Buck can tell something is wrong as soon as Eddie walks back into the kitchen. Chris more or less has his homework under control, so he joins Eddie behind the counter. “What’s wrong?”
“What?” He doesn’t quite look up at him.
“Your forehead is doing that thing.” Buck presses this thumb into the grooves between Eddie’s eyebrows, which causes him to lift his gaze.
“Sorry, um . . . I, uh . . . it was my mom.”
“Your mom? Everything good?”
A grimace, and then some awkward attempt at a head shake, while stuffing his phone in his back pocket. “We’ll talk about it later. Chris,you want some dinner?”
“Are you cooking?”
“You wound me, son.”
“Then, yes, I would love some.”
Buck watches Eddie and Christopher at the table, Chris seamlessly roasting his father in between explaining his homework, Eddie’s face pulling tight in a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes all the way. He wants to press the point, wants to smooth the frown lines etched into the corners of Eddie’s mouth like parentheses. But he waits, through homework, and through dinner, and video games, and bedtime stories, and instead of sliding into his shoes to go home, he grabs two beers and retires to the living room to wait for Eddie.
The man in question materializes in the entryway, slouched, like there are anvils attached to his limbs.
Buck pops the cap off one beer and slides it down the coffee table, a silent invitation. After running his hands through his hair, Eddie nods to himself and lowers onto the couch. Knocks back a generous portion of the beer before saying, “My dad is sick.”
Buck’s stomach drops. “What?”
“They’re not sure what it is, yet. He nearly stopped breathing last night, and . . . I don’t . . .” his eyes screw shut, the heels of his palms digging into them. “I have to go home for a bit.”
“Okay. Yeah. Of course.”
“That means time off work, and Chris will need to take time off from school, and . . .” his voice cracks apart at the end. Buck sets his beer on the table and inches closer, wrapping his hand around Eddie’s shoulder. When the other man doesn’t recoil from the touch, he rubs his palm in steady circles over his back.
“We’ll figure it out,” he says.
Eddie shoots him a dubious side-eye. “Buck, you don’t have to . . . I can’t ask this of you.”
“You didn’t. I volunteered.” They sit in silence for several beats, Buck’s brain grinding a mile a minute. There’s a lot to sort out before they leave. “When do you have to go?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to Bobby, sort our shifts out.”
“What?” Eddie pulls his face away from his hands, already shaking his head. “Buck, no―”
“Already done, Ed. You just get Christopher figured out. We’ll leave the day after tomorrow.”
And maybe before there would have been more resistance, more of a fight. Maybe even now, had Eddie’s mind not been fractured and pulled in a dozen different directions. As it is, all he does is nod, and his voice is barely audible when he whispers, “Thanks, Buck.”
They leave a couple days later. While Eddie took care of school for Christopher, Buck had pulled Bobby aside to address the emergency leave and was fully prepared to fall to his knees and beg for the time off. He cornered his captain in his office at the end of shift, and even though he’d had hours to strategize a game plan, he found himself oscillating in front of the door, still unsure what to say.
He spins on his heel and sees Bobby leaning against the door frame, arms crossed. “Ah . . . hey.”
“You’re gonna pace a hole through the floor. Are you interested in coming inside?”
“Yes . . . no. Yes?”
Bobby snorts. “Thank you for clearing that up. Come on in, Buck.”
They situate themselves on either side of his desk. Buck fidgets with a loose thread over the knee of his jeans. “So, Eddie’s dad is sick.”
“Oh.” Furrowed brows and genuine concern, instantly, without preamble. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m guessing he’s heading back to Texas?”
“Yeah. Yeah, he is. And he’s pretty quiet right now, but I can tell it’s kind of a ticking time bomb situation, so I was thinking . . . I mean, I want to . . . well, that is, I think I should . . .”
“Go with him,” Bobby finishes, saving him from himself.
Buck’s shoulders drop. “Right. Be there in case Christopher needs me, you know.”
He tenses and waits for the confusion, or the interrogation of his intent, because it would be absolutely valid. Eddie’s whole family will be down there. Plenty of people to watch Christopher. Plenty of people to support Eddie.
Nobody to pick up his pieces , a tiny voice in his head supplies. Nobody to keep those pieces safe until he’s ready to put himself back together again .
The point is, it’s bad enough Bobby will already be down a firefighter for the week, nearly unconscionable that he would lose two with the given reason being moral support. Still. Buck’s ready to fight it. Ready to take his qualms to the chief if necessary.
But then Bobby nods, already moving past the matter like it’s expected, like it’s appropriate. “I’ll figure things out on my end,” he says, and stands. Buck mirrors him, more on instinct than anything else, and is sure his face is doing something spectacularly dumb. “Take care of your boys, alright?”
Your boys . Another numb nod, and then a handshake, and then out into the early morning air.
He sits behind the wheel of his jeep for a moment. He already has a suitcase thrown in the back, enough clothes and essentials to last a week. It’s a little after seven in the morning. The plan was to leave as soon as Buck got off. He could probably snag a little bit of sleep, but the adrenaline thrumming through his veins, pulsing in his ears and behind his eyes, is a whispered threat. Too wired. Too wake. Nice try, though .
Cool air, then. He rolls down the front windows and pulls out of the station toward the Diaz household, dialing Maddie on his bluetooth as he hits the boulevard.
She picks up after two rings. “You always manage to catch me just as I’m sitting down, little brother. What’s up? How’s Eddie doing?”
His fingers drum a frenetic beat against the steering wheel. “OK. I’m headed over there now.”
“Now? Didn’t you just finish a shift?”
“You know I did, Maddie.”
She falls silent over the line. He rolls to a stop at a red light, and he can hear the muffled noises of dispatch through the receiver. It’s bizarrely calm for LA traffic, the majority of the city still asleep.
Finally, his sister says, “You’re really going with him?”
Neon green beams through his windshield. He eases onto the accelerator. “Yeah. I really am.”
A harsh breath, and the sound of plastic being balled up. “El Paso, huh? For a whole week?”
“It’ll be quick. You’ll barely notice I’m gone.”
“Except I will , though. The station more so than me. What did Bobby say about it all?”
“He was . . . surprisingly calm.”
“Didn’t put up a fight?”
“No, it was like he wanted me to go, like he was pushing for it.”
Maddie barks a sharp laugh over the line. “Yeah, sounds about right.” And before he can ask what that’s supposed to mean, she continues, “Just stay safe, yeah? Call me when you get there. Chim can handle Jee, so if you need anything, I’ll drop everything and be there ASAP, got it?”
Warmth settles in his stomach, a familiar sensation with roots in his childhood that has only grown more beautiful and comforting with time. “I know you will, Mads. I love you. Kiss Jee goodbye for me.”
“Love you too, Buck. And will do.”
The call ends as he pulls alongside the curb of Eddie’s place. One breath, two. Cut the lights. Turn off the ignition. Grab the suitcase from the back. He ambles up to the door with the key already wedged between forefinger and thumb, and jiggles the lock open as quietly as possible.
Buck locks the door behind him, leaves his suitcase in the foyer, toes off his boots, and finds Eddie with his head in his hands at the kitchen table.
“Hey,” he says, hovering in the doorway. Eddie’s neck snaps up, and the bags under his eyes look more like bruises. His bottom lip is chapped, flaky, bleeding. His hair is a disheveled mess from being at the mercy of his fingers one too many times. Buck wants to reach over, to hold his face, his hand, something . Maybe fold him into his chest, curl him into the space behind his ribs, keep him safe there.
But he doesn’t. He can’t. However faded and transparent the line seems to be these days, it’s still there, and anyway, Eddie is actively falling apart, and it’s not the time for Buck to be selfish.
“You . . .” Eddie clears his throat, frowning, and he swallows several times before continuing. “You have a shift?”
It’s poised like a question. Buck lowers into the chair across from him slowly, as if in close proximity to a frightened animal he doesn’t want to spook. “Yeah, I’m off.”
“What? But it’s only―” he tries checking his phone, which is dead, and then glances at his watch. “ Fuck . It’s already seven?”
“Yeah, Ed.” The question is on the tip of his tongue― are you okay? ―but he swallows it down. “How’s Chris doing?”
Eddie scrubs a hand over his face, scratches at his stubble. “Alright. He knows how these things go, unfortunately. But you know him. He’s got a good attitude.”
Buck nods. He points to the sheath of papers on the table. “What’s that?”
“Uh, forms. For Christopher’s school. Because it’s an extended leave of absence.”
“What, they don’t believe an email?”
The jab earns a ghost of a smile on Eddie’s lips. “Right? Carla’s gonna swing by and pick them up today, drop them off at the school for me.”
“Hm. You want me to do the rest? You look beat.”
Eddie snorts. “Uh, no thanks. You suck at paperwork, Buck.”
“Wow. I’ll have you know, I am thorough and sinfully detail-oriented.”
“Sure. Remember those PTA forms you offered to fill out last semester? We got dinged on hosting responsibilities because you neglected the entire backside of the form .”
Buck winces, rising from the table to put a fresh pot of coffee on. “You know, I did that in good faith, because I’m such a good friend, and yet you continue to be ungrateful. See if I ever do anything for you again.”
“It won’t be my taxes, I can tell you that.”
Buck grabs the nearest object (an apple-shaped timer) and chucks it at Eddie, who catches it easily in one hand while biting back a grin. The air feels a bit lighter, easier to wade through. The silence between them is never uncomfortable, but it feels less densely charged as Eddie finishes the paperwork and Buck pours two mugs of coffee. He sets one down a safe distance from the papers, and whether it’s the early hours of the morning, his own exhaustion, or the liminal space it all creates, he nudges beyond the proverbial line in the sand and presses a hand to the top of Eddie’s back, feels the knob of his upper spine dig into his palm. He’s not sure if he actually feels Eddie relax against him or if it’s another liminal space hallucination.
The pen in Eddie’s hand stills against the page. The tips of Buck’s fingers skim Eddie’s neck just above the collar of his T-shirt. The tag is flipped up. He tucks it away, imagines painting invisible stripes up the muscles of his neck toward the hair at the nape, twisting the soft strands around his knuckles, touching freely and with an expectedness that unnecessitates permission.
But the line, however blurry, is still there. He pulls back. Eddie continues writing.
“You just got off shift,” he mumbles, eyes boring holes through the last of the form to be filled out. “You should rest a bit.”
“Nah. Wouldn’t be able to sleep, anyway.”
“Sleep in the car, then.”
“And not annoy you to tears? Impossible.”
Eddie’s mouth twitches toward a smile again. He sets the pen down and leans back in the chair, popping his neck. “You don’t have to come, Buck,” he says, like he said about a dozen times before.
And like a broken record, Buck replies, “I know. But I want to.”
A deep sigh, “Okay.”
He knocks back a sip of his coffee. “Okay.”
It takes them an ungodly amount of time just to get out of LA, but once they hop on I-10, it becomes a modicum more bearable. Christopher sleeps for the first several hours. Buck and Eddie talk about baseball, and work, and whatever trivial or stupid topic they can cover that isn’t somehow connected to the heaviness awaiting them in El Paso. They make it through an entire true crime podcast and he googles every interesting point of the case. He ambushes Eddie in a game of Punch Buggy and manages four hits before Eddie threatens to leave him on the side of the road. Five or six hours into the drive, Eddie releases the mother of all yawns.
“Let me drive,” Buck insists.
“Eddie, it looks like I need to scotch tape your eyelids to your forehead to keep them open.”
“At the next exit,” he relents, after a beat. “I need to fill up, anyway.”
They pull into a gas station about ten minutes later. Eddie fills up the truck while Buck takes Chris for a bathroom break. He buys a cheap black coffee at the counter, which he knows will be disgusting, but he’s going for utility more than taste. After a moment’s thought, he adds a couple candy bars and a bag of sour straws to the mix. Christopher finds him as he’s shoving his wallet back in his pocket.
“You ready?” he asks.
Chris shugs, leaning heavily against his crutches. “El Paso is so far .”
Buck laughs, scratching lightly over Christopher’s shoulder. “Yeah, I know. Halfway there, though.”
“My butt’s falling asleep.”
“Mine too.” He gestures to the bag swinging from his wrist. “When your Dad zonks out, I’ll sneak you some candy.”
They bump fists conspiratorially and head back to the truck. Eddie is leaning against the side, frowning at his phone.
“What’s up?” Buck asks, as Christopher hauls himself into the truck.
Eddie’s jaw works back and forth. He pockets the phone and mutters, “It’s nothing,” and rounds the front of the truck to slide into the passenger seat. Buck sighs, rubs the bridge of his nose, and climbs behind the wheel.
When Buck envisioned himself visiting El Paso with Eddie and Christopher, it was always under happier pretenses. For Christmas, maybe, or a birthday, or a wedding, or something where the byline is happy, joyous, grateful . Something that would detract from the inevitable anxiety eating through his system.
He doesn’t dislike Eddie’s parents, per se. He hasn’t had enough conversations beyond Who are you? Where are you from? to dignify personal judgements. But Eddie has a complicated relationship with them. Nothing grievously wrong, like Buck’s own parents hiding his dead brother from him his entire life, but a life of tiny chinks in the armor. A cumulative pile of tongue lashings, and narrowing eyes, and downturned lips. Not so much an atomic bomb as a steady erosion.
Still. There is the potential for something more explosive, nevermind that Buck seems to catalyze apoplectic situations just by existing. But apart from that, there’s the whole guardianship situation, and Buck can’t even muster up the nerve to address it with Eddie, much less his parents . And of course, just as suspect is Buck’s very presence during this extremely family-oriented time. He’s tried coming up with passing excuses, all of which are flimsy at best, the least pathetic being, Yeah, I’ve just always wanted to see El Paso! Figured I’d take advantage of Eddie’s dad being sick and finally check it out!
So, he’s back to square one on that front. But there’s still the most pressing issue, the issue that essentially undercurrents all the others. He doesn’t think there’s a message written in sharpie on his forehead disclosing the complicated, decidedly unplatonic feelings he has for his best friend, but he feels like it’s a truth that will tunnel out from beneath his skin and scurry into the light if confronted with the people who know Eddie best.
Eddie twitches in his sleep. A tiny guttural whine slides up his throat. Buck glances over and smiles. He makes an aborted movement across the center console, fully intending to wrap his fingers around Eddie’s thigh, and flexes his hand into a fist instead. Jesus.
Get it together, Buckley.
He hits a dip in the road and Eddie jerks awake, flannel shirt askew, hair matted where it was pressed into the window.
“What’s goin’ on? ’m ‘wake, ‘m ready,” he slurs, blinking rapidly. He’s disoriented and confused and fucking adorable , but that’s an observation Buck tucks away for himself.
“Easy,” he says, flashing him a broad grin. “Still on the road.”
“Oh.” He sags back against the seat, digging his fingers into his eyelids. “How much longer?”
Buck checks the GPS. “Three or four hours.”
“You can go back to sleep. I’m good for the rest.”
Eddie shakes his head, yawning, and reaches for the radio knob in response. Something horribly and astoundingly country plays through the speakers. Buck can’t say he’s a huge fan, but Eddie perks up, and he hears Christopher taking off his own headphone in the back while gasping.
“Dad!” he exclaims. “Our song!”
The volume increases, and Buck winces. “What is this?”
Rather than respond, the instrumental segues into the lyrics, and Buck nearly swerves off the road when Eddie starts singing. It’s not something he hears often. Usually Eddie just hums to himself while he’s cooking, or doing laundry, or re-stocking the truck. He can count on one hand the number of times Eddie’s loosened up enough to belt one out, and the majority of those occasions required alcohol to grease the wheels.
But this feels special. Private. Intimate.
His voice is warm, and his drawl is more apparent, and the sound raises goosebumps over Buck’s entire body.
The chorus starts, and Eddie twists in his seat to look at Christopher, who joins his dad in singing.
“Is this Darius Rucker?” Buck asks, and the offended sputtering noise Eddie makes beside him lets him know he is correct in his assumptions.
“I’m offended you even have to ask that,” he says.
“You know how I am about country, Eddie.”
“We’ll work on it,” he murmurs, and sometimes Buck wonders if Eddie ever hears the implications in his words.
They finish out the song, and after relentless pestering, Buck joins in for the last chorus. It’s scratchy and off-key, but all Eddie does is grin and all Christopher does is applaud and all Buck’s heart does is beat love, love, love .
He puts the truck in park in front of Eddie’s childhome home. Christopher shifts in the back, already unbuckling his seatbelt. Eddie is frozen with his jaw set, eyes hard and unblinking as they bore holes through the windshield. Buck was here once before, after that relief trip to Texas, but he is under no illusions that this time will be similar. For one, he doesn’t have the buffer of other firefighters to hide behind. This isn’t a visit that will last a couple hours, and so the sugary, superficial niceties will eventually crumble when it’s mid-way through the week and he’s still hanging around. There is also the shadow of everything that has happened since the wildfires skulking behind them, waiting to be found out.
But, this is Eddie and Christopher, needing him to have it together, so he paints on a smile and squeezes Eddie's knee and slides out of the truck.
“ Finally. ” Christopher uses the side of the truck as support while he stretches his limbs. Buck leans the crutches against the door as he yanks out his travel bag and slings it over his shoulder. Eddie follows suit after a moment, worrying a new patch of skin into his lip that will scab over later. Buck watches him through the cabin of the truck and thinks talk to me, talk to me, talk to me , but Eddie grabs both his and Christopher’s bags and his face shutters closed.
“Christopher! Come give Grandma a hug!”
Helena stands on the porch, arms spread wide, the front door open behind her. Christopher staggers up the walkway.
Buck meets Eddie near the front of the truck. Helena wraps Christopher in a fierce embrace, and a prickly cold feeling slides down his spine when her eyes cut into him across the front yard. Her arms tighten, she buries her face in Christopher’s hair, and Eddie’s entire being seems to tense beside him, like a coiled spring.
“We’re here for a week,” Eddie mutters, and Buck’s not sure if the emotion wilting his words is reassurance or dread.
“It’ll be okay, Eddie.”
The look Buck receives in return is resolutely unbelieving, but there’s only one way forward, so they both head up the path toward the house. Chris is already inside, but Helena lingers to greet them.
“Edmundo,” she says. Short. Clipped.
“You packed light, I see.”
“I could only swing the rest of the week. I told you that on the phone.”
“Mm.” Her eyes slide to where Buck stands, shifting from foot to foot. “You brought company.”
He forces his lips into something he hopes resembles a smile. “Hi, Mrs. Diaz.”
The setting sun beats hot against the back of his neck, but the probing gaze from Eddie’s mom is an unwelcome inferno, and suddenly it becomes quite clear that no matter what he does, eventually, in some way, he’s going to get burned.
Eddie’s the one to break the tension, kicking Buck’s shoe with his own. “Come on, Buck. I’ll show you to the guest room.”
“Guest room? There’s a hotel in town, Edmundo, I’m sure Buck would rather have his own space—”
“I’m not kicking Buck out to a hotel, Mom. Okay? Don’t bring it up again.” He pushes Buck in front of him, and he stumbles over the threshold.
The house is much what he remembers, but back then, it was just Ramon and Helena. When he enters the kitchen with Eddie, he sees Eddie’s sisters, Sophia and Adriana, chatting by a plate of cookies on the counter. Christopher is at the table with an older girl Buck can’t remember meeting. He doesn’t want to liken it to infiltrating enemy territory, but the scrutiny befalling him isn’t exactly warm .
He spent most of his twenties deliberately seeking new and unknown situations, so one would think he’d have a solid game plan in place right now, but he’s flailing. So he zeroes in on Christopher, which instantly unfurls the jumbled knot in his chest, and then Eddie’s arm brushes his when he shifts to the side, and the whirring chaos of his brain quiets.
Sophia is the first to speak, lips moving from behind a half-eaten cookie. “Buck,” she says. “I remember you.”
It’s just Eddie’s family, and you’re here for him. It’s just Eddie’s family, and you’re here for him. “Hi, Sophia. Nice to see you again.”
“Evan Buckley.” Adriana, this time, who swipes her fingers against her jeans. “The one under the firetruck, right?”
Eddie groans. “ Jesus , Adri, what did I say?”
Adriana shugs as Helena scolds, “Language!”
“Yeah, Ed mundo ,” Adriana parrots. “ Language .”
It’s something of a novelty watching the unfolding dynamics of Adriana smirking at Eddie, and then Eddie flipping her the bird once Helena turns her back, and Adriana retaliating by winging a cooking through the air that is a dead bullseye and bounces off the side of Eddie’s head. It hits the floor and shatters. Eddie scowls, but he drops his bag and stoops over to clean it up.
Buck meets Sophia’s gaze by accident. Her eyes twinkle and she regards him long and slow before angling back toward the counter and starting in on another cookie.
“Lasagna for dinner,” Helena mentions. “One of the neighbors brought it over.”
“Ugh. Pity casseroles. I thought we were above that.”
“Sophia, not now.”
“Just saying, Mom.”
“The neighbors are nice enough to volunteer. We should thank them.”
“It’s weird! Casserole never brought anyone back to life, never made anybody magically better. They did the same thing after Eddie was shot. The first time, I mean.”
The air in the room almost instantly turns to ice. Thankfully, the kids had moved on and out of sight several minutes ago, looking for something more interesting to hold their attention.
Helena stills by the fridge. Adriana jabs a sharp elbow into Sophia’s side. Buck looks at Eddie, who is staunchly avoiding everybody’s eyes.
“ Soph ,” Adriana hisses.
“Learn to shut up once in a while, yeah?”
Buck clenches his fist, and fights to stay present, but the linoleum flooring flickers and looks a little bit like asphalt, and his hands feel wet and heavy, and when he swallows it’s pure iron, and—
“You know you’re here purely to mooch off the free pity casseroles, Soph,” Eddie says, “so, quit being ungrateful.” And then to Buck, “Come on. I’ll show you where you’re gonna sleep.”
“ Buck gets the guest room? Who decided this?”
Adriana’s question doesn’t merit a response. Buck drags his body after Eddie, down a familiar narrow hallway. They stop at a door near the end, right across from what Buck knows to be Eddie’s childhood bedroom. Eddie twists the doorknob and steps inside, flicking the lights on as he does. Buck follows. It’s simple, to the point, with a bed and a dresser and a lamp, a window with sheer curtains pulled across, a sliding door probably leading to a closet.
Buck drops his bag onto the bed and kicks off his shoes. Eddie scratches the back of his head.
“It’s not much,” he mumbles. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine, Eddie.”
“You know where the bathroom is, and everything, right?”
“I remember, yeah.”
“Okay.” His hands won’t stop moving, twitching, fidgeting. Mindless tics are usually Buck’s thing, because he’s pretty sure the blood in his body permanently fizzes with excess energy. Eddie is usually more contained. More controlled.
The oven beeps, resonating clearly down the hall. Helena says something and somebody else laughs, but the voices are too low to make out. Buck fidgets with the strap of his overnight bag. After a few beats, a monstrous breath unburdens itself from Eddie’s chest.
“It’s going to be a shitshow,” he admits, scrubbing his hands over his face. “Fuck. I’m sorry, Buck. You shouldn't have come. You shouldn’t’ve—”
“Eddie.” He cuts him off, planting his hands on his shoulders, digging his fingers gratuitously into the muscles of Eddie’s upper back, because he’s selfish, and he can. “It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”
Eddie’s eyes search his, peeling back the layers and hunting for mistruth, but Buck means it. Of course he means it. “Right,” Eddie says. “Right.”
“Edmundo! Help me with dinner, please!”
The smile that curves Buck’s lips is automatic, unstoppable. “Edmundo, I think you're being summoned.”
“I will kick your ass, Buckley.”
“I will track down every baby picture I can find and send it in the groupchat. You don’t want to play this game with me.”
“Dumbass.” The eye roll that accompanies the word, however, is fond. He slips out from beneath Buck’s grip and disappears down the hall. The stupid smile won’t seem to leave Buck’s face.
He’s busy stacking his clothes in one of the empty drawers when a voice behind him says, “You gotta be really stupid, huh?”
Sophia is leaning against the doorway when he turns around, a sweatshirt gathered in his hands. “Uh . . . what?”
“ Willfully driving fourteen hours with my brother—and I’ve done long road trips with him, by the way, I know he’s insufferable—only to spend an entire week with the Diaz clan? Like I said. Stupid .”
He smirks, tucking the sweatshirt in the drawer and pulling out a pair of sweatpants from his bag. “Well, I’ve definitely been called worse, so.”
“You’re going to get eaten alive, you know that?”
“I can handle myself, but thanks for the warning.”
She sighs, trudging further into the room until she’s standing right beside him with her arms crossed. “Buck.”
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. I promise.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“ Why ?”
He doesn’t say, Because Eddie needs me, because I can see him breaking, because we’re partners and I have his back , but it has to be written all over his face. Everything he feels for Eddie is so strong, so bright, so consuming, it inevitably breaks through the cracks from time to time.
Whatever Sophia finds, though, it pacifies her. Her arms loosen and fall by her sides. “I see.” She picks at the frayed hem of her T-shirt. “Adri and I are staying for dinner tonight, so you’ll have back-up. I can’t make any guarantees for the rest of the week, though.”
She scoots out of the room, then, leaving him alone. Buck pinches the bridge of his nose, sucks in a deep breath, and finishes putting his clothes away. Like Eddie said, it’s only a week.
How bad can one week be?
Dinner consists of lasagna, garlic toast, and a heaping pile of greens. Christopher and the other kids get a separate table. Buck casts a furtive glance every now and again, to check in on Christopher, but also out of envy, because he knows without a doubt he’d be having much more comfortable and interesting conversations over with them.
But, unfortunately, he’s relegated to sitting with the rest of the adults, sandwiched between Eddie and Sophia, Helena and Adriana on the other side, the chair at the head of the table noticeably and pointedly vacant.
Buck says all the right things, or he tries to. Please when asking Adriana for the plate of toast, thank you when Helena serves him a helping of lasagna. He answers every question about his job, and his sister, and his niece. Adriana and Sophia pipe in now and again with updates about their own lives. Nobody asks anything directly of Eddie, who only pushes his food around his plate. Everybody talks around the empty chair at the head of the table. It feels like dinner with his own parents.
It isn’t until plates are cleared and a tiramisu—provided by Adriana—is set on the table that Helena says, “You’ll be going to see your father at the hospital tomorrow, Eddie.”
Nobody questioned that Eddie would be doing this. Indeed, it was the whole point of him taking a week out of work and pulling Christopher out of school to be in El Paso. But the accusatory tone, the needless statement of fact . . . it makes Buck’s stomach clench.
“Of course,” Eddie replies, challenging his mother across the table.
“It’s not just that.”
Adriana and Sophia fall mysteriously silent, fixated on their respective slices of tiramisu. Buck’s knee revs up beneath the table, tapping for no other reason than he can’t ever fucking sit still.
“What is it, then?” Eddie asks, eyes narrowing.
“Your father is doing OK, but it’s a precautionary thing. You know how he is . . . anyway, he wants to make sure that if something happens, if he can’t advocate for himself, that he has someone capable and willing to advocate for him. He thinks that person should be you.” She takes a deep breath. “I agree.”
Buck’s other knee starts bouncing.
“ What ?”
Sophia and Adriana share a look. “It’s late,” they say after reaching a wordless conclusion, dropping their plates in the sink. “We should head out. We’ll swing back around tomorrow.”
They don’t meet Eddie’s eyes, but they each press a kiss to Helena’s cheeks before corralling Adriana’s kid out the door. Christopher is still nowhere to be seen, but Buck can hear the faint buzz of the television start up. He would love nothing more than to flee the situation and find refuge tucked against Christopher’s side, riffing back and forth about whatever animal documentary Chris has pulled up, because that’s his latest niche obsession. He almost does. The weight in the kitchen is suffocating. He moves to scoot his chair back, give Eddie and his mom some room to defuse whatever bomb is trying to go off. But then he sees Eddie’s hands strangling the life out of a napkin under the table. Helena’s eyes are heavy on him, imploring him to leave, daring him to stay. He wants to leave. But he didn’t come all this way just to run.
He slides his chair an inch further in and cuts himself another piece of tiramisu.
Beside him, Eddie relaxes.
“Medical power of attorney,” Helena continues.
Buck winces, flicking a sidelong glance over at Eddie, who remains stoic. “I thought that would fall to you,” Eddie says.
His mom shrugs, eyes focused on the remnants of her dessert. “I don’t want that responsibility.”
And, yeah. Buck can understand that. He thinks about watching Eddie bleed out on the concrete, about holding Christopher in his arms, about the weight of the impossible conversation that would fall on his shoulders in the event of the unthinkable. Love is selfish. It can’t be objective. He gets it. But it’s still . . . heavy, to put that kind of shit on your son.
Eddie’s shoulders buckle imperceptibly under the impression of the implication. Buck shoves another forkful of tiramisu in his mouth, doing nothing more productive than taking up space, but he bumps Eddie’s knee under the table. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here . It’s nowhere near enough but it’s all he can offer.
“Your father thinks it’s a good idea and so do I, Edmundo. You need to step up and shoulder this responsibility. That’s your father.”
Eddie scrubs his hands down his face, and then shoves the heels of his palms into his eyes. “ God , Mom, I came down here to see Dad, and to make sure you and my sisters were okay. I mean, what . . . you can’t just spring this on me!”
“He’s your father, Eddie, I’m hardly springing it—”
“Why do I have to do it, anyway? What about Adriana? Or Sophia?”
“Army medic,” Helena responds, predictably. “Firefighter. Level head. It was always a foregone conclusion for your father.”
Christopher’s voice blankets the tension in the kitchen. Eddie’s jaw snaps shut with an audible click. Buck moves on instinct to track down Christopher, to give Eddie some time to pull himself together. Except, as he rises from the table, a different chair to his own scratches across the linoleum. He stares into the sharp, curious brown eyes of Helena Diaz, both of them standing at attention on either side of the table.
His stomach swoops. The inferno burns closer, licking at his skin. Maybe, probably, he should defer to the family. Defer to the grandmother. Defer to the blood-relative. But Eddie’s wishes are written in ink, tucked away in a safe, a secret unbidden from the world, and that fuels the obstinacy in his veins.
He stands his ground.
Again, more insistent. A tiny smirk curls Helena’s lip. You’re not in enemy territory. You’re not in enemy territory. You’re not in enemy territory.
And then, after no response, Christopher calls, “Buck?”
The swell of pride that balloons his chest should not make his blood warm and his toes tingle, but he can feel bad about it later. Decision made, he offers a curt nod in good-bye and drags his hand across the back of Eddie’s shoulders en route to Christopher’s room. He finds the boy perched on the edge of his bed, curls matted, glasses askew.
“Hey, buddy,” he says, plopping down beside him. “What’s up?”
“Where’s Dad? He wasn’t answering.”
“He’s talking some things over with your grandma. Nothing serious.” He repositions Christopher’s glasses and runs an absentminded hand through his hair. “You okay?”
“I’m worried about Grandpa.”
“Yeah. It’s kinda scary, huh?”
“And I miss being at school. And my friends. And Pepa and Abuela.”
If that doesn’t make his heart shatter in a million jagged pieces. It feels like they pierce his lungs on every breath dragged out of him. “I’m sorry, buddy. I know it stinks.”
Christopher sighs, sounding way too much like his father, and leans his bodyweight against Buck’s side. “I’m glad you’re here, Buck.”
He bites his lip so hard he tastes blood. “‘Course buddy. I wouldn’t leave you here alone. Who else would sneak you candy when your dad’s asleep?”
That earns him a laugh, and it feels like winning gold at the Olympics.
They talk a bit more, devolving into conversations about the latest animal documentary they watched together, and the next time they could go to the zoo, and they briefly touch on the topic of absurd and disgusting hypothetical food combinations, before Christopher yawns and loses the battle to stay upright.
“Okay, Superman, I think it’s time for bed.”
Chris huffs in protest, but it is ineffectual given he is already face-planted in his pillow. “Not tired.”
“Sure you’re not” He draws the blanket up to his shoulders and presses a kiss to his forehead. “Get some sleep, alright? Lot of big things happening this week.”
“Okay.” The bed creaks as he shifts, and then, “Hey, Buck?”
“Dad’s really glad you’re here, too. Even if he doesn’t say it.”
His throat tightens. He thinks of warm hands, and a warm smile, and warm brown eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Mm. Love you.”
“Love you too, buddy.”
He ventures back out into the kitchen, planning to tell Eddie to pop into Christopher’s room before the kid passes out, but he finds only Helena at the sink wringing a dish cloth through white knuckles.
Their eyes meet, and he feels the kiss of the inferno again, and he wants to melt through the cracks of the floor.
“Porch,” she replies, and her eyes are unreadable, like Eddie’s when he’s in one of his moods, when he won’t even let Buck in. “On the phone with Isabel—Abuela.”
Buck nods. He scratches against the surface of the table, unsure how to move around this space. It feels simultaneously too big and too small.
For a moment that feels like a millenia, only the dull clank of dishes and the soft rush of running water perforate the silence. Eddie doesn’t return to save him from himself, and Christopher is likely dead to the world by now. He should have gone for a bedtime story, anything that would have prevented whatever the hell this is.
“Was your captain okay with losing two firefighters for the week?”
The question catches him off guard. He blinks, regains his balance. “Um . . . yeah, he understood. He gets family stuff, so.”
“Family stuff,” she repeats, swiping a rag over an already-spotless plate.
“Mmhm. He always says family should come first, no matter what.”
“ Eddie’s family.” There’s an odd tilt to her words, some approximation of a question curling around the edges. It’s enough to have him stuttering back, retracing his steps, trying to figure out the sign he missed along the way.
Fortunately, Eddie returns at that moment, tucking his phone into his pocket. Helena twists back around to the sink and hums to herself.
“Christopher already in bed?”
Buck nods, switching his gaze from Helena to her son. “Yeah, you might still be able to catch him this side of the living if you go now.”
“God, I don’t know how you do it. Thanks, man.” He flashes a small smile and brushes by him toward the hall. Buck hears a soft, “Hey, Superman,” before it trails off.
Once again left alone, he settles on a, “Goodnight, Mrs. Diaz,” to leave well enough alone and not start anymore brush fires. But Eddie’s mother stops him.
“Buck,” she says.
She eyes him for a long, discomforting moment, and then shakes her head and turns back to the sink. “Never mind,” she mutters. “Goodnight.”
Weird , he thinks, but accepts the opportunity for escape and makes his way to his room. He shucks off his clothes from the day, suddenly exhausted, and makes plans to shower in the morning. He texts his sister before heading off to bed, and then messages Bobby and Hen to let them know Eddie is so far keeping his head above water, before he curls up on his side and prepares himself for the week ahead.
Buck looks up from the table, spoonful of Cheerios halfway to his mouth. Eddie is propped against the sink, phone in hand, brows knitted together in displeasure.
“How did Dad get pneumonia ? No, I’m not. . . Mom, would you just listen . . .” He trails off, and Buck munches his breakfast, studying the lines of Eddie’s body as his posture slowly decays. He can hear Christopher moving around in his room. Adriana and Sophia will be by again later. Helena left early to see Ramon at the hospital. When Buck woke up, it was just Eddie in the kitchen nursing his second cup of coffee, looking like he’d gotten exactly zero hours of sleep.
“Mom, I’m not trying to . . . I’m not . . . just tell him yourself, okay? I can’t do this right now.”
Buck keeps his eyes on him as Eddie hangs up the phone, grabs his coffee cup and frowns at the emptiness inside.
“Everything okay?” Buck asks.
Eddie stares at the coffee maker and seems to weigh the pros and cons of a third cup before 10am before setting the mug in the sink. “Define okay .”
“Not actively combusting into flames?”
It pulls a dry laugh out of Eddie. “Well, if that’s the criteria, consider me fucking peachy.” His fingers dig into his eyes again, like they have been more and more lately. “Mom wants me to come around and see my dad today.”
“Okay. You were going to do that anyway, right?”
“Right.” The word is short but seems unfinished, the feeling of a sentence that goes unsaid.
Buck knocks back a glass of orange juice and leans back in his chair. “I’m sure he’s going to be fine, Ed.”
Eddie’s hand ventures over the back of his neck. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
“Of course I’m right. I’m right so often, it’s just that nobody ever listens to me.”
The eye roll he receives is practically audible, and is accompanied by a tug at the corners of Eddie’s lips. “Because it’s too much work piecing through all that other nonsense.”
“Really, Eddie? Character assasination before noon? I’m hurt.”
“And somehow, I think you’ll get over it.” He takes another moment with his fingers digging into his forehead, and Buck wants to walk over and rip it away, to let everything he’s forcing in ooze out and make a mess, but he plants his feet and fiddles with the spoon instead.
“Alright.” Eddie claps his hands and pushes off the counter. “I’m gonna get Chris ready, and meet my mom. Um, do you mind . . .”
“Yeah, Eddie. Of course I’ll watch him. That’s why I’m here.”
The force of the gratitude behind Eddie’s grin is blinding, more than enough to take him out at the knees, enough to make Buck relieved that he’s already sitting down.
Eddie leaves, and his sisters descend on the house to take his place not soon after.
Buck has Chris at the table eating a mid-morning snack while he does the dishes, because the nervous energy has to go somewhere, and his abs are sore from too many crunches. He flicks a routine glance at his phone resting on the counter, searching for a text from Eddie, but only his lock screen stares back at him.
“Oh, dear nephew! Your favorite aunt is here!”
“ God , Soph, you’re so insufferable. I’m clearly his favorite.”
“Think again, Adri, or are you the one who brought cookies?”
“You brought—no fair! That’s cheating!”
“It’s using my brain, Adri, which you clearly lost long ago.” The bickering grows louder as they approach the kitchen. Buck twists around to greet them, and a broad grin spreads across Christopher’s face. They each take a cheek and plop a kiss on it, Sophia setting a package of cookies on the table. Both suitably enamored as everyone should be around Chris, Buck thinks, and then they turn their attention to him.
“When did Eddie leave?” Sophia asks.
Buck finishes wiping down the counter and hangs the dish towel over the handle on the oven. “Twenty minutes ago, about.”
“Mmhm. You didn’t go with him?”
“Nah, he needed to deal with that by himself. Besides, I couldn’t turn down spending a day with my favorite Diaz!” The last part is directed at Chris, who preens under the praise.
“I’m his best friend,” Christopher states proudly, puffing out his chest.
Sophia and Adriana exchange a look, something altogether too mischievous and sibling-like. It’s a different dynamic to the one he has with Maddie, but it’s fascinating to observe. “Well, hopefully Buck won’t mind spending the day with his third and fourth favorite Diaz’s, because we want to take you guys out.”
Buck hesitates, eyes automatically trailing to his phone, which is still noticeably devoid of any texts from Eddie. Maybe it’s irrational, and a shade close to unreasonable, to want to chain himself to the kitchen, to this space where he can meet Eddie when he gets back or drop everything and grab him if things fall apart. Where he can keep an eye on Christopher and maintain order in this part of Eddie’s universe, to keep this little bit from fracturing away. Maybe he’s crazy, but it settles underneath his skin, fries his nerve endings, keeps pulling his eyes back to his phone screen.
“ Ooh , can we go to that ice cream shop? I haven’t been there in ages .”
“ Rolando’s ? Um, only the best for my nephew. Of course we can go there.”
“Yes!” Christopher pumps his fist. “Buck, it’s so good. It’s the best ice cream ever .”
“Yeah?” He finds his fingers fiddling with the hem of his shirt and crosses his arms to staunch the fidgety action. He would love it if for one day he could exist without feeling like a shook-up bottle of Diet Coke with a mentos inside. “Is that what you wanna do today, buddy?”
It’s a foregone conclusion, given the excited twinkle in Christopher’s eye, and Buck is actually physically incapable of denying him anything. “Alright,” he adds, “Get your shoes on, then. I’ll meet you at the door.”
Christopher ambles out of the room like a man on a mission. They watch him leave, and the weird silence Buck’s been getting used to in the Diaz household creeps back in. Eddie’s sisters both spin back around to regard him with similar expressions twisting their faces. He feels . . . horribly, wretchedly exposed.
Adriana is the first to speak, and it’s not what he expects. “You’re really good with him.”
Buck blinks, looking at the space where Christpher disappeared moments ago. “I, um . . . thanks?”
“Yeah,” Sophia pipes in. “It’s so, like, natural .”
The conversation is superficially pleasant and none of the words are bad, but it feels illusory, or heavy, something else packed behind the words. “I just love him a lot, I guess. He’s important to me.”
“Uh-huh. And Eddie just . . . leaves him with you? At the drop of a hat?”
He almost denies it, but then he thinks about zoo trips, and picking up a pukey Christopher from school when Eddie’s stuck on a shift, and stealing Chris for early morning breakfast runs before Eddie even gets out of bed. All of it means something and it’s right there , right in front of him, but as per usual, he’s too afraid to turn it over in his hands and inspect it. “Sometimes, yeah.”
“Edmundo Diaz? Our brother , Edmundo-control-freak-Diaz?”
Buck frowns. “Eddie’s not a control freak.”
“Well, you have to say that, because you’re his—because you’re his friend,” Sophia finishes clumsily, switching her words at the last second.
“Alright, Soph, enough interrogating the guy, that’s not why we’re here.” Adriana hauls her purse higher up her shoulder. “Let’s get some ice cream, yeah? We can’t have you leaving this place uncultured.”
Rolando’s is a quaint ice cream shop on the corner of the street in town, with tables outside housed under neon red umbrellas. Buck commandeers a table while Christopher and his aunts pick out ice cream flavors. He feels the pressure of his phone in his back pocket as he sits down, and his hand retrieves the device before he can think about it. Still nothing.
“It’s just the hospital, you know.” Sophia drops into the metal chair across from him, and the dimple that puckers her cheek under her smile is so reminiscent of Eddie it makes something inside him keen. “Not like he’s going back to war or anything.”
Buck feels his cheeks warm, but he still keeps the phone on the table instead of returning it to his pocket. “I know that.”
“Really? Because, I feel like you’re two disappointed frowns away from Ubering to the hospital.”
God, is he really that transparent? He blames the humidity. “I don’t even know where the hospital is.”
“Something tells me such a minor detail would not stop you.”
His gaze slides to where Christopher and Adriana are at the plastic utensil station, grabbing napkins and spoons. “I’m not Ubering anywhere. Eddie needs me to be here for Chris right now, so that’s what I’m doing.”
“I’m not noble .”
“And I’m only teasing, Buck, jeez. I thought you had a sister.”
He does, he wants to add, he has the best sister in the entire world, but he’s in an entirely different state in a place he isn’t familiar, underneath an offendingly bright umbrella, feeling like there’s a hole in his chest with Eddie straying further and further from his reach, so sue him if he’s a bit out of his element, here.
Thankfully, Chris and Adriana join them. Chris picked out Double M&M Smash for Buck, his favorite flavor, and it’s delicious. He sits and he makes conversation and he trails the unfamiliar landscape with his eyes, and he waits for any sort of text from Eddie that doesn’t come.
They visit a nearby park after the ice cream, with a mini petting zoo, and a station where you can buy food pellets to feed the animals. Christopher sics him with the patented Diaz Doe Eyes, and he dumps a fistfull of quarters into the machine and gets an extra-large cup of feed.
“He has you wrapped around his finger,” Adriana jokes, jabbing his side lightly with her elbow.
He does, and honestly, it feels good, and he couldn’t care less.
The weather is nice, cloud cover keeping the sun from beating too harshly. There’s a steady breeze blowing pretty consistently, raising goosebumps over his exposed skin. He stands at the guardrail of the exhibit with Sophia and Adriana flanking him, and they all watch Christopher squeal brightly while feeding the animals.
Half of Buck’s heart, at least, is calm.
“So. Adriana and I have plans to take Christopher tonight.”
Buck snaps his gaze toward Sophia. “What?”
“Dinner, move, and a sleepover. We’ll have him back in tip-top shape in the morning.”
Anxiety curls through the familiar nervous energy. “I don’t . . . I don’t think that Eddie . . . I mean I’m supposed to . . .” He cannot, for some reason, manage complete sentences, and he feels flustered and betrayed by his own tongue.
“We miss our nephew, and it will be nice for him to spend some time with his cousins,” Adriana interjects, and his head swivels in the other direction. “Christopher will be fine. It’s the other Diaz boy we’re worried about.”
Me, too , Buck thinks.
Sophia turns and leans her back against the railing, lifting her head as a stronger breeze blows through. It whips long, dark tendrils of hair over her face. “Take him out for us, yeah? There’s an awesome club in town, and they do square dancing every Tuesday night, and I just think that is definitely something you need to experience while you are here.”
Buck has square-danced exactly one time while sufficiently drunk during his short stint in the midwest, and there is a reason he has not done so since. “I’m not sure subjecting Eddie to my dancing will make him feel better.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Sophia mumbles, and is promptly decked over the head by Adriana. “Um, ow ?”
“It’ll be fun for you, too, to see the sights.” Adriana cuts a glare at her sister and refocuses on him. “I know you’re here as his emotional support human, or whatever, but you need to have some fun, too, or you’ll never survive the rest of the week with my mom. I promise you, her worst is yet to come.”
Buck considers it, staring at Christopher who’s leaning into his crutches, smiling brightly. He wants to turn them down, even if he doesn’t think they would accept anything but yes for an answer. But, realistically, the rest of his day looked like waiting by the phone like a yearning spouse while cleaning every dish in the kitchen fifteen times, so maybe he does need to get out for a little bit.
“Okay,” he concedes. “But I’m not wearing a cowboy hat.”
He does, in fact, end up in a cowboy hat.
Eddie had been home by the time they walked back through the door. Whatever weight that existed on his shoulders the moment they rolled into El Paso seems to have increased ten-fold. He blinked incomprehensibly when Sophia explained to him their evening plans, and stared at Buck for a truly excruciating amount of time that scorched heat through his bloodstream, before a playful grin tweaked his lips and he said, “Buck can’t dance.”
“It’s a good thing he has you to teach him, then,” Sophia had replied, and that was how Buck ended up in jeans, a flannel, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat.
“I look ridiculous,” he mutters, plucking the shirt away from his chest. “It’s not 1862, why am I wearing this?”
“Authen ticity , Buck.” Sophia snaps a picture with her phone before he can duck away. He scowls.
Adriana adjusts his hat, eyes twinkling. “You look good, Buck!”
“Both of you keep saying things and yet I don’t feel any better.”
“It’s because obnoxious and bratty is their default,” a voice interjects behind him. He half-turns to Eddie walking into the kitchen, and one of his sisters bites back a retort, but a buzzing starts in the back of his skull and he can feel himself blue-screening a bit.
Eddie looks like he walked off the set of Gunsmoke , but also criminally beautiful, in snakeskin boots and skin-tight jeans and a flannel with the sleeves shoved up and wrinkled around his elbows. He palms his cowboy hat in one hand, dangling at his side, and his lopsided smile pokes a dimple into his cheek, and the room feels about a thousand degrees hotter than it did twenty seconds ago.
“Damn, little bro.” Adriana flicks his hat when he plops it on his head. “Been a while since you got all spruced up, huh?”
“Shut up, Adri.” His eyes find Buck, and something flickers behind the warmth of his irises. “You look good,” Eddie says to him. “Real western.”
His tongue feels heavy and dumb in his mouth, curling around the vague form of words he can’t remember. He feels Eddie’s sisters’ eyes on him, skewering him, and his palms are sweaty, and he definitely needs to say something , and what comes out is, “I don’t think I pull off the hat.”
Eddie closes the distance between them. He smells— God —he smells like his travel coconut shampoo that Buck quietly loves, and he’s shaved the beard that had been growing down to a thin shadow of stubble. Eddie stops a foot in front of him, and Buck shakes with the force of his heart as it tries to find its way out of his chest, into Eddie’s hands, where it has belonged for an embarrassingly long time.
“I dunno,” Eddie murmurs, his voice is dark and smooth. He tips the hat back with his knuckle, eyes sliding to meet Buck’s. “I think it works.”
Sweat trickles down his back, crawling between his shoulder blades. For the sake of his sanity, he blames the humidity.
Sophia claps sharply in the background, breaking the moment. She and Adriana rib them on their way out the door, and then it’s just Buck and Eddie sitting in Eddie’s truck, Eddie putting the car in reverse, the two of them pulling onto the main stretch into town.
The club is ten minutes away, according to Sophia, and Buck has never had a problem filling the silence with Eddie before. They’ve never had a problem just sitting with the quiet, either. But El Paso has shifted his reality slightly to the left for some reason, and he finds himself chronically off-kilter.
“How’s your dad?”
Eddie’s jaw tightens, along with his grip on the steering wheel. “I don’t know.”
“You . . . don’t know?”
They roll to a stop at a redlight. Eddie lifts one hand off the wheel to dig his fingers into his eye. “I didn’t see him.”
“Did something happen?”
“No, I just . . . I just didn’t, Buck.” He eases through the light when it flashes green. Buck scrapes his nails against the denim stretched over his thighs. He wants to punish the point a little bit, but Eddie knows him well enough to identify the agenda behind his silence, and steers the conversation hard-left. “Chris said you went to Rolando’s ?”
Buck goes with it, no matter how much he wants to dig his heels in. “Yeah.”
“I assume you had the Double M&M Smash?”
“Oh, Chris wouldn’t even let me entertain any other flavor.”
The smile on Eddie’s face is lit by the passing streetlamps. The conversation stalls out until he pulls into a busy parking lot to a warehouse-looking building with a large cowboy boot statue at the front.
“Eddie.” Buck fights back a smile.
“Don’t say anything.”
“Is this . . . what exactly am I looking at here?”
“The last place you’ll see alive if you don’t be quiet.” He slides out of the truck and rounds the front, waits for Buck to do the same. A line of giggles clogs the back of Buck’s throat, but he climbs out of the truck and follows Eddie into the venue. He’s immediately hit with a wall of country music and shouting. They haven’t made it three steps before an announcer makes herself known off to the side.
“It’s that time!” she calls, the fringes on her moccasin vest swinging with her movements. “Everybody hit the dance floor!”
Eddie’s grin is cheesy and uninhibited, and possibly one of the most beautiful things Buck’s ever seen. Eddie grabs his bicep and hauls him toward the dance floor, and they blend easily into the rows of people lining up to start.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Buck says, tapping the toe of his boot against the floor.
Eddie cracks his knuckles and pops his neck. “Just follow my lead.”
“That’s not helpful advice, Ed.”
“You literally run where Angels fear to tread on a daily basis, Buck. I think you can manage a little square dancing.”
He’s not so sure. He’d much prefer a five-alarm fire right about now.
The music revs up and everybody transitions seamlessly into a series of moves that Buck cannot hope to replicate. There’s a lot of stamping and clapping, and twisting and turning . . . he collides with Eddie and nearly knocks both of them over.
“Easy, Cowboy.” Eddie’s hands land on his hips, keeping him upright. White hot fire shoots through his body.
“This is embarrassing, Eddie.”
“For you, maybe. I’m having a great time.”
“ Eddie .”
“Okay, okay. Just . . . slow down, for a second. Follow my lead. It’s the same thing in a sequence. Got it?”
He definitely doesn’t have it, but he also feels incapable of denying anything when Eddie looks at him like that. “If I break my ankle you’re entirely at fault.”
Eddie throws his head back and laughs and Buck trips over himself for a reason that has nothing to do with dancing.
It takes embarrassingly long for him to complete three consecutives moves with a noticeable degree of competence, and he’s not exactly having a great time, but he derives most of his enjoyment from watching Eddie, anyway. The way he occupies space on the dance floor, like another home, like something he has done countless times before. The way he tips his hat, the way he grins, the way he locks elbows with whoever is beside him like they’ve known each other for twenty years. There’s a semblance of LA Eddie here but El Paso Eddie is somebody else entirely, and it feels so intimate, that Buck gets to see him like this.
“I’m ducking out,” he shouts to Eddie over the music.
Eddie turns to him, sweat glistening over his brow. “What?”
He jerks his head to the bar. “Drinks!”
“Yeah, yeah, go ahead, run away!”
He rolls his eyes but Eddie gets swooped into another round, and Buck flees to the bar. His body is buzzing, overwhelmingly alive , in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time, if ever.
“Buy you a drink?”
The voice belongs to a slender build and bright red lips and a mop of long auburn hair. She sidles up to him at the bar, and he blinks at her, partially uncomprehending. And, okay, he hasn’t been out of the game that long, but all the easy come-ons and one-liners he might have spit several years ago don’t fit the same in the contours of his mouth.
“Whiskey,” she says to the bartender, holding up two fingers. “Neat.”
Buck finds his voice, turning his barstool. “Thanks, um . . .”
“Kandi,” she says, misinterpreting his disjointed fumbling.
“Kandi,” he repeats, trying for a reticent smile. “Listen, Kandi, you’re . . . I mean, if it was like two years ago, I would . . . I’m just not really here for that,” he finishes elegantly, and he wants to shove his head in the blender on the other side of the bar.
Kandi, despite his awkwardness, flashes him a toothy grin. “Already taken, huh?”
“Buck, you’re such a coward , I can’t believe you suckered out.”
Electricity zaps down his spine. Eddie flops into the barstool beside him, asking the bartender for a tequila shot. He turns to say something else, but catches sight of Kandi, and his entire face shutters closed.
“Oh,” he says, short. Emotionless. “Sorry, I didn’t . . . I didn’t realize I was interrupting something.”
“Maybe another time,” Kandi cuts him off, and her hand lands on his arm, but it’s all wrong. It’s too small, too soft, too cold.
He forces a smile to his face. “Sorry.”
She throws back her whiskey and shrugs and disappears back into the crowd. Buck takes a breath to settle the clusterfuck inside his chest before spinning back around to Eddie. “Sorry.”
Eddie shrugs, knocks back two tequila shots in a row, and then taps the countertop for another. Buck frowns.
“I don’t think this is what your sisters meant by cutting loose,” he mutters, as Eddie knocks back two more shots.
“Then they shouldn't have suggested a bar.”
Eddie cuts him a look that isn’t mean or hostile, but there’s a certain dangerous fragility to it. Buck pushes his whiskey away, no longer feeling in the mood for it. And especially not when Eddie throws back his sixth shot in as many minutes and practically vaults off his bar stool, wobbling a bit. Which is just fantastic. Helena will poison him in his sleep if he brings her son back looking like this.
He makes a mental note to have words with Adriana and Sophia later.
The room is a pit of elbows and sloshing drinks and wandering hands that is a pain in the ass to navigate through. The seeds of panic only have a few minutes to set in before he locates Eddie outside, around the corner, throwing up into a trash can.
The hat is abandoned on the ground, and Eddie is white-knucking his way through a horrendous wave of retching. Buck props his shoulder against the rough brick of the building and waits for it to pass. A miserable groan falls from Eddie’s lips as he drags his arm across his mouth.
“Can’t handle your liquor, old man?”
Eddie cuts him a glare, but the effect is nonexistent when he pitches sideways and would have face-planted against the sidewalk had Buck not leapt forward and accommodated for his weight.
“I think you’re a bit too far on the other side of thirty to be tossing back tequila shots, Ed.”
And if pressed, Eddie would definitely deny it, but the sound that erupts from his throat is one hundred percent a high and keening whine . “Fuck you.”
“Mmhm.” They make it to Eddie’s truck, and Eddie slumps against the side, pressing his forehead to the cool exterior. Buck regards him, something aching and fond sluicing through the worry. “We need to sober you up.”
“‘M fine,” he returns, convincing absolutely no one when he stumbles again and catches himself with the side mirror.
“Yeah, you look fine.” He prods Eddie out of the way to get the passenger door open, and then pushes him inside. Eddie relaxes back into the seat, going boneless. Buck lifts his legs into the cabin, and he can feel the other man’s eyes on him as he drops the cowboy hat in Eddie’s lap.
“Did you get her number?”
Buck yanks on the seatbelt. “What?”
“That girl at the bar.”
“Oh . . . Kandi? No.”
“Hm.” He remains suitably still as Buck stretches the seatbelt across his torso and clicks him in. “You could have, if you wanted.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want.”
“I could have Ubered home. You should . . . you shouldn’t get dragged through my mess with me.”
Buck meets his eyes then, which feels too close to a mistake, because he’s still bent over him with one hand on the center console to maintain his balance, and Eddie’s pupils are big and flighty but fighting to stay locked onto Buck’s face. He reeks of tequila and cigarette butts and every other unholy smell infesting that place. Buck doesn't know what it says about himself that it doesn’t matter, that he still wants to press him back into the seat and lick the alcohol off his tongue. It feels like insanity. Must be the humidity.
Eddie sneezes and breaks the moment, and Buck straightens up and out of the truck interior. “I’m not here to pick up girls,” he says simply. “I’m here to make sure you don’t pass out in a back alley.”
“Hey, what are best friends for?”
“Best friends,” Eddie murmurs, eyes slipping closed. “Right.”
Buck slams the door shut and jogs around to the front of the truck. He crawls in and starts the engine, spinning the volume dial to low when Eddie winces at the sudden onslaught of music. He didn’t make any extraneous plans. He didn’t really configure Eddie getting drunk into the mix, because he can definitely count on one hand all the times in the years he’s known the guy to be even tipsy.
He shifts around in the seat, causing the truck to shake, and Eddie groans. Buck casts him a wary look. “You gonna be sick?”
Eddie shakes his head.
“Convincing.” He throws the truck into reverse. “Just know it’s your interior you're screwing up if you start blowing chunks, yeah?”
Buck makes the executive decision to hit up a twenty-four-hour diner. He leaves Eddie slouched in the truck and orders two burgers and fries to go, and returns to the truck with greasy bag in hand. Eddie pops one eye open as the full-bodied smell of peanut oil and carbs fills the truck’s interior.
“Don’t eat this if you’re just gonna puke it up,” Buck starts, unfurling the bag. “But also know that we’re officially on the clock for sobering you up.”
Eddie fingers dig into his eyes. “Not drunk.”
“Yeah, and I’m a square-dancing champion.” he plops a wrapped burger in Eddie’s lap. “Nibble on it until you’re sure you can trust your stomach.”
They sit in silence, idling outside the diner. The burger isn’t exactly show-stopping, but it’s enough to get the job done. Beside him, Eddie struggles through the first half of the burger, but seems to hit his stride with the french fries, so he pours his focus into finishing those.
Buck’s mind wanders to LA, to his sister and Jee, and then of course to Chim and Hen and Bobby and the state of the 118. He used to hate missing work, to the point Hen started teasing him about how bad his FOMO was. But the station was his safe place, for so long, all of them his family, the 118 the one place where he unequivocally belonged. And that is still the case, only . . .
“You didn’t get any ketchup.”
Only, his circle isn’t so narrowed to just the station these days.
“Buck, there’s not even any barbecue sauce. What were you thinking?”
Buck balls up his wrapper and aims it at Eddie’s temple. Bullseye, of course. “Shut up. Anybody who could register on a breathalyzer gets no votes.”
“It was three shots.”
“Uh, try six, and those were just the ones I witnessed.” Eddie offers a noncommittal shrug in response, but drops the issue in favor of shoving another fistful of fries in his mouth.
They sit in companionable silence while finishing their food, and Buck continues assessing the surprisingly steady stream of customers in and out of the diner. His phone buzzes several times, with a check-in from Maddie, and then a stream of pictures of Christopher playing Scrabble at Adriana’s house. It pulls a laugh out of him.
“What’s so funny?”
He tips the phone toward Edde. “Your son won the game with the word ‘nebulous’. Adriana had to look up the definition.”
The grin that splits Eddie’s face is nothing but pride and unconditional love. “That’s my kid.”
“I told you those Scrabble nights would pay off.”
“What do you mean Scrabble ? The last few times it completely devolved to the both of you searching for the most obscure words in the dictionary. So boring.”
“I’m sorry you’re not as future oriented as me, Eddie, but all I see is Christopher winning the National Spelling Bee and getting his photo taken with the President.”
Eddie laughs, tipping his head back against the seat. “Yeah. We’re raising a genius.”
Buck’s brain blue screens for the second time that day, and he waits for Eddie to catch up with his words, or to acknowledge the plural possessiveness of that statement, but he doesn’t seem to register what he said. And he definitely doesn’t register how absolutely upside-down he tilts Buck’s world on its axis.
He clears his throat and puts the truck back into drive. “You sober enough to go home?”
“I’m not even that drunk in the first place.”
“Whatever you say, Eddie.”
The drive back home is quiet, but not tense. Eddie peers listlessly out the window, fiddling with the balled-up cheeseburger wrapper in his hand. Buck rolls the windows down and hangs his arm out, letting the breeze whistle through his hair. He’s about to take the exit for Eddie’s neighborhood, when Eddie says, “Don’t go home, yet.”
He casts him a quizzical look, but stays on the main road. “Um, okay? Where do you propose we go instead? Not another bar.”
“No bars.” He leans forward in the seat, squinting at the oncoming signs. “Here,” he states, pointing through the windshield. “Take this exit.”
“Are you taking me somewhere to murder me?”
“Is everything a true crime podcast with you?”
“According to my phone, yes.” The exit ramp empties them onto a darker, emptier road, which leads them further into what starts to look like a public park, or campground space.
“Nobody even really uses it that much, not even back when I still lived here. Take a left.”
“Eddie, there’s no road.”
“I know, just trust me.”
And Buck does, unequivocally, so he turns and cuts through a bumpy patch of dirt until the mouth opens up into a clearing with a miserable attempt at a lake and a crappy-looking pier that is more than a little decrepit.
Buck pulls into the clearing and parks the truck. “Not gonna lie, Ed. Pretty creepy.”
“It’s great. I used to come here all the time in high school, and after I got discharged from the army.”
Eddie more or less tumbles out of the truck, definitely still drunk, and Buck stares at the area through the thick blanket of darkness and tries to imagine a younger Eddie escaping to this place. The thought breaks his heart, because the reasons are never for anything good , never anything that doesn’t make him ache.
“Buck!” Eddie slaps his window, jerking his head toward the rear of the truck. Buck flips him off but cuts the engine and steps outside. The night is mild, humid as always, but otherwise comfortable. He leaves the cowboy hat in the back with Eddie’s and circles the truck to find the other man pulled up into the bed of the truck, head tilted back, gazing up at the stars.
There is something to be said about paintings and masterpieces and about how all of that fucking pales in comparison to Eddie Diaz underneath a universe of stars, but he’s never been the most eloquent guy, anyway. He climbs up beside Eddie, pushing his back against the metal of the truck. They stare upward in silence
“You know any of them?” Eddie asks after a while, gesturing vaguely toward the sky.
“Not really.” He squints at a patch of sky. “ I think maybe that’s the big dipper? It could also just be a random cluster of stars.”
Eddie chuckles softly. “Sophia was always better at this kind of stuff.”
Another swell of silence. Eddie pulls one knee up, braces his forearm against it. The words are almost swept away in the breeze, but Buck hears, “I actually kind of hate coming back here.”
He looks at him, to make sure he isn’t imagining things, but the tortured look on Eddie’s face can’t be mistaken. “Seeing your parents is never easy.” Trying for brevity, but given both of their standing relationships with their parents, it falls flat.
Eddie knocks his head back, eyes falling closed. “It’s so stupid. I hate how they talk about me sometimes, how they talk about my life in LA. Like I’m defective, that I failed. I hate them for it, and I hate that I still want their approval, that I still want them to look at me and think, yeah, that’s my son, that’s the man we raised . How fucked up is that?”
It’s not, really, because Buck’s been an unloved ghost haunting his parents his entire life, and he would still give an arm and a leg just for them to grant him the time of day. “Not as fucked as you think.”
“I don’t think you’re the right standard to judge by.”
“Excuse you. My relationship with my parents is the picture of domestic bliss.”
They exchange a look and burst out laughing, the sound carrying through the space and dissipating into the distance. Eddie looks away but Buck doesn’t; he can’t help it. Somewhere along the way the first couple buttons popped open at the top of Eddie’s shirt, and he rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, and his carefully-sculpted hair hangs over in a fringe against his forehead. He looks untamed, unhandled, imperfect.
Beautiful, actually. In the truest, purest sense of the word.
Eddie arm lifts, jarring Buck from his thoughts, and he blinks until he follows the pointed finger to a shape in the sky. “There,” Eddie says. “That’s it, right? I think that looks like a spoon.”
“Yeah, maybe.” He glances down at his hands. “Is that why you never come back here?”
“Partly.” He picks at the hem of his shirt, untucked from his jeans. “It’s harder to . . . remove myself from everything, the older I get.”
Buck gestures to the space around them. “This is a pretty neat spot.”
“I guess.” And then quieter, curiously, like he’s telling a secret he didn’t know he had, “I’ve never brought anybody else here before.”
And that makes Buck feel a million different kinds of ways, the least of which is an overabundance of fondness for the man beside him. “So it’s like a club for people fucked over by their childhood then, huh?”
“Shut up , oh my God.” His eyes shut again, but a grin cracks his face. “You know, you're the best friend I’ve ever had. Have I ever told you that?”
“Eddie Diaz, I do believe that is the tequila talking.”
“Maybe,” he hums, but still angles his head to the side, and Buck meets his gaze against better judgment. “I don’t know how to thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”
Buck feels warmth bloom over his face. “That’s not . . . You don’t. Don’t even think about it.”
“I do. I think about it. All the time.”
“Well, don’t. It’s just me being me.”
“Just you,” Eddie muses, and his smile smoothes around the edges. “Just Buck.”
“You’re going to put your head through a wall if you remember saying any of this mushy stuff in the morning,” Buck jokes, as if he doesn’t want to lean over and whisper I love you into Eddie’s skin until it seeps into his bloodstream and hits every uncherished part of his body.
“Whatever,” he mutters, and then, “okay, right there, that’s definitely the big dipper.”
“One of those stars is a plane, Eddie. Look, it’s moving.”
“Christ. I give up.”
And Buck wants so many things in that moment, watching Eddie run a hand through his hair, watching him scratch at a spot over his shoulder, watching him run his tongue over his bottom lip. He wants to ask him why he won’t see his dad, wants to ask him about all the times he ran away to this place feeling alone, wants to ask him what he can do to make sure he never feels that alone again. But it’s a lot, a lot more than he’s ever given himself permission to fantasize about before, and so it jumbles and catches in his throat, and all he ends up saying is, “We should get home soon.”
And Eddie sighs after a moment, something like regret on his face when he answers, “Alright.”
They drive back the rest of the way in silence, and Buck can’t shake the feeling of something lost, something missed, something left behind amidst a secluded patch of dirt and a sky full of stars.
“You look thin. Are you eating?”
“ Yes , I’m eating, I promise.”
“Don’t lie to me. And my grandson? Is he eating too?”
Buck winces, deciding not to tell her about Eddie’s primary diet of coffee and energy bars since he’s been back. “Yes, Abuela, he’s eating, too.”
“Good. I’ll come down there if I have to. How’s Christopher handling everything?”
Buck listens for the faint sounds of Christopher’s gaming console from his room. “He’s good, I think. Coping.”
“Hm. And how about Eddie?”
He considers the best way to answer this. It’s Wednesday, already halfway through the week since they’ve been in El Paso, and Eddie has yet to have an active breakdown. It’s not that he wants to watch him fall apart, but in Buck’s experience (and Eddie’s, too, whether he admits it or not), bottling everything up usually translates to an apocalyptic explosion down the road, and he wants to mitigate the inevitable eruption as much as possible. “Eddie is . . . handling it.”
Abuela’s eyes narrow to slits. “Is he around?”
Eddie had left to take his mom back to the hospital, and while Eddie himself hadn’t yet gone inside to see his father, Buck had a feeling Helena was getting less and less patient with him. “Otherwise engaged,” he eventually answers.
He blinks. “Me?”
“Yes, Buck. I am well familiar with the certain . . . abrasiveness of my son and daughter-in-law. How are you doing?”
The automatic fine, thank you, is prepped and ready to go on the tip of his tongue, but he’s never felt right lying so blatantly to Abuela. Maybe it’s because he never really had a relationship with his own grandparents, or because of the warmth Abuela always extended to him, but he finds himself completing a self-triage for her sake. All things considered, he could be worse. Eddie is not definitely OK but keeping it together. Christopher is as resilient as always. Helena spends more time glaring than verbally destroying him, so that’s more than a relief. “I’m doing alright,” he answers honestly. “Thanks, Abuela.”
“Good. Now, show me how the chili looks.”
He steps away from the stove to grab the tablet Eddie had brought along and holds it above the pot. “It smells good, but I’m not sure it’s right. Bobby always says I mess up the seasoning part.”
Abuela clucks her tongue. “ Mi angel , nonsense, it looks great. I taught you well.”
He smiles, stirring the spoon around in the pot. “You think it’ll put me in Eddie's mom’s good graces?”
“Don’t let her fill your head with nonsense. You are a good man, Buck, being there for my boys. I don’t worry about them when I know you’re there.”
“Abuela,” he mutters, face warming, but the words curl a tight knot of pleasure in his chest.
“Dinner will be on me when you all get back,” she adds, and Buck here’s a door slam out front, followed by muffled voices. Raised voices. Uh-oh.
“That sounds great, but I gotta go, Abuela. Thanks for helping me with the chili.”
“Of course, Buck. Kiss my boys for me.”
He ends the call just as the front door slams open, catching the end of Eddie’s sentence, “—you can’t control my life anymore, Mom!”
“It’s hardly controlling your life, Eddie! He’s your father ! This is family we’re talking about!”
“I told you I’ll go see him when I’m ready, and I’m just not ready yet.”
“How could you be so . . . so selfish ? He could very well take a turn for the worse and you wouldn’t even . . . you wouldn’t even have seen him!”
Mother and son storm into the kitchen, and Buck freezes with his hands wrapped around the handles of the chili pot. He’s on the receiving end of two juxtaposing reactions: Eddie’s eyes softening, his fists uncurling, and then Helena’s mouth curling into a scowl, her eyes igniting a raging inferno.
“Buck,” she spits. “Still here?”
Should he answer? The question is directed at him, but he also feels like she might vaporize him where he stands if he says anything.
“Go figure,” she continues, dropping her purse in one of the kitchen chairs. “You must get off on this, right? Other people’s family drama?”
“Mom!” Eddie barks.
“No, Edmundo. I’ve condoned this ridiculous charade long enough.” Her gaze never leaves Buck’s face as she speaks. “This is a family matter, Mr. Buckley, and I believe you have overstayed your welcome.”
Buck blinks, mouth falling open. It isn’t like he expected rainbows and butterflies when he agreed to follow Eddie and Chris to El Paso, but . . . well . . . he also didn’t expect this . Perhaps he’s more accustomed to his parents’ own quieter, personal brand of hostility. Helena’s is loud and impossible to miss.
“That’s enough, Eddie. I’ve let him walk around here, sleep in our guest room, cook in my . . . cook in my kitchen , but it’s done.” She chances a step toward Buck, all pent-up fury and repressed grief and mourning. He thinks, bizarrely, ah, so that’s where Eddie gets it from , as Helena quips, “You should head out in the morning, Buck.”
He still can’t find the words, but Eddie fills the space with a long-suffering sigh. “Mom, we drove here together. How the hell is he supposed to get back to LA?”
“The airport exists, does it not?”
“ Mom .”
“It was kind of you to be there for Eddie. And Chris.” She bites out the name like it pains her to allow Buck and Christopher to exist in the same breath. “We’ve got it from here. Eddie will be fine.”
Buck swivels his gaze to Eddie, and he’s never seen anyone look so staunchly not fine in his life. Does Helena really not see it, or is it intentional? Maybe it’s the sorrow. Buck thinks back at the miserable slough of time between Eddie lying on the ground and Eddie walking out of the hospital with his arm in a sling, and knows preoccupation with grief has a tendency of skewing everything.
It’s strange, is what it is, that such a profane, abstract pull of heartbreak is the one thing connecting him to her.
That and, well. Eddie .
Buck moves to put the chili back on the stove, but the sudden confrontation has him feeling unlevel, and his feet get tangled up over something, or maybe nothing, and he throws out a hand to catch himself on the counter, but it means the pot hits the floor with a loud bang and scalding hot chili goes flying everywhere. Namely, over his hands.
“ Crap ,” he hisses, and you would never have guessed he’s a firefighter for the way he freezes and stares at his burning hands.
Eddie closes the distance between them in a few short strides, snatching Buck’s wrists on his way to the sink and thrusting them under the running faucet. Some undignified squawk leaves Helena’s throat.
“Must be a sign from the universe,” she snips.
Buck barely registers her words, zeroed in on the gentle administrations of Eddie’s fingers scrubbing off the chili. Eddie’s face is dropped in concentration, the same expression he wears during a call out in the field. Or, maybe not exactly the same, because his lip is poked out a little more, and his brows are furrowed a little deeper, and there’s something slightly to the right of normal, but he can’t exactly pick it out.
“I’m sorry,” Buck breathes. “I’m sorry, I don’t . . . I don’t know what happened.”
“Another Bambi moment, you six-foot-two klutz.” Eddie grazes his thumb along an angry-looking welt over the inside of Buck’s wrist. There are altogether too many points of heat directed his way at the moment, but this one, the burning slide of Eddie’s skin against his own, he doesn’t mind so much.
“That was my good pot.”
Helena’s derisive sneer shatters the moment. Eddie steers Buck’s wrist back under the water with a firm tug, as if to say, keep it here , and then stoops over to pick up the dropped kitchenware. “It’s fine, Mom.” He sets it on the counter. “Not even a scratch.”
Three, four beats of silence as Buck turns his wrists under the cool water, and then Helena continues, “There’s a hotel in town. I called, and they said they have vacancies.”
Buck tries to swallow, but his throat is all gummy and sticky-feeling, and the action putters out. There’s a high keening sound in his brain, whirring around his headspace so nothing can settle, nothing can come to fruition as a fully formed thought. Thankfully, he feels the familiar heat of Eddie moving around beside him as he answers, “That’s not necessary.”
“I said when we got here that Buck would be staying with us. I told you to drop it then, and I’m telling you to drop it now.”
“There’s not a reason for him to stick around—”
“I want him here,” he interrupts, and it makes Buck’s heart roll slow in his chest. “And he’s here for Christopher, when I can’t be around.”
It seems to be her buzzword, because an ominous shadow passes over her face. “Chris has a bountiful support system here already.”
“I know, Mom. I never said he didn’t.”
“So what’s the issue?”
Buck’s hands don’t smart anymore, but he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he moved, so he keeps still by the sink. Eddie does that thing again, with his fingertips, digging them mercilessly into his eye sockets.
“Is this still about what we said all those years ago, after Shannon’s funeral?”
Buck stiffens, and he can practically feel the way Eddie’s muscles coil.
“Because, we’re passed that, Edmundo,” Helena continues. “We’re done trying to get you to move back here. You and Abuela and Pepa made yourselves perfectly clear.”
“It’s not just about that, Mom.” And then he’s by Buck’s side again, switching off the faucet, cradling Buck’s hands in his, muttering to him, “I think we have some aloe in the bathroom.”
“I’m okay, Eddie.” It’s a miracle he even gets the words out.
Eddie’s face twists into something unreadable but fond. “I know what you’re doing. Stop.”
It should be terrifying and exposing, having someone else know him so well, so intimately, but it’s not. It’s warm. Comforting.
Helena pierces the moment between them that is trying to be intimate with, “Well, then, what is it about, Eddie?”
Eddie wraps a clean towel around Buck’s wrists and turns, pressing his back to the lip of the counter, hands sinking into the pockets of his sweatpants. He doesn’t say anything for such a long stretch of time, even Helena starts to shift in discomfort. Buck considers removing himself from the equation to track down the aloe ointment, but then Eddie unloads the secret from the pit of his chest: “I made Buck Christopher’s legal guardian. In case I die.”
And, yeah. Maybe getting the hell out of Dodge wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Helena blinks, and her mouth does some puckering motion, like a fish, before settling into a bemused grimace. “ What ?”
“If something happens to me, Buck assumes legal guardianship of Christopher.” He cuts his eyes to Buck. “Gonna go grab that gel. Hold on.”
And then the asshole leaves . Buck curls his hands tighter against his chest, thinks about clicking his heels three times to see if it’ll disappear him from this disaster of a situation.
Blessedly, Helena doesn’t say anything to him the one or two minutes Eddie is gone. He reappears with a bottle of green liquid in his hands and pulls the dish towel away, tossing it into a heap on the counter. “Does it hurt?” he asks.
Buck shakes his head, dumbly.
“Alright. It might when I put this stuff on.”
“ Edmundo .”
There’s just . . . a lot happening, or a lot to process, and Eddie’s mom is right there actively blowing a gasket, but Eddie has a single-minded focus on treating Buck’s burns, and he doesn’t know how to handle Eddie’s overwhelming attention on his best day.
“Is it because of what we said? We always just thought . . . well, we took care of him while you were in Afghanistan. We always just thought . . .”
She leaves the sentence unfinished, even though it doesn’t take a genius to fill in the blanks.
Eddie squeezes a dollop of the green gel onto his fingers. “Shannon was around, too,” he replies.
“You know what I mean, Eddie.”
“You were wrong for what you said back then, but it isn’t about that. I got over that a long time ago.”
“Then what is it, Eddie? We’re your parents. We know what Christopher needs, what he responds to, what he likes. And it makes sense. We’re family .”
Buck is a lot better about the whole self-deprecating spiral thing since he’s started therapy, and since he’s made it a point to start asking for what he wants and telling others when he’s struggling. There are a lot of things he’s been reclaiming as his own, but this . . . thing , he has, with Eddie and Christopher, has always felt tenuous, and he couldn’t figure out why until now, until he’s stabbed through by the possessive claws of Helena Diaz, whose blood runs through Christopher’s veins and who has a stake in the situation that will never belong to Buck.
“Don’t hold words we said years ago against us,” Helena finishes.
Eddie gently turns Buck’s hands over. “Despite what you may think,” he mutters, smoothing the gel over the raised welts, “This isn’t about you.”
“How could this possibly not be about us, Eddie?”
“It’s about Christopher, first and foremost. It’s about the kind of life and future I want for him. That’s not something you have anything to do with, Mom.”
“We’re his grandparents , Eddie, and I just don’t . . . I don’t—and no offense, Buck—but I don’t understand why you’ve chosen someone who isn’t blood-related? You have so much family in El Paso, and even if you can’t stand the thought of him being back here, there’s still your family in LA.”
He shouldn’t be here for this. Buck really, really thinks he shouldn’t be here for this. He makes a miniscule motion to tug his hands away from Eddie, but the other man just tightens his grip, fastening Buck in place.
“You’re not listening, Mom.” Eddie’s voice is low, measured. “You and Dad love Chris in your own way. Just like Sophia and Adriana, and Abuela, and Pepa all love him in their own way. And that’s fine. I don’t look down on that. I’m not trying to belittle it.” The gel is well and soaked in, creating a glossy, green-tinted sheen over Buck’s skin. Eddie traces along a line in Buck’s palm, and then finds another, and another, mapping an invisible image. “But, I need someone who will love Chris the way I would, if I can’t, if for some reason I’m no longer around. I need someone who understands the depths of the ways I love him.”
It feels heavy. All of it. Eddie’s words, their implications, the soft caress of his finger over the lines on his palm.
And then, the heavier weight. Helena’s eyes on the back of his head. The phantom press of Eddie’s lifeless body in his arms. Christopher’s hand cradling Buck’s shoulder as he broke apart.
It is heavy, heavy, heavy .
Helena follows Eddie’s confession with a humorless scoff. “It doesn’t matter,” she snaps. “He won’t be enough.”
The words hit him like grease spitting from a frying pan. His wrists recoil out of Eddie’s grasp. Eddie recognizes the emotion in Buck’s gaze, because of course he does, and Buck wishes that for just one goddamn minute Eddie didn’t know him so fucking well, because he can’t hide. There’s nowhere to hide.
“I’m going to—” he trails off, stumbling backward, blinks, gains his bearings. “I’m going to go.”
“Go?” Eddie frowns. “Buck, it’s almost ten o’clock.”
“Right . . . Right.” It doesn’t stop him from aiming his body toward the front door. “I just need to clear my head, Ed. And you guys could use some space to—I’ll be back later.”
“Buck, just . . . stop .” He catches up to him by the front door, hand latching onto his forearm. “Look at me.”
And he does, because he’s pathetic, and hopeless, and in love.
“I’m not leaving,” he says, tugging gently on his arm. Eddie lets it slide through his grasp. “I’m not leaving. I just need a second.”
Eddie doesn’t look like he completely believes him, but he still nods and steps back, hands submerging in his pockets again. “Okay.”
Buck can’t really feel his own hands as he reaches for the doorknob.
He peers over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Just . . .” Eddie rocks back on his heels, the tips of his ears going pink. “Be safe.”
“Always am, Ed,” he says, and he shuts the door behind him.
Adriana’s face lifts in surprise when she swings the door open.
“Hi,” Buck says, lifting his hand and curling his fingers in some awkward resemblance of a wave.
Adriana blinks once, twice, looks over his shoulder, and then back at his face. “Um . . . hi?”
“Sorry. I didn’t . . . Well, it’s El Paso, and I don’t really know where else to go.”
“Did something happen? Wait, no, how did you get here? Or, no, wait a minute, where’s Eddie?”
“Sort of, I Ubered, and he’s back home avoiding your mom.”
Her shoulders fall. “Ah.” She steps aside and Buck fills the open space. The house is small but homey, ranch-style, just one-level. There’s a bronze cow statue near the front door with a crochet saddle over its back.
“Laila put that there when she was little,” Adriana explains, locking the door behind them. “Never really got around to taking it off.”
Buck nods. “Is Laila here? I didn’t mean to wake anybody up.”
“Please, she’s a teenager, she’s out with a friend. My husband is off on a work trip this week, so I’m afraid I’m about it as far as company goes.” A playful smile teases her lips as she nods toward the kitchen. “I know I’m not your first choice Diaz, but hopefully it’ll suffice.”
His cheeks warm as he follows her into the kitchen. “It’s fine.”
“Uh-huh.” She grabs two cups from a cabinet, drops tea bags in both, and pours from an already-boiling kettle on the stove. She shoves the steaming mug in Buck’s direction as a request, not a question. The action reminds him of Maddie, makes him feel a little more settled.
They sip the tea in silence for a while, listening to the sounds of the house settling, to the sporadic bursts of wind making the shutters groan. Buck’s thoughts trickle toward California, and then divert back toward Eddie and Christopher, ten miles away.
“So, how bad was the shitstorm?”
Buck jerks to attention, sloshing some of the tea out of the mug and onto the back of his hand. “What?”
“Back at the house. How bad was it?”
He shrugs noncommittally, but his lack of response ends up speaking volumes, apparently. Adriana chuckles and takes a seat at her kitchen table across from him. And then because she doesn’t offer any comment, and because the words are still painted across his skin like an open wound, he says, “Eddie made me Christopher’s legal guardian, in case anything happens to him.”
He doesn’t expect a similar blowout to Helena, but he waits for the shock. Instead, she only smiles. “Yeah. I know.”
“Eddie told us, after he got shot.” She dunks the tea bag in and out several times. “Sophia and I kind of lost it with him, for completely understandable reasons. A lot of our concern was for Christopher. And then imagine our surprise when he tells us his “friend from work” is set to take his place if he dies.”
Buck winces, chasing a stray drop of tea down the side of his mug with his thumb. “I could never take his place.”
“I’m not trying to antagonize you, Buck. I’ll admit, I was skeptical, because I didn’t really know you, and that’s my nephew we’re talking about. But . . .” she shrugs. “I can see why he did it. And I can see why he fell in love with you.”
He chokes on his next sip of tea. “Wh-what?”
Adriana smirks behind her cup. “Sorry, is this supposed to be news?”
“Let’s not do the whole “95 theses tacked to the church door” thing for why he can’t be into you. I know my little brother way better than that.” Her head tilts, and she considers him for a moment. “Although, if you don’t feel the same way, I’ve horribly misread the situation, and my brother will kill me for opening my mouth.”
It’s not . . . wrong. Just complicated, in the way everything unfolded, how out of his depth he feels every time he’s slapped in the face with want , a want that isn’t transitory or gratuitous, but looks like attending boring PTA meetings and laundry nights. Like late-night runs for cold medicine and meltdowns over difficult homework problems. Like tucking a kid into bed and kissing them on the cheek and calling them yours. Like falling into bed against the familiar heat of the same body night after night.
It’s one thing to say that you want something, hypothetically, when it exists in the unformed space of possibility. It’s another thing entirely to say that you want something, concretely, when it exists right in front of you, when it can touch you. When it can break you.
“Of course I love him,” he mutters. “He’s my best friend.”
“It’s complicated, Adriana.”
“Sounds simple to me.” She fiddles with the string of the tea bag. “How much longer are you guys here?”
“All day tomorrow, and then we leave sometime Friday.”
She nods. “You’ve survived this long, huh?”
“Sophia said I’d get eaten alive.”
“Sophia was not wrong to say that.” She knocks back the rest of her tea and sits back in the chair, arms crossed, pinning him with a crooked brow that looks a lot like Eddie. “Look. You took off work, you came all the way down here to be with them, despite knowing Helena would want to run you through with a spear. People have done a whole lot less and called it love, is all I’m saying.”
“Right.” He checks the illuminated green numbers on her microwave, and guilt gnaws all the way through his core. “I should get back.”
“You just got here!”
“Yeah, well, I probably shouldn’t have left in the first place. My head got all screwed up.”
“Fine, just hold on a second, then. I’ll drop you off.”
“I can’t ask—”
“You didn’t, I offered.” She pushes up from the table. “You could always sleep here, you know. We have a guest room, too, with the bonus that my mother isn’t prowling around waiting to rip your head off.”
Buck laughs. “Thanks, but no. I need to make sure Eddie’s doing okay.”
Adriana’s entire body softens at the words. She plants a hand on his shoulder, stopping him from moving by her to the door. “See, it’s . . . it’s because you say stuff like that, so naturally, without having to think about it.”
“Stuff like what?”
She waits until he meets her gaze. He really needs to develop better defense mechanisms against the Diaz Doe Eyes. “Just keep loving him like that, okay? Effortlessly and out-loud. He deserves it. It’s all I want for him.”
She makes it sound like some arduous task, but it’s never been hard to do it, for Eddie or Christopher. He tells her as much. If possible, her eyes sparkle even brighter.
“You just keep proving my point,” she says, and then ushers him out the door.
When Buck returns to the Diaz house, Eddie is waiting for him in the kitchen.
Well, he’s asleep, with his head buried in his arms, but still waiting. The only light on is a soft burst of orange above the stovetop, casting Eddie in shadows, forming a subliminal space around them. He stops in the entryway to the kitchen and traces the sleep-tempered edges of his best friend, his partner, if he’s being honest with himself the love of his life, and mulls over Adriana’s words. And, yeah, Buck has wondered, of course he has, of what it would feel like to tip over the edge. To snuff out the boundary lines of their relationship. With Abby it was a thrilling, exhilarating thing, shiny and bright in its novelty. With Ali, it was a bit more measured, but it still made his toes curl, made his heart skip a beat at the thought of someone seeing him and wanting him, even if it was insofar as his job kept him safe. With Taylor . . . well, that was a complicated mess that he doesn’t care to dwell on. But the point is, he always wondered what it would feel like to walk to that edge with Eddie.
It’s a shock to his system when there’s no fireworks, no violent explosions in his chest. Maybe it’s because they’ve been out on that ledge together for awhile, both too afraid to jump. Whatever the reason, the thought is something warm and solid in his chest. It isn’t jittery and it doesn’t make him want to run five miles to burn the edge off. It’s a sinking sensation, like falling into the bath, into someone’s arms, into two brown eyes.
Eddie jerks awake suddenly, as if sensing his presence, and he must have, because his eyes aren’t even open before he’s croaking, “Buck?”
And Buck is an idiot if he ever thought he could look at the sight before him and not fall completely in love.
“Hey,” he replies, entering the kitchen, suddenly unsure where to put his body in relation to Eddie’s. He opts for the counter, a safe but unsuspicious distance away. “You shouldn’t fall asleep at the table, y’know. You have to think about your back, old man.”
Eddie smirks, more awake, and, like a reflex, rams his fingers into his eyes, wiping away the exhaustion.
“You do that all the time, recently,” Buck blurts out.
“Rub your eyes.”
Eddie pulls his hands away, staring at them as if seeing them for the first time. “I didn’t . . . Sorry, I don’t . . .”
“You don’t have to apologize.”
And Eddie looks . . . burdened, in the darkness of the room. Swathed and swallowed. Something so drastically different from the easy, confident way he carries himself around LA and at the station and on calls. Buck thinks about living in his own house, back in Pennsylvania. He thinks about the special kind of violation you can only feel in your childhood home, especially one that has betrayed you. For him his home was a graveyard, his parents the ghosts that haunted it. For Eddie his home was a minefield, every step a gamble.
He should be able to untangle it. Eddie is right here, and he’s suffering, and he needs him to reach out and at least try . But what he wants to do and what he thinks he should do compete against each other for dominance. What he wants to do? Cut the distance and wrap him in a hug and give him permission to disappear until they leave on Friday. It’s what Eddie wants. It’s what would make him comfortable for the rest of the trip.
But at the same time, Eddie’s dad is in the hospital, and he could die, and maybe Buck understands a little bit more about the nuances of loss than he did before.
He sucks in a breath and pushes himself against the counter, until he feels the edge digging into his lower back. Probably he won’t be able to get the words out if he’s looking at him, so he fixates on his mangled cuticles as he says, “You need to go see your dad, Eddie.”
Eddie had been tapping a steady rhythm against the table with his fingers, but the noise abruptly stops after Buck speaks.
“We leave in two days,” he continues, picking at the frayed skin over his index finger until it bleeds. “And you haven’t seen him yet.”
“Buck,” Eddie warns.
“I just . . . are you even planning to see him at all?”
The beat of silence that follows is more damning than a response.
“Eddie, you have to see him. You have to go.”
“How is this any of your business?”
“I’m here,” Buck returns, without skipping a beat. “I took off work. I’m watching Christopher. I’m in your childhood home. It’s my business.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t ask you to come.”
With anybody else the words might sting, and he might back down, and he might stumble over himself to patch the wounds and save the relationship. But this isn’t anybody else. He knows it and Eddie knows it and Buck can feel the fire singing his skin but it’s not anger, it’s the heartbreak in Eddie’s honey-brown eyes.
Eyes that beg, let me push you away .
Let me keep this distance.
Let me fall apart .
“Maybe you should go, Buck. Mom was right. This isn’t your mess.”
He scoffs. “Oh, so now you’re on your mom’s side?”
“That’s not what this is about.”
“Yeah, you keep saying that. To her, to me. What is it about, Eddie? You’ve been like goddamn Fort Knox since we showed up here. You need to let me in. You need to tell me when something is wrong.”
“It’s not your mess , Buck.”
“Jesus Christ , Eddie.” He tries to keep his voice low, so as not to wake Chris or Helena, but the exasperation burns through his veins. “Of course it’s my mess. Of course it is. How can you not see that?”
“Because it’s . . . it’s a disaster,” he finishes, and he’s standing, now, fists clenching and unclenching. “How can you even still be here after what she said to you?”
“I’m not here for her. I’m here for you , and for Chris.”
“ Why ?”
“Why did you make me Christopher’s legal guardian?”
The wordless admission dangles between them. Neither of them try to grab it, or acknowledge it, but it hangs there all the same, undeniable. Undeniable . Buck repeats the word in his head, and it gives him a second of bravery, of strength, or stupidity, to reach for what’s been at the back of his throat for months now.
“Eddie,” he starts, but Eddie flinches.
“Don’t,” he pleads, the word splintering off at the end.
He wants to, selfishly, to press the words into his mouth, against his neck, in the mesmerizing divot where his collar bones meet. Everything about what he wants from Eddie feels selfish.
“Not here,” Eddie continues, and he starts to move his fingers to his eyes, diverts them to his hair at the last second. “Now now. Please.”
Buck knows he tends to defer to Eddie for most things, especially those muddled questions regarding their relationship. Let Eddie take the lead, let Eddie set the boundary line, let Eddie say green or red or yellow . But not this time. Not this time. He just can’t stop the roaring in his ears, blood rushing like river rapids through his veins. And it can’t exactly be a surprise, anyway. He knows the intensity of what he feels can’t be contained, that it has to bleed out from every exposed piece of his being.
They stare each other down across the kitchen. He remembers the first time he met Eddie Diaz, how in over his head he was before he even had a name for it, and he just had no fucking idea what was waiting for him.
“I love you, Eddie,” he finally breathes, gripping the counter behind him tight.
Eddie’s jaw sets in a hard line. “That’s not fair.”
“What’s not fucking fair about it?”
“It’s not . . . I just need us to not do this right now, okay? I can’t do this right now.”
“Why not? I love you. I love you and Chris so much it feels fucking impossible to hold, sometimes. You have to know that.”
Nothing about this conversation is happening the way he envisioned it, or the way TV says it’s supposed to go. His chest hurts , and the only thing that could soothe that ache is Eddie, against him, but Eddie is backing away with his fingers abandoning his hair and jamming into his closed eyes.
“I’m sorry, I just . . . I can’t, Buck. There’s too much . . . I need a second.”
And Buck knows Eddie Diaz better than anyone, so he lets him go, even if it feels like ripping himself in half. He hears the soft click of the bedroom door snapping shut. And then it’s just him, alone. He notices then that the chili pot is gone. He imagines a scene of Helena throwing the entire thing in the garbage, but when he opens the fridge, there’s three separate containers of chili stacked up, with a note on the very top in Eddie’s neat handwriting that reads, Buck’s chili :) , and it doesn’t chase the ache in his chest away completely, but it helps.
He flicks the light above the stove off and heads to bed.
Eddie is gone when Buck wakes up the next morning, their last full day in El Paso. Helena shuffles around him, pointedly ignoring his existence. Only Christopher gives him the time of day. He falls onto the couch beside him. A cartoon is playing softly on the TV, but Christopher is more focused on the book in his hands.
He nudges him with his elbow. “Whatcha reading?”
Buck rolls his eyes. “ What book?”
“It’s about weird sea creatures.” He holds up the cover for Buck to inspect, and it would seem the kid is not yet finished with his obscure marine life obsession.
“Looks interesting,” he says. “What’s the coolest one you’ve read about so far?”
“Red handfish,” Christopher replies, flipping to a page near the middle of the book that’s doggy-eared. “It has human-looking hands. So weird.”
“That is . . . extremely unsettling.”
Christopher laughs, and returns to the page he was looking at. Buck settles in beside him and enjoys the familiar silence, punctuated only by flipping pages. It’s abrupt and relentless when Christopher speaks up next.
“Are you and dad fighting?”
Buck’s eyes pop open, darting wildly toward Chris, who doesn’t look away from his book. “What?”
“You both seem weird. And Dad has that look on his face. He only gets that look when you guys are fighting.”
And isn’t that a revelation, that Eddie supposedly has a look reserved explicitly for when Buck drives him up a wall. “We’re okay, buddy. Just not . . . seeing eye to eye, at the moment.”
Christopher nods, digesting the information. “Dad fights a lot when we’re in this house.”
Buck’s heart completes a stuttering role in his chest, like after missing a step, or in the seconds before a rollercoaster dives down its first steep hill. “Why do you say that?”
“He fought with Mom, too. I was little, but I remember it some. ”
“You know that had nothing to do with you, right?”
“He fights with Grandma and Grandpa a lot. That's why I don’t like coming here.”
The confession feels fragile and sacred, and Buck feels like he already dropped and broke it, considering the circumstances. “I’m sorry, Chris. That sounds really hard.”
He shrugs. “It’s okay. Nobody ever yells at me.” Buck has to bite back a laugh at the bright, matter-of-fact tone. “I just want Dad to be happy.”
He reaches out a tentative hand, brushes his fingers against Christopher’s curls, and when the boy presses into the touch, cards his hand all the way through. “I want that too, you know?”
“I know, Buck.”
“Neither of us are really mad at each other. It’s just complicated.”
“Complicated how ?”
Buck blows out a long breath. This kid. “Sometimes when people really care about each other, they argue, because they want the other person to be okay.”
Christopher’s face screws up in confusion. “So you guys fight because you love each other?”
He doesn’t remember using the word love explicitly, but it doesn’t make it any less true, so he decides not to correct it. “Exactly.”
“That sounds . . . complicated.”
Buck laughs, drawing Christopher into a one-arm hug. “I told you it was.”
He wiggles out of his grasp, so he can fully face him. His glasses slip half an inch down the slope of his nose. “If you love each other, you should just say it, not fight about it.”
Buck squints at him. “You’re about as subtle as a brick in the face, you know that, Christopher Diaz?”
Chris laughs. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Uh-huh.” He kisses his temple. “You’re still my favorite Diaz though.”
“Of course.” He shifts over, so Buck can look at the book with him. “That will never change.”
Eddie doesn’t return the rest of the day. He sends exactly one text, to tell Buck to tell Christopher everything is fine, and that he’ll be back after dinner. Buck refrains from throwing his phone against the wall.
Dinner is the most awkward affair Buck’s encountered since his time in El Paso, and that’s saying something. He and Helena don’t attempt to make civil conversation. Christopher does all the talking, easily filling the space. The kitchen is still a war zone, filled with debris from the guardianship fallout, debris from his fallout with Eddie.
The meal wraps up, and all there is is to wait for Eddie to return home, and for Buck to figure out something tactful to say that isn’t another botched love confession or something of a similarly disastrous nature. He helps Helena clear the table, because he may be bitter, but he’s still polite, and is surprised when she turns to him from pouring what he now realizes are two cups of tea.
“Join me on the porch,” she states, and without giving him room to reject it, takes her tea and walks through the front door. And he’s not sure what it is about Diaz women feeling the need to offer him tea, but this is definitely not one such occasion he would deign to turn it down, so he grabs the mug and follows her out onto the porch.
He sits down on the step, both of them nursing their beverages between their palms, gazing out into the night. The humidity wraps around him, thick and suffocating, a distasteful sheen of moisture coating his arms. Helena wraps her shawl tighter around her shoulders, seemingly unbothered.
A car passes, the leaves rustle, and everything is quiet.
“Eddie was born in the middle of the night, did you know that?”
Buck angles his head to stare at her profile. Her lips hover near the rim of her cup. “No.”
“Three forty-five in the morning, after seventeen hours of labor. And even then, we couldn’t take him home from the hospital until almost two weeks later, because it was complication after complication.
“He was sick a lot, as a kid. And then he got older, and it wasn’t pneumonia every winter, but it was always something else.” She pauses, adjusting her feet in her slippers. “From the moment he came into this world, Eddie has never made anything easy on us.”
The instinct to defend is on the tip of his tongue, but Helena chuckles to herself before he can interject, shaking her head as she peers into the surface of the tea. “And then it was getting Shannon pregnant, and marrying Shannon, and joining the army. Getting shot in the army. Moving to LA. Getting shot in LA.” She casts him a pointed look. “Putting his work colleague in his will.”
He won’t be enough.
“I don’t know what or how much Eddie has told you, but we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms when he left El Paso.”
“He told me.” Buck clears his throat. “Listen, I don’t . . . I don’t think you should be telling me all this . . .”
She dismisses his concerns with a flick of her wrist. “I may not always approve of my son’s decisions, but I’ve learned I have no sway over them anymore. I have had several years to come to terms with this.”
Buck has no earthly clue where this conversation is going, and he’s not all that certain he wants to find out. He half hopes Eddie will turn up any second to save him, but the driveway remains empty, the night quiet and still.
Helena sets the tea down on the step beside her. “After you left last night, Eddie said that you saved him, when he was shot. He never told us that. He never told us how he got to the hospital.” And then she looks right at him, into him, and not through, for the first time since he’s been in El Paso. “Thank you, Buck.”
The phantom memory slinks around him, blood on his face, in his mouth, the feel of pavement digging into his stomach, the slowing heartbeat through a pulse barely felt through the wrist—
The sharp ring of a siren in the distance stems the flood of thoughts before he has a chance to spiral. He swallows hard, and his voice sounds thick to his own ears when he says, “It’s . . . Of course. There wasn’t any other option.”
“Well, you could have left him there. Waited for the people on duty to help.”
It’s an outrageous statement that lands wrongly in his ears, no matter which way he turns it. “I just didn’t consider anything else.”
Helena studies him for another few beats, seeming to weigh something in her mind, before she clicks her tongue and looks back into the night. “Ramon didn’t ask Eddie to be his medical power of attorney. I told Ramon it had to be him, because I didn’t want to do it.”
Buck almost chokes on his tea, but he passes it off as a cough and sets it aside. “What?”
“It’s something about seeing the love of your life in that position, powerless, and you can’t do anything but watch. If there was a decision to be made, I would do everything to keep him here, with me.”
Just . . . Just stay with me, okay?
“Even if he begged me to let him go, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I would want him to hang on.”
I need you to hang on.
“Don’t tell Eddie,” she continues, twisting the wedding band around her finger.
“Why are you telling me ?”
“I figured you might be able to understand a little of where I’m coming from. Eddie needs to go see his father, but he won’t hear it from me.”
“Nobody can make Eddie do anything.”
She smiles, and he has no idea what to do with a smile from Helena Diaz directed at him. “Eddie is a lot like his father in that way, whether he likes it or not. But Ramon will listen to me, when he doesn’t listen to anybody else.”
“You should talk to Eddie about this.”
She laughs, but it’s a clipped, humorless noise. “There are some things I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fix, between me and Eddie. We’ll never see eye to eye on a lot of things. I’ll never understand why he chooses to stay in LA. Well,” she looks at him again, less hostile, more curious, “I guess I see now what keeps him from leaving.”
His cheeks burn, and headlights turning onto the street catch his attention. It’s Eddie’s truck, slowing down to park along the curb. Helena heaves a deep sigh, collecting her cup.
“‘The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.’ Victor Hugo." She pushes to her feet. "That was in my wedding vow.” She brushes her fingers against Buck’s shoulder on her way inside. He only vaguely registers the front door closing, because Eddie is walking up to him fiddling with his car keys and frowning at the spot his mom had just vacated, and Buck’s heart is threatening an evac mission out of his chest.
“Hey,” Eddie starts, eyes fixed over Buck’s shoulder. “Was that my mom?”
“It was, yeah.”
“Do I want to know?”
He shrugs, and Eddie is close enough, now, that Buck has to crane his neck back to see his face. “Are you okay?”
Eddie drags his thumb along the serrated edge of his house key, worrying the corner of his lip. “I’m gonna go check on Christopher.”
But Eddie brushes by him before he can respond and disappears into the house. Buck finishes his tea. It’s weird, objectively, his being in El Paso. But it’s weird in some other way, too, in the feeling of isolation. A pocket of space separate from the reality waiting for him back in LA. A reality where he jerks awake in the middle of the night with the weight of Eddie’s body in his arms, where he walks around and pretends like Eddie and Christopher don’t occupy the entire space in his chest, where everything is ignored and shoved down and pushed aside.
It’s definitely something about childhood homes, he thinks. Everything is too visceral and real and raw.
No place to pretend.
Once the cup is empty, he stands, feeling more and more the present crack of his knees as he walks through the door, sliding the lock into place as he goes. He washes the cup, puts it in the dish rack. And then because he’s an entity of nervous energy, he works his way through the rest of the dishes in the sink. Footsteps sound behind him, a short distance away, but then pad closer.
“He’s out like a light,” Eddie mutters, propping his hip against the counter, within reaching distance.
Buck nods, hoping he looks more put together on the outside than he feels. “Yeah, it’s been a long week for him.”
“For you, too.” He chances a look, hands curled around the stainless steel edge of the sink basin.
“Buck,” Eddie warns, already pulling away, and Buck lets him escape, even if every nerve ending in his body is screaming at him to touch, to take, to drag him back in. Eddie’s hands are balled into fists and digging into his forehead.
“You gotta let me in, man,” Buck pleads, stepping closer, until there’s only a negligible distance between their chests, space that is merely a formality, because all it would take is one breath, a half a step, a slight hinge at the hips . . .
“Just give me a second, Buck.”
“No. I’m sorry, but no.” He circles his fingers around Eddie’s wrists, holding them still, and their eyes connect. “I’m right here, Ed. I love you. Just talk to me. Please. Please .”
Eddie huffs, turns his head to look away, eyes flitting around the room for anything safer than Buck, than what Buck is asking for. But Buck recalls a moment similar to this, after a tsunami, standing in the delicate sunlight of his apartment, where Eddie refused to let him look away as he pressed his entire world into Buck’s hands.
How could Buck let him look away, now?
The space suddenly becomes a chasm, feels like an impossible distance that he needs to cross now , no matter what, and so he rocks forward and presses his forehead into Eddie’s, hard .
“You need to let me in,” he whispers, and his throat is tight, his eyes burn. “I don’t care what the load looks like, I don’t care how heavy it is, just give me some of it. Let me carry it with you. It’s why I’m here.”
The breath that unlatches from Eddie’s lungs is even and warm skating across Buck’s face. He’s all shivery, trembling beneath Buck’s touch when he coasts a hand up his arms, to his neck. “You’re always here,” Eddie replies.
“Not always,” Buck answers ruefully, remembering the messy period around the lawsuit. “But I am, now. I’m right here. I’ve been right here.”
All they do for a moment is breathe, cycling each other’s oxygen. Eddie’s fingers move incrementally, at first, all uncertainty and hesitation, ghosting across Buck’s biceps, over his shoulder, fingering the ragged collar of his T-shirt. And then a little more sure trailing around his neck, raising goosebumps, more confident, wrapping his knuckles in the hair at the nape of Buck’s neck.
“I can’t do it,” he croaks, a confession that sounds like broken glass dug up from his chest.
“Can’t do what?”
”I can’t . . . I’m shit at it. No matter what I do, I can’t do it right.”
“Do what , Eddie?”
Another breath, his fingers tightening around the strands so tightly Buck feels the pull against his scalp. “Love somebody.”
They’re close, but they’re not close enough, and Buck truthfully thinks he could climb inside Eddie’s skin and make a home there and he would still want to get closer. But he settles for another step, pressing them together shoulder to knee, bracketing one of Eddie’s feet with both of his. He traces an invisible line against the thin skin of Eddie’s cheekbone with the tip of his nose.
“Every time I come back here, I’m reminded of it. I couldn’t do it right with Shannon, and she left. I failed Christopher. I failed my mom. I can’t even go see my Dad, and he’s in the fucking hospital. I was too afraid to ask you for more, and so I tried to make it work with Ana, and I couldn’t even do that. There’s something seriously wrong with me, Buck. Why can’t I do it right?”
“Eddie.” Buck grazes his lips over Eddie’s ear, so he can hear the words, so he can’t mistake them or misinterpret them for anything else. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken.”
He hiccups a dry laugh. “Ask anybody. I’m a little broken.”
“Yeah, well, so am I.” And because he’s weak and it’s late and he can’t fucking resist, he tugs on Eddie’s earlobe with his teeth. The touch is gentle but Eddie shivers, his breath hitches, he tugs on Buck’s hair as a reflex. “We can be a disaster together.”
“Buck.” Another hand wraps into the T-shirt at his hip, decides it isn’t enough, and slips underneath to settle against the warm skin of Buck’s stomach.
“It’s okay, Eddie. I got your back, remember?”
And then Eddie’s hand moves from Buck’s hair to Buck’s jaw, forcing his head up so Eddie can slant their mouths together. There’s no preamble to it. It’s immediately deep, tongues sliding side by side, teeth in the way, the unfamiliar drag of stubble. Eddie makes a small, involuntary whimper that Buck immediately swallows, and he chases after the sound again, needing it more than oxygen, more than anything.
Eddie’s fingers press insistently into the flushed skin of Buck’s back, tracing the knobs of each vertebrae in his lower spine. He’s almost thirty-fucking-one and he feels like a teenager again, blue-screening every time Eddie sucks his lower lip, or rocks his hips up, or accidentally bumps their knees together in a futile bid to get closer.
He feels everything, all of it, everywhere.
In fact, he is intensely considering the technicalities of getting Eddie as naked as possible and desecrating Helena’s kitchen table, when he registers footsteps a second too late and then a brighter light is flicked on.
“Edmundo, are you—oh.”
They don’t separate as quickly as they probably should. The touch lingers, their lips stick together for a second as they pull away, just as unwilling to separate. Buck doesn’t have a mirror but he probably resembles the picture Eddie makes in front of him, lips red and swollen, tears leaking down his cheeks, eyes hooded and dark. He looks wrecked, and Buck did that to him. Buck did that to him.
“Sorry, I didn’t . . . I was just checking to make sure you got in alright, Edmundo.”
“He’s fine,” Buck answers, because Eddie looks to be blue-screening a bit himself.
Helena takes half a beat to take the hint but flicks the light off and leaves them alone. Buck tightens his grip into Eddie’s sweatshirt. Eddie’s hands cup his face.
“Bet you never thought you’d be thirty-five and still getting caught by your mom making out with someone in the kitchen,” Buck teases. “And with a guy, no less.”
Eddie tries for a laugh, but it gets stuck in his throat along the way. “It’s because I know you,” he says instead, causing Buck’s brows to furrow in confusion.
“Why I made you Christopher’s legal guardian,” he clarifies. “Because I know you, in the way it feels like I know myself, so of course you would love him like me. You do love him like me. Every day.”
Buck laughs, and he’s shocked to hear the thick wetness behind it. “Well he’s my favorite Diaz, so.”
Eddie’s mouth lifts in a cock-sure half-smile, but it’s softer around the edges, a little awed. “You’re my favorite Buckley,” he murmurs, rubbing the pad of his thumb over Buck’s birthmark.
“Oof. Don’t let Maddie hear you say that.”
“I think she’d understand.”
“Uh-huh.” Buck presses forward, wrapping his arms low around Eddie, tucking his face into the crook of his neck. Eddie’s arms reciprocate, and they rock side to side. “Christopher asked me today if we were fighting.”
“I told him that sometimes people fight for good reasons, and I think his head rolled off his shoulders.”
Buck feels the low rumble of Eddie’s laughter vibrate through his body. “To be fair, he’s pulling from experience.” His voice turns bitter at the end, self-effacing. “I can’t make it so he doesn’t remember what already happened. But I just . . . I don’t want that for him, in the future. I don’t want that for him with us.”
The words shoot a little thrill down Buck’s spine. “Edmundo Diaz, are you asking me to go steady?”
“You are so incredibly annoying.” He pulls his head back, and his eyes are dark and glittery in the low light of the kitchen, but the inklings of joy spread over his face is the first authentically happy he’s seen him since they arrived. “But, yes. I’m asking. Although, it kind of feels redundant.”
“Yeah, like, you already have a toothbrush at my place, and one of your favorite sweatshirts, and you rearranged my entire kitchen that one time you were concussed and had nothing to do—”
“It was in sanity , Eddie, the ladles were nowhere near the stove—”
“—and we’ve been dating a little bit this entire time, if I’m being honest,” he finishes, slapping a hand over Buck’s mouth. Buck feels all the unnamable emotions building up in his system reflected back at him through Eddie’s eyes.
He feels stupid and childish and giddy, and so he licks Eddie’s palm, and the other man yanks his hand back as his face screws up in disgust. “Are you gonna be like this from now on? Extra infuriating?’
“ Infuriating ? Here we go again with the character assasination.”
Eddie’s eyes drop to his mouth, and then he’s rocking forward again, and the kiss this time is softer, and it’s only the second, but it feels like the hundredth, it feels like something he’s been waiting to find his whole life.
“Hey,” Eddie whispers when they pull apart, close enough he feels the brush of his lips.
“I love you, too.” Fingers curl tighter in Buck’s hair, just on the edge of desperate. “Please don’t leave.”
Buck turns his head and kisses the inside of Eddie’s wrist. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Eddie announces at breakfast the next morning that he’s going to see his dad before they head back to LA, and Buck ignores the knowing smirk Helena shoots his way. He’s still not used to anything that isn’t outright hostility from her.
Buck slides in behind the driver’s seat and he chauffeurs Eddie and Chris to the hospital. When they’re standing in the elevator en route to the inpatient unit, Buck tangles his fingers through Eddie’s and offers a reassuring squeeze.
“I don’t know what to say,” Eddie admits, running the other hand through his hair.
“You don’t have to say anything. Just stare at him, if that’s all you can do.”
Eddie laughs, and Christopher pins a funny look up at Buck. “That would be weird , Buck.”
Buck shrugs. “Well, what if he just doesn't have anything to say?”
Chris doesn’t seem to comprehend this thought fully. “I always have something to say.”
“That is because you are a landfill of encyclopedic knowledge,” Eddie cuts in, but the expression on his face is less tenuous, and Buck counts it as a win.
“He gets it from me,” Buck points out, mostly joking, but Eddie looks at him all sincerity and adoration.
“I know,” he replies. “I’m glad.”
Buck’s blushing when the elevator doors open and they step out.
After a short pep talk, Eddie disentangles himself from Buck and disappears into the room where his father is laid up. Buck takes Christopher through the halls, begs some stickers off a nurse, and they land in the waiting area ornamenting Buck’s arms with the sheet of stickers until there's barely any visible skin from his wrist to his elbow.
Eddie finds them like that, around twenty minutes later, a few more invisible anvils tied to his limbs.
“That’s a good look for you,” he says, nodding to Buck’s arm. Buck searches his face, and Eddie nods, communicating in the way they always do, have always been able to do, since they started working the job together.
“Okay.” He pushes himself out of the chair. “Who’s feeling like ice cream?”
Christopher cheers and ambles ahead on his crutches. Eddie leans into Buck’s side with intention as they follow behind, and they don’t talk about it yet, he’ll ask later, but for now he gratefully picks up some of the load that Eddie offers, and he carries it with him.
They’re packed and heading to the truck three hours later than they intended, but Adriana and Sophia wanted to say their goodbyes, and then it was one thing after another, and time marched on regardless.
“Come see me again soon, Christopher,” Helena says, squeezing her grandson in a tight embrace.
“ Okay , Grandma, you’re killing me.”
She presses another kiss to his forehead before letting him go. Buck opens the back door for Christopher, who sighs loudly.
“Great, another five days in the car.”
“Christopher Diaz, stop being dramatic and get in.”
“My butt is going to fall asleep again.”
“Then I guess we’ll just have to stop somewhere and pick up some candy.”
His eyes brighten behind his glasses. “Promise?”
“Just don’t tell your dad.”
Christopher climbs in and gets situated, already pulling out his tablet and headphones. Buck shuts the door and leans against the passenger side, arms folded, watching Eddie confront his Mom. He already has the keys pulled out, clenched in a tight fist. He’s nodded, and she’s saying things, and his eyes are fixed on the ground. Buck thinks about his own parents, of course, how could he not? About relationships that should be fixed, relationships that can’t be fixed, relationships that were never built to prosper in the first place. He doesn’t know if Eddie wants to build a different bridge with his parents, or if he wants to leave the existing one broken and under construction forever, but that’s another conversation, he supposes. A conversation they get to have together.
Helena walks Eddie to the truck. Eddie ghosts a kiss across her cheek before sliding behind the wheel and turning the engine over. His eyes are tight and sad, his jaw set. Buck moves to get in, but a hand on his forearm stops him.
He looks at Eddie’s mom. “Yeah?”
“I’m sorry for the way I acted.”
He blinks. “Um . . . thanks?”
“It’s been tough around here, but that’s no excuse.” She heaves a deep breath. “You’re clearly very important to Eddie and Chistopher. I’ll do better, in the future.”
Buck shrugs, curling his hand around the handle of the car door. “I don’t think I’m the one that needs to hear that, Mrs. Diaz.”
Her eyes flicker to Eddie through the window. “I think I’m too late.”
“You still have to try.”
She chews on the corner of her lips, another action that is so devastatingly Eddie it’s jarring. “Take care of them, okay?”
“I always do.”
Helena waves them off until they’re around the corner and out of site. The car is silent for the first leg of the trip, until they hit a snag of traffic and night has fallen, and Christopher is zonked out against the window. The moment feels safe, so Buck reaches over like he’s wanted to do so many times before and wraps his hand around Eddie’s thigh. Eddie responds instantly, repositioning their hands so they’re palm against palm, fingers locking together.
“You know everything,” Eddie says, eyes boring through the windshield. “You know basically everything about me. All the screwed up stuff. All the bullshit.” And then he turns, looks right at Buck. “What if we get back to LA and I screw it all up again?”
Buck presses his temple against his headrest, eyes tracing lazy lines over Eddie’s face. “I am loving this vote of confidence for our relationship, Ed.”
“I’m serious, Buck.”
“I know. Don’t worry.”
“How can you not ?”
“Because it’s your life , Eddie. Good or bad, it brought you to this moment, to me. I don’t want you to hate that part of yourself.”
Eddie swallows hard, hand tightening around Buck’s. “I’m going to try.”
“Good. I love you despite all of it, Eddie.” He traces gentle fingers under his chin. “I love you because of it.”
He doesn’t look completely convinced, but Eddie nods, and his shoulders settle, and the steady line of cars starts moving again, so he turns back around and eases on the gas. “I love you too, Buck.”
“And just think, next time, you can come with me to Pennsylvania and watch me have a breakdown with my parents.”
Eddie laughs. “Is that a threat or a promise?”
“Promise. Always a promise.”
“Fine. Together, then.”
Buck smiles, drawing their clasped hands together in his lap.