elevator, Buck rushing to catch up.
The boys were just put to bed and Chris sat at the kitchen table nursing a beer. The day had passed without any official notice coming from Travis on whether or not his team would be losing a man. Not just his team, though. All the teams were liable to be forced to drop a person. A lot of good, well-trained agents lost due to budget issues.
Chris had thought about volunteering for a pay cut...maybe get the other team leaders to go for it too, then maybe they could use that money to keep the agents on. He knew, though, that even if they all took a ten percent pay cut, that would only cover the salaries of a few agents. And getting people to voluntarily forfeit part of their pay was difficult at best.
He took a healthy swallow from his bottle and sighed, wishing that he'd hear something soon. The not knowing was driving him crazy.
Chris' solitary contemplation was interrupted by Buck entering the kitchen and plopping down a pile of papers on the table in front of Chris. On top of the pile, he set a calculator, his checkbook and several pens.
Chris stared at the pile but asked, "Done with the toilet?"
"Yep. Works like a charm."
Chris nodded, knowing he should have helped with the chore, even if it would have been a tight fit with both of them in there trying to work. "What's all this?" Chris asked indicating the stuff on the table..
"A little budget crunching. We're gonna see what would happen if my salary went away, just to convince you that we'd make it okay and that it only makes sense to lay me off."
"No, now I know that you have to weigh other things besides 'who can afford it' but I also know that you know that Josiah, Nathan and Ezra would have no trouble picking up for me if I were gone so I know that you can see that this is the way it ought to be."
"Actually, Buck, 'who can afford it' isn't part of the process."
Buck huffed out a breath. "Humor me," he insisted as he pulled out a chair and started rifling through the pile in front of him. "This is the monthly expenses," he started as he pulled out a couple of sheets of paper. He set them at an angle so that both men could see it. He grabbed a blank sheet of paper and a pen and started in. "Okay, this is your monthly salary," he said as he wrote a figure on the blank sheet. "And this is the total monthly expenses for the ranch," he wrote another number down, "for the household, groceries, car payments, insurance, boys' school, Gloria, oooh," he said and looked up sadly at Chris. "Guess we'd have to let Gloria go. Boys'll hate that, and, well, so will I." Buck added several more numbers to his list.
Chris had decided not to fight Buck and let him go on, adding an appropriate grunt at the right times.
"Well, adding all this up, and adding in a little fudge factor for all those things that come up..."
"Like broken Torkuses."
"Yeah," Buck grinned, "like broken Torkuses. And, oh, I forgot to add in the lawyer fees for the adoptions...carry the four...and, well, not a lot left over but I think we can manage."
"Buck...," Chris groaned.
"I want you to know that I'll be keeping track of all that's spent on me and JD. I ain't lookin' for a free ride here. I'll find a way to pay you back." Buck rubbed at his chin as he thought, "I guess I could look into getting back on at Denver PD. We could keep Gloria that way."
"Buck...," Chris tried again.
"I'm not missing anything, am I? You don't have any bills that I don't know about, do you?"
Chris lowered his eyes to the table and picked up a pen, sliding it around between his fingers.
Chris mumbled something too low for Buck to hear.
"What was that?"
"I said I've got a loan out on the house."
"Loan...what do you mean, loan...you mean like a mortgage?"
Chris nodded, not lifting his gaze.
"What do you mean you have a mortgage? You inherited the ranch!" Buck balked disbelievingly.
"Technically, I have a home equity loan, not a mortgage," Chris explained, trying to divert Buck's attention. Buck huffed irritably and Chris continued. "This place needed work a lot of work the house, the barn, the corrals the plumbing, the electrical, new septic system, updated insulation, new roof, you name it. You knew I took out a loan to pay for the improvements." Chris rubbed a hand across his weary eyes and took a deep breath.
"Okay, I remember that but you told me you paid that off with the insurance money from ," Buck paused, mentally steering away from the painful memory of Sarah's and Adam's deaths. "Why'd you tell me that? And why aren't I paying for half since JD and I live here now?"
Chris sighed as he stalled, fumbling with the pen in his hands.
"I told you it was mine free and clear so you'd quit worrying about me." Finally, Chris raised his gaze to meet his friend's, a touch of anger and pain in his eyes.
Buck's expression grew confused as he shook his head.
"Back when ," Chris began, then paused and swallowed hard as he gathered his thoughts and emotions. "After Sarah and Adam died if you'll remember, I wasn't on top of things. I drank, fought, generally did stupid things trying to forget."
Buck nodded sadly at the memories. "Yeah," he croaked, "I remember."
"For months, you were there," Chris said, recalling the time. "In my face, taking care of me, making me take care of myself, trying to straighten me out."
"Well, after all your work finally took and I started getting on with my life," Chris paused and shrugged, " sort of you were still there, still worrying about me."
Buck nodded. "That I was." Buck's eyes even now held a touch of worry.
"Well, I thought that if you thought that I had used their life insurance money to pay off the ranch that you would at least know that I would have a place to live that was mine and you could stop worrying so much about me and maybe get on with your own life."
Buck cleared his throat and spoke hesitantly. "So, uh, what did you do with the money?" Buck and Chris had been friends for a long time and there was very little that they didn't talk about with each other. Buck hoped this wasn't something Chris didn't want to share.
"Well," Chris began, then paused as his mind went back to that time. "Sarah refused to have a policy on Adam. 'I don't want to benefit from the death of my child' she always said, and I agreed with her." Chris looked sadly at his hands as they still fumbled with the pen. "Funny it was okay to benefit from the death of my wife."
Chris held up one hand. "I know we were being responsible, practical about it all. There was a history of cancer in her family and if, god forbid, she got it and died, she didn't want me to have medical bills on top of everything else. We figured out what would be a reasonable amount and got a policy on her. It wasn't a whole lot, I mean, I was the major bread winner so it wasn't like we were trying to replace her income." Chris' voice was becoming shaky.
Buck took a deep breath. "So ?" He really felt like he was prying but a tiny voice inside of him was telling him Chris needed to say this.
"I pissed it away more of it than you can possibly imagine." Chris slapped his hands on the tabletop and tilted his head back, his eyes towards the ceiling, towards the heavens. "I'm so sorry, Sarah, I'm so, so sorry." His anguished whisper tore from his heart and he let his chin drop to his chest.
Buck reached out quickly and put a comforting hand on Chris' shoulder, squeezing firmly in support.
Chris took a deep breath and held it. Slowly, he reached up one hand to swipe away a tear that was threatening to fall. Letting the breath out, he clamped his jaw for a few moments before raising his head and continuing. "Sarah and I'd even talked about it. 'Don't you crawl into a hole. You keep living.'," Chris mocked his wife's tone, wagging his finger in the air in reprimand.
Buck smiled. "Yep, that sounds like her."
Chris nodded. "I told her the same thing. Didn't want her to mourn me well, not too long," Chris smiled weakly. "Didn't really expect her to. I was always surprised that she loved me to begin with. Never felt like I deserved her."
Buck squeezed the shoulder again. "You did, Pard. You both deserved each other. You were good together. You had a lot of great years together. Remember that." Buck shook Chris' shoulder for emphasis, making sure he understood.
Chris nodded absently as he stared wistfully into the distance for several moments. Finally, clearing his throat and straightening up in his seat, he looked back at Buck. "I bought the meadow."
Buck shook his head briefly, dropping his arm back to the table, "Huh? you what?"
"The meadow. Sarah always loved it up there but, technically, it wasn't part of the ranch, just adjacent to it. I took what money I had left from and bought it. Twenty-three acres."
In the short time that Buck had been living at the ranch, he had learned every square inch of the property and could walk the perimeter from marker to marker. He had no idea that it hadn't come into Chris' hands as one piece of land. "The meadow," he repeated. He visualized that part of the property. A large, flat spot hidden among the hills and trees. It wasn't easily accessible but it was beautiful.
"Yeah, that and some of the wooded area to the north. That part of the ranch is paid for...well, technically, all the land is mine," Chris paused and looked at Buck, "ours," he amended referring to the share of the property he had deeded over to Buck for his birthday. "It's just the house that the bank would take and, I guess, that would include the land it sits on."
"So, worse comes to worst, we can pitch a tent and live off the land," Buck grinned.
Chris grinned, too. "Yeah, in a tent, with no electricity, no running water, no television..."
"Boys'd love it."
"Maybe, for about a week."
"Or maybe we can get Vin to set us up in that warehouse."
Chris glared at Buck. "Don't even joke about that."
"Sorry...sorry." Buck's eyes narrowed and his tone took on a hint of irritation. "Now wait a minute, if you've still got a note on this place, how come I haven't been paying my share? I told you when JD and I moved in that I would pay half of everything." Buck was getting angry.
"And you have been half the utilities, half the household expenses, half of Gloria's salary "
"But not half the mortgage."
"I'd be paying that myself if you weren't here. Having you and JD living here doesn't change the fact that I have, nor the amount of, the monthly mortgage payment. I wasn't going to ask you to pay for something that you wouldn't get anything out of."
"But I do get something out of it."
Chris stared down at the tabletop, his tone subdued. "Yeah, but you didn't know about the debt and I didn't feel right having you move in, and on top of everything else going on at the time, say 'oh yeah, now you owe me an extra four hundred a month because I lied to you years ago and didn't pay this off'. I'm getting as much out of our arrangement as you are, and the boys are a lot better off, too. So I kept the debt to myself. You weren't supposed to find out about it." Chris took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I took out a separate life insurance policy when you moved in just to cover it in case something happened to me." He looked up finally. "You were never going to be saddled with this debt."
Buck felt his throat tighten up. "Damn, Chris."
Vin stood outside the kitchen, hidden in the shadows, clutching Cat tightly to his chest, his thoughts of a glass of milk forgotten.
Chris and Buck were running out of money...
They were going to lose the house...
No more Mrs. Potter...
What about the horses and dogs..?
Too many expenses...
Go back to the warehouse...
He drew in a deep breath and fought the fear building in his stomach. They were going to lose the house and have to go live in the warehouse again. He squeezed his stuffed friend to him even tighter and turned back toward his bedroom, hoping that he would wake and find that he'd dreamed the whole thing.
"Did you at least refinance to get a lower interest rate?" Buck asked, a hint of teasing in his voice.
Chris smiled briefly. "Yes," he said, in a tone that suggested Buck was foolish to ask. "I did about two years ago."
"Well," Buck sighed as he leaned heavily back in his chair, "we do have our pension plans we can borrow against if we need to. I have some money I've been socking away, and those investments Ezra set up for JD, I guess I can look into what those are worth." Buck shook his head. "Hate to do that, though."
"Yeah," Chris agreed. "And there's Vin's money...from his father's army survivor's benefits. There's not a whole lot in that account but it might help if we need it."
Buck perked up. "So, you agree with me, that I should be the one to get laid off ? You see it's the only plan that makes sense."
"I'll agree that it's a workable plan, Buck, but I have to weigh other factors."
"Just so you know, I'm ready and willing for it to be me."
Chris grinned a small, sad smile. "Thanks, Buck."
"What's the matter, Vin?" Chris asked, reaching over to feel the boy's forehead.
"Nothin'," Vin responded, not bothering to try to duck away from Chris' hand.
"Why aren't you eating?"
"Reckon I just ain't that hungry."
"You sure you feel all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Vin told him, digging into his cereal to try to prove it. He wasn't sure how long he could hide his heavy heart.
"Well, hurry up a little. We have to leave soon for school."
"Boss, you got a minute?"
Chris looked up from the report he was reviewing. "Sure, Josiah. Come on in." Chris set aside his papers and turned his full attention to his team member. Josiah closed the office door and moved to the chairs in front of the leader's desk. Sitting with a slight groan, he kept his eyes low as he gathered his thoughts. "What's on your mind, Josiah?" Chris prompted.
"Well," Josiah began then fidgeted in the seat and cleared his throat loudly. "I've been thinking on something for a while now and I just wanted to let you know my feelings."
Chris nodded and then raised his eyebrows as Josiah's pause went on and on.
"I'm not getting any younger, you know. It's not as easy for me to keep up with the young bucks," he began, then glanced up with a twinkle in his eye, "and I'm not talking 'our' Buck."
Chris grinned back at the man, still not sure what he was trying to say.
Clearing his throat again, Josiah went on, "I was thinking that it might be time for me to slide on into a less strenuous position...leave the field work for the younger crowd." Finally settling his gaze on his boss, Josiah waited for a response.
Chris sighed and dropped his head to his chest. "Josiah," he began wearily, shaking his head slightly, "who have you been talking to?"
"Talking to? You've heard something and now you're trying to do the noble thing."
"No, Chris, that isn't it at all."
"Your last physical was in the top twentieth percentile, your firearms re-certification was in the top ten. You love this job. You can't tell me you're looking to retire."
"Just because a man can do the job doesn't mean it doesn't take it's toll."
"Are you telling me you want out?"
Josiah pressed his lips together, knowing he couldn't lie to the man in front of him.
"Who did you talk to?"
Josiah sagged and, after a moment, shrugged with a sheepish grin. "Word is out. Just thought I'd help make the decision easier on you."
"I appreciate that, Josiah, I really do, but nothing has been decided yet. When and if that decision comes down, I'll make the best choice I can for the good of the team."
Josiah sat and appraised his boss for several moments before he nodded slightly and grinned again. "I know you will. Just know I'll take no offense if it's me."
Chris smiled sadly back. "Thank you. I appreciate that, Josiah."
"Sure," Josiah nodded and stood back up, intending to return to his desk.
"Try not to spread this around. Rumors aren't good for business."
"Right," Josiah agreed and left the office.
Vin stood in the lunch line in the cafeteria looking down at the coins in his palm. If he drank water instead of milk, he wouldn't have to pay and if he didn't buy a cookie, just ate what was packed in his lunch, he wouldn't have to spend any of his money. Then he could give it back to Chris and Buck.
"What can I get you, Vin?" Miz Lottie asked, smiling sweetly at one of her favorite students.
Vin shoved his money back into his pocket and looked up. "I's thinkin' on just drinkin' water today, Miz Lottie. Can I get a cup?"
"Sure, sweetie, here you go," she told him as she handed a small cup over the counter and made sure Vin had a good hold of it before she released it. "Anything else?"
"Nope," Vin replied, shaking his head.
"No cookie today?"
"No, thanks...uh...Mrs. Potter made cookies last night and Chris packed me some," Vin lied, his voice quivering a little, afraid he'd be found out.
"Okay. You enjoy your lunch, sweetie."
"I will, thanks." Vin pushed on through the line, following the flow of children to a table where he sat and opened his lunch bag.