Walk Me Down Your Broken Line – 1/2 – Jilly James

Reading Time: 145 Minutes


Title: Walk Me Down Your Broken Line
Author: Jilly James
Fandom: 9-1-1
Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Episode Related, Family, First Time, Hurt/Comfort, Slash
Relationship(s): Evan Buckley/Eddie Diaz
Content Rating: NC-17
Warnings: Minor character death, Canon-level situations, Canon-level violence, Canon-level angst. Explicit Sex. There are mentions of COVID consistent with where this story falls in canon. Can be read as anti-Chimney.
Author Note: See notes tab on main page, including character death info.
Beta: desertpoet. Alpha: El, Keira, desertpoet
Word Count: 61,800
Summary: After being abducted and held hostage, Buck wants nothing more than to be with Christopher and Eddie. But things take a turn for the worse when his relationship implodes and he suffers an unexpected personal loss.

Faced with the potential destruction of his friendship with Buck, Eddie takes a trip of self-discovery that forces him to face his own desires.
Artist: Nightsong21133



Chapter One

Buck watched as Taylor finished gathering up her things, hating how this was ending. He felt like he should say something to make this easier, but his head was throbbing and he’d been burned out on this day long before the issues with Taylor had come to light.

Considering how the day had gone, he’d have rather gone home with Eddie tonight. He’d needed to see that Christopher was safe and sound. Instead, he’d come home to Taylor, a lot of talking, and a painful decision about their future.

Buck and Eddie had the shitty shift to end all shitty shifts and, for Buck at least, it had been a bit like reliving Eddie being shot. They’d been abducted in the 118 ambulance by two escaped prisoners posing as guards. There had been an overt threat to Christopher to keep them compliant with their kidnappers. Buck hadn’t had eyes on Eddie when the gun had been fired, leaving Buck to fear for the worst.

Between the short-lived fear that Eddie had been killed and the shadow of the threat that had been made against Christopher, Buck had wanted nothing more than to take the two people he cared most about into his arms and hold them tight. Eddie, however, had made it clear that he wanted to be alone with his son.

The only perk to getting held hostage all day was that he didn’t have to work through the end of his shift. The worst physical problem between them had been Buck’s head injury, but it certainly was not the worst emotional one. There was no telling how long those problems might fester.

He’d been seen by a nurse for the head wound caused by being pistol whipped when he had reacted badly to the threat against Chris. After that, he’d given a verbal report about the day to the detective at the hospital, then Bobby had sent them home.

He should have been able to find comfort in his girlfriend, who he should care about as much as Eddie, but he just didn’t. Not yet, anyway, but he’d thought there was the potential for it—something building between them that could be significant. She’d been concerned at first—the evidence of his day was bruised and scraped into his head—but then the reporter had started to peek through, and she’d gotten too curious.

She’d backed off when he’d started to get his back up, knowing she’d crossed a line with her probing questions. Her resultant attempt to smooth things over, to make him forget the awkward situation, had backfired on both of them in ways she couldn’t have predicted. Though, perhaps she should have been able to predict it. It was Buck who was caught completely unaware.

She glanced around, a pensive expression on her face. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”

He frowned. “We just broke up, Taylor. Don’t you think that’d be a little weird?”

“I know, Buck, but we also said we’d stay friends. Mild or not, you’ve still got a head injury—possibly a concussion. A friend would stay if you needed them.”

He wanted to say that a friend would have also been honest with him from the get-go, but they’d already argued that point to death, it was late, and he just wanted to sleep. “I appreciate the thought—really, I do—but I’ve been alone with more severe head injuries than this. I just need to rack out and try to forget this day ever happened.” Except, he wouldn’t be able to forget it because he’d wake up tomorrow with no one on his side.

Again.

No Taylor, no Maddie, no freaking Eddie.

“Okay,” she said softly. “I’m really sorry, Buck; I know I should have told you sooner.”

He wanted to yell that she should have told him before they ever started down this path, but he’d already said that too. They both knew he’d have never embarked on a real relationship if she’d been honest.

He settled for an oblique nod and accepted the light kiss she dropped on his cheek.

“Please call me if you need me.”

“Ditto,” he said with a faint smile. “It’s hard right now but, if you needed me, I wouldn’t want you to think you couldn’t call.”

Her smile was sad as she slung her designer tote over her shoulder and headed out the door, leaving the spare key on the entryway table. He’d probably find more of her things in the days to come—every one a reminder that she was gone, that another relationship had failed.

That he was alone.

He pushed the thoughts away because, after the day he’d had, he couldn’t deal with anything else.

The first thing he’d done when he got home was shower off the fear and old sweat, so all he had to do was peel off his clothes and climb into bed. Maybe he’d be able to forget this day for a few hours.

~*~

In the morning, Buck felt like garbage—for every reason imaginable. Taylor was gone, his head hurt, and Buck felt like his friendship with Eddie was slowly dying—and he didn’t even know why. But at least he had no obligations for the first half of the day. In theory, he should be at Eddie’s tonight for Diaz movie night.

It was their tradition if they weren’t on shift on Fridays. If they were on shift, it was moved to Saturday, which was the situation this week. Since they’d begun the tradition, they’d rarely missed except for a protracted pause during Buck’s recovery from having his leg crushed. There was a steady stream of movie nights until Ana came into the picture, and then it was canceled more often than not.

Still, Buck had checked every week while Eddie dated Ana, accepting with as much grace as possible when Eddie canceled, and reveling in the few times they got together for their ritual family movie. Once Ana was out of the picture a little over a month ago, he’d assumed things would go back to normal and the weekly event would be back on. But nothing had changed. In fact, there hadn’t been a movie night since Eddie broke up with her.

Maybe Buck needed to be more assertive about getting back the things that mattered to him.

He pulled out his phone, finding texts from Hen and Bobby checking in on him. Nothing from Eddie. He fired off a quick response the two worrywarts, letting them know that his head ached, but that he was fine otherwise. Before making any firm decisions about the rest of his day, he wanted to see what Eddie’s response would be.

Buck: Hey. How are you?

Sometimes, Eddie was slow to reply in the morning, so Buck got up and took care of his morning routine. He’d taken some Advil with a glass of juice and was just contemplating toasting a bagel when his phone chimed.

Eddie: Okay. You?

Buck frowned. Eddie could be uncommunicative at the best of times, but he wasn’t usually quite that bad.

Buck: Fine. Headache aside. It’s Saturday. Movie tonight? It’s always Chris’ turn to pick.

The reply came immediately.

Eddie: Nah. You two enjoy your evening and do something fun. I just want to cuddle with my kid not make small talk.

Buck wasn’t even sure how to unpack that. Was Eddie implying that Buck would have tried to bring Taylor? He could have explained that Taylor wasn’t even a factor anymore, but it had never occurred to him to bring Taylor into their routines without clearing it with both Eddie and Chris. Not to mention that Taylor usually worked evenings on the weekends, which Buck had told Eddie repeatedly. It was one of her in-studio broadcasts rather than field reporting; she’d give up almost anything before in-studio, live broadcast time.

Buck: The only person you’d have to make small talk with is Taylor and since when have I ever brought her to movie night?

Eddie: I didn’t mean it like that, Buck. I just meant you two should have fun tonight. My headspace is weird.

Buck: Fun? Yesterday I was kidnapped at gunpoint by escaped prisoners. Held hostage under threat to Christopher. I was pistol whipped so I have yet another head injury. Worse… I thought you were shot. Again. In what world do you think I’m having any fun today? But enjoy your headspace. TTYL.

Buck was adamantly against commas in texts, unlike Eddie, so he used periods instead, which made the list come out looking emphatic, which wasn’t at all how he meant it, but whatever. Hell, if capitalization and periods weren’t almost completely automatic on cellphones, there’d be none of that in his texts either.

The phone immediately began to ring, flashing Eddie and Chris’ smiling faces. It infuriated him and made him ache at the same time; he sent it to voicemail. His head began to throb harder than before from the force of his anger.

Another text came in.

Eddie: I’m sorry. Whatever way you took that, I didn’t mean it. Please answer the phone.

Buck: I really cannot talk to you right now. For both our sakes. And how the fuck do you know how I took it?

Eddie: Considering how angry you are, I think I have a good guess. I just thought you and Taylor would want to spend time together. Please call me.

Buck: No. When have I ever blown off movie night for anything less than a crisis? That’s you who put an end to our movie nights not me.
Buck: I can’t do this. Enjoy your day.

Eddie: Buck, please. Come over tonight. We can talk.

He barked out a mirthless laugh.

Buck: What a time for you to decide you want to talk. No thanks Diaz. Hug your kid for me.

Buck didn’t even look at the successive string of texts that came in. He dismissed them from his notification window and replied to Hen’s new series of questions about his condition, reassuring her that he didn’t seem to have any concussion symptoms. If it was a concussion, it was very mild; screens weren’t even bothering him much, and there was no nausea to speak of.

Then he sent Isabel Diaz a text.

Buck: Hey Isabel. I know we planned for Tuesday to work on those loose boards on your deck but I’m unexpectedly free today. If you want me to get a head start anytime today or this evening let me know. <3

Buck had a shift on Sunday. He’d been planning to spend the daytime today with Taylor and then the evening with the Diazes. So much for any of that.

Isabel’s reply came while he was repacking his work duffel with clean clothes.

Isabel: My day is free. I was going to shop, but it can be done tomorrow. Come over whenever you wish, Evan. If you come over before lunch, I’ll feed you the tamales I made yesterday.

Comfort food over trying to distract himself at home alone? That wasn’t a hard choice.

Buck: I’ll be over soon. Uh. Don’t mention it to Eddie okay?
Buck: Sorry that’s a dumb ask. He just had a rough shift and says he wants to cuddle Chris all day undisturbed. He might drift out of his blanket fort if he knew I was coming over to yours.

The typing bubbles came and went several times before the phone chimed again.

Isabel: My social calendar isn’t any of my grandson’s business but you’ll be telling me about this difficult day when you arrive, si?

Buck made a face. Going to see Isabel was probably a bad idea on many fronts, but he really wanted to be around someone he found comforting. Eddie would probably be furious if he told Isabel about everything that happened yesterday, but it wasn’t just Eddie’s day, it was Buck’s day as well. He was sick of people trying to tell him that the traumatic things that happened to him weren’t about him.

Also, he didn’t think Eddie had any clue how much time Buck spent with Isabel, and he wasn’t eager for that reveal.

It had started long before Ana, but it had increased dramatically after she was in the picture when Buck began to have more time on his hands. He helped Isabel around the house, and she taught him stuff in the kitchen and browbeat better Spanish into his head. He figured he was freeing Eddie up from having to do so much to help his abuela so that Eddie would have more free time with Chris and then Ana as well. He also spent some time helping Pepa since her kids were down in San Diego. Close enough, but not able to see her on a whim.

He’d become friends with Isabel in his own right, but he never discussed it with Eddie. He wasn’t sure why, really. Isabel was the only person he felt he had unreservedly in his corner. She understood why he’d kept Maddie’s secret and knew how difficult it was for him that she’d walked away again. Isabel was also the only person who seemed angry at Chimney for the hit. She was the one who persuaded Buck that he wasn’t to blame for it and had nothing to apologize for.

Buck knew Maddie needed this time away. He didn’t begrudge her taking what she needed to get better, but the way Maddie handled her problems sure made Buck’s life hard sometimes. She might not have seen an easier way out at the moment she left, but there were opportunities for her to make different choices along the way. He was having a hard time with trust when it came to his sister.

Part of him worried if Eddie knew about Buck’s friendship with Isabel that it would go away. Eddie had been pulling back from Buck for a long time, and Buck had been desperately clinging to what remained of their friendship. The idea of losing Isabel on top of everything else was just too much. So, he never mentioned the amount of time he spent with Eddie’s grandmother. Eddie knew, of course, that Buck helped Isabel out on occasion. Isabel would say something like, “Evan took care of that for me already,” and Eddie would thank Buck with a gentle smile, then they’d move on.

He chewed his lip a little before sending a final text.

Buck: Since when have I ever been able to keep anything from you?

Isabel: You’re a good boy. Pick me up some star anise on your way. I’m making mole for dinner.

Buck: Yes ma’am.

~*~

Isabel answered the door and her smile immediately fell. She reached up and framed his face, her thumb lightly grazing the bruise on his forehead. “Oh, cielito. What happened to you?”

Stupidly, Buck couldn’t keep his eyes from tearing up. “I broke up with my girlfriend.” Which was all the wrong thing to say.

Her eyes widened. “And she hit you in the head?”

Buck gave a watery laugh. “No, the guy who kidnapped us yesterday did that.”

Her eyes went from wide to nearly bugging out of her head. She pulled Buck into the house, muttering in rapid-fire Spanish. Buck’s Spanish was okay—and getting better—but not good enough for the speed she was going at. He caught enough to know it was something about murdering her grandson.

She pushed Buck into one of the kitchen chairs, getting an ice pack out of the freezer and wrapping it in a towel. Handing it off to him, she flopped into the chair across from him with a dramatic huff. “How could that boy not tell me?”

“He probably doesn’t want to worry you. Or maybe he planned to tell you in person. As bad as my day was, his was probably worse.”

“Start at the beginning, Evan,” she said softly. “I want to know everything.”

Buck made a face. “Eddie won’t thank me for talking to you.”

“Edmundo is not the boss of me.”

Buck barked out a laugh at her turn of phrase.

“Eddie thinks he protects everyone by keeping so much inside, but I’ve been on this Earth a long time, and I know that withholding serves no one. Bah.” She made a dismissive gesture. “My dear husband, Edmundo, who Eddie is named after, was as much an idiota as his namesake, so at least he comes by his emotional repression honestly. Don’t even get me started on Ramón.”

Buck laughed again.

“My point is that I wouldn’t have managed this long with three generations of emotionally repressed Diaz men if I couldn’t handle a few bumps in the road, not to mention the fallout of them trying to keep secrets; they always fail, by the way. Their tells are obvious. Now, start at the beginning,” she repeated. “Even if Eddie won’t tell me, you deserve to get this off your chest, and your abuela is here for you too.”

“Isabel,” Buck murmured, feeling choked up.

“Eh. Someday, I’ll get you to call me abuela. Now, talk.” She patted his hand. “I’ll start making tea so you can do that thing where you pretend like I’m barely paying attention when you have difficult things to say.”

“Ugh. You never let me get away with anything.”

“I let you get away with everything. Pepa says I spoil you rotten, but she’s worse, so she can just stick it.” Isabel saying “stick it” was perhaps the best thing Buck had ever heard, but his laugh still came out sounding more choked up than amused.

Isabel made tea and puttered around the kitchen while Buck explained their day. She stopped for a moment and gripped the counter at the threat to Christopher if they didn’t cooperate with the two escaped prisoners who’d hijacked their ambulance. The threat that had made Buck so angry that he couldn’t stop his reaction, which had resulted in him getting pistol whipped.

When she’d calmed down a little, she resumed doing general food prep for whatever she planned to fix for dinner.

By the time he was done, she was leaning back against the counter, just staring at him. “So, you thought my Edmundo had been shot again?”

Buck closed his eyes and nodded. “I thought he’d been killed this time.”

“Oh, Evan.” Her hands were on his face again, and he hadn’t even heard her move. Her thumb lightly grazed the bruise on his forehead once more, the ice pack long since returned to the freezer. She pressed a very gentle kiss to the edge of the injury. Then she wiped away a few stray tears he hadn’t been able to contain. “There is so much to say, and I hardly know where to start, but first: how did any of that lead to you breaking up with Taylor?”

“That’s weirdly unconnected to the kidnapping.”

“Then we’ll return to that later.” Isabel frowned. “I love Eddie. Don’t tell anyone but, of all my grandchildren, he’s my favorite.”

“Don’t front; we both know Christopher’s your favorite.”

“Ah. You’ve caught me out. Of my great-grandchildren, yes. Christopher.” She smiled. “From the moment I first held him and he smiled at me, he utterly delighted me. He was a ball of sunshine. What was it you called him?”

“A unicorn riding a cupcake,” Buck said with a soft smile.

“Yes. Perfect.” She hesitated for a few seconds. “Finding out about his CP was difficult. We didn’t know how to feel or what the right thing to say was. Some people were expressing their condolences, as if that were somehow appropriate. I was pretending like nothing was changed, and Ramón and Helena were acting like someone had died.” Isabel’s smile was self-deprecating. “I never cared for Shannon, not really. I didn’t think she and Eddie should have married at all, but I tried to accept her up until the moment that she left them.”

“I know you did. I can’t imagine anything less from you.”

“You’re a good boy to think so highly of me.” She patted his hand. “One of the best things Shannon ever said was that we had to deal with our feelings on our own time. That when we had Christopher time, it was up to Christopher how he felt about his CP, and that she wasn’t going to have the moping in her house anymore. Christopher was maybe a year old at the time and had no feelings but hunger and happiness. Or so it seemed to me when I was visiting. Such a joyful baby.

“Shannon confided in me later, when Christopher was nearly two, that he’d have bad days before they did the first surgery, and she tried to give him room to feel how he wanted to feel. To let him have his bad days.”

“Sounds like she was a good mother.”

Isabel’s nose wrinkled up. “I think she was perhaps a good person who never wanted to be a mother, trying her best without the right support.” She sighed. “It’s hard to admit how difficult Ramón and Helena made things for the poor woman. How much they contributed to her leaving.” Her hand curled into a fist. “I could have forgiven much except that she never called, so it’s hard to be objective about that.”

“I can see why. I can’t say I’m objective about the two years either. Or about how she wrapped Eddie around her finger when she came back just to dump him again. But maybe she was the mother Christopher needed at the very beginning. A mother who let him find joy and wonder in life rather than be limited by a diagnosis code in a medical book. Maybe she has something to do with the wonderful kid we all love so much.”

She smiled faintly. “Perhaps that’s true. And it’s easy to go on a tangent about how wonderful Chris is and, yes, he’s my darling favorite, but Eddie… I love him dearly but, at his worst, he is a product of Ramón and Helena. As much as he’s grown beyond his upbringing and the things they drilled into him, when he’s put under pressure, he reverts to the young man who saw the military as his only way out from under two oppressive parents. A young man who turns all fear and pain into anger.”

Buck frowned. “You didn’t approve of Eddie joining the Army?”

“It wasn’t that. Edmundo was in the Army as well. I would have rather Eddie finished college and become an officer if he wanted to make a career of serving in the armed forces. Regardless of how he began, Eddie was promoted quickly and had good benefits to care for his family, so it seemed unlikely that he would become a commissioned officer. Then, when he was discharged, he struggled terribly but no one knew how to help him.”

“He often talks like being in the military made him a bad father.”

“No. Being in a combat zone made him more absent than he would have liked, but that could have been resolved in his next posting. The care Christopher received under the military’s medical coverage was what Eddie needed to provide for his family. Eddie had to work so hard after Shannon left because the supplemental insurance policy for Christopher was intolerably expensive. Shannon had wanted Eddie out of the military, a full-time father and husband, but then the realities of life without military benefits and support wasn’t something she liked much either.” She gave a wry smile. “Being married to someone in the military or a first responder is difficult, but Shannon made it seem as if Eddie were failing as a father and husband when she knew he was in the Army when she married him.”

Isabel shook her head. “Eddito took her opinions to heart and believes to this day that his service during Christopher’s early years made him a bad parent. It’s nonsense, but it’s difficult to change his mind once it’s set. My Edmundo served during Pepa and Ramón’s childhood, and he wasn’t a bad father.” She squeezed his hands. “But it’s difficult to get Eddie off of a bad path when he’s determined to travel it, and I wish I knew what he was so determined about.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, cielito. You are no mystery to me. You’ve avoided complaining, but the clues are there. Eddie pulled away when he met Ana. You, Christopher, and Eddie were a family, and he replaced you with a woman he barely liked.”

Buck flinched, and she squeezed his hand again in apology. “She didn’t replace me. More like…displaced me. I wasn’t Eddie’s boyfriend, so she couldn’t be my replacement.”

She raised one brow. “But that’s what you wished for, si? Don’t give me that look. I see the love you have for him, and it was my wish for you as well. You’d be good for Eddie. You are certainly good for Christopher.”

“Isabel…”

“I was surprised when Eddie started dating, but he got it in his head that he had to move on. He refused to see what he already had and what he’d done to you.”

“He didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t lie, cielito. You three were a family.”

“That was for Chris.” That was the conclusion Buck had come to anyway. Eddie had drawn him close so Chris’ world during the worst of the pandemic would be as big as possible. When things had eased, Eddie had been ready to move on with his own life, sending Buck back to his own colorless existence.

“You think Eddie made the three of you a family unit solely for Christopher’s sake and then…?”

“Things were so restricted during the pandemic, and Chris couldn’t see anyone.” Buck shrugged. “Then there came a day when Eddie was ready to move on.”

Isabel frowned. “You think very little of my Eddie.”

Buck jerked. “Isabel, no.”

“It’s fine, Evan. You have the right in this instance. Eddie is being emotionally…” She muttered something under her breath in Spanish. “I do not know why he’s done this, but I do not think his actions were deliberate. Eddie is reacting, and the more unhappy he becomes, the more he reacts.”

Buck shook his head. “I’ve tried to help. I’ve given up as much as I can, Isabel. I would have given him everything, but he just doesn’t want it.”

She made a tsking sound and scootched her chair closer, letting their joined hands fall where their knees were touching. “Has your heart moved on?”

“I can’t keep doing the push-pull with him. I’ll always be there if he needs me, and I’d do anything for Chris, but I can’t keep—” He broke off and stared up at the ceiling, trying not to actually break down. No one had ever before confronted him about his feelings for Eddie, even if Taylor had hinted at it. “I’m a part of his life, but he’s not a part of mine. I realized that recently, and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to make us more balanced. I can’t keep doing this giving everything of myself away to others…thing.

“Oh, Evan. Come here.” She pulled at his shoulders, and he resisted for a moment before letting her hold him.

Long moments passed, and when he was feeling more emotionally settled, he pulled back and took a deep breath. “I told myself I was over him already, but I know I’m not. I’ll get there though.”

“Is this why you and Taylor broke up?”

“No.” Buck rubbed his forehead, wincing when he got too close to the bruise. “I thought… I don’t even know. I love Taylor, just not like I loved Eddie. Maybe that was never fair to her, but I knew she wanted to take our relationship slow, and I agreed that was best for both of us. But it was growing; we were getting there.”

“I know. You two were good together. I’m biased and think you would be better with Eddie, but allow a grandmother her preference. Now, tell me how this all led to you and Taylor parting ways.”

Buck blew out a breath. “This is going to be a little…explicit.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “You know that won’t bother me. You should hear some of the things that come out of my Pepa’s mouth when it’s just the two of us.”

He couldn’t help but smile because he had no problem believing that Pepa could be filthy if the situation called for it. “I’m not sure what all motivated Taylor’s offer—we’ve been getting closer, and things have been going well. Plus, I was really unhappy last night. I wanted to see Chris, but Eddie took off…” Buck shook his head. “I’m not blaming Eddie for how he reacted. Yesterday was harder—”

“Don’t say it was harder on him, Evan, just don’t. We’ve had this discussion about everyone trying to minimize your trauma around the sniper shooting, and it’s not right. Yes, Edmundo was shot and nearly died, but every firefighter present was at risk. Every one of you was pinned down under fire like you were in a war zone. Every one of you took risks to save Eddie’s life—you more than anyone since you crawled under a fire truck and reached out to get him. And yet the people close to you often act like that only happened to Eddie.” She huffed.

“Isabel, you’re supposed to be on his side.”

“There really shouldn’t be a side. You’re my grandson too, and I can be on both of your sides, if there is such a thing. I can know my nieto was grievously hurt—in ways he still refuses to deal with—and also acknowledge that you were harmed as well. I have love for both of you. My anger isn’t at Eddie, Evan; it is now and has always been at those people who pretend to be supportive while telling you that your own experiences are not about you. What nonsense.”

Buck smiled. “I love you, you know that?”

She patted his cheek. “I love you too. Now, tell me this explicit thing that happened when Taylor wanted to make you feel better, because it’s obvious to this old woman that that’s where this is going.”

Buck felt his cheeks heat. “Not in the way you mean! Gah.” He covered his face briefly then blew out a breath. “She said we should do away with using condoms.”

“Ah. A very important step in a monogamous relationship. This upset you?”

“No, not that specifically. I, uh—” He cleared his throat. “When we first decided to try a relationship, I asked her about birth control since condoms can break and aren’t always effective. She said she’d had that covered ‘for a while,’ so I let it go, but if we were doing away with that layer of extra protection, I wanted to know what exactly her birth control method was so I could research its efficacy and determine if we needed to keep on with condoms or try a backup like spermicidal foam.” He huffed. “I know it was overkill.”

“No.” She smiled and took one of his hands again. “Never change, Evan; never, ever change.”

“People think I’m a nut.”

“I think you care and you manage yourself and your fears about the world in the best way you can. It comes out as love and caring for others. That is no bad thing.”

He smiled a bit, loving the way she saw him. “I really want children someday. If Taylor got pregnant, I’d love that kid with everything in me, but I know our relationship isn’t where two people need to be to have a child together, so I wanted to be sure we wouldn’t have an accident.”

“Reasonable. What did she say?”

“She was quiet for a long time then admitted that she had had a tubal ligation several years ago because she never wanted children. Ever.”

“I…see.” Isabel blinked furiously for a few seconds then cleared her throat. “Did she know your desire for a family?”

“Yeah, I frequently talked about having kids. Not specifically trying to put a burden to have kids on her, but just my desire to raise children.” He had to fight back the urge to cry. “I asked her if she just didn’t want to bear them because that would be okay; I’m fine with adopting. She said no, that she never wanted to raise a child.”

Buck passed a hand over his eyes, wiping away the moisture that had been welling up. “Why couldn’t she tell me that from the start?”

Isabel made a vague comforting sound and hugged him again. “She should have. What was her answer when you asked her that question?”

“At first she said that she wasn’t sure if we were going to be a long-term thing or just a fun time and didn’t want to have that discussion, but I called her on that because I made it clear from the jump that I wanted a serious relationship. She eventually admitted that she thought I’d change my mind some day. That I’d find a relationship with her was enough for me.” Buck still felt gutted. “I know that she was just withholding information, but I feel like she lied.”

“Would you have entered a relationship with someone who never wanted to have a child?”

“Absolutely not. Even if I never had kids of my own, there’s always Christopher to consider.” He’d found out shortly after Eddie came home from the hospital that Isabel knew about Eddie’s will. She and Pepa both, though they were the only Diazes in the know. Both were supportive of Eddie having named Buck as Christopher’s legal guardian in the event that something happened to Eddie.

Buck added, “I hope there is never a circumstance where Christopher passes into my custody due to Eddie’s will be executed, but I would never dishonor my relationship with either Eddie or Chris by being in a permanent relationship with someone who doesn’t want children.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. I do think she lied to you, Evan. That was a pretty significant omission if she knew how you felt about a future family. It was unfair to expect you to change your life goals about such a fundamental thing given enough time.”

“I wouldn’t have expected her to change for me either. It’s a basic incompatibility, and we should never have started this. I’m trying not to be angry at her because I could see how hurt she was that I was calling it off, but I am angry. I’m so angry.” He shook his head. “She said that she just wanted to be enough for me, on her own without having to push out a baby. And I felt terrible, but how do I—”

Isabel put a finger over his lips. “No, Evan. Her hurt now because she lied then is not your fault. You do not have to give up your hopes for children because you two developed feelings that would never have been allowed to grow if she had been honest in the first place. Her desires are not wrong, but telling you so late is.”

Buck felt his eyes tear up again. “The thing is that I understand what she’s saying. I want to be enough for someone too. I want to be enough without having to change what I want in life. I want someone to be willing to stay.”

“And you’ll never achieve that acceptance if the person you’re with doesn’t know who you really are.” She sighed heavily. “Oh, mi cielito. You’re going to get through this. We’ll be here for you. Eddie’s head will get straight one of these days, but no matter what he does, you’ll always have me and Pepa and Christopher.”

“I miss Christopher.”

Isabel huffed. “Have that conversation with my idiot grandson. He effectively made you Christopher’s godfather and then because of whatever complicated, repressed emotion Eddie is wrestling with, he’s hurting all of you. If Eddie won’t let the three of you be family, you go to him and demand time with Chris—just the two of you. Because Christopher misses you too, and there’s no reason for him to suffer.”

“You make it sound like I’m demanding visitation.”

“If that’s what it takes!”

Buck threw up his hands. “That’s nuts.”

“Just think on it.”

“Yeah, all right. I’m talked out. I’m going to go work on the deck.”

“No, you are not. You have a head injury!”

“A little one, not even a concussion, and I hardly even have a headache anymore.”

Isabel started lecturing him in Spanish and he only caught one word out of three. Something about the lunacy of men who refused to admit their limits. He let her bully him to the couch, then she began preparing lunch. She promised to let him help with little household chores later and they could do the deck later in the week once his headache was completely gone.

He lay on her sofa, feeling at peace at the sounds of her bustling around in the kitchen. His phone vibrated in his pocket several times. Each time, it was the single vibration that indicated a new text had come in. He continued to ignore it.

 

Chapter Two

Buck finished the last bite of the best chicken mole poblano he’d ever had. Isabel had been letting it simmer all day and the smell had filled the whole house. Her tamales were now his second favorite thing because this mole was next level.

He looked up at Isabel and Pepa, who were watching him intently. Isabel had called Pepa while Buck was napping and filled her in on Buck and Eddie’s no good, very bad day. So Pepa had come over straight after work and yelled at him in Spanish about not calling her last night. She had the decency to yell at him slow enough that he could understand her. Then she’d hugged the stuffing out of him while muttering something unflattering about Ramón and Helena’s unfortunate influence on Eddie’s emotional state. It had been a little weird.

He wiped his mouth and took a drink of water. “I don’t know, Isabel, it’s pretty good, but I think Pepa’s pozole is a tough act to beat.”

Isabel’s eyes narrowed while Pepa’s eyes got wide and alarmed.

Buck burst out laughing. “I’m kidding. It’s the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. You totally leveled up on that one. I’d have it every day if I could. Not that Pepa’s pozole isn’t a work of art, but the eight hours you put into this…? My tongue says it’s worth every second.”

Isabel shot him a pleased smile. “I’ll send you home with leftovers.”

“You’re a goddess amongst mere mortals.” He wondered if he could risk taking it to the station tomorrow for his lunch or if someone would steal it. He got to his feet to start clearing the table.

“No,” Pepa said sternly. “People with head injuries do not do the dishes. Sit!”

“Pepa, I feel fine!”

“Sit!” Isabel ordered as well.

Buck sat. There was only so much pushback he was willing to engage in with these two.

His phone gave the repeated vibration of an incoming call. Eddie had stopped texting after a few hours and one more attempted call. It was getting close to Christopher’s pre-bed ritual, so the call was unlikely to be Eddie.

“Sorry, my phone…” He pulled it from his pocket and blinked in astonishment at his father’s name on his display. His parents never called. His mother had gone to one therapy session with him and his father attended two. Philip had been apologetic about stopping, but Margaret had been against either of them continuing. He hadn’t heard from either of them since.

He stared so long that the call rolled to voicemail.

“Evan?” Isabel said softly.

“It was my father.”

Pepa abruptly dropped the silverware, and it clattered in the sink. “I thought he never called.”

“I haven’t heard from him since the second therapy attempt. I think they sometimes talk to Maddie about Jee, but they don’t contact me directly, and I never call them.”

“So, it might be important?” Pepa prompted, approaching the table while drying her hands. “Maybe about your sister? Isn’t she back east?”

“Yeah, we think so,” Buck said absently, staring at the dark phone screen again.

“Call if you need to, sweetheart,” Pepa said. “You can go into the living room if you need privacy or we can leave…?”

“No, stay please.” Buck didn’t want to be alone with his parents. It was childish and silly, especially since it was just a phone call, but he had a sense of foreboding about them phoning. He unlocked his cell and returned the call from his recents list.

Evan,” his father said in greeting. “B-Buck, I mean. Sorry.” Philip Buckley sounded stressed.

“Sorry. I, uh, didn’t get to the phone in time.”

It’s fine. I haven’t been able to reach Maddie either.”

“No, you wouldn’t be able to. She’s still getting help for her postpartum depression.” He assumed, anyway. He really had no idea what Maddie was doing. She could be doing a historic tour of Route 66 for all he knew.

Right. Yeah, I… Right. I wasn’t thinking about that.”

“Dad, what’s going on?”

Your mother…” There was a shuddery breath over the line. “She had a stroke this afternoon.”

Buck felt like the world went completely still. “What’d the doctor say?”

She—” Philip cleared his throat. “Margaret passed before the ambulance arrived at the hospital.”

“What?” Buck asked, voice barely a whisper.

She’s had severe high blood pressure for years, and she hated taking her medication.” Philip sighed, and it sounded so sad. “The doctors believe it was a massive hemorrhagic stroke, and she died very quickly. There was nothing anyone could do. They’ll confirm cause of death in the next few days.”

Buck stared at the table top, eventually aware that Pepa and Isabel were both close. One touching his shoulder, the other his forearm.

Buck?” Philip eventually prompted. He sounded tired and old.

“I’ll, uh, I’ll be there tomorrow. I’m not sure of flights yet, but it’s likely I’ll arrive late. I’ll text you when I know.”

You’re coming?” Philip asked, sounding almost small.

“Of course I am. I’ll…help. However I can.” He bit his lip. “I don’t think we’ll be able to get in touch with Maddie. I’ll try, but it’s not likely. So, I’ll have to be enough.”

Philip took in a sharp breath. “I want you both here, Evan, of course I do, but you coming is more than I hoped for. It’s enough. You are enough.”

He never had been before, but this was the wrong time to have that conversation. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Dad.”

Thank you, Son.”

Buck winced. “Um. Yeah. Of course.” He hung up. He should probably ask questions. Such as, if his father was at home or still at the hospital, and if he had people staying with him. But all Buck could manage was to get off of the phone.

“My mother’s dead,” he said softly, not looking up. “She never wanted me, and I think she resented my continued existence after Daniel died, but I feel like my heart just broke, and I don’t even know why.”

~*~

Buck didn’t remember the drive home other than Pepa taking his keys to drive the Jeep and Buck riding with Isabel. Now he was seated at his kitchen island and Pepa was making flight arrangements while Isabel was upstairs going through his clothes to pack his suitcase.

The two Diaz women were like a tornado of efficiency. Since he was physically capable, he should probably protest them doing so much for him, but he could barely get his thoughts in order.

Pepa slid a cup of tea in front of him and curled both his hands around this. “Drink, Evan. The flights are set. We leave at 6:15 in the morning. I need you to perk up a bit so you can call your captain.”

Buck blinked at her a few times. “Wait. Don’t you need my credit card?”

“We both have Venmo, dearest; you can reimburse me. I got the best rate I could for you, which is pretty easy these days.” She guided him to the tea again. “There are bereavement fares, and they’ll adjust your fare down with a digital copy of,” she hesitated, “the death certificate.”

Buck reflexively nodded, feeling a little sick. He sipped the tea for a few seconds, then what she’d said penetrated further into his brain. “What do you mean ‘we’?”

Pepa made a huffy little sound. “I’m going with you.”

“What?” Buck sat up straighter. “Pepa!”

“There is no argument. The ticket is non-refundable. You need someone with you, and Mamá is too old for this.”

“I heard that Josephina!” Isabel called down from the loft.

“Mamá! Even though you’re boosted, travel is too risky.”

“You increase your exposure risk too,” Buck said softly.

“I’m much younger, and I’m also boosted. I’ll wear an N95 the entire trip, Evan. It’ll be fine.”

“Pepa… I can’t ask you—”

“You didn’t,” she snapped, then she touched his cheek, her gentle touch at odds with her tone. “Just accept that I’m going with you. Family must be with family at such times. I know you are not close family with your father, and Maddie is running away from home right now. Eddie is,” she sighed, “being Eddie.”

“He’d come with me if I asked.”

“Probably, but he’s put your relationship in such a place where even I understand why that is awkward. Mamá and I love you; we consider you one of ours, so you’ll allow us to help take care of you right now.”

Buck felt choked up again. “Thank you.”

She patted his cheek. “My house is closer to the airport, and we have to get up very early, so you’ll be staying in my guest room tonight. You need to call your captain and then make sure you have everything you need for the trip.” She went over the itinerary with him.

Buck decided to try reach Maddie again before calling Bobby. Pepa began cleaning out the fridge of any perishables, planning to send them home with Isabel.

Maddie didn’t answer, which he expected. He left her voicemail and text saying that there was an urgent family matter, and that she needed to check her email. He took a few minutes to compose as carefully worded an email as he possibly could. He hated just putting it out there, knowing that she might be in a fragile state of mind when she read it. But she deserved to know, and she might find out from other sources anyway, depending on where she’d run off to.

——
Subj: READ FIRST: Urgent News

Dear Maddie,

I’m sending you two emails on this subject. The urgent news is in the one to follow. I’m putting it separate so you can psych yourself up and only read it when you’re in a good place. Jee is fine as far as I know, so I just want to put that out there first so you don’t panic about your daughter.

Anyway, you need to read it, but you also need to be where you’re safe and can get support. If you need me, please call.

I love you,

Buck
——

——
Subj: READ SECOND: Urgent News

Maddie,

I’m sorry to tell you this in email, but it’s not something I wanted to say in text or on voicemail where you couldn’t easily avoid the news if you weren’t in a safe space.

Dad called earlier today. Mom suffered a major stroke this afternoon and died en route to the hospital. They’re still determining exact cause of death, but Dad said she’s had high blood pressure for years and often refused to take her medication, so the doctors are confident it was a stroke. I’m not sure how surprised he was by what happened.

I’m leaving for PA tomorrow morning. I’m not sure how long I can stay there, and I have no idea what Dad’s plans are for the funeral. We’ll figure things out when I arrive. Your input would probably help; it would certainly help Dad to see or hear from you if you’re up for it.

I’ll send another email when we know the funeral plans. My best case scenario is that you get this in time and are doing well enough to come to the funeral. If you’re not in a good place or you’re at an in-patient facility (which is kind of what I’ve been hoping, since I know they’d take good care of you), it’d probably be good if you at least called Dad.

Though Bobby will be informed that I’m headed to Hershey to help Dad, I haven’t told Chim and I don’t plan to. I guess I’ll send a third email on that subject so you understand why. Again, please take care of your mental health and only dive into what you feel you can handle. Right now, you getting better is the most important. This was the only thing you needed to read.

Love you,

Buck
——

——
Subj: READ LAST: (Optional)

Mads,

I’m not going to get into all the details because it doesn’t matter in this context at this time, but I decided not to tell Chim about Mom because I can’t deal with him on top of Dad.

Chim was super angry that I kept your secret about the phone call on your way out of town. I’m not even sure why; it’s not like you told me anything he didn’t know except that Jee had been to a doctor, and I didn’t even know it was the ER; you just told me she had been seen by a physician and was fine. I didn’t even know when she’d been seen.

I know your intention was for me to keep an eye on your man and your daughter while you were gone and that’s why you called me. I tried but, ultimately, his need to be with you outweighed everything else, and I couldn’t keep them here.

A lot of people encouraged him to go after you, and no one heard what I said—that you needed time and space. I’ve tried to respect your wishes, Sis. I want you to get well, but I can’t keep anymore secrets. So, if you do call one day, please don’t let it be, once again, with something I need to keep from other people.

Chim is so angry that he’s still not taking my calls. The depth of his anger rattled me. To such a degree that I’ve been flailing about trying to fix it for everyone else’s benefit—you, Jee, and the team. I was desperately trying to figure out how to earn his forgiveness. (As if I had done anything wrong by respecting your wishes.) That meant that when I suspected you were in Boston, I found a way to get word to him.

I’m sorry I did that. In retrospect, I still think I’m right that you need time to get well, not to be tracked down and told more of what you heard for the months you were struggling in secret with the PPD. Eddie said I probably don’t know you as well as Chim does. Maybe that’s true, but I still regret telling Chim about Boston because that was borne out of my panic to fix things rather than concern for you.

I’m not sure how Chim could possibly find you; it feels like he’s on a wild goose chase, and Jee is the person paying for it. That’s harsh, and I probably shouldn’t say that in email, but she’s learning to crawl in a hotel room and she’s not socializing or being with her family.

I miss her. I miss you. But that missing has been going on for longer than you’ve been gone from Los Angeles because you hid from me for months because you knew I’d know something was wrong. Right? I’ve been blaming myself a lot, feeling like I messed up that you didn’t trust me enough to get you help. But the truth is that you hid from me because you knew I’d see that you weren’t well and I wouldn’t keep quiet about it.

I don’t know, Mads, I’m so confused right now. Mom is gone. I feel like she and I have been estranged practically since I was born, but I guess I had this weird hope that someday she’d miss me or regret that she gave up on me. Or express something that showed I mattered to her. It’s stupid to be so sad that a woman who never wanted me isn’t around anymore to change her mind.

You’re away taking care of yourself, and you know I support you, but time is continuing on for the rest of us. Things are changing for me, for Jee, for Chimney. Time has come to an end for Mom, and I don’t know what either of us are ultimately going to feel about that or how we’re going to cope. Our relationship with our parents has always been…complicated. More so with Mom, I think—in both our cases.

With all this confusion and turmoil, I can’t manage Chim right now. I can’t deal with his anger and his obsessive need to find you. I can’t deal with how much I miss you and Jee if he’s there and yet the two of you are still so far away. Not while I have to wrestle with my own grief and trying to help Dad. So, I chose not to tell him. If you don’t personally bring him to the funeral, I don’t want him there. If he knew what happened, I think he’d show up just on the off chance that you’d be there, and I just…can’t.

Forgive me, Mads, if you think I’m making the wrong choice. Everyone is taking care of themselves, and if I’m going to try to take care of Dad on my own, I need to leave your boyfriend out of it so I can get through it.

I won’t issue you the platitude that you are a great mom to Jee because, even though I believe that, I know you need to get there in your own time. What I can say is that you were a great mom to me. Thank you for that.

I’m leaving in a matter of hours to say goodbye to the woman I never connected with as a parent. A lot of the grief is about giving up on a silly, childhood dream that one day she’d love me.

Be well, Maddie.

I love you,

Evan
——

He probably shouldn’t have said half of that, but he didn’t have time to wordsmith a perfect email to her. She needed the info, and he needed to get it out there quickly so there was a chance she’d get it in time for the funeral.

Then he quit procrastinating and made the call to Bobby. He wasn’t sure if he’d get voicemail or not since Saturday night could mean anything at the Grant-Nash household, including date night or family night.

Bobby answered on the third ring. “Hey, kid. You feeling okay?”

“Yeah. I hope I didn’t disturb you.” Buck swallowed heavily. “The, uh, head injury isn’t really a problem. Headache but no nausea, not even any light sensitivity. Hen’s been checking my symptoms periodically.”

Pepa squeezed his shoulder and stepped away; she went upstairs to join Isabel, giving him the illusion of privacy.

Calling is no problem; you know that. We were just finishing up watching a movie with the kids, who are both here tonight. I stepped into the kitchen so we could talk. Are you dizzy at all? You’re man behind tomorrow regardless, but I can get coverage easily enough if you’re not feeling well.”

“Ah. You should get coverage, but not because of the head injury.”

Okay,” Bobby said slowly. “What’s going on?”

“I need…” Buck hesitated.

Buck? I’m getting worried here, kid.”

“Bereavement leave,” he whispered.

There was a long silence. “Okay. You have it. We’ll deal with the work stuff in a minute. I just went to my bedroom. Talk to me, Buck. Are you all right? Are you willing to tell me who…?” Bobby trailed off, and he’d probably jumped to the conclusion it was Maddie who’d died.

“My mother,” Buck said softly. “I know we weren’t close, but I’m—”

That can make it even harder,” Bobby returned, equally soft. “I’m so damn sorry, kid. Is there anything you need?”

“No. I just needed to tell you and sort out the work stuff.”

I think there’s a little more than that. Is Eddie going with you? Am I about to get a time-off request from him?”

“Uh, no. I haven’t told Eddie yet.”

There was another long pause. “Is there any reason why not?”

“Yesterday was hard, Bobby. We gave our preliminary statements and went home to sleep, but it was…” Buck wasn’t sure how to explain the day. “Eddie wanted some space to be with Chris.”

I’m sure he didn’t mean he wanted space if you suffered a death in the family.”

“Bobby, please.” Buck pinched the bridge of his nose. “I really can’t talk about Eddie right now. Though I think if he had any sense he’d call out tomorrow. He won’t though, so you should definitely throw him at a department therapist.”

Now is obviously not the time, but when you’re ready, I need to know what happened yesterday.”

“Sure. Whatever. I need to give my official statement to the police, but I’m not sure how to do that, considering…”

I’ll look into it and let you know. Actually, Athena will probably call you.

Buck just wanted to get through the hard part of the conversation. “I’m asking that you not tell anyone why I’m taking time off. You may have to tell the police, but I can’t really control that, I guess.”

You don’t want anyone to know?” Bobby repeated, sounding confused.

“No.”

I’ll honor your wishes, of course, Buck, but can I ask why? We’re family, and everyone loves you. They’d want to support you.”

“Because everyone has chosen Chimney,” Buck bit out before he could stop himself, not even aware of how close to the surface that resentment had been sitting.

What?” Bobby asked weakly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.” Buck rubbed his temple too near his injury, getting sharply reminded of how tender the whole area was. “I just… Bobby, you all encouraged him to go after her. Everyone acted like that was a great idea, and I find it infuriating. He’s got my niece living in a car seat, having major milestones in hotel rooms.”

No one thought he was going to take Jee for so long, Buck,” Bobby replied, voice soft. “He loves Maddie; he wants to be sure she’s okay.”

“Exactly. He. That’s all anyone could see. Chimney. What Chimney wanted. Never mind what Maddie wanted. I think you and Eddie saw your own past and didn’t try to understand that your experiences had nothing to do with Maddie. Hen just enables Chim. Eddie acts like I don’t know her as well as Chimney does, and maybe that’s fair on most fronts, but Chimney has never seen Maddie have a major problem and how she reacts to it.

“Running away is how she deals. It’s how she’s always dealt. But whatever. What do I know, right? Chimney knows best and everyone in my surrogate family encouraged and enabled him, and now he’s spending weeks or maybe months on the road, chasing a grown-ass woman who made a conscious choice to take time to recover and get well.

“Meanwhile, their daughter is living in a car, Chim won’t take my calls, so I’m completely cut off from my niece, and have no idea how she’s doing. Which everyone seems to think is just fine behavior on Chim’s part. So, no, Bobby, I don’t want anyone knowing. Because it will get to Chim, and then he will probably show up. I can think of about three reasons why he’d come to the funeral, and I don’t want him there unless Maddie herself shows up with him in tow.” Buck realized he was breathing heavily, now standing, bracing his hand on the counter.

Bobby blew out a breath. “Been holding that in?”

He squeezed his eyes shut. “Yeah.”

What are your thoughts on why he would show up to the funeral?”

“First, if he hasn’t found Maddie and thinks there’s a chance she’s there. Next, if he thought he was doing it for Maddie since she was out of touch and couldn’t be there herself. Finally, if he got it in his head that he was obligated in some fashion by an imagined bond with Philip Buckley.”

I think you listed those in degree of likelihood.”

“Yeah.”

Okay, Buck. I’d like to ask you a question that you dodged back when he left.”

“Can I stop you?”

How’d you get that black eye and the orbital fracture that resulted in three weeks of light duty right around the time he left with Jee?”

“Is this my captain asking or Bobby?”

Which will get me an answer?”

“Right now, Bobby can know; I’m working up to telling my captain. Letting go is a rough process.”

Okay, Buck. Tell me how you got that black eye.”

“Chim was mad that I didn’t tell him Maddie had called me.”

He hit you?”

“But you already suspected or you wouldn’t have asked right now.”

No, Buck. I suspected that something odd was going on when you were cagey about it, but it never occurred to me that Chim would hit the man who is effectively his brother-in-law. I got suspicious now because your anger at your perception that we sided with Chimney is a little disproportionate if it was just about Maddie.”

Buck sat heavily on the stool. “Maybe.”

I’m not saying you’re wrong in how you feel, but I think your perspective on why we supported Chim lacks nuance. You’re not usually one to overlook that sort of thing with people close to you, so I knew there was something else about Chim that was upsetting you. Him not taking your calls has been dickish, but I figured it was about your disagreement that you thought he should let Maddie alone, but he went after her anyway.

Buck considered that for several seconds. “What nuance am I missing?”

I can’t speak to what Eddie meant, but I was trying to be supportive. I know what it’s like to lose the person you love. I thought it would be something he did when he knew where she went. Or perhaps having some general idea and going on his own, leaving Jee with you and the Lees. I certainly never meant for him to take his daughter in the car for weeks on end—possibly months.

As for Hen… I can’t speak for her either, but I don’t think she actually thought this was a good idea. She offered to go with him probably to make sure he came back quickly if there were no good leads. She mentioned to me that she never expected him to be gone this long, and there’s no sign he’ll be back soon. So, this is certainly not what we meant.”

“But why wouldn’t anyone listen to me?”

I wish I had a better answer for you; it seemed like Chim knew Maddie and had a handle on what she needed.”

Buck scoffed. “He agreed to help her keep her PPD a secret for months, Bobby. How is that getting her what she needed? He’s a fucking paramedic! He knows what intrusive thoughts in PPD can cause. For fuck’s sake. She ran because every time she said ‘Jee isn’t safe with me; I’m a bad mother’ what she meant was ‘I’m drowning and don’t know how to get help.’ And instead of getting her the help she needed, he patted her on the head and told her she was a great mom, as if positive affirmation could fix it. He helped her hide out and enabled her toxic need to appear normal. I can’t believe this shit.”

He dragged his hand through his hair, knowing his was making the curls disordered. “This is the problem: everyone in my life looked at the situation and said, ‘poor Chim, how do we help him get Maddie back?’ Instead of saying, ‘poor Maddie, what does she actually need to get well?’ She was drowning in platitudes and supportive statements and the only way she could see to get better was to get away from all of it. And that’s why I don’t want anyone knowing. Because I don’t need Chim inserting himself into my family issues right now.”

Buck…” Bobby sounded emotional, but Buck couldn’t label it. “We need to talk more. Obviously we need to talk. We should have talked before now, and I’m truly sorry. Of course I won’t reveal why you’re taking time off. Do you want me to make any exceptions about disclosing your location?”

Buck took a second to wrestle his emotions under control. “If something happens to Chris or Eddie, though I assume you’d call me if something were to happen. If Maddie calls, please tell her to check her email. I didn’t want to leave it on voicemail so the text message I sent her was to read her email ASAP about an urgent family issue, but she’s avoiding everything right now, and there’s no telling when she’ll see it.”

I can do that. Logistically, you have two full shifts as paid time off as part of your benefit with the department. You can split them as needed. People often take one close to the date of…passing. The other is usually closer to the funeral, but it’s up to you. I assume since you’re traveling that you’ll be taking them both together?”

“Yes. I don’t know what Dad plans for the funeral. It may be immediately or…not. I just don’t know yet. But if it’s delayed, and I have to travel again, I’ll cross that bridge another time.”

All right. You would have worked tomorrow, so that’s your first day of bereavement leave. We were off rotation for the next four and then you’d have been back on Friday. That will be day two of your leave. Therefore, your next scheduled shift will be Sunday, a week from tomorrow. You have plenty of vacation time, so you can take more time if you need it, but I’d appreciate as much heads up as possible.”

“Yeah. I’ll know if I need more time when I get there and talk to my dad.” Buck hesitated. “Thanks, Bobby.”

Athena knows I’m in here talking to you. Is it all right if I tell her?”

Buck blew out a breath. “Can she keep it from Hen?”

She has to keep stuff from Hen all the time, but if she won’t assure me of secrecy, I won’t say anything.”

“Then, yeah, you can tell her.”

Thank you. And if you need anything, at any time, please don’t hesitate to call. I don’t care if it’s three in the morning and you just want to talk. Please call me.”

“Okay, Bobby.” Buck wouldn’t. He felt too weird with how everything had happened lately.

And, kid, it’ll keep, but we’re going to have to talk about this issue with Chim that you kept from me.”

“Why,” Buck asked in barely a whisper.

Are you really going to be able to work with him?”

Buck squeezed his eyes shut. “No,” he admitted.

Bobby blew out a breath. “That’s good, Buck.”

“It is?”

Yeah. I’d be very worried if you’d answered the other way. It’s not urgent, and it doesn’t take priority over what you’re dealing with now. Okay?”

“Yep.”

All right, I’ll let you off the hook. Keep in touch if you can; I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

You always say that and, over the last five years, I think I’ve picked up when it’s okay to actually believe you. This is not that time.”

Buck just shook his head, smiling faintly. “I’ll let you know what’s happening when I have real info. I leave tomorrow around six in the morning and get in a little after four, so after one your time and then it’s only about twenty minutes to my Dad’s.” He blew out a breath. “Sorry, that’s a long way of saying that I may not know much until late in the evening on the East Coast.”

That’s fine, Buck. I’m not asking that you keep me apprised of your every move; I just want to know that you’re doing okay.”

“I’m…not okay,” Buck admitted. “But I know you don’t mean it that way. I’ll let you know.”

All right.” Bobby sounded unusually hesitant. “I think the stresses of the last six months have gotten in the way of us communicating well, and I’m sorry for that. Know that I love you and I’m here if you need me.”

“Thanks, Bobby. I love you too. Give my love to Athena.”

They hung up a few seconds later, and Buck got an arm around his shoulders from Isabel. “You did good, Evan. Now come check your bag and make sure you have everything you need.”

He smiled at her and squeezed her hand. “Between you and Pepa, I’m doing good.”

“Little liar,” she said softly then kissed his cheek. “But you’ll be all right. We’ll make sure of it.”

 

Chapter Three

Eddie pulled up at his abuela’s house an hour before his shift started. Pepa was originally going to take Chris for today, but he’d gotten a text last night that it had switched to Abuela because Pepa had to go out of town for a few days. He’d asked for more information, but Abuela said she’d explain some other time. Eddie had been distracted about the situation with Buck, so he’d let it go.

Buck had never returned a single text or call after his cold “no thanks, Diaz” text message. Eddie knew he’d fucked things up yesterday, but Buck’s reaction seemed out of proportion. As a result of the extreme reaction and the prolonged avoidance, a festering anxiety had been gnawing away at him all day.

He was eager to get to the station and pin Buck down so they could talk for a few minutes. Hopefully, he could leave right away and have a few extra minutes to talk to Buck. But he’d need to leave within a half hour to make it on time.

Chris was grumbly about being up at school time on a Sunday, but he always was. He infinitely preferred if Eddie had a weekend shift that his carer came to him rather than him having to leave the house.

Eddie privately thought Chris’ pout was cute.

He carried Chris inside Isabel’s house and set him at the dining table. Chris didn’t care much for being carried anymore, and he was getting so damn big, but he allowed it on weekend mornings when Eddie dragged him out of the house at 6:30.

Isabel had pancakes ready, as she’d promised, and Christopher seemed more awake almost immediately.

Eddie dropped a kiss on her cheek, issuing a greeting. She smiled at him and greeted him in Spanish, as always, but it seemed stiff and stilted. “Abuela?”

“Let’s go in the kitchen. I have coffee and fruit for you to take with you.” She pressed a kiss to Christopher’s curls. “And I’ll get mi ángel some juice.”

Chris laughed and squeezed her hand. “Thank you, Abuela.”

“What’s going on?” Eddie asked as the door swung shut behind them.

She didn’t say anything for a few seconds, pouring coffee into a travel cup. “Were you going to tell me you were abducted at work and held captive all day, Edmundo?”

Eddie’s eyes opened wide. “I can’t believe he told you about that.” He felt instantly furious. “Did he call you just to fill you in for some reason?”

“It happened to him too, Eddie,” Abuela said softly, bringing Eddie up short. “He thought you were shot. Again. Then he went home and got in a huge argument with his girlfriend, which ended their relationship. Then he’s supposed to…what? Rattle around in that drafty loft by himself with no comfort?”

“What are you talking about?” Eddie felt all the fight drain out of him. “Buck and Taylor broke up?”

“Right after the event you didn’t want to tell me about, yes. He spent the day with me, and then the evening with me and Pepa. I never heard from my own grandson.”

“I was…reacting. Chris was threatened.”

“I know. I also know Buck loves Christopher as much as any man loves their own child, and he’d have dearly liked to hug him.” She looked up at him then passed over the coffee. “I know you’re trying to keep Christopher close, Edmundo, but why are you trying so hard to push Buck away?”

“I’m not,” he said weakly.

“Aren’t you? I’ve seen it since you started dating that muffin woman.”

Eddie frowned in confusion. “What?”

“That Ana person.”

“I know who you were talking about,” Eddie replied, annoyed. “I meant why do you think this goes back to Ana?”

She sighed and shook her head. “Self-reflection, Nieto, has never been your strength. Think.”

It was like too many different subjects at once. “I don’t know what’s wrong with Buck, Abuela, but I’m going to figure it out.”

“Mm.” She looked skeptical, and he had no idea what was going on.

He stared down at the cup for a few seconds. “They really broke up?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“That’s not for me to say. You should talk to Buck about it.”

“But you know?”

“I do.”

Eddie couldn’t make heads nor tails of that. “Do you think they’ll get back together?”

Isabel snorted. “No.”

“Abuela!” Chris called from the dining room. “Can I have juice?”

“Coming, ángel,” she called back.

“I’ll talk to Buck today,” Eddie promised. “Hopefully the shift will be accommodating to that. If he broke up with Taylor, he’ll probably be all over the heavy bag, and he’s easier to get to talk then…” Eddie was planning various strategies to get Buck to open up. Buck had never avoided him before, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“You won’t be talking to him today,” Isabel said as she poured juice for Chris.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s taking a few days of leave.”

“What? Why? Is his injury worse? Was it actually a concussion? Oh my god, I should have checked him mys—”

“No.” She held up a hand, stopping his imminent spiral. “Wait here.” She stepped into the dining room to deliver the juice then returned a few moments later. With hands propped on her hips, she gave Eddie an assessing look. “Your captain is supposed to keep the reason for Buck’s absence confidential. However, Buck gave me permission to tell you, but only when I have time to explain why Captain Nash isn’t allowed to speak of it, and why Buck’s not sure he trusts you with the information.”

“He doesn’t trust me?” Eddie asked, feeling gutted.

“All things considered, I wouldn’t in his place either, Nieto, and I don’t say that to hurt you. Buck has a very good reason to think he shouldn’t tell you this right now. But I will tell you, just not at this moment. We need plenty of time to talk, and we couldn’t possibly get through it all before your shift.”

“Abuela… You have to give me something.”

“We don’t have time, Eddie. You get to work, but think on what you want from Buck because you can’t keep pulling him in two different directions.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” Eddie snapped, keeping his voice low to avoid Christopher overhearing.

“Tell me why Evan feels like he’s losing your friendship, why he fears that he’s losing his place in Christopher’s life?”

Eddie reared back. “That’s not true.”

“Think about it.” She reached up and patted his cheek. “Just think. You need to look at everything that’s happened and see if you can figure out why Buck thinks you want him out of your life.”

“Never, Abuela. I could never want that. But he has a girlfriend.”

“And so did you. Tell me why Buck always had time for you, girlfriend or no? And I know he did because of the sheer number of times he wound up here helping me around the house because you didn’t want to spend time with him. My house has never been in such good repair.”

Eddie just stared for several long seconds. “I was trying to give him time and space to build something with her.”

“So, you are the one who gets to decide when he spends time with his girlfriend?”

“No, of course not.” Except he could hear how that was exactly the way it sounded. “So, he was already broken up with her when he texted me about movie night?”

She gave him an incredulous look. “Taylor anchors the evening news on the weekend. Every weekend. Their breakup had nothing to do with his availability for your movie night.”

Eddie had forgotten that, and he felt like an ass. “Abuela, I feel like I’m floundering here.”

“I understand, and I wish I could help you more, but you need to get to work.”

“Are you sure we don’t have time for you to tell me anything?” Pressing Isabel Diaz rarely worked, but he felt like he was being told to solve a puzzle with only half the clues.

“Just think about your life since… Oh, let’s say since before the pandemic. What do you want? What are you striving so hard for?”

“I really don’t understand.”

She sighed, shook her head, and patted his cheek. “I know. Think. Self-reflection will be good for you. I hope you have an easy shift so that you can sleep tonight. We’ll talk tomorrow.” She handed him a Tupperware container. “Breakfast you can heat up at work. Now, go.”

Eddie went, feeling bemused and off kilter. He pressed a kiss to Christopher’s curly hair and headed for the station.

~*~

Despite the conversation with Isabel having him later than he’d expected, traffic was easy. He was in uniform and upstairs to reheat his food with fifteen minutes to spare. Hen was already present as were Ravi, DeKay, and Calley. The rest of A-shit trickled up the stairs over the next ten minutes or so. Bobby was apparently shut up in his office.

“Where’s Buck?” Ravi finally asked when it was only a couple of minutes left before start of shift.

Hen looked up from her book, glancing around with concern.

“Uh, I heard he was going to be out today. Not sure why though,” Eddie supplied.

“Heard?” Hen echoed. “From who?”

Eddie just shrugged, not wanting to get into how he’d heard from his grandmother.

Bobby appeared at the top of the stairs with a man Eddie vaguely recognized from various scenes they’d worked in conjunction with other stations. He vaguely recalled that the guy was a paramedic. “Good morning. We’ll get to assignments in just a second. This is Trevor Scheer, paramedic. He’s been with the LAFD for nine years, paramedic for six. He’s formerly of station 52.”

Hen frowned. “Is this a permanent assignment, Cap?”

“He is permanently with the 118, yes, so please make him feel welcome. Which shift he’ll be on long term has yet to be determined. Trevor, this is Henrietta Wilson, lead paramedic; she goes by Hen. We shuffle apparatus assignments as needed, but today, riding in the ladder truck, we have Eddie Diaz and Aarón Martinez, engineered by Marcus DeKay, who is also lead engineer for our shift and the station. He’s young for that kind of seniority, but he’s just that good and was chosen to be lead by the other shift engineers, so please pay attention to whatever he says.”

DeKay gave a nod of acknowledgement and grinned.

Bobby continued, “Ravi Panikkar is our current probationary firefighter. Ravi, Buck is going to be out for a while, and Eddie is our next best rope person, so I can’t have him tied to an RA unit, which is why he’s back on the ladder full time. Trevor will be partnering with Hen, Eddie will be partnering with Aarón. Ravi, you’ll be riding in the triple engine under Calley’s direction. She’s going to be giving you engine-specific training for the next several shifts. We’ll re-evaluate when Buck is back.” Bobby then introduced the team who usually rode in the triple under Alyssa Calley’s lead. Logan was the designated man behind for the shift. Eddie was just glad he was partnering with Martinez and not Logan because Logan was uncommunicative over the radio on a good day, which really sucked on a rope rescue.

“Why is Buck going to be gone?” Hen interjected as soon as the team intros were over. “Is his head injury worse than they suspected? Is it actually a concussion?”

“No. I talked to him this morning. Lingering headache, but no other symptoms. Even if he were here, he’d have been on light duty, so we’d have had to change the apparatus assignments.”

She waited for a few seconds then prodded, “So, why is he out?”

Bobby hesitated. “He had an emergency to deal with. He’ll be out a least three shifts. Now, assignments for this shift are posted downstairs. After everyone gets their coffee, let’s get on the equipment checks. Hen, please get Trevor oriented to the ambulance and anything you think he needs to know. If we don’t get a call, you can expand his orientation to the whole station followed by the truck and then the engine.” Bobby looked to him. “Eddie, a word in my office, please.”

Feeling even more off balance at the staffing changes, Eddie followed Bobby down the stairs. Hen followed them after a second, saying something to Scheer about her catching up with him in a minute.

“Bobby, just a second,” Hen called after him.

Bobby turned around, looking resigned. “What’s up?”

“Is it Maddie?”

“Is what Maddie?”

“Why Buck’s gone. Did he hear something about her? Do I need to get in touch with Chim?”

Bobby looked disconcerted for no reason that Eddie could decipher. “I haven’t heard anything about Maddie recently, not from Buck or anyone else.”

Hen cocked her head to the side. “So, are you saying Buck’s absence has nothing to do with Maddie?”

“I’m officially saying that there are times that I cannot discuss matters related to other employees, Hen, and this needs to not be asked again. Anyone asking a specific question about Buck is going to get the answer that I cannot discuss it. The Maddie question is different. As far as I know, there’s nothing different regarding that situation, but Buck left me instructions on what to do and how to contact him if that should change.”

Hen frowned. “So, his absence really does have nothing to do with her?”

“I’m not sure how many ways I can tell you that I cannot discuss why Buck is out. Now, let’s get on with the day.”

“Bobby, wait,” Hen pressed, and Eddie felt vaguely uncomfortable standing there. “What about Scheer?”

“What about him?” Bobby asked.

“It feels like, and looks like, you’re replacing Chim.”

“For now, I am.”

“He’s on FMLA.”

Bobby sighed. “Yeah, which means he’s guaranteed a job if he comes back within a specific time period. He’ll have an equivalent position, not necessarily the same exact position. We may not be able to guarantee shift or even station.”

“But, Bobby—”

He held up a hand. “I cannot jeopardize our work to hold his spot. Eddie is a qualified medic, so it was easy to shuffle people around to keep the paramedic spot unfilled in the short term, but I now need someone who can handle rope rescues with ease. The next best person after Buck is Jones, but I need someone on each apparatus, so Eddie is back in the truck, and you’ve got a new partner. We’ll be losing a paramedic on B-shift in a few months. Scheer might stay on A-shift or he might go to B-shift. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know how things will turn out.”

“When Buck comes back, we can shuffle things back the way they were, right?”

“No. Buck and Eddie will be partnering again when Buck returns. Scheer would only come here if it was a permanent transfer so he can be closer to his daughter’s new school. The 118 was his ideal choice, but there’s one other station in his geographical area. The B-shift opening isn’t for a few months, so he’ll be on A-shift for now. He’s got an exceptional reputation as a paramedic and firefighter, so please make him feel welcome. With this readjustment to have two full paramedics, Buck coming back just means we’re at normal staffing levels so I don’t need to keep getting a floater to ride in the triple.”

Hen looked a little off kilter, the same way Eddie felt. Bobby was very much in Captain mode, which he did in the field, but was less common in the station.

“Of course, Bobby,” Hen finally agreed. “I just hope whatever Buck’s up to is worth all this chaos.”

And that was too much for Eddie. Hen wasn’t usually this…obtuse, but her thing with Chim on this whole mess was a huge blind spot. “Well,” Eddie bit out, “he was abducted and held hostage a couple of days ago. Pistol whipped. Thought we were close to dying on the job. Again. Then he gets home and his girlfriend breaks up with him while he was struggling with a head injury. I don’t know what else is going on, but it seems like he has cause to need a few days off. I mean, I get that you’re worried about Chim coming back to find that everything he abandoned is not exactly how he left it, but Buck can’t put all his needs on hold just so Chimney can chase his runaway girlfriend all over the country.”

“I—” Hen looked stricken. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Uh-huh,” Eddie said woodenly, hating that he didn’t know what was actually going on with Buck.

“Eddie…”

He shook his head. “Let it go, Hen. I know you’re worried about Chim and that you want to make things good for him when he comes home, but those of us who are left behind still have lives that are moving on. Bobby needing to staff that spot has nothing to do with Buck, so let’s not blame him.”

“I’m not,” she said softly. “I wasn’t thinking about how that came out, I’m sorry.” She said the last to Bobby. “When Chim last called, he was sounding really weird about finding Maddie, and it worries me that this has been going on so long. It’s been well over a month, and I thought he’d be back by now.”

“With Maddie?” Bobby asked, looking curious.

“Well, yeah,” Hen said with a perplexed expression.

Bobby just nodded. “Okay. I need to talk to Eddie, and you need to orient your new partner to the station.” Bobby hesitated. “I know true partnership takes time to build, but this is your partner now, Hen. Please treat him as such.”

Hen was obviously taken aback. “I’ll do my job, Captain.”

“Thank you, Hen.” Bobby stepped into his office and closed the door behind Eddie. They sat in the two guest chairs. “Taylor broke up with Buck after that last shift you had?”

“Apparently. I heard about it from Abuela.”

Bobby pinched the bridge of his nose. “God.”

“He didn’t mention that to you?”

“No, I think he was focusing on other stuff, but what a rough couple of days he had. I wish…” Bobby trailed off and shook his head.

“You’re not going to tell me why Buck is out, are you?”

“I can’t, Eddie.”

“Then why am I here?”

Bobby drummed his fingers on his leg while giving Eddie a contemplative look. “You knew Chimney hit Buck?”

Eddie twitched back a bit, surprised at the directional shift in the conversation. “Yeah, Buck told me right away.”

“Did you encourage Chimney to go after Maddie before or after—”

“Before,” Eddie snapped. “I never saw Chim after the punch, and made myself stay away from him because I was furious.”

“You did a good job of hiding that.”

Eddie winced. “Maybe too good of a job.” He sighed and stared at his hands. “I misstepped with Buck somewhere, and I’m trying to figure it out. I didn’t want my anger at Chim to be something Buck had to deal with, so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to tell him what to do or how to react. He’d ask me questions like ‘do you think Chim will forgive me?’ and I didn’t even know what to say to that, Bobby.” Eddie suddenly got why his abuela wanted him to think about everything. “I was keeping him a bit at arm’s length so I could keep my emotions about the situation out of it; I didn’t want to make what happened to him be about me.” He shook his head. “But I shouldn’t have given Chim that advice.”

Bobby cocked his head to the side. “Why not? It was before you knew about the battery.”

Eddie recoiled emotionally at the bald statement of what had happened. “I made it about Shannon and my regrets. I don’t think we were destined to work out, but I should have followed her to LA. I was never happy in El Paso, but I dug in and got stubborn.” Eddie gave a mirthless laugh. “Some people would say my temper is my worst trait, but I actually don’t have much of a true temper. It’s just that any negative emotions come out as anger because…that’s what I was taught.” He shrugged. “My real major flaw is my stubbornness. I came to regret a lot of my choices with Shannon, and I thought Chim would regret it too. Of course, I’d like to think if I had known everything about their situation I’d have given him different advice. And I think it’s obvious that I never thought he’d take Jee with him for such a long trip.”

“Yeah,” Bobby murmured. “I’m in a similar position—giving advice to Chim from my own past, which is fine normally, but it didn’t work well in this situation, and that reveal in the loft over dinner of us all encouraging Chim to go after Maddie lacked context. I think Buck feels like it was a betrayal of sorts.”

Eddie’s mind flicked over that event and Buck’s reaction, how Buck seemed really reserved afterward, even though he kept trying to get time with Eddie and Christopher. He couldn’t help but wince internally at the evidence that he was the one keeping Buck at arm’s length in almost every area, and he wasn’t even sure why he’d been doing that. He missed Buck like a missing limb, but he’d done it to himself, he just hadn’t seen that until today.

Haltingly, Eddie said, “I’ve been keeping too much to myself, and I think he saw it as not caring. Or worse, siding with the man who attacked him.” Eddie hated that Buck might think, for even a second, that he was okay with Chimney hurting him. He shook his head. “Why did Chimney come up today?”

“Buck’s not going to be able to work with Chimney, and I’m going to need to make some decisions.” Bobby took a deep breath. “That thing in the loft with Buck asking for a transfer for the good of the station so Chimney could come home…” Bobby shook his head. “I think he was working his way toward admitting to himself that he wasn’t going to be able to do it—work with someone, side-by-side, who so fundamentally betrayed his trust.”

“Has he admitted that?”

“When pressed during my conversation with him, he did. Just last night, in fact. This is between you and me for now,” Bobby said sternly.

Eddie nodded.

“It’s why when I talked to the chief last night, I was now willing to discuss permanent solutions for our station when I haven’t been before. He’s the one who mentioned that Scheer really wanted our station, and he could arrange for Scheer to start immediately and send the floater over to the 157 instead.”

Eddie tried to take that on board. “So, this is happening? Chim isn’t coming back to the house?”

“No. It honestly doesn’t matter if Buck is okay with it or not, I’m not having them on the same shift. I need more details from Buck about what happened, but I know Buck well enough that it wasn’t exactly a brawl.”

“No, from what Buck said, he was trying to calm down Chim’s anger about him figuring out that Maddie had called Buck on her way out of town when Chim just hauled off and slugged him. He called me from urgent care after his X-ray because he was feeling dizzy and didn’t want to drive.” Eddie still felt angry about the whole thing, but he was used to locking it all down.

“Do you know what Maddie said to him?”

“They’ve made some promises not to leave each other behind again, so she called him and said some of the stuff Chim relayed to us from the video. That she couldn’t take care of Jee anymore, that Jee wasn’t safe, that she’d been to the doctor and she was fine, but Maddie just couldn’t do it anymore. That she was going away for a while but she’d be back and asked him to look after her family. She said she left a video for Chim explaining everything and asked Buck to promise not to reveal that she’d called him directly so that Chim wouldn’t be hurt by it.”

Bobby frowned. “So nothing more than what Chim already knew other than that reference to Jee going to a doctor…?”

“Yeah. I think he made a mistake not telling Chim for that reason alone, but it was such a vague thing, and it could have been referencing any event at any time, and there was no reason to think Chim didn’t already know considering how much Chim has been keeping secret about Maddie.” Eddie shrugged. “He was honoring his sister’s wish for secrecy. Hell, Chim spent the whole summer honoring Maddie’s wish to hide her PPD. Chim’s anger about the phone call that essentially revealed nothing was bullshit.”

“And yet Buck was talking about how he needed Chim to forgive him,” Bobby prompted.

Eddie felt like he was being tested. “Obviously Buck doesn’t need forgiveness, Bobby, but Buck always has to fix everything, and he was determined to see everything back the way it was.”

Bobby’s eyebrows shot up. “Did it ever occur to you to be honest with him rather than just be ‘supportive’?”

“At the time, no. I didn’t feel like he was in a place to hear it. And, honestly, I was dealing with how I felt about the breakup with Ana and…other things.” What he perceived as the absence of Buck in his life because of Taylor. And now Eddie wondered how much of that absence was of his own creation. “He hasn’t talked much about it since.”

“Except that it’s been obvious around here that Buck’s been struggling, Eddie. I know you haven’t been partnered with him much since Chim left, but you’re not blind.”

Eddie just shook his head. He didn’t have a good answer for himself much less Bobby.

“Do you think it’s a good idea for Chimney and Buck to work together?”

“No, I don’t. But I wasn’t sure how the situation could possibly get resolved considering Buck’s own stated desires.” Eddie hesitated. “It seems like you’re basically choosing Buck.”

“At a personal level, I’m conflicted because I’m close to both of them, but if a choice had to be made, it’d be Buck because he’s the injured party. Professionally speaking, while Chim is the second in command of this shift, Buck is harder to replace. He has more versatility than anyone else on this shift. Or really, in this station. He can step into a variety of roles with ease, and there are things he does that we don’t have another person who can do. We’re a backup for one of the SAR-ready Bureaus West, but I have to log with dispatch at the beginning of each shift which types of rescues we have training to engage in. Without Buck, I have no one certified for several things—swift-water rescue, for instance.”

Eddie blinked, he hadn’t known that. He did know Buck had a lot of SAR certifications and did more ongoing training than most people on the shift. Shortly after they’d met, Buck had mentioned that most of his SAR certifications predated his tenure with the LAFD, but Eddie had never revisited the topic to find out more when they’d become close enough for that sort of question.

“So, what will happen with Chimney?” Eddie finally asked.

Bobby shrugs. “Between you and me, at a strictly personal level, I don’t know. It depends in part on what Buck chooses to tell me as his captain. As the captain of this station, my focus right now is on making sure we’re properly staffed to get the best outcome in the field. I need another paramedic on shift. You were able to fill in for a while, and I appreciate your flexibility, but I can’t have you tied to an RA if we have to do a complicated rescue. So, I need you to get with Martinez and do your equipment checks. You’ve been doing checks on the ambulance lately but, today, you, Martinez, and DeKay need to go over the truck and the rescue gear.”

Eddie got to his feet. “Got it.”

“Eddie,” Bobby said gently. “You seem conflicted. Now isn’t the time, obviously, but if you need to talk, I’m available to you.”

Eddie shook his head. “I need to think; I may have been focused on all the wrong things. So, if I’m quiet today…”

“As long as you’re not distracted, be as introspective as you need to be.”

“Thanks, Cap.”

~*~

Buck sat in his room in his childhood home well after the dinner hour. The room was nothing like when he was a kid, having been converted to a generic guest room. He figured it was better that way. He’d never had any illusion about his parents’ sentiment toward him, and seeing his bedroom the same would have thrown him.

He’d happily be outside rather than in this uptight guest room except it was already dropping down to forty after sunset even though it was only early November.

The trip had been a blur of uncomfortable seats and too long in mask. He and Pepa chose to keep the N95s on the entirety of the flights, only taking them off to down some bottles of water during their layover in Detroit and then eat a quick sandwich.

The reunion with Philip was weird. His dad was a mess emotionally, and he obviously had no idea how to function right now. He’d actually hugged Buck for a long time, which was so weird Buck didn’t know what to do with it.

Pepa had taken over, and Philip had fallen easily in line with Pepa bossing him into self-care and making a plan for tomorrow and the days to come so they could manage Margaret’s affairs.

Buck was trying to be supportive but he felt lost and unsure of how to help. So, he let Pepa boss him around too.

Maddie hadn’t written or texted, and Buck wasn’t surprised—not really. It had only been a day, after all. She probably hadn’t even seen any of it. He kept telling himself it was okay that she rarely checked voicemails and emails, but a voice in the back of his mind wondered how long it would take them to get in touch with her if something bad had happened to him. Would she ever know? Did someone actually have a way to contact Maddie, but that person just wasn’t Buck or Chimney?

Isabel had written him, suggesting that he FaceTime with Christopher this evening. It felt a little like doing an end run around Eddie, but Buck was tired and hurting, and he’d missed his superman.

Also, Buck had finally texted Eddie with a simple: Sorry for not texting sooner. Stuff going on. I’ll be in touch soon. It hadn’t been fair the way Buck froze Eddie out, but he hadn’t known what else to do when he was so messed up.

Eddie had immediately replied telling Buck it was fine and to take his time, so Buck felt comfortable that Eddie was at least in supportive friend mode. At the very least, he knew about Buck’s breakup with Taylor.

It was just after dinner time in California, and Isabel was expecting him, so he initiated a FaceTime call. She answered, obviously seated on the couch, holding her finger to her lips in a bid for him to be quiet.

Buck nodded.

Christopher? Did you wash your hands?”

He could only vaguely hear the sound of Christopher speaking in the background but not what Chris was saying.

Well, then, come back. I want to finish watching Maximus chase Flynn.” The tablet was turned so it was facing the TV where Tangled was paused.

After about a minute, he heard, “Okay, Abuela. We can restart it now.”

I need to go into the kitchen for a moment, but you take over my call for me, si?”

Call?”

The tablet was turned back around, and Buck smiled as Chris immediately yelped, “Buck! There you are! Aren’t you at work with Daddy? You’re not in uniform. What happened to your head? Are you okay? That bruise looks like it hurts.” Chris was reaching out, and Buck knew from experience Chris was going to grab the edges of the tablet screen. Then his whole view was pink and peach.

“Your hand is over the camera, superman.”

Oops!” Then he could see Chris again. He was a little too close to the camera in his enthusiasm, but Buck could at least see his whole face. “Hi, Buck!”

“Hey, kiddo. Take a deep breath, and I’ll answer all your questions.”

Chris took an exaggerated breath, but he was grinning happily.

“I’m fine; I just bumped my head at work on Friday. It’s a little sore if I touch it, but it doesn’t really hurt otherwise. I am not at work today, nor will I be at work on Friday, because I’m in Pennsylvania with my father.”

You went on a trip?” Chris frowned. “You didn’t say goodbye to me.”

“It was an emergency, and I had to leave almost right away. We made the reservations in the evening and left at six this morning, which meant we were at the airport by 4:30.”

We…?”

Buck hesitated. “Pepa came with me.”

Chris’ eyes got wide. “Tía Pepa is with you? Bucky… Are you in trouble?”

Buck laughed. “No, superman, I’m not in any trouble at all.”

Why’d you go away, then?”

Buck blew out a breath, not wanting to be deceitful or misleading. “This is rough kiddo, and I don’t want to lie to you.”

Then don’t. I’m ten, Buck. I don’t like it when people lie to me.

“I know you don’t.” Buck hesitated. “My mom died yesterday, and I came to be with my dad and help him.”

Buck,” Chris said softly. “Your mommy died? Was she in an accident?”

“No, Chris, she wasn’t in an accident. She had something called a stroke. Do you know what that is?”

I’ve heard people talk about it, and I know it’s about the brain, but that’s all.”

“It’s when you bleed into your brain. Sometimes it’s a little bleeding, and sometimes, it’s a lot of bleeding. My mom bled a lot very fast, and she died quickly.”

Do the doctors know why?”

“They do. It’s something we can talk about when I get home if that’s what you want. If you’re worried that I’ll have the same problem, I don’t have it.”

Christopher’s eyes looked a little wet as he nodded. “Are you sad?”

“Yeah, I am. It’s going to take a little while, I think, to get over feeling that way.”

Another nod was the answer. “We should be with you. You were with us for my mom’s funeral, and we’re your family.”

“Oh, kiddo, that’s sweet. I’d love to see you, but it’s a long way, and you’re just now eligible for your first COVID vaccine. Plane travel is so risky, and as much as this situation makes me sad, it’s not a fraction of how sad I’d be if you got sick.”

Buck…” Christopher teared up and wiped at his nose with his shirt sleeve. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Chris, more than anything.”

They talked for an hour. Buck dodged a few questions and refused to make false promises. As much as he wanted to commit that he’d spend all the time in the world with Chris when he got home, he had no substantive idea why he hadn’t been seeing Chris much lately, and too much of the answer lay with Eddie.

Despite the dodging and avoiding, he savored the time and how talking to Chris about simple things like homework and the kid drama at school made him feel emotionally recharged and able to face the next day.

 

Chapter Four

Eddie let himself into his abuela’s house close to on time. The shift had been pretty average, and he hadn’t needed to stay late. Christopher was already at school, so Eddie would usually be going home. Isabel, however, had instructed him to be at her house for breakfast so they could talk.

Abuela was just finishing setting out food on the smaller, more intimate kitchen table. It was chilaquiles, which was Eddie’s absolute favorite breakfast, and something he only got from her. As kids, she’d always indulged them by providing both red and green chili sauces because Eddie and Sophia preferred the red while Ramón and Adriana liked the green on breakfast dishes. Helena, no matter how many years passed, was never fond of Mexican dishes for breakfast. Eddie privately thought that’d made Isabel double down on making them traditional foods in the morning whenever she was around.

Today was just the red sauce, which he secretly thought was her preference as well, but she’d never outright stated it due to the ongoing Diaz family war over red versus green chilis.

Next to her place at the table was a Spanish-language romance novel…with two men on the front. He blinked a few times. “Abuela. Are you reading a gay romance?”

“I accept no judgment, Edmundo.” She set the book aside. “Gay romance tropes are just as silly and just as enjoyable. Why should men not have to be the damsel in distress?”

Eddie laughed as he washed his hands then pressed a kiss to her cheek. “We had a call at six this morning with a man stuck in a tree. Certainly, in my work, there’s no gender divide about who is in distress.” He considered. “Actually, it may be more men. They seem more inclined to idiocy.”

“Yes, Evanito has told me all about the strange places men like to put their…pene.”

Eddie choked on nothing. “Abuela!” He couldn’t believe Buck had told her about the dick calls.

“Pepa laughed until she cried. Now, sit. Have breakfast.”

He knew they had a difficult conversation coming but he let himself relax and began eating his eggs and tortilla chips absolutely smothered in red chili sauce. She made him an extra egg toward the end of the meal after observing him.

“Difficult shift?” she asked gently.

He gave a one-shouldered shrug. “No more so than usual.” He hesitated. “We have equipment and training to account for almost every kind of difficulty, but there are situations where having someone really strong just makes the situation easier.”

“Evan was missed?”

“Yeah, of course.” Eddie sighed. “And not just because he’s stronger than anyone else on A-shift, and so I’m more physically fatigued than I would be otherwise, but he also lightens the mood a lot of the time.” He rolled his bad shoulder, which still twinged a lot after a tiring day. “Jones is almost as strong as Buck, but the engine and the truck had separate calls a few times yesterday.”

He got to his feet and cleared away the dishes, loading the dishwasher with practiced ease.

“Leave the pans for later, Eddito. Come sit.”

Not sure he was ready for this, he reluctantly dried his hands and returned to the table.

“I want to tell you a little story about the summer after Shannon passed.”

Eddie’s brow furrowed, not expecting that conversational turn. “Okay.”

“It was one of those days where I had Christopher because Carla had a scheduling conflict. My hip was acting up and…” She was obviously hesitant about saying something. “I was tired and Chris needed help because he was sore from that physical therapist that you replaced the very next week.”

“I don’t remember this.”

“Because I didn’t call you; I called Buck.”

“What? No.” Eddie shook his head and did timeline math. “I remember that physical therapist and it was only a couple of months after the fire truck bombing. Buck wasn’t able to…”

“He was stuck at home and lonely, and he was eager to help. I only wanted advice from someone who could offer suggestions about how Christopher and I could manage on our own. Instead, Buck came over and even with his crutches and one leg in a monstrous brace, he gave Christopher piggyback rides all over the house and helped ease my burdens on a day when I was feeling poorly.”

“Abuela,” Eddie felt choked up, “why didn’t you say something?”

“What would I say? It was a bad day for me, but I don’t have many like that, and I treasure my time with Christopher.”

“I’m surprised Christopher didn’t say anything.”

“Ah, well. Christopher worried that you’d be sad that he got to see Buck when you didn’t. He confided in me that you obviously missed Buck a lot.”

Eddie just huffed a little at his son’s perceptiveness.

“Anytime I had Chris, I made sure to invite Buck over to help me around the house. Buck was sensitive to doing any end runs around you in regards to who saw your son—”

“I would never keep Chris from Buck.” Eddie shook his head then rubbed his forehead. “Until I did. Which was never my intent.”

She reached out for his hand, giving it a squeeze. “Let me finish, Nieto. Buck also just came to see me. And then he started spending time with Pepa as well. He would help me around the house, looking for anything to do to keep busy. Pepa’s place too.”

“Why didn’t you ever say that you were spending so much time with him?”

“First off, my friendships aren’t really your business unless I want them to be, Edmundo” she rebuked softly.

He held his hands up in a placating gesture. “Message received, Abuela.”

“Second, in part it was for Christopher. He wasn’t able to see Buck anywhere near as much as he wanted, and there didn’t seem a point in saying that I was seeing him almost every day.”

“Every day?”

“Nearly, yes. I knew it would diminish when he went back to work, perhaps even stop, but he made a point not to vanish from my life.” She hesitated. “After he had that terrible dinner where he found out that your captain was responsible for keeping him from returning to work, Buck nearly filed a lawsuit.”

Eddie’s eyes widened. “Really? You mean, more than the grievance he filed with the union?”

“Yes. With some ambulance-chaser of a lawyer he met at work. Pepa talked him into consulting a friend of hers, who is an employment attorney rather than the con artist he had been considering. Emilio said that Buck had a case on many fronts, including discrimination, wrongful termination, and something else I can’t quite remember.”

“Termination? Buck was never fired.”

“I can’t remember the term Emilio used, but if it’s made such that it’s impossible for him to do the job he was hired to do, it’s effectively termination, or some such.” She made a dismissive gesture. “Putting a man with blood clots at a desk? What foolishness. If Buck had gone that route and thrown another clot, there’d be a case for endangerment too, no?”

“I guess…” Eddie considered for a few seconds because he’d never considered that the department was moving Buck into a more detrimental job. “So, he went to the union instead?” They’d all been grilled by the LAFD brass and union investigators along with Buck’s attorney. It’d been like having their lives and the way the station ran turned inside out. There had been more than a few bitter feelings from many of the people on the shift. Eddie’d had no idea Pepa and Abuela were behind all that.

The LAFD brass had insisted Eddie get additional therapy around Shannon’s death, so Eddie had been a little cranky on the subject for a while. In fact, most of the shift had wound up in therapy due to the bombing, which Eddie could now admit wasn’t a bad idea, though he’d been resentful at the time.

“Emilio said starting with the union was the right course, even though Buck loathed his union rep.”

“Why did Buck hate our rep?”

“That’s a different story that he should tell you himself. Ask him sometime. Because that man caused Buck and untold others to avoid going to the union for assistance. Buck could have damaged his own career trying to avoid him. But he’s since been fired because Emilio made sure all the bad acts were brought to light.”

He mentally filed it away. The investigation by the LAFD and the union had been rough for him personally, though most of the shift hadn’t been as put out. Chim and Hen had been upset because Bobby was called on the carpet, but ultimately it was the best thing for Bobby too. He nodded for her to continue.

“You were very upset during that time, Eddito, and no one wanted to make your burden more difficult by making you think we were taking sides, especially since there were no sides. You and Evan were victims of the same terrible situation and your captain’s guilt and self-loathing were hurting all of you.”

Eddie dragged his hand over his face and nodded. He was long familiar with Isabel and Pepa’s opinion about Bobby’s handling of things after the bombing. About him pushing Buck away while letting everyone else pretend nothing had happened. At the time, Eddie had been upset about having the department all up in his issues around Shannon and the bombing, forcing him into more therapy, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

At the end of the investigation, Bobby had been suspended for a month and forced to get some retraining and counseling. Bobby’s suspension had coincided with Buck’s return to work while Chim was acting captain. Chim had been behaving like such an ass to Buck in retaliation for Bobby that it jolted Eddie out of his own frustration and probably kept him from saying or doing something that might have damaged their friendship. Even Hen had thought Chim was being a dick.

It was Buck’s second shift back when Chim was again acting like a petty tyrant toward him as punishment for Bobby’s suspension, when Chim had been caught unaware by being observed by the battalion chief, Chief Haight, and promptly caught himself the dressing down of his life. After which, the entire shift had been informed that the sort of bullying Chim had been engaging in wouldn’t be tolerated, and an outsider was brought in to cover for Bobby’s term of suspension. The chief had made it clear multiple times that Bobby’s suspension was for cause—specifically, for circumventing department policies for his own personal reasons regarding Buck’s return to work.

Buck and Chim had talked it all out in private, though Eddie had never known what was said. Buck had just said it was behind them and they were moving on. Eddie had just been weirdly grateful that Chim had been such an ass because it kept him from acting like one toward Buck about the whole union investigation and being forced into therapy over Shannon’s death.

But he’d certainly never known about Pepa and Isabel’s involvement in the whole thing behind the scenes. “I knew you saw Buck sometimes, but I’m just surprised it’s been so…much.”

“Does that bother you?”

He shook his head. “Not in the way you probably mean. I just feel out of the loop and worried that you all thought you couldn’t tell me.”

Her lips pursed for a few seconds. “Pepa and I see you struggle and want to do more to help, but there’s little we can do about the things that eat at you from the inside. There are things you’ve been through that we cannot possibly understand, but overbearing parents? Well, that I can understand. Ramón and Helena are difficult, and I see how their expectations weigh on you even when you want to pretend they don’t.”

He did want to pretend his parents’ expectations didn’t matter. “And Buck? Why wouldn’t he tell me about the time he spent with you?”

“Ah, Evan. He is very insecure about some things, no? Especially about his place in people’s lives. He is very confident about many things, but the people he cares about, in his words, always leave him behind.”

Eddie frowned. “So, he worries you two are going to leave him behind if I know?”

“Not Pepa and me, Eddie. And I doubt it’s so well-formed a thought. It’s more that he’s careful not to ever upset the status quo with you. He takes as much as you’re willing to give and tries not to ask for more. He backs off and doesn’t resist when you pull away. He always lets you take the lead because he’s desperately afraid interpersonal conflict will result in losing you.” She smiled sadly. “Though, again, I doubt he’s thought about it so clearly.”

Eddie stared at the table, trying to piece things together. “You asked me to think during my shift, and I feel like I’ve got all these bits and pieces, but I don’t yet understand what picture they make.”

“You and Buck became good friends very quickly.”

Eddie nodded. “I’ve never had such a good friend in my life.”

“And he says the same about you. You had bumps with the bombing and the events afterward, but you two kept growing closer. Best friends. Until the start of the pandemic.”

Eddie shook his head. “The pandemic didn’t hurt our friendship, Abuela.”

“I know. But to everyone else, it started looking like much more than a friendship.”

Eddie jerked in his seat. “What?”

“You three looked like a family, Eddie.”

“We are family.”

“Don’t be obtuse,” she chided gently. “For nearly a year, did you two even have a day apart? Once you were able to be in your own home again, did Chris go a day without his Buck other than your shift days?”

“No…?” It hadn’t felt like an odd change. They were all stuck in smaller units than usual with no ability to do their normal social activities.

“I gather that Buck now thinks you brought him so close to you for Christopher’s benefit.”

Eddie blinked a few times. “What?”

“Buck would do anything for Christopher, even let you pull him close to keep Christopher’s world as big as possible only to then push him away again when he’s no longer needed.”

Eddie pushed back in his chair as if physical distance could remove himself from the reality of that idea. “That’s not what happened!”

“Isn’t it?”

“No!” Eddie dragged his hands through his hair. “Things got busy. I started seeing Ana, and it wound up being more difficult than I expected…”

“And you’re not the sort of man who can have time for a friend and a girlfriend, I understand.”

“Abuela, you know that’s not true.”

“Edmundo, think,” she said gently.

“He started dating again too!” Eddie said defensively.

“Yes, because he got tired of sitting at home alone all the time after he’d spent every day for over a year with you.”

Eddie’s mind was spinning, trying to put more pieces into his puzzle.

Abuela came around the table and took the chair closer to Eddie so she could take his hand. “For several months, even through some very difficult times for Evan, you kept him at arm’s length while you tried to force that relationship with the muffin woman.”

Eddie snorted. “Dios, don’t call her that.”

“Eh. I’ll all her what I like; I helped clean your kitchen.” She sniffed disdainfully.

Eddie had to concede the point.

“Then you were nearly taken from us by that sniper, Nieto, and the only person you wanted was your Buck.”

“He makes me feel…” He frowned. Buck made him feel safe.

She patted his knee. “You pulled him close again for two months and then pushed him back away.”

“He was with Taylor.”

“Which means what? When has he ever not had time for you? Or Christopher? Taylor works constantly, and Evan certainly has plenty of time for the rest of us. And even if she weren’t a workaholic, focused on her career, Evan can balance a relationship and a friendship.”

“But you’re saying that I can’t?”

She gave him a disappointed look. “Is that what I’m saying, Eddie?”

He frowned and thought it through. “Just tell me the point you’re trying to make, Abuela.”

“Answer the question first. Why have you been pushing Evan away from you?”

“I haven’t!” He swallowed heavily, feeling the lie on his tongue. “That wasn’t my intention, I just…” He took a deep breath, and blurted out, “I was going to lose him anyway.”

She gave him a sad look. “Why? Because he can’t be your friend if he has someone else in his life?”

And everything snapped into focus. “Ay Dios.” Eddie could barely take a breath. “I’m in love with Buck.” Then he couldn’t believe that had come out of his mouth. He also couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed sooner.

Isabel squeezed his hand, smiling softly. “Now you see.” Then her smile turned wry. “Though I was expecting a little more…what do they call it? Gay panic?”

Eddie huffed. “This is what those reading choices are doing to your brain. And I have no idea what they call it but, regardless, I’m not struggling with internalized homophobia, Abuela.” He frowned. “I’m not sure what I’m struggling with, to be honest. I’m so profoundly sure I love him that I can’t believe I didn’t notice, but I’m also not actually sure I want to have sex with a man.”

“It will sort itself out—if you two communicate.”

All of Buck’s actions, especially since Eddie started dating, suddenly had a different look to them. “He loves me too, doesn’t he?” It wasn’t the joyful, comforting thought that it should be. Instead, it felt a bit wounding.

“Ah, Nieto… A blind man in space could see how much Evan loves you.”

Eddie squeezed his eyes shut.

“Is that so terrible?”

“No. Yes.” Eddie met her sympathetic gaze. “I must have hurt him so badly.”

She lifted one shoulder in a non-committal response. “He wants nothing for you but happiness, even if that means the muffin woman. True love is selfless, yes? But I never saw happiness with her anymore than he did. I saw artifice; I saw you forcing yourself. Why, Eddie?”

“It seemed like what I was supposed to do.” He had no other answer. The expectations of others had felt like an albatross his entire life. There was more there he needed to think about—to talk about—but it wasn’t his pressing concern.

Her delicate hand touched his cheek. “Have you heard my nickname for Evan?”

Cielito?”

She nodded.

It meant little sky. “I’ve heard it a couple of times, but I have no idea why you call him that.”

“When I was a little girl in Mexico, my father would talk and talk about how we were moving to America someday and how we’d have a better life here. We were very poor in material possessions, but we lived in a beautiful area, and we were always wealthy in the love of our family. My favorite thing to do would be to lie on the grass and stare up at the blue sky and dream of all the wonderful possibilities that awaited us. No matter where life took us, through good times and bad, I’d always return to staring up at the sky and seeing the endless possibilities that life held.

“When Ramón and Pepa were babies, I’d lay in the hammock in the backyard and point out all the possibilities the sky held and wish for so many things for them. They grew up and had rewarding lives and gave me grandbabies, and then I had great-grandbabies. Life has always been so wonderful for me, Edmundo.”

She squeezed his hands again. “Then one day, you introduced me to this gringo after I broke my hip. And he was pretty enough, even to an old lady like me, so I was put out that I was not looking my best, but I forgave you for the lack of warning. Then the next day, he came back with a bouquet of white and pink daisies, speaking broken Spanish in this Peruvian Coastal dialect that had me so incredibly curious.

“He stayed and kept me company, telling me silly stories about rich tourists in Peru.” She shook her head, smiling fondly. “Well, over time, I started to see something new. A little slice of the sky, Eddie. Endless possibilities…for you and for Christopher; a chance for happiness. And whether his path takes him to you or somewhere else, I always look at Evan and see possibilities. He’s a little bit of the sky.”

Eddie’s throat felt tight with emotion, and he swallowed it back. “Abuela, where’s Buck?”

Her lips pursed briefly. “He wanted me to tell you rather than his captain breaking the news. I think he has great love for Captain Nash, but his confidence has perhaps been shaken lately, and he wanted you to hear this from someone he trusts. Also, I should tell you that Christopher spoke to Buck last night, and Buck told him the truth about why he was gone. He was careful in his word choice, but he was honest.”

It couldn’t be too bad because Buck would never tell Chris anything too adult without running it by Eddie first. Eddie nodded encouragingly.

Her delicate hand touched his cheek. “Eddie… Buck’s mother died the day before yesterday. He flew to Pennsylvania before your shift ever began.”

~*~

Eddie listened to Chris’ happy chatter as he followed Chris into the house. He loved Christopher so freaking much, and just the fact that his son had a good day at school made Eddie’s world better. However, they had a potentially difficult conversation ahead of them, and Eddie was dreading it a little.

Christopher immediately noticed the packed duffel bag near the door and made a wobbly pivot to face Eddie, expression pinched. “Dad?”

“Let’s go in the living room and talk, mijo.”

Instead of moving, Chris looked at the bag and then back at Eddie, brow furrowed. “Are you going to be with Buck?”

Eddie’s brows shot up. “I am.” Eddie had spent the day making arrangements, too busy even to give himself much time alone with his thoughts. He’d known from the minute he’d heard the news that he needed to be with Buck. Between Maddie being gone, Buck’s complex relationship with his parents, and breaking up with Taylor, Eddie knew this was probably hitting Buck even harder than it would otherwise. That Pepa had gone along was a bit of a surprise, but it didn’t negate the fact that Eddie himself needed to be there.

“Good.” Chris gave a sharp nod and pivoted again to head to the living room. “We should talk.”

Under other circumstances, Eddie would have laughed at Christopher’s adult tone, but he just followed Chris in to take a seat on the couch, wondering what was on his son’s mind.

Chris got settled and gave Eddie a serious look. “I have some drawings for Buck. You’ll take them with you?”

“Of course.” Eddie was glad Chris had been drawing more lately. Chris had always been interested in art, but he hit a phase recently where he felt it was too childish for some reason. Buck had stepped in and changed the medium, getting Chris different paper and watercolor brush pens to experiment with. Chris had loved it, feeling it was more grown-up and artistic. He’d jumped back into drawing with enthusiasm as he learned to work with the pens. The evidence of Buck’s impact on their life was truly everywhere.

“Who am I staying with?” Chris asked.

“You’re going to stay with Bobby and Athena tonight. Then maybe Carla if she can swing it but, if not, Bobby and Athena will probably keep you again or take you to Abuela’s. I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone, but I’ll be working out the details through the rest of the afternoon before I leave and following up tomorrow after I arrive.”

Bobby had been supportive of Eddie’s plans and had offered to drive him to the airport as well. He needed to be there around 10:30, so he’d still be able to put Chris to bed at Bobby and Athena’s place. Flights were unbelievably cheap due to pandemic issues, and even getting a last-minute flight and paying for upgraded economy with more leg room hadn’t been very expensive. His flight left at a minute to midnight and he’d be in Pennsylvania just before lunchtime tomorrow. Pepa knew he was coming and was pleased with his decision. She had promised not to tell Buck.

He’d considered cautioning Christopher not to tell anyone why he was gone or where Buck was—since Buck had kept it secret from the shift—but Abuela had been adamant that it wasn’t what Buck would want, that he didn’t like putting the burden of secrets on Christopher’s shoulders. And Buck himself hadn’t asked that Chris keep it secret despite knowing Chris routinely saw Harry and Denny.

“You’re okay with this?” Eddie asked.

“I wanted us both to go, but Buck explained why I shouldn’t be on a plane yet, and he doesn’t deserve extra worry right now.” Chris’ lips pursed in displeasure. “But you should definitely be there. He lost his mommy. Even if she wasn’t very nice to him all the time, it still hurts.”

“Oh, Christopher.” Eddie wasn’t even sure what to say. “How’d I get such a great kid?”

Christopher met his gaze, expression serious, then patted Eddie’s hand. “I guess someone thinks you deserve good things, Dad.”

Eddie blinked.

“You should try believing it.”

“You trying to tell me something, mijo?”

Christopher just climbed into Eddie’s lap and held on tightly. Eddie’s throat felt tight, and he wasn’t even sure why.

~*~

Eddie had learned during his military service to sleep when and where he could, even if that was on a plane. Commercial planes were easier to sleep on than military transport, so while he was tired when he arrived in Harrisburg, he wasn’t exhausted.

During parts of the flight and his layover, his mind had skittered over the whole “gay” question Abuela had obliquely put out there, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Eddie knew enough to know there was a lot he didn’t know, so he had more questions than answers on the subject.

However, right now, Buck was what was important. Buck needed to know Eddie was there for him and just how important he was. That he was a vital part of the Diaz family. Eddie was determined to figure out what came next in their relationship with Buck’s input since Eddie had so colossally fucked things up making decisions on his own.

He’d also had a long conversation with Bobby after Chris went to bed—the conversation had also continued on the way to the airport—that gave him plenty to occupy his thoughts. Bobby had revealed why Buck had declined to allow the shift to know why he was taking time off, at least until he was ready to return to California. Though Buck had always known there was a possibility the nature of his absence would get out since he was officially noted with HR as being gone for bereavement leave.

Eddie completely understood his reasoning. Chim would show up if he thought Maddie might be there, and Hen would be hard to persuade to keep the information to herself. Buck didn’t deserve to have to face Chim for the first time since the assault over his mother’s grave.

Outside of the airport, he was confronted with the first major problem: the fucking temperature in Pennsylvania. The high was expected to be a whopping thirty-six degrees. Eddie wasn’t built for that shit. El Paso occasionally had some wretchedly cold winter days, but it wasn’t the norm, and it certainly wasn’t typical in LA.

He pulled his jacket tighter around him, grabbed his bag and headed for the taxi stand. It was about a twenty-minute ride to the address Pepa had provided him, and he caught up on text messages during the cab ride to Buck’s childhood home. It was getting close to nine in the morning back in California, so Chris was already in school. Carla couldn’t stay with Chris overnight on short notice, but Bobby and Athena were happy to have him until Eddie got home.

Pepa was currently out with Philip Buckley, meeting with the director of a funeral home to make arrangements for Margaret’s funeral. Apparently, Buck had planned to go, but Pepa had gently nudged the two men apart because things had been silent and awkward. Pepa had texted that the two Buckleys needed space where they could experience their own emotions.

Buck was at the house packing up his dead mother’s clothes, which was at Philip’s request. Eddie found that mildly horrifying for some reason. Pepa added that she’d limited Buck to doing the closet only because no son needed to go through his mother’s drawers—she planned to do that herself later.

As much as Eddie hated the rift that had formed between him and Buck, which had resulted in Buck not even telling him about something so tragic, he was desperately grateful that his tía had made this trip to support Buck.

The taxi driver began pointing out things of interest, and Eddie feigned attention. Hershey had a quaint, small-town vibe that belied its actual size. Not that 15,000 was a huge population, but it was larger than the charming tone of the town implied. To Eddie, it seemed a little contrived and chocolate focused. Chris would probably get a kick out of all the chocolate crap, but Eddie barely liked sweets most of the time, so the touristy aspects of the town were lost on him.

He absentmindedly answered questions as they neared the destination. When he said he was in town for a funeral, the driver got quiet. Eddie didn’t bother trying to stir up the conversation again.

In a few minutes, he was left at the end of the drive of a big, two-story house. It was a very pale yellow with a big yard and an actual white picket fence. It screamed upper-middle class to Eddie, but Buck had always described their upbringing as middle class.

Eddie felt the cold air biting at his cheeks as he headed to the front door. He rang the bell and then knocked briskly.

He heard Buck’s voice call out from somewhere upstairs, “Coming! Give me a second!” about a minute before the door opened. And then his best friend was there, looking a little pale with his hair untamed, but he was whole and obviously shocked speechless, eyes wide as he took in Eddie standing on the stoop. The bruise stood out in vivid relief on Buck’s forehead, making Eddie wince internally.

The cold wind picked up and caused Eddie to shiver and pull his coat shut tightly at his throat to stop the air from getting to any more of him than it already had. “Can I come in?”

Buck stumbled back without saying a word, door wide open. Eddie stepped in and let his duffel fall from his shoulder.

Buck’s wide blue eyes were fixed on him as Eddie gently pushed the door closed with a soft snick. “Eds?”

“Hey,” Eddie said gently. He swallowed heavily. “I am so, so sorry, Evan.” For so many things, Eddie mentally added.

Buck’s eyes filled with tears and his chin trembled.

Eddie didn’t stop to think about it, he just stepped close and pulled Buck into his arms. Buck didn’t even hesitate, he just folded himself into Eddie like he was trying to burrow inside, clinging so tightly that Eddie wondered how he could have confused any of this for platonic.

Eddie carded his fingers into Buck’s soft, ungelled hair and whispered, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me.”

A harsh, grating sob was torn from Buck, and Eddie held him even tighter as he began to cry out all the misery and pain he’d been holding onto. Eddie pressed a kiss to his temple, murmuring soft reassurances as he swayed gently from side to side, letting Buck take whatever he needed.

 

Chapter Five

Somehow, they wound up on the couch.

Buck couldn’t recall the journey there or really anything much after he’d seen Eddie standing on the porch. Eddie being there had hit him like a ton of bricks, and he couldn’t have stopped the crying if he’d tried. After the initial meltdown with Isabel and Pepa, Buck had felt more emotionally desolate than sad, but seeing Eddie had caused every emotion he’d been pushing aside to come rushing back with tidal force.

Now, they were curled up on the sofa, Buck leaning against Eddie’s chest, and that was not something they usually did. He should pull away—he should—but he didn’t want to.

“How are you here?” he finally managed to get out.

Eddie’s lips pressed to his temple, and that really wasn’t something they did. “Abuela said you knew she was going to tell me.”

Buck’s hand fisted in Eddie’s sweater. It was one of Buck’s favorites. Cream-colored and soft, and it clung to Eddie perfectly. “Yeah, but that didn’t mean you were going to jump on a plane to Pennsylvania.”

Eddie blew out a breath. “Of course it did, and I’ve really fucked up the last nine months if you didn’t already know that.”

Breath catching, Buck could only manage, “Eds…”

“Shh. We’ll talk, I promise. Whatever you want, whenever you want, but nothing is more important right now than whatever you need to get you through this. I’m here to support you, Buck, that’s all.”

Buck felt his eyes stinging again in an alarming way. “My mom’s gone.”

“I know. I’m so sorry.”

“She and I never worked anything out, and now we never can.” He hesitated. “I’m not even sure I wanted to, but…”

“Now there’s no more chance?”

“Yeah.” Buck sniffled, fighting back more tears. “I’m so mad at her, and that seems unfair.”

“Your reasons for being angry with her were valid while she was alive, and that doesn’t change because she died,” Eddie said gently.

“I know it in my head, but it seems petty to be angry at a woman who died much too young.”

“You’re allowed to be angry, Buck. Or sad or whatever else you feel. It’s probably going to be a whole lot of things.”

Buck nodded against Eddie’s chest, the surrealness of the situation hitting him again.

“You can say anything you want, you know? I’m not going to judge you for how you feel. And maybe it will help you to get it off your chest.”

“I hate being here,” he blurted out then bit his lip in consternation.

Eddie snorted, arms tightening fractionally, the hand on his back traveling in soothing circles. “I’d be worried about you if you didn’t.”

“I hate being in this house and being reminded of how stiff and uncomfortable it always was.” He took a shuddery breath. “And I’m really, really upset at Maddie,” he whispered like it was a shameful secret.

“You’re allowed to be mad at whoever you want to be mad at. Wasn’t it you who said that one of the things you learned in therapy was that emotions weren’t right or wrong they just were, it was what you chose to do about those emotions that mattered?”

Buck nodded.

“You want to tell me why you’re upset with Maddie?”

“I know her head isn’t a fun place to be right now, I know she needed to get help, but I thought for sure she’d reply if I really needed her. And I know this situation now is about Mom and Dad, but I still need her. And then I got to thinking… What if I were seriously injured at work? Would anyone be able to reach her? The more time passes without any word, the angrier I get.”

He turned to press his face against Eddie’s chest. “I’m so fucking furious at her and Chimney for treating her PPD like it was some shameful thing that needed to be kept secret until she spiraled out of control in the dark without any real support.” He squeezed his eyes shut and forced back the low-simmer anger that he’d been struggling with for weeks now in regards to Chimney.

“You’re allowed to be pissed, Buck. You’ve been pushing that down a lot, pretending like you weren’t.”

“Everyone wanted everything to go back to normal.”

“Did they? Or is that what you assumed everyone wanted?”

Buck frowned.

Eddie’s hand continued the hypnotic stroking on Buck’s back that he could easily become addicted to. “If we could rewind time, yes, it would be great if things could go back to how they were.” Eddie paused. “Before Ana.”

Buck’s breath caught in his throat.

“And we can talk about that when you’re ready but, for me, when it comes to Chimney, wishing things could be how they were means that I wish he’d never hit you, not that I don’t want there to be consequences.”

Buck squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to cry again.

“I wish we could go back and find out that Maddie was struggling and get her help, but wishing for that doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to be hurt that your sister left the way she did.” Eddie’s fingers carded through Buck’s hair. “It doesn’t mean that I want you to pretend that you’re not wounded that you’re here, in this place full of painful memories, struggling with your mother’s death without Maddie by your side.”

The crying this time was uglier. Buck couldn’t seem to get control of his emotions anymore. Having someone closely involved in all of this acknowledge that Buck wasn’t in the wrong, tore something loose, and the pain rattled around inside of him, demanding a way out.

~*~

Buck woke in his bed, head aching in a way that was more from crying than head injury. The light through the window indicated it was getting closer to the dinner hour, and he’d probably been asleep for a good three hours or more. He hadn’t slept well in days, so it wasn’t surprising that he’d passed out given the opportunity.

He only vaguely remembered Eddie helping him upstairs after the meltdown from hell. His cheeks heated with embarrassment at breaking down so completely in front of Eddie not once but twice.

There was a glass of water by the bed, a couple of Tylenol, and a note that just read “kitchen” in Eddie’s blocky print. Buck took the cues for what they were and did as directed, heading downstairs after a trip to the bathroom. He refused to look at himself in the mirror since he knew how he carried tears around for hours afterward in the redness of his eyes and the pallor of his skin.

He was surprised to find just Eddie in the kitchen, sliding something in the oven as Buck walked in. There was no sign of Pepa or Philip.

Buck cleared his throat to get Eddie’s attention. “Sorry about—”

“No.” Eddie held up a hand. “There might be something in the last few days for you to apologize to me over, but it sure the hell isn’t going to be any of the things about to come out of your mouth. So…no. You do not apologize for that.”

He pulled his lower lip between his teeth briefly but then nodded, not sure how to feel about any of it.

“Dinner will be about an hour. Pepa had already prepped that enchilada bake you like so much. She and your dad were here for a bit, but she encouraged him to accept the invitation to have dinner with a friend of his. She went along for support and probably to keep bossing him around. It’s obvious that he’s struggling to be in the house.”

Buck glanced around. “Yeah. He’s not even sleeping in their bedroom. That’s why Pepa suggested we go ahead and pack her clothes and get them in the garage. When we arrived, he’d apparently just been sitting with a pile of her clean laundry that she hadn’t put away yet from the morning she died.” He sighed. “They were always so enmeshed. I don’t know how he’s going to handle living here alone without her.”

“He may not be able to.” Eddie moved closer. “How’s your head? The color’s really vivid.”

“A little achy, but it’s not too bad as long as I don’t touch it.” The bruises were mostly red and purple the last time Buck had looked. “Did Dad decide on anything about the service?”

Eddie nodded. “He heard from the hospital while they were out. Cause of death will be confirmed by morning. If it’s what they suspect, they’ll release her body right away. After discussion with the funeral home, Philip decided to have her cremated and her ashes interred at the cemetery they’d picked out. There’s going to be a small service at the funeral home for only those closest to them on Friday, and the funeral home has a package he opted for to do a larger memorial service over video at a later date. Probably in a week or two. Apparently your mother had a wide but not very close social circle.”

Buck nodded, not sure what to say.

“He said if you disagreed with any of this that he’d change it.”

“Why would I ask him to change anything?” Buck was utterly befuddled by the idea that he’d have any input on his mother’s funeral arrangements.

“He made the offer.” Looking sad, Eddie shrugged one shoulder. “He seems a little lost.”

Buck nodded and fiddled with the hem of his sweatshirt. “I can’t think about Margaret’s funeral right now.” He blew out a breath. “Can we talk?”

“Whatever you want, Buck—I meant that.”

“I mean about us.”

Eddie blinked a few times. “We can have that conversation whenever you’re ready, but you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, and—”

“Yeah, but, Eddie, you and Chris are my world, and feeling like I was losing that was…awful. I can’t not know what’s going on. What would make all this,” Buck gestured vaguely at the house, “easier is knowing where we are, knowing that we’re going to be okay.”

Eddie briefly looked pained. “You weren’t losing us, Buck, and I’m truly sorry for everything I did that made you feel that way. We should have talked a long time ago; I got really in my head about a lot of things.”

Buck gave a jerky nod of acceptance, not sure what to say yet.

“Where do you want to do this?”

“I guess here.” Buck blew out a breath. “I hate the rest of this house, but there aren’t a lot of negative memories of the kitchen.” He headed toward the refrigerator. “I’m not up for beer, but you can if you want…?”

“No, whatever you’re having is fine.”

Buck got them both a glass of tea, then settled at the kitchen table across from Eddie. He glanced around the kitchen, finding it the least-changed room in the house. “After Maddie left for college, I always ate in here. Well, unless we had company and my mother required me at the dinner table. Sometimes, I’d get frustrated because it was lonely always being here by myself, but then I’d endure a meal with my parents in the dining room, under their scrutiny and feeling inadequate. Then I’d be grateful that I got to have most of my meals away from…that.”

Eddie took a drink of the tea then huffed out a breath. “I think I should have had the beer.”

“It’s fine, Eds.”

“It’s not, but I’m glad this room doesn’t have a lot of negative associations if we’re going to have a difficult conversation.”

Buck nodded then decided to just dive in. “What’s going on? You’re here, you’re suddenly communicating with me, and we were, um… Well,” Buck rubbed the back of his neck, feeling foolishly awkward. “Not that I mind—at all—but we’ve never really done a lot of cuddling.”

“I’d like to think if you ever needed me to hold you during one of the worst times of your life that I’d have stepped up to the plate, but I get your point.”

“Eddie,” Buck huffed, cheeks hot. “I don’t have any idea—”

“I messed up. So badly that when your mother died, you didn’t feel like you could tell me. That’s on me, Buck. I get it, okay? And I do realize this goes all the way back to Ana.”

Buck felt his cheeks get even hotter and looked down at the table, feeling like Eddie was seeing something Buck had convinced himself that Eddie was oblivious to.

“I thought it was what I was supposed to do,” Eddie continued. “There were all these voices in my head, and expectations from others and that I’d put on myself. And then there she was, ticking so many boxes, and I just grabbed on and held her in front of me like….”

“A shield?” Buck supplied.

“I guess. Her presence got everyone to back off about me getting back out there, and asking about my dating life, and my parents saying Chris needed a mom, and Bobby thinking I needed to move on.” Eddie briefly squeezed his eyes shut. “It wasn’t fair to any of us, but I really foolishly thought I was only impacting myself.” He gives a mirthless laugh. “Though that should have been obviously false when my son ran away to you.”

Buck winced. “Eds…”

“I have never, not even once, been anything but grateful that he feels so safe with you, so please don’t go anywhere negative with that. I mentioned it illustratively. I was clearly more reacting than thinking.”

“And if you had been thinking…?” Buck prodded gently.

Eddie met his gaze squarely. “I would have seen that I already had a family, that I already had moved on with my life, that Chris had another parent he loved with his whole heart, that we had everything we needed. Most relevant to this conversation is that I was happy with the way things were. You and I should have stopped and talked about what was going on and what it all meant long before I started trying to please everyone else.” He shook his head. “I still don’t know what it all means, to be honest, and I’m not sure I could completely reconstruct my fear and insecurity from nine months ago to make sense of it now. I know some things, but there are two of us, and I’ve hurt you a lot.”

“I could have done more. Tried to talk it out rather than just retreat,” Buck admitted.

“I don’t know, Buck; it seems like you tried pretty hard to do whatever I asked. You only really got in my face when I made it clear that I didn’t want to be with Ana.” Eddie blew out a breath. “A few things before we dive in: first, I encouraged Chimney to go after your sister long before I knew he’d hit you. And my advice to him was based on my own regrets about not going after Shannon when she first left. The situations aren’t remotely the same, but I couldn’t see that at the time. Also, I never thought he’d take Jee with him, and certainly not for this long.

“When that conversation happened at the station where everyone admitted that they’d encouraged Chim to follow Maddie, I wanted to tell you I thought the whole thing was shitty; I wanted to say that Chim shouldn’t be back on our shift; In fact, if it were completely up to me, he wouldn’t be allowed within visual distance of your sister. But I didn’t say that because I was trying to support what I thought you wanted.”

Buck felt the emotions starting to get to him again and had to bite his lip for a few seconds. “You really are okay with him not being on shift?”

“Yeah, of course, Buck. I was dreading having to pretend to be okay with it, but I’d have done it. For you.”

“Maybe…” Buck took a steadying breath. “Maybe we should work on not doing so many unhealthy things trying to support each other…?”

Eddie gave a startled laugh. “Yeah, all right.”

“You said first thing?”

“Right. Second, I deeply, deeply regret not bringing you home with me after that shift from hell on Friday. I wanted you there, but I’ve been kind of an idiot since you started dating Taylor. Which brings me to the third thing, I am sorry your relationship with Taylor ended because I don’t think it’s something you’re happy about.”

“You’ve never really liked her,” Buck said softly.

“No, but I’d have put on a good front.”

“Why have you been so weird, Eds? Since I started dating her, really.”

“You’re being nice and not saying it was before that, but we can talk first about just the Taylor weirdness,” Eddie replied in a self-deprecating tone. “Bluntly and as honest as I can be, Buck, I hated sharing you with her. I’d convinced myself I was going to lose you anyway, so I might as well get used to being without you.”

Buck’s brows drew together. “I’d have never—”

“I know, Buck. It was never about you.” Eddie’s expression turned sad. “The last thing is related to what I just said: I don’t know how to make up for Ana—for bringing her into our whole situation. I don’t know how to go about fixing that I changed everything without talking to you. How did I not see what was already there?”

It felt like Buck could barely breathe because they’d been dancing around this, but he wasn’t sure if they were really saying the same thing or not. “What was there, Eddie?”

Eddie looked rock solid, like he was supremely confident, but Buck knew him well enough to see the cracks in the armor, to see how deeply worried he was. “You love me, and I love you. I don’t know the full scope of that, but we both deserved to talk about it rather than for me to pretend like what we’d built had never happened.”

Buck blinked furiously, staring at the tabletop again, refusing to cry about this, the thing he’d wanted for so long. He wanted to ask why, but Eddie had already explained why. Buck just hadn’t had time to really internalize it all yet. It always took Buck a while to process things like that.

Eventually, he met Eddie’s pained gaze, finally seeing the love there but also a deep regret. “Eddie,” Buck said softly, not sure what else to say.

“Is it too late? Can we at least finally talk about it?”

Buck shook his head, realizing at Eddie’s pained expression that he needed real words. “It’s not too late.”

It was Eddie’s smile this time that was a little tremulous as he reached out a hand in offering. Buck bridged the distance and took the proffered hand. In companionable silence, they held hands over the kitchen table where Buck had spent so many solitary moments in his life.

~*~

By mutual agreement, they tabled the relationship talk while they ate dinner and discussed a few logistics. Over the meal, Eddie had filled him in about the changes at the station with the new paramedic. Buck knew he had to let go of the feelings of guilt that Chimney was not coming back to A-shift. He didn’t want to work with Chimney anyway, he’d just thought he’d have to leave the station to accomplish it.

Buck then relayed the reason for his breakup with Taylor and that there was no chance of reconciliation. Eddie was visibly trying to keep his temper about the deception, but he was supportive. His opinion of her would clearly never improve now, but he promised to keep the reasons for the breakup to himself and Isabel. The station gossips didn’t need to know why Buck’s relationship had imploded.

He also promised to try not to be a dick about Buck and Taylor remaining friends, though Buck would believe that when he saw it. In the short term, it would obviously be hard because Eddie was taking the deception from Taylor harder than Buck was.

When the meal was consumed, they did the dishes together with the same easy rhythm as they always had back home. It was comforting how easily they fell back into sync with one another despite everything that felt like it was driving them apart.

By unspoken agreement, they moved back to the couch, and Buck had had enough time to percolate on what was said earlier. “I need more clarity about this,” he blurted out.

“Okay,” Eddie said gently. “What do you need to know?”

“I’m in love with you, Eddie. I’ve been trying to put that away so I could move on, but it is what it is.” He figured you could love more than one person since he’d had no problem having his love for Eddie co-exist with his growing love for Taylor. He’d just needed to try to shelve the feelings for Eddie for his own sake. “When you say you love me, what is it that you mean?”

“I’m in love with you too.”

Buck felt like his strings had been cut, and he reached blindly for Eddie’s hand, holding on to it like a lifeline. “Then why are we approaching this thing we pretty much already had like it’s a bomb about to go off?”

“Because I’m…” Eddie licked his lips, obviously nervous about something. “I’m not sure I want to have sex.”

Buck blinked a few times, waiting for the rest.

Eddie watched him closely, then finally nudged Buck with his knee. “Did I break you?”

“No, I was waiting for you to finish. Oh, wait. You mean that was it? Eds, I sort of already figured you were Ace. You seek relationships out, so I assumed you probably weren’t aromantic…? Though making assumptions about others isn’t great, and I’ll stop babbling now.”

Eddie sat back hard, looking shocked. “What? No, I…” He frowned. “You know that I had sex with my wife, right?”

“Well, there’s a spectrum, and you never talk about the sex with your wife, so I wasn’t sure if you even enjoyed it. You talk about sex less than anyone I know who isn’t…Ace. Actually, I know people who are Ace who talk about sex a lot, so maybe that’s not a great metric.” Buck filed that away for later pondering. “Anyway, as far as I know, the only person besides Shannon you’ve even attempted sexual intimacy with since I met you is Ana.” Buck made a placating gesture. “You never talk about sex like you’re all that into it.”

Eddie sat there with his mouth open and finally seemed to snap out of it. “There’s a lot to unpack there, but I think the first thing I have to go with is: you wanted to be in a relationship with me thinking I didn’t want to have sex?” He shook his head and held up a hand. “Wait. Maybe I should back up and clarify. Did I make a bad assumption that you wanted to be in a relationship?”

“Oh, wow.” Buck rubbed his hands over his face. “I felt like we were already in a relationship back before…her. I sort of figured it was heading towards a sort of queer platonic thing and you were working up to telling me you were Ace and talking out the details. I was trying to figure out how to broach it myself without seeming like an intrusive ass because you deserved to tell me that stuff in your own time, you know? So, yes, I wanted—want—to be in a relationship with you.”

“Without sex?”

“I really, really need not to be left alone with your parents.” Buck blew out a breath. “I can handle my sexual needs just fine. Everything else that comes with being in a relationship is what matters to me. You’re…everything. Why would I let sex be a stumbling block?”

“Buck…” Eddie seemed so confused. “You’ve always seemed very sexual to me.”

“Well, for starters, don’t believe the hype. I’ve been pretty touch starved since the age of nine, and once I hit the age of fifteen, sex was the ‘acceptable’ way for boys to get physical affection. I’d like to think I’ve grown since then. In any case, I like orgasms, and I like physical intimacy. I’m perfectly willing to separate those two things if my partner doesn’t want to have sex. The intimacy is more important to me anyway. I don’t think I’d enter a relationship where physical affection wasn’t on offer.”

“So, if I never want to have sex, that’s okay with you?”

“Why in the world wouldn’t it be okay?”

“You do realize not everybody’s viewpoint is that enlightened, right? Progressive? Whatever the hell you want to call it. The only reason my relationship with Ana got sexual when it did was because she insisted. She said our relationship was at the point where we should be having sex.”

“Well, that’s gross. I went from slotting her in my head as ‘the ex-girlfriend I felt sorry for because you never should have dated her’ to ‘the ex-girlfriend I’d have a hard time not calling an evil heifer if I saw her on the street.’”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Did you enjoy it?” Buck asked bluntly.

Eddie winced. “Not really. I got off, but it felt more like a performance.”

“I’m just going to throw it out there that I can’t imagine anything more horrifying than finding out someone was forcing themselves to have sex with me because it was what they should be doing.” Buck shuddered. The very idea of it made his dick try to crawl inside.

“Noted,” Eddie said, holding up a finger to stall whatever else Buck might say. “I never really developed feelings for her, so that might be why I never really got into it with Ana.”

“Which I can infer means you enjoyed sex with Shannon?”

“Yes.”

“Anyone else?”

“My high school girlfriend,” Eddie admitted.

“So, maybe you’re demisexual, which is still on the Ace spectrum, Eds.”

Eddie frowned again, looking thoughtful. “Maybe. I never really thought about it much.”

“Have you ever tried to have sex with a man?”

“No.”

“Kissed a man?”

“No.”

“Then you may not know for sure if you’re some bisexual flavor on the Ace spectrum until you try to have sexual contact with a man you care about. Or there could be other factors at play, but the point of this is that sex isn’t a deal breaker for me. It never has been.”

“And you’re okay being monogamous in a relationship that may not include sex?”

“Yes,” Buck said firmly. “I’d insist on monogamy. As long as I can have my locking toy box and time to myself when I ask for it, I can handle my business.”

“I’m not even sure what to say.”

“Please don’t say that this sex thing, which isn’t a dealbreaker for me, is an actual problem for you.”

Eddie opened his mouth then closed it, cocking his head to the side, a thoughtful expression on his face. “It feels like a hurdle for some reason. Like you’re sacrificing something vital, and I shouldn’t let you.”

Buck immediately started to say something, but his mouth shut with an audible clack when Eddie held up a hand.

“I’m just telling you what’s in my head. I realize I need to let you make your own choices and respect that you know yourself in this area better than I do.”

Buck blinked a few times. “Just how intense was this conversation with Isabel?”

Eddie threw back his head and laughed in honest amusement. “Mostly, she was putting up signs and waiting for me to catch a clue. I had all the pieces, Buck; I just wasn’t sure what picture they were making until you were hurting and didn’t come to me. And that’s on me. No recrimination in sight.” His smile faded a bit. “I will work on getting my emotions and my brain to be in the same place about this, all right? Right now, it feels like you’re sacrificing something even though I hear you loud and clear that you don’t feel that way.”

Buck nodded. He could repeat his willingness to accept Eddie however Eddie was, but harping on it wasn’t going to help. Eddie had clearly expressed that he needed time to let it sink in. “So, while you’re percolating, does this at least mean that we’re going to try?”

Eddie hesitated. “I want to agree wholeheartedly, but is this a good time to make that decision? You’ve had two major losses after a traumatic experience in the last ninety-six hours.”

“Except that I want to make this decision, Eds. I wanted this back in February when I kind of thought I already had it. Life really sucks right now and it’d suck a little less if I had my partner back. My life partner. If I knew I had my kid back,” Buck whispered the last.

Eddie’s eyes actually looked a little wet, and he blinked furiously. “I just don’t want you to wake up in a month and regret—”

“How could I possibly regret you, especially when I was already putting my everything into you and Chris?”

“Then, yes. I’m prepared to wait as long as you need, Buck, but if you really don’t want to wait… I’m yours.”

Again, Buck had a hard time holding back the emotions as he practically crawled into Eddie’s lap and held on for dear life. He’d wanted this for so long, wanted to have this kind of casual intimacy with Eddie. It was gratifying how Eddie didn’t even hesitate to hold on just as tightly, seeming to need the closeness as much as Buck did.

Dios, I’ve missed you so much, Evan. It’s not fair to ask this, but please don’t let me be this foolish ever again.”

Buck gave a watery laugh. “Yeah, all right.”

~*~

Eddie lay on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling with Buck sprawled over him, sound asleep again. He was unsurprised at how easily Buck had fallen asleep; he’d looked exhausted from the moment he opened the front door.

They’d talked quietly for a good hour after the decision to move forward, and then Buck had nodded off, clinging to Eddie like a teddy bear. It was all so new and yet…not. It felt good to hold Buck, so Eddie let himself revel in it.

He kept waiting for some kind of panic to take over, but he just felt contentment, as if he were finally where he was meant to be. There was none of the dread he felt when he’d contemplated a future with Ana. He realized now that his panic over his sudden, ready-made family with Ana had a lot to do with Buck. His family with Buck wasn’t ready-made; it had been a labor of love and hard work, and Ana didn’t belong in it. In fact, she’d been tearing it apart. Eddie had just been too focused on other people’s expectations to see what he was doing to all four of them.

Part of his brain was still turning over the issue of sexuality and Buck’s willingness to have a sex-free life partnership with him if that’s what it took for them to be together. That felt huge to Eddie, but it was also in keeping with everything he knew about Buck. He wasn’t sure about himself in regards to sexuality, which felt like a weird thing to admit to himself at his age, but Buck didn’t seem to be in any hurry for Eddie to figure himself out. It helped that Buck had set a very clear boundary, even if that hadn’t been his intention, that he’d never want Eddie to have sex with him out of a sense of obligation.

Objectively, Eddie could admit that Buck was an attractive man, but Eddie just wasn’t sure he was attracted to him. But, then again, attraction had always been weird for Eddie. He didn’t recall being attracted even to Shannon early on; there was just this nebulous point where he suddenly was.

The potential sex side of things obviously wasn’t a priority for Buck right now; it seemed to be occupying more brain space for Eddie, which made sense since Eddie was the one in his 30s who didn’t understand himself yet. For Buck, it was clearly more critical that the relationship be defined—that they were a couple. No, a family.

He knew he’d barely taken the first step on fixing things with Buck, but it was the most important step. He had a feeling they’d soon be revisiting some of Buck’s concerns about Eddie’s past trauma. Buck had always been careful about not crossing the line about Eddie’s PTSD, but Eddie knew Buck was worried since the shooting. What he’d realized recently was that Buck had stopped talking to Eddie about his own therapy. Had Buck stopped going after the shooting? Or did Buck just stop talking to Eddie? The idea that Eddie’s own aversion to getting help made Buck averse to discussing his own trauma made Eddie’s guts clench.

Getting help was never comfortable for Eddie, but when he thought about how the last few days had gone, and how much he could have lost, he resolved to be more open and not be quite so much like his father. Especially now that he might need to be getting help to figure out his latent sexuality crisis.

The front door opened, but Buck remained asleep. Eddie was debating whether to wake Buck when Pepa and Philip stuck their heads around the doorjamb, peering into the room.

Pepa smiled widely, hand pressed to her chest. Philip’s smile was sad, but he didn’t look displeased.

Pepa stepped close, obviously trying to be quiet. Leaning down, she pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Hiciste bien, Edmundo.” Then she slipped out of the room, taking Philip with her.

Eddie smiled softly at nothing, holding Buck a little closer.


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Jilly James

Admin for the Bang and participating author. Chronically sleep deprived.

2 Comments:

  1. This is amazing! I love how Isabella and Pwps totally ship that and aren’t above a little matchmaking.

  2. This is made of win so far. I have too many emotion to get out more than a dolphin squeal of happiness and a key smash.

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