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The Way the Sky Bends In the Moments Before It's About to Fall

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Eddie Diaz would like to go on record as saying that the sight before him could melt the stoniest heart, make faithless villains believe in the power of love, and quite possibly bring world peace.

If the way Maddie is clutching her hand to her mouth, teary-eyed as she aims her phone and takes about a dozen pictures in three seconds flat is anything to go by, she agrees with him.

Oblivious to them both, Jee-Yun Buckley Han regales her favorite uncle (Albert fought hard, but was forced to admit defeat when Jee's first word after Dada and Mama was a delighted shriek of 'Bug! Bug! Bug!' while straining to wiggle out of Maddie's arms and into Buck's...though he took solace in the fact that their niece still refuses to call him anything but 'Bug') with a play-by-play retelling of her trip to see Santa. Said trip to Santa happened less than thirty minutes ago, and Buck had been with them, but he still nods seriously with each word, making appropriately amazed noises, sitting cross-legged on the floor with Jee tucked into his lap facing him, her chubby hands waving in the air as she talks.

"And then, a little girl went to see Santa and her was first so I have to wait 'cause we wait our turns. And her was scared!" Jee-Yun's hands fly to her cheeks and she makes a wildly exaggerated 'scared' face before bursting into giggles. Then she turns serious. "But I was not scared."

"Of course you weren't," Buck agrees solemnly.

"Uh-huh, I was not scared. But her was scared. But I just go and see Santa and I was not scared. I just wave at my Mommy and Daddy and my Bug and I smile real big."

She demonstrates and yeah, Eddie has never seen much of Maddie or Buck in the little girl, but she's definitely got that Buckley smile. Buck's answering grin is almost identical, and Eddie sees Maddie snap a few more pictures out of the corner of his eye. Even a few of the shoppers and sightseers bustling around them stop to throw smiles and awww, what a cute family noises their way as Jee-Yun starts playing with the buttons on Buck's jacket, still going on a mile a minute about Santa. Maddie finally puts her phone away and threads her arm through Eddie's, squeezing it affectionately.

"I'm so glad we got to do this," she murmurs. "This was a great idea."

"It really, really was," Eddie says in return.

He'll admit, he was a little skeptical when Buck first approached him and Chimney with the idea...especially when he'd seen the goddamn Excel spreadsheet detailing the frankly ridiculous amount of shift trades, called-in favors, and PTO gymnastics they'd have to follow to even wrangle the time off (seriously, Eddie has seen war campaigns less complicated...they'd had to start six months before December and he's pretty sure the only days Buck will have off between New Year's and Valentine's Day will be legally mandated breaks between shifts) but the last four days have been worth it. The six of them—Buck, Eddie, Christopher, Chim, Maddie, and Jee—have been sharing a charming cabin in the mountains, only a few hours outside LA. It's been four days of playing in the snow (Chris had been beside himself with joy and he and Jee-Yun have had to be pried out of the stuff every day), family dinners in front of an actual fireplace (Maddie and Buck have been alternating dinner and lunch duties while Chim handles breakfast and Eddie quite happily contributes by making friends with the dishwasher), and relaxing grownup-style with a bottle of wine and the six-person hot tub on the cabin's back porch every night after the kids are asleep.

It's been...glorious. Surprisingly affordable, too, between splitting the cost with Chim and Maddie, cooking most of their own meals, and staying away from the tourist trap 'activities' in the nearby towns. The exception being the 'Christmas Extravaganza' the nearest town is putting on. They've spent the last few hours wandering the streets, ducking in and out of gift shops, craft booths, and candy-making demonstrations. Jee-Yun was dazzled by character actors dressed like Whos and the Grinch, and Christopher begged to go on the hayride that wended its way through a breathtaking Christmas light forest display. The ride had culminated in a stop at Santa's workshop, where Jee-Yun was very much 'not scared' and Christopher consented to a few Santa pictures with him and Buck, even though Chris stopped believing in Santa a while ago.

They're currently tucked into a small alcove in the Santa's Workshop building, Buck sitting on the carpeted floor with Jee while Maddie and Eddie stand over them, waiting for Chris and Chim to get back from a top-secret gift shopping mission that Chris hadn't wanted his or Buck's help with. Which means it's probably for one of them. Eddie knows he and Buck will both love anything his son chooses to give them, but he can't help but miss the days of macaroni art and salt-dough handprints.

God, his son is in eighth grade...next year Eddie will have a high schooler. How is that possible?

Really, how is any of this possible? If someone had told Eddie three years ago that this is what his life would be like, he would have burst out laughing. Or possibly crying, he's not sure. He was in a bad place three years ago.

They all were. All of them.

The trauma he and Buck were drowning in and refusing to admit it. The insidious fear and depression that had nearly ruined Chim and Maddie before they had a chance to enjoy being a family. The pressure Christopher felt to try and hide his own insecurities and fears in the name of not worrying Eddie. They'd all been hanging on by the nails and it had taken them all nearly losing themselves and the people they loved the most to see that they needed to face their problems together to overcome them.

They're still overcoming them. Chimney and Maddie still go to couple's counseling and family therapy at least once a month. Buck and Maddie have a strict check-in schedule with each other and Buck, Albert, and the Lees take turns arranging to be available to take Jee-Yun for a couple days every few weeks so Maddie and Chim have time alone to focus on themselves and each other. Buck sees Dr. Copeland regularly, and Eddie finally bit the bullet (heh) and sought out a therapist specializing in PTSD. It had taken a couple of tries, but with Buck and Christopher cheering him on, he stuck with it until he found someone he really clicked with. Buck has actually written all their therapists into the Christmas budget this year, joking that he finally knows what it’s like to have to shop for a ton of weird, distant relatives.

It's not been easy. He's still learning how to accept that it'll never be easy...that this is likely work he's going to have to spend the rest of his life doing. But it's worth it. The changes he's seen in his son, himself, in Buck, in their friends—it's all worth it.

"Uh-oh, Bug I need a potty!" Jee-Yun announces suddenly. She climbs off Buck's lap and starts jumping up and down. "My juicebox wants out Mommy!"

"Okay, let's go sweetheart," Maddie says, stepping in to sweep Jee up. "We'll be right back." Buck digs a pull-up and an extra pair of pants out of the diaper bag on the ground beside him, tossing them to Maddie as she starts jogging towards the public restrooms.

"Told you not to load her down with juice Bug," Eddie says teasingly, holding out a hand to help Buck up.

"But she asks so nicely...I'm encouraging manners, Eds." Buck takes his hand and heaves himself to his feet, his knees cracking a little more dramatically than they used to. He doesn't let go once he's up, instead pulling Eddie forward so he can weasel both his hands around Eddie's waist and tuck them under his sweater at the small of his back.

"Jesus, do you just keep ice cubes in your pockets? Why are your hands always so cold?" Eddie grouses, not doing a thing to dislodge Buck's cold fingers. "You need gloves."

Of all the changes, Eddie thinks, this one is the best. The biggest, and the longest-coming, and the best.

"Why would I need gloves when I've got my own personal furnace?" Buck counters, leaning further into Eddie's space and kissing the corner of his mouth before resting his forehead against Eddie's.

"Oh I see, you're just using me for my body heat. The truth comes out!"

Buck hums. "Busted. But if it makes you feel better, I also use you for your body full stop."

"Actually, it does."

Okay, look, Eddie's not a narcissist or anything, but he knows what puberty did for him. And he also knows he's closer to forty than thirty now, and his metabolism is starting to betray him. He likes hearing his very hot boyfriend (whose metabolism is certainly not betraying him, the bastard) talk about how good he looks. Sue him.

Buck laughs, those unfairly blue eyes sparkling under the Christmas lights, and kisses him again. Just lightly. Quickly. They are in Santa's workshop after all, and both are of the mind that heavy PDA in kid-oriented places is tacky as hell. There's promise in the way he winks at Eddie, though...and Maddie and Chim are taking the kids out for breakfast and a last round of Christmas shopping tomorrow before they check out of the cabin in the afternoon. He and Buck took them out for a couple hours of sledding and dinner last night.

Buck and Maddie actually high-fived each other as she handed Jee over.

He should probably find it weird, but a couple nights ago it was his turn to be the sober parent during the wine-and-hot-tub hours (not that any of them are getting more than a little tipsy at best, but they've all seen too much not to be uncomfortable with all of them being impaired at the same time) and he got to listen to the three of them have a discussion about Chimney's vasectomy (that Eddie hadn't even known he'd gotten after he and Maddie came back to LA with Jee-Yun) and the pros and cons of having it reversed when Jee goes to preschool and just letting nature take whatever course it was going to in regards to Jee having a sibling.

Yeah...in theory he and Chim agree that their respective Buckleys promising to not have any more secrets between them is a good thing, but in practice...eh, jury's still out.

"Dad! Buck!" His thoughts are interrupted when Christopher's voice rings out over the din. He and Buck turn, one of Buck's arms still slung around his waist, to find Chimney and Chris heading towards them.

Chim has several bags he wasn't carrying before—some from the various toy and bookstores they've been passing, but one that's sporting the logo of a local craft booth that was offering handmade wooden items that you could get with custom messages and pictures burned onto them. That's the only bag he passes over to Eddie when they reach them, with strict admonishments not to look inside. Christopher ducks his head a little.

"I had to borrow some money from Chimney," he says. "I wanted to get Jee something too."

Buck's the one who goes to pull out his wallet, but Chim waves him off immediately. "Oh no, no that was twenty bucks well spent. Just send me a video of Buck opening Chris's present and we will be more than even."

Ah, so it's a present for Buck. Interesting. Eddie can't wait to see this. He smirks a little, leaning into Buck's side. "Gonna cry?" he asks, smirk widening when Chimney just grins like a fiend.

"Waterfalls, man. Waterfalls."

Buck's sputtering protests that he's not that bad (a lie) and he doesn't get emotional over everything Chris gives him (a bigger lie) are interrupted when Maddie and Jee-Yun return. Jee is still wearing the same outfit she went to the bathroom in, so they'd evidently made it in time to avoid an accident. Maddie sets Jee down and Chim immediately drops to one knee and holds his arms out for a hug...only to drop his arms and hang his head in betrayal when Jee-Yun toddles right past him to crash into Buck's knees.

"Up Bug," she demands sweetly, and Buck sticks his tongue out at Chim as he complies, sweeping her up into his arms and smacking a kiss on her cheek. She waves at Chris before pointing at a cluster of animatronic elves and reindeer by one of the shops, shrieking in laughter when Buck immediately lifts her onto his shoulders.

"All right, I think we've got about an hour before Madame Crankypants makes an appearance, so I'm making an executive call. Drive-thru for dinner and then back to the cabin for bath and jammies," Maddie says, helping Chimney off his knees and standing on tiptoe to kiss the end of his nose when he continues to pout at Jee.

"Seconded," Eddie says.

"All in favor?" Chim says, to a chorus of ayes. "All right, I'll go get the car while Jee's bossing her Bug around. Back in ten."

He grabs the shopping bags and keys to the rental they'd decided to splurge on so they could all drive around together while they were here and jogs off, quickly vanishing into the crowd. Buck ambles over to let Jee get a better look at the animatronics and Eddie takes the moment to wrap his arm around Chris, pulling his son close to his side.

God, he's only a little over a head shorter than Eddie these days. He hardly ever asks for help
anymore, but on the rare occasions when his legs are bothering him enough that he asks for a piggy-back ride back to the car or up a set of stairs, it's actually awkward for Eddie to carry him. Chris is so lanky, only Buck still makes it look easy (there's only like two inches between them, it's those stupidly long legs Buck has...who needs legs that long?).

"So you got something that's gonna make Buck cry, huh?" he asks, pushing Chris's curls off his forehead. He looks a little more like Shannon every day, the Diaz genes only really coming through in the slope of his nose and the shape of his mouth. It still makes Eddie's heart ache sometimes, to see his first love peeking out at him through their son's eyes...but time has dulled the pain of Shannon's death. These days he finds it easier to talk about the good times they had, as short-lived as they were. There will always be hurt there, but he's reached a point where he can remember that they started in a place of love. And in doing so, he's helped Christopher get there too.

His son giggles, before nodding slyly. "Not as much as yours is, though."

Beside them, Maddie snorts with laughter. "Guys, Chim is making a video collage of all the pictures we have of him with Jee...we can't all make my brother cry, he'll dehydrate!" She slants Eddie a suspicious look. "Why is your gift gonna make him cry?"

And, well...he has kind of been wanting to tell someone. He'd had to tell Chris of course. He knew his son would be on board with it, but he still needed to ask. But telling Abuela or Pepa is as good as telling the whole Diaz family and telling anyone at the station is as good as telling Buck. Maddie will keep this secret for him, he's sure. It's only a few more days, anyway. He checks to make sure Buck is still distracted by his niece and then pulls out his phone, opening a private folder on his picture gallery and then flipping it around so that Maddie can see the screen.

Instantly, her eyes go wide, her hands flying to her mouth. "Oh my God...oh my God, oh my God is that...are you…Eddie!" she whisper-shouts, whipping around to check herself that Buck isn't looking at them before gripping his wrists and jumping up and down a few times.

"It's an engagementring," Chris whispers. "I helped pick it out."

And now Maddie's eyes flood with tears. She covers her face with her hands before suddenly surging forward and wrapping her arms around both of them in a quick, hard hug. Eddie can't help but laugh as he squeezes her back.

"So I guess you approve?" he asks.

And he's joking, of course. Maddie had been the happiest for them when they first announced they were together. Maddie had been the one to pull him aside while everyone else was tallying up winnings from the absurd number of bets the 118 had going about them and just quietly thank him for finally, finally putting the light back in her little brother's eyes. Had been the one to pat his cheek softly and whisper that it had been too long since she saw him smile like that, too. Maddie had been first in line to help pack up Buck's loft when they decided only a few months later that they were done wasting time, that Buck, Eddie, and Christopher had been a family long before he and Buck even realized it, and Buck spending money to rent a place he hardly ever saw was just stupid. He knows Maddie approves.

Still, there's a tiny part of him that relaxes when she immediately nods, smiling at him so widely her cheeks have to hurt.

"Eddie...Eddie, this is all he's ever wanted. This is what he's wanted his whole life...oh God, I'm going to ruin it, he's gonna know something's up." She fans her eyes frantically, sniffling as she tries to stop her tears. She lets out a wet laugh. "I didn't even know you were thinking about marriage!"

He looks over at Buck...his partner, his best friend, his rock from practically the first moment they met (give or take about twelve hours). He's been there for Christopher, had brought Carla into their lives, had brought them so much joy. He's proven time and time again that he'll always put Christopher first, been as loyal and steadfast as Eddie could ever ask for. They've been through hell together, have made mistakes and hurt each other in ways that would have broken weaker bonds than theirs beyond repair. But they've always found their way back to each other's sides. Buck is it for him, he knows. There's no one else he wants to spend his life with, no one that he can ever trust this much with Christopher.

And honestly? No, Eddie doesn't need rings and a piece of paper to prove that to anyone. He and Buck and Christopher know how much they love each other, how much of a family they are, how much of a family they always have been. Buck, though. Buck has been waiting his whole life for someone to stay. For someone to choose him. For someone to look him in the eye and say, "Yes. We belong together. You're home, now."

He's been telling Buck since the moment they crossed the line between friendship and more, since they finally had it out about the shooting and Eddie's disastrous decision to try and leave the 118, since he sat in a hospital and told Buck he was the only one Eddie trusted to raise Chris if the worst should happen. He's been telling Buck for longer than that, if he's honest. Just neither of them were ready to hear it.

This, he thinks, is the way he can finally drive it home for Buck. Once and for all. They are a family. They are real. They are forever.

"I wouldn't think about it for anyone else but him," he says to his (hopefully) future sister-in-law. "But he makes it easy. And he deserves...permanent. I want him to know we're permanent."

"You're not helping me stop crying," Maddie says, before she shakes her head and leans in to hug him again. "Thank you," she murmurs, too low for Chris to hear. "There's no one in the world I trust with my baby brother more than you."

Buck whirls back around towards them before he can speak past the sudden lump in his throat, and they break apart as Buck strides towards them, Jee still perched on his shoulders. Watching his partner dance from side to side, making Jee-Yun giggle and shriek as she grips his hands, he wishes he could freeze this moment in time and keep it in his pocket, take it out and look at it whenever life got hard.

Jee graciously allows him to hold one of "her Bug's" hands as they make their way to where Chim said he would meet them, Chris on his other side. Buck and Maddie sing along with the Christmas carols being piped out over the streets (Maddie quite a bit more successfully than Buck, it must be said) and Eddie quietly wonders if he's ever been this happy in his life.

For a moment, just a moment, everything feels perfect.

And less than twenty-four hours later, it all goes completely.
Spectacularly.

Wrong

Chapter Text

Eddie has absolutely no complaints about their sex life, to be clear. Other people in their life occasionally still tease Buck about his past…proclivities…but Eddie’s never been one to judge as long as everyone was a consenting adult, and he has absolutely no problem reaping the benefits of Buck finally getting to a place where he feels like he has a healthy relationship with sex. No problem. That being said, they’re both in their mid-thirties, they work crazy hours, and they have a kid who’s a light sleeper and a house with thin walls. They don’t often get the opportunity to really enjoy each other as often as they would maybe like to.

Maddie and Chim pile the kids into the rental van while Buck and Eddie are lingering over coffee the morning of their last day at the cabin (Maddie shooting them a knowing smirk and high-fiving her brother on the way out the door again) and Buck waits approximately thirty seconds after the sounds of the engine fade away to grab Eddie’s wrist and haul him into the walk-in shower in their room.

They test the limits of the hot water heater.

And the sturdiness of the bedframe.

And they contemplate the hot tub before deciding they don’t want to do that to the cleaning crew, and honestly who knows how many couple have been in this cabin who don’t have their restraint?

Buck puts on sweatpants long enough to go get them more coffee and a plate of fruit and chocolate croissants he picked up at a bakery in the Christmas village last night. Eddie ends his morning stretched lazily out on a bed bigger and plusher than what they have at home with his gloriously naked boyfriend, feeding each other strawberries and kissing streaks of chocolate off the corners of each other’s mouths. It’s perfect.

His life in LA—so much freer and more meaningful than anything he’d ever have been able to build in El Paso—has taken so many twists and turns, but each one only brought him closer to this. He has regrets, of course…things he wishes hadn’t happened. Those dark days after the ladder truck bombing and the tsunami, when he and Buck fell so out of sync and had both gone on to make the stupidest decisions of their lives. The sniper attack that had nearly left him dead in the street, and the resulting trauma that had almost cost him everything before he finally admitted he needed help.

Shannon.

He would give almost anything for Shannon to have had the chance to see their son grow up. He wishes, he wishes, he wishes she was still here…he’s sure they could’ve eventually found their way back to being friends and co-parents, even if he now knows they would never have made it as a couple. Had never been meant to make it as a couple. Weirdly, he’s also sure that she and Buck would have ended up being good friends.

Those things were all in the past, though, and many of them had been outside his control anyway. He can’t change the past. All he can do is keep moving forward into the future. His future. Their future. It still catches him off-guard sometimes, that he gets to have this. All of it.

He has his place at the 118—different, now than he thought it would be when he joined, but no less right. He’d been so afraid he messed things up beyond repair with his ill-advised decision to leave…fortunately, Bobby had simply filed it as a leave of absence behind his back and Eddie had only made a couple months before his family (Abuela, Pepa, Carla, the 118, Chris, and Buck leading the goddamn charge as he planted himself in front of Eddie and refused to move until Eddie could give him an actual reason that leaving the 118 was the right decision…spoiler alert, he hadn’t been able to) helped him get his head back on straight. With Hen cutting back her hours to concentrate on medical school, it had made sense for Eddie to step up and become a full paramedic. Especially since it neatly sidestepped any issues for Bobby keeping Buck and Eddie on the same shift together, once they’d felt comfortable enough to reveal the change in their relationship. Ravi keeps up with Buck almost as well as Eddie ever had, and Buck—to pretty much no one’s surprise but his own—has matured into a natural mentor. The probies they’ve had over the past two years have all flourished under Buck’s instruction, to the point where some of the higher-ups are interested in him for a teaching role in the fire academy. They’ve talked about it—Buck is definitely interested, but thinks he wants to wait until Bobby retires, or until his bad leg starts giving him real trouble.

He has his family—the little family he’s been building with Buck for longer than he’d even realized. Christopher continues to thrive, meeting every challenge and obstacle with a cheerfully determined grin that Eddie’s seen on Buck’s face more times than he can count. Dios, he loves how much his boys love each other, how much they’ve come to support and depend on each other. He always has. And now, he has the prospect of their family becoming something even more.

He’d meant what he told Maddie last night: he wouldn’t consider marriage again for anyone but Buck. He can’t imagine going through it all again for anyone he loved less, and he can’t imagine loving anyone more than the man currently picking pieces of chocolate out of a half-eaten croissant and licking them off his fingers. Only Christopher owns more of his heart. And sure, he knows marriage isn’t a dealbreaker for Buck. They’ve talked about it a handful of times in the past—what Buck has always wanted more than anything else is to belong somewhere, to have people to come home to who want him there, forever. Eddie knows he and Christopher give that to Buck every day. Buck’s happy with what they have. Just…Eddie thinks he can make him happier. And that thought makes him happier. So why not?

Why not go through it all again, knowing that he’s doing it for all the right reasons this time? Why not invite everyone they love to come and celebrate them, celebrate the things they’ve been through and the hard paths they’ve walked to find their way to each other? Why not marry the man he loves…put a ring on his finger and declare to the entire world that they belong to each other? Why not?

Okay, maybe Eddie’s not as gun-shy about marriage as he thought he was.

“What’re you thinking so hard about?” Buck asks suddenly, popping a strawberry into his mouth. His lips are already red and shiny with the juice, still a little kiss-bitten, and Eddie can’t help but lean up and kiss him again, chase the taste of coffee and strawberries and chocolate and forever.

“You,” Eddie says honestly. “Us. Everything.”

“Me, us, and everything, huh?” Buck sets the plate with the remains of their shamelessly indulgent breakfast on the end table, then rolls over so he’s mostly lying on Eddie’s chest, folds his arms over Eddie’s collarbones and props his chin up. “Does everything involve getting back in that shower? I think I’ve got another round in me.”

Eddie laughs, tilting his head in consideration, but before he can answer, Buck’s phone starts buzzing on the nightstand. Immediately, the playful smirk vanishes from Buck’s face, and he rolls off Eddie to dive for his phone. “That’s Maddie’s ringtone,” he says. He takes the call, immediately thumbing it to speaker. “Mads? What’s wrong?”

* * *

“This isn’t funny, Buck,” Maddie hisses, checking to make sure Jee isn’t looking before smacking him in the chest.

It doesn’t hurt, but he reels back anyway, pretending to collapse in the hard, plastic chair of the ER waiting room they’ve been summoned to. “It’s a little bit funny,” he protests. Maddie glares at him, and he holds his thumb and forefinger up, pinching them just slightly apart. “Liiiiiitle bit funny.” Maddie lasts another ten seconds before her lips twitch, and she sinks down into the chair next to him.

“Okay,” she says begrudgingly, “it’s a little funny. He took like thirty seconds to fall.” Her mouth twitches again and she smothers a soft giggle into a cough before fixing him with a stern look. “Do not tell him I said that.”

Buck just pantomimes zipping his lips, and then looks over to where Chris is patiently entertaining Jee-Yun at one of the play tables in the corner of the waiting room. Of course, he wouldn’t be laughing if Chimney was seriously hurt. And a broken ankle certainly sucks, especially this close to Christmas. But…but Chim had been doing a little dance in front of an ice sculpture display in town, trying to make Jee-Yun laugh, and Maddie had been filming it…

And when he slipped on a patch of ice under the fresh dusting of snow on the sidewalk it really did take him forever to finally fall.

Buck already air-dropped the video to himself when Maddie went to go talk to the nurse (and really, she’d left her phone unlocked, right beside him, after telling him what gold was stored on her camera roll? If the situations were reversed, she’d have already sent the video to the 118 groupchat) and now he’s just deciding if he wants to send it to Hen immediately, or if he’ll try and blackmail Chim with it first. He stretches his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles and leans his head back against the wall. Beside him, Maddie sighs.

“I’m sorry we had to interrupt your alone time with Eddie,” she says. Buck shrugs, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and pressing a kiss to the side of her head.

“Stuff happens,” he says easily. “And between you and me, I’m kinda glad it didn’t happen to me for once.”

Maddie lets out a snort of laughter, shaking her head as Eddie returns from his quest to the cafeteria, balancing a drink carrier with three cups of coffee, a couple of juice boxes for Chris and Jee, and a box of miniature Oreos. “What’s the word?” he asks, distributing the drinks and passing the juice and the box of cookies to Chris.

Maddie sighs. “They took him back for X-rays just before you got here…not that those are going to tell them anything different than what we said. He’ll need a cast.” She rakes her hand back through her hair. “God, we’re not going to get back home until way after Jee-Yun’s bedtime. And we’ve still got to return the rental and check out of the cabin!”

“Okay, hang on,” Eddie says reasonably. “We’ve got three functional adults and three cars…I’d rather not have Chris out super late either. We promised Abuela we’d bring him over tomorrow so we could have Christmas early with her and Pepa. How about this—Buck, you take the kids back to the cabin and get them packed up, then head home in our car. I’ll hang out here with Chim and Maddie, then when they release Chim we’ll go back to the cabin and get the rest of our stuff and check out. Then I’ll drive the rental back to turn-in, and ride back to LA with Maddie and Chim.”

Buck nods along with Eddie plan. “Sounds good…and if you guys get back super late, we can just keep Jee with us tonight and drop her off at your place on our way to Abuela’s tomorrow.”

“She does love sleeping over at her Bug’s,” Maddie says with a small smile. “There’s a bunch of snacks and drinks at the cabin, and she’s been good about letting us know when she has to go…you should be able to get through the night with just the diapers in the bag. You sure you don’t mind, Buck?”

He shoots his sister a mock-affronted glare. “Mind? Mind? Do I mind more time with my absolute favorite people?”

Eddie snorts, nudging Buck’s knees with one of his own. “I’ve dropped to third place, huh?”

“Nah, you’re still second—Chris and Jee share first place equally,” Buck says with a smirk, tilting his face up for a kiss, which Eddie obliges. Maddie is smiling at him with softer eyes than usual when they break apart, but only shakes her head when he tilts a questioning eyebrow. “All right, if that’s what we’re doing, I’m going to go ahead and head out. Might stop at that cool retro diner we passed on the exit to the mountains for lunch.” He stands, stretching until his back pops satisfyingly and reaches down to give his sister a hug. He smacks a kiss on Eddie’s cheek and takes the diaper bag Maddie holds out to him. “See you at home, babe. Pizza okay for dinner?”

“Yeah, but don’t wait on us—who knows how long this’ll take. See you at home.”

Buck gathers Christopher and Jee up, settling his niece on his hip, his heart giving its usual thud when the little girl immediately pats his chin and tucks her head against his shoulder. When Eddie had let him so far into Christopher’s life, had named him Christopher’s guardian in case the unthinkable ever happened, he’d been quietly sure that there was no way he’d ever love someone as much as he loved his favorite Diaz. His sister’s child had blasted that notion out of the water practically the first time Maddie settled her in his arms. Those terrible months after Maddie left LA and Chimney went to find her, Buck’s heart had hurt just as much for the time he was missing with his niece as it did for what his big sister and her partner were going through. He blows a raspberry at her just to see her smile and ruffles his free hand through Chris’s hair as they wave goodbye to Maddie and Eddie and then make their way out of the ER.

They’d all mostly packed up the night before, so it’s the work of only a half hour or so to get back to the cabin, grab Chris’s suitcase and Jee-Yun’s paraphernalia, and clear the fridge of any snacks or drinks they want to bring with them. The truck he drove after the tsunami was traded in for a more family-friendly SUV last year, and he loads the cargo area with all of his and Eddie’s belongings, as well as most of the Christmas shopping they’d all done over the past few days before buckling Jee-Yun back into her car seat.

“All right, snacks?” he asks as Chris climbs carefully into the seat beside Jee, tucking his crutches onto the floor in front of him.

“Check,” Chris calls back, holding up the adorable fabric tote that Eddie can make fun of all he wants because Chris loves the flamingo pattern on it and the fact that it’s insulated to keep hot things hot and cold things cold.

“Drinks?”

“Check!” Jee screeches, waving her sippy cup in the air. The ch sound still comes out more like a t, and it’s kind of the most adorable thing Buck’s ever heard.

He fixes a mock-serious frown on his face. “Does anyone have to use the bathroom?” he asks, flicking his eyes between the two like he expects them to be conspiring against him. It’s only partly a joke.

“No potty,” Jee chirps. “I go to my Bug’s house, and I play with my Tiss,” she orders imperiously, reaching out of her seat to pat Christopher’s shoulder. And yeah, Jee-Yun’s favorite people are her parents, of course, and she loves her Uncle Albert and her Uncle Eddie, and all her 118 family, but he and Christopher are the ones she gets downright possessive over. Christopher, because even at thirteen-oh-God-how-do-he-and-Eddie-have-a-teenager? he’s still the best damn kid in the world, catches Jee’s hand and blows a raspberry against her knuckles.

“That’s right! I’ve got a Lego tower all ready for…the Jee-A-Saurus-Rex,” he says brightly, lowering his voice to a growl at the last words, to which Jee-Yun immediately curls her little fingers into ‘claws’ and goes, “Raaaaaar!”

Buck laughs and double-checks her straps before passing Chris his iPad and makes his way around to the driver’s side. He glances up at the sky as he slides in, taking note of the heavy gray clouds that have rolled in, and the wet, heavy chill in the air he used to recognize in the Pennsylvania winters. He checks the weather app on his phone, unsurprised to see snow predicted in the next hours. He and the kids will probably only catch the very beginning of it before getting down out of the mountains, but Eddie, Chim, and Maddie might have to contend with some slick roads. He shoots a quick text to Eddie.

hey lvng now let mads drive whn u head out—snow rollin n <3 u.

He waits a few seconds, a grin already curling his mouth. Sure enough, his boyfriend texts back almost immediately.

WHY do you text like you’re having a stroke? We’re just finishing up here…gonna drop the rental off and then check out of the cabin. Probably be a couple hours behind you. Love you!

He texts back a kiss emoji and then sets his phone to Do Not Disturb, putting the SUV into gear and pulling out onto the road.

*

He does everything right.

He hasn’t driven in serious snow in years, has always hated the stuff, but it’s like riding a bike. It’s muscle memory and instinct and Maddie came back when he got his learner’s permit, came back for a whole weekend and took him out to the parking lot of an old, run-down mall at 10pm. They rocketed over the pavement in her-his-their-the Jeep, the asphalt slick with ice and snow and she made him slam on the brakes over and over, showed him how to steer into the skid, how to regain control, how to keep control, how to always keep control when you feel the tires start to slide.

He does everything right.

The snow isn’t bad, it’s not coming down hard yet, but the road is curving its way down the mountains, the snow is blowing in ghostly white clouds over the pavement, and it’s been cold snaps and thaws over and over for the past two weeks. California winters are mild, mild, mild, but the mountains are still cold. Still snowy. They came for the snow, they wanted Chris and Jee to see the snow.

He does everything right.

The snow isn’t bad, but he’s felt the telltale slickness under the tires, just a few seconds where the rubber slid over a glaze of ice. It’s been snowing and thawing and water running in little rivulets over the road in places and there’s just patches. Patches of ice, patches of black ice and it’s not bad, but he’s turned the music off and is sitting up very straight in his seat, hands perfectly at ten and two because he has Christopher and Jee-Yun. He has his two favorite people with him and he has to be careful because it’s not bad, not yet, but he’s attended too many scenes where it wasn’t bad, the road wasn’t that slick, they weren’t driving that fast, the turn wasn’t too sharp and he knows how fast things can go to shit. He has Chris and Jee and he is being extra-cautious because there are some slick spots, and the road is a long, unfamiliar length of serpentine curves.

He does everything right.

The car comes around the curve going in the opposite direction of them, and it’s going too fast. Too fast, and the driver must not have spent hours in a snowy parking lot practicing what to do, must not have had a sister who loved them and always wanted to protect them and make sure they knew what to do, because they hit a patch of ice. A patch of slick, dark ice glazed across the pavement, glazed where the water must have been running and melting and freezing on the road and they start to spin. He sees them lose control and he has Chris. He has Jee. He has his sister’s baby and the boy who’s his son in every way but blood and he has a split second to react.

He does everything right.

He does everything right, but the other car doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t steer into the skid, doesn’t regain control, doesn’t keep control and he has a split second to wrench his steering wheel, tap the brakes just enough, just enough so that the empty passenger side takes the impact first. It’s all he can do, the best he can do. The other car slams into them, going fast, so fast. Chris screams. Jee screams. Maybe he screams.

They’re spinning. Spinning. Rubber squeals. Glass shatters. Something slams into his chest with the force of a sledgehammer and Chris is screaming. Jee is screaming. They’re screaming, but if they’re screaming they’re still alive, still alive, and he knows they might not be, can feel it in the force the car hit them with, can feel it in the way they’re still spinning, he’s seen scenes like this. They’re about to become one of the scenes he’s seen and sometimes people don’t walk away from those scenes, but Chris and Jee are still screaming.

It’s days, it’s months, it’s years before they come to a stop, and Buck’s vision is filled with white. Snow? No, it’s the airbags. He spent hours researching, picked the very best vehicle when they decided to get another one. The best safety ratings, the best airbags, the best crumple zones. His vision is filled with white and he’s slumped against the steering wheel, and God his chest is on fire, his seatbelt cutting into him.

“Ch-chris?” he gasps, thinks he can still hear crying, can hear wailing, but his ears are ringing. “Jee…Chris, Chris!” He pushes against the steering wheel, his hands shaking, his arms weak, weak, weak, but he has to get out, has to check on the kids. He manages to push himself back against his seat, bats the deflating airbag away to see his cracked windshield filled with the view that should be to the side of them. Not in front. He blinks, tries to make his mind make sense of it.

Guard rail. They’d been at a part of the route with the mountains on one side and a steep drop-off on the other, steep but not sheer, hillside rolling down into a small valley a few hundred yards below them. Beautiful, it had looked beautiful, but it’s not the view that should be filling the windshield. They’re slammed up against the guard rail, only that keeping them from tipping off the embankment, rolling those few hundred yards into the valley. Out, he needs to get out and check the kids…the kids.

“Chris…Jee!” he says again, shakes his head and regrets it when it seems to make the ringing in his ears worse. He shouldn’t move, but he has to make sure the kids are all right. He’s seen scenes like this…seen scenes and people don’t always walk away from them.

He is trying to remember how the door works, trying to will the ringing in his ears to stop. He doesn’t hear the next vehicle that comes around the curve. Doesn’t hear the sudden blare of a horn, fresh squeal of rubber burning on the slick pavement.

And when the car that hit his is rammed against them again, he doesn’t hear the guard rail give with a terrific wail of metal on metal. He registers the view out his windshield tilting, tilting, tilting, has time to gasp sharply.

He did everything right.

They go over the edge anyway.

Chapter Text

He’s cold.

That’s the first thing that registers. He’s cold—all over cold, his nose and cheeks chapped with it, every bit of exposed skin chilled and icy.

He hurts.

That’s the second thing. His chest is somehow cold and on fire, his head is pounding, pulse throbbing in his temples. He feels…battered. Sore and bruised and battered all over, his limbs aching, his chest…God, his chest hurts so much.

“Buck…Buck, please…please wake up. Please!”

Christopher is calling for him. Chris…Christopher is crying, sobbing, and calling for him, and Jee is screaming and—

It comes back to him in a rush. The roads…the car…they’d crashed, they’d crashed and the kids…

The kids!

“Chris!” He gasps, his eyes snapping open and almost immediately squeezing shut again as he groans. He hurts. “Chris!” he chokes out again, his tongue feeling heavy in his mouth. There’s blood in his mouth, blood coating his upper lip, his forehead, his nose, sticky and crusted. His head pounds sickly and there’s…there’s something wrong…

His arms are touching the ceiling of the car…why…what…

“Buck!” Christopher is still crying, great hiccupping sobs, but there’s relief in his voice now, so much relief.

“I—don’t move, Chris,” he gasps out, trying to take his own advice when everything in him is straining to lunge for the kids. Check them, make sure they’re safe, make sure they’re all right. Jee is wailing just behind him, terrified cries that slice through Buck like a knife. “Don’t move, just don’t move. I’ll get us out, just don’t move.”

He blinks furiously, trying to focus and his eyes catch on a pair of sunglasses lying on the ceiling. They’re broken, cracked, damn it he liked those sunglasses, but there’s something more important than just them being broken…they’re…why are they on the ceiling? His sunglasses were in the cupholder, how did they get on the ceiling? Why are they laying on the ceiling? Why—

Upside down.

They’re upside down. The SUV is upside down, he is upside down, the kids are upside down.

The car rolled and they’re upside down. His chest hurts, his seatbelt—it probably saved his life, if they rolled the car, but it’s digging into his chest, his whole weight against the strap.

“Buck!” Chris says, his voice still tear-filled and urgent and scared, Chris is scared and Jee is crying, screaming, wailing.

They’re upside down.

“Don’t move,” he says again, smacks his lips and flexes his fingers. He knows how to do this, he knows what to do. The kids are scared, the kids might be hurt, Chris and Jee might be hurt, must be hurt, they rolled the car. He knows what to do. “Just, just hold still. I’ll get us out.”

He and Ravi would be looking for the best place to go in with the jaws right now, while Eddie and Chim evaluated the victims. Victims, they’re victims. Chris and Jee are victims in a car crash, are upside down in a car crash and it’s cold…it’s so cold. Colder than it was when they set out, how long was he unconscious?

Bobby isn’t here to call out orders, Ravi isn’t coming with the jaws, Eddie and Chim and Hen aren’t here to assess. This is all on Buck. Chris and Jee could be hurt, and he knows what to do. He has to know what to do. They are upside down and it’s cold. He bites his lip and flexes his toes, moves his ankles and his legs and waits for a burst of pain, waits for the sharp pain that will tell him he’s hurt.

He waits for the pain, expects the pain—broken bones, embedded shrapnel, blood and injury and pain…but his legs obey him. His bad leg aches, burns in the way it does when he holds a stressed position too long, but there is no screaming-grinding agony of a broken bone. Hips next, and he can hear Hen tutting in his ear. Hears Chim groan when he cautiously pulls his arms in tight to his chest. Hears Eddie swear in Spanish when he gently rotates his neck from side to side. No backboard, no jaws, no c-collar. Can’t just sit here, he has to risk it.

His body protests. Hurts. Aches. But it’s pain he can bear, pain he can deal with. His chest is the worst. His limbs are bruised and battered, his neck is sore, is whiplash sore, but his chest is a bright-hot-bad pain. Ribs. Not broken, he doesn’t think, but definitely bruised. Maybe cracked. The seatbelt saved his life, but it’s an impediment now. It’s holding him to his seat, putting pressure on his chest and he needs to…needs…

“I’m coming Jee,” he gasps when his niece’s cries don’t abate. “Chris, just hold on. Jee-Jee, baby, I’m coming, I’m coming.” He pitches his voice as loud as he can to be heard, thinks he hears Jee-Yun hiccup, sob out an approximation of his name and he grits his teeth. “Talk to me, Chris…are you hurt? Don’t move, but tell me what hurts.” He breathes through his nose and slowly reaches down—up—to the storage pocket in the driver’s side door.

“A-Arm,” Chris gasps, still teary, but now that Buck is awake, now that he’s not alone with just his baby cousin, Buck hears that Diaz strength thread through his voice. “I-I think it’s, it’s broken…it really h-hurts and, and there’s a bump.”

“Okay, are you bleeding?” He reaches down/up and curls his fingers around the emergency tool he keeps wedged in the door—seatbelt cutter and hammer to break the glass.

The glass is already broken. His window is broken, shattered, a thousand green-blue fissures that will disintegrate if he hits it with the hammer. The doorframe is warped and crumpled, closer to his head than it should be—maybe he can force the door open, but he might have to break the windshield out, might have to crawl out that way, he doesn’t know if his shoulders will fit through the driver’s side window.

“Just a-a little,” Chris says. “There’s a cut on my-my head. Jee’s not bleeding.” He hears Christopher make soothing, shushing sound. “Buck’s…Buck’s coming, Jee. Buck’s gonna help us.”

His fingers close around the seatbelt cutter. Eddie rolled his eyes when Buck went so far as to gorilla-glue strips of Velcro to the inside of the storage pocket and wrap the cutter’s handle in the same. Called Buck paranoid. He kissed him when Buck was done securing the cutter, though, and then did the same in his truck. The cutter is right where it should be and he pulls it out, digs the blade under the seatbelt and slices through it. He cannot help but cry out when he drops, his shoulders and neck hitting the ceiling of his car while the rest of him stays wedged under the steering wheel. His chest burns and he forces himself to take shallow breaths, shallow breaths, even as he tries to pull his legs out so that he’s at least lying on the ceiling.

Never. Never has he cursed his height this vehemently. Never has he been so angry he’s so tall. Chris needs him. Jee needs him. He grunts and groans, and Jee cries and screams and he has to get out. Has to get out, has to get out, has to help them and he can’t if he can’t get out.

He manages it.

His whole torso feels like it’s on fire, his head is pounding harder than ever, but he wiggles out from under the steering wheel and slumps down onto the ceiling-that-is-now-the-floor and he almost weeps in relief when the passenger side door proves to be still intact enough to open. Just barely. It creaks and squeals and he can’t get it open all the way, no matter how he pushes, but it’s enough. It’s enough to pull himself out and onto the ground and oh…

Oh no.

For a moment, all he can do is stare. His niece is screaming, Chris is calling out to him, and he is frozen, lying on his back and panting in sharp, shallow breaths. It’s snowing. It’s snowing, hard, the sky a blanket of heavy, heavy clouds that he can barely see in the purple twilight. Night is falling swiftly, and the snow is already inches deep on the crumped remains of his car.

One thing at a time.

He takes a deeper breath, ignoring the pulse of dull agony in his torso and abdomen and pulls himself to his knees. Forces the part of him that is a terrified father and uncle aside and calls Firefighter Buckley to the surface. That’s who the kids need right now, that is who is going to keep the brightest lights of his life alive right now. He scrambles for the back doors of the SUV, biting his lip at the way the roof has crumpled down, bent the frame of the vehicle, pretzel-like. He grips the handle on Chris’s side and pulls, bracing one foot against the frame and demanding that his body obey him. He manages to force it, force it open just enough to get his shoulders and torso through.

Chris nearly bursts into tears again when Buck’s hands cup his cheeks, but the boy bravely sniffles them back, holds still while Buck runs his hands over his limbs. He whimpers when Buck touches his left arm, and Buck can already see Chris was right—it’s broken. Looks like a clean break, though, and the bone didn’t pierce the skin.

Bug!” Jee cries hysterically, reaching for him with her chubby hands, her face so red, so tearstained.

“I’m coming sweetheart, I’m coming. Okay Chris, I’m going to cut you out of here. You let me do all the work, okay? Don’t move if you can help it.”

The next several minutes are a blur, his hands moving by instinct alone as his brain races, trying to figure out what they are going to do. He frees Chris first, pulling him out of the wreckage and running anxious hands over his body again, tears pricking his eyes when it seems the broken arm and the cut above his eyebrow are the worst of his injuries. He pulls the boy to his chest, kisses his forehead before settling him against the side of the SUV with instructions not to jostle his arm.

Jee-Yun clings to him desperately when he pulls her out of the car seat, his knees nearly giving out at the relief that sweeps through him when she proves to be only a little bruised from her seat straps. He has never been so grateful for his tendency to hyperfixate and research binge, is ready to get down on his knees and thank every deity he’s ever heard of that he hadn’t been satisfied until he’d bought the seat with the very best safety rating, had gone so far as to have the anchors welded into the seat frames and damn the resale value. The kids are about as okay as they could be, given the severity of the wreck. If this was a scene the 118 had responded to, they’d count it as a goddamn miracle.

He holds them both close when he comes back around to where he’d left Christopher. Sits with his back against the remains of his car and practically pulls Christopher into his lap, tucks Jee close and just holds them, breathing as deeply as he can, catching his breath. They are alive. They are alive, and he is mobile, and…

And they are not out of danger, yet.

As Jee’s wails die down into hiccupping cries, Buck rolls his head towards the path of destruction left by their car rolling down to its current position. There is no way he’s going to be able to climb back to the place where they went off the road. The knowledge settles over him like a shroud, his eyes tracking up the path his vehicle must have taken. It’s not a sheer drop-off, and that is probably the only reason they are still alive. It’s not sheer, but it’s steep, bristling with small trees and bushes that he can just about follow a path of destruction through. Maybe…maybe if he was alone, if his ribs weren’t jacked up. If it wasn’t snowing, if a thick blanket of white did not already coat the ground. Maybe he could get up there without ropes and winch if he had no injuries and no one else to carry. As it is, climbing out of here is a no-go.

He has no idea what happened to the people that crashed into them. They must not have gone over the edge—there are no trees or shrubs sturdy enough to take the weight of a vehicle for as long as they must’ve been down here, as far as he can see. The brush growth is thick though…he can’t see up to the road. Can’t see any flashing lights in the sky that would indicate emergency vehicles. It might be hours, yet before anyone finds the accident scene.

Or maybe it’s already been cleared.

Buck’s heart dips in his chest at that thought. If they already came for the car that slammed into them, and did not find them…

There is nothing he can do about that now. Right now, Chris and Jee are in danger, real danger. The temperature is dropping, the snow shows no signs of letting up, and he has no idea where his phone ended up in the wreckage. Chris’s somehow wound up wedged between his seat and a crumpled section of the door next to him—it’s smashed nearly in two, completely useless. He has to look for his and see if there’s enough signal to call for help, but right now he needs to get the kids out of the snow and wind. He needs to stabilize Christopher’s arm. He lets the calm of his training settle over him, blocks out everything else but the immediate things he can take care of.

The car is cold, but if he can get the kids out of the wind…

He pulls Jee closer to his chest, runs his hand over Christopher’s curls, and then hitches himself to his feet again. He stumbles around to the trunk, holding his breath as he finds the latch release and jumping back clumsily as the trunk lid pretty much just crashes down at his feet. Their luggage and belongings are a jumbled heap, the bags of Christmas shopping they’d done spilled and tossed about.

“Chris, can you make it over here, bud?” Buck says, awkwardly digging into the mess.

He jerks suitcases and duffle bags out, piling them by his feet. He tosses Christmas presents and bags over his shoulder, uncaring of where they land. His only priority is getting the kids protected, getting them warm. He has an emergency kit somewhere in this mess—a little bag with some better-than-average medical supplies, a survival blanket, and some emergency flares. His thoughts fly a mile a minute, his brain spitting a Wikipedia page’s worth of survival facts and figures at him. A plan starts to form, a desperate, temporary plan, but it’s all he’s got. He might be able to do something with their situation in the daylight, when it’s stopped snowing and there are more likely to be people on the roads, but they have to make it to daylight first.

He hears a slow scuffling, Christopher awkwardly hitching himself around to the trunk with his good arm leaning on the car for support. Buck’s hands land on the emergency kit, and he breathes a sigh of relief. “Okay Superman…I’m gonna fix up your arm as best I can, and then you and Jee are gonna put on every piece of clothing that can fit under your snow suits.”

“Is…is someone coming to get us?” Chris asks tremulously. Buck sighs, rests his nose against Jee’s soft hair. She’s shivering in his arms, despite being wrapped in his winter jacket, tucked close to his chest. He looks up at Eddie’s son—his son, their son, their son long before he and Eddie ever even realized what was between them—and tries to pour every bit of calm confidence he can into his expression. “I don’t know, Chris,” he says, because he will never, not under any circumstances, lie to his kid. Not when it’s really important. “Your dad and Aunt Maddie and Uncle Chim will be getting back to the house, soon. They’ll figure out what must’ve happened pretty quick.” Perhaps even before they get back to LA, if Eddie tries to text or call and Buck doesn’t answer. People will be looking for them, but who knows how long it will take to find them? “But I’m gonna get us out of this, okay? If no one comes, I promise you, I will get us out of this.”

Chris is shivering, too. His cheeks and nose are bright red, snowflakes frosting in his hair. He sniffles a little, rubs his nose with his sleeve, and then nods. “I know you will, Bucky,” he says, as though it is simply fact. As though there is no other outcome. As though he knows that Buck will protect him and Jee the same way he knows the sky is blue and the sun rises in the east.

Buck will never know what he’s done to inspire that kind of faith, but he swears he will be worthy of it.

He clears the last of their luggage from the trunk, leaving an open space just big enough for all three of them, if Buck hunches down and curls around the kids. That’ll be better for sharing body heat, anyway. In a few minutes, he has Jee bundled up in her fleece footie pajamas, two sweaters, and her snowsuit. She whines when he pulls the hood up and tucks her hands into the mittens, but doesn’t really fight him. A brief search around the car yields a couple of branches straight enough and thick enough to be used as splints. He covers them with one of his socks and, apologizing over and over as Chris bites his lip and whimpers, sets Chris’s broken arm and uses a pair of Jee’s stretchy tights to form a makeshift sling. Then he helps bundle Christopher up as thickly as Jee and tucks them together in the cleared out trunk, out of the wind.

With the flashlight from his emergency kit, he searches desperately for his phone, cursing violently to himself when he can’t find it. He forces himself to leave it, for now. He can’t afford to let himself get soaked by the snow. He does manage to find their snack tote, breathing a sigh of relief when the water and juice bottles inside prove to be intact. One of Jee’s fruit cups burst open, but there are still several bags of crackers, cookies, granola bars, and chips. He can keep the kids fed and hydrated for right now, at least.

Briefly, he considers trying to gather some branches and starting a fire with one of the emergency flares…but is forced to admit it wouldn’t be a wise expenditure of his energy right now. Out of the wind, with the survival blanket and their layers, they can survive until morning. He’ll make a nest out of his and Eddie’s clothes, huddle them all under the blanket. He’ll dig out the wool socks he’s been sleeping in at the cabin (to both Christ and Eddie’s amusement) and they might not be comfortable, but they’ll be all right for a few hours. If he starts stumbling around in the dark and the snow looking for firewood, he runs the risk of getting turned around in low visibility, or God forbid tripping and landing himself in a puddle of runoff or a creek or something. And he only has two emergency flares. If he’s going to start a fire with one, he needs to wait until he can get a reasonable amount of wood together.

And that means waiting for daylight.

But surely it won’t come to that. Surely Eddie, Maddie, and Chim will figure out something happened to them and send out search parties soon, if they haven’t already. A few hours. Maybe until morning. That’s all they’ll have to last. Surely.

He comes back around to the trunk to find Jee-Yun fast asleep against Chris, his good arm slung around her protectively. “She’s warm,” Chris says immediately. “I looked for all the signs that book we read last year listed. She’s warm enough, I think she’s just tired from crying.”

Buck nods, his heart swelling with love for the both of them. He’s still going to have to do concussion protocol on both of them throughout the night, especially with the bruising and cut on Chris’s forehead, but he hadn’t felt anything concerning when he checked his niece over. He passes the snack tote over to Chris to put down beside him and then spends the next several minutes layering as many of their clothes as he can between their bodies and the ceiling they’ll be lying on. He almost whoops in joy when he finds one of the Christmas bags contains a huge blanket with a beautifully woven pattern that Maddie and Chim must have purchased at some point, and immediately wraps it around Chris and Jee, layering the survival blanket on top. He awkwardly folds himself in with them, pulling the trunk up after him and breathing a sigh of relief when the latch actually clicks. He winds himself around Chris and Jee and pulls one edge of the blankets over his body, placing the flashlight with the snack tote.

“Well…I told you I’d take you camping this year, didn’t I?” he says, pulling Jee and Chris into his arms. It’s not comfortable. He can already tell his bad leg is going to give him hell in a little while. But Jee immediately curls against his chest, her little puffs of breath hitting the skin of his neck, and Chris trustingly lays his head against Buck’s shoulder.

“Hey Buck?” Chris says after a moment.

“Yeah buddy?”

“This tent sucks.”

Buck buries his face in Jee’s hair and laughs softly, the sound closer to tears than he wants to admit. “Yeah. Yeah, no argument there Superman.”

Surely Eddie has figured out something is wrong. Surely.

Surely.

* * *

Getting down out of the mountains takes longer than they were anticipating.

Oh, Chimney’s cast was relatively straightforward, once they got through the x-rays and found someone to actually set it and get it in plaster. Chimney grouses and groans as he makes his way to the rental van on his shiny new crutches, but they get him loaded in quickly enough. And once they get back to the cabin, they’re pleasantly surprised to find Buck did most of the packing for them, and must have taken all the Christmas shopping with him and the kids. Checking out and getting the rental van turned back in goes relatively quickly as well.

They were not, however, expecting to hit a massive line of cars just as the weather Buck warned them about in his text right before he left truly settles in. Eddie has only seen snow like this a handful of times in his life. Thank God they were checking out today or they might have actually gotten snowed in at the cabin. Maddie—who has the most experience out of all of them driving in such weather, and had done so the most recently—gets very…careful as she takes the twists and turns of the mountain highway, and by the time they come to the traffic jam, there is a constant frown etched on her face and they are going only a fraction of the speed limit.

“How much farther before we get out of this mess?” Chimney asks from the backseat, where he’s got his leg propped up in Jee’s car seat. Eddie check the weather app on his phone, frowning at the size of the storm moving across the radar map.

“Probably another half hour or so. It shouldn’t be so bad once we get to lower altitude. This place is gonna get hammered tonight, though. They’re expecting three to five inches of snow and then subzero temperatures the next few days.”

The line of cars inches forward a little, and they finally round the curve enough to see the flashing of emergency lights. “Uh-oh,” Chimney says, leaning forward so he can peer out of the front windshield.

“There’s gotta be a ton of black ice by now,” Maddie says softly, flexing her hands on the steering wheel. “Good call sending Buck and the kids ahead…they probably got out just ahead of the worst of this.”

“Mmhmm,” Eddie agrees absently, focused on the accident up ahead. There’s two ambulances and a couple police cruisers…from where they’re sitting he can see a jackknifed semi-truck, and a mini-van sitting uncomfortably close to the edge of a drop-off. The guardrail is broken and twisted around the van’s front end. “Dios, that truck almost sent those people over the edge,” he says, and for some reason a shiver goes down his spine. For an instant, he’s tempted to jump out of the car, run up ahead to the accident and see if they need help. Which is ridiculous, they’re clearly almost done clearing the scene…but the urge is there all the same.

An officer is directing traffic around the end of the semi…there’s just enough room for people to skirt around, but there’s people coming in both directions. With the snow still coming down and night coming on fast, it’s slow going. It takes them almost twenty minutes to get around the accident, and Eddie cranes his neck as they pass, watching intently. His fingers itch, the urge to go see what happened still swooping through him. Odd.

“Hope everyone’s okay,” Maddie murmurs as they finally get past the jam. Eddie nods absently and shoots a text to Buck, asking him to call him when he gets in with the kids. He settles back against his seat as Maddie negotiates the roads, quiet descending on them to let her concentrate.

His phone is silent in his hands.

*

He doesn’t worry as Buck’s estimated time to get back to the house comes and goes, and Buck still doesn’t call. His boyfriend said he might be stopping at that diner they passed, and traveling with a four-year-old doesn’t exactly lend itself to military-precise scheduling. Buck usually sets his phone to Do Not Disturb when he’s driving with the kids, and he doesn’t always remember to switch it back when he gets out of the car.

He doesn’t worry as they finally get out of the mountains and the treacherous snow peters out into rain, and then nothing. Maddie sets a more appropriate speed and they get on the highway that will take them back into the city. It’s nearly dinner time, and Jee-Yun was no doubt cranky after the long trip. Buck is probably settling her, and unpacking the car, and will most likely realize he missed messages from Eddie when he goes to order the pizza they talked about for dinner.

He's a little worried when Jee’s bedtime rolls around and Buck still hasn’t called. He fires off a few more texts, then hits the ‘call’ button. It rings, but after a few moments all he hears is:

Hey, you’ve reached Buck. Can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Maddie glances over at him, her brow furrowed slightly as she signals to take their last exit before they hit the city limits. “Still haven’t heard from him?” she asks quietly. Behind them, Chimney snores, the long day and the painkiller he finally took when they last stopped for gas having knocked him out.

“No,” Eddie says, gnawing on his lip. It’s not—there’s not actually any reason to worry. Buck would usually have texted or called as soon as he got home, but he might have been worried about distracting whoever was driving through the snow, and then just gotten wrapped up in dealing with the kids. That’s the most likely explanation, in fact.

He dials Buck’s number again.

Hey, you’ve reached Buck. Can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

“Hey babe, can you call me as soon as you get this? We’re about an hour out. Just want to make sure you got home okay. Love you!”

It’s stupid. He’s being stupid. But something feels…off. He can’t even put his finger on it, couldn’t tell anyone why he feels that way. But something feels off, all the same. The miles roll on under their wheels and his phone stays stubbornly silent. No texts. No calls. No endearing pictures of Chris and Jee playing together. He’s not worried—but he feels like he should be.

Buck has still not texted when they turn onto Eddie’s street, and he and Maddie are both tense and anxious, though they haven’t said anything about it since Eddie left his last message. It’s stupid. It’s stupid, it’s stupid, he’s going to walk into the house and find the three of them cuddled up on the couch with the remains of way too much junk food spread out on the coffee table. Jee will be sleeping on Buck’s chest, and he’ll have his arm curled around their son, and he'll startle awake when Eddie runs his hands through his hair, and blink up at him owlishly before his eyes widen.

Shit, Eds, I forgot to call you!” he’ll say, and he’ll fall over himself apologizing to Maddie, for making them worry, and they’ll all laugh about the kids wearing him out. Eddie’s worrying for nothing. He’s worrying for nothing and…

The SUV is not in their driveway.

There are no lights on in the house.

Maddie pulls the car to a stop in Eddie’s driveway, braking a little too forcefully. “Maybe he took them to our place…so you didn’t have to get Jee up early tomorrow?” She doesn’t believe it even as she says it. Eddie can tell.

He’s dialing again, even as his heart speeds up in his chest, even as sweat breaks out on his forehead.

Hey, you’ve reached Buck. Can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

He swears and hangs up, dials again. Beside him, Maddie calls Chim’s name until he jerks awake in the back, tells him to start calling all their friends and make sure Buck didn’t show up at one of their places for some reason.

Hey, you’ve reached Buck. Can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

He stares out at his empty house, where Buck should have been hours ago. Stares and tries not to think of all the miles between here and the place where Buck last texted him from. All the places something could have gone wrong. All the ways a car trip can go so terribly wrong. He knows, he knows down to his bones that Buck isn’t at any of their friends’ places. Didn’t stop somewhere to feed the kids or find some tourist trap and lose track of time. Something has gone wrong.

Hey, you’ve reached Buck. Can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t sleep, too desperately worried and in pain—his leg, as he knew it would, is killing him with the cramped quarters. Chris eventually nods off late into the night, Buck waking him periodically to ask stupid, inconsequential questions. There’s not much point, he supposes, it’s not like he can actually do anything if Christopher’s head injury worsens. He can’t stop checking, though.

In the early morning hours, he dozes in fits and starts, jerking awake every time he starts to slide deeper into sleep, suddenly certain that Jee has stopped breathing, or that Chris is bleeding again. By the time the sky starts to lighten, he’s almost more exhausted from the fear than the lack of sleep.

Gently, he disentangles himself from Jee and Christopher, tucking the blankets carefully around them. He bites back a groan as he slowly twists himself onto his knees in the upside down SUV, taking stock of himself as he goes. The blankets were not quite large enough to cover all three of them completely, and he’s spent the night shifting from one side to the other, by turns leaving his back and front exposed to the chill air. His whole body protests every movement, but his ribs and abdomen are the worst. He still doesn’t think any of his ribs are outright broken, but if he hasn’t cracked at least a couple, he’ll eat the remains of his seatbelt.

He can’t contain a wince and a sharp whuff of air as he reaches for the trunk release. God, his abdomen hurts worse than his ribs, a sharp stabbing pain that tickles something in the back of his mind, the positioning of it. It’s not so bad that he can’t push through it, though, not so bad that he can’t put it aside for Christopher and Jee-Yun. He’s conscious, he’s mobile, and he’s their best chance for surviving long enough for rescuers to find them.

Eddie, Maddie, and Chim have to know something is wrong by now, have to have known for hours. Search and Rescue has probably already been mobilized, it’ll just be a matter of narrowing down the search area. Cell service was patchy on the drive up into the mountains, but hopefully wherever his phone last pinged a tower is close by.

He crawls out of the SUV and climbs slowly to his feet. His breath frosts in clouds around his face, the rising sun painting the snow an almost rosy pink. He can already tell the air is colder than it was yesterday, the faint breeze on the air hiding an icy knife’s edge when it hits his cheeks. He can feel the promise of more snow on the wind, even though the sky is still mostly cloudless. He turns in a slow circle, taking in the thick blanket of white that has settled over everything in the night. It’s not a catastrophic amount of snow, maybe four or five inches, but it’s enough to obscure the broken bushes and branches that would mark where they went off the road. It’s enough to make it difficult to see their wreck from the air.

Search and rescue in this kind of terrain isn’t really Buck’s specialty. He’s assisted in a few operations out in the country around LA over the years, but he can’t really gauge how long it might take them to find where they went off the road, what search patterns they might use. He doesn’t know how to estimate when they might reasonably expect a rescue. He presses his lips together, pacing back and forth as he tries to stretch out his leg, get the muscles loosened up. He can hear the kids stirring behind him and he closes his eyes a moment, coming to a halt.

At least a day.

He can probably count on them being stuck here for at least a day. Maybe even two or three. Last night was all about triage—making sure they made it through the night so he could reassess in the daylight.

He will make his plans with the assumption that they will be stuck out here for at least three days. If he’s wrong and they’re rescued sooner, well, then he’ll be pleasantly surprised. If he’s wrong and it takes longer…

Well.

It can’t possibly take longer, can it? They aren’t that far off the road. If the embankment were just a little less steep, he could probably cart Chris and Jee up to the road. For a moment, he considers trying to trek alongside the road, find a place where it’s a more reasonable climb. Even as he considers it, he rejects it, though. He doesn’t know the terrain, doesn’t remember how far they might have to go before finding such a place. Christopher isn’t going to be able to use his crutches well with his arm, and Buck just can’t carry them both with his injuries. Leaving the wreck is a fool’s errand. If it were warmer, if he were less hurt, maybe he'd risk it…but ‘maybe’ won’t get them out of here.

“Okay,” he says out loud. “Okay.”

“Buck?” Christopher’s hesitant voice sounds behind him, and he turns around, pasting a smile on. Chris doesn’t look like he buys it, shuffling slowly to his knees and tucking the blankets back around Jee just as carefully as Buck had earlier.

“Hey buddy,” Buck says, squatting down so he can probe at the lump on Christopher’s forehead. He winces, but doesn’t flinch away as Buck checks for more swelling, asks about dizziness and double vision, and nearly wilts in relief when Chris answers in the negative. “I’m gonna take a look around for a few minutes, okay? Try and find my phone, see what I can do to make us a little warmer. Drink some water for me, and try and eat one of those granola bars, okay?”

He checks on Jee-Yun again, deciding to let her sleep as long as she wants to. She probably won’t let him put her down when she wakes up. Then he passes the snack tote over to Chris, running a careful hand through his hair and squeezing his shoulder affectionately. He gets to his feet again and carefully latches the trunk closed, blocking off most of the icy wind.

He does not like how cold it’s getting. He hadn’t checked the weather apps beyond the snow warning yesterday, so he has no idea what the temperatures are supposed to do over the next few days—but it’s definitely not getting as warm as it should be with the sun fully up.

One thing at a time.

He moves around the vehicle to the front passenger side, pulling at the door with better leverage to get it open a little wider. The shattered window starts falling out of its frame in chunks as he works it, the ruined glass falling on the fresh snow and immediately sinking beneath the wet, heavy stuff. Buck grits his teeth as his ribs and leg protest, before sliding back into the SUV on his knees. He searches for his phone for several minutes, muttering and cursing to himself. The glove box had popped open on impact, spewing old receipts, insurance paperwork, candy bar wrappers he’d meant to throw away and forgotten about instead. There’s more trash than he thought he had in his car strewn about, and the body is so crunched in and warped, there’s places where he can’t squeeze his hands in to search every crevice and cranny.

“Damn it,” he says, the words puffing steam into the air. It’s so cold. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” He punctuates the last word with a slam of his fist against the remains of his center console. The top pops open and a shower of napkins, ketchup packets, and one of Jee’s old teething rings falls out, as if mocking him.

“Buck?” Christopher whispers from the back, still trying to keep quiet for Jee-Yun. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, Chris,” Buck says automatically, even as he wraps an arm around his stomach while he slides back out. The chill of the snow starts to sink into his denim-clad knees and he struggles to his feet as quick as he can. He takes a moment to lean against the wreck, staring up the un-climbable incline that separates him and the kids from the road, from safety and help.

He can’t get them out of this. They’re going to have to wait to be rescued.

The knowledge settles over him, piercing him in a way even the icy wind can’t. Buck can do nothing to get Christopher and Jee-Yun to safety. He breathes, in through his nose and out through his mouth, shoving aside all the fear and panic that has been clawing at him since he woke up, suspended upside down in his ruined car. Shoving aside the throbbing pain in his leg, ribs, and stomach.

Shoving aside the tiny voice insistently whispering that he’s attended car wrecks before. He knows what some of this pain—the placement, the shape of it—likely indicates. There’s nothing he can do about it, right now. He’s got to get them sheltered better than what they are right now, if Christopher and Jee are going to have any chance of walking away from this. If he’s going to have any chance of walking away from this.

Eddie has already sounded the alarm. He knows this as well as he knows his own name. Eddie will be tearing the mountains apart to find them, Chim and Maddie right on his heels. Help is coming. It is coming. He’s just got to make sure there’s something for the help to find. He lets himself sag against the car for a moment, resting his forehead against one arm while the other one cradles his abdomen. He breathes, shallower than he wants to, but deep breaths still hurt, his ribs protesting.

Unfortunately, he’s pretty sure his ribs aren’t the problem. He might be wrong. He hopes he’s wrong. He’s not a paramedic, doesn’t really help with the medical side of things unless there’s nobody else. But he’s not stupid, either, and he’s been Hen’s study buddy for a while.

One thing at a time.

He straightens, racking his brain for every survival story, every Wikipedia rabbit hole, every Reddit post he’s ever scrolled through at o’ dark thirty in the bunk room, or on the couch in the loft, or curled up in their bed, Eddie snoring away beside him.

“I’ve got this, guys,” he whispers, a promise to two of the people he loves most in the world. A promise that he’ll protect the only two people he loves more. “I’ve got this.” Christopher and Jee-Yun will be safe, when help comes to find them.

No matter what.

* * *

Twenty-six hours.

Twenty-six hours since Buck sent him that text, riddled with weird abbreviations and shorthand that Eddie can only read because he’s used to it. He knows Buck was grinning to himself when he sent it, eye sparkling with mischief, because he knows how much Eddie hates having to decode a simple text message. He can picture it: Christopher firing up his tablet with some racing game he’s been obsessed with since Harry and Denny introduced him to it, Jee-Yun strapped in her car seat, so excited to be going somewhere with her Bug and her Tiss, Buck grinning to himself as he sent his stupid text before throwing the phone in the cupholder and pulling up his favorite Spotify playlist. He can picture them so clearly.

He tries not to be sick at the thought that they might just be frozen like that in his head forever, now.

Twenty-six hours.

Buck never made it home last night. He never called or texted. Never got in touch with Bobby or Hen or Athena. His partner and his son and his might-as-well-be niece have been missing for more than a day. Buck and Chris—his everything, his whole world, his universe wrapped up in two people—have been missing for more than a day.

He sits at his kitchen table, just staring blankly at a cup of coffee someone—probably Carla—set down in front of him a while ago. Steam has long since stopped rising from it. He can hear a steady murmur of voices in the living room…Bobby and Athena are there, Athena pacing his living room as she chases information for them. He’s never been so grateful to have her in his life, never been so grateful that she and Bobby care about them all so much and love Buck like he's their own damn son. Athena had been his first call after he, Maddie, and Chimney realized Buck and the kids weren’t home, hadn’t stopped at any of their friends’ places.

Athena had been the one to get the ball rolling, the one who knew who to call to report Buck and the kids missing, who they needed to start coordinating with between LA and the mountain town they’d been staying in. She’s hardly put her phone down all night, throwing her rank, her reputation, her formidable personality into finding a starting point, into getting searchers mobilized. He’s not sure, but he thinks she might have made someone connected to Highway Patrol cry at some point. He’s so grateful for her.

But the need to be out there himself, looking for them, searching for them is clawing at his chest. He knows, he knows that he can’t do anything yet…Athena is riding people hard to get Buck’s cell data, to try and narrow down just where the trip went wrong. There is nothing they can do until they know where they need to focus their search. Every state patrol from this house all the way back to the cabin they rented has been alerted, will be looking for the SUV, but they need to launch the big guns—need to get to a full-blown search and rescue operation.

Twenty-six hours.

Eddie knows…Maddie knows, Chim knows, Bobby and Athena know, they all know…the first forty-eight hours are when you have the best chance of finding someone alive. After that…nothing is impossible, but the chances dwindle with every hour that passes. It has been twenty-six hours. Twenty-six hours since they had any contact with Buck. No one matching his description or the kids’ has been brought to any of the hospitals they’ve checked. No department Athena has gotten hold of has an accident report matching Buck’s vehicle.

Deep in his heart, Eddie knows what happened. What had to have happened.

It’s just a question of where they went off the road. When they went off the road.

If…if they survived the accident.

He stares at the coffee—cold liquid in a mug painted to look like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Christopher got it for him at one of the museums he and Buck are forever going to. The zoo and aquarium don’t hold the charm they once did for Christopher, but their kid never gets tired of spending time with his Buck. Whenever the schedules line up, Eddie goes with them, just hangs back and watches his two favorite people geek out over whatever’s caught their interest, revels in their shared enthusiasms. And when he can’t go, they always bring him back something—a coffee mug, a t-shirt, a fridge magnet, a keychain. Just a little something to let him know they were still thinking of him.

Eddie had tentatively thought they might have their wedding at Chris’s favorite history museum—the one with the huge greenspace in the back that has dinosaur topiary. Buck would get a kick out of that, he thinks.

And suddenly he is clenching his fists so tightly it hurts, his stomach swirling sickly as he just stares at the coffee mug that his son gave him, the coffee mug that might be one of the last things his kid ever gave him. It can’t be. It can’t be, it can’t be, it can’t be. Surely, surely after everything they have done, everything they have endured, everything that life has thrown at them, he will not be asked to endure this, as well.

Please,” he thinks, and doesn’t even know who or what he’s pleading with. God or the universe or fate or whatever. All he can do is stare at the coffee mug, his mind painting terrible, terrible pictures, filling in details with firsthand knowledge of how goddamn unfair God, or the universe, or fate can be. “Please,” he thinks again, everything in him straining, straining, straining, just please.

Please, don’t take his child, his baby. Please, don’t take Maddie and Chim’s daughter.

Please, don’t let him lose his second love the same way he lost his first.

Not since the tsunami has he felt this scared, this helpless. Not since those awful few seconds when he thought Christopher was lost, was gone forever, has he felt like this. No…no, this is worse. Because now it’s both Christopher and Buck. It’s both of them, lost somewhere, maybe trapped, maybe hurt, maybe…

He can’t. He can’t think it.

He can’t think it, and so he stares at the swirling blues and yellows on the coffee mug, stares and breathes and just thinks please, over and over, until someone enters the kitchen. Bobby. He looks up and his captain’s face is as pale and drawn as his own must be, the skin around his eyes tight with tension.

“One of Athena’s friends managed to get a rush order put on pulling the records for Buck’s phone. Don’t ask me how,” Bobby says, quick and quiet, his voice grim. “Buck’s cell pinged a tower a couple times yesterday and last night, but hasn’t done anything in about eight hours. We’re looking at about a thirty, forty mile radius, back up in the mountains.”

Eddie startles at that. “They didn’t even make it down?” he asks, horrified. They’d taken the exact same route Buck was planning on taking. But that means…oh God, that means…

“We must have passed them,” he whispers. “Bobby, we had to have driven right past them. Oh my God, we—”

“Eddie,” Bobby interrupts, striding forward to grip his shoulder. “You couldn’t have known. There is no way you could have known.”

He thinks of the accident they passed along the way, the minivan that had almost been pushed over the edge of the road. God, had that happened to Buck? Had he lost control on the icy roads, or had someone slammed into them? There were so many curves, so many small ravines and sharp drop-offs along the way. So many places where Buck could have slid off the road with no one the wiser.

“Eddie,” Bobby says again, softer this time. “Whatever happened, Buck’s with the kids. You know he’ll keep them safe.”

“It’s been over a day,” Eddie says numbly. If Buck had been in any shape to get the kids to safety, they wouldn’t even be having this conversation. He can tell by the bleak look in Bobby’s eyes that his captain has the same facts and figures spinning in his head as Eddie does.

He closes his eyes, pushes it all down and aside. He can’t fall apart right now, can’t waste the time. Buck, Chris, and Jee-Yun are out there and if—he clenches his fists again, makes himself think it—if they survived whatever accident befell them, then they are running out of time. The area where Buck must’ve gone off the road was expecting heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures. Every second counts. If…if they are alive, then Buck will, indeed, keep the kids safe. Eddie knows that as well as he knows his own name. And he will be expecting them to send help.

“I’m going back up there,” he says. Thankfully, Bobby just nods.

“We’re all going. Athena’s finding out where they’re going to base the search.”

Eddie swallows, and finally stands up from the kitchen table. Now that there is a plan, is something he can do, he feels strength flooding back into his limbs. He grips Bobby’s wrist a moment, before exiting the kitchen and heading down the hall towards their bedroom. He needs to change into fresh clothes, grab something clean and warm for Buck and Chris. Jee probably has some spare outfits here too. They’ll need something clean and warm when they find them.

He holds onto that thought, refusing to make room in his mind for any other outcome.

Chapter Text

Jee-Yun wakes up while he’s scouting around the wreck a bit, and immediately starts crying for her Mommy and Daddy. Even when Buck reappears, crawling into the upside-down trunk with the kids and gathering her close, she doesn’t stop. She begs him over and over to take her to Mommy, get her Mommy, and all Buck can do is just rock her back and forth in his lap.

“I promise, I promise Jee-Jee, we’ll get Mommy soon. We’ll get Mommy and Daddy soon. It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s okay,” he promises over and over. It takes a good twenty minutes, but his niece finally either accepts that her parents are not forthcoming, or just tires herself out too much to keep crying. Buck holds her as tightly as his injuries will let him, kissing her head and struggling not to cry in frustration himself.

What good is he if he can’t get the kids out of this? If he can’t get his niece back to her parents, if he can’t get Christopher back to Eddie? If anything happens to these two—anything more than what has already happened—he’ll never forgive himself. He squeezes his arms around Jee-Yun, curled up miserably against his chest, sucking her thumb the way she hasn’t done for nearly sixth months. He keeps rocking her back and forth as he pulls their snack tote open, starts rummaging around their limited supplies.

Two bottles of apple juice, four water bottles (minus the one Christopher is sipping on), a handful of granola and fruit and cereal bars, some pretzels and chips, one remaining fruit cup, and a plastic baggie of dried apple and banana slices. All of it sticky as hell and covered with bits of exploded peaches, pears, and cherries. Not exactly a survival pack, but better than nothing. It’ll keep them going for a day or two, anyway. Worse come to worst, he can stuff empty bottles full of snow and hopefully they can keep the inside of the SUV warm enough to melt it.

It shouldn’t come to that, though. His worst-case scenario is three days. Far more likely that they’re found today, or maybe tonight. They’re only a few hundred yards from the damn road, surely they will be rescued today or tonight.

He pulls out a strawberry cereal bar, Jee’s favorite, and starts trying to coax her to eat a few bites, the tightness in his chest easing a bit when she lets him feed her almost half of it before stubbornly lodging her thumb back in her mouth. He decides not to try and push water or juice on her for the moment, before undoing enough layers to get her into a fresh pullup.

“Okay, baby girl, I need you to stay with Chris for a minute,” he says finally. “I want you two to stay all nice and wrapped up, and I’m gonna try and make it warmer for us, okay?”

Instantly, Jee’s loose grip around his neck becomes a chokehold. “No, Bug, no! I want you to stay! You stay!”

“I know sweetheart, I promise, I’m not going far. You’ll be able to talk to me the whole time, I’ve just gotta get some stuff together outside. I’ve got to, Jee, I’ve got to.”

He rocks her again and again, ignoring the way his ribs protest, the bolt of near-agony that shoots through him when her knee connects with the soft tissue of his abdomen. She finally loosens her grip, and consents to be tucked next to Christopher’s side. He kisses them both on the forehead and wraps the blankets back around them tightly. He leaves Christopher to offer her drinks of juice and crawls back out into the snowy landscape.

It's gotten colder.

He’s not imagining the increased bite to the air, the way his breath swirls in thicker vapor. He zips his coat up tightly, wishing he’d brought something heftier, though he knows there was no reason he would have…it’s not like he has any real use for a real winter coat in the middle of LA and he couldn’t have predicted this. Doesn’t make him wish he’d upgraded his jacket when he’d bought Chris’s snowsuit for the trip.

He stomps a full circle around the wreck, calling to Jee-Yun and Christopher every few seconds. After a few minutes, he hears Christopher start telling Jee a story apparently made up out of his own head. Buck bites his lip, gratitude and love and affection welling up inside him in a tidal wave. It only strengthens his resolve that Chris and Jee will come to no (more) harm. Not while he’s still breathing.

He finishes his survey and stands beside the crunched remains of the front hood for a moment, gathering his strength. Then he throws his head back, cupping his hands around his mouth. “HELLO! CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?!” he bellows, and then almost staggers back against the SUV at the surge of pain from his ribs. He sucks in a ragged breath and shakes his head, trying one more time. “HELLO! WE NEED HELP!”

Nothing answers him. Not even the sounds of cars whizzing by on the road above them. He closes his eyes—he hadn’t been expecting it to be that easy, but it was worth a shot.

“Buck?” Christopher calls from inside the car, interrupting his story about the brave Princess Jee-Yun, and her two loyal knights. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah bud,” he says, hunching down to brace his hands on his knees for a moment. All right. All right.

They have food. They have water. The kids—miraculously—do not seem to be seriously injured. He…he does not have time to worry about what’s going on with him. He could still be wrong. Eddie’s coming. He is coming, and Buck just has to make sure the kids make it to rescue. Their enemy right now is the cold. Last night had been survivable, but miserable, and if the temperature keeps dropping, he doesn’t know how far two blankets and body heat will stretch. He has two emergency flares he can start a fire with—but he needs to keep one available to actually signal with. Even if Search and Rescue hasn’t picked up their trail, yet, there’s bound to be air traffic in this area. If a plane or a helicopter goes over them, he can signal for help.

He needs to shore up the SUV and find a way to get and keep a fire going. He has to keep the kids warm. His brain spins a mile a minute—documentaries he’s watched with Christopher, books he’s read, articles he’s looked up, Wikipedia and Reddit threads he’s lost hours on. He can do this.

He can do this.

The next two hours are a blur of activity. He digs a pair of gloves out of his luggage and then wraps his hands in t-shirts he’d brought to sleep in. He scoops and shoves at the snow around the SUV, packing it against the broken windows, the flattened windshield. He tries to block out every place a gust of wind can creep in and steal their heat. He stops as frequently as he dares to crawl back in with the kids and shiver under the blankets with them, tucking his hands up into his armpits and riding out waves of pain in his torso. Even with the gloves and the wrappings, his skin is raw and chapped by the time he’s satisfied, and he pulls Jee and Chris close and tucks his face against his niece’s hair.

Next is wood. Fuel for a fire. God, what he wouldn’t give for one of the axes on the rig right now. He considers undoing some of his hard work packing snow to try and dig his seatbelt cutter out of the front seat where he’d left it—thinking vaguely that he could use the hammer end to bludgeon branches off some of the trees around them, but in the end he can’t bring himself to waste the energy for what probably wouldn’t be much of a payout.

The bushes and trees around them are snow-covered and wet, not much in the way of dead branches or fallen logs. He gathers what he can before getting the idea to hike as far up the incline they’d tumbled down as he can, finding several young trees and woody bushes that his car had splintered on its way down. He pushes himself, hoping against hope that he was somehow wrong in his assessment of the drop-off, that he can carry the kids out of here…but no. Even using the ruined plant life as handholds, it’s just too steep. He slips and almost falls several times before he’s forced to admit defeat, his body screaming at him to stop, to rest. His bad leg feels like it’s on fire, his chest and stomach pulsing with pain.

It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter, yet. He has to get the kids taken care of, has to give them the best chance of surviving until they’re rescued.

He’s been turning the problem of keeping them warmer over and over in his mind—they don’t have matches or a lighter. All they’ve got is one emergency flare. He curses himself for not having more, for not thinking to toss a cigarette lighter or something into his emergency kit. If he gets a fire going, he has no idea how he’s going to keep it going. He remembers camping out on the back pastures when he was working the ranch up in Montana—he and some of the other hands thought it would be so cool to have the “real” cowboy experience. They’d all thought they’d just ring their sleeping bags around a campfire and watch the stars all night.

Their supervisor had about died laughing at them while he was setting his tent up.

Point is, Buck knows how much fuel it takes to keep a good-sized fire going hard enough to cut through the chill that’s settling in colder and colder with each hour. The amount of scrub, branches, and fallen wood he’d managed to find that wasn’t absolutely soaked through will last a few hours, maybe into the middle of the night.

It’s not enough. But there has to be a way. There has to be. He refuses to believe otherwise. He sips on a water bottle, frantically reviewing everything he had seen around the wreckage, everything he’d noticed about the landscape. He needs a way to heat the interior of the car without (literally) burning through what firewood he’d scavenged up too fast…there’s got to be a way.

The whole time he’s been thinking, Chris’s soft voice has filled the silence, still weaving his wonderful story for Jee-Yun. His niece is curled up against him, ever so often looking down to make sure she isn’t touching the makeshift sling after Buck told her she has to be extra, extra careful. She’d solemnly bent down and pressed the lightest kiss against Chris’s slightly swollen fingers, and she’s been extremely conscientious ever since. Buck smiles softly at the picture the two of them make—the best, bravest, most wonderful children in the world, as far as he’s concerned. He tunes back in to Christopher’s story just as he reaches some kind of pivotal scene where the brave Princess Jee-Yun fights off a scary wolf with—

Oh…oh wait. That might…yes, that might work. If he can just…

“I’ll be right back,” he says, capping his water and setting it carefully back with the others. They’ve emptied two in the course of the day so far and he’ll have to fill them with snow again to start melting. He hits the release on the trunk again, thankful that it at least hadn’t been damaged enough that they couldn’t open and close it and heaves himself out into the cold again.

The world tilts a little when he stands, and he has to brace one hand against the SUV, breathing through his nose until it passes. He curls his free arm around his stomach and clenches his jaw. “Not yet,” he whispers. “Not yet, not yet.”

When he opens his eyes again, he zeroes in on the patch of brush and trees he’d gone hunting for wood in earlier, and starts off. He moves slowly, but he doesn’t know if there’s much point in trying not to aggravate his injuries now. The little voice in the back of his head is getting harder to ignore, reality and his suspicions pushing more and more urgently at him. He’s getting weaker. As if mocking him, the wind swirls around him, biting and cold. Snowflakes start drifting down from the sky.

If his idea is going to work, he’s got to get it in motion now.

* * *

Bobby and Athena insist on driving them back into the mountains.

Bobby takes Chim and Maddie’s car, so that they can sit together while still letting Chimney prop up his leg. He’d watched Maddie fold herself into his arms, tears she’d been holding back all morning finally spilling over as she buried her face in his chest. Eddie had almost asked to ride with them, reluctant to leave them—as much for his own sake as for theirs.

In the end, though, it felt too much like giving up before they’d even started—too much like he would be seeking comfort for a loss. He’d slid into Athena’s car without protest, buckled himself in and stared through the windshield at his dark and silent house. Carla, Abuela, and Pepa had all descended on them as soon as he told them Buck and the kids were missing, and had only left when Athena got confirmation of where the search would be based. He’d had to beg his aunt and grandmother to stay back in LA, only convincing them after nearly thirty minutes of arguing. He’d had to swear to all three of them that he’d call the instant he heard anything.

They love Chris so much.

They love Buck so much.

He stares at his house, some tiny, treacherous part of him whispering that he could be staring at his future. An empty, silent house. All the light, and love, and laughter they’ve worked so hard to fill it with just…gone. Gone forever, with him left behind.

Alone.

“Stop it,” Athena says firmly, pulling out into the street to follow Bobby. Eddie looks over at her, startled, and finds her glaring fixedly out the windshield, her mouth set in a grim line. “I can hear you thinking from here, and I know it’s nothing good. We are not giving up on them.”

He is suddenly, viscerally, reminded of those horrible hours when Harry had been kidnapped, all those years ago. More than perhaps anyone else in their little circle, Athena understands what Eddie is feeling, what he’s going through. Hell, she’s right back in it with him…Buck is not Bobby’s son. Not her son. Not really. But he might as well be, and they all know it even if they never say it out loud. Things with Buck’s actual parents have improved over the last few years—as it turns out Phillip and Margaret Buckley are better at being grandparents than they ever were at being parents and Maddie and Buck have both opted to make their peace with that and move on—but everyone knows it’s Bobby and Athena who truly hold that place in his heart.

“They had to have wrecked, Athena,” he says quietly, his hands spasming on his knees until he clenches his fists tight. “That’s the only explanation…and they’re still out there.”

“Buck’s with them,” Athena says, her voice still firm and unyielding as stone.

“We both know that might not matter!” he bursts out, and he still can’t say it out loud. He can’t say it. It doesn’t matter if Buck was with Chris and Jee-Yun…

Not if Buck was too injured to get the kids to safety.

Not if they survived the crash only to bleed out by inches.

Not if they all died in a mass of twisted metal and broken glass.

He’s seen so many car wrecks over his career—he knows what happens to fragile flesh and bone. His mind has been a horror show of all the worst scenes they’ve responded to—steering columns that were shoved into torsos, necks that were snapped with the force of the impact, car seats that couldn’t stand up to a ton of metal and glass caving in on them. And in each picture, he sees the faces of the victims painted over with those of his partner, his son, his niece.

“What I know, is your boy would move heaven and earth for Christopher and Jee-Yun,” Athena says, and Eddie wants to drown himself in the calm strength emanating from her voice. “What I know is he has defied the odds over, and over, and over again. What I know is we are not giving up. Not until we know there’s no hope, and maybe not even then.” She reaches over and pries one of his hands loose, gripping it tightly. “If Buck couldn’t get them to help, then they’re depending on us to come to them.”

He holds himself still a moment, before squeezing her hand back. “You’re right,” he says. “You’re right, I know, you’re right.”

Athena flashes him a tight smile and continues driving, the weight of all the things they’re not thinking, not saying, not acknowledging heavy between them. She does not let go of his hand for a long time.

*

According to Athena, the local squad assigned to their case will be basing the search out of a small town about halfway back to the area where they’d been vacationing. Eddie hadn’t paid it much mind when they passed through the first time, but as soon as Athena pulls to a stop outside the fire station, he’s leaping out.

The sun has just finished setting, and the air is bitter cold in a way it hadn’t been in the days they’d spent up in the cabin. Eddie pulls his jacket tighter around him, refusing to dwell on the thought of Christopher, Jee, and Buck trapped somewhere with the temperatures falling around them. As soon as they got back up into higher altitudes, it had started snowing again, and though it’s not as bad as what they’d driven through last night…it’s steady, thick, and not showing any signs of tapering off. Eddie already knows what he’s going to hear when the head of the search and rescue team—a thick, solid man by the name of Andrew Jameson—introduces himself.

“We knocked out about half the search radius before we had to call a halt. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to go back out until this snow lets up—with the visibility, it’s just too dangerous.”

It’s reasonable. It’s textbook. It’s exactly the protocol the 118 would follow in the situation, but it’s still like a knife in Eddie’s heart. Beside him, Maddie makes a soft, wounded noise and out of the corner of his eye, Eddie sees Chimney awkwardly wrap one arm around her and pull her close.

“What about air searches?” Bobby asks brusquely, before Eddie can even open his mouth.

Captain Jameson nods grimly. “We’ve got one chopper, but we share it throughout the whole area. There’s been accidents all up and down the highway that runs through these mountains—chopper had to divert for a life flight earlier this afternoon and it’s grounded until tomorrow morning at least. I put in a request for additional search planes, but the storm hit us pretty hard last night. I don’t know if anyone’s going to have them to spare.” His rugged, craggy face creases in sympathy. “Listen—all my people know we’re looking for some of our own. We’re gonna be out again the instant it’s safe and we’re not stopping until we find them.”

The conviction in his voice is heartening. Eddie knows with absolute certainty that the man is telling them the truth. None of the searchers is going to stop until they’ve brought Buck, Chris, and Jee home.

It does not escape Eddie’s notice that Jameson is not promising to find them alive.

He looks over at Bobby and Athena in time to see them exchange a grim, worried look, and knows they didn’t miss it either. He’s participated in search and rescues before, but never in weather like this, never in these conditions. He doesn’t know the mountains the way he does the city, the areas around LA. All he’s got is what he learned in a few training exercises in the academy years ago, and some even older training for the army. He doesn’t know this place the way Captain Jameson does…and he finds that he has to ask.

He has to know how hard he needs to brace himself, even when he knows, he knows he’ll never be able to prepare himself to lose Chris and Buck. If he had a hundred years—a thousand—to brace himself and prepare, it still wouldn’t be enough. If he loses them, he’s not going to make it.

He has to know.

Captain Jameson offers to have someone drive them to the town’s only motel and get rooms for the night, an offer they only accept when he solemnly promises to call them the instant conditions improve enough to get back to the search. Eddie hangs back from the others, catches Jameson by the elbow as he’s about to head back into the station.

He hopes he’s imagining the way Jameson’s shoulders slump slightly, as though he knows what Eddie’s going to ask. He probably does. Eddie’s had this same conversation with people more time than he cares to count, has perfected the spiel that will get worried family members out of the way so that he can do his job and try to save their loved ones. It’s white lies, small comforts that are all they can really offer…we’re doing everything we can, our best people are on it, the best thing you can do to help is just let us do our jobs.

He knows Jameson won’t give him a spiel. Not a fellow first responder, a medic. He asks anyway.

“What are the chances we find them alive? Professional opinion. I-I need to know,” he says, and immediately wants to call the words back. It’s too much, too real, too much. He’s not ready to hear the answer, but he needs to.

He is not imagining the way Jameson’s shoulders slump this time. The way his mouth pulls downwards before he draws his face into a neutral expression. He regards Eddie steadily for a moment, and then sighs. “Nothing’s impossible. You know that as well as I do. If they weren’t hurt too badly…and if your husband is smart, the conditions aren’t un-survivable, yet.”

Eddie doesn’t bother to correct his assumption about his and Buck’s relationship…it’s what they’ve been working towards, isn’t it? It’s what Eddie wants, what he planned to ask for on Christmas Day.

The first is a big “if,” he knows that. The second isn’t even a question. Buck’s one of the smartest people he’s ever met, even if it takes weird and outrageous forms sometimes. But Buck would absolutely make all the right decisions in a survival situation, would absolutely play it as safe as possible, would do everything in his power to make sure the kids were safe and taken care of.

If they weren’t hurt too badly.

Eddie nods wordlessly, swallowing hard. Jameson stares at him a moment longer, before reaching up to clap a hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “It’s not un-survivable, yet, but you need to know we’re working against the clock with these temperatures. If the snow doesn’t let up…” He trails off, shaking his head. “I’m not placating the family, yet,” he says firmly.

Yet.

Yet…

Chapter Text

The snow doesn’t let up for the rest of the afternoon and far into the night. It comes down in an unrelenting blanket of white, burying the wreck of the car. Burying the path of destruction they made on their way down the slope. Burying their trail, burying any sign of them. Buck slumps awkwardly, trying to sit diagonally so he can stretch his bad leg out as much as possible, Chris and Jee cradled against him. The only light is his emergency flashlight, wrapped in one of Chris’s t-shirts so that it provides light, but isn’t so bright it disturbs the kids’ sleep. He can’t sleep.

He’s afraid to sleep.

The wind howls outside, lashing snow crystals against the windows and sides of his ruined SUV, a steady shhh, shhh, shhh sound that he might find kind of soothing if he didn’t know what it meant. The air outside is bitter, bitter cold. Colder than it ever gets in LA. The last time he heaved himself outside, the shock of cold felt like it was freezing his lungs—for a moment he was transported back to his childhood in Pennsylvania, Maddie bundling him up like a baby penguin for the walk to school. Even for the mountains, he thinks this is unusually cold weather.

Climate change…yeah, such a hoax. He lets out a soft huff of a laugh and instantly regrets it. God, he hurts. He’s bruised and battered and whiplashed all to hell, but that’s not the worst of it.

He shifts slightly, biting back a groan as sharper, more dangerous pain lances across his abdomen. He’d lifted his shirt once the kids were asleep, examined himself as best he could in the cramped space with a flashlight he had to keep angling away from Chris and Jee-Yun. His whole torso is a tapestry of livid bruising, almost black where the seatbelt bit into him. Hard. Too hard.

“You’re hurt too.”

He doesn’t startle at Christopher’s soft, matter-of-fact words, whispered where the boy’s face is tucked against Buck’s shoulder, but it’s a near thing. He glances down at Jee, carefully gathering her closer and making sure the survival blanket is wrapped firmly around her. “Chris,” he says. “Hey bud, is your arm okay?”

Christopher glances down at his arm in its makeshift sling briefly, and then shrugs one shoulder. “It’s not worse,” he mutters. Then his eyes fix on Buck in a miniature approximation of the look Eddie always gives him when he’s trying to downplay an injury. “But what about you?”

Buck pauses, considering. His idea is working—he’s bought them some time. Enough time, hopefully, for search and rescue to find them. But he’s fading fast, and he can no longer deny it. “Yeah buddy,” he sighs finally. “I’m hurt, too.” He promised himself a long time ago that he will never, ever lie to Christopher. Not about important things.

“Did you break a bone?” Christopher asks, concern thick in his voice. And under that is the first soft tremors of fear.

“Cracked some ribs,” Buck says, curling his arm around the boy he’s loved like his own long before he actually had any right to claim him as such. He takes a breath. “But I think there’s something bleeding inside me, too.” He’s attended the aftermath of enough car accidents to have a pretty good idea what’s bleeding—how long he might have if they aren’t rescued soon—but Chris doesn’t need those details. “It’s…as far as those things go, I don’t think it’s too bad.” He’s been up and moving around for over a day now, after all. “But—” He steels himself, hates himself a little for what he’s going to have to put on Christopher’s shoulders. “But I’m feeling worse and worse.”

Chris’s good hand finds his, clutches at it as he pulls himself closer to Buck. Buck squeezes back, leans his head against Chris’s and lets his eyes fall shut for a moment. “Your dad is coming for us, okay? They probably had to stop looking with the snow, but as soon as it lets up, they’re going to be looking for us again.” His voice has been getting weaker all day, his head swimming when he moves too fast. “I’m not gonna…I’m not gonna leave you, okay? I promise, I’m not gonna leave you.”

It's a stupid promise to make. One he shouldn’t. But he’ll spare Christopher that fear for as long as he can. And he’ll fight like hell to make sure he’s not lying to Eddie’s son. His son. He presses his lips to Christopher’s forehead and hugs him tighter.

“But I might…” He hesitates, then plunges onwards. “I can’t promise I won’t pass out or something, and you’re gonna need to make sure you and Jee are okay. I need you to promise me that, okay Superman?”

Even in the dim light, he can see Chris’s jaw tremble faintly, and his eyes are suddenly glassy. But he rallies, sucking in a breath and raising his chin with Eddie’s determination and defiance. Maybe a little of his, too. “What…what do I have to do?” he asks quietly.

Buck doesn’t think he could love this boy more if he tried.

“Okay,” he says, shifting Jee again to rest more comfortably against his side. He brushes his free hand through Chris’s hair and whispers instructions.

* * *

Eddie gives up on sleep as a lost cause somewhere around midnight and simply sits against the headboard in the small motel he and the others were able to get rooms at. He stares mindlessly at his phone, willing it to ring, for a text to come through. Jameson promised he would call them the instant searches could resume, no matter the time. Eventually he opens his picture gallery and flicks through the pictures he took on their vacation the last few days—Chris and Jee playing in the snow, Buck and the kids toasting marshmallows in the cabin’s fireplace, Maddie and Buck trying to absolutely destroy each other in a game of Twister with Chim about to die laughing in the background.

Him and Buck on the cabin’s couch, Bcuk tucked into the vee of his legs and sprawled over his chest.

Him and Christopher, snow dusted and pink-cheeked after a few hours of sledding.

The three of them flopped down on the floor in front of the cabin’s large Christmas tree, the twinkling lights casting a rainbow glow over their faces. He and Buck had mock-wrestled over his phone before Buck yanked it away, his long arms providing “optimum selfie-distance, Eds, geez.” He traces their smiling faces with his finger almost-but-not-quite touching the screen. His son’s wide, joyful grin. Buck’s relaxed, happy smile.

He'd planned on taking a family picture just like it on Christmas morning, after he asked Buck to marry him. To announce their engagement. To show everyone that it was official…that they were a family, and were going to be a family forever.

He can’t lose them. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t. He won’t make it if he’s lost them, it will shatter him, splinter him. Break him into so many pieces he’ll never be able to pick them all up again.

A soft knock at his door startles him out of his despairing thoughts and he fairly leaps out of the bed. Races over to the door and yanks it open. It’s not Bobby or Athena, though…it’s Chimney. Awkwardly balanced on his crutches, one hand frozen in the act of knocking again.

“Did you hear something?” Eddie asks breathlessly, and Chim’s face immediately falls.

“No…no, sorry. I just—Maddie just fell asleep and I can’t…” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “I don’t want to disturb her, but I can’t—”

“Yeah man, me neither,” Eddie interrupts gently, raking his hand back through his already disheveled hair. “You wanna come in?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, just opens the door wider and heads back into the room, flipping the lights on as he goes. “There’s shitty tea or shittier coffee,” he says over his shoulder, jerking a not at the ancient coffeemaker sitting on the bathroom sink.

“Shittier coffee, please,” Chim mumbles, hitching himself over to the small armchair by the window. He sinks down and props his casted foot up on an equally small coffee table.

Eddie gets the coffeemaker going, throwing in enough for two cups. His stomach lurches at the thought of ingesting caffeine, but he’s going to need something to keep him awake. He and Chimney sit in silence while the machine chugs through its cycle. He can tell by the smell that the cheap coffee will be bitter as hell, and he dumps too much sugar in his mug to compensate. He hands Chim a mug, along with a fistful of sugar packets and powdered creamer. Chimney takes an abnormally long time to pointlessly doctor the coffee before sitting back against the couch, leaving the mug steaming on the coffee table.

“You think Jameson will let you, Bobby, and Athena on the search teams tomorrow?” he asks after a few moments, staring at his cast with something hard and unreadable in his eyes.

Eddie feels his face soften as he sinks down to sit on the end of the bed, his mug cradled in his hands. There’s no way they’ll let Maddie in on the search and rescue—not with the weather and the terrain. She’s one of the strongest people he’s ever met, but she just doesn’t have the training to be of any real assistance on the kind of search they’re going to be doing. Chim, though—Chim could help, but is going to be sidelined by his injury while other people look for his daughter. It has to be tearing him up inside.

“I think anyone who tries to tell Athena ‘no’ won’t live long enough to regret it,” he says, drawing a wry smile from Chim for a bare instant. Then the man’s face crumples. He swallows roughly a few times, and scrubs his hands over his face.

“Buck would’ve gotten them to safety by now if he could. He wouldn’t…he wouldn’t care if it killed him, he’d have gotten them to help,” Chimney says, his voice as thin and fragile as spun glass. Eddie closes his eyes as his friend voices the truth they all know, and have been too afraid to say. “It’s so cold, Eddie,” Chim whispers brokenly. “They’ve been out there for two nights and it’s so goddamn cold.”

Eddie bites his lip almost hard enough to draw blood. Because he knows. He knows. Buck and the kids have been missing for almost thirty-six hours at this point. Chimney looks up at him, and Eddie can’t take the tears standing in the man’s eyes, can’t take the despair that’s twisting his face. Eddie’s a combat veteran, a first responder, a paramedic. He knows as well as Chimney does that the chances of finding Buck, Chris, and Jee alive are dwindling with every second that passes.

Jameson had said the conditions weren’t un-survivable, yet. He said he wasn’t placating the family members yet. Eddie holds onto that knowledge with everything in him. The part of him that is a loving father, a partner, an uncle clings to the hope Jameson had offered.

The part of him that fights every day to bring people through the worst moments of their lives recognizes how tenuous that hope is.

*

It takes until mid-morning for the snow to finally stop falling.

The temperatures are not due to start rising for another few days.

The five of them make their way back to the fire station serving as a search and rescue command post as soon as Captain Jameson allows. Eddie is surprised to find it a hive of activity—the area Buck and the kids went missing in gets a lot of tourist activity (especially in the winter), but it’s by no means a metropolitan center. The search and rescue crew is smaller than any of them are used to dealing with.

“My guys spread the word about who you all are…that our missing people were a firefighter and a couple of first responders’ kids. Once everyone knew we’re looking for family, they started flooding back in. Off duty, vacation, didn’t matter,” Captain Jameson says quietly when Bobby remarks on it. “There’s a crew a few towns over who’s gonna take the northern end of our search radius, meet us in the middle.”

Maddie, already pale and with red-rimmed eyes, starts tearing up again, and Eddie’s chest tightens, gratitude that he will never be able to express welling up inside of him for his brothers and sisters in uniform. Jameson doesn’t say it, but they all know that some of the people gearing up to search for Buck, Christopher, and Jee-Yun are giving up holiday time with their families—might have cancelled plans to travel or told their own children that they wouldn’t be home for Christmas again this year—to help. Eddie knows what they are sacrificing for his family, no matter that he would do the same if the situations were reversed.

Captain Jameson regards him, Bobby, and Athena quietly when they request to join one of the search crews, raking a hand back through his salt-and-pepper hair. He turns to Bobby and Athena first. “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t allow it,” he says finally. “But a couple of my people have heard of your crew. Told me to look you guys up. I don’t see how you’ve managed to survive half the shit you have, but you all clearly know what you’re doing. If you two head out with Simpson and Johnson, that’ll make four teams on the east quadrant of our search radius.” When he turns to Eddie, though, his face is regretful. “Mr. Diaz, I’m sorry, but you’re too close to this. The conditions are too hazardous for me to risk it.”

Everything in Eddie immediately howls in protest, and he bristles, taking a step forward before he can think the better of it. “I can help…you can’t—sir, that’s my whole family out there. My whole family!”

Jameson’s eyes are sympathetic. “And that’s why I can’t let you out with us. I know you’re competent Diaz, I know you’re a vet as well as a first responder. You’re a professional, and you know I can’t risk it. I’m only letting your captain and Sergeant Grant go so we can have another full team looking. This area’s full of ravines, drop-offs, and streams. Tell me you can remain perfectly objective if we have to put your little boy in a basket to get him up an icy cliff. Tell me you are absolutely sure you won’t lose it if I have to make a call between saving your husband or saving your niece.” He stares hard at Eddie, his voice firm, but not unkind. “Tell me you wouldn’t say the exact same thing in my shoes.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Bobby startle when Jameson calls Buck his husband. Like before, though, Eddie can’t make himself correct the man’s assumption. It’s effectively true, after all. Except for maybe those first few weeks when he started at the 118, Buck has never been just Eddie’s work partner. He’s always been more than that—to both Eddie and Christopher. He wants to tell Jameson that he can handle it. He’s handled war, PTSD, losing Shannon, the well, the shooting. And if he’s compromised, then surely Bobby and Athena are as well.

“Eddie,” Bobby says quietly, placing one hand on Eddie’s back, right between his shoulder blades. And Eddie feels himself deflate.

He can’t tell Jameson that he wouldn’t do the same thing in his shoes. Because he would. He absolutely would. Eddie is almost entirely certain that he can handle this—that he can keep himself together out there, no matter what the searchers find. Almost.

He can’t risk being wrong. He cannot risk even the slightest possibility that he’ll be a liability to the teams looking for Buck, Chris, and Jee. He cannot risk drawing anyone’s focus or attention for even one instant.

Jameson must read the capitulation on his face. The captain claps him on the shoulder before turning to Bobby and Athena, telling them where they can find the people they’ll be partnering with. Bobby nods his thanks. When the three of them are alone, Athena surprises him by wrapping him in a tight hug, gripping the back of his neck with one hand as she leans up to whisper in his ear, “We will find them.” She is so sure, so convinced. He wants to believe her so much.

Eddie can only hug her back, nodding shakily. He watches them head for the cluster of trucks and emergency vehicles parked outside the station, before taking a deep breath and turning to search out Maddie and Chim. Jameson is letting them stay at the station during the search so that they can hear any news immediately. He finds them in the small kitchen/common room area, cuddled together on an ancient couch.

Maddie looks up as he approaches, lifting her head from Chimney’s shoulder in surprise before her face creases in sympathy. “They didn’t let you go?” she says. He doesn’t know how much sleep she actually got last night, but it hadn’t helped the pallor of her skin or the dark circles under her eyes. He and Chim probably look worse.

“No,” he says hoarsely, and then sinks down on the couch next to them when Maddie scoots closer to Chimney. He pulls out his phone and sends a quick text to the group chat he has set up with Buck, Carla, Abuela, and Pepa. It’s usually full of plans for Christopher and working out family dinners and get togethers. Maddie puts her head back down on Chimney’s shoulder, the three of them forgoing conversation. What is there to say?

They wait.

And wait.

And wait.

The minutes crawl by, the hours ticking away so, so slowly. Chimney dozes in fits and starts, and Maddie gets up on occasion to walk around the station, stretching her legs a bit. Eddie remains fixed, hunched over with his elbows resting on his knees, his phone clutched in his hands. He calls Abuela around lunchtime, his voice rougher than he wants to admit when he tells her that they haven’t heard anything yet. His grandmother says nothing for a moment, and then she asks him to stay on the phone with her for a bit. He hears the soft clicking of beads, and then Abuela’s warm, beloved voice starts praying the rosary. For Christopher. For Buck. For Jee-Yun. He can see it in his mind’s eye—the deep scarlet beads, once carved into facets but now worn smooth by his grandmother’s hands over the years. The ornate silver crucifix. He’s not sure he has the kind of faith his grandmother does, is not sure he really believes the way he was taught to all his life. But he mouths the familiar words along with her as Abuela prays for his family, and some of the sick fear roiling in his stomach ebbs away. Just for a short time.

The day rolls on, and there is still no word.

Eddie takes Bobby’s car down to a small diner to pick up sandwiches and soup for them, and resolutely tries to ignore the looks that he gets from the firefighters and staff that have stayed behind to man the station while the search is ongoing. There is sympathy growing in their eyes…and worse, pity.

It’s closing on forty-eight hours that Buck, Chris and Jee-Yun have been missing. The temperatures have hovered in the low teens all day, with a vicious windchill bringing them down into the single digits and even the negatives. He watches them turn the station dispatch radio down so that he, Maddie, and Chim can’t hear when the search teams check in again and again with no sign of their family.

Captain Jameson’s team is the first to come back to the station to refuel and swap out crew. Eddie doesn’t know him well, of course, but the dejection in his expression is easy to read as he swings down out of his vehicle. He comes up to the common room the three of them have mostly commandeered for the day, heading straight for the coffeemaker and pouring himself a mug.

“Chopper had to detour for another life flight earlier today, but we should have use of it the rest of today and tomorrow. Forest service is sending us two search planes, but they can’t be here until tomorrow morning.” Jameson’s eyes flicker when he says that, and Eddie feels Chim and Maddie stiffen on the couch beside him. They can tell what the captain isn’t saying as well as he can. “I just don’t understand why we can’t find any sign of them…you’re sure Buckley wouldn’t have deviated from the route he had planned?”

Immediately, Maddie and Eddie are both shaking their heads. “Maybe if it was just him and Chris,” Eddie says, firm in his belief. “They like to go on little side trips all the time—but Buck wouldn’t have wanted to mess up Jee-Yun’s schedule too much.”

“We’ve hit all our usual suspects for bad traffic accidents—checked the places where people are likely to run off the road. We had a ton of accidents when that storm hit, but none of them involved the car you described. I wasn’t working that night, but we got called almost halfway to the resort town Buckley started from for a semi vs minivan. I know my guys would have noticed anything amiss on the way there or back.”

Eddie’s brow furrows at that. That…that must’ve been the accident scene they passed on their way out of the mountains. He remembers the truck, jackknifed on the road, the minivan sitting at the very edge of a steep drop off, the broken guardrail framing a one-way ticket down the embankment.

The broken guardrail.

Broken. Bowed open and ripped apart like something had gone through, not bent like it had prevented someone from going over. He’s seen a dozen, a hundred, a thousand accident scenes, he knows what it looks like when the guardrail does its job. He swears his heart drops to his stomach, and he gasps out loud. No…

No, they can’t have…

“Eddie?” Chimney asks, and Eddie barely hears him over the roaring in his ears.

“Do you have anyone close to that accident scene?” Eddie chokes out, and he has no idea what his face looks like, but Jameson straightens in alarm.

“What?” he asks in confusion.

There are protocols in place, procedures you have to follow before you can call an accident scene cleared…but mistakes happen. An overtired or inexperienced first responder…the harrowing weather conditions…the desire to get traffic moving again as soon as possible to get people off the roads before the storm set in worse…it’s possible. It’s so damn possible.

“That scene you were talking about—the semi and the minivan. Do you have anyone close by?”

“I’ve got two teams that should be up near there—why?”

“Eddie,” Maddie says, laying her small, delicate hand on his arm. “What? What are you thinking?”

“Have them check there,” Eddie says desperately, his pulse pounding in his ears. “Have them look…look where the guardrail broke.”

He wants to be wrong…he wants so desperately to be wrong. He remembers looking out the window that that accident scene, commenting on how close it was for the minivan. They can’t have driven right past Buck, Chris, and Jee. They can’t.

The words hang in the air for a few heartbeats. Jameson’s brow is furrowed in confusion, and he’s looking between the three of them as though they’ve lost their minds. But then Maddie gasps, her hands flying to her mouth.

“No,” she whispers.

“Check it,” Eddie pleads.

Begs.

It takes almost thirty minutes for Jameson’s nearest search team to make it to the old accident scene. Eddie can hear the doubt—and even mild irritation—in the searchers’ voices as they report that they’ve arrived. The guardrail hasn’t been patched yet, due to the weather, and the state highway services have a temporary concrete barricade up. Eddie, Maddie, and Chim ignore Jameson’s request that they stay in the common room, instead huddling as close to the radio as they can, listening as the search team discusses the safest way to get someone over the barricade and down the embankment a bit to check for signs that Buck’s car went over the edge.

Eddie stands next to Maddie and Chim, his arms crossed tightly over his chest, his eyes squeezed shut as they harness their guy up and send him slowly down. He concentrates on his breathing, trying to keep it slow and regular, even as his heart tries to bash itself to pieces against his ribcage.

After a few minutes, they hear a loud swear over the radio.

Cap? I’ve got a ton of broken vegetation here—it all looks fresh. Something definitely went over the edge here.