Pull Me from the Dark – 3/4 – 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 Nine

Hen: Probie jinxed our shift yesterday. He said the Q word.
Hen: Eddie doesn’t believe in jinxes, curses, or hexes. Kept insisting the hell we went through yesterday was not a jinx.

Buck: Oh damn! How bad was it?

Hen: We responded to a routine call and on the way out, an electric pole fell on the fire truck. We were stuck in there for nearly ninety minutes with a live wire on top of the truck. Our rescuers showed up and took pictures.

Buck: Umm…

Hen: Eddie still insisted we weren’t cursed. I’m pretty sure Cap is going to have him washing fire trucks until he’s a giant prune.

Buck: I’m both sympathetic and laughing my ass off.

Hen: How are you, baby?

Buck: Went out for lunch was hanging out by myself while everyone was working and then a huge car accident happened right in front of me.

Hen: Oh, Buck. Your luck is so bizarre. It’s like that man who tripped in front of you after you got coffee and wound up impaled on his own screwdriver. What happened this time?

Buck: Gridlock delayed rescue. Worst part was one of the cars caught fire and the guy told me he had 100 rounds of 45 caliber ammunition in there.
Buck: It was a freaking shooting gallery. Seemed to go on forever.

Buck was alone at the 126. He’d arrived there as instructed to have a very late lunch after he’d given enough blood to satisfy a kiss of vampires, when they’d been called about again. Carlos Reyes was supposed to be there soon to get some information from him. Buck had been exploring the gym when he’d gotten Hen’s text.

After a long pause and the little dots that indicated typing stopping and starting a lot, a message finally came through.

Hen: Can I call? Please. It’s just me and Karen. The kids are doing school in the other room, and if they need anything, Karen will handle it. We won’t tell them you’re on the phone.

Buck: Sure.

The phone rang and he put it on speaker, just so he didn’t have to hold the phone. “Hey, Hen.” He headed back to the dining room so he could sit. The one guy from the 126 who’d been left behind was working at the front of the ladder truck bay and far away from Buck.

Hey, baby. I’ve got you on speaker.”

“Hi, Karen.”

Hey, Buck. Denny and Chris are in the other room, both just started a forty-five-minute class. So, what’s this about a hundred rounds of ammunition?”

“This guy’s trunk turned into a multi-directional weapon. It was a mess. Rescue was already delayed because of traffic caused by the accident, since it happened in a major intersection. And then they were forced to hold back because there were bullets firing everywhere. Three people were shot without the aid of a gun today.”

But you’re okay?”

“Yeah. Other than getting covered in other people’s blood because I was having lunch at the time and therefore without protective gear. So, you know, bloodwork and antivirals. I’ve got the follow-up schedule for meds and labs.”

Will you send it to me?” Hen asked. “That’s going to go on long after you come home, and I’d like to stay on top of your follow-ups.”

“Sure, Hen.” He could follow-up on his own doctor’s appointments, but Hen was always like that about medical stuff for the team.

What do they have you taking?”

He did a run-down on everything the doctor at the clinic had done.

Are they not able to get the person whose blood got on you to submit to a blood test?”

“It’s like six people. The doctor at the ER told the paramedic captain here, Tommy Vega, that they would push for each person to get tested since I was potentially exposed, but there’s no telling if they’ll all agree.”

Six?” Hen repeated. “Good god, Buck, what happened?”

“It was bad, Hen, and I was the only rescue personnel there for like half an hour. There were two cops trying to maintain a very big perimeter with hundreds of looky-loos, and there was this off-duty medical assistant helping with minor injuries. Then we were pinned down while the shooting was going on. But we make the best of it, right? And accept that not everyone will submit to an HIV or Hep-C test.”

They’d better,” Karen gritted out, sounding pissed off. “It’s shameful when first responders put their lives on the line for others, and then those people selfishly deny them the comfort of a simple lab test.”

“I certainly wish they would get tested, but I’m not going to waste my energy being upset about it if they don’t. I wouldn’t change my actions today, so it is what it is.”

Listen, Buckaroo, you mind if we talk for a minute?” Hen asked. “On a more personal level, that is.”

Buck made a face. “Okaaay…?”

It’s not about your parents or Maddie or any of that, though I want you to know we’re totally on your side. I shared that situation with Karen, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Nah, it’s fine, Hen. It’s wound up being as much Chim’s situation as it is mine, and you’re his best friend. He needs you.”

That’s a really mature outlook.”

“I’m not actually a child,” he retorted, a little more sharply than he’d intended.

I know, Buck,” Hen said quickly. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She took a deep breath. “First, I want you to know that we support everything you’ve done. If you’re worried at all that we think you should have just given in to Maddie, well, we don’t.”

We really don’t,” Karen added. “Maddie is lovely, and you know we adore the both of you, but you’re allowed to have different experiences of your parents. As someone who had little to no contact with my father for a long time, I’d be pretty furious with someone trying to tell me how to handle my relationship with him or force one on me.”

“Thanks, guys, I appreciate it.”

And believe it or not,” Hen added, “Chimney is on your side too. He knows Maddie’s making the wrong choices when it comes to you, but she’s unhappy, and he caves because he wants to make her happy, not because he thinks you’re wrong.”

“Are you saying I should call him?”

No!” they both replied in unison.

I think time is the best thing,” Hen replied. “You’re doing the best thing for all of you. Maddie needs to let go of trying to control your experience of your parents and forcing a relationship on you that you don’t want; Chimney needs to be able to tolerate Maddie being unhappy without driving himself crazy trying to fix it; and you deserve the space to come to terms with, honestly, some really fucked up choices that your family has made—Maddie included.”

“Thanks, Hen. I appreciate it. I know Chim probably thinks I’m mad at him, but I’m not. I just can’t be in the line of fire anymore.” He made a face. “Probably a poor choice of words, considering the day I’ve had.”

He should never have told you about the Jeep that way,” Karen said hotly. “That should have come from Maddie. I love them both, but that was bordering on emotional abuse because he figured if you gave in, everything would be fine. And it would have been for everyone but you. He sees that now, but he sure didn’t until we had a long conversation with him. So give him some more space and a few more sessions with Frank before you reach out, okay?”

“Thanks for the advice. Just please tell him I’m not mad at him, and I’m not holding a grudge. I appreciate every day since they met the way that he’s there for Maddie. I just needed to get away and not have to deal with pressure every time I came out of the locker room.”

I’ll pass that on,” Hen said. “Though I did want to clear the air about that, it wasn’t the real reason I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to talk to you about you feeling like we don’t respect you.”

Buck closed his eyes. “Hen.”

Just let me say this, please?”

“Okay.”

We— Well, me, because it’s not fair for me to speak for Karen or anyone else. I took for granted your sunny disposition and how nothing seems to bother you. You seem like emotional Teflon most days, and I bought into that even though it’s not very realistic. And I’m sorry that I bought it.”

“It’s not your fault that I don’t communicate well.”

Buck, let me apologize, please. Don’t deflect and try to make it less, okay? I do know better than to think someone can do this work and be okay all the time. And, yes, it would have been helpful if you’d told us how hard the breakup with Abby was, but it was also willful blindness that I didn’t see it. I guess I always thought Abby was using you, and I figured you were better off without her. But that doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt in the process, and I didn’t let myself see that. So, I’m very sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course, Hen. And maybe Abby wasn’t good for me, but I definitely didn’t see it that way. Every day, I hoped she’d keep her promise to call or just come home. So, of course I forgive you. I love you guys.”

We love you too,” Karen said. “That’s why we don’t want to be part of hurting you.”

So, we need to figure out a way you can easily tell us when something isn’t okay,” Hen added.

Buck made a face. “Like what?”

How about just saying, ‘I don’t think that’s funny,’ when someone teases you about something you don’t appreciate,” Hen said.

“I think I can do that.”

Good. And if there’s anything else you want us to know, you feel free to tell us. We’re sorry about the ‘kid’ thing. The children all love you, that’s no secret to anyone, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually a child, and we know that. If we’ve ever said anything to the contrary, I’m sorry about that too.”

“Okay, thanks.” He hesitated. “I’m not dumb,” he blurted out.

Pardon?” Hen said, sounding shocked.

“I think people believe that I’m dumb, but I’m actually not. I don’t always express myself that well, and I know that, but I’m not stupid.”

Oh, Buck,” Hen said, “I know you’re not. I’ve never known anyone who has a memory like yours. The things you recall at the drop of a hat astonishes me almost every day. My incredulity is more because of the types of things that have caught your interest, not that you know them. I don’t know if you have a hard time communicating or not, you seem fine to me, but I don’t live in your head. Because I know there’s a difference between not being able to communicate and not wanting to. But even if you weren’t very smart, I hope you know it wouldn’t matter. We love you how you are.”

“I’ve never been very good about how I express certain things. Having a therapist the last few months has helped. She’s good about walking me through figuring out how to get things out of my head. It’s like when the emotions are too big, I can’t figure out how to articulate what’s going on.”

And you’re absolutely right,” Karen said, “that does not make you lacking in intellect. Can I ask you a personal question, Buck, that you absolutely can say no, you don’t want to answer, and I won’t take it hard at all?”

“You can ask.”

I’ve heard some mentions about you sleeping with your therapist.”

Buck groaned.

Is that one of those things that you wish people wouldn’t joke about?”

“Yes,” Buck said empathically.

Oh, honey.” Hen sounded wounded. “I’m so sorry.”

Buck,” Karen continued, “you know what she did was wrong, right?”

“Yeah, I do know, but people keep talking about it like I screwed up.”

You didn’t. Hen and I were discussing various events over the years, and that came up, and I was horrified because that therapist should have lost her license.”

“She did.”

She did?” Hen echoed.

“Yeah. I figure Bobby knows this, but I was contacted by an investigator a while back about her, asking if I’d ever had sex with her. I thought it was me, you know? That I had a real sex problem, but I was just an easier target than most. Which makes me feel pretty foolish, now that I think about it.”

What do you mean?”

“She was, uh, an official therapist of the LAFD, and she was getting sexual favors in exchange for signing off on fitness for duty paperwork.”

Oh my god.” Hen sounded gutted.

“I went to see her voluntarily, and when I said I thought I had a sex addiction, I guess she figured I’d be an easy mark. It was a big mess. I didn’t sign any non-disclosure agreements or anything, but I never said anything because there were a lot of firefighters affected who had to go through mandatory counseling afterward. The union sued her for malpractice, and I think they may have even sued the city because several people apparently complained before it was taken seriously.”

And you never said anything.”

“Because it wasn’t funny.”

There was the sound of a sharp inhale. “You’re right, it’s not funny. And I’d like to think we wouldn’t have made a joke about wide-spread sexual abuse in the LAFD, but I don’t say that to second-guess your impulses, Buck. I just want you to know that we’re aware and we’re going to try to be better. But my request to you is to please tell me, tell Karen if you feel that’s easier, if I’m not paying attention.”

“I can do that.”

Anything, Buck, even as little as saying you don’t think something is funny, and I’ll take the hint. And if you come up with a better code, you let me know.”

“Okay, Hen.”

Also, it sounds like you did a hell of a job today, so I want you to know how proud of you I am.”

“Thanks.”

We love you, baby.”

“I love you too.” He said his goodbyes and hung up, smiling and feeling better about things than he had in a while.

He got up from the table and went back out into the station to get another coffee from Owen’s Awesome Espresso Machine and bumped right into Carlos Reyes. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t know anyone was here other than whoever’s outside doing…whatever.” Buck made a vague gesture.

“I got here a couple of minutes ago. I heard you on the phone, so figured I’d wait here to give you some privacy.”

“Appreciated.” Buck could easily be horrified by what Carlos might have overheard so he refused to let himself think about it. “I was going to make espresso. You want one?”

“Well, if you’re offering.”

Buck set about making the coffee. “So, did you need to take a statement or anything?”

“Just a few details. We’ll need your contact information and recollection of the series of events for the police report. Untangling the liability issues is going to be a cluster, and I’m glad it’s not my job.”

“How bad?”

“Well, from what we can tell from traffic cameras and witness statements, the car you identified as car #2 was at fault, but it’s more complicated because at least two cars were following much too closely, fortunately no one was seriously injured in those cars, but one of the cars behind them was a serious injury. And then Jacob Hall… He didn’t do anything illegal, per se, but insurance companies are going to want to know why his trunk caught on fire. If he failed to maintain his vehicle and it caused downtown Austin to become a shooting gallery…” Carlos trailed off and shrugged. “It’s complicated. Fortunately, all the car accident victims seem like they’ll pull through, despite the delay in getting help due to the weird shootout at the OK Corral. Of the three people who were shot, two of them are fine but the third is in critical condition. If she dies, it’s not going to be easy to figure out responsibility. Fortunately, that’s also not my job.”

“Your job is rough enough; the whole thing is a lot of hassle. You want just plain espresso, a latte, or what?”

“Latte, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure.”

“So, we’ll sit down, get all the details, and you can expect that you’ll be hearing from a lot of insurance companies.”

“I just don’t get why. I mean, yes, I saw the accident, but about thirty people saw it.”

Carlos shrugged. “You’re a first responder, your perception of events will hold more weight with the insurance companies. Also, we’ve got about forty minutes of recording of you managing the scene and the aftermath, so that’s gonna have play for the insurance investigators. Any eyewitness account that contradicts what they hear on those tapes, they’re going to be inclined to dismiss. And it’s not just auto companies that are going to be investigating. There was a lot of property damage caused by a hundred .45 caliber rounds discharging in a busy commercial district. Everyone is going to want to blame someone else so they don’t have to pay out.”

Buck shook his head and handed over Carlos’ latte. He set about steaming the milk for his own. “Okay. I can see that this day is going to be haunting me for months.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you had to come back here and go to court.”

“Bite your tongue.” He finished his latte. “Dining room?”

“Yep. Let’s do this.”

It took about an hour to get all the information down. The dispatch radio crackled mid-way through, and the team was sent straight to another call rather than coming back to the station.

“Busy day,” Carlos murmured as he finished writing down the last details. “I’ll have to type all this up then you’ll need to come in and sign it. I’m off tomorrow, but the day after I should have it ready for you.”

“That’ll work.”

Carlos put his notebook away and leaned back in the chair. “TK talk to you about going out tomorrow night?”

“He said something about it right before they got called out, but we didn’t solidify plans.”

“You game?”

“Sure. I think Mateo and Paul are getting in on it too.”

“I know the people who own the club, so I’ll make sure all five of us can get in. Even though it’s outdoors, they have limits on the numbers who can gather in one spot.”

“You guys have way more options than we do. There’s nothing like that back home. Best we got is some restaurants with outdoor seating. I mean, yeah, people party anyway, but then they get arrested. So…”

“It’s not as much like a bar as we’re making it sound. People are desperate to keep their businesses open, hoping to ride this out as long as possible. Anyway, you want to grab dinner tonight since these guys are all on shift? I can show you a little more of Austin and maybe mitigate some of your dining karma. If something terrible happens, well, at least you’ll have backup.”

“Sure. Sounds fun.”

– – – –

Eddie sat in Hen’s kitchen and stared at the news report on the laptop. It was supposed to be a quick stop to pick up Christopher, but Hen had wanted to talk to him, so he’d left Christopher to be entertained by Karen and followed Hen to the kitchen table.

“The details of his morning were so weird that I did some Googling and it wasn’t hard to find the local news reports about the car accident.” The website for the Austin American Statesman had details of the accident front and center, including pictures of Buck taken from several cellphone cameras. Buck’s name wasn’t mentioned, but the article referenced an off-duty firefighter who maintained the scene for half an hour along with two police officers and various other bystanders.

He rubbed his forehead. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it gets picked up nationally because anyone pushing for stricter control of guns or even how ammo is transported is going to find the chaos this caused to be compelling.” He was fixated on one particular picture of Buck working on a patient in the middle of the road with glass exploding in the background. The glass was frozen in a weird blur. “He could have died.”

“That’s any day for us, Eddie.”

“We don’t get shot at every day.”

“He wasn’t shot at. Remember when Bobby got exposed to the Cobalt-60 at the magnesium fire in that tunnel?”

“How could I forget?”

“This isn’t that different. We show up to a scene, and we don’t know what we’re going to find.”

“Yeah, but Buck is on vacation.”

“In Austin, no less.” Hen shot him a look. “Did you know?”

“Not at first, but when I asked him point blank, he told me.”

“Did he not want us to know?”

“I just think he wasn’t volunteering any info about it.”

She sighed and scrolled down to a photo of a police officer sheltering Buck who was sheltering the guy Buck had pulled from the car. “One hundred .45 caliber rounds. Only three people were hit. That’s actually pretty lucky.”

“I don’t believe in jinxes, but Buck might be jinxed.”

“Seems like those people were pretty lucky Buck was there.”

Eddie closed his mouth with an audible clack. “I’m worried about him.”

“I know. Me too, but he’s finding his way. Do you know why Austin?”

“You know they lost almost a whole shift in Austin, right?”

“Yeah. There was one survivor of that squad, if I remember correctly.”

“That survivor was Judd, actually.”

Hen’s brows shot up. “Oh. Okay. Wow. I had not put that together.”

“And Buck apparently knew some of the guys who died.”

Hen looked pained. “He never said.”

“That all happened while he was recovering from the leg…stuff.”

“Right. So he knows Judd?”

“I don’t have all the details, but I guess Judd didn’t recognize him at first, and then they synced up right before we left to return to LA.”

“Wow. Our Buck sure keeps things close to the vest sometimes. Which is honestly the thing I’m having the hardest time adjusting to. I’ve always thought he was an open book. But this is just part of what I wanted to talk to you about.” She closed the laptop. “There’s something Karen brought up to me and then we talked to Buck about it. It’s come up at the station a few times, and I doubt Buck will ever say anything on this issue, so I’m going to make sure this never comes up again in a way that reflects negatively on Buck. In fact, I’m certain Buck would prefer it never be mentioned at the station at all.”

“Oh?”

“There’s this thing about Buck having slept with his therapist…”

“He mentioned that once. I was shocked that he would—”

“Eddie, wait. This therapist lost her license for extorting sex from her patients. Specifically, LAFD paramedics and firefighters who needed psychiatric clearance to return to work.”

Eddie reared back like she’d slapped him. “Are you saying that Buck was sexually assaulted by his therapist?”

“Buck said she didn’t extort sex from him because he’d gone to see her voluntarily. She saw him as an easy mark, but a therapist sleeping with their patient is always abuse.”

“Right.” He briefly fisted his hands in his hair. “Right. That’s messed up.” He met Hen’s gaze. “How come he never said anything?”

“Would you?”

“I…don’t know. To Buck, probably yeah.”

“Well, we’re all learning how close to the vest Buck plays it when we all thought he was the most open.”

Eddie chuckled. “Yeah, about some things. Does Cap know?”

“I don’t know, but if he does, I’m going to kick his ass.”

“Why?”

“Because his tone when talking about that is often like Buck screwed up, and Buck didn’t. His therapist was a sexual predator. He may not have been the victim of extortion the way the others were, but he was still a victim. If Bobby is blaming Buck, I’m going to give him a serious talking to. Honestly, I should have always called Cap on it because even if it was an isolated event, the therapist was in the wrong.”

“So I can stay completely out of that, right? Because I am way outside my comfort zone here.”

Hen laughed. “Yes, Eddie. Athena and I will handle Bobby. I wanted to fill you in and tell you about,” she made a vague gesture toward the laptop, “Buck’s vacation adventures.”

“God. He’s gonna make me grey.”

“And then I wanted to ask you about Ana Flores.”

“Oh, not you too. Bobby’s given me the ‘it’s okay to move on’ pep talk. I’m good.”

“That’s not what I was going to say.”

“All right, hit me with it.”

Hen took a deep breath. “Well, I know I’m overstepping, and you don’t have to talk to me, but before you get in deep with someone new, maybe you need to think about dealing with how you feel about Buck.”

Eddie stilled, not able to even take a breath.

“I’m not trying to drag you out of a closet you’re not ready to come out of, but your feelings for Buck are pretty deep.”

“He’s my best friend,” Eddie said cautiously.

“Is that really all there is to it?”

“Hen.” Eddie looked up at the ceiling. “He’s straight.”

“Even for people who are straight, there’s a spectrum, you know? It’s not as binary as people want us to believe.”

“He’s my best friend,” Eddie repeated. “I rely on him…emotionally. Christopher loves him.”

“Okay.” She hesitated. “So this isn’t a new thing…?”

“You mean Buck or men in general?”

“Men. I know Buck isn’t new, I’ve known you for two-and-a-half years. I could see the chemistry between you almost right away.”

Eddie caught the inside of his cheek between his teeth, trying to decide if he wanted to answer.

“I’m truly not trying to be intrusive, but anything you say will stay between you and me. I won’t even discuss it with Karen, though she’s convinced completely about your epic lovefest with Buck.”

“Men isn’t new. I’ve always been bisexual, even before I knew how to label myself. Men came first, actually. With men, though, it’s always just been sex, so I never felt like I needed to…come out.”

“Even if you were in a serious relationship with a man, it doesn’t mean you have to come out. That’s a personal choice and something that’s between you and your partner.”

Eddie shrugged. “It’s never come up as any kind of necessity.”

“So, never any romantic feelings for a man before.” She hesitated. “Until Buck?”

He blew out a breath. “Yeah, until Buck.”

She reached out and squeezed his hand. “You should give yourselves the chance, Eddie. If you’re really ready to move on, shouldn’t you try with the person you already love?”

“And if he says, ‘hey, I’m just not wired that way,’ then what?”

“Cross that bridge when you come to it. If it matters, I think Buck could handle knowing even if he doesn’t reciprocate. He values you too highly to let that get between you. But I think he might surprise you.”

Eddie raised a brow.

“It’s not anything he’s said, I just think Buck is… I don’t know. Open to the world in a way few people I’ve ever known are. Buck doesn’t let things get in his way, not like that.” She pursed her lips and looked thoughtful. “There’s this terrible trope in gay fiction and gay romance: gay for you. Straight character who is gay for just one person. I mean, I’m sure it happens, but it’s generally seen as something like a unicorn.”

“A unicorn?”

“Yeah, mythical, not particularly useful, and not remotely realistic.”

Eddie couldn’t help but laugh.

“But if there’s ever anyone who could be gay for one guy, I’m pretty sure it’s Buck. And the more I get to know about him, the more I think he’s pretty mythical anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to do with his sexuality. He’s just too open-minded to close himself off to the possibility that is you.”

“You can’t know that.”

“That’s true, I can’t. Life is never certain, but I just don’t want you to deny yourself happiness. Take it where you can find it.”

He nodded, not really convinced but appreciating her advice. “I’ll think about it.” He’d never told anyone about his sexual preference. He figured he might freak out about it later but, right now, it felt good to be honest.

He talked to Hen for a few more minutes then rounded up Christopher to head home. In the car, he glanced in the rear-view mirror, always trained so he could keep an eye on his son. He used the side mirrors for traffic.

“Hey, Chris?”

“Yeah, Dad?”

“Could we talk for a minute about something serious?”

“Did something happen to Buck?” Chris sat up straighter, looking worried.

“No, Mijo, Buck is fine. It’s not about— It’s about your—” He broke off, not really wanting to bring Shannon up but not sure how to avoid it. “What would you think if I went out on a date with someone?”

“Like Buck?”

Eddie blinked and stared fixedly at the road ahead of him. He came to a stop at a light and glanced over his shoulder. “Why would you ask about Buck?”

“Don’t you love Buck?”

Eddie opened his mouth, not sure how to reply for several seconds. “There are a lot of ways to love someone, Chris.”

“I know. Like the way you love me is different from the way you loved Mom.”

“Yeah.” Eddie swallowed heavily, not sure what to say to that.

“Green light, Dad.”

Eddie got the car moving, deciding to let the subject drop.

“Do you love Buck?” Looked like Chris wasn’t going to let him off the hook.

“I…” He cleared his throat. “I care about Buck a lot, but what Buck wants is important, so I should talk to him first, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. But if you want to go on a date, you should ask Buck first.”

Eddie couldn’t stop the smile. “It wouldn’t bother you if your old man dated again?”

“Not if it’s Buck. He’s already part of us.”

“Yeah, he is.” Eddie hesitated. “What if it was someone else?” He glanced in the mirror quickly.

Chris wrinkled his nose. “If it makes you happy.”

“You wouldn’t be sad?”

“I miss Mom, but Buck says if anyone ever tries to make me forget her I should tell you immediately so you can kick them to the curb.”

Eddie burst out laughing. “That’s good advice, buddy, you remember that. Anyone ever tells you not to talk about your mom, you definitely tell me. Do you talk to Buck about your mom?”

“Yep. Buck helps me make up new adventures for Mom.”

Eddie’s eyes felt hot and he blinked the blurriness from his vision. “What do you mean?”

“Abuela said that Mom is in heaven, but no one would tell me what it’s like or what she’s doing there.”

“You didn’t ask me, buddy.”

“It makes you sad, Daddy.”

“Mijo, I’m never too sad to talk to you about your mom.”

“But it’s okay. Bucky does it.” Chris fidgeted around for a second. “He said he doesn’t know exactly what kind of adventures she might be going on, but that we could make up stuff from the possibilities. And in every adventure, he said she takes me in her heart.”

“Yeah, Chris, I know she does.”

“As long as your date doesn’t make me try to forget Mom, it’s okay, Dad.”

“That’s good to know, Chris.”

“Or Buck. I won’t forget him either.”

Eddie came to a stop at another light and squeezed his eyes shut. He loved his kid so damn much.

Chapter Ten

Buck was just about dressed and ready for Carlos to pick him up, though it was a good thirty minutes early. Grace was still at work, and they’d probably miss each other completely tonight. The Ryders had trusted him with a key to their house and were treating him like family. Buck hardly knew what to do with the love and acceptance he’d found so easily here.

He heard Eddie’s ringtone and picked up immediately. “Hey, Eds. I’m expecting someone to pick me up for dinner, so I may have to go at a moment’s notice.”

That’s fine. I just wanted to check on you. I heard you were getting shot at today.”

“I was not getting shot at.”

Buck, were there bullets flying?”

“There may have been some bullets doing what bullets do.”

Eddie sighed. “Are you okay?”

“This mother hen side of you is new.”

It’s really not.” There was a pause. “I always worry about you, but you’re usually here so I can see if you’re okay.”

Buck wasn’t sure what to do with that. “I’m fine. It was stressful, but we got through it. I did get other people’s blood on some cuts so I have to take some antivirals and do bloodwork. Hopefully everyone from the scene will consent to blood tests, but I won’t know for a few days.” Buck had been through that before, and it was always stressful.

Eddie was silent for a second. “Hell, Buck. You know, this makes me think about when we first met.”

Buck huffed. “Please don’t remind me of back then. I was awful to you at first.”

Yeah, you really felt threatened by me.”

“I wasn’t threatened,” Buck protested.

Okay, give me your word for it.”

Buck flopped on the couch. “Maybe a little threatened.”

Eddie laughed. “Anyway, you said we did the same job, and I said the difference was I did it under fire.”

“Oh, right. The guy with the grenade in his leg.”

Yep. Except now we apparently have done the exact same job in the same way.”

“Eddie.” Buck rubbed the back of his neck, not sure what to say.

You did good, Buck, but so much for a relaxing vacation, huh?”

“I didn’t go on vacation to relax. I need Maddie to respect my boundaries.”

You really think being there for a month is going to do that?”

“No, not completely. Maybe it’ll be a jolt. And I’m responsible for shoring up my resistance to her tears when my boundaries are being pushed. But it’s more than that, to be really honest. I needed to figure out a way to frame all this that makes sense.”

And have you?”

“I’m getting there. I have a lot of people in my life that care about me; that makes me really lucky. It’s okay that my parents don’t care about me in any real way. I just need to get Maddie to accept my decision not to have contact with them.”

Will she?”

“She’s going to have to. I know I could have given in and everything would be fine for her and Chimney, but what happens the next time she disagrees with one of my decisions? I can’t function like that.”

You shouldn’t have to, and you’re right. You have a lot of people here who love you.”

“I love you guys too; you’re my family, my real one.”

The family we choose is more important than the family we’re born with.”

“Absolutely. I got lucky with Maddie, and I don’t want to lose her, but I need her to give me space to make my own choices.”

You guys will get there. I have faith in both of you.”

“On another subject, I’m probably going to start working here for the rest of my time off.”

Buck, you do know that’s not a vacation, right?”

“I didn’t take time off to get away from my work, you know that.”

Yeah, I do, but how does that translate to you working in Austin?”

“Eh. I’ve had a couple of encounters with the 126 here, and Captain Strand asked if I’d consider working with his shift while he’s out for a couple of weeks for surgery.”

Wow, you must have really impressed him.”

“I guess. I suppose it’s silly for him to do all this work to bring in a firefighter from out of state for a two-week stint, but…” Buck considered for a few seconds. “I think Owen Strand still feels like an outsider here, and I’ve heard some stuff about issues with other stations. I don’t know the whole story, but I think he might be overly cautious about who he lets work with his squad. Anyway, unless I change my mind tonight, I’m going to call him in the morning and accept, which I assume will mean that Owen will be in touch with Bobby.”

Most likely. They’ll need to get you seconded to Austin FD, and I don’t see how Bobby wouldn’t get looped in on that.”

Buck blew out a breath just as he heard a knock at the door. “Damn, I gotta go. I guess I’ll give Bobby a call in the morning.”

He’ll be glad to hear from you.”

“Ugh. I hope it’s not going to be an emotional bloodletting.”

Suck it up, Buck. Bobby loves you, and he misses the hell out of you.”

“Does he really?” Buck asked, hating himself for feeling insecure about his place in Bobby’s life.

Yeah, Buck, he really does. Every shift, he looks for you.”

There was another knock at the door. “I gotta go, Eds. I’ll text Christopher goodnight later, but I expect you to give him a big hug from me.”

Sure thing, Buck. Bye.”

“Bye.” He jogged to the door and answered it, finding Carlos in street clothes. “Hey. Sorry about the delay, I was on the phone.”

“No problem. You ready to head out?”

Buck patted his pocket to make sure he had his wallet and keys. “Yep! Onward and outward, hopefully with less blood and major injury.”

Carlos drove since he was familiar with the area, pointing out cool things Buck wouldn’t have found on his own.

“Did you watch the news this evening?” Carlos said casually.

“No. I read the news sometimes, but watching it bores me.”

“I meant the local news.”

“No…?”

“That whole thing today definitely made prime time news, and there was a lot of video.”

“Video?” Buck echoed.

“Cell phones. A lot of people in that crowd had nothing better to do than film you. And then when the rounds started going off, there were at least two people with a good enough vantage position that they were able to film most of that drama too. I know the PD has been fielding calls about you. I’m sure Captain Strand has as well.”

Buck buried his head in his hands and groaned.

“You okay?”

“No. I hate this.” He didn’t used to mind getting his picture in the paper, but then he’d gone viral for a guy who’d refused to let Buck save him, a guy who’d let go because he was embarrassed, and Buck had started hating this kind of attention.

“Well, you don’t have to do anything about it, but if Captain Strand doesn’t reach out to you about making a statement, my captain will.”

“Can we deal with that tomorrow? I can’t tonight.”

“Sure. Heads up, I guess.”

“Thanks.”

They went to a Cuban restaurant with spacious outdoor seating, and the food was amazing. Buck had brought a lightweight jacket, and with the outdoor space heaters, it was warm enough to eat comfortably.

He had a few bandages on his arms, the biggest one being where he’d had to get three stitches. The server side eyed Buck’s arms every time he came to the table but didn’t say anything.

Carlos was kind of serious and a little on the quieter side, Buck found him easy to talk to throughout the meal. Buck had always thought of Eddie as mellow, but he suddenly had the realization that Eddie wasn’t mellow at all. He was reserved and didn’t react to much, but there was a constant intensity about Eddie that worked well with Buck’s exuberance.

He could see that Carlos could be intense when the situation warranted it, but mostly he came across as really chill. His demeanor actually helped calm Buck down in a way, and it made conversation easier.

While they were waiting for coffee after the meal was finished, Carlos leaned forward and braced his arms on the table, expression intense. “So, I needed to clear the air about something.”

Buck sighed. “Is this about TK thinking I was hitting on him, because I really wasn’t. But even if I had been, I definitely didn’t know he had a boyfriend.”

Carlos laughed, and it was a complete transformation on how serious he seemed the rest of the time. “No. I can’t say I don’t get a little territorial about TK, and guys hit on him all the time, but I don’t fault anyone for thinking he’s hot. That said, I don’t think you were hitting on him. But that is tangential to the miscommunication. So, this not-bar we’re going to tomorrow night…”

“Not-bar?”

“There’s definitely a great bar, more of a club, really, when there’s not a global plague, and the owner is desperately trying to keep her business going and her employees on the books. The community is trying to support her efforts. She’s at capacity every night when there’s no rain, but it’s more spacious than this and very much completely outdoors. It’s not really a bar.”

“It’s a not-bar. I get it. What’s the problem?”

“It’s a gay not-bar.”

Buck blinked a few times. “Well, that’s fine. I’ve been to a few gay bars with friends. It’s not gonna freak me out.”

“Well, the miscommunication is that TK thought you were gay, and then when you mentioned a past girlfriend, he became convinced that you’re bi.”

Buck sat back hard in his chair. “Really?”

“Well, he did think you were hitting on him, so I think his inference is obvious.”

But Buck’s mind was spinning in a whole different direction. “How does someone know something like that though?”

Carlos choked on his water. When he’d stopped sputtering and mopped his mouth, he said, “How do you know if you’re gay?”

“How do you know if you’re bi?”

“Um.” Carlos blinked at him a few times. “I…” He pointed a finger and then curled his hand into a fist. “I feel like we’re in a weird area here.”

“It’s okay. Forget I asked.” Several weird memories were running around in Buck’s head, and it was something he’d need to think about more.

“I’m pretty sure I can’t forget that.” Carlos signaled the server for their check. “There’s a great homemade ice cream place about two blocks from here. It’s a little off the beaten path, and we can walk and talk.”

“We don’t have to. Seriously, forget I asked.” Buck couldn’t believe he’d blurted that out. Sometimes his lack of brain-to-mouth filter was a nightmare.

Carlos gave him a look like that was not happening. They paid the bill and Buck shoved his hands in his pockets, jacket tucked into his elbow as he walked next to Carlos.

“You ever been attracted to a man?” Carlos asked.

“How would I know?”

Carlos stopped dead and stared at him, mouth open.

Buck made a face and kept walking.

Carlos caught up to him and got him to stop. “Okay, let’s try this a different way. Close your eyes for a second.”

Buck shot him a suspicious look.

“Just close your eyes. It’s a thought exercise, and it’s easier if you visualize. Nothing’s going to happen; I’m armed, you know.”

Buck snorted but closed his eyes.

“Think back to every person you’ve ever known—male, female, other—prior to your senior prom in high school. Can you visualize every person you were close to as a kid and as a teen?”

“Yeah.”

“Now, imagine you’re living in a world where there’s no judgement about who you love, no relatives to disapprove of your choices. Give the first answer that comes to your mind when I ask my question. Of all those people you knew and liked in your life, who do you ask to your prom?”

“Avery Bishop.” Buck’s eyes popped open. “Holy shit.”

“I take it Avery is male?”

“Oh my god.” Buck leaned back against a brick building and took a shaky breath. “Oh my god.”

“Okay, don’t panic because I refuse to let you have an anxiety attack and force me to call 9-1-1; we’d never hear the end of it. Also, we’re in the 126’s area, so they’d show up to give you oxygen and razz you about it forever.”

Buck buried his face in his hands.

“Hey, Buck.” Carlos’ hand settled gently on his shoulder. “It’s okay.”

Buck dropped his hands. “Is it? My ability to ignore stuff and delude myself is messing with me more than a little right now.”

“One data point doesn’t mean anything. It’s just one thought experiment. Having your first crush be a boy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re truly bisexual. You might just be into one or two guys in your whole lifetime. Or maybe just that one. You’d have to look at a man in the here and now and find him desirable.”

Immediately, Eddie’s face flashed in Buck’s mind. He felt both turned on and guilty. He groaned and buried his face in his hands again.

Carlos leaned against the wall, shoulder-to-shoulder with Buck and waited it out. Buck was already making the connections in his head about how he’d missed this part of himself, how he’d pushed it so deep that he’d missed when his feelings for his best friend had changed.

After a couple of minutes, Carlos nudged him. “Ice cream?”

“Yeah.”

As they began walking, Carlos said, “You can talk about it if you want. Whatever’s going on in your head.”

“I was twelve, and my sister had already moved out to go to college, so it was just me and my parents. I remember this kid I played with all the time next door, Trey, um… I can’t remember his last name for some reason.” Buck never forgot stuff like that.

“Well, it was a long time ago.”

Buck shook his head. “I don’t usually forget names. Anyway, Trey’s brother Michael came out to his parents.”

“And they didn’t take it well?”

“I think they did, actually. What I remember is their mom over at our place, talking to my mother about Michael coming out and how they were struggling with it but trying to be supportive, though some days they weren’t sure how to do that.”

“Okay, that sounds like a reasonably good reaction.”

Buck nodded, lost in the memories. “I didn’t really care about my mom and Mrs. Whatever talking. Trey and I wanted to play, but my mom was keeping me close. She kept having me help serve drinks and whatever. She usually never wanted me around when she had guests. Well, she never wanted me around period.

“Anyway, I remember her saying what a disappointment Michael was. And then she looked at me and said that I wasn’t good for much but at least I wasn’t like that. I said something to defend Michael, because he was a good guy and Trey loved him. She grabbed my arm and said I’d better never do anything like that to her. That if I wanted to keep my family, I’d better not ever humiliate them the way Michael had his family.” He shook his head. “I’d forgotten about that whole conversation until just now.” Buck didn’t just forget things.

“Familial disapproval, especially parental, can be a very powerful force when it comes to being honest with yourself about your own sexuality. Even more so than what society thinks.”

Buck was still wrapped up in memories, but he glanced over at Carlos and found him looking pensive. “You sound like you know of what you speak?”

“Yeah.” He scuffed his foot on the sidewalk. “TK and I almost broke up because I introduced him to my parents as my co-worker.”

“How’d that go down?”

“Not great. TK was rightfully upset, but he understood eventually and told me to take my time. The thing is my parents know I’m gay, but I’ve never let them see it. I’ve never let them see my partners, so I’ve never had to confront the potential of their disapproval. I hate that I let their opinion make so much difference. I really hate that I let it hurt TK.”

“You love him, don’t you?”

“I do. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt for anyone else, and I know I can’t take the next step with him until I can be myself in front of my parents.” He nudged Buck’s arm as they stopped in front of the ice cream shop. “Just like you have to be yourself in front of your parents.”

“The thing is, until recently through circumstances I did not choose or want, I hadn’t had contact with my parents in more than a decade. If I had my way, I’d never talk to them again. So, it’s really making me angry that I may have let something my mother said when I was twelve affect me so much now.”

“You can’t know anything yet, Buck. You need to shake loose the chains of your past and figure out who you are today. When it comes to sexuality, it’s a little harder to figure out during a global pandemic, but we’ll come up with something. I know a lot of gay guys who are first responders who follow all the same protocols we do.”

“Oh my god. Are you planning to fix me up on a date?”

“Oh, hell yes. If you think TK wasn’t already planning to fix you up while you’re here, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“I’m so terrified right now.”

“You should be.” He cocked his head to the side. “You okay?”

“I’m getting there. More so every day.”

“Good man. Let’s get ice cream. What are your favorite flavors?”

“Pistachio and coffee.”

“Together? That’s disgusting.”

– – – –

Buck laughed at Grace’s recounting of her funniest calls from the night before. Judd was smiling, leaning back in his chair and watching. Buck got up to clear the lunch dishes.

“Buck, let me get that,” Grace said. “You cooked, which is a real treat for us.”

“Nope! I told you, all services would be provided for lunch. Just relax.” He took the dishes into the kitchen then set about loading the dishwasher quickly. It didn’t take long because Bobby had beaten the habit of clean-as-you-go into him when teaching him to cook the last few years. He actually needed to call Bobby since he’d already accepted Owen Strand’s offer to work with the 126 for the next couple of weeks.

Buck brought to the table the pound cake that he’d made while Judd and Grace were out this morning visiting her father. There was also frozen strawberries he’d thawed and turned into a sauce because it was the wrong time of year for fresh, and the whipped cream maker he’d prepped before lunch. He’d been surprised Judd and Grace even had something like that, but it sure made making whipped cream less annoying.

“What’d you do?” Judd asked, looking happy.

“Apparently the only dessert you two firmly agree on is strawberry shortcake. So…strawberry shortcake it is.”

“Buck, this is so sweet,” Grace said, getting to her feet to help him put it together at the table. “We’re never letting you go back to California.”

Buck laughed. “Well, you’re stuck with me for a little while.” He glanced at Judd. “Owen tell you about the thing?”

“He said he’d offered to have you work with the 126 for a few weeks while he was out. Didn’t say if you’d accepted.”

“I called him this morning and said yes. I was never running away from work; I love what I do.”

Judd nodded and accepted the plate from Grace with a murmur of thanks. “You know I’ll be in charge while Owen’s out?”

Buck shrugged. “He mentioned it.”

“You okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be? You’ve got like fifteen more years experience than I do.”

“Fair enough. So are you starting next shift, which is the day after tomorrow?”

“Yep. I need to head out for a little bit to sign some forms for the 126 that Captain Harper has waiting for me, and then I need to go to the police department and sign the police report.”

Grace dug into her strawberry shortcake and moaned happily. “This is so good, Buck. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

“We’ll go with you to the station and to the police department,” Judd said firmly.

Buck blinked. “You will? Why?”

Judd and Grace exchanged a look then Judd replied, “Local news has been putting pressure on the department for an interview. You might need a buffer. I’m good for getting in people’s way, but Grace is amazing for politely telling people where to go.”

“Judd,” Grace admonished with a grin.

Judd gave her a raised-eyebrows look and went back to his food.

“You’re more likely to get ambushed at the police department if the detective knows you’re coming in,” Grace said.

Buck dropped his head to the table and groaned.

Grace patted his back. “This too shall pass.”

“Some people would be thrilled,” Judd remarked casually.

Buck shook his head. “I went viral a few times for things that were really painful. The most viral thing that’s ever happened to me was being blown up in my own ladder truck.” He took a bite of whipped cream and strawberries. “There was this reporter that kept trying to get into my hospital room afterward. Any desire I had to be famous or go viral died a long time ago. I’m just not interested. I’d rather be on the news for getting a literal kitten out of a tree. Boring human interest story where people see the uniform and the cute cat but not me.”

“You did a good thing yesterday,” Grace said gently. “You did your job well, and saved a lot of people. How you handle the outcome is entirely up to you. We’ll support you, all right?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

After lunch, he retreated to his bedroom to make a call before they left for the station. He hesitated more than a little before calling Bobby. In some ways, Bobby was a more difficult call to make than Maddie. Buck would eventually work things out with his sister, even if it took a year. But Bobby wasn’t as certain. Buck wanted it to be a certainty in his life, but that relationship had always felt more fragile.

He dialed, figuring he’d leave a message if Bobby was busy with the family. It was a weekday, but with the weird school schedules and the unusual shift work they all had, there was never any telling who would be around when.

Buck?” Athena answered.

“Hi, Athena.”

She blew out a breath. “I’ve been worried like hell about you, Buckaroo.”

“There was no need to be. I’m fine.”

Oh, honey, you are not fine. I know what’s been going on, so no need to front. I know you called to talk to Bobby, but he’s out turning on the grill, and I knew he wouldn’t want to miss your call, so I figured I’d answer.”

“If you guys are busy, I can call back later.”

He’s putting ribs on for later. They’re going to take hours. You are not getting off this phone yet, young man. Tell me how you’re doing after that catastrophe yesterday?”

“You heard about that too?”

Even if I hadn’t heard about it from Hen, a local news affiliate picked up the story because the Austin paper indicated it was an LAFD firefighter. It was on the morning news. We expect to see a follow-up later today. That was a hell of a scene.”

“A bunch of people nearly got shot. Not-shot or something.”

Not a damn thing anyone could do about that. You did the best you could with what you had, and we’re all real proud of you. Though Hen said she was going over to Eddie’s place to administer oxygen after he’d called ranting after he saw the morning news. Ranting in Spanish no less.”

“Oh my god. You guys are so dramatic.”

Athena laughed. “We’re both proud of you and worried that you went on vacation and nearly got shot.”

Is that Buck?” Bobby’s voice could be heard from the background.

Yes, baby. I didn’t want you to miss the call, so I answered the phone.”

That’s perfect. Put him on speaker.” There was a sound change and then Bobby said more clearly, “Buck?”

“Hey, Bobby. How are things?”

Kid, you’re making me grey, but things are fine.”

“Sorry.” Buck hated stressing Bobby out.

I don’t mean it like that, Buck. I admit I don’t like it when you’re in danger, but it happens almost every shift. I’m just used to being able to back you up, and it’s uncomfortable that I can’t right now.”

“There are good people here too.”

Yeah.” Bobby hesitated. “You trying to tell me something, kid?”

“Not like that. I’m not moving to Texas, if that’s what you mean.”

I was starting to wonder, so I’m glad to hear it.”

“But I am going to be working with the 126 for a few weeks.”

While you’re on vacation?” Bobby asked.

“It was never my job I was getting away from, Bobby, not really.”

I hear you. So you called to tell me that we can expect some paperwork?” Bobby sounded a little disappointed.

Not just that. I’ve been thinking about everyone a lot. I’ve talked to Eddie and Hen.”

Believe me, I know you talked to Hen,” Bobby interjected.

“What does that mean?”

I’ll tell you in a minute. Go ahead with what you were saying.”

“I didn’t have an order that I planned to call people in or anything, but I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

You can call us anytime, baby,” Athena said.

“I know I can.” He blew out a breath. “You know I’m okay, right?”

No, I honestly didn’t,” Bobby said gently. “I’m glad to hear it, but I’ll be honest when I say that I wouldn’t be in your shoes. It’s pretty messed up, and it’s fine that you need time away. Even if part of the reason was us.”

“Bobby, please.” Buck hated this kind of conversation even though Dr. Copeland told him that he needed to learn to have them. “It’s as much my fault for not telling anyone how I felt about things.”

We all have some responsibility, kid, just know that you’re valued and we want you to come home.”

Buck nodded even though they couldn’t see him. “Is Chimney okay?”

There was a long pause before Athena replied, “He’s doing all right. He’s got good support in Albert, and Hen and Karen. He’s struggling with his brain and his heart telling him two different things. But he’s insisted that he and Maddie have sessions with Frank to talk things out.”

“That’s good.”

And,” Athena continued, “I believe he plans to write and ask you if you’d Zoom in to a session or two at some point.”

“Honestly, a mediated conversation seems like a good idea. Maddie and I just circle the drain when we talk.”

Bobby asked, “How do you mean?”

“I say ‘they don’t love me and never did, and I don’t want anything to do with them,’ and she says, ‘they do love you, you just have to give them a chance to make it right.’ It’s very circular.”

It’s possible you’re both right,” Athena said cautiously.

“Meaning?”

That Maddie’s right and they do love you, but that you’re right to not want to see them anyway. I’m not saying that’s true, but it’s a possibility. But love that comes after twenty-nine years is a bit late. You’re full grown and set on your course in life. The question then becomes, does it matter if they love you? If Maddie could be proven right, does it make a difference?”

He considered for a few seconds, thinking back over several conversations with Dr. Copeland. “No, it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. They make me unhappy. When I’m around them, all I feel is inadequate and unlovable. I don’t want that in my life anymore.”

Then that’s the part that matters, honey. It doesn’t matter which of you is right about the emotions of other people, when you can’t truly know another’s mind anyway. What’s important is what you want for your life and who you want in it. You two trying to convince each other about who’s right is doomed to failure.”

“Thanks, Athena. That’s absolutely right. Maddie won’t accept me cutting them out of my life either, but you’re correct that arguing about their feelings isn’t the actual point.”

You sure she won’t accept it?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t think so. But I think it’s because she doesn’t feel safe with my parents.”

Safe?” Athena echoed.

“I don’t think her experience of our parents, at least after I was born, was all that different than mine. She’s been fine with having nothing to do with them for years. The baby is her reason for all this. But she doesn’t want to mend fences with them without me.”

She wants you at her back,” Athena said.

“Yeah. And if it were anything else, I’d do it, but—”

No, honey,” Athena said quickly. “That’s when it’s time to get some therapy and sort out your conflicted feelings about your parents, not tell your brother he has to endure an abusive situation.”

That hit like a slap in the face. “You think the situation is abusive?”

With your parents gaslighting you? Hell yes. I’ve heard some of Chimney’s rants about some of the things Philip and Margaret have said. There’s more than a little gaslighting going on. Your mother in particular is a master of that abusive tactic.”

“I suppose that’s true.” He knew it was true, it was just hard to admit. He added another to-do item to his next session with his therapist.

Honestly, kiddo, that Maddie wants to put up with it worries me, but people put up with dysfunctional relationships with family all the time. At the end of the day, when I’m talking to you, what I care about is that your needs are respected.”

“I’m getting there, ‘Thena. I have to come home eventually, so we’ll figure it out.”

And, Buck,” Bobby said, “if she won’t respect your boundaries, I will ban her from the firehouse.”

Buck winced. “Let’s hope it won’t come to that. Chim works there too, and he shouldn’t be cut off from her like that.”

If she’s the one who won’t honor your boundaries, she’s the one who gets cut off. You’re my responsibility on the job. And your parents aren’t welcome in my station either. Which is as much to do with me not wanting to get arrested for punching your father as anything.”

Buck barked a laugh. “Bobby.”

I’m serious. It infuriates me. But speaking of you being my responsibility. Buck, did the department ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement about that therapist?”

He sat up straight, face scrunching up in displeasure. “No, they didn’t. Did they ask the others?”

Yep. Which is a decision that’s being reviewed now. I kicked over a bit of a hornet’s nest this morning.”

“What in the world happened?”

I didn’t know about the full-breadth of the investigation, just that she was gone. All the people who were involved in the pay-to-play aspect of what she was doing, pardon my turn of phrase, had to sign non-disclosure agreements with the city.”

“Why?”

I’m sure there are layers of reasons why someone in the department thought that was a good idea. Not the least of which is people who were supposed to get psychiatric clearance to work in the field were effectively working without it. It’s big and involved, but your situation was a little different because you weren’t there for department-mandated therapy. While I knew she was gone, they only disclosed the particulars of the coercion to captains who had people who had to go back through mandatory counseling.”

“So you never knew…?”

I never knew the whole story, no. I only knew you’d had sex with your therapist and that the therapist was no longer with the department.”

“Oh.”

Athena said, “Honey, you understand that it was a gross abuse of her power and position to have sex with a patient, right? Not to mention a crime in this state.” When Buck didn’t reply, Athena added, “Pretend it wasn’t you in that room. Pretend it was Eddie. Do you understand why a therapist isn’t allowed to do that?”

“Yeah, I get it.” He felt nauseated now.

Good. It was abuse, it needs to be regarded as such,” Athena said firmly.

And I’m sorry I didn’t treat it with the gravity it deserved,” Bobby said gently.

“Bobby, please don’t.”

No, he needs to, Buckaroo,” Athena said. “If I’d known your therapist had had sex with you, I’d have arrested her ass.”

Buck couldn’t help but laugh. “Am I gonna get in trouble for talking to Hen about all that?”

No.” Bobby was adamant. “The department overlooked you because they were focused on the sex-for-clearance. You didn’t fit that criteria, but the investigators still told you all about it. A detail the city’s attorneys missed. There’s a discussion now about those NDAs; they never should have been required.”

In a way,” Athena said, “it’s heaping more abuse on the victims to say they can’t talk about someone sexually abusing them. The department attorney who tried to hush that all up should be ashamed. And be fired. Assuming anyone had even been willing to go public with it, it would have been a short-lived black eye. The department overreacted.”

“I mean, I’m not eager to run around talking about this, but you’re saying I can if I wanted to?”

You always could,” Athena confirmed.

But I want you to know that no one is going to be bringing this up casually at the station. If anyone does, I expect you to tell me.”

“Bobby, come on,” Buck protested.

I’m serious, Buck. I’m not going to have people making light of a department contractor sexually abusing our fellow firefighters. The fact that one of our own is amongst those hurt makes anyone at the 118 trivializing it even more grotesque.”

Buck made a face and didn’t know what to say.

Just take it on board, baby,” Athena ordered. “This is the way it’s gonna be.”

“Yes, Athena.”

You’re a good kid. Now, take a few minutes to reassure Bobby about this shootout you were in yesterday. Then I want to set up a time for you to talk to May and Harry. They miss you like crazy.”

Chapter Eleven

Buck shimmied into his skinny jeans and the sneakers Maddie had gifted him for Christmas. He contemplated the shirts he had available to him. He’d brought only a few things in the event he went somewhere nice. Texas was way less locked down than LA, so he’d anticipated the possibility.

While his arms were still scratched up from the car accident, he only needed the one Band-Aid to cover his three small stitches. He was glad he wouldn’t have to go out tonight looking like he’d been through the wars.

Impulsively, he dialed Eddie and put it on speakerphone.

Hey, Buck. Everything okay?”

“You have got to stop assuming the only reason I’d call is if I had a crisis.”

Eddie chuckled. “Fair. What’s up?”

“I’m probably going to be getting in late, so I wanted to say goodnight to Christopher early, if that’s okay.”

I see how it is. I just don’t rate at all, do I?” Eddie’s tone was laced with amusement.

“Nope, sorry. I’m just in it for your kid, Edmundo.”

Well, I can’t blame you there, he’s amazing.” Eddie paused. “I saw you on the news.”

“Oh god.”

Abuela saw it and so did Tía Pepa.”

“Shit.”

Buck. They love you, but they’re a little freaked out, so send them a text message with a bunch of indecipherable emojis so they know you’re thinking of them.”

“I can do that. Do I need to send you reassuring emojis too?” Buck teased as he began texting Eddie’s grandmother and aunt.

¡Mira qué cabrón!

“By that do you mean smart-ass? Because I’ve heard a few translations for cabrón, but if you mean smart-ass, I think that’s one of my better features.”

There was a long silence. “Buck, do you speak Spanish?”

“I do,” Buck said on a laugh.

There was some colorful swearing. “Abuela and Pepa know, don’t they?”

Un putero de gente sabe.”

You complete and utter troll.” But Eddie was laughing. “I can’t believe you managed to convince me for two and a half years that you didn’t speak Spanish.”

“I never convinced you, I just let you assume.”

You even swear in Spanish. My life is complete. Listen, has there been any fallout because of how that scene you helped at blew up in the media?”

Buck sighed. “A little bit. I had to go in today to sign my statement, and the chief of police wanted to talk to me.”

About what?”

“They want me to do an interview.” The chief was nice enough, but Buck definitely felt the pressure to do what the guy wanted. “I asked that they let me think about it. Told them I’m really shy.”

Eddie busted out laughing. “I’m sorry. The situation isn’t funny, but the idea of you being shy

“I couldn’t think of anything else! I panicked.” Buck had been grateful that Carlos wasn’t on duty that day. He didn’t want his refusal to do an interview to blow back on any of his new friends.

I’m not sure shy was the way to go, but do whatever you gotta do. I’m going to get my son, your majesty, so hold on a second.”

Buck laughed and finally decided on the short sleeved black button-down. It wasn’t designed to be tucked in, and fit him really snugly, so a good pick for a not-bar. Black was usually too severe for his coloring, but the shirt had silver threads all through it that lightened the whole thing up.

Bucky!” Christopher said brightly. “You’re early.”

“I might get home after your bedtime, and I don’t want to miss talking to my favorite person.”

Are you having fun in Texas? Is it hot there?”

“It’s pretty warm most of the time even though it’s only March. I’m not used to the humidity still.”

Humidity?”

“It’s how much moisture is in the air. Like when you take a shower and the air gets steamy? That’s the shower causing the air to be extra humid.”

Oh, okay. You don’t like it?”

“It’s just different. How’d school go?”

Good! I like seeing Denny. Harry got to come today too.”

“I’m glad you’re spending time with other kids, Superman. What else is going on?”

I dreamt about the tsunami the other day,” Chris said seriously.

Buck sat heavily on the bed. “Oh yeah? You want to tell me about it?”

It was about right after the water came and we couldn’t get to one another. In my dream, we stayed so far apart, and it scared me.”

“Oh, Christopher. That must have been awful. I dream about the water sometimes too.”

What do you dream?”

“About how you fell off the truck, about how I couldn’t find you.” Buck felt his eyes tear and stared up at the ceiling. “I would do everything in my power to get to you if something bad happened, I want you to know that.”

So if there were a zombie apoc- apoc—

“Apocalypse?” Buck supplied.

Yeah. Whatever that is. If there were zombies, you’d come find me?”

“Absolutely. You and your dad would be first on my list, no matter where I was. ‘Get the Diaz boys’ would be job one.”

Christopher giggled. “We’d come get you too. Buck, what are zombies?”

“Something that’s about as real as Hobbits or Dwarrow or Elves.”

But scarier, right.”

“I guess maybe more like an Orc.”

It’s a good thing they’re not real, then!”

“No kidding! But it wouldn’t have to be zombies for me to come for you, kid. If another wave came or an earthquake…I’d be there.”

I miss you, Buck.”

“I miss you too. I know these few weeks seem like forever right now, but it’s just a little bit of time, okay? And if something bad happens, I’ll come home.”

Promise?”

“Of course, Christopher.”

If Daddy got hurt, would you come back home?”

“Absolutely. For starters, I’d have to be there to sit on your dad and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid while he’s getting better, but I’d also be there for you. Are you worried about your dad for some reason?”

He doesn’t have his Buck either.”

Buck blew out a breath, trying to keep his emotions under control. “I know, and I always feel better when I’m keeping an eye on your pops. But you know who else likes to keep an eye on your dad?”

Who?”

“Bobby. And Chimney. Hen’s kind of grumpy about it, but she can’t stop keeping an eye on all of us for a minute. And they got a really experienced guy who has the same kind of training I do to cover my shifts and make sure your dad is okay.”

But it’d be better if it was you.”

“Your loyalty does you great credit, good sir,” Buck intoned gravely.

Christopher giggled and then they proceeded to talk about his homework for the next fifteen minutes.

When Eddie took the phone back, he said, “Just a second, let me go back to the kitchen.” There was a pause, then, “I’m sorry, Buck, I had no idea he was going to say all of that. I thought about stopping him, but I don’t want you to feel like I’m censoring what he says to you.”

“Eddie. Chill. It’s fine. Did you know he was dreaming about the tsunami again?”

No. I think he needs another few sessions with his therapist.” He blew out a breath. “I don’t mind that he equates you with safety, but it’s not fair to any of us that you going out of town rocks him like that.”

“Should I come home?”

No. You can’t live your life glued to Christopher’s side so he feels safe, though I appreciate the thought. This just shone a light on something I didn’t know was still an issue.”

“It may always be, in some way or another. It never goes away for me. I never have a day where I don’t regret—”

Don’t regret what, Buck?”

Buck took a shaky breath. “He was safe, Eddie. The most protected position on the top of that truck. Then the water started to recede and dead bodies were floating by. I turned him so he wouldn’t see them. And then there was another survivor to get out of the water. Debris hit the truck and he got knocked off, and I couldn’t get to him fast enough because I wasn’t there.”

Eddie was silent for several long moments. “Buck. God, you’ve never wanted to talk about that day with me, and I feel a little shaken here. But you did nothing wrong, you have to know that. You were trying to keep him from severe emotional trauma and he got knocked into the water. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the exact same thing if I saw dead bodies floating by. You’ve got to let it go. You protected him through the worst of the surges and his swimming lessons helped with the rest. He survived because of you, not in spite of you. You hear me?”

“I don’t know how to accept that.”

Then I’ll have to keep saying it. And when you get back, I think it’d be good for us to sit down and go through every single moment of that day that you remember.”

“God, Eddie, why?”

Because sometimes you’re both still drowning, Buck, and I need to get in there with you so I can help pull you out.”

Buck wiped at his eyes. “You play hardball, sometimes.”

I play for keeps. I don’t really know any other way.”

Buck squeezed his eyes shut, the words bouncing around in his head in a different way in light of his own questioning about his sexuality. It wasn’t fair to Eddie that Buck was taking things the wrong way or that it made him feel so incredibly good.

“We’ll all be fine,” Buck said softly.

Of course we will.”

There was a tap at his door.

Buck sniffled and wiped his eyes again. “I need to go.”

Goodnight, Buck.”

“Night, Eddie.”

He opened the door with his shirt still unbuttoned to find Grace standing there. He flailed for his shirt buttons and began doing them up. The shirt was a little too tight, but he figured that wouldn’t hurt him tonight.

“Sweetie, what’s wrong. You look like the world ended.”

He shook his head. “I was talking to Christopher for a minute, and he admitted he’s been having nightmares about the tsunami. It just gets to me. I know I couldn’t stop what happened, but I can’t help wishing that I could.”

“That’s what having kids is like.”

“He’s not my kid though.”

“Sure seems like it to me. Now, come on, Carlos is here to take you over to Captain Strand’s. But let’s go to my bathroom first and get you some eyedrops. Also, that shirt… Boy, if I wasn’t married…”

“Grace!” Buck said with a blush.

She laughed and motioned for him to follow her to the bathroom.

– – – –

When he entered the living room a couple of minutes later, Carlos was drinking a glass of tea, talking to Judd.

“Sorry for the delay, Carlos. Minor crisis back home.”

Carlos turned to face Buck and promptly choked on the tea. He coughed and handed the glass off to Judd who was laughing at him. Carlos gave Buck a thorough once-over. “Well, we’re not going to have any problem getting you a date.”

Buck felt his cheeks get hot. He’d had guys hit on him in his life, so he wasn’t a stranger to men making appreciative comments, but his own newly discovered awareness made this feel different. “We should go before you kill me with mortification.”

“I don’t think Carlos is the one who picked your shirt,” Judd said dryly.

“Nope, but I’m not mad at it,” Carlos said with a wink. “Let’s go, sexy.”

“I’m regretting all my life choices,” Buck groused as he grabbed his jacket and followed Carlos out the door, calling goodnight to Judd and Grace.

Judd called out, “Just text if you’re not coming back tonight!”

Buck laughed and waved in acknowledgment.

When they were in Carlos’ car, he asked, “So, why are we going to Owen’s house?”

“TK’s mom, Gwyneth, wants to meet you.”

“Why?”

“I’ve learned not to ask. I don’t get his parents. They’re likable as these things go, but weird.” He glanced over. “Can you breathe okay?”

“What?”

“I want to make sure your shirt isn’t causing you respiratory distress.”

Buck rolled his eyes. “It didn’t used to be quite this tight, but I’ve gotten a little bulkier this year. Especially in the chest.” He suddenly felt uncertain. “Should I change?”

“God no. We’re supposed to stay in our groups for the most part at this place. There are some weird rules, and you’re not supposed to really mingle with others. So, you’re going to be a challenge for the bouncers.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Trust me. You look like you plan to get laid. Guys at this place are going to respond to that. It’ll be fine, though. Paul gets hit on a lot too. His shoulders are a powerful lure.”

“Really, really regretting my life choices.”

Carlos laughed at him.

– – – –

TK opened the door with a big grin that became fixed as his eyes traveled over Buck. “Well. You’re gonna fit right in where we’re headed. Come on in and meet Mom.” He stood back and made an expansive gesture.

Carlos was right that there was something odd about Gwyneth and Owen together. It was weirdly uncomfortable being around them with their aggressive anti-flirting. Buck managed to smile and make conversation and even congratulate them on Gywn being pregnant, but he really just wanted to get the hell away from them.

He knew everything about high-risk pregnancies because of Maddie, and Gwyneth was a fair bit older than Buck’s sister. But, no one asked for his opinion, so he kept it to himself.

He wound up alone with Owen for a few minutes in the kitchen. Owen rocked back on his heels, giving Buck a thoughtful look. “Thank you for joining the team for a few weeks. It sets my mind at ease to have some familiarity with one of the people who’ll be taking care of things while I’m away.”

Buck nodded, glad to be able to help. “So, you’re doing the surgery now so it’s not hanging over your head as the pregnancy progresses?”

“Eh. More or less. I’m about to be a father, so it’s time. Make sure I’m there for my kid.”

Buck shot Owen a confused look.

“What’s that look for?”

“Aren’t you already a father?”

“Yeah, of course, but I mean—” He breaks off, eyes widening. “Oh no. I swear, sometimes I can put my foot right in my mouth and not notice the taste of shoe leather. Excuse me.” He headed out of the kitchen at speed. “TK! I need to talk to you.”

Carlos wandered into the kitchen looking confused. “What was all that about?”

“I have no idea. We were talking about his surgery and why he’s having it, and the next thing I know, he says he has his foot in his mouth.”

“What’d you say?”

“He said he was having the surgery because he’s about to be a father and I said ‘aren’t you already a father?’ Then he took off like a bat out of hell.”

Carlos winced. “Yeah. He said the same thing to TK, which was hurtful as hell. TK hasn’t wanted to complain, but it’s painful that his father wouldn’t schedule the surgery for him but will for this impending baby.”

Buck winced. “Yeah. Ouch.”

“And you called him on it.”

“Not intentionally!”

“Nevertheless.” He sighed. “We might as well sit down and get comfortable. I predict it’s gonna be a minute while Gwyn and Owen make sure TK knows that they love him.”

Buck huffed a laugh. “I’m not sure if I feel sorry for him or just really amused at his misfortune.”

“Schadenfreude is a legitimate response to the way his parents are. Want some tea?”

– – – –

“You should have let me drive. My Jeep is much bigger,” Buck said, feeling bad for the way TK was scrunched in the backseat of Carlos’ car. Buck was only about three inches taller, but Buck carried a lot of his height in his legs and there was no way he was folding himself into that tiny backseat.

“I’m fine,” TK said, sounding happy. “It’s all good. Hey, listen, I don’t know what you said to my dad—”

“Nothing,” Buck blurted out. “I said nothing.”

“He pointed out that Owen is already a father,” Carlos supplied.

“Traitor,” Buck muttered under his breath.

“Dad can be an idiot sometimes, but he means well. He’s gotten weird since he and Mom reconnected.”

Buck wasn’t sure what to say. “Are you happy they’re back together?”

“Between you and me? And Carlos of course.”

“I won’t say anything,” Buck promised.

“It’s not an easy answer. I want them both to be happy, I like having them both around, and I’m kind of jealous of the new baby having two parents at the same time. But, to be honest, I don’t like them together. I don’t like the way they are with one another, and I don’t think I like who they become as people. It’s frustrating because it’s their choice to make, but I just think they’re better apart.”

Buck turned so he could look at TK. “That’s rough. I’m sorry. Is that part of why you transferred to Tommy’s team?”

“I wanted more of a challenge. I was going to go for specialist certification, but I thought paramedic would be better. It also gives Dad and I some space, which I think is a good thing.”

Buck could relate to that need. He nodded, not sure what to say.

“Speaking of space,” TK said, “we’re going to do dinner with Mateo and Paul, and maybe even Marjan, another night. Paul is redirecting Mateo this evening so it’s just the three of us.”

“Oh?”

“Well, if we’re doing this test of whether or not you’re bisexual, I figured you might not want to do that in front of the others.”

Buck took a steadying breath. “That seems…good. God, I can’t believe I’m doing this at my age.”

“You’re never too old to figure yourself out.”

“Yeah.” He thought about Michael Grant and the pain the man had to have gone through to finally be honest about his sexual identity and his needs so late in life.

They parked on the street, put their masks on, and walked the couple of blocks to the bar. The door charge seemed really high, but Carlos had mentioned that a lot of why this place was surviving was the community supporting it.

They all got blue wristbands with silver stars.

TK tapped his wrist. “We find the table with that pattern around the edge. That’s our table until we leave.”

“Got it.” He looked around once they were inside. “This is a parking lot,” Buck said once they were past the entrance. There was a temporary fence covered in some sort of tent-like fabric. Lights were strung up everywhere and portable heaters dotted the space, keeping it warm enough that jackets weren’t necessary. Bar tables were about ten feet apart, and there were two lines for food with marks for how far apart to stand.

“Yep, it’s the parking lot of the club. Paula, the owner, set this up out here. People have to park on the street, but it’s worth it to support her keeping the place open. If you want to eat, you order through an app on your phone for pickup then go up to the window when your order is ready. You order drinks and food separately so you get different pickup notices.”

“Wow. So no servers or anything?”

“Nope,” Carlos said. “All of her employees work on food and drinks, staying away from the customers, except for those working as bouncers, but they’re really more like COVID monitors, making sure people stay in their groups or remain six feet apart. There is a dance area, but you have to dance with someone from your group or by yourself with space around you. Bouncers enforce it. Masks have to stay on when you’re not at your table or if you accept a visitor.”

“A visitor?”

“The app has a place to send messages to other tables. That’s the only way to interact with anyone. People can ask to drop by, but everyone has to be masked if you accept a visit.”

“It’s pretty cool how they worked this out. Max capacity?”

“Seventy-five if every table is maxed. But not everybody comes in groups of five or six. So fifty is more typical.”

TK threaded his arm through Buck’s. “So, we were thinking of doing a little people watching thing where you could tell us which guys you think are hot.”

Buck huffed a little. “Yeah, okay.”

“Expect people to want to visit, but you don’t have to accept.”

“Really?”

“You’re dressed to get laid, Buck, and your body is bangin’,” TK said, “so guys are going to be looking. They’re already looking.”

Buck glanced around and realized there were several men staring at him, which wasn’t a new occurrence, but it was a new thing with him in this frame of mind. He was suddenly grateful for the masks because no one could see him blush.

They dumped their masks at their table then got caught up in talking and having fun for a while. TK ordered the food on his phone and Buck offered to order drinks after he downloaded the right app.

Both Carlos and TK ordered non-alcoholic drinks, and Buck raised an eyebrow.

“I’m in recovery,” TK supplied. “But get whatever you want. I’ll be fine with it; I go out to bars with the team all the time.”

Buck changed his drink order to non-alcoholic. “If we were in a bar or in a big group, I might drink, but I don’t need to. I know other people in the program, and in intimate settings, I don’t drink with them either.”

TK looked like he wanted to object, but Carlos sent him a grateful look.

Even with the masks off at the table, every time they left it, they went back on, even to hop into line and get their drinks when they were up. They’d already gotten several messages from men wanting to visit but, so far, they were ignoring the incoming chatter. Buck was not ready for that to be up close yet.

The food was really good for not-bar food, and TK and Carlos were entertaining together, funny as a couple in ways neither was individually.

Buck was leaning on the back of the bar chair rather than sitting, laughing at something TK said, when Carlos caught his attention and jerked his chin toward a table two down from them. “I think someone’s trying to get your attention.”

Buck looked over and found a guy who looked like he’d just jumped off the pages of Cowboy Weekly, looking at him like he was dinner and dessert.

“He thinks you’re on the menu,” Carlos said with a chuckle

Buck smiled at the guy and nodded. “He’s cute.”

“Not doing it for you?” TK asked curiously.

He shook his head.

“Physically, he’s a lot like you,” TK observed. “Tall, fair, blond, broad shoulders. Wouldn’t be surprised if his eyes were blue.”

“Well, I’m not explicitly looking to fuck myself,” he said with a laugh. “But the issue isn’t his looks.”

“What is it?” TK asked.

“I dunno. Something about his energy.” Buck frowned, head tilted in consideration. “I think he’d be a lazy lover.”

Carlos threw back his head, laughing heartily. “He is. Oh my god, I can’t believe how you called that.”

TK shot Carlos a look. “Past hookup?”

“Yes. And you know you have nothing to worry about.” Carlos looked back to Buck. “How’d you do that?”

He shrugged. “I’m usually pretty spot on about reading people’s sexual vibe.”

“God, don’t tell Mateo that,” TK said. “He’d call it your sex thing and ask you to do it to everyone. Like Paul has his observational thing.”

“I don’t even know how accurate it is because I’ve never really had someone confirm my impressions. Of course, I get some level of confirmation from the people I actually take to bed, but it’s not foolproof.”

“I feel like we’ve gotta test this,” TK replied with a big grin.

“It’s only a good test if somebody’s slept with the person who can verify if my impression is right.”

“Well…” Carlos said with a grin. “There are about five here that I’ve been with.”

TK huffed, but he was smiling. “All right. This is the weirdest party game ever. Let’s see how Buck’s superpower works.”

Carlos subtly pointed out the first on his list. The guy was actually behind Buck, so Buck went around the table, slung his arm around TK’s shoulders to steal some of his nachos while he observed the guy in question.

“Nacho thief!” TK said, laughing.

Buck watched the guy move and interact with the people around him. It took him a couple of minutes and he ate about a quarter of TK’s nachos in that time. “Hmm. You two didn’t last long, I don’t think.”

Carlos smiled. “Not really, but why do you say that?”

“He’s a control freak. Worse than you. Probably always wants to literally be on top. I’d guess pretty narrow about what he likes, but has one really freaky fetish.” The last was a complete guess, but he found people really controlling usually had a freaky fetish.

“Well, damn,” Carlos said. “That’s pretty spot on. We weren’t compatible, but I heard about the fetish from someone else.”

Buck covered his ears. “Don’t tell me, I’m delicate.”

Carlos laughed and leaned over to whisper it in TK’s ear. TK’s eyes widened and he made a face.

Laughing, Buck dropped his hands and went back to his chair.

Carlos shot Buck a look. “So you think I’m controlling?”

“No, not exactly, but I think your preferences collided with his.”

“I gotta hear this,” TK said. “Read Carlos.”

“That seems invasive.”

Carlos shook his head. “I don’t mind.”

“Okay.” Buck cocked his head and considered for a second. He’d had a fair bit of time around Carlos, he just didn’t usually think about his friends in the sex-radar way. “I think you like to be in charge…most of the time, even if you’re on bottom. You tend to be very physical in bed but have a deeply romantic streak.”

Carlos blinked at him, but TK’s mouth fell open.

“That was super specific,” TK said.

“I’m not always right, but I’m usually pretty good at reading people’s…um.”

“Sexual intent?” Carlos supplied.

“Yeah. Sometimes I’m surprised because they’re not putting it all out there, just part of it, but I’ve been around Carlos enough to see more sides of him.”

TK leaned in close. “Point out the physical type you like and then we can work on the ‘sexual intent’ later. I mean, if you think you’re vibing on the bi thing still.”

“Honestly?”

TK nodded with a big grin.

Buck leaned close and whispered. “The hottest guy here is your date.”

TK blinked. Then he smiled. “Well, I’m inclined to agree. Second hottest.”

Buck gave TK a quick once over and cocked a brow.

TK’s smile got bigger.

“But… In the realm of things that are not fantasy, we have…” He pointed out four men who were kind of doing it for him on the looks front. Buck had always loved being in bars, or even anything like bars. Just the vibe of it all lowered his inhibitions. This newfound awareness of men that he’d locked away since he was a kid was pinging around like crazy. A couple of the men noticed him looking and sent him sultry grins, picking up their phones.

Carlos moved in closer to hear what they were talking about. “I know a couple of those guys. They’re single. You want me to try to hook you up?”

“Maybe.” Buck took a drink of his warm beer. “I need to think about it.”

“Whose vibe strikes you as more what you want?”

Buck pointed out the tallest of the four men. There was nothing physically similar to Eddie, other than dark hair, but there was something about him that reminded Buck of Eds. It wasn’t fair to pick like that, but he couldn’t control what he found attractive.

Carlos shot him an inquisitive look. “I do know him, though I haven’t slept with that one. He’s a good guy from what I know. City planner, if I remember correctly. I could definitely fix you up.”

“I don’t think so,” Buck said evenly. He made a face and drank some water. “What sucks about this is I need to make out with someone and see if it rings the chimes, as it were. But there’s a freaking plague going on.”

TK nodded. “That is hard. Even if you met someone you thought you might be attracted to, you might not want to kiss them or even be maskless around them.”

“Right.” Buck took a drink of his cranberry juice. “2020 and 2021: the years that wreaked havoc on single people’s sex lives.” He pointed at the other two. “Don’t gloat. I know that couple’s expression of glee well.”

They both laughed.

Carlos looked thoughtful. “I definitely need to follow through on the idea of fixing you up with another first responder. Same protocols we follow and already vaccinated. Might be able to achieve making out.”

Buck didn’t want to turn it down, but he was a little hesitant. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Excuse me?”

They all startled at a voice at their table and turned to find one of the bouncers waiting. Buck scrambled for his mask.

“You’re the firefighter who was on the news, right?”

Buck groaned internally but forced himself to be nice. “You mean the car accident?”

“Yes.”

He nodded.

“First, I’m a big fan. That was really exciting, but my boss would kick my ass for coming over here and fanboying all over you. The thing is that you guys aren’t really paying attention to your messages.”

“I didn’t think that we had to,” Carlos said, standing up a little straighter, looking a little menacing.

“Oh, no. You don’t. You haven’t broken any rules or anything, it’s just that you’ve been getting a lot of messages, people wanting to verify if it’s really you. Even if it wasn’t that, you’re hot like burning. Still, we expect people to be able to accept being ignored. The issue is this is moving more into fanboy territory, and I’m not certain we’re going to be able to keep enforcing the rules about people not approaching without an invite.”

Buck glanced around and realized that the bouncers were more occupied at several tables than they had been before. He made a face.

“Maybe we should go.”

“Yeah,” TK agreed, looking around. “I think that’s probably a good idea.”

The bouncer gave him a sympathetic look. “Also, it went out on Twitter that you were here.”

“We definitely need to go,” Carlos said, downing the last of his drink.

“Why don’t you guys follow me. Act like you’re going to the dance floor, and we’ll slip you out through the club.”

Their exit went smoothly, and Buck was glad they were exiting on a different side of the building than where they went in.

“I am so sorry about that,” Buck said as they walked back toward the car.

“How is this your fault?” TK asked.

He shrugged, feeling annoyed and frustrated.

“Hey.” Carlos pulled him to a stop. “Not your fault. There’s a diner I know with late night outdoor seating. The owner is a friend. They’ll seat us somewhere inconspicuous. Let’s go get pancakes.”

The late-night breakfast was fun. He could tell that neither TK nor Carlos were as outgoing as he was, but they were both open and friendly, and Buck felt like he’d made real new friends.

As they were wrapping up their midnight breakfast, TK was looking pensive and poking at his food. Carlos nudged him. “What’s up?”

“That car accident you worked the other day, Buck? It really freaked me out. We were around the corner, treating injuries where we could, but all I could hear was gunfire.”

“Ah, babe.” Carlos curled an arm around his shoulder and pressed a kiss to his temple.

Confused, Buck looked between the two, feeling like he was missing something.

TK shoved a final bite of pancakes in his mouth. A bit later, he met Buck’s gaze. “I was shot at a scene about a year ago.”

Buck blinked. “You were shot?”

“Yeah. Freak thing. Kid with a gun who thought we were intruders.” TK waved the details away. “I thought I was over it, but the sound of gunfire…” He shook his head. “At first, I froze, but then, when it went on and on, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other and do my job. But my reaction to it at first worries me.” He braced his arms on the table. “You have anything you freeze up about? You don’t have to tell me, but you seemed fearless out there, and I’m just wondering how you deal.”

Buck considered for several seconds.

“I’m sorry, Buck, I shouldn’t have asked.

“No, I don’t mind the question, TK. I’m just thinking. I know what I react badly to but it’s not for the obvious reasons. I will say I haven’t been around a bomb or a bombing victim since the ladder truck incident, so I can’t say how I’d do with that. I mean, firefighters aren’t really supposed to be around bombs, but bombing victims are always a possibility. So I don’t have that frame of reference, and it’s the most likely direct comparison.”

“I can’t even imagine,” TK said in a whisper. “It’s so outside my scope of comprehension. But I can’t really conceive of what my dad went through in the towers on 9/11 either.”

“You remember Eddie?”

TK nodded then explained to Carlos. “Eddie Diaz is another firefighter from the 118.”

“Eddie did two tours as a combat medic in Afghanistan; he won the silver star for saving a bunch of people right before he was discharged.”

“Damn,” Carlos murmured.

“He and I got off to a bumpy start when we first met, but one of the calls that cemented our friendship was this guy who was cleaning these practice grenades. He was a collector and he’d launched it into his thigh. So, Eddie and I are in the ambulance transporting the guy back, and I’m changing the dressing on the guy’s leg, when Eddie notices the cap on the grenade is the wrong color. It wasn’t a dummy round.”

TK sucked in a sharp breath.

“He shot a live grenade into his thigh?” Carlos asked.

“Yep. Bomb squad wasn’t qualified to remove it and the specialists from Camp Pendleton were going to take so long our patient would have died. We couldn’t take a patient with unexploded ordnance in his body into the hospital. Eddie said he was familiar with the device and was confident that he could remove it. I said I’d back him up. We strapped on bomb vests and got into the ambulance, and Eddie took that round out.

“Afterward, I was fine for a bit, but then it hit me. Especially after the round went off and took out our ambulance. No one was hurt,” Buck clarified quickly. “But I got really rattled and tried to hide it. Eddie took me out for coffee and told me about the first time he’d been in a live fire situation and how much of a mess he was. He said that my reaction, whatever it might be, was okay. That the important part was that I’d stayed calm when it mattered and helped my patient.”

“But I didn’t stay calm. I freaked out.”

“For a second, because of what sounded like gunfire, and I’m sure every single person there was reacting the same way. The important part is that you got past it and got to work. That said, the two situations aren’t the same. You’re talking about a post-traumatic reaction, while I was dealing with an adrenaline crash. Only you can know if you need to talk to someone.”

“So you think a bomb might set you off that way?” TK asked gently.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember as much of it as everyone else does. I mean, yes there was the leg injury, which is what people remember, but I also had a head injury from getting thrown out of the ladder truck. I’m inclined to think my team would have worse reactions today than I would, but I won’t know until we’re in that situation. I might have memories of it that are lurking around that I haven’t dealt with.” He shrugged. “I think the more comparable is my reaction to large bodies of water after the tsunami. It’s not perfect because it was a disaster and not a violent injury, but…” He made a so-so motion with his hand. “And my reaction isn’t even about the water. It’s about the kid I had with me that day. It’s been over a year, and I still have nightmares about him screaming for me.”

“Jesus, Buck, I’m sorry. I did not mean to bring that up.”

Buck shook his head. “Nah, man, it’s okay. It gets brought up whether I want it to be or not just because that day changed who I am, you know? And I was talking to Christopher earlier, and he is dreaming about the tsunami again, so that’s got it on my mind. I just don’t think you should be hard on yourself for any reaction you have.

“If you’re worried about how you reacted or how you might react in the future, talk to a therapist. Get some exposure.” He nodded to Carlos. “Get your hot boyfriend to take you to the gun range until the sound of gunfire doesn’t freak you out anymore. I dunno, TK, just don’t be hard on yourself for something that’s not your fault. And definitely don’t be hard on yourself for reacting like you’re human.”

TK smiled faintly. “Thanks, Buck.”

Chapter Twelve

Buck woke with a mild headache and uncertain where he was. He glanced around and memory came back of texting Judd that he’d be crashing on Carlos’ couch. Which is exactly what he’d done. The headache was from the crick in his neck.

He’d had fun the night before, but it felt surreal. The bubble of sexual freedom where he could admit to finding men hot was too new to be settled in his brain yet. He’d enjoyed the way so many men were looking at him, but he still wasn’t sure what it all meant. However, he had not enjoyed having people staring at him because of seeing him on the news.

He pushed off the blankets. He was wearing nothing but sweats, which he’d borrowed from Carlos last night. His shirt and jeans were draped over a nearby chair. Fortunately, Carlos had spare toothbrushes because Buck wasn’t okay with skipping oral hygiene.

A rustling sound caught his attention and he looked over to see Carlos moving around the kitchen, pouring a glass of water. He delivered the water and two aspirin to Buck.

“Your neck was at a terrible angle. I figured your head would hurt.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Buck sat up and downed the water and aspirin, letting his brain come online. “Thanks for letting me crash.”

“It was no problem. I figured if we were out after midnight, it’d be rude to risk waking Judd and Grace.”

He plucked at the sweatpants. “I should have planned better. I appreciate the loan, but they’re kind of short.”

“You’re all leg, man.”

“Believe me, I know. Cap grumps about my turnouts because it’s not a length the department normally has on hand. Hell, when we were figuring out the uniforms for me to work with the 126, we realized my inseam is three inches longer than Judd’s and he’s two inches taller.” While Buck’s legs might be disproportionately long, Judd’s were the opposite; the man was long in the torso.

Carlos laughed. “The misfortunes of the tall.”

Feet could be heard on the stairs and then TK entered the room. “Morning.”

Buck waved.

TK went and kissed Carlos, accepting a cup of coffee. He leaned against the counter and looked at Buck. “The bedhead is adorable. Look at those curls!”

Buck groaned and flipped TK off. He got to his feet and stretched a little. “You got a T-shirt I can borrow, Carlos? I can send it back to you through lover boy over there.”

“Sure. Though, you’re bigger through the shoulders, so don’t expect it to fit well.” Carlos jogged up the stairs.

“I figure I’m less likely to get grief over a tight T-shirt than what I was wearing last night.”

TK laughed. “Fair. Perfect club clothes, but you did look like you intended to be someone’s dinner and dessert.”

Buck flopped back on the couch. “Wrong couple of years for that.”

“Yeah, it sucks.” TK moved closer. “How’s the bruising on your back?”

“It doesn’t really hurt much anymore, but last time I looked, it was still colorful.”

“You care if I check it?”

Buck sat up and turned sideways. “Knock yourself out.” He’d learned that denying people meant they thought he was hiding something.

Carlos came back down and tilted his head at TK poking at Buck’s back. “What are you two doing?” He tossed the T-shirt in Buck’s lap

“Thanks.”

“I’m checking Buck’s bruises.”

“Bruises? Oh, from the pressure cooker.” He moved to look and whistled lowly. “You look like a Monet. That must have hurt like hell.”

“For a few days. Actually, I’m pretty sure that damn horse liniment helped, but don’t ever let Stuart Ryder know I said that.”

“Man, the way you were complaining about the smell,” TK said, laughing.

“It was awful.”

“That it was.” He poked Buck a little firmly in one spot on his shoulder blade and Buck flinched. “Yeah, I figured that’d hurt. Don’t back off the heat and liniment quite yet.” He pulled away, and Buck pulled the T-shirt on, finding it pretty much tight all over. “What’s on your agenda today? I’m off and can hang out if you want, but Carlos has a shift starting in about three hours.”

“I’m having lunch with two of the families of the old 126 team. You’re welcome to come if you want. Grace is going; she has a late shift today.”

TK looked uncertain. “You sure I wouldn’t be intruding?”

“Nope. It might even help.”

TK cocked his head, looking confused.

“Keep things a little lighter, you know?”

“Then, sure, I’m in.”

Carlos wedged himself between them on the sofa, phone in hand. He had a picture up of an attractive man, probably in his early thirties, with blond hair and blue eyes. Even in the photo, he had a sort of masculine intensity about him, sharp Nordic-looking features. “What do you think?”

“Think of what?”

“You think he’s hot?”

Buck blinked stupidly. “It’s too early for this.”

“I think he’s hot,” TK said staring over Carlos’ shoulder.

“Your opinion does not matter,” Carlos said, nudging his boyfriend. “He’s a paramedic with one of the private companies. Good reputation for COVID practices, been vaccinated.”

“This is so weird,” Buck muttered.

“Do you want to go out with him or not? I told him I have a friend in town for a couple of weeks who’s a fellow first responder and could use some fun nights out. He’s game if you are. And he’s going into it sight unseen, trusting me that you’re his type.”

“Am I?” Buck asked worriedly.

“Oh yeah.”

Buck couldn’t get much from a photo, but it wouldn’t hurt to try it out. Part of him had reservations, but the bigger part really wanted to know. “Yeah, I’m in.”

– – – –

Judd spent lunch with his father and then cleaned the house, the rhythm of housework letting him stay busy and get out of his head a bit. He felt like he should have gone with Grace and Buck to visit with the wives of his lost teammates, but it still hurt in a way he couldn’t deal with on most days. Grace never held it against him, but he still felt like he was failing.

He’d been surprised by TK’s inclusion in the lunch, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought it was a good idea. TK’s disposition wasn’t quite as sunny as Buck’s, but he had a way about him that set people at ease. Between the two of them and Grace, the wives of his friends and the kids would be comfortable, which was all he could ask.

Just as he was finishing the kitchen floor, the door opened and the three came in. They seemed a bit subdued, but okay otherwise.

“Hey,” he greeted his wife, accepting a brief kiss. “Let me put this away and I’ll join you in a second.”

“House looks nice,” she said with a smile.

He smiled back and went to put up the cleaning supplies then wash his hands. When he returned to the living room, Grace had passed out tea, leaving a glass for Judd on the side table by the love seat. He took that as a directive about where to sit. She curled up next to him, tucking her feet up on the cushions.

Buck and TK were sprawled out on the sofa, looking lost in their own thoughts.

“How’d it go?”

Buck blinked and met his gaze. “It was fine. We took the kids to a park after lunch, let them run off some energy. I know these things don’t get better overnight, I just wish there was more we could do to help.”

“Grief takes time,” Grace said. “Everyone gets through it in their own way, and the kids are doing pretty well.”

“Yeah, the kids are great.” Buck grinned. “I think it’s probably been a couple of months or so since the last time I Zoomed anyone.”

TK poked Buck in the arm. “You set up trust funds for all the kids who lost a parent from the 126?”

Buck blushed to the roots of his hair. That was the thing Judd had never shared with the rest of the team.

“Man, how? Are you secretly wealthy or something?”

“Let the man alone,” Judd said gruffly.

“It’s okay, Judd,” Buck said with a half smile. “No, I’m not wealthy. I do okay, and I have a friend who is good with investments, but the money I put in trust for the kids came from a legal settlement.” Buck turned his glass of tea around in his hands. “The particulars don’t really matter, but a bunch of firefighters were caught up in a…thing with a department-approved provider. She lost her license and our union sued for malpractice. We all got settlements.

“My situation was really different from the others; I didn’t want the money, but I got it nonetheless. So, I had a friend create a trust for families left behind after line-of-duty deaths. Specifically the kids. There were so many kids left behind with the tragedy here that it’s taken most of what was left of the trust, but that’s good. I wanted it to help not have it last forever.”

“You did a good thing,” Judd said. “I can’t thank you enough for helping take care of those kids’ futures.”

Buck waved it away.

Grace got to her feet and gestured for Buck to get up as well. “Get up. I need to hug you again.”

“Oh my god, Grace.” But Buck got up and let Grace hug him.

“You’re a good man, Evan Buckley.”

He blew out a breath. “All we can do is try, right?”

“That’s all anyone can ask.”

Buck jolted a bit and then pulled out his phone, frowning at whatever he was reading. “Just a second.” He began texting furiously, looking more and more upset the longer the texts went on. Finally, he looked up, a faint look of panic about his eyes. He looked from Judd to TK. “Too muscular. Grace, can I use you as a visual aid?”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“My friend’s son is having some problems with his muscles. I’ve been rubbing them down for him several times a week, but I had no idea it was helping him in any meaningful way. But apparently he’s hurting, and his dad doesn’t know how to help. Chris has really skinny arms, and they’re kind of bony. Not that you’re bony, but—”

“Buck, of course. Go get whatever you need. Should I put on a sleeveless shirt?”

“That would help, yes. I’m gonna go get my tablet.” He practically sprinted for his room while Grace went to change her top.

Judd patted the loveseat. “Get over here, little brother. I think you and I are about to become unnecessary to these proceedings.”

TK rolled his eyes but joined Judd on the loveseat. “I’m not cuddling with you.”

“You should be so lucky.” Judd shot back. “I’ll have you know that I’m a great cuddler.”

TK huffed a laugh.

Buck came back into the room with his tablet and power cables, getting everything set up. He was fiddling with it when Grace came back into the room.

Judd couldn’t see the screen, but he heard well enough when the video call connected.

Buck, I am so sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. Carla told me what to try, but it’s making him miserable. He kept saying you do it right, and I’m just—”

“Eddie, it’s fine. You know I want you to call me, especially for Chris.” Buck angled the tablet. “This is Grace, she’s married to that lughead Judd. She’s going to be my visual aid.”

Grace,” Eddie greeted, sounding distracted.

“Nice to meet you, Eddie.”

I’m taking the tablet into Chris’ room.” There was a bit of silence, and then, “Chris? I’ve got Buck on FaceTime. He’s going to tell me how to help, okay?”

Bucky?” a little boy’s voice said, sounding hopeful.

“Hey, Buddy. I hear your arms are bugging you.”

Yeah. My arms miss you more than the rest of me.”

“Aw, Chris, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what we were doing was helping so much. I should have figured with you not able to see Carla right now.”

I hate COVID,” Christopher complained, sounding wounded, and Judd thought his heart would break.

“Yeah, me too. This is my friend Grace. Grace, this is my best friend Christopher.”

Hi, Grace.”

“Hey there, Christopher. Rough day?”

It’s okay.”

“Well, how about we try to make it a little better?”

You’re pretty,” the kid said.

Grace laughed. “Thank you, kind sir.”

Judd watched as Buck explained to Eddie how to massage the tense and sore spots on Christopher’s arms using Grace as his “visual aid.” He thought he was seeing more than casual skill, but he wasn’t sure where Buck would have picked up that kind of thing. He guessed people learned all kinds of things in their lives, and Buck didn’t come into firefighting until he was twenty-five.

TK leaned close and whispered, “This the kid from the tsunami?”

“Yeah. Eddie’s son.”

“Kid dominates Buck’s Instagram.”

“You know I hate social media.”

“Dinosaur.” TK settled back to keep watching.

Buck was shaking his head at something he was seeing. “He’s too bony for your thumbs, Eds. Use the fleshy part of your palm and just rock back and forth over that spot.” Buck was completely engrossed in talking Eddie through helping Christopher. “Now go in circles.”

TK leaned again. “Do you see what I see?”

“What do you see?”

“Idiots in love?”

“Yeah, I see it.”

“Do you think either of them know?”

“I sure hope they’re not both clueless dumbasses.”

TK chuckled and settled back again.

When Buck finished whatever he was showing Eddie, there was silence, and Buck was perched at the edge of the sofa, watching closely with Grace’s arm in his hands, almost as if he’d forgotten it.

He’s asleep. I’ll let him nap for a while then wake him up.” Eddie said. “Damn, Buck. You’re a lifesaver.”

“I’m so sorry, Eddie. If I’d known it was helping him that much, I’d have shown you how to do that before I left.”

Do not apologize. I wish Christopher had told me sooner that he was hurting; we could have avoided this meltdown today. Thanks for the assist. I really appreciate it.”

“Anytime, you know that.”

And thank you for being Buck’s much prettier assistant, Grace.”

“It was my pleasure. Very literally,” Grace said with a smile. “And nice to finally meet you, Eddie. Buck talks about you all the time.”

Judd got to his feet to get some more tea, tuning out the goodbyes going on in his living room.

When Buck disconnected, Grace turned and handed Buck her other arm. “I feel lopsided.”

Buck laughed and massaged Grace’s other arm.

“What’s up with his arms?” TK asked.

“He’s got CP and uses crutches to help with stability. His arms get sore and tired. He has a home healthcare aide who used to work with him four times a week, but she can’t see him during all this because of how high risk some of her other patients are. She’s been vaccinated, but Christopher has not.”

Judd came back in and sprawled in their armchair, watching with a smile as Grace let Buck rub down her arms, with most of the focus on her hands.

“Chris goes to occupational therapy at a place with good COVID protocols, but I was rubbing his arms and legs down before bed whenever I was there.”

“You see him before bed a lot?” TK asked casually.

Buck didn’t even look up. “Most nights I’m not on shift. He’s an amazing kid.”

TK glanced at Judd and mouthed, “In love.

Buck frowned, still focused on Grace’s hands. “I’ll have to mention to Eddie that he needs to talk to Carla about this. OT should have been doing something about his muscle pain.”

Buck finished up with Grace’s hands and she actually tipped over and curled up on the sofa. “You’re magic, and you’ll be teaching my husband. I had no idea my hands were so tense.”

Judd’s eyebrows shot up.

“It’s probably all that typing,” Buck said idly.

“Husband,” Grace said, “get me a blanket. I refuse to move. I’m jelly.”

Buck laughed and moved to the loveseat so Grace could stretch out.

Judd obliged and got the throw from the coffee table and spread it over Grace then sat at the end of the sofa with her feet in his lap. He nodded to Buck. “You ready for tomorrow?”

“Yep. It’ll be good to work and have a gym to work out in again. My whole workout consisting of pushups and jogging is for the birds.”

“I told you that you could use the station gym if you wanted. You earned that right with all that paperwork you saved Tommy on that pressure cooker call.” Not to mention saving Grace, but Judd knew that comment would make Buck uncomfortable.

“It felt weird.”

TK nudged Buck’s shoulder. “You idiot. I will tell you, though, Dad’s been swearing up a blue streak about getting you uniforms.”

“Inseam?” Buck guessed.

Judd huffed. He was the taller of the two, so it was ridiculous that Buck’s legs were three inches longer.

“Yeah. It’s been amusing to watch.”

Buck nodded TK’s direction. “You happy working for Tommy?”

“Yeah, I really am. I mean, it hasn’t been that long, but it’s good. It’s a new challenge, and I think I needed that.”

“Well, here’s to pushing ourselves every day to be better.”

“Amen, brother,” Judd agreed, squeezing his wife’s ankle.

– – – –

“Firefighter Buckley,” Tommy said with a smile. “Welcome to the 126. Nice to see you in uniform.”

“Morning, Tommy. How are you?” Buck greeted as he went over the list of chores he had today. He was splitting Judd’s duties with the rest of the team so Judd could shadow Owen all day, as it was Owen’s last day in the station before surgery tomorrow.

“I am doing well, but I have some good news for you.”

“Oh?”

“All the people treated from the accident who had any sort of open wound agreed to be tested for HIV, HBV, HPC, COVID, and whatever else the doctor felt was necessary.”

Buck sagged with relief. “Thank god.”

She patted his shoulder. “The blood tests were done quickly. All negative. COVID tests are a little slower since they were asymptomatic tests, but I expect we’ll hear back within another day.”

“So I can stop the antiretroviral meds?”

“You can.”

“Yes!” Buck was vaccinated against hepatitis-B, but they’d still given him hep-B immune globulin while testing his level of hep-B immunity. Antiretrovirals didn’t work on HPC, but he’d needed to take them for the HIV risk. “Thanks, Tommy!”

“I love being able to deliver some good news to people.” She patted him on the shoulder as she walked by. “Stop by my office later and let me have a look at your shoulder.”

“It’s fine, Tommy,” he called after her.

“Then you won’t care if I look.”

He shook his head and grinned, calling out, “Hey, Mateo, come show me where everything is.” Buck had three shifts his first week with the 126 and he’d have two the next week. Nothing different than how things were in LA other than Austin started their shifts a half an hour earlier and the spacing was a little different. His third shift this week would actually cross with when his team in LA was working. Otherwise, he was off-kilter with his family’s work schedule for the rest.

That made it harder to talk, which was an issue because Buck was getting back into the groove of being communicative, but he knew they’d work it out. He needed to reach out to Chimney. He didn’t like the distance between them. He made note to find the time soon.

– – – –

After a small housefire, Buck was working with Paul on rolling hoses when Paul said, “Hey. Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“There’s something the rest of the team knows that I thought I should tell you, too, since you’ll be here until Cap comes back.”

“Okay.”

Paul blew out a breath. “I’m trans.”

Buck stared. “And?”

“And what?”

“Oh. You mean that’s it? You just wanted to tell me you’re trans?”

Paul sat back on his heels. “Yeah, that’s it. Everyone’s been really good about it here, so I didn’t want you to be…” He trailed off and shrugged.

“Didn’t want me to be what?”

“Uncomfortable, I guess.” Paul crossed his arms, looking defensive.

“Well, if I was uncomfortable, it’d be my problem to solve, not yours. Hopefully, I’d solve it with therapy and an intensive attitude adjustment.”

Paul chuckled and relaxed a little.

“But thanks. Not for telling me necessarily, because it sucks that you feel like you had to, but for trusting me enough to feel like you could.”

Paul nodded then cocked his head. “What’d you think I was going to add to that reveal?”

“I had no idea. I was expecting a list or something. ‘I’m trans, I have a caracal at home that likes to eat people’s faces, my favorite color is eggplant, and I snore fit to wake the dead. You’d better have your earplugs, bro.’”

Paul laughed so hard he tipped over. Mateo came running to figure out what was going on.

– – – –

Buck was taking advantage of the gym time to give himself a brutal workout. He’d been keeping on top of pushups, sit-ups, and cardio, but he needed to maintain a certain strength level, so hitting the weights again was nice.

He was doing triceps dips and acutely aware that Marjan was watching him from her place by the free-weights. Everyone else had finished their workout already and hit the showers. This was his last exercise except for stretching.

“Something on your mind, Marwani?”

“Nope. Nothing on my mind.” Her tone was curt.

“Fine.” He hopped off the machine and grabbed his towel, wiping his face. “I honestly don’t know what I did to you, but we only have to put up with each other for a few shifts, so I can hack it if you can.” He could stretch in the bunkroom.

“Wait,” she called after him then sighed. “I just don’t get you, okay?”

“What’s there to get?”

Her jaw clenched and she tilted her head toward the windows.

He followed, crossing his arms, but leaning back against the wall so he didn’t loom over her. “What’s the problem?”

“Look, you haven’t been a firefighter all that long in the grand scheme, you know?”

“I know. Judd’s been doing this for like twenty years. And Owen’s probably been at it as long as I’ve been alive.”

“Exactly. And, yet, you’ve done not only remarkable things, you could have a huge following for it, but you don’t.”

“I’m not sure I see your point.”

“I like my rescues going viral. I enjoy my Instagram followers.”

Buck wasn’t sure what she was getting at. “Okay. What’s your point?”

“Why don’t you?”

“Hmm.” He bounced his foot back against the wall. “I used to. I still like following other firefighters and paramedics, and I use my Insta for the stuff that makes me feel good. But, these days, it’s mostly for family.” He blew out a breath. “The first time something I did was big news was this roller coaster rescue. The safety bar opened when they were upside down at the top of the loop.”

“Oh, my God.”

“One guy fell immediately; he didn’t make it. The other, a big guy, held on the whole time it took us to arrive and for me to get up there in rescue gear. But he was so embarrassed by the whole thing that he wouldn’t take my hand. He let go on purpose. I was inches from him, and he let go.”

“Buck, I’m so sorry.”

He shrugged. “It was difficult because it was on the news; we saved everyone else who was stuck upside down, and they talked about how brave I was, and it was all over the TV. I hated every second of it. I’d never lost anyone in that way before. Never lost anyone who refused to be saved. I actually purged my Instagram after that. I eventually put personal photos back up and a few of my favorite kid rescues, but I had no interest in the news calling me a hero anymore.” He gave a mirthless, self-deprecating laugh. “The news broadcast wound up being how I met my girlfriend, so it wasn’t all bad unless you consider how badly that ended up.”

“Do you think it’s…shallow?”

“For you to post on Insta?”

“Yeah.”

“No. You should do what you want, but I think being a woman makes it a little different.”

She bristled. “What do you mean?”

“People don’t take your accomplishments at face value. They should; there’s no different standard for female firefighters. You made it through the academy, you do the job every shift. Yet, a lot of people will assume you’re coasting by on your male team members’ strength or skill. If I were a woman, I’d be bludgeoning people with my achievements. All the women firefighters at my station have Instagram accounts. None of them are on my shift, but when I pick up a shift with B or C-shift, I try to help catch them doing awesome stuff on film. It’s not fair, but they need that recognition in a way I don’t. I wish it wasn’t different for women, but I’m a realist about that.”

“Oh.” She scuffed her shoe against the ground. “What about Hen?”

“Hen has Insta, of course, but she’s a paramedic. Even though she’s a firefighter paramedic, and puts out fires with the rest of us at times, because she has full paramedic credentials, she doesn’t have to convince the mostly male upper management that she has value. The women firefighters have a bigger battle, so I try to help them out.”

“Why’d you follow me? Cause I checked, it was before I went viral back in Florida.”

“One of the women in my station sent your account to me, said you were a badass and could use some more followers. Plus, you’re a really good photographer, and I just like your stuff.”

“I feel like I haven’t been really fair to you.”

“I can’t say one way or the other.”

“I think Judd judges me about the social media thing.”

“I doubt it. I’m on social media a ton, and I don’t believe he judges me. I don’t think he gets it, but that’s not the same thing. Also, he sees social media as a way to violate people’s privacy. The people in the background of images don’t get much say about being in someone else’s viral photo. But I think he’s a realist about it, and doesn’t judge people for doing it.”

She nodded. “I haven’t been fair to you. At first, I got it in my head that you were a fanboy, and then I felt judged by my team for being more into Insta than you are.”

“First, I am a fan. You’re a serious badass, Marjan. Second, I don’t think any of them judge you for using Insta because they all talk you up and promote it, even Judd when he can do it without sounding like an idiot. But maybe some of them are a bit judgy because of the way you judged me for not using it.”

“Oh. That’s probably it.” She huffed and looked really put out. Then she extended her hand. “Marjan Marwani.”

He took her hand, feeling like the last piece of working with the 126 had fallen into place. “Evan Buckley. Everyone calls me Buck.”

She tilted her head. “Why Buck?”

“Too many Evans in my class at the academy; something had to give.”

She laughed. “Come on. We need to stretch or we’ll be a mess later.”

– – – –

Buck left the showers and headed for the bunkroom. It’d been a hell of a long first day, and they’d needed every person on the last call. An industrial accident at a liquid soap factory. Buck had been on the ropes getting down to someone who was trapped in an inaccessible space between giant vats of soap. Part of the accident had obstructed the access to the lower part of the factory. A piece of the walkway had broken and sheered off Buck’s line, dropping him into one of the vats filled with peach-scented soap.

It had only taken a few seconds to drop him another line, but that didn’t save Buck from getting peachy soap everywhere. They’d hosed him off at the scene, but that just prevented Buck from getting soap in the truck. Didn’t do a damn thing for all the places the soap had traveled to.

Almost everyone else was already lounging on their beds, grinning at him.

“Surprised it took you that long to get clean, considerin’ the head start you had,” Judd teased from where he was reclining back against a mound of pillows with a book on his chest.

“I may never be anything but clean ever again,” Buck sniffed and sprawled on the bed face down with his head at the foot of the bed so he could still see everyone. “That soap got in places best not discussed. Suffice it to say, I’m very peachy…everywhere.”

Most of the team laughed, which was his intention.

Owen looked up from doing paperwork from that scene, hopefully his last paperwork before he went on medical leave. “No injuries I need to put in my paperwork, right?”

“Nah. Straight drop into the soap, right, Paul?”

Paul had been working the winch for Buck. “Yup. To get to the victim, he was going to have to swing himself under the catwalk a bit. The rope sheered before that happened. Straight down into pearly, peachy goodness.”

Buck flipped him off.

“Better thee than me, brother,” Judd’s voice came from the other side of the partition.

“You’re all heart, Judd.”

Buttercup came up and licked Buck’s cheek before going over to get in bed with TK.

“I think you’re the only one besides TK that he kisses goodnight,” Owen observed with a smile.

“Pretty sure it’s because I smell like food.” Buck remembered that he still needed to rub down his leg. He flipped around to an upright position and got the cream he used out of his bag. He put a towel down and began working his calf.

After about a minute, he realized he had almost everyone’s attention. Only Paul and Judd weren’t paying him any mind. “What?” he asked.

“Your leg bothering you?” Owen asked cautiously.

“No, but I do this so it won’t bother me.”

“Every day?”

“Sometimes more than once, depending.”

Mateo moved closer. “That’s a lot of scars, Buck.”

Buck side eyed him. “My leg was stuck under a ladder truck, man, what’d you think it would look like?”

“I dunno. You move around fine, so I didn’t think much about it. You have a lot of surgeries?”

“Three. Four if you count when they removed the screws.”

Judd huffed from over the wall. “Fine. If we’re gonna stare at Buck’s scars, I might as well look.”

“I’m delicate, Judd. I’m not sure I can handle it!”

Judd laughed as he moved to sit at the end of the bed. He cocked his head to the side. “Well, that looks like hell, son. Don’t let Daddy see that or you’ll be smelling like horse liniment for life.”

“Ugh.” Buck scowled. “What pisses me off is how well it works.”

Owen leaned forward. “I still have that great—”

“No!” Buck said adamantly. “I don’t for a second believe that the floral scent adds a damn thing to that cream, and I already smell like a peach. I refuse to smell like peaches and geraniums.”

“You guys don’t appreciate good skincare.”

“I do,” Paul said, holding up his hand. “Cap hooked me up, made my life better.”

“See?” Owen said, waving to Paul like that was proof.

“And it has to smell like Grandma’s flowerbed?”

“Well, no.”

TK started laughing, and Owen threw a pillow at him.

The conversation went some weird direction about skincare that had Marjan and Owen arguing.

He finished with his leg and pulled out his phone to text Eddie as the voices of his new friends flowed around him.

Buck: Got dropped into a vat of soap on a call. I smell like a peach. Everywhere.

Eddie: The Buckley luck continues. I’m laughing at you, so if that was a prelude to you telling me you’re injured, I’m gonna kick your ass for burying the lead.

Buck: I’M FINE. How about if I promise to never start an injury message with an anecdote?

Eddie: Deal. Still laughing at you. How far did that peach soap travel?”

Buck: Got in everything.
Buck: I miss you guys.

Eddie: Then come home.

Buck: Can’t now. Made a commitment to be here for a couple of weeks while the captain is having surgery. Also…still need to sort myself out.

Eddie: In what way?

Buck: I don’t know what to say to Maddie and I’m still struggling with saying my brother’s name out loud.
Buck: I’m figuring some things out about myself. I think it’d be good to do that here.

Eddie: You need to talk about it?

Buck: Maybe someday soon.

Eddie: I’m always here for you when you’re ready.

Buck’s heart clenched, feelings rushing out that he’d been trying to keep locked up. He bit his lip and tried to wrestle himself back under control.

Buck: Thanks, Eds. Sorry I couldn’t talk to Chris tonight.

Eddie: It’s fine. You texted, which always delights him, and I’ll tell him about your peach-scented butt in the morning. He’ll get a kick out of it.

Buck: Eddie! Don’t you dare.

Eddie: 😛

Buck: Ass. I better get some sleep before there’s another volcanic eruption here.

Eddie: God, Buck, don’t even joke about that. Your luck is too weird. Sleep well.

Buck: You too.


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Jilly James

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

2 Comments:

  1. This fic is just a delight. I love how it takes just a bit of time watching Buck and Eddie interact, even via facetime and text, for folks to clue into the fact that they’re in love. Sadly they are both oblivious idiots about it, but they’ll get it figured out. <3 <3 <3

  2. Great story and I love that you included translation of the Spanish words 🙂

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