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.
Buck lounged in the grass, staring up at the sky. He’d gone out to the ranch with Judd and Stuart since Grace was working. After riding with Judd for a bit, Judd had left to take care of the actual work he needed to do around the ranch while Stuart bossed him around. The Ryders trusted Buck’s skills enough to leave him alone with one of the horses. The only rule was that he not tether the horse if he stopped because they were trained to eventually head back to the barn if anything happened.
He had a date tonight; Carlos and TK were quick on the fixing him up thing. He was a little nervous, but oddly felt like he should be more nervous. The guy’s name was Connor Ryan, paramedic, and Buck was meeting him in a few hours at an outdoor restaurant that Carlos had picked because they had some private sections, so hopefully Buck wouldn’t get recognized. It had happened a few times on calls yesterday, and Buck found it frustrating.
Weirdly, Buck had moderate cell signal out here. There were parts of the ranch where he’d hit cell dead zones, but he’d stopped to eat and found he had coverage. Impulsively, he texted Chimney.
Buck: Hey. I know you’re on shift today so I don’t want to bother you. I thought it’d be good to talk soon. I’m working tomorrow but I thought maybe the day after?
The reply came much faster than he’d expected.
Chim: I’m on a break. I could call you now?
Buck looked around at the serene place he’d stopped and hoped he wasn’t about to make a bad choice.
The phone rang a second later and he answered. “Hey, Chim.”
“Hey, Buck.” Chim’s voice sounded a little wavery.
“Yeah, man, it’s just good to hear from you.”
“How have you been?”
“It’s been rough.” There was a pause. “Oh fuck it, I can’t do this civil pleasantries crap!”
“I really need to apologize. Probably for things I don’t even realize yet, but it really wasn’t fair for me to ask you to choose Maddie over your own well-being like that. I’m really sorry.”
“Chim, I would put Maddie’s well-being in front of my own in any emergency, I hope you know that.”
“Of course I do, Buck.”
“But I can’t give her what she wants.”
“I know. And, god, Buck, your parents are awful. I don’t say that to her, but they’re a nightmare. But she really wants this thing with them, so I’m just trying to get her to let herself have the thing and not involve you.”
“I’m not sure she can yet, Chim.”
“My guess is that Maddie fundamentally doesn’t feel safe with them. I’m part of her safety net in dealing with our folks. God knows she’s part of mine. But it’s one thing to support each other through occasional interactions, it’s another for her to try to force feed me a relationship I don’t want. I can be civil to them on occasional holidays and mango birthdays if I have to, but I won’t pretend our relationship is something it’s not.”
“And that’s fair, Buck. More than fair. If you never wanted to see them again, I’d understand. I just… I feel like I can get through working this stuff out with Maddie if I know you and I are okay, you know? I’ve only known you for going on five years now, but you were always like my kid brother. This thing between us is killing me.”
“Chim, of course we’re okay. I needed space to get myself right after finding out the truth about what my parents did, about everyone keeping that from me.”
“Which you deserved, and I feel like an ass for pushing you when the only thing you asked for was time to think.”
“Well, you were an ass, but you were an ass with a pregnant girlfriend who was freaking out, so I get it. And I forgive you. Just… The next time something comes up, remember that I love Maddie too, and I’d do almost anything for her. So if I’m saying no, maybe you should back up and think about it.”
“You’re right, and I will do my best.” Chim took in an audible breath. “I’ve got what you just said spinning around in my head—about Maddie not feeling safe with her parents. We’ve started seeing Frank, but that may need to be addressed in some fashion. I don’t know how to bring it up though.”
“Just ask her why it’s so important that I have a relationship with them. Why it matters if I believe her about their supposed feelings for me.”
“She probably won’t know.”
“Then that’s up to Frank to sort out. You’re not her therapist.”
“True.” There was a pause. “So, you’re working there?”
“Yeah, for a couple of weeks. It just sort of happened.”
“Like you winding up at the scene of a multi-car accident and getting shot at for several minutes.”
“Right.” Buck laughed.
“Maddie saw that.”
“I figured she would.”
“Mm-hm. What’s your point, Chim? Should I stop being a firefighter?”
“No, it’s just hard that she can’t talk to you when a day’s gone by that you’ve been in danger.”
“Then she needs to get on board the respect-Evan-Buckley’s-decisions train real quick,” Buck said a little snappishly.
“You’re right. That was out of line. I wasn’t really trying to guilt you into calling her. I just—”
“I think our first talk should be mediated. If Frank’s willing to do that, it’s the best option.”
“Okay. Should I go ahead and set it up? Are you ready for that?”
“Yeah. I’ll send you my work schedule for next week. They work a strict one on, two off model here, so it should be easy enough to align our schedules.”
“Thanks. Listen, Cap pulled us all into his office and told us about the therapist thing.”
“All of you?” Buck asked incredulously.
“No, not the whole shift. Just me, Eddie, and Hen.”
“I talked to Frank about it in my private session with him yesterday. He felt if that was revealed to Maddie that it was best done in a session with him.”
Buck fidgeted, feeling massively uncomfortable. “Yeah, okay. But not this first conversation. There’s nothing high-priority in telling Maddie about that.”
“I just wanted you to know. By the way, he also talked to me at length about what a gross ethical, moral, and legal violation that was. I’m really sorry if I ever made a joke about it.”
“I can’t recall if you did, honestly, so don’t worry about it.”
“Thanks, Buck. We miss you around here. I miss you. And while it was nice of you to let Albert continue to stay in your apartment, he’s lonely over there without you.”
“I’m keeping in touch with Albert.”
“I know. He told me. Thanks—for looking out for him.”
“He’s a good kid, Chim.”
“Yeah, he is.”
– – – –
The restaurant host took Buck through a complicated route to a section of the large patio that had high hedges between tables. Connor was already seated at the table and got to his feet when Buck approached. The guy was big, something that hadn’t been obvious in the photo. Easily 6’6 and broad in the shoulders. If he had longer hair, Buck thought he’d come across like a damn Viking, and it was entirely too appealing.
He was also hot. To Buck, it was more about the instant vibe he gave off than his looks. There was something assured about his body language as he stood by the table waiting.
They both stood, rather than sitting, as the host looked between them. “Did you need to hear the specials?”
“We’re good for now, thanks,” Buck replied.
They waited until they were alone before they both slipped off their masks. Connor stared then started to laugh. “No wonder Carlos wouldn’t tell me who I was having dinner with.” He extended a hand. “Connor Ryan. Very nice to meet you.”
Buck hated his fair complexion sometimes as he felt his face heat. He accepted the handshake, something so rare these days. “Evan Buckley, though everyone calls me Buck.”
“Do you prefer Buck?”
“Then Buck it is.” He held Buck’s chair for him, which was so surreal that Buck froze for a few seconds before sitting down.
Connor sat across from him, hands braced on the table. “So, should we get the awkward conversation out of the way?”
“I’m totally down for getting all the awkward done with so it doesn’t ruin my dinner.”
“So, Carlos said you’re in town for a bit, that you’re bi-curious and trying to figure stuff out?”
“I guess that’s a fair assessment. Some stuff that happened with my family kept me from ever considering that possibility. Part of my motivation to figure myself out is that I don’t want that stuff driving me. The attraction to men is definitely there, but I’ve never…tested the waters to be sure.”
“I think that fits within the bounds of some definition of bi-curious, which I don’t mind. Some gay men avoid that sort of entanglement. The only thing I want to avoid is going out with someone who’s about to trip headlong into a minefield of internalized homophobia.”
“Nah. Honestly, if I could be spite gay, I would, but I figure I can’t turn off my sexual attraction to women just so I can disappoint my parents.”
Connor laughed, head tipped back, deep and full-throated, and Buck felt distinctly turned on.
The server arrived to take their orders, but the guy kept losing track of what was being said and staring at Buck. Connor found it amusing and finally took over making sure their order was taken accurately.
“You get that a lot?” Connor asked.
Connor grinned at him. “It’ll pass. Though I’ll admit to having a little fanboy moment. I got the news coverage on my DVR and watched it several times. Not to mention all the YouTube videos. Those are the best. They don’t cut anything out. You are cool under pressure.”
“YouTube,” Buck repeated dumbly.
“Actually, there’s a lot of YouTube videos of you working back in Los Angeles.” Connor shrugged. “I got curious. So imagine my shock and delight when you walked up.”
“Never Google yourself, I’m pretty sure it’s a rule.”
“A rule of what?”
“Maintaining your sanity.”
Connor grinned. “You’ll recover from having a few fans skulking about YouTube. Seriously though, Buck, that was impressive work. You ever consider being a paramedic?”
“You ever consider being a firefighter?” Buck shot back.
“Fair question. And not really. I was pre-med and got sick of the classes and the drudgery. Paramedic suits me. All the stuff that comes with being a firefighter feels like a distraction.”
“I have considered paramedic certification,” Buck admits. “LAFD has a program I could apply for, but I don’t need the whole thing. I only need about another 600 hours of training, and I don’t know if their intensive program accounts for existing training.”
“Still, if that’s all you need, you’ve done a fair bit of it.”
Buck shrugs. “I used to take classes on my days off. I hate being bored. I do worry that being a paramedic would pigeonhole me a little. I like the variety in my job. It’s funny, I used to love putting out fires, and it’s one of my least favorite parts now.”
“Good thing it’s the minority of a firefighter’s callouts.”
The conversation flowed easily throughout dinner. They split the check and then walked through Republic Square, enjoying the temperate spring evening and the light breeze.
Buck was laughing at the recounting of one of Connor’s calls back when he was with Austin FD where some guy’s balls got stuck in his shower chair drain holes. He was bordering on descending into giggles.
Connor caught his wrist, stopping him from walking, and then pulled Buck close. “This okay?”
Buck sucked in a sharp breath, the amusement evaporating. “Yeah.”
A strong hand touched his face then slid to the side of his neck. The unfamiliarity of the strength and size struck in ways that caused arousal to pool low in his belly. Connor leaned down. “Still curious?” he breathed over Buck’s mouth.
Connor sealed their mouths together, and Buck felt the flare of arousal turn into a full-on bonfire. Kissing had always been his favorite part of sex, the deep connection, however temporary, felt more real in a kiss.
When Connor made as if to pull away, Buck held him closer, parting his lips and urging him on. Connor groaned and slid his tongue into Buck’s mouth, and Buck kissed back urgently, trying to get closer. It was all the good things about kissing that Buck loved, but with enough differences that it felt like something new. The rasp of facial hair stubble against his skin, bigger body, bigger hands…bigger everything. It was invigorating and stimulating to him in ways he hadn’t expected.
They finally pulled apart, a little out of breath and a lot aroused. “Damn,” Connor whispered.
“Definitely bisexual,” Buck murmured, running his thumb over Connor’s lower lip.
“One kiss from me is all it takes?”
“It was a good kiss, and I like to think I’m pretty decisive.”
“You want to go back to my place? I’m not even suggesting that we try—”
“Yes, let’s go back to yours.”
– – – –
As soon as they got inside, Connor backed Buck against the closed door and fused their mouths together. Buck groaned and tried to pull him closer, to meld their bodies together. Then Connor ground his hips against Buck’s, pressing him hard against the door. The solid, thick line of the other man’s erection was a shock. Buck arched against that heavy pressure, feeling his own hard cock throb in response.
He broke the kiss, gasping, head back. Connor latched on to his throat, and Buck shuddered. He loved having someone pay attention to his throat like that. He shivered as Connor nipped right over his Adam’s apple.
“God, you’re too much,” Connor said against the hollow of his throat. “I have a feeling you’re the type to go full-steam ahead, and if we got too carried away…”
“We’d wind up fucking,” Buck supplied. “Yeah, probably.”
“So, I propose we make a plan and stick to it.” Connor nipped his earlobe and Buck trembled, holding on to Connor’s shoulders.
“What kind of plan?”
“Well, I could blow you.”
“Fun, but kind of one-sided.”
“Or we could get naked and grind against each other until we come.”
“Hmm. Decisions, decisions.” Buck let his head be tilted however Connor wanted it, shivering at the sensations of lips, teeth, and tongue moving over his sensitive throat. “Door number two.”
Connor’s hands slid under Buck’s Henley and, a second later, Buck was bare from the waist up. Buck reached for the first button on Connor’s shirt and found his hand caught. “I have a thing,” Connor murmured, pressing a kiss to Buck’s palm.
“I like to do the undressing. Myself and my partners.”
Buck thought as things went it was pretty benign. “Okay. Undress me, then.”
Connor’s sexual intent struck Buck as mildly dominating, but not anything that would bother him. He’d always been flexible about whether he was in control or his partner was. But he knew he didn’t have a full handle on what Connor was into yet.
Connor smiled and took Buck by the hand, leading him into the living room. “Me first.” He shucked his own clothes quickly, revealing a well-built, muscular body. When he peeled his briefs off, Buck was captivated by the erect cock. It at first appeared average, but then Buck adjusted for scale. Connor was huge, so a proportioned dick was definitely above average. A solid eight at least. Buck was a little bigger, but Buck had never been of that caveman mentality that cock size actually meant anything.
Connor stepped close, pulling Buck against him, even though Buck was still in his jeans. “You feel up to touching me?”
“I’d like you to put your hand on my cock,” Connor whispered against Buck’s ear.
Buck hesitated, more from being out of his depth than actual nerves, but slid his hands between them, feeling the soft skin and light dusting of hair over Connor’s taut lower belly. He caressed the skin right above the pubic line.
Connor pulled back enough to meet Buck’s gaze as Buck finally curled his hand around another man’s dick for the first time. A shudder of arousal went through him at the sensation of the hot, hard flesh in his hand. He squeezed gently, letting his thumb circle over the circumcised head, feeling the dampness of precum.
“Damn.” Connor suddenly yanked Buck closer, licking into his mouth, stealing his breath with the intensity of the kiss. When he pulled back, he nipped at Buck’s chin. “Yeah, you’re definitely into this.”
“Did you think I wasn’t?”
“You’re not the first guy trying to figure things out I’ve had here. A lot freak out at the reality of another man’s dick.”
Buck suddenly zeroed in on Connor’s real sexual intent. He liked taking men through this process of sexual awakening. He enjoyed being their first. He was probably a great lay, but this kink made him lousy relationship material. But that was no problem for Buck because he wasn’t looking for a relationship with Connor.
“I have no problem with your dick,” Buck said as he slid his thumb over the slit, pressing.
Connor shuddered. “So I see.” He reached between them, popping the button on Buck’s jeans and incidentally knocking Buck’s hand away from his cock. He made quick work of Buck’s pants, shoes, and socks, leaving Buck in just boxer briefs.
His hand slid over the hard outline of Buck’s cock, making him moan. “This is promising.” Connor continued stroking him through his boxer briefs, watching Buck closely. “You good?”
“Yeah. Great. I’d be doing better if you’d kiss me again.”
Grinning, Connor let go of Buck’s cock and then stripped him of his underwear. “We’ll get there.” He stepped back, breaking all contact. After grabbing a small bottle out of the end table, he sat back on the couch and crooked his finger. “Come here.”
Buck stepped closer, until he was standing next to Connor’s knee.
“I’d like you to straddle my lap.”
Buck took a second to consider that position. He’d certainly had more than his share of women who’d straddled his lap like that. He’d even exuberantly straddled Abby’s lap for a kiss a few times, but that was fully clothed and was more for fun than sex.
Having no reason not to, he put one knee on the couch by Connor’s hip then swung his other over until he was sitting back on another man’s lap for the first time. He blew out a breath, feeling aroused but also something else.
“How’s that?” Connor asked, sliding his hands up Buck’s chest, the touch grounding.
Connor nodded, hands sliding down to reach between them and adjust their cocks so they were almost on top of each other. Buck was sitting back enough that there was a gap between them. He could visualize getting closer, rubbing against one another, the slip and slide of skin stoking arousal higher and higher.
Rubbing off on each other was something he’d done with women in high school and college, but this felt new and very different.
Strong hands slid around Buck’s back. One to his low back, right above his ass, the other to the back of his neck. Connor exerted pressure, bringing Buck in close, taking Buck’s mouth in a searing kiss that made Buck’s toes curl. They were fully together, chest to chest, mouth to mouth.
Buck loved kissing, but he also really liked Connor’s mouth on his neck, so he wasn’t even a little mad when the action shifted and Connor nipped a path down his throat.
“I’m going to spread my legs,” Connor murmured against his collarbone.
“Huh?” Buck managed, too wrapped up in the sensations to care about Connor’s legs. Then the thighs he was sitting on were moving and Buck’s legs were farther open, his ass cheeks subtly pulled apart. Gasping, he clutched at Connor’s shoulders.
Air moved over his hole, making him aware of his position, of being open and vulnerable. “I don’t—”
“You’re okay,” Connor said softly, hands sliding over Buck’s back. He then reached next to them and got the small bottle of lube, squeezing a generous amount onto one hand. “Take some deep breaths and let your shoulders relax. I’m going to slick us up so this is easier.”
“Connor…” Buck shuddered when slippery flingers slid over his cock, spreading slick around liberally.
“I know.” He pressed a kiss to the underside of Buck’s jaw. “You’re so sexy, so willing. Let yourself have this.” Strong fingers positioned their cocks together. Connor’s thighs slid a little farther apart. “Tell me how you feel.”
“Aroused. Vulnerable,” Buck admitted a little breathlessly.
“You’re hard as a rock. Does the vulnerability do it for you?”
“You like being spread open?” Nimble fingers teased at his cockhead. “Tell me, Buck, does it feel good?” Connor slowly slid his other hand back to cup Buck’s ass, squeezing Buck’s asscheek. Their hard cocks were now pressed together between their bellies.
“It’s good,” Buck admitted, the admission setting something loose inside him.
“Thrust against me.” Connor got both hands on Buck’s ass and pulled at the same time that Buck thrust. It felt good. Nothing like the mindless fumbling of his teens. This was hot and hard. It was sex in a way Buck had never known.
The rutting against each other felt mindless for long minutes, hot breath panting across damp skin. Then Connor found his mouth again, plunging his tongue deep, dominating the kiss as he squeezed his hands on Buck’s ass and then pulled his cheeks apart, grinding up against him while keeping Buck’s cheeks spread wide.
Buck whimpered around the tongue in his mouth, the orgasm that crashed through him taking him by surprise. His brain blanked out as he let Connor move his body however he wanted as he chased his own release.
When Buck could think again, panting heavily against Connor’s shoulder, he was sitting back on Connor’s thighs once more and Connor was soothingly stroking his back.
“You okay?” Connor pressed a kiss to Buck’s temple.
Buck threw back his head and laughed.
– – – –
When Buck arrived at the station the next morning, TK barely gave him time to get changed before pulling him away to help with equipment checks for their shift. When they were out of earshot, TK said, “Well?”
“Well what?” Buck asked, feigning ignorance.
TK huffed and put his hands on his hips.
Buck laughed. “Are you asking me if I had a good time?”
“I’m asking if you got an answer to your question.”
Buck cocked his head to the side as if he was considering it. “Hmm.” Then he grinned. “Definitely bi.”
TK’s eyes widened. “You did enough to get a definite answer?”
“Yep. I guess the actual term for what went down is frottage.”
Fanning himself, TK grinned. “Clothed or unclothed?”
“I’m not okay with getting chafed. Unclothed.”
“Look at you jumping into the deep end.”
“I’m pretty sure that would be full-on sex.”
TK shook his head. “Full-on sex, considering the circumstances, would be more like being dropped in the ocean. Did you like him?”
“Yeah, I did. Easy to talk to, funny, gets my whole life.”
“Like, enough to date?”
Buck stepped a little closer. “Remember when we talked about people’s sexual vibe?”
“Yeah. You figured out his? Well, I guess you did if you got to the rubbing off stage.”
“It’s basically cherry popping.”
TK made a choking sound. “Are you serious?”
“I think what really does it for him is watching his partner experience something new. Even if I were here long-term, there’s only so much new, ya know?”
“Judd!” TK called. “We need to run outside real quick.”
Judd made a dismissive wave from where he was hunched over some paperwork.
TK hauled Buck outside and dialed someone on his phone. “Hey, babe,” he said after a second. “Buck is definitely bi.” There was a pause. “Yeah, he’s here with me. But something he said made me curious. Is Connor the guy who popped your cherry?” After a longer pause, TK burst out laughing. “I’ll explain when I see you tomorrow. Nope, you’ll just have to wait until then.” TK hung up, giggling. He nodded. “Your sex thing is so weird, but it’s entertaining.”
Buck laughed and got back to work. About ten minutes later, his phone buzzed with a text.
Connor: I know you’re working today. I’m off tomorrow, so I figure you must be as well. Dinner?
Buck: Just dinner?
Connor: Dinner and a blowjob?
Buck: I see we’re going to visit door #1. I’m in.
They agreed on a time and place to meet and then Buck got back to work.
Buck had barely finished his morning checklist when the alarm went off. They all immediately converged on the turnout lockers.
“Sinkhole,” Judd informed them as they were loading up.
As soon as they were in the truck, Stollman driving, Judd in the passenger seat, Judd turned and looked at everyone. “Dispatch reports it’s a big one in a parking lot. Caller said at least twenty feet deep. Several people trapped.”
“Damn,” Mateo said.
Buck had worked a couple of large sinkholes, but they were rare on the scale Judd was talking about. Small ones after an earthquake were more common.
Judd looked around at everyone. “I know probie hasn’t worked one of these. Who has?”
Marjan replied. “I have, but they were small. Just getting a harness around someone and extracting them safely. It was a few meters deep, less than a meter across.”
Paul shook his head. “Nope. We’ve had a few in Chicago, but the ones we were called out to there were no people involved, so it wasn’t an actual rescue.”
“I have,” TK offered. “One. Not as big as this one sounds, though.” TK was riding with them for this but as soon as there were actual injuries to treat, he’d be back with Tommy. The guy coming in to replace TK full-time wouldn’t be available until first shift next week. TK had spent the day at the hospital with his father yesterday and reported the surgery went fine, but there was more tumor than they expected. They needed to do another procedure to get the parts that couldn’t be managed through he keyhole procedure Owen had booked. He was expected home tomorrow.
He nodded. “We get little ones that people fall into after an earthquake all the time, but a couple medium size ones that swallowed a car or whatever, and one outside of LA county that S&R responded to. Sounds similar in size to what you described, but it was out at a park. Different than concrete and cars.”
“Right. Who has formal urban S&R training?”
Only Buck and TK had been through it.
“Okay, Buck’s taking the lead on our approach when we get there.”
“Judd,” Buck protested.
“Nope. Sorry, California. You have three things I don’t have: you’ve worked a sinkhole this big, you have urban S&R training, while mine’s wilderness, and you have a civil engineering degree. So, plan to put it to good use.”
“You do?” Mateo asked.
Buck just shrugged. In his career, this was the first time his degree had ever come up.
– – – –
After showering the dirt and grime away, Buck headed down to join the others for dinner. TK and Marjan were filthy from being down in that crater, but Buck had been pretty dirty too. He’d waited for them to get cleaned up before showering in case there was another call. Fortunately, it had remained quiet. Dispatch was attempting to divert to other stations because they’d been working that sinkhole for so long.
With little room to work, and unpredictable rescue conditions, having more people wouldn’t have sped up the work. They could only put two people down in the sinkhole at a time, and powerlines made helicopters useless.
Dinner was pizza, and Buck wasn’t mad at the low-effort food. He ate listlessly, but he wasn’t the only one who was tired and hoping they wouldn’t get another call. They were probably all struggling a bit with adrenaline crash coupled with exhaustion.
“I’m damn glad you were with us today,” Judd said from the other end of the table, after throwing a napkin at Buck’s forehead.
“Seriously. Glad you were there. The crane thing is not what I’d have done, and we’d have lost our winch when the hole got bigger right after we arrived.”
“Except the crane wound up in a hole of its own,” Buck said.
“Which could not have been predicted.” Tommy stepped into the kitchen and squeezed Buck’s shoulder. “All patients transferred to the hospital. Thank God for pizza.”
Buck sat up straighter. “Is the department going to have to pay for that crane?”
Judd gave a Gallic shrug. “No idea, but the paperwork is gonna suck no matter what. But the city engineer agreed that it was the only reasonable way down there to get the victims that wouldn’t take days of preparation and waiting for the land to settle. The edges of the sinkhole were too unstable to support our equipment.”
Buck took another bite of his pizza. “What a mess.”
Tommy pointed around the table. “I want to do an exam on everyone who was in the hole or hanging from ladders.”
“Tommy,” Buck groaned.
“Suck it up, Buttercup.”
The actual Buttercup lifted his head from TK’s lap and made an inquisitive sound.
“It’s been on the news, by the way,” Tommy remarked.
“The news?” Buck repeated. “Where was anyone close enough to film from?”
“They weren’t close enough to pick out features other than a woman and a man in the sinkhole and a man up on the crane.”
Judd added, “Department policy is not to release names if reporters ask about who worked a scene, however, which company was there is known, so reporters might show up here for a statement. It’s up to you individually what you say as long as it doesn’t violate department policy or give them someone else’s name.”
“So, if a reporter asked me a question, I could answer?” Mateo asked.
“You could, and you could tell them your role, but if they asked you who was in the sinkhole, you’d have to say no comment.”
“Marjan?” Judd asked.
“Do I want to talk to a reporter?”
“No. I’m tired and there are multiple dead who may never find their way out of that hole.” That was a fair assessment. It was likely they’d eventually get them out, but it might also be too unstable for further recovery efforts.
He just shook his head, eating with one hand and petting Buttercup with the other.
“Not a chance.”
“Nah, I’ve got nothing to say about what happened out there today.”
“Then I guess it falls to me to make the official statement.”
“You want me to do it, Judd?” Tommy offered.
“Would you? I’d love you forever.”
“You’ll already love me forever, but I will save you from the media spotlight because of my love for your wife.”
Everyone started laughing, and the mood was suddenly lifted.
“You’re a mean woman, Tommy.”
She winked at him.
– – – –
Buck: I am FINE but I promised not to bury the lead.
Eddie: Dios. What happened now?
Buck: Footage put in our share folder under GIANT HOLE
Eddie: I don’t know how to access that.
Buck: It’s the jalapeño icon on your phone.
Eddie: Oh. Hold on.
Buck lay on his bed, listening to his team breathe the deep rhythm of sleep, and tried to calm his mind down. After a rescue like the one today, he always talked to Eddie because Eddie was always right there with him, understanding the difficulties of the callout. Sometimes it was about the rescue itself and sometimes about random things because they needed to wind down. But Eddie was three states away, and he wasn’t even working today.
Eddie: Can I call?
Buck: Hold on. Need to leave the bunkroom. I’ll call you.
He went down to the dining room, dialed Eddie, rested his head on his arm with the phone pressed to his ear, and waited for his best friend to answer.
“So,” Eddie said right off, “you were hanging off a crane that fell into a sinkhole today.”
“You figured out that was me, huh? I figured with the helmet and goggles, it wouldn’t be obvious.”
“Unless someone else at the 126 has your exact build, it wasn’t hard to figure out. Your leg length is a dead giveaway.”
“I guess.” Buck blew out a breath.
“How are you?”
“A little sore. Okay otherwise. It’s just…” He trailed off, feeling silly.
“We usually talk after these things.”
“I had the same problem the other day.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
“I don’t know. I should have, I think. I guess I always try to deal with things on my own first.”
“What’d you wind up doing?”
“I talked to Hen for a little while instead.”
“Some. You and I can talk about nothing; my conversations with Hen aren’t so unstructured. But I eventually got to sleep. What would help you sleep, Buck?”
“Let’s just talk. Tell me how your day was.”
“Normal day. Zoom classes were here today so Karen could have a day to herself. Harry was here too. They drove me crazy, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Buck smiled and listened to Eddie recount the adventures of Harry, Denny, and Christopher, trying to persuade him that they should get out of school an hour early.
He was better when they hung up, but something was still eating at him. He impulsively dialed Bobby’s number.
“Buck? Everything okay?” Bobby answered immediately.
“Yeah. Sort of,” he amended.
“What’s going on? It’s a little late there.”
“Can’t sleep, and I wanted to talk to you about something if now’s an okay time.”
“It’s fine. We were just considering heading to bed, but it was barely a thought yet. What’s on your mind, kid?”
“Had a weird call today. Sinkhole, huge one. I was the only one on the team who’d ever worked one close to that size, so Judd put me in charge.” Buck hesitated. “I keep second guessing every decision I made, wondering if I thought through all the angles…”
“I’m sure you did the best you could, Buck.”
“But that’s not even the point, is it? What if someone else would have made a better call?”
There was a long pause before Bobby said, “There are times when something bad enough happens in the field and we have to second guess everything we did, everything we know. But, generally, we try not to second guess, to trust in our training. You have all the training for that kind of rescue, so trust yourself.”
“Yeah, to be rescuing people myself, not to be directing it. Not to decide who goes in and when they have to come out.”
“It’s not always comfortable being in charge.” After another hesitation, Bobby said, “You can walk me through it, if you want. I don’t say that so that I can second guess you, but if you want to talk it through, I’ll listen, ask questions, help you get it out of your head.”
Buck considered for only a few seconds. “I’ll send you a video.”
It took a few minutes for Bobby to watch the news coverage. An all-day rescue, condensed into the span of minutes. “Helicopters were out.”
“The crane was a good thought. How’d you decide who went where?”
Buck blew out a breath. “I felt like I needed to be on the crane, directing the rescue from the vantage point, Judd directing from the ground. Because the sinkhole showed signs of instability, I couldn’t send more people down than I could physically lift out if there was a winch failure or if we had to move fast. I could lift any of them. But any two of them? I sent the two lightest down who had the requisite rescue experience. We could have put another person on the crane, but…”
“No, that’s a small area and you compromise your ability to evacuate. Which, from what I saw of the second sinkhole opening became a critical choice. I can’t find any fault with your decision making, Buck. Were you hoping I would?”
“I don’t know, Bobby. It was slow and grueling. There were so many dead and dying down there; it was the parking lot of an industrial building, a lot of people just arriving for work. Most of them were dead before we got the first rescuer down.”
“That was never in your control, kid. Sometimes, we can only send one man in. Putting more people down there would have been risky because for every firefighter you put in a dangerous situation, you need to understand how you’re getting them out. Could you have put ten men in that hole? Yes. Could you have guaranteed their safety? No.”
“But there’s never any guarantee of safety.”
“No, but we’re not cavalier with it either. Sometimes I think one of the hardest things to get through to young firefighters is that it’s not a matter of risking our lives for every life in every situation. We take the risk when there’s a reasonable chance of success, when there’s a reasonable measure of safety precautions. We don’t ask a firefighter to risk their life to save a single life when there’s little chance of success.”
“But isn’t every life valuable?”
“Of course, Buck, but you’re looking at it the wrong way. Your life has value, your training has value. If we lose you on a rescue with almost no chance of success, what about the other lives you could have saved in the future? Good firefighters and paramedics aren’t made on an assembly line; we can’t just get a new one and expect the same results.”
Buck rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry I’m such a pain in the ass.”
“Is that what you got out of what I said?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Buck, there hasn’t been a single rookie firefighter who I’ve mentored who was good at this work who wasn’t like you at first. Reckless, always thinking they could beat the odds, ignoring the call to evacuate sometimes. It’s part of the job of being a captain—expecting them to do dumb things and helping them learn from it.”
“Eddie didn’t do that kind of stuff, and he’s a great firefighter.”
“I agree, Eddie is a great firefighter, but I think it was his commanding officer in the Army who shaved off his idiot-edges. We all have them. I’m not saying that to encourage you to be a bonehead, mind you.”
Buck gave a weak laugh.
“I’m just saying it’s not unexpected that the great firefighters are often the biggest risk takers, and they’re also the slowest to learn to rein it in. I would have said you were about 90 percent there. The fire before you left was out of the norm for you lately, but I also understand why it was. And the only thing you did wrong there was ignoring the order to evacuate. Hen and Chim agreed with your decision to come join our team, you just never found us. Like I said on scene, it was a maze in there.”
Buck sighed. “I didn’t like being the person who made those decisions today, who decided who was in danger. I’m sorry I’m such a pain sometimes, Bobby.”
Bobby blew out a breath. “Kid, mentoring you has been one of the highlights of my career, never doubt that. Apologize to me for single events, at the time they happen if you think you’re out of line, but never apologize for just being you. You did a good job today, even though I know it doesn’t feel like it. The thing about firefighters is we often only feel good about the complete, unequivocal successes. And sometimes not even then. Would someone else have run that scene differently? Possibly. Does that matter? No. They weren’t in the hot seat, you were. The rationale for every call you made was sound, so try to let it go.”
“We’ll make a captain out of you yet.”
Buck felt his face heat. “Bobby.”
“You think I’m joking, but you’ve got the chops, Buck, you’ve just got to get out of your own way. You’ve got an amazing amount of confidence in your skills, but not so much confidence in yourself. I think that’s the last hurdle, but we’ll work on it. We’re all works in progress.”
Buck wasn’t sure what to do with that, but it made him feel good. “Thanks, Bobby.”
“How are you, Buck?” Dr. Copeland asked.
“Good. I feel less twisted around in my own head these days.”
“What do you think is helping you get clarity?”
“Maybe just time?” He considered for a second. “I’ve also been talking to Stuart a lot.”
“That’s Judd’s father, right?”
“Yeah. His view isn’t quite like anyone else’s. He’s very…” He flailed about for the word. “Pragmatic, I guess. Like he finds my parents’ grief over Daniel suspect.”
“Because their primary motivation after Daniel’s death was their own embarrassment, how they felt judged by their neighbors and friends. He remarked that erasing Daniel was an odd way of showing love for him.”
“I can see his point. Although, grief makes people act in odd ways.”
“Still, they didn’t have to erase Daniel. Moving should have been enough to get away from the judgement they hated, right? The erasure was something else.”
“What do you think that was?”
“I think they were ashamed. They say they were being judged, but would it have mattered if they weren’t feeling like they were wrong?”
“What do you think they were ashamed about?”
“This is simplistic, but I think they were ashamed that they didn’t love me. When Daniel died, the proof that everyone was right was in how they couldn’t muster love for me. When people questioned what they were doing, they probably justified their actions by saying it’d be okay if they just loved both kids equally. But what if they just didn’t? Or, maybe, what if my mom didn’t?”
“Why do you single out your mother?”
“Thinking back over events from my childhood, my father always seemed…fretful? I think is the word, whenever I was injured. But my mother was just exasperated. I’ve always lumped them together in my mind, but they really were different.”
“Your parents are separate people, so it makes sense you would have different experiences of them. Conflating them into one isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does show lack of objectivity.”
“There was also this other thing that came up recently that ties back to my mother. Something I’d forgotten about, or buried or something.”
“Are you ready to talk about it?”
“Did I tell you about how TK thought I was gay when I met him during the wildfires?”
“No, you hadn’t mentioned that. Did that assumption bother you?”
“Bother me? No. Confused me a little bit, yes. And then when I told him I had had a girlfriend, he jumped to the conclusion that I was bisexual. I’m still not sure why, but it got me to wondering if I was bisexual.”
Dr. Copeland’s eyebrows shot up. “You hadn’t ever considered that before?”
He chewed the inside of his cheek and shook his head. He told her about the memory he’d been dealing with of his mother’s threats about what she’d do if Buck were gay.
“So you think you were able to just shut off that part of yourself?”
“I think so, yeah. I think bisexual people do it all the time. Hell, gay people deny who they really are all the time. Anyway, I went on a date the other day. With a guy, in case that wasn’t obvious from the direction of the conversation. We fooled around some. Definitely bisexual.”
Dr. Copeland seemed a little startled. “You acted on that realization quickly.”
“I don’t want my parents to be dictating my life in any way.”
“I can understand that, but most people in your situation might be struggling with some degree of internalized homophobia that they need to work through.”
“Oh no.” Buck wrinkled up his nose. “I acted to figure it out fast because I wanted to know but I also don’t want any more of my life today to be dictated by them.”
“We can’t escape our past, Buck.”
“I know.” He huffed and rested his chin on his knees.
“It seems like you compartmentalized any attraction to men very well. Was that because you didn’t want to give them anymore reasons to disapprove of you?”
“Yeah. But I did that when I was a kid and their approval still mattered. I just hadn’t realized I’d boxed a part of myself away. It makes me wonder what else I’ve cut off.”
“That’s something we can work on, but let’s take it one step at a time. You’ve put a lot on your plate. How was it to be intimate with a man for the first time? I’m not asking specifics, but rather how it was emotionally.”
“It was good. I’m not freaked out or anything. In fact, we’re getting together again tonight.” He picked at a loose thread on his chinos. “It was nice to be touched again, and that’s not even really about sex. This last year has been difficult.”
“Yes, for people not already in a relationship, this year has presented intimacy challenges. Are you planning to tell your chosen family about your new awareness of your sexuality?”
Buck frowned. “Eventually, I guess. I figure it’ll matter if I start dating someone who’s male.”
“True. Is it a part of yourself you’d rather hold back?”
Sighing, Buck fidgeted a little. “I keep thinking I want to tell Eddie.”
“Well, Eddie’s your best friend. It makes sense you’d want to share something like this with him. Are you worried about how he’ll react?”
“You mean, do I think Eddie’s homophobic? No. I just…” He rubbed his chest. “This awareness has made me think my feelings for Eddie might not be entirely platonic.” It was so weird to admit that out loud.
“So you think you should keep your sexuality to yourself because you’ve realized your feelings for him are romantic in nature?”
“How did you realize your feelings for him weren’t simply platonic?”
“It wasn’t like a specific thing. Every time I think about sexual attraction to men, Eddie’s in my thoughts. When I think about what I’m attracted to, there’s Eddie. When I think of the kind of person I want to be in a relationship with…Eddie.” He blew out a breath. “I think I was already in love with him, but I didn’t know how to frame it in my own mind since I’d told myself I was straight. And he’s straight.”
“How can you know that?”
“How can you know he’s straight?” she repeated.
“He was married to a woman. He has a kid.”
“Don’t you have a friend who is gay who was married to a person of the opposite sex and has two children?”
“Fair point, but Eddie’s never mentioned…”
“Neither have you, Buck. You can’t know, and I’m not even suggesting that you run out and tell him that you love him, but during your time in Texas, we’ve talked several times about you not hiding what’s going on with you from your best friend, more than anyone else in your life. Do you want to hide the realization about your sexuality from him?”
“No.” Buck made a face. “Being a grownup sucks sometimes.”
“Should I tell him now or wait until I’m back home?”
“I think it’s worth looking at why you might be avoiding one or the other and uncovering the fear that’s driving you.”
– – – –
“Buck,” Stuart greeted him happily with a hug. “How’s my boy doing today?”
“Good. Great even.” His therapy session went well, even if it was stupidly uncomfortable at times. “Every day I think getting away for a bit was the right idea.”
“Sometimes you just need a little space from the troubles doggin’ your steps.” Stuart patted his cheek. “You look happier every time I see you. You sure you want to spend the afternoon with an old man?”
“Hell yeah. You’re the best tour guide around! And I want to try that barbecue place you were talking up.”
Stuart rubbed his hands together. “Let’s head out!”
Once they got going, with Buck driving, Stuart said, “I hear you’ve got a hot date tonight.”
“Yeah, at eight.”
“He part of why you’re so happy?”
“Yes, but I don’t think in the way you mean.”
“In what way then?”
“It’s not him,” Buck clarified. “He’s a nice man and everything, but it’s more about figuring myself out. He’s part of that.”
“So you don’t think he’s the one for you?”
Buck snorted. “He’s the one for now. It’s hard to make connections with people during this damn plague, so when you’ve made one with someone…” He trailed off and shrugged.
“You hold on to it for as long as you can?”
“Something like that. But, it’s not just him, you know. It’s Judd, Grace, you.”
“Son, I haven’t done a thing.”
“You have though. I like the way you see things. It’s straightforward and to the point.”
“Well, my boys would tell you that I sometimes get to the wrong point. I’m stubborn and set in my ways.” Stuart patted his arm. “I appreciate that you value my advice, but take what this old man says with a grain of salt.”
“You’re not going to convince me that you’re not wise, Stuart, so stop trying.”
Stuart laughed. “You’re a good boy. My Judd and Gracie are going to miss you when you’re gone.”
“I’ll come back.”
“’Course you will. You’re family now.”
Buck couldn’t stop the smile, feeling like he’d gained something precious by coming to Texas, beyond even his own sense of self.
Stuart reached out and messed with Buck’s hair a little. “Before you go out for your date, we’ll stop by a barber. You’re getting a little overgrown, son.”
“Maybe I’m trying to grow it out,” Buck said on a laugh.
“I don’t believe that for a second. I think the plague has made getting haircuts more challenging than even eating out. I know just the place. In fact, let’s go before lunch!”
Buck didn’t have the heart to dampen Stuart’s enthusiasm, and he figured if he hated the haircut, it’d grow out quickly enough.
Half an hour later, he found himself on a backyard deck surrounded by four of Stuart’s friends. One of them was Stuart’s long-time barber and buddy. The four were salty old men, every word out of their mouths snarky and caustic. Buck was laughing so hard at them that he could barely stay in the chair to get his hair trimmed.
– – – –
Buck was kneeling on the bed, braced over Connor’s body, a thick cock staring him in the face.
Making out had been good, being naked together was great, but putting another guy’s dick in his mouth was so far outside his experience. He was nervously thinking getting fucked would be less intimidating.
“You okay?” Connor asked gently.
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I’m happy to—”
“No, I want to do you first,” Buck insisted. Connor had planned to blow Buck and then talk him through a blowjob, but Buck had wanted it this way. He took Connor’s cock in hand, feeling the silky skin under his fingers.
“You know what to do,” Connor murmured, sprawled out on the bed, head propped up with pillows. “You’ve had plenty of women blow you. And you know that as long as teeth are kept to a minimum, it’s really hard to fuck up a blow job.”
Buck chuckled. “True.”
“Go ahead and get the condom on me.” Connor ripped open the packet and handed Buck the condom. With practiced ease, Buck slid the condom in place, enjoying the way Connor’s cock twitched in his hand. “You won’t be able to take it all in, so use your hand to work the base. It’ll also keep the condom where it’s supposed to be.”
Buck actually knew all that, he’d been through this from the other side, but being at it from this angle was enough to make the basics fly right out of his head. He finally took a breath and took the head in his mouth. At first, it was awkward and he didn’t have a clue what to do, but then he relaxed and let himself experience it rather than thinking about it.
He experimented with sucking, licking, and bobbing his head. He found he liked having a cock in his mouth; the harder he sucked on Connor’s dick, the more his own dick throbbed.
Connor groaned and was obviously trying not to thrust up into Buck’s mouth, which Buck was grateful for. “What you’re doing is great for teasing, for working someone up and keeping them on edge,” Connor gasped out. “But if you want them to cross the finish line, you’ll need to get a rhythm.”
Buck pulled off. “Are you saying you want to get there?”
“You’re driving me crazy.” Connor nudged his hips up, knocking Buck in the chin with his dick. “Suck me off.”
Buck found himself eager to get Connor’s dick back in his mouth, and greedily took him back in. He adjusted his position so he was better able to balance as he worked the base while bobbing his head over Connor’s thick, heavy cock.
He was getting knocked in the back of the throat on occasion and it was making his eyes tear, but he didn’t mind. It added to everything. He loved having his mouth stretched wide, straining to take more. He knew he was limited in what he could do now, but Buck had always been a fast study, and he’d get there.
He worked Connor hard, feeling increasingly more relaxed about having a cock filling his mouth, until he felt little tremors in Connor’s hips and thighs. He looked up and met Connor’s gaze as he continued taking the erect cock in his mouth.
Connor was straining up to watch, eyes fixed on what Buck was doing. Their gazes were locked as Buck took him in deeper, making his eyes water then backed off and bobbed his head again.
With a muffled curse, Connor thrust his hips up twice, gagging Buck and making him cough. Buck rode it out as Connor began to come, filling the condom, his muscles quivering under Buck’s hand.
Buck was sucking gently on the softening cock and preparing to pull off and get rid of the condom when he found himself grabbed by the shoulders and tossed on his back. Connor loomed over him, staring at him intently for long moments before coming in for a kiss, licking straight into Buck’s mouth.
Moaning, Buck wrapped his arms around Connor’s shoulders, trying to bring him closer, to get the big man’s weight on him.
Connor broke away and continued to stare. “God, you’re amazing. Are you always like this?”
Buck felt himself blush. “Like what?”
Connor stroked a thumb over Buck’s cheek. “Does nothing ever stop you?”
He didn’t even know how to reply to that, but he didn’t have to because Connor kissed him again then pulled away to grab a tissue to dispose of the condom. Then he grabbed the other foil wrapped packet off the end table, ripping it open with his teeth.
“Your turn.” Instead of putting the condom straight on, Connor stroked him several times, working Buck up until he was shuddering and pushing his hips up. Then the condom was rolled on.
Connor slid down the bed and, a second later, swallowed Buck down.
Buck gave a startled shout at how abruptly he was taken in, the heat and suction nearly causing him to come undone instantly.
Connor pulled off and looked up at him. “You’ll be deepthroating in no time, babe.”
Buck hoped so, he was eager for that. But then he stopped thinking about it because Connor was taking him in again and all he could focus on was the perfect sensations coming from his dick. Part of him wanted it to last, but Connor was taking no prisoners, working Buck’s cock fast and hard until Buck was coming with his back bowed up off the bed.
He collapsed in a boneless heap against the mattress, not even bothering to try to assist as Connor disposed of the condom and went into the bathroom to get a cloth to clean them up. He drifted out of his fog minutes later to find Connor curled up next to him, tracing patterns on Buck’s chest.
“That was fun,” Connor said with a grin.
“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “You know how to show a boy a good time.”
“I think you showed me the good time.” The touches became more purposeful as he teased Buck’s nipple. “We’ve walked through the doors labeled frottage and oral sex, shall we keep going?”
“You mean anal sex?” Buck was a little nervous about that, but he’d really enjoyed everything up till this point.
“There could be a stop or two along the way. Prostate massage. Handjobs in certain circumstances can be very intimate.”
“When are you off again?
“Tomorrow. Then I’m on shift and then off again the day after.”
Connor made a face. “I have a late shift tomorrow. How about the day after your next shift? Instead of going out, we can eat in. Spend a little more time in bed while I show you the joys of your prostate.”
Buck grinned. “I can hardly wait.”
– – – –
Eddie knelt on the bed behind Anders, gripping the meat of his shoulders tightly. He drove his cock hard into the loosened hole, feeling it clench around him. The physicality of the fuck was draining his tension minute by minute.
Anders’ smooth back was damp with sweat, and Eddie could get lost in the play of strong muscles. He hadn’t expected to do this with Anders again, but one fuck hadn’t been enough to deal with the frustration of the last year. One roll in the hay wasn’t going to keep his thoughts off of Buck.
He thrust in harder, nailing Anders’ prostate, getting a yelp and a moan for his efforts.
Anders had left the ball in Eddie’s court if he ever wanted a repeat, and Eddie had finally texted him this morning after he’d dropped Christopher off at Karen’s, arranging an after-lunch hookup. He didn’t want to risk giving the wrong impression, but he needed this even if it created complications he had to deal with later.
“Please, Eddie,” Anders gasped out. “Need to come.”
“Not yet.” Eddie slowed his pace and blanketed Anders’ back. “When I say.”
The guy gave a frustrated sob.
“You know it’s better when you wait. Unless you want to come now, get everything nice and sensitive, and then I’ll keep fucking you until you’re a quivering mess.”
“No…” Anders shook his head where it was dropped between his shaking arms. “Overstimulation is no one’s friend.”
“Pity.” Someday, he’d find someone who actually said yes to that. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and Eddie got that, but he’d had it one time with a guy when Eddie was barely nineteen. He’d been too young to appreciate the intensity of that fuck, but it was one of Eddie’s favorite sex memories.
He licked the sweat from between Anders’ shoulder blades and began fucking him hard again. When Anders’ arms shook to the point that he dropped to his elbows, Eddie gave in and reached around, getting a grip on his cock and stroking hard and fast.
Anders gave a startled shout and came messily all over Eddie’s fist and the tangled bedsheets.
“Good boy,” Eddie murmured, savoring the way the ass muscles fluttered around his cock. He finally surrendered to orgasm, letting sensation sweep him away.
Much like last time, he sent Anders off to shower and get his headspace back to normal. Eddie cleaned up and stripped the bed then went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.
When Anders joined him, he gestured to the fixings he had laid out on the counter. “Hungry?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’ll steal some of your coffee if that’s okay?”
Anders doctored his coffee then grabbed a cookie and waved as he headed toward the door. “See you at work tomorrow.”
Eddie tipped his chin up and waved. When the door closed, he braced his hands on the counter and blew out a breath. Bobby had been making noise about trying to keep Anders. Either on A-shift or possibly B-shift. Eddie knew better than to do this kind of thing where he worked. He’d gotten damn lucky that Anders was as good as his word about not getting attached and not letting whatever they were doing affect the job.
– – – –
Buck was up early the day of his next shift. He’d been out at the Ryder ranch all day again yesterday, spending more time with Stuart. Then he’d had an early dinner with the 126 team, finally getting that night out that included Mateo, Paul, and Marjan. They’d had a great time, and Buck felt the solid bonds of friendship with them all, but they’d all called it an early night because of their shift today.
The fresh air and activity had made it easy to fall asleep last night, much earlier than normal, so he’d been up with the dawn. The unexpected free time had him working on some of the homework Dr. Copeland gave him. He kind of hated the homework she assigned, but he also knew it was good for him, so he ploughed through it.
His phone buzzing caught his attention.
Eddie: You up?
Buck: Of course I’m up. I have a shift today.
Buck: But it’s damn early for you. Why are you up?
Eddie: Restless. Be up soon to get Chris ready to go to Karen’s, and then shift for me too. You got time to talk or do you need to go soon?”
Buck: We can talk. I’m ready but don’t need to leave for more than 30.
He answered the phone and immediately said, “Morning.”
“Hey,” Eddie replied, sounding sleepy.
“Yeah, Buck, everything is fine. I was just thinking about you. Or, rather, I went to bed thinking about you and I wanted to know how you’re doing.”
“What were you thinking about?”
Eddie blew out a breath and Buck could hear the sounds of bedding rustling in the background. “How much you’re a part of our lives and how much I took that for granted.”
“Eddie, you didn’t—”
“No, I did, Buck. We’ve had a bumpy ride, but I’m so used to you being here that I forget to be grateful for it.”
Buck rubbed his hand over his face, fighting back the emotion. “Thanks.”
“How are things working out for you?”
“I think I’m getting them figured out. I’ve gotten some good perspective about Maddie. Weirdly, the thing that helped the most on the Maddie situation was talking to Athena.”
“Why is that weird? Athena’s pretty wise.”
“Because I didn’t need to travel 1,400 miles to get advice from Athena. I could have stayed home.”
“But it wasn’t just about the advice.”
“No.” Buck flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. “I needed the space to get my head clear. You know how I can get caught up in my own head.”
“I do,” Eddie chuckled. “It’s good you’re making space for yourself when you need it. What’d Athena have to say? If you don’t mind saying, that is.”
“Just that Maddie and I are locked in this fight about who’s right and who’s wrong, but that’s not even important. We’ll never know for sure which of us is right. But that’s what we wind up yelling at each other about. The real issue is that she needs to respect my wish not to have a relationship with them. It helped to distill the problem down to something manageable. Because convincing Maddie she was wrong about our parents’ regard for me was doomed.”
“I can see that. Have you been having some fun too?”
“Yeah. I’ve been spending some time with TK and Carlos more than the others. Well, and a fair bit of time with Judd’s dad, Stuart. I see Judd and Grace all the time, of course, since I’m staying in their house.”
“What are you, TK, and Carlos getting up to?”
Buck hesitated, fiddling with the blankets. “They’re helping me figure some stuff out,” he said carefully.
After a moment’s thought, he decided to go for it and just be honest. “Did I ever mention how TK thought I was gay when we met at that wildfire?”
Eddie choked. “Are you serious?” he finally got out.
“Yep. But then I mentioned Abby in some context, and he got it in his head that I was bisexual.”
“And he just told you that?” Eddie asked, sounding a little stiff.
“It’s a long story how that came out, but it got me to thinking… How do you know if you’re bisexual?”
There was a long silence. “How do you…know?” Eddie repeated, sounding incredulous.
“Yeah.” Buck blew out a breath. “Sorry, I’m not explaining this well. Let me start at the beginning with this thing with my mom…” He recounted everything he remembered of his mom’s threats when Buck was a kid. “It was easier to just be straight.”
“I guess I can see that,” Eddie still sounded a little off.
“Yeah, Buck, I’m fine. So this all got you questioning your sexuality?”
“I don’t want any part of my life—that’s within my control, anyway—to be something my mother is manipulating. That’s why I decided to do some, um, field research. So to speak.”
“You know, figure out if I’m bisexual.”
“How do you do that?”
“See if I’m attracted to men at a conceptual level and then see if it works at a physical level.”
There was a really long silence and Buck was starting to worry that bringing this up was a bad idea. “And what answers did you come up with?”
“I…see.” Eddie sounded weird.
“Eds? Does that bother you?”
“What? No, Buck of course not. You just surprised me. Also, I didn’t think I could dislike your mother more. You really had no idea?”
“I just never let myself think about men like that. And once I did, it was like I started seeing so many things differently.”
Buck sat up and fidgeted uncomfortably. “Like how I had a crush on my best friend in junior high. Little things that don’t mean much, but it makes me feel like I’ve been living in denial.” Like the denial of the real nature of his feelings for Eddie. He buried his face in his palm and forced himself to keep it together. This was about sharing what was going on with him with his best friend, not mooning over him.
“Buck…” Eddie cleared his throat. “You said you were seeing if things worked at a physical level and trying field research. What does that mean?”
Buck frowned. “Couple dates with a friend of Carlos’. He’s a good guy, fellow first responder, so he’s been vaccinated and follows precautions the same way we do.” He scrunched up his nose. “God, it sounds like I’m talking about a breeding poodle.”
“So you had sex with him?” Eddie asked sounding hesitant.
Buck wasn’t sure why that was important. “I guess it depends on how you define sex.”
“Excuse me? How many ways are there to define it?”
“I don’t know, Eddie, some people make the argument that only penetration counts as sex. Then you have to ask does oral count? Those same people sometimes think anal doesn’t count. Does that mean gay men never have sex?”
“That’s pretty academic, Buck. Did you fuck him?” Eddie snapped.
“No!” Buck bit out. “What is the matter with you? I thought you said this was okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Eddie back peddled. “It’s honestly none of my business, I’ve just been worried about you since you left. I’m not sure why this makes me more worried.”
“I’m fine, Eddie,” Buck said a little more gently. “He’s a good guy, but I’m not gonna marry him or anything. I’m just feeling my way through things.”
“Right. Um. Are you going to see him again?”
What a bizarre question. “That’s the plan. Journey of self-discovery and all that. Maybe tomorrow night or the night after.”
“I…” Eddie broke off and took a deep breath. “Buck, could you do me a favor?”
“Could you—” He broke off again, and Buck was wondering if Eddie was actually freaked out and figuring out how to break it to him.
There was a knock at his door then Judd called out, “You ready, California?”
“Be right there!” Buck called out. “Eds, I gotta go. Text me whatever you need me to do, okay?”
“No, it’s fine, Buck.”
“I doubt that’s true. Can we at least talk about it later? I’d like to hear what’s on your mind because I’m freaking out a little that you’re really not okay with the bisexual thing.”
“Buck, I promise I’m fine with that. We’re both off tomorrow. How about we talk then?”
“That’d be good.”
“Have a good day, Buck. Be safe.”
Hen: You busy?
Buck: Working but not on a call ATM. What’s up?
He figured something had to be going on because A-shift was on duty today too, and though he got texts from any of them at various times, it was unusual for them to ask if he was busy.
Hen: Any way you can watch the 6:30 Skywitness News?
Buck glanced at the clock and frowned
Buck: That started five minutes ago. Also… Why?
Hen: We’ve had a heads up that they have a segment about you starting in 10 minutes.
Buck: About me??? WTF? And that’s Taylor’s network.
Hen: Yeah. And I don’t know more than that. I’m the least irritated, so was elected to be the person who contacted you.
Buck didn’t know what to make of that. Fucking Taylor Kelly.
Buck: Just a second.
“Hey, Judd. I know you guys have a streaming service, but is there any way I can get LA local news?”
Judd closed the equipment compartment and stared. “I have no idea, but I think Paul and Marjan both watch local channels from back home. Yo, Chavez! Come help Buck.”
“What’s up?” Mateo came running.
“Help Buck.” Judd waved in Buck’s direction.
Mateo looked at him eagerly.
“I guess there’s some news report about me coming on in a few minutes on a local LA channel. My team back home thinks I need to see it, but I’m not sure how to get local news.”
Judd blinked. “Is this a good thing?”
“Considering the news station in question? No, I don’t think so.”
Mateo frowned, looking concerned. “We just have to VPN to a Los Angeles server on the tablet Cap got for that purpose and cast the streaming service to the TV instead of using the Roku. Come on, I’ll show you.”
“I’ve only got a few minutes, let’s book it.” He dialed Hen while they jogged upstairs. “I’ve got you on speaker, Hen.”
“Well, I don’t have you on speaker. Everyone is prowling around like they’re expecting the world to end.”
Buck blew out a breath. “It’s gonna be fine, Hen. What could she possibly have to say? That pseudo-shootout wasn’t that big of a deal. Hold on. Mateo is getting me set up to watch LA local news.”
Mateo was bouncing around the TV setup, and the rest of the squad Buck worked closest with had followed them, clearly alerted to something going on.
“With so much of the department coming from outside of Texas, Cap set it up that they can login closer to home and get local channels.” Mateo handled the tablet they used for casting to the TV. “I’ll just use the VPN client to pick a server in LA, and then use the Live TV section of the service to pick whichever station. Which one is it?”
“Thanks, man.” Buck peered over his shoulder and picked the channel that had Skywitness News. Mateo finished setting everything up, and then it flared to life on the big TV in the rec area. There was a Pringles commercial playing. “Okay, Hen, I’ve got it on.”
“It should be the next segment if the information we received is correct,” she said.
“Is Taylor trying to make my life miserable? Because calling it quits was a mutual decision. She doesn’t get to be bitchy now.” Buck said as he sat on the sofa. TK made himself at home on one side and Judd the other. Marjan, Paul, and Mateo took up various other seats. Nancy perched on the chair arm next to Marjan. Tommy was leaning against the wall a ways back, watching carefully. Buttercup trotted in and put his big head on the couch between TK and Buck.
“I’m not sure I knew you two dated…?” Hen said slowly.
“One of the more horrifying and brief decisions in my life.”
The splash screen for the channel came on and Buck scrubbed his hand over his face. Taylor appeared on screen, obviously in a studio, doing some intro about the car accident in Austin that had made national news because of the potential loss of life due to explosive discharge of live ammunition, but also because of the off-duty Los Angeles firefighter who’d been at the scene.
A montage of the car accident played over about ninety seconds, condensing about forty-five minutes into ninety seconds, making it seem way more dramatic. The shortened footage made it seem like he’d been in a war zone.
When Taylor was back on screen, she said, “As my loyal viewers will remember, I nearly died, along with my pilot and cameraman, when the helicopter I was in crashed in a park in Los Angeles. Brave men and women from Los Angeles Fire Station 118 were the ones who responded and saved the lives of all aboard. Evan Buckley, known as Buck to his friends, was amongst those who saved me. I did a follow-up piece about the courageous souls of the 118 last year, so I was personally affected when I saw the news reports of Buck’s brave and selfless actions in Austin. And though I’d covered the 118, it made me wonder just what I had missed about this brave young man.”
“Oh, you know plenty about me, you evil cow!” Buck exploded. Every single person in the room turned to look at him.
“Buck!” Hen laughed, but he didn’t try to respond.
“I’m joined today by Buck’s parents, Philip and Margaret Buckley of Pennsylvania. They’re here to tell us more about this brave firefighter that the people of Los Angeles are so lucky to have. Mr. and Mrs. Buckley, thank you for agreeing to speak with me.”
Buck’s mouth was hanging open.
“Oh my god,” Hen said breathlessly, and Buck could just make out pandemonium on Hen’s end, even though she wasn’t on speaker. He was pretty that was Eddie yelling.
“Thank you for having us, Taylor,” Margaret said with a bright smile.
“What can you tell me about Buck?”
“He’s so brave, isn’t he? I think being a fireman is his calling. He was always so daring as a kid, never afraid of anything, no matter how much we asked him to be careful.”
“It must be hard on you as parents to see news footage like what happened in Austin?”
“Yes,” Philip said stiffly. “I’ve never liked seeing Buck in danger.”
“But you become accustomed to it,” Margaret said. “After that awful business with the bombing and then seeing the news coverage about the tsunami. Though the survivors’ group talks so openly and sweetly about Buck that it helped heal that hurt, you know? Oh, and that terrible train crash. It breaks a mother’s heart to see her son in such a precarious position. We watched it on the news, the rescue efforts that is. I didn’t even know until afterward that it was my son hanging from that train car. Months later we still see the pictures of him at that train crash. He’s such a brave boy.” Margaret dabbed at her eyes.
“Are you referring to the cover of TIME Magazine from this past March?”
“Yes. It was such a dramatic photo, but every time I catch sight of it, I feel my heart skip a beat. What if my baby had fallen?”
Taylor continued talking to his parents, asking questions about Buck, but Buck felt like he’d had the air punched out of him
“What the fuck, Hen? How do they know about that?”
“No one outside of the department knew!”
“Maddie knew,” Hen said gently.
“Oh my god!” Buck buried his face in his hands. He looked up again when a change in Taylor’s voice caught his attention.
The scene had cut to Taylor in a studio. “After my interview with Mr. and Mrs. Buckley, I was curious about their mentions of Buck’s other brave acts and took it upon myself to do a little digging. Certainly, all of Los Angeles remembers the terrible bombing of a LAFD ladder truck. The hearts of all Angelinos, in fact all of America, went out to Firefighter Buckley as he fought for his life while crushed under his own station’s ladder truck, his life at the mercy of a suicide bomber.”
Buck winced as several pictures from that night went across the screen in a horrifying reminder of that day, something he’d never seen images of before. Judd slung an arm around his shoulders, squeezing tightly.
“Additionally, Skywitness News has confirmed with the Los Angeles Fire Department that the firefighter in this Pulitzer prize nominated photograph,” the cover of TIME appeared in the corner of the screen, “is indeed Evan Buckley. As was commented in the article in TIME, this type of rescue is extremely dangerous and something only the most highly trained firefighters can even attempt, much less hope to succeed at. But what about this tsunami survivors’ group Mr. and Mrs. Buckley mentioned?
“The global pandemic has consumed much of our thoughts and energy these last twelve months, making the one-year anniversary of the tsunami, which caused so much devastation in Los Angeles, barely a footnote in a news cycle consumed with COVID statistics and tragedies. I set out to investigate what happened during the tsunami.
“One thing that immediately became clear was that Evan Buckley was still on medical leave, recovering from the leg injury at the time of the tsunami. He was effectively a civilian that day. And, yet, he acted with every bit of training the city of Los Angeles has instilled in him. I spoke with Susan Cho in the backyard of her home in West Hollywood. Susan began all this with a single photo on Instagram, and it eventually moved into a tribute group on Facebook.”
Buck’s mouth dropped open again, and TK reached out and rested a hand on his knee.
The scene cut to a pretty backyard with an Asian woman who was probably in her mid to late-thirties who Buck vaguely recognized. “Mrs. Cho, tell me how this all began for you.”
“I was near the pier during the tsunami and was caught up in the first swell, but managed to hold on to a streetlight for a long time before being swept down the street. I was just carried along, screaming for help, and suddenly there was a man hanging from a line he’d somehow managed to get tied from a fire truck across to the other side of the street. He was catching people and pulling them out of the water and on top of the truck.”
“That’s both terrifying and dramatic. How did you find out who that man was?”
“There were eventually a lot of us on top of the truck. The woman next to me got a picture of him. She and I shared contact information when we were rescued, and she sent me the picture. The man, who we later found out was Firefighter Buckley, went after his son when the poor boy was knocked off the truck. The water was receding and we got knocked hard by floating debris, so I never got their names.
“But I posted the photo on Instagram and Twitter, hoping to find him, to at least learn if he’d survived. If he had, I wanted to thank him. Several people recognized him from the photo as the same person who had helped them, and they contacted me via direct message. We wound up with a little group that would chat and collect pictures. We didn’t share them at that time because we weren’t sure what we were sharing. Celebrating our own survival with his picture felt callous if the man responsible for saving us had died, you know?”
“Well, you deserved to celebrate surviving such a terrible tragedy, but I can understand what you mean about not doing it with his photo.”
“Right. But then one day I ran into him at Vonn’s, fully in uniform, shopping for his fire station.”
“That must have been a shock, not to mention such a relief!”
“It was, Taylor, it truly was. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see him. I barely got to speak to him for ten seconds, just long enough to confirm it was the right man, before his whole team had to abandon their shopping and rush off to a call, but he was alive! I knew his station number from his fire truck, and his last name from his nametag. I eventually got his first name through a simple Google search.
“We moved our little chat group to Facebook and began a real celebration. This time, both of our survival and of the off-duty firefighter who saved so many. More people joined us over time, adding their own pictures from the tsunami and inviting their families to join. Then other people Evan Buckley has saved in his career joined us over the last year, bringing pictures from different rescues that had nothing to do with the tsunami. It’s been very exciting. With friends and family of survivors, there are nearly three hundred of us now.”
“Wow. That’s amazing. How many of you were directly saved by him during the tsunami?”
“We’ve counted forty-two from the tsunami who have come forward, but I know there have to be more. We had no way of finding them all.”
“What would you say to Buck if he were here?”
“Buck?” she echoed.
“That’s what all his friends call him. In fact, he saved my life too.”
“Did he really?”
“Yep! After a helicopter crash,” Taylor said with a big, fake smile.
“Oh my gosh! You have to join our group!”
“I’ll definitely do that. My producer already did, so that we could research this segment, but I feel like I’d be right at home. Now, what would you say to Buck?”
“Thank you. For another day with my children. For making me feel safe on the worst day of my life. For inspiring me to try to help others that day. You’re a true hero, and I’m grateful every day that you were there and that you never gave up.”
Buck felt his throat get tight. He hated this, but that one comment got to him.
“That was lovely, Susan, thank you for having me and for all the work you did.”
“Thank you, Taylor.”
Pictures began flashing across the screen, all from the tsunami. Buck didn’t remember anyone taking pictures. Somehow, the pictures were in close to chronological order, including pictures of Buck after the fire truck, when he’d been looking for Chris and helping people along the way. Pulling people out of cars, getting someone out of a tree, and so, so many times he’d helped people get free of debris fields. There were pictures of him applying make-shift splints and putting together litters for those who were willing to help carry the wounded. Him doing half-assed first-aid with torn bits of jackets and shirts.
The pictures on the fire truck were the most painful because Christopher was in the background of so many. Photo after photo from different angles of Buck on and off the truck, pulling people from the water. He figured there had to be people in second-story windows taking pictures to account for the angles. Maybe security cameras from businesses.
Taylor in the studio filled the screen again. “The Facebook group is filled with other pictures of Firefighter Buckley: car accidents, rope rescues, actual fire fighting, and an unusual number of children rescued from toy claw machines, but we focused tonight on the tsunami. A tribute to LA’s own, helping whether he’s at home or away, and on the people who survived that terrible day. This city is grateful for you, Evan Buckley, and eagerly awaits your return. This is Taylor Kelly for Skywitness News.”
It cut to commercial, and Buck lethargically turned the TV off.
No one said anything for long moments then Mateo said, “That’s all good though, right?”
Buck closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Buck,” Hen’s voice came over the line. “I’m outside. Bobby is calming down Eddie, and Chim went to call Maddie.”
“What’s wrong with Eddie?” Buck asked immediately.
“That wasn’t easy for him, baby. Chris was in a lot of those pictures.”
Buck buried his face in his hands.
“Hen, it’s Judd Ryder.”
“I think we can all see that Buck’s upset, but we’re not real sure how to help here.”
“Buck’s not great with being crowded when he’s upset, so maybe give him some space with just one other person. Later, he favors the heavy bag when he needs to work stuff out.”
Buck couldn’t even reply.
“I got it,” TK said, pulling Buck to his feet. “We’ll be in the bunkroom. Come on, Buttercup.”
Feeling numb and like he wanted to scream, Buck let TK lead him away, hearing the jangle of Buttercup’s collar as he followed them.
Judd watched TK lead Buck away, waiting until Tommy gave the nod that the bunkroom door was closed. “Hen, TK took him away. I’ve still got his phone.”
“Judd… Buck’s never talked to us about the tsunami. None of us knew until this moment what he went through that day, we just saw him at the field hospital after the fact. And the kid he was searching for all day was Eddie’s son. Christopher was in more than a few of those pictures, so Eddie’s not dealing well.”
Judd ran his hand through his hair. “I can’t even imagine.”
“Also,” Hen blew out a breath. “I can’t be too specific, but I will say that there’s no way his parents knew any of that stuff. I’m sure they knew about the bombing, but since he hadn’t heard from them of their own volition in a decade, and they didn’t bother to even call after the bombing, I think it’s safe to say he’s furious about the pretense the whole of LA just witnessed. Not to mention the really rocky relationship between Taylor Kelly and Buck and Taylor and the 118. It’s the wrong attention from the wrong people for the wrong things. Buck bottles things up when he’s upset, which we learned the hard way. Don’t let him do that with this. He’s been through too much lately, so we really need you to take care of him, okay?” She sounded destroyed.
“Henrietta, you have my word that we’ll take good care of him.” The phone flashed with an incoming call from Maddie. “There’s a call coming in from his sister.”
“Oh god. Don’t answer! Bad timing. And keep ahold of his phone until we can sit on her.”
“It’s his sister,” Chavez said.
Judd shot Chavez a look. The kid’s enthusiasm was endearing, but also a pain in the ass sometimes.
“Judd, I’m not explaining Buck’s family issues over speakerphone. Just don’t answer any calls from anyone but me or Bobby until I figure out what’s going on, okay?”
“God no. Eddie’s a mess. Buck’s a mess. Buck will try not to be a mess so that Eddie can be a mess. The codependency is real. Just give it a bit. I’ll text you when it’s clear.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll trust your judgment.”
“Thanks. I’ve got to go and talk to…everyone. Please keep me posted about Buck.”
– – – –
Eddie felt like he was drowning as he paced the short length of Bobby’s office, wanting to punch something or maybe cry. He knew Bobby was watching his meltdown, waiting for Eddie to be ready to talk, but Eddie didn’t know how to articulate what was going on in his head.
“Eddie,” Bobby eventually said in a gentle tone.
He finally paused and braced his hands on his knees. “I feel like I’m suffocating.” Standing up, he pulled out his phone hit the contact for Abuela. “I need to talk to Chris.”
“Okay, but I’m worried about you, so I’m not going anywhere.”
“, Abuela. I need to speak to Christopher.”
“Is this about the thing on the news? You said not to let him see, so I recorded it to watch later.”
“Much later, Abuela. With Pepa around, okay? It’s a lot of stuff from the tsunami. Including pictures of Chris.” Eddie suddenly felt that chokehold again. “I need to speak to him, please.”
“,” she breathed. “Of course, Edmundo. My poor boy. Just a moment.”
Eddie sat in the chair, elbow braced on his knee, hand supporting his head.
Finally, Chris’ sunny voice came over the line, “Hi, Daddy!”
“Hey, Mijo. How are you tonight?”
“Good. Abuela’s making grilled cheese for dinner. We’re eating soon.”
“Abuela’s spoiling you.”
“She says I deserve to be spoiled.”
“Are you okay? You sound funny.”
“Just one of those days when I’m missing you like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I miss you too. Did you have a bad call?”
“Not exactly, but maybe a little bit.”
There was a long pause. “Are you missing Buck, Daddy?”
Eddie made a choked sound that was more than a little like a sob. “Yeah, Chris, I am.”
“We should call him together tomorrow and let him know we miss him.”
“You’re right, we should.”
“Denny was telling me about watch parties. Maybe we could do one!”
“I don’t have any idea what that is.”
“We’ll figure it out. If we can’t, Buck will know.”
“Yeah, Buck always figures that stuff out for us.”
“My grilled cheese is ready, Daddy.”
“Go eat, Mijo. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Eddie hung up the phone and had to fight back the feeling in his chest. He felt himself pulled up out of the chair and into Bobby’s arms. Eddie found himself holding on tightly, battling tears. “It’s been a year and a half,” he choked out.
“I know, but seeing all that was hell. Doubly so for you. You can’t keep this all locked up inside.”
“Bobby,” Eddie gasped.
“It’s gonna be okay, Eddie. I’ve got you.”
Eddie held on tighter, and let someone else take his weight for a while.
– – – –
Judd entered the bunkroom and found Buck sitting at the end of his assigned bunk, head in his hands, unmoving. Buttercup was close by as if sensing that Buck was in distress.
TK had been keeping his distance, but joined Judd by the door.
“Anything?” Judd asked softly.
TK shook his head.
“I got this.”
With a nod, TK clapped him on the shoulder then left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Judd took a seat at the foot of the bed across from his friend. “Buck…”
Buck finally looked up, eyes dry but red-rimmed.
“How do I help you, brother?”
Buck shook his head.
“You had a lot of crap thrown at you in a short period of time; you’ve been keepin’ a lot close to the vest.” He hesitated. “It’s the tsunami, right?”
“Not just that. But I’d just be pissed off if it wasn’t for that.”
“Hen said none of them knew what that day was like for you. Why are you hiding how you feel from the people who love you?”
Buck was still and quiet for so long that Judd figured he’d misstepped, but then Buck said, “After the bombing and the leg thing, I’d worked really hard to get recertified. My team threw me a party to celebrate the day of my tests. But I’d gotten some blood clots. Wound up coughing up blood all over my captain’s patio and nearly dying in his arms.”
“Bobby told me I couldn’t be a firefighter anymore because of the blood thinners I had to be on; I didn’t take it well. Tantrum would be a fair comparison.”
“Remind me to tell you sometime about how I behaved about getting my job back when they reopened the house under Captain Strand. Tantrum parallels could also be made.”
Buck smiled weakly. “I’ll hold you to that.”
“Keep going. You were upset about what Bobby had to tell you.”
“I got into a funk, wouldn’t get out of bed or answer the phone.”
“Maybe,” Buck conceded. “It was an epic pity party though.”
“Doesn’t mean you weren’t allowed,” Judd said sternly. “Listen, I don’t know what anyone else has said to you about that week, but you were nearly murdered on your own fire truck, then you did something I honestly didn’t think you’d be able to do: you got yourself walking and able to recertify. Then it was all taken from you? You were allowed to feel shitty about that for a week. Or, hell, a month.”
Buck smiled faintly. “Maybe.”
“People didn’t agree?”
“Maddie’s always trying to fix me, you know? She told Chim who told Eddie that I was moping in bed. Eddie showed up at my place with Christopher, dragged me out of bed, and said Chris and I were spending the day together.”
“Not a bad strategy as those things go. Throw a kid atcha and let ’em raise your spirits.”
“It worked because I’ve adored that kid since the day I met him.” Buck glanced down at his hands. “Chris wanted to go to the pier. We ate junk food, went on rides, took silly photos.”
“And then a giant wall of water changed everything.”
“Yeah. We were at the pier, looking out at the ocean when the water receded. The wave appeared on the horizon, and I knew we were screwed. I picked him up and ran even though I knew we could never outrun it.” He blew out a breath. “Against all odds, we managed to survive the first surge. We were separated briefly, but that kid is tenacious and he held on to a light pole until I could get to him. There was a fire truck near us, almost underwater, but a heavy enough vehicle to have been barely moved by the wave. I got us both on top of it, unable to believe we were safe.”
“And then you started pulling other people from the water.”
Buck nodded. “They just kept coming and coming. The fire truck filled, and I had to put people on cars, shielded from debris as best as we could manage. Show them how to hold on if there was another surge.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “It went on and on. But in between rest periods, I thought that we wouldn’t even have been there if I hadn’t been feeling so damn sorry for myself.”
“Oh damn, brother. You can’t think like that.” Judd dragged his hands through his hair. “I know what it’s like to live with guilt. I wondered every day for months if there wasn’t somethin’ I should’ve done differently that would have saved my crew. But some things are just out of our hands. You had Christopher that day because Eddie wanted to help you get out of your head, and it was Christopher who wanted to go to the pier?”
“Yeah, he’d brought it up a few times.”
“Who would he normally be with that day?”
“Maybe his abuela. I don’t think that was supposed to be a Carla day.”
“And would his grandmother have taken him to the pier?”
Buck opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, finally saying, “I don’t know. Maybe. She’s always been really indulgent with him. Though the pier has the potential to be a lot of walking for him, and that might have been a consideration for her.”
“I’m just saying that you don’t know that Christopher would have been safe at home if you hadn’t been, as you say, feelin’ sorry for yourself. He could’ve been there with you anyway on a planned outing. He could’ve been with his grandmother. Would he have survived without you?”
“The thing is, he did. He fell off the truck because of me, and he survived on his own.”
“That was after. Tell me honestly, would he and his grandmother have survived that initial wave?”
“I don’t— No, okay?”
“My point is that you’re not God, and you can’t know that Christopher would have been safe if he hadn’t been with you. He might have been dead for not being with you. You beating yourself up for being human, and having an acceptable reaction to your situation is some kind of bullshit.”
Buck frowned and stared at his clenched hands. “But I lost him.”
“Tell me about that.”
“The water was receding, and the dead were floating past…” Buck’s shoulders hitched up. “I didn’t want him to see, so I moved him so his back was to it. Then this guy started yelling for help, and I left Christopher. Debris hit the truck, and he fell. He fell. I went after him, but I could never find him.”
“You didn’t lose him, Buck. A natural disaster happened.”
Buck threw up his hands. “You sound just like Eddie.”
“You mean the kid’s own father told you that you weren’t at fault for acts of nature?” Buck’s phone vibrated from where Judd had set it on the bed. He flipped it over and glanced at the screen. It was a text from Hen saying Eddie wanted Buck to call.
“I never told Eddie what happened until recently, but yes. Someone else pulled Christopher out of the water. Someone else wrapped him up and carried him miles until a truck picked them up and took them to the field hospital. Someone else got Eddie’s son back safe. And that bitch,” Buck gestured back toward the general direction of the TV, “aired it all on television like it was entertainment.”
“Buck,” Judd said slowly, “that was sensationalized for sure, but it wasn’t untrue. You saved a lot of people during the tsunami, and those other events? Also impressive, but the tsunami? Brother, that is something else. It hurts you because of Christopher.”
“I still dream about him falling. I dream about losing him.”
Judd blew out a breath. “One of the first things Owen said to me that I was willing to listen to was that it shouldn’t be called PTSD; it should be called PTSI. Because it’s an injury, one you’ve never let heal. Have you ever talked to Eddie about it? Because it sure seemed like he was blindsided too.”
“God, Eddie.” Bucked buried his face in his hands. “No, I never talked to him about it.”
“Don’t you think you should?” Judd got to his feet and crossed the small distance, setting the phone on the bed. “He’s waiting for you to call. If we get an alarm, you’re man behind unless it’s something big. I’ll send Chavez up if we need you.”
Buck looked up at him, swallowing heavily. “Thanks, Judd.”
“You have absolutely nothing to thank me for.” He hesitated then pulled Buck to his feet, folding him into a big hug. “You’re family now, Buck; we’ve got your back.”
– – – –
Eddie had been left alone in Bobby’s office, staring at the phone in his hands, wishing it would ring. Hen said that she’d texted for Buck to call, but Eddie wasn’t feeling patient.
He needed Buck.
The phone’s vibration and Buck’s picture appearing on the screen startled him, but he answered with a relieved, “Buck.”
“Eddie I’m so—”
“If you’re about to say you’re sorry, I’m going to fly to Texas and kick your ass.”
There was a long pause before Buck finally said, “I’m not sure I’d mind since I’d really like to see you right now.”
Eddie squeezed his eyes shut. “Me too.” He forced himself to pull it together. “Buck… God, why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Tell you what?” Buck sounded honestly confused.
He looked up at the ceiling for a second, praying for patience. “We keep circling that day, but we don’t ever move past it.”
“You already said we were going to have to talk about it.”
“Yeah, but I thought you were just holding on to misplaced guilt and talking through it would help you let it go.”
“Is it misplaced?”
“Yes, Buck! Dammit!” Eddie fisted his hand in his hair and tried to keep calm. “You can’t control everything. A wall of water landed on you, and you did the best you could with it. More than most people would have been able to do in your circumstances.”
“But Christopher was my responsibility!”
“You also had a responsibility to the other people you saved,” Eddie said gently. “Can you honestly tell me you could live with it if you’d chosen to let people drown so you could sit next to Christopher and hold his hand?”
“I don’t know! I just know that I see him falling from that truck and hear him calling for me all the time. I’m stuck in that moment, and I don’t know how to get out.”
Eddie’s eyes burned, and he wished he’d pushed this a long time ago. He’d had no idea Buck continued to carry so much pain from that day. He couldn’t keep telling Buck to let it go, he was going to have to figure out how to walk that journey with him.
The tsunami was suddenly new for Eddie, vivid in ways it hadn’t been before. “Where were you two when the wave hit?”
“Where exactly were you? Did you see it coming? Were you taken by surprise?”
“Uh. We were sitting on a bench right at the railing on the pier. Chris was standing on the bench, facing the water. I was holding onto his shirt to keep him steady. We were just talking. I looked up at him, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed there was no water under the pier—the water was rushing out.”
Eddie pressed his hand to the back of his head, too easily able to visualize the scene as Buck was describing it.
“Chris asked where the water had gone, and I saw the wave on the horizon. I knew, Eddie, I knew that we were screwed.”
It felt like there was a vice around his chest. “Tell me.”
“I picked him up and ran like hell.” Buck took a shuddery breath. “I heard the wave breaking over the pier. I tossed him in one of those booths—ball toss or something. I looked back and saw it swallowing everything. I jumped in after Chris and held on as long as I could.”
Eddie realized he was rocking back and forth, holding his head. “Keep going.”
“We were pulled apart. I—” Buck made a sound like a sob. “I couldn’t hold on to him. When I was finally able to surface, I started calling for him. The water was pulling me down the street so fast, but I couldn’t see him. Then I heard him screaming for me. Somehow he’d gotten ahead of me and was clinging to a light pole.” There was a pause. “Eddie, please.”
“I need to hear it, Buck.”
Buck’s breaths sounded shuddery and uneven. “I tried to get him but wound up going right past him and ended up in some debris. Then he lost his grip on the pole. God.” Buck made a choking sound. “He went under. I dove for him, and then he was there. In my arms. But not safe. We were in rushing water, and I don’t even remember how we got to the fire truck. I practically threw him on top of it. There was all this debris rushing right at me, and I had to dive under. I didn’t know if it was going to crush me or not or if I’d ever see him again. Was I going to be abandoning him by himself up on top of a fire truck?” Buck sobbed, sounding like he was starting to hyperventilate. “Please, Eddie, I can’t.”
“Okay, Buck, okay. Just listen to my breaths, and breathe with me, okay?” He counted off several deep breaths, listening intently as Buck’s breathing normalized.
“I’m so sorry,” Buck gasped out. “I should never have had him there. If I hadn’t been feeling—”
“Stop!” Eddie barked more harshly than he’d intended. “God, Buck, just stop. I do not blame you. He doesn’t blame you. I’ve told you before, and I meant it: it was a natural disaster, and you are not God. But you sure are pretty godlike in your ability to protect him.”
“No, Eddie, I’m not.”
“Buck, please don’t. Your need to self-flagellate is wounding. My son should have died that day, but you saved him. You did that.”
“He fell,” Buck said hoarsely.
“Yeah, he did. And he told me that you told him what to do if you guys got separated. You did everything you could to ensure he survived.”
“Except keep my eye on him!”
Eddie blew out a breath and stared fixedly at the far wall, blinking the tears out of his eyes. “You and I are going to have to keep revisiting this until I get it through your head that you did nothing wrong. Maybe you could have made different choices, but you’re not an oracle; you don’t know that it would have resulted in a better outcome. You’re both alive; that’s what matters. And I know that you did everything humanly possible to protect him. So, please, let me have this.”
“Gratitude. To you for saving my son, and gratitude that the two most important people to me survived what killed thousands that day. Seeing you and Chris in those pictures rocked me, Buck, I’m not gonna pretend it didn’t. So, please, please let me have it.”
“Thank you, Buck, for saving the light of my life.”
“I don’t know what to do with this.”
“Just accept it, cariño.” Eddie let his breath out in a long, shuddery wave. “We’re all going to be okay.”
“Yeah, Buck, I’m sure.”
The phone rang right when Buck had been promised. He nodded to Stuart to let him know it was okay if he stayed. The old guy had promised he’d leave if Buck wanted him to, but there was nothing Buck would say to a nine-year-old that was private. They’d been chatting in the backyard since after lunch, and Buck always felt better around Stuart.
He answered and made himself sound happy. “Hey, buddy.”
“Hi, Buck! I can’t believe I get to talk to you during school!”
“Yeah, Karen said we could talk while you were in between classes. That’s okay, right?” Buck had been desperate to talk to Chris, but last night wasn’t the right time for it. His mood had been too bleak, regardless of how he left things with Eddie, and he hadn’t wanted to take a call at the station anyway.
“I always want to talk to you.”
“Thanks, bud. How are you doing?” He looked out over Grace and Judd’s backyard and let Chris’ sweet chatter roll over him, filling the dark places in his mind with something lighter. He smiled at Stuart when the man patted his arm and made a gesture like he wanted more tea then meandered inside.
When he’d wound down from filling Buck in on current events, Chris asked, “Did you have a bad call too? Dad had one yesterday, but he never tells me about it.”
“Well, that’s because it’s not usually nice conversation.”
“But you talk to each other, right?”
“Yeah, of course. We always help each other with the bad calls.” Even when those calls were a year and a half ago. Buck wanted to feel better for having talked to Eddie about the tsunami, but he felt like he was weighted down.
“Even when you’re not together?”
“Even then because there’s this new thing called,” he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “a phone.”
Chris giggled. “Dad hugged me extra tight this morning.”
Yeah, Buck could only imagine how tight Eddie held on to Chris. “He loves you a lot, kiddo. More than anything, you make your dad feel better when he’s had a bad day.”
“Is it like someone dying bad, Buck?” Chris asked, sounding nervous.
“No, it’s nothing like that. Nothing permanent.” Not in the way Chris meant, anyway. “I’ll bet you he’ll be his normal self when he picks you up from school. Though he may hug you extra hard for a few days because sometimes we remember what’s most important and want to keep it extra close.”
“Do you need me to hug you too?”
“There’s nothing I’d love more than a hug from you, Chris. You save it up for me, okay?”
“Okay. Did Dad ask you about the watch party?”
“Are we going to have a watch party? That sounds like fun.”
“Dad didn’t even know what it was,” Chris said, sounding beleaguered by his father’s lack of technical acumen.
“Your old man’s a technology dinosaur, Superman, we’ll just have to take up the slack for him.”
“He still thinks the coffee maker is watching him.”
“In a way, it is, but please don’t tell him I said that.” Smart appliances were not meant for a world with Eddie Diaz.
Christopher giggled. “I promise. Can we do the watch party soon? I want to see The Lion King.”
“We’ve seen The Lion King a ton.”
“The newer one. The real one.”
Buck hadn’t heard great things about it, but he figured he could sit through one bad kid’s movie. “Oh, the live action version. Sure, buddy, we’ll watch that soon. I’ll talk to Eddie and we’ll figure it out.”
“Yay! I love you, Buck.”
“Love you too. Tell Harry and Denny I said hi, okay?”
“I will. You’ll still call me tonight, right?”
“Yeah, of course. This isn’t bedtime, is it?”
“Talk to you soon, Superman.”
Buck hung up and let his hands drop to hang between his knees, his head falling as well as he blew out a breath.
“You sure are a sad sight, son,” Stuart said as he sat at the table again, a fresh glass of tea in hand.
“I’m just feeling morose.”
“You can’t con me, kid.” He took a sip of his tea. “Judd showed me the video this morning. I didn’t want to say anything before now, but I think things are about ready. It’s a hell of a difficult thing you went through. Seems like you never talked to anyone about it.”
Buck just shrugged. “What was there to talk about?”
Stuart scoffed. “Want to try that again?”
Buck made a face. “Not really.”
“That boy’s daddy never knew how that day had gone?”
Buck shook his head.
“You can’t let these wounds fester. It’s hard for him, especially, because he didn’t know there was a wound.” Stuart gave him a speaking look. “Seems like he also doesn’t know how you feel about him.”
“Eddie knows I love Christopher.”
“Oh, kid, you don’t look good in that shade of idiot.”
Buck’s mouth dropped open.
“I’m talkin’ ‘bout Eddie.”
“Oh my god. Are you matchmaking?”
“Are you denying?”
“No.” Buck cleared his throat. “Not exactly. And I just figured that out myself.”
“You should probably tell him, while you’re fillin’ him in about anything else you’re keeping from him.”
“This is not that kind of movie, Stuart Ryder!” Buck huffed and sat back in his chair, arms crossed. “You can’t just tell your friends you’re in love with them and expect it not to change things.”
Stuart made a face. “I suppose that’s true. It doesn’t seem very realistic, but change could be good.”
“Not all change is good as not all movement is forward,” Buck intoned, having heard that somewhere at some point. It may have been on the back of a sugar packet at an International House of Pancakes.
“That’s interesting you should say that. I agree, not all movement is forward.”
Buck shot him a questioning look.
“I think the movement that brought you here to us was forward, but staying now would be goin’ the other way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your captain is here.”
“Owen? I thought he was recovering from surgery?!” Buck looked over his shoulder as if he could spy Owen out of his sickbed through the curtained windows.
“Laparoscopic surgery, and the man looks fine. You know we love having you here, but your heart is back in California.” Stuart shook his head. “Must be your people because it sure as hell isn’t the state.”
Buck gave a startled laugh. “Stuart.”
“You need to be where your heart is, and your heart is with two people who need you as much as you need them.” He reached out and took Buck’s hands. “I want you to know that even though I’ve only known you for a short time, I’d make you a Ryder if I could. You’re a good boy. A good son, and your parents are damn fools. Your sister is going to come around in time, you just wait and see, and after everything you’ve been through, the two of you deserve to let yourselves have that.”
“It sounds like you’re saying goodbye, Stuart…?”
“I’m sending you on your way, Evan Buckley. When you’re ready, you come on back to us—for a visit or to stay. You’re family now, and that won’t change for time or distance, but you need to go to the people who need you.”
“But I promised I’d cover for Captain Strand…”
“And that’s why he’s here. He’s going to explain to you, probably with more words than a man needs, how he can get someone else to cover. He saw a good firefighter and he snapped him up, but they’ll be okay. You were due for two days off anyway.”
“I can’t just leave.”
“Sure you can.” Stuart got to his feet. “Come on.”
Buck followed Stuart inside and found everyone there with a cake and a bunch of balloons. “Holy crap,” he breathed. “What is this?”
Grace stepped up and pulled him down into a hug. “Farewell party. I’d love it if you stayed forever, but your heart is back home now.” She pulled back and cupped his face. “But I expect lots of texts, phone calls, photos… And come back to visit again.”
Buck felt choked up and glanced around at everyone, eyes landing on Owen. “You’re okay with this?”
“Hell yeah.” Owen smiled hugely. “We all wind up where we’re meant to be. I think you were in all the places you were supposed to be, Buck. You’ve saved lives and done really good work. Only you know where you’re meant to be now.”
“Told you,” Stuart whispered on his way past.
Buck bit back a laugh and nodded to Owen, trying to look serious.
Everyone seemed on board with Buck leaving but there was also a bittersweet vibe like they were sad to see him go. It was heartwarming, but excitement was starting to stir in him. When the cake and drinks were gone, people started to corner him one by one.
First was Nancy. “I gotta go, but thanks.”
“Never treating me any different from anyone else.”
Buck frowned in confusion.
Nancy patted him on the shoulder. “Your cluelessness is part of why I like you. Be safe, Buck. Come back anytime.”
Tommy found him next. She passed him a card. “If you leave soon, you should make El Paso tonight. I made you an appointment at a COVID testing center in the morning there. They do same day turnaround for first responders.”
“Wow, Tommy, thank you.”
“Anytime. I know others are going to say it, but we want you to come back, so don’t be a stranger. Chavez is setting up a group chat or something, and you’ll be in it.”
They chatted for a few minutes before she drifted away and was replaced by Paul. The big guy clapped him on the shoulder. “My muscles are bigger.”
“I happen to agree.” Buck grinned.
“I wanted to thank you for the stuff you set up for my sister and my Mom. The place you recommended took really good care of her.” Paul seemed honestly moved. His sister had recently been diagnosed with MS and wanted to go on a big adventure, so they’d taken an RV to Mexico. Buck had actually traveled in Mexico a fair bit and knew places where they’d be well taken care of and who could handle any accessibility issues Naomi had.
“I was happy to do it.”
Mateo ran over a few minutes later and slung an arm around Buck’s shoulder. “I’m going to miss you even though you’re kind of weird.”
Buck had given up on figuring out Mateo, but he liked the guy. “You’ll keep in touch, right? Rat out these idiots if any of them get hurt so I can mock them endlessly?”
Mateo’s expression got serious. He knew Buck was asking him to be the one to keep Buck posted about his new friends’ health and well-being. “Yeah, Buck, I’ll do that. You have to tell me about you too. Everyone will want to know.”
“I’m probably more likely to tell Stuart; the man’s already gotten close to a blood oath out of me.”
Eyebrows shooting up, Mateo grinned and ran off. “Mr. Ryder!”
Marjan slipped up next to him. “You’re good with him.”
“You guys got lucky with your probie. He’s going to be a great firefighter.”
She smiled and nodded. “We’re all going to be okay. So will you.” She cleared her throat. “Listen, I have a personal Instagram account I don’t put much of my firefighting stuff on. It’s for friends and family. If I follow you, will you follow me back?”
Buck smiled. “I’d be honored.”
“Good. Because I want to heart all those great pictures of your kid.”
He felt his face heat. “He’s Eddie’s kid.”
“I can’t really tell that from anything on either of your feeds.” She squeezed. “He looks like he’s both of yours.”
Owen and Gwyneth joined them, and Owen assured him that he was fine with Buck going back early. “I’ll be coming back to work sooner than planned anyway. I’m on light duty for a couple of weeks, but I can take over the paperwork from Judd.”
“He’ll be so glad. Your paperwork has been the bane of his existence.”
They chatted for a few minutes, and then Owen and Gwyneth started their weird not-flirting again, and Buck slipped away because they made him super uncomfortable.
TK was almost laughing at him as he caught Buck’s arm and dragged him outside. “Yeah, it takes a while to get used to it when they get going. I usually leave the room.”
“I’m still not used to it,” Carlos added as he joined them, beer in hand. “So, this is it, huh?”
“Well, not it. I’ll be back. I’ve got good friends here now.” He shot a meaningful glance at the two of them. Between the Ryders and these two, Buck felt spoiled for the new friends he’d made. “Wasn’t it you who said I might even have to come back to go to court?”
“True.” Carlos smiled at him. “Whenever you make your way back here, we’ll be glad for it.”
Buck extended his hand. Carlos ignored it and pulled him into a hug. “Thanks,” Buck murmured. “For everything. I feel more centered than I have in a long time, a lot of it is due to shaking off the past. You were a big part of that.”
“I didn’t do anything, Buck, except listen.”
“You’d be surprised how few people do.”
Carlos patted him on the back then released him for TK to hug.
“I was really liking having you around,” TK said with a firm squeeze. “So, keep in touch, Buck. I mean it.”
“And if you come to LA, we really will have to get together.”
TK pulled back, grin blinding. “You know, I do have a boyfriend.”
“You can bring him too.”
TK laughed. “We’re gonna take off. I get weepy at goodbyes.”
“He does,” Carlos agreed. “And at sad movies. It’s kind of tragic.”
TK rolled his eyes and pulled his boyfriend back into the house to get their stuff and head out.
Buck stepped back inside and was left with just the Ryders. Stuart came up and pulled him into a final hug then patted him on the cheek. “You take care. Gracie’s gonna drive me home, but I expect reports on how you’re doing.”
“Yes, sir. And I expect the same. You’re never too old for SnapChat.”
Stuart heaved an exasperated breath. “Gracie, I’m gonna hit the head then I’ll meet you in the car.”
“Sure thing, Dad.”
Buck turned to Grace and took both her dainty hands in his. “Amazing Grace. The world is a brighter place because you exist. Thank you so much for everything. Even for kicking me out of your house.”
Her eyes were misty as she pulled him into a hug. “We’ll miss you.” She sniffled and pulled away. “Keep me posted on your journeys, and I’ll tell the rest how you’re getting on, okay?”
She nodded and stepped away to get her bag then disappeared into the garage.
Judd knocked their shoulders together. “Let’s go get you packed.”
“You just want to make sure my pillows aren’t put in my rolling suitcase.”
Buck wasn’t the sort to spread out everywhere, so his stuff was well contained in the dresser drawers, closet, and toiletry kit, so he was packed and ready to get on the road in less than an hour.
He stood with Judd by the Jeep, not even sure what to say. “This feels weird. Leaving so abruptly.”
“The best thing I could do for you was to kick your ass back to California. But…” Judd rubbed the back of his neck. “Some bonds in our lives are made through time and sharing the same experiences, and some people you meet and you just know: there’s my brother. You’re family now, Buck, so don’t be a stranger.”
Buck felt choked up and had to swallow it back. “Thank you for taking me in and helping me find my way when I felt so lost. And thank you for sharing your family with me. I don’t even know how to properly express my gratitude.”
“Thank me by staying in touch and taking care of yourself; that’s all I need.”
“Tell that Hollywood how you feel about him.”
Buck blinked, startled. “Judd…”
“I can tell he feels the same way. You two just need to talk like adults for five damn minutes.”
“How could you possibly know he feels the same?”
“I listened to you two idiots when Christopher was havin’ his problem.”
“You couldn’t tell anything from that.”
“Oh, son.” Judd clucked his tongue. “Your denial could be cute if you were twelve. Now, bring it in and give me a hug then get on the road so you can get plenty of sleep tonight.”
Buck let himself be hugged, loving the feel of Judd’s big bear hug. “Thanks, Judd.”
“Anytime, Buck, anytime.”
– – – –
Buck made reservations in El Paso based on what was near the clinic Tommy had set him up with. It was a plain old Holiday Inn, with contactless check-in, and bland, boring walls. Buck counted himself lucky that he’d found a home as warm and welcoming in Texas to help him find his way rather than a boring hotel room somewhere.
He sent Chimney a text, asking him to get on with setting up the mediated session with Maddie. They didn’t need to know yet that he’d be back in person for it, but he didn’t want this hanging over his head much longer.
He took a few minutes to text Connor and let him know stuff had come up back home and he’d had to leave. While he liked Connor and had enjoyed their field research together, he didn’t care one way or the other if he saw the man again. Connor was gracious about Buck bowing out and said they should get together again if Buck was ever back in Austin. It felt polite.
He decided he wanted to surprise the Diaz boys with his return, so he called rather than using FaceTime and risk revealing he was in a hotel.
“Hey, Buck,” Eddie answered, sounding subdued.
Buck was glad his friends had kicked him out of Texas; he was needed back home. “Hey. How are you?”
“Had better days, but I’m getting there. You calling for Chris?”
“And you.” He took a deep breath. “We kid about me only using you to get to Chris, but don’t ever really think that you’re not both important to me.”
“I know, Buck; I’m just in my head.”
“You need to talk it out?”
“Maybe another time. I just want to listen to my best friend read my kid a bedtime story and then go to bed early.”
“You’re not on tomorrow, right?”
“No. You know our schedule as well as I do. Today’s the first day of four off.”
“Never sure if you’re picking up an extra shift, Diaz.”
“True, but I’m not in the right headspace for it.”
“I’m sorry, Eds.”
“There is nothing about this that’s your fault, Buck.”
“Except that I could have done something to better prepare you for that…”
“Buck. You’re gonna let this guilt go. If we have to go to therapy together, you’re going to learn to put this burden down.”
Buck laughed sadly. “That sounds like a threat.”
“Only if it needs to be.”
“Put away the mental health menacing and get your kid.”
Eddie hesitated. “Call me tomorrow, okay?”
“Tomorrow night? Day’s a little busy.”
– – – –
Eddie clicked between TV channels aimlessly, not really wanting to watch anything. He was waiting for Buck to call, but it was getting a little late. Buck had texted before Chris’ bedtime, standard when he couldn’t call, promising he’d call later.
He’d been unsettled for two days now, and Christopher could tell. He wasn’t sure what to say to his son about his weird mood, but Chris seemed to be tolerating the extra hugs better than he’d expected. Seeing the reality of the tsunami had left Eddie in a strange place in his head. It wasn’t exactly dark, but it wasn’t happy either.
Everyone from the station had been texting him, plus Karen and Athena, wanting to know if he was okay. How they’d all missed the reality of that day was beyond him. There were even additional YouTube videos that May had found that nearly gave Eddie a stroke.
Bobby had sent a text that he was considering a group therapy session. Eddie wasn’t sure if that was a joke or not, but what wasn’t a joke was that they’d all been rocked by Taylor Kelly’s reporting because none of them had known how bad that day had been for Buck. Or even where Buck and Chris had been. As far as any of them could determine, no one who had been on the pier itself, other than the people stuck on the Ferris wheel or inside certain buildings, had survived. Buck and Christopher were bizarre outliers. Eddie had no doubt that Christopher’s survival was down to Buck, the most determined, brave man Eddie had ever met.
When the phone finally rang, Eddie fumbled it for a second then answered on the second ring. “Buck?”
“Hey.” Buck sounded softer than usual.
“Good. Better than I have been, I think. How are you?”
“What’s Hen’s word? Ennui?”
Buck chuckled. “Let’s never use that word again. In any case, I sent you something that might help. Did you get it?”
“Did I get it? No. Where did you send it?”
“Your house. Says it was left out front.”
“I don’t remember anything…”
“Hold on, I’ll check.”
Eddie unlocked the front door and looked out on the porch, not seeing any packages or anything out of the ordinary. He lifted the phone to his ear. “I don’t see anything?”
“Nothing unusual?” Buck’s voice came from two places, slightly out of sync, and then Buck stepped from around the corner and up onto the porch. “Hey.” Buck shoved his phone in his pocket.
“Buck,” Eddie breathed, hand falling to his side as his phone clattered to the ground.
“I was driving all day and thought I’d surprise— mmph.”
Eddie’s intent had been to go in for a hug, but then his mouth was over Buck’s, and he was holding Buck’s face in his hands. His lips were warm and lush and everything Eddie had been dreaming about for two years.
Buck’s whole body jerked and his arms flailed. Eddie felt sense come back to him and pulled back, ready to apologize, to make up some excuse for why kissing his best friend was somehow appropriate, but then Buck was pulling him back in, fusing their mouths together.
Eddie crowded Buck against the siding, moaning when Buck’s lips parted for him. His hands settled on Buck’s hips, holding tight, trying to find an anchor for his out-of-control emotions. He licked into Buck’s mouth as Buck went pliant and loose under his hands.
The kiss ratcheted up Eddie’s desire too fast. The sheer want he felt for this man could barely be contained. His head was spinning, but he knew they had to talk. He had to be sure before they did more than kiss.
They wound up cheek to cheek, holding on to each other and trying to catch their breath. “You’re here,” he whispered, nuzzling against Buck’s ear.
“I needed to come home—to you and Christopher.”
Eddie pulled back enough to rest their foreheads together. “I shouldn’t have just kissed you like that, but I’ve loved you for so long. I boxed it away because I thought there was no possibility. Your friendship was too precious to lose.”
“And then you casually dropped that bombshell on me. God, Buck, you don’t know what that did to me. Everything I wanted was suddenly possible but you were three states away. Then that damn Taylor Kelly,” Eddie spat her name, rubbing his thumb over Buck’s cheekbone. “I needed you so much.”
He registered that Buck wasn’t trying to move away, that he was still relaxed in Eddie’s hold—one hand on his hip, the other now at his face—but Eddie felt like he’d ambushed him. “I’m sorry, I should step away, but it’s really—”
“Do not ever apologize for kissing me,” Buck said sharply, though he didn’t move. “I love you too, you know. That was always there, but the romantic love was just as boxed up as my sexuality. I couldn’t think about desiring men without thinking of you.”
Eddie could think of nothing to say to that but to tip his head and kiss Buck again.
It was easier to pull away knowing that Buck wasn’t going anywhere. “Should we go inside? Will you stay tonight?”
“Yeah. Let me get my bag.”
“I’ll get it.”
“You don’t even have your shoes on. Just wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Eddie was reluctant to let him go, but he stepped back and waited for Buck to return with his two duffel bags. Eddie took one from him. “This weighs nothing…?”
Eddie took the other bag as well. “I’m not suggesting we do anything, but will you sleep with me?”
Buck smiled, a soft happy smile that Eddie was pretty sure he’d never seen before. “I’d like that.”
“Go wash up. I’ll put the bags in my room.”
Eddie dropped Buck’s bags by the bed, taking a minute to get himself under control. He was in unchartered territory with another man, but it was Buck. This wasn’t about his usual sexual preferences, it was about the person Eddie wanted like he’d never wanted another. Someone he thought he’d always be denied. But, suddenly, he was being handed everything he wanted, and he wasn’t actually certain that he wasn’t dreaming.
He found Buck downing several glasses of water in the kitchen. “You okay?”
“Ran out of water about three hours ago, but I didn’t want to stop again. Jeep has about an eighth of a tank left.” His gaze met Eddie’s. “I just wanted to be home.”
As happy as he was to have Buck back, Eddie felt like he needed to ask, “Are you okay with having left early? Were you ready?”
“I figured out the things I needed to, I think. There’s more to do, I need to work on the situation with Maddie still, and that’s getting more complicated by the day, but I came home because my heart is here—with you and Chris. So, yes, Eddie, I’m fine with coming home early.”
Eddie closed the distance between them and yanked Buck into the hug that he should have given him on the porch. “You’ve been missed.”
Buck’s arms went tight around him. “The only bad part of being gone was that you two weren’t with me.”
“I’m trying to decide if I should wake him or not.” Eddie released his hold on Buck enough to be able to look him in the eye. “On the one hand, I don’t like disturbing his sleep. On the other, he’s going to be furious if he finds out you arrived tonight and I didn’t tell him.”
“I defer to your judgment.”
“Mm-hm.” Eddie looked at Buck closely. “What do you really want?”
Buck glanced down like he was embarrassed about something. “I really need to give him a hug.”
“Hey.” Eddie nudged his chin up. “Don’t ever be bashful about how much you love him, got it?”
Buck gave him a half smile. “Got it.”
“Come on, then.”
Eddie went into Christopher’s room and flicked on the bedside light. It was at a low setting and wouldn’t usually rouse the kid, but he’d been restless lately, so he stirred a bit, nose crinkling up. Eddie’s heart swelled with love the way it always did around his son.
Buck hovered out of sight, waiting for him to wake up Chris completely.
“Mijo, wake up.” He shook Christopher’s shoulder gently.
“Dad?” Christopher whispered, eyes blinking open. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just have a surprise for you, and since you haven’t been in bed too long, I figured you’d like it tonight.”
“What kind of surprise? What is it? Are we going somewhere?”
“Not at night, buddy.” He helped Chris sit up and get his glasses on. “You have a visitor.”
“Who?” Christopher looked adorably confused.
Buck entered the room. “Hey, Superman.”
Christopher blinked twice then screamed, “Buck!” as he tried to flail out of bed.
Eddie helped get Christopher untangled as Buck crossed the room in three strides, plucking Christopher right out of bed and into a huge hug.
To both of their surprise, Christopher burst into tears, clinging to Buck like a little monkey.
“Hey, what’s this?” Buck said as he sat on the bed.
“Mijo, what’s wrong.”
“I mis-sed you,” Christopher hiccupped.
“Oh, Chris, I missed you too.”
“Please don’t go away again,” Christopher begged, fists clenched in Buck’s shirt like he could hold Buck there by sheer force.
“I’m home, buddy, I promise.” Buck met Eddie’s gaze, his eyes full of pain and guilt. Eddie shook his head and offered a reassuring smile. Buck had needed this time, and he’d done the best he could by Christopher.
Christopher cried it out in Buck’s arms for a couple of minutes with Eddie sitting close and rubbing his back alongside Buck. Eddie got a tissue and helped Chris blow his nose when he seemed to be coming back to himself.
Chris put both his small hands on Buck’s cheeks, looking at Buck intently as if he could discern something. Christopher nodded firmly. “We’re your family; you have to stay with us.”
“Yeah, you are, and I will. Promise.” Buck pressed a kiss to Chris’ cheek. Eddie interlaced his finger with Buck’s where they were resting on Christopher’s back.
Buck smiled at Eddie over Chris’ shoulder; it was a soft smile, gentle and full of something almost bittersweet. “I got a little lost, buddy, but I found my way home again.”