Pull Me from the Dark – 1/4 – Jilly James

Title: Pull Me from the Dark
Series: So Far
Series Order: 1
Author: Jilly James
Fandom: 9-1-1, 9-1-1: Lone Star
Genre: Crossover, Drama, Episode Related, Family, Slash
Relationship(s): Evan Buckley/Eddie Diaz, TK Strand/Carlos Reyes, Grace Ryder/Judd Ryder, Other Canon Pairings, Buck/OC, Eddie/OC
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: COVID, Explicit Sex, Canon-level violence and situations, Discussion-homophobia
Author Notes: There are a handful of short lines (10?) from Buck Begins. Canon compliant through Buck Begins, divergent for both shows after that point. Hover over Spanish phrases for translation.
Beta: desertpoet, alpha by herselight and Starlitenite
Word Count: 89,170
Summary: After Evan Buckley finds out the truth about his birth—that he was conceived for the sole purpose of saving his brother’s life—he decides to give himself time and space to come to terms with the secrets his family has kept from him for twenty-nine years. In Austin, Buck finds the support he needs to gain perspective on his life and relationships. Most notably, his relationship with his best friend.
Artist: Halestrom



Chapter One

Buck sat in front of the firehouse, turning his phone over in his hands, waiting for it to ring. He was a half an hour early for his shift, but he’d texted Bobby that he’d be a half an hour late due to a doctor’s appointment.

The words from his conversation with Maddie last night kept rolling around in his head on repeat. He’d had a brother, and no one thought he deserved to know. Maddie had known since she was nine, and chose not to tell him.

His head had been a minefield all night long, and he’d texted his therapist that things had not gone well with his parents and he could use an earlier appointment this week if she had availability. She’d replied that she’d make time for him this morning at 7:30.

The phone finally rang and he answered. “Hi, Dr. Copeland.”

Good morning, Buck. Did you want to switch to FaceTime?” They usually used her Zoom account, but this was a one-off scheduled at the last minute.

“No, I’m in my car in front of the station. Phone only, if that’s okay.”

Okay. Why don’t you tell me what happened at the dinner with your parents?”

“The dinner wasn’t great.” The dinner wasn’t even the issue anymore, and it was a couple of days past, so it wasn’t the reason he’d asked for an emergency session. He figured she was easing him into the real reason for the call.

Was it as bad as you’d feared it would be?” She’d been working with him on what she called catastrophizing possible outcomes in his head and then getting unnecessarily worked up.

“I think it was worse, but it wasn’t really surprising.” He blew out a breath. “They had this baby box thing for Maddie, full of her baby items and pictures and stuff from when she was little. I asked about maybe getting mine…”

When he didn’t say anything for several beats, she prompted, “What did they say?”

“They didn’t really say anything right away, but the looks on their faces allowed me to figure it out. They never made one. I confronted it immediately because it seemed like evidence of the whole them not caring about me thing.”

And how did that go?”

“It was…ugly. I brought up how they didn’t visit during my lengthy hospital stay after the bombing and then again after the embolisms. They never even called, but in their minds that was okay because Maddie was filling them in. Mom got all weepy and acted like it was too difficult for her to see me hurt, and she just couldn’t put herself in that sort of situation.

“I don’t even remember how it devolved from there, but I asked her why she couldn’t just love me, and she said I always made everything difficult.”

I can understand why you’d be upset. That was a few nights ago. How are you processing that now?”

“The dinner doesn’t even matter much anymore. The thing that upset me the most that night, honestly, was that Maddie decided to break my confidence and tell my parents that I’m in therapy.”

Did you confront Maddie about it?”

“Not right away. I went to talk to her about it later, but we never resolved that issue. The conversation went somewhere else.”

“I can tell by the tone of your voice that the somewhere else wasn’t good. What happened?”

“I found out that I had an older brother. Mom and Dad swore Maddie to secrecy after his death, made her promise not to tell me about him. His name was Daniel.”

Why did your parents feel that Daniel’s existence needed to be kept from you?”

“Daniel had some type of leukemia. They couldn’t find a good match for a bone marrow transplant, so they…made me. The baby they didn’t want.”

Made you?” she repeated. “You’re a—”

“Spare parts baby?” he interjected. “Yeah.”

No, Buck. That’s not what I was going to say.”

“But that’s what it is, right? Maddie called it savior sibling, but it’s spare parts. That’s why they never treated me like their kid. They never wanted me. They had me for a purpose, using in-vitro to ensure an HLA match to Daniel, and then the transplant failed and he died. They moved right after to escape the criticism of their neighbors. I guess their friends and even the medical staff were really judgmental about the way they’d gone about having me.”

It’s a matter of ethical debate even still today. Savior siblings aren’t an easy subject even when the child in question is loved and valued, which it sounds like is in question with your parents. You’re twenty-nine, so I think you’d be one of the earliest cases in the United States. Tell me what you’re thinking about this revelation from Maddie.”

“I think it explains a lot. Why they were never interested in me and why it’s so easy for them to just forget I exist. They claim to love me, but that’s… I dunno. I think it’s expected of them to say that? It’s like they have to. Can people pretend to love a kid because it’s what they’re supposed to do?”

Certainly. People feign emotions because of societal or familial expectations all the time. I can’t say that’s the case with your parents, but it’s possible. They could simply have been so lost in their grief for one child that they forgot the others. It’s not acceptable, by any measure, but it’s simply an alternate explanation.”

“So… They’re selfish rather than I’m not worth their time?” Buck supplied.

Bluntly put, but yes.”

“Maddie wants this whole family healing thing and then we all pretend the past never happened.”

Pretending the past didn’t happen is never the healthy approach, but is the renewed family bond what you want?”

He blew out a breath. “No, I don’t. I don’t want to pretend like they ever acted like they loved me. They say it now, but whenever I question the things they did, they say it was my fault. That eight-year-old me was the reason why they weren’t around or didn’t pay attention or didn’t save a single report card.”

We’ve talked about gaslighting, and I know you were having a hard time wrapping your head around it, but this is a perfect example. Your parents trying to make you at fault for their parenting failures.”

“Okay, I can see what you mean. Though having a term for it doesn’t really mean much, and it doesn’t help me know what to do now.”

Well, I think it’s important to frame what your parents are doing as a form of abuse.

He flinched. “I— okay. That’s a lot to absorb.”

All right, Buck. Other than that, there are two main issues in terms of your family. Your parents and then Maddie. Your parents might be easier of the two because you’re so accustomed to being without them.

“You know, there was this dreadful radio therapist in the 80s, and I won’t mention her name because there’s no need to clutter up your mind with terrible people, but there was one thing I heard her say that really stuck with me. She had a caller one day talking about something her parents had done, and this therapist said the parents had torn up their parent card.

It’s impossible to know the absolute truth of why your parents acted in the way they have, but the motive becomes less important when looked at in the light of do they have the right to consider themselves parents? Did they fulfill the basic duties of a parent? And I don’t mean putting food on the table and a roof over your head. If your parents had a card that said ‘we’re Evan Buckley’s parents’ at the moment of your birth, is that card still intact or have they torn it up?”

“How do I know?”

What does your heart say?”

“I think they tore it up before I was even old enough to know they didn’t love me. And it’s not even the spare parts baby thing.”

Buck, please don’t call yourself that.”

“It’s true though. If Daniel had lived, would I be expected to be on tap if he needed bone marrow again? What about if he needed a kidney or part of my liver? Would I even get a say?”

It could be argued that even in the closest and most functional of families that such things happen sometimes. Someone gets sick and the rest of the family steps up in whatever way they can.”

“Yeah, but not everyone is designed to be someone’s personal NAPA Auto Parts store.”

Buck.”

“I don’t want to argue about that part of it.”

Okay. We need to revisit this because I can tell it hurts you, but we’ll let it go for now. So, you feel your parents have torn up their parent card?”

“Yes.” That part resonated with him. They’d checked out completely on any obligation to him other than financial.

Then think of it as the onus being on them to earn a place in your life. They have no right to you, and they don’t have a right to demand that you forget your childhood so that they can pretend to have a happy family now.”

“I just don’t want to see them.”

Then don’t. You’re allowed to make those choices for yourself and expect those around you to honor them.”

“But Maddie wants this big happy family.”

Even if you see your parents for Maddie’s sake, the big happy family is a lie. It’s an illusion at best. You don’t need to sacrifice your mental and emotional health to make Maddie happy. Remember our conversation about boundaries?”

“Yes.”

Sacrificing your own mental health for her wants is an example of poor or no boundaries. Maddie cannot make you responsible for her familial dreams. Tell me why you have to be present for this family dream she has? Why can’t it just be her, her lover, their baby, and her parents?”

“I think because Maddie wants someone at her back. Someone who understands.”

So, to put it another way, your sister is inviting people into her life that she doesn’t feel safe with, and she wants you there to be her emotional prop?”

“That sounds kinda harsh.”

But is it fair based on your perception?”

“I guess so.”

Tell me a bit more about Maddie’s relationship with your parents.”

Buck sighed, thinking back to when Maddie had gotten together with Doug. “One thing that sticks out to me… My parents hated Doug from the beginning. We all hated him.”

For good reason. You were all picking up on the abusive and controlling aspects of his personality early on.”

“I suppose. He isolated her pretty quickly, and we stopped seeing her very much as soon as they got together.”

Which is a common tactic for an abuser.”

“But Maddie hated to let Mom be right about anything. I already told you about how I left Pennsylvania…”

You were miserable at school and wanted to leave, so Maddie gave you her Jeep and some cash. I remember.”

He always thought it was amazing how much of what he said Dr. Copeland managed to recall. “I never told you this part, but I knew Maddie wasn’t happy with Doug. I begged her to come with me.”

Actually, you did tell me that part—that she agreed to come with you and then backed out at the last minute, saying goodbye in a note.”

“The part I didn’t mention was the bit in the middle. Where she admitted she was miserable in her marriage but didn’t want to leave Doug because she didn’t want Mom to be right.”

There was silence for several seconds. “I’m a little speechless here, Buck. That implies a very toxic relationship between your sister and your mother. You’re saying that Maddie desperately clung to an abusive marriage so your mother couldn’t lord it over her that she was right about Doug’s character?”

“I mean, yeah. Pretty much.”

It’s difficult to truly understand a relationship I’m hearing about thirdhand, but I can’t think of any interpretation of those events that’s not deeply problematic.”

“I know. I feel it, but I can’t articulate why I’m so bothered.”

It sounds like your sister is desperate to have you as protection against your parents. That could be why she’s pushed so hard for you to be involved in this family reunification that she’s designed, why she wants you to believe the narrative that she’s crafted for herself. There’s nothing wrong with you saying you don’t want to be involved, that you don’t want to see them. If she can’t support that, then I’d say she needs to consider spending some time with her own therapist again. Her boundaries are unhealthy, Buck, but I think you already know that.”

He fiddled with the seam of his cargos. “Yeah, I do. I just don’t like to see Maddie sad even if I’m really angry with her right now.”

Have you told anyone about the situation?”

“No. Chim knows because Maddie told him and swore him to secrecy.” Buck shook his head. “Everyone is sworn to secrecy not to tell me something that’s about me.”

You didn’t tell Eddie?”

“No…” Buck frowned. “I don’t think Eddie gets my family dynamic. His family yells and then gets over it. Mostly. I know there are some things that cut deep, but it’s just not the same.”

Have you explained it to him?”

“I’m not real great at that kind of thing.”

We’ve talked a lot about you starting to express your real feelings rather than hiding yourself from those closest to you.”

Buck turned the phone around in his hands. “I planned to tell everyone about this today, because Chim knows and I know, so it’s out there, yeah?”

That’s true, but it sounds like you have reservations.”

“I just don’t want it to be a joke.”

You think they’d joke about something so serious and painful?”

“I don’t know. I’d like to think they wouldn’t, but all last night, when I was thinking about calling Eddie, for some reason I kept thinking about Abby.”

That’s an interesting association.”

“I thought about how everyone kept joking about Abby being my invisible girlfriend when Eddie joined and how he learned about her through everyone else’s teasing and talking about how we were broken up months before I would admit it.” Buck sighed. “I know it’s not the same thing.”

It’s actually a reasonable connection for you to make. Your breakup with Abby, especially the way it happened, was very painful for you. Your team, your work family, taking it so lightly made that pain more profound.”

“But I never told them the teasing bothered me.”

And that’s where communication comes in. That’s why you need to work on expressing when you don’t like something. People will say terrible things, and when you fail to find it funny, they’ll fault you because you ‘can’t take a joke,’ but I always tell my patients that it’s not a joke if the person the joke is about isn’t laughing.”

“I suppose.” He wasn’t sure what to do with this. “Maybe, when it comes to opening up, what I should start with is that stuff. Little things about the teasing. Not going all in with ‘I’m a spare parts baby, please don’t make fun of it.’”

I’m going to say this every time you use that awful phrase: you are not spare parts, Evan Buckley. That said, what you suggested is a valid path to start with in regards to setting expectations about how you’d like to be treated by those closest to you, and then wait to see how they respond before you reveal something intimate if that helps you feel safer.”

He blew out a breath and adjusted his position, kind of hating this conversation, but feeling better for having it. “Okay. I guess I’ll go with my gut and see what happens.”

Let’s talk some more about Maddie. I think boundary setting with your sister is going to be your biggest hurdle in the near term and the most vital.”

“It’s so difficult with her, Doc.”

I know, you two are very close.” She hesitated. “This is a terrible expression to use with a firefighter, but it fits so well. You can’t set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.”

He flinched. “Doc.”

You can’t, kiddo. You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Sacrificing your own well-being to prop up someone else will burn you out. Now, buckle up; it’s time to talk about boundaries.”

He gave a faint laugh. “I really hate this.”

I don’t have a single patient who needs this discussion who actually looks forward to it.”

“Yeah, all right.”

You’ve got your notebook?”

He reached over to the passenger seat. “All set.”

Let’s get to work.”

The rest of their session was full of talk about how to approach taking care of himself, and Dr. Copeland wanted them to keep their already scheduled appointment for tomorrow afternoon. Buck didn’t know when he’d be ready to talk to Maddie again, so he figured he could use all the prep with his shrink that he could get.

When he hung up, he realized he’d been so absorbed in the call, he hadn’t noticed Bobby leaning against the building by Buck’s Jeep.

Frowning, Buck tucked his phone into the pocket of his pants and climbed out. “Something wrong?”

“Thought you had a doctor’s appointment?” Bobby’s tone was mild, and he didn’t seem angry, but Buck bristled anyway.

“It’s 2021, Bobby. This is how doctor’s appointments happen. On the freakin’ phone. Do you want a note because I needed thirty minutes?”

Bobby looked taken aback and held up his hands. “Sorry, Buck. I didn’t consider that you were out here talking to your doctor.”

“Therapist, actually. Though she is a doctor.”

Bobby blinked a few times. “Everything okay?”

Buck slammed the Jeep door. “I need to get changed.”

“Buck.”

“I’m late, as you’ve pointed out. I’ll be ready to work in five.”

“Buck!” Bobby called in a commanding tone, the kind of tone Buck couldn’t ignore from his captain. He halted in his tracks and waited for Bobby to catch up to him. “It’s fine that you took the thirty. I didn’t ask if you were okay because of the job; I asked because I care if you’re all right.”

Buck didn’t know how to handle that. He felt wrong and off-balance, and the call with Dr. Copeland seemed to expose more of how off he felt. “I’m not okay,” he admitted, not looking at Bobby. “But it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to affect my work. So, can we let it go?”

Bobby was quiet for several seconds. “I’m worried about you.”

Buck finally looked over. “Why?”

Bobby looked startled. “Because I care about you, Buck.”

“I can’t do this right now, Bobby.” He had the epiphany that he didn’t feel safe with the tough love kind of caring at the firehouse. Not over this. He decided he wouldn’t be telling them about Daniel, not yet anyway.

“Okay. I’m sorry things are so rough right now, kid. If you need to talk, my door’s always open.”

Buck nodded. “Thanks, Cap.”

Bobby clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing gently, then headed back inside, Buck following. Eddie was up in the loft and caught Buck’s eye as he entered. His look seemed to convey curiosity and concern. Eddie had been the one to encourage him to go to Maddie’s last night and sort things out. Buck just shook his head.

He went into the locker room, which was already deserted from B-shift. The rest of A-shift were already dressed and ready to work except for Buck.

He was just pulling on his uniform shirt, the last step in getting dressed for him, when Chim came in. The guy looked miserable. About as miserable as Buck felt. “Can we talk?”

“No,” Buck said emphatically. “Not now.”

“Buck, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“I get it, Chim, Maddie put you in a tough spot. She does that.” He felt a deep well of bitterness. “But, I don’t want to talk about this right now. And certainly not here.”

“You need to call Maddie.”

“I will call Maddie when I’m ready,” Buck bit out, moving around Chimney.

“Are you going to tell anyone?” Chimney called after him.

“Not today.”

Buck jogged upstairs to get some coffee and find out what his assignments for the day were. He wasn’t surprised that Eddie was lurking in the kitchen, waiting for him.

Buck went about making his coffee, aware that Eddie was watching him.

“You okay?” Eddie eventually asked.

Bracing his hands on the counter, Buck blew out a breath and shook his head. “Not even a little.”

“Something else happened?”

Buck nodded. “But I can’t talk about it now.”

“Buck.”

“Eddie, please.” He glanced over and met his best friend’s gaze. He wanted to tell Eddie, but he just couldn’t deal if Eddie didn’t take it seriously. He couldn’t take it if this thing that was tearing him up inside was just a joke.

“Okay. When you’re ready.”

– – – –

Buck was spaced out polishing the truck when Maddie decided to make an appearance at the station. Dr. Copeland’s comments about boundaries began rattling around in his head. It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since Buck had found out about Daniel but Maddie couldn’t give him space for a damn day to sort himself out?

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay. ‘Cause you’re not answering my calls.”

He shook his head and tried to walk away.

“Please just give me a chance to—”

“Twenty-nine years,” he said as he pivoted. “Why is it now suddenly such an emergency?”

“Because you won’t talk to me. And you’re here, working, and you probably shouldn’t be.”

Buck was instantly furious. She had no right. “No, you don’t get to take that away from me too.”

“I wasn’t trying—”

“We were supposed to be a team,” he bit out. “Us versus them. That’s what we always said. But it turns out it was the three of you against me the whole time. And, now, you’re not here for me, you’re here to make yourself feel better.”

The alarm rang, saving him from having to deal with Maddie’s tears, which he felt instantly guilty for, and Buck got into action like the rest of his team. He ran for the truck, grateful to be away from Maddie right now.

Bobby called out that it was a major fire at a perfume factory with multiple stations responding. The 118 was supplemental and not the primary at the scene, and it was obviously going to be a hell of a fire. A difficult call wasn’t what he wanted, exactly, but having something to focus on completely outside himself, something difficult to get him out of his head, was welcome.

He was also tired of the looks from everyone on A-shift who were closest to him: Cap, Eddie, Chim, and Hen. Even Marcus DeKay, who drove the ladder truck most of the time for Bobby’s squad on A-shift, was giving him concerned looks. It was driving him nuts.

He climbed into the truck and the idea began to form that he might need to take some time off. A vacation to get away and figure things out. He loved Maddie, like no other person in the world, but he couldn’t stop trying to take care of her or feeling guilty when he stepped back. He was drowning in taking care of Maddie right now, and he didn’t want to lose himself to make her feel better.

Dr. Copeland’s saying about not setting himself on fire to keep other people warm popped into his head. He blew out a heavy breath and resolved to take care of himself first this time. Maddie had a much bigger support network than Buck did these days.

– – – –

The fire was a disaster, and Buck nearly got himself killed. Not because he couldn’t have gotten out but because he couldn’t bear to leave a man behind. It felt like such a failure that Saleh was trapped and Buck alone wasn’t enough to save him.

Buck had stayed, long past the point when he should have left, past the evacuation order, because he didn’t want to fail yet another person. He’d given up his mask and his oxygen to Saleh to try to give him a little more time while Buck figured out how to get them out.

In the end, it was his team that pulled them out because Buck wasn’t enough on his own to get the job done. They lifted the vat off of Saleh and hauled both of them out of that factory. Saleh had serious injuries, and Buck practically collapsed from exhaustion and the decision to give up his mask.

Now, Buck was suffering from smoke inhalation and feeling more lost than he ever had in his life. Being literally lost in that fire felt emblematic of his life.

Bobby assured him that no one was surprised he’d stayed in there to get the last victim.

“If you guys hadn’t come in…” Buck trailed off. He’d have died. Saleh would have died.

“But we did,” Hen assured. “And we always will.” It stupidly made him almost cry because he’d had this moment of doubt recently when he was in Texas fighting a wildfire where he wasn’t sure if they would. He really, really needed to get his head on straight if he was harboring secret doubts that his team would do everything in their power to come for him in a situation like this.

Athena’s voice carried to them. “They said it was a big one. They weren’t kidding.”

Bobby smiled at her, the way he always did, completely besotted. He tipped his head in Buck’s direction. “Firefighter Buckley here pulled out the very last victim.”

“Of course he did,” Athena said.

“Yeah,” Buck agreed, “then everyone else had to pull me out.”

“Well, I’m sure whoever you saved is just glad you were being Buck.”

“I don’t even know what that means.” What did it mean? Buck was just the name he’d picked because there were three Evans in his class at the academy. It was too new in his own life to mean anything.

“You never give up,” Athena said in a matter-of-fact tone. “That’s what being Buck means to me. But whatever you do, don’t stop.”

He felt a little like his heart was breaking, and he wasn’t sure how to respond. It was obvious everyone was flailing about in the dark considering that he hadn’t explained what was going on, but they were all trying to be supportive.

He was aware of Eddie keeping his distance, watching Buck with a worried expression.

“I’ve called Dr. Summers. He’s going to get you in for an X-Ray and evaluation before the clinic opens,” Bobby said from where he was standing at the rear of the ambulance watching Buck get oxygen.

“Thanks.” With COVID-19 cases spiking again in Los Angeles, they were back to not going to the ER. It was too time consuming and too risky even though all firefighters and paramedics in LA County had already been vaccinated. One of the local doctors handled most things Chim and Hen couldn’t manage for their shift. Hen did a fair bit of consultation with the ER attending at Mercy to get authorization for emergency medicine outside of her usual scope whenever they’d gotten injured over the last eleven months. Anything to keep from going to the ER. Aside from the risk of COVID exposure, the wait times were atrocious. If more than one person was suffering from minor injuries, it could devastate the whole station for half the shift.

“Time?” he asked Bobby.

“About 3:30 in the morning. Plenty of time to get back to the station, get cleaned up, eat, and we’ll get you over to the clinic at sun-up. Chim will be keeping a close eye on you while we’re at the station until the clinic is open.”

Buck just nodded, hoping Chim wouldn’t start pushing the need to talk.

When they got back, Chim kept close, barely giving Buck privacy to get clean, sticking an oxygen monitor on his finger the minute he emerged from the showers, still wrapped in a towel.

“Can’t I even get dressed first? I’m breathing fine.”

“In a minute.” Chim stared at the little LED display then looked up at Buck. “We really need to talk.”

“No, we really don’t. Why can’t anyone respect my need to have fucking space about this?”

“Everything okay?” Eddie asked from the door.

“Great,” Buck replied as he ripped the monitor off his finger.

“Doesn’t seem okay,” Eddie said, following Buck to his locker.

Buck sat on the bench, shoulders slumped. He didn’t have the energy to say anything.

“Okay, Buck,” Eddie murmured. “I’ll deflect Chim. Get dressed and let Hen check your lungs. Unless you want me to do it?”

“No. It’d be great if you’d distract Chimney for me. Thanks.”

Chapter Two

Eddie paced around the station loft, feeling agitated and unsettled. He didn’t like feeling out of step with Buck. Even when Buck had been full of piss and vinegar when they first met, they’d been weirdly in sync, able to predict each other’s next move.

Now Buck was going through something that he wouldn’t tell Eddie about, and it hurt more than Eddie wanted to admit. He’d tried keeping his distance, but he wasn’t sure that was the right approach. He knew he could pry it out of Chimney, who was sacked out in the bunkroom, trying to get a couple of hours of sleep, but he wanted Buck to come to him directly. Chim was obviously miserable but keeping whatever Buckley family catastrophe was going on to himself.

“You should get some sleep,” Hen said when Eddie’s orbit brought him near the couch where she was reading a medical textbook.

“I can’t sleep right now.”

“He’s going to be fine. His lungs sounded clear when I checked him before Cap took him to see Dr. Summers, and his cough had settled to almost nothing.”

Eddie shook his head. “I know he’s physically fine.”

Hen put her book down. “But something major is going on with him and apparently you don’t know either. Wow. I figured he’d have told you for sure.”

Eddie winced. Buck usually told him everything, and the rest of the station knew that. “I think I missed something, and now he’s holding back.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was ducking Maddie the other day, and I encouraged him to talk to her. He came back from seeing her like we saw him today.”

“So, presumably, he now knows whatever Chimney has been sweating about?”

“Seems like it.” Eddie blew out a breath and stared up at the ceiling. “What could be so awful?”

“I don’t have any idea, but I will say that it seems like everyone is putting Maddie’s needs in front of Buck’s.”

Eddie frowned and glanced over. “What do you mean?”

“Did you know why he didn’t want to talk to her?”

“Not completely, no. But they’re tight. I didn’t think avoiding each other was good.”

“I’m not saying you did anything wrong, Eddie, I’m just saying that whatever Maddie told Chimney has Chimney miserable in a way I’ve never seen him. And Buck, the most lighthearted guy I’ve ever known, has had a dark cloud over his head the entire time his parents have been here. It’s worth noting that Maddie sprung their visit on him with no notice even knowing he didn’t want to see them.”

Eddie frowned. “Maddie wouldn’t do anything to hurt Buck.”

“Maddie loves Buck, of that I have no doubt, but I also know that Maddie doesn’t really acknowledge Buck’s agency as an adult. Maybe we all fall into that trap at times, but while we tease him about being like a big kid, she overrules him at times like he’s an actual child. I’ve been thinking over the times I’ve been around the both of them, and I wonder if some of the things she’s said unintentionally encouraged that mindset in many of us.”

She leaned forward, expression intent. “More importantly: we were all there, visiting him in the hospital after every surgery on his leg. Where were his parents?”

“I don’t know. Buck wouldn’t talk about it, and neither would Maddie.”

“And yet here they are for Maddie’s baby. It’s gotta sting, right?”

“It would.”

“Buck is going through the wars emotionally right now; Chimney is on Maddie’s side.”

“And maybe he thought I was on Maddie’s side too?”

“I think you’re on Buck’s side and wanted to encourage him to mend fences with the most important person in his life, but maybe all of our intent isn’t clear to him when he’s this upset.”

Eddie finally sat down and scrubbed his hands over his face. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Be supportive. Let him come to you. He’s hurt, but you are like two peas in a pod, so he’ll eventually reach out.”

He hated himself for even asking, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Do you have any idea what this big secret is?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been trying to puzzle it out but couldn’t get there. I thought, for a minute, that maybe he was adopted, but that doesn’t really make sense. Too much angst for it to be a straight-up adoption, and why would they adopt a kid they didn’t want?”

“You think they didn’t want him?”

“Wow. You really have not been listening to the things Buck says about his parents.”

“He doesn’t really talk about them.”

“Yeah, but when he does, it’s pretty obvious he thinks they have zero use for him.”

He frowned and shook his head. “I don’t get how that could be. Buck is so…loving.”

“He’s like a puppy.” Hen smiled but then her expression fell. “I’m worried about him.”

“Chim wouldn’t tell you?”

“Oh, he tried, but I refuse to know a secret about Buck that Buck himself doesn’t know.” She held up her hand in a warding gesture. “That’s just not on as far as I’m concerned.”

“But Buck clearly knows now.”

“That is an inference,” Hen corrected. “We assumed by his general demeanor and borderline suicidal behavior at that fire tonight that he knows, but he might have just had another really terrible family dinner.”

“He knows,” Chim said from behind them, sounding tired and defeated.

“Don’t tell me,” Eddie said quickly. “If Buck hasn’t volunteered it, I’m not— I don’t want—” He shook his head. “Just no.”

“I get it,” Chim said tiredly, slumping down on the couch.

“Is it bad?” Hen asked.

“Awful,” Chim said, sounding broken. “And part of me is a little furious with Maddie that she dumped that on me and swore me to secrecy. I love her and want to support her, but I don’t know how to juggle this.”

“Telling the person you love that they’re wrong doesn’t make you unsupportive, Chim,” Hen said gently.

“I did tell her she was wrong, but I promised before I knew. I made a dumb, blind promise that she could tell me something without knowing what it was.” He rubbed his forehead, right over the scar where the rebar pierced his skull. “Her parents manipulated her into making a promise to keep this from Buck, and they had no right to do that. Now they’re furious with her for telling him, and she’s weathering that. Alone. But every day, I’ve wanted nothing so much as to help Buck. First I couldn’t talk about it, and now he won’t talk to me.”

“It has to be on his terms,” Hen said. “Just tell me if there’s anything Buck did wrong in the situation.”

“God no. Honestly, his parents are a nightmare. They come across all sweet and normal, but they’re…” He shuddered. “The way they talk to the two of them…”

“What was wrong with it?” Eddie asked.

“Like bringing up Doug to Maddie and practically saying ‘I told you so.’ Like that’s somehow appropriate.”

Hen reared back. “That’s disgusting.”

Eddie felt nauseated.

“And then they talked about Buck like he’s never been anything but work and trouble for them. He flat out asked them why they couldn’t just love him, and they basically said he was too much work. And they were talking about him as a child, not him now. They spoke about him like he popped out of the womb a giant burden to them.”

Eddie got to his feet, not wanting to hear this. Not from Chimney. If this was going to be part of his awareness of his best friend, it needed to come from Buck.

“And Maddie always talks about what a sweet kid Buck was. Reckless, she said, but sweet and loving. And his parents talk about him like he was deadweight.”

“I can’t do this—” Eddie walked toward the stairs and came up short at seeing two older people hovering around the ladder truck bay. “Who are they?”

Chim came up behind him and looked over the railing. “Oh, good god,” he whispered. “The Buckleys.”

“Really?” Hen hopped to her feet and joined them.

At that moment, the older couple looked up and spotted them. They waved. “Hello, Howard!”

Eddie side-eyed Chim.

“They hate nicknames.” With a sigh, Chim straightened his shoulders and went down the stairs.

Eddie wanted to run—inventory, sleep, anything—but Hen caught his arm. “No way. Buck is going to need us for whatever fresh hell this is.”

A couple of minutes later, Chim brought the couple upstairs and introduced them both to Philip and Margaret Buckley. They all wound up sitting around one of the dining tables, keeping six ­feet of distance from the older couple for reasons that had little to do with COVID.

Looking awkward, Chim said, “Maddie apparently told the Buckleys that Buck was injured in the fire.”

“She suggested we come down and check on him,” Mrs. Buckley said brightly.

“Maddie suggested you come here?” Eddie was floored by how thoughtless that was on Maddie’s part. He glanced at Chim. “How’d Maddie know?”

“I, uh, called her when we were leaving the scene last night,” Chim said.

Eddie kept his face expressionless, but Hen’s expression tightened. Whatever was going on with the Buckley siblings, Chim wasn’t going to be able to stay out of it or be objective about Maddie’s faults.

Hen smiled brightly. “So, Maddie suggested you check on Buck?”

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Buckley replied. “And it gives us an opportunity to see what Evan’s doing with his life. We never thought he’d ever settle down and do anything useful. It’s not what we expected for him, but at least he’s of service.”

“Buck saves people’s lives,” Eddie snapped. “Every single day that he works, he saves lives. He’s saved my life, my son’s life, and countless others. I’ve never met anyone I thought more suited to this line of work than Buck.” He got to his feet. “Excuse me.”

He got downstairs just as Cap pulled in with Buck in the passenger seat.

“Clean bill of health,” Cap proclaimed as they entered the station.

“I never had any doubt,” Eddie said, his expression feeling stiff.

Buck frowned. “Something wrong?”

“You have visitors. Your parents.”

Buck froze.

“Hen and Chim are talking to them, and you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” He was aware of Cap watching them closely. “You can stay here, and we’ll tell them to leave.”

Buck smiled, but it was shallow and insincere. “It’ll be fine.”

“Can I talk to you first? For just a second.”

Buck’s brow furrowed. “I should rescue Chim and Hen.”

“They’re grownups; they can handle five minutes with your parents. I just need a minute of your time, Buck.”

“Yeah, of course, Eds.” Buck swallowed heavily. “Whatever you need.”

“Let’s step outside.” Their shift would be ending soon, and Eddie had a feeling Buck was about to vanish, retreating the way he knew Buck always did when he was hurting.

They stepped away from the station enough to have some privacy, and Buck cocked his head to the side. “What’s up?”

“I don’t pretend to know what’s going on, and I regret not asking more questions before now. I’m not asking you to talk when you’re not ready, but I just want to say that when you do want to talk, I’ll listen. I’m on your side, Buck. Always. Nothing they could say or do diminishes you, okay?”

Buck looked away and swallowed heavily, nodding tightly. “I’ll be okay.”

“Of course you will, but that’s not the point. You don’t have to be okay on your own. I’m here for you. We’re here for you.”

Buck met his gaze again. “Thanks.”

Eddie nodded and watched his friend walk back inside to beard the lions, wishing he didn’t feel so ineffectual. He’d reconciled himself a while ago to being in love with Buck. He kept the feelings locked in a box for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which was that Buck was straight, and Eddie valued his friendship too much to put the burden of Eddie’s feelings on him.

The other, and sometimes bigger issue was that Eddie had never had a real relationship with a man. He liked fucking men, something he’d done secretly and never mentioned to his family before he’d married Shannon. But he’d never brought a male lover into his home, held them in his arms at night, or let them be near his son.

It scared Eddie that he wanted that with Buck. Sometimes, the want for a relationship with Buck reared up hot and heavy, more intense than the lust he kept under lock and key. And, today, the desire to have Buck in his life as his partner was strong. So strong that it was best if he didn’t push for more contact with Buck right this second. He needed time to get his feelings back under control.

He wanted Buck to be his, and he needed a little space to wrestle that feeling back in its little box. Sometimes, the time he needed to keep his feelings under control put space between them; lately, that space had come at bad times for Buck, and Eddie knew he needed to do a better job of being Buck’s friend, first and foremost.

– – – –

Buck escorted his parents out of the station, glad that the awkward conversation was done. He’d smiled through their assertions of being proud of him while not believing a word they said. He didn’t know if Maddie put them up to it or what, but the sudden turnaround was as dizzying as it was bullshit. They’d known he was a firefighter for over four years, and yet they were suddenly proud now? What had changed?

Their presence here at Maddie’s behest was more proof of how she couldn’t let him make his own choices; she had to meddle, insisting she knew what was best. He felt like this was her trying to prove that Philip and Margaret really did love him.

His shift was over, but he’d made some decisions, so he decided to talk to Bobby before he left. He knew everyone was still hanging around waiting on him, so he wasn’t surprised to find them all in the main bay in their street clothes.

“Your parents seemed nice,” Bobby said with an encouraging smile.

Eddie, Chim, and Hen all winced, but Bobby couldn’t see them.

“They’re awful, Bobby. They put on a good show, but let’s not dress it up and pretend it’s something else.” Buck sighed. He was utterly exhausted, but he had a lot still to do. “Can we talk before you head out?”

“Just me?” Bobby clarified.

“Yeah, I need to talk to my boss.”

His three teammates exchanged looks; Eddie in particular appeared concerned.

“Buck,” Chim began. They’d already had one explosive conversation earlier before Buck had slipped away to go to the doctor. He’d thought he’d get away from Chim, but Chim had pushed the Maddie issue and dropped a very unpleasant truth on Buck’s head that Buck didn’t know what to do with. The funny thing was that Chim had told him this truth about Maddie and her Jeep like it should make things better for Buck. But Chim couldn’t possibly know that the truth about the Jeep revealed that Maddie had been lying to him since she got to LA.

Buck shot him a look. “Man, we will talk, but today is not that day. You’ve already said enough despite the fact that I’ve repeatedly asked that you let it alone for now and to give me some space. You gotta let me get there in my own time. I know it’s not fair to take it out on you when it was Maddie’s idea, and I’m trying not to, but you gotta stop pushing.”

“That’s totally fair,” Hen said. “Come on, Chim. We’ll get some breakfast.” She squeezed Buck’s arm on the way past. “Take care of yourself and call me if you need anything.”

He nodded, grateful she was taking care of Chim because Buck didn’t have the energy for it.

Eddie gave Buck a meaningful look as he walked out. “You know where I am when you’re ready,” he said softly on his way past.

“Did you want to go up to my office?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t think it’ll take long, Cap. I just didn’t want to talk in front of everyone.” C-shift was already on duty, but everyone from that shift was at the turnout lockers doing equipment reviews.

Bobby gestured him further away from where everyone was working. “What’s on your mind, Buck?”

“I need some time off.”

His brows shot up in surprise. “You can have it, of course. I have no one in the house with more accumulated vacation time than you. When were you thinking and for how long?”

“As soon as possible and for a few weeks. Maybe a month.”

“Okay, Buck.” Bobby blew out a breath. “I’m feeling a little lost here.”

“Me too, Bobby.”

“So you said last night, but I don’t understand.”

“Do you need to?”

Bobby’s expression tightened briefly. “No, not as your boss I don’t. As your friend I’d like to help if I can.” He smiled, but it seemed a little forced. “The 147 is still closed because of damage from the mudslide. The pandemic has slowed down getting the station rebuilt. Their people are scattered to other stations and acting as floaters. I shouldn’t have a problem getting vacation coverage—even for as long as a month and even with the pandemic going on. Let me make some calls and I’ll let you know later today if we need you for your next couple of shifts.”

“Thanks, Bobby, I appreciate it. I know you’re going above and beyond.”

“Not really, Buck. This is my job. I don’t know the nature of your personal emergency, but I recognize that you’re having a crisis. I’ll find someone to fill in as soon as I can. I assume you’d prefer to be on vacation as soon as possible?”

“I would.”

“Okay. I’ll let you know.”

Buck nodded, not sure what else to say.

“Buck, before you go. I just need to say that I’m here for you, and I know Athena is too. So, if you need to talk, please feel free to come over or call anytime.”

“Thanks. Really. I’m not ungrateful, I just need to get clear in my own head before I risk— I mean…” He tried to smile, but it felt forced. “I just need to get my own head on straight first.”

Bobby looked concerned, but Buck didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so he made his escape and got in his Jeep. Twenty-four hours ago, he’d been sitting in this very spot talking to Dr. Copeland about setting boundaries. Buck planned to talk to Maddie, but he also knew with everything in him that she wasn’t going to respect any boundaries he set because she hadn’t so far. In fact, she seemed to be trying to manipulate him into believing her version of their parents.

He’d come to the conclusion last night that he needed to put more of an obstacle between them for a while. Some space would be good for both of them. It would give him time to clear his head and give her time to get used to not showing up in person and crying to get her way.

Frustrated, he banged his head back against the car seat. He knew she wasn’t deliberately crying in order to manipulate him, it just felt like it sometimes.

A conversation he’d had with Judd Ryder when they’d been in Texas a couple of weeks back drifted through his mind, and suddenly Texas seemed like a damn fine idea. Putting a couple of states between him and Maddie was pretty extreme, but he was getting pretty desperate, so extreme was starting to feel like a measured response.

He pulled out his phone and dialed a number he’d only been texting so far.

Buck?” Judd answered on the third ring.

“Hey, Judd.”

Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Mostly. Rough shift.”

Yeah, brother, I been there. You hurt?”

“I ate a little more smoke than I probably needed in my lifetime, but doc cleared me.” He took a deep breath. “Got way too close for a minute there, but I’m fine. Listen, I don’t know if you were serious about the ‘come visit us when you’re in town’ thing, but—”

Dead serious. Are you coming to town?”

“I was thinking about it. Department is after me to use some of my vacation time, and I need to get the hell away from Los Angeles for a bit. The plague has calmed down enough, even with the recent surge, that first responders can actually take vacation, so I thought I’d jump on it.”

When were you thinking about coming?”

“I’m not sure. If Bobby can get my next shift covered, I was thinking about leaving tomorrow and taking a long drive to Texas. Maybe four or five days to get there. If he can’t get someone to cover, it’d be a few days before I could leave. I’d still take the slow way though and get a COVID test on my way out of town, avoid people as much as possible. Most hotels do contactless these days.” Buck had been vaccinated, but he figured the test would set everyone’s mind at ease.

Let me give Gracie a call and I’ll get right back to you, okay, brother?”

“Sure.”

The line went dead. The whole thing had gone easier than Buck had expected. Judd and he had never really met before the fire, but Buck had had some long conversations with some of Judd’s old crew before they’d all died in an explosion in May of 2019. Buck had gone to the funeral, and he’d seen Judd there. He was the sole survivor of the shift and was obviously grieving; Buck wasn’t going to intrude on him at such a time. When Judd didn’t recognize him when the 118 came to Texas to fight a wildfire, Buck let it go. Then Judd had pulled him aside at the last minute for a private chat, asking if they could stay in touch. They’d been texting ever since.

He also kept in touch, though less frequently, with Mateo Chavez and TK Strand. He’d worked the closest with the two of them during the wildfire.

Buck only had to wait about three minutes before Judd called back.

Grace and I would be happy to have you come stay with us, whether you arrive in three days or three weeks. Keep me posted about your itinerary, kid, and we’ll have the guest bedroom ready for you.”

“I can stay in a hotel. I was just hoping to go somewhere that I knew people and see some places I hadn’t been before.”

Like hell you’ll stay in a hotel. You’ll stay with us; Grace insists, and you don’t want her to call you and set you straight.”

Buck laughed. “Yeah, okay. Thanks, Judd.”

Anytime. Now, get going and get your skinny ass to Texas so I can start on my campaign of how we’re going to persuade you to stay.”

“Skinny?!” Buck repeated indignantly, not taking the comment seriously that Judd really wanted him to move to Texas.

Judd laughed.

– – – –

Judd hung up the phone, surprised but pleased at the unexpected phone call. When he rounded the corner back into the firehouse dining room, the entire team was staring at him. “What?”

“Everything okay?” Owen Strand, his captain, asked as he set some hash brown dish on the table. They didn’t often have brunch, but they’d had a couple of callouts at the very beginning of shift, and Owen felt it’d be that kind of day so he’d decided to make the most of the break and have brunch.

Judd’s eyebrows shot up. “Is there a reason why it shouldn’t be?”

“You took off like a bat out of hell,” TK replied.

The crew were all like his little brothers and sisters, lovable and annoying in turns. Except Cap, of course. Rolling his eyes he took his seat. “Friend called. Wasn’t expecting to see his name on my display since he usually texts, so I thought something might be wrong.”

“And was it?” Marjan pressed.

“No. Y’all worry too much. He’s coming for a visit in a few days. I’d offered to show him around Austin if he was ever in the area, and he’s taking me up on it. Nothing’s wrong.”

“It was a long call,” Mateo Chavez remarked with a poor attempt at casualness.

Judd huffed and glared, though he kept it mild. He didn’t need to explain to his team that he’d talked to Buck then called Grace to make sure she was okay with a houseguest before calling Buck again. “Seriously, quit frettin’.”

“Just making sure you’re okay,” Owen said diplomatically.

“I’m fine.”

“So tell us about your friend,” Chavez said eagerly. “Will we get to meet him?”

Judd hesitated but decided it wouldn’t really be easy to keep his houseguest from his team. And it was likely they’d socialize some when Buck was here. “Tommy joining us for brunch?” The paramedic captain, Tommy Vega, and her team usually joined the firefighters for meals, but Judd hadn’t seen her since their last call.

Owen shook his head. “She said she was taking Nancy to eat on the way back from their drop-off at the hospital.” Judd knew Nancy had been struggling since they’d lost Tim, the other paramedic from this shift, a few weeks back. Judd and Owen could understand better than most. It wasn’t easy losing someone in the field.

“You totally ducked that question,” Marjan said with a grin. “Something going on? Who is this mysterious friend?”

Sighing, Judd grabbed a serving bowl and began dishing up his food. “He’s not mysterious. It’s Buck.”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared.

“Buck?” TK echoed. “You mean Buck from LA?”

“Creepy guy?” Marjan asked.

“He’s not creepy,” Judd said with an eyeroll. “I told you like three times that he recognized you but couldn’t place you. It’s not like he was staring at anything inappropriate, Marjan. He was just looking at your face.”

“That’s true,” Paul Strickland agreed. “His eyes never dropped the whole time he was staring.”

“I’m excited,” Chavez said. “I like Buck. I hope I get to see him.”

“Is this the Buck who stole my fire truck?” Owen asked.

“To save your life, Dad,” TK countered with a grin.

“Well, then, I’m eager to meet him,” Owen’s grin was a direct mirror of TK’s. Like father, like son.

TK turned to Judd. “I’m confused why he’s coming back to Texas so soon. And how come I haven’t heard from him if he’s coming back?”

“Y’all are all crazy,” Judd said, digging into his food.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Marjan pushed. “You hadn’t ever met that guy before the fire, and you were with us on the strike team not working with Buck. So how are you such good friends that he’s calling you and coming to stay at your place?”

Judd’s jaw tightened, and he carefully considered how he wanted to reply.

“That’s enough,” Owen interjected. “That’s Judd’s business, and if he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t have to.”

Marjan sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Fair. I can just ask Eddie.” She grabbed her phone.

“You know,” Judd said, dropping his fork to his plate, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t. Buck said he needed to get away for a bit. Sounds like he was in a hell of a fire yesterday, and I don’t think he called me so I could start a gossip chain behind his back on Insta.”

“I’m sorry.” Marjan winced and set her phone down. “I wasn’t trying to intrude.”

Judd blew out a breath and rested his forehead on his steepled hands. “You didn’t do anything, Marjan.” He looked up. “I’m glad Buck’s coming because there are a lot of people here who are going to be eager to see him. I think he deserves a fair amount of respect from all of us, but I get that none of you know him that well. Still, just as a fellow firefighter, one who has been through the wars, I’d think he’d deserve some consideration. And while y’all didn’t do anything wrong, as much as I’m looking forward to this, it brings up some stuff that’s not easy to talk about.”

Most everyone looked blank, and Judd huffed a mirthless laugh. “Yeah, I guess there’s no reason y’all would know how much that whole thing with Buck affected my old team.” When he got a bunch of confused blinks, he waved his hands. “Wait. Y’all don’t actually know who Buck is? I figured you just didn’t want to talk about it.”

Paul, who had been diligently eating his food and not prying, raised his hand. “I do. Didn’t put it together immediately, but it eventually clicked.” He pointed around the table. “But they do know because we’ve all talked about it. They just didn’t know we were talking about Buck.”

Figured that Paul would have noticed. Nothing got by Paul. He had that thing. Judd was both intrigued by his powers of observation and creeped out by it in turns.

“Wait.” Marjan said, sounding put out. “What are you two talking about?”

“I’m curious myself.” Owen said mildly, leaning back in his chair.

“The curious coincidence,” Paul said, going after some more potatoes, “is that other than Chavez, all of us were on duty that night.”

“Yeah.” Judd crossed his arms, rubbing the palm of his hand across his upper arm. “My whole squad were on that night. We’d just gotten back from a call. Harkes was man behind that night and was supposed to have dinner ready when we got back, but he was watching the news. Riveted.” Judd remembered it like it was yesterday. “He had all the food prepped, but he’d just stopped because of something on the TV. We were giving him shit about slacking off on dinner duty when we got a look at what was on the screen.”

He passed his hand over his face. “The breaking news chyron shut everyone up quick. Los Angeles serial bomber strikes at fire truck. It hit hard, you know? Firefighters being the target like that?”

“That was the 118?” Marjan whispered.

“Yeah. I honestly thought you guys knew that. All three of the ones who came to help us were there at the bombing—Buck, Eddie, and Hen. Hen and Eddie were in the ambo, which didn’t get bombed. Buck wasn’t so lucky.”

“He was one of those guys lying in the street?” Chavez asked sounding horrified.

“Nah, Probie,” Paul said gently. “He was the guy under the truck.”

“Oh.” Marjan sat back heavily in her chair. “He never said.”

“Why would he?” Owen offered then looked to Judd. “I watched with my team too. TK was also on that shift.” He shook his head. “It was an ugly thing. I’m honestly surprised he’s still fighting fires. In my head, I figured the firefighter whose leg was crushed had probably lost the leg and was doing something else now; he was pinned for quite a while.”

Judd shrugged. “It hit us hard, you know? Firefighters laying in the street, hurt. Blown up in their own truck on the way to help people. Their colleagues having to stand a few yards away but not able to help. I remember Grace texting me while I was staring at those horrible images, because she was watching it from home. We talked later and she said all she could think about was what if that were me and my team could do nothing but stand there and listen to me scream?

“Anyway, Captain Braxton reached out to Buck a bit later to let him know he was in our prayers. He wasn’t expecting anything back, but Buck called him. A few of the guys struck up conversations with him through whatever social media app they favored. And then when they…” Judd trailed off and cleared his throat. “Well, Buck came for the funeral.”

“Seriously?” TK asked. “That’s above and beyond, man. So, wait, you’d met him before the fire?”

“It didn’t click, TK. I was a mess at the funeral, still recovering from my own injuries, not to mention what was going on in my head. Besides, Buck had been mostly chattin’ with Harkes, Parkland, and Garrity. I found out later that he was there for two days and spent a good amount of time distracting the kids so the adults could talk and grieve. He was recently off another surgery for his leg so he was on crutches for the funeral. I do recall a man at the funeral on crutches, but it was just a vague thing.” Judd considered if he wanted to say the rest. “And he did something really above and beyond for the families with kids. It’s not my place to say what; that’s between Buck and the people he helped.”

He waved the conversation away. “Enough of that. The point is that the name finally clicked with me as they were about to leave, and I pulled him aside for a chat. He remembered me from the funerals, but said he wasn’t surprised I didn’t recollect him. When I didn’t recognize him when they showed up for the fire, he didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to bring up a bad memory.

“He’s a good guy who’s been through hell. He was still recovering when I lost the team, and I wasn’t interested in picking up their social media contacts. I didn’t even know he’d made it back to work. We talked for all of five minutes before they left, and I asked him to keep in touch. Told him if he ever planned to take a vacation in Austin to let me know so we could show him our town. It hasn’t been that long since they were here, but he’s kept his promise to keep in contact.”

Everyone was still and silent, so Owen finally said, “Well, as the only person who hasn’t really met him, since I was in the medical tent when he left and insensate when you pulled me out of that mine shaft, I’d definitely like to meet him while he’s here.”

“Yeah,” TK added. “We’ve got to take him out on the town.” TK made a face. “As much as we can during a plague, anyway.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Judd promised, glad the tide of the conversation had turned.

Marjan was the only person still watching him intently. “You think he didn’t tell his team where he’s going on vacation?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask ‘cause it’s none of my business, and I don’t have any reason to tell people I barely know what Buck is up to.”

“So, you don’t think I should talk about his visit on Insta?”

Judd wasn’t sure how to handle that. He really didn’t get Marjan’s social media obsession, but he did have some strong opinions about posting when it violated other people’s privacy. He felt like she was more poking the boundaries with him than actually wanting to post about Buck. “I’m not gonna tell you how to handle yourself, Marjan. But I didn’t think you even liked the guy. You didn’t follow him back, so why would you talk about him to anyone?”

“I don’t dislike him,” she countered. “I don’t even know him.”

“The question doesn’t change. If you don’t know him, why would you talk about him on social media?”

“Come on, Marjan,” TK said, placatingly. “His vacation has nothing to do with you or any of us besides Judd. You said you decided not to follow him, so let it go.”

“I’m not going to talk about him in public, but it’s like you’re saying I can’t ask Eddie about it.”

“No one’s telling you what to do,” Judd said emphatically.

“That’s it?”

He just arched a brow.

“But you wouldn’t,” she said confidently like she could read him.

“I guess I didn’t realize you and Hollywood were that close.” In Judd’s mind, Eddie was “Hollywood” while Buck was definitely “California.” Though Eddie might also be “El Paso” since the man was originally from Texas.

She frowned and picked at her food. “We’re not.”

“Then why would you ask Eddie about him?” Owen asked gently. “When none of this has anything to do with us?”

She shrugged. “I guess I’m just curious about why the sudden vacation.”

Owen smiled faintly. “So, you’d go behind the back of a guy you don’t know to ask a guy you barely know about something as simple as an impromptu vacation?”

Her nose scrunched up. “I guess it sounds weird when you put it like that.”

“It’s weird no matter how you put it,” Paul shot back. “You never know what’s going on with people. For all you know, Eddie and Buck could have had a huge falling out, and Buck is taking the vacation because of a friendship implosion.”

Marjan scoffed.

“I’m just saying, you don’t know.” Paul said, gaze more severe than it had been all night. “Inserting yourself because you’re curious is kinda bullshit.” He gave Chavez an equally severe look. “You too.”

“What? I have Buck’s phone number on my own! I’ve been texting him since they left after the fire. I’m definitely telling him I know he’s coming here and that I want to get together.”

Paul nodded. “Fair. Proceed, Probie.”

Marjan threw up her hands, but she was smiling again. Judd figured she knew she was being unreasonable because she was regretting blowing Buck off about staying in touch. She could remedy that by getting to know him while he was here, but Judd didn’t think any man would appreciate someone going behind his back to his friends.

“When does he arrive?” Owen asked.

“A few days. Not sure yet. He said he’d call tomorrow.”

“That soon?” Chavez blurted out. “Was he hurt in the fire?”

“Nah, he said he’s fine other than some smoke. You know how it is. But he said it got too close, and he needs to clear his head.”

Everyone nodded. They’d all been there, except maybe Chavez. Every firefighter who stayed on the job had their moment where things get a little too close and they needed time to reexamine their life. Judd was just surprised that Buck hadn’t already had that moment when a fire truck had crushed his leg and a suicide bomber stood over him with a bomb strapped to his chest.

Chapter Three

Buck entered Maddie’s apartment, still uncertain about having this conversation now. He wasn’t ready for it, but he also didn’t feel like he could leave this hanging. Maddie’s relationship with Doug shadowed Maddie’s entire life, and now it shadowed his as well.

She was in the kitchen, watching him with a sad expression on her face. Her sadness felt like an albatross around his neck, like something he had to fix.

“Mom and Dad came to the station.”

“Oh?” Her innocence was pretty fake to his eye, since he knew she’d engineered it.

“I think it was some sort of attempt to mend fences.”

“They love you, Evan.”

“No, they don’t, and nothing you can say is going to change my mind about that.” He braced his hands on the back of the barstool and met her gaze. “And I need you to respect me enough to stop trying to persuade me that they do.”

“But—”

“No, Maddie. Enough.” He shook his head. “Your relationship with them is almost as bad as mine. I don’t say this to hurt you, but you stayed with Doug in the early days, when you knew it was doomed, because you didn’t want Mom to be right. How fucked up is that?”

She glanced away abruptly, and a tear fell. “I just want us to be a family.”

“It’s too late. For me anyway. I’m not trying to get in your way of building whatever you want for the little mango, but I need you to respect me enough to leave me out of it. I’ll come to birthday parties, even if they’re around, but don’t ask me for more.”

“Evan, please.” Another tear fell. “They do love you.”

“Then it’s up to them to fix it. I didn’t break this relationship, Maddie,” he snapped. “It’s not my job to persuade them that I’m acceptable the way I am, and I don’t need you to do it either.” He took a steadying breath for the hard part. “I get that you don’t respect me all that much.”

“What?” she said, voice filled with indignation. “How could you even say that to me?”

“You don’t, Maddie. Let’s look at the evidence. You betrayed my trust and told them I’m in therapy.”

She swallowed heavily, a guilty look passing over her face. “I was worried about you.”

“So you turned to people who’ve had no contact with me for more than a decade? Who didn’t even call when I was in the hospital and possibly dying?”

“I talked to them…” she supplied weakly.

He shot her an unimpressed look. “I’m not going to even reply to that because I’m not here to fight with you about how much Mom and Dad don’t love me. The evidence is more than clear as far as I’m concerned. I can’t make you see my point of view, but I can ask that you respect it. Except I don’t think you’re in a place where you can do that.”

“That isn’t fair.”

“Isn’t it? Look at the position you put Chimney in because you couldn’t bear the secret about Daniel any longer. Look at how you betrayed my confidence, the things you’ve kept from me.”

“The only thing I didn’t tell you about was Daniel.”

“Really? You sure about that?”

Her brow furrowed.

“Tell me when the abuse started with Doug.”

She flinched.

“Right. You told me when you arrived that it had been going on for a year, Maddie. And maybe I could understand it when you first arrived, but even after he nearly killed you and Chim, you’ve continued to feed me that lie. When did it really start? Be honest with me for once.”

The tears were openly falling now, and she looked devastated. “I was trying to protect you.”

Me?” he repeated incredulously, steeling his resolve to see this conversation through. “Be honest! If you respect me even a tiny bit, be honest with me.”

“It started right after we married,” she whispered.

“And the real reason you didn’t go with me when I left Pennsylvania?”

“He wasn’t going to let me.”

“The real reason.”

Maddie gave a broken sob. “I was… He…” She met his gaze, eyes overflowing. “I’m so sorry.”

Buck sighed. “He beat you up because you gave me the Jeep.” The horrible truth Chimney had thrown at Buck, while Buck was at work, recovering from smoke inhalation, was that Buck had left Maddie behind while she was broken and bleeding because she’d done such a good job of conning him into believing her. He didn’t blame her for the lies then, but he did blame her for the lies now. And he really didn’t know what to make of Chimney thinking that telling Buck about that would make Buck want to absolve Maddie of her mistakes and give in to her every demand.

She nodded, swallowing repeatedly but not saying anything.

“It’s always been you and me against the world, Mads, and I love you. But this doesn’t work.”

“What doesn’t work?”

“Whatever this is that you’re doing. Did you lie to me about Doug to protect yourself? To protect me? I don’t think worry is a good enough reason for you to break my confidence and go to the two people you know I don’t trust. You jeopardized my relationship with Chimney. You came to my place of work and tried to force this conversation when I told you I wasn’t ready for it. You keep trying to force this happy Buckley-family thing that I’ve said I don’t want. The only conclusion I can come up with is that you don’t respect me. And maybe it’s more complicated than that, but our dynamic is not good for either of us right now.”

“What are you saying?”

Buck blew out a breath. “I’m saying that I love no one in the world so much as you, but we’re not very good for each other at the moment. You need to focus on the baby and your health. I need to focus on my mental health; I don’t think I can do that when I’m unable to get the person I love the most to respect me as an adult.”

“Evan, I do.”

“It doesn’t seem that way to me,” he said sadly. “I think you see me as the little kid you needed to protect from our parents and the truth about Daniel. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have kept this from me for so long.”

“I didn’t want you to be hurt.”

“Except you knew the way Mom and Dad act was already hurting me, and you let me think that there was something wrong with me.”

She flinched like she’d been struck.

“So many times I said I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t love me. It’s not great to know that they had me to be spare parts, but at least their grief and the fact that they never wanted me to begin with gives some context that makes it more about them and less about me.”

She looked wounded. “I hadn’t— I mean— Oh god. Evan, I’m so sorry.”

He held up his hand. “I’ve asked Bobby for some time off. I’ve started to think not many people in my life respect me very much.” Bobby had called an hour after Buck had left the station to let him know that his shifts were covered by someone from the 147, and he could take leave effective immediately.

“That’s not true!”

“And the way you keep stepping on what I’m saying actually reinforces my opinion, rather than dissuading me from it.” He blows out a breath. “I know you love me. I know my coworkers and friends like me. But respect is a different thing, isn’t it? I need some time to get my head around this.”

She uncurled her hands from the countertop. “What does that mean?”

“I’m going out of town for a while. I think it’d be good if we took some time to figure ourselves out. You need to focus on you, Chim, and the baby. I need to figure out how I feel about all this without the pressure of your emotions.”

She looked down, and a tear fell and splashed on her hand. “I’m so sorry, Buck.”

“I can’t do this right now.” He didn’t know how to grant her absolution. He’d made a pretense of telling his parents everything was fine, but if he never saw or spoke to them again, he wouldn’t care. He would care if he never saw Maddie again, so they had to figure out how to fix this without him breaking in the process. “I don’t want you to be stressed about me, but I can’t pretend I’m okay when I’m not. So, please take care of yourself and know that I’m taking care of myself the best that I can.”

She met his gaze, looking heartbroken. “How will I know that you’re okay?”

“I’ll email at least once a week, but I’m gonna ask that you not reply unless I tell you I’m ready to talk. Otherwise, I’ll stop writing.”

“Once a…week. How long will you be gone?”

“I figure at least a month. Bobby’s already okayed a month of vacation.”

“Buck,” she choked out.

He walked over to the table where Maddie’s baby box still sat. He ran his fingers over the smooth finish of the highly lacquered wood. In his mind, there was no greater proof of how unwanted he was by his parents. “This is great, Maddie, and I’m glad you have it. You’re not wrong for wanting this, for wanting to fix things with them. But I’m not wrong that I don’t want it. We need to figure out how those two things can co-exist.”

“God, listen to you. When did you get so wise?”

He smiled sadly. “Part of our problem is that me being wise is a surprise to you.”

“Oh god, Evan, I didn’t mean it that way.”

He held up a hand. “I know. I need to go. I’m leaving in the morning.”

“Driving or flying?”

“Driving.” He smiled sadly. “My sister gave me this great Jeep a long time ago and it’s always served me well on my journey to figuring stuff out.”

“I’m glad.” She hesitated. “Can I have a hug?”

He crossed to her in three strides and pulled her into a hug, registering yet again how fragile she felt in his arms. It was like it was ten years ago all over again. “I’ll never give up on you, Maddie, I just need some time, okay?”

“Okay,” she whispered into his shoulder.

– – – –

Buck let himself into Eddie’s house with his key. It was still weird for him to just let himself in, but after months of him knocking, Eddie had threatened to start pitching shoes at him the next time he failed to use his key. Still, he always gave Eddie a heads up before he came over.

Christopher was already in bed at the late hour, and Eddie came in from the living room while Buck was toeing off his shoes. He went into the kitchen to wash his hands, aware of Eddie following him.

“Beer?” Eddie asked.

“Yep.”

“In here or living room?”

“Here.” Buck liked talking over the kitchen table. It felt intimate, like family.

Eddie popped the caps and set the beer in front of Buck before sprawling out in his usual chair. “So, what’s on your mind?”

“I’m taking some time off.”

Eddie blinked. “Come again?”

“I think I need to get away for a bit.”

Eddie took a long pull of his beer, giving Buck a speculative look. “Something you want to tell me? Did something else happen?”

“Maybe a lot.” Buck fiddled with his beer, turning it around in his hands.

“Buck?”

“I thought about telling everyone today…” he trailed off, not sure how to say it.

“Why didn’t you?”

He considered for a few seconds before deciding to be honest. Eddie was his best friend, and this would be a test of sorts, even if Buck didn’t really mean to be testing Eddie. “When Abby never came back from Europe, no one was supportive about what I was going through. At least, it didn’t seem like they were. By the time you joined, it was just a big joke about my invisible girlfriend.”

“And you thought people would joke about whatever you’re going through with your parents?”

“Wouldn’t they?”

“You think we’d joke about something that’s hurting you, Buck?”

“Abby?” Buck countered.

Eddie snapped his mouth shut and leaned back in his chair, looking thoughtful. “Okay. I’m absorbing; give me a second.”

Buck made a vague gesture and focused on his beer, taking a quick swallow.

After a few seconds, Eddie said, “So, you didn’t feel you could trust us with the truth about whatever’s going on, and maybe rightly so.”

“It’s not all on you guys, and it doesn’t have anything to do with you, Eds. This stuff happened before you ever arrived.” Buck shrugged. “One of the things I’ve been talking to the therapist about is that I don’t let people really see me. I keep all the darker stuff bottled up, don’t say when I’m upset until I’m ready to snap. I was heartbroken over Abby, and it became the butt of the firehouse jokes for months. I didn’t know how to say, ‘stop, you’re hurting me.’”

Eddie winced.

“And, honestly, no one has really taken this thing with my parents very seriously anyway. At least, not until recently. Everyone just assumes it’s something we’ll get over. I’ve heard several comments about, ‘there’s Maddie and then there’s Buck, so what must their parents be like?’”

Eddie’s wince this time was more like a full-on flinch. “Buck, no one means that the way you’re taking it.”

“You mean like no one takes me seriously? No one respects me?”

“Now, wait a minute.”

Buck held up a hand. “I can’t right now. I just went through this with Maddie, and I can’t do another round of all the ways no one respects me.”

“Maddie loves you.”

“Love and respect aren’t the same thing, Eddie, and you know that. We’ve talked about how your parents don’t respect your decisions, but you know they love you.”

Eddie opened his mouth and then snapped it shut again, shaking his head. “Buck, what in the world happened?”

“Aside from my family lying to me for nearly three decades? Aside from Maddie inviting my parents here and not telling me until the last minute even though she knows I don’t want to see them? Aside from her telling them I’m in therapy even though she knew that was a secret? What in the world could possibly be right?”

“I’m honestly lost, Buck. I know you’ve been upset. I know you didn’t want to see your parents, but I don’t really know what’s going on.”

“Does it matter? If I told you that in any measurable way they never expressed any love for me, would that be enough for you to believe me? Would you believe that I’m a good judge of my own circumstances, or would you think that I’m too childish to be able to assess that sort of thing?”

Eddie blinked and stared for long moments. “Okay. That’s a fair question. I will say that we’re rarely the best judge of our own circumstances, but I do believe you that your experience was what you say it is. I believe it was bad.”

“Why can’t my impression of it be remotely accurate, Eddie? Why?”

“Honestly?” Eddie pushed his beer away and leaned forward, arms braced on the table. “I just don’t see how they could not love you. Everyone who knows you loves you. Chris loved you faster than he’s ever loved anyone. You tell me your own parents don’t love you and it seems impossible to me. Not because I doubt your word but because I don’t see how that’s possible.”

Buck felt his face heat and looked down at the table. “Oh.”

“You don’t have to say anything if you really don’t want to, but I’ll listen if you want to talk. I’ll even promise not to defend your parents.”

Buck huffed a little laugh. “Maddie really has this whole Leave-It-to-Beaver family idea going. That after thirty years of dysfunction, we’re all going to suddenly get along.”

“I guess it makes sense—for her anyway. With the baby coming and everything, and they weren’t abusive.” He hesitates. “Right?”

Taking a long swallow of the beer, Buck shrugs. “Not as such.”

“Then what?”

“They were just…not there.”

“Like they left you on your own?”

“To some degree, but more emotionally not there. And eternally disappointed in everything about me.”

“I can’t—” Eddie broke off. “There’s nothing about you that’s disappointing.”

“Nice of you to say, but you didn’t have to deal with mini me.”

“I’m pretty sure I live with mini you.”

Buck smiled, feeling unexpectedly, truly happy at the offhanded compliment. “Eds.”

“No, seriously. I swear, that kid is way more like you than me. And I’ve never had a moment’s cause to be disappointed in him.”

“Superman is way better than I’ll ever be.”

“Buck.”

“And that’s a tangent. So let’s not argue over Christopher’s awesomeness. But, thank you… For saying that.” He took a steadying breath. “My parents brought Maddie this baby box. Lacquered wood thing that’s got her baby shoes in it, pictures, certificates, school records. Who knows what else.”

“Yeah, I have something like that for Chris. Did they bring yours too?”

“There is no mine. It doesn’t exist. It’s not just a matter of they didn’t put it together, they never kept any of that stuff. Almost all of the pictures that exist of me as a child were taken by Maddie, so the only ones that still remain are the ones that she managed to hold on to.”

Eddie blinked a few times, opened and closed his mouth, then finally cocked his head to the side. “I don’t understand. They just checked out on you?”

“They say it was grief and that I can’t understand what it’s like to lose a child, but that doesn’t feel…accurate.”

Brow furrowed, Eddie shook his head. “What child?”

“Right.” Buck rubbed his forehead. “The key ingredient. Daniel. The middle Buckley sibling. The one they made me to fix.”

“Say what?”

“Maddie called it a savior sibling, but let’s be real. They had me to be spare parts for my older brother. Bone marrow, specifically.”

Dios,” Eddie breathed as he leaned back. “Buck…”

“I was an IVF baby to ensure I was an HLA match for Daniel, and, uh, the cells didn’t graft during the transplant. He died. So my parents lost one kid and were stuck with a baby they only had to save the child they loved. I mean, I’m sure there’s someone who’s going to look at that situation and go, ‘oh, poor Mr. and Mrs. Buckley,’ but—”

“That’s not me,” Eddie snapped. “You don’t give up on the kids you’ve got because of who you lost. Maybe—” He blew out a heavy breath. “Maybe a couple years of grief, but your whole life? No. Dios, Buck, did you really think I’d be on your parents’ side?”

“I don’t know, Eddie. I don’t know what to think anymore. I feel lost in ways I haven’t since I was a kid. I want to believe you all would support me, but I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know if it’d be another Abby and people making jokes about Buck at least being good for spare parts, and call Buck if you need a kidney or some bone marrow.”

“Buck, please,” Eddie choked out. “No one would say that.”

“How can you be so sure? Because I’m not sure. I’m so not sure that I feel confused and turned around and like I don’t know how to expose my vulnerable side to the people I care about anymore.”

“You just need to tell them that.”

Buck shook his head. “I need some time. Time to think and get some perspective. And just…breathe. I feel like I’m suffocating.”

“Then you should take what you need. You know I’ll support you. Did you ask Bobby for some vacation time?”

Buck nodded. “He okayed me for a month’s leave.”

“A month?” Eddie repeated.

“Yeah. That’s not just the stuff at work and not feeling like I can trust people; it’s mostly about Maddie. She’s lied to me, more than a little, and even though I know she doesn’t mean to, she manipulates the hell out of me emotionally. She makes all these statements about doing stuff for my benefit, but it’s really about her. I love my sister­; in a very real way, she’s the only mother I ever had. She raised me, for god’s sake, even though she was only nine when I was born. But all these things she’s supposedly doing for my benefit are really to make her feel better. I can’t take care of her right now. I can’t mend this bridge with her when all I can see is that she kept the truth about Daniel from me for my entire life.

“Yes, my parents manipulated her into keeping it secret, but she’s a decade older than me; she knew that promise was bullshit. Then she told Chim before me, not planning to tell me at all. She planned to continue to keep it from me, even after telling Chim, not caring about the position it put him in, and I would never have known if I hadn’t found a picture of Daniel.

“I need space from Maddie more than anything, but I don’t believe I’ll get that if I stay here.” He gave a mirthless laugh. “She couldn’t even respect my space for a day before she showed up at my work to confront me.”

“Do you want to stay here for a while? It won’t solve her showing up at work, but…”

“Nah. I appreciate it, but you don’t need me hanging around with a dark cloud over my head. And staying here doesn’t solve the problem of me needing some time away from my coworkers to figure out how to be more honest about how I feel about things.”

“Me included?”

Buck shrugged. “I don’t know, Eds. Sometimes I think we’re good, and sometimes I think you look at me like I’m a child.”

Eddie closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t think of you as a child, Buck. I couldn’t. Just no.”

“I’m not trying to start something, man.”

“I get it. You’re just saying how you feel.”

“You’re better than the rest for sure, but people talk about me like I’m impossible and nothing but a kid. They say it like it’s a joke, sure, but I’m not laughing. Maybe you’re picking up some of that because I don’t ever say that I don’t like it, so this is me saying I don’t like it. And I don’t really want to talk anymore about it. I’m just putting it out there, okay?”

“Well, no, it’s not okay. You tell me you’re hurt about something—very hurt about it—enough to leave and that you don’t want to talk about it? I’m not just going to be okay with not setting things right.”

Buck floundered for several seconds, not sure how to reply. “Maybe it’s not fair, but I can’t right now. I’m not saying not ever, but I feel scrubbed raw. I’m not saying don’t ever talk about it, I’m asking if we can put off the emotional bloodletting.”

“Until when?”

“I don’t know. Until I don’t feel quite so much like I’m going to shatter? I’m not talking to anyone else, and I don’t care about anyone else’s opinion.”

“Are you leaving town?”

“Yeah, in the morning.”

“In the morning.” Eddie looked dumbstruck.

“That’s why I needed to talk to you tonight. I’d like to come by in the morning before Chris starts Zoom classes and talk to him. I’m hoping you’ll be okay with me doing video chats with him while I’m gone.”

Eddie gave a faint smile, but it looked more sad than anything. “So, your priority is keeping in touch with my kid. Which I fully support, but, uh… Do you plan to keep in touch with me?”

Buck took a swig from his beer, giving himself time to think. “Do you want me to?”

“Do you really think I would say no?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

Eddie blew out a breath. “Then I’ve really fucked up as your friend. And, yeah, I’d like it if you kept me in the loop. We’ve apparently got some stuff to sort out.”

“Eddie.” He felt like shit because he wasn’t actually trying to hurt his friend. Eddie was everything to him, but Buck had believed for a long time that he was way less than that for Eddie.

“It’s okay, Buck.”

“It’s not though.”

“Seems like you’ve been letting stuff build up for a long time.”

“Which is my fault.”

“Maybe,” Eddie conceded. “Or maybe no one in your life ever gave you room for that kind of thing.” He pushed back from the table and placed his beer bottle in the recycling bin. “Of course you can see Christopher in the morning. And, yeah… FaceTime as much as you want; you know his sleep and school schedule.” Eddie leaned against the counter and made a vague gesture. “I expect you to keep up with his math homework because you’ve spoiled us rotten on that front.”

“Yeah, okay.” Buck rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t, Buck, please. You have nothing to be sorry for. Or, if you do, it’s probably not what you’re actually apologizing for.”

Buck chuckled, but he didn’t actually feel very amused.

“I want you to be okay, so do what you’ve got to do. Just promise me one thing…”

“What’s that?” Buck would promise anything in his power.

“Promise me you’re coming back.”

Buck blinked. “Of course I am. This is my home.” He flushed. “I mean, LA is my home. But, uh, you and Chris are family. I’m not going to stay gone.”

Eddie nodded. “I know it’s probably not fair to ask, because I don’t know what you might find out there that might be better for you, but I need to put it out there that I want you to come home. Okay?”

“Gotcha.”

“Also, you can stay here tonight if you want. We could have another beer and talk some more if you need to.”

Buck shook his head. “Tempting, but I need to pack. I want to get out of here tomorrow after I see Chris.”

“You’re not wasting any time, are you?”

“My parents are still here. Maddie’s here. None of them are great about respecting my boundaries. And, honestly, Chim is an issue. I love him like a brother, but his priority is Maddie.” Buck glanced away. “Even if that means a steaming pile of guilt that I don’t deserve because he’s looking out for her and not me.”

“Care to elaborate on that?”

“Not really. I just need to give everyone some breathing room. Chim needs time to stop feeling guilty, Maddie needs to figure out how to work for the things she wants without stepping all over me, and everyone else could probably…” he trailed off and downed the rest of his beer.

“Could probably what?”

He got up and set his bottle in the recycle bin too. “Could probably use a little less Buck for a while. I know I’m a lot, so… It’ll be a good break.”

Eddie dragged his hands over his face. “Come here.” He yanked Buck into a hug, his arms like steel bands around Buck’s back and shoulders. Buck was so startled that it took him a few beats to hug back. He spent so much time with Eddie and Christopher that he basically considered them his household even though they didn’t really live together.

Still, they didn’t often hug. Not like this. “I don’t need a break from you, okay?”

A few seconds went by before Buck nodded into Eddie’s shoulder. “Okay, Eddie.”

Chapter Four

Eddie pulled in and parked at the station fifteen minutes before his shift, plenty of time to get inside and get changed, but he couldn’t make himself get out of the truck. The last time he’d worked his regular shift without Buck had been part of the whole bombing/embolisms/tsunami/lawsuit fiasco that dragged on for months. Both of them occasionally picked up an extra shift to cover for someone on B or C-shift, but when he was working A-shift, Buck was always there.

Reluctantly, he got out of the truck and went inside, nodding at Hen who was just exiting the locker room as Eddie went in. Chim was there, just having finished pulling on his uniform shirt. He looked stressed and unhappy.

“Hey,” Eddie greeted, forcing down any inappropriate resentment. Absolutely none of this situation was Chimney’s fault. He didn’t envy Chim’s position.

Chim nodded. “You heard from Buck?”

Eddie stilled in the process of stripping off his shirt. He finished the motion and pulled his LAFD T-shirt out of his locker. “Not since he left yesterday morning. He stopped by to say goodbye to Christopher on his way out of town.” Not strictly true. Buck had texted Chris last night to wish him sweet dreams, which Christopher delighted in. He kicked off his shoes and quickly stripped out of his jeans and pulled on his uniform slacks.

“You know where he went?”

Eddie slammed his locker door then sat down to pull on his station boots. He didn’t reply until he had his shoes tied. Then he stood and turned to face Chimney. “No, but even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

“Come on, Eddie, that’s not fair.”

“It’s totally fair because I’m not going to put you in that position, Chimney. You’re the one who’s been running around tortured by having to carry a secret, so I know you’re not asking because you plan to keep Buck’s location to yourself. You’re asking so you can tell Maddie.”

“She’s his sister. She has a right to know.”

“A right?” Eddie repeated incredulously. “Wow. Buck totally called this situation, and I didn’t even see it. I thought he was dead wrong.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that—”

“Five minutes past start of shift,” Bobby interrupted from the door, taking in their standoff. “Something going on?”

Eddie said nothing, just waited for Bobby to move so he could get on with his work.

Eventually, Bobby said, “Darian Anders from the 147 is covering for Buck while he’s on vacation. Similar skills, lots of rope experience, though less S&R training; he should fit well with our team. He’ll be here in about four hours. He’s been working C-shift, so there were some scheduling adjustments. Mary’s staying on to cover in case we get a call that needs a full team until Anders arrives. She’ll be man behind for any smaller calls. Coffee’s on upstairs so we can talk and review assignments.”

Eddie nodded.

Bobby looked between them. “You sure everything is okay?”

“Yep.” Eddie said.

“No,” Chimney replied. “I’d like to know where Buck is.”

“We’re not doing this,” Eddie bit out.

“My office,” Bobby said firmly, obviously not a request.

Frustrated, more with himself than anything, Eddie jogged up the stairs and headed for the captain’s office.

“Hen, you too,” Bobby said, gesturing for her to follow.

As soon as they were in Bobby’s office, Eddie leaned against the wall, hands shoved into his pockets.

Bobby stood behind his desk, looking at the three of them. “I don’t know what’s been going on, but we are not taking this out into the field today. We clear the air. Now.”

“There’s nothing to clear the air about,” Eddie countered. “Buck asked for nothing but some privacy. We need to let it alone.”

“Maddie’s worried about him!” Chim shot back.

“He’s fine.” Eddie was really hating how this confrontation was making Buck’s point.

“Eddie—”

“Look, I get it; you’re worried about Maddie, and she’s your priority, but Buck wasn’t wrong to ask for some damn space!” Eddie’s voice rose on the last, and he forced himself to take a steadying breath and calm down. He’d been in an emotional turmoil he didn’t know how to deal with since Buck left, and this situation wasn’t helping.

“And what about what she needs?”

“Chim,” Hen said gently, “his needs matter as much as hers. You told me what’s going on, and I think it’s probably a fraction of the actual story, but Buck needing some time, even time away from Maddie, isn’t unreasonable.”

“Everyone knows what’s been going on except for me,” Bobby said blandly.

“Buck told me some stuff the night before he left for vacation,” Eddie said. “I can’t speak to what anyone else knows, though Chim’s known the bare bones longer than Buck.” Eddie shot him a look.

“That wasn’t my choice,” Chim snapped.

“It wasn’t his either,” Eddie bit back.

“I’d refused to let Chimney tell me since it was obviously about Buck and Buck himself didn’t know,” Hen said, “but then the other day after Buck was so off and then the fire, I figured Buck knew, so I asked Chim if everything was okay.” Hen shook her head. “It’s really not okay.”

“Someone want to fill me in?” Bobby demanded.

Eddie sure the hell wasn’t doing that.

Chim said, “The night before that 5-alarm, Maddie finally told Buck that he’s a savior sibling. That’s a, uh—”

“I know what it is,” Bobby interjected. “Buck was born to give Maddie…what? Bone marrow?”

“Not Maddie. Their brother Daniel; he didn’t survive the transplant. Her parents swore her to secrecy. They moved and erased all evidence there’d ever been a third kid. Buck was a baby, so he had no recollection of it.”

Cap scrubbed his hands over his face. “Yeah, I can see why he’d need space.”

“Not from Maddie,” Chim countered.

Cap gave Chim a deeply unimpressed look. “Probably from her most of all, Chim, and you have to know that on some level. I gotta go with Eddie on this; you’re panicking because it’s your girlfriend, she’s pregnant, and she’s unhappy. But Buck has a right to take some time to wrap his head around his family keeping this from him for nearly three decades.”

“Which is exactly what I told you,” Hen said softly. “Man, you gotta calm down. You’re not doing Maddie any good if you’re freaking out because she’s upset.”

Chim slumped into one of the chairs and buried his face in his hands. “I just don’t know how to help. And Buck wouldn’t even talk to me.” He looked around at all of them. “Any of us. I thought I could help, and I forced this one conversation on him, and I think I made it worse. Maddie was upset and crying about how he doesn’t feel he can rely on any of us, and I don’t even know what that’s about. I need to talk to Buck!”

“Wait. What?” Hen asked. “What do you mean he can’t rely on us?”

“I told you I don’t know. Maddie was so upset the one time she would really talk to me about it that she wasn’t even making sense. All she’s said about it since then is that she really wants to talk to Buck.”

Eddie threw up his hands. “I know what that’s about, and I shouldn’t say anything. I feel like I’m going to regret it, but this is bullshit, and we need some perspective here. Buck told Maddie that he didn’t feel anyone close to him respected him. Loved him, yes, but not respected him. His request for some time and space to get his head clear is reasonable, and Maddie clearly can’t respect his needs if they conflict with hers. So I can only conclude he’s absolutely right that his sister loves him but doesn’t respect his personal agency. At all.”

“Buck thinks we don’t respect him?” Hen asked, sounding wounded.

“I don’t know.” Eddie rubbed the back of his neck, feeling way too tired for first thing in the morning. “He said he didn’t tell us about Daniel because he didn’t want him being ‘spare parts’ to become the station joke the way Abby was.”

Hen flinched.

Chim shook his head. “We wouldn’t have done that.”

“Maybe not now, maybe not right this minute when it’s fresh and raw and we’re all horrified and not sure what to make of his parents. But what about a few months down the road? One thing that’s become clear to me is that Buck doesn’t tell us when something is bothering him, and he didn’t tell us about this because he didn’t want it to become a joke.”

“It’s not joking material,” Bobby said hoarsely.

“Abby really wasn’t either,” Eddie countered. “Every joke about her hurt him. I thought he just brushed it off, but in those last few weeks, I’m the one who saw how torn up he was about every call she missed. I should have seen the disconnect between how he was about her away from here and the face he put on about the jokes when he was at work.”

“It’s not on us that he didn’t tell us that bothered him,” Chim said shortly, getting to his feet and shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Nope. But there’s a lot more than one set of jokes to why Buck thinks we don’t respect him. Maybe that’s worth thinking about. But I’m not sure you can, Chim. You’re stuck in between two people you care about, and that’s not fair to you. But consider who’s putting you in the middle.”

“She’s his sister. You don’t know the whole story.”

“I don’t need to know the whole story!” Eddie finally snapped and threw up his hands. “Don’t you get it? Her needs don’t matter more than his.”

“She’s pregnant!”

“That’s no excuse, Chim,” Hen said more gently than Eddie could have managed. “She doesn’t get to walk all over him just because she’s pregnant. From everything you told me, Buck has been more than patient with Maddie over this. Certainly more than I would have been. I’m not saying she’s not in a difficult spot, but you know it’s not fair to say he has to subjugate all his needs to hers just because she’s expecting a baby. He’s not that baby’s father!”

“I know, all right! I know.” Chim prowled around Cap’s office, obviously frustrated. “I know that she’s actually the one who’s wrong to keep pushing this, but how am I supposed to just let her cry and not try to do something to help?”

“You get her a cup of tea and hold her. Maybe encourage her to schedule a session with Frank,” Hen said a little snippily. “You don’t try to make Buck solve Maddie’s emotional crisis. When, honestly, his emotional crisis is the one that Maddie should be catering to, not the other way around. Nothing happened to Maddie with this other than her brother asked for some space to deal with a truth that Maddie has always known about. Literally nothing changed for Maddie other than that family’s chickens have come home to roost.”

Hen grabbed Chim by the arm. “We’re going to do inventory, which was actually assigned to Eddie, but it’ll give us some privacy while I talk at you until you get your head straight. Again.” She didn’t even look to Cap for permission, just hauled Chim out of the office, closing the door behind her.

“Can I go?” Eddie asked tiredly.

“Not yet,” Bobby said, slumping into his seat. “Since everyone knows, I’d appreciate a few more details.”

“Come on, Bobby. You’re putting me in a shitty position.”

“Hen will tell me, Chim will certainly fill me in; I’d rather not hear it through Chim’s lens, which is the only view Hen has.”

“What is it exactly that you want to know?”

“Why so fractious between Maddie and Buck?”

“Besides her keeping a whole sibling from him all this time?”

Bobby tilted his head and gave a mirthless laugh. “Yeah, besides that.”

“I don’t know some of it. I gather she’s lied to Buck about some other stuff, and Chim maybe told Buck the truth…? I don’t know, I couldn’t really make sense of that, but Buck was pretty disillusioned by the part he wouldn’t explain. In terms of how their relationship works…” Eddie sighed. “I think he got hit in the face with it not being healthy. She knows he doesn’t want anything to do with his parents, yet she didn’t tell him they were coming until the day before they arrived.

“I mean, I knew from the things he didn’t say that his relationship with them was crap, but, Bobby, they haven’t been in touch with him in years. They didn’t even call after the bombing, and that was national news. Maddie volunteered information to them on his behalf, I guess, but they never talked to Buck directly.”

Bobby looked taken aback. “They seemed so…normal.”

“What do neglectful parents look like?” Eddie shrugged. “Aside from that, she told them some stuff about Buck, personal stuff, that was told to her in confidence. That’s why he was so mad that day with the punching bag, when he was risking breaking his hands.” Eddie blew out a breath. “He asked her for space and time to think after that disastrous first dinner and, instead, she showed up here and tried to force him to talk about it. Chim also tried to force him to talk about it. According to Buck, he was furious about the situation before the fire. Afterward, he made peace with her but told her he needed time apart. A significant amount of time; he pointed out the respect issues, and said if she really did respect him, she’d give him some space to get himself sorted out.”

“Reasonable request.”

“And yet…”

“And yet,” Bobby agreed. “On a personal level, I’m naturally worried about Buck’s relationship with his sister; I know how much they mean to one another. But more deeply personal, that’s also tied to work, is this idea in Buck’s head that we don’t respect him.”

“Do we? I thought Buck was crackers over that, but…” He shrugged. “Something in the whole tone of what Chim was saying felt like a normal way of running over Buck’s feelings. Buck said something about how we don’t even look at him like a functional adult most days.”

Bobby opened his mouth and then sharply closed it again. “I guess I need to think about that. Buck does come off like a big kid, but that’s not the same as…”

“Him being an actual child? No, it’s not. Buck handles all the responsibilities of being an adult. But after he left, so many instances that fit his narrative of how we don’t respect him ran through my head. I don’t think it’s an actual lack of regard for Buck, but maybe…” he trailed off, not sure how to express what he was feeling.

“Maybe we’re being a little callous in our handling of him?”

“He’s not fragile, but he also wouldn’t tell us when he wasn’t feeling like being ribbed. That’s something he’s going to have to figure out. But Buck doesn’t actually deserve to be the butt of 90 percent of the jokes around here.”

“Hmm.” Bobby stared at his clasped hands. “You’ve given me some things to think about.”

“Can I go?”

Bobby nodded. “And when you hear from Buck, tell him I’d like to talk when he’s ready. And if he’s not ready, just let me know how he’s doing, okay?”

“Sure, Cap.” Eddie hesitated. “He’s fine, by the way. I didn’t hear from him explicitly but, uh, Christopher did.”

Bobby smiled and shook his head. “Christopher has always valued Buck.”

“I don’t think that’s why Buck wrote Christopher. It’s not a competition. But, yeah…Chris thinks Buck is magic.”

– – – –

Buck pulled up in front of the house his mapping app had sent him to. It was a nice, average-size, ranch-style house in a middle-class neighborhood. Most of the plants in the front yard looked like low-water varieties, and the house was well-maintained.

Buck slipped on his mask and opened the Jeep door, getting hit with a wave of much cooler air than he remembered from a couple of weeks back. It felt like about 60 degrees. Previously, they’d been helping Texas firefighters with wildfires, and the severity of the fires had created a weird microclimate that was much warmer than a typical February.

Judd was out of the door with a big smile on his face as soon as Buck opened the car door. “Hey, California!” Judd was a big guy, having a couple of inches in height on Buck, though Buck thought he might edge Judd out a bit on shoulder width.

“Hey, Judd.”

The big man jogged down the driveway and smiled at Buck. “I’d give you a Texas-style hug, but… You get tested?”

“Yep. Got the results the day after I left. It’s good they’re so much faster now. Negative.” Judd had been fully vaccinated, but Grace hadn’t been yet, so Buck was on board with taking all precautions to keep her safe.

“Texas hug it is!” Judd pulled him into a bear hug, something Buck appreciated. He rarely got hugged by someone who was his size or bigger. It was a novelty, and a really nice one. “How was the drive?”

“Good. Restful. Took five days to get here, stopped at the Grand Canyon.”

“You been before?”

“Yes, but it’s always worth seeing again.” Buck glanced toward the house where he could barely make out the shadow of someone standing in the doorway. “You sure this is okay?”

“Absolutely. Stay as long as you want. Grace is happy to have a house guest who isn’t related to one of us.” He clapped Buck on the shoulder. “Let me help you with your bags.”

They got Buck’s two duffel bags and one rolling suitcase from the back then he followed Judd up to the house.

Judd side-eyed the rolling bag. “This weighs nothing.”

“Pillows. I got fussy years ago about sleeping with my own pillows.”

“Boy. Put your lightweight stuff in your duffel next time.”

“Firefighter-up and carry the heavy bag.” Buck grabbed the handle of the rolling bag himself.

Judd laughed and led the way.

Once they were inside, Buck kicked off his shoes and turned to face Grace Ryder.

Judd slung an arm around her shoulders. “This is my beautiful wife Grace. Grace, this is Evan Buckley. Goes by Buck.” Grace truly was beautiful. Her face bordered on angelic in Buck’s mind. A complete contrast to how rough Judd was in appearance and demeanor.

Buck looked between the two, eyebrows shooting up.

Grace’s brow furrowed, and she crossed her arms.

“Why would you put up with someone so tall? Committing yourself to a life of going up on tiptoes…that’s love there.” Buck figured Grace had to be a full foot shorter than Judd.

Grace burst into laughter. “Mama always says he’s too tall.”

Judd huffed.

Grace pointed at Buck. “But you’re one to talk. What are you? An inch shorter than Judd?”

“At least an inch and a half.” Buck grinned. “Where can I wash my hands?”

“Why don’t you head on into the kitchen. Judd will drop your bags in your room now, and we can show you the rest of the house later. Dinner will be ready soon.”

Buck washed his hands, enjoying the open, airy feel of the floorplan. “I love your house.”

“Thank you.”

He finished washing and accepted the paper towel she held out to him. “Told Judd outside, but I got tested before I left town, and already got the results. Negative. Five days on the road and I managed to not come in contact with a single person.”

She laughed. “I’m having flashbacks to terrible conversations I shouldn’t admit I ever had.”

“I’m not sure why not; I’ve had lots of those conversations. Those conversations show good, adult communication skills.”

“Good point. As long as you’re visiting, we’ll treat you like you’re part of our household bubble and the extended household of the 126.” She gestured to his mask. “No need for that now.”

Buck pulled his mask off and shoved it in his pocket. “Sounds good.”

“Goodness gracious. Look at that pretty face. We’re going to have to take you out on the town while you’re here.”

Judd came back in with a big smile on his face. “Just don’t fall for that pretty face.”

Buck laughed.

“Thanks for getting tested, Buck,” Grace said softly. “Makes things easier.”

“It’s no problem.” He wrinkled his nose. “Though every time I get one of those I think if I never have another it’ll be too soon. Still, it’s the way things are for first responders. Especially in LA.”

Judd shot him a sympathetic look. “Don’t know how you guys managed with it being so bad there—more than once. It felt like what we’ve dealt with was plenty, and it wasn’t anything like LA.”

Grace handed Buck a glass of iced water. “Hydrate. We’ll get you something else with dinner.”

“Thanks.” He came around the island to sit on a stool so he could watch Grace move around the kitchen. “In the early days, most of the firehouse separated completely from our families. Keeping away from kids, partners. My sister is pregnant, so her boyfriend was living with me. Sometimes we just stacked up at the station and didn’t leave for days. Everyone is back home now, so it’s getting back to normal in that way. The weirder part was something you don’t really think about.”

“Oh?” Judd prompted, sitting with his own glass.

“Before the plague, if one of us was injured in the field—anything that wasn’t objectively minor—the department preferred we get checked in the ER. They got us in and out like that unless there was a crisis of some sort.” Buck snapped his fingers. “That’s just not possible anymore. We’d have to be bleeding out to bypass the wait lines at the ER. Even bad smoke inhalation probably isn’t going to warrant a trip to the ER these days.”

“What’d they do instead?” Judd asked.

“Paramedics consulted with ER attendings for a lot of stuff so we could handle it at the station. More stitches being done in-house, lots of breathing treatments, oxygen administration. Each station worked out an arrangement with a nearby doctor to see our people after hours for X-rays and whatever. I got more than a little smoke a few nights ago and got checked out by the family practice doc three blocks from us who my captain arranged to clear us. It’s just never worth going to the hospital right now.”

“What a terrifying thought,” Grace said. Then she braced her hands on the counter and gave Buck a serious look. “You all right?”

“Oh, I’m fine.”

She raised a brow.

Buck held up both hands. “I’m serious. It was an intense fire, but my team got me out.”

“You got trapped?” Judd asked.

Buck blew out a breath. “More like I refused to leave this guy behind. I could have gotten out, but I couldn’t get this chemical vat off of him, and I just…couldn’t walk away.” Buck took a drink of the refreshingly cold water.

Judd reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “That why you needed to get out of Dodge for a minute, brother?”

Buck choked on his water, inhaling more than a little of it, and spent several seconds clearing his airway.

“Was it something I said?”

“No,” Buck wheezed. “Not exactly.”

Grace poured him some more water. “You don’t have to say anything, Buck. Sometimes you just need to get away.”

“It’s cool. My parents are in town to see my sister because she’s pregnant and all. We don’t get along. My parents, that is. It’s easier on everyone if I’m not around making things harder.”

“Any chance things could get better between you?” Grace asked gently.

“Could, I suppose, but I don’t want them to,” Buck admitted. “I haven’t seen them in a decade, and they’re only in town for their grandbaby. I’m fine with it being the way it is, but I’d prefer not to be pressured by my sister to be a pretend happy family.”

Grace blinked. “How old are you?”

“Just turned twenty-nine.” He waved it away. “I’m fine with my relationship with my parents as is, but my sister isn’t. And she’s got all these pregnancy hormones driving her. They’re apparently steering her toward trying to fix it. I’m just not here for it.”

Judd looked thoughtful. “So you’re staying out of the way?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. More like…staying out of reach. If she can’t get to me, there won’t be another family dinner.” He shuddered.

Judd laughed. “Yeah, all right.”

Grace looked less amused. “If you need to talk though…?”

“Nah, I’m good. Seriously, there’s been a lot of talking lately. Sometimes the easiest way to enforce your boundaries with your family is to put a couple of states between you for a while.”

Grace’s smile still seemed a little strained. “When is your sister due?”

“About two months.”

“Are you excited?”

“Yeah, I really am.”

“First niece or nephew?”

“Yep. Niece.”

Grace’s smile was more relaxed. “Is it just you and Maddie?”

Buck’s smile felt stiff for a few seconds, but he managed a nod. “Yep. Just us.”

“And I’ll bet she’s older,” Judd offered.

Buck frowned. “What’d I say that gave that away?”

Judd laughed. “You’re a classic younger sibling, Buck.”

“You would know, Judson Ryder,” Grace said with a look. “Don’t let him fool you. He’s the youngest of four.”

Judd nodded then nudged Buck with his elbow. “I should mention that the whole crew knows you’re visiting.”

“Oh?” Buck figured there was a chance he’d run into them while he was here, but he hadn’t felt the need to announce it. He’d already known Mateo Chavez was aware of the visit because he’d been getting enthusiastic texts, though Mateo hadn’t mentioned anyone else.

“Yeah, they’d like to get together at least one night soon. Especially TK and Chavez.”

“That’d be fun.” Even if he still felt a flush of embarrassment at TK thinking Buck had been hitting on him when they’d been here for the wildfires.

“How long is your vacation?” Grace asked as she checked something in a slow cooker.

“At least a month.” Buck realized how that sounded. “Oh, no. I wasn’t planning on intruding on you guys for a month. I figured I’d sort out what’s next after I’d experienced Austin for a bit.”

“Hmm.” Grace exchanged a look with Judd then braced her hands on the counter again and gave Buck an intense look. “First off, sweetie, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you need, but more importantly, a man doesn’t take a sudden vacation for a month or more when he’s physically healthy because things are okay. I can understand not wanting to talk, but I’m going to put it out there that I’m willing to listen when you’re ready.”

Feeling awkward, Buck rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah. Thanks. I appreciate it.”

Grace nodded and went back to getting an amazing looking roast out of the slow cooker.

“Your people know where you went?” Judd asked softly.

“No, but I’m not explicitly hiding it from them either.”

“Okay, I’m gonna act like a big ol’ grownup here and ask: if something happens to you while you’re here—God forbid—who do you want us to get in touch with?”

“Eddie,” Buck said without hesitation. “Edmundo Diaz. I’ll send you a contact card on your phone. There’s actually paperwork on file with the department that Eddie would make medical decisions in an emergency.”

“Not your sister?” Judd asked.

Grace shot Judd a warning look, but Judd wasn’t even turned in that direction, so he couldn’t have seen it.

But Buck didn’t mind the question because he knew Judd wouldn’t take it too far. “My sister was out of my life for a long time. I’ve had to have friends listed in that capacity for as long as I can remember. I made it Eddie because I wasn’t sure if she was going to stick around, and then I never had a reason to change it.” It was Bobby before Eddie came around.

“Fair enough.” Judd took a deep breath. “Some of the family members of my old team want to see you while you’re here too. Hope you’re up for that.”

“Yeah, of course. I’m in regular contact with Anabelle Harkes and Trisha Garrity, not to mention occasional contact with Colleen Parkland. I’d never visit Austin without reaching out to them. I figured I’d do that one day when you were on shift. I didn’t want to put that burden on you.”

Judd nodded slowly. “Maybe let me know when you’re ready and I’ll let you know how I feel about it.”

“I can do that.”

“Okay, boys, get to the table. It’s time to really welcome Buck to Texas.”


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Jilly James

Admin for the Bang and participating author. Sleep-deprived lunatic half the time.

5 Comments:

  1. I stayed up past midnight reading this, even though I had to get up for work this morning. So, so good. Makes me want to give Buck a great big hug. Can’t wait to read the rest!

  2. This is great! Thank you for sharing with us!
    I’m glad Buck got the time for himself he needs, and that Judd took him in for that time.
    I’m especially impressed by the therapy scene for Buck. It felt very realistic! (I have noped out of writing such scenes several times because I just can’t immagine to make it real.)

  3. This is so good, Jilly. Giving me all the feels already. You’ve really captured the dynamics and I’m really loving the way you’re handing these complicated issues. You’ve done a really good job with Maddie here too, you’ve got me understanding her motivations and even sympathizing to a degree, but also wanting to give her a come to jesus talk and sit her down with a good therapist. Thank you for this story. <3 <3 <3

  4. OMG this absolutely brilliant, gut wrenching, tender and full of feels story has blown me away. Thank you for all the work you did to bring us this story.

  5. I meant to only read this story today cause I’m on a long train journey,  but I couldn’t resist digging into it when it went live, so this is my second round and I’m savouring the hell out of it.

    My fav part in this first leg of Buck’s journey, apart from him not telling everyone in that self-hurting way about Daniel and his conception, is when he confronts Maddie. Looking back on it, she really handled that whole thing terribly, but because she was hurting too, I saw her actions in a better light than was probably warranted. Hen is spot on in how she sees the situation, I think, so really Maddie should have supported Buck much more than asking for his support.

    My fav fluff bit was about Buck knowing Judd and his old crew and Judd acting quite protective of him. Buck has such a big heart and Judd will make sure he is treated right while in Austen.

    You must have written day and night since those eps around Buck Begins aired to have managed to finish two novel length stories! I’m in awe of your writing skills and your dedication. Thanks so much for sharing your hard work with us.

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