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El Paso, 2010

“Eddie!”

There’s a park down the street from their house. The same park where Adriana broke her arm trying to jump off the swings when she was eight, where Eddie used to kick around a soccer ball, where Sophia got asked out for the first time while Eddie made obnoxious faces in the background until the boy left and his sister punched him in the shoulder.

It has a lot of memories.

Right now, though, Eddie wishes it wasn’t such an obvious place for him to go after running out of the house in the middle of an ever more heated argument. He sighs and wraps his hands tighter around the ropes of the swings and stares up at the stars—maybe half a minute later he hears the crunch of boots on sawdust and the old equipment creaks as a figure settles into the swing next to him.

“You know, I left so I could stop being yelled at,” he says when he finally breaks the silence. “If you wanted to start up again, you could have waited until I came back.”

“Maybe you didn’t notice, but I wasn’t yelling at you, I was yelling at mom,” Sophia replies. “And really, I wasn’t even yelling. More...arguing. Forcefully.”

Eddie snorts despite himself and they lapse back into silence again. As it lingers—as Sophia waits—he chews on his cheek, feeling...small. Too young, like he’s seven again and sneaking into his big sister’s room because he broke their mom’s favorite vase and doesn’t want to get in trouble.

(She had his back on that one, hid the pieces in a shoebox under her bed until trash day and then snuck out to toss them in the bin in the middle of the night. Their mom replaced the vase and no one was ever the wiser. But some things aren’t so easily remedied.)

“I fucked up,” he says quietly, and there’s a lump in his throat made up of panic and choking responsibility.

“You made a mistake,” Sophia replies. “And there are a lot of different ways to make it right—not just one, contrary to the opinion of the rest of the family—which is what I’ve been trying to say since I got here yesterday.”

“Why can’t you just be happy for me?” Eddie shoots back, even knowing it’s not fair. “Why—why can’t you be on my side?”

She shoves at his arm and he has to dig his heels into the sawdust to keep still.

“I am on your side, dumbass. Why do you think I don’t want you to get married, huh?”

“Because you think I can’t handle it.”

“Fuck you.” Sophia huffs and rocks back and forth like she’s trying to decide whether to start swinging in earnest. Finally, she stops and shakes her head.

“I want you to get married if you want to get married, if you really think you’re ready to get married, if you love Shannon so desperately that you truly and genuinely know you want to spend the rest of your life with her,” she says. “But I haven’t heard you say any of that. I’ve heard everyone else acting like it’s the 1950s and telling you that you have to because she’s pregnant, but that’s—that’s bullshit, Eddie. And frankly, it’s a bad reason to do it.”

Eddie swallows hard and lets go of the ropes, letting his hands fall down to his lap and staring at them. His stomach twists and he knows it’s because she’s right. But he still doesn’t—

“So, what? Are you saying if I get married you’ll disown me? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone else will do if I don’t.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sophia says quietly. “I will be here for you whatever you do, whenever you need me, even if I disagree with you. Because you’re my brother and I love you. I just want to make sure your choices really are yours. Not mom’s, not dad’s, not abuela’s—yours.”

“I do love her, you know. At least...I think I do.” Sophia makes a soft sound and Eddie reads into it what she doesn’t say.

Thinking isn’t the same as knowing.

But, she just nods after a moment.

“I have to drive back to Arizona tomorrow,” she admits. “Couldn’t get all my shifts covered last minute. But...call me anytime, okay? I mean it—I have your back. And I know Adriana does too, even if you don’t want to bother her at school.”

Sophia looks up at the sky, then across the playground.

“Bet I can still jump farther than you,” she challenges. “Want to try?”

She pumps her legs and starts swinging and Eddie laughs and joins her.

“Yeah, right—we’ll see.”

(Five years later, when Eddie is falling to pieces and Shannon walks out, Sophia drops everything, leaves her husband to take care of their own kids, and stays for a week running interference with their parents. She doesn’t say I told you so.)


Los Angeles, 2020

It’s a strange feeling, getting used to living with someone again. Someone not Christopher at any rate.

It’s even stranger living with someone while not living with Christopher, but Eddie can’t think about that too hard without falling into a dark pit of despair, so he focuses on the living with someone part in general. Technically, he’s living with several someones since Chim and Hen are there too, but Buck’s the only one he’s sharing a bed with so that’s the part that sticks in his head.

The first few nights it’s a weird adjustment—the only period where he and Shannon really shared a bed regularly was during her pregnancy, before his first deployment. After that, he was either deployed or when he was home they were fighting more often than not. Even when she came back, there was distance between them, a gaping chasm that he didn’t feel like he could cross unless they were having sex. So it catches him up a bit, having another body next to him, not because of sex but just...to share space. To sleep.

He finds himself wanting, needing, aching, staring at the ceiling trying to will himself to sleep while his skin buzzes with awareness, while his hands itch to touch, to hold.

The first morning he wakes up with Buck’s arm slung across his waist, body pressed firmly against his back, holding on tight in his sleep, Eddie nearly shivers at the wave of longing that floods through him, so fierce and sudden that he can’t even parse whether it comes from desire or just raw need. A need to be touched. A need to be held. A need to press skin to skin and sink into someone else’s warmth and just linger, existing in safety. Security.

He hasn’t been touched in so long.

He aches.

Eddie shifts gently, trying to get up without waking Buck, but it doesn’t work. Buck’s eyes blink open slowly, cloudy with sleep and confusion until he registers their position and withdraws.

“Sorry,” Buck says, voice rough. “Guess I’m a stealth cuddler.”

“I don’t mind.” It slips out and Eddie’s stomach flips. It feels like too meaningful an admission, and he struggles to hold Buck’s gaze instead of looking away, biting his tongue so he won’t add I liked it. But whatever Buck sees, he doesn’t react. Just searches Eddie’s face for another moment before shrugging and reaching for Eddie’s wrist to pull him back in again.

“In that case, we’ve still got another hour before the alarm,” he mumbles, closing his eyes again. “And you’re a surprisingly comfortable pillow.”

“I have to pee,” Eddie laughs. Buck makes a face but doesn’t open his eyes.

“Fine, but come back.” He yawns. “Haven’t slept that well in ages.”

So...Eddie does. He comes back and thinks Buck is already asleep again until Buck rolls over and wraps around him like an octopus. Eddie tenses for the briefest moment before exhaling slowly, the tension draining out of him with it. And then he closes his eyes as well. And drifts.

The next morning, it’s the reverse—Eddie wakes up with his face mashed into Buck’s neck, body half-draped across his, clinging tight. But when he starts to pull away, Buck makes a small noise of discontent.

So he stays.

He doesn’t think too hard about it.

It becomes natural for one or the other of them to roll in close as soon as they’re both in bed. And they talk like that sometimes when it’s dark and they can’t sleep. Little things. Or sometimes big things.

It’s on one of those nights when Buck’s fingers are trailing absently over Eddie’s wrist, that Buck says, “I’m thinking about going to therapy.”

The words are hushed, halting, like Buck’s tasting each one as it falls from his lips. Eddie blinks, dragging himself from the lull of soft sensation back to full consciousness.

“I think that’s great,” he replies.

“Really?”

“Just because I didn’t click with Frank doesn’t mean I have a problem with anyone seeing a therapist,” Eddie says. “I took Chris to a therapist.”

Buck’s brows knit. “When was that?”

Eddie opens his mouth, closes it. Hesitates.

“After the tsunami,” he says finally. But Buck reads between the lines anyway.

“During the lawsuit,” Buck corrects and starts to sit up only for Eddie to wrap an arm around his waist and pull him back in. He doesn’t know if it’s right, but it feels right. Natural.

“Don’t do that,” Eddie insists. Don’t hide. “You can’t keep feeling guilty over things that happened ages ago—I’ve said we’re past that and I meant it.”

“Says the person who does nothing but feel guilty over things that happened ages ago,” Buck shoots back.

Once upon a time, that might have stung, might have felt like a deliberate attempt to throw his failings back in his face. But it rolls off of him now, and Eddie just shrugs.

“Well, I’m Catholic. Guilt is practically in my DNA.”

Buck stares for a long moment, caught. Then, he laughs.

“I don’t think that gives you a monopoly. But I guess my inability to let things go is something I can unpack...in therapy,” he replies. He glances up, smile wry in the dark. “Maybe Bobby can give you the number of a good priest.”

Eddie makes a face. “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”

The subject shifts then, and a few minutes later Buck rolls over so that Eddie’s plastered against his back. Eddie closes his eyes.

“Thank you. For telling me,” he says.

“I trust you,” Buck replies.

Thank you for trusting me.

On instinct, Eddie starts to turn his head to press a kiss to Buck’s neck, only to stop. And that’s when it clicks, there in the silence. Realization blooms warm in his chest, the question of what they’re doing when they touch like this, what they want—or at least what Eddie wants—finally answered. Eddie swallows hard, waits for the panic to set in.

But it doesn’t. There’s just Buck, warm against him. Buck, his best friend. And he suddenly gets it in a way he hadn’t as a fumbling twenty-year-old, gets the difference between thinking and knowing. Because he knows what this feeling is, with an unshakeable certainty.

I love you, I love you, I love you.


It takes seven weeks of living together before Buck accidentally answers Eddie’s phone. In fairness, it was a long shift the day before and both of them had barely done more than change out of jeans before falling into bed. Checking which side of the bed they tossed their personal items wasn’t exactly a top priority.

So, Eddie is still half asleep when the phone starts chiming with the FaceTime ringtone. He grumbles faintly when Buck slips out of his arms, but doesn’t open his eyes.

At least until he hears—

“Well, I know you aren’t my brother, so I’m dying to know who you are and why you have his phone.”

Sophia.

Eddie shoots up, rubbing at his eyes.

“I’m Buck,” Buck replies. “Sorry, phone switch—here, Eddie’s right—”

You’re Buck?” Eddie freezes at the tone, doesn’t even need to see her face to know exactly the type of smile curving her lips. “Well, well, it’s nice to finally meet you. I’m Sophia—we’ve heard a lot about you.”

“All good things I hope,” Buck laughs.

“Oh, yes, I would say so—”

Eddie takes the phone before she can say anything incriminating and jumps out of bed.

“Stop harassing my friend and tell me why you’re FaceTiming at nine in the morning on a Saturday,” he says as Buck falls back against the pillows snickering behind him. Eddie heads downstairs to the kitchen, listening carefully as the bathroom door closes and the shower starts up.

Sophia ignores him.

“So that’s Buck.” She hums, then adds, “You never said he looked like that.”

“You’re married,” Eddie points out.

“And yet, not blind.”

“It didn’t seem relevant,” Eddie deflects as he opens the refrigerator to grab the orange juice.

“I think it’s very relevant actually,” Sophia replies.

“How?”

She waits until he’s poured a glass and is in the middle of taking a sip before she says—

“Because you’re sleeping with him.”

Eddie chokes and glares at his sister while he coughs, trying to get his air back.

“I’m not—” He rolls his eyes and corrects himself halfway through. “I’m not sleeping with him like that, okay?”

Not that the opportunity hasn’t presented itself, his mind unhelpfully supplies. Because it has. When both of them are spending the nights twined together like lovers, when neither of them has actually had sex in years—yeah, certain things have...come up. Which is just biology and attraction and it’s never gone further than half-asleep reactions to morning wood that they’ve always laughed off. But it certainly doesn’t help the simmering burn of attraction that Eddie knows he’s in no position to act on yet, or maybe ever, regardless of what his dick might want.

Sophia looks at him for a long moment as her gaze turns from teasing to thoughtful.

“But you want to be. Right?”

Upstairs, the shower is still running. Chim and Hen are nowhere to be seen. But Eddie still swallows the obvious answer, looking away and taking another sip of juice. It’s not like she won’t read it on his face anyway.

Sophia sucks in a sharp breath. “Eddie.”

“Don’t,” he says. “Please don’t make a fuss. It’s not—it doesn’t matter. It might not ever be anything more than it is, and that’s—honestly, that’s fine.”

And it is. It is, because Buck’s in therapy and Eddie is all too aware that his own head is a minefield where dating and romance are concerned, and what they have already is—he doesn’t need it to be more. He just needs Buck.

“I just want you to be happy, Eddie,” Sophia replies. “You know that.”

“I am happy.” And for the first time in years, he really means it.

“Happier, then.”

“For now, I’ll make do with happy.” Eddie shrugs. “After that, we’ll see. Now is there something you actually wanted to talk about or—?”

Sophia looks at him for a moment longer, biting her lip before she says, “Adri’s birthday is coming up and I wanted to know your shift schedule so we can all do a Zoom call for her.”

“Give me a sec, I’ll look it up.”

A few weeks later, Eddie moves back home, and that adjustment is...somehow even more strange than when he left. Chris is clingy, and Eddie clings right back, which means he doesn’t say anything on the nights when Chris climbs into bed with him like he’s five again wanting protection from monsters under the bed, but that’s not all the time. Which still leaves nights where Eddie’s alone, the bed feeling enormous and empty and cold.

His skin itches for extra weight. Heat.

Buck.

He doesn’t sleep well.

On several of those nights, he tosses and turns, stares at the ceiling, then at his phone. He thinks about being across town in the loft again. Wonders if Buck is glad to have his bed back or if he misses sharing it as well.

And sometimes his phone rings at midnight and he always answers.

“So, Chim thinks I have a new girlfriend,” Buck says on one of those. “Which—I can handle him teasing me, but he told Maddie. And now she wants to know.”

Eddie rolls over on his side, pillowing his head on his arm. “You don’t want to tell them you’re seeing a therapist?”

Buck sighs. “It’s not like I’m ashamed of it or anything,” he replies. “It’s more—I feel like Maddie might take it the wrong way. Therapy isn’t exactly something we do in our family and she worries, you know? I don’t want to make her feel like I had to go see a professional because I didn’t trust her or anything like that.”

“You know if she does, that’s not on you, right?” Eddie asks. “Even the family you’re close with can do a lot, but...they can’t fix everything.”

“Speaking from experience?”

It’s late enough that it feels as though they’re in some liminal space, where honesty comes easier and the raw edges that Eddie usually tries to avoid don’t ache quite so much. He wets his lips—

“Sophia told me not to marry Shannon,” he confesses. “She thought we were too young, thought we weren’t in love enough to make it work, she never said outright that she thought it would be a disaster, but she didn’t think it would make me happy. And she wasn’t surprised when everything fell apart. And then when Shannon came back...I didn’t even tell her because she had already been saying I should file for divorce for two years and I knew what she would say if I admitted I was thinking about letting Shannon back in and I also knew I didn’t want to hear it. Because she was right the first time—she’s usually right—but I didn’t want...to be a failure. Or to admit I’d already failed and there wasn’t anything left to salvage.”

“You’re not a failure, Eddie,” Buck replies. “So your marriage didn’t work out—you weren’t the only person in it. You can’t put that on yourself. Especially not when I know how hard you tried because I was right here watching. Sometimes—sometimes people need different things and those needs aren’t compatible. That doesn’t mean it was your fault because you needed anything at all.”

Eddie sits with that for a minute, feels it land, feels it bruise. And this is the problem that he needs to fix—because he hears it, he understands it. He would probably say the same to anyone else.

He just can’t accept it as applied to himself. And he doesn’t know what to do with that.

“You learn that in therapy?” He deflects.

“It’s good for some things, maybe you should try it,” Buck shoots back.

“I probably should.”

There’s a pause, and then—

“Is that why you don’t date?” Buck asks. “Because you think you’ll mess it up? I always assumed it was just...that you were still in love with her.”

I’m in love with you.

“I stopped being in love with her a long time ago.”

Eddie has to stop for a moment then, to feel the weight of that. The first time he’s really said it. He’s wondered in moments if what he had with Shannon was ever really love at all, but he doesn’t think that’s fair to say. It was love, but cotton candy love—sugar-sweet and dreamy at first, but fragile, with no real substance, nothing stable to fall back on in difficult times.

Easily torn apart.

He takes a breath, shakes his head.

“But I don’t need to date right now anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”

Buck’s quiet. “Do you think you ever will?”

“Do you?” Eddie asks. And he doesn’t know what he wants the answer to be.

“I don’t know,” Buck admits. “Maybe that’s something I should bring up in my next session.”

“Maybe it is.”


Texas is exhausting.

The wildfire is exhausting, watching Hen’s helicopter fall out of the sky is exhausting, his parents are exhausting.

There are a lot more words to apply to all of those things, but Eddie just feels...tired. The kind of bone-deep tired that’s more than just physical, that comes from being put through the wringer and spat out the other side. They pull into the station just before 6AM and the idea of driving home is—

He scrubs his hands over his face and is in the middle of contemplating going up to the bunks to steal an hour or two of sleep before braving the road when Buck’s hand brushes across his lower back.

“I’ll drive you home. Come on,” Buck says quietly.

“What about you?” Eddie asks.

“If I go home right now and see that Albert hasn’t done the dishes for four days, I can’t be held responsible for anything I do, so I’m crashing on your couch.”

Eddie shakes his head and knocks into Buck’s shoulder.

“Think I can manage better than the couch,” he replies. “Unless you think I’ve caught cooties in the past couple months.”

Buck hums. “That sounds really nice actually.”

Eddie falls asleep in the jeep, wakes up to Buck squeezing his shoulder gently.

“Is Chris home?” Buck asks.

“No, he’s—” Eddie yawns. “He’s at abuela’s. I’m supposed to pick him up tonight.”

It’s easy to fall back into going through the motions with Buck. Even as soft dawn light filters through the windows, even if they’re at Eddie’s and not at the loft, it still feels the same. Trading off at the sink, the fastest possible showers to scrub the road off their skin before falling into bed. Eddie falls first, sinking into the mattress with a groan after days of sleeping upright in the truck or on camp beds at the wildfire site.

But Buck follows slowly, the energy shifting. When Eddie glances over, Buck’s face is a mask of uncertainty, his hands frozen halfway across the bed.

“I, um—” Buck swallows. “Can I—is this—”

Eddie catches on then, his heart skipping in his chest. There’s a please caught in his throat, but he doesn’t say it. Instead, he reaches out and takes Buck’s hand, tugging him in close. He wonders if it’s unfair, if it’s wrong to take this, or at least dishonest, when he wants...so much more. But Buck wraps around him and every last bit of tension bleeds away until all Eddie feels is warm and solid and secure, no longer drifting in and out of the shadows in his head. Just...present. Just right.

And he can’t regret it.

He’s asleep in seconds.

When he wakes up, it’s to the buzz of a phone, then low voices. Caught halfway between sleep and wakefulness, he catches snippets of conversation that don’t fully register.

“Sophia, hey—no, he’s asleep—didn’t want him to miss the call if it was important—”

Buck makes a sound of discontent. “No, they were—awful, can’t believe they talk to him like—weren’t there long—hang on—”

The mattress shifts and the warmth disappears. A moment later, the bedroom door opens and closes. And then it’s quiet again.

Eddie wonders absently if he should get up. If he should be concerned about Sophia talking to Buck. But sleep tugs at the edges of his consciousness again, pulling him down, down, down—

He rolls into the space Buck vacated, heat lingering in the sheets, and is out once more.

When he wakes up again, the house is quiet and the clock says it’s mid-afternoon. He pushes himself up, running one hand through his hair and the other over his face as he walks out of the room.

Buck looks up from where he’s stretched across the couch reading and smiles.

“Hey. I ordered food—your fridge was pretty empty and I figured you’d be hungry.”

“Didn’t want to get groceries last week if we didn’t know how long we’d be needed in Texas,” Eddie explains. He doesn’t head for the kitchen immediately though, instead dropping down on the other end of the couch when Buck moves his legs to sit up.

“Did my sister call or was that a dream?”

Buck rubs at the back of his neck. “No, she did. I wasn’t going to pick up, but I thought at first it might be Chris or Isabel so—”

“It’s fine,” Eddie assures. “I’m guessing she wanted to talk about…”

“Yeah.” Buck winces. “She told me to tell you she’s adding an extra half hour onto the next Diaz Sibling Parental Grievance Bitchfest just for you.”

“Only a half hour?” Eddie can tell the joke doesn’t land when Buck just looks at him.

“Are they always like that? Your parents.”

Eddie sighs. “You mean, do they take every opportunity to make clear they think I’m a bad father and that Christopher would be better off living with them? Yeah. Yeah, they’re pretty consistent with that.”

It was good that their stop in El Paso on the drive home had only been about an hour. Better that Eddie at least had the buffers of Buck and Hen. But even the presence of friends and coworkers hadn’t completely curtailed the passive aggressive digs—about his life, choices, parenting, everything under the sun, really—that he’s come to expect from his parents.

What he hadn’t expected was Buck. Jumping in with a quiet, but firm comment about there not being a parenting handbook for coping with a pandemic and how from what he’s seen, Christopher is doing just fine.

“I didn’t thank you for what you said,” he adds.

“You don’t need to,” Buck replies. “It was the truth. You’re a great dad and if they can’t see it, that’s—well, I don’t know what the hell they’re looking at, but it isn’t reality.”

It would be so easy, Eddie thinks. So easy to lean across the couch, slide a hand into Buck’s hair and kiss him. For a moment, he can practically feel it—the phantom brush of strands filling the gaps between his fingers, soft pressure against his mouth—

He has to curl his fingers into his palms to keep from reaching out.

Maybe it’s stupid, maybe he’s easy, that it’s this—Buck’s honesty, Buck’s unshakeable belief in him—that nearly undoes him when months of sleeping in the same bed didn’t crack his control. But he wants and he aches and he loves so damn much he’s breathless with it—

“Eddie?” Buck’s brow is furrowed with concern. “You okay?”

Eddie sucks in a breath and clears his throat roughly, tamping down hard on every instinct urging him to throw caution to the wind and figure everything else out later. He gets up, wiping his hands on his sweats.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m good. You, um—you said there was food?”

Later, after Buck has gone home and Chris is in bed, Eddie finds himself wide awake, staring up at the ceiling.

His phone buzzes on the nightstand.

He’s in love with you too you know, Sophia’s text reads. Just tell him.

Eddie stares at the message long enough that the screen goes dark, his pulse kicking up.

He starts and erases a dozen messages before he finally types out, not yet.

And hits send.


When your best friend needs an emergency therapy session to deal with the fact that his parents are coming to visit, that’s a big red flag. But Buck doesn’t seem to want to talk about it—in fact, every time Eddie tries to bring it up, Buck shuts down faster than Eddie’s ever seen, a metaphorical door with a big keep out sign on it slamming in his face. So Eddie watches from the sidelines feeling helpless as Buck gets more and more anxious, and he in turn gets more and more worried.

And then, the night after the incident with the bomber—

Is Buck with you?

Eddie stares at the text from Chim, his stomach sinking.

No. Why?

Dinner with the parents went south. Still here doing damage control.

I’ll check on him, Eddie replies, and then pulls up Buck’s number and calls.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Buck says when he picks up, voice hollow and empty.

“Come over.”

“I said I don’t want to talk.”

“Who said anything about talking?” Eddie shoots back. “You can drink, you can sleep, you can help me check Christopher’s homework, you can do whatever you want—we don’t have to talk about it, you can just...be here.”

You don’t have to be alone.

There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. It lingers long enough that Eddie pulls the phone away from his ear to make sure the call hasn’t dropped.

Finally, Buck sighs.

“Thank you,” he says. “But I think I’m just going to go home. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”

“Buck—”

The line goes dead.

Eddie gets the story the next day in the gym as Buck works out his feelings with fists and a heavy bag. It claws at his insides—the raw look on Buck’s face, the fact that he was pushed to a breaking point, the way he’s been made to feel the way he does by people whose most important job only ever should have been to love him—

Buck has always worn his heart on his sleeve, his fragile, bleeding heart, and Eddie wants to take it gently in his hands and draw it inside of himself, to lock it away safe behind the steel cage he’s built out of his ribs so no one else can break it, bruise it, do anything that would put that look in Buck’s eyes ever again.

“I don’t need any more therapy,” Buck says, deflecting all of Eddie’s attempts to reach out. “I just want to hit things.”

Eddie grabs the bag before he can think to do otherwise, the flare of alarm bells ringing in his head. Logically, he knows Buck doesn’t mean it, because Buck’s not that kind of person, not the type to make the same mistakes Eddie did. But it bears acknowledgment anyway.

“I’ve been down that road,” he replies. “I don’t recommend it.”

Buck swallows hard and looks away, still too broken and ashamed for Eddie’s liking. But he doesn’t think he can get through right now. Doesn’t think he can reach out without getting shut down.

So he walks away, because if there’s anything he knows it’s that sometimes space is what’s really needed.

He does text Buck though.

You should come over later. Stay the night if you want.

It takes a few minutes, but he gets a response.

Going to see Maddie. But I’ll swing by after.

Except, Buck doesn’t come. The hours tick by, the sky gets darker. Eddie puts Christopher to bed.

His phone doesn’t ring. His texts go unanswered.

It’s after midnight when a key turns in the lock, and Eddie jumps up from the couch, heart in his throat. The door opens.

“Hey,” he says quietly, taking a step forward. Buck stays in the doorway, turning the key over in his hands like he’s not sure whether he should have used it, like he can’t quite bring himself to come inside. He looks even more shattered than earlier in the day, which Eddie wouldn’t have thought possible.

One person shouldn’t be able to contain such devastation.

“I lost track of time,” Buck says, and he doesn’t even sound like himself, too distant, too—Eddie doesn’t even have the words. He just knows he wants to fix it.

“Come inside.”

Buck still hesitates, but finally steps across the threshold. Eddie closes and locks the door and then silence falls, heavy and uncomfortable.

“Do you want something to eat?”

Buck shakes his head.

“Did something else happen with your parents?”

That question elicits a half-hysterical laugh, and Buck sets off down the hall to Eddie’s room, leaving Eddie to follow.

The silence feels less oppressive there, as Buck sits on the edge of Eddie’s bed with his head in his hands. Eddie settles slowly next to him, uncertain whether Buck really wants him to be close or if he should leave more space. But then, Buck did come. So. He clearly doesn’t want to be completely alone.

“Maddie told me a secret,” Buck admits in that same awful dead, distant voice. “It explains a lot. About why they never—why I was never—”

Eddie reaches out on instinct, squeezing Buck’s shoulder, and Buck shudders like he can hardly bear to be touched. But when Eddie starts to pull away, Buck looks up at him, a strange spark in his eyes.

“I was never what they wanted,” he finishes finally. “I was never who they wanted.”

“Then they’re idiots,” Eddie replies. “If they can’t see—”

He doesn’t know how that sentence is meant to end. But he doesn’t have to finish it.

Because Buck kisses him.

The heat that slams into him is a shock to the system that short-circuits every nerve ending, every firing neuron—everything narrows to Buck’s mouth on his, Buck’s hands, Buck’s body pressing him back into the mattress. It’s one thing to have assumed that Buck would be good at this, and entirely another to have that skill and attention focused entirely on him, to have Buck’s tongue slide into his mouth confident and sure and turn his bones to liquid. And it’s been long enough that being kissed, being touched with such intention, is overwhelming.

So it takes until Buck’s mouth leaves his in favor of kissing down his neck, until Buck’s hands start pulling at his waistband, that Eddie’s brain comes back online enough to remind him this isn’t right, isn’t normal, that Buck has been off all day, and that reminder smacks him back to sense faster than being thrown into a freezing shower.

“Buck,” Eddie pants out. “Buck, wait—wait, wait, wait, hold on.”

He grabs Buck’s hands, gently pushes him off enough to sit up.

Buck’s face is flushed, his eyes dark.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Eddie repeats, incredulously.

Buck shrugs. “Don’t you want me?”

The false bravado probably wouldn’t even fool a stranger, but Eddie sees right through it, hears the edge of cracking desperation behind the question, the please want me, and he remembers the stories. That this is how Buck used to be, using sex as a substitute for real connection, to feel wanted for a few minutes, an hour, a night.

Ice drops into Eddie’s stomach as he fights the urge to run away, because this is not what he wanted, not what he planned, and he’s not ready to have this conversation, or any conversation, but he can’t just—

“Yes,” he replies, but when Buck leans in again, Eddie pushes him back with a hand on his chest. “But not like this. Not like this.”

Not when whatever they could have is too important to risk. Not when he chose sex over substance with Shannon when she came back because everything else was too hard and by the time he was ready, it was too late. Not when he is trying so hard to get himself together so that when he finally jumps off that cliff, he can trust that he won’t crash.

Buck closes his eyes and exhales shakily.

“Eddie, please.” His voice cracks.

Eddie sways in and presses his forehead to Buck’s, but resists the urge to close the gap entirely.

I love you, I love you, I love you.

“I can’t fuck this up,” Eddie says. “Especially not before we’re even across the starting line. So please don’t ask me to.”

They stay like that for a long moment before Buck swallows and pulls back.

“I should go.”

“You should stay.”

“Eddie—” Buck’s eyes are red-rimmed, raw and vulnerable, and that only further settles the issue in Eddie’s mind. He lays back and wraps his fingers around Buck’s wrist, pulling him back down to the mattress.

“Go to sleep,” he says as he rearranges them so he’s curled around Buck’s back, one arm around his waist. “Whatever’s going on—wherever your head is at, we can deal with it in the morning.”

When Eddie wakes up, Buck’s still there. Awake and watching him quietly.

“Watching people sleep is a little creepy, you know,” Eddie teases gently and Buck’s lips twitch up even as he drops his gaze.

“I, um—I’m sorry. For last night,” Buck says.

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“What you said—about not wanting to fuck up before we’re even across the starting line—” Buck clears his throat. “Does that mean...you want to cross that line? That there’s a line to cross?”

Eddie reaches up, his thumb catching the edge of Buck’s jaw, dragging along the bone the way he wants to with his lips.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “There’s a line. And...I want to cross it. Eventually.”

Buck wets his lips. Nods.

“I can wait for eventually.”

“You don’t have to,” Eddie says. “I know that’s not—”

“I can wait,” Buck insists, and Eddie bites back a smile.

“Okay.” He sits up. “So, do you want to talk about last night, or…?”

“At the station.”

“Okay.”

Eddie lets it drop.

Later, though, after Buck explains everything, after the shift, after the moment when Eddie’s heart stops in his chest and his world narrows to white noise as he watches a column of fire explode up from the roof of a factory—

Later, after Eddie gets back to the station while Buck is sent to the hospital to be cleared, after he avoids Buck’s parents because he doesn’t even know where to start—

He waits at the door for Buck to come back.

When the car pulls up, he can’t help the way his heart races, the way it leaps when Buck steps out.

“Clean bill of health,” Buck says.

Eddie scans over him with his eyes, is almost overwhelmed with the urge to check with his hands as well—wants to strip Buck bare and put his hands and mouth on every inch of him to remind himself that he’s alive alive alive—

But. They’re in public. And they said eventually, not now.

Although maybe, Eddie thinks, he could manage now if it came with slow.

He rocks back on his heels and shoves his hands in his pockets so he won’t touch.

“Show-off,” he replies.

“I had to do it.” Buck’s voice is quiet. His eyes are soft.

“I know you did.” I love you.

Eddie looks away. “Um, you have some visitors,” he adds. Buck’s brow furrows as he glances up the stairs.

“But you should—you should come over later. If you want.”

You should come home.

Buck’s face clears and he smiles.

“Okay.”

On the drive home, Eddie calls Sophia.

“I told him,” he says, and laughs when she shrieks. “Not everything, calm down, but enough to start. We started talking about it. Which I guess makes it real.”

“Real enough that you just won me fifty bucks, because Adri said you were gonna be sad and pining for at least another year.”

“I wasn’t sad, Jesus Christ, you two—” But he can’t stop smiling and he can hear the same in Sophia’s voice too.

“He’s the one,” she says after a few minutes, turning from teasing to serious. “He’s it for you. Isn’t he?”

Eddie turns that over in his head as he parks the truck and shuts it off.

He already knows the answer.

“We’ll see,” he says.

(She’s right. She’s always right.)