El Paso, Texas
“Shit, we need to hurry up—the Team Six talk is starting in fifteen and it’s going to be packed,” Johnson said, jostling Evan’s shoulder roughly before almost sprinting ahead and promptly nearly colliding with a disapproving lieutenant.
Evan let Johnson get ahead of him, feeling the increasing reluctance surface again, the way it had surfaced almost non-stop toward the end of their land warfare training. He didn’t get it. He’d just finished BUD/S with pretty solid scores, and he was staring down at another 8 or 9 months of intensive training before he’d be assigned to a team. Hearing directly from one of the guys in SEAL Team Six was exactly what he was supposed to look forward to, but. He just didn’t want to.
He glanced around the crowded convention center, filled to the brim with all sorts of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel and brass, and felt about as lost as he had eight months ago. Hoping nobody from his candidate class would notice, he made his way to one of the less crowded hallways, and took a moment to breathe near a small conference room that was only about one-third full.
“... listen, I know there’s a bunch of more exciting speakers at this convention, and I have no idea why you all wound up in a session about being a combat medic when the who’s who of Special Forces are here, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. The thing about being a medic, is that it’s the opposite of what they teach everyone else: it’s not about taking lives, but saving them.”
Evan was so immersed in his own thoughts it took a few seconds for the low, calm voice to catch his attention, but when he heard the final statement, it was like every nerve in his body reacted.
He peered into the room and saw a guy dressed in an Army service uniform—a sergeant, going by the arrows on his shoulder. Evan noticed almost unconsciously that he was gorgeous, and seemed totally in control of the room, unbothered by the fact that it was small and not even a little bit full. Evan felt almost magnetically drawn closer. Not taking lives, but saving them. It’d been such a long time since he’d heard something like that.
He took a seat as close as he dared—he knew with his size sitting in front of anybody would be unnecessarily disruptive—and drank in every word the speaker said (Sergeant Diaz, apparently, according to the board at the front of the room he could finally see).
Being a combat medic sounded very different from the missions all his friends and fellow SEAL candidates dreamed about during the exhausting, endless days of training in Coronado—no underwater SCUBA missions or infiltrating behind enemy lines - but the simple, clear way Sgt. Diaz spoke about providing care, about snatching life from the closest of calls… it spoke to something in Evan that had been almost hammered away by the surf torture and the drown-proofing and the sleep deprivation and the punishments and the sheer, non-stop messages that he needed to obey and stop feeling.
When the talk ended, Evan stayed behind. He needed to hear more, he had to try, so he hesitantly approached the front of the room, where Sgt. Diaz was packing up a couple of things he’d shown them during the talk.
“Hey, can I—uh, can I buy you a drink, or something, sergeant? Maybe pick your brain a little more?” Evan asked, hoping against hope he wasn’t coming off as a total weirdo.
From the way Sgt. Diaz’s dark eyebrows shot up, though, Evan guessed he hadn’t managed it. He ran through the question once in his head, and realization struck him. It was ten in the morning.
“- or, uh. Shit. Coffee?” he offered again, running a hand through his buzz cut—still not used to it, no matter how long he’d been in training already. “I’m sorry, I’ve honestly just lost track of normal human time at this point.”
Sgt. Diaz’s brown eyes warmed. “Don’t worry about it.” He tilted his head, narrowed his eyes slightly, taking in Evan’s clothes and clearly clocking him as a SEAL candidate. “You just finish Hell Week or something?”
“Yeah,” Evan breathed out. “I mean, no, I—I finished Hell Week a while ago, just got out of Phase 3 now. Left Coronado yesterday, though, and I’m supposed to head to San Diego in a couple of weeks for jump school, so… yeah, still kind of out of it, to be honest.”
Sgt. Diaz looked at him for another moment, brow slightly furrowed. It made Evan feel like he was being actually seen for the first time in months, noticed as a person and not a faceless grunt. Whatever Sgt. Diaz saw in Evan’s face seemed to convince him that he wasn’t a total nutcase, though, because he nodded.
“I could go for coffee, sure. But not here, I’m taking you someplace with actual decent food.”
With that, he led the way out of the conference room, that quiet confidence with which he’d given his talk suffusing his walk, calmly certain that Evan was following behind him - which he was, of course he was. He could hardly explain it, but he knew he’d be happy to follow Sgt. Diaz wherever he led.
“You know your way around El Paso?” Evan asked.
“I was born here, so you could say that,” Sgt. Diaz replied, smirking. “Come on, there’s a place not too far with the best chilaquiles in the state of Texas.”
“I have no idea what that is, but I’m excited to find out,” Evan replied, smiling back. “Thank you, Sgt. Diaz.”
“Nah, none of that,” Sgt. Diaz said, waving a hand. “Call me Eddie, please. And what should I call you, Candidate?”
“I’m Evan. Evan Buckley.”
The restaurant Eddie led them to was small, homey, and the food smelled absolutely amazing. Of course, given the fact that he’d been eating courtesy of the Navy for over eight months, pretty much anything would’ve seemed like a full-on gourmet meal, but as Eddie exchanged greetings in rapid-fire Spanish with a couple of the waitresses and the cook in the back, Evan felt convinced he was about to have one of the best breakfasts of his life.
They sat down at a slightly rickety table, and after a couple of minutes of looking over the menu, Evan let out a sigh. It all looked too good.
“Everything looks seriously amazing, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any of it before, so I put myself in your hands. You tell me what to get.”
“Are you sure, man? If I make you get properly spicy chilaquiles verdes you won’t wimp out on me?”
“I promise,” Evan replied solemnly. “I, Evan Buckley, will eat every last chil - chila - um. Chi-la-kill?”
Eddie looked quietly delighted. “I accept your promise. But we’ll need to work on your Spanish. Where are you from, anyway? I would’ve pegged you for California but there’s no way you’d be so poorly deprived of decent Mexican breakfast food if you were from there.” A beat. “And your Spanish accent wouldn’t be so miserable.”
Buck laughed. “Nah, I’m from Pennsylvania. From Hershey, actually, so—not much but chocolate and really gross winters?”
The waitress showed up before Eddie could react to that, and he put in their order in Spanish, smiling at the older woman charmingly before turning back to Evan.
“So, Pennsylvania, huh? How’d you end up in the SEALs, then?”
And Evan had to explain landing at UPenn because he’d been recruited by the football team before crashing out after a semester—tearing a shoulder early in the season and kind of going haywire with the whole campus experience —then heading to community college and screwing that up, before finally ending up in Virginia beach with a Jeep, a long road ahead, and an acquired love of the ocean, along with stellar mixology skills.
He deftly skipped past the mess that was his relationship with his parents, and didn’t want to dwell too much on Maddie because he still felt so sad that she hadn’t come with him, and that he hadn’t heard from her since.
Throughout the entire explanation—and generous bites of truly unbelievably good food—Eddie was the best kind of audience. Laughing at the right parts, ribbing Evan like they’d known each other for years and not about half an hour, wincing whenever Evan described another brush with the hospital.
“You, kid, are seriously accident-prone. You need someone to watch your back twenty-four seven.”
And something in Evan yearned, suddenly, for Eddie to be that person, even though it was absolutely impossible: Eddie was an Army sergeant, combat medic, with a tour under his belt already; Evan was a SEAL candidate who felt less and less as if he’d come out the other side of training.
Eddie seemed like a genuinely good guy, was the thing, and Evan couldn’t quite explain it, but he felt like he was breathing a little easier just being around him, just shooting the shit and exchanging basic get-to-know-you information, breathing easier in a way he hadn’t since, well. Since Maddie left, probably.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t made friends in college, of course, but they’d faded away with the miles between them, and he did have some buddies among his candidate class in the SEALs, but it was just such a strange environment: all about never leaving anyone behind at the same time as everyone was competing to out-do each other in every single ranking, surreptitiously pleased whenever somebody rang that stupid bell signaling they were dropping out. Simply not what he hoped for, was all, and that disenchantment was maybe why he was latching on to Eddie so quickly.
After another round of coffee and a really amazing pastry (something called a garibaldi, apparently, which was a weird name for something that tasted incredible) to round off the chilaquiles, Evan asked the question he’d been wondering about since hearing Eddie’s talk.
“So, um. How come you ended up in the army?”
Eddie scrunched up his nose; it looked bizarrely cute. “Right. That million dollar question. You showed me yours so I show you mine, huh?”
Evan felt mortified. “No—I mean, of course you don’t have to. I just. I mean-”
“Evan, Evan, man, it’s fine. I’m just messing with you,” Eddie said, laughing. “Of course I’ll tell you, although I’ll warn you it’s not particularly interesting.” He took a deep breath, looked down at his coffee, and then met Evan’s eyes, suddenly serious. “Honestly? I know that we’re supposed to have a whole ooh-rah motto reason, but I got into this to pay the bills. My girlfriend got pregnant soon after we finished high school and any ideas I had of university and med school took a backseat to figuring out how to pay for a whole other human. Fort Bliss is right next door, and it just seemed like the fastest option to make some money quick that wouldn’t involve me working for my dad, and, well…”
Eddie trailed off then, something uncomfortable passing over his face faster than Evan could parse it out.
“I mean—it sounds reasonable to me,” Evan eventually said, keeping his voice soft. “You do what you have to do to support your family.”
“Yeah,” Eddie breathed out. “Maybe. And I did find something with the army—people having my back, me having theirs, and it turned out I’m good at it all. But, ultimately, I ended up choosing a job that took me all the way away… I don’t know. Did I do it because it was the best option? Or because I wasn’t quite ready to face up to being a dad beyond putting money on the table?”
Evan could see something a little scared, wounded, even, in his eyes. It was a little startling given how in control and calm he’d seemed the entire time, but Evan felt like he was being given a rare privilege, to be allowed to see Eddie Diaz vulnerable. He really didn’t want to fuck it up.
“I mean. Considering I’ve just confessed that I’ve spent the last few years getting bounced out of more than one college and making life-altering decisions on the basis of liking the ocean, I’m probably the least qualified person to give life advice, but… I don’t know, Eddie. You were just out of high school, right? And faced with something that just changed your entire life in a second? Sometimes there isn’t a perfect choice to make. Sometimes there’s just two or three hard options, and you take one of them, and make the best of it.”
Eddie looked at him for a long, charged moment, and then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” He gave Evan another one of those small, sideways smiles. “Thank you, man.”
“Hey, anytime,” Evan replied lightly, but meaning it down to his bones. He let the silence settle for a moment, and then made a gamble. “And now, I have an even more serious question. Are you ready?”
“Oof, more serious? Okay, hit me.”
“Can I see pictures of your kid?” Evan asked, grinning. “I love kids!”
Eddie huffed out a laugh, but took out his phone and leaned closer to show Evan a picture of a little kid with huge glasses who looked absolutely adorable.
“Oooh, man, what a cutie. What’s his name?”
“Christopher,” Eddie replied, eyes totally soft. “He’s, uh. He’s going through some health stuff right now, we’re trying to get it figured out, but. He’s my world.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” Evan said, pausing before swiping to the next picture, looking at Eddie to wordlessly check with him. Eddie nodded.
There were another couple of pictures of the kid in different poses - in one of them he was hugging a stuffed elephant that was about four times his size and Evan almost melted - and then a picture of Eddie holding Cristopher close, looking down at him like he was a miracle, and another of Cristopher with a pretty, brown-haired woman that Evan guessed was Eddie’s wife.
“He looks like a seriously awesome kid, Eddie. You totally won the lottery there, man.”
Eddie took back his phone, still smiling, and he shook his head slightly. “You are not at all what I expected you to be like.”
“What do you mean?” Evan asked, cocking his head.
“What do you mean what do I mean?” Eddie shot back. “I’m in the middle of giving a random talk one of my buddies sent my way so I could get some leave and see my family, and this six-foot-two SEAL walks in, all muscles, looking all serious… and it turns out you’re this kid-loving goofball.”
Evan shrugged, feeling blood rush to his cheeks. “Yeah, ah. It’s kind of why I’m not sure I can keep going with the SEALs, you know? The physical part is okay, but. The orders, the punishment, the way they try to make us think of our enemies in the exercises… it just. Doesn’t feel okay.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said softly. “I didn’t go through the exact training you’re going through, but I know what you mean.”
Eddie’s phone rang in the middle of the table, then, startling them both. Evan looked out the window, trying to give Eddie space, but he could overhear Eddie talking—to his wife, probably?— and saying he’d be home soon.
When Eddie hung up, he looked a little apologetic.
“You have to get going,” Evan said.
“Yeah, man. Like I said, the talk was kind of an excuse—my supervisor helped me bag it so I could come home, so. I, uh. Better get home.”
“Hey, no, I totally get it. Thank you so, so much for taking the time to get breakfast with me, Eddie, seriously. I just, um.” Evan paused, then, unsure of how to say it without sounding totally crazy. “I really needed to talk to someone, you know? And, uh. You really helped. I hope that’s not weird to say.”
Eddie smiled, his brown eyes sincere. “Not at all. And likewise, honestly.”
They stood up, then, and as promised, Evan paid the bill, leaving a very generous tip. Between the food and the company, he didn’t know when he’d had a better breakfast, or when he’d have something near as good as it again.
They ambled back to the convention center since Eddie had his car parked there, and Evan prodded him for a couple more stories about Cristopher and growing up in El Paso, and they exchanged cell phone numbers and emails and, at least in Eddie’s case, an address—Evan couldn’t really give more of an address beyond his Jeep at the moment.
Finally, they were in the parking lot in front of a slightly beaten-up-looking Camry.
“Well, this is me.”
“Thanks again, Eddie. Really.”
“It was my pleasure, man,” Eddie replied. “Now, no more crazy stunts, huh? You need all the bones you’ve got.”
Evan laughed. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Go see your awesome kid, man.”
Eddie smiled and extended his hand for a handshake, but, well. A handshake? After all the soul-bearing? Evan grabbed his hand and pulled Eddie into a swift hug, feeling more than hearing Eddie laughing.
Evan released him and took a step back, and Eddie opened the car door, started to get in.
“Hey, Evan,” he said, suddenly stopping and turning back to him. “That heart of yours—keep it. Don’t let them take it.”
Evan swallowed, glancing down for a moment before meeting Eddie’s eyes again. “Even if it means dropping out?”
Eddie smiled then, his sideways little smile, filled with kindness. “Even then.”
Evan nodded, unable to say much more. A car honked somewhere in the parking lot, startling them both slightly.
“Keep in touch?” he asked, knowing his voice was betraying too much, but not caring, because he knew, somehow, was sure, that in meeting Eddie Diaz he’d met somebody who would always be important to him, even if they never saw each other again. “Send me pictures of Christopher?”
“I promise,” Eddie replied. “Stay safe.”
“You stay safer.”
And with that, Eddie got into his car, driving away with a small wave. Evan watched him go until he lost sight of the car, hand slightly raised, saying goodbye.
Evan dropped his helmet liner and rang the bell. It was done.
He’d DORed; he was officially dropping out of the SEALs. The few buddies he’d made in his candidate class were confused, and most of his trainers were, too—why now, why so far into the training, why not in Hell Week… but Evan thought his training commander for Phase 3 got it. He’d honestly wondered at more than one moment during those weeks if the choice to drop out would be taken away from him and he’d get kicked out, after one more argument, one more time when he’d been reprimanded for questioning orders.
But he’d passed, and there had been some part of him that had wondered if it meant that he should keep going, just put his head down and continue training and just… let himself be carried by the current. But hearing Eddie talk about saving lives instead of taking them, talking to him that whole morning, having him just understand why Evan felt so weird about the whole thing, it had crystallized everything for him. He did want to keep his heart, and that wasn’t a bad thing.
So he quit, got on the road on Maddie’s Jeep, and went searching for someplace to belong again.
Before driving off, though, he did two things: he sent a postcard to his sister, and he sent an email to Eddie, and hoped against hope at least one of the two would get an answer.
Hey, Evan -
It was really good to hear from you, got your email no problem. I’m back on deployment from leave, but we’re holding steady at the base for now, so I get more regular access to a computer and to calls.
I’m proud of you for making the choice you did. I hope that doesn’t sound too weird since we kinda did just meet but sometimes the really hard thing to do is know when to stop. It really sounds like you did the best thing for you. Keep me updated on where you end up next, okay?
Christopher’s good, but he has another doctor’s appointment next week…
“So, wait, where are you right now, exactly?”
“Um, Wyoming, actually. I got hired at this ranch, and I get to go up to the mountains, do some wrangling…”
“Well, I’ll say this for you, Evan, you’re really not afraid to try new things. How are you finding it?”
“I mean, it’s hard, but… the sky is so wide open, Eddie. The mountains, the silence… after all those months of being with other candidates day in and day out, all that yelling, it honestly feels like freedom.”
“That does sound good. I’m glad. How long are you going to stay there?”
“Not too sure, yet. I’ll let you know. Now—how’s the desert?”
“... dry. You asshat.”
Just a quick update. Turns out the doctors narrowed down what’s going on with Christopher. He’s got cerebral palsy. Shannon is pretty scared, and I kind of am, too. I’m all the way over here, and there’s so much to do, to learn…
Hope things are okay on your end.
“Evan—did you actually send me two different medical books on CP with margin notes, summaries, and color-coded highlighting? To Afghanistan?”
“Yeah, I— Eddie, I’m so sorry if I overstepped, but. I figured it would be really hard for you to get enough time at the computer to do too much research and you sounded a little freaked out in your last email, so I just took advantage of my free week from work at the ranch to go down to the nearest town and do some research… I really am sorry, I-”
“Evan, Evan. Stop, man. I’m not angry. I’m… I’m so grateful. That you took the time to do this. To help me, like this.”
“It’s the least I could do, Eddie. If it’s okay, I’ll keep reading? Or, um. You let me know if there’s something you want to figure out, and I can help you research.”
“.... yeah. That. That sounds great, man. I was actually wondering about the risks of orthopedic surgery? Shannon mentioned in her last call that the doctors talked about it, but we got cut off before I could ask more about it, and she’s so stressed I don’t want to hassle her about it again.”
“I’ll do some reading up on it, Eds. Send it to your email.”
“Thank you. Seriously.”
... I’m thinking of signing up for another tour. I’ve been doing the numbers, and with everything Shannon’s told me Chris needs, all the things you’ve sent me about treatment, it’s all going to add up really fast. And I refuse to deny him even one scrap of opportunity to learn and to grow and be as happy as he can be, but. I’m just not seeing how I can make that happen back in El Paso. If I re-up I’ll get a bonus, and a pay bump if I go up another rank, so it just makes sense. Not sure how Shannon will take it, though.
How’s the wrangling going? You were a little cagey last call, you sure you didn’t get hurt during that bad storm you were telling me about?
“So, your advice kinda worked.”
“Well, I’m, uh, kinda glad? Kinda sorry? What did Shannon say?”
“I told her before I signed, like you said I should. But I also told her that it was the only option I could see open—any job I could get in El Paso with my high-school degree and years as a grunt was just not going to work, not with the surgery coming up, and occupational and speech therapists… She said she appreciated me actually telling her this time before doing it, but. She’s still real pissed.”
“I’m sorry, Eds. It sounds like it was a bit of a rock/hard place kind of situation.”
“Yeah. But I’m gonna be home in El Paso for about a month while all the paperwork goes through, the promotion to staff sergeant and all that. You think you might get time off at the ranch, come visit?”
“Absolutely! I mean—if you think I won’t be in the way, I-”
“Evan. I’m the one inviting you. Just tell me when you can get the free time - I’ll be down there from the 10th of June to the second week of July.”
“The first week of July works, if that’s okay with you. We’re done for the season up here by then, and, uh. Well, I think I figured out the next place I’m gonna go after, but my plane ticket isn’t until the 10th of July.”
“Plane ticket? To where?”
El Paso, Texas
As Evan walked out of the airport and into the dry heat of the day, he took a deep breath, trying to keep his nerves at bay. He and Eddie had built up a rhythm, a strange intimacy that lived in their emails and phone calls, and he worried that maybe it wouldn’t translate to them being face to face again. Had he imagined the easy comfort of that first conversation, the ease of that long breakfast?
He looked up to see Eddie leaning out the window of his beaten-up Camry, waiting in the arrivals lane.
“Get in here, man, before they make me move!”
Evan walked quickly toward the car, getting in and tossing his duffel in the back before turning to greet Eddie.
“Uh—hi,” he said, huffing out a laugh. “Thanks so much for picking me up, Eddie. I honestly could’ve taken a cab.”
“Are you kidding me? My abuela would come yell at me all the way from LA if that’s how I treated a guest.” Eddie paused, maneuvering out of the arrivals lane and back into traffic to leave the airport. He shot Evan a glance, accompanied by that warm, sideways smile. “It’s good to see you, Ev. You look good.”
And whatever fears Evan had disappeared immediately in the face of that smile and the honest pleasure he could hear in Eddie’s voice.
“It’s real good to see you too, man,” Evan said, smiling back. He reveled for a moment in being in Eddie’s physical presence again, admiring his easy confidence behind the wheel, and shook himself from his daze. “Wait, Eds, where are we going? I made a reservation at the Holiday Inn Express…”
Eddie shot him a disbelieving look before turning back to the road. “Are you kidding me, Evan? You really do want my abuela to come down here and yell. Cancel the reservation, man—you’re staying at my place.”
Evan truly appreciated Eddie’s hospitality, but he was also really aware that Eddie’s house wasn’t too big—Eddie had described it over a call a few months ago, when discussing the adaptations he’d put in for Cristopher—and, more importantly, he knew that Eddie was only getting a month of leave between deployments. He was thrilled to be visiting, but hated the idea of disrupting what little time Eddie had with his family.
“Eddie, it’s seriously no big deal. I’ll rent a car or something, make it easier to go between the hotel and your place… I really, really don’t want to put you and Shannon out.”
Eddie bit his lip and slowed down slightly before replying. “Listen. If you want to stay at the hotel because it feels a little awkward to sleep on a pull-out couch and, like, deal with the whole chaos of a kid and everything, that’s totally fine. But if you’re just feeling like you’re imposing on us—I invited you down here and that meant the whole thing, Evan.”
There was something there—the slightest of edges beneath the surface, an almost imperceptible crack in the veneer of calm—which made Evan realize Eddie wasn’t really okay. And that maybe this visit was just as much for his sake as for Evan’s.
“Thank you, Eddie. I’d love to stay with you, if you’re really sure it’s okay.”
Eddie shot him a mock-exasperated glance, “Ay, necio—for the last time, it’s okay.”
“Still haven’t picked up much Spanish, so I’m going to pretend you just called me the light of your life or something,” Evan said, smiling, hoping he could push Eddie back into a sunnier mood.
“Or something is right,” Eddie muttered, but then shot Evan a grin, the strange brittleness from before fading. “Now—before we get home, we need to stop at the store for some beer for us, some wine for Shannon, and some popsicles for Chris, okay?”
“Can I get popsicles, too?”
“... yes, Evan.”
Groceries acquired—including a potentially excessive number of popsicles, but whatever, Eddie, it was hot out and Evan and Chris would enjoy the variety—they were finally making their way up the driveway to the Diaz home and Evan was once again really, really nervous. It was just that he’d been dying to meet Chris for so long, had kept up with his health and his weird kid obsessions through Eddie, and he really, really didn’t want to mess this up.
As Eddie parked the car, Evan saw the front door open, and spied a woman he recognized from pictures—Shannon—barely holding a little boy back. Before getting out of the car, Evan fished out the present he’d bought a few weeks ago and then took a deep breath. Ready or not, it was time to meet Christopher.
“Hey, buddy, remember you need to wait inside just to be safe, okay?” Eddie was saying, kneeling in front of Christopher.
“He was fine, I was holding on to him,” Shannon said.
Evan saw Eddie glance up. “No, I know, I was just—you know, telling him so he’d know.”
The exchange was strangely tense, and Evan began to have an idea of why Eddie had been so on edge in the car.
“Daddy, who’s that?” Chris piped up between them, pointing at Evan, and it was showtime.
As Eddie stood back slightly, Evan approached and kneeled in front of Chris. “Hey, buddy! I’m one of your dad’s friends. My name is Evan Buckley.”
“Bucky is right,” Evan said, shooting him a swift smile. He would honestly allow Chris to call him whatever he wanted; he was that cute. And Bucky sounded right, somehow. “And I actually got you something, bud, do you want to see it?”
Evan showed Chris the present he’d hidden behind his back—it was a little stuffed jaguar with a slightly goofy look; the lady at the toy store had offered him another one, explained that this one had come through with a couple of extra stitches in the mouth, but Evan liked that it wasn’t perfect, and he hoped Chris would too.
“This is a jaguar, Chris,” Evan explained, handing it over when Chris reached out. “You know what jaguars are best at?”
“Protecting,” Evan replied, smiling at how tight Chris was already holding the little stuffed animal, balancing on his crutches. “They’re guardians, so they can protect you from anything you’re scared of.”
Eddie had told him Chris was going through a bit of a night terror phase and Evan had subsequently gone on a Wikipedia binge about nightmares, night terrors, and sacred Aztec animals, so. A stuffed jaguar is what he’d come up with.
“Do they—do they eat the monsters?” Chris asked hesitantly.
“Oh, you bet, bud,” Evan assured him. “The monsters, the nightmares, the bad guys—he’s an all-around sort of guardian.”
Chris smiled back then, and it was Eddie’s smile in that little face, and Evan knew, right then and there, that he was this kid’s for life.
“What do we say, Chris?” Eddie asked softly from above them, his smile so fond Evan felt it down to his bones.
“Thank you, Bucky,” Chris said, reaching out a little hand to pat Evan on the cheek, making Evan melt inside even more.
“You’re welcome, bud.”
Evan stood up, then, and extended a hand toward Shannon, who’d lost the rather strained look she’d had when kind of arguing with Eddie. Obviously watching Christopher holding a stuffed animal was immediate argument kryptonite, and who could blame her—he was the actual cutest kid in the universe.
“Hey, I’m Evan. It’s really nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand. “Thank you so, so much for having me.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” Shannon replied. Up close, Evan could see that Chris had her eyes, and, well—all he could really think was that she and Eddie were kind of an insanely hot couple. “And you’re very welcome—it’s nice to put a face to the name. The care package you sent to the hospital was wonderful, really. Thank you.”
“Care package?” Eddie asked, looking between them, eyebrows scrunched up.
“Oh, um. You know how you told me about Chris’ surgery a couple of months ago? I, uh. Well, I knew you were a little worried and I figured Chris and Shannon might have a couple of tough days so I sent over some comfort food and stuff —I read a couple of blogs on the best stuff to send over to people,” Evan explained, biting his lip.
Now that he thought about it, it was maybe a little weird that he’d done it? Oh god, what if Eddie thought he was a total creeper? It was just that Eddie had sounded so defeated when he’d explained that he hadn’t managed to get leave to be there for the surgery and how he wanted to comfort Chris and Evan had kind of gone on a research binge and before he knew it he was clicking on “buy” on a care-package website.
“I’m uh, I’m sorry if it was weird. It was weird, right? I-”
“Evan, Evan, no,” Eddie interrupted, putting a hand on Evan’s forearm and exchanging an amused glance with Shannon—and, hey, if they were making fun of him, at least they were doing it together? So, progress? “It was amazing. Thank you for doing that when I couldn’t. Now— how about we stop hovering by the front door and get the groceries inside before the popsicles melt?”
“Right, yeah, good plan.”
The rest of the week was honestly kind of amazing. Since all Eddie had to do was take care of some paperwork at Fort Bliss and show up for a couple of medical exams, Evan convinced him to take him on the Eddie Diaz tour of El Paso, complete with Eddie’s old high school, his favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner places, the park where he’d broken his arm when he was nine, and even his favorite hiking trail. Shannon had been a little apprehensive at first, but after their first successful outing, she’d been happy to let Evan and Eddie take Chris along for most of it, and had taken advantage of the free time to run errands and spend time with her own friends.
“That’s the most relaxed I’ve seen her since Chris was born, I think,” Eddie remarked. “We might need you to stay for good, Ev.”
And Evan knew it was kind of a joke and also impossible - Eddie himself was leaving on deployment in about three weeks - but he still had to suppress an unexpected rush of emotion at Eddie’s words, a desperate want that rose up inside him. Nobody had really wanted him to stay before.
“Well, I, uh. I’m always happy to come back,” he finally replied, clearing his throat. “This is where my actual favorite Diaz lives, after all, so you won’t be able to keep me away.”
“Oof, straight to the heart, man,” Eddie said, chuckling. “I think you’re his favorite, too, actually. So I guess I’ll just have to learn to share you with him as my best friend.”
And Evan was right back trying to hold back tears because, honestly, Eddie.
Sooner than it seemed possible, though, the week drew to a close, and Evan was facing one last Diaz event: a whole family lunch with Eddie’s parents, one of his sisters, his niece and nephew, and a few of his cousins that was apparently a Saturday tradition.
Evan was excited to meet Eddie’s family, albeit a bit nervous about making a good impression, and Chris seemed happy to be seeing his grandparents and cousins, but the entire morning before they went over Eddie’s parents’ house, Eddie and Shannon seemed to be getting more and more tense.
Evan couldn’t quite figure out why; they hadn’t had too many moments like the one on the porch when he’d arrived, and while he had overheard a couple of whispered arguments about one of Chris’ upcoming surgeries, things had seemed fairly copacetic between them as the week wore on. He tried his best to help by distracting Chris and getting him ready—packing his stuffed jaguar (who Chris had apparently also christened “Bucky”), a few legos, the three storybooks they’d been reading during the week, and four juice boxes, just in case.
The strange tension held during the car ride and well into greeting the various Diaz family members that met them practically as soon as they walked into the house, and Evan still felt a little lost as to the cause, up until the moment when he saw Shannon greeting a couple who had to be Eddie’s parents, given the family resemblance: Helena and Ramon Diaz.
He saw the tight smile on Shannon’s face and the somewhat cold, somewhat calculating look in Helena’s eyes, the dismissiveness of Ramon’s hello, and came to a single conclusion: Eddie’s parents didn’t like Shannon, and they weren’t even a little bit afraid of showing it. It was strange, because they obviously adored Christopher, if the way they’d greeted him was any measure…
“Yeah, my parents are not big fans, and they’re not afraid to show it. Nobody good enough for their baby boy, I guess,” a voice said nearby, the tone quiet yet acidic.
Evan turned to see a short, brunette woman—clearly also blessed by the Diaz genes—who was looking at him speculatively.
“You must be Eddie’s friend, right? Evan?”
“Yeah, um, hi. How did you know?” Evan replied, feeling a little flustered under her gaze.
“Well, he talks about you a lot,” the woman replied and, at Evan’s raised eyebrow, snorted a laugh. “He talks about you a lot in Eddie’s terms, which means he’s mentioned your name and he actually invited you to stay at his house. He, uh - he doesn’t have many friends. You must be good people.”
“I’m trying to be?”
And before he could figure out how to politely ask exactly how she was related to Eddie—he was honestly terrified of accidentally calling a cousin a sister or a niece and somehow screwing up, the tiny and cold Buckley family had really not prepared him for this—he felt Eddie come up behind him, a warm hand on his shoulder.
“Sophia, can you please stop tormenting my friend over here?”
“Oh, come on, hermanito, I’m just so impressed that you actually invited a human who you’re not related to to family lunch! I had to meet him before everyone else.”
Eddie rolled his eyes, and then turned to Evan. “Ev, this is my big sister Sophia— she’s actually the oldest, even if it’s hard to tell. Her husband Jose is around somewhere, and my two nephews Andres and Luis are playing with Christopher out back.”
“It’s really nice to meet you, Sophia,” Evan said, extending a hand, which Sophia promptly ignored in order to go for a swift hug and kiss on the cheek.
“We’re Mexicans, Evan, we don’t do handshakes,” she said, laughing. “Now come on—I’ll introduce you to everyone else.”
Sophia then proceeded to drag Evan around the house, introducing him to the rest of the Diaz clan. He felt a little weird over the fact that Helena and Ramon were nicer to him than he’d seen them be to Shannon, but he chalked it up to the fact that he was an unknown quantity and not boinking their baby boy as Sophia had explained.
The rest of the afternoon was incredible—the food was plentiful and absolutely amazing, and Evan could say without exaggerating that he’d never eaten better in his life— and at some point he’d been cheerfully dragged to the backyard by Chris and his cousins to play a mixture of tag, Marco Polo, and floor is lava.
There were a few dark spots, though, that Evan couldn’t help but notice as the day wore on: a moment when Shannon followed Helena into the kitchen before the food was brought out and came back out almost immediately after, face tight; a too-long period of Ramon talking to Eddie in rapid-fire Spanish with Shannon right next to him, looking increasingly lost and annoyed; and a somewhat intense argument between Shannon and Helena over juice-boxes, of all things, that Evan really couldn’t follow properly.
On the drive back, Eddie and Shannon didn’t exchange a single word, leaving Evan to make increasingly inane conversation with Chris to keep him from noticing the tension between his parents. Thankfully, Chris seemed to have the same appreciation as Evan did for weird facts, so Evan was able to get through the fifteen-minute drive entirely by discussing the ins and outs of hermit crabs.
Still, he knew that things were bound to come to a head when they got inside the house, so he immediately scooped Chris out of the car and offered to take care of the bedtime routine.
“Are you sure, Ev?” Eddie asked, his voice strained, shooting a quick glance to where Shannon was unpacking the car with a little too much force.
“Yeah, yeah—I’ve seen you and Shannon do it all week, don’t worry. I’ve got the little man,” Evan replied, giving what he hoped was a comforting smile Eddie’s way. “You, uh. You guys take your time.”
Evan encouraged a now very sleepy Chris to brush his teeth and helped him into his pj’s before making sure he was tucked into bed. He could hear Shannon and Eddie talking in the kitchen - a little loud, but nothing catastrophic.
“Can you read me my book, Bucky?”
“Yeah, sure, buddy,” Evan replied, grabbing Adam Draws Himself a Dragon from the nightstand.
Eddie had told him he’d bought it at the beginning of his leave to read with Christopher because he remembered Evan had recommended it, and Evan had been a happy audience for story-time every night of the week. Maddie had read him Adam Draws Himself a Dragon, way back when, and he’d always loved it. Hearing Eddie read it to Chris was bittersweet: it reminded him how hard Maddie had tried, to make sure he felt loved amidst the cold distance in the Buckley house, but it also reminded him how long it’d been since he’d heard from her, no matter how many postcards he sent.
He opened the book where Eddie had left off, and bit his lip when he saw what was coming: the moment when the little dragon and Adam realized they’d both helped each other and were ready to say goodbye. It was unlikely he’d come out the other side without crying, but he had to try his best, and so he settled next to Chris on the bed and began reading, trying to imitate Eddie’s voices.
“But why do they have to say goodbye, Bucky? Don’t they like each other anymore?” Chris asked sleepily, looking up at him from where he’d snuggled into Evan’s shoulder.
“No, bud—Adam and the little dragon will love each other forever. But we can’t always spend every single day with the people we love, as much as we want to. That doesn’t mean they aren’t with us, though. When you love someone, and when someone loves you, you have a little piece of them with you forever.” Evan paused, wondering how to put it in a way Chris would understand. “It’s kind of like you and me, right? As much as I’d love to hang out forever right here, I’m way too tall for your bed; there’s no way I’d fit!”
Chris giggled at that, clutching Bucky the jaguar to his chest. “You’d squish me!”
“You’re right, I would,” Buck said. “But even when I go, and even if we don’t see each other every day, you’ll still be my best bud and I’ll remember all our awesome adventures this week. Will you remember me?”
“See? Just like Adam and his dragon, right?”
Chris smiled, and snuggled a little closer into Evan. “I still wish you didn’t have to go tomorrow, though,” he said softly, before finally dropping off to sleep.
Evan watched him sleep for a few minutes, and finally whispered, “Me, too.”
He carefully extracted himself from Chris’ bed, made sure he was properly covered, and turned off the bedside lamp, leaving only the little night-light on.
As he quietly made his way out to the hall, he caught the tail-end of Shannon and Eddie’s argument.
“... but you’re leaving in two weeks, Eddie! So you can’t promise that you’ll stop them next time, because you won’t be there next time. Not for me, not for Chris.”
“That’s not fair, Shannon —it’s not like I’m leaving to go party, or something. I - I’m just being there for you both in a different way, providing a good life for you.”
“Yeah. Providing for a life you’re never in. I—listen, I don’t want to argue any more tonight. I’m tired. I’m heading to bed.”
Evan scurried into the bathroom to avoid Shannon seeing him—he could not deal with the awkwardness of her catching him after overhearing that—and cautiously opened the door after he heard her go into the master bedroom. He made his way into the kitchen, which was empty, and then to the living room: no Eddie. Confused, he looked around until he caught sight of a dark figure sitting out on the back porch. He grabbed two beers from the refrigerator, opened them, and walked out to join Eddie.
He hoped he wouldn’t be unwelcome, and relaxed after Eddie turned back to look at him and accepted the beer with a nod.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” Eddie said, after taking a long drag of the beer. “I mean—if you heard some of it. We’ve gotten pretty good at arguing without shouting so Chris doesn’t hear.”
“Hey, no, don’t worry about it,” Evan said. “Chris definitely didn’t hear. We got through a little bit more of Adam Draws Himself a Dragon, I was more or less able to keep myself from crying like a baby over the part with the little dragon leaving, and he’s out like a light.”
“Thank you, Ev.”
Evan nodded and took a sip of his own beer, worriedly looking at Eddie. He seemed truly beaten down, his shoulders hunched, clearly swallowing back emotion—miles away from the calm, controlled face he usually projected.
“Are you okay, Eds?”
“I am. Mostly,” Eddie smiled down at his feet, but it wasn’t the small, sideways smile he usually gave Evan—it was something pained, almost broken. “I just don’t know how much longer I’ll be okay, you know? It’s hard to breathe here, sometimes. With all the expectations. Shannon, my parents...” He let out a defeated sigh. “I feel like such an awful husband. Like such an awful dad.”
There wasn’t much Evan could say about Eddie’s relationship with Shannon—he’d only ever dated a couple of girls and one guy casually, and he’d wandered into a poly relationship while in Virginia Beach that had imploded so badly he’d had to leave the state, so he definitely didn’t have any words of wisdom.
But he could talk about Eddie’s fear of being a bad father. Evan hated thinking about his own parents, about the past he’d left behind, hated even more to talk about it, but he couldn’t let Eddie hurt like this, not if he could help. So he sat down next to Eddie on the stoop and stared out at the dark yard, trying to find the easiest way to share what he’d hardly ever put into words.
“Eddie, you gotta trust me when I say you’re not a bad dad,” he began. “I, um. I never really explained why I got into all those scrapes, why I did so many stupid things as a kid, when I was telling you about them. Didn’t quite explain why I ran as far as I could from home, either.” He paused, and Eddie glanced up then, eyes concerned, maybe noticing from Evan’s voice that he was having a hard time getting it out. The concern, the fact that Eddie noticed— it helped Evan keep going. “The thing is, Eds, my parents didn’t want me. I’m not sure what it was, I honestly never understood— maybe I was an accidental pregnancy, or something, but. Ultimately, they were there physically but totally absent in every other way, unless…”
“... unless you were hurt.”
“Yeah,” Evan breathed out. “A broken bone, a busted lip, it felt like the only time they’d see me. Otherwise it was Maddie, pretty much, who raised me. And after she left with her boyfriend, things at home were just… impossible. I did so much stupid shit to get their attention, to get anyone’s attention, to try to hold it, but it was never enough. My bones healed, the booze would run out, my so-called friends would leave…” he trailed off, blinking away unwelcome tears.
This is why he hated thinking about the past, talking about it. It still hurt, and there was always a part of him that figured it had to be him, somehow. He was the one that made people leave; he was the one who wasn’t worth seeing.
“Evan, I’m so sorry,” Eddie said, pressing his knee closer and placing a tentative hand over Evan’s, pulling him out of the spiral.
“Thanks, Eds. I, uh. I wasn’t actually telling you all this just to share my stupid sob-story,” Evan said, trying for a smile. From Eddie’s continued concerned face, he’d probably failed. “My whole point was: my parents were right there. Physically, they were there every single day. And I never felt loved by them, or wanted, not one single moment. Now, I know you told me you were scared of being a dad when you first signed up, and I’m not even going to pretend to understand how tough it’s been for Shannon not to have you around. But Eddie? You love Christopher. It pours out of you: it’s there in every word you say, in the way you hold him, even in the not-great choices you’ve had to make so he gets everything he needs. And he knows that—he feels it. Trust me.”
Eddie looked at him for a long moment, and he still seemed concerned, but also surprised and grateful, and there was something else, something Evan couldn’t quite read.
“Thank you, Evan. For saying that, for sharing what you did. I, uh. I really appreciate it,” he finally said, his voice quiet but sincere.
“Hey, always, man. I got your back.”
And Eddie smiled then, his actual smile and not the pained facsimile he’d pasted on before. “I know.” He pulled Evan into a rough sideways hug. “Right back at you.”
Saying goodbye the next day was hard, and not only because Chris had a mini meltdown about it. As the morning went on, and Evan packed up the few things he’d brought, made sure he had his plane ticket, he realized how much he was dreading saying goodbye to Eddie.
All told, they’d probably spent more time writing each other and talking on the phone than actually being in each other’s physical presence, but Evan felt honestly bereft at the idea of not having breakfast with Eddie, of not being able to nudge him to share a joke, of not feeling the very specific calm and comfort he felt around him, a sort of comfort he hadn’t felt with anyone else in his life.
“You keep writing and calling, okay?” Eddie said, pulling him into a long hug outside the airport.
“I will,” Evan promised. “Um—keep answering?”
And Eddie smiled then, that small sideways pull of his lips Evan loved, a knowing look in his eye— Evan hadn’t quite shared everything, but Eddie knew enough now of his upbringing, had seen Evan write and send a couple of postcards to Maddie.
“‘Course I will. Unless, you know. I can’t.”
“Hey, don’t even think about it,” Evan said immediately, putting a hand on Eddie’s shoulder and shaking him slightly. “You stay safe.”
“You stay safer. Now go on, you’ll miss your flight.”
Walking away from Eddie and into the airport felt horrible. Evan looked back once, to see Eddie still standing there next to his car, and gave him a final wave. He made a promise to himself to do whatever he had to in order to come back and visit Eddie whenever he got leave again.
“Hey, Buck, how’s Peru going? Finally learning Spanish?”
“Peru is great, and sí, un poco. But, uh, more importantly - Buck?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry—it’s just that whenever I call home Chris always asks after his Bucky or his Buck, so it’s sort of stuck with me. I can try to switch him over to Evan.”
“No, no, I don’t mind. It’s, uh. It’s a good nickname. You can both use it.”
“Noted. So, for real now. Are you telling me you’re actually holding down a job and un poco is all you’ve managed to learn?”
“I’m a bartender at a shitty tourist trap resort, Eds! People come to me for drinks, not for scintillating Spanish conversation.”
“Yeah, yeah, excuses.”
“Okay, enough making fun of me time. How are you? How’s the deployment going?”
“I’m okay, mostly—a bunch of the guys came down with the flu, though, which has not been fun dealing with in this damn heat…”
Buck - just a short note before I’m sent on mission; I’ll be out of contact for about 3-4 weeks. Nothing too dangerous, promise, just doing some inoculations at local villages and getting a small medical site set up. Forwarding a picture of Chris with Bucky the jaguar, he really never lets it out of his sight. I’ll write or call when I’m back on base.
“So what you’re telling me is that your coworker suggested it, and you got highlights?”
“I mean, no. Well. Yeah, maybe I did?”
“It was more than a suggestion, Eds, it was like peer pressure! I don’t know, man—it just seemed like a good idea at the time. We had a lot of pisco sours and one of the hostesses is studying to be an esthetician so a few of the bartenders all did it.”
“I absolutely need you to send me pictures of this.”
“And I absolutely will not. There will be no pictures taken or sent, thank you very much.”
“You just don’t want me to be happy, Buck.”
“I do very much want you to be happy, Eddie, but there will be no pictures.”
Hey, Buck -
So you’re thinking of going to LA? I’ve never really spent much time there, but the few times I’ve been down to visit my abuela and my aunt Pepa I’ve liked it. The traffic is kind of nuts, but the weather’s pretty great, and you’ll also be close to the ocean so your basic requirement for decision-making is set.
As for the Fire Academy, I think it’s a really good idea, and you should absolutely try out. You’ll nail the physical exams no problem, you know that. I’ll be rooting for you from here. Keep me posted on how it goes.
Shannon told me you sent Christopher another present, by the way, so: busted! You’re already his favorite, man, you need to stop spoiling him…
“Eddie, I did it! I got top marks!
“Congratulations, Buck! I knew you could do it. I’m so proud of you, man.”
“Thank you, Eds.”
“What comes next?”
“Well, I’m going to be assigned to a firehouse and work with them for a year as a probationary firefighter—if I do okay, pass that probationary year, I’m a full-fledged firefighter.”
“Wow—one entire year to see if you pass? That’s intense.”
“Yeah, I know. My instructor said that it was because no matter what they taught us at the Academy, you have to do it for real to know if you really have what it takes…”
“Makes sense. Do you know which firehouse you’ll be assigned to yet?”
“Yeah, um, the 118? I’ve heard good things about the captain—Captain Nash—so we’ll see. I report for duty there in two days. Any advice to make a good impression?”
“Well—I’d say that, this time, let them see your heart. You’ve gone a few places and tried a few things since the SEALs, and I’ve never heard you so excited or motivated. It sounds like this place could really be it for you. Just make sure you always remember you’re doing this because you want to save people, not just because you’re strong and tough and physically able to do the job.”
“I’ll remember, Eds. Promise.”
Los Angeles, California
LA was good; nearly perfect.
As he slowly settled into the 118, Buck felt that he’d maybe finally gotten to where he was always supposed to be—and it was Buck now, not just for Christopher and Eddie, but for everyone else and maybe most importantly for himself, for the self he was building, the surplus of Evans in the Academy only an excuse to be able to finally define himself away from the shadow of Hershey, Virginia Beach, the SEALs, and every other thing he’d tried that hadn’t fit right.
His roommates kind of sucked. They were mostly younger than him and going to UCLA, so they partied a lot and the house was pretty messy, but the rent was cheap enough that Buck had no need to dip too far into the trust his grandparents had set up for him (he’d already made a dent in it with all his moving around, much to his parents’ chagrin) and his room had a lock on the door, so, things could be worse.
The one thing that could have made the whole thing actually perfect was if Eddie somehow lived in LA, too, instead of somewhere near Bagram or Texas.
Still, despite the fear Buck couldn’t quite let go of, Eddie kept answering: his emails, his calls when they could schedule them, and he’d even sent him an honest-to-god handwritten letter to congratulate him on graduating from the Academy—it had made him so happy that he hadn’t cared it had shown up about six weeks after the fact.
Having Eddie to touch base with helped Buck, too. Helped him be a little less reckless, helped him talk out his confusion about how Captain Nash blew hot and then cold sometimes—would go with him to a Springsteen concert and not seem to mind when Buck accidentally called him Pops, but would never, ever share even the slightest personal detail, would sometimes look at Buck like he was seeing somebody else entirely.
Eddie also helped the yawning loneliness Buck still felt sometimes, even as he was finding his feet among the 118: being able to email him, to talk, it gave him somebody who knew him, who worried about him, and that stopped Buck from doing things that could have been incredibly dumb, like stealing the fire truck to go hook up somewhere, the kind of stunt he would’ve pulled in college to get his parents’ eyes on him, however disapprovingly.
It wasn’t that he didn’t hook up—he’d downloaded Tinder and Grindr as soon as he’d gotten to LA, and gone out with more than a few people—but he didn’t feel the need to overcompensate, to seek out whatever intimacy or interest he could no matter the consequences, because when that emptiness he’d felt for so much of his life threatened to choke him, he could just type something out to Eddie and know Eddie would write back, would care, even in the middle of a warzone.
And then came the call about five people stranded on the roller coaster at an amusement park, and Buck lost his first person on the job.
He tried to call Eddie straight away, remembered too late that he’d sent an email—he’d be off base for two weeks on a mission, helping out a unit that had sustained too many casualties to be able to get back safely on their own—and the guilt and loneliness almost swallowed him whole, until a 911 operator he’d briefly talked to when helping out Sgt. Grant on a call checked up on him: Abby.
It wasn’t quite what he needed—she was kind, but she didn’t know him like Eddie did, didn’t understand exactly why losing somebody on the job where he was meant to be saving people was killing him inside—but she was there. And when she asked him out, Buck said yes and met her for coffee after his shift.
I just got back to base and read your email. I am so, so sorry - I’m so sorry that it happened, and that I wasn’t there to talk to you straight away. I’m guessing that different people have given you whatever words of wisdom they have about it all - probably your Captain, but maybe also Chim or Hen.
They likely already told you that it’s part of the job, that saving people means you lose them sometimes, that this is what we choose and we need to put it away at the end of the day. Maybe they also told you that all of that is bullshit and they’ll never forget the face of every single one of those people they lost.
All I want to tell you is that I’m sorry. I know you’re hurting, and I wish I was there to tell you that in person and maybe get you a beer, like you did for me when I was so down that night at my house. But since I won’t get leave for a while yet, I’ll maybe just say one more thing, the same thing I told you before: keep your heart. Even when it hurts. Because it’s the best heart I know.
“Eds… thank you for your email. It—uh. It meant a lot.”
“Hey, don’t mention it, man. Seriously. I’m real sorry I wasn’t around to talk when everything went down, but I meant every word.”
“Now—tell me about this woman you’re seeing that you wrote me about. She’s a 911 operator?”
“Yeah, uh. I sort of met her over the phone on a weird call we got to track down a missing girl, and I guess she saw me in an interview after the whole, um, the amusement park happened… and she kind of reached out to see how I was? And then asked me out?”
“Well, uh—a bold move. But you’re happy?”
“Yeah. I mean. I think so. It’s a little different because, like, she’s older, so we’re dating more seriously than I’ve dated anyone before—I had a couple of girlfriends and a boyfriend in college and I had, um. A bit of a messy thing when I was bartending, but definitely no relationships since I got out of the SEALs, so. It takes some getting used to. I’m kind of scared I’ll screw it up right away...”
“Hey, no, Buck. You’re… you’re amazing, man. Anyone would be lucky to have you. Just, uh. Just be yourself. You don’t need to do anything more than that.”
“Thanks, Eds. Um did I tell you Christopher sent me a picture? I mean, obviously Shannon mailed it, but it’s so amazing, he drew me as a firefighter! And I think there’s some sort of shape meant to be an animal next to me, also dressed as a firefighter, that might be Bucky the jaguar?”
“Yeah, uh—when I talked to him a few weeks ago he asked me a bit about your job and he got a little worried that you’d be in danger fighting fires so I think maybe that’s his way of hoping you’ll be protected.”
“Your kid is the best, Eds.”
After the amusement park call, Chim getting impaled, a very rough plane crash, and a really, really close call with a piece of bread while on a date with Abby, Buck felt like he was really and truly finally finding his footing.
Understanding Bobby better after he told them about what had happened to his family had helped them all grow closer as a team, and things with Abby were mostly going pretty well. She seemed to worry that he was a little too young, and when he’d talked about one of his exes and she’d realized he was bi—he kept forgetting to actually come out to people—she was a little weird for a couple of days, but it was overall the most stable romantic relationship he’d ever had, and whenever he felt a little lost, he could usually rely on Eddie to talk him out of it.
So, of course, just as things were going right, they started to go wrong.
First, Abby’s mom started getting worse—Buck tried as best he could to be there for her, followed Bobby’s advice to just step in it with her, but it was all still pretty rough. Then, Buck’s identity was stolen and he kept getting slapped, yelled at, and had various different drinks thrown at him. Finally, and worst of all, Eddie stopped replying to his emails, and didn’t pick up the day of their scheduled call.
“I’m sure he’s okay, Buck,” Bobby told him, after he caught Buck distracted on a call because was obsessively refreshing his email app for the thousandth time that day and Buck had to explain why.
The 118 were aware of his long-distance best friend and found it either mystifying or adorable, depending on whether you asked Chimney or Hen. Bobby generally seemed to find Eddie useful as a threat to hold over Buck’s head, not that Buck ever intended to share Eddie’s contact information with Bobby—he was trying not to get into too many scrapes, but he was sure that if Eddie heard everything Buck got up to on calls he’d never hear the end of it.
“He probably got stuck somewhere on a mission, and you’ll hear from him soon. Don’t borrow trouble. And go pick up that hose, please.”
The thing was, of course Buck understood that Eddie was in a warzone, and that shit happened, but Eddie knew that Buck was weird about people not replying to him, and he was always so careful to let him know when he’d be out of range or out on a long mission, so when an entire week went by without any contact or explanation, Buck started freaking out for real.
And then a call came through from Shannon and Buck’s world nearly ended.
“He got shot down, Buck. They shot down the helicopter he was on when they were evacuating some wounded soldiers. It was really close, but he’s okay. Hurt, but alive and conscious. We only got word today. I would’ve called you sooner, I promise, but it was radio silence on our side, too.”
“No, I know—thanks so much for letting me know, Shannon,” Buck said, trying his very best to keep the shaking in his voice down, to swallow down the tears and stay focused because the very last thing Shannon needed was to calm down her husband’s best friend in the midst of all of this. “Did they say if he’s coming home, or, uh. Is he staying over there?”
“His commanding officer said he’d probably be evacuated, yeah, but it’ll be a long process. Once he’s stable enough to be moved out of Bagram, he’ll go to one of the Army hospitals in Germany for a while, and then they’ll send him home. They said it could be at least a month, maybe a bit more? But—” Shannon broke off, Buck could hear her take a deep breath. “But he’s coming home.”
“Okay. Okay, um—when you know or he knows when exactly that is, I promise I’ll go down there, help you both out, okay? Take care of Chris, whatever you need,” Buck said. “And right now, Shannon? Do you need anything? Do you need me to come?”
“No, Buck, thank you so much. I’m—I’m okay. I didn’t really tell Chris anything, just said Daddy was busy, but… maybe you could video call with him tonight? That always cheers him up.”
“You got it.”
A few days later, Buck finally got to talk to Eddie directly—see him with his own eyes, even, although the video call was fuzzy. He looked terrible; hurt and sad and worn down, but he was alive, and that was all that mattered.
Buck took to tracking his improvement obsessively, went on a massive research binge on gunshot wounds and shoulder joints and musculature and pestered Hen and Chimney for every bit of information they could give him, and when they were tapped out, he kept researching more.
He was so focused on Eddie and his recovery that it wasn’t as much of a surprise as it might have been that when Abby’s mom died, Abby decided to leave LA and break up with him. In a way, Eddie’s brush with death and the actual death of Abby’s mom clarified things for both of them: they were good together, and generally happy, but their relationship hadn’t really been meant to last.
For Buck, it had been a way to explore finally being serious and monogamous with someone who was kind and smart and not after him just for his body, but he could see that in more than a few ways, he’d never really let Abby all the way in. And for Abby, Buck hoped he’d been a support and even a little bit of an escape from the worries she’d faced nonstop, taking care of her mom. But they’d been transient for each other, and Buck knew they’d both been somehow aware of it.
“I’m sorry you two broke up, Buckaroo,” Hen said. “She was real nice. Maybe not exactly perfect for you, but she was great.”
“Yeah, she was,” Buck replied, shrugging. “And I am sad, but I think it’s best for both of us. She really deserves to go out there and explore and travel and do everything she couldn’t before, you know?”
“That is surprisingly mature, Firefighter Buckley,” Chimney piped up, and when Buck rolled his eyes at him—surprisingly? Buck was full of maturity, okay?—Chim leaned closer. “The question does remain, though—if you guys are broken up, why are you living in her apartment?”
“I already told you guys! I really hate my roommates and Abby still had a few months left on her lease, and she’s just doing me a solid, okay? Stop acting like it’s weird!”
“I mean… it’s a little bit weird,” Hen said, but raised an appeasing hand when Buck opened his mouth. “But as long as you both talked about it and it’s not because you’re holding on to hope that she’s coming back, then it’s fine.”
“I’m really not, Hen, I promise,” Buck replied.
Truth be told, Buck wasn’t really busy holding out hope Abby would come back to LA at all - in his heart of hearts, he was honestly too busy hoping Eddie would come back to the damn country already, but he refused to think too deeply about what that meant because, well. He was lucky enough to have Eddie as his friend, and anything else was simply borrowing trouble.
Buck - I’m back stateside in a week, arriving in El Paso on the 18th. I know you’ve been trying to downplay how worried you’ve been every time we’ve talked, but Shannon kind of ratted you out. I’m okay, I promise. It still hurts, and I’ll be doing a lot of PT, but I’m okay.
Talk to you soon.
As soon as Buck got Eddie’s email—some desperately worried part of him wondering just how much time it had taken Eddie to write it out, if he actually had full use of both his arms back or if he was typing one-handed and would he honestly be okay over the long flight to the US?—he went up to Bobby and asked for the one thing he hadn’t the entire time he’d been a firefighter.
“You want to take time off?” Bobby asked, eyebrows raised. “As in you’re actually asking for time off, instead of me forcibly removing you from the roster so you get some rest?”
“Um… yeah?” Buck replied, shrugging. It was true he never really wanted to take time off—the job meant so much to him, and he was so scared of missing something, of not living up to this opportunity that he had, that he only ever grudgingly accepted the downtime Bobby rostered him for, but he didn’t really think Bobby’s incredulity was warranted.
“Buck, are you dying?” Bobby said, now looking a little pale. “You’d tell me if you weren’t okay, right, kid?”
Okay, okay, so maybe Buck was actually really resistant to taking time off and it had turned into a bit of a tiny fight between him and Bobby a couple of times.
“No, Bobby, I promise I’m fine—I’m totally fine, I swear,” Buck said, extending his hands toward Bobby appeasingly. “It’s, um. It’s Eddie. He’s finally coming home, and… well, he says he’s okay, but he got shot out of the sky, Bobby. I just. I have to be there; I have to see him.”
Bobby shot him a somewhat exasperated, somewhat fond look—the kind of expression he seemed to wear around Buck most of the time, if Buck was being honest.
“I understand, Buck. You have a lot of leave accumulated, actually, but it might be a little hard to shuffle things around on such short notice,” Bobby said, glancing toward his office, almost like he could look at the roster from this far away. “I think we can do without you for a week, though - would that work?”
A week was more than Buck thought he’d get, honestly; Bobby was going to have to perform minor miracles with the roster.
“A week is perfect. Thank you, Bobby.”
Bobby smiled. “No need to thank me, kid. Go see your best friend. Both of them.”
El Paso, Texas
Buck stood in front of Eddie’s front door, actively resisting the temptation to shift from foot to foot. He was nervous, yes, and he was worried, but this was Eddie. Eddie, who’d taken him to breakfast, who’d opened up to him, who’d written back time and time again. His best friend. He wasn’t going to make Buck leave; he wasn’t going to reject him.
And then the door opened and Eddie was right in front of him—bags under his eyes, thinner than he should be, arm in a sling, but there.
Eddie stared at him for a long moment, his eyes taking in Buck’s face and then inspecting the rest of him, like he couldn’t quite believe Buck was real, and Buck’s nervousness and anxiety flew out the window because the only thing that mattered was pulling Eddie into a hug, making sure with his own two hands that he was here and real.
Buck felt Eddie tense at first, just slightly, almost like he wasn’t quite used to being touched anymore, but before he could pull back or apologize, he felt Eddie relax, fall into Buck’s arms almost like his strings had been cut, and Buck could do nothing more than hold him tighter even as he was mindful of not putting pressure on his bad shoulder.
“You’re here,” Eddie whispered into his neck, like it was a secret, like he was scared of saying it out loud.
“Of course I’m here, Eds. Nowhere else I could be,” Buck replied, voice low.
Eddie pressed his forehead into Buck’s neck, then, and Buck could feel him shuddering. What had Eddie kept to himself, all this time? Putting on a brave face on video calls for Buck, probably doing the same for Christopher and Shannon, and, knowing him, swallowing back pain and fear and all the horror he must’ve gone through when the helicopter went down.
After a long moment, Eddie pulled back a little, blinking slowly, and Buck felt his heart pull when he noticed the tears clinging to his lashes. Oh, Eddie.
“You, uh. You look really good, Buck,” Eddie said hoarsely, his good arm still around Buck’s shoulder and squeezing him slightly. “I’d noticed you’d bulked up in our calls but seeing it in person is, um. Different. Firefighting suits you.”
“Thanks, Eds. You don’t look so hot, but that’s why I’m here, yeah?” Buck smiled. “You and me, we got one week, and we’re making it count.”
Eddie glanced down and then back up, his eyes warm and fond, and he smiled back, that smile that Buck had come to think of as his own, that smile which meant Eddie Diaz believed in you and cared about you and nothing could be too bad when you considered that.
“I’m glad you’re here, Buck.”
They stepped into the house after a moment, and Buck quickly noticed that the house was a bit messy, with shoes left here and there, and from what he could see from the hallway, the kitchen had more than a few plates piling up. The last thing he clocked was the fact that the couch—the pull-out where he’d spent the week last time—had a blanket and a couple of pillows that definitely looked slept on, and the coffee table in front of it was piled with different orange pill bottles and Gatorade. Was Eddie sleeping out on the couch instead of in his and Shannon’s room?
Eddie must’ve noticed his surprise, because he gave a rueful shake of his head. “I’m, uh. Not having that much luck sleeping through the night. At the hospital it wasn’t really bugging anyone—had a room to myself—but I ended up out here last night so at least Shannon could get some sleep.”
There was a flash of something deeply wounded in Eddie’s eyes when he said it, and Buck bit back an almost instinctive she could’ve stayed up with you, because it was uncharitable and petty and completely beside the point: it was a shitty situation for the entire Diaz family, Shannon included, and he was here to help, not be an asshole.
So, he took a deep breath, smiled, and turned to Eddie. “I’m actually pretty tired myself—finished a 24-hour shift before hopping on the plane—so I’d actually be pretty okay with just hanging out on the couch for a while.”
He paused, and saw Eddie torn between accepting and probably being wary that this would turn into an intense talk about Afghanistan and the helicopter that he clearly wasn’t ready for yet, considering he looked like a stiff wind would blow him over.
“Come on, let’s sit down and I’ll tell you about how this guy stole my identity to catfish a bunch of women,” Buck offered. “It was super annoying at first, but then I felt really bad for him.”
Eddie rolled his eyes fondly. “Of course you did.”
But he looked relieved as they sat down on the couch, and he gazed at Buck intently as he told the story, until he was blinking slower and slower and then finally fell asleep. Buck stood up, then, and carefully shifted Eddie into properly lying down without stressing his shoulder further. Eddie didn’t even stir as Buck moved him, which meant he was seriously exhausted. With Eddie finally asleep, Buck took a long look around the house, and decided he’d start with the kitchen.
By the time Shannon got back from dropping Christopher off at school and picking up groceries, the house was as clean as Buck could make it, and he was lying on the floor next to Eddie, dead asleep.
Over the next week, Buck tried to ease the burden for Eddie, Shannon, and Chris as much as he could. He’d rented a car on arrival, so he took over taking Eddie to his PT appointments, started cooking breakfast (he was definitely asking Bobby for extra lessons when he got back so they could cover lunch as soon as possible), and also took over laundry because, apparently, little kids went through clothes like nobody’s business.
He also tried his best to help with the more difficult things: Buck took to staying up with Eddie, or at least to waking up whenever a nightmare or memory drove Eddie from his bed and into the living room, which was practically every night.
The skills Buck had developed first as a SEAL and then at the 118 to be immediately alert came in handy, and whatever sleep debt he was accruing was more than worth being there to try and drive away the shadows in Eddie’s eyes, as Eddie finally shared what he’d gone through with Buck in fits and starts.
“I just—they gave me a Silver Star, Buck,” he eventually said, voice low and defeated. “They’re telling me I’m some sort of hero, but Greggs still died, and we were still over there for no real reason and I just don’t know how to pretend to be okay with any of it.”
“... don’t, Eds,” Buck replied, and at Eddie’s raised eyebrows, kept going. “Remember what you told me, with the rollercoaster call? It sucks, and you don’t really get over it, even when people are calling you a hero. You don’t have to pretend, not with me. Be whatever you need to be right now: angry, hurt, sad… I’ll be here for all of it.”
Buck also tried to take Christopher to the park once a day, usually after he’d finished with his homework, because the other problem that became clear about a day after his arrival was the one he’d picked up on way back when: Shannon and Eddie weren’t doing okay. Buck was trying to give them space to talk things out and get back some sort of balance, but he and Chris kept coming home to whispered arguments, so it didn’t seem to be working.
On Thursday, four days after Buck arrived, Eddie finally explained why.
“It’s, um. It’s her mom.” He paused, took a sip of tea—given the painkillers he was on, alcohol was a no-no, and Buck had taken to plying him with different types of herbal tea hoping they’d find one Eddie didn’t hate too badly and which would help him sleep. “I mean, it’s more than that, it’s what it’s always been since we got married, but now, uh. Her mom’s cancer came back.”
“Oh, that’s—fuck. I didn’t know,” Buck breathed out, horrified.
“Yeah, uh. She doesn’t really want to tell anyone, my parents don’t know either...” Eddie let out a loud sigh. “But she wants to go to LA to help take care of her—she wants us all to go, actually, Chris and me and her. I don’t know, Buck. My parents are here, Sophia, most of my cousins… and I need to go through discharge, finish PT, figure out what the hell I’m going to do for a living now… I just, I can’t make that decision yet, you know? I need more time.”
And Buck couldn’t help himself: he let himself be selfish, let himself just say it. “Come to LA, Eddie.”
“What? Buck, I just said…” Eddie frowned.
“No, I know, I mean—not right now,” Buck interrupted, almost tripping over himself to get the words out. “I get that you need a little more time, of course you do, and I think you can tell Shannon that. I meant... once you’re done with discharge and PT, once you’re ready—come to LA. Shannon can take care of her mom, and you won’t be alone, Eds. You’ve told me your abuela and your aunt live there, right? And, um. I’m there. I’m there, and I promise I’ll help you with whatever you need.”
Eddie opened his mouth, closed it, looking a little dazed. “Buck, I—I mean, you know it’d be amazing to live in the same city as you, but… just. Move? What about Christopher?”
“Well, uh—I actually talked about options for him with Carla. Um—she was the health aid for Abby’s mom, remember?” Buck asked, and when Eddie nodded, still looking a little confused, he kept going. “She kinda knows everything about insurance and state programs and I asked her what she knew about schools and services for children with CP, and she mentioned a few options she knew about that were federal so you’d be able to get them here in Texas, but. She also mentioned a lot of programs Chris could benefit from in California.”
Eddie kept looking at him for a moment, and then glanced down, staying silent, clearly lost in thought. Buck was terrified that he’d overstepped. He’d honestly asked Carla just to see if there were things she knew about that Chris could have access to in El Paso, but when she talked about the California state programs he couldn’t help but want to find out more, because the idea of having Eddie and Chris nearby, of finally having more than just calls and emails…
But it had obviously been a selfish impulse, and he hated the idea that Eddie might feel Buck was pushing him.
“Listen, I’m sorry, Eds,” Buck said, voice quiet. “I didn’t mean to create more noise, or to push LA on you when you’d just told me you felt it was too soon. I-”
Eddie glanced up then, eyebrows raised. “What? No, I—I’m not angry, Buck.”
“You… you’re not?”
“No, tonto,” Eddie replied, smiling slightly, which took out the sting of being called dumb in Spanish, because, well - Eddie Diaz’s damn smile. “I’m just thinking how damn lucky I am, that you walked into that conference room back then… you’re like nobody else I know, Evan Buckley.”
And Buck didn’t quite know what to say to that, didn’t know how to handle the sheer breadth of feeling Eddie’s words provoked inside him.
“Um. Thanks, Eds,” he finally got out, even though it felt insufficient. Words often felt insufficient, around Eddie.
“Do you think—would Carla mind if I gave her a call, maybe? Asked her about the programs for Chris out in LA, and all that?” Eddie asked, biting his lip.
“No, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind at all, I’ll text her right now,” Buck said, taking his phone out and quickly typing out a text. “You’ll love her, she’s really amazing.” He paused in the middle of the text, glanced back up at Eddie. “Does that mean you’re actually thinking about LA as an option?”
Eddie nodded slightly. “Yeah, um. It can’t be right away, but. But if we can make sure Chris will be fine, and, uh— if you mean it, that you can help out—I think we could make it work.”
“Of course I mean it, Eds,” Buck replied immediately, putting a hand on Eddie’s good shoulder and squeezing. “I’ve got your back, I promise.”
From: Eddie Diaz, 18:17
Hey - yeah, discharge today went okay. Getting a separation pension that will help out for a couple of months at least, maybe more if we budget right and maybe disability comp? Still figuring some of it out. We’re finalizing plans for the move - Shannon is heading down now, but Chris and I are getting there on the 27th probably. Do you think you could get the day off? Chris is dying to see you as soon as we arrive.
From: Eddie Diaz, 18:23
Shannon is thinking of moving in with her mom to help her out, but we figured it’d be better if Chris and I stay at my abuela’s for a while until we get settled and get a place of our own. If you see any job openings that sound up my street send them my way?
From: Eddie Diaz, 18:26
Also, is it just me, or is it a little weird that I can just text you and you reply right away instead of having to wait about 12 hrs after I send an email?
“Buck… you’ve sent me the same link to apply for the LAFD seven times now.”
“You said to send you job openings that sounded up your street!”
“Right, and the only one you’ve sent me is the LAFD…”
“... Listen, Eds, I promise I’ll stop if you honestly want me to, but this isn’t just me being annoying. You were an Army medic, and a damn good one. Remember what you said, when we met? How your job was all about keeping your head and figuring out the fastest and most effective way of saving lives when everything was a mess? That’s exactly what being a firefighter is about. And with all the PT you’ve been doing, I bet you only need a little more work to be up to speed physically…”
“Alright. I’ll think about it.”
“I said think about it, Buck!”
“You’re gonna be amazing, Eddie, I know it. And you could work at the 118 with me!”
“Ay dios, eres tan necio..”
“Did you just call me stubborn?”
“Did I lie?”
Los Angeles, California
Buck couldn’t begin to explain just how excited he was to get to LAX and pick up Eddie and Chris. He’d been so hyper on his shift that eventually Chim had agreed to a push up contest in an attempt to tire him out—unsuccessfully, as it turned out, and leaving Chim whining the entire rest of the shift about his aching arms.
But Buck was finally pulling up to the arrivals lane at the airport, and he could spy Eddie and Chris, who was clutching Bucky the jaguar to his chest. They were surrounded by four bags, and Eddie looked a little dazed—Buck couldn’t blame him, LAX was a whirlwind experience even when you weren’t moving across the country with a kid.
“Hi, Diazes!” Buck called out as he jogged out of his car to meet them.
“Bucky!” Chris called out, shifting on his crutches with enough excitement that he almost dropped his jaguar. “Daddy, Bucky’s here!”
“I know, mijo, I promised he would be,” Eddie replied, voice tired, but a wide smile on his face.
Buck smiled back, and immediately crouched down to pull Chris into a hug. Chris fell into his arms with abandon, and Buck closed his eyes, feeling a sharp pang of awe and gratitude that this little kid trusted him, that he felt safe enough with Buck to let himself go.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Bucky,” Chris whispered into his neck.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Chris—we’re gonna go on so many adventures,” Buck replied, and hugged him a little tighter.
Buck felt Eddie’s warm hand settle onto his shoulder, and looked up to fond brown eyes.
“Before you two start going on adventures, though, how about we get out of the airport before security tows away your Jeep, huh?”
Buck started heaving bags into the trunk while Eddie settled Chris into the backseat, and once everything was crammed in with some level of success—Hen was the real wizard at organizing things into tight spaces, and she despaired of Buck’s method of mostly shoving things inside compartments—they were off.
“Okay, so how hungry are you guys? Are you up for breakfast?”
“Yes!” Chris cheered from the back, waving Bucky the jaguar around.
“Apparently yes,” Eddie said, looking back at Chris with a laugh. “You’d think I hadn’t fed the kid for the last week.”
“Well, he’s a growing boy,” Buck said reasonably. “Sometimes I eat two breakfasts because I have something at my place but then Bobby whips up pancakes or eggs at the station, and you just don’t skip out when Bobby cooks.”
“And is your reasoning for eating two breakfasts that you’re a growing boy, too? Or are you secretly part hobbit?” Eddie asked, clearly amused. “Because I have to tell you, Buck, if you grow anymore I don’t think your wardrobe will be able to take it—your poor shirt is barely hanging on.”
“Hey!” Buck protested, scowling at Eddie mock-warningly. “It’s stretch fabric, okay? It can hang on just fine.”
Eddie broke out into laughter. “Not the actual point I was making, but fair enough. Now, where exactly are we going for breakfast?”
“Oh, you’ll love it, Eds. It’s this little diner not too far from the 118 that has the best chocolate chip pancakes, and coffee strong enough to raise the dead, as Chim always says,” Buck replied. “Plus, it’s open 24/7, which makes it kind of our favorite place down at the station.”
“Well, now I’m excited,” Eddie said, voice a little dry, but indulgent.
“You should be,” Buck said, then glanced back at Chris through the rearview mirror. “Hey, Chris, did you know your dad and I became friends over breakfast?”
“Really?” Chris asked, leaning forward slightly.
“Yeah,” Eddie replied, giving Buck a sideways smile. “Best friends. Breakfast’s been my favorite meal ever since.”
Buck smiled back, his heart so full of feeling he felt like he could float away. He was so, so happy Eddie and Chris were here at last.
The next few weeks were more than a little hectic, between getting Chris enrolled in the school Carla had pre-scouted for him, Eddie doing training and certification after certification in the Fire Academy, and Buck trying his best to be the help he’d promised he would be.
Even with the craziness, though, Buck wouldn’t have traded the slight sleep deprivation or the miles he was putting on his Jeep going back and forth between the 118, Abby’s place, Christopher’s school, and abuela’s place for anything—Hen kept telling him he looked even more like an over-excited Golden Retriever than usual, and it was pretty much true.
It was just, finally having Eddie right there, to be able to go over to abuela’s house after his shift and have dinner and hang out, to carpool with him and Chris, dropping them off at Chris’ school and the Fire Academy on the way to work: it all settled Buck into a very specific sense of peace and belonging he’d only felt sporadically before.
It was the sense that he was part of a little family unit, that he was someone’s, in a deeper sense than being Hen and Chimney’s friend or Bobby’s most common cause of gray hairs.
He’d only ever felt like that with Maddie, but his feelings for Eddie Diaz, if he was brutally honest with himself, weren’t precisely brotherly.
Buck tried not to be brutally honest with himself.
As their days slowly settled into more predictable routines, Buck got the truly amazing gift of seeing Eddie settle into parenting Christopher.
Buck knew just how guilty Eddie felt about leaving, about his two tours - Eddie had written more than one painfully revelatory email and they’d had a couple of really intense conversations about how terrified Eddie felt that he’d already screwed up too much as a dad, even as young as Chris was. But all Buck could see now was how hard Eddie was trying, how deliberately he was making sure that Christopher came first, that he was happy and fulfilled and never doubted for a second that his dad loved him exactly as he was.
Being allowed to see that—to be a part of it, to be one of the people Eddie relied on to ensure Chris’ well-being—it was a privilege Buck wasn’t ever taking for granted. Especially because it sort of seemed as if Shannon kept pulling away, both physically and emotionally. Buck could see Chris was a little confused about his mom not being around as much, and Eddie was frankly frustrated. All Buck knew how to do, all he really could do, was try to be there for them as much as he could, try his best not to let them down.
Soon enough, Eddie and Chris were summoned to a barbeque at Bobby’s place, because the 118 couldn’t wait to meet them. Shannon had been invited too, of course, but she’d apparently begged off because her mom had an appointment, not that Eddie offered up many details. There was an undercurrent there that Buck hadn’t yet felt comfortable trying to pin Eddie down on, and the 118 barbecue certainly wasn’t the place to do it.
“You guys ready to have the best hamburgers ever?” Buck asked, when Eddie and Chris climbed into the car. He was picking them up on the way to Athena’s, figuring it made the most sense to arrive together.
“I don’t know, Buck—it’ll be hard to out-do Texas grilling,” Eddie said, giving him a teasing smile.
“Just you wait, Eddie. Bobby is seriously the best cook,” Buck promised. He glanced back through the rear-view mirror and saw Chris had Bucky the jaguar with him—he usually only brought him out of the house when he was feeling nervous. “Chris, buddy, I gotta tell you that Denny can’t wait to meet you. He can get a little bored at our get-togethers, so he’s super excited you’re going.”
“Really?” Chris asked, the excitement in his voice suggesting that his eagerness was winning over the nerves.
“You bet, Hen told me he was bringing a ton of toys for you guys to play with,” Buck said.
He met Eddie’s eyes briefly, and Eddie quietly mouthed, “Thank you.”
Buck noticed, then, that he was actually looking a little pale and unusually fidgety—he’d been too focused on Chris’ nerves to notice before.
“You okay, Eds?”
“Yes, of course,” Eddie replied right away, then scrunched his nose slightly. “Well… maybe a little nervous?”
“Because I’m kind of meeting your family, Buck! These people are all really important to you, and I guess I just want to make a good impression,” Eddie said, gesturing expansively.
And, honestly, Buck sort of melted inside. “Eddie—trust me. They’re going to love you.”
Which, of course, they did. Chimney and Hen were immediately welcoming, taking the opportunity to rib Buck (“Hey, it’s nice to meet the guy responsible for about fifty percent of Buck’s self-control!” “Uh, I think you mean seventy percent, Chim.” “Hey!”); Karen seemed to be won over by his quiet charm, and Athena seemed to be won over by his taste in tequila.
Bobby seemed to be holding off, though—he was kind and welcoming the way he was with everyone, of course, but Buck could see he was holding back a little, something evaluating in the way he kept track of Eddie interacting with everybody throughout the afternoon. At a certain point, Buck lost track of Eddie and saw him talking seriously with Bobby on the far end of the backyard, but when he met Eddie’s eyes briefly, Eddie just smiled slightly at him—no crazy eyes or desperate hand signals—so Buck left them to it.
“He seems like a really good man, Buck,” Bobby finally said, as the day was winding down and Buck was helping him get the food back inside Athena’s kitchen. “I’m really glad you’ve got him in your corner.”
Buck stopped washing the glasses and glanced outside, where Eddie was playing with Chris and Denny. “He’s the best,” he confirmed. “Glad to be in his.”
“I think he’d be a really great asset to the 118 once he’s finished with the Academy. Do you think he’d want to join us?” Bobby asked.
Buck couldn’t hold back his grin. “I think he really would, Bobby.”
“Good. I’ll make him an official offer tomorrow, then,” Bobby said, and then shot Buck a teasing smile. “Maybe this way we’ll get your self-control up to ninety percent.”
“Oh, hey, uncalled for!”
“Is it, though?”
Nearly five months after Eddie moved to LA, Buck kind of felt as if he’d always been there. Their routines had blended together sort of seamlessly, and Eddie was just one exam away from being a full-blown member of the 118, considering he already had a permanent invitation to team outings and even joined them for lunch at the firehouse every once in a while.
Even with that, though, Buck still didn’t expect the proposal Eddie made when they were having a couple of beers in abuela’s backyard.
“So, Buck…” Eddie began, rubbing the back of his neck—a classic tell for him being nervous.
“So, Eddie?” Buck asked, eyebrows raised.
Eddie huffed out a laugh, but took a long drag of his beer instead of speaking. He was clearly stalling, and if Buck hadn’t been so attuned to his body language he would’ve been more worried, but Eddie didn’t look anxious or sad, just genuinely nervous. Knowing the best idea would be to just let him be for a moment, Buck drank his own beer quietly, and waited for Eddie to speak.
Finally, Eddie cleared his throat, and Buck glanced up from his contemplation of abuela’s peony bushes to meet his eyes.
“Listen, um. You told me a week ago that Abby’s lease is running out at the end of the month, right?”
“Right, yeah,” Buck replied slowly, confused. Why did Eddie want to know about Abby’s lease?
“Well, uh—Chris and I, we. We obviously like staying here at abuela’s, but her house is really not meant to fit three people permanently, and I just feel like…” Eddie paused, clearly collecting his thoughts. “Like if we don’t get some place that’s ours, we won’t really feel settled here.”
Buck nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense to me, Eds.”
“Right, I knew you’d get it,” Eddie said, scooting forward in his chair towards Buck. “The thing is, though, that LA is pretty expensive, and even if I pass the final exam -”
“You will,” Buck interrupted.
“-even if,” Eddie continued, smiling slightly at Buck’s interjection. “I’ll still only get a probationary firefighter’s salary for the first year, and, well. Carla’s a miracle-worker, but she still can’t make the LA housing market less insane.”
Buck snorted. “I don’t think anybody could. But I don’t—I don’t quite understand what Abby’s lease has to do with it? Are you—do you want me to ask her if you can take her place, or something? I’m happy to do it, but I think her landlord already has someone lined up.”
“No, Buck,” Eddie replied, rolling his eyes. “I don’t want to take over Abby’s lease. I actually already sort of found a place? It’s a small house, kind of like a bungalow, three bedrooms, a little yard, and pretty close to Chris’ school.”
“That’s awesome, Eds! Do you have pictures?”
“Yeah,” Eddie replied, pulling out his phone and handing it over to Buck. “It’s—yeah, that one.”
Buck scrolled past the different pictures—the house looked small but cozy, and it was all one floor, which was perfect for Christopher. The kitchen wasn’t too big, but cooking definitely wasn’t one of Eddie’s strengths, so Buck doubted he’d worried too much about it.
“I really love it, Eds, it looks perfect,” Buck said, handing back the phone. “Have you put in an application yet?”
“Well, that’s kind of why I brought up Abby’s lease,” Eddie said, rubbing the back of his neck again. “Would you maybe think about moving in with Chris and me for a while?”
Buck nearly dropped his beer.
“Yeah, I mean—you’re losing your place, or Abby’s place, whatever, at the end of this month, and you don’t have anywhere else lined up,” Eddie said, fidgeting slightly with his phone. “And I really like this place, but if I get it, things will be really, really tight for at least the first few months, and I don’t want to cut any corners with Chris’ therapists or his treatment. So, uh—I was thinking maybe you could move in with us, use that third bedroom for now, and split the costs a bit?”
Buck took a drink of beer before answering, trying to marshall his thoughts and his suddenly racing heart into a veneer of calm. He wanted to say yes—of course he wanted to say yes. Hanging out with the Diazes was his favorite thing in the world; actually living with them would be a dream come true.
But he was afraid that losing that last bit of distance, that last bit of remove from their lives, would finally force him into the brutal honesty regarding how he felt about Eddie that he’d been evading, and he wasn’t sure what that would look like. If he could look unflinchingly at the way in which he was hooked to Eddie, deep in his gut and his chest. Whether he could survive looking and knowing Eddie wouldn't look back.
“Eds—what about Shannon?” Buck asked, because he had to, because he had to remind himself of why he couldn’t just say yes to everything Eddie Diaz ever asked him. “I mean, I know she’s living with her mom right now, but she’d eventually move in with you, wouldn’t she? Like… wouldn’t it be weird for you to have a roommate when she moves in?”
“Buck, you wouldn’t be a roommate, you’re our best friend—you’re family,” Eddie replied, nonchalant, like he wasn’t calmly trying to make Buck cry. “No, listen, of course I’ll talk to her and explain that this is kind of the only way to make this work right now, and when she moves in—which is probably going to take a while from what she’s said—we’ll re-evaluate. But Buck, isn’t this a better option that having to go live on Chim’s couch? Or Bobby’s?” Eddie paused, then frowned slightly. “Unless. I mean, maybe you don’t really want to move in with a grumpy asshole and a kid, I - I don’t want to cramp your style or anything.”
And, seriously, was Eddie insane?
“Cramp my style? Eddie, you and Chris are like my favorite people in the whole world, at least among those who’ve talked to me in the last three years -” Buck paused for a moment, thinking about Maddie with that ever-permanent ache, “-of course living with you two would be amazing.”
“Good, so it’s settled. You’ll move in with us at the end of the month,” Eddie nodded. He looked entirely satisfied as he drank the rest of his beer, but Buck didn't think he was imagining the relief in his eyes.
Buck stared at him for a long moment, and then finished his own. He knew he was probably not going to make it out of this living arrangement unscathed, and yet, he couldn’t find it in himself to regret it.
Once Eddie’s application was accepted and he signed the lease, things moved forward so fast Buck felt a bit like he was skipping time, running from shifts at the 118 to the storage space Eddie and Shannon had rented to the new house.
After they got the basics into the house, the first thing Eddie and Buck did was set up Christopher’s room, and Buck wanted to cry a little when he realized Eddie had chosen the biggest of the three rooms in the little bungalow for him because it would be the easiest to navigate and had an ensuite bathroom. Following Chris’ lead, they used a mixture of outer space and dinosaurs as a decorating theme, and Buck’s tired muscles were worth it for the look on Chris’ face when he walked in.
“It’s perfect! Thank you, daddy,” Chris said, throwing his arms around Eddie’s waist for a hug, and then turning to Buck and hugging him as well. “Thank you, Bucky.”
Buck exchanged a smile with Eddie over Chris’ head. “You’re welcome, buddy.”
“Are you going to put dinosaurs in your room too, Bucky?” Chris asked.
Buck let out a startled laugh. “I’m not sure, bud! I think they might be a Christopher Diaz exclusive in this house, but if one of them sneaks into my room to hang out every once in a while that would be cool.”
What Buck couldn’t really tell Chris, of course, was that he wasn’t sure how much he could make his room in the Diaz house his own—not that he actually had enough things to do it easily, even if he wanted to. He’d spent such a long time moving from place to place, he’d learned to pack light. His life pretty much fit into a couple of big duffle bags at this point, which was a little depressing to contemplate.
Still, he figured that hanging up a couple of cool prints couldn’t go over too badly—they’d work even when the room went back to being a guest room—and when he caught sight of a little ceramic planter in the shape of a dinosaur that held a succulent when browsing at a farmer’s market with Bobby, he couldn’t resist buying it. Chris giggled delightedly when he saw it and requested one of his own, and Eddie just rolled his eyes indulgently. And so, even if it wasn’t permanent—even if Buck would eventually have to leave and try to make a home someplace else, like he had so many times before—his room at the Diaz house felt more his than anywhere else had felt for years.
A couple of weeks after they were all moved in, though, Buck walked into Eddie’s room to use his spare charger, looked around in despair, and immediately walked out again, making his way to the kitchen where Eddie was attempting and failing to make scrambled eggs.
“Hey, Buck, do these look right to you? I can’t quite figure out why half seems overdone and the other half is still runny,” Eddie asked, frowning down at the pan. He looked up when Buck didn’t answer. “Uh, Buck? Is everything okay?”
“No, everything is not okay!” Buck exclaimed plaintively, walking over to the stove and taking the spatula from Eddie’s hand. After looking down at the eggs, he sighed. “Hand me the sour cream, please, and some salt and pepper. And the butter. ”
Eddie, looking confused and a little concerned, started handing Buck the ingredients he’d asked for. “Uh, do you want to explain why things aren’t okay? Is it something at work?”
“No, work is fine—I mean, it’ll be better once you’re there, but it’s okay,” Buck replied, trying to scramble the ingredients into something edible. “Actually, maybe just hand me some more eggs?”
Eddie complied, and stayed silent while Buck took out another pan and set it on the burner. After Buck had dropped in some butter, he put his hand on Buck’s arm and looked at him earnestly.
“Buck, what’s wrong? You can tell me anything, remember?”
Buck took a deep breath, and then just said it. There was no way to be delicate about it. “Eddie, why does your room look like a serial killer lives there?”
And so, after that particular conversation, Eddie allowed Buck to talk him into a few photographs, and at least one pothos plant. If another little dinosaur succulent sneaked onto Eddie’s bedside table, Buck could hardly be blamed.
Ultimately, living with Eddie and Chris wasn’t too different from what they’d been doing before— Buck had been hanging out with them almost all the time anyway—except that Buck noticed a slight change in Eddie himself. It was as if an omnipresent weight had been lifted off his shoulders, a weight Buck hadn’t even known to look for because it had been there as long as he’d known Eddie. The weight seemed to get lighter with every shared shopping trip, with every day that went by and they settled into a shared routine.
Buck forced himself not to think about the day when that shared routine would end.
The day of Eddie’s first shift at the 118, Buck was more nervous than Eddie himself. Or, at least, it seemed that way outwardly—Buck knew that Eddie felt things very deeply but instinctively hid them, an instinct he’d learned a very long time ago and seemed to be trying to unlearn for Chris’ sake, now.
Bearing that in mind, Buck had made a promise to himself to be as steady as he could be for Eddie’s sake, no matter what happened or what emergencies they faced, so: man full of air after puncturing himself instead of the tire he was supposed to blow up? Buck let Eddie step in and do his thing, and it went awesome. Man apparently shot himself in the leg with a live grenade instead of a practice round? Buck suited up and joined Eddie when he volunteered to extract it. Some poor kid ended up with a microwave concreted onto his head because his friends were assholes? Buck and Eddie jumped in to save him.
No matter what the day threw at them, Buck kept working with Eddie like a well-oiled machine, like they’d been doing this together for years, and from the look on Bobby, Chim, and Hen’s faces, they could see it, too.
Clearly, Buck’s plan to be a steady, solid partner for Eddie was working; he was sure there was nothing they could face in the remaining hours of their shift that would make him falter.
That was, of course, until they got out of the firetruck after their last call and Buck stumbled into a woman on his way to the showers—he needed to wash off the chlorine from the pool—and the woman said his name.
“Maddie? What are you doing here?” Buck asked, gaping. He could hardly believe his eyes, could barely get his thoughts together.
“Buck? Everything okay?”
Eddie had come up behind him, and was looking between Buck and Maddie with a considering, slightly protective look on his face. Buck had no idea what his own face was doing that was making Eddie act as worried as he was, but it probably wasn’t great.
“Uh—yeah, Eds. This is Maddie… my sister,” Buck said, after a moment.
“Wait, your sister that you haven’t talked to for three years?” Eddie asked, eyes wide.
Buck saw the way Maddie winced, and felt sorry that she was hurt, and then angry that she was hurt and that he felt sorry about it, and then he noticed the fact that Maddie was clutching a rolling suitcase and that she looked like she was scared and hadn’t slept in days and all his anger was consumed by worry and love, because this was Maddie. His sister, the one person who had ever been in his corner growing up, the one person who had ever believed in him before Buck had been lucky enough to run into Eddie Diaz at a military conference. Maddie.
“Yeah,” Buck whispered, finally answering Eddie, and then walked toward Maddie with his arms open, chlorine be damned. “It’s really good to see you, Mads.”
Maddie fell into his arms, and Buck could feel her shaking—with tears or relief or both, he couldn’t quite tell—and then he heard her say, “It’s really good to see you, too, Evan.”
After the fastest shower of his life and a round of introductions with the rest of the team - Bobby had been immediately kind and warm and offered up apple pie and coffee, of course; Hen had taken charge of Maddie’s suitcase, and Chim looked like he’d been hit upside the head with a pole, for some reason - Buck set down his own coffee cup and asked the question he was both desperate to ask and dreading an answer to.
“Mads… are you staying?”
Maddie glanced up at him, and he saw that flash of fear in her eyes again, something clearly haunting her, but she immediately hid it with a somewhat unconvincing smile. “No, I’m just. Just passing through. But I couldn’t leave without seeing my little brother.”
Buck bit back a pissy retort. As much as some wounded part of him wanted to tell her that she’d always had the chance to come see him, she’d always known where he was and had never come to find him, he knew there was a lot more to the story than Maddie was saying right now, and it probably had to do with her asshole husband.
The real thing to focus on was: he had his sister back. And even if it was only for a few days, he wasn’t wasting them on recriminations.
“Well, we’ll have to get through all of LA’s greatest hits quickly, then,” Buck said, smiling at Maddie and taking her hand in his. God, his sister. “And if you have a hotel room or something, you better go ahead and cancel that - you’re staying with me.”
Of course, it was only after he extended the invitation that he remembered he didn’t live alone and he maybe shouldn’t go around just making those decisions one-sided, but when he glanced up to see whether Eddie was okay with it, he found him already looking back, that small, sideways smile on his face, and he knew it would be fine.
When they got home, Chris was immediately thrilled to meet Maddie, talking to her a mile a minute about the adventures he and “his Bucky” had gone on as soon as Buck introduced her as his sister and barely pausing to say goodbye to Carla, who rolled her eyes good-naturedly.
While both Maddie and Chris were distracted, Eddie sidled up to Buck. “Hey, you sure you’re okay?”
Buck opened his mouth, closed it. He wasn’t sure he was ready to unpack everything he was feeling, at least not without maybe a beer and the certainty that Maddie wouldn’t overhear and feel hurt, which was the last thing he wanted. So he just shrugged.
Eddie nodded and put a warm hand on his shoulder. “Remember—I got your back.”
“Thanks, Eds,” Buck said, grateful down to his bones. And then he was struck by a thought. “Hey! We forgot to celebrate!”
“Celebrate what?” Eddie asked, eyebrows scrunched.
“You made it through your first shift! And you kicked ass,” Buck replied, grabbing Eddie into a rough, sideways hug. “Even if Chim did end up beating you out for the calendar.”
Eddie grabbed on to Buck’s waist, laughing. “Hey, he beat you too, if I recall correctly.” He glanced towards the living room, where Chris was showing Bucky the jaguar to a clearly very charmed Maddie. “And the day’s not over yet, Buck. We’ve got a lot to celebrate.”
“In-N-Out?” Buck said, eyebrows raised.
“You know it,” Eddie said, pointing at him. “Perfect celebration food, and perfect first LA highlight for your sister.”
Later that night, after they got home (and after maybe one too many Double-Doubles animal style, but Buck could never resist), Buck made the executive decision to set Maddie up in his room so she’d feel more comfortable and safe. He’d clocked how jumpy she’d been, out in public, and he knew Eddie had, too, by the way he’d loudly locked up for the night and set the alarm. Maddie was resistant at first, saying she didn’t want to put him out and that she could stay on the couch, but Buck wasn’t having it.
“Seriously, Mads, it’s okay,” he assured her. “I spent entire weeks on that couch when I was visiting Eddie in El Paso; it’s all good.”
At that, Maddie paused and stared at him for a moment, tears filling her eyes. “You mentioned him sometimes, in your postcards. I’m really glad you have him, Evan. It—it looks like he was there for you when I wasn’t.”
And Buck... he wanted to comfort Maddie, to tell her that she was here now, that they could make up for the time they’d missed, but. If she was leaving again, if she was only here for a few days and gone again… All he could do was pull her into his arms again and hug her tight.
“Get some rest, Maddie.”
A couple of days later, Hen and Karen decreed it was karaoke night for the 118—Hen had even arranged for May to babysit Denny, Chris, and Harry, so there was no way anybody was saying no. They all settled into their usual tables and ordered an unholy amount of appetizers, since a lesson had been learned a long time ago that trying to agree on just one was a losing battle, and also that nobody could ever have enough mozzarella sticks.
Buck kept a wary eye on Maddie, trying to stick as close as possible, since she still seemed rattled every time they went out into a crowd, but Chimney engaged her in conversation and soon enough the tense line of her shoulders had relaxed and she was laughing along with everyone else; in fact, after a glass of wine, she agreed to go up to the stage with Chim and belted out a very respectable version of Islands in the Stream.
Buck took a long drag of his beer, hardly able to keep his eyes away from her. Even with the time and the distance, the clear hurt she’d gone through, those sudden silences and shadows in her eyes that hinted at the fact that she wasn’t really passing through but running away instead, it was still Maddie: still the best sister anyone could’ve asked for, the sister who cleaned up his scrapes and read him to sleep and gave him a Jeep to get out of Pennsylvania when he thought staying one more day would choke him.
He wanted, more than anything, to capture this moment: her, laughing and singing, bumping into Chim when they tried to act out some sort of choreography. He wanted, more than anything, for her to stay.
“We’ll make it happen, Buck,” Eddie said quietly, from beside him.
Buck turned to look at Eddie inquisitively. Had he said something out loud without realizing it?
“You don’t have to say it, Buck,” Eddie said, clearly understanding the unspoken question. “You’ve hardly been able to look away since she showed up at the station. I can tell you want nothing more than for her to stick around.”
“She’s my sister, Eds,” Buck said helplessly, shrugging. “You remember what I told you about my parents. And yeah, she left twice, and she stopped answering my calls and my letters, but… before you, before the 118, she was the only one who ever gave a damn about me.”
“No, I don’t mean to be all tragic pseudo-orphan boy over here,” Buck interrupted, before Eddie could start a speech about how important Buck was to him—he’d given the speech a couple of times now, once over the phone, even, because Buck was crippled with insecurity more often than he liked to admit—because it wasn’t about that right now. “It’s just… she’s obviously terrified, Eds. She’s clearly running away from her douchebag husband and as much as I want her to stay for me, what I want more is for her to stay for her. So she’s safe, so that she has someone looking out for her.”
Eddie grabbed onto Buck’s shoulder, then looked at him seriously. “Buck, I promise you we’ll get her to stay. Even if I knew nothing about you two I’d be able to tell how much you love each other, and how much you missed each other. We’ll talk to her tomorrow, okay? We’ll set out a plan, tell her that she can stay with us as long as she needs to - we can help her find a job at one of the hospitals we dispatch to, or, I don’t know, ask Bobby if there’s any admin job in the LAFD open that he knows about. We’ll make it happen. She’ll be safe - she has you, and she has all of us.”
Buck looked back at Eddie, at his warm brown eyes, full of certainty and fire, and felt overwhelmed with gratitude, with love. Whatever shitty support system Buck had had outside of Maddie when he was a kid, the universe was paying him back tenfold.
“Thank you, Eds,” he said finally, feeling not for the first time that the words were insufficient for all that Eddie gave him, for the way Buck felt.
“No need to thank me, Buck,” Eddie said, smiling crookedly. “It’s what partners are for.”
Over the next couple of weeks, Buck and Eddie folded Maddie into their routine, making sure she realized she could and should stay. Their efforts weren’t exactly subtle—Maddie shot Buck a particularly disbelieving look when he said that Maddie couldn’t even think of leaving LA before Chris’ book report presentation since she’d helped him prepare it—but they bore fruit: Maddie stopped talking about LA as temporary and slowly but surely started making plans.
When she said she wanted to get a job but didn’t want to be in an ER because she’d be face-to-face with too many people—Buck and Eddie exchanged a knowing glance at that, because it was more obvious every day that her leaving Doug hadn’t been exactly peaceful—Buck suggested being a 911 dispatcher, which he thought Maddie would be perfect for considering what he’d learned about it from Abby.
“Buck, do you honestly think I can do this?” she asked him, the night before her first training shift.
“Don’t worry, Mads, you’ll be perfect,” Buck reassured her. “Plus, tomorrow will be all about training. You’ve got the theoretical stuff down, and you’ll dip your toes slowly into the practical side, okay? It’ll be fine.”
Of course, neither he nor Maddie counted on the fact that LA would be hit by a damn 7.1 earthquake on her first training shift.
With the phone lines down after the quake, and an immediate deployment to a collapsed high-rise hotel downtown, Buck and Eddie could do nothing but hope for the best: hope that Chris was safe, that Maddie was hanging on, that Shannon wasn’t caught somewhere dangerous.
As they took pounds of equipment up the hotel stairs, Buck tried reminding Eddie that California schools were the safest places to be during an earthquake, doing his best to keep his own nerves quiet because the last thing Eddie needed was to see him freaking out. Then they were finally at the right floor and between almost losing the woman they were there to rescue and actually losing the man stuck between the bed and the window, the aftershocks, and helping get Hen out of piles of rubble, there was barely a second to breathe, let alone keep freaking out.
Still, when they were finally able to drive to Chris’ school to pick him up, both of them ran out of the car to get him. As Eddie lifted Chris into a hug and then clutched Buck into them roughly, Buck finally allowed himself to relax.
He’d gotten through to Maddie on the phone and she’d made it through her shift unscathed—if a little shell-shocked—and Eddie had gotten a text from Shannon saying she and her mom were fine, and Buck had Eddie and Chris in his arms. He could breathe.
Getting through the earthquake seemed to galvanize Maddie into getting her own place, and as worried as Buck was about her living alone, he knew, rationally, that it was a good thing. That it was one more sign that she was really sticking around, that he wasn’t losing his sister any time soon. That she felt safe enough to move into her own space and to keep building a life away from Doug, a life that made her happier.
“Proud of you, Mads,” he whispered into her hair, as he was hugging her goodbye after a long, long day of setting up her new place with Eddie and Chim. “Call me if you need anything. Seriously—anything.”
Maddie pulled back from the hug smiling, if a little teary-eyed. “I will, Buck.” She swallowed, and then put one of her hands on his cheek. “Thank you for everything.”
“Always, Maddie,” Buck said. “Always.”
If Buck cried a little on the way home, Eddie was kind enough to ignore it, and to hand him a beer when they were finally inside the house.
A few weeks after the earthquake, with things mostly back to normal, Buck was having dinner with Chris since Eddie was still on shift.
“Buck, are pirates real?” Chris asked, fork moving his carrots around the plate.
“Yeah, buddy, pirates are real,” Buck replied. “They’ve changed over the years, and they’re definitely not like we saw on Peter Pan the other night, but they’re real.”
“Could I be a pirate when I grow up?”
Buck tilted his head sideways, wondering how he was going to answer that one. Eddie and him had binged Black Sails a couple of months back, and pirates seemed way more intense than what Chris was probably aiming for—he didn’t think the kid wanted to overthrow England. Ultimately, he decided that Chris probably just wanted a cool hat and a parrot—he was currently obsessed with parrots.
“I think you could, bud, sure,” he ended up answering. “As long as I get to be your first mate.”
“What about daddy?” Chris piped up.
“Okay, fine, your dad can be your first mate, but I get to be the cook. Otherwise we’ll all starve,” Buck said with a wink, making Chris giggle. “Now, Mr. Pirate: finish your carrots or you definitely won’t grow strong enough to have your own ship.”
As Chris reluctantly went back to his carrots, the bell rang. Buck glanced down at his cellphone and saw no texts—Maddie and everyone at the 118 usually texted to let them know when they were coming by, and if Eddie had forgotten his keys for some reason he definitely would’ve called.
More than a little confused, Buck headed to the door, and opened it to find Shannon. And immediately realized that, despite all of Buck’s prodding, Eddie had yet to give her a key to the house, which was immensely awkward.
“Hey, Shannon, please, come in. We’re, uh. We’re having dinner,” Buck said, quickly stepping aside and letting her in. “Are you hungry? Can I put a plate together for you?”
“Oh, no, don’t worry, Buck. I had dinner before coming,” Shannon replied.
“Well, uh—come on, sit down. Chris was telling me about his dreams of being a pirate when he grows up,” Buck said, leading the way to the dining room. “Hey, Chris, look who’s here!”
“Hi, mom!” Chris exclaimed, waving and accidentally sending a carrot flying from his fork.
“Whoa, hey—I said to eat the carrots, buddy, not to weaponize them,” Buck said, leaning in quickly to pick the carrot up from the floor and popping it into his mouth because, hey, three second rule.
“What’s weaponize, Buck?”
Buck quickly met Shannon’s eyes, a little panicked, but she looked amused and not like she was concerned Buck was miseducating her son, so Buck sat down and tried to figure out how to explain the concept in a way that wouldn’t mean he and Eddie would be facing various vegetable weapon attempts over the next few days.
Shannon was mostly quiet as they had dinner, occasionally asking Chris a few questions about the teachers he mentioned or about one of his school projects, but seemingly content to let Chris and Buck do the talking.
After dinner, Buck told Chris to show his mom some of his recent drawings while he picked up in the kitchen, and once everything was clean—and hoping he’d given enough time for mother-son hang-out time, considering Shannon had shown up at a bit of a weird hour—Buck went into Chris’ room and corralled him into brushing his teeth, changing into his pj’s, and settling down to sleep.
Now that Chris was finally asleep, the house felt almost loud in its sheer quiet. Shannon had been in a strange mood since she’d arrived, but it had been easier to ignore in the usual bustle of Christopher’s bedtime routine. Now, Buck wasn’t too sure how to break the tense silence in a way that wouldn’t break Shannon, too—break the strange, brittle way she seemed to be holding herself as they left Chris’ room and sat down in the living room.
Still, he tried to offer what he could, because as Hen always said, he never did know how to leave well enough alone.
“Um, Eddie should be getting home in around two hours,” Buck said quietly, keeping his voice as calm and soothing as he knew how. Shannon still startled slightly, her eyes shooting to him as if she’d somehow forgotten he was here, that he lived here. “We picked up staggered shifts today, so I could pick Chris up from school since it’s Carla’s free day.”
“Oh,” Shannon said, after a moment had passed. “Right, uh. I think Eddie mentioned that you did that, on Thursdays. I, um—I think I forgot.”
Buck nodded, and then cast around wildly for any other topic he could think of. Maybe he could offer Shannon some tea? They still had a lot of milky oolong in stock, since Buck and Eddie had finally figured out it was the one tea Eddie really enjoyed and that helped him sleep when he was having nightmares. But then he remembered Eddie’s surprise when he’d found it in the pantry— Buck had ordered it almost absently, not even thinking about it—because apparently Shannon found it a bit too expensive and Eddie hadn’t wanted to fight about it to keep it in stock while they were still in El Paso and before they moved to LA. So, right. No tea.
Then he remembered he hadn’t really told Shannon how happy he was her mom had gone into remission. He and Eddie had talked about it, a bit, but Buck had shied away from delving too much into it because it had to mean Buck’s time in the Diaz house was coming to an end, and he was reluctant to dive into the mess of feelings that brought up; Eddie seemed even more reluctant, if that was possible.
Still, whatever it meant for his future address and moving plans, Buck could never, ever begrudge someone their health, especially when that someone was Christopher’s grandmother.
“Shannon, I hadn’t said, but I’m so, so glad your mom is okay, that the last round of chemo worked,” Buck said tentatively.
Shannon gave him a sincere smile, even if it looked a little tremulous. “Thank you, Buck. That’s really nice of you to say.”
“You must be so relieved,” Buck went on, glad he hadn’t accidentally made Shannon cry.
“Yeah,” Shannon breathed out, and then seemed to get distracted by the puzzle Chris had left behind on the coffee table.
It was a 3D model of the Milky Way—maybe a little challenging sometimes, especially when Chris was tired, but he and Buck had been tackling it a little bit at a time, and it was coming along pretty great.
“Uh, Shannon? You okay?”
Shannon glanced up at him, like she was coming out of a daze again. She stared at him for a long moment, and then tilted her head. “Evan, can I ask you something?”
Buck leaned back slightly, surprised. Shannon hadn’t called him Evan for years, now—since the first time he’d gone down to visit the Diaz family in El Paso, really, which is when Chris had given him his nickname.
“Sure, um, ask me anything,” he eventually replied. Whatever it was Shannon was wondering, it might explain her strange mood.
“Do you—do you ever feel sorry for Christopher?” Shannon asked him, voice soft.
“Sorry for him?” Buck echoed, immensely confused. Why would he—what? He shook his head. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
Shannon took a deep breath, then let it out. “I mean, because… because of his CP, because of all the things he might not get to do. Do you ever feel sorry for that?”
And Buck felt winded, suddenly, shocked like he’d felt a couple of weeks before when the ladder had broken beneath him and he’d hung suspended for a moment, unable to tell quite which way was up and which way was down until he took a deep breath and re-centered himself.
In all his time knowing Eddie, knowing Chris—first through him, and then directly—he had never, ever, ever felt anything close to pity or regret or sorry. It felt foreign to him, and even putting the two things together in his mind just for a second made him shudder.
“No, Shannon,” he replied, vehement. “I—I feel angry sometimes, when it’s clear that a restaurant or a sidewalk or a park isn’t up to code and it makes it harder for Chris to navigate the space, and I would be lying if I said I don’t get pissed off when people stare at him even though Eddie tells me all the time to let it go, but… sorry?” Buck shrugged, opened his hands almost helplessly. “How could I ever? I love that kid more than I can say. He’s the coolest person I know.”
Shannon just stared at him again, her eyes bright with—oh, fuck, had Buck made her cry after all?
“I, uh. I’m sorry if I-” he began, and didn’t quite know how to finish. I’m sorry I like your kid so much? He was honestly so confused; he couldn’t begin to understand what was going through Shannon’s mind right now.
Shannon shook her head, though, roughly knuckling away tears from her eyes. “No, don’t—don’t be sorry, Buck. You… you’re absolutely right. Christopher is the bravest, and the coolest.”
Buck nodded, even though he still felt a little lost—he still couldn’t get a handle on Shannon’s strange mood, her questions. Which is why he felt more than a little startled when she suddenly stood up and grabbed her bag.
“Um, you’re not waiting for Eddie?” he asked. He’d thought the whole point of her showing up tonight was that she’d needed to talk to him.
“I actually... I think I should go meet him at the station,” Shannon said distractedly, as she rooted around her bag for her keys. “I need to tell him something, and I just. I think I need to do it now, before I lose my nerve.”
Buck stood up then, truly alarmed. “Shannon are—are you sure you’re okay? Do you want me to drive you to the station?” He remembered then that of course he couldn’t leave; Chris was asleep. “Or, I mean—order you an Uber?”
Shannon looked up from her bag, gave him a strange smile, oddly sad and resigned. “I’m fine, Buck. Really.”
Buck sort of trailed her toward the door then, worried, and absentmindedly picked up another of Chris’ stuffed animals from the floor—a lion that Chris was trying out as a friend to Bucky the jaguar, with a lopsided mane. Buck hadn’t quite gotten out of the habit of only buying him stuffed animals that were a little weird, even when Eddie rolled his eyes at him and told him to stop spoiling Chris. It was more Buck hating that the weird toys always got left behind than spoiling Chris, really, and maybe Eddie knew that, because he only gave him a hard time occasionally.
Shannon turned back to him before walking out, that strange smile on her face again. “Thanks for having me, Buck. I—I’ll see you.”
And with that weird parting, she left.
Buck was left pondering what exactly had happened for most of the night—he got a text from Eddie like half an hour later warning him he’d be late—and knowing he’d be too restless to fall asleep, he decided to pick up the living room and eventually headed to the kitchen to put together some oatmeal cookies; Chris could take a couple as a treat to school, and Eddie really loved having them for breakfast.
He’d pulled the cookies out of the oven and was finishing the clean-up in the kitchen when the front door finally opened, and Buck heard Eddie make his way inside. Buck peered out into the hallway, mouth already open to greet him, when he caught sight of Eddie’s face. He looked kind of like a small bomb had fallen on him?
“Eds, are you okay?”
Eddie looked at him, blinking quickly. “Uh. I—I think so.”
Worried, Buck moved until he was in front of Eddie, put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure? Did you get hurt on one of the last calls?”
He didn’t think so—Bobby would’ve given Buck a heads-up for sure—but maybe Eddie hadn’t realized until he’d left with Shannon?
“No, it’s not that,” Eddie replied. He shrugged, meeting Buck’s eyes. He looked shocked and hurt, but also strangely relieved? Buck couldn’t exactly get a read on everything that seemed to be glimmering in Eddie’s eyes. “Shannon asked me for a divorce. She’s—she’s thinking about leaving LA for a while.”
Oh. Buck glanced back at the kitchen—oatmeal cookies would definitely not cut it.
“We have tequila?” he offered.
Eddie’s eyes warmed, and his shock resolved into a crooked smile. “Yeah, uh. I think maybe a little tequila would be good.”
After Buck had poured both of them a generous amount of tequila in the shot glasses Sophia had sent them as a housewarming present, he decided that the only way to broach the subject was directly.
“So, Shannon asked for a divorce?”
Eddie nodded, and took a long sip of tequila, not even wincing at the burn. “Yeah, she—she showed up at the station and told me we had to talk. She told me we’d stopped having each other’s backs a while ago. That we could keep pretending to be a couple who was doing a bad job of being partners, or we could start learning how to be friends that could really trust each other again and be better for Christopher.”
Buck bit his lip, unsure about how to proceed. It wasn’t that he disagreed with Shannon, really—from the outside, Eddie and Shannon had seemed like somewhat indifferent roommates for a while there, and after the move to LA it had seemed to get worse instead of better. They were good at being co-parents to Chris for the most part, but had seemed totally uninterested in finding their way back to each other as a couple. Buck felt surprised to realize just how much things shifted; he'd been dreading moving out once Shannon returned, but it had been a long time since that felt like any kind of real possibility.
“How do you feel about that? D’you think it’s true?”
Eddie gave Buck a disbelieving look. “Buck. Come on. You’ve seen us for years, now—you know it’s true.”
Buck took a drink of tequila and scrunched his nose at the taste—he’d never really gotten the taste for it, but it felt wrong to let Eddie drink alone. “I mean, yeah, Eds… you guys have been… clearly struggling for a while, now. But that doesn’t mean this is easy, or that it doesn’t hurt.”
“I don’t think divorce is ever easy,” Eddie paused, took another sip of tequila. “But Shannon said that we’re both too young to be stuck like we are. That we deserve more. And she’s not wrong.”
Buck glanced down at his tequila shot, looking at the way the soft glow of the kitchen light refracted in the liquid. He wondered if something he’d said had made Shannon take that leap, worried that he’d maybe pushed her…
“Eds, Shannon actually showed up here tonight, at dinner time,” Buck said, unable to hold it back. If he’d somehow been part of causing this, he wanted Eddie to know from him and not find out some other way.
“Yeah, it was weird. She said she’d wait for you, and then she asked me a couple of weird questions about Chris? And then she left,” Buck paused, biting his lip. “I - I just. I’m worried that…”
“That you made her ask me for a divorce?” Eddie asked, eyebrows raised. At Buck’s hesitant shrug, Eddie huffed out a laugh. “Buck, I know you tend to worry that a whole lot is your fault when it’s not, and we’ll unpack that later, but trust me when I say that this isn’t in any way on you. Shannon and I—we got pushed into getting married when she got pregnant because we were too damn young to know better. We got the best kid in the universe out of that mess, and that will always be worth it, but we’re grown-ups now. We get to make our own choices.”
Buck nodded at that, because of course it made sense, and it tracked with everything Eddie had ever told him about how they got together, everything he’d seen. He just really hoped Eddie wasn’t hiding some deep inner pain about it. He didn’t want him to end up doing something ridiculous like joining a fight club or something.
“And, um… what about Chris?” he asked, because that had to be Eddie’s biggest concern.
“She—she actually wants me to have primary custody,” Eddie replied, mouth twisting a little. “She says she’s burnt out from taking care of her mom, and now that she’s better, she wants to take a long trip, reconnect with herself?”
Buck frowned, fighting an immediate instinct to condemn Shannon because he could think of nothing worse than leaving your kid behind when you had another choice, but knowing that the visceral rejection of the idea really came from his own hang-ups.
He wondered, now, if the plan to come to LA hadn’t been a way in which Shannon had been trying to get away, even back then, to get a break. He also remembered how worn down Shannon had seemed over the years, how alone even amidst the huge Diaz extended family, how disconnected from Eddie… maybe she didn’t really have another choice. Maybe this was the only choice for her to make, now, to avoid something worse. In order to be the best mom she could be for Chris on the other side of it.
“Well—Chris is really good at video calls, and maybe we can make a schedule, or something? So that he knows when she’ll call,” Buck finally said. “He’ll be fine, Eds. He’s got you, he’s got Carla and abuela and Pepa, and all his friends… and he’s got me. We’ll get him through it until she gets back.”
Eddie made his way to the refrigerator, pulled out a beer and opened it, and switched the tequila shot in Buck’s hand with the bottle. He stayed next to Buck instead of making his way across the kitchen island again, and Buck felt him lean against him.
“I know we will, Buck.”
They stayed like that, Eddie leaning against Buck, drinking quietly in the half-lit kitchen.
Tomorrow they’d talk more, make plans and talk to Shannon again, maybe ask Hen about the lawyer she and Karen had used if Eddie thought it was necessary, figure out how to tell Chris, but right now? Nothing could have moved Buck from Eddie’s side.
The next few weeks weren’t the easiest.
Hen and Karen’s lawyer helped Eddie and Shannon hammer out their divorce and the custody arrangement with Chris as painlessly as possible, but that wasn’t exactly the easiest bar to clear when it came to divorce proceedings, and it still entailed more than a few painful conversations and nights that required a tequila shot and a beer in the kitchen.
Telling Christopher was a complication in itself, and their little shared household experienced something of a cold war as Chris more or less refused to talk to either one of his parents and made Buck and Carla relay everything from “I want to wear my T-Rex t-shirt today, not the whale t-shirt” to “Is it my fault mom is leaving?”, a concern that Buck was finally able to wheedle out of him one night after they were finished reading a chapter of The Little Prince.
“...And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Buck read, trying his best not to tear up. The bit with the fox always, always made him cry.
“What does that mean, Buck?” Chris asked, looking at him with his little eyebrows scrunched up.
Buck paused, trying to figure out how to explain it, and looked at the little stuffed jaguar that he’d given to Chris years ago—a little worse for wear, but still always near him. “Take your jaguar, for example. When I was looking for him for you, the lady at the store told me he wasn’t the best one—you see how his mouth is a little crooked? He got a couple of extra stitches. And so she told me I should take another one that looked perfect, but. Well, you know how I have my birthmark?” Buck asked, pointing at his eye, and waiting until Chris nodded.
“When I was little some kids sometimes looked at it like it was weird or wrong and said that I was weird, but my sister told me that I should never listen to them—that they weren’t judging who I actually was, but what they thought I was, just ‘cause of how I looked," Buck continued. "So ever since then I’ve tried to never judge anything just by how it looks, including your jaguar. I think he’s perfect, even if he looks different and a little goofy. And you like him, right?”
“I love him. He’s my Bucky, to remind me of you,” Chris replied, hugging the stuffed jaguar to him.
“I’m glad, bud. So it’s a little like that, see? You love him even though he looks a little different: it’s not how he looks that matters,” Buck explained. “You love him because he is different.”
“And I love you, Buck. You love me, too?” Chris asked.
“That’s right. I love you so much, Chris, and I love every bit of you—to the moon and back,” Buck promised.
Chris glanced down at Bucky the jaguar for a moment, fidgeting with one of his ears. He was clearly still pondering something, so Buck stayed quiet until Chris spoke up again.
“And does my mom love me too, Buck?”
Buck kept himself from reacting at that—barely. His heart broke and mended and broke all over again because this was just the best kid, the absolute best, and he wanted nothing more than to always be around to protect him and read him stories and make him happy. He really, really wished Chris wasn’t pissy with Eddie, because he could have absolutely used back-up on this one. Still, he took a deep breath and tried to figure out the best way to handle this without massively screwing up.
“Of course she does, Chris. Your mom and your dad love you so, so much—never, ever doubt that, okay?”
“But then… why is she leaving? She said it wasn’t for work, like daddy used to have to do when he went to the desert. Is it me?”
Buck set down The Little Prince on Christopher’s bedside and sidled a little closer to him, meeting his eyes.
“Chris, listen to me, okay?” he said, seriously. “I know it’s really confusing, sometimes, when grown-ups do certain things. And I know it’s already been weird, your mom and dad splitting up. But you gotta believe me when I tell you that this is about them—this is a choice they’re making so they can be happier, and they can be better parents to you. It’s not in any way your fault. You got me, bud?”
“Yeah,” Chris whispered, glancing down.
“And I know you’re a little angry at both of them, but I think it would be a good idea to talk to them about this,” Buck continued. “Also—maybe a good idea to make up with them? They really didn’t mean to make you sad, Chris.”
“I know,” Chris said, talking to Bucky the jaguar more than to Buck. “I’m not really angry. I was just worried.”
“That’s okay, too,” Buck said, gently tipping Christopher’s chin up so he’d meet Buck’s eyes, because he really didn’t want him to think being angry or sad or worried was something he ever had to hide. “You get to feel however you feel, buddy. Just never forget that you can talk to us about it—all of us. Your dad, your mom, your abuela or Pepa, me, Carla… even Maddie, when you guys hang out. We’re all here for you, okay?”
“Okay, Buck. Thank you.”
“Of course,” Buck said, and then proceeded to read another chapter of The Little Prince, because Chris was wide awake again.
After he relayed the conversation to Eddie, and Eddie freaked out a little bit, he and Shannon agreed that going to family counseling to get some help handling the separation would be a good idea, and over the next few days, Chris went back to being his usual sunshine self.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Buck,” Eddie said, on one of their drinking-in-the-kitchen nights, which had turned into alternating between drinking tea, drinking hot chocolate, and drinking kombucha (once, Eddie refused to try it again), because neither their work schedules nor their livers could really take beer and tequila every time they had a conversation. “You make me a better dad.”
“Eds, no—you’re an amazing dad, what are you even-”
“But you make me better,” Eddie repeated, eyes warm and serious. “Learn to take a compliment, Evan.”
Buck bit his lip, his cheeks warming. Amidst the messiness of the last few weeks, this had been happening more and more, too: Eddie complimenting him, taking the time to tell Buck that he’d done a good job on a save, or telling him how much he appreciated him doing something around the house.
Buck wasn’t too sure where it was coming from—maybe the family therapy sessions?—and he’d scoffed when Maddie had suggested that maybe Eddie was trying to build up to maybe changing the direction of their friendship into a relationship. He’d made a deliberate effort—increasingly deliberate, really, over the years—to place Eddie firmly in the best friends box in his brain, and while he could acknowledge there maybe was something there, he still couldn’t really let himself risk verbalizing it. Not so soon after everything with Shannon, especially.
And then, before he could figure out exactly why Eddie was suddenly so complimentary, things went from complicated to nightmarish: Doug came back, stabbed Chim, and took Maddie.
The hours Buck spent not knowing where she was, if she was even still alive, were among the very worst of his life (he had uncomfortable flashbacks to that week that went by without hearing from Eddie while he was still deployed) and the relief he felt when he saw Maddie cresting the snowy hill, bloody and hurt but alive—it nearly levelled him.
Later that night, Buck kept silent vigil outside Maddie’s room in the hospital, unable to keep himself from looking at the way her chest rose and fell as she slept, unable to move away from the window just in case something else happened because he couldn’t ever forgive himself if it did. He could barely forgive himself now for having asked her to stay, for having dared to presume that she’d be safe just because he wanted it to be true.
“It’s not your fault, Buck,” a voice said quietly from beside him.
Eddie. Of course it was Eddie, looking tired and sad and worried, but fond—always, no matter what, fond.
Buck didn’t want to retread the conversation they’d already had, though. He knew what Eddie was doing, and he got the point, he did: if this was anyone’s fault it was Doug’s, and at least this way they’d known right away that Maddie had been taken, they’d had an entire network of people—from Buck himself to Athena to Josh—who had gone above and beyond to find her and get her back.
Buck knew all that, yes. But that was different from feeling it.
“I know it’s not,” he finally said, hoarsely. “But I feel as if it is. And I don’t know that I’ll stop feeling like that until she’s out of that room and back to singing karaoke with Chim.”
Eddie stepped closer, then, close enough that Buck felt the heat of him beside him, an almost startling warmth after the time he’d spent running around the snow looking for Maddie and in the antiseptic hospital hallways.
“I get that. Which is why I’m staying here with you tonight,” Eddie said.
“Eds, you can’t,” Buck protested, turning to look at him. “Chris…”
“... is having a sleepover with abuela,” Eddie interrupted. “I’m staying, Buck,” he repeated, in that soft but totally certain way he had of declaring things sometimes, like not even god himself could move him away from the path he’d chosen.
Buck grabbed on to Eddie’s hand, then, which was so close to his they were already brushing fingers, because his tired, hazy brain could find no other way to express how grateful he was. Eddie squeezed back, and he stayed with him for the rest of the night.
He never let go of Buck’s hand.
Things went back to some semblance of normality after two weeks: Maddie and Chim were out of the hospital and well on their way to mending, Chris was video-calling his mom according to their agreed schedule, and their work at the 118 was as intense as usual, give or take a weird conspiracy to rob a bank and some diamonds.
The return to normal meant Buck could finally focus on the more mundane stuff he’d been ignoring, such as: mold.
The thing was, their little house was almost perfect, but Buck and Eddie had noticed a patch of mold in Christopher’s bathroom around a month ago. Knowing it was probably just the tip of the iceberg of something a little more complicated, like a busted pipe, they’d essentially stop-gapped the problem by having Christopher shower in their shared bathroom and shutting down the water tap in his ensuite, but the root of the problem still needed to be dealt with.
And so, on one of the rare days when Buck had a day off but Eddie was on shift because of a slight hiccup in their usually synchronized scheduling, Buck decided to go on a YouTube and Wiki-How research spiral, made his way to the Lowe’s nearest the house, and dedicated his afternoon to figuring out the source of the mold and—hopefully—the solution.
Thankfully, Chris was being picked up by his abuela and spending the night at her house, because Buck’s plumbing adventure ended up running well into the evening; he’d only just finished and was cleaning everything up when he heard Eddie open the front door.
“Buck? Where are you?”
“Over here,” Buck called out, wincing as he stood up; he’d spent way too long in one position, and Chris’ bathroom was honestly not big enough for Buck’s legs, which - as Eddie often told him - were kind of ludicrously long. He glanced down at himself and grimaced: he was pretty dirty and wet and probably smelled awful. “I’m in Christopher’s bathroom.”
Eddie walked in, frowning slightly. “Why are you in Chris’ bathroom?”
“I was dealing with the mold,” Buck replied brightly, unable to resist showcasing his work with a ‘ta-da’ hand motion. “It turned out it was a busted pipe, so I replaced that, did some scraping with baking soda and a little vinegar, some repainting, and voilà! I mean, Chris should still use our bathroom for the next few days while everything dries, but I think we should be good after that.”
Eddie looked at him, wide-eyed, and then down at the recently repainted wall near the toilet, and then back at Buck. “You—you did all this on your day off?”
“Well… yeah?” Buck replied, shrugging. “We’ve been sort of putting it off forever because of the whole… everything. But I know Chris likes the independence of having his own bathroom and I had the time today, so. Better late than never.”
Eddie opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Buck—will you go out with me?”
Buck leaned back, confused. “Out where?”
“Out to dinner,” Eddie said. “Or lunch, or, I don’t know. Out for that weird thai tea you like so much that they only serve at that one restaurant. Anywhere, as long as you like it.”
Buck felt his heart start pounding, felt everything around him sharpen and then soften, like his entire body was malfunctioning just slightly, trying to figure out what Eddie meant, how he meant it.
“Out—out as friends?” Buck asked, shakily, because he needed to know, he had to be absolutely sure.
Eddie smiled then, his soft, sideways smile. “No, Buck. Out on a date.”
Buck closed his eyes at the quiet words, feeling them like a bullet going through his chest, like a benediction, like everything he’d always wanted and was terrified to get.
And fear won out.
“I can’t do this right now,” he blurted out, opening his eyes. “I can’t.”
With that, he moved past Eddie and out into the hallway, jerkily grabbing his phone and his keys and almost dropping a vase Pepa had given them as a housewarming present to the floor in his haste.
“Wait, Buck, where are you going?” Eddie asked from behind him, sounding worried.
“I don’t know, I just need to think,” Buck called out, practically flying out the front door and into his Jeep, his hands shaking so badly he could barely get the key into the ignition.
Once the key was in, though, and he was about to turn the car on, Buck paused.
Where was he going? Some part of him thought of Maddie, but the last thing he wanted right now was to worry her, not when she was finally getting better. Another part of him thought of Bobby, but he cringed at the idea of accidentally interrupting him and Athena and ruining their date night.
Honestly, the person he most wanted to go to was—climbing into the Jeep?
“I’m not trying to crowd you, Buck, but I don’t love the idea of you driving when you’re upset,” Eddie told him, as he settled into the seat next to Buck. “Can—can you tell me what’s going through your mind?”
Buck looked at him, cataloguing his features more by sheer dint of knowledge than sight, considering Eddie’s face was barely illuminated by the faint light coming from the porch. He could see Eddie was worried and a little stressed but keeping it at bay, could see how hard he was working to be what Buck needed, because Eddie always did that, for the people he cared about. The people he loved.
It was enough to prompt Buck into being as honest as he could.
“I—I just. For the past few years, whenever I’ve been confused or scared what I did was call you. Or email you,” he said. “And now… I just. I kind of need to talk to my best friend, Eddie, but I need to talk to him about you and I’m not sure how to do that.”
Eddie looked at him for a moment and then nodded decisively, getting out of the car again without a word and making his way back to the house. Before Buck could really figure out what he was feeling—had he scared Eddie away? Had Eddie gone back to the house to pack Buck’s bags for him because Buck had screwed up irrevocably?—his phone started ringing: it was Eddie.
“Hey, Buck. So tell me about this guy that’s got you twisted into knots.”
“Eds, what?” Buck said, confused. He peered out into the darkness toward the house and frowned. “What do you mean - are you - you’re calling me from just inside the house, I think I can see you from the window.”
“I know, but you need to talk to your best friend,” Eddie replied, voice calm. “And whatever else we are, or may be, or end up being or not being, I’m always going to be that. So—tell me about the guy.”
And Buck couldn’t help it; he huffed out a laugh, because, god. Only Eddie.
“Well, he—he’s really important to me,” Buck began, still resolved to be as honest as he could. “He’s. The most important. And he’s part of every bit of my life, and I just. I can’t bear the thought of ruining it.”
“And why do you think you’d ruin it?”
“Because I’m me, Eds!” Buck exclaimed, plaintive. “I’ve had, like, one serious relationship and a bunch of hook-ups and I just don’t know how I could make it work without screwing up.”
Eddie hummed a little, in understanding. “Well, maybe the way to make it work is doing it together?”
“Maybe,” Buck whispered, letting himself mean it, letting himself picture all the ways a relationship with Eddie was bound to be different from one with Abby, and with Nathan and Jane, and with the people before them whom he barely remembered, now.
Which sort of brought another question to the surface.
“I also, um. I never knew that he liked guys?” Buck said, hoping it wasn’t a faux pas.
Eddie was quiet for a moment, on the other side of the line.
“I don’t—I don’t really fall for people very often, Buck,” he finally said, abandoning the fiction of the third person. “I don’t really understand how I’m wired; I just never really flirted or had hook-ups. There was Shannon, and that ended long before we officially called it off. And then—I don’t quite know or understand how, but then there was you.”
“Eddie… what I just don’t get is: why now?” Buck asked, because he had to. Because even if he could understand that Eddie wasn’t as straight as Buck had always thought, he needed to understand the timing. “Nothing happened today. I just—I took care of the mold. Is it because I took care of the mold?”
“No, Buck,” Eddie replied, a smile somehow coming clear through the phone. “Or, well… yes. Because you took care of the mold, because—because it’s who you are: you take care of Christopher, and you take care of me. Because you’re my partner, Evan.”
Buck’s breath hitched at that and Eddie paused, clearly able to hear it.
“And all I’ve thought about for weeks now is how much I want to kiss you,” Eddie continued. “So —will you let me take you out?”
Buck leaned back against the headrest, then, overwhelmed. He was still scared, if he was being perfectly honest, but this was Eddie. This time, he let the want win out.
He hung up without answering and got out of the car, moving as quickly to get back inside the house as he’d moved to leave it.
Eddie was already opening the door, looking anxious and expectant, and Buck leapt up the two steps to the entrance and let his body collide with Eddie’s, raised the hand not holding his phone to cradle Eddie’s jaw.
They were both trembling, ever so slightly, as Buck lowered his head to meet Eddie’s lips in a kiss. Eddie’s mouth opened up to his immediately, and the heat of it was shocking to Buck’s senses, making him moan. In response, Eddie just clutched Buck closer, his hands gripping Buck’s hips almost desperately, like he was scared Buck would disappear or change his mind.
And that, that Buck couldn’t allow. So he slowly pulled back, kissing Eddie once, twice before finally putting enough distance between their faces that he’d be able to look into Eddie’s eyes.
“Yeah, Eds,” he said, voice soft. “Let’s go out.”
Things didn’t change too much—there was the sex, of course, which was amazing and more intimate and intense than anything Buck had experienced before—but outside of that, life went on much like it had before. Which should have maybe been a clue that they had been more than just best friends for much longer than Buck would like to admit, but as Maddie kept telling him, Buck could be great at kidding himself.
They still lived together; they were partners on and off the job, and Buck tried to help Eddie raise Chris as best as he could.
The difference was that he didn’t need to look away, now, when he noticed how incredible Eddie’s arms looked when he worked out in his ridiculous tank top; he could lean in and kiss Eddie’s breath away when they were in the kitchen, making dinner (or, rather, when Buck was making dinner and Eddie was being distracting).
And, of course, Buck’s room returned to its original purpose and became a guest room, while Buck —and his dinosaur planter succulents, which had maybe multiplied over the last few months—moved into Eddie’s room.
“It kinda feels like you should’ve been here from the start,” Eddie said, looking around the room as they lay side by side on the bed. “Some part of me knew, I think, for a long time. I made a space for you before understanding why.”
Buck frowned at Eddie, and looked around the room as well. “Uh, Eds—your room looked serial-killer empty, remember? It had space for, like, the full Lakers line-up.”
Eddie huffed out a laugh. “No, Buck, I didn’t mean space in my room. Idiota,” he muttered affectionately, shaking his head.
“What did you mean, then?” Buck asked, raising himself slightly to look at Eddie properly.
He didn’t think he’d ever, ever get tired of getting to look at Eddie, of seeing his warm eyes, how goofy his brown hair became at the end of the day—the way he smiled at Buck.
Eddie took one of Buck’s hands and moved it towards the left side of his chest, placed it there, and put his own hand above. “I meant that I made a space here,” he said, quiet and devastatingly sincere.
“Eddie…” Buck whispered, blinking back sudden tears. He couldn’t believe this man, sometimes. He was so quiet about his feelings—the way he loved was in his actions, so much of the time, that when he said things like this, as easy as breathing, it levelled Buck.
“What, you think I let just any gringo buy me breakfast?” Eddie said, smiling, raising his other hand to gently rub Buck’s birthmark. “Even then, Evan. Even then, there was something about you I couldn’t shake.”
Buck leaned in, then, for a long, hard kiss that had Eddie almost panting into his mouth. He leaned back, smiling slightly at Eddie’s groan, but he had to say it.
“I made a space, too, Eds,” he whispered, and let Eddie pull him back into another kiss.