Buck walks into an unusually quiet fire station and his hackles instantly go up.
It’s just - he can’t. He knows what they’re gonna say, and what they’re going to do, and he loves them, but he just can’t hear it right now. It’s the reason he took his last few shifts off and switched his phone to do not disturb - not because he’s grieving, or whatever. But because he doesn’t need their sympathy, or pity, or them looking at him like he’s about to crack wide open right in front of them.
So his dad is dead. So what?
It’s not like that really means anything to him. It’s not like his dad ever really meant anything to him. He was just a figurehead - someone he was supposed to look up to, who he was supposed to spend his whole life making proud. But nothing Buck ever did was good enough, and now he’s gone. So.
Buck is fine.
It’s kind of like when a celebrity dies and it’s a little sad, or whatever, but it doesn’t really hurt. How could Buck hurt over someone he barely even knew? Maddie was his mom and his dad growing up, and Phillip was nothing more than a phantom - someone who haunted their house, but was never really there.
You can’t grieve over a stranger, because it isn’t a loss at all. And he’s already heard it all from Maddie, when she showed up at his apartment to break the news to him.
(He’s not even mad his mom didn’t tell him herself, honestly.)
Buck held her as she cried, and he remained stony-faced because Phillip wasn’t a dad to him like he was to Maddie. He wiped her tears and promised her it was going to be okay, and when she finally stopped crying and realised that Buck hadn’t been, he promised her he was going to be okay, too. That he already was, really.
She’d text him every hour once she left his apartment, and when he stopped replying she started calling. And then it was Bobby, and Hen, and May, and Eddie, and he just - couldn’t. He didn’t want the sympathy because he didn’t need it. He was fine.
So his phone went on dnd until it was time to come back to work, and even then he ignored all his missed calls and messages, and went straight to his text thread with Bobby.
Back tomorrow he’d sent, and here he is - back. And he just wants everything to be normal, because he can’t pretend to grieve over someone he doesn’t feel like he’s lost. And he doesn’t want them to look at him and see a monster because his dad is dead and he doesn’t even care.
Buck just wants to pretend that absolutely nothing has changed, because it hasn’t. Not really, not in any way that matters. He never saw his dad anyway - hasn’t received so much as a text since the last time they were here, wreaking havoc over his and Maddie’s lives. Everything is exactly as it’s always been.
“Buck, baby,” Hen says the second Buck reaches the top of the stairs.
It takes less than a second for her to cross the space and fold Buck into her arms. Hen is warm, and she’s family, and she loves Buck like he isn’t a burden. So he relaxes into her, lets her hold him even though he doesn’t need it - not any more than he always does, anyway. He pats her back affectionately, and doesn’t pull away until she makes the first move.
“How are you doing?” She asks softly.
Buck looks around the room and everyone is watching them - watching him, just like he knew they would be. Bobby looks concerned, and Chim is watching him like he’s expecting Buck to shatter apart right there on the kitchen floor. And Eddie - his eyes are soft, and warm, and Buck wants to live inside of them, but he doesn’t want the worry that’s hiding there. He doesn’t need it.
He shakes his head, laughs as he takes a seat at the table ready for breakfast.
“I’m fine, guys,” he insists. “Seriously.”
They all share a look, like they don’t believe a single word coming out of Buck’s mouth. And he loves them, he loves that they care so much about him, but this is exactly what he doesn’t want.
“You know, it’s okay if you’re not,” Bobby tells him.
“You’re allowed to be hurting,” says Chim.
Then Eddie says, “We’re family, Buck. You don’t always have to be okay for us.”
Buck catches Eddie’s eye, and for a moment he can’t look away. For a moment he wants to be alone with him and Chris, with the first people who ever felt like home to him. But he can see the look of understanding on Eddie’s face - on all of their faces - because every single one of them has experienced grief, the kind that carves you open and rips you in two. The kind you never fully recover from.
And Buck would feel like a liar if he let them pretend that’s what he’s going through. If he accepted their condolences and talked with them as if he knew how their grief felt, it wouldn’t be true. It wouldn’t be fair. They’ve all lost people they loved, and who loved them back. The same can’t be said for Buck.
So he laughs again, gives Eddie’s shoulder a squeeze, and promises, “I’m fine, guys. Don’t worry about me.”
He can see the argument behind Eddie’s eyes, and almost hear it on the tip of Bobby’s tongue. But they don’t say anything, and Buck changes the topic, and everything is just the way it should be.
A drunk driver had slammed into the side of a car and killed the other driver on impact. When they arrived his fifteen year old son was semi-conscious in the passenger seat, muttering incomprehensibly.
They do everything they can to shield him from seeing his father’s lifeless body, but once he realises he’s gone he screams.
He screams like he’s being ripped apart, and Buck feels it ripple through his body like the aftershock of an earthquake. He feels it in the spaces between his ribs, from the hairs on his neck down to the tips of his fingers. It hurts like he’s the one who’s grieving - like he can feel that boys pain as if it’s his own.
And it’s not - it’s not the same. But it feels too close for comfort and Buck has to excuse himself for just a moment.
He’s moving away from the wreck when he hears the kid scream again, and one second Buck is walking, and the next he’s doubled over and breathless. And it’s not - he doesn’t react like this, he doesn’t. He might fall short in a lot of ways, but Buck is nothing if not professional. And yet when he hears it once more, when the child sobs for his dad, Buck has to cover his ears.
He covers his ears and bites the inside of his mouth, and he does the breathing exercises Dr Copeland taught him for when he’s having panic attacks. Which he’s not - that’s not what this is. But it’s close, maybe. His chest hurts and he’s breathing too fast, and the kid has stopped pleading for his dad now but Buck can still hear his cries rattling around in his own head.
And god, he’s fifteen. He’s just a child, and his whole world has been turned upside down in the blink of an eye. One selfish, careless person has just torn everything he knows to pieces. He’s living through something that he’ll never be able to forget - something that will stick to him like glue for the rest of his life.
Buck remembers being fifteen.
He remembers Maddie starting to pull away, and feeling so lonely that he could taste it in the back of his throat. He remembers breaking his ankle falling out of a tree in the park by his house. It was an accident - Buck couldn’t have known the branch wasn’t strong enough to hold his weight. He couldn’t have known his dad would drive him home from the hospital and have an actual conversation with him for the first time in weeks. It was just a coincidence.
It’s Bobby’s hand on his back that pulls Buck out of his head and onto the side of the road.
“Buck, are you okay?”
He shakes his head, clearing away the memories that linger like a bad smell.
“Yeah Cap, I’m good. Sorry,” Buck says.
“Buck, if you-“
Buck doesn’t give Bobby time to say anything else. He walks over to where Eddie is still clearing debris from the road and gets back to work. He ignores the way his chest still feels tight, and how the inside of his head feels like cotton wool. He ignores that voice in the back of his head that sounds suspiciously like his father.
“Hey,” Eddie says, voice low enough that no one else can hear them. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Buck flashes him his signature smile and nods his head. “You know me, Eds. I’m always okay.”
He knows Eddie wants to push. He knows he wants to ask Buck why didn’t text or call him back, and why he didn’t answer the door when Eddie stood outside his apartment for thirty minutes calling his name. But Buck doesn’t want to talk about that and Eddie can tell, so he keeps his mouth shut and they work in silence.
It doesn’t take long to clear the road and get traffic moving again, and within less than twenty minutes they’re in the truck and back on their way to the firehouse. In the silence Buck can feel all their eyes on him, so he pulls his phone out to avoid engaging with them.
But just as he unlocks it, his mom’s number flashes across the screen.
He doesn’t have it saved, but she’s rang him so many times in the past few days that Buck has it memorised by now. He answered the first and the second time, and even the fourth and seventh in the hopes that she would leave him alone after that. But it’s been nonstop stop calls, three, four, five times a day. Sometimes even more. And Buck doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say to her.
She calls, and every single time she’s crying, and he just doesn’t know what she wants from him. He gets it - he gets that his dad was the love of her life and her heart is broken, but there’s nothing he can say or do to fix that. Every time he opens his mouth to comfort her the words get lodged in the back of his throat, or maybe there aren’t any words at all - maybe it’s just Buck’s aching that longs to be spoken.
She genuinely wants to talk to Buck, for the first time in his life, and he just has nothing to say. She wants Buck’s memories of his dad, but he doesn’t have any of those. She wants stories to write into his eulogy, but Buck doesn’t have a single one to tell.
They never went camping like all his friends did with their dads. They never went fishing, or hiking, or to the movies, or even the fucking park. He never went to work with his dad during summer vacation, or to the tree farm at Christmas. Phillip didn’t teach him how to ride a bike, or change a tire, or how to be a man.
(Maybe that’s why Buck always failed at it, why nothing he ever did was good enough for them.)
He wants to scream at her - tell her she’s got the wrong son, that he isn’t Daniel, that he doesn’t know any of dad’s jokes or anecdotes because he never got to hear them. That out of the three people his dad loved most in the world, Buck isn’t one of them.
“Who’s that?” Eddie asks, voice quiet in Buck’s ear.
They’re so close he can feels Eddie’s breath on his neck. He wants to lean into it, to hide away from the world in the one place that he feels safe. But he can’t need Eddie, he can’t need anyone.
“Are you gonna answer it?”
Buck declines the call and slips his phone back in his pocket.
He curls his hands into fists, focuses on the way his fingernails dig crescent moons into the palms of his hands - squeezes even tighter just to feel something, even if it hurts. And isn’t that the story of his life: Buck barely exists unless he’s aching.
Then Eddie shifts and his leg presses against Buck’s from their thighs right down to their ankles. It grounds him - lets him enjoy something that isn’t all teeth, and fire, and hurting, but something gentle instead. Buck takes a breath, and another one, then he uncurls his fists and rests his hands on his knees.
Eddie doesn’t say another word the whole ride, but Buck knows he’s there.
Buck is okay because he has to be.
He’s okay because how could he not be? It wouldn’t make sense for him to be grieving someone who was more of a concept than an actual part of his life. All his dad ever did was make Buck feel inadequate - like he was too much, or not enough, or both at the same time. It didn’t matter if Buck’s grades were good or bad, if he was always home or never there, if he followed the rules or broke every last one.
For the whole of his childhood, Buck was invisible. And he’d spent years trying to earn his parents attention - do something that would make them care, even if just for a moment. He’s walked through fire every single day. But it never lasted, and he was never what they wanted. He was too difficult, and he wasn’t Daniel. So he spent his whole life trying to live up to the memory of someone he didn’t even know existed.
And now his dad is gone, and so are the expectations.
If anything, Buck should feel free. So he doesn’t need the sympathy, or everyone constantly checking in on him, because everything is okay. They don’t need to treat him like he’s holding on by a thread when he feels absolutely fine.
“You doing okay in here?”
It’s Chim, poking his head into the locker room. Buck resists the urge to sigh because he knows they’re just looking out for him, so he nods his head instead.
“I’m good.” He’s telling the truth.
“Can I sit?” Chim asks, pointing to the space beside Buck.
Buck nods again and Chim sits down. The silence that stretches between them is uncomfortable because Buck knows Chim has something to say, and he’s just trying to find the right words. Buck opens his mouth then closes it again - decides to give Chim the chance to say whatever is on his mind.
“Maddie is worried about you.”
Buck wants to scream, but people who are fine don’t scream for no reason. So he bites his tongue and counts to ten in his head.
“She doesn’t need to be,” Buck tells him.
Chim shrugs. “Maybe not, but she’s Maddie, and she loves you. She’s going to worry no matter what.”
He’s right, of course. Maddie raised him, so she worries even when there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. In fact, she still texts him on particularly hot mornings to remind him to wear sunscreen. He’s not mad at her for caring - he never could be, it’s just. She doesn’t get it.
This process is simple for her. And Buck doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t painful, he just means that it’s straightforward. Because Phillip was a great dad to Maddie when she was little, and she may have lost that version of him for a while, but at least she had the memories of him. And when she was pregnant with Jee they showed up with her baby box, and stories of when she was a kid, and that helped her to heal her relationship with them.
Buck never got that.
He doesn’t have memories, or a baby box, or stories of his childhood. He doesn’t hurt the way that she does, and he doesn’t want his feelings to make her grieving process any harder than it already is.
“Tell her that I’m okay - that I’ll call her soon,” Buck says.
“Are you, though? Okay?”
Buck closes his eyes so Chim can’t see him roll them. “Yeah, I am.”
He is. He is.
“We’re here for you, if you need anything. And I don’t just mean me and Maddie,” he says. “Eddie is watching you like a hawk.”
Buck laughs, because he already knows that. Every time he so much as stretches he can feel Eddie’s eyes on him, watching and waiting, as if every move Buck makes could spell disaster. As if he’s balancing on the side of a cliff and one wrong movement could send him careening over the edge.
Maybe Buck would be concerned that they all think he’s so unstable, if only he had the space to think about anything else right now.
He reaches into his pocket and takes out his phone, just to give his hands something to do while they sit side by side in this awkward, heavy silence. But there’s another three missed call notifications on his lockscreen, and Buck suddenly can’t bear to even open his phone because he knows exactly who they’re from.
Fuck, can’t she ever just leave him alone? It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that she expects so much from him now, when she was never there for him. And he so desperately wants to feel angry, but he knows that he’s not allowed.
He knows how selfish it would be to turn all of this grief around and make it about him, which is exactly why he can’t answer the phone. He can’t hear her voice, and her demands, and her requests, and not fucking lose it.
Buck can’t be the one to help his mom carry this pain, even if that makes him an awful person.
“Just - don’t be afraid to reach out, okay?”
And Buck just - can’t. He stands up so fast he gets a head rush, holds his arms out to the side as he yells, “Leave me alone, Chim! For gods sake, just leave me alone.”
Buck ignores the way Chim calls after him, and he ignores the way everyone else’s eyes follow him as he storms through the firehouse. He just can’t perform for them right now - can’t grieve the way they expect him to, or be the Buck that they’re accustomed to either. He’s just so completely worn out that his body aches and his bones rattle with exhaustion.
He doesn’t know how to be the person they all expect him to be. He doesn’t know what the right words are to make them leave him alone, make them stop asking questions that he can’t fucking answer. Because the next time one of them asks if he’s okay he just might tell them the truth, and he’s not sure if that’s something if he can come back from.
He’s not sure he’ll ever be able to reel back everything that he’s feeling if he dares to let some of it escape. And if he lets himself feel it now, he’s not sure he’ll be able to stop. Shit, he’s not even sure what it is that he’s feeling.
It’s a mess of too many feelings that are way too big for him to carry - too bright for him to even look at.
Buck hides away on the roof for the rest of the shift. He listens out for the alarm but it never rings, and no one comes up to find him so they either don’t know where he is, or they’ve taken the hint.
He even stays up there to watch them leave once their shift is over, and only once Eddie finally drives off does Buck bother to come down.
It’s the only place he wants to be right now, but it’s been too long and he’s ignored too many messages to just show up there unannounced. And he’s not sure he’d be very good company for them anyway, not when his head and his heart are all twisty and unsure. Not when Buck can’t even figure out what the hell he’s feeling.
It’s just - he’s fine. He is. As long as he’s busy. When he’s busy he doesn’t have to think about anything that’s going on, he doesn’t have time to agonise over the countless thoughts and feelings that are all tangled up inside of him that he can’t make sense of. But when he stops...when he stops it hits him like a freight train.
He’s standing in his kitchen getting a glass from the cupboard, and suddenly he can’t breathe. The glass slips out of his hand and smashes on the counter, but Buck can’t hear it over the blood rushing inside his head. He’s just -
He’s so fucking angry.
He’s angry because his mom never cared, but now she won’t stop calling. He’s angry at himself, because fuck, it hurts so much that he can barely breathe, but how? Why? Why is he grieving someone who never even loved him?
And he’s angry at his dad because he was never around, and Buck was never enough for him, and because he’s made all of this so fucking confusing. It should be easy - you lose your dad and it tears you apart. It’s crying on the bathroom floor, and in the middle of the grocery store, and for the rest of your god damn life.
Except Buck can’t do that. He can’t because this shouldn’t even hurt, not when his dad never cared about him. It shouldn’t, but it does. Buck hates it, and he doesn’t understand it, and he needs it to stop.
All of it is just suddenly too much.
He can taste the rage, and the hurt, and the confusion on his tongue, feel it crackling in the air like it’s something palpable. Then Buck just - screams. He screams, and he slams the cupboard door closed. Except it bounces back open from the force, so he hits it again, and again, and again, until it’s hanging off it’s hinges. He hits it one more time for good measure and it falls to the floor. His throat feels raw from yelling and he wants to break something, or fucking cry.
But he can’t cry. He can’t because this isn’t allowed to hurt. So he turns around to look for something to kick or throw or shatter. He doesn’t get the chance. Suddenly there are arms wrapping around him, pinning his own to his sides so he can’t do any more damage. And it’s Eddie’s voice whispering in his ear, and Buck just - breaks.
His legs give way and he falls to the floor but Eddie doesn’t let go, he just falls right along with him.
Buck doesn’t know when or why Eddie arrived but he doesn’t have it in him to care, and he couldn’t ask even if he wanted to. He’s sobbing uncontrollably, his whole body shaking like the cries are being ripped from chest. He tries to fight against Eddie’s hold, tries to pull away so no one has to see him like this, but Eddie won’t let go.
He holds Buck as he shatters, and he tries to keep all of the pieces together.
He whispers words that Buck can’t make sense of but listens to anyway, lets the soft cadence of his voice settle the roaring in his chest. Eddie’s hands are on his back, and his face, and in his hair, gentle touches that let him know he’s safe - that are slowly bringing Buck back to himself.
He doesn’t know how long he cries for, how long he spends breaking apart in Eddie’s arms. But once the sobbing has stopped and his breathing has returned to normal, Buck’s whole body aches. It’s like every nerve in his body is hurting along with him, and the only thing holding him up is Eddie.
Buck slowly takes catalogue of his surroundings. The cold floor beneath him, the broken cupboard door and shards of shattered glass, his bleeding knuckles, the feel of his back against Eddie’s chest. Eddie’s arms, wrapped tight around him so Buck can’t make any more mess.
But everything is already a huge fucking mess.
“Hey, are you back with me?” Eddie asks, voice quiet so he doesn’t startle Buck.
Buck nods. “Yeah. Sorry.”
He tries to pull away but Eddie won’t let him. Instead he holds him close, shushes Buck and presses a kiss to his eyebrow, just above his birthmark. It’s enough to make Buck cry again, silent tears streaming down his cheeks over the gentleness of it all. And he doesn’t have the energy to fight anymore, just sinks into Eddie’s embrace and lets himself be held.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Eddie promises, his voice still barely above a whisper.
“I’m a mess.”
“You’re allowed to be.”
And that’s - a lot. It fractures something inside of Buck, then carefully puts it back together again. Because Buck has always been too much - too difficult - and never has anyone told him that sometimes it’s okay. No one has ever seen Buck, broken and bloody, and still decided that he’s enough.
Not until now - until Eddie.
“I don’t understand,” Buck whispers. “I don’t understand why it hurts so much.”
Eddie’s hand finds its way to Buck’s hair, lets his fingers run through the curls and massage his scalp. Buck can’t help the way his head falls backwards in relief, coming to rest on Eddie’s shoulder. Then Eddie kisses his temple and leans his head against Buck’s.
“Because he’s your dad.”
“He never even loved me.” Buck’s voice cracks, and Eddie’s arms tighten around him ever so slightly.
“But you loved him,” Eddie replies. “And it’s okay to miss him, even if you feel like you shouldn’t.”
Buck wonders if that’s how Eddie felt when Shannon died. Angry that she left him and Chris, and angry that she wanted a divorce, but so fucking broken too. And guilty for feeling angry, or for missing her, or for both at the same time.
“He hurt me so much,” Buck admits. And it’s the first time in his life he’s ever said that aloud - that instead of pretending he’s over it, or that he didn’t mind, he admits how badly it hurt to be ignored by his parents.
“I’m sorry,” Eddie says. “I’m sorry he hurt you so much.”
“Then why do I still miss him?” Buck asks.
He just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand how he can miss the person who broke him - how he can grieve over someone that spent their whole life making him feel inadequate.
It shouldn’t hurt so much. And he didn’t expect to feel happy about it either, he just didn’t expect to feel anything at all. Maddie first told him and he felt indifferent, and then he felt cruel, and then he felt so many things all at once that he just didn’t know how to name them.
He still doesn’t know how to - how to put a name to this aching when it’s so much more complicated than just grief.
“Because he was your dad, and you loved him even if he didn’t deserve it,” Eddie explains. “Because you’re a good person.”
“I’m not,” Buck cries. “I didn’t care. He died, and my mom was hurting, and I didn’t care. I’m awful, I’m-“
“-Evan,” Eddie interrupts, his voice firm but still kind. “You have got to forgive yourself for the person you became in order to survive what they did to you.”
Then Buck is crying again, sobs wracking his whole body so hard he’s convinced he’s coming apart at the seams.
There are so many pieces of himself that he hates, pieces that only exist because he had to learn how to survive in a haunted house. All of the worst parts of himself are defence mechanisms he learned so his parents disinterest - dislike - wouldn’t destroy him.
“I didn’t know,” Buck whispers. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.” And Eddie can’t know what he’s talking about but he holds him close anyway, whispers words of comfort in his ear until Buck calms down once again.
“I’ve got you,” Eddie promises. “I’ve got you.”
“I didn’t think I cared,” Buck explains. “For so long I thought the way they treated me didn’t matter, but it does. It matters.”
“Of course it matters.”
“I didn’t let anyone see - I didn’t see.”
“Just because you carry it well, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t heavy,” Eddie says.
Buck doesn’t know how Eddie manages to do it, but he somehow always says the right thing. He knows what Buck is feeling even when he can’t find a way to explain it, and he says exactly what he needs to hear to ease some of the pain he’s holding inside of him. Maybe it’s just a testament to how good of a person Eddie is, or maybe it’s because they know each other so well, but Buck can’t remember a time where he’s felt as safe and understood as he does right now.
Amidst the chaos, and the anger, and the hurting, Buck feels at home with Eddie. He feels seen in a way that he never has done before.
“I love you so much,” he says, because Buck doesn’t know how to keep something so big tucked inside anymore.
There’s stillness for the length of a heartbeat, then Eddie is pressing a kiss to Buck’s forehead and lacing their fingers together.
“I love you, too.”
And in that moment, something inside of Buck heals.
Not the pain from losing his dad, or the pain that both of his parents have caused him - maybe those things will never heal, no matter how much time and space Buck gives them. But there’s a gaping wound in the piece of his heart that still believes himself to be unlovable, and it knits closed at the very sound of Eddie’s words.
And the part of him that insists he will never be good enough quietens down when Eddie takes his bleeding hands and washes them clean. He’s so gentle when he wraps them that Buck trembles at the touch, and his breath catches in his throat when Eddie kisses the bandages.
“Thank you,” Buck says.
“For being here. For staying.”
Eddie’s hand reaches out and cups Buck’s jaw, then he slowly tilts his head upwards until he’s looking him square in the face. Eddie’s eyes are wide, and open, and honest. They feel like coming home.
And when Eddie says, “I’m not going anywhere,” Buck believes him.