Pull Me from the Dark – 2/4 – 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 Five

Buck exited the bathroom and went into his bedroom. The house was dark and quiet, the door to the master bedroom closed. There was another guest room being used as an office situated between Buck’s room and the master, which was nice because it meant a little more privacy for everyone.

The shower had gone a long way toward refreshing him from the trip, but now he was just bone tired. Judd and Grace were both off tomorrow, so they planned to take Buck to some sculpture garden in the morning and then to a state park for the rest of the afternoon.

Judd worked the day after, but Grace didn’t so she was going to show him around downtown Austin for a few hours. They’d made an early night of it because Buck was tired from driving all day.

He checked his phone and realized it was about the right time to catch Christopher before the big wind down for bed. Being a couple of hours ahead of California was actually helpful in terms of keeping adult hours but still being able to talk to Christopher before bedtime.

He pulled out his iPad and got everything plugged in. While it was starting, he texted Eddie’s abuela, Isabel, asking if it was a good time to FaceTime Christopher. Buck had A-squad’s schedule memorized, so he knew Eddie was on shift today.

Isabel sent back an immediate affirmative that they were in the middle of using the tablet for homework, so he could call right away.

Christopher and Isabel’s smiling faces immediately filled the screen. “Buck!” Christopher said with delight.

“Hey, buddy! Hey, Abuela.”

Ay Dios, Buck, put on a shirt. I’m an old woman, and that’s way too much for me.”

Buck laughed and leaned over to the other side of the queen-sized bed to grab the T-shirt. “You’ve seen me without a shirt before.”

Only in special circumstances that involved you getting entirely too dirty in the garden with this young man,” she said with a grin.

He tugged on the shirt and focused on Chris. “Hey, Superman. How’s school?”

Christopher made a face.

“What’s that face for?”

He’s tired of all the Zoom,” Abuela supplied.

I miss other kids.”

“I know, buddy. I wonder if…” He considered for a moment. “Just a second.” He got a flash of an idea that he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t had before. He wished Christopher had spoken up sooner, but the kid tried so hard not to complain.

He fired off a quick text to Eddie.

Buck: Hey. FaceTiming with Chris. He’s fed up with Zoom school. Any reason why he Harry and Denny couldn’t sit in the same room together to do their Zoom classes? They’re not in the same grade and don’t go to the same school but it seems like the problem is lack of other kids and they’d be around each other in between sessions.

He made a face and sent another text.

Buck: Also hi. Sorry. Wasn’t trying to be rude. Hope you’re okay and Anders is taking care of you.

Normally, the kids hanging out together probably wouldn’t work, but A-shift, because of how close they had to work, effectively treated each other like an extended household. There were some precautions taken, but the kids did see each other semi-regularly already. It was just that the parents were getting them together after classes and not during them.

Bobby had texted Buck the name of who would be covering for him while he was gone. Darian Anders was a good pick. He had similar skills to Buck, and Buck had met him enough times over the years to feel comfortable with him backing up Buck’s team.

He set the phone down and focused on Christopher again. “Sorry, buddy. Had a thought I wanted to run by your dad.”

We miss you.”

“I miss you too,” Buck replied easily. “But I won’t be gone forever, and didn’t I promise to keep in touch and keep helping you with your homework?”

Yes, and you kept your promise. But it’s not the same as getting hugs from you.”

“I know. I miss your hugs more than anything, but Abuela promised to give you lots of hugs for me.” Buck and Isabel had texted briefly, and that was one thing that had come up. She’d promised to convey any physical affection Buck asked her to, plus some.

It’s not the same. I like both of your hugs, but her hugs are squishier up top.”

Buck burst out laughing while Isabel clucked in faux disapproval. They talked about Christopher’s schoolwork for several minutes, going over the math stuff that was giving him a headache. Buck had hated math when he was in high school, but he’d gotten a great teacher his first year in college who’d helped it all click for him, and he’d enjoyed math since. Karen was the real go-to for higher math, being an actual rocket scientist, but there was nothing a nine-year-old would come across that Buck couldn’t handle. Buck had taken his fair share of higher math, he just didn’t think he’d be great at explaining it.

He got a text alert and held up his finger for Chris to hold on while he read Eddie’s reply.

Eddie: Hey. Believe me, I know where I rate when it comes to you and my son 🙂 so no worries. Anders is fine. He’s not you. I’ll always prefer you on my line, but he’ll do. Take the time you need and know we’re covered.

Eddie: Ran the idea by Hen and she talked to Karen. They’re game and think it would help with Denny’s frustration. Hen called it ennui. Whatever. Bobby is going to talk to Athena and Michael tomorrow, so we won’t have an answer about Harry until later, but Denny is a yes. Go ahead and tell him. He’ll be excited.

Grinning, Buck looked back at the screen. “So, your dad talked to Hen, and she and Karen agreed that you and Denny can do classes together.”

What?” Christopher screeched.

Mijo. My ears,” Isabel said teasingly.

Sorry, Abuela.” The kid was almost bouncing in his seat. “We’re not in the same school though.”

“Nope, and that means you can each do your own classes on your own computer, but you’ll see each other during breaks and mealtimes. I don’t know when it will start, but maybe it will be better than being home alone.”

Christopher started crying.

“Whoa, hey. What’s wrong, buddy?”

I love you, Buck,” Christopher said, sniffling into the tissue Isabel handed him.

“I love you too. I just want you to be happy.”

“I didn’t want to complain because Daddy tries so hard, but it’s lonely without my friends around. And then you went away, and you’re my very best friend.”

“Aw, buddy, I’m sorry.” Buck felt like a heel. “You know I wasn’t leaving because of you, right? And seeing each other this way isn’t like getting a hug in person, but it’s pretty good.”

Christopher nodded, wiping under his glasses. “Thank you for helping fix it. You always fix things.”

They talked for another fifteen minutes before Isabel sent Christopher off to get ready for bed. She gave an indication she wanted him to stay on the line, so he did.

She had her face turned away from the camera, clearly watching Christopher. When she turned back her smile was bittersweet. “You’re a good boy, Buck.”

He felt his face heat. “I love that kid.”

I know you do. I want to talk to you until he’s ready for bed, and then maybe you can read him his bedtime story. He’d love to fall asleep listening to you.”

“I can do that. What’s he on right now? I can download it while he’s brushing his teeth.”

She told him which book, and he got it queued up on his Kindle. “I wanted to talk to you about this other business with your family.”

Buck made a face. “Okay. What’s up?” While he’d been driving to Texas, Eddie had texted him and asked if he could share the broad strokes of what was going on with his abuela and Tía Pepa. Buck had agreed; he’d have filled them in himself if he’d been there and if either had asked.

I don’t pretend to understand the desperate choices your parents made before you were born, or the foolish choices they made afterward. But I do know the man you are today. You are loved, Evan Buckley. Just know that. You bring great joy into my grandson and great-grandson’s lives.”

“Abuela…”

Accept, young man.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Good boy. Christopher may not understand why you need to be away, but this burden you bear is not trivial. It is good to take care of yourself, and good that you find a way to stay connected with him while you are gone. Of course he wishes you were here, that child adores you, but do not be swayed by his wishes, all right?”

“It’s hard.”

I know. We’d all do just about anything in our power for him, but he has many people who would move the Earth for him. He can do for a few weeks without the man who moves the sun and the stars. Especially since you’re keeping your promise to talk to him.”

Buck felt his eyes burn and blinked furiously. “Abuela…”

You need to mend, Evan. Let yourself have this time. Know that we love you and are eager for you to come home, but we all want you to be well.”

“Thanks. I’ll be okay.”

Of course you will, I’ll accept nothing less, but you deserve this time to heal. The wound visited upon you was grievous. Let yourself have this, and don’t feel guilt for that which you cannot control. Christopher would miss you even if you were here because he’d much rather you lived in his closet than at your own home.”

Buck gave a watery laugh.

Let the guilt go, si?”

“Okay.” He hesitated. “Is Eddie all right?”

Oh, my Edmundo is thinking deep thoughts, but it is good for him too. We will all be better for it. Now, I hear Christopher. I am going to take the tablet into his bedroom so you can read to him. Do not let him persuade you to read more than two chapters.” She hesitated. “Maybe three; I enjoy how you do the voices.” She winked at him, and he laughed.

After Christopher was asleep and Buck had put his tablet up, he slid under the covers. The quilt was too much, so he tossed it away, leaving just the sheet and light blanket. He grabbed his phone and texted Eddie again.

Buck: He burst into tears.
Buck: Happy tears in the end but I hate it when Chris cries.
Buck: I feel like I should be there but I’m not sure how yet.

The phone chimed with a response almost immediately.

Eddie: Can I call you?

Buck: Yeah.

The phone rang right away, and Buck answered. “Hey.”

Hi, Buck. You doing okay?”

“Yeah, I think so. The drive was good for clearing my head and having lots of time to think. Everything is so contactless these days that I managed to be on the road for five days and not interact with a single person.”

You’re such an extrovert; that’s got to be weird.”

“Kind of, but not unwelcome either.” He hesitated. “Are you with the others?”

No, I’m outside. Cap and I picked a sign I could use when I wanted to slip away to talk to you.”

“He’s okay with that?”

Yeah, Buck, he’s good with it. He’s worried about you.”

“I know. He doesn’t need to be though.”

I don’t think he can help it. Of all of us, he sees you the most as family.”

“That’s not true—”

No, it literally is. He’s admitted he sees you like a surrogate son.”

“He doesn’t mean that.”

Wow. I dare you to tell him that to his face,” Eddie said on a laugh.

“You’re the worst.”

Well, you picked me to be your best friend, so it says something about you.”

“That I have terrible, terrible taste.” Buck found himself smiling up at the dark ceiling.

Listen, I’m trying to keep you apprised of how things are changing around here and who knows what.”

“And I appreciate it. I never thought the whole spare parts thing—”

Buck,” Eddie ground out.

Buck sighed. “Sorry. I never thought the whole Daniel thing would stay a secret. Not with Chimney in the know.”

I don’t think that’s spread beyond our close team, though DeKay might know. But he’s tightlipped on a good day and, out of all of us, I don’t think he’d talk about you.”

“He’s never been the gossipy type.” Marcus had been on the truck with Buck during the bombing; his recovery was a couple of months shorter than Buck’s, but they had spent a lot of time talking about the experience no one else would ever quite understand.

This isn’t intended to be pressure, but Hen and Bobby both really want to talk to you when you feel up to it. When you feel up to it,” he repeated. “Both want to clear the air.”

“I’ll at least send them a text, open up the lines of communication. I appreciate them letting me have some space.” He hated himself for asking, but couldn’t stop himself. “What about Chim?”

He wants to talk to you too, but he’s a mess. He’s caught between you and Maddie, and I think he recognizes that she needs some more time in therapy. Which leads me to the other thing I need to tell you. He laid on me and Hen the crappy thing he told you about the Jeep and why Maddie didn’t leave with you.”

Buck squeezed his eyes shut. “Wonderful.”

It was a shitty thing to tell you, Buck. Especially right then. So, I needed you to know that we know, but also that you’re not wrong for feeling like he was out of line. And I think that’s how you feel even if you didn’t say it.

“He just wanted me to forgive her.”

Yeah, but that was the wrong way to go about it. He can’t force you to forgive her. He put you in a position of feeling like you had to get over your justifiable anger over the secrets just because Maddie had an abusive dick of a husband. They made it like the two things are connected, and they aren’t.”

“She lied to me about it, Eddie,” Buck whispered.

Pardon?”

“She told me to my face when she first came to LA that Doug had only been bad to her for a year. And she continued with that lie even after he tried to kill her. She thinks she’s protecting me from the truth.”

She needs more help, Buck. Neither of you are to blame for Doug. You both could have made different choices back then, but yours were made purely in ignorance. Maddie’s coworkers who patched her up on a regular basis could have made different choices too. Their decisions weren’t ignorant, and they were all healthcare workers.” Eddie huffed. “I just wanted you to know that we know that part too. And, Dios, does that feel like it’s none of our business, so I’m sorry.”

“It’s no one’s fault.”

It’s kind of Chimney’s fault for telling you something that should have come from Maddie at a time when it wasn’t so…” Eddie paused. “Emotionally manipulative. Hen must have spent an hour lecturing Chim about why he shouldn’t have told you about it at that time in that way. And certainly not at the station.”

“To be fair, I’ve been resentful for years over Maddie blowing me off on that trip. But she didn’t really have a choice in the matter.”

Then you two should have talked about it. Chimney expected you to absolve her of everything she’s done in the here and now because her husband was abusive a decade ago, even if Chim didn’t consciously think about it that way. So you were right that it was a steaming pile of guilt you didn’t deserve.”

“Does Bobby know?”

Not at first, but he got involved when Hen was trying to explain what was wrong with what Chimney did. I think Chim thought Bobby would get why he said it, but Bobby was so horrified he could barely speak.”

“Well, this is a nightmare.” Buck blew out a breath noisily. “Could you let them all know that of all the aspects of this, the part I never want to discuss—and I do mean never—is this part?”

Yeah, I’ll do that, Buck. I’m not comfortable with all this talking behind your back, but Hen pointed out to me that, at this point, it’s as much about Chimney as it is about you. He’s conflicted and messed up about it and needs help, and your privacy is getting sacrificed in the crossfire.”

“That’s fair, I guess.”

Not really, but I don’t know how to make it fair other than to make sure you know anything being said, okay? So you tell me how best to keep you updated.”

“Email maybe?”

Oh. Yeah, okay.”

“No.” Buck sighed. “If I’m going to talk to you, I don’t want it to be status reports about how everyone at the station perceives my weirdo life, okay? I’d rather talk about Christopher or your deep, pathological aversion to technology.”

I don’t have an aversion to technology!”

“I’m sorry, Edmundo, but who unplugged the game console because you were convinced Hildy was spying on you?”

She was!”

“Targeted advertising, man. Don’t make me explain tracking cookies to you again.”

Please don’t. My head still hurts from last time. But then you got me a really expensive coffee maker just to troll me.”

“Hey, that is a great coffee maker, and that was Christopher’s idea. Your son is a mad genius.”

I told you he’s more like you than me.”

“Eddie.” Buck felt all flustered when Eddie said things like that.

You’re family, Buck, just deal. And, uh, thanks for the idea about their classes. I don’t know why the obvious hadn’t occurred to any of us; Denny is just as miserable. Athena’s already agreed for Harry, but they need to talk to Michael and get his buy-in. It might be a little more complicated because of Harry’s exposure to David, though they already have occasional play dates.”

Buck wrinkled his nose. “Yeah. That’s not easy.” Michael’s boyfriend was a doctor who did rotations with COVID patients, so it was a bigger risk to have Harry around Christopher, who was more vulnerable physically than the other kids to respiratory problems in general. Though, to be fair, every single first responder risked unknown exposure to those infected with COVID.

Even if Harry can’t join them physically, we could work out some way for Harry to be Zoomed in to talk to them part of the time. But they already see each other on occasion, they just wear masks. I don’t think this would be much different. Anyway, those are details for later. I just wanted to thank you for always looking out for Chris.”

“You never need to thank me for that. I adore that kid.”

I know.”

“Listen, I need to apologize.”

What for?”

“You’re my best friend, Eds, but when I get in my head, I don’t know how to talk. I’ve been working on it with the therapist, but it bit me in the ass at a bad time. You didn’t deserve for me to just check out like that.”

Extenuating circumstances. I promise I’m not holding a grudge. More than anything, I want you to take care of yourself. Be happy.”

“No, I didn’t think you were holding a grudge.” Buck hesitated. “But I thought it might have been a little hurtful.”

Eddie took a noisy breath. “Yeah, maybe.”

“So, let me apologize, okay? You hate it when I apologize; you always blow it off. I don’t ever want to do something that hurts you, but I know it’s going to happen sometimes. I need you to know I take those failures seriously, and I try not to make the same mistake again. So, please just let me apologize.”

There was a long pause. “Okay.”

“I apologize, Eddie. I’m sorry that I got so wrapped up in my own head that I didn’t put the trust in our friendship that you have more than earned.”

You’re killing me here.” Eddie sounded more emotional than Buck was used to. “I forgive you. Know that all I care about in this is you, and I think you taking the time you need is okay. You deserve whatever time and space you need. Just…don’t cut me out.”

“I’ll try.”

Do you mind telling me where you are?”

“No, I don’t mind. As long as you keep it from Chimney. He’s still my brother, and I love him, but I’m with you completely about him not being in a good place.” Buck actually felt guilty about that because he recognized that if he’d buckled and given in to Chimney and Maddie that everything would be back to normal now. Inappropriate guilt was the main topic of conversation during his session with Dr. Copeland while Buck had been at a hotel in Arizona three days ago.

I’m not going to say anything to anyone.”

“I’m in Texas.”

There was a long silence. “Are you serious?”

“Why in the world would I joke about being in Texas?” He was pretty sure the only state he’d tell a joke about being in was Kansas. And only so he could then joke about not being there.

Where?”

“Austin.”

With TK?” Eddie sounded funny, kind of strangled, and it was weird that Eddie went to TK of all people.

“No, I haven’t seen TK. I’m actually staying with Judd Ryder.”

The silence stretched on weirdly. “Oh. I didn’t know you knew Judd. He didn’t say anything.”

“Took him a minute to recognize me when we were out here, and it wasn’t him I knew. It was his station. The one before the current group.”

Wait. You mean the group who all died?”

“Yeah.”

Buck.” Eddie took a ragged breath. “You knew the firefighters who died?”

“Not all of them, but I was in touch with a few. It’s a long story, not really relevant right now. When Judd realized he knew who I was, he asked me to come stay sometime. I decided to take him up on it.”

I’m glad, Buck.” Eddie genuinely sounded pleased for him.

“You are?”

Why wouldn’t I be? You deserve to have more people in your corner.”

Buck rolled over onto his side, cradling the phone to his ear. “Thanks, Eddie.”

Look, I know my son is your favorite, but keep in touch with me too, okay?”

“You’re a very close second, Eds. Of course I’ll keep in touch.”

Goodnight, Buck.”

“Goodnight.”

Chapter Six

“How goes it with your houseguest, Judd?” TK asked up as he opened up the panel next to where Judd was going over his equipment checklist.

“He’s been here a whole day, TK. We’ve managed four meals, a hike, and some weird sculpture garden that Grace decided on.” Judd finished checking the AED against the checklist, closed it up, and put it back in its spot on the truck. He could practically feel Probie and Paul paying attention to the conversation.

TK turned, one hand propped on his hip. “He okay? Injuries?”

“He’s fine, brother. A man on vacation.” Judd knew that wasn’t true. Something was wrong, but he wasn’t going to pry. At least not yet. “Grace is taking him around today, showing him some of those touristy things I can’t stand.”

TK looked skeptical. “He up for getting together?”

“He said yes, but you’ve got the man’s phone number. I’m not his social secretary.”

TK shoved gear back into the compartment with more force than necessary. “I was trying to be polite.”

“Nothin’ rude about callin’ a man.”

“Fine.” TK pulled out his cellphone, his thumbs immediately flying over the screen. Then he tucked the phone back into his pocket.

“Count me in!” Chavez called.

“We’re probably going to take him to a gay bar, Probie.”

Judd frowned, wondering why that location. It was also a bit of a misnomer, since the “gay bar” Carlos and TK frequented had moved to an outdoor space that had limits on the number of people who could attend at one time. If the weather was poor, it was closed completely.

Chavez shrugged. “I don’t care.”

“If you’re down, then I don’t care. You in, Paul?”

“Sure.”

Judd shook his head and went back to work, hoping they’d clear it with Buck before taking him to a gay not-bar. Over dinner, Buck had mentioned past girlfriends, but never anything about boyfriends. Judd didn’t dismiss the possibility of Buck being bisexual, but the man presented himself as straight. So either he was straight or hiding his bisexuality.

They had completed their entire round of morning chores without a call and were about to tackle the big decision of the day, lunch, when a call finally came in.

Owen ran down the stairs. “Pressure cooker exploded at Hot Tamales. Injuries reported. No fire.”

Tommy Vega ran past for the ambulance. “Hot Tamales is an open kitchen floor plan. Expect lots of projectile injuries; I’m going to need your people, Captain Strand.”

“You’ve got ‘em.”

They were about a mile from the restaurant that the team knew well when the radio crackled. “126, dispatch, please be advised that the caller is reporting only two injuries. Adult male, early-twenties, head injury and burns. Adolescent girl, shoulder injury, possible head injury. One moment, new details.” There was a pause. “Probable third injury. Adult male, twenty-nine, impact injury. The caller is 9-1-1 dispatcher Grace Ryder.”

Judd physically jerked in his seat.

Owen looked back from the front seat to assess Judd as he said, “Dispatch, can you put her through?”

Connecting now.”

“Grace? It’s Owen Strand.”

Afternoon, Captain Strand.” Grace sounded calm and level, but Grace always sounded calm and level.

“What’s the situation? I have Tommy on the line listening as well.”

Everything is as fine as it can be. The restaurant is damaged, but we’ve only found three injuries so far.”

Can you give us some more details?” Tommy’s voice came over the radio.

I was having lunch with a firefighter from Los Angeles. He registered the sound of the pressure cooker in distress and had everyone duck under their tables while the kitchen tried to deal with the pressure cooker. The man who was headed for it unfortunately slipped and cracked his head on the worktable. Which meant he didn’t get to the pressure cooker in time, and it did explode.”

We’re about to pull up. You sure no severe injuries?” Tommy asked.

I’m uncertain how badly Buck is hurt. He was clipped by the pressure cooker lid when it flew off. It went through the wall and has made a new home for itself in a Chevy Astro.”

TK, Chavez, and Marjan all gave startled laughs at Grace’s dry tone.

The truck pulled up and Judd could see that there was glass everywhere, people milling all around. Owen gave him a nod so that he could go find his wife rather than help with crowd control.

He darted through the onlookers and into the restaurant. He’d seen more than a few pressure cooker catastrophes in his career and while the restaurant bore the marks of the blast—food and broken things everywhere—it lacked the chaos and blood that usually accompanied such an event. Hot Tamales was a popular spot and always busy, so the lack of apparent injury was astonishing. Weirdly, people were pretty much sitting at their tables, waiting, as if they had nothing better to do.

Judd found Grace easily, standing near a kid and her parents, the family looked shaken. Grace, however, looked calm and unruffled.

“Grace.”

“Judd.” She smiled serenely at him. “Hi, Tommy.”

“Hello, Grace. Want to fill me in?”

Judd got close to Grace, wanting to snatch her up and hold her, but he just hovered and was grateful when she leaned back against him.

“It was split-second timing. Buck stayed on his feet to make sure everyone got down. That was our table.” She pointed to the one next to the family. “Emily came out of the bathroom just as the pressure cooker gave up its fight with the laws of physics. Buck tackled her to the floor as that,” Grace gestured right past their table where there was a hole in the wall and a huge pressure cooker lid lodged in the side of a beige van, “came flying at this poor girl. She definitely got her shoulder wrenched and a bit of a bump on her head.” She gestured to the rest of the restaurant. “I suggested everyone wait calmly and let EMS clear them to make sure there are no unreported injuries being masked by adrenaline.”

Tommy nodded. “Okay, Emily. I’m going to have Nancy check you over, okay? Nancy, please check out Emily and her parents and then direct Captain Strand’s team. Captain Strand, if your people could begin to check out all the diners? If they’re truly injury free, they can go. Where are the other two?”

“Kitchen.” Grace pulled away and led Tommy and Judd through the debris field and into the kitchen, halting them both for a moment out of the eye-line of everyone else. “I think our cook is undocumented. Maybe a Dreamer, but you know how that is these days. He was panicking something fierce. Buck got him calmed down, but handle him carefully. I tried to tell him that the fire department isn’t in the business of calling ICE, but people panic when folks in uniform show up. Also, Buck definitely got clipped by that pressure cooker lid. He’s favoring his left arm, but he’ll tell you he’s fine.”

Tommy nodded and continued on, letting Grace and Judd follow.

“You okay?” Judd murmured.

“I’m fine, Judd. Buck got me under that table so fast I’m lucky my head’s not still spinning.” She shot him a soft smile. “You know I’m good under pressure.”

He couldn’t help but laugh at the bad joke. “That you are, my love, that you are.”

They rounded the counter into the main cooking area to find Buck holding a young man’s head still and giving Tommy a status report. “This is Miguel. He slipped and clocked himself good on the left occipital bone. No scalp laceration, minor hematoma. Pupils equal and reactive. Pulse is about seventy-eight. He was unconscious for approximately two minutes. However, he will not stop moving so I’m trying to keep him still in case he has a neck injury considering how low on his skull he hit that table. He also got doused in boiling beans, so burn injuries…everywhere.”

Tommy knelt down, commencing with her own examination, though she spared a glance for Buck, noting the way he was wincing as Miguel strained against his hold. “And you are?”

“Evan Buckley, LAFD.”

“Tommy Vega, paramedic captain.”

Buck grinned. “I figured. Grace told me all about you.”

Tommy flashed him a small smile before thumbing her radio. “Captain Strand, I need a backboard and a gurney in the kitchen, please.” She pulled the C-collar from her gear bag and put it in place after doing her own quick exam of Miguel’s neck and head. “This has to be in place to keep your head still. It’s probably lucky you slipped and weren’t in front of that pressure cooker when it blew.”

Miguel started speaking in rapid-fire Spanish.

Buck sat back on his heels and sighed. “He doesn’t want to go to the hospital.”

“I understood.” Tommy spoke quickly with Miguel in Spanish then shook her head. “Well, we can’t make him. He can refuse care, but I told him we don’t report to ICE and have no reason to contact them.”

“I did the same,” Buck offered with a shrug, “but I’m just a diner in the restaurant as far as he’s concerned. I figured you’d have more weight with him.”

Tommy thumbed her mic again. “Captain Strand, I’m going to need you.” She looked at the rest of them. “He’s going to come across as the most official. I outrank him at a medical scene, but Miguel’s not going to appreciate that nuance. Evan, is it?”

“Buck.”

“Buck. TK and Paul are both qualified to assess your injuries since Nancy is busy. Please go with Judd and let them check your shoulder. Grace can stay with me in case I have any questions about what happened here.”

“It barely touched me.”

“I actually believe you because if a commercial pressure cooker lid flying at enough velocity to crash through a wall and lodge itself in a van had actually hit your shoulder, it would have turned your shoulder to rubble. So since you can move it at all, I’m assuming it did just graze you. But being grazed by a heavy metal object flying by at speed can still cause significant injury. You will get checked out. Let TK and Paul get started, and I’ll check you over after I finish with Miguel.”

Buck sighed but got to his feet.

Judd was tempted to help him, but he knew he wouldn’t appreciate it in these circumstances, so he just stood back and gestured. “Come on, California. Let’s take your bad luck back to the dining room.”

As soon as they were rounding the corner of the kitchen, in the small area where things were blocked from view, Judd halted Buck, letting Owen pass them with the gurney.

He didn’t continue on yet, needing a minute with Buck in private. “Thank you…for taking care of Grace.”

“Yeah, man, of course. I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.”

Judd nodded. “Appreciate it. Your luck is apparently wretched, though.”

“Don’t I know it. The one day, in the entire time I’ve lived in Los Angeles, that I went to the pier, there was a freak tsunami.”

Judd blinked. “You were in that tsunami?”

Buck’s expression was complicated and difficult to decipher. “Yeah. Standing right on the damn pier. I need to have a talk with whoever’s got it out for me.” He tried to make it sound like a joke, but Judd could see the pain.

“You save people that day like you did here?”

“I didn’t do anything here but tell people to get down.”

“Answer the question.”

Buck blew out a breath. “Yeah. Not the person that mattered, but I pulled people out of the water for as long as I could.”

“So maybe it’s not bad things happening to you. Maybe God’s putting you in places to save people. It’s not your bad luck, it’s their good luck. So, I retract my statement.”

“I don’t believe in God,” Buck said softly, though without rancor.

“That’s okay, Buck. Seems like he believes in you.”

Buck blinked a few times in shock.

“Come on. Let’s get you checked out before Tommy figures out we stopped to gab.”

“I’m fine.”

“If you think the word ‘fine’ is getting you out of this, you weren’t paying attention to the demeanor of the two women back there.”

TK and Paul were ushering out some of the remaining patrons and Nancy was already outside with Emily, leaving just two tables being looked over by Marjan and Stollman.

“Buck,” TK said brightly. “This is a hell of a welcome to Texas.” He extended his hand.

Buck smiled. “Hey, TK. I want you to know I didn’t even get to eat yet, so I’m feeling robbed here.”

“Sucks, man. Hot Tamales is amazing,” Paul said, offering his own hand, which Buck readily shook. “I understand you’re our patient?”

“I just got grazed by that pressure cooker lid as it was flying past.” He pointed to the hole in the cinder block. “I’m cool.”

“Well, that failed to convince me,” Paul said with a grin. “How about you, TK?”

“Totally not convinced.”

Paul pointed to a chair. “Sit.”

Sighing, and with an exaggerated eye roll, Buck sat. When Paul began prodding at his left shoulder, Buck hissed and flinched away.

“Shirt off,” Paul ordered.

Buck glared.

“Man, don’t fight it,” TK said, grabbing the first aid bag from the floor and plopping it on the table.

“Just take the damn shirt off,” Judd ordered, arms crossed.

“Wow. Are you always so bossy?”

Judd arched a brow.

Buck rolled his eyes again but began struggling out of his T-shirt, his left arm giving him obvious pain when he moved it.

“You need me to cut that off?” TK offered.

“Cut this T-shirt and die.” Buck managed to get out of his shirt, and Judd winced at how his upper back on the left side was already purpling. That was gonna hurt like a son of a bitch.

“Damn, boy,” Paul said as he began running his fingers down Buck’s ribs. “This is gonna hurt.”

“I know.”

Judd stood back and watched as they ran Buck through all the range-of-motion exercises and exams to check for broken bones or any signs of dislocation. The angle of the injury meant there wasn’t any real risk of internal bleeding, but he was going to be stiff and sore for a hot minute.

“Hey, Buck!” Chavez said brightly. “Wow, you’ve got bigger muscles than Paul.”

Buck burst out laughing even though his arm was suspended awkwardly in TK’s hand and Paul was prodding at his back.

“He does not,” Paul shot back.

“He’s definitely broader than you,” TK said.

“Broader doesn’t mean more muscles.”

Buck kept laughing. “Could you two let me go now? I’m fine.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Tommy said as she came up behind them. “Chavez, would you help load my patient for transport?”

“Sure, Captain Vega. See you later, Buck!”

“Later, Mateo.”

Grace slipped up next to Judd, nudging his arm with her shoulder. “Sweet Lord, Buck, that does not look okay to me.”

“It’s just a bruise, Grace. I’m fine.”

Tommy did a quick assessment. “I agree, but I think you should come back to the station. In a year that’s not 2021, I’d send you to the ER for an X-ray anyway, but if you hang with us for a few hours, we can keep you thoroughly iced down, and I can check your range of motion at the end of the day.”

Buck made a face.

“I’ll be honest, kiddo, your back is a lot of real estate, and Grace just doesn’t have that many ice packs. We do. Besides, you prevented a lot of injuries, which is going to save me a lot of paperwork. We can ice you down for a few hours.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Owen said as he stepped up, extending his hand. “Captain Owen Strand. Owen is fine.”

Buck shook his hand. “Evan Buckley. Everyone calls me Buck.”

“Buck. So you’ll ride back with us. Mrs. Garcia is about to come out to try to kiss you. A lot,” Owen added the last in a whisper. “She’s got property damage but no one was seriously hurt, so she’s feeling grateful about the lack of lawsuit potential and the effect that could have on her insurance rates.”

Before Buck could reply, Mrs. Garcia was there, speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Buck was doublechecking his mask and leaning away as she patted his cheeks, and he was sure she’d have actually been kissing Buck if there wasn’t a plague happening. Then she stood back, squeezed both of his biceps, eyed his chest, and said something that made Buck blush and scramble for his T-shirt. Paul was laughing as he helped Buck get it back on.

Then she was hollering for something and a couple of her kitchen staff were there with a ton of bags.

Grace responded to Mrs. Garcia, thanking her. “Since they’ll be closing, and Buck saved so many people, she’s sending us off with most of their prepared foods. Mostly the tamales, rice, beans, and that sort of thing.”

“Wonderful!” Owen said with a grin. “We have guests and now we have lunch. Grace, I assume you’re joining us?”

“I’m going to ride with Tommy in case Miguel needs someone to talk him down; he’s not responding well to the uniform. I’ll ride back with her and meet you all at the station in a bit.” She handed Judd her keys. “I assume you’ll let Judd drive my car back to the station so it’ll be waiting for me?”

“Of course,” Owen said hastily. “I’d never presume to argue with you, Grace.”

She dipped her head and smiled then went up on her tip toes to give Judd a kiss on the cheek. She gave Buck a pointed look. “Evan Buckley, do not argue with the professionals.”

“I’m a professional too.”

“And right now, you’re professionally injured. Let them feed you and ice your back. We’d like you to be in functional condition when our two days off align coming up here soon. So no arguments.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll see you soon.”

As soon as she was gone, Buck slumped a little. “She’s a force of nature.”

“Tell me about it, brother. Now let’s get a move on.”

– – – –

When they arrived back at the station, Judd parked Grace’s car and paused, looking at Buck. “You know you don’t have to pretend that doesn’t hurt with us. We’ve all been there, we know what a contusion like that feels.”

Buck shrugged, the movement confined to his good shoulder. “I’ve developed a bit of an issue with admitting I’m hurt. It’s stupid, and I know it.”

“Well, I guess this is good practice for working your stuff out.” He opened the car door. “Come on, kid. Let’s get you fed and iced before Tommy comes back and skins us. Can’t believe you got hurt your second day in Texas.”

“Fourth day, really. I meandered my way here, remember?”

“It was your second real day in Austin on vacation. And you wound up in a restaurant that we had to respond to. What are the odds?”

“I’m an old hand at beating the odds,” Buck said with a grin.

Judd considered everything he knew about Buck. “Yeah, I know you are.”

Buck followed him in. The truck was already parked and the food was being offloaded. Buck looked around. “Wow. Nice.”

“Cap did it when he took over,” Judd offered. He gave Owen a look as the man approached. “He’ll give you a tour after we eat.” Nothing the man liked so much as to show off his “open floor plan” firehouse.

They passed the tribute wall to Judd’s old team, and Buck paused, looking up. “That’s really nice. I miss talking to them. Harkes in particular; he had the weirdest sense of humor. Could always make me laugh. They were good guys.”

“The best,” Judd agreed.

Marjan and TK were standing back with Owen, giving them some space. Paul, Chavez, and Stollman had to be in the kitchen already.

Buck got his feet into motion and then passed another collection of things they’d put on the wall. Photos and magazines they’d all found touching or inspiring. He did a double take at a TIME magazine from March 2020. The issue was a tribute to first responders, but it had been in process before COVID went nuclear. The picture on the cover was from a train derailment that happened a year ago. The photographer who’d captured the cover image had been nominated for a Pulitzer for feature photography. The train car was standing straight up in the air and a firefighter had scaled it from the outside and was cutting in with a saw. One of the images inside the magazine was a supplemental picture of them bringing a victim out in a basket down the outside of the train car.

Judd wasn’t into that sort of thing much, but even he’d admitted the photographs of the train crash were breathtaking, showing the best of heavy urban search and rescue. Then he remembered that derailment had been in Southern California.

“Your team respond to that call?” Judd asked.

Buck flushed and nodded then began walking again.

Judd exchanged a look with Owen, but Judd wasn’t sure what minefield they were navigating.

When they got in the kitchen, Paul wasn’t there, but Chavez and Stollman were unloading food into serving bowls. “Hey, guys!” Chavez said brightly.

“Where’s Paul?” Owen asked.

“Right here.” Paul came up behind them. “I was getting the ice packs and ace wraps for Mr. Stoic’s shoulder. Might as well ice while you eat.”

“Is that like whistle while you work?” Buck asked.

“The less annoying, more therapeutic version.”

“Whistling can be very therapeutic,” Buck countered.

Paul gave him an unimpressed look and pointed to the seat at the end of the table. “You sit there. Gives you good arm movement for your free arm and keeps anyone from bumping your bad arm. Chavez, we got anything vegetarian for Marjan?”

“We do! Mrs. Garcia knows us well. Green Chile tamales for Marjan.”

Marjan rubbed her hands together. “Wonderful!” To Buck she explained, “They don’t use lard in their masa, so if I get vegetarian, there’s nothing that’s not Halal.”

Buck nodded, smiling faintly as Paul bound up his shoulder and upper back with ice packs. “You know this could wait until after.”

“No!” the whole table said. Judd shuddered at the idea of Tommy finding out they’d let Buck eat without attending to his back first.

“None of us want to deal with Tommy,” Chavez supplied, happily bringing some black beans to the table, “if she comes back and you’re not icing.”

Chairs were left open at their table for Grace, Tommy, and Nancy. The rest of the shift picked up the serving bowls Stollman had prepared and filled in the other table.

Everyone dug in, happily enjoying the food. Chavez grinned down the table at Buck. “I’m not glad you got hurt, Buck, but I’m not mad at the free food.”

Buck smiled back. “It’s good stuff.”

There was the faint jingle of Buttercup’s collar as the dog made an appearance. He usually went straight for TK, but the Bernese Mountain Dog paused by Buck and peered up at him.

Buck gave a startled little jump then smiled hugely. “Hey there. What’s your name?” He offered his hand for Buttercup to sniff then scratched the dog’s head when he was accepted.

“That’s Buttercup,” TK replied. “Station dog.”

“TK’s dog,” Stollman and Chavez said at the same time.

“He is not.”

“He likes TK best,” Owen offered with a smile to his son.

TK blushed and dug into his food.

“You’re beautiful,” Buck said to the dog, giving him a thorough scratch and then dropping a kiss on his big head. Buttercup licked the underside of Buck’s chin then went to sit at TK’s feet.

“So,” Marjan began, “you stopped dead at that Time Magazine on the wall. That was your neck of the woods, right?”

Buck nodded.

“Your unit respond?”

Judd was concerned about how oddly still Buck was. “All hands on deck, yeah.”

“Then you have got to tell me who was on the ropes on the outside of the train in that picture.”

Buck instantly went red.

Marjan’s fork clattered to her plate. “No. Way.”

Buck made a face and shoved a bite of tamale in his mouth.

“Are you serious?” Chavez said. “You were on the cover of TIME?”

“No,” Buck said emphatically. “A derailed train car at an unfortunate angle was on the cover.”

“But that was you hanging off the side with a saw cutting an opening to get someone out?” Marjan pressed.

“Technically, yes.”

“Why in the world would you hide that?”

“Marjan,” Judd said softly.

“Come on, Judd, it wasn’t an issue dedicated to derailed trains, it was to first responders.” She seemed befuddled. “Buck, you follow me on Insta. You get it.”

Judd sat back in his chair and sighed. This was Marjan’s one big blindspot, and it was biting her in the ass. They all had them. He’d tried to warn her off, but Buck was a big boy who could fight his own battles.

“If Buck doesn’t want to talk about that rescue, he doesn’t have to,” Owen said firmly. “He’s our guest.”

Judd took the pulse around the dining table. TK and Paul both seemed to get it, Paul more than TK, who seemed a little perplexed. Marjan, Stollman, and Chavez clearly didn’t get why Buck wouldn’t want to talk about it.

Tommy, Grace, and Nancy arrived. Tommy immediately checked Buck’s ice packs. Grace slid into the seat between Judd and Owen, leaving the seats closer to Buck for Nancy and Tommy.

“How are Emily and Miguel?” Buck asked.

“Emily was basically unscathed.” Tommy sat and began dishing up food. “They checked her for shoulder dislocation, but she just bruised it.” Tommy gave Buck a look. “Not as badly as you, of course.”

Buck grinned. “I think my ducking skills are actually pretty good.”

Tommy smiled back. “Miguel has a minor concussion. They’ll observe him for a while but what’s going to keep him in the hospital for a day is the number of second-degree burns.” She glanced around. “So what did we interrupt?”

Chavez nearly bounced in his seat. “We’d just learned that Buck’s the firefighter on the cover of the TIME magazine on the inspiration wall.”

Grace looked around Judd and stared at Buck. “That’s you hanging off the side of a train facing a way that God did not intend?”

“Yes…?”

Tommy cleared her throat. “I seem to recall the article referenced an unknown firefighter?”

“I asked that they not reveal my name. The whole station agreed not to reveal who it was.”

“Buck doesn’t seem to want to talk about it,” Owen said.

“Well, that’s okay,” Tommy said. “Everyone has difficult calls sometimes that they don’t want to talk about.”

“It wasn’t…” Buck sighed and set his fork down, then rubbed his hands over his face. “You know those promises you shouldn’t make at a scene? Like to little kids or grieving parents?”

Tommy stilled and turned to look more directly at Buck. “Yes. It’s something we all do at one time or another and yet something we have to remind ourselves and others not to do.” Tommy’d had a dust-up with Tim about making promises like that right before Tim had died, so Judd knew what a sore spot it was.

“Right. Well, I shouldn’t have been up there. The scene commander said no, my captain said no, my partner said no. But I promised my ex-girlfriend that I would get her fiancé off that train. I pushed everyone to the limit to get my way. I don’t look at that picture and see whatever anyone else sees. I see me being stupid because I was emotionally compromised because the girl I used to be in love with showed up and begged me to promise to save the man she actually loved.”

The brutal honesty made Judd flinch inside, but he turned his gaze to Marjan, who looked stricken.

“You learned from that?” Tommy asked, but not unkindly.

“Yep.”

She reached out and patted his arm. “That’s all any of us can do. Every single person in this line of work is an idiot at some point. The best possible outcome is that we save some lives during our idiocy.”

Buck smiled faintly. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”

“Did you apologize to your captain?”

Buck laughed, and the tension around the table was broken. “That too.”

Chavez couldn’t seem to let it go as he asked, “So you’re really a major badass, but the only scene pictures on your Insta are you with smiling kids.”

Buck pointed his finger at Chavez. “I’m really proud of every kid I’ve rescued from those toy claw machines.”

“The what now?” Chavez asked.

“You know… Those machines with the stuffed animals with the big claw that comes down to pick them up and drop it down a chute?”

Judd gave Buck a funny look. “That happen a lot?”

Buck held up a hand and waved four fingers. “It’s ridiculous, I know. I still can’t figure out how they get in there because those chutes don’t look big enough.”

“When a kid is determined,” Tommy murmured.

“Like that kid who shoved that entire Matchbox car up his nose,” Chavez said gleefully to Paul.

Paul huffed. “Man, that’s not cool. That kid was so mad at me.”

“A Matchbox car up his nose?” Buck repeated. “How?”

“Who knows,” Paul said. “But the crazy thing is his father did it too just to see if he could figure out how his kid did it.”

Judd felt like he could relax when the conversation turned toward their silliest rescues. Everyone was laughing and enjoying the food. Buck fit in well with the group, though Judd caught Marjan sending glances his way periodically like she couldn’t figure him out.

Grace got the worst case of the giggles, something Judd hadn’t seen in years, over Buck’s tale about a guy getting caught up in the car wash brushes.

“Come on,” Judd said, leaning back in his chair. “You’re pulling my leg.”

“Nope. He was supposed to turn off the car wash before pulling the hose out, but he didn’t. The big vertical brush caught his hose and he wound up tied to that thing just spinning around in circles, screaming his head off. We got him down pretty quick but then stayed around for like fifteen minutes to watch the security footage on repeat.”

“Your captain didn’t mind?” Tommy asked with a smile.

“Oh, he tried to be serious, but then he caught sight of the replay and started laughing. We almost had to scrape him off the floor.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Grace said taking a drink.

“No, the most ridiculous is the one I don’t even have clear memories of.” Buck looked sheepish. “There was this lady we’d done a rescue for who wanted to thank us by bringing us some enlightenment.”

“Oh no,” Tommy said. “I can already feel this going bad.”

“If you suspect baked goods, you’d be right. So we eat these brownies and then get a call out to this brawl at a Little Miss beauty pageant. You know, beauty queens but they’re only yea big?” He held his hand like two feet off the floor. “The LSD kicks in en route, and the only person who wasn’t dosed out of the whole squad was Chimney. Eddie and I both were traumatized by the size of the beauty queens. I wasn’t sure if they’d shrunk or I’d become a giant or what, but I couldn’t make sense of it. Anyway, the whole squad winding up handcuffed for our own protection and traumatized by teeny tiny beauty queens is the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Judd was biting his lip, trying not to laugh. “I feel like I shouldn’t laugh, because someone dosing your entire squad is not funny, but it’s also hysterical that y’all all freaked out over a bunch of kids.”

“Judd, one of the brawling adults put her stiletto through another woman’s face. That is not something you want to see when you’re literally tripping.”

Judd snorted.

“I felt like we were surrounded by weapons of mass destruction.”

“That many pee wee beauty queens?” Tommy replied. “You were.”

“Actually, in retrospect, the most absurd was that girl who put her head in that guy’s tailpipe to get a date.”

“Oh come on,” TK said.

“True story.” Buck held up his hand.

“So, Buck,” Chavez said, “do you do a lot of heavy rescue?”

“Fair bit. I trained for LAFD Urban Search & Rescue, but decided I wanted permanent placement with a regular station rather than on a response team.”

“That’s hard work,” Owen said. “Training for that certification is rigorous.”

“If there’s a big disaster, I can get re-tasked to one of the S&R teams, but usually in a big disaster, I’m there anyway. We were one of the teams in the collapsing hotel in the last big earthquake. We were obviously one of the teams for the train derailment.”

“But you could get pulled from your station if they needed you elsewhere?” Chavez asked.

“If the disaster was outside of the area my station would be called to, and big enough to form all the S&R teams, there are a lot of people that could get re-tasked to S&R, myself included.”

“You take the resources that have the training,” Owen said. “I assume all the S&R teams were on deck for the tsunami?”

“Yeah, of course. Though not me. I was still on medical leave from the leg…thing.”

Marjan shook her head. “I’m pretty sure Eddie said you were both working the tsunami.”

“No. Eddie was working the tsunami; I was in it. I was on the pier when the wave hit.”

Everyone stopped fiddling with the dregs of their meal and stared, though Judd already knew about this.

“I’m sure with your experience, medical leave or no,” Tommy said, “you were a great help to the people there that day.”

“I helped the ones I could, but there’s only so much you can do with that much water dropping on your head. I’ll tell you, though, it does give you a different perspective to be in the disaster and not arriving later to deal with the fallout.”

Marjan looked like she was going to say something else, but Judd thought he was reading right that Buck was deflecting hard on this subject. Grace noticed it too because she said, “All right, Buck, what’s the most unexpected thing that’s ever happened on the job that didn’t really have anything to do with being a firefighter?”

Buck blinked a couple of times. “You’re the one who comes up with complicated questions at party games, aren’t you?”

“Yes, she is,” Judd and Tommy said in unison.

Everyone else laughed.

“It’s tangential to the job, but I’d have to say the time someone framed my entire squad for an armored car robbery.”

Chavez was the only one still eating and spit his food out from choking.

TK thumped him soundly on the back but kept looking at Buck. “You got framed for an armored car robbery.”

“It was so weird. Even my sister, who was the dispatcher on that call, got interrogated by the LAPD and the FBI. ‘Don’t leave town, Mr. Buckley,’” Buck said in a deeper voice. “My captain’s wife is an LAPD sergeant, and she got it too. They tossed all our houses, our cars, everything.”

“Wow,” Chavez said. “How’d that happen?”

Buck opened his mouth then closed it and cocked his head to the side. “Let me pull up the note. We had to write up a cheat sheet for if we ever tell this story. I swear that Hen and Athena are the only ones who can keep track of all the moving parts. It’s so convoluted and weird.”

He handed his phone off to Tommy, who began reading from the top. About midway through, Judd muttered, “I’m so confused.”

“Me too,” Chavez said.

“I’m not confused, but I think it’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Paul replied. “But keep going. I have a theory about what’s going on with the bank manager. I’m writing it down.”

“You figured out why the bank manager was unconscious?” Buck asked in astonishment.

“I think so. I’m writing it down.” He scribbled it on a piece of paper and passed it to Grace.

“Is he doing the thing again?” Judd asked TK with a grin.

“He’s definitely doing the thing,” TK agreed.

When Tommy finally got to the end, Paul said, “Ha!”

Grace held up the piece of paper that had written on it: scorpion venom.

“No way,” Buck breathed. “How’d you do that?”

“He has a thing,” TK said.

“Tell me about the thing,” Buck demanded. “I need to know all about the thing.”

– – – –

Judd was sitting on one of the work tables finishing up the report from some idiot-stuck-up-a-tree call they’d had right after lunch when Tommy came down from the bunk room. They hadn’t needed paramedics for a fool in a tree, so the ladder truck had gone out, Grace had gone home, leaving Buck to Tommy and Nancy’s tender mercies.

“How is he?”

“Okay.” She leaned across from him, taking quick note of where everyone was. “He’s going to be sore for a few days, and that bruising is colorful. The ER attending authorized some muscle relaxers for him, so he’s conked out right now. They called him in a prescription for a few more to get through the next couple of days. When Grace went with Nancy and me to the hospital, I had Grace give me some more details about what happened. She said she hadn’t even heard anything. He just suddenly stopped talking mid-sentence and his head popped up like a startled groundhog and he started looking around. Next thing she knew, he was shoving her under the table and demanding everyone get down.

“The kitchen didn’t even react to his warnings right away; they didn’t see the problem. The thing is, Judd, he saved Grace’s life today because that lid would have taken her head off. She showed me where she was sitting.” Tommy shook her head. “So, I plan to keep an eye on him today, and if we need to get him into a local doctor, we’ll work that out.”

Judd swallowed heavily and leaned back; he couldn’t deal with the idea of losing Grace. The week before Buck arrived had been bumpy for them. The 126 had responded to a call of a suspected heart attack, and he’d found his father-in-law passed out due to hypoglycemic shock on top of a woman who was not Grace’s mother. Grace’s father had insisted that Judd was there as the hand of the Lord to pull him back from sin. Judd knew that was a load of garbage. That man didn’t feel a bit penitent about what he’d done or that he’d asked Judd to keep it quiet.

“Remember that call a week or so ago?” he said, carefully emphasizing the word that.

“You mean at the hotel?”

“Yeah.”

“What about it?”

“There was something Grace’s daddy said that kind of made me mad. Furious, really. He said I was the hand of God, or some such. God was using me to keep him from making a fool mistake. Like he hadn’t stepped out on Grace’s mama before.”

Tommy scoffed.

“And I knew that was nonsense. If God does use people to do his work, I don’t believe he’s going to put people in the path of an adulterer for the purposes of saving him an uncomfortable conversation with his wife.” Judd hadn’t wanted to be the bearer of that kind of news, so he’d put off telling Grace, but she’d figured it out around the time he’d worked up the courage to tell her. They’d had a few rough days, but they always came through in the end.

“I’d have to agree with you about that.”

“But then I meet Buck, and he mentions his bad luck about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where things are going from bad to worse. And though I don’t know that I really believe God moves people around like chess pieces, he sure seems to take advantage of where Evan Buckley happens to be standing.”

Tommy laughed, though her eyes were a little misty. “That was practically poetic, Judd, and I’m in full agreement with you.”

Chapter Seven

Eddie walked out of the station, tired and frustrated for no obvious reason, except that he missed Buck. It had barely been a week, and he was struggling. After Shannon had died, he’d been unable to deal with anger and frustration in his usual ways. Piled on to that were the many problems surrounding Buck—from the grief of the bombing to the separation of the lawsuit. He’d eventually taken to street fighting to deal with his stress. Then he’d switched to doing MMA fighting in a gym or fucking guys he picked up on Grindr for one-night stands.

COVID had put a stop to both of his stress outlets. The gyms were all closed down, and though he knew people were still having anonymous hookups, that wasn’t something he could afford to do. He couldn’t take that chance with Christopher’s health. He’d sworn to Buck and Bobby that he’d never go back to street fighting, so he was shit out of luck on that front too. There was no stress relief in sight for him—no fighting, and definitely no fucking.

He’d managed during COVID because of Buck, who was a whole different kind of stress relief the likes of which Eddie had never known before. His best friend had practically lived with them, and Buck leeched the tension off of Eddie like nothing Eddie had ever experienced. But Buck was in Texas, and Eddie was tense and miserable.

“Hey, Eddie, wait up!” called Darian Anders, their TAD from the 147. The guy was close to Eddie’s height, with a similar build and dark hair, but blue eyes that reminded Eddie way too much of Buck’s.

Eddie smiled and waited for Anders to catch up. Bobby hadn’t been wrong about Anders being a good fit for their team in terms of covering for Buck. No one could replace Buck, but Anders had similar skills and an even temperament. The guy seemed familiar to Eddie when they first met, but he’d never been able to place what call they’d been at with the 147 where he might have met him, especially since Anders was a long-timer on C-shift, and Eddie had always been on A-shift.

“Hey, listen…” Anders hesitated, glancing around to make sure they were alone. “You want to fuck some time?”

Eddie blinked, wondering if he’d misheard. “Excuse me?”

“You really don’t remember me, do you? Man, I thought you just had a great poker face.”

Eddie stared.

“We hooked up on Grindr one night? You were kind of messed up, dude, so I get it. And you were real clear, despite how banged up you were, that you didn’t do repeats, but this pandemic is playing hell with my sex life, and I need to get laid. You seem tense, and I figured maybe it was for the same reason as me.”

Eddie held up a hand, his mind spinning. “Let’s talk in the truck.”

“You want to do it here?”

Talk,” Eddie repeated. He climbed into the cab and waited for Anders to jog around to the other side and get in. As soon as the door was shut, Eddie turned in his seat and glared. “What are you trying to pull?”

“Nothing. If I were trying to pull something, why would I wait until now? I’m just horny as fuck and tired of my own hand, okay? I’m vaccinated, but I don’t want to risk passing COVID to my mom, so I’m super careful at work and don’t take any chances in my personal life. I’ve observed that you’re pretty much the same. This is an offer for no-strings fucking. That’s it, so don’t think I’m asking you out on a date. Not that I’m not looking for Mr. Right, but you’re way too fucking broody for me. You’re pretty good in the sack, but you’ve got a major attitude problem.”

Eddie’s glare ramped up a notch. Pretty good in the sack?

“See? That right there. Attitude problem.” Anders suddenly grinned. The guy was attractive and had a nice smile, but he was a little boring to Eddie. Except for his eyes. “Was it the pretty good in the sack bit? Get over yourself, man. Considering that your hands looked shredded and you probably had two cracked ribs, I’d say you performed pretty damn well.

“Seriously, it’s just an offer of sex from someone you’re in an extended household with.” Firefighters worked in too close quarters to ever really be considered separate households, so the protocols were a little different, and they were even more cautious with outsiders. Anders put his hand on the door handle. “Just think about it. You’ve got my cell phone.”

“You remember what I’m like?” Eddie wanted to verify, not wanting to get into his usual disclaimers he made before a Grindr hookup.

“You mean the whole no kissing thing? Whatever, man. Like I’d kiss someone during an actual plague. Besides, in case your memory is really short, I’m not actually into you. You’re hot and all, but not my type.”

Eddie huffed. “I heard you the first time. And, yes, I meant the kissing but also my other preferences.”

“You mean how you want to hold me down and ride me hard? Yeah, that’s my preference too, so if you’re game, tell me now because I’m getting worked up just thinking about it. If this is a letdown, it sucks balls.”

“Show me your profile on Grindr.”

Anders rolled his eyes, but pulled out his phone and handed it over with the requested profile showing. It looked familiar. The picture was of the lower part of Anders’ face, but it focused mostly on his chest and abs. Eddie vaguely remembered the profile and that evening. It was one of the nights he’d been pretty damn drunk. He’d barely been face-to-face with his hookup that night, bending the guy over the edge of the bed at the cheap motel almost immediately.

“If this changes a single thing at work…”

Anders reared back. “Man, I like sex, and I need the release like you don’t know, but I love my job. If it affects things at work, I’ll kick your fucking ass.”

Eddie grinned. “You could try.”

“Whatever. Does that mean yes?”

“Means yes. I’ll text you my address. My son is at a friend’s for Zoom school, so we’ve got time before I have to leave to get him.”

“Awesome. I’ll be right behind you.”

When Eddie got home, he took a few seconds to steady his nerves before getting out of the truck. He’d never done this kind of thing at his own house before, but now that he knew Anders was LAFD, it changed the safety issues he’d always been careful about. Anders could easily get his address anyway, and it was likely he’d be at Eddie’s house eventually for some A-shift cookout. Small backyard social gatherings were about all they had since the pandemic began.

Anders pulled up just as Eddie made it inside, so he left the door ajar, kicked his shoes off, then went into the kitchen to wash his hands.

Eddie gestured Anders into the kitchen to wash his own hands and locked the front door. As soon as Anders was done, Eddie grabbed him by the belt buckle and dragged him down the hall.

“In a hurry?” Anders asked.

“Aren’t you?”

“Damn right.”

Eddie kicked his bedroom door shut then pulled off his T-shirt.

“God, you’ve got great abs,” Anders breathed.

“Strip,” Eddie ordered as he reached into the bedside table, tossing lube and condoms on the bed, keeping one condom in hand.

“No muss, no fuss, eh? Fine.” Anders peeled off his clothes quickly, leaving them in a heap by the bed. The guy was about the same age as Eddie, maybe a little younger, but built well with perhaps a little more muscle than Eddie. They were of similar height as well, though Anders was a little fairer than Eddie. Not as pale as Buck, though.

Eddie ruthlessly stomped on any more thoughts of Buck. It wasn’t fair to Buck or himself to do that now.

Anders tipped his chin up. “You gonna get your pants off? No disrespect, man, but it’s your dick I’m after.”

Smirking, Eddie opened his belt then popped the buttons on his jeans. He pulled his dick out of his boxer briefs, already half hard at just the prospect of having sex after such a long dry spell.

“That’s such a nice cock.” Anders’ voice had gone a little breathy, and his eyes were glued to Eddie’s dick.

Eddie put a hand on Anders’ shoulder and pressed down.

Anders went easily to his knees, grinning up at Eddie. “A little warm-up, huh?”

Not replying verbally, Eddie pumped his cock a few times to get it fully hard then ripped open the condom packet and slicked it onto his cock. Anders wasted no time in taking Eddie’s dick into his mouth, moaning as he took the length as deep as he could. Despite Anders’ obvious cocksucking skills, Eddie had a little too much length, so Anders worked the base with his hand. He bobbed his head, taking Eddie’s dick like a pro.

Eddie let his head drop back, feeling the tension start to bleed out of his shoulders. It wasn’t just the sex. It was having someone on their knees for him, under his hands, at his mercy. He’d always been like this about sex, liking the feeling of being dominant in the bedroom. He wasn’t a caveman; he didn’t perceive himself as better than his partners. But when it came to sex, Eddie liked to hold his partners down, to drive into them hard, to push them to the edge. Not every time, but it was a major kink of his.

It worked better with men than women in his experience. Few women he’d known wanted to indulge his sexual quirks, though he’d never tried hard to find a match in that way. Shannon had been an outlier in that they discovered during a random hookup that they were sexually compatible, which had made their relationship spark fast and hot. But their marriage had destroyed either of their interest in the dominance and submission angle of their sex life.

As much as he’d loved her and been delighted to find sexual compatibility with her, there was an extra thrill to this dynamic with a man. To holding a man down. To having someone as strong as him, or even stronger, willingly surrender to him.

He’d always made better emotional connections with women and better sexual connections with men. Buck was the first man he’d made the kind of emotional connection with that felt like it could be a relationship. But Buck was straight.

He squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to think about Buck while getting blown. It was too tempting to put Buck in Anders’ place in his mind, and he couldn’t do that to himself. Or Buck. He couldn’t let sexual thoughts of Buck have free reign in his mind to intrude when he was trying to be Buck’s friend.

The sensations coming from Eddie’s cock were putting him in a headspace he hadn’t been able to indulge in for far too long. Anders’ hair was barely long enough to grip, to allow him to control the speed of the thrusts. When he took command and thrust harder, Anders groaned, clutching at his hip.

Eddie kept Anders working his cock until tension was pooling low in his belly, then he pulled the guy off. Anders stared up at him, eyes glassy, mouth swollen. Eddie reached over and pulled his duvet off the bed, deftly catching the lube, then he yanked Anders to his feet.

More than a little roughly, and with no finesse, he pushed Anders over the bed and kicked his legs apart. Eddie stripped off the condom and changed it out; he never fucked with a condom someone’s teeth had been near.

“God, yes.” Anders’ hands curled into the sheets as he shoved his ass back. He had a nice ass, round and tight. Not as nice as—

Frustrated with himself, Eddie squirted some lube straight onto the exposed hole, getting a shocked inhalation in reaction. He rubbed the pads of two fingers over the tight flesh, watching as Anders’ muscles started to relax, then he pressed in with both fingers.

Anders groaned and pushed his ass back. Eddie reveled in the tight clutch around him. It’d been too fucking long. Part of him wanted to just slam into that tight little ass, but he wanted this to last, so he patiently worked his fingers in and out, working up to three and then four.

“Jesus god,” Anders exclaimed.

Eddie slapped him on the ass. “No swearing.” He didn’t care about the “god” bit, but he’d been raised Catholic, and “Jesus” was too specific, something absolutely not allowed in the bedroom.

“Are you serious? That’s not swearing.”

“It is in this house.” Eddie gave a jab against Anders’ prostate, getting a strangled groan for his efforts.

“Do that again.”

“You gonna behave?”

“Yeah, I’ll behave. No swearing.”

Eddie rewarded him by going after his prostate like it was his job until Anders was a moaning, shaking mess, leaking precum all over Eddie’s sheets.

He’d used plenty of lube, so he just pulled his hand free and guided the thick head of his cock to the stretched hole. He pushed inside and bottomed out in one thrust.

“Fuck,” Anders breathed, “you’re big.”

Eddie stilled, fingers clenching on Anders’ hip.

Anders went still. “Ah, hell. Sorry. I’ll behave.”

“You do it again, I’m not gonna let you come.”

Anders huffed.

Eddie pulled back and thrust in hard, angled perfectly to hit the prostate he’d been tormenting for the last several minutes.

Anders made a strangled sound and lifted one leg up onto the bed, opening himself wider.

Eddie took the invitation for what it was and fucked into him hard and fast, riding his new boy with all the pent-up frustration of the last year. Part of him wanted to just come, to chase his own release, but he knew he needed the long haul, the drawn-out fuck to get him out of his head.

Anders tried reaching for his own dick, but Eddie was having none of that. He caught Anders’ hands, pinning them to the bed as he continued to drive his cock into the hot, hard body underneath him.

When Eddie was dripping sweat and could barely hold off the orgasm any longer, he slid his hand down and curled it around Anders’ weeping erection.

Anders’ shouted. “Please. Please. Please.” The litany of pleas continued, with no sense to them other than begging. Eddie began to stroke with a tight fist, wanting his bottom to come first, wanting to feel the clench around his cock.

Anders came with another shout, his ass squeezing hard around Eddie’s dick. Eddie groaned and dropped his forehead to rest between Anders’ shoulder blades. His hips stuttered as he began to come, the orgasm feeling like it’d been pulled from him.

He stayed sprawled across the strong back for precious seconds. Eddie had always been slow to soften after coming, he could even continue to fuck sometimes, though he was too sensitive now—the fuck had been a long one. When he caught his breath, he held the base of the condom and pulled out. He cleaned up in the bathroom, coming back into the bedroom with a warm cloth for Anders.

Anders was sitting up, looking dazed. Eddie got him cleaned up, keeping an eye on him.

After a couple of minutes, the guy seemed to come out of his fog. “Give me a second and I’ll get dressed.”

“Did you want to catch a shower?”

“Do you mind? I’d rather not have to go home before I head over to my Mom’s place to help her out today.”

“Go ahead.” Eddie was glad he was going to take the shower because it would give Anders time to get in the right headspace to get behind the wheel, otherwise Eddie would have to make a pretense of making food or something.

When Anders joined him in the kitchen ten minutes later, the guy was clean and more clear-eyed.

Eddie pointed at the table. “Sit. Drink some water and I’ll get you some coffee you can take with you. How do you take it?”

“Milk and sugar. You don’t have to do that you know. I agreed to no strings.”

“No strings doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a complete asshole and kick you out the minute I’m done with your ass. I realize I was probably like that the last time we met, and for that I apologize. I wasn’t in a good place.”

Anders sipped his water, giving Eddie a thoughtful look. “You want to talk about it?”

“I don’t need a confessor, if that’s what you mean. It’s not even that big of a secret. My wife had died, my best friend and primary support system was out of my life for several reasons, and I was handling things…badly.”

“Sorry to hear about your wife, man, that sucks.”

Eddie dipped his head.

“I assume your best friend is Buckley?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s a good guy. Cap tried to get him into the 147 after he did his S&R training, but Buck’s always been rock solid on wanting to stay with Nash from the moment he met the man.”

Eddie smiled faintly. Buck’s loyalty was one of his more endearing qualities. “Buck’s a good guy.”

“He okay?”

“Pardon?”

“Well, seems like something is wrong with him. Everyone is so vague and weird whenever he comes up. I thought maybe the guy was sick the way everyone was acting.”

“Nothing like that.” Eddie made a mental note to tell Chim, Hen, and Bobby to stop acting so tragic about Buck. “He just needed some time off to deal with family stuff.” Eddie’s phone chimed with Buck’s specific tone. “Speak of the devil…” Eddie muttered.

Buck: Eds you gotta save me. They’re smothering me to death.

Eddie grinned.

Eddie: What happened?

Buck: Went to a restaurant yesterday with Grace and this pressure cooker blew up. You remember that call we had where that pressure cooker went off?
Buck: Same thing basically. I’ll never forget that fork through that guy’s hand.

Eddie: Buck! What happened?

Buck: I took one teeny tiny glancing blow from the pressure cooker lid.
Buck: Everyone is smothering me in ice packs and muscle relaxers. And now there’s hot packs too.

Eddie read the last message, brow furrowing. He immediately dialed Buck’s number. As soon as Buck answered, Eddie said, “What do you mean, you took a glancing blow from a pressure cooker?”

Anders’ eyes widened.

Pressure cooker lid, Edmundo, the lid.”

“Buck,” Eddie said in a warning tone.

I’m fine. It’s just a bruise. A big bruise, but still. But it’s the all-first-aid network around here. They made me stay at the fire station all day yesterday. Paul chased me around with ice packs constantly. And now everyone has shown up at Grace and Judd’s place, and Owen has this stinky shit that smells like geraniums, Tommy brought this stuff that makes IcyHot seem like a cakewalk, and Judd’s father showed up with actual fucking horse liniment. And that stuff really, really stinks. I smell like a minty, flowery horse over here.”

Eddie pinched the bridge of his nose and started laughing. “Buck. Are you okay?”

No. Did you not hear the bit about the smothering?”

“Let them smother you, idiota. You could have gotten killed.”

I could not; don’t be dramatic.” He made a sniffing sound. “I stink.”

“Buck. Send me a picture of your back. If it doesn’t warrant all the hovering and the smells, I’ll come to your rescue.”

There was a long silence.

“It’s as bad as I think it is, isn’t it?”

It looks worse than it is, Eddie, I swear. I just need them to stop hovering.”

“Deal with it, Buck. I’m glad they’re hovering. I’m not going to do a damn thing to discourage the hovering. I might even encourage more of it.”

You are losing all your best friend perks.”

“And what perks would those be.”

Buck huffed.

“Buck?”

Yeah?”

“Don’t get killed.”

You too, Eds.”

He hung up, grinning, and found Anders watching him closely. “What?”

“Wow.”

“What?”

Anders shook his head. “Nothing, man. Buck okay?”

“He tried to stop a high-velocity piece of metal with his back, and now he’s bitching about people caring about him. So, yeah, he’s fine.”

Anders’ lips were twitching. “Okay, then. I’m gonna go see my Mom. She’s in a wheelchair, so I try to get over there every day that I’m not on shift and make sure she’s got all the help she needs.” He clapped Eddie on the shoulder. “Thanks for the good time, man.”

Eddie watched Anders leave, feeling confused, but also more relaxed than he had in a while. He normally didn’t sleep during the day, no matter how tired he was, because he wanted to keep a regular sleep schedule, but he figured he could do with an hour nap. After he changed his sheets.

– – – –

Buck laughed at the latest tale Stuart Ryder had to tell about baby Judd Ryder. He liked Judd’s father. The old guy was cranky as hell, but even Buck, who tended to take that kind of thing very personally, could see that it was a front. Or, at least, it wasn’t truly directed at Buck.

The first time he’d met the old guy was the day after his run-in with a pressure cooker, and he’d been sore as hell. He hadn’t wanted to admit how painful it was to move his arm and back that day, but everyone had been able to tell. Stuart was the biggest, grouchiest mother hen of them all. And he’d forced that stinky horse liniment on Buck.

It’d been a couple of days since then and Buck was finally not so stiff and sore today, so they’d gone out and ridden horses at the ranch the Ryder family owned. Stuart hadn’t ridden, but he had shown Buck around the property and they’d talked about nothing important, and yet Buck had come away feeling lighter somehow.

So far, Buck was resisting the urge to spend too much time on stuff back home. He texted Christopher every night, and FaceTimed with him every other night or so. He’d texted Bobby and Hen to let them know he was all right and he’d be in touch, but hadn’t reached out to Chim and Maddie other than to email and say he was fine and he’d write when he was ready. Maddie kept trying to call him, which he always ignored, feeling sad that it’d come to this.

He continued to feel guilty about not giving Maddie what she wanted, but he knew he couldn’t do it without sacrificing a part of himself that would hurt him too much in the long run.

“What I want to know,” Stuart said, tapping Buck on the arm, “is how a city boy like you got to be so good with a horse.” Judd and Grace were sitting practically on top of each other at the other end of the table. They seemed so happy with one another that it sometimes made Buck’s heart ache.

“The answer to that is nothing interesting. Had a few jobs working on a ranch.”

“A few?” Stuart repeated. “How many jobs have you had?”

“A lot. I moved around from nineteen until I went to the fire academy when I was twenty-five. Sometimes I’d move every couple of months. Working my way across the country, trying to find something that fit. A lot of different jobs.”

“You decided not to go to college?” Stuart asked. Buck didn’t sense any judgment in the question; it wasn’t uncommon for firefighters not to complete any higher education. Neither Eddie nor Bobby had gone to college, and they were the best Buck had ever seen. But it wasn’t an uncommon question to come up, why one made the choices they did about school. He already knew Judd had an associate degree in emergency management, and Grace has a BA in communications.

“I eventually finished. I’d done two-and-half years of college before I left Pennsylvania. I finished up the rest of my BS in Colorado in a year and a bit. The bit part was I had one class left and was able to take it in the summer. That was one of the places I worked on a ranch. More than one ranch actually, because the first guy was a di— um. He wasn’t very nice.”

“What’d you study, Buck?” Grace asked from where she had her head resting on Judd’s upper arm.

“Civil engineering.” That was technically in Buck’s file with the department, but he never talked about it.

Judd blinked. “That’s a surprise but only because I figure if a man gets an engineering degree, he’s gonna do somethin’ with it.”

“I never had a problem in school with math and sciences, at least, not once I got a good math teacher. So, I figured I’d get a degree in something that didn’t need a lot of art, language, or social sciences. Civil engineering was picked from a list based on urban development being more interesting to me than electrical engineering or whatever.” People often thought Buck was stupid, but he just didn’t express himself well. He’d never had an issue remembering things or processing complicated problems, and yet they still thought he was dumb. He was one of the best in the department with fire science because he never forgot the stuff he’d learned and could apply it under pressure.

“I guess it’s a good pick for a firefighter in some ways,” Grace said. “Even if you didn’t know it then.”

“It helps sometimes.” He reached for the wine glass. Grace preferred to serve wine with dinner. Buck was more of a beer guy, but he didn’t mind the change. “When I was first in school, straight out of high school, all they cared about was me playing football. My coach was insistent that I sign up for nothing but art, English, and various Social Sciences. If he had let me sign up for the math and science classes I wanted, I wouldn’t have felt so lost at school, I don’t think.”

“Some people can only think a certain way about a thing,” Grace said gently. “It’s good you figured out what you needed to for yourself and found a better path.”

“It takes time, and occasionally a winding road, but we all get where we’re meant to be,” Buck said with a faint smile.

“I think your facility with English is just fine,” Stuart said.

Buck raised his wine glass in acknowledgment, and everyone else raised theirs as well.

When dinner was through and dessert consumed, they graduated to the living room, with Stuart eyeing Buck from the seat next to him on the couch. Judd and Grace could have taken the loveseat, but she’d seated herself sideways across his lap in the recliner. Buck found them too adorable for words.

Stuart reached out and patted Buck’s arm. “Something’s got you all knotted up, son. You put on a good show, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that you can speak what’s on your mind. We’ll hold what you say as confidential and not offer advice you don’t want.” He squeezed once and then released and sat back. “The offer is on the table, but silence is always fine, too. I didn’t want you to think you were actually foolin’ anyone with your California-honed acting skills.”

Buck laughed, feeling some of the tension ease. He thought about his session yesterday morning with Dr. Copeland. She was trying to fit him in twice a week right now because she was worried about his frame of mind.

“I found out recently that I had a brother; his name was Daniel. He died when I was less than a year old. My sister is nearly a decade older than me, but my parents made her swear to never tell me about him. So, she didn’t. I found out about him a couple of days before I called Judd.” Buck stayed focused on Stuart.

“That’s a hell of a thing, son. Why didn’t they want you to know? It’s the saddest thing I can imagine to lose your child, but hiding that they ever existed seems an even sadder thing. Why would you erase someone you loved from existence?”

Buck tilted his head, suddenly seeing the situation through a different lens. His parents talked a big game about grieving for Daniel, but all of the decisions they’d made to hide the truth about Daniel and the nature of Buck’s existence were about their own embarrassment and the judgment they felt from their neighbors and friends.

“I can only guess,” Buck said slowly, “but I think their own embarrassment was stronger than their grief. Or maybe they couldn’t take feeling so ashamed on top of losing him.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. And I know that didn’t make sense. Daniel had leukemia, and no one in the family was an HLA match. They conceived me through IVF to guarantee a match to Daniel, so that I could provide him bone marrow. They call it a savior sibling. Personally, I think that term is emotionally abusive, but whatever.”

He took a deep breath, making himself talk about it in calm terms. “Their doctors apparently disapproved, their neighbors were judging them, their friends thought it was unethical. But all they cared about at the time was saving Daniel.” He rubbed his hand along his leg. “I guess I get it. They were desperate, and the person they loved most in the world was dying.”

“People can be excused for a lot of things when they’re desperate, but there are limits,” Stuart chided. “If they loved him so much, hiding him wasn’t the solution.”

“They erased him entirely. New town, new schools, and never mentioned Daniel publicly again.”

“That may have made their grief worse, son. What matters now is how they were with you. What was it like finding out?”

“In a weird way, it was a relief,” Buck admitted. “I always felt unwanted; that’s my first clear memory about my parents as a child. So to find out that it’s because of all this, and that it had nothing to do with anything intrinsic about me, was…freeing, I guess is the word. It’s like it made it so I don’t have to care anymore about the fact that they don’t love me.”

“Can you cut it off that easily?”

“No, but in my head it makes sense, and my emotions are catching up. We’ve worked terrible calls where we find kids locked in a basement or left unfed. Their parents were just having children for the sake of it and then locking them up like possessions, and I walked away from those calls thinking those parents aren’t parents, they don’t deserve those kids. That it’s no reflection on those children that their parents are morally bankrupt.

“I’m not saying my parents are that bad, because they’re perfectly normal, middle-class people from Hershey, Pennsylvania. But they still had a kid they didn’t want expressly so that the kid could be marrow-on-demand for the child they actually loved. And then they never bothered to try to care about me. I guess I don’t see the emotional difference between the two.”

“I don’t think there is one,” Stuart said. “I honestly can’t conceive of having a child solely to be a donor to another, but if I did embark on such a desperate act, I’d be sure to love that other child all the more.”

“Buck,” Grace murmured, “you said once you hadn’t had contact with your parents in a long time.”

He glanced over and found them both in the same position, but they seemed less relaxed. “It was about a decade. Not since I left college in Pennsylvania. Even when I was in the hospital repeatedly after my leg was crushed, they never got in touch with me directly. Maddie called them and…” He hesitated and tried to figure out how to frame what Maddie was doing. “I think she was trying to get them to care, actually, and disappointed to not get what she wanted from them. Though she did buy their song and dance that me being injured and in the hospital was just too hard for them.

“At the time they first made that claim, I wondered why she’d even believe it because it seemed weird, but she knew about Daniel and I didn’t. I can only think they were manipulating her with that memory. When she did finally tell me, they told her Daniel was none of my business. So…yeah. They’re a nightmare.”

“I’m sorry, son,” Stuart said gruffly. “You deserve better.”

“There’s no need to be sorry. Weirdly, I don’t care about them. I can’t say the subject of my parents won’t always sting a bit, but I wasn’t kidding about the truth liberating me from my conflicted feelings about them. I feel less awful about myself, so it’s not all bad.”

“It’s your sister that bothers you,” Grace said astutely. “Keeping the truth from you.”

“That, which would have been recoverable with a little time, and how she will not stop trying to convince me how much they love me deep down inside, but they just don’t know how to show it.” Buck rolled his eyes. “Her big, happy family narrative was making me a little crazy.”

“She wouldn’t stop when you asked her to?” Judd asked.

“Not for half a day. I told her I’m fine with her having whatever relationship with our parents that she wants, I’d just like her to leave me out of it and not talk to me about them or expect me to see them. I mean, for her, I’d be polite to them at my niece’s birthday parties or whatever, so I’m not asking her to have two family Thanksgivings, or whatever, but beyond being civil when needed at the occasional birthday, I don’t want to deal with them. But she won’t accept that.”

“So you left?” Stuart asked.

“Yeah. To give her time and give me space. I figured I deserved some time to wrap my head around the whole spare parts baby thing, but she wouldn’t give me that at home. It kind of makes me mad that she wouldn’t.”

“Oh, Buck, no.” Grace looked sad. “Don’t call yourself that.”

“People react so negatively to that phrase, but is it inaccurate? It’s not how I see myself, but isn’t that the frame my parents have around our relationship?”

Grace just gave him a sad look. Judd pressed a kiss to her hair.

Stuart reached out and squeezed Buck’s hand. “Your parents are damn fools. You’re a good boy.”

“I’m a mess. Impulsive, reckless—”

“A good boy,” Stuart said firmly. “I’m glad you came to my boy when you needed time away. You should come stay with me for a few days.”

“Daddy, you can’t steal my houseguest.”

“I do whatever I want, Judson.”

Buck burst out laughing. “We should definitely hang out. You can show me all the stuff about Austin that no one else knows.”

“Deal!”

When Buck got up a few minutes later to clear the dessert dishes and help Grace with coffee, she stopped him in the kitchen and pulled him into a hug. “Thank you for opening up,” she whispered. “We could all see your burden. I don’t know how we can ease you, Buck, but we’re here for you.”

“You already have, Grace.” He patted her back. “You already have.”

– – – –

Judd stared at the ceiling of his bedroom, waiting for Grace to join him.

She finished in the bathroom and slid into bed, curling up next to him and resting her head on his shoulder. He curled his arm around her and pressed a kiss to her head. “Hello, Mrs. Ryder.”

“Mr. Ryder,” she murmured and pressed a return kiss to his collarbone.

“You okay?” he asked after a few minutes when she seemed off somehow.

“I’m a little sad, Judd. It’ll pass.”

“Buck?”

“Yes. Who knew it’d take your surly father to get him to open up?”

“Daddy does have a way about him. He was always good with spooked horses, and comparisons could be made.”

Grace chuckled. “Buck’s not quite so bad, but he’s holding on to a lot of hurt. I think what he shared is barely scratching the surface.”

“I think you’re right.”

“You care about him, don’t you?”

“More than I should, I think.”

“How can you care about someone too much, Judd?”

“I don’t know him that well, but there’s this connection between us, a shared people, that’s making me want to protect him.”

“Can’t protect someone from their own past, though I’d dearly love to try with you if you could.” She huffed a little and hugged him tighter. “I’m usually one for families trying to make amends, but I’d happily take a golf club to those two sorry excuses for parents.”

“It’s disgustin’ what they did. I don’t pretend to understand what drives a person trying so hard to save their child, but to create a child they didn’t want just to save another? What if they’d succeeded?”

“I’m not sure it would have made much difference. Unwanted is unwanted.” She stroked her delicate fingers over his chest, making idle patterns as she thought. “I’ve heard of savior siblings before, though never met anyone in that circumstance. That I know of, anyway. It’s one of those things I recoil from instinctively, but I try not to judge because I’m not in such a fraught situation. But seeing the damage it can do…” She turned her face, as if she could burrow into him. “It’s terrible.”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll give him space and time to heal. I don’t want him running off because he thinks he’s outstayed his welcome.”

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to fight Daddy for him. That’s a hell of a thing.”

“Well, I’m your daddy’s favorite, so I’ll just let him know he needs to leave my houseguest in place.”

Judd chuckled. “Okay. You do that.” He shifted their position so she was on her back and he was braced over her. “You tired, Mrs. Ryder?”

“I am not, so why don’t you get busy and wear me out, husband.”

“The things I do to keep a happy marriage.” He leaned in and sealed their mouths together, feeling a hot flare of arousal at the way her hands slid over his skin.

“Your sacrifice is noted,” she murmured against his mouth.

Chapter Eight

Buck wasn’t sure how he kept managing to get himself into these situations. It was actually a widespread joke amongst the LAFD that Evan Buckley had the highest incident of encountering off-duty emergencies of any first responder in the county. That curse had followed him to Austin.

He’d spent the day with the Ryder family yesterday, but Judd and Grace were both working today, and Stuart had medical appointments. Buck didn’t mind having a day to himself, so he’d been exploring downtown on foot. He’d stopped to eat at an outdoor café, and then there’d been a serious accident in the middle of the intersection right in front of him. Now he was up to his neck in injuries with almost no help.

“Just keep her still. She’s hit her head, so she’s confused and not going to remember my instructions,” Buck said hurriedly to the two teenagers in the car with their mother. “Hold her hand, and let her know you’re here and safe while reminding her to be still,” he directed to the girl in the front passenger seat. “And you keep her head from moving out of that position,” he added to the boy in the back. “The fire department will be here soon. When they get here, if you start feeling bad at all, be sure to tell them. There are plenty of people to help you and your mom both.”

The teens had been moving and talking fine when Buck got to the car, but adrenaline could mask a lot, and he’d seen people pretend to be okay thinking they were diverting help from a loved one. Buck would like to assess the kids better, but there were more critical injuries demanding his attention.

“I’m scared,” the older boy said from the backseat.

“I know, but things are okay even if it doesn’t seem like it right now. The fire department is on their way, and your mom is stable, she just needs to be as still as possible, all right? I have to go, but I’ll be back.” There was a kid in his late teens or early twenties named Todd who’d been at the same café as Buck who was holding Buck’s phone so Buck could talk to dispatch.

“Dispatch, car number 4 is a grey, late model Volvo. Mother and two children, boy and girl in their mid-teens. Kids are both alert, oriented, and mobile, no visible major injuries. Mother presents with a head injury, altered mental status, pupils equal and reactive, elevated respirations, pulse strong at approximately ninety BPM.”

Copy, Firefighter Buckley.”

“I’m moving back to car 3.” Several of the people in the cars involved in the pile-up had such minor injuries that they’d cleared out of their vehicles on their own, and Buck had them lined up on the curb with an off-duty medical assistant checking them over and triaging them into groups—she’d been eating at the same café, two tables from Buck. There were two cops who’d made it to the scene, but they were responsible for maintaining the perimeter and helping wherever they could. Controlling the crowd was taking most of their effort.

He ran to the Toyota Sienna minivan that had a mother and daughter pair. The mom was in her fifties and the daughter in her thirties. The mother was fine, but the daughter was the driver and probably had the worst injury out of everyone with a piece of metal having gone through the driver’s side door.

“How is she, Sonya?” Buck asked the mom from where she was kneeling between the bucket seats.

“She keeps passing out but when she wakes up, she tries to pull away from the door.”

“I know. That’s why it’s important that you keep her in that spot. We don’t know what kind of injury she has and we need a paramedic here before she’s moved.” Buck reached in through the shattered window and checked her pulse again. He nodded to Sonya. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

He stepped away, Todd following him with the phone. His mask had him a little muffled, but Buck was used to being clear through the mask after all this time. “Dispatch, update on car 3, blue Sienna, Megan Helphrick. Elevated respirations, pulse approximately 130, getting weaker. She’s in and out of consciousness. Remains most critical. Mother Sonya is in the car with her to help keep her still.” Sonya had some minor lacerations, but they weren’t even bleeding anymore.

Copy. Rescue units are delayed due to traffic.”

Buck spun in a slow circle, seeing gridlock on both streets leading to the intersection. “Yeah, I can see why.”

Additional PD units should be at your location within two minutes.”

Suddenly a fire flared up in car 1, where a man was trapped. The guy was stable with a broken leg so he hadn’t been high on Buck’s priority list. The driver’s door was stuck, so Buck had left him with a bystander to help keep him calm. “Whoa. Fire in the trunk of car 1! Todd stay and keep dispatch updated.”

Buck had recruited the calmest people he could find early on to keep people back, aiding the officers in maintaining a scene that was way too big for two traffic cops. He now randomly picked eight people out of the crowd who didn’t look like they were freaking. “Get into these businesses and tell them we need their fire extinguishers. Now!”

He ran back to the car where Jacob was screaming about the fire. Todd was close but not getting in Buck’s way. “Jacob, I need you to stop panicking, okay? The fire is coming from the trunk, and it’s barely intruded on the back seat yet. I’ve got fire extinguishers coming. Is there anything I need to know about what’s in your trunk?”

“My handgun is back there.”

Of course. Fucking Texas.

“Is it in a lock box?”

“Ye-s,” Jacob stammered. “Yes. It’s a fireproof box.”

“What about your ammo?”

“I have two boxes. They’re just in my bag, though. Like a plain gym bag.”

Buck called out so he could be heard on his phone. “Dispatch, please be advised that we have a fire in a trunk with two boxes of live ammunition.”

Copy. Please hold for instructions.”

People were starting to run in with fire extinguishers.

“Put them down and get out of here. We need to evacuate this area. Now! Tell those cops to get this area evacuated.” Buck used every ounce of authority he could muster to get the people to start clearing the street. The two cops were as far from Buck as they possibly could be right then.

Buckley, you have been instructed to evacuate the area.”

“The area is full of civilians!”

Additional Austin PD units are one minute out, they will assist with evacuation. Please facilitate getting civilians away from that car and clear the area immediately.”

Buck decided to ignore that order. “Todd, go. Take the phone, try to keep dispatch updated. Help get people out of here if you can. Get the other people to shelter in place if they can’t get away. You’ve been a life saver, man, I’ll catch up. Don’t put yourself in danger, though. We don’t need another person to rescue.”

Todd looked conflicted but nodded and took off with Buck’s phone, assertively ordering people to evacuate. Buck didn’t have confidence that he could get the trunk fire out without getting shot, so he went around to the passenger door.

“Jacob, I need to do something we only do in emergency situations. Since the driver’s side door is stuck, I’m going to have to pull you out through the passenger door. It’ll be quick, but it will hurt. I need your permission, man, because if your spine is injured, this could be really bad for you.”

“Just get me out of this car, please.”

“Okay, I’m going to do this fast, and I don’t want you to help me unless I ask for it, okay?”

“Yeah. I hear you. It’s getting hot, Buck!”

“I know.” Buck climbed into the sweltering heat where the fire was beginning to consume the back seat. He got his arms behind Jacob, bracing his weight, and pulled, getting the man out from behind the steering wheel and dragging him over the passenger seat. At a minimum, Jacob had a broken tibia, so Buck wasn’t surprised by his screams.

“Push with your good leg, Jacob!”

“It hurts!”

“I know, but you gotta get that leg under you and help me!”

Jacob began to help, and Buck got him over the seat. Sirens could finally be heard.

“As soon I get you on the ground, try to keep your bad leg up. Lift from your hip. This is gonna suck, man, there’s nothing I can do about it.” He got Jacob on the ground and dragged him around so they were sheltered by the front end of the car. Then the sounds of bullets firing started, and Buck put his body over Jacob’s, hoping they were protected enough that they weren’t both about to get shot.

The somewhat orderly chaos Buck had managed to achieve right after the accident became complete pandemonium as people screamed and began running. The rounds kept going off, one after another, and glass could be heard breaking. Buck stayed down, not sure where was safe. He had no idea which direction those bullets were going. It seemed like they were going all over.

Buck spared a thought for the teenagers stuck in a car with their injured mother. The angle of their car was good, considering, but he sure hoped they ducked. Megan and Sonya should be okay. He hoped.

A couple of new Austin PD arrivals came in low to Buck’s position. Apparently Buck had picked the best spot to shelter.

“All we can do is wait it out,” one of them said. “We’ve got people on the side street gathering the crowd. You Buck?”

“Yeah.”

“Carlos Reyes. This is Elaine Mitchell.”

“TK’s Carlos?”

“The one and only.”

“Please don’t get shot,” Buck said. “TK will have sad eyes and everything.”

Carlos snorted.

Buck got up off of Jacob and checked his pulse and pupillary response. “How you doing, Jacob?”

“I could be burned and shot right now, so I think I’m doing great. Thanks for getting me out of there.”

“You bet.” Buck looked to Carlos and Elaine. “How long on Rescue Units and Fire?”

“They’ve been ordered to hold until this place isn’t a shooting gallery.”

“Dammit.” It made sense, but it didn’t make the situation easier. Buck used the back of his arm to scrub some sweat off his forehead. His mask was totally soaked with perspiration even though it was probably only 60-degrees.

“It’s protocol. We don’t send rescue in where there’s live fire.”

“I know.” Buck sighed. “The fire is going to get worse in this car, and we’re too close to it. This position is protecting us from the bullets, but it’s gonna suck as that fire gets worse, and I can’t put the fire out without getting in the literal line of fire.”

“What do we need to do?” Carlos asked.

“We need to move Jacob farther from this car. Can we go straight out from the front end?”

“Yeah, ten feet, I think. Maybe a little more.” Carlos got right into Jacob’s eyeline. “Jacob, what caliber?”

“.45 caliber ACP, 200 grain.”

Carlos swore and dropped his head. “That’s gonna punch through almost anything. The engine block is our best bet for protection right now. You said two boxes? Of twenty?”

“Fifty. I was on my way to target practice.”

“Next time, get your ammo at the range,” Carlos muttered. “I don’t think we can move more than ten feet.”

“I’m trying to keep count,” Elaine said. “I’ve clocked at least thirty since we got here. Any idea how many before we arrived?”

A particularly loud series of pops caused Buck to flinch. “Maybe that many before you got here.”

“So we’re maybe halfway through this?”

Buck shrugged.

Carlos nodded to Elaine. “Stay here and keep counting. We’re gonna move the patient. Back up to our position if the fire gets worse. Even a little heat, you move back.”

Buck and Carlos got Jacob moved about ten feet further from the car, in a direct line from the front end. Buck could see that the fire had now consumed the front seat. He turned his attention to Jacob, checking his pulse.

“I know we’ve been moving you around a ton, but I don’t want you to move any on your own, okay? Not until they get you to the hospital and check your back and neck.” He looked to Carlos. “Report to dispatch strong pulse, approximately 110, elevated respirations, pupillary response seems normal.”

Carlos nodded and relayed the info.

“Think I can check his leg?”

“No,” Carlos said firmly. “Legs don’t matter right now. We stay in the line of the engine block and don’t move an inch out of it, clear?”

“Got it.”

“Leg’s fine, Buck,” Jacob said, squeezing Buck’s hand.

“That your blood, Buck?” Carlos asked.

Buck glanced at himself. He was pretty covered in it. “No idea. I don’t have any major injuries, but there could be some cuts under all this.” Most of the blood he thought came from one of the less injured people who’d had a severe scalp laceration. Scalp wounds bled stupidly bad.

Carlos nodded.

Buck glanced around at the other cars. No one seemed hurt who’d been in the accident, but there was a woman lying on the sidewalk who wasn’t there before. People were trying to pull her away. Buck jerked his chin in that direction. “Shot?”

“Yeah. The 126 are right around that corner waiting for the shooting to be over. Elaine?” He called.

“We’re up to maybe eighty. Trajectory seems to be mostly out of the sides of the trunk, but I think a few have punched through to the front of the car.”

“Regardless of which way they were lying in the bag,” Carlos replied, “the boxes have burned away by now and it’s anyone’s guess which way they’re going to pop off.”

Officer Reyes, be advised, SWAT is inbound with ballistic shields to surround the vehicle.”

Carlos breathed a sigh of relief.

A round suddenly exploded out the windshield and went way too close to their heads. Carlos shoved Buck down.

“This really sucks,” Buck muttered, hovering over Jacob.

“I’m so sorry,” Jacob said.

Buck patted his shoulder. “Just keep still, man. We’ll get through this.” Buck tried to sit back up, but Carlos kept a hand on his shoulder, forcing him to keep his head down.

“Stay down. SWAT’s moving in now. They’ll have that car surrounded in about thirty seconds.”

Due to needing to stay farther back because of the heat, SWAT was only able to cover the sides and front of the vehicle, but it was enough that they could get some relief to all the injured people. Firefighters began pouring into the area along with paramedics.

Tommy was directing people like a boss, and going right for Megan herself. The paramedics all seemed to know where to go with at least two firefighters on each of the cars.

Then TK and Judd were there with Nancy to assess Jacob. Judd gave Buck a quick assessing look then focused on his patient.

Buck got out of the way. He was dripping with sweat and covered in probably five different people’s blood. “Nancy, I hauled Jacob out of the car, over the passenger seat to get him away from the fire, just before the not-gunfire started. Unable to take any spinal precautions. He’s probably got some road rash from being dragged on the pavement.”

“Understood.” She began working on Jacob, and Buck leaned back on his hands, trying to catch his breath. He finally pulled the mask down now that he didn’t need to be in anyone’s face.

“Hey, Buck,” Paul said, dropping down to one knee by him.

“Paul.”

“I’m here to check you out.”

“I’m fine. There’s plenty for you to do elsewhere, isn’t there?”

“Nope. The 104 responded as well because three people received gunshot injuries, four trample injuries, and a lot of lacerations from broken glass. There are plenty of people here. Owen and Tommy said to check you out, so I’m checking you out.”

Buck knew arguing was just going to take more of Paul’s time, so he surrendered to getting his blood pressure checked, which he thought was silly. He’d been through longer scenes before and no one had checked him out.

“Technically, you’re a civilian,” Paul said. “And some of this blood is yours. Pulling people out of cars without protective gear gets you hurt, so it’s not overreacting to have you checked out.” Paul began pouring saline over Buck’s arms and wiping away the tacky blood.

“It’s fine.” And it was a good point that he wasn’t a firefighter here. “Where’s Owen? I think I’ve seen everyone else.”

“Far side of the wall of ballistic shields. He’s taking point on getting the fire out in the car of doom.”

Paul continued cleaning Buck’s hands and arms, sealing several minor cuts. “You’re gonna need a couple of stitches in this one. I’ll bandage it for now, and Tommy will handle it at the station when this is over if you’re okay to wait.”

“That’s fine.”

“You’ve got open cuts covered in other people’s blood.” Paul gave him a pointed look. “You know you’re gonna need to get a few follow-up tests, right? Normally, we’d go to the ER to get a head start on all the tests and shots you need, but the ER is a little busy. Plus the whole plague thing we’ve got going on. Tommy will figure out where best to go.”

“Thanks, Paul.”

“How is he?” Owen asked coming around the barricade. “PD says five more minutes before they’ll let us get closer to the car.”

“I’m fine,” Buck said quickly.

Owen gave him an unimpressed look. “Paul?”

“He’s fine. A little dehydrated and needs a couple of stitches, and there’s potential exposure to bloodborne pathogens to deal with.”

“I’ll have Tommy call it in. The hospital can authorize retro-antivirals at the clinic down the street and get some blood drawn at the same time.”

Buck nodded.

“There’s a mountain of bottled water at the truck,” Owen said. “Go hydrate and wait for Tommy to decide where you should go next.”

Buck wanted to be helpful, but he knew without protective gear that he was only going to be in the way. He also needed to find his phone. He got to his feet, not even protesting the hand up.

Owen nodded to him. “Nice work. This could have been a catastrophe but, so far, no one has died.”

He simply nodded, but the approval felt good. He didn’t feel he’d done anything overly reckless here, but he knew his actions would have been perceived differently back home. The most questionable action was not leaving Jacob behind when he was told by dispatch to evacuate but, in his mind, he had evacuated with Jacob, rather than leaving the man there to die.

Buck knew he could be reckless at times, but he thought he’d curbed a lot of his early impulsivity over the years, but sometimes those who knew you best were the slowest to see that you’d changed. It was something he needed to talk to Dr. Copeland about and then figure out how that fit into the changes he was trying to make going forward.

Judd and TK were both still busy helping Nancy get Jacob onto a backboard and then a gurney, but Judd nodded and smiled briefly as Buck headed into the crowd to find Todd with his phone. He planned to give the kid a serious pat on the back for keeping a level head under pressure.

– – – –

“How much water have you had?” Tommy asked as she stepped in front of Buck.

He waved the bottle in his hand. “This is my third.” He figured he’d been sitting here, propping up this building, for about forty-five minutes. Todd had indeed stuck around and had been waiting with Buck’s phone. He even had Buck’s jacket. They’d exchanged contact info and promised to stay in touch.

Buck had stripped out of his blood-stained Henley, leaving him just a light undershirt and his jacket.

“Good.” She sat down next to him. “We got Megan out of the car, and she’s on her way to the hospital. Still critical, but I’m hopeful she’ll make it.”

Buck blew out a breath. “Anyone die?”

“No, but I’m not optimistic about one of the women who took a round into the abdomen when the…shooting started. But she was already on her way to the hospital before SWAT arrived to surround the car.” She nudged his shoulder. “You did good, kid. We were primary, so dispatch had us patched in to your updates almost as soon as the call went out. Then the 104 got called up, and they were listening too. Then the ambulances from two other stations. A lot of people listened to you being really cool under pressure.”

“Oh.” Buck took a swig of his water. “That’s kind of embarrassing.”

Tommy laughed. “How do you feel?”

“Hungry. These fiascos keep interfering with my lunch.”

“We’ll feed you,” Owen said as he joined them and plopped down on Buck’s other side, dropping his helmet on the sidewalk. “That was a hell of a thing.”

“Fire out?”

“Yeah. Everyone is wrapping up.” He side-eyed Buck. “That was stressful as hell. You remind me way too much of me.”

Buck burst out laughing.

“If you’re gonna keep showing up at my scenes, maybe you should just come to work for me.”

Buck blinked. “Your scenes keep happening in front of where I’m having lunch, that’s not the same thing.”

“Clearly we need to keep you away from restaurants for the safety of the citizens of Austin. But seriously, TK has joined the paramedics, so I’ll be down a firefighter for a while. I need time to get the right fit; I’d take you permanently in a heartbeat if I thought you were interested in moving.”

“I’m not.”

“I didn’t think so. The department’s got floaters, of course, but if you want to work, we can arrange a secondment to the Austin FD if you’re interested. No pressure. I don’t want to screw up your vacation.”

It wasn’t work Buck had been avoiding, it was the people he needed to get away from, so part of him was intrigued by the idea. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good. We’re gonna be another man down soon while I have surgery, and you’re the kind of guy I trust to watch my people’s backs.”

“Really?”

Owen shot him a surprised look. “Yeah, really. Judd will be acting captain for my shift while I’m out. You’d be working for him while I’m gone if you decide to say yes.”

“I really will think about it, and let you know tomorrow. You sure it’s not too much hassle.”

Owen scoffed. “Way less hassle than hundreds of firefighters from other states needing to get paid. We have solid secondment processes, so it won’t be a problem if you’re interested. But if you want to vacation, that’s a perfectly reasonable choice.”

“You okay?” Buck asked, not wanting to pry. “With surgery and everything?”

“I’ve been going through treatment for lung cancer. They say I’m in remission now; surgery is to remove the last of it.”

“That’s great, then. I’m really happy for you.” Buck decided to go with his decision to think about it overnight, but he thought he’d probably accept. He liked that Owen trusted him with the team.

Tommy nudged him. “Let’s get you out of here. The ER attending called in an order for blood tests and antivirals for you. We’ll grab a granola bar out of the truck, so you can take care of that first. Then come back to the station to eat.”

“I can drive. My Jeep is right down there.” He pointed about a half a block past the fire truck from the 126. “I can stop somewhere after I finish at the clinic.”

“Oh no,” Owen said, pushing to his feet. “Come to the station, do not pass go, do not collect a cheeseburger. I can’t handle another call out if you stop at another public eating establishment.”

Buck laughed. “That’s not fair.”

“You’re getting a reputation.”

Buck just shook his head. “Texas, man. Listen, am I going to need to give a statement to the police or anything?”

Own frowned. “Maybe.” He waved it away. “I’ll tell Carlos where to find you if they need you to sign something.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that,” Tommy said. “Come on. Let’s walk to your car. You’re clear and cogent, but I’d like to see you moving around before you drive off by yourself.”

“You know I’ve been through much more intense situations than this, right?”

“Doesn’t change my duty of care even a little bit, sweet pea. Now, move it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”


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Jilly James

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

2 Comments:

  1. Your story is making my breaks into a really great time right now! (Though, it’s hard to remember when I should stop taking a break this way.)

    I love Judd’s argument that it’s not Buck’s bad luck, but the good luck of everyone else to have Buck near them for their emergencies. I hope Buck will learn to look at it the same.

  2. This is so damn good, Jilly. One of the details that made me grin the widest was Buck having taking pictures with kids he rescued from claw machines. That is such a Buck thing to do. <3 <3 <3

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