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i don't swim and you're not in love

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Buck has never wanted something to go up in flames and put him out of his misery more than he does right now.

The firehouse is quiet; not unusual in the middle of the night, maybe, or after a bad call has taken a chunk out of all of them that needs to be regenerated by means of sleep or a snuck cigarette or a family Facetime.

Right now is neither of those situations.

It’s just—quiet. The refrigerator is humming, Chim’s pen is scraping against paper where he’s trying to do a crossword, and Eddie is snuffling softly on the couch, head hanging off the headrest. Buck is alternating bouncing his knee and being perfectly still, and neither one is scratching this weird, existential itch that has settled under his skin.

“I thought you were reading,” Hen says eventually, from where she’s sitting across the table from him with a highlighter behind one ear and a penlight behind the other. “Cause if you’re finished with your love language stuff—“

“It wasn’t for me,” Buck interrupts, continuing the very important business of staring a hole in the tabletop. His copy of The Five Love Languages is still in the bottom of his locker somewhere, fallen under dirty towels and spare uniform shirts where he threw it right after he started reading about quality time and found the letters blurring in front of his eyes.

He feels—adrift, when he thinks about it, and always, lately. Hollow, for reasons he’s trying not to think about.

Hen sticks a post-it onto her open page and closes the textbook. Buck immediately feels awful for distracting her, and makes to get up.

“I’m just gonna—“

“You’re going to stay where you are,” says Hen. “And give me your hands.”

Buck blinks. He automatically moves to do as she says, used to passing her things and following her instructions on calls that turn out to be mostly medical.

He slides his arms, palms up, towards her. Hen grabs him, curving her fingers around his until he’s holding on to her tight without even realizing.

“What is going on with you?” she asks, though there’s a slant to her eyebrows like she also wants to tell him the answer. “You’re sitting here looking like you’re waiting for something bad to happen. Nobody even came close to dying today. We’re not having a crazy day for a change, and we’re all off in three hours.”

And that – the last one – makes something twinge in Buck’s chest.

“You remember the last time you smiled?” Hen asks, smiling a little herself, and this thing inside Buck trembles, seconds away from breaking into pieces and unfurling under the gentleness in her eyes.

“Don’t usually pay attention to that,” he replies, trying a smile on for size now and giving up halfway.

“Well I do,” she says. “And it was yesterday right after you came in, when Bobby asked you what TikTok was.”

Buck feels the corner of his mouth twitch. Yeah, he thinks. He remembers now.

“He had that one coming,” he says, feeling something like warmth flicker in his fingertips and fade right out. He’d shown Bobby the firefighters of TikTok, most of them accounts he followed on Marjan’s recommendation. Bobby had been delighted by the dances and the videos of people gearing up, up until he got to the ones where the gear was coming off in a decidedly sexy way.

“It was also like an entire day ago,” Hen says, her eyebrows doing another Thing. “You barely noticed when Chim spilled coffee all over himself. Eddie and I had to lead the charge on making fun of him.”

Buck blinks. He doesn’t remember that one. It must have happened, and there’s a vague suggestion of it somewhere in the fog that fills his brain, but—yeah.

“Thanks for not letting him get away with it,” he says, and sounds strangled even to his own ears. “I’ll be on it next time. Just gotta get some sleep.”

He’d like to imagine that Hen’s eyes on him aren’t as pitying as they look.

“You know we’re all here for you,” she says in the same voice she uses on people who are injured beyond help. “Just in case sleep doesn’t fix it.”

And for a breathless, painful moment, Buck just wants to lean in. He wants to give himself over to her capable hands, her words that somehow always manage to be a comfort. He can’t shake the feeling that she knows exactly what’s wrong, that she knows better than he does and could somehow solve it for him, if only he could explain how unmoored he is, how lost.

She looks right at him, and Buck takes a breath.

“Hen, I—“

And then there’s movement downstairs, all the louder because the whole place is so eerily silent. A quiet click-click-click of heels that’s so generic it can’t possibly be familiar, but something like goosebumps rises on the back of Buck’s neck anyway.

“Hello?” a voice rings out, bright and clear as a bell. Buck’s stomach twists into a knot. “Anybody home?”

The past few months have required Buck to be stoic far more often than he’d like. He thinks he’s perfected being as still and nondescript as a statue, and he slips into it easily now.

Except for how Hen’s big sympathetic eyes are apparently a chisel, and Buck’s statuesque exterior is actually made out of talc, the softest mineral on Earth. Fun fact, or whatever.

In Buck’s periphery, Eddie wakes from his half-hearted nap and stumbles up off the couch, hair going in six different directions. He’d had a late night before they came into work, which Buck knows not because Eddie told him, but because he could write the definitive dictionary of Eddie’s looks and expressions.

Disgruntlement as he gets up. A quiet exhaustion as he puts one foot in front of the other on his way to the railing. Something that looks like the beginnings of contentment when he looks down into the app bay, and then his face is turned away.

“Ana? What are you doing here?”

What she’s doing there is walking up the stairs and pressing a grinning kiss to Eddie’s cheek. What she’s doing is bringing coffee and donuts and muffins, nut-free because Bobby is allergic, all shining and considerate and smiling when, one after another, bleary firefighters emerge from their assorted hiding spots and gratefully ingest some sugar.

Eddie is watching her softly, indulgently, as she introduces herself to people she hasn’t met yet. As she charms the uniform pants off Bobby. As she walks around the firehouse kitchen like she belongs there somehow.

She spent the night at Eddie’s, looking after Christopher. Buck doesn’t know that one for a fact, but he can tell. Imagines that, if he came closer, she’d smell familiar. The thought turns his stomach against his will.

Buck tries and tries and tries to will his legs into getting up. But he’s been on shift for twenty-one hours, and he got a little girl out of a closet before a gas leak blew up the entire house on the very first call, and in three hours’ time he’ll be getting into his Jeep and driving to his apartment, where he lives, and getting into a bed that’s become too soft, and falling asleep in silence because Albert’s shift starts right when his own ends. All of those things weigh on him so heavily he wonders if the ceiling might have come down on his shoulders while he wasn’t looking.

Instead, he watches Eddie field friendly elbows to the ribs and raised eyebrows. Bobby’s chewing his muffin and watching Ana collect plates with a look that no one but Athena could decipher, and Chim is leaning into Eddie’s side saying something that must be teasing, because it makes Eddie look down with a barely-there smile, his lashes sweeping down to cast shadows over his cheeks.

No one looks up, or around, for the person who’s usually first in line to gorge on free carbs. When he’s more awake, less heartsick, Buck knows that doesn’t mean anything. This is his family. He belongs with them. It’s been a hard-won understanding, the well at the end of a journey through the desert.

It’s just that sometimes he wobbles, and everything that’s broken inside of him shifts, new jagged edges presenting themselves to the light. It always takes a while to smooth them out again. He can hold them for now, for a while, but he needs—sleep. Sleep, and probably some food, and the lazy day off that awaits him whenever he wakes.

Ana, laughing at someone’s joke, grabs a cloth to wipe crumbs off the table.

Behind her, Maxwell makes eyes at the last jelly donut, Hen’s favorite. Hen stays seated, never looking away from Buck, and keeps holding his hands until he pulls out of her grip.

*

At thirty, Buck would like to think he’s old enough to be honest about his flaws.

He’s reckless, barely thinking before he throws himself into danger, as everyone in the wider LA area and the state of California knows. He doesn’t always think about the consequences of the things he says. He’s too quick to forgive these days, and too eager to leap at the chance of forging something real with the wrong person even as the alarm bells in his head blare every sort of warning. He is, more often than not, a bad friend to the people who matter to him most.

Dr. Copeland also tells him he’s the kind of person who puts the wellbeing of others ahead of his own, every time. He’s still trying to work on seeing how that one’s bad.

Because Buck is a first responder: every day at work, he’s making amends for all the bad he’s done, and racking up some extra goodness points for whatever forces balance the universe. He cuts drunk women out of tailpipes, rescues teenagers trapped on roofs, scales cliffs to help stranded hikers, opens crushed cars like so many cans of tuna at the slightest suggestion of life inside.

He also feeds Natalia’s cat next door when she goes on work trips. He pays for the order behind him when he goes through a drivethrough, drops a bag off at his neighborhood food bank after every big grocery run, and quietly donates a chunk of his paycheck every month to the crisis line he called that one time when he was fifteen.

He’s Denny’s go-to babysitter, Karen’s favorite sounding board when the bureaucratic nonsense at her job gets to be too much, Albert’s confidante when it comes to things like transitioning from mindless hookups to something realer, and the only person at the firehouse who remembers every single coffee order. Two days ago, he’d come home from a shift and went straight to making seventy-two vegan lemon bars for Christopher’s bake sale, because Eddie was planning on “just buying something” and Buck couldn’t possibly let that stand.

So he’s not a good person, maybe – not fundamentally good like Hen or Chim or Eddie – but he’s working with what he’s got. He’s trying, every single day, to at least play at being selfless, so he can eventually become it. The people around him have become collateral on his mission to be worth a damn, accepting his help without being aware that he has ulterior motives, but he thinks that one day, when he’s happier with who he is, he can go back and explain and maybe still keep them. In the meantime, it’s become habit to keep his head down and keep working on himself.

Which is probably why the sudden discovery of his fatal flaw catches him by surprise.

*

Buck is dripping sewage the first time he meets Ana.

Amazingly, he’s not even at work, but in Isabel’s front yard. Her next door neighbor hosted a party the night before, and things had gotten out of hand in a manner that resulted in the manhole cover in front of Isabel’s house spewing several gallons of garbage right into the street. Her firefighter grandson, who just so happened to have the day off, was of course the first person she asked for help.

She’d called Buck separately; by the time he has Eddie on the other end of the phone, sheepishly saying he’d owe Buck a huge favor if he can help him out with this one thing, Buck is already pulling up to Isabel’s house with three coffees in his cup holders and super long rubber gloves in the passenger seat.

Eddie, spilling out of his truck sleep-rumpled and frazzled with concern radiating off him, finds Buck standing ankle-deep in the sludge. He has the monster gloves slung over his shoulder and is inhaling a still-warm pastry, courtesy of the woman who called him here.

Isabel herself is sitting by the fence in a folding chair, decked out in a bucket hat and sunglasses, watching the neighbor’s porch like a hawk. Buck suspects she’s been terrorizing the man a little bit, starting up a stream of rapid-fire Spanish every time she so much as sees movement, but he can’t find it in himself to feel bad for the guy. He’s had about four hours of actual sleep, and there’s something that looks suspiciously like a dead rodent resting gently against his ankle.

But Eddie’s here now, and that helps.

“She called you first?” is the first thing he says, the concerned wrinkle in his brow cracking in half and disappearing. “Is everyone betraying me now? First my kid, now my grandmother?”

Buck’s face stretches into a grin before he even registers it moving. “Don’t forget Pepa,” he says, pointing over to the porch where he left Eddie’s coffee. “And Cap and Athena, of course. Chim’s about to be my brother-in-law, so he’s going to have to side with me. I’m not sure about Hen.”

“Ah, Hen’s mine,” Eddie says, tapping the side of his nose and answering with his own smile as he comes around to open the back door of the truck. “We have an understanding.”

Buck takes a breath to argue, because him and Hen are like this, thank you very much, but any will to tease Eddie disappears as soon as a familiar curly head comes into view.

“Buck!” Chris screams, at volume. Buck’s blood immediately fizzes in his veins like champagne.

“Christopher!” he yells back, raising his arms in the air, accidentally raining down crumbs on his head. “Be careful walking around this stuff, bud, it’s pretty nasty.”

But by the time he’s finished saying it, Christopher is already halfway across the part of the yard that isn’t flooded, crutches clunking on the path as he cranes his neck at the assorted chunks of what Buck is trying to convince himself isn’t actual human shit.

“It’s cool,” he says, with a grin that makes Buck forget he’s standing in goo. “Smells bad.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Eddie says, heaving an enormous sigh. Isabel briefly looks up from her stakeout, smiles at him, and beckons them both over for a kiss on the cheek. Christopher expresses an immediate interest in also being a spy, and though Eddie grumbles something about nosiness, he also brings over a second chair and a folding umbrella so they can be nosy and comfortable.

Buck just kind of—stands there, for a bit, with a cramp in his cheek from smiling so wide. He watches Eddie finally grab the coffee Buck had so lovingly procured for him and down it in four giant gulps.

“Galoshes over there,” Buck calls, pointing. He finishes his pastry and brushes off his hands.

Eddie frowns at the shoes like they personally offended him. He still looks sleepy, and Buck is pretty sure his shirt is on back to front.

“Where did you get these?” asks Eddie, slipping his socked feet out of his slides – honestly – and getting the galoshes on with much squeaking and a few muttered curses.

“Basement,” Buck shrugs, finally starting to pull on the gloves. “Grandmothers have everything, Eddie, don’t you know? Also, bring the wheelbarrow over here.”

“The—Buck. It’s too early for this.”

“Not to point out the obvious, but I was here earlier than you were,” Buck grins, watching as Eddie rolls the wheelbarrow down towards him. There’s a shovel in it that Buck was hoping they wouldn’t need, but judging by the way the sludge is just sitting there despite being on a slope, they’ll probably find something large and infernally nasty blocking the manhole cover itself.

Thankfully, working by Eddie’s side is second nature. Eddie’s briefly dramatic about it as always, crossing himself before he dips a booted toe in the sewage, but it’s smooth sailing from there on out: they have a task and the tools to get it accomplished. Figuring out how to get from point A to point B is wordless, and easy as breathing.

Not that Buck is breathing much, what with the whole sludge thing.

They work steadily through the morning. It’s not a lot of sewage, exactly, reaching just above the ankles and about four feet in in one corner of the yard, but they keep finding things in it. Some are pretty benign – hundreds of unidentifiable plastic pieces, decomposing q-tips, tarnished quarters – and some kind of verge on interesting, like the many, many tiny bones that glint in the grass once they wash down a patch they think they’ve cleared.

Some are just—

“Holy shit, Buck, Jesus,” Eddie says, holding the shovel as far in front of him as his arms will allow.

“I think it’s just a huge hairball,” Buck says, unconvinced, fighting with every labored breath to keep the contents of his stomach in his stomach. It’s funny, really: Eddie was in Afghanistan, so he’s definitely seen grungier stuff than this, and both of them have been firefighters long enough to have dealt with dead bodies, natural disasters, gnarly wounds, and everything in between. Hell, Buck used to help clean the bathrooms back when he mixed drinks for a living.

And still, they’re defeated by whatever the ever-living fuck this is.

It’s a mass of something, that much is obvious. As Buck had suspected, it’s completely blocking the manhole, trapping the sludge in the yard. Eddie, sweaty and annoyed by now, has made an optimistic attempt at just reaching in with the shovel, and that brings them here: with a portion of the something on the end of the shovel, and a significant portion of it hanging down and disappearing under the water. In Buck’s defense, it does kind of look like a hairball.

“Bucky,” Christopher calls to them, “what’s that?”

Buck looks over his shoulder. Christopher has received his very own bucket hat to shield him from the sun, and is sipping from a glass of lemonade. Buck’s chest does something warm and wobbly on seeing him so relaxed, smiling from ear to ear.

“What do you think, little man? Your dad and I are stumped.”

Christopher leans over his armrest, squinting over at them, tilting his head in thought.

“Giant teddy bear,” he says finally, slurping through his straw. “He came apart, so the stringy stuff is stuffing. That thing Dad’s holding is the head, see?”

Quick as a flash, Buck is rocked where he’s standing by a stab of pain or panic or something in-between. The memory of clutching a giant bear under his arm comes back sharp and sudden, tinged with the smell of the ocean and cotton candy and the sunscreen he’d applied all over Chris’s face before they left his apartment.

But when he looks up to see if Chris is remembering the same thing, he’s already leaning toward Isabel, watching something she’s pointing at.

Hold for a count of four. Breathe out.

“Buck?” Eddie’s saying, once the rush of blood in Buck’s ears has receded. “You with me? This thing’s fucking heavy.”

Buck blinks. “I’m with you,” he says on autopilot, flexing his hands inside the rubber gloves. It feels like the sludge is encasing his fingers inside there, even if rationally he knows he’s just sweating. The skin on the back of his neck prickles, and he suddenly wants to be anywhere but here. “I’ll just grab it and see, okay?”

Eddie’s eyebrows climb up his forehead. “Sure,” he says, shaking almost imperceptibly from the strain of holding the thing up. “Be careful?”

That, at least, makes Buck feel like grinning again.

“Always am,” he replies, comfortable in the ritual they go through every time they’re about to do something exceptionally stupid. “I’ll try to get at the rest of it under the surface, and if I can lift it, we’ll carry it to the wheelbarrow.”

“Sounds good,” Eddie replies. He plants his feet a little firmer, and sets his eyes on Buck, alert like they’re about to do some nonsense hundreds of feet above the ground. Buck takes a deep breath, and plunges his hands in.

“Well,” he says, grabbing at the mass. “The good news is it can definitely be moved.”

So he pulls, and pulls, and pulls until there’s a sound like the earth itself is belching, and the sludge starts moving with surprising speed. Buck doesn’t look down at what he’s holding in his hands, just starts backing up, moving his feet as fast as humanly possible under the circumstances. Eddie follows with the shovel, three steps, five, seven, and then they’re depositing their mystery item in the wheelbarrow with a disgusting squelch.

Buck smiles to himself: it’s gross, but it’s still a job well done, and if they hurry up they can probably hose everything off and stop by Eddie’s for showers and still make it somewhere for breakfast food.

He looks up to suggest just that, eyes flitting over to Christopher just to make sure he’s good, then aiming for Eddie next to him.

Except Eddie isn’t there. His gloves are, already hosed off, as are the galoshes, but the man who’d filled them seconds before is leaning on Isabel’s fence, the side that faces the street.

And his head is tilted in a very particular way as he watches a car pull in.

The woman that gets out of it is put together in a way Buck probably couldn’t achieve on his best day. She’s wearing a floral sundress, sandals, getting out of the car on perfectly painted toes. Her hair is piled up on the back of her head in one of those messy hairstyles that he’s not actually allowed to call messy because, like every seemingly effortless thing, they take time.

This woman certainly took the time.

Buck knows who she is, of course. He’s heard her mentioned, tentatively at first, but she’s been popping up in Christopher’s stories lately. Eddie has spoken about her at the firehouse, albeit only once, because talking about personal business in front of Hen and Chim and Bobby is always a mistake if you want it to stay personal.

Buck hasn’t met yet her. He hasn’t really known how to ask.

That, in itself, has scared him a little. He and Eddie have probably had a dozen drunken conversations about Shannon, about the impossibility of grief. It hasn’t escaped Buck’s notice that Eddie looks much lighter these days, smiles more readily, is more willing to joke around and be silly and overly dramatic. He’s moving on, settling into life, looking into the future. Of course a new relationship should be part of that, and Buck should be all over it. If anyone deserves happiness, it’s Eddie.

But Buck has been—apprehensive. Unsure. He can admit that much to himself.

He’s just not sure where it’s coming from.

“Buck!” Eddie’s voice carries over, tearing him out of a spiral for the second time today. He’s walked through the gate into the street, gravitating into Ana’s side, and God, they look gorgeous together. A perfect fit.

Something inside Buck clangs: a final, hollow sound like a funeral bell.

“This is Ana,” Eddie continues, wearing that silly smile that shows every last one of his teeth. “You’ve—“

“Heard so much about you, yes,” Buck hikes a grin up onto his face. He’s the undisputed master of masks, and he can keep this one up until he figures out what the hell is going on. “It’s an absolute pleasure. Sorry I can’t shake your hand.”

Ana smiles at him, the sun sparkling in her eyes.

“I’ve been hearing about you,” she says, perfectly pleasant, her eyes sweeping over Christopher. Buck feels a bizarre urge to protect him. “So nice to put a face to the name. I feel like we’ve been missing each other considering how much time you spend with the boys, we should all go out together one of these days.”

She turns to Eddie on the last one and says something else, but Buck is busy fighting the headrush he gets at the sound of Ana Flores calling Eddie and Christopher the boys. Like they belong to her already.

God, what’s wrong with him? What is this?

“We’ll think of something,” Eddie says in response, warm eyes on Buck. “Maybe bring everyone else along too, they’ve been a little inappropriate about how much they want to meet you.”

Ana smiles with her canines out. “Let’s talk about it over pancakes? I made a reservation at the place I told you about.”

A reservation. For pancakes?

“Christopher?” Ana says, and Christopher’s head snaps up with practiced ease, like he forgot that he’s not in class. “Pancakes?”

Christopher’s mouth stretches into a grin that physically hurts somewhere around Buck’s solar plexus. “Dad?” he asks, his eyes artificially big in a move that Buck may or may not have taught him. Looking for permission, because he doesn’t know that the way Eddie and Ana are leaning into each other means it’s already been granted.

“Yeah, mijo,” Eddie grins, all dazzling. He looks—different. With a woman, with Ana, by his side. A dad, but the kind that usually makes Buck apprehensive. Would make Buck apprehensive, if this wasn’t the person who knows him best in the world.

“We’re getting pancakes, but we have to hurry. Let’s go.”

While Eddie gathers his stuff, starts the truck, puts away the galoshes and the clean shovel, Christopher endures a tight hug from Isabel. He gathers his crutches with practiced ease, and starts making his way down the path again. Midway, he stops and squints at Buck, who’s standing with the sun at his back.

“Aren’t you coming?”

And Buck suddenly feels like he did climbing through that hotel during the earthquake, a lifetime ago. Like a million things that could kill him are half-suspended in the air just above his head, held in place by the sheer benevolence of the universe.

He thinks his luck might be running out.

But this is Christopher, and if Christopher needed him to hold up an entire skyscraper with his bare hands, Buck would give it his best shot.

“Not today,” he smiles, and hopes it looks right. “I have a busy day, but I can come over and make you breakfast sometime next week, yeah?”

Yes,” Christopher crows in victory, fistpumping to himself. Buck curses the possibly-toxic waste covering him up to the knees, the gloves that make his arms all clumsy. He didn’t realize he was depriving himself of the chance to run over to Christopher and squeeze him in a hug, even if just for a second. He thought he’d have time later.

“We can make waffles, I’ll help.” And then, without even taking another breath: “Bye, Buck.”

Buck watches him go, and aches, and isn’t sure why or how he got here so fast.

Before he has time to figure it out, Eddie jogs past him on his way to the truck, reaching over the muck to put his hand on Buck’s shoulder. He squeezes once he’s there; not a slap, but a way to say something.

“Thanks for this,” he says, doing that thing where he moves his head all over like a chicken until Buck meets his eyes. “I owe you.”

Then Buck blinks, and all three of them are gone.

He gets his improvised gear off alone, Christopher’s giggles replaced by the distant sound of traffic and the trickle of water from the hose. Everything feels unfamiliar: Isabel’s now-clean petunias, the slight creaking of the screen door in the breeze, his own hands. Like a hurricane has just swept through the meticulously completed puzzle of his life.

Quiet footsteps sound behind his back, a slow, shuffling kind of walk.

“Nieto,” Isabel says, and it takes Buck a minute to realize she’s talking to him. “This old woman would like to take you to brunch. As a thank you.”

“Oh,” Buck says, automatically shaking his head, “no, Isabel, that’s so kind of you, but I couldn’t—“

“It’s Abuela,” she flicks him on the ear with laserlike precision, and walks off into the shade of the house. “I have a shower in the guest room, yes? All sorts of old clothes, you can borrow something.”

So he showers in the guest bathroom, and puts on a short-sleeved button-up that may have belonged to Eddie’s grandfather once upon a time. He helps Isabel into the Jeep, drives them to Foxy’s, and watches with some fascination as she delicately downs a mimosa and starts eyeing their waiter. He gets eggs Benedict because he’s starving, and doesn’t taste a single thing; his mind is a never-ending silent film of the way Eddie leaned on the fence with his hair still messy, the way Ana put a light hand on his waist right where the patch of sweat on his back ended, the easy smile and wave she sent Christopher’s way as her presence made him straighten up and say hello.

He thinks about her eyes: the way they landed on him, swept over him, and ducked away. The feeling he’s left with takes concrete shape slowly, accumulates drop by miserable drop. Like a stalagmite, which he helped Chris research just last week: growing, solidifying, turning into stone that presses and presses and presses on his chest from the inside until he lets himself acknowledge the horrible truth.

This is what shocks him still:

Buck would like to think he’s generous. A romantic at heart. Not usually a jealous guy. He wishes people well; he wants them to find love, to hold the kind of happiness that’s been evading him for as long as he’s been in the world.

But he doesn’t want Ana Flores to have Eddie.

*

Slowly, but somehow all at once, Ana becomes part of everything.

And the worst thing is that Eddie is so absolutely, meticulously good about it. He has to fit a new person into his life, but he tries so hard not to let it affect the relationships he already has.

Buck is expecting to be sidelined – he’s prepared for it – but instead he’s still at the Diaz house at least twice a week, and he gets to hang out with Christopher even more than before because, at Christopher’s own insistence, he becomes the go-to date night babysitter.

The only difference is that Eddie has to actually schedule things, now. It’s less “hey, wanna come over for a beer?” and more “we can do Tuesday and Friday next week”. Every time someone asks him to do something, to be somewhere, Buck can see him mentally leafing through everything he has penciled in, factoring in date nights and move nights, half shifts, extra shifts, school pickup, grocery shopping and sleep, slotting things in in a way he mostly seems to be handling. He does look a little more haggard some days, the bags under his eyes more pronounced, but then that’s probably par for the course when you have a brand new, smoking hot girlfriend.

The truth is, Buck doesn’t feel any less seen, any less cared for. Eddie is meticulous about keeping him in his and Chris’s lives, and so Buck is the one who has to confront this pile of lies he’s been living with.

Has to actually look at where he’s convinced himself that he’s just happy he gets to keep his best friends at all.

Because he and Eddie still work together, still hang out plenty outside of work. And all Buck can focus on is the fact that it’s become awkward for him to use his key. That even meticulous schedules don’t always work out exactly right, and so it’s dangerous to just enter and announce himself for fear of what he might be walking in on.

That’s not an assumption, either. It’s something he learns the hard way, early on, on day a when Eddie’s time is split between Ana and Buck. She gets breakfast at a café, and probably a nice romantic walk somewhere with clasped hands swinging between them; Buck gets to come over and help Eddie with groceries, then pick up Chris from school, then make Bobby’s famous lasagna while he provides emotional support during fourth grade algebra homework, and then conk out in front of a movie that will probably be animated, because it’s Chris’s turn to pick and he’s been on a Disney princess kick.

He’s looking forward to it. Ridiculously so. Which is probably why he doesn’t really stop to think about the extra car in front of Eddie’s house as he bounds up the path, as he barges in the door the way he normally would, reaching out at the last second to keep it from banging into the wall.

He looks up to call out a greeting, and comes face to red face with Eddie.

And with Ana, whose fingertips are just loosening on the hem of Eddie’s well-loved burgundy henley.

“Ah, shoot, sorry,” he manages, and just backs right out, taking the door with him.

On the other side, Eddie bursts into laughter, Ana not far behind him.

“Buck,” he says, his voice bright. “Just come in, man.”

Buck lets out a breath, and as he breathes in, he tries to convince himself that they aren’t laughing at him.

“Hi,” he pokes his head in the door, battling again to produce a smile. It must look convincing enough to Ana, because she grins right back, but Eddie’s forehead wrinkles. “Sorry about that.”

It’s late; later than the time they agreed on, even, because Buck was stuck in traffic. She came back with Eddie, and is still here. Eddie kind of looks like he wants to explain, which Buck definitely doesn’t need, thank you. He’s familiar.

“No worries,” says Ana, encased in another perfect dress, with not a hair out of place, and a kindness in her eyes that makes Buck feel terrible about pretty much every thought he’s had in the past few weeks. “It’s my bad, I’ve been on my way out for like twenty minutes.”

Eddie looks down at the floor with a new expression for Buck to catalogue: embarrassment, probably, mixed with something quiet and joyful. Buck doesn’t know what to do with his face, where to put his feet.

Ana’s presence makes him feel—chastised. Young, and ill at ease, like he’s doing something wrong in every breath he takes. He watches as she presses her lips to Eddie’s cheek, and the way she crosses Eddie’s living room with the air of someone who has never put a foot wrong. Looks down at her delicate, manicured hands, and then at his own: scraped and scarred and bumpy, suddenly awkwardly large.

“See you later, Buck,” says Ana, and he wants to run after her and tell her to take it back.

“Sorry about that,” Eddie shrugs, soft, content, smiling. Buck knows he’s not the one to put that look on his face. “You know how it is.”

Buck swallows against something enormous and unknown, and pulls up the grocery list.

*

“It’s just new, you know? I’ve never really had that before,” Eddie says, sipping his coffee in that insanely loud way they all tolerate because they love him.

Chim chuckles. “What, a girlfriend?”

“Just a person to come home to, I guess. Other than Christopher.”

“Really?” Hen frowns.

“I mean,” Eddie says, and his tone makes Buck crane his head back over the headrest of the couch so he can actually see him. “Shannon and I were both working, and we were barely moved in together by the time I left, and then I came back and my mom was sleeping in our guest bedroom and running the house the way she liked. And then I left again and came back and then our collective lives were just a clusterfuck. So.”

Hen’s eyebrows, having steadily climbed up her forehead, reach their peak. Behind her, Bobby is standing frozen, holding a pepper mill in mid-air, ready to intervene if necessary.

Buck hates himself for wishing he didn’t have to be here for this conversation.

“Sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought,” Hen says, in the end.

“I had to,” Eddie shrugs, and this tone Buck knows with complete certainty. It’s his stupid fake nonchalance for when he has a lot on his mind and no idea how to express it. “She stayed with Chris when I had to run out to Abuela’s the other day, and they surprised me with dinner, and it was—yeah.”

“Nice?” Bobby suggests.

“Nice,” Eddie nods. Hen’s eyes flash to Buck so quickly he half-believes it was a trick of the light. “Like I said, never had that before. Made me almost cave and tell my parents about her.”

Chim whistles through his teeth. “They don’t know, huh?”

“Absolutely not,” Eddie laughs, throwing the rest of his coffee back. The early morning light slants into the loft at just the right angle to catch the long expanse of his neck, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Something insistent knocks around in Buck’s ribcage, clearly lost and trying to get out. The feeling makes him squirm.

“If I have anything to say about it, they’ll be finding out about me dating when they get their next wedding invite, and not a minute sooner. Maybe I can give them a pleasant surprise for once in my life.”

Buck sets down his book and makes for the stairs, resolutely looking at where he’s going, not making a second of eye contact. The headache that’s been building all day finally puts down roots in his temples. His entire body immediately echoes its displeasure, little aches exploding everywhere, his bad leg threatening to lock when he skips a step.

He can’t help feeling like he’s just shown his hand, somehow; but he doesn’t know what the goddamn hand is, and that’s the worst part. He could just tell Dr. Copeland, who’s been a godsend in helping him get to the root cause of his thousand issues, but the conclusions she comes to are usually good. They paint him as a good person so often he’s slowly coming to believe it, and he takes comfort in the fact that she never criticizes him like he’s a failure, or like he can’t do anything right. She just gently points out where his thought process might be failing him, and asks questions about his intentions, and tells him that, even when the results are disastrous, the root cause of his actions isn’t the fact that he’s inherently evil.

He’s not ready to lose that. Because that’s what would happen if she knew about this.

What would he even do? Log on, and go “hey, Dr. Copeland, so I’ve kind of figured out that I don’t like it when Eddie’s with his girlfriend, and she makes me feel stupid and small and nervous, and I feel like I’m failing him because I should be the first in line to ask him overbearing questions about her, and also I’m kind of on edge all the time in a way that hasn’t happened in a while, oh and also I don’t like her being in his house even though it’s his house, and when Chris talks about her I can’t find it in myself to be excited for him, and that makes me feel extremely guilty, and also my head’s so foggy all the time that I can’t figure out why the hell I’m feeling like this. Help?”

She’d hang up on him. More likely she’d hang up, send him a refund, and never speak to him again.

Maybe the solution is to just spend more time around Ana. Eddie has invited him to hang out a couple of times, even gone as far as to extend the invitation to Taylor as Buck’s definitely-not-girlfriend, and every time Buck has begged off. He’ll say yes next time – or, better yet, he’ll organize something himself. To make up for the fact that he’s been a sorry excuse for a best friend lately.

He just makes it to the bunks and starts Googling good lunch spots when the bell goes. Ninety seconds later, he’s in the back of the triple crowded next to Eddie, as usual, their knees knocking together with the movement of the truck. Judging by the vague tickling feeling on the side of his face, Eddie’s trying to catch his eye, probably to ask if he’s okay, and isn’t that the million-dollar question.

Opposite him, Chim raises his eyebrows. Buck looks out of the window to watch downtown LA speed past, briefly wishing that his firehouse family cared just a little less.

Which makes him feel guilty, so he makes sure to catch Chim’s eye and smile at him as they jump out and get ready to go.

They’re first on scene, a pileup in the middle of an intersection. From the outside, it doesn’t look like a particularly serious accident: every car is upright, there’s no major fluid leakage, and the plumes rising into the sky look like steam, not smoke. Five of the cars are rear-ended, stacked neatly one after the other, most of the passengers already out, the road swarming with people.

Bobby meets Buck’s eyes over the hood, and then all of them are running into the intersection, where a truck running a red light probably caused the accident. A Prius is practically embedded in the side of it, the front of it folded up like an accordion.

There’s no one exiting either car. Buck peeks into the truck and comes face to face with a deployed airbag and an unconscious driver. The people in the Prius, miraculously, seem to be moving and talking.

“Okay, Hen, Chim, you’re with the driver,” Bobby points, and Chim is already halfway to opening the passenger side door on the truck. “Eddie, triage everyone who’s conscious, Buck, let’s see if we can get them out of there.”

Eddie drops the med bag on the ground and crouches into the driver’s side window; Buck does the same on the other side, trying to get a look in the back.

“It’s just the two of them, Cap,” he calls to Bobby, and then into the car: “LAFD, ma’am, can you hear me?”

The woman’s head rolls towards him. She looks bleary-eyed, and she has a nasty cut in her forehead that’s dripping blood all the way down her cheek and onto her cream dress, but she smiles at Buck, mouthing something that’s probably a “yeah”.

“Okay, we’re gonna get you out of there. Hang tight.”

Her side of the car is a little less destroyed, like the driver swung the wheel to the side in the last second. Buck’s able to pry the door open with a Halligan, letting it swing out into the street with an ominous crunch. Bobby’s there to hand him a neck brace, and the 122’s paramedics nudge him aside to lift her out safely and get her on a backboard.

On the other side of the car, Eddie hasn’t been so lucky. The man is responsive, but only just. His movements are sluggish, and he’s pawing at the door handle like he doesn’t understand that he’s wedged in.

“Sir,” Eddie is saying, loudly and a touch impatiently, “stop moving.”

Buck puts his knee on the passenger seat, squeezing himself into the car that had been small even before half of it got crushed. Eddie meets his eyes through the window and makes a gesture. Buck nods, grinning to alleviate some of the seriousness that’s settled around the corners of Eddie’s mouth.

“Okay, sir, do you have anything…“ he starts, even as he’s already glancing at the backseat. Somehow, a coat hanger has embedded itself in one of the rear doors, which is a first, but more importantly, there’s a crumpled suit bag lying halfway in the trunk.

“That suit a rental?” he asks as he reaches back for the bag, shaking out the fabric to make sure there’s no debris in it. The man makes a gurgling sound that could probably pass for a laugh.

“Well, hopefully they offer some kind of insurance for stuff like this,” Buck says as he tugs down the zipper. “If it makes you feel any better, I once almost died in a rented suit and they let me return it fine.”

He didn’t bleed all over it, as their victim is currently doing, but it’s similar enough.

“Not that you’re going to die!” Eddie yells from outside, audibly exasperated.

Buck laughs. “That’s right,” he says, holding the unzipped bag out like a cape. “I’m going to put this over your head for just a sec, okay? Just as a precaution. We gotta break the glass so my stressed out friend over there can check you out.”

The man frowns. It pulls at a cut on the bridge of his nose, a dark red bead of blood pooling there.

“Tempered,” he says, and Buck could swear he can hear Eddie huff a laugh on the other side of the window.

“It is,” Buck nods, “but you have a bunch of cuts all over you. Wouldn’t be fun to have glass in them, even if it’s not sharp.”

The man opens his mouth again – which is probably a good sign, really – but Buck doesn’t give him a chance. He gently drapes the bag over the man’s head, and in the same movement he’s reaching for the Halligan again, inclining his head to get Eddie to move aside before he punches through.

Most of the glass falls out, which was the goal, and Eddie clears the rest of it off with an axe handle. Then he’s furiously tugging off his gloves and pulling on a fresh pair, reaching in and past Buck to get the bag off and shine a light into the man’s eyes.

“What’s your name, sir?” he asks, his fingers just this side of gentle as he inspects the bleeding cuts.

“Martin,” he rasps out, increasingly more aware, starting to wiggle in his seat. They’re probably about two minutes out from him panicking. Someone might have to hold him down, but getting him out needs to be their priority, so Buck tears himself away from one of his favorite sights – Eddie, calm and collected, doing his job – and goes to get the jaws.

On his way there, he finally takes in the passengers from the other cars, who are now sitting on the curb. All of them are dressed formally, crisp white shirts crumpled and stained with blood, straps torn off expensive-looking dresses.

He sees the reason why by the truck, having her hand wrapped up by a paramedic: a beautiful blonde woman, in heavy makeup that’s half run off her face by now, wearing what must have been a stunning white dress before all this. A wedding party.

By the time he runs back, Hen and Chim are gone with the truck driver, who’s in urgent need of a transfusion. Eddie has the neck brace on Martin, and has established slight dizziness, headache, sharp pains in the upper right quadrant, most likely from the seatbelt, and a clean break in the left arm.

“He remembers what happened,” Eddie’s telling Bobby even as he steps aside and lets Buck get in with the jaws, “so the concussion’s probably mild. He can feel his limbs, wiggle his fingers, says his neck doesn’t hurt, but I don’t think the shock’s worn off just yet.”

Bobby nods. “The 122 will take him, they already have—“

“Linda?” Martin gasps as soon as Buck has the door open. “Where’s Linda?”

“Don’t worry, sir,” Bobby tells him, helping Wilcox lay down the backboard as Buck and Eddie get into position to lift. “Linda’s with our colleagues right over there, she’s going to be okay.”

“No,” Martin says. Buck meets Eddie’s eyes over his head, then counts them off. “No,” Martin repeats once he’s safely on the board. “Linda. That’s not Linda.”

“Well, whoever she is, I’m sure she’ll be just fine,” Eddie says as they lift him up. “Everyone made it, they’re just a little banged up. Looks like you guys were all obeying the speed limit.”

“Linda,” Martin repeats, gasping, as tears pool in the corners of his eyes. “The b—bride. She okay?”

Eddie cocks his head in confusion. They wheel Martin around the carnage, and as he rocks with the movement, he starts sobbing in earnest, big, heaving things that shake his whole body.

“She’s fine,” Buck rushes to reassure him. “I saw her just now, not even five minutes ago. She was standing on her own two feet and everything. Didn’t even take off her heels.”

Martin sniffles, and the dried blood on his face cracks when he smiles through his tears. “Yeah,” he tries to nod, even as the board limits his movement. “Then she’s okay.”

“You the groom?” Eddie asks.

Martin sobs again, the smile sliding off his face. Eddie’s eyes widen in panic, an expression so funny Buck would laugh if they weren’t standing over a crying man.

“I wish,” Martin says, snot running down his cheek now. Buck pats the pockets of his turnout coat for a tissue, but finds nothing. “I thought—maybe someday. But I never told her. And I didn’t speak up during the ceremony either. Just gonna hold my fucking peace forever.”

Buck’s breath leaves him in a rush, something tight and dangerous curling around the base of his throat. He has no idea how to make this better. Statistically, fifty percent of married couples divorce? Is that a thing he should say?

Opposite him, by Martin’s head, Eddie seems similarly lost for words.

“I could’ve died,” Martin tells the sky, his chest shuddering with suppressed breaths. “Maybe that dumbass running the light was a sign. I’ll never be with her now, so what’s the point, huh?”

Buck opens his mouth to say something, and closes it again.

“Can’t think like that,” Eddie says, and his voice is tight with—something. “The fact that you didn’t die is a sign, alright? It’s a sign that there are still things you have to do.”

Buck doesn’t burst into tears right there, but it’s kind of a close thing. He desperately wishes they were anywhere else, so he could—well. He doesn’t know.

“Man,” Martin says, extending his unbroken arm out and up, reaching for Eddie. “What’s your name?”

“Eddie.”

“Eddie,” Martin nods. “Thanks for all this. Can I give you a piece of advice back?”

His blinks are longer, slower. Like he’s either calming down or moving towards unconsciousness.

“Sure,” says Eddie, and then the gurney is being picked up and out of their hands, sliding into the back of the ambulance.

“Don’t be a fucking idiot like me.”

The door slams shut behind him, the sirens come on, and then he’s lost around the corner between one breath and the next.

Buck looks over at Eddie and imagines he can still see the red and blue lights flashing over the planes of his face.

*

Therapy is good.

Rationally, Buck knows this. It’s just a little difficult to believe when his parents log off without so much as a goodbye, and he’s left on the line with Dr. Copeland, who’s looking at him like he has ‘fragile’ stickers slapped all over him.

They had a whole preparatory session, back before they first brought in Phillip and Margaret. About expectations, and forgiveness, and what Buck thinks they all need from each other. He knows they’ll never have the kind of parent-child relationship he grew up seeing at his friends’ houses. He knows they’ll never be proud of him beyond empty platitudes borne out of guilt. Somewhere deep down, he also knows they’re probably not capable of loving him. He was hoping to get to a place where he could get them to admit it out loud, to release them all from this painful song and dance.

Instead, predictably, they’ve gone back to everything in the history of Western civilization apparently being his fault.

He’s trying to stop thinking about it as he knocks on Eddie’s door, twenty minutes late with his eyes still burning. He’d splashed freezing water all over his face before he left his apartment, is bringing movie snacks as an apology for his tardiness, and he’s desperately hoping that once he breathes in the familiar scent of one of the safest places in the world, he’ll be able to let some of this weight go, at least for a while.

After their car crash of a session, Dr. Copeland had told him to take the night off from thinking and just listen to his needs. Thankfully, he already had plans that fit the bill.

He hears footsteps first.

“He’s here!” a familiar voice screeches on the other side of the door, and then it’s opening, and Buck feels lighter like flicking a switch.

Warm light spills out onto the porch. Christopher’s face, grinning from ear to ear, appears in the crack, and then he’s barreling through and straight into Buck, who makes a show of oofing and stumbling back even as he lifts him into a hug.

“You’re late,” the boy giggles into Buck’s neck. He smells like Christopher, like his favorite strawberry shampoo and something sweet and sticky and kid-like, still, even as he’s getting taller every time Buck sees him.

New tears well up in his eyes, so he buries his face in Christopher’s curls, and squeezes him so tight Chris whoops in delight.

“Sorry,” he says, and clears his throat when the word comes out ragged. “It was a conspiracy, I think. The bad guys blocked all the roads cause they didn’t want me to come see you tonight.”

Chris pulls back to look at him. In a move that makes Buck want to curl up and cry with sheer joy, he puts his little hands on the sides of Buck’s face and looks him in the eye, unblinking.

“But you fought all of them to be here,” he says seriously. Not for the first time, Buck wonders how such a small person can be so smart.

“All of them,” Buck confirms, shifting the grocery bag from one hand to the other and holding Chris tighter as he steps over the threshold. “Lasers were involved.”

“I don’t want to know,” Eddie says from the kitchen. Buck automatically looks up, always pulled towards him, and their eyes meet over Chris’s head. “If this is some kind of setup to get me to pick a movie with lasers in it, it won’t work. We’re watching Willy Wonka, and that’s final.”

Chris breaks into a fresh wave of giggles, and Buck joins right in, full to bursting with something he can’t name because it’s too bright to look at directly.

“You and your love affair with Willy Wonka, man,” he says, gently lowering Chris down and waiting until he finds his feet. “You’d think we haven’t watched it a million—wait. Is that an apron?”

“Dad made dinner,” Chris says, and his grin seems genuine, not like the usual teasing that ensues when Eddie’s cooking is involved.

Suddenly, Eddie’s not looking at him. In fact, Eddie’s very pointedly not looking at anything, his eyes flicking between various pieces of his own furniture.

“You made dinner,” Buck repeats. “Actual dinner? Or like a microwave thing?”

Chris screeches from where he’s on his way to the bathroom, probably to wash up.

“Okay,” Eddie huffs, rolling his eyes, “I’m not that bad. You know I’m not that bad.”

“Ah, but your kid gets a kick out of it, which means I’m contractually obligated to give you shit.”

A strange look passes over Eddie’s face, there and immediately gone. “I’ll contractually obligate you, you dick.”

Buck pushes past him into the kitchen, turning sideways so they can both fit in the doorway, and sets the bag of snacks on the counter. Then he turns towards the table to inspect whatever monstrosity Eddie cooked up, and—freezes.

It’s only then that the scent in the air registers, gone unnoticed because it’s so familiar to him: butter, sharp cheese, and the unmistakable scent of toasted bread.

Something crests and breaks right over Buck’s head, and for a moment he feels like he’s underwater again.

“Eddie, what…”

Eddie comes up to him, his hand curling around Buck’s elbow for just a second, a point of warmth where Buck’s entire body is frozen in place.

“Does it look right?” he asks, and has the audacity to look sheepish about it, wringing his hands in the apron. “I managed to get the recipe, but it didn’t come with pictures, so.”

Buck blinks, and blinks, and blinks again because the blurriness won’t go away. He feels all of eight years old again, slumped in Maddie’s arms when he was sick, or during that inevitable window of time when his injuries were still painful but not interesting enough for his parents anymore. He can almost see it in front of him: Maddie’s face in the sliver of the world that was visible from under the blankets he’d pulled over his head, smiling, coaxing him out. Her whispering about how their mom would be so mad if she knew they were eating in bed, but isn’t that the best part?

Her handing him a plate with her specialty, the remedy for everything: a mac and cheese grilled cheese.

The same thing that’s currently occupying a place of pride on Eddie’s dining table.

Against all odds, Buck finds words. “No, it looks—Eddie, it—I—what?“

His voice is so thick with tears they may as well be coming out of his mouth, but he knows he’s safe to do that here, safer than anywhere.

In Buck’s periphery, Eddie comes closer. He doesn’t quite lean into Buck’s side, but the heat of his body latches onto Buck’s shirt, sneaks its way underneath.

“You had therapy today. With your parents.” He says the word ‘parents’ not unlike one might say ‘maggots’. Buck hiccups.

“You don’t know how it went.”

Eddie raises a sharp eyebrow. “And did it go well?”

Buck ducks his head.

“Yeah. So I figured you could probably use a little pick-me-up. Something other than laser boy over there, anyway.”

Before he’s even done speaking, Buck is shaking his head. “No, Eddie, you know that’s—you’re always—“

Enough. Everything. Everything.

“Shut up, I know,” Eddie replies, but his cheeks are just a little pink right where they bunch up as he smiles. “Still, I was thinking you’ve probably had a shitty day.”

Yeah. Made doubly so by the fact that he couldn’t spend all day with the Diazes, even though they were both off work, because the morning was for Ana and a picnic at the park. The guilt he felt about it comes back now, vicious like a punch.

Buck falls into a chair and picks up a sandwich, unintentionally reverent when he touches it.

“How did you even know?”

And maybe that’s the part he’s stuck on, now that the shock of it has rattled through, now that this reality has settled, sweet and warm, over his bones: that Eddie knows something about him that’s part of another life.

“You mentioned it,” Eddie says, tugging at the apron string until it comes loose around his waist. “To Bobby, once. Remember?”

Buck does not remember. “When?”

“Dunno,” Eddie shrugs one shoulder, folding the apron into a neat little square. “A couple years ago? That time Athena came and cooked for us at the station. We were talking about comfort foods, and you said Maddie used to make you these when you were sick as a kid.”

Buck breaks a little piece off and carefully puts it in his mouth. Closes his eyes so he’s prepared for it to take him back to being small, scared, but loved. Wanted. Somehow, the taste is the exact same, and Buck wants—he wants—

“I thought I could give it a shot, and it turns out thirteen-year-old Maddie and I are at about the same skill level, so it worked out pretty great. The mac and cheese is from a box.”

Buck opens his eyes. Miraculously, he’s still not actually crying, but that’s probably because he already did that for two hours after therapy.

“You talked to Maddie?”

Buck himself hasn’t, for a couple of days. She’s having a hard time, and she doesn’t always want people around, and that’s something he’s only just started dealing with.

“No,” Eddie smiles, a little sadly like he knows exactly where Buck’s thoughts went. “Wasn’t sure if this would be a good memory, all things considered. I asked Chim to ask her, if he thought it was okay.”

“And it was?”

“Well,” Eddie says, grabbing his own sandwich and smiling softly, privately, down at the tabletop, “she yelled at me over text for not asking her like a normal human being, then she sent me the ingredients and some very specific instructions, and then she told me to tell you that she loves you very much.”

Buck bites down on his bottom lip, but the smile still blooms like it has a will of its own. “Oh.”

Something splatters on the tabletop. It takes a while for Buck to register that it’s one of his own tears, finally out in the world.

Eddie sighs. “Get up,” he says, and Buck’s body obeys way before his mind kicks in, getting off the chair on shaking legs.

He isn’t even fully upright when Eddie’s arm winds around his waist, and then he’s being pulled forward.

“Um,” he says, even as he tilts his head down to rest it on Eddie’s shoulder, safe, safe, safe. “What are you doing?”

“Hugging you, asshole,” Eddie chuckles against him, the sound reverberating through them both.

Buck presses his palms flat against Eddie’s back, and relishes the warmth. Some small, irrational part of his brain points out that, surely, he can’t be blamed for being greedy about Eddie. Not when he lets Buck into his life, into his son’s life, with this much generosity. Not when he thinks about how Buck feels, and cares about it, and does something about it.

Not when he holds him like this. Close and warm and tight. Without pretenses.

He pulls back a little after what Buck hopes was hours, but was probably a few seconds at most, and puts a hand on his favorite Serious Talk spot, where Buck’s neck meets his shoulder. The other one stays, warm and steady, on Buck’s waist.

“Listen,” he says. “I know you decided to forgive them, and to work through all their shit. I’m proud of you for that. But if it ever gets too hard to hold onto them, I just want you to remember that you already have a family. One that always wants you. Okay?”

Buck trembles. That wandering feeling is back, knocking things loose inside him, but this time it grows with every second that Eddie doesn’t step back, doesn’t let go. It goes supernova when Christopher walks in, and frowns, and says “Dad, are you hugging without me?”

He crashes into them from the side; Eddie laughs and picks him up so he can wrap his arms around them properly, one around each of their necks, squealing in delight.

Buck closes his eyes, and breathes him in.

The wall falls.

“Okay, Buck?” Eddie asks again, and Buck is in love with him.

Of course he is.

“Yeah,” he sniffles, and feels like he should maybe be falling to the ground and never getting up again. “Thank you.”

*

It’s not a surprise, looking back.

How could it? It’s Eddie. A whole array of firsts came into Buck’s life on Eddie’s heels: the first time he scaled a skyscraper; his first Christmas with family; the first time he snorted beer up his nose; the first time he was sure that, if he chose to have kids, he would be capable of loving them and then some.

The first time he’s wanted to belong to someone so badly it becomes a physical ache.

Now that the floodgates have opened, Buck can acknowledge that he has never craved anything the way he craves Eddie. Not his parents’ love, not Bobby’s approval, not whatever he could get from Abby.

Once it’s allowed to grow, it sprouts in the time it takes Buck to drive back to his apartment, wrapping around every one of his limbs, burning like a live wire, and Buck replays every moment of his life since Eddie’s been in it like a movie. All those times he looked away and didn’t quite know why, the times he swayed into Eddie and caught himself. Years’ worth of coming into the Diaz house and feeling like he was taking something that wasn’t his, but still taking, always taking.

God, of course he doesn’t want Ana to have Eddie. He wants Eddie for himself with a vivid, cruel selfishness that shocks him the first time he feels it.

Which is why he needs to get over Eddie as quickly as possible.

Dr. Copeland agrees with him. Not in so many words, because he’s a perpetual coward who does cowardly things and he doesn’t explain the situation exactly, but she agrees with him in principle.

What she says, exactly, is to “practice communicating his feelings”. And, Buck reasons, ‘wanting to get over Eddie’ is a feeling. Right? Right.

He also consults Hen and Bobby though, just to make sure.

“You’re gonna have to run this by me again,” is what Hen says, actually pushing her textbooks away so she can lean across the table, looking equal parts excited and terrified. “If—what? If someone had feelings for me, what would I want them to do about it?”

“Basically,” Buck nods, picking apart a granola bar. It’s four in the morning, the silent hour: too late for the worst of the bargoers, too early for rush hour fender-benders, and an unlikely time for accidental fires. Eddie and Chim have both allegedly hit the bunks; Hen is studying, Bobby has insomnia, and Buck is just having a plain old-fashioned crisis.

“I mean,” Hen tilts her head, “I don’t know, Buck. I’m married, I’m pretty off the market.”

“No, I know that,” he says, leaning forward, accidentally putting his elbows into the mess he’s just made. “But like—you wouldn’t wanna know, right? Because what would be the point?”

Hen purses her lips. Bobby puts down the food magazine he was pretending to read and fixes Buck with a look so acutely piercing it makes him shrink back a little.

“If I knew them,” she finally says, careful, “I wouldn’t want them to hurt because of me, I think. So it’s just a bad situation all around, but I feel like I’d appreciate honesty, maybe?”

Buck shakes his head. Bobby hasn’t blinked yet.

“No, Hen, listen. What if I was in love with you. What would you want me to do about it?”

“I knew you loved me,” she puts a hand on her heart, even as she obviously sizes him up. He’s probably not fooling anyone here, but at least Eddie isn’t in the room, because Buck’s traitorous body, always caught in Eddie’s gravitational pull, would probably give him away somehow. “Honestly, Buck? I think I’d want to know.”

“Really,” Buck says, something squeezing his stomach like a fist.

“It’s easier to be considerate of someone else’s feelings when you know they’re there,” Bobby finally speaks. Buck runs out of granola bar to destroy. “Hen cares about you. If you were in love with her, and she knew about it, she could moderate her behavior so she wouldn’t unintentionally hurt you.”

Damn. It does sound reasonable when Bobby puts it like that.

“Of course, that’s assuming this definitely hypothetical scenario would involve someone as taken as Hen is.”

Buck squeezes his eyes shut, chasing away the tiredness and the dark specks that have taken to dancing in his vision lately. When he opens them, they’re both still watching him, a little like they’re afraid to so much as breathe in his direction.

Buck thinks about walking into Eddie’s house and seeing things, little things, having changed place or moved a couple of inches to the right. He thinks about Christopher’s excitement at bringing home three As in English in a single week, and of Eddie’s face so proud it nearly made Buck cry.

He thinks of Ana’s beautiful hands. Hands that can probably cradle precious things without breaking them.

“Sure,” he says, nodding even as his entire body stiffens. “Makes sense. Thanks.”

Hen looks like she wants to say something, but then Bobby unsubtly nudges her under the table, and as he opens his own mouth the bell goes for a multi-vehicle collision.

Buck’s the last one left in the loft, trying to sweep his granola pieces off the table so he can throw them in the trash on the way, so he’s the only one who gets to see Eddie and Chim stumble out of the bunk room.

At least he assumes Chim’s there, because once he sees Eddie jog out with his hair going every which way, his eyes catch and don’t let go.

They’re nearing summer, now, and the days have slowly started getting longer. This particular morning catches Eddie just as the sunrise begins to creep in, an orange as dark as clay painting across the floor. It lights up the length of his body when he steps into the beam, running hurried hands over his head to get some semblance of a hairstyle back.

He’s beyond gorgeous like this, an endless, golden dream. Now that Buck has allowed the thought once, he wakes up with it in the middle of the night: the two of them, in the quiet light of morning, together. Eddie’s hands on his skin with intent. Every time Buck so much as thinks of Eddie’s fingers dipping under the hem of his shirt, of the touch of lips on his neck, he feels like his heart stops. Like if he looks at Eddie for a second, everything will be written right on his face.

He is so endlessly, completely devastating. Where Abby was a spark, Eddie’s a wildfire, and he’s swept through so thoroughly that Buck’s almost sure nothing else can ever grow there again.

But it’ll have been worth it, he thinks. To feel this, even if only for a moment, even if he is the only one.

Downstairs, Eddie somehow knows where to look for him. He squints as he looks up, the bridge of his nose wrinkling.

“Buck! You coming or what?”

Buck contemplates just telling him that he never, never has to ask.

*

He catches Eddie in the parking lot after their shift, with the morning sun heating up the air between them.

He has to do it now; he’s in the place where sleep deprivation and too much caffeine combine to make him just this side of reckless, and shaking a little as he fumbles with the keys to the Jeep, and also he can’t do this at Eddie’s house because he’ll back out, or at his own because then he’ll have to relive it constantly.

It has to be here, and it has to be now. It has to be quick.

“Hey Eddie,” he says once Eddie’s put his bag in the back seat of the truck and shut the door. “Can I talk to you about something?”

Eddie freezes for a split second, probably imperceptible to anyone who isn’t Buck. When he turns around, his mouth is quirked curiously.

“Course you can,” he says, mirroring Buck and leaning back against the sun-warmed metal of his own car. ”You okay?”

Of course that’s the first thing he asks. Buck squeezes his hands into fists, trying to stop the shaking, and presses into his feet so he doesn’t just fold down onto the sidewalk like he wants to.

“Buck?”

Buck has no choice but to look at him, and he knows, he knows that he hasn’t managed to keep everything he’s feeling off his face. He can’t, not when it’s struggling to break free and fill the space between them, a litany that might never end.

I love you, and I didn’t know until it was too late, and I don’t remember who I was before you.

That’s why it’s high time to find out.

“Sorry,” he clears his throat. “Sorry, I—there’s something—“

Eddie crosses over to him in two long strides, reaching out to pry Buck’s forearms away from his body. He hadn’t even noticed when he crossed his arms.

As if he knows, as if he’s anticipating Buck’s words already, Eddie doesn’t hold on. He gently lets Buck’s arms fall, squeezes once, and lets go. Then he leans back against the Jeep, his whole body turned towards Buck but keeping a few feet away.

He smells like body wash, and his eyes are chocolate and gold in the light as he tilts his jaw, considering. The endless ache of wanting him doesn’t ever go away, these days, but with Buck’s defenses down like this, it seizes him and sinks its claws in.

He wants Eddie’s touch back. Wants to accept the gentleness he sees in Eddie’s eyes, to take advantage of it, to curl until he fits under Eddie’s chin and can hide there. Until he can exhale, and let every last one of his feelings crawl through and out of his skin the way they’re clamoring to do. In a world he can’t have, Eddie would open his arms and invite him in. He’d run his hands through Buck’s hair, and whisper something quiet and solid into the skin of his temple, and unwittingly let Buck take and take and take because that’s what Buck does.

But this is reality. Here, Eddie’s going home and sleeping until it’s time to get Chris, and then he’s taking him and Ana out for a movie. He’s with someone who understands how to love him right, how to give back to him, and God, Buck’s holding him up right now.

He straightens, and swallows every half-aborted thought that had been slowly creeping onto his tongue. He can do this. For Eddie, he can do it.

“What’s been going on with you?” Eddie asks just as Buck opens his mouth. He’s watching, always watching, and Buck feels as transparent as water. “I haven’t wanted to pry, but…”

“Yeah,” Buck nods, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans even as the tight fit makes his knuckles hurt. “So I’m—listen. I’m about to ask for something, and it’s probably not going to sound great, and I don’t want you to do that thing where you spiral about it. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Eddie dips his chin. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“I suppose it’s not,” Buck grimaces. “But I’m trying to follow Dr. Copeland’s advice, I guess.”

“What advice?”

Buck looks away and up, at the endless flat blue of the sky. “To communicate my feelings.”

When he looks back down, Eddie’s arm is just falling to his side, like he’d reached out and pulled back again.

“I’m listening,” he says, barely audible.

But he is such a gift. Such a rock, despite everything they’ve been through. Buck can only hope he’s managed to return a little bit of the unspeakable amount of reassurance Eddie makes him feel.

He wishes he was allowed some kind of farewell, to lean in and feel the warmth of Eddie’s skin under his lips.

“I think I need to take a couple of weeks to just—be by myself,” Buck says quietly. He’s practiced this, but it doesn’t sound any better now he’s saying it for the fiftieth time. “I’m learning how to do that, Dr. Copeland says it’s good for me because I use the presence of others to avoid my own feelings, or whatever,” he huffs. “And I’ve been dealing with some stuff—don’t look at me like that, nothing traumatic. Just been in my head a little bit too much, so I want to take the opportunity to really be in my head. And I think it’d be best if we didn’t hang out while I’m sorting through my stuff. I don’t want it to affect you guys.”

Eddie opens his mouth to protest. Buck raises a hand into the space between them to stop him, so far away from touching.

“I remember,” he says, and curls in on himself to capture the warmth that blooms in his chest at the memory. “I have a family that always wants me.”

Eddie’s eyes are desperately earnest. “No matter what,” he says. “Whatever it is you need to deal with, Buck, there’s no need to go through it alone.”

Buck shakes his head. If he only knew.

“Just for a while, Eds,” he says; begs, probably. “Just for a minute. I need to get my head on straight. Two weeks, and then you can put me right back in rotation.”

A reluctant smile pulls at the corner of Eddie’s mouth. They’ve all been teasing him about his suddenly meticulously planned life, but Buck thinks he’s secretly pleased about it. He has reason to: he’s spending plenty of time with his son, with his girlfriend, with his best friend, and still managing to work and run a household that looks semi-passable most days. Buck’s just inconveniently bleeding his newfound feelings all over it, but that’s not Eddie’s problem.

“Give you more time to spend with Ana, huh? I know you’ve been carving out time for me.”

“And I will keep doing that,” Eddie says, in a tone that brooks no argument. Then he stills, and blinks, and a pinched sort of expression settles on his face. “Unless you don’t want me to.”

Buck’s heart trembles and squeezes and thuds in his chest like it’s trying to escape him and run for the familiar safety of Eddie. He can’t help putting a hand on his own chest and rubbing the skin there, almost feverishly hot with how long they’ve been standing out in the sun.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he says, slowly, carefully. “I always want to be with you guys.”

Eddie tilts his head. The first hints of stubble are starting to show around his jawline, and Buck—wants. God, he wants.

“Except for the next two weeks,” is what Eddie returns, his eyebrows high.

Buck feels all of two feet tall when he says it like that.

“Except for the next two weeks,” he confirms. “I’ll tell you about it after,” he adds recklessly, just looking for something that’ll get Eddie to look at him all honey-gold and half-lidded again.

For a moment, they just stand and watch each other. It takes everything Buck has in him not to flinch away, sure that the truth of what he’s doing must be written all over his face.

Finally, Eddie huffs. “I swear to God, Buck,” he says, “you better follow through on this. Don’t forget we can show up at your house and drag you out of bed whenever we want.”

They both smile at the memory, at everything they’ve been through since then laid out, just for a moment, on the sidewalk between them.

“Okay,” Eddie nods, finally. “Whatever you need. Under one condition,” he raises a finger, dragging a laugh out of Buck.

“Name it.”

“If you need me, call me. Or catch me at work, or text, or just show up, alright? Anytime.”

He’s still iffy about it; it’s easy to see by his posture, by the way he’s leaning forward where Buck has started leaning back. For a brief, crazy second, Buck wonders whether it’d really be so bad to fall in and kiss him, when he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Eddie wouldn’t just drop him, wouldn’t let Buck’s stupid feelings destroy what they’ve built. Not right away, anyway.

Then he looks down at the hem of Eddie’s shirt, and remembers the fabric of it between slim, manicured fingers. He takes a step back.

“I will,” he nods, knowing he’ll do no such thing. He can’t treat Eddie like he’s got him on a string; he has one shot to try this, to get to a place where he can accept that his feelings aren’t returned, and where he can stop bristling at the thought of his best friend’s girlfriend who has never been anything but perfectly kind to him.

“You’re thinking about not doing it,” Eddie says, casually. “Listen, dumbass. Are you listening?”

Buck bites his lip, feeling small and suddenly cold. He nods anyway.

“I’ve got your back,” says Eddie, very slowly, every word rolling around in his mouth deliciously before it comes out. “Even if you needed to cut off all contact for some reason. Even if you transferred stations because you couldn’t stand the sight of me anymore. I’m here if you need me.”

To his horror, Buck feels the tell-tale sting of tears gather somewhere at the back of his eyes. His entire body is fighting against the distance, wanting to run, to leap, to be held, because he knows Eddie would catch him.

“Okay,” he says, and is impressed that his voice doesn’t come out strangled. “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.”

Eddie raises a single eyebrow. “Do I believe you?”

Buck snorts, but his nose is starting to sting, the ache persisting, all the emotional turmoil of the past few days demanding to be let out at this, the most inopportune moment.

“What, you want me to pinky promise?”

It’s meant to be a joke. Eddie claims Buck has “infected” his son with pinky promising, because Christopher is now in the habit of walking around the house and demanding they promise he can finish the movie if he gets ready for bed in under ten minutes, or that he’s allowed seconds of dessert when they go to Isabel’s. Eddie rolls his eyes every time, but every time without fail, he puts his pinky out and curls it around Christopher’s. And, even though they’re mostly silly promises, the fact remains that none of them have ever broken one. Buck was very particular when explaining how sacred they are.

Still, he’s just aiming for a glimpse of that reluctant smile Eddie puts on when he doesn’t want to let on that he finds something funny. What he gets instead is Eddie looking him in the eye, scanning Buck like he’s trying to root out the real problem.

“Can’t hurt,” is what he finally says, and his hand is already in the space between them, the sun glinting off the face of his watch.

Buck can’t remember if they’ve ever pinky promised each other. He curls his other fingers into his palm so tight the skin there goes white, but he does touch Eddie, relishing it, lingering where he shouldn’t.

The sound thrumming in his ears, he realizes, is the beating of his own heart. As soon as they let go, he shakes his head like a dog to dislodge it, but it keeps going dadumdadumdadum until the whole world is echoing like a drum.

It’s then that Buck remembers his other important question. “Oh,” he blinks. “Can I talk to Chris about it myself?”

Eddie tilts his head so far to the side it’s almost horizontal.

“It’s just—I made him a promise. So I want him to hear it from me. Make sure he understands I’m not going anywhere.”

Eddie’s head straightens out.

“You don’t have to ask me that,” he says, his eyes suddenly and impossibly warm. “You’re his best friend. And I’m pretty sure you guys text way past his bedtime without me knowing anyway.”

“One time!” Buck squawks. “And it was about his project with the caves.”

A dimple appears in Eddie’s cheek. “His project with the caves.”

“I lost track of time, Eddie. I found these pictures of an ice cave somewhere in Slovakia, and it was beautiful. What was I supposed to do, wait until morning?”

Eddie’s shaking his head, looking at the ground, laughing.

“I swear,” he says, so quiet Buck barely catches it, and then nothing else.

The sun’s started moving behind the station by the time they part, with the back of Buck’s neck sunburnt and the sides of Eddie’s shirt dappled with sweat.

Now that the conversation is over, Buck’s head is spinning with the speed at which his anxiety leaves him and levels out. The cacophony of Los Angeles on an early afternoon even trickles in, car horns and screeching brakes and conversations in sidewalk cafés. The air is hot asphalt, and dust, and no more eucalyptus body wash.

Buck stands there until Eddie’s truck is gone, down the end of the street and to the right. This is his one chance, his only chance.

Two weeks to get his head straight, pun not fucking intended.

*

Keeping his distance from Eddie doesn’t solve anything.

“I could have told you that,” Maddie sighs into the phone, blowing out the speaker for a second. “Don’t you have a therapist? Where was she when this was going down?”

“I assume Sacramento, where her office is,” Buck replies, just to be a bitch. Maddie snorts on the other end, all inelegant and taken by surprise, and the sound makes him so happy his throat tightens. “No, I just. Didn’t tell her, I guess.”

He signals and turns left, onto the road that runs alongside the park. His team is somewhere in there, probably already setting out the food.

Eddie and Chris are somewhere in there, and Buck’s time is up.

“So what did you actually do?” Maddie asks, dishes clinking on her end of the line. “Like—go out? Try to move on? Do something with Taylor?”

“Uh.”

She sighs. He can almost picture the way her hair fans out in front of her face as she does it. “You just sat around and moped for two weeks, didn’t you.”

“I mean,” says Buck, as he pulls into a miraculously open parking spot, “I wouldn’t say I moped, necessarily. I still did things.”

“Okay,” Maddie replies, in that tone that makes Buck feel like a child. “Like?”

“Like hang out with Albert. Read a book. Try this gyoza recipe Bobby sent me.”

He turns off the ignition and gets out, opening the back door to extract the picnic basket he brought. “Oh, and I KonMari’d my entire closet. And then I drove over to the food bank to ask where would be best to donate my old clothes and then Roger who works there let me volunteer for a night, so. I did that.”

He thinks Maddie might be laughing at him. “That’s very sweet,” she says, and it’s the same voice she’d use when he smuggled in stray cats as a kid. “But also, I feel like none of that was helpful.”

Of course she’s right. All the things he tried to fill his time with paled in comparison with literally just existing in a room with Eddie and Chris. He could sit in the Diazes’ living room for two hours just staring at Eddie’s hideous framed IKEA picture and be perfectly content. Sitting on his own couch to half-heartedly kick Albert’s ass at Mario Kart had been damn near miserable by comparison.

Buck reaches in the car for his phone, takes it off speaker, and wedges it between his ear and his shoulder while he tries to pay for parking. Almost immediately, the phone goes slippery with sweat: the sun’s high and bright and he wore a tight long-sleeve, for some reason.

Well. He knows the reason. The reason is currently in that park somewhere, probably feeding his girlfriend tiny foods with his fingers.

“And you’d suggest—what did you say? Going out?”

Water runs briefly on Maddie’s end of the line, and then he can hear her breathing as she walks, probably from the kitchen to the couch.

“Think about it logically,” she says. “You have the hots for Eddie. If you stay inside staring at the wall and thinking about how much you want to fall into bed with him, you’re going to just keep thinking about that. If you go out and fall into bed with someone else, it could, you know. Break the cycle, or whatever.”

Buck sighs as he walks to the entrance. He’d gotten plenty of sleep during his self-imposed isolation, but he still feels—crumpled. Clumsy. Strange, like somebody poured him into a stranger’s skin.

And the back of his neck is itching, like it’s junior prom again.

“I don’t just have the hots for him, Mads,” he says as he walks through the gate and squints across the flat green expanse in search of the picnic tables.

“I know,” she says quietly. “And I don’t know how to help you, Evan. This sucks.”

They laugh together, both just this side of watery and neither mentioning it.

“I’ll figure it out, I guess,” Buck says, and just as he’s about to ask how she is, see if he can squeeze in a subtle offer to help however he can, the surprised whimpering of a waking baby trickles in.

“Gotta go,” Maddie sighs. Buck swallows past the anxious lump in his throat. “I’ll give her a kiss from you, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks, I love you.”

Silence, except for Jee-Yun’s little cries. Then another sigh. “I love you too, little brother. Remind Chim to pick up formula on the way home, and I’ll talk to you—at some point.”

Buck tries not to let himself feel hollow when she hangs up. He slips his phone in his back pocket and holds the basket tighter, careful not to swing it too much.

And then, like a saving grace, like a drink of water in the desert, he spots a familiar pair of red glasses.

Slowly, he puts the basket down behind a tree, and crouches like he could make all six-foot-something of him disappear in the close-cropped grass. Christopher is sitting on a blanket with his back to Buck, playing cards with Denny, who notices him immediately. Buck puts a finger to his lips and adds his most exaggerated pleading expression. Denny grins.

Buck takes another step, and one more, until he’s so close he could ruffle the curls on top of Christopher’s head if he breathed too hard. With a sudden joy sparking through him, tingling in his fingertips, he takes a deep breath and says:

“Boo.”

Denny bursts out laughing, so delighted he falls and sprawls out on his back. Christopher hiccups in surprise, but he’s already grinning wide when he looks up, and completely unselfconscious as he tips backwards and lands securely against Buck’s shins.

Buck’s breath stutters in his chest.

“Bucky,” Christopher says, without yelling this time, just blinking up and smiling. He looks—happy. At peace. “You’re back.”

There’s no hint of reproach on his face, or in his voice. He doesn’t hold Buck’s little stunt against him, and he’d known this rationally – they still texted every day – but to see it on this face he loves so much, would do anything for, it lifts something Buck hadn’t even known he was carrying.

“I’m back,” he grins, “and I brought you something.”

Christopher, of course, immediately demands to see it, but Buck talks him into acting as escort to the correct table first. The park is busy, and Buck’s afraid to look around too widely, because then he’ll see Eddie.

Harry joins them on the walk over, cradling a pale brown slug in the palm of his hand. The boys promptly forget about Buck and crowd around him, poking at the thing, but by then Buck’s spotted Hen’s loud sweatshirt, and the sun glinting off Athena’s sunglasses where she’s leaning in to look at something on Hen’s phone.

“There he is!” Bobby says when he spots him, coming over to give Buck a hug that seems a little overenthusiastic for a man who last saw him not twelve hours ago.

Still, Buck would be the last person to reject affection when it’s so freely offered, so he lets himself give Bobby a squeeze; and if the way he curls his fists into the back of Bobby’s shirt gets a little desperate for a second, neither of them acknowledge it.

“I brought food,” Buck says once they’re separated, handing over the basket. The three tables occupied by the 118 and assorted family and friends are already covered edge to edge with platters of sandwiches and pastries and cupcakes, which Bobby expertly moves to display Buck’s offerings.

“What’s this?” he asks, shaking Buck’s very expensive insulated tupperware.

“Oh, not that one,” Buck reaches out, and Bobby’s eyebrows climb a little as he hands it over. “That one’s for Christopher.”

“What’s for me?”

Christopher barrels into Buck’s legs from behind, tall enough now to wrap his arms securely around Buck’s waist.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Buck grins, holding the container up above his head. “I was going to give it to you, but if you’d rather eat slugs—“

“No, Buck,” Chris laughs, pawing at him, his arm coming up hopelessly short. “Her name’s Becky, and we’re not eating her.”

Buck sighs, caving immediately. “Of course you named the slug,” he says. “Here,” he extends the container towards Chris, “for not killing her.”

Christopher grins and shakes the thing, hearing it rattle. “Are these frozen grapes?”

“You bet,” Buck grins. It’s one of the many weird TikTok food things they’ve tried, and one of the only ones that actually works. Eddie half-heartedly banned them at his house because he kept finding them scattered all over the freezer, but Buck is nothing if not an enabler where Chris is concerned. “You gotta share them, though, alright?”

Chris rolls his eyes so far back it’s a miracle they don’t get stuck that way.

“Duh.“

And he’s off again, his crutches going so fast Buck could swear they get a little blurry. Over on the kids’ blanket, Harry has salvaged a lettuce leaf out of a BLT and set Becky on it; Christopher adds a particularly tiny grape, and then all of them gather around the slug to see if anything happens.

“Does my grape ban just mean nothing to you?”

A shiver runs down Buck’s spine. He squeezes his eyes shut as tight as he can, just for a fraction of a second, and breathes in until his chest is full to bursting.

Hold for four, and breathe out. It’s just Eddie.

They, too, saw each other at work last night – have been seening each other at work – but Buck can’t shake a sense of miserable anticipation, this tightness in every one of his limbs, in the muscles of his face as he tries to smile.

He turns around. Eddie’s there, arms crossed, black shirt stretched over his shoulders. Buck’s knees shake a little; he feels like a Victorian damsel seconds away from a fainting spell.

“I didn’t violate the grape ban,” he manages, and thinks it comes out convincing enough.

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s just Eddie; only Eddie. The most familiar person in the world.

Eddie raises a sharp eyebrow, and his eyes are warm as always, capturing Buck’s and not letting go. “I said no frozen grapes.”

“In your freezer,” Buck raises a finger, and wonders how obvious it is that he wants to just tip forward and sway into Eddie and breathe him in. “I lovingly froze these at home so your son can have a cold treat on a hot day, and I’m getting him to eat fruit. You should be thanking me.”

Eddie takes a step closer. Somehow, his gaze goes softer still.

“Thanks, Buck,” he says, so quiet it barely makes it across the space between them. Buck wonders if he could chance a hug, some kind of official conclusion to these two weeks of torturing himself for absolutely nothing – because not a thing has changed about the pull he feels when he sees the light hit Eddie’s eyelashes and the bridge of his nose. Nothing has changed about the way Eddie cocks his hip and tilts his head like Buck’s a mystery he’s trying to solve; or about the fact that Buck wants to put his mouth on every inch of him; or about the crushing, crushing guilt.

Not a thing has changed about Eddie, who is devastating in the simple way he gives Buck everything and doesn’t expect anything in return.

As if she could hear him telegraphing his sad gay thoughts, Ana appears at Eddie’s elbow.

“Should they be doing that?” she asks, a wrinkle between her perfectly drawn eyebrows. She wraps an absentminded hand around Eddie’s forearm from the inside, slides it slowly down to his hand. Buck’s stomach does a full somersault.

Eddie blinks like he’s surprised to see her, even as his fingers intertwine with hers. He looks over to where she’s looking: the boys, laid out on their blanket next to each other, are still enraptured with their slug. Denny has put a rock in her way and she’s just started climbing over it, which they’re all watching with bated breath.

“Doing what?” Eddie asks. Honestly, Buck has the same question.

Ana laughs. “Playing with a—is it a slug? They won’t remember to wash their hands before they eat. Seems a little unsanitary.”

“That’s just Becky,” Buck smiles, and promptly wants to turn around and run into traffic when Ana looks at him.

Eddie groans. “Okay, who named the slug? Now they’re going to want to take it home. Hen’s gonna kill me.”

“Not Athena?” Buck chuckles.

“Harry wouldn’t dare. Athena won’t even let a moth fly into her house,” says Eddie, and then Buck knows both of them are remembering their last dinner at the Grant-Nash household. Athena had paused mid-sentence, squinted at the cracked open patio door, gotten up, and killed the poor insect in two seconds flat. Eddie, embarrassingly buzzed off of two glasses of wine, spent the rest of the night reenacting it with an equally tipsy Hen.

Buck mostly remembers being warm, and at peace in a quiet way that doesn’t often come around for him.

“It’s not coming home with us, is it?” Ana laughs again, but with something brittle behind it.

Buck physically flinches, and tries to cover it up by pretending to scratch the back of his head. He feels wrong-footed again, but in some kind of fundamental way, like he’s spent years taking the wrong turns to end up here. He hasn’t felt like this around Eddie since their very first day, and even then, he could feel something else waking up in him that he wouldn’t name for years to come. It wasn’t like now, when it all feels like it’s dying, a slow burnout.

Eddie is, thankfully, not looking at him. Instead he smiles at Ana over his shoulder, and some cruel, cold thing inside Buck roars at the fact that it’s not as bright as the smiles he usually receives.

“I’ll hear him out,” he says. “But he’d have to make a hell of an argument.”

Ana looks at the ground, long, long lashes sweeping over her cheeks, and when she looks up it’s at Buck, piercing him straight through.

He doesn’t know if it’s because he hasn’t seen her in a while, but she seems—different. Like she’s challenging him, even as she smiles and says absolutely nothing.

So he tucks tail.

“I’m, uh, gonna get some food,” he says, pointing over his shoulder to where he hopes the picnic tables are. His head’s spinning a little. “Catch you later.”

And he doesn’t let himself wait until Eddie turns to look at him, completely terrified of what he’d see.

Hen and Karen give him a hug each when they spot him, and they, too, hold on for a suspiciously long time. Chim grins around his gum, just this side of wilted, but brightens right up when Buck reminds him about the formula and dutifully reports that Maddie gave him shit while they were on the phone.

He ends up next to Athena for a little while, and she fixes him a plate without him asking, somehow picking the exact things he would, watching like a hawk while he chews and wills his appetite to come back. She’s almost clucky, and she’s only that way when she’s seriously worried, so Buck puts on a smile, and compliments the food, and internally shrinks just a little more with the added guilt of being off enough to catch her attention.

He waits until she’s distracted by Bobby, who comes up behind her and says something into her ear that Buck seriously does not need to hear, and slips away to where he doesn’t have to pretend: to Chris, Denny, and Harry, who at this point are sticky with cupcake frosting (after they all responsibly lined up to wash their hands without having to be reminded, thank you, Ana) and a little sleepy-eyed.

“Room for one more?” he asks when his shadow, enormous in comparison with them, falls over the blanket.

“Only if you’re part of Becky’s jungle gym,” Harry says, pointing to where the single lettuce leaf has grown into a whole obstacle course of rocks and twigs and dried clumps of grass.

Which is how Buck finds himself lying on his side, arm outstretched, watching as Becky valiantly makes her way through his arm hair. It’s pretty gross, but the boys are giggling around him, all too preoccupied with the sight to pay attention to him, and that’s exactly what he wants.

He can acknowledge it, at least, lying on the blanket with them and looking up at the clouds. The diffuse pain that’s been roaming around his body for the past couple of weeks, clouding over his thoughts, now concentrated like a punch right in the middle of his chest.

He’s heartbroken.

And he can’t turn away from this like he could from the sliding doors at the airport. He can’t just move out to stop seeing memories around every corner. He can’t throw himself into work, because work is Eddie, and he wouldn’t have it any other way, but—God.

He’s only made it worse.

As if he can feel the misery Buck must be emanating, Eddie turns away from his conversation with Chim and looks over. His eyes fall first to Chris, just an automatic head-to-toe sweep to make sure he’s alright, and then settle on Buck.

You okay? he mouths, with that crease between his eyebrows, and Buck’s head spins with how much he wants to go and sit right next to him, hip to hip, their knees knocking together like they do when they’re in the truck and Buck can pretend they’re touching out of necessity. He wants to go and throw his arms around Eddie, just breathe him in, and he thinks Eddie would let him.

Fine, he mouths back, adding a pathetic thumbs up. Eddie’s frown deepens, and he makes to get up – hope, irrational and so impossible to quash, flutters in Buck’s chest for a fragment of a second – but something stops him.

Even across all that distance, Buck can see Ana putting her hand on Eddie’s thigh. High on Eddie’s thigh.

Eddie glances back at her, momentarily distracted, and before Buck knows what he’s doing he’s on his feet, gently dislodging Becky and asking Chris to pass on some garbled message about not feeling well; leaving his family and his picnic basket, running out to his car feeling like the worst kind of fool.

When he reaches the Jeep, he wrenches the door open and falls in, letting his head thunk against the cool leather of the steering wheel. He doesn’t feel like crying, for a change, but there’s something else bitter and hot and unwieldy sitting on the back of his tongue, choking him. Something like shame, and regret, and feelings he can’t put a name to yet that will inevitably come back to haunt him.

So, no. Two weeks of keeping his distance from Eddie doesn’t solve a damn thing, and it certainly doesn’t get Buck’s fucking head straight.

*

Chim’s already looking harried when Buck opens the door.

“I’m late,” is what he starts with, blindly shoving forward a half-zipped diaper bag. “We slept through the alarm.”

He has circles under his eyes, but those are pretty standard these days, and his hair is sticking straight out at the back of his head.

“Albert not here?” he asks.

“He never is,” Buck shrugs, leaning against the door. “He has work right now, and then he’s going to his b—uh. I mean.”

“His boyfriend’s, yeah, I’m aware of him,” Chim rolls his eyes, but there’s something quietly happy in them too. “He’s not nearly good enough for my little brother, but I tried to bring it up once and Albert called me old. I just don’t get it, apparently.”

“Kids these days,” Buck smiles, taking the diaper bag and settling it on the kitchen table behind him. Chim rocks on the balls of his feet.

“This should be everything, I think? If you find doubles of anything it’s because I got halfway through packing it before I realized Maddie already did it, so just—hold on to them. Remember to only—“

“Only use the wet wipes you gave me last time,” Buck sighs. “Butt cream after every diaper change, down for a nap around noon, don’t let her sleep past four. Pureed fruit or veg after she wakes up, no sugar or salt, no bananas after last time, always test bottle temp, formula’s already portioned out in the little containers in the side pocket, and I also have an extra can just in case. Spare clothes and bibs in the main compartment, two teething toys, one goes in the freezer, bath at six if she’s here that late. I got it, Chim. Unhand my niece.”

Chimney looks kind of misty-eyed in a way they’ll definitely never mention, but he does disentangle a sleepy Jee-Yun from where she’s holding his jacket in her tiny fist, and reluctantly passes her to Buck.

The second she’s in his arms, something huge and ever-present just—lifts. Slips off his shoulders light as silk.

“Hi,” he grins at her, so wide his cheeks hurt. “How’s my best girl?”

She blinks at him sleepily and makes a little burbling noise, which he chooses to believe will become his name one of these days. He has it on very good authority that “Buck” is an easy word for babies to say.

“I don’t think she’s really awake yet,” Chim says, his face soft, reaching out to hold his daughter’s hand. “Oh, I packed that book you got her – the one with the penguins? We read it last night and I did sound effects, so she loved that page where the baby comes out of the egg. Just in case you’re struggling to find something to do.”

Buck grins. “Of course she loved it, I have impeccable taste.”

Chim rolls his eyes and steps from foot to foot. He rams his hands in his pockets with way too much force, leans back, leans forward again. Like he both wants and doesn’t want to leave.

Buck looks at the jittery way Chim’s chewing his gum, the way his eyes are darting up and down the hallway, and then down at Jee-Yun’s little face squished in Buck’s shoulder. A wave of affection sweeps over him so strong it makes his ears ring.

“Hey, Chim,” he says. “You want a hug?”

Chimney frowns. Wrinkles his nose.

“Actually,” he says, swaying on his feet a little, “kinda? Yeah.”

Buck leans in, wrapping his free arm around Chim’s shoulders, and feels him exhale from somewhere very deep.

“Offer still stands, you know,” he says, squeezing Chim’s shoulder, “I can keep her overnight.”

Chim’s blinking at the ground when he pulls away. “We’ll see how it goes,” he says. “It’s—been getting better since the sessions are regularly scheduled, but now that Jee’s teething Maddie has a really hard time hearing her cry but she also has a hard time being away from her for too long, so it’s—“

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” Buck interrupts, shakes his head. Puts his free hand, again, on Chim’s shoulder. “You’re doing a good job. Both of you.”

He can’t really help thinking about Eddie, then, about everything they’ve learned about one another’s parents over the years. About the way Eddie’s only ever saw his shortcomings where Buck sees the most incredible father, the kind of father he couldn’t even dream of when he was Christopher’s age.

And Buck’s opinion probably doesn’t matter much, here, but hey – if he’s got it, he might as well say it. Just in case it helps.

Chim smiles the way he does when he’s joking with a dying patient.

“Thanks,” he says. “For this. For all of it.”

“Anytime,” Buck grins, and tips his chin down just so to kiss the top of Jee’s head. “I’ll take good care of her.”

“I know,” Chim nods, and his next smile is a little stronger. “I’ll take good care of Maddie.”

“I know,” says Buck, “and you’re about to be really late.” He gently lifts one of Jee-Yun’s hands to wave goodbye. “Bye, Daddy.”

Chim makes a face that makes Buck bark out a laugh, loud and unexpected.

“Okay, I don’t ever want to hear that come out of your mouth again.”

He leans in to give Jee a kiss on the head, and then he’s turning and jogging down the hallway. “Bye, Uncle Buck!”

Buck’s still smiling when he closes the door. Jee-Yun looks up at him, as if she knows Uncle Time has begun; when he tickles her tummy, he’s awarded with a slow, gummy smile that’s so precious it kind of makes him want to cry.

“Okay, Jee,” he says, bouncing her in his arms, “we got this.”

*

Buck has definitely not got this.

He doesn’t really realize until about five in the afternoon, after they’ve been out for a long walk and Jee’s napped and is fed and changed, all of it gone so smoothly he lets himself believe that he actually might be some kind of baby whisperer. He props her up on his hip while he cleans up the puréed carrots they spilled when Buck couldn’t stop himself from making silly faces and Jee couldn’t stop herself from laughing and spitting out her food in the process. He puts her dirty bib in the sink to soak still one-handed, then sets her up in the living room on her playmat, bringing out a couple of the toys Chim brought and some of the ones that live in his apartment, soft blocks and tactile books and stuffed animals; and for a while, she looks happy enough to watch and grab at them as he makes them fly through the air. Really, Buck is handling this just fine.

Except then the crying starts.

He runs through the mental checklist in a second: she’s probably not sleepy or hungry, her diaper’s fresh, and – he checks her hands and her forehead just to make sure – she seems to be at a normal temperature.

His next best guess is teeth. Chim did say they’ve been bothering her, so he grabs the now-miserable Jee and tries to make the trip to the freezer seem like fun, making silly noises and swaying side to side as he rubs her back.

The frozen teething ring helps a little. He doesn’t want her to touch it with her hands, so he holds it while she mouths at it, and he keeps up a quiet stream of chatter while they walk the perimeter of the apartment together five times, ten times, fifteen, before she spits it out and doesn’t want it anymore.

Buck takes the opportunity to bathe her while she’s calm – he has a baby tub too, and some bath toys, because he can’t be expected to be casual about having an entire niece – and puts her in the little firefighter pyjamas he got her during a late-night Etsy dive. They say Probie’s First Day on the front, and looking at them, Buck feels some bizarre mix of unconditional love and all-consuming sorrow.

Because his head is all fucked up, and with things being what they are, he might never—

His phone rings in his back pocket, and Jee flinches at the sound. He’s holding her and shushing her before he even knows he’s doing it, and only then does he pick up, a little apprehensive when it’s Maddie’s name up on the screen.

“Hello?” he asks, careful. Jee whimpers into his neck, not crying just yet, but definitely not happy.

“Hey, little brother,” Maddie says, and she sounds exhausted, but okay. Content. “Just checking in. You guys okay?”

Buck kisses the crown of Jee-Yun’s head, bouncing in place to delay the inevitable tears.

“We’re great,” he says, and means it. They might be heading into meltdown territory, but they’re not there yet. He’s got this. He’s got it. “Just out of the bath, actually.”

“Oh,” Maddie coos, that little sound alone bursting bright like a firework in Buck’s chest. “She’s always so cute when you wash her in the ticklish spots. Did she make the face?”

The face, where she scrunches her nose and squints and look so much like Maddie.

“You bet,” Buck says, sitting down on the bed. He doesn’t particularly want to go down the stairs when both his arms are otherwise occupied. And then, because Jee’s face is scrunching and he doesn’t want her to be crying down the line, doesn’t want to sound like he’s not a safe place, doesn’t want Maddie to feel guilty for something that’s nobody’s fault, he cuts straight to the chase: “Do you want me to keep her tonight?”

Maddie sighs. In the background, Chim says something impossible to make out.

“Would that be okay?” she finally asks, every word a hesitation. “We’re both wiped, and Chim’s making something top secret for dinner.”

A beat of absolute, breathless silence.

“Dr. Bolsaro said it could be good to have a night to our—I mean. To just. Have a night, you know?”

Buck wants to hug her so badly his entire body aches with it; he squeezes Jee instead.

“Yeah,” he nods, looking down at his niece, her scrunched fists, her tiny dark eyelashes. “Absolutely. She can stay with me as long as you need. Just maybe not as long as Albert.”

That, thankfully, makes Maddie laugh, even if only a little. Chimney yells something else, pretending to be offended.

“Okay,” she breathes. “Okay. We’ll come get her tomorrow morning, around nine? Call us if you need anything, anytime. You know what to do before bed and during the night?”

Buck feels his cheek flush with a quiet, pleased kind of warmth.

“I know. Promise. I memorized it all when Chim gave me that over-the-top printout.”

“I was just covering our bases!” says Chim, close enough to be understood this time. Then, in a much softer voice: “Dinner’s ready.”

“I’ll let you guys go,” Buck says, to spare them having to try to say goodbye. “See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, Buckaroo,” Chim’s voice comes, calm, quietly happy. “See you then. Thanks.”

The call disconnects, and Jee starts screaming about five seconds later.

This time, it doesn’t stop. Buck doesn’t let go of her for a second, trying his hardest to soothe her, to make this easier on her. He paces the same four walls for close to two hours, with Jee-Yun nodding off for a moment then waking up as soon as he stops, or tries to move her.

He reaches a point where he just—starts crying. He’s never been good at seeing or hearing other people cry, and especially so when it comes to babies, because they’re so miserable and so helpless and so completely reliant on people like Buck, who is looking after Jee-Yun like this for the first time and already failing her.

So he paces, and he lets the sympathy tears quietly roll down his face. It’s not all-out screaming all the time, but she fusses and frowns and uselessly grabs at Buck’s sweatshirt. She radiates discontent, is probably in pain, and he can’t do a damn thing about it.

At seven, he makes up her evening bottle, and she drinks it easily, blinking her big eyes up at Buck and at the ceiling. He thinks that might be it, doesn’t dare breathe for fear of disturbing the way her eyes are sliding closed.

Then an ambulance puts on the siren outside, and they’re back to square one.

Finally, at around eight, Buck can’t keep walking anymore. He sits gingerly on the edge of the couch, which Jee predictably doesn’t like. He puts on cartoons, bounces her, tries to distract her with a stuffed animal, but she’s never okay, never settled. She cries, and cries, and cries, and Buck’s just so tired, his head full of something like cotton wool, his face puffy from crying.

It’s more instinct than rational thought when he dials Eddie’s number.

He picks up two rings in, because of course he does, even though Buck has been hesitant, evasive, about entering his life again in shifts, like they did before he took his useless two-week Diaz sabbatical.

“You okay?” is what Eddie opens with, and Buck has never been so glad to hear another person’s voice.

I need you, he almost says. It takes conscious effort to swallow the words back down.

“I, uh,” he starts, and finds that he has to clear his throat, raspy with hours of pointless talking and tears. “I’m okay, I’m just—Eddie, I—“

Jee chooses that moment to let out a miserable little sob. Buck immediately tears up along with her, which is so absolutely embarrassing, but at least Eddie can’t see him.

“Ah,” says Eddie, on the other end of the phone. The soundscape around him changes, noises dying down. “How long has she been like that?”

Buck blows out a breath. “I don’t know. Two hours? I guess maybe three, but she wasn’t that fussy at first. It’s just—I think her teeth are really bothering her and I can’t do anything for her, I’m so—“

“Okay, hang tight,” Eddie interrupts. A sound like a drawer opening, like a zipper closing. “We shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes. Maybe try freezing a washcloth in the meantime? That used to be Adriana’s go-to thing.”

And he hangs up before Buck can do anything, stutter out a response, tell Eddie not to come because it sounds like—okay. Okay. Freeze a washcloth.

He does that, and walks up the stairs to the bathroom still holding Jee-Yun to splash some water on his face. As expected, he looks like someone reversed a car through the middle of his face, his eyes and cheeks puffy and splotchy and distorted.

It really isn’t twenty minutes, more like fifteen. After the endless, torturous stretch of evening he’s just had it feels like barely a blink. The key rattles in the door for just a second, and then Eddie’s coming in, Christopher on his heels. Buck’s not ashamed to admit that he goes a little weak at the knees with relief.

“Hey, Buck,” Eddie says quietly. He smiles at Buck across the room, and the first thing he does is scrub his hands in the kitchen sink, all the way up to the elbows, and directs Christopher to do the same. “How you doing?”

Buck bounces the baby in his arms. She’s clearly exhausted, her blinks syrupy-slow, but she’s making noises, and her forehead is still stacked into a series of uncomfortable wrinkles.

“She’s better, I think,” he replies, equally quietly, gently sweeping a tuft of hair away from her face. “But it’s just because she’s so tired.”

Eddie comes towards them, and Buck just wants to kiss him. Wildly.

He’s not a mirage. He’s actually here. He packed a bag like he’s expecting to stay, and packed up Chris, and got in the car and came here.

“Not what I asked,” Eddie says, and holds out his arms. “May I?”

Buck hands Jee over like she’s made of glass. But she’s safe with Eddie. She’s safe with Eddie, and as soon as that knowledge kicks in, he free-falls backwards and sinks into the couch. As his arms come down by his sides, sharp pain shoots through his biceps, his shoulders, his back. He looks at his own hands, frowning, then looks up.

Eddie has Jee settled into the crook of his arm, easy and secure like he’s done it a million times.

“Hi, gorgeous,“ he smiles, so completely unrestrained that it takes Buck’s breath away. “You’re having a rough night, huh?”

Jee babbles something back at him, reaching up and grabbing a hold of whatever’s closest, which turns out to be Eddie’s nose. She squeezes, making Eddie grimace, and Christopher laughs at them as he makes his way into the room. He falls into the couch next to Buck, tipping sideways so he’s leaning into his side.

“Hey Buck,” he smiles sleepily.

“Hey, buddy,” Buck leans over to press a kiss into his curls. “Sleepy? Your dad drag you out of bed?”

“Not yet,” Eddie says. He’s taken over the pacing, making a slow circle around the kitchen and living room. Every couple of steps, Jee whines softly, and he makes an answering noise back, a deep rumble in his chest. Each one hits Buck low in his gut, kind of like a gunshot. “And he perked up suspiciously when I said we were going to yours.”

“I got sleepy in the car,” Christopher says, but his eyes are already open wider where they’re trained on the TV.

Eddie comes back around, circling the couch, deliberately idling in front of Christopher until he lets out a Daaaad that makes them both laugh. Jee’s crying intermittently, definitely exhausted by now, and Eddie rocks her with a motion that looks painfully natural, so easy he’s probably not even thinking about it.

When he looks down at Buck, he’s still smiling.

“You’re looking rough,” he says, but there’s a grin like a reassurance tucked into the corner of his mouth. “What were you doing?”

And he reaches out, completely unselfconscious, to wipe at where Buck’s jaw is still a little damp.

“Crying,” Buck shrugs, careful not to dislodge Christopher.

Eddie’s eyes are dark, and so impossibly soft. The kind of look that makes Buck momentarily wild with hope, just for a second, before reality kicks in.

“Because she was?”

Buck thought he didn’t really have it in him to be embarrassed anymore, not in front of Eddie anyway, but his cheeks are definitely burning.

“I mean,” he shrugs again, looking away, at where dishes are piled up in his sink. “Look at her. It breaks my heart to see her so unhappy.”

Eddie smiles, running a careful finger down the slope of Jee-Yun’s nose.

“Yeah,” he says, and when Buck looks back, Eddie’s there. Quietly: “I know.”

They both look at Christopher then. Now that Eddie isn’t in his way, he’s absorbed in whatever animated action thing is playing on the TV, the screen reflected in his glasses.

Buck’s gotten good at living with the ache, a constant undercurrent that he doesn’t always notice. Here, now, surrounded by the people who make him happiest and kind of halfway cracked open already, it easily fights its way to the surface.

It’s feels so natural to tilt his head up just so, here in the half-dark, so in a universe where Eddie wants to kiss him, he could lean down and do so. It feels natural to look at this and see family, his family, because there is a world out there somewhere where Buck figured this out in time. Where he got better, was better, did more, until he could stand in front of Eddie and offer himself as an option without wanting to die of shame at his own presumptuousness.

Maybe there, he can just sit, and let Eddie look at him, and not duck his head away out of fear.

He goes to tug on the collar of his sweatshirt to release the heat that’s built up underneath, but hisses halfway there when sharp pain shoots down to his elbow.

Eddie raises an eyebrow. “Were you holding her that whole time?”

“I wasn’t gonna let her go, Eddie.”

“So you just spent two hours—yeah, no, of course you did,” he sighs, and resumes his pacing when Jee starts wriggling in his arms. He puts a gentle finger on the side of her face, rubbing in little circles. “You helping your uncle grow his tiny arms, huh, muñeca?”

Buck lets out a highly undignified sound, which makes Christopher burst into tired giggles.

“Buck’s arms are like pillows, Dad,” he says, digging his head deeper into Buck’s shoulder as if to prove his point. It kind of hurts, but there is no universe out there in which Buck would ask him to move.

“Uh-huh,” Eddie laughs, quieter as Jee-Yun quiets down too. “That why his new uniform shirt’s too big?”

“That’s because Bobby accidentally ordered an extra large,” Buck hisses, mindful of the baby that, God willing, praise Jesus, might finally be dropping off into sleep. “And you know it. You were literally there.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Eddie says, so quietly it’s more of a soundwave than anything else. He turns his back and walks farther away from the TV, turning off the kitchen light and standing there in the moonlit patch of floor. He sounds like he’s humming something, a soft, mostly tuneless melody.

“That’s the Swedish lullaby,” Chris whispers, because he, of course, has picked up on the fact that they’ve suddenly gone quiet. “Grandma used to sing it to me.”

“Swedish, huh?” Buck whispers back, warm like the cavern of his chest is a fireplace.

“Dad doesn’t know all the words,” says Christopher, trying to wink at Buck and blinking really hard instead. “He just sings the same thing over and over.”

Buck chuckles, mindful of his volume. He raises the arm Christopher is leaning against and wraps it around his shoulders, letting him slump down a little lower so he’s more comfortable. It still hurts, but he barely notices.

“Speaking of lullabies,” he says, “you wanna sleep in my bed like last time?”

It had been a whole thing: after Christopher discovered that Buck’s bed is about three times as wide as his, with plenty of room even when sharing with one of them, he refused to get out of it in the morning. Buck had made breakfast and brought it up the stairs on a tray, wheedling Eddie into framing it as a treat, slowly making his sleepy frown disappear. They shared day-old croissants and fresh eggs and orange juice, and then Christopher pouted until they agreed to all get in the bed and watch one episode of Miraculous Ladybug on Buck’s laptop, which naturally turned into a three-hour marathon.

Buck can’t really remember ever feeling more content. In retrospect, he isn’t sure how it took so long for the Eddie love train to arrive at the station for him.

“Duh,” is Christopher’s reply, and he yawns as if to punctuate it. “I already brushed my teeth at home. Got t’ put on my pyjamas, though.”

Buck looks over his shoulder to where Eddie’s duffel bag is still sitting by the door.

“Did you bring them?”

“Yep,” says Christopher, slowly setting himself back upright. “Dad forgot, but Ana reminded him.”

The warmth instantly goes up in a puff of smoke.

“Oh,” Buck says, too loudly, and tries to cover it up with a cough. “Uh, she was—I mean, did you guys have plans? With Ana?”

Christopher shrugs, now sitting up, but probably too tired to stand. “Her and dad were watching a movie, I think,” he says, and Buck’s stomach free-falls and lands somewhere at his feet. “But I wanted to finish my book. And then you called,” and he grins all toothy and wide-eyed, like he can’t tell that Buck’s suddenly nauseous and cold all over.

He looks over to the kitchen, where Eddie’s leaning back against the counter, looking down at Jee-Yun with a smile so soft as to be absent-minded.

Buck knows a tense Eddie; an Eddie who’s holding something back. This is not him. He packed an overnight bag for himself and his half-asleep son, and left a movie night with his girlfriend to come help Buck take care of a fussy infant. And he’s just—there, helping. Looking like he’s exactly where he wants to be.

Buck can’t really cope with that reality, so he does the next best thing and runs away.

“You mind if I carry you, buddy?” he asks, getting up and stretching his achy arms above his head. “You seem pretty tired.”

“I’ll go to the stairs,” Christopher replies, so Buck lets him gather his crutches and do just that, then settles him safely in his arms and makes their way up the stairs. He then has to run back down because he forgot the pyjamas, but once he has them Christopher makes quick work of getting into them, coming out of the bathroom in a couple of minutes with his eyes barely open. He gets right into the middle of Buck’s bed, happy as anything to bury his head in the pillow. Buck’s heart thumps at the sight.

“Night, Chris,” he says, trying to keep his voice even as he presses a kiss to Christopher’s forehead and takes his glasses.

“Night, Bucky,” Christopher replies around a yawn. “Love you.”

He’s asleep by the time Buck manages to choke out a response.

Downstairs, Eddie is crossing the living space in slow, measured steps. Jee’s little face is tucked into his chest, and she’s – Buck has to blink a few times to make sure he’s not seeing things – asleep.

He steps off the last stair soundlessly, sneaking past to turn off the TV before Eddie has to walk by it to get to the travel crib set up in the corner. Once he’s there, he leans down, carefully untangling Jee-Yun’s hands where they’re fisted in his shirt, then setting her down quickly, not letting her hover unsteadily in the air.

Buck holds his breath as soon as Eddie straightens up, and Eddie seems to be doing the same thing. On tiptoes, Buck walks across the living room to stand at his side, a couple of feet between them for Jesus or Ana’s invisible presence or maybe Buck’s own sanity; he can’t tell at this point.

Jee-Yun’s chest is rising and falling evenly, her nose a little scrunched. She’s already reached out to hold on to the ear of her stuffed bunny, and her forehead is smoothed out, peaceful, for the first time in hours.

“How did you do that?” Buck mouths, only making the slightest sound.

Eddie smiles, the white of his teeth flashing in the darkness. “Gum massage,” he gestures at his own face. “Worked like a charm.”

Buck filters out several inappropriate responses, and ends up just smiling back. With his niece finally better, safe, the fear and upset fall off him all at once, and he can immediately feel how exhausted he is.

“Go sit down,” Eddie whispers, putting a hand on Buck’s elbow like Buck’s unsteady on his feet, which he thinks he isn’t, but. “She’s good. Chris in bed?”

Buck has a sudden flashback to another night, light years ago now. A night before he knew about any of this, when Eddie came home to him.

“Right in the middle of it,” he smiles, and slumps onto the couch again. “Already asleep, too.”

Quietly, quietly, Eddie huffs. Buck can only kind of see his face in the lights that filter in from the street.

“Of course he is. I’ll go give him a kiss goodnight and brush my teeth.”

Brush his teeth. Which Chris had already done but then he didn’t have his pyjamas and then Ana had to—

“Buck? You asleep already?”

And Buck wishes, desperately, that he were just a fraction braver when it comes to this. That he could sit up straight and ask it outright, instead of having the question loop and loop and loop in his head: why did you leave her to come to me?

But instead, he chokes out a “no” even though his eyes are closed, and listens to the familiar cadence of Eddie’s footsteps coming towards him.

A hand in his hair. Eddie’s hand in his hair, there and gone like a mirage. Buck would think he was dreaming, except then Eddie chuckles, and he opens his eyes to find Eddie above him, filling his field of vision, his face tinged with the orange of a late-night city street.

“’M not asleep,” Buck repeats, squinting up at his best friend, his North. How can he ever learn to make his way in the world without Eddie?

“Okay, big guy,” Eddie replies, something soft and private in the set of his face. Then he makes to go around the couch, to leave, and Buck—

Buck reaches out and grabs his wrist, a warm pulse immediately alive in the palm of his hand.

“Eddie,” he says, but he already has Eddie’s attention. “Thank you.”

Eddie makes no move to pull himself out of Buck’s grip. Instead, he smiles again, the crow’s feet blooming around his eyes visible even in the dark.

“Anytime,” he says.

Buck lets go.

He stares straight ahead to the soundtrack of Eddie padding softly up the stairs, murmuring something soft in Spanish, going into the bathroom and shutting the door with a click. The blank TV only kind of shows a reflection, half of him in the light, half shrouded in shadow. His ribs are reverberating with the force of his own heartbeat.

He goes and gets a pillow and a blanket, just for something to do, then leans back and closes his eyes for a second. Just a second.

Except then Eddie’s waking him, rubbing his shoulder instead of shaking it, murmuring something that sounds like “let’s get you to bed, huh?” But there’s—something, there’s definitely something Buck is forgetting, nagging and nagging as he stumbles up the stairs, as Eddie pushes him down into covers that are hiding Chris. He has to do something, but this bed is so much better than the couch, the pillow so much softer.

He doesn’t wake up until seven in the morning.

He’s upright before he’s even fully opened his eyes, because—it’s Jee-Yun, the thing he forgot is his own fucking niece—

And then he makes it halfway down the stairs, and looks down, and stops dead.

Eddie’s sitting in the armchair, one of his legs pulled up. Jee’s settled in the crook of his arm, and he’s holding one of her bottles in his other hand, tipped at a gentle angle as she drinks. She’s making little gulping noises, perfectly content, with her little hand just wrapped around Eddie’s thumb. Christopher is sitting on the floor next to them, chin propped up on the armrest, a careful finger running over the top of Jee’s head as he quietly asks Eddie something, as Eddie grins when he responds.

Not for the first time, Buck wonders how it doesn’t just kill him. To want something this much.

It feels forbidden to even think it, somehow, to entertain the fantasy where this is his actual life, and not just a stolen moment he’ll desperately tuck away for when he needs it most.

“Morning, Buck,” Eddie says without so much as looking up. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Buck gapes. “But—“

“I said,” Eddie interrupts, tipping his head almost all the way back to look at Buck on the stairs, “I don’t wanna hear it. You were exhausted. We both literally get up in the middle of the night at a moment’s notice for a living. Your couch is actually decent to sleep on, so I didn’t mind, and she only woke up once anyway.”

It’s too early for this, actually.

And,” Eddie adds, pointing with the empty bottle Jee-Yun has just finished, “you’re not a bad uncle for needing some sleep. You did great.”

Those exact thoughts are in the process of snuggling down in Buck’s mind, ready to eat him alive once Jee is on her way home. At Eddie’s words, they pause, considering, and Buck makes himself move, hopeful that if he physically outruns them they might not take root. He’s tired, so tired of always second-guessing himself.

Eddie sets Jee-Yun down on her playmat, leaving her under Christopher’s watchful gaze, and pats Buck on the chest when he passes him on his way to the kitchen.

With the baby fed and much more content than she was last night, Buck allows himself to relax a little. He gets Christopher’s favorite cereal down from the top of the cupboard, where it usually sits and waits for him to visit, and sets out the less violently sweet kind for him and Eddie. When he goes to turn on the coffee machine, he discovers coffee already made, and his favorite mug set out empty beside the carafe. There’s a ring on the counter that betrays the presence of another mug at some point, because Eddie has a peculiar and chronic inability to see the damn things when he leaves them.

Just before nine, when they’re all more or less dressed and sitting in a circle around Jee as she attempts to crawl, there’s a knock on the door. Maddie and Chim come together, and stutter in the doorway when Eddie wanders out of the living area right after Buck, all rumpled and guzzling his third cup of coffee.

“Oh, hey,” he waves when he spots them. “I think your daughter’s staging an escape attempt.”

They all look to where he’s pointing over his shoulder: Christopher is still sitting on the couch, laughing as he watches Jee, who has put on a burst of speed and is making for them. She hasn’t noticed her parents yet, so she crawls in a straight line, with a single-minded focus, towards Eddie. Once there, she tugs on the leg of his sweatpants, babbling something.

Buck supposes he should be—jealous, or something. Hurt by the fact that it’s not him she’s seeking out. But it’s Eddie who finally took her hurt away last night; Eddie who’s just spent the night sleeping by her side and woke up with her in the morning, and that was clearly enough for her to understand that it’s always safe to come to him.

Of course she’s obsessed with Eddie: like uncle, like niece.

“Oh, I don’t think you’re looking for me,” Eddie says, even as he grins and puts his coffee on the kitchen island so he can sweep her up – quick, in a way that makes her laugh. “Look who’s here.”

As soon as he turns her to face Maddie and Chim, Jee-Yun shrieks, wildly throwing herself forward. He keeps a firm grip on her until Maddie steps up, her smile a little watery, pressing her cheek to the top of Jee-Yun’s head as she keeps up a stream of unintelligible chatter.

“Hi,” she says, quiet, “I missed you.”

Buck wants to cry, and also wants to hug her, but then Chim wraps an arm around Maddie’s shoulders and presses a smiling kiss into Jee-Yun’s hair, and Buck’s reminded that it’s been a long time since he’s been the only one looking out for his sister.

They get going pretty quickly after that, Maddie moving around Buck’s apartment with ease and picking up Jee’s stuff, which has somehow scattered everywhere over the course of a day. She hugs Buck on her way back, her arms squeezing tight and not quite meeting behind his back.

“Love you,” she whispers.

“Love you more,” Buck grins, and presses a kiss to her temple. “Drive safe.”

She smiles at him, and at Eddie, and makes sure to specifically wave goodbye to Christopher, who enthusiastically returns it.

“Thanks again,” Chim says before he leaves, looking at Buck, then at Eddie, then back at Buck, his eyebrows telling an entire story. “See you in like,” he looks at his watch, “eight hours.”

“Bye, Chim,” Buck says, managing to only sound a little strained, and then the door is closing and they’re alone. The whole thing probably took all of ten minutes, but he feels jittery now that someone else has seen. Maddie and Chim enable each other’s gossipy tendencies, and they aren’t stupid. They know exactly what this is for Buck – and they haven’t even heard about the part where Eddie sent his actual girlfriend away in the middle of the evening so he could come here.

Buck turns around to face him and feels—precarious, like he’s standing on the surface of water.

But then Eddie smiles, and inclines his head towards where Christopher is eyeing the Playstation, and the feeling dissolves into solid ground under his feet.

*

Three days later, Ana’s bringing her nut-free muffins to the firehouse and charming the socks off everyone she meets, and Buck’s pulling out of Hen’s grip in search of some privacy.

He has to pass them, her and Eddie, on his way to the stairs, and he manages a quick “hey, Ana,” and a brittle smile, not daring to slow down in case she wants to talk to him or offer him a baked good or demonstrate yet another way in which she’s Eddie’s ideal partner. He can feel multiple pairs of eyes in the back of his neck as he descends, but then he’s on the ground floor and disappearing into the relative safety of the bunk room.

No one’s there, paradoxically, because word spread that there were carbs to be had upstairs. Buck slumps onto the first bed by the door, where Hen likes to sleep, and bends at the waist until his head is almost between his knees. He doesn’t know what it is about today, why all of his guilt and hurt and confusion are roiling so close to the surface, so difficult to tame, but it’s making him sick. Something acidic is burning at the back of his tongue; bile, or words that feel like it.

It helps to be here, though, for a while. He closes his eyes and does a bit of box breathing, vaguely listening out for the bell. What he hears instead, after a grey stretch of time he couldn’t quantify if he tried, is that same quiet click of heels, passing the door, going in the direction of the street. Eddie’s probably with her, and he’ll definitely be barging in here to figure out what’s wrong. Five, four, three—

“Buck?”

Huh. He must have walked faster than Buck expected.

“Yeah,” he says, clearing his throat to get his voice back, his mouth parched after all that open-mouth exhaling. “I’m in here.”

Eddie opens the door just a crack and slips through it. He’s quiet as a cat, weighing every movement in that way he does sometimes when they’re going into a fire half-blind. Just for now, Buck hates that he knows this. That he can comprehend Eddie’s mood by his footsteps.

“So,” says Eddie, after he’s let the silence hang meaningfully for a beat. “What’s going on?”

He sits down, close enough that Buck’s hip is pulled towards him by the dip of the mattress.

Buck doesn’t know how long he can hold out, but he’s going to give it a shot.

“Just really tired, for some reason,” he tries. He rubs his hands over his face until his skin is stinging, until something in his nose lets out a quiet pop.

“Buck,” Eddie sighs. “What happened to communicating your feelings?”

And that makes Buck laugh, but it comes out all warped and loud, like a bark.

“Look,” Eddie says again, and Buck curses himself for how much he’s come to rely on this, Eddie’s ability to see right to the quick of him, when he needs it. He’s let him in so far that he can’t keep him out anymore. “I just want to know if it’s something I did. Because you’re—being weird around me.”

Buck’s breath stutters somewhere halfway up his throat.

“I am?” he asks, and opens his eyes. His head’s still down, and all he can see like this are Eddie’s feet, the toes of his boots turned just so in Buck’s direction.

He thought he was hiding it. He lapsed sometimes, especially when he was alone, but he’d leashed himself so, so short around Eddie.

And apparently he didn’t do that right, either. So fucking typical.

In his limited view, Buck sees Eddie’s hand come towards him, the warmth of his palm settling around Buck’s knee. Eddie’s ring finger is on the inside of his thigh, if only barely, and it burns.

Buck’s entire body shakes with the need to lean over, lean in, go to Eddie. Be with him, in him, around him. Everywhere; everywhere.

“Yeah,” Eddie says, after a thousand years. “Even before the—the thing you were dealing with. Which you still haven’t told me about, by the way.”

He doesn’t say it like an accusation.

“I’m sorry,” Buck says, caving in a flash. Yielding, as he always does. He can’t make his body, his mind, understand that Eddie’s not safe this one time. It’s all of him, always. “I didn’t mean to.”

“That’s not—“ Eddie huffs. “Buck. Can you look at me?”

No. No, he can’t.

And he does anyway.

Eddie’s eyes are a rich brown in the semi-darkness of the room; wide, earnest, there. Buck feels like roadkill for sitting here and deflecting and lying.

“You’re allowed to go through stuff without telling me about it,” Eddie says, though the specific twist of his mouth say that’s not quite true. “I just don’t want you to think that you’re alone in dealing with it, and it kind of seems like you’ve been going this one alone.”

Buck lets his breath out through his teeth. Maybe he should just say it. Just say it and ease this pain, this heaviness.

But then he remembers the sound of heels on the firehouse floor, and Eddie’s house smelling different when he comes over some days. Remembers everything he’d be complicating.

And besides, he think as he looks at Eddie and stays quiet, Eddie would be good about it. Would give him space again, without asking, and Buck thinks it might just kill him this time around.

“I, uh,” he says, letting himself lay his own hand over Eddie’s for a count of three before he pulls away. “I have it handled. Or I guess I’m on the way there. I never meant to…”

He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence and not give himself away.

“You never meant for me to notice?” Eddie fills in, and it’s true, but Buck can see what he’s thinking, and he wants to scream that it’s not like that, never like that. “Why not?

And God, Buck wants to cry at the fact that he’s asking, that he’s so completely free of assumptions. That he’s giving Buck every chance to explain.

“Am I not your best friend?” Eddie asks, in a tone that assumes the answer, but Buck can hear the insecurity underneath, plain as day. “How could you think I wouldn’t notice? You’ve been off for a long time, Buck. Even before you asked to be alone, you’d come over and just be—weird. You keep looking away from me, and you don’t really laugh anymore, not the way you used to.”

And it’s here, in the bunk room of firehouse 118, that Buck lets himself admit he might be mourning. Trying to grieve the might have beens even as they happen to him, again and again and again. Because he wants Eddie and Christopher to be his, and watching them belong to someone else in a million little ways is a little fatal every time it happens.

Because Eddie knows him like no one else on Earth does. That’s the problem.

“You didn’t seem okay at the team picnic, and when I wanted to ask if you were doing alright I had to find out from Christopher that you ran away. And I mean, you already weren’t in the best mood today, but then—“ and he stops, sudden, like something’s knocked the words out of him. “Fuck.”

“Eddie, don’t—“

“It’s Ana. Isn’t it?”

No force in the world could make Buck keep looking at him. Instead, he searches the blank walls for something to hold on to, a point of focus so he doesn’t shake apart. It’s three steps to the door. Two, if he makes them real big.

“No,” he says, and tries to stand up, because he can’t, he can’t. He needs to regroup, rethink, and then maybe they can talk about this again. Once he’s found a lie convincing enough.

But Eddie, naturally, doesn’t allow that. The hand on Buck’s knee moves to grab his wrist to keep him in place, uncompromising.

“Why wouldn’t you tell me?” he asks, just this side of strangled. Buck wants to look at him, but then he’d lose. “Is it—do you want to see us more often? I know it all changed, but I’ve really been trying—“

“No,” Buck says again, shaking his head like a dog. He still has two hours left on this shift, and if he lets himself feel anything, if he allows the sheer devastation of what he’s about to break here to hit him, he’ll go from an emergency responder to an emergency. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Eddie. Not a thing.”

“I didn’t want you to feel like you were any less important to me,” says Eddie, so quietly Buck almost doesn’t hear him for his own labored breathing.

Maybe it’d be easier if it had gone that way. If Eddie had pulled away himself, dedicated more time to building a family with Ana. Buck would have hurt on the sidelines, but it might have never come to this. He could’ve kept lying to himself, kept playing at happiness with someone else.

“I didn’t,” he says, and finds his eyes moving over automatically when he hears Eddie’s shaky inhale. They stop just short of Eddie’s face. “You didn’t do anything, Eddie. I’m just—it’s my thing, okay? I’m trying to figure out where I fit. Where I’ll fit when you get more serious. The last thing I want is to encroach on your relationship, or—or your space. I know I can be a lot. I’m not exactly a ‘beer and a game’ kind of friend.”

Eddie’s fingers, burning like brands, tighten on Buck’s skin.

“Of course you’re not,” he says, still quiet. “Ana knows that.”

“Maybe,” Buck shrugs. There’s an empty nail in the plaster right opposite him, and a crack running down from the ceiling. Probably something to have Bobby look at. “But she might not want it around.”

“That wouldn’t be her decision to make,” Eddie says, his voice suddenly firm. “You know that you’re—“

“Family,” Buck nods, and swipes a hand over his face, amazed not to see tears. “But she might be too, Eddie. She’ll become your family if you both want that. And then,” he takes a breath, which is a fight, “then what she wants is going to matter.”

Something crashes outside – probably someone cleaning the ladder truck – and the sound echoes dully in the room, inside Buck’s skull like someone’s hit him in the head.

He actually gets up this time. Eddie’s grip on him has slackened, and he lets go easily, his mouth half-open like he doesn’t know what to say.

“I wouldn’t blame her,” Buck says, grappling for the doorknob like a life raft, “if she didn’t want me around.”

And the he barges out of the room, only narrowly dodging one of the new probies. Eddie doesn’t come after him, and it’s not until Buck’s halfway up the stairs that he hears Eddie say his name, weak, almost stuttered.

He stills.

Up in the loft, Hen’s leaning against the railing and watching him, the overhead lights reflecting off her glasses.

Buck meets her eyes for a beat, looks away, and keeps going.

*

He’s been home for two hours.

Two hours and ten minutes, if he counts standing in the elevator and staring in the mirror without pressing the button until someone else got on.

He’s still wearing his uniform, because he’d taken off without a word as soon as he saw C shift making their way out of the locker room, and the collar feels like it’s choking him more and more with each passing second. He has tried unbuttoning it a few times now, but his fingers are clumsy and cold and just kind of—there. He’s not sure he quite remembers how to operate them.

The day’s turning yellow and orange behind the window, a patch of sunlight traveling over Buck’s leg where he’s leaning back against the couch, his entire body feeling like a bruise. They only got called out one more time, to a guy who got trapped in a tree when his ladder fell away and was then stuck in there for eight hours, and Bobby had put Eddie on the actual rescue, so it’s not like the strain is physical.

It’s just—the weight. Everything’s heavy.

Most of all, the gazes of his teammates in his back as he attempted to function through the rest of the day. Eddie’s gaze in his back, somehow distinguishable with no effort at all.

Buck had run away from him.

Eddie let him.

He manages to get off the couch at around six, according to his watch, and he gets as far as entering the kitchen and pouring himself a glass of almond milk. Then he stands and stares at it for a minute, the perfect unbroken surface of the liquid returning his own reflection.

The anticipation is the worst part. He doesn’t know when it’s actually going to hit – how close he came, everything he broke. He’s just waiting for it to drown him, all at once, so he can begin figuring out how to swim to the surface again.

Because if Eddie is anything, it’s good, down to his bones. He won’t throw Buck away because of this, and if he repeats it enough, he might actually start believing it.

He lifts the glass to his mouth, trying to negotiate with himself to take a sip.

There’s a knock on the door.

Buck runs through the options of who could be out there, and draws a blank. He just saw the vast majority of his friends at work, Maddie has a therapy appointment, Taylor’s out of town, and Albert has a key. Besides which, they all know to ring the bell from downstairs, in case he’s in the loft and needs a minute to get down.

The only one who doesn’t is Eddie, because Buck gave him a key before he had his leg crushed like a potato chip.

But Eddie is—

“I know you’re in there.”

At the door, apparently.

Buck sets his glass down with a bang, barely managing not to break it. The almond milk splashes out over his wrist and the counter, and when he reaches for a towel to wipe it up, he finds his hands suddenly trembling.

He could probably pretend he’s not here, somehow. That he went for a run after such a slow shift, to clear his head.

But this is the wave, heading for him.

“Buck, come on,” Eddie says, his voice muffled. “I just want to talk to you.”

Buck exhales for a count of four. He squeezes his eyes shut until he sees lights dancing in the darkness behind his eyelids, then goes to get the door.

“You could have let yourself in,” he says before he sees Eddie.

Eddie, who really is on his doorstep, changed into jeans and a shirt and that red flannel that looks so unfairly good on him. And he doesn’t look like he came to fight, or to have the kind of conversation that will leave Buck all disassembled.

No: Eddie’s smiling.

“You’ve been knocking on my door for months,” he says, not making a move to come inside. “Which I was stupid enough not to realize until today.”

Buck shrugs. “Just basic decency.”

“You don’t know what that is,” Eddie grins, something alight in his expression. “Can I come in?”

Buck steps to the side. He has the sudden urge to fidget with something, but the hem of his shirt is still tucked into his uniform pants.

“Okay,” Eddie says, stepping into the middle of Buck’s kitchen. If Buck didn’t now better, he’d almost call him—fidgety. He leans forward, his elbows on the kitchen island, a barrier that he seems to need just as much as Buck does.

“So,” he says again, when Buck says silent. “I just broke up with my girlfriend.”

The air in the room disappears from one second to the next, and Buck can’t breathe.

His hands, still clumsy at best, come up to paw at his collar, but the too-small buttons slip through his fingers easily. He knows, somewhere in the back corner of his brain, that Eddie’s words didn’t actually create a vacuum. That if he slowed down to take in oxygen, it would come.

But Eddie’s here, and the smile’s finally off his face, and he’s coming closer when Buck’s vision blurs at the edges. He must say something, because his mouth curls around a sound, but Buck’s own heart is pummeling his ears, and he can’t hear anything.

God, calm down. Calm down, calm down, Eddie will know

“Buck.” And a hand in the middle of his chest, right where it’s trying and failing to rise. “Come on, you know the drill.”

And it’s not so much the reminder of how to breathe that does it. It’s Eddie’s palm, steady and sure, the warmth that unfurls from every point of contact between them. Buck breathes in through his nose, and his lungs actually fill.

Still, he keeps tugging on his collar, because the damn thing feels like a noose, and it won’t open.

Eddie chuckles, a warm sound that ripples through the air.

“Stop that,” he says, and his hand closes around Buck’s wrist, pulls his hand away. “This is brand new, Bobby’s gonna kill you if you ruin it.”

Buck waves his free hand. “Won’t open,” he says miserably, only a little choked.

Without so much as asking, Eddie reaches out. Buck stops breathing again as the tips of Eddie’s fingers slide underneath his collar, the heat of him overwhelming. As he works the button, one of his knuckles presses in just under Buck’s Adam’s apple, barely there but hot as a brand.

Buck’s knees disappear from under him, and he has to blindly reach backwards to hold himself up. He can’t stop his mind from spinning, not when they’re like this, when Eddie could take one more step and press him into the door; not when he has to grit his teeth so he doesn’t tilt his head all the way back and bare his neck and beg for something he can’t have.

There’s no way Eddie doesn’t notice, but maybe Buck can blame it on the lack of air. He doesn’t breathe, at any rate, until the noose around his throat has loosened, until Eddie has undone the top button and another two after it. Buck’s mind, drunk on Eddie’s voice telling him he just broke up with Ana, pushes the words keep going onto his tongue, where he has to bite down to keep them in.

And, just as the thought of her name sobers him, Eddie steps away. Something is different about him, has been different about him since he came in, and it’s visible now more than before, but Buck can’t put his finger on it at all.

“Better?” he asks, and Buck has to clear his throat three times before he tries to speak.

“Yeah,” he says, and wishes he could erase the lingering sensation of Eddie’s touch, “thanks.”

Eddie nods, and returns to the island. Buck stays where he is, letting him put space between them.

“As I was saying,” Eddie says, something quietly amused in the curled corner of his mouth, “I just broke up with my girlfriend. I thought you might like to know.”

Buck blinks. “Um,” he says, and doesn’t know where to put any of his limbs, “why?”

Eddie’s eye spark in Buck’s stupid mood lighting. “You can’t think of a reason?”

And Buck has to wrap his own arms around himself, to hold it together, to keep everything in. He wants, wants, wants to turn himself inside out for Eddie, to tell him every last thought he’s had in the past couple of months, but he doesn’t know what this is. Doesn’t know where it’s going.

“She got comfortable,” Eddie says eventually, watching his fingers draw circles on the countertop. “When you were taking your break.”

“And that’s bad?” Buck asks, and thinks of shirts he can’t find because they’re in the bottom drawer of Eddie’s dresser, of pans and utensils he had to buy twice because he brought them over to Eddie’s to cook dinner and left them there for next time.

“Well,” Eddie tilts his head, studying Buck’s face, “no. That’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s not bad for your serious girlfriend to feel comfortable in your house. But I hated it.”

“Oh.”

“She threw out the toothbrush you had at mine,” says Eddie, and steps out from behind the island.

Buck takes a step back, and meets the door. He desperately wants to open it and run, but that’s also the last thing he wants to do.

“She cooked a bunch of stuff I specifically told her Christopher doesn’t like, because she wanted him to be more adventurous with his eating, but then she also kept telling him to walk around the house with his crutches, as if he doesn’t have it figured out by now,” the corner of his mouth pulls down. He stills halfway across the open space, hands in the pockets of his jeans. “And she mysteriously disappeared that photo strip we had on the fridge. From the aquarium.”

Where they all managed to crowd into the photo booth together. Where, Buck has since realized, the look in his eyes in the last picture gives away every single thing.

“And then she came to the firehouse unannounced this morning, and then you literally couldn’t look at her.” A tiny step forward. “And then you told me she’d probably want you to be around less, if we ever became a family.”

Buck’s feels like he’s just relearned to breathe, and already he has to remind himself how to do it.

This feels like—

But it can’t be. Buck gets what he wants sometimes, but not like this. He doesn’t get everything he’s ever wanted. That kind of happiness isn’t meant for him.

But in his head, the chorus has started: he broke up with her he broke up with her he broke up with her.

“I think you were right,” Eddie says, and he’s moved again, now standing on Buck’s fluffy rug that Ali picked out back in the day.

Buck’s ribs creak from how hard he presses himself back into the wood of his front door.

“I’m sorry,” he says breathlessly, as he fights for it to be true. He should be sorry. He should, but the thought of never seeing her again—but what if Eddie regrets— “I overstepped.”

Eddie gives him a look that should be pitying, but somehow just feels warm.

“I have told you this,” he says, shrinking the distance between them again while Buck has nowhere to go, “a million times already. It’s not overstepping if you’re wanted, Buck. It’s not presumptuous to take what you’re offered.”

The cold in Buck’s veins retreats rapidly, cowed by a terrifying, all-consuming heat that starts in his fingertips and spills and spills and spills, all over him, all over everything. Eddie must feel it from a couple of paces away.

“You being in our lives less? That was never going to happen.”

Buck blinks to clear his vision. “Me?” he says, with a feeling like a vice around his throat. “You can’t—Eddie, you broke up with her because of me?”

Eddie shrugs. “She didn’t scare me,” he says.

“Uh,” says Buck. “I—I think that’s a good thing.”

He doesn’t move forward any more, standing out of Buck’s reach. He looks suddenly unmoored, and looks over his shoulder to the kitchen island he’d abandoned, but he doesn’t retreat. The set of his jaw is familiar from a dozen structure fires and rope rescues and that time they rappelled down a cliffside to rescue a ghost: he’s pushing on.

“Every single thing I do,” he starts, and takes his hands out of his pockets to wring them together, “I’m always thinking about what happens when it goes wrong. Like I’m thinking three steps ahead, but not like chess, more like—Twister,” he grimaces. Buck has to bite down on a smile that blooms and, completely unexpected, wants to take over his face. “Like—what if I put a hand down somewhere, and then two moves later I have to kick it out from under myself, and then everything gets fucked up and I fall down and have to start from scratch.”

“Eddie,” Buck says, not knowing what he’d even say next.

“I know,” Eddie smiles, a little rueful, “sounds exhausting. It is exhausting. With every little thing I worry about putting a foot wrong and disappointing—I don’t even know, my parents, the big guy in the sky, Christopher. And I sit there in fear and fucking agonize over it and go for the safe choice and then I still constantly screw things up anyway.”

Buck pushes away from the door. He only takes one step, but he could reach out, now, and just brush against Eddie’s flannel if he wanted.

“Ana was the safe choice,” Eddie says. “She didn’t scare me. She was supposed to be right.”

“And you’re sure she wasn’t?” Buck asks, his voice cracking right in the middle. Something brand new and shivery and alive shakes off the ashes and blooms, right in the center of him.

Out of nowhere, Eddie grins. “Come on, Buck,” he says. “Give me some credit here. It took me a minute, but I figured it out.”

And Buck thinks it might choke him after all; the hope. He can’t stop it anymore, not even if he ripped it straight out at the root, because it’s everywhere. Every inch of his skin, down to the bare soles of his feet, is alive with it.

Eddie stands in place. Lets Buck come to him. This entire time, that light behind his eyes hasn’t dimmed, and from up close it looks like contentment.

Like peace.

Eddie takes a deep breath. “You terrify me, you know that?”

“Me?” Buck asks, and can’t help himself anymore: he indulges the impulse to touch, his fingers curling into the hem of Eddie’s worn t-shirt. He’s close enough that he has to tilt his chin down to keep looking him in the eye.

So close he could—

“You,” Eddie breathes into the pocket of air between them. “But I’m so tired of playing things safe.”

Buck can feel the heat radiating off him, just under where he’s holding him by the shirt. He thinks about touching skin, and he knows, he knows Eddie would let him.

“When you said you wouldn’t blame her for not wanting you around, like there was something wrong with you, like you’re not the best out of all of us, I just…” and he reaches back, then, crossing the divide in the other direction. His palm, carefully unfurled, rests over Buck’s chest, only just touching. Buck’s heart flies right out of the depths to meet it, a sensation like something is clawing out of his skin to get closer, always closer, to Eddie.

“I love you, Buck,” Eddie says, with his chin high. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

And something in Buck just—snaps. Like that tilted hotel finally crumbling to the ground, except he’s somehow left standing in the wreckage.

“No, that’s, uh,” he breathes in, feelings things breaking apart and shifting and making endless room, “that’s a pretty good way to put it.”

“Oh?” Eddie raises his eyebrows, and steps right into Buck’s space, so close Buck has to let go of his shirt. Instead, he puts his hands on Eddie’s shoulders, and Eddie’s own hover, in that moment before touching, at Buck’s waist. “Effective?”

Buck is shaking, a tremor that feels like the Earth itself is moving, but is really just his own erratic breath where it pushes his ribs out to meet Eddie’s touch. Eddie’s chest is heaving a little, but he doesn’t blink as he looks Buck in the eye, so unrestrained Buck doesn’t know where to even begin looking at him.

“Yeah,” he croaks, and trembles with the effort to hold himself back, just until—“I’d say nine out of ten.”

Eddie’s chest is against his. “Nine?”

Buck takes in the hammering of his own heart in his ears, and the way he swears he can feel Eddie’s beating in the places they touch.

“There’s room for improvement,” Buck smiles, and once he allows the smile, he can’t get it back under control. There’s nothing else he can do when Eddie’s here, and he’s saying things Buck never let himself dream about hearing, and they might—fuck, they just might.

He has no idea what he’s done to deserve this, how he could ever begin to repay this to the universe, but he does know Eddie. Eddie is safety, is comfort, is home. Is sure, going by the way his eyes drop to Buck’s lips and come back up again, something about them molten and exhilarating.

“Buck,” he says; asks.

“Yes,” Buck breathes, and lets the last tether on his control snap without care. He can sway forward, can lean in, can offer everything he is. Eddie will catch him. “God yes.”

Eddie lifts his chin, pulls Buck in, and kisses him like a starving man.

Buck goes under before he’s even had a chance to think, so suddenly and completely submerged in Eddie’s scent, everything he’s been craving for weeks and weeks. Eddie bites his bottom lip, hungry and somehow still so gentle, and pushes until Buck’s back meets the door.

Trust Eddie to read his goddamn mind.

He licks into Eddie’s mouth, want yawning open inside him with a hot surge, the kind of desire that he couldn’t possibly satisfy – but then Eddie gives back as good as he gets, tugging Buck’s shirt out of his pants so he can get at bare skin, squeezing his hip until it hurts just this side of good, pushing forward until they’re touching everywhere.

“Eddie,” Buck whines, high in the back of his throat, “Eds.”

There’s no way for him to get any closer, but he wants to. Eddie is holding him and holding him and holding him and Buck’s hands are bunched in the back of his flannel, and he doesn’t know what to do with any part of himself, how to make Eddie understand just how badly he wants this. How to make sure he never leaves.

“Buck,” Eddie whispers back, the sound of it breaking on Buck’s kiss-bitten lips. “Fuck, it really is you.”

And suddenly, they’re both smiling too wide to keep going the way they had been. Eddie gentles, his hands on Buck uncurling, and kisses him slow and soft, then presses his mouth to Buck’s cheek, to his jaw, until Buck can’t decide between moaning and laughing.

When Eddie hides his face in Buck’s neck and breathes him in, unashamed and deep, he ends up making a sound that’s somewhere between the two.

“It really is me,” he says, and runs one of his hands through the shower-soft strands of Eddie’s hair. He feels a sort of violent joy at the fact that he can do that, not just a teasing ruffle, but a slow touch that ends all the way on the back of Eddie’s neck, where it makes him shiver.

“Was nervous on the drive over,” Eddie mumbles, like he’s not sure if he wants Buck to hear. “Thought I might have passed out and dreamed this.”

Buck presses a kiss to the side of Eddie’s head. Closes his eyes, inhales, and lets himself feel the kind of happiness that’s been evading him for as long as he’s been in the world.

“You didn’t look nervous.”

“No,” Eddie pulls away, looks up, and his entire face is just—bright. Unburdened. “I got over it in the elevator.”

Buck laughs, and wonders at the way it curls on his lips like second nature, when less than an hour ago all of him felt frozen. “You knew I was a sure thing, huh?”

Eddie raises his own hand to run through Buck’s hair, and ends up holding Buck by the jaw, his thumb sweeping over Buck’s cheekbone with a touch that’s barely there.

“I had some idea,” he says, and then his face darkens. The corner of his mouth pulls down as his soft fingers wander Buck’s face, a gentle touch Buck can relate to: all the little places he’s been craving to know. “Buck, I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

Eddie’s answering smile is wilted. “I’ve been hurting you.”

“You didn’t know,” Buck shakes his head, and runs his own fingers over the faint stubble on Eddie’s jaw, the corner of his lips, the ridge of an eyebrow. “You didn’t know, Eddie.”

Eddie’s frown deepens, and Buck relishes being able to reach out and smooth the winkle in the middle of his forehead.

“And you weren’t—I mean, it did hurt. But you weren’t hurting me. I was doing it to myself.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Eddie huffs. “And I don’t even know how long…” he stops. Blinks. “Wait. That stupid two-week break?”

“Was me trying to get over you,” Buck nods, willing himself not to blush. He’s spent enough time yelling at himself for the idiocy of that plan, for missing out on two weeks with his favorite people in the world.

But now, maybe, he has time.

Eddie softens. “You thought this would go away in a couple of weeks?”

“I’m an optimist?” Buck laughs, a little giddy with the knowledge that Eddie understands the true breadth of this thing between them.

But then Eddie purses his lips and looks away.

And Buck, who knows this man, knows every bad habit and every silly quirk and every expression, knows exactly where his mind has just gone.

“Not like that,” he says when he feels Eddie’s grip on him slackening, because that can’t happen for at least the next two hours. “Eddie, look at me.”

He kind of does, but it’s not good enough. Buck reaches out with both hands, cradling Eddie’s jaw, bringing them face to face.

“I love you,” he says, slowly, with gravity. He’s still smiling, because there just isn’t a way to stop. “Ridiculously. I’ve loved you through all the shit we’ve been through, and I’ll love you through everything else the universe decides to throw at us.”

“The universe doesn’t throw things,” Eddie says, still a little sullenly, but his eyes are shining.

Buck leans forward and kisses him, just because he can.

“The point is,” he continues when he pulls away, “that I want everything with you, all the time, for fucking always, Eds. I wanted to get over it because I thought I couldn’t ever be what you wanted, but if I am—“

“Yes,” Eddie interrupts, like the words break out of him of their own volition. “Yes you’re what I want. Anything you’ll give me.”

Buck doesn’t give voice to the everything that sits on the tip of his tongue, but he thinks it might be implied in the way he pulls Eddie close, in the way his hands shake while he does it.

Eddie. It’s just—Eddie’s here. Eddie’s got him.

“I can be a lot,” he says, and grimaces when he misses the joking tone he’s going for.

Eddie shakes his head, and waits until Buck meets his eyes. “Even if that were true, which it isn’t,” he says, poking a reprimanding finger right between Buck’s collarbones that then turns into a soft caress with his full hand, “I would want it. Whatever parts of you you think are too much, they aren’t. Not for me.”

Buck finds himself blinking rapidly to beat back the stinging in his eyes. His entire body feels light and alive, pulsing with this unexpected happiness Eddie has brought in; he doesn’t want to be crying. There’s no reason to.

“I’m actually crazy about you, Buck” Eddie says, soft, soft. His hands come up to the back of Buck’s neck, nails scratching gently through the short hairs there. “You listening? Absolutely fucking crazy. And I,” he clears his throat, looks away for a second, and then his jaw ticks and he’s looking Buck in the eye again, “I didn’t think I’d ever get to feel like this again. So I’m going to take this for the gift that it is and hold tight. Okay?”

Buck thinks of holding on like walking halfway around Los Angeles dehydrated and injured; thinks of holding on like looking at Eddie’s frown and wheedling until they’re on the couch looking up adaptive skateboarding; thinks of holding on like mud under his nails for days.

And he thinks he might understand.

“Okay,” he says, and lets himself be teary-eyed for a second before he bites his lip and wills it away.

“Okay,” Eddie nods. “Good, because Carla’s shift ends in an hour and I was meant to de-frost the fridge before I had an emotional crisis, and now I’m gonna need help doing that or it’ll never get done.”

He punctuates that with a kiss, leaning up and just taking one like he finally understands that Buck will always give him whatever he can. He just means for it to be a peck, but Buck grabs him when he goes to pull away, wraps his arms around Eddie’s shoulders until all Eddie can do is huff helplessly and lean his full weight into Buck. There’s a heat to the kisses they exchange, the kind that probably won’t go away until they can have a few hours just to themselves so Buck can finally look his fill, but right now—

“Wait,” he pulls away, and Eddie takes the opportunity to bite the juncture of Buck’s neck and shoulder, sucking to make sure that’ll definitely become a hickey. Buck feels simultaneously juvenile and completely, utterly in over his head. “Wait, Eddie. Why is your fridge frozen?”

Eddie coughs out a laugh, and takes a breath to get himself under control. Buck does the same, because. The fridge. Eddie needs his help with the fridge.

“It’s because of the spaghetti,” says Eddie as he puts some space between them, but it’s barely more than a foot. “The one you made? Six tupperwares’ worth of leftovers?”

Buck rubs the back of his neck. “I just don’t want you guys to have to eat takeout when I’m not there.”

“I know. But I’m not getting proper airflow because there’s so much of it, so now my fridge has ice in it.”

He takes another half-step back, and it takes everything Buck has in him not to reach out and pull him right back, feel the weight of Eddie against his front hot and alive and his.

“Sorry,” he says, and wants to laugh with how light he feels. “The recipe doesn’t really work with smaller quantities. I can stop making it, I guess.”

“Nah,” Eddie grins. “Don’t. It’s actually really good.” Half a step back, and then a step forward, like he’s feeling the same pull. “I’d be an idiot to let it get away.”

“The spaghetti?” Buck asks, dazed, swaying a little.

“The spaghetti,” Eddie grins, “and the ridiculously hot firefighter who lovingly makes it for us and blends peppers into the sauce so Christopher will get his vegetables.”

Lovingly. Yeah, Buck thinks. That sounds about right.

His blood dances, sparks, skips through his veins.

“You think I’m hot?”

“I think you’re absolutely fucking insufferable,” Eddie says, grinning, his expression best described as besotted. He stretches up to press a soft kiss to Buck’s birthmark, and Buck bends his neck so he can reach, readily, eagerly, in a prayer that’s finally being heard.

Until a thought that’s been biting in the back of his brain finally registers, and turns the happiness in his veins to concrete.

“Wait,” he says again, straightening up. “What about Christopher?”

Eddie tilts his head. “What about Christopher? You mean our kid?”

Buck shivers. “Eddie—“

“Our Christopher? Buck got me this book about manta rays and I’ll never read anything else ever again Christopher? Can we buy Buck’s organic apple juice so he stays over more often Christopher? Why can’t I call Buck ‘Dad’ Christopher? You’re worried about how he’ll take this?”

“I get it,” Buck mumbles, overwhelmed, flushed, blinking as the loft goes in and out of focus around him.

“I don’t think you do just yet,” Eddie smiles, “but you will.”

Finally, he steps away for real, and extends a hand. Buck takes it, even if it means he has to clumsily ram his feet into his shoes while standing.

“Oh, and speaking of our kid,” Eddie grins as he fixes the collar of his flannel in the hallway mirror, one-handed, “there’s something I should probably tell you.”

* * *

“Dad’s being weird,” Christopher announces loudly as soon as he walks into Bobby and Athena’s house.

Buck, who’s been half-heartedly tossing the salad for the past five minutes, immediately abandons his task and runs to the stairs. Christopher has just made his way down and is setting down the gift bag he’d been holding; Eddie is a few paces behind with the cookie platter Bobby had him pick up, looking very normal.

Too normal.

“I’m not being weird,” Eddie says just as loudly, to no one in particular.

They spot Buck at the same time, and near-identical expressions of delight appear on their faces. Buck has to grab on to the fireplace for a second to keep himself upright, still not quite used to just how bowled over he feels whenever that happens.

“Hi,” he grins, and steps forward just as Chris hugs him around the waist. “You’re late.”

He said we had time to make a stop and then wouldn’t tell me what it was,” Chris whines.

“Because you’d clearly tell everyone we know,” Eddie replies. He’s wearing the shirt Buck picked out for him back at home, before Eddie went to get Chris and run errands and Buck drove here early to help set up: a dark, dark green button up that hugs his arms just right. In retrospect, maybe not the best choice for a child’s birthday party, where Buck will have to behave in an appropriate manner all night.

He bends down to drop a sneaky peck into Chris’s hair in greeting, and then Eddie’s on him too.

“Hi, baby,” he murmurs, his free arm around Buck’s waist as he leans forward for a kiss. Buck leans into him easily, expecting something appropriate for the setting, but instead Eddie bites his lip and sucks it into his mouth, quick and filthy and thorough.

He’s good at thorough.

“Eddie,” he hisses when they separate a few seconds later, painfully aware of the blush high in his cheeks. “This is our captain’s house.”

“Your captain’s seen worse,” Bobby says resignedly, emerging from the kitchen and grabbing the cookie platter as he passes. “Thanks for this, Eddie.”

Then he’s gone out onto the patio, and Eddie is letting go, the constant burning warmth of him receding.

“Sorry,” he grins, not sorry whatsoever. “I just love you. Athena in the kitchen?”

And he doesn’t wait for a response, just slides past Buck with a touch to his hand and disappears behind the wall.

“Chris,” Buck says, “I think you’re right. He is being weird.”

“Told you,” Christopher grins. Buck resists the urge to ruffle his hair, because he’s touchy about that these days. “I’m going to find Harry, but take notes. We’ll compare at home.”

And then he’s off down the hallway, knocking on the door to Harry’s room and disappearing inside. Buck smiles helplessly for a minute, perpetually surprised at the fact that this is his life, and then goes back to the kitchen, where Athena’s arched eyebrow informs him he’s been shirking his duties for too long.

He almost forgets about it as more people start to arrive: Chim and Maddie, who take an age to get through the door because they’re each holding a toddling Jee-Yun by one hand; Hen and Karen and a sulking Denny who immediately disappears in Harry’s room; Michael and David with their brand new baby girl who is so small Buck is afraid to touch her; a newly single Albert, and even Ravi, who has managed to become yet another Bobby protégé despite being on the B shift. May brings her girlfriend, who is at one of these chaotic family things for the first time, so Buck spends a little bit of time walking her through the names and family trees while May gets their food.

But then, after Harry spends a while pretending he’s over family birthdays and then nosedives into his pile of presents, Eddie finally catches up with Buck.

Most of the guests have moved out to the patio, where it’s just warm enough now that the sun has set. The string lights are on, Harry’s playing music through his brand new speaker set, and Buck has finally allowed himself a beer now that he can safely say the party was a success. He’s drinking it slowly, sitting down on the patio stairs just to the side of where people are dancing.

He doesn’t expect the hand on his shoulder, but it doesn’t startle him either. The weight of it registers as familiar before it’s even fully there.

“Hi,” he says as Eddie sits down, leaning in, sighing happily when Eddie catches him exactly like he expected, with an arm around his shoulders. He turns his face into Eddie’s neck just for a second, breathing in the fading cologne.

“Hey,” Eddie replies. “Missed you.”

“We’ve literally been at the same party for hours,” Buck replies, but he knows what Eddie means. They’ve been helping out, overseeing, wrangling a bunch of teenagers; they haven’t had time to stop and just be near each other, and they’re both feeling it. Buck’s pretty sure any professional would classify their level of codependence as unhealthy, but hey, it works for them.

If Bobby asks, with regard to things he might have accidentally seen in the parking lot at work, the standard answer is that they’re still in the honeymoon phase. Although eight months into dating, they probably can’t keep using that excuse much longer.

At which point Bobby will find out that this is just how they are. Buck’s not looking forward to that conversation.

“You know what I mean,” Eddie says quietly into his hair. Then, after a while of peaceful silence: “Chris is having a good time.”

He’s dancing, bopping up and down to a song Buck has never heard, laughing outrageously with a couple of kids from Harry’s class, whom Buck has never met.

He looks so grown up.

“He’s been going for hours,” Buck replies, because being constantly aware of Chris (of his son, he finally allows himself to think, some days) is second nature. “Don’t know what they put in that cake.”

Eddie chuckles, the rumble of it reverberating against Buck’s back.

He has days – like today, apparently – that he can’t quite believe this is his life. He’s spent years going to family events with the 118, watching people arrive together, leave together, going back to a home they shared. Feeling not like an outsider, exactly, but like he was on the outside of something. Missing out.

And now—

“I can literally hear you thinking,” Eddie says. “You’re grinding your teeth.”

“Sorry,” Buck smiles, and when he lifts his head, suddenly craving a kiss, Eddie is right there to give it. “I’m just. Happy, you know?”

“You grind your teeth out of happiness now?”

Buck chuckles, and drops his head back down, watching as his family, his friends, mill about and trip over things in the dark.

“I love you,” he says, so quiet he’s not sure Eddie will even hear him. Just because.

“And I love you,” Eddie replies, setting his beer down on the step so he can drape his other arm across Buck’s chest. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Mm,” Buck hums, closing his eyes as he sinks back against Eddie. The man he loves; the man who loves him in a way that, for the first time in his life, makes Buck want to stop second-guessing himself. In a way that quiets his racing mind. “Just trying to figure out why you were being weird earlier.”

Eddie groans, and half-heartedly slaps Buck’s shoulder with the back of his palm.

“I wasn’t,” he says, in a tone Buck can easily decipher: he’s trying to hide something. “Chris is just overcome with hormones. He thinks there’s something wrong with me being normal now.”

And the thing is, Buck has an inkling. A soft, precious thought that he doesn’t bring out into the light too often for fear of tarnishing it somehow. It’s felt like the right time, lately. And he was hoping to beat Eddie to it, but if this is what he thinks it is, well.

Maybe there’s something about coming full circle.

“What mysterious errand were you running?” he asks, and hopes that the tiny tremor right in the middle of his chest can’t be heard in his voice.

For a while, Eddie doesn’t respond. His heart beats steadily against the back of Buck’s ribcage, and his chest rises under Buck’s shoulder as he breathes. Buck lets him work through whatever it is, not giving in to the urge to look up and gauge his expression.

On the makeshift garden dance floor in front of them, Chim twirls Maddie and Jee-Yun in matching bright yellow dresses, an ear-to-ear smile on his face. Somehow, their eyes meet, and his smile softens into something that’s mischievous, but gentler than it used to be when they first met. Buck nods at him, and he nods back; another one of those things they’ll never mention again.

Behind them, Hen, who is tipsy enough to be giggling into Karen’s neck, blows him a kiss. Buck catches it, and because it’s late and dark and soft, here under the night sky, presses it to his heart.

And then Eddie’s laughing again, a soft thing that can only be felt, not heard.

“Buck,” he says.

Buck looks up, and immediately knows that he was right. Eddie’s not hiding it: every single line of his face, somehow, is screaming the answer at Buck. It’s not one he recognizes from the Dictionary of Eddie Expressions, but a mixture of a million different things, and Buck can read in it like he could in a book.

That’s what’s different, this time around. He doesn’t have to watch from afar. Eddie is his: every frown, every quirk of the brow, every secret smile they trade at work. He doesn’t have to catalogue them to decipher the meaning later, because Eddie shows him everything, gives him everything.

Like the smile tucked into the corner of his mouth, and the determined sheen in his eyes that’s so reminiscent of the night they first kissed.

Like he has a question to ask.

“Yes,” Buck says, smiling so wide it hurts his cheeks. “Just, you know. Totally unrelated to whatever you were going to say. In case you were looking for any spare yeses down the line. Yes.”

And Buck’s soon-to-be fiancé beams, and leans down to kiss him like nobody’s watching.

As it turns out, navigating Eddie is easy: Buck started drawing the roadmap long before he knew he was doing it.