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Tomorrow is Here

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It’s much easier, he once told Maddie, to lash out at the person who you know is always there for you.

He meant it then, knows it’s true. He was hanging onto the knowledge now, with the slam of Chris’s door echoing through the house and his shouts still ringing in Buck’s ears.

Of course, Chris was angry. His dad was in the hospital, still not awake, and all the poor kid had right now was Buck. Buck, who couldn’t even keep his shit together long enough to tell Chris what had happened, to give him any sort of reassurance. Buck, who may have been his buddy, but was emphatically not his dad. Buck, who was failing him, both of them.

Don’t count on that, Carla had said, giving him a tight hug before she left for the night. You weren’t here for the weekly tantrums after the tsunami. Kids tend to process big emotions loudly. And they do it where they feel safe. You aren’t failing him.

So that was a good thing, wasn’t it? That Chris felt safe enough around Buck to yell at him, to scream--I hate you get out you’re not Dad I want my Dad--and lock himself in his room?

Why, then, did it feel like he had failed—again—to do the one godsdamned thing he wanted to do more than anything? Why was he so terrible at protecting these people he loved? He’d failed Eddie, spectacularly, and he was failing him again now, by failing his son.

He flopped down on the couch—his bed for the last few nights, and for the foreseeable future—and pressed the heels of his hands into his orbital sockets until white sparks flashed before his eyes. He inhaled deeply and tried to ignore the way it shook. A quick glance at his phone told him it was going on ten. The idea of going into Chris’s room, invading his personal space, even just to remind him to brush his teeth, made his stomach turn.

Tomorrow. He’d give Chris a chance to calm down, and try again tomorrow.
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He woke to rustling near his feet, where they were propped up on the couch armrest. Buck struggled up onto his elbows, wincing as his whole head throbbed. That’d teach him to cry himself to sleep, again.

A slender shadow hovered by his ankles. Glasses flashed in the weak light coming through the living room window.

“Buck?” Christopher whispered. His voice was thin, sharp contrast to his red-faced screaming a few hours ago. The words still clattered around in Buck’s skull, hurled with the strength to bruise, to batter.

“Yeah, bud?” He pushed himself into a sitting position and fumbled for the lamp. A sniffle. Buck paused. “You okay?”

“No.” A gulping sob, and Christopher folded forward. Buck caught him by the elbows and levered him up onto the couch next to him. He expected a struggle—he had struggled earlier, fought Buck’s floundering attempts at comfort tooth and nail—but Chris buried his face in Buck’s shoulder, heedless of his glasses, and sucked a deep breath.

“Matthew at school said Dad got shot so he was gonna die and Mom died and if Mom’s gone and Dad’s gone where do I go? I don’t want to go back to Texas! And I told him that Dad wasn’t dead and he was like well have you seen him and I said no because of COVID and he said I was a dumb baby and you were hiding the fact that he was dead and you said we would see him when he was done resting but it’s been days and what if he’s not resting what if he is dead did you lie to me? But you don’t lie, you promised you wouldn’t lie and you promised you weren’t going anywhere, but if you keep going to work and there’s still a bad guy shooting firefighters you might die and then I won’t have anyone left so you can’t go back you can’t and I’m sorry I yelled and I’m sorry I hit you please don’t go back to work I’m sorry I’m—”

Maddie did this thing, when Buck would start spiraling as a kid, where she would interrupt him. She still did it sometimes now, a kneejerk response to the desperate desire to derail Buck’s anxiety before it carried him too far out of her reach.

He understood why she did it, but Buck hated it. All it did was turn the runaway train into a runaway subway, still spiraling but in silence while he tried to listen to Maddie’s reassurances.

So he took both of Christopher’s hands in his and waited until Chris had word vomited every last fear he’d been sitting on since Buck walked into his room two days ago and said your dad’s not coming home tonight.

There were a lot of them.

Finally, though, Chris lapsed into hiccupping silence, his face pressed into Buck’s shoulder almost feverishly hot. Buck waited a beat, then two, and when no more words seemed to be forthcoming, he sighed deeply.

“Shit, buddy, I am so sorry.” Christopher let out a startled bark of laughter at the epithet and Buck grimaced. “I know, dollar for the swear jar. But that is a lot to have on your mind, and I’m so sorry I didn’t realize it sooner.” Another failure. Good job, Buckley.

“Listen.” He pulled Chris back enough that he could see his tearstained face. “We’ll go down that list in a minute, but there’s one thing we need to address first: your dad is not dead. I promise I’m not lying to you, and neither is Carla or your Abuelita or Tia Pepa. What have we all said?”

“That he’s resting,” Chris whispered. “But I don’t know what that means. It’s been days!”

Buck rubbed his hitching shoulders in what he hoped was a soothing manner. The fine line of ‘how much was too much information’ they had all been walking with Christopher, not wanting to frighten him but also not wanting to leave him in the dark, felt sometimes more like trying to walk a wave: constantly in motion, and entirely unpredictable.

“You know how after you get the flu, even when you’re not actually sick anymore, you still feel like garbage and want to sleep all the time?”

“Yeah?”

“This is like that, only on top of feeling like garbage, your dad’s body is also trying to repair an injury. So the doctors have—” Fucking hell, how do you explain a medical coma to a kid without scaring him?—“they’ve given him stuff to help his body heal, but it keeps him asleep while it works. So, when I say your dad is resting, I mean it literally—he’s been asleep the last few days while his body heals. He won’t be completely healed when he wakes up, but he’ll be better, and when he does I know the first thing he’s going to want to do is talk to you, okay? And I will find a way to make that happen, I promise. But for now, can you trust that me, and Carla, and your grandma and aunt, are telling you the truth? Trust me, we would be terrible liars, can’t keep a story straight to save our lives.”

Christopher sniffled. “Yeah.”

“Okay.” Buck rubbed his face with both hands, raked them through his hair. “Do you want to go over the rest of that now, or do you want to try to go back to sleep and we’ll talk more in the morning?”

Chris leaned against him a little harder. “I don’t want to sleep yet,” he murmured.

Buck put an arm around him and they sat in silence for a moment. It felt oddly familiar, a reversal of a different breakdown a few days ago, Buck losing his composure and Chris putting an arm around him. It’s going to be okay, Buck.

“How about I make us something to drink, and we sit for a bit?”

Chris nodded against Buck’s side and sat up with a congested sigh. “My face hurts.”

“Crying is the worst.” Buck handed him the tissue box and stood, stretching his cramped shoulders and back. “Better out than in though.”

He made hot chocolate in silence, checking on Christopher through the door periodically while the milk heated on the stove. Christopher remained curled up on the couch, staring at the photos on the wall opposite. Buck topped the mugs with whipped cream and some sprinkles left over from a cupcake bake sale experiment a few weeks ago, then returned to the living room.

“Okay,” he said, sitting down. “Let’s go. First: who the heck is this Matthew kid and do we need to glue his locker door shut?”

The list of anxieties and grievances took the better part of two hours, and one hot chocolate refill. Some of the fears Buck was able to address quickly (“let’s assume that unless he’s standing outside on a clear day and says ‘the sky is blue’ that Matthew doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, okay?” “Okay.”) But others were bigger, deeper rooted terrors that Buck was definitely going to have to talk to Eddie about when he woke up. When, because the doctors said he was out of danger, and Eddie wouldn’t make a liar out of Buck, not when Chris’s happiness was on the line.

Things like going back to Texas. Things like Buck getting gunned down on the job. Buck could practically feel Bobby’s frustrated glare on the back of his neck, hear their argument hissing through his thoughts.

He’d made himself a target on the crane, because better him than any of the others, right? Better him than Hen or Chim or Bobby, who all had people counting on them at home?

Not again, Buck swore to himself, rubbing Christopher’s back as he wiped his eyes with a shaking hand. Never again.

“I don’t know if there’s anything I can do, if something ever happened to your dad,” he said softly. “But I can promise you this: if there’s anything I can do to keep you here, I’ll do it. I won’t let anyone take you back to Texas without a fight.”

A ghost of a smile flitted across Christopher’s face. It was the first smile he’d seen in days. “And you never stop fighting.”

“Oh yeah?” Buck chuckled. “Who told you that?”

“Dad.” Chris blinked at him, eyes serious. “Dad says you’re the toughest person he knows, and the guy he wants in our corner.”

It turned out, Buck still had tears left to cry. Who’d have thought? He took the tissue box Chris pushed into his hands and mopped his face, blew his nose. “You’ll always have me in your corner, bud.”

“But there’s still a bad guy out there.” Chris leaned against Buck again and fiddled with the handle of his hot chocolate mug. “You could get shot too.”

Buck closed his eyes, took a deep breath. “I could. And that—that’s something I’m really afraid of, too.” He could feel Chris’s head lift, looking at him, and Buck swallowed hard, opened his eyes to stare at the photo wall. Most of the pictures were of Chris with various family members: Eddie, Abuela, a couple with his grandparents back in Texas, two with Shannon.

Two with Buck. One of the three of them—Buck, Eddie, Christopher—from the day with the skateboard. He had the same one back in the loft, framed and standing on the table next to his bed.

“Everyone’s scared, Chris,” he said quietly. “But if we all are too scared to do our job, to help people when they need us, I think that means the bad guy wins, doesn’t it?”

Chris shifted next to him, then sighed. “I guess.”

“I’m sorry. I know it sucks. We’re all being as careful as we can be.” Now. He wanted to reach back in time and clobber past-him over the head. We’re going to be really fucking careful now.

“It really fucking sucks!” Chris burst out, then looked at Buck with a sort of fascinated horror. “Don’t tell Dad I said the f-word.”

“I won’t tell him if you don’t tell him I said the s-word.” Buck held out his hand and Chris shook it solemnly.

“Deal.”

The sky was starting to lighten outside, now a velvet blue as opposed to deep black. Chris yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Can I sleep with you out here?”

The couch wasn’t very big, or very comfortable, and probably not good for a pre-teen’s growing limbs, but Chris was still bundled under Buck’s blanket, looking impossibly young and tired. Buck shifted over to one armrest and laid a pillow down on the opposite side. “Sure, bud.”

To his surprise, Chris took the pillow and plunked it down on Buck’s lap, then unceremoniously flopped over on top of it so he lay sprawled across the couch with his fists curled under his chin. Buck carefully lifted his glasses off his face and folded them on the armrest, the coffee table now out of reach.

“Thanks, Buck,” Chris whispered. “I’m glad you’re here. And I’m sorry for yelling earlier.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.” His hand hovered over Christopher’s sweat-damp hair, not wanting to disrupt him now that he was starting to settle. “You’ve had a really rotten few days. I just hope you know I’m not trying to be your Dad. He’s coming back to you.”

“Us.” Christopher clumsily patted Buck’s knee, yawning. He sounded half-asleep already. “Dad’s coming back to us.”

Buck pressed his thumb and fingers into his eyes. No, no more waterworks for the love of god.

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, trying to swallow past the lump that threatened to strangle him, and passed his hand over Christopher’s curls. “Yeah, he’s coming back to us both.”

There was a conversation in his future, when Eddie woke up (when, when.) He could feel it barreling toward him like a freight train. A conversation about family, and final wishes, and the fears Chris had shared with him in the dark.

(Was it possible for him to sue for custody of his best friend’s child if the worst came to pass? Would Eddie even want that, when his own parents and sisters were right there? But he didn’t get along with his parents very well, would that be a factor? How the hell had he and Buck managed three years with the Reaper knocking on their door every few months, without having this conversation already?)

But that was a conversation for future-Buck. Right now, the sky was lightening, and Chris was sleeping the sleep of the emotionally exhausted, his head heavy on Buck’s leg. In a few hours, he would make breakfast, and probably call the school about kids running their mouths. He would do his best, because this kid—this kid he loved more than air—needed someone in his corner until his dad was back home, and his dad had told him that Buck was that someone.

Tomorrow was here and he would keep trying.