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

Reading Time: 164 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 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 Six

Buck took the last load of boxes into the garage and set them where Philip had indicated all of Margaret’s stuff should go. They’d spent most of the day packing up anything Philip identified as belonging to Margaret, including things that just reminded him too much of her. He didn’t seem to have a plan for any of it yet; he just wanted it out of sight.

Privately, Buck thought it was weird, but no one said a word as they all worked to get it done. Pepa was taking point on arrangements for the small service on Friday. She’d also taken on the task of going out to buy new bedding for the master bedroom and then getting the laundry done so nothing of Margaret’s got missed.

The oddness of purging his childhood home of his mother’s presence could only be eclipsed by the occasional sense of surrealness that he and Eddie were finally together.

Back together?

He knew it wouldn’t be that simple and that they still had a ton to talk about, but the foundation of their relationship had been laid over the years they’d known one another.

Buck wasn’t the only one who’d been distracted today. Eddie was obviously in his head, but he seemed content overall, so Buck didn’t worry about it. Philip, however, was overtly distracted and weighed down by the circumstances.

“So, this is everything,” Philip murmured as he joined Buck in the garage and looked at the stacks of boxes. Philip rubbed his hands over his face and met Buck’s gaze. “I don’t know how to live in this house anymore.”

“It’s only been a few days,” Buck said softly.

Gesturing at all the stuff, Philip gave a mirthless laugh. “I’ve been so driven to get this done, and I realized that I’m using Margaret’s coping mechanisms because I don’t even know how to exist in my head without her.”

Buck’s brows furrowed. “I don’t follow.”

“This is how your mother deals. Dealt.” He sighed sadly. “Things would get painful and she’d just erase them or pretend they didn’t exist.”

“Like me?” Buck asked before he could stop himself.

Philip’s gaze shot to Buck’s, expression filled with horror. “God, Evan, no. Is that what you think?”

Buck lifted one shoulder, not sure how to respond to the Pandora’s box he’d just opened.

Frowning, Philip looked around the garage, expression shifting to something grim. “Did we do that? Did I let her do that?” His gaze this time was pained. “I always…” He took a deep breath. “I always thought we’d have time to fix our mistakes, to eventually get it right—to make it up to you and Maddie. I thought we’d learn together how to cope better with adversity and grief, stop trying to erase the evidence of our mistakes. But now that she’s gone, I’m doing the same thing—trying to erase everything. Because I don’t know any other way anymore.”

Buck felt conflicted and sad, but he forced himself to stay focused on what his father was going through. “Maybe you’re just grieving and need to cut yourself some slack. This may not be the time where you are even able to figure out a new way to deal with difficult situations.”

Looking pained, Philip ran his hand over a stack of boxes. “Maybe. Or perhaps, after all this time, it can never be better than it was.”

“Dad,” Buck whispered, not even sure what to say.

Philip shook his head and took another steadying breath before crossing to another wall with a shelf that was filled with small, blue, opaque plastic bins. They were each a little bigger than a shoebox. He grabbed a couple from the bottom shelf and set them on a narrow worktable built-in along the wall. Then he grabbed a single bigger bin in the same opaque, blue plastic.

Philip opened the larger bin and dug right to the bottom, obviously knowing what he was looking for. The top of the bin had what looked to be a baby blanket. “I’d like you to take the whole bin back with you,” Philip murmured as he pulled out a black book. It was large and thin like a coffee table book, but it had thicker pages.

“What’s the bin?” Buck asked cautiously.

“Here.” Philip handed Buck the book. “Everything in that larger bin is what remains of Daniel. The few things I could squirrel away before your mother got rid of everything else.”

Buck stared at the book in his hands wide-eyed. “Photo album?”

“Yes. I think the last few pages will interest you the most.”

Not wanting to do this, but sensing it was something his father needed, Buck opened the book from the back, coming face-to-face with a picture of a sickly looking kid in what was obviously a hospital bed.

“Oh.” His hands clenched around the edges of the albums. The boy was sitting on the bed cross-legged, supporting a standing baby with the time-honored tradition of holding both hands. The baby was dressed in a powder blue onesie and sporting a cloud of curly blond hair. Both the baby and boy were obviously laughing.

“You’re eleven months old in that photo.” Philip had moved closer, and Buck hadn’t even noticed. “You started walking earlier than Maddie or Daniel. I think you were nine months when you took your first step. From the moment you started walking, it was a race to keep up with you. Except Daniel couldn’t, and you loved being around him. Daniel would hold your hands like that and you’d just bop in place, expending your energy by bouncing. He was the only one you’d stay remotely still for.”

“I’m not up to going through it all with you; I think it’d just make me think even more about…Margaret.” Philip’s sigh was sad. “But know that Daniel adored you. The baby blanket on the top of that bin was his, but he insisted it be yours too. You slept every night with that blanket.”

“Dad…” Buck wasn’t even sure what to say.

His father put his hand on the two smaller bins. “These I kept for myself as well. I don’t want anything to happen to any of this, but you can take these with you when you go home if you wish. Just know that I never agreed with Margaret even though I realize I’m just as guilty for the way I enabled her.”

Buck wondered what the hell was in the two mystery bins.

Philips hesitated, then plowed on. “After we saw you in the spring, I’d wanted to continue the therapy sessions, to try to fix what had become so terribly broken. Margaret didn’t want that; it made her think too much of Daniel. As always, I did what she wanted.” Philip’s eyes were swimming with tears that weren’t falling. “Now she’s not here, and I’m torn up inside because I don’t know how to exist without her, but I’m shamefully relieved that I don’t have to keep doing this. I’m so sorry for everything we put you through. I’m not asking for your forgiveness, Evan, though I hope to one day earn it.” A couple of tears fell as he looked around the basement. “You deserve so much more than this, but I can’t give it to you right now.”

“You don’t have to—” Buck began to choke out.

Philip held up a hand. “I’m barely holding it together minute to minute, Son, but I don’t want you to think I’m unaware of my failings—of Margaret’s failings. You’ve been through so much that we weren’t there for, but the minute you heard about your mother, you came here to support me. You brought Josephina with you, who has been like a calm in the storm since you arrived. I know I don’t deserve your kindness, but I’m grateful for it nevertheless. I—” He broke off and swallowed audibly. “Take what you like of these things and anything you want of your mother’s. Your maternal grandparents’ things are in the green bins and my family’s things are in the red bins. I need to…” He made a vague gesture toward the house and almost sprinted away.

Buck was left standing there with the photo album in his hands, feeling like he’d been run over by a truck. His gaze dropped to the picture of him and Daniel, and he felt his heart break a little.

He was unsure of how much time passed as he stood there staring at a single photo before Eddie’s soft voice said, “Buck? You’ve been out here alone for a while. You okay?”

Buck shook his head.

Eddie’s arm curled around his shoulders. “Tell me how I can help.”

“Dad gave me Daniel’s stuff.”

Eddie’s hand tightened on his arm and he swore under his breath. “I thought that was all gone…?”

“I think he hid it from her.”

“That him?” Eddie asked gently.

“And me.”

Eddie leaned closer so he could see better, and Buck angled the album toward him. “You were cute as hell.”

Buck gave a laugh that was about 90 percent a release of stress. “Fuck you. I still am cute as hell.”

“Not quite in the same way.” Chuckling, Eddie carefully extracted the album from Buck’s grip. “Do you want to look through this, or do you want me to put it away?”

“I think I’d like to look at it.” He glanced around at the rest of the garage. “There could be a lot more though.” Buck spent a few minutes relaying the rest of the conversation to Eddie.

Eddie frowned and looked at the two smaller blue bins. “Sounds like those aren’t about Daniel if he made a distinction between them.”

“Would you open them and tell me?”

Eddie nodded shortly and pulled the lid off. He rifled through the first bin without pulling anything out, then he did the same with the second. “This is all about you. Report cards, some loose pictures, a couple of postcards.” He shot Buck a quizzical look. “Did you send postcards to your parents the way you did Maddie?”

Buck felt like he’d been gut punched. “Yeah. I mean, not as many, and they never responded either.”

“Those are in here. But on the top of the second bin are clippings of a few news articles about you—the bombing, the tsunami. Honestly, I didn’t know your participation in the tsunami made the news since I avoided coverage of it.” Eddie’s expression was complicated. “It looks like he’s been following your life as closely as he could for someone who wasn’t even in touch with you.”

Having absolutely no idea what to say to any of that, Buck just remained silent.

“How about we take these three bins up to your room and you can go through them—or not—when you’re ready to take that on, but if they’re in your room, you won’t forget them when you’re packing to leave. On a less emotionally charged day, we can decide whether to go through your grandparents belongings.”

Buck just nodded, not even sure what else to say. Eventually, he managed to get out, “Maybe we could start with the photo album. You and me—after dinner…?”

“I’d like that, Buck.” Eddie put the photo album back in the bin and put the lid on, stacking the three bins up. “Let’s take these inside. We can always talk more when we’re not surrounded by all…this.” He waved a hand around at the remnants of Margaret’s life.

They took everything inside, and he noticed Pepa was sitting in the living room with Philip, talking softly. They didn’t even get close to intruding and, instead, headed straight upstairs to put the bins in Buck’s room.

“I arranged with Bobby to video call Christopher as soon as he gets settled after school,” Eddie said softly. “You want to do that with me? That’ll be in about thirty minutes. I was thinking we should run this dating thing by him as well.”

“Yeah, of course we should,” Buck agreed. “We’re both a big part of his life, so he needs to be able to voice his concerns. That said,” Buck patted the bed, “can we talk since we have a minute before it’s time to call him?”

“Sure.” Eddie mirrored his position on the bed such that they were both sitting with one leg up, facing each other. “What’s up?”

Buck looked up at the ceiling and blew out a breath, trying to get the nerve up for what he needed to say. He met Eddie’s concerned gaze. “I’m just gonna say this before I lose my nerve. So, let me get through it.”

“Okay,” Eddie drew out, sounding worried.

“The thing my dad said about how he and my mother we so enmeshed that he could never assert what he wanted… It makes me need to say that I’ve loved you for a long time, and I hope to love you for the rest of my life. But whether we’re together or not, or maybe especially if we’re together, Christopher is first. And I don’t mean in that stupid way where you asked me to make sure his homework was done before I changed your surgical dressing—I’m still hoping that was the drugs talking, Eds. But I can’t imagine loving my biological child more than Chris.”

Eddie’s eyes were glassy, and he reached out for Buck’s hand, squeezing it hard. “Do you really think that’s going to bother me?”

“It’s about to.” Buck considered how to say what needed to be said even as Eddie’s expression twisted with confusion. “I’ve been wondering for a while how to say this to you; I’d even considered saying it as part of a ‘Can I please keep seeing Christopher even if we’re not friends anymore’ speech.”

Eddie’s eyes went wide.

“Because it needs to be said that you can’t keep avoiding dealing with what happened with the sniper.”

Eddie flinched.

“Chris looks up to no one in the world so much as you,” Buck plowed on. “And he emulates you, even if you don’t see that. He’s also stupidly perceptive about the emotional tone of people around him, so he knows you’re not okay while saying and pretending like you are. So, he’s doing the same thing.”

Eddie physically jerked and brokenly whispered, “What?”

“He’s worried about you; he’s worried about everything. He’s starting to carry anxiety the way I do, so I recognize the signs, Eds. But he doesn’t want to admit it. He thinks he has to be okay for your benefit, and you think you have to be okay for his benefit. And it’s honestly ridiculous to listen to the two of you be okay for the other.”

“It’s over though.”

“Is it?” Buck pressed. “Is it really over, Eddie? It sure the fuck isn’t over for me. I go to therapy twice a week.”

Eddie took that on board, trying to digest what Buck was telling him. There was almost too much swirling around in his head at once. “Twice a week? You were cutting back to twice a month and thinking about going down to monthly.”

“Yeah, that was before the shooting.”

“But why?”

Buck squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, expression twisting with pain. “We never talk about it.”

“I barely remember it,” Eddie admitted. “I have flashes of things that are hard to put in coherent order.” Mostly what he dealt with was the fear it left behind that he barely wanted to admit to even in the privacy of his own mind.

“I don’t have that luxury, Eds.”

Eddie licked his lips, not sure what to say. “I figured you would press me about getting more therapy because you’re very positive on it. I was prepared for us to talk about that, so I’ve been mentally getting ready. But I’m not sure how to digest this part about Chris.”

“What happened didn’t just affect you.”

“I know that,” Eddie snapped, then immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”

Buck was silent for several beats. “It didn’t even just happen to you, no matter what anyone at the station might think.”

Eddie’s brows drew together in confusion. “Of course it didn’t just happen to me. Why would anyone say that? Other people were shot as well.”

Glancing up at the ceiling, Buck let out a slow breath, then he met Eddie’s gaze again. “While you were still out on leave, I was in a shitty mood one day after a rough EMDR and tapping session and when Bobby asked about it, I said something about rough trauma therapy, and Chim popped off with ‘are you making it all about you again?’ Like I wasn’t—” Buck cut himself off and used the hand Eddie wasn’t holding with a vice grip to pinch the bridge of his nose.

“Buck.”

“I never discussed it at the station again,” Buck continued on. “I think Bobby and Hen both said something to him about it, but I wasn’t prepared to be open about the shooting with him ever again.”

“I think the problems with Chim have been building for a long time.” Eddie hesitated before continuing. “His behavior after Maddie left seems to be an escalation of something that was already there.”

“Perhaps,” Buck agreed. “But stop deflecting.”

“Okay,” Eddie said with a soft laugh. “That wasn’t my intent, but we should come back to that later. First, what’s the EM-thing you mentioned?”

“It’s a technique used to help reprocess traumatic memories so they’re not so sensitive. Less likely to cause trigger effects.”

“They can do that?”

“There are a lot of psychiatric modalities now that go way beyond talk therapy, Eddie. You have to talk some, but there’s more to trauma therapy than just talking things out. I mean, the shooting and my childhood are two separate things and require different approaches, you know? Dr. Copeland said that you don’t use the same medication for different conditions, so you can’t assume that the same psychiatric approach will work for all types of issues.”

“And so you see her now twice a week?”

“No. After the shooting, she referred me to a trauma therapist who specializes in dealing with, um, more like military people, police officers, and situations like war.”

“Oh.” Eddie blinked in shock. “I think I really need to get a better picture of what happened that day.”

“I can do that.” Buck swallowed heavily. “I don’t want to push you to do it when you’re uncomfortable, but maybe this evening…? We don’t have time before we talk to Chris, but I talk to Dr. Copeland tomorrow, and if our discussion goes poorly, it’d be good to have that backup. But if you’re not up to it…”

“It’s fine, Buck. I’m more worried about you.” He was honestly surprised Buck was continuing therapy while he was out of town, but maybe he shouldn’t be. When would Buck need to talk to his therapist more than after his mother died? “Back to Chris, since we need to call soon or I need to let Bobby know another time, you think he’s not dealing with or pushing down his trauma because that’s what I do?”

“Seems that way to me. I talk pretty openly with him about how I go to therapy, and he seems curious about it, but then he’s been reticent about whether he needs to talk—even to me—about your shooting, just saying that if you’re okay, he’s okay.”

“And you think I’m repressing trauma from the shooting?” Eddie almost didn’t want the answer.

“Jesus Christ, Eddie, you were shot in the streets of LA while doing your job. Sniper attacks aren’t a risk of the job, so how could we possibly be prepared for that? And if that wasn’t enough, how could it not remind you on some level of being back in Afghanistan?”

Eddie flinched again.

“I’m sorry.” Buck squeezed his hand, reaching for his free hand and holding both clasped together. “You never really bring up your service, and only talked about it with me around that time Chris wanted you to come to the school to talk about your Silver Star. I’d never push you for details, but I’m not blind or oblivious to the fact that you experienced something deeply traumatic over there, and being shot again here can’t help but be a reminder.”

Eddie stared at their joined hands for a long time. They were just resting where their knees and shins were bumping together. “You putting Christopher first means that…?”

“I need to get up in your grill about this. As much as I want our relationship, and I do, that conversation with my father showed me that I have to be willing to have the hard discussion with you now. I told myself Chris would be first, and I need to prove that to both of us, even if that means risking us. You aren’t dealing with your trauma, Eddie, and Christopher is modeling you. I’m not saying our relationship is dependent on you getting therapy but we have to figure out how to get Chris the help he needs.”

He spent a few moments digesting everything—how he felt about what was said, the risk Buck was taking, and his concern for Chris. Then he lunged forward and pulled Buck into a bruising hug.

Buck flailed for a second but then held him back, squeezing tightly.

Eddie blinked back tears, even though he knew Buck would be okay with whatever emotion Eddie needed to express. He had never had an easy time crying; he’d always been told it was a sign of weakness. So, he’d never really learned how to easily let go in that way. It was his default setting to blink back the tears and not show emotion.

“Thank you,” Eddie whispered into Buck’s neck. “Thank you, thank you. Trusting people with Chris has always been harder than trusting them with myself, and you prove time and time again how I’ve never misplaced my faith in you.”

“Jesus, Eds, you’re killing me here,” Buck sniffled.

“I’ll get help,” Eddie promised.

“Okay.” Buck squeezed him even tighter.

~*~

The FaceTime call was answered and Chris’ smiling face filled the screen. “Dad! I’ve been waiting and waiting.”

“I’m only ten minutes late, mijo.”

Chris huffed. “But Bobby said you’d call and I want to know about my Bucky.”

“Your Bucky is right here with me. You want to talk to him too?”

Yes!”

Buck chuckled and slid onto the bed next to Eddie. They weren’t sharing the same room, though Philip obviously wouldn’t have a problem with it. Despite the fact that physical affection was easy between them and Buck had slept practically on top of Eddie for a couple of hours on the couch, they both agreed they should begin to share a bed because they wanted to not because they felt they had no choice. So, Eddie had his own room, and they were in Eddie’s room for the video call.

“Hey, superman,” Buck said with a gentle smile. “How are things at Bobby and Athena’s?”

Good. Harry and I are having fun, and Denny is coming over tonight too.”

“Midweek sleepover. How decadent.”

Chris giggled then his expression sobered. “Are you okay, Bucky?”

“I’m working on it, kiddo. Having your dad here makes it much easier, so thank you for being willing to let him take off at a moment’s notice.”

Chris nodded seriously. “I’d do anything for you.”

“The feeling is mutual, kid.”

Eddie’s throat felt tight and his heart felt like it was growing by the moment. How had he ever missed that this was his family? The three of them were a unit. “Chris, I want to talk to you about something.”

“And if you decide you want to talk to him alone before you answer,” Buck slid in smoothly, “you just say so, and I’ll step out of the room.”

Chris’ brow furrowed in a way that Eddie knew was all him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Eddie quickly reassured. “It’s just that Buck and I have been doing some talking, and we’d like to change some things.”

“But your feelings matter, bud,” Buck assured. “We’d never want you to think otherwise.”

There was a little downturn on Chris’ lips that was definitely more Shannon, and Eddie couldn’t help but smile softly. “What is it?”

“Buck and I have been talking about how much we care about each other and how the three of us have been a family for a long time now. I was sort of being an oblivious adult—which probably isn’t that unusual for me, to be honest—and not noticing what was right in front of me.”

The way Chris’ nose wrinkled up was all Buck, and since Buck contributed nothing genetic to Christopher, that was definitely a learned behavior. “Of course we’re a family, we said that before you even left, Dad.”

“Of course we are, but I was thinking about taking Buck out on a date,” Eddie said bluntly, not wanting to tap dance around the issue.

Christopher’s eyes went wide, and he just stared for so long that Eddie started to get worried. Then his eyes welled up, and the tears immediately ran over.

“Oh, superman, I’m so sorry—” Buck babbled, but Eddie knew these tears, so he squeezed Buck’s arm to stop the verbal outpouring and waited it out.

Christopher sniffled and wiped at his nose with his sleeve. “I’d like that, Dad. I want us to keep Buck forever, so you should definitely take him on a date.”

Buck gasped softly.

But, Bucky, you have to promise not to go away if you two start acting like weird adults and decide not to date anymore.”

“I swear,” Buck whispered. “You’re more important to me than anything, so if your dad and I can’t work it out, we’ll just have to split Christopher time.”

It’d make me sad, but not as sad as you never being around.” His gaze shifted a bit. “Dad, I think you should just marry him so he can’t wiggle out of it.”

“Hey!” Buck exclaimed in faux indignation.

Chris giggled and gave another small sniff as he wiped one last time at his nose and eyes. “I’m happy; I promise.”

“Okay, mijo. I just didn’t want you to feel like we were taking anything away from you.”

You’re my dad and Buck is my Bucky. I’ll be fine.”

“You okay with keeping that just between the three of us for now? Well, and Abuela. There’s no keeping stuff like this from her, now is there?”

How come?”

“We’re just trying to figure ourselves out,” Buck offered. “The deep need to tease other people doesn’t seem to go away just because you grow up, so we’d like to have it sorted before our coworkers know.”

I suppose.”

“I’m not asking you to lie though,” Buck added hastily. “I’d never do that, superman. Just maybe not mention it.”

Chris nodded. “I can do that. Can I ask a question, Bucky?”

“Of course.”

It might sound rude, though.”

“You can ask me anything, Christopher. I may not always be able to answer, or I may think the answer is too adult for you, but I won’t be angry if you ask.”

I thought you were dating Ms. Taylor.”

“Ah.” Buck blew out a breath and exchanged a quick look with Eddie. Eddie gave a short nod. “I was, but we broke up because of a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that she told me that she never wants to have children. And that’s okay for someone to not want to have children; it’s good to know that about yourself. But the thing is that I kind of already have a kid, so that was a real big problem for me.”

You do?” Chris echoed.

“Yeah, buddy. You.”

Chris’ eyes got big again and filled with tears once more. Then he was sniffling up a storm. “I love you, Bucky.” These two were utterly doing Eddie in; his heart couldn’t take it.

“I love you too, Christopher. And you’re more important to me than anyone else on Earth, so you always remember that.”

Chris nodded and grabbed a tissue off the nightstand. They made small talk while he got himself back together.

Eddie considered briefly then decided to jump into the other topic, considering how affected Chris had been by what had been said. “In other news, I wanted to mention that I’ve been thinking that I’m still having some weird dreams and bad thoughts about the shooting.”

Christopher’s eyes got huge. “You are?”

“Yeah, mijo. It was a difficult thing, and I was being silly to think I could make it go away by ignoring it.”

Can I help?”

Well, shit. Chris was taking on way too much. “I think I should probably follow Buck’s good example and get some help from a therapist. I just want you to know because there might be days when I’m a little extra sad or maybe a little cranky, and we’ll set up some procedures where you can call Buck or spend extra time with him if I’m having a bad day.”

Chris fiddled with his shirt. “Shouldn’t I be with you if you’re having a bad day?”

“No, mijo. I should be honest with you if I’m having a rough time, but you’re my son, and it’s not your job to protect me or make me better. We need to work on building up trust so that you know you can believe in me when I say I’m getting both the help I need and asking for support from the other people around me. I know you may wonder about that right now, but we’ll get there.”

Chris did the Eddie-frown again. “Does that mean I have to—” He broke off, looking conflicted.

“I want to trust that you’ll tell me when you need help,” Eddie said gently, “but I also know that you’re a kid, and these things aren’t always easy. I think maybe there are some things you need to say, and it might be easier to say them to someone who isn’t me. But whatever you need, whether it’s to talk to me or Buck or a therapist, I want you to feel like you can ask for it, okay?”

After a beat, Chris nodded. “Maybe Buck first?” he asked hesitantly.

“Anytime, superman,” Buck said softly.

Chris’ expression twisted up. “But you’re dealing with being sad about your mommy.”

“But I can deal with being sad about that and talk to you about whatever’s bothering you.”

It’s not too much?”

“Nope. Not ever, Christopher. You are never a burden.”

Chris blew out a noisy breath. “But I heard grandma and abuelo say that I am a burden to dad.”

Eddie couldn’t help the string of expletives that flew out of his mouth.

~*~

Go calm my nieto down,” Isabel ordered Buck. “I promise to talk to my idiota of a son.”

“And then you’ll make sure Chris is okay? He seemed fine—more prone to giggle fits than anything—when I disconnected the call.” Buck had grabbed the tablet and left Eddie’s room when Eddie had finished swearing but seemed to be having a hard time reining his temper in.

Yes, I will call Bobby next and speak to Christopher. I’m sure he’s fine if he was laughing.” She paused. “Pepa said you and Edmundo have worked things out?”

“Ah, yes.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I promise I was going to call and tell you myself.”

That was not a recrimination, cielito; you have much on your plate. I simply want to verify so I can tell you how delighted I am.”

“Thank you.” Buck’s cheeks felt a little heated. “I love him a lot, and I’ll do everything I can to make this work.”

I never had any doubt about that. Now, go. Calm Eddie down while I call Ramón and give him a piece of my mind.”

“You’re the absolute best, Isabel.”

Eddie and Christopher had to get it from somewhere.”

Buck laughed as he disconnected the call then headed back to Eddie’s bedroom, knocking softly on the door.

Come in.

He found Eddie sprawled out like a starfish on his bed, staring at the ceiling. “How’s Chris?”

“Laughing, mostly. I got some clarification details from him, but it’s not much. It was a conversation he overheard. I also called Isabel. She’s going to call to check on him, just to make sure he has someone else to talk to, after she’s finished yelling at your parents.”

Eddie snorted. “She’ll have to get in line. I was yelling at them but Pepa came in, found out what was going on, and took my phone so she could yell at them herself. It’s all happening in Spanish down in the living room.” Eddie rolled his head to meet Buck’s gaze. “Does your dad speak Spanish?”

“No. Why?”

“He’s just watching her go. He looks sort of entertained.”

“Well, Pepa on a roll is a sight to behold.”

“Fair. He probably can use the distraction anyway.” Eddie blew out a breath. “Why would they say that, Buck? They wouldn’t tell me. They keep trying to get custody of him because they say I’m a shitty father, and yet they’d say that to him?”

Buck frowned and sat on the edge of the bed. “Maybe they knew he was listening? Or rather, knew they could be overheard?”

“Why would they want to be overheard?”

“Part of a subtle campaign to get Christopher to ask to go live with them. He’d be doing it for your good, not that he’d explain that to you.”

Eddie’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. That’s probably exactly it.” He sat up and scrubbed his hands over his face. “I can’t ever let them have unsupervised contact with him again. I threatened it on the phone, but figured I wouldn’t have to go through with it because they’d get their shit together. Also, they promised to sue me for grandparents rights. Which, Dios, they might get since they were so instrumental in his care during his early years.”

“Then, when we get home, you need to start talking to a child psychologist and a lawyer to document the situation. It seems like a form a parental alienation, which many therapists consider to be a type of abuse.”

Eddie physically recoiled.

“In the short term, I figure pressure from Pepa and Isabel will keep them in line, Eds. And I had Bobby block them from being able to call his tablet.” The tablet was ostensibly for Chris’ school work, but there was no doubt it was used for a lot more. “I know he’s not supposed to get calls on his tablet that you’re not aware of, but it seems like they’d try to circumvent your rules if they could. If I over—”

Eddie slipped a finger over his lips, cutting off the flow of words. “You did great. Thank you. I’ll call him before he goes to bed to end our conversation on a better note than me needing to add like twenty dollars to the swear jar.”

“Forty,” Buck mumbled under his breath.

Eddie grinned. “Yeah, maybe.” He nudged Buck with his shoulder. “You okay?”

“Me?” Buck asked incredulously. “I’m fine.”

Eddie reached out for Buck’s hand. “I don’t think either of us are fine, but we’ll get there together.”

They still had a lot to talk about, though Buck realized there was no need to rush to the finish line on all of that. They were in this as a couple, and that felt good.

Buck smiled softly. “I guess we will.”

 

Chapter Seven

Buck wasn’t sure why his father had asked for his company for this errand, and only his company, but the silence in the car was starting to get to him. He didn’t feel comfortable just reaching out and turning on the radio to erase the silence, so he sat and drummed his fingers against his leg.

The funeral was tomorrow, and then Buck needed to start considering when he’d go back home. It felt weird to leave his father behind in that big old house, but there was nothing else to do. Philip had friends in Hershey and further away in Harrisburg. Buck had to believe his father would be fine eventually.

He and Eddie were supposed to talk about the shooting before bed last night, but the call with Chris had gotten so emotionally charged on so many fronts, that they’d decided to put it off. Buck had still had his session with Dr. Copeland this morning and revealed all the changes to her. She’d spent a lot of time trying not to look surprised and had encouraged him to schedule an emergency session if he needed it. She also wanted him to send her an email with an update as to how the conversations with Eddie went and then an update on the funeral.

“Thank you for coming with me,” Philip finally said as he made a turn onto a side street in downtown Hershey.

“You still haven’t told me what we’re doing,” Buck prompted.

“We’re visiting the family attorney.”

Buck resisted the urge to let his face twist up with displeasure; if his father needed him along for the ride, he’d go with it.

“I know you need to think about heading home soon.”

“Yeah, I need to get back to work or let Bobby know—soon—that I’ll need more time off.” He looked at his father askance. “Do I need more time off?”

“No, Son, you’ve been more than generous with your time. You need to return to your life.” Philip sounded so sad. “May I come to visit you?”

“Yeah, of course.” Buck didn’t want his father suddenly clinging to him, but he understood the need to get away from an uncomfortable environment. “Maybe hanging around here isn’t the best idea right now anyway. You could come to stay in LA for a while…?”

Philip shot him a quick look. “Would that be okay?”

“I mean, I only have the loft…”

With a dismissive gesture, Philip said, “I can get my own place to live. I just wouldn’t want to intrude on your life.”

Buck fiddled with a loose thread at the hem of his sweater. “It wouldn’t be intruding. We have some ground to cover, but I don’t want you to stay out of my life or anything. I was sincere in my desire to fix things between us.” He left it unsaid that he wasn’t the one to discontinue therapy.

“I know, and it was obvious to me how much work you’ve put into sorting out the issues.” Philip hesitated. “That your mother and I caused.”

“Dad.”

“No, it needs to be said that we messed up, and I know that, Evan. I’m not going to apologize, not yet. Someday I will, and I hope, by then, I’ll have earned your forgiveness.” His father parked the car in front of a two-story brickwork building. It was what passed for an office building in downtown Derry Township. Philip turned to face Buck. “I also want it clearly stated that I don’t support this young man your sister is seeing if he’d lash out at you in a violent fashion.”

Buck made a face.

“No, Evan. We are not going down the path of your sister with a toxic man in her life again. That’s part of why you’re here today. Come on.”

Buck had no idea what that even meant, but he got out of the car and followed his father inside. The first floor was the reception area of a law office, and the receptionist sent them up to the second floor conference room where a beverage and pastry service was already laid out.

An older man who Buck vaguely recognized rose to his feet when they entered, setting aside some papers, he crossed to Philip and shook his hand then pulled him into a brief hug. “Philip. My deepest sympathies, my friend. Margaret will be sorely missed.”

Philip nodded but said nothing in direct response. “Buck, I’m not sure if you remember the family attorney, Elias Sauver. Elias, this is my youngest, Evan. He goes by Buck these days.”

Sauver nodded but didn’t offer his hand, which Buck appreciated since it was bad etiquette since COVID. “Haven’t seen you since you were in high school, Buck. I hardly recognize you.”

“I only vaguely recollect you, Mr. Sauver,” Buck said apologetically.

“Understandable. I think we had maybe one conversation when you were about thirteen. My condolences on the loss of your mother, young man.” He gestured to the table. “Please have a seat. We have a fair bit to go over, but I think it’s straightforward, so hopefully this won’t take too much time.”

~*~

Eddie found Buck sitting on a rocking bench in the back yard. It was in the middle of the day still, but the temps in Pennsylvania were ridiculously cold already. “You’re going to freeze your ass off.”

Buck scoffed. “It’s not even freezing yet. I happen to know Texas has terrible winters, Edmundo. How are you so warm blooded?”

“Yeah, and I hated the winters there too. I’ve never liked being cold. Scooch over.” Eddie sat next to Buck and spread a wool throw over both of them. Buck hesitated a second then wrapped his arm around Eddie’s shoulders, pulling him close. It was nice and felt familiar and more comfortable than it had any right to since it was still so new.

They sat there in silence for several minutes, just rocking gently and being close. Eddie finally said, “Do you need to talk about it? You don’t have to, but I’m always willing to listen.”

There was a pause as Buck continued to rock. “Dad wanted me to know how Mom’s estate was being settled.” Buck blew out a breath, arm tightening on Eddie’s shoulders briefly. “They have everything in a living trust, so there’s no waiting for probate or anything. But the house and all the material assets will stay with Dad for now.”

“Well, that makes sense.”

“But, uh, Mads and I were the direct beneficiaries of Mom’s life insurance. There were stipulations, however.” Buck sounded conflicted.

“Stipulations?” Eddie echoed.

“Mom really hated Doug. Like epically hated him. I’m not sure if she knew about the abuse in the early days but, if she didn’t, I’m sure finding out about the abuse validated her opinion of him. She got Dad to agree to make some provisions on either of our inheritance that we can’t be in an abusive relationship at the time we inherit.”

“Well, that’s vague.”

“Yeah. There were some objective measures put in place, but for the more subjective stuff it’s basically up to the surviving spouse to determine if their children’s relationships are abusive in any fashion.”

“Okay.”

Buck’s eyes slid shut. “Dad’s decided Maddie and Chimney’s relationship is at the very least unhealthy.”

“Because of the punch?”

“That was part of it. He’s not pleased that she’d be with a man who’d resort to interpersonal violence. Again.”

Eddie winced.

Buck gave him a sharp look. “I said interpersonal. Dad has no problem with MMA, though he prefers boxing. He used to recreationally box himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if you two found yourselves at the gym together at some point.”

“The fight club, though….”

“Is still consensual even if it was illegal. And you went once before you realized it was a bad deal and joined the MMA gym instead. Stop trying to draw parallels where there are none.”

Eddie just nodded, not sure how to take Buck’s reassurance on board. He knew how volatile his emotions were back then, how close to the edge he was running, and he wondered what it would have taken to push him over it. But this wasn’t even about him. “So, Philip has big issues with Chim?”

“Big, big issues. And it has less to do with the punch than you’d think. He’s not happy with what he feels are obvious indications of obsessive behavior.” Buck blew out a breath. “And I guess he’d know about that. So, he decided to enact the provisions on Maddie’s inheritance that put a trustee in charge of her part of it.” Buck looked at him, expression pained. “He’s putting me in the decision seat of what money Maddie gets.”

Eddie’s mouth dropped open. “That seems…cruel. To you,” Eddie hastily clarified. “To put money between you and Maddie like that.”

“He said he’s not involved intimately enough in Maddie’s life to make assessments about the state of her relationship, and I see his point, but I don’t want to do this.”

“Can you turn it down?”

“The attorney went through a lot of unpalatable options if I don’t do it. The best bet would be to find an alternate trustee that Dad and I both find agreeable because he has to approve of who the trustee is.” Buck dropped his head on Eddie’s shoulder. The weird quirk of Buck’s ridiculous leg length was that even though he was two inches taller than Eddie, Eddie sat about two inches taller when they were seated, so Buck’s head nestled very easily on Eddie’s shoulder.

“What’s your gut say?”

“To do nothing right now. I’m not even in touch with Maddie. If she were here, we could argue it out with the family attorney and figure out the option she likes best, which might be a stranger for trustee. I mean, she’s never liked me being all up in her personal business, even though she’s super intrusive about getting involved in every aspect of my life since she blew back into it like she hadn’t been gone for a decade.” Buck scrubbed his hand over his face. “Sorry, that was bitter.”

“You’re allowed. It’s just you and me here, and I’ll listen without judgment.”

“The attorney is going to put a hold on her part for thirty days before he makes me the trustee. That gives her some more time to get in touch and be a participant in this. If she continues to stay out of contact, we’ll go forward and leave everything in limbo until she and I can sit down and talk.”

“And if she stays with Chim?”

“I don’t know. Dad’s making me the trustee because he feels her relationship with Chim is a violation of the rules of her inheritance. I’m sure Maddie will expect me to overlook that.”

“Will you?”

“I…don’t know. I guess I’ll have to wait and see how reasonable everyone is and what kind of help she’s gotten and…” Buck leaned forward, burying his face in his hands. “God, Eddie, I don’t want to be in this position with her.”

“Then wait until she’s in touch and figure out a way out of it. Get Athena to be the trustee or someone you both trust who is a little more neutral. You don’t deserve to have more friction in your relationship with Maddie because your parents were absentee and your dad apparently plans to do more of the same.”

“I’m not even sure that’s true. He’s making plans to come to LA for a while.”

“So, why can’t he first-hand evaluate her situation?”

“He feels like she lies to him.” Buck gave a mirthless laugh. “He’s not wrong. She lies to me too. And, honestly, if she doesn’t come back a whole hell of a lot better with an improved attitude about therapy, I’m going to stick the whole lot of it in trust for Jee and fuck all of this bullshit.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad plan anyway. Maddie would want the very best for Jee regardless.”

“I know. I know. God, I’ve never doubted how much Maddie loves her daughter even if Maddie has hidden from me during the bulk of Jee’s life so I wouldn’t see her mental health state.” Buck got up, letting the blanket fall in Eddie’s lap. “And now, because of this crap with Maddie—yet again—I can’t even begin to have my own feelings about inheriting money from my mother.”

“Yes, you can,” Eddie said firmly. “The Maddie thing is on hold. She’s not here, she’s checked out of the situation entirely. Tell me what you didn’t say about your situation.”

Buck began to pace around in a small, tight orbit, circling some ugly ceramic garden frog. “I don’t want money from her. I don’t want anything from her. I wanted some effort to fix things and maybe some acknowledgement that she fucking checked out on me from the moment I was born. But every single thing about me was too much for her. But Dad seems to think that she really did love me and giving me an equal share with Maddie is somehow reflective of that.”

Eddie’s nose wrinkled up. “Tell me he didn’t say it that way.”

“Oh, he did.”

“That’s kind of…gross.”

“Right? I mean, he’s so used to her weird poor-me bullshit that he can’t even hear how awful it is when he acts like treating me and Maddie equally in a will is somehow proof that she actually loved me.” Buck stopped pacing and his shoulders sagged. “But I couldn’t just throw the money in his face the day before her funeral when he thought this was somehow a gesture of love or some shit. So, I signed all the papers and tried to act…appropriately moved or something. Appropriately nauseated is more like it,” he muttered the last.

Eddie wasn’t sure what to say. “What do you want to do?”

Buck shook his head. “I don’t know. Not have to deal with it, but I remember when Maddie inherited Doug’s estate after… Well, after. Anyway, she didn’t want it and planned to donate it all. I suggested she not be hasty and take time to think about it. She might have kids some day and need that money.”

“What’d she ultimately do?”

“I have no idea. I asked her one day, and she told me to mind my own business.” Buck gnawed on his bottom lip for a second. “But I think she kept it and tried to forget about it. I know she withdrew a lot of cash from savings for her disappearing act; I heard about that through eavesdropping on Hen at the station.”

“Could she have saved the money some other way?”

“Not the amount she’d need to live on the road this long. I mean, she walked away from Doug with nothing. She had to start over on the savings front. I think she probably got a little help from our parents along the way, but she’d never discuss it with me.” He blew out a heavy breath. “I don’t think I should be hasty, I guess.” He gave Eddie a speaking look. “I thought about just putting it all in trust for Chris, but then I thought we might need it. If this works, we might want a bigger house together.”

“Buck…” Eddie got to his feet and pulled Buck into his arms. “This is gonna work; I can feel it. Hell, it was already working; I was just too much of an idiot to see what was right in front of me. Yeah, we’ll need a bigger house someday.”

Buck was holding on tightly, practically melting into Eddie. “But I still want to create a medical and education trust for Chris.”

“He has one; I created it when probate on Shannon’s estate closed. There was the sale of Janet Whitt’s condo in that, and it brought a decent amount of money.” He pulled back enough to frame Buck’s face with his hands. “I’m never going to deny you contributing to being a parent to Christopher. You’ve already been that in so many ways, and I wouldn’t deny you this.”

“Maybe put a third of it in the trust right away and just be done with it.”

“How much are we talking about?”

“About five hundred grand.”

Eddie whistled lowly. “So you want to add about 165-grand to his account. That should be doable.”

“No, Eds. Five hundred is a third. The total is just over one-point-five million.”

Eddie’s hands fell limply to his sides. “Your mom had a three-million-dollar life insurance policy?”

Buck took hold of Eddie’s hands and placed them back on his waist. “Yeah. It’s about the right amount considering how much money she and Dad made in their careers.”

Eddie’s hands reflexively held on to Buck. “Dios, Buck, you want to put half a million dollars in his trust fund?”

“More if we don’t need the rest of the money for a house or something.”

He dropped his head to rest on Buck’s shoulder. “This is going to take some adjustment.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? None of this was your idea. I’ll get used to the idea that my boyfriend is from money, I guess.”

“I’m not. Or maybe I am. I don’t know. This all seems normal’ish to me, but it was so cold and unpleasant my whole life that I can’t imagine wanting more of it.”

“And you associate their money with the vibe of the home you grew up in?”

Buck shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose.”

“Home is what you make it, Buck. Whether it’s a million-dollar home or a fraction of that.” He cupped Buck’s cheek. “I can’t imagine any home with you in it being cold.”

Buck smiled softly, leaning in a bit, like he was going to kiss Eddie, and Eddie realized he welcomed the idea. He wanted Buck to kiss him, and that idea was new and startling.

Then Buck seemed to shake himself out of it and backed off. “Thanks, Eds. So, no arguing with me about transferring a bunch of money to Chris?”

“Medical and education trust for our son? Why would I argue about that?”

Buck’s smile was blinding.

“Annual passes to Disney… I might have an issue.”

Buck expression got a little…shifty. “But it’s a cost savings, Eds.”

“You already did it, didn’t you?”

“And the zoo.”

Ay Dios,” Eddie muttered under his breath. “Just don’t buy him a car!”

“Not until he’s sixteen. Scout’s honor.” Buck looked thoughtful, as if he were already planning future-Christopher’s first car. “Something safe like a Subaru, but we’ll get him a sporty model so he’s still cool.”

“Were you ever a Scout?”

“Oh sure.” His expression soured a bit. “I tended to only last in programs long enough for it to become apparent the level of disinterest my parents had in my general existence. When the questions about their involvement would start, I’d get pulled out.” He shrugged. “So, Scouts lasted longer than most because they didn’t really care for a long time if my parents showed up.”

“You make it really hard to be civil to Philip.”

“Well, I appreciate the effort.” Buck glanced away. “I’ve come to the conclusion that he was just a really weak man who couldn’t say no to whatever his wife wanted. He was guided by that, and now he’s totally lost.” Buck met Eddie’s gaze again. “I can’t be his new compass.”

“So don’t be,” Eddie said firmly. “I know he’s grieving and that makes everything harder when it comes to keeping your boundaries, but I have faith in you. You can say no to him when it matters.”

Buck nodded, fingers curling around Eddie’s wrist. “Pull me up if I start getting lost in it, okay?”

“Yeah. And do what you want with the money, Buck. I agree that you should take some time to think about it, definitely figure out the tax consequences. Then give it away to your favorite charity if you want to, or—”

“No, if I’m not keeping it for myself, it goes to Chris. Maybe I’ll do some small college funds for Harry and Denny, but I’m not going to give it all away rather than take care of our kid.”

“You could give some to Jee; you have to know I wouldn’t resent you for that.”

“Jee is clearly covered by her mother’s inheritance, which I’m in charge of whether I want to be or not.” Buck sighed. “She’s not my lookout; Maddie and Chim made sure of that long before the PPD was an issue. It makes me sad that I may never be close to my niece, but that has nothing to do with Chris. He was always going to be my priority, Eddie.”

Eddie again pulled Buck close, hugging him tightly. “I love you. It makes me feel like a damn fool that I was so oblivious to this for so long.” Every time the feeling welled up inside him, he had the urge to apologize for keeping them both on the hook for so long.

Buck clutched at his back and breathed into his shoulder. “Thank you, Eddie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Eddie pressed a kiss to Buck’s hair and vowed to himself that Buck wouldn’t have to find out.

~*~

Eddie found his book less of a distraction than it typically would be. Reading was usually ideal for helping him wind down, but whenever he was alone, he found his thoughts were all over the place.

It was easy to be focused when he needed to concentrate on Buck or Chris, but left to his own devices, there were so many things vying for his attention. With the recent changes in his relationship with Buck, the number of things distracting him had grown—hugely.

Buck had been obviously tired when he’d gone to bed barely after ten; a very early hour for either of them and exactly why Eddie wasn’t sleeping. But it was easy to see that the stress of meeting with the family lawyer had sapped Buck’s energy reserves for the rest of the day. After their conversation in the backyard, he’d plummeted into an angst spiral that Eddie could barely pull him out of.

He’d tried to keep Buck distracted as much as possible, and there had been plenty to do, despite Buck’s obvious fatigue slowing him down. They’d spent the evening with Pepa and Philip preparing for the funeral and making phone calls—even Eddie had helped with making some return calls to people who’d inquired about attending. Philip wanted to keep the attendance very small, so some of the calls were letting people know about the video service in two weeks and being firm about the in-person attendance.

Buck had been oddly stiff as he’d put on a supportive front for his father. They’d all lingered in the living room until nearly ten, it being obvious that Philip didn’t want to go to bed. Even though Margaret’s things had been moved into the garage, Philip still wouldn’t move back into the master bedroom. At an emotional level, Eddie easily understood that part, but he didn’t get some of Philip’s other coping mechanisms. Then again, he didn’t really get Philip Buckley. At all.

Being so hyperfocused on Buck—for any changes or shifts in his mood—meant that Eddie was more aware of Buck than usual, not that Eddie wasn’t always aware of Evan Buckley. But this was something else. There was this energy between them that Eddie didn’t know how to quantify.

His mind kept going back to the almost kiss this afternoon, and he wondered what that would have been like. Was kissing a man really any different than kissing a woman? Stubble aside, why would it be different? It was the same basic anatomy, the same actions. Was it an arbitrary distinction society put in place to make men think that somehow kissing another man would inherently feel wrong?

But even if he liked the kissing, it didn’t necessarily follow that he’d like the sex. But maybe he would. Maybe pleasure was pleasure and, for him, it mattered more who he was with and his feelings for them than the equipment in their pants. However, if he did like the sex, what did that mean? Did it have to mean anything? Did it have to be a big deal? It didn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but considering his ongoing mental spiral, it obviously was a big deal.

The thoughts spun in an endless circle in his mind as he read the same paragraph over and over. He wasn’t even sure any more what book he was reading.

Then he realized his body was reacting to just the thoughts. Though, which of the many thoughts were making his cock get hard, he couldn’t even say. His mind flicked back again to the near kiss, and his breath caught as his cock twitched again. He slipped his hand down and wondered what it’d be like to stroke himself while thinking about Buck.

His cock got harder.

A faint sound in the hallway alerted Eddie that Buck had left his room, completely derailing Eddie’s thoughts. He was torn between wishing the timing had been better, and grateful that he’d been derailed from that train, at least until he had more time to think about his own damn self.

Impulsively, he set his book aside and decided to join his partner in whatever he was up to at one in the morning. Eddie typically slept about six hours, so this was just about the time he’d normally be going to sleep.

He made it into the kitchen just as Buck pulled a pint of ice cream from the freezer. “What kind?” he asked softly.

Buck jumped a little in surprise then gave him a wan smile. “Strawberry cheesecake.”

“Solid choice. Got another?”

“No, but there’s a phish food…?”

“Even better.”

Buck handed over the ice cream then produced spoons; they sat at the kitchen table in comfortable silence eating ice cream when it was cold as hell outside.

“What’s got you up in the middle of the night eating ice cream, Buck?” Eddie asked softly when they’d nearly consumed the entire pint, then took one of the remaining bites of his phish food.

Buck shook his head. “Just a dream. Need a few minutes to shake it off.”

“A dream about what?”

Pulling his lip between his teeth, Buck refused to meet his gaze. “We said we were going to talk about it, but maybe now isn’t such a great time. We can do it later.”

It took Eddie a few seconds to parse that. “You dreamt about the shooting?”

Buck blew out a breath. “Have been a lot since Mom died.” He finally met Eddie’s stare. “It’s difficult to witness how her death is affecting Dad. I can’t relate at all to the way they functioned as a couple, but I can relate to how she was the center of his universe.” He hesitated for a beat. “I can’t imagine what getting up in the morning would be like if you were suddenly ripped away.” He licked the back of his spoon, expression pinched. “Actually, I can imagine it, and it really fucking sucked.”

“Buck…” Eddie pushed the nearly empty ice cream container away and reached out and took both of Buck’s hands in his. “We can talk about this. I’m not going to shatter if you tell me what’s going through your head.”

“But you barely remember anything, and I—”

“So, tell me about it. Walk me through it. Help fill in those gaps so that we’re on this path together. Right now, you’re stuck in a memory of something that happened to both of us, but I can’t get there to be with you—to help you. Bring me along. I deserve to know the details even if I never really remember.”

Buck gripped Eddie’s hands. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Just tell me what happened. There are bits and pieces up there anyway; I might as well actually know.”

Nodding, Buck pulled his hands away and stuffed one last big bite of ice cream in his mouth. “Let’s do it in one of our rooms.”

They wound up in Buck’s room; it felt more comfortable, and it had a queen sized bed as opposed to the double in Eddie’s. The light was set to low, casting a faint glow across the upper part of the bed. The rest of the room was shrouded in darkness.

Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder against the headboard, Eddie reached across the short distance and took Buck’s hand. “Walk me through it.”

“I assume you remember why we were there and getting the kid and his mother out?”

“Yeah; she’d been poisoning him, but he figured it out, so he slipped the same stuff she’d been giving him into her food. I remember we’d loaded them in separate ambulances, going to separate hospitals.” Eddie paused, thinking through the details. “The 133 was there responding to a call about her being sick because Charlie hadn’t known she’d get so ill; he gave her too much. We were there to check on Charlie because I’d realized she was using the eye drops to poison him.”

Eddie frowned, remembering those details vividly. “You and I were talking, and…” He hesitated. “You were in civilian clothes…?”

“I’d arrived early for our shift, but you’d gotten there way early because of whatever you’d figured out regarding Charlie. Chim okayed you taking the command truck to check on the kid; I wanted to go with you, but I didn’t have time to change first.”

Eddie nodded slowly. “Right; I remember now. But then it seemed like your white shirt was covered in blood…?”

“It was.” Buck’s hand clamped onto Eddie’s. “That was the blood spray from the bullet that passed through your shoulder.”

Feeling his guts tangle up in mute horror, he reached out and wrapped his arm around Buck’s shoulders. He didn’t even know how to respond.

Buck leaned on Eddie and continued. “I didn’t understand what had happened at first. You were standing right in front of me and I was covered in something wet. You looked so surprised. But then you collapsed, and I couldn’t even reach out to grab you or anything because there was another shot fire and Captain Mehta tackled me to the ground and pulled me behind the front fender of the truck.

“I tried to get to you, but the sniper kept firing, and I was stuck.” Buck turned to look at Eddie. “You were just lying there in the street staring at me, and I couldn’t get to you. That’s what I dream about, Eds. Over and over and over. I dream you died in the street, inches from me, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.”

“Oh cariño.” Eddie pulled him closer. “Siento mucho que hayas tenido que soportar esto por tu cuenta.”

Buck’s hand grasped at Eddie’s shirt. “You were right there, Eds, and I couldn’t get to you. The sniper kept firing, and you were right there.”

Eddie frowned. “The sniper kept firing?”

“Yes. You really don’t remember?”

“I remember…” He closed his eyes and tried to bring up his fragmented memories, setting aside the stuff that wasn’t real. “I remember your shirt and then your face. I do remember staring at you, and it felt like you were so far away.” Eddie swallowed convulsively, a little shocked at how much this was affecting him.

“It’s okay.” Buck tried to pull him in tighter. “We don’t have to talk about this. I’m sorry.”

“No…I need to talk about it. Please talk, Evan. Let’s get through this. Help me get through it.”

Buck maneuvered them so they were lying face to face on the bed with barely a hand’s width between them on the pillow they were sharing. Buck’s strong, capable hand settled gently on Eddie’s cheek. “What else do you remember?”

Eddie bit his lip, hating to reveal what his mind had done. “I remember staring at you, and I…” He cleared his throat. “You seemed so far away, and I felt like everything was ending.”

Buck’s breath caught.

“Shh.” Eddie leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss to Buck’s cheek. “I’m right here.” He waited for Buck to calm down a bit before admitting, “I remember the pain when you moved me. That was the next clear thing. I’m not sure how you got me…?” He hesitated, giving Buck a questioning look.

“I broke away from Mehta and crawled under the fire truck; I pulled you under there with me and out the other side. Then got you in the cab.”

“I just remember blinding pain, and…” He blew out a breath. “I had a flashback to being in Afghanistan, and that overlaid my real memories, I guess. Like an IED exploding, people screaming, and guns going off.” He had to blink away tears. “I didn’t even admit that in my mandated therapy, and I know I should have, but I didn’t want them to think… Buck, I don’t know what I didn’t want them to think. I was just so ashamed that Afghanistan is still haunting me.”

“Eds… Oh god, I wish we’d talked about this sooner.” Buck’s gaze was searching, as if he were looking for something. “You should never feel ashamed if any of this stuff backs up on you, okay? But what you remember actually happened. That wasn’t a flashback.”

“Wait. What?”

“There was an explosion; at least one big one. The command truck completely blew up. The door to the cab of the 133 ladder truck got ripped off. We were under fire the whole time. It felt more like a war zone than when Freddie blew up the ladder truck and we all wound up sprawled out in the street.”

Eddie stared, trying to take the new information on board. “All of that happened…? I…” His hands fisted in Buck’s t-shirt. “Buck, I don’t know what to think. Or do.”

“You don’t have to think or do anything. However you react, whatever you need, is fine, Eddie. You don’t have to bury this for my sake. Please don’t push this down. You need to get it out. It’s eating me up inside, and I want you to have what you need to be whole and happy. I just could never understand how this affects me so much and barely seems to affect you at all.”

“That’s not true.” Eddie squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. “It’s in everything I do and every dumb decision I’ve made. Staying with Ana for so long, avoiding therapy, the panic attacks, keeping you at arm’s length. I was ashamed that Afghanistan was still haunting me, but it wasn’t Afghanistan.” He gave a mirthless laugh and clutched at Buck. “Ay Dios, that all happened. Fuck, Evan, how can anyone say that didn’t happen to you? How can any reasonable human being think that every single person there wasn’t a victim?” He felt physically ill. Someone had put him and Buck through a war zone in the streets of LA and Eddie had suppressed it because he was so afraid that he wasn’t psychologically recovered from his military service.

“It’s okay,” Buck murmured, pulling Eddie in closer, holding him tightly. “It’s okay, Eds. Whatever help you need, you can have. Whether it’s about this or about your service or about something from high school. Just ask, and it’s yours.”

“Buck…”

Buck pressed their foreheads together. “We’ll get through this.”

Even though Eddie felt like he was about to rattle apart, he’d also never felt so safe. “Together. We’ll get through it together,” Eddie whispered as he pressed his face against Buck’s shoulder. “You and me, right?”

“Yeah. You and me. I’ve got your back.”

 

Chapter Eight

Eddie woke curled up against a warm, firm body. It was new and unexpected, which should have been unsettling, but he just felt safe and content.

It only took him a beat or two to realize he was nestled firmly against Buck’s chest, and Buck’s arms were still around him, albeit their grip had loosened in sleep. He ventured a look up, and found Buck relaxed and deeply asleep.

Part of him said wiggle away before he was caught, but he pushed down that side of his neurotic brain, which was trained in childhood and sounded a lot like his father, and just reveled in the peace and contentment he was experiencing. He and Buck had been building to this for a long time—even if he’d been oblivious to it until he’d nearly lost it for good—and he refused to let anything get in his way now that they’d made it here.

After a few minutes, there was a faint vibration against his back, and Buck stirred, making a humming sound deep in his chest. A second later, he lifted his arm and turned off the haptic alarm on his watch—Eddie had seen him go through this routine so many times at work and when sleeping on the Diaz family couch. The familiarity made him smile.

Buck oriented himself to the situation then smiled softly at Eddie. “Morning.”

“Hey.” Eddie didn’t know what else to say. Last night had been emotional in ways he hadn’t expected. He’d thought he’d be stepping up to be supportive of Buck, when it’d turned out that Buck had needed to prop Eddie up. “You okay?”

“Good. With you here.” Buck hesitated. “Weird for you?”

“Surprisingly, no.” Eddie let his head rest on Buck’s chest again. “Feels good.”

“Then stay.”

“Don’t we have to get up?”

“In a little bit, but I meant…stay forever.”

Eddie curled his hand into Buck’s t-shirt. “Just like this?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind,” Buck said with faint amusement in his tone. “But I meant stay with me. I know we’ve said we’re going to do this thing, but…stay, Eddie. No matter what…don’t leave me.”

Eddie wasn’t even sure what all Buck meant, but he also got it. He knew Buck struggled with abandonment, and he also knew he’d contributed to that. He reached up and touched Buck’s cheek, letting his fingers trail up to his birthmark, tracing the shape of it. He realized that he’d always wanted to touch it, and there was a curl of something undefinable deep in his gut at finally being free to. He hated the way the bruises from the head injury were encroaching on the pink of the the birthmark.

“I’m in this, Buck; I know we have stuff to figure out, but…we’re an us, okay?”

Buck seemed to relax, one hand drifting to Eddie’s waist, squeezing gently. “Yeah, okay.”

Eddie found himself caught in the intensity of the moment, in the feel of Buck’s body half underneath him. His gaze flicked to Buck’s mouth, and he noted how lush Buck’s lips were, then he was leaning in.

He jerked himself out of the moment, going rigid in Buck’s hold. “Sorry. That wasn’t… I mean…”

“Eddie, it’s okay,” Buck murmured softly. “You have blanket permission to kiss me whenever you want.” He hesitated. “You also have blanket permission to never kiss me if that’s not something you want to do. You get me? I’ll take you however you are.”

Eddie let his hands fist in Buck’s shirt again, as if he could keep Buck from running away. “I think— I don’t know.”

“It’s okay to not know. You don’t have to have it all figured out.”

“I just know I love you, and the shape of our relationship…confuses me a little.”

“And that’s also okay. I can wait for you to figure out however it is, just…don’t leave, okay?” Buck’s vulnerability was shining through.

“I won’t. I think I want to at least try kissing sometime, but I worry…” He trailed off, not sure how to express his concern.

“You’re worried that you won’t like it but I will?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said on an explosive breath, as if the admission was sucked out of him.

Buck made a little humming sound. “What else are you worried about?”

“I don’t want you to be giving up on—”

“Eddie,” Buck interjected in a soft tone, but firm nonetheless. “What are you really worried about?”

“I just don’t want you to be giving up something that’s important to you if I can’t…get there.”

“Hmm. Eddie,” Buck repeated, “what are you worried about?”

“I just said.” Eddie was getting a little annoyed, but not annoyed enough to want to pull away from the comfort of finally being so close to Buck. “It feels like you’re possibly sacrificing something that’s important to you.”

“Eddie, what are you worried about?”

“Buck!”

“What are you worried about?” Buck’s voice was softer, tone pleading.

“That you’re going to leave me!” Eddie snapped, this time starting to pull back.

Buck held on tight, reeling Eddie in closer. “Like Shannon did?”

“I failed at being what she needed, Buck! I failed. And she left. If I’m not what you need, will you leave?” Eddie’s eyes felt hot, and his breathing was labored.

“Or maybe Shannon didn’t want to be a mother and a wife. Maybe she never wanted that, Eds, and it was easier to blame your time away or your lack of emotional availability or whatever.”

“You can’t know that,” Eddie choked out.

“No, I can’t, but what I do know is that if evidence of your failure as a husband is that Shannon left you, then it has to be evidence of Christopher’s failure as well.”

Eddie sucked in a sharp breath, shocked out of his spiral. “What? That’s not the same at all.”

“In the sense that leaving your spouse and leaving your kid isn’t the same, I agree. But she never called, Eddie. She had over two years, eighteen months after her mother died, to get her head back in the game, and she never called her son. Maybe you weren’t a great husband, but how does anything you did account for her abandonment of Chris? If we accept it as truth—which I don’t—that you were a shitty husband, that explains why she left you and never looked back. What explains why she left her son and never called? I’d never say this to him, Eds, because he deserves to revel in as much of his mother’s love as he can hold on to, but between you and me, let’s not pretend that she didn’t abandon both of you.”

“But, she said—”

“I know what she said; you’ve told me. Just because those words left her mouth, that doesn’t make it the truth. Honestly, I think she didn’t like the reality of being a mother and didn’t want to take any responsibility for it, so she found a way to make you to blame for everything so she could walk away. Maybe it wasn’t a conscious plan, but that was the end result. The other evidence is that when things got deep with you and Chris again, she found yet another reason to walk away. And I know you loved her, and I’m not trying to take away from that, but you’re letting your love for her mean that you take on her failings as your own.”

Eddie blinked in astonishment, not sure how to process that.

Buck waited for several beats before reaching up and cupping Eddie’s face. “I can understand why you’re afraid that you’re going to get burned again. I think you’re making the sex thing bigger than it is—before we even know if it’s a problem—because this is really about Shannon walking out on you, and you’re worried I’m going to find a reason to do the same.” Buck’s thumb trailed over Eddie’s cheekbone in a gentle caress. “Please take it on board that I want to be Christopher’s father. I want to be your partner…your everything. I’ve wanted it for years. I’d have burrowed in like a tick if I thought I could have gotten away with it. I am not Shannon.”

Eddie couldn’t help but laugh, but it sounded kind of watery and sad. “I feel like I already nearly drove you away though, and if I’m not enough—”

“You were always enough. Stop that.” Buck’s hand slid back to cup the back of Eddie’s head, squeezing reassuringly. “I understand pushing people away out of fear. I understand making bad choices out of uncertainty. We were drifting apart because I thought I wasn’t what you wanted. I was willing to take whatever spot you had in your life for me, but it felt like there wasn’t one anymore.”

Eddie felt a sob catch in his throat. “Dios, Buck, I am so sorry.”

“I’m not asking you to apologize; I’m just explaining. You explained what happened, I was scared and didn’t talk to you about how I felt pushed aside. There’s plenty of miscommunication to go around. The point here and now is that I want this whole family package you’ve got going on; I’ve always wanted it. I love you and Chris. You know rationally that I’m not like Shannon, but you’re letting your fear that I’ll walk out on you make you draw comparisons where there are none.

“As for the kissing and sex thing… I like kissing, Eddie; it’s a given that I’m going to like kissing you. And it doesn’t have to be so binary—all or nothing. It could be that you like kissing me, and it may not be all that sexual for you. Which is fine. When you know what your boundaries are, you tell me, and I promise to respect them. There’s such a breadth of things to do when it comes to sex, and so many more things when it comes to intimacy. There’s no rush to figure it out because I’m in it no matter what the answer is.”

“You’re absolutely sure?”

“Oh, Eddie. You’re my everything. Of course I’m sure.”

Eddie felt like the emotions were choking him, which was not a state of being he was comfortable with. He held Buck tighter, unable to verbalize what was going on in his head but needing to keep Buck close.

After long moments, Buck blew out a breath. “Let me run to the bathroom, get my thoughts in order; we’ve got time to talk about this a little more, okay?”

Eddie pulled away reluctantly. “Yeah, okay.” He slipped down the hall to use the guest bath, taking the time to also brush his teeth and splash some water on his face. In about ninety minutes, they’d need to be hitting the showers if they wanted to make it out the door on time for the funeral. They couldn’t devote that whole time to talking, however, because Pepa would have brunch on the table thirty minutes before they needed to leave, and she fully expected everyone to be present.

Eddie made it back to Buck’s room without encountering anyone else and found Buck already seated on the bed, idly looking at something on his phone. Buck readily set the phone aside and patted the bed next to him. “Let’s talk some more.”

When Eddie was seated, he realized he was tense, so he got up and started to pace.

Buck smiled gently, letting him burn off his nervous energy without comment. “What are you worried about?”

“It’s hard to not know myself at this stage in my life, you know? I feel like I should be able to go into a relationship without all this uncertainty; I also don’t like the idea that you might have to give up something you take pleasure in, but I hear you that the intimacy is more important to you, and I’m trying to accept that as truth rather than listen to my own fears.”

Buck got to his feet and moved into Eddie’s orbit. “And…?”

Eddie blew out a breath and squeezed his eyes shut. “I just hate the idea of you giving up something vital.”

“Eddie,” Buck said softly, standing much closer, and Eddie’s eyes snapped open. “You are vital. Chris is vital. Sex is not. Kissing isn’t. Intimacy is what’s vital to me, and considering how last night went, I think we’ve established we’ll be fine on that front. In fact, we were before—” He made a face and then ducked his head down a little to force eye contact. “I want to be real clear about something. The one thing I can’t tolerate is you forcing yourself to do something you don’t want because you think I want it. Just the thought that you felt you had to perform for Ana makes me feel physically ill. I’m just putting it out there that it would feel to me like a deep emotional betrayal if you ever put yourself in that position because you thought it would please me.”

Eddie felt his eyes get hot and then well with tears. “Buck.” His throat felt tight.

“At some point, we’ll try kissing, and if you decide you don’t like it, it’ll be okay. I promise.”

“Even if you love it?”

“Even then. But there are so many ways to kiss, Eddie, and I just don’t believe you’re going to hate them all.” Buck’s grin was teasing.

Eddie frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Be serious.”

“I am serious. How many ways are there to kiss?”

Buck’s expression went kind of blank and he blinked a few times. Then he took in a sharp breath. “Okay. I’ll illustrate. You tell me if you get uncomfortable and want me to stop, all right? Also, I won’t do anything that involves opening the mouth or using the tongue.”

Eddie swallowed heavily, his mouth suddenly feeling dry. He somehow managed a shaky nod. He actually really desperately wanted to kiss Buck, but he was afraid of the outcome if it didn’t do anything for him.

Buck stepped into Eddie’s space then soft lips pressed gently against his forehead. “Goodnight, Eddie,” Buck whispered.

It was Eddie’s turn to blink a lot. “That’s how I put our son to bed.”

Buck’s smile was soft. “So?”

“Buck.”

Without missing a beat, Buck kissed in the vicinity of Eddie’s cheek, missing him by a couple of inches, but making a kissy noise. “Kiss kiss, love love,” he said in a contrived tone.

“Air kisses?” Eddie couldn’t help but grin at the breaking tension. “Really?”

Buck laughed. Then he pressed a real kiss to Eddie’s cheek and seriously said, “Hey.” The tone was soft and gentle.

Eddie’s lips twitched. “Hi.”

Buck smiled at him. “La bise.” Then he dropped a light kiss on each of his cheeks.

Eddie laughed. “I’m not French.”

“But it’s a lovely tradition. We should make a habit of it. Although, we’ll have to put off the Spider-Man kiss for when one of us is conveniently upside down, and I’ll be sure to kiss the top of your head the next time you’re seated.”

“That definitely feels paternal.”

“I just a kiss, Eddie. It says: I care about you and we’re close enough to accept one another in our personal space. Dropping a kiss on someone’s head is…pure affection. To me, it’s almost like being overwhelmed with how much you care for someone and needing a way to express it.” He cupped Eddie’s face. “I feel that way around you all the time.”

“Buck…” Eddie felt stupidly overwhelmed himself.

“Next time you’re not feeling well, I’ll press my lips to your forehead for longer than usual, and we’ll do the temperature-check kiss.”

Eddie snorted in amusement.

Buck leaned in and kissed him on the lips. Dry, chaste, and quick. “The classic peck on the lips. Too intimate for casual friends, but not out of bounds for a variety of close platonic or romantic relationships.”

Eddie wanted another one of those.

Then Buck leaned in again and Eddie’s breath caught in anticipation. But Buck just rubbed their noses together. Eddie chuckled then huffed a little. “I’m not five.”

“I’m just showing you how limited your thinking is.” Buck pressed their cheeks together, though his head was tilted down. Then Eddie felt a faint fluttering against his cheekbone; it made him want to laugh.

“Butterfly kisses?” he guessed with a grin.

“Bingo.” Buck kept them pressed cheek-to-cheek, though this time he wrapped his arms around Eddie and swayed from side-to-side.

“This isn’t a kiss,” Eddie murmured, melting into the hold.

“You want me to continue?” Buck whispered.

Eddie never wanted him to stop. “How many more are there?”

“A couple before the most important one. Leaving off a few that are distinctly sexual, of course.”

“Then, yeah… Continue.”

Buck’s lips pressed lingeringly to the side of his neck, and Eddie took a shuddery breath. “Neck kiss,” he murmured against Eddie’s skin. “Probably not platonic, definitely creepy when it comes from someone you’re related to.”

Eddie burst out laughing, nearly vibrating in Buck’s hold. “No fucking kidding.”

“Also horrifying when you were only expecting a hug that you weren’t sure you wanted in the first place.”

“Buck.” Eddie still felt a well of amusement trying to make its way out as a full-body laugh.

Buck pressed a soft kiss against Eddie’s ear, and the amusement was gone like a vapor. He shuddered in Buck’s arms.

“Ear kiss. Much more intimate,” Buck whispered right against Eddie’s ear. “But not as intimate as,” Buck’s lush lips pressed behind Eddie’s ear, and tremors suddenly racked Eddie’s whole body.

Eddie clutched at Buck’s waist, holding him close.

Buck broke Eddie’s hold and slid behind him, arms curled around his waist. His lips pressed against Eddie’s shoulder, feeling hot through the thin fabric of Eddie’s t-shirt.

Eddie held tight to Buck’s arms, not wanting the embrace to end. He was very onboard with the kissing demonstration so far. “Is that the important one?” Eddie sounded a little breathless.

“Not even.”

“Show me.”

Buck moved back around to the front of Eddie’s body, keeping contact the entire time. He took hold of both of Eddie’s hands and stepped back a bit. Holding Eddie’s hands, he said, “You are infinitely precious to me, Edmundo Miguel Diaz. You deserve love and respect, patience and kindness.” He pressed a kiss to the back of each hand, pausing briefly over each.

Then he turned Eddie’s hands over, pressing a lingering kiss to the inside of each wrist. Eddie felt like his entire being was suddenly alight, and his emotions weren’t exempted from the raging inferno.

“The important kiss, Eddie, is the kiss you want. All you have to do is let me know when you’re ready.”

Feeling completely overwhelmed, Eddie reached out blindly and pulled Buck into a bruising hug, so tight that he was afraid he might never be able to let go.

~*~

Eddie’s hair was still wet from his shower when he made it to the kitchen. He’d been emotionally overwhelmed from the discussion with Buck earlier, and Buck had easily seen that, so Buck had suggested they split up and take showers, getting an early start on the mess that the day would no doubt be.

Pepa was at the stove and immediately gave him the task of setting the table.

“Where are Philip and Buck?” Eddie glanced around as if that would make them suddenly appear. He knew Pepa was going to put some concealer she’d picked up yesterday on Buck’s bruises, so he’d figured Buck would still be in the kitchen, begrudgingly getting makeup dabbed on his head injury.

“Philip asked to talk to Buck for a few moments; they could be a little longer. I’ve delayed the eggs until they come down.”

“Is everything all right?”

Pepa’s lips pursed. “Philip feels his failings as a parent keenly, and yet he grieves his wife. He feels he has no right to his grief because he sacrificed so much to put her first in all things. In his way, I think Buck is absolving him, giving him permission to miss her and mourn her, especially today.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand how the Buckleys were together—as a couple, I mean.”

“Oh, you understand it fine. The expression of it is different, but Ramón would do almost anything to make your mother happy. The difference, Eddie, is that your parents are over involved in you and your sisters’ lives, while Philip and Margaret were uninvolved in the lives of their children.”

That brought Eddie up short. “Wow. I hadn’t considered that.”

“Mm.” She side-eyed him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“Eh. Do not lie to me, Edmundo.”

“Pepa.” Eddie huffed. “Buck and I are just trying to figure out the nature of our relationship; that’s all.”

“Meaning?” She set a covered pan on the back burner and turned away from the stove, crossing her arms over her chest. She had a particularly menacing-looking spatula in one hand. “You and Buck love each other, no?”

“Yes, of course. But I don’t have any experience being in a…” He hesitated, making a face. “Tía.”

“Is this about sex?”

He threw up his hands. “Yes, okay? It’s about sex. I’ve never had sex with a man.” Eddie sighed, and dragged his hand through his damp hair. “Buck thought I was asexual.”

She cocked her head to the side. “Why?”

“He said I never mentioned sex the way a lot of men do, and he wasn’t sure…” Eddie hesitated, feeling his face heat and cleared his throat before continuing. “He wasn’t sure how much enjoyment was a factor in my relationship with Shannon.”

“Ah. Well…are you?”

“No.” Eddie frowned. “I don’t think so. I had sex with Shannon and enjoyed it. I desired it. With her.”

“Asexuality is not all one thing or another, Eddie.”

Eddie frowned. “How would you know?”

“Well, I read, Edmundo Miguel.” She hesitated. “But, also, I am Ace myself.”

“Tía?” Eddie blinked a few times. “You were married. You have two children.”

“You need to read a bit on the subject, I think. But my point is that I know quite a bit about living a life you do not desire. I love my children; I regret my ex-husband. There will be no more husbands for me. I have no uncertainty about where I fall on the sexuality spectrum.”

“Why did you never say?”

“It’s no one’s business but my own,” she said tartly, but then her demeanor softened. “Mamá knows. She understands on some level and tried to learn more. Hector knows, but I have not yet discussed it with Mariana. But this is not about me.” She pinned him with a look. “If Buck thought you were Ace, he clearly doesn’t think lack of sex in your relationship will be a problem for him.”

“Tía…” Eddie scrubbed his hands over his face.

“We only have a few minutes, so put this puritanical nonsense you learned from your mother aside and talk. Have you ever tried being with a man?”

“No, and maybe it’ll be the same. Well, not the same, but sex with someone you love might be—” He made a face. “I get in my head because I don’t know, but Buck thinks I’m more worried that he’s going to bail on me like Shan did, and the sex stuff is a misdirect. But, to be fair, it’s disconcerting to be in your 30s and not know yourself yet.”

“I was in my 40s before I figured myself out,” she said softly. “It’s never too late. You get to your truth in your own time. I think perhaps you are both right. Evan came to acceptance of himself in sexual matters at a younger age and, to him, it seems like everyone should just accept people how they are. It’s an idealistic point of view. You have reason not to know yourself when it comes to sexuality due to your upbringing, and you also have reason to fear being abandoned by your partner due to your last marriage. I can’t say anything about the latter other than to reassure you that Evan loves you with his entire being, and I have faith in him. As for the former… Assuming your worries are justified, that you may not like sex with a man, you are worried about committing yourself to a relationship with a man and having to give up sex?”

What? No! I’m worried about him having to give it up.”

“Wouldn’t you be giving up sex as well?”

“No. Well, yes, but I think I have a low interest level… Maybe. I mean, I enjoyed sex with Shannon and a couple others in my life, but I’ve never sought it outside of certain circumstances. It doesn’t feel like it’d be a sacrifice on my part.”

“Ah.” Pepa looked enlightened.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing, Edmundo, your journey is your own.”

“You think I’m demisexual,” he guessed.

Her eyebrows shot up.

“I have been thinking about this, Tía.”

“Good. I won’t despair of you yet, but I’ll still send you some websites. That said, are you really telling me your big concern is that you and Buck won’t have a sexual relationship because the lack of sex doesn’t bother you? I’m sorry, I find that very confusing.”

“And I feel like you’re being deliberately obtuse. Buck likes sex.”

“What does Buck say about it?”

“He said it’s not his top priority. That he can…take care of his own business, I guess.”

Pepa cocked her head to the side. “You think he’s lying to himself?”

“No.” He cocked his head to the side and considered it, and the more he considered it, the more he was curious how Buck would take care of himself, and the more he wondered if he could watch, and— He shut that line of thought down hard and cleared his throat. “No, I believe Buck just fine.”

Pepa frowned. “So, you two have worked everything out…?”

“Well…no.”

“You have communication, you have love, you have agreement to have sex or not have sex, you have commitment, you have a family.” She threw up her hands. “Ay Dios,” Pepa said before breaking into some colorful swearing in Spanish and then calling him an idiot and questioning his parentage.

“What did I do to deserve that?”

“I’ve seen how much Evan has suffered while you two were drifting apart.” Pepa was pointing with a spatula. “You two have a relationship, Eddie. Accept it. Quit trying to find problems.” She shook her head and jerked the rear pan back onto the front burner, taking off the lid and stirring the sausage and peppers within. “You are trying to sabotage your relationship before it has even begun, Edmundo. I do not understand you.”

“I’m not, Tía. That’s not what’s happening here. I didn’t say we don’t have a relationship, just that we’re trying to figure things out.” He held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Give me time with it, okay? I think Buck and I have said all the right words, I just need them to make it to my heart. Don’t go siccing Abuela on me. Not yet.”

“It’s not my or Mamá’s job to interfere in the course of your relationship.” She gave him a deeply unimpressed look. “But don’t fuck it up.”

Buck came into the kitchen right at that moment. “Wow. What’d you do, Eddie?”

Eddie groaned and buried his face in his hands.

~*~

Eddie fixed his hair in the bathroom and retreated to his room to finish dressing for the funeral. Pepa’s advice from before brunch was rattling around in his head, but not nearly as much as Buck’s kissing demonstration from before.

It had stirred a want in him much stronger than he actually expected to feel; it reminded him wholly of his draw to Shannon. Eddie had always known Buck was attractive, and Eddie now had first hand experience of how good it felt to have intimacy with Buck. But he kept wanting to kiss Buck. Now, he was even wondering about sex acts.

He’d thought, at best, he’d find sex acts with Buck to be pleasurable, but not something he’d find consuming the way he had with Shannon. But, now, he was starting to wonder if it could be more. Because he couldn’t stop thinking about Buck’s lips and his hands. The feel of his arms around Eddie’s body. The firm touch of his fingers.

Eddie shuddered.

That in and of itself was challenging Eddie’s self-perception. It wasn’t any kind of homosexual anxiety, but more how could he be over thirty and not have figured himself out yet? It felt defeating in a way, but also made him wonder how he could be so clueless?

But then he thought about what Pepa had revealed, about her decades of a marriage she didn’t want, and he realized it was never too late to figure yourself out. And maybe Eddie was in that group of people who only ever had to figure himself out relative to the person he wanted to be in a relationship with. He might just be very oriented toward being in love with someone, and everything else came after.

His phone vibrated on the nightstand, catching his attention. Frowning, he picked it up and realized he had several missed texts from Hen, all asking that he call right away with increasing urgency but little real information.

He immediately forgot everything he’d been so absorbed with and dialed before he could even fully process his rising worry.

As soon as she answered, he blurted out, “Hen? Is something up with Chris?”

No, Eddie; I promise I’d have been clearer if something was wrong with your son.”

“Sorry. You’re right. It’s just your texts were repeated and urgent, and I freaked out a little.” He glanced at his watch. “Is everything okay? I’m running up against an appointment I have to leave for in a few minutes.”

Listen, I’ll try to be brief. Uh. Karen said I might have revealed something you guys didn’t want revealed and that I should call you immediately.”

Eddie stilled. “What’s that? And revealed to who?”

You’re going to Buck’s mother’s funeral, right? That’s what your next appointment is?”

“How’d you know that?”

Hen huffed, and it sounded a little annoyed. “I overhead the kids talking about it. Christopher even knew the date and time; it was easy enough to find the rest online. Eddie, seriously, why keep this a secret?”

“Hen.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “We kept it a secret because that’s what Buck wanted. You know, the son of the deceased.”

There was a long silence. “Yeah, about that. Karen said it was obvious to her Buck was keeping it quiet, but I wasn’t thinking about the whys and whatnots, I just wanted to be sure Chim knew since it might be a lead on Maddie.”

Eddie resisted the urge to pitch his phone into the nearest body of water. Or a snowbank—fucking Pennsylvania. “You told Chim?”

Yeah. I mean, he has a right to know, Eddie.”

“Why the hell does he have a right to know?” Eddie snapped. “Just because he’s Maddie’s boyfriend, it doesn’t give him any rights when it comes to her life beyond him, and it certainly doesn’t give him rights to Buck’s life or family when Maddie isn’t around. Which she hasn’t been. For months, as you damn well know, even if she’s only been literally gone for a few weeks.”

She wasn’t deliberately cutting Buck out of her life this summer; that was all her PPD, come on, Eddie.”

“Exactly, Hen. And she was deliberately cutting Buck out of her life in order to hide what was going on. In point of fact, Chim enabled her hiding a serious mental health issue when he should have known better, and you—” He broke off. “You know what, I don’t owe you this explanation. You only want to see Chim’s side of it. That he desperately needs to find Maddie. There’s more to this situation, more people, than just Maddie Buckley. Buck is involved, Jee is involved. Both are suffering because all anyone cares about is Chim’s obsessional pursuit of a woman who wants to be left alone. I’m done. I have a funeral to get to and now, because of you, I have to be on the lookout for the one thing Buck didn’t want to have to deal with today: Chim’s presence without Maddie.”

She’s not there?” Hen asked hesitantly.

“No, dammit. She’s not here. But even if she were, if she didn’t want to see Chim during her mother’s funeral, that’d be her fucking right, Hen. What the hell?”

“She’s mentally ill, Eddie.”

“Where the hell was that perspective when she was locked up in her apartment, falling apart under the burden of her intrusive thoughts?”

No one knew,” Hen snapped.

“Chim did,” Eddie returned softly. “Chim, the paramedic, knew. The very person you seem to think has a right to pursue her. But this is not about blame and figuring out who did what before Maddie decided to leave. The bottom line is she chose to hide her illness. Chim chose to help her hide it. Then she chose to leave. Now, Chim is choosing to pursue her against her wishes. Fine. You keep enabling his bullshit while he has his infant daughter living out of car seats and hotels.”

That’s not fair. I told him about the funeral hoping he’d find Maddie and come home! As much for Jee’s sake as anyone’s.

“Even if she were here, Howard Han can’t force her to do anything!” Eddie snapped. “And Buck doesn’t want him here! Buck doesn’t want the man who hit him sitting there while he’s trying to deal with his own fucked up, conflicted feelings about his mother dying. His mother, Hen. She wasn’t even sixty, and any possibility of them fixing their relationship is now gone. Buck has a right to sit there today without having to face Chim. His one damn request was that Chimney not know about this.”

Eddie—”

“I gotta go. I’m not going to be late to the funeral.”

For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. When I told Karen that I’d called Chim, she knew immediately that Buck didn’t want Chim to know and said it was his right to make that choice.” She blew out a breath. “I feel like Chim should know, but I’m sorry I took that choice away from Buck.”

“I wish I could say that matters. You’re so much on Chim’s side, and therefore not objective, that it’s hard to trust you anymore.”

Like you’re not on Buck’s side?”

“Let’s remember who broke who’s face. Literally. Fracture of the orbital bone, Hen. Try to remember the facts. Be an enabling friend if you must; I don’t care. But don’t change the facts. At least I can say when I encouraged Chim to try to find Maddie that it was before I knew he’d hit Buck. I’d like to think I wouldn’t send a man capable of interpersonal violence chasing after a woman who’d nearly been murdered by her ex-husband.”

Hen sucked in a sharp breath. “That’s hardly fair; Chim isn’t violent.”

“He’s just violent with Buck?”

That was unfortunate, and you have to know it’s not in character for Chim.”

“I don’t know much of anything, Hen, because the only person he talks to is you, and he ignores anything Buck tries to say to him. You want me to be sympathetic to Chim because he’s missing his girlfriend, but he left a lot of destruction in his wake, and he’s making it even harder to be sympathetic to him every time I have to hear or hear about his outgoing voicemail.”

Buck should have told Chim Maddie had been in touch with him before she left.”

There was an indignant sound in the background then Karen’s voice came over the line. “Hen has to go so she and I can talk about rationalizing violence so she can avoid an unpleasant truth about someone she cares for; sometimes people we love do shitty things, and we just have to accept it and figure out how to move on. I know you need to get to the funeral. She doesn’t actually think there’s any justification for interpersonal violence, she’s just talking out her ass right now because she’s not sure how to be a supportive friend when what her friend really needs is a come-to-Jesus meeting, not a cross-country road trip with his infant confined in the back seat. So, I’ll let you go, and I’ll just apologize on her behalf for that bit of victim blaming.”

Eddie caught the inside of his cheek between his teeth and forced down the anger. “She needs to not try that tactic with me again. I’ll leave the 118 and never speak to anyone but Buck again if people start taking the approach that someone deserves to be hurt because they honored someone else’s wishes.”

I understand.”

“Thank you, Karen.”

Give Buck a hug from me, Eddie. I’ll be thinking of you guys.”

He hung up and let his head fall back, staring at the blank expanse of a bland, white ceiling. He could only hope Chim didn’t have enough time to act on his intel. Having Chim show up to Margaret Buckley’s funeral was Eddie’s worst-case scenario for today.

Now he just had to decide if he was going to give a heads-up to Buck or not. He decided to run it by Pepa.

When in doubt, find an adult.

~*~

The person he found was not Pepa—it was Philip Buckley.

“Pepa and Evan talking about something serious while she covers that bruise of his; we’re actually running a few minutes ahead of time, so I’m not inclined to disturb them.” Philip gave Eddie a pointed look. “Did you need something?”

Eddie opened his mouth, then snapped it closed again. After a few moments of consideration, he decided to just be honest. It was Margaret’s funeral, and Philip had a right to decide if he wanted to make preparations with the funeral home to have Chimney barred from entering.

He succinctly laid out the information he’d received from Hen and concluded with, “I think it likely that he’s making his way here, but I’m uncertain if he’ll arrive in time for the funeral or not.”

“Hmm.” Philip mused for a few seconds. He glanced back through the glass Shaker doors that gave Buck and Pepa privacy in the den. “Walk with me, Eddie.”

To Eddie’s great displeasure, he found himself outside, taking a stroll with Buck’s father. There was no snow, but it was still colder than Eddie ever wanted to deal with. Fucking Pennsylvania.

“Do you know what the touchstone of your relationship with Evan is?” Philip began, seemingly completely off-topic.

“Uh. No…?”

“It’s that he knows that you will always put Chris above him. That means everything to him. Some second spouses would be threatened by such a notion, but not Evan.” Philip gave Eddie a quick look. “I realize that’s to some great degree a sad commentary on the quality of mine and Margaret’s parenting, but—” He sighed. “Regardless, Evan— Pardon me, Buck knows that you will prioritize your son.”

“Yes,” Eddie agreed softly.

“Not only that, but he told me that Christopher is a higher priority for him than even you. And since I know you’re more important than anyone else he knows or is related to, that means your son holds the position of most important person on Earth to my son.”

Eddie wasn’t sure what to do with that, though it made his chest ache in the best way.

“It made me realize,” Philip continued, “that in one of my children, somehow, through no credit to us, our child had come out all right.”

“Perhaps a credit to Maddie.”

“Perhaps, though I think Buck romanticizes his sister’s involvement in his early life. I’d never tell him this, but she was so eager to go to college, to be away from us, that she cared about very little else. I know she loved Evan, but she wasn’t as attentive to him as he thinks. It’s perhaps just in comparison to how absent Margaret and I were.” Philip sighed. “I suppose anything can seem like an oasis when you’re dying of thirst.” He gave Eddie a sad smile. “That’s my fault. We were terrible parents to Evan. Buck. Maddie was a good sister, and perhaps a little more, but she wasn’t the paragon of parental virtue that he’s built her up to be in his mind.

“And yet, somehow, our most neglected child is the one who knows how to prioritize a child, who understands their role in a relationship, who doesn’t resent being second place.”

“Maddie prioritized Jee,” Eddie defended because he thought Buck would want him to.

“Did she?” Philip gave him an arch look. “Buck’s the one who was willing to get therapy, and shake off the burdens of the past holding him in place, to learn how to be a good father. Maddie has done nothing but hide. I don’t discount the PPD and the burden it placed on her mind and her relationship, but Maddie’s need to keep everything secret and looking normal is a lesson she learned at her mother’s knee, and it’s a lesson she learned well. Let me tell you the lesson I learned: hiding is not prioritizing your child.

“You can disagree with me or not, it’s somewhat irrelevant. I love Madeline, but she’s lapsing into her same bad habits from when she first left home. Yes, she needs medication and therapy and time to mend, but she also needs to deal with the consequences of her actions and inaction.” Philip gave another grimace. “Hypocritical coming from me, but it is what it is.”

“And exactly what is it?” Eddie asked in confusion.

“It is my wife’s funeral that Howard will likely crash, and it’s my daughter’s inheritance that he’s not going to get his hands on.” Philip stopped and shoved his hands into the pocket of his wool overcoat. “Buck resents that I made him the trustee over his sister’s estate. Yes, I could have done it, but the one thing I still worry about with Buck is his ability to hold the line with his sister. He’s learned to do it with me. And he’d learned it with his mother,” Philip added with a pained look. “I believe he’s even learned to hold it with you. I don’t believe he needs to worry about holding the line with your son, but he does with Maddie. So, I gave him this task he does not want, and I told him I don’t want another abusive man with my daughter. If she insists on staying with him, she doesn’t get any of her inheritance. At least, not until after I die.”

Philip’s smile turned a bit devious. “But then Buck mentioned his solution if Maddie and Chimney stayed together, based on my wishes, which would be to put everything in trust for Jee. What a perfect compromise. If Maddie chooses to live in another toxic relationship, I’ll change my estate so that my granddaughter inherits.” He hesitated and looked at Eddie squarely. “And my grandson.”

Eddie nearly choked.

“It’s obvious to me that Buck could not possibly love a child more than Christopher. With that in mind, I’ve begun updating my estate planning to provide for him.”

“Buck is providing for him,” Eddie managed to get out.

“And how much does your son deserve, Eddie?”

Eddie opened his mouth then snapped it shut with a sharp click. “That is not a fair question.”

“Perhaps, but one of the issues I need to atone for in life is how terribly unfair I’ve been.”

Eddie wasn’t sure if that was a serious statement or not.

“Buck sees Christopher as a son. So, Chris will be provided for.” Almost as an afterthought, Philip added, “And whatever other children the two of you have.”

“Other?” Eddie echoed.

“Do you not wish to have more children?”

“I hadn’t—” Eddie felt completely wrong-footed. “I’d always wanted more than one, but then…”

“We both know there are other ways to have a child. Surrogacy, adoption.” Philip lifted one shoulder. “If you two desire more children, I’m sure you’ll have them. And when you do, I’ll provide for them in the same way I do Christopher.”

Eddie wanted to protest that he didn’t want Buckley’s guilt money, but he really had no say over the man’s estate planning.

“Buck is too kind to me, I think, and he’s agreed to allow me to come stay in LA. To get away from these memories.” He waved expansively at the house. “I don’t know how to function in this mire without her.” He shook his head and then met Eddie’s gaze. “When I come to LA, I hope you’ll allow me to meet Christopher at some point. I realize I have a long way to go to even begin to make amends to my son, and I know it may be hard to trust me, but I’ll try to do right by them—if you’ll let me.”

“All Buck has ever wanted is for you to try to fix it.”

“I know,” Philip whispered. “Margaret hated the therapy, and I hated the heartbreak when I told Buck we wouldn’t be attending any more sessions. I will go back to sessions with him and we’ll talk this out until I’ve heard as much pain as he’s willing to share with me. It’s astonishing to me that, on blind faith, he’s going to let me into his life again and risk letting me break his heart once more. I at least can trust his heart is in infinitely better hands with you. Regardless, I’m going to do my best to earn his forgiveness, to earn the privilege of meeting Christopher, and also of calling him grandson. Until such time, I’ll come to LA and do my best not to interfere in Buck’s life, but I’m going to give you blanket permission, Eddie, to tell me off if I’m starting to fail him again.”

“You want me to get in your face if I think you’re screwing up?”

“I do, and I think of all the people in this situation, you actually might do it.” Philip rubbed his hands together. “Now. Back to the situation with Howard. Originally, Buck didn’t want to tell me about Howard’s behavior before his ill-advised pursuit of Madeline; Pepa insisted he tell me every detail. I would not choose to invite Howard to the funeral sans my daughter, but my own issues aside, I most certainly do not want the man who hurt my son anywhere near him. So, we will not tell Evan that Howard may be attending. No, we’ll quietly brief the funeral home, show them some pictures, and if Howard attempts to attend, you and I will handle the situation.”

“What do you mean by ‘handle?’” Eddie asked warily.

Philip chuckled. “Nothing nefarious. He’ll simply not be allowed to enter, and I’ll explain that he needs to leave.”

“I can handle that part.”

“No, it’s best that I do it. He’ll take it seriously from me. Also, I’d like to ask him about my granddaughter. I feel it more likely that he’ll share that information with me rather than you. Of course, you can be present as well.”

“So, we’re going to keep a lookout and then confront him?”

“Sounds simple, and I think it will be an effective solution.” He glanced at his watch. “Now, we’re running late. Let us return to the house.” When they were halfway there, he looked to Eddie. “I believe Evan has made a good choice for himself, Eddie.”

Eddie felt like he’d gotten the nod of parental approval, and it created a weird emotional dissonance for him. On the one hand, he appreciated it; on the other, he had no fucks to give about what Philip Buckley thought of him.

 

Chapter Nine

Eddie hung back from the small gathering of mourners, lurking near the doors of the funeral chapel. He’d expected to be hanging back with Pepa, but she was in the thick of it, managing the modest crowd of about twenty to ensure that they didn’t impose their grief on the two Buckleys.

He hadn’t expected a coffin—closed or otherwise—but, apparently, the cremation would be in a couple of days, so Margaret Buckley was present in body. Buck was visibly avoiding getting anywhere near the front of the chapel where the casket was placed.

Eddie would have normally tried to be closer to Buck, to offer support, but he felt he needed to be on the lookout for Chim to show up. He and Philip were in complete agreement that if Buck didn’t want to see Chimney today, Buck wouldn’t have to see him. They’d shown a photo to the funeral home employees, hopefully ensuring they’d get a heads up if Chim decided to show.

Buck kept shooting him looks, obviously not understanding what was going on and why Eddie wasn’t with him. Eddie felt conflicted because he really wanted to be with Buck, but he also wanted to intercept Chim.

As the minutes ticked by to the start of the service, Buck’s expression of confusion shifted to hurt.

Finally, Buck’s expression was both wounded and openly betrayed, and Eddie knew he had to be with his partner regardless of the other consequences. He stepped out into the foyer to talk to one of the attendants, expressing the need to be texted immediately if the funeral crasher showed up so that he could protect the family.

Apparently, the Buckleys were well regarded in Hershey because the guy promised they’d do everything they could to be on the lookout and alert Eddie before Chim could make it to the seating area reserved for the bereaved.

Eddie slipped back inside the chapel through the side door, coming up beside Buck, placing a hand on Buck’s lower back.

Buck stiffened and stepped away.

Unsure what to do, Eddie moved closer but didn’t touch. “You okay?” he whispered.

Buck nodded to someone in passing then turned and leaned close to whisper. “All you had to do was say no. I never wanted you uncomfortable. I can’t believe—” He broke off and shook his head as he walked away.

Blinking in astonishment, Eddie’s brain was slow to catch up but, as soon as he did, he quickly went after Buck. He took him by the arm and led him into the family-only alcove. Immediately, he pulled the privacy curtain, cutting them off from the rest of the room, though he knew the privacy was an illusion at best.

Buck jerked away from him as soon as they were alone and crossed his arms over his chest. The gesture could have come off as defensive, but Buck just looked hurt.

Eddie held up his hands in a no-harm gesture. “It wasn’t that, Buck; I promise.”

“Well, what the hell is it? You asked for that kissing demonstration and then you just stopped talking to me. You practically run every time I get close to you.”

“Will you just trust me that there was something that I needed to handle?”

Buck gave him a look. “Something that required you to stand at the back of the chapel? Are you afraid people will think we’re a couple, Eddie?”

“We are a couple,” Eddie snapped.

“Nice of you to remember that,” Buck whispered. “The question stands, but allow me to rephrase: are you afraid people will know we’re a couple.”

“No,” Eddie said softly but firmly. “I love you, and I don’t care who knows. I’m a little mixed up in my own head about my sexuality right now, as you already know, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you and that I don’t want our life together.”

“Then why?” Buck’s eyes welled with tears, and the why was so soft and plaintive that it made Eddie feel like a class-A idiot.

“Will you just—” He stopped himself from doing the repeat game, realizing that trust might actually be in a bit of short supply in some ways. “I didn’t want to tell you this; I wanted to handle it myself.”

“There’s something you needed to handle at my mother’s funeral?” Buck sounded honestly bewildered.

Eddie realized that protecting Buck wasn’t worth the damage it might do to their relationship. He sighed. “Hen found out about the funeral. She overheard Chris talking to Denny.”

Buck barely reacted. “And she told Chim.”

Eddie nodded.

“When?”

“Late last night, I think.”

“So, he’s probably going to show up…?” Buck’s affect was barely altered, as if he half expected it.

“I think it likely, yeah.”

Buck rubbed the back of his neck, obviously massaging out tension. “And you…what? Thought I was too fragile to hear that?”

“Not fragile, Buck, but you deserve to grieve for your mother without Howard Han in your face today. I wanted to intercept him if I could.” Eddie considered revealing the rest but decided he’d rather risk pissing off Philip than upsetting Buck any further. “I was going to get Pepa’s advice on the whole thing, but the two of you were talking while she covered your bruise, and Philip asked what was going on…”

Buck’s eyes went wide. “Dad knows?”

“Yes…?”

“God. He’s not a big fan of Chim’s on a good day. Thinks he’s Doug take II.” Buck scrubbed his hands over his face. “What did you two cook up?”

“That Philip or I would try to intercept Chim if we could and leave you in peace.”

“My dad, the man who is struggling not to collapse under the weight of his grief, is going to be on the lookout for Chim rather than focusing on his wife’s funeral? Really?”

“I think you’re missing the obvious reason why.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Doing what he can, in whatever small way, to take care of you is helping him keep his head above water. He clearly needs to focus externally right now, and protecting you from Chim seems to be helping.”

“I can handle Chim,” Buck said a bit snippily then blew out a tired breath. “I’m not so sure about Maddie.” There was a wealth of unexplored pain in that sentence. “But if you think it’s really helping Dad to protect me from the perils of funeral crashers, I won’t say anything to stop it.”

“Appreciated,” Eddie said wryly.

“But I’d really like it if you were with me because this whole thing kind of sucks, and it has nothing to do with Chim. In fact, it has a lot to do with Maddie not being here.” Buck glanced away, biting his lip.

“Message received.” Eddie cautiously reached out for Buck’s hands, relieved when Buck let him hold both firmly. “I was focused on the tactical problem in front of me, and I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. Also, you made yourself very clear about your boundaries in our evolving situation, Evan, and I promise not to violate them. I was not averse to what happened this morning, and I wasn’t upset about it either. I very much enjoyed it, which I think you already know, but I needed a little thinking time. And that’s all, okay?”

Buck nodded tightly, but that didn’t feel like enough of a breakthrough for Eddie, so he pulled Buck into his arms, and held him close until he felt all the lingering tension bleed away.

“I love you,” he whispered against Buck’s hair. “And we are a couple; I don’t care who knows.”

“Just stay with me, okay?”

“All right, Buck. I’m with you all the way.”

~*~

They were maybe three-quarters through the service when he got a text from Alvin, one of the funeral attendants, that Chim had arrived and was in the foyer with a baby. Alvin reported that Chim was currently shaking off the sleet and stripping off their outerwear, so they had a minute or two.

Philip was also looking at his phone.

Eddie showed the text to Buck, squeezing his arm. “Please let me and Philip handle it,” he whispered.

Buck looked conflicted, but he finally nodded, turning his attention back to the service, squeezing Pepa’s hand when she slid closer to him after Eddie got up from his chair.

Eddie knew Philip would be following in a few minutes, but they’d agreed to let Eddie try to handle it first.

Eddie slipped into the receiving hall, closing the door softly behind him, hearing a low-pitched argument between Alvin and Chim, who was looking a little bedraggled for a funeral, though better than if he’d been in the car for days, so he’d clearly changed at a local hotel or something.

Jee was in a car seat sitting on a bench, staring around curiously, trying to lift her head to see more.

“This is a family funeral, and I’m going in,” Chim finally said a little louder.

“You’re not welcome, Chim.” Eddie kept his voice pitched low.

Chim spun around. “Eddie? What are you doing here?”

“My best friend’s mother died. Where else would I be?”

Chim’s expression briefly twisted with something like anger, then it was smoothed out. “He and Margaret barely spoke.”

“That was more Margaret’s choice than his, and due to her own past trauma, as you well know. Regardless, it’s not really a proper topic of conversation on this day. Not that you have any right on any day to discuss Buck’s relationship with his mother.” Eddie kept his tone flat and low. “What are you doing here, Chimney?”

“It’s a family affair, right? And my invitation seemed to have been lost in the mail. Guess Buck forgot my phone number? Weird considering how many times he called me for days on end.”

“Yeah, but you’re not family. You have no legal connection whatsoever to the Buckleys. And if I were Buck, I’d have blocked your number. That said, Buck notified Maddie of the funeral and also told her that due to the enmity between the two of you that he would not be notifying you in any way and that if she wished for you to be here, she should show up with you in tow. He hasn’t heard from her, and she hasn’t acknowledged—”

Chim’s jaw muscle flexed as he made an angry motion with his hand. “Maddie’s why I’m here. I’d like to talk to her.”

The door behind Eddie opened and Philip Buckley stepped up next to Eddie, hands casually resting in his trouser pockets. “Howard,” Philip greeted dryly.

Chim swallowed heavily. “Mr. Buckley. My condolences on your loss. I just need to talk to—”

“Madeline is not here; she hasn’t responded to any emails, texts, or phone calls about her mother’s death or the funeral.”

Chim’s whole posture slumped. “She’s not here?”

“No.”

“This was my best lead though!”

“What are you doing, Howard?” Philip asked gently. More gently than Eddie could have managed. “Why are you here?”

“I’m trying to find Maddie. Didn’t Buck tell you?” Chim made a scoffing sound. “Of course he didn’t tell you. Why would Buck relay any kind of important information in a timely manner.”

“Evan absolutely informed me of Madeline’s situation and that he’d only had one brief phone call from her on her way out of town and then she’d called him again from what he thought was likely Boston, though he couldn’t be sure of that. In that most recent phone call, she specifically wanted him to account for why Jee was in a hotel room. As if Buck had any particular control over her actions or yours.”

Philip moved a few steps closer to Chim and cocked his head to the side. “So, I ask you again, what are you doing, Howard?”

“I already said; I’m trying to find Maddie. She’s just confused about stuff that was going on at home, and she needs new medication or something, but she needs to know that she’s not a bad mother; she needs to see that Jee is safe with her.”

“I hear you, and it does sound as if Madeline’s circumstances are difficult and perhaps dire. Is that—”

Chim’s brow furrowed and he interrupted Philip. “It’s just Maddie, right? That’s what she always said. That her name is Maddie.”

Philip’s eyebrow lifted. “The name on her birth certificate is Madeline. Margaret and Maddie never could agree about what Maddie wished to be called. Maddie said she would change her birth certificate when she was old enough. It became a thing between them until Maddie claimed to have legally changed her name so that Margaret would accept it. There was never any legal evidence of any name change other than from Buckley to Kendall and back again. Her name is still legally Madeline.

“I’m trying to learn to better honor my children’s wishes about their mode of address, but today is my wife’s funeral, and she named Madeline. So I will refer to my absent daughter, on this day, as Madeline.”

“Oh. I… Maddie always said her name was Maddie.” Chim looked tired, and Eddie was almost sympathetic.

“Names seem inconsequential at the moment. The more important question for you is: are Madeline’s circumstances any reason to drag Jee-Yun around in a car seat for weeks on end? Is that proving to my daughter that you’re a good father? What good does it do to prove to her that she’s a good mother while proving at the same time that you yourself are a negligent parent? Your relationship will suffer under either burden.”

Chim shook his head. “Maddie will understand.”

“Will she? It seems to me that the most important thing to Madeline is her daughter’s wellbeing. This is not honoring her wish.”

Chim’s jaw muscle firmed. “I have to find her.”

“Then, by all means, do so. But why must you drag little Jee along? You had a robust support system for her back home. I’ve heard from Eddie about your surrogate parents, the Lees, and then there’s your good friend, Henrietta. Plus, Eddie himself. Not to mention your extended family at your work that you all seem so close to. Also, I’ll be making my way to Los Angeles to be closer to my children if they have need of me, so I can be of assistance in her care.”

Chim’s eyes narrowed. “I notice you didn’t mention Buck.” He nearly spat Buck’s name.

“Are you snapping at me on the day of my wife’s funeral, Howard?” Philip’s tone was glacial.

Instantly, Chim looked contrite. “No, I’m sorry. I just get worked up… I don’t think you know—”

“Oh, I know everything.” Philip’s smile was bland. Too bland. “You do seem to be holding a grudge against Buck for a situation that was Madeline’s making, but I can understand how it’s easier to externalize that anger away from your romantic partner in such a trying time. Though I’d think you would not have done so to your daughter’s detriment, correct?”

Chim looked like he’d been slapped. “No, of course not.”

“Of course not,” Philip agreed. “An issue with one person does not make or break a child care situation in such a supportive, extended family environment such as you had in Los Angeles. So, even if you didn’t want Evan to see Jee without you supervising—at least, until Madeline could weigh in on such a decision on your part—there were plenty of people who could care for your daughter rather than raising her in an automobile during such a formative time.”

Chim swallowed heavily. “I didn’t think it would take so long, and I wanted her with me when I found Maddie so that Maddie could see that Jee was fine, and that Maddie was a good mother to her.”

“Too much time has likely passed for anything happening developmentally with Jee-Yun to be Maddie’s doing. It’s more likely that poor socialization and behavioral issues that arise from too much time being confined in vehicles and lack of exposure to new experiences will be a reflection on your parenting.”

“It wasn’t supposed to take this long,” Chim repeated. “If Buck had just told me to begin with, I’d have found her sooner!”

“How? Buck knew nothing about where she’d gone. As I understand it, quite a bit more information was obtained in the video she left you. Apparently, the sum total of his conversation with her was that she’d taken Jee to her doctor and even though Jee was fine, that she was terrified that Jee wasn’t safe with her because she doubted her ability to be a good mother. So, she was leaving, and she made him promise to look after you and Jee, and then swore him to secrecy about the phone call. How would that have helped you find Maddie sooner?”

“I don’t know, but he should have told me,” Chim said stubbornly.

Philip’s eyes narrowed briefly. “Yes, I can understand how secrecy can be damaging. Perhaps if someone had informed me that my only daughter was suffering from severe postpartum depression, I might have been able to intervene legally and financially to get her assistance.”

“Maddie didn’t want anyone to know,” Chim bit out.

“Ah, I see. You are the one who is allowed to decide which of Madeline’s requests for secrecy should be honored.”

Chim reared back like he’d been slapped. “That’s a gross oversimplification. Also, she’s my girlfriend.”

“Mm.” Philip made a tsking sound behind his teeth. “Well, the situation is no longer about Madeline. She is hiding her tracks well. I should know; I’ve had a PI on her trail.”

“You have?” Chim practically vibrated with energy.

“Yes. Since I heard she was missing and laboring under a severe mental health issue.”

“Will you tell me if you find out anything?”

“Perhaps. My primary concern, at the moment, is for Maddie’s daughter, who would be Maddie’s first priority if Maddie could be here.”

“I’m taking good care of Jee.”

Philip cocked his head to the side, and it made Eddie think of a land shark. “I believe you’re doing the best you can in the situation you find yourself in, Howard, but is that the same thing as taking good care of her? She’s a baby. She deserves better than to be in a car seat all day and then crawling around in hotel rooms in the evening.”

“I have to find Maddie!”

“Then, let’s figure out how we can get everyone taken care of to the best of our abilities, shall we?”

~*~

Buck was glad the service was small because even having to talk with twenty people he barely knew—if he knew them at all—was slowly destroying his will to live.

Eddie and his father had never come back after getting the text message that Chim had arrived. Buck hoped that didn’t mean disaster.

Fortunately, Pepa hadn’t left his side, and was making sure no one spent more than a couple of minutes extending their “most sincere condolences.”

Finally, the funeral chapel was empty save for himself, Pepa, the funeral director and…Margaret Buckley’s dead body.

Buck shuddered and made his way toward the doors. “I can’t be in here anymore.”

Pepa caught up with him and took his hand. “All will be well, Evan.” He loved the way the Diazes called him Evan. It was like reclaiming some of his own identity with the way they loved him. His father had also just recently told him that Daniel was the one to choose the name Evan, which was bittersweet. It helped him distance further from the memories of the two ways Margaret would say his name: disinterested and disappointed.

“I don’t know how I’d have gotten through any of this without you.” He squeezed her hand. “Thank you for coming with me.”

They stepped out into the small receiving hall and the funeral director closed the door behind them, leaving them alone.

Pepa reached up and patted his face. “You’d have done fine; you’re a good man, Evan Buckley, but I was honored to make this journey with you and be here when you needed me.”

“I always need you, Pepa; we’re family, right?”

She smiled. “Yes. I think of you more as a son, but I’ll take nephew-in-law in a pinch.”

Buck’s eyes widened and he coughed a little. “That’s rushing us along, don’t you think?”

“Pfft. You two were practically married before that idiota—who I love dearly—decided to put his head up that heifer’s behind.”

Buck bit his lip, trying not to laugh. That reaction probably wasn’t appropriate considering their surroundings. “He thought he was doing the right thing.”

“For who? Certainly not for Christopher, who adores you. So, for himself?” She made a scoffing sound. “He’s been miserable since he took that hussy on their first date.”

“You didn’t used to be so vitriolic about her…”

“I told Eddie about my own realization of self that came late in life. I inferred some unpleasant truths about his relationship with Ana. It doesn’t make me feel kindly toward her.”

Buck didn’t feel kindly toward her either, though he rationally knew that the problem was as much of Eddie’s making as it was of Ana’s expectations; it wasn’t fair to put all the blame on her. He planned to do it anyway. “Does Eddie know that I know…?”

“No, but you’re welcome to discuss my situation and realizations with him if it will help.”

“Oh no. Your experiences are your own, Pepa.”

“I love my nephew with all my heart, Evan, but he will never be comfortable discussing this with me. Perhaps, someday, the world will be better, and these things will not be so difficult. Until then, I give a good, kind man permission to share my story with my thickheaded nephew if you think it will help him in any way with his own journey.”

“Pepa…” Buck leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

She patted his hand. “The world is slowly changing for the better. We each do our part, eh?”

“We’ll try.”

Pepa glanced around. “Where are they? Philip warned me that Chinless person might show up.”

“Chim.” Buck sighed. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his chin.”

“I’ll be as petty as I like about the man who hit you, and nothing you can say will stop me. Chinless is the kindest thing I can think of at the moment.” She threaded her arm through his and began looking around in earnest. “Where could they possibly have gone?”

A throat clearing behind them had them both turning to find the funeral director waiting patiently. “Mr. Buckley asked if you would kindly join them in the other room.”

Buck exchanged a glance with Pepa, then followed the funeral director to a small antechamber that was discretely labeled Children’s Room.

The director hesitated at the door. “This was one of our more recent additions prior to the pandemic. It gives children a place to be and still act like children during such a somber time. The room is soundproof to avoid disrupting other mourners. During a larger service, we provide on-site child care.”

Buck just stared at the man, not sure where that was going.

The director cleared his throat again, then gestured toward the door. “They’re waiting for you.”

As soon as he opened the door, the sound of piercing screams met his ears.

Buck’s mouth fell open. “Jee?”

Eddie was walking back and forth with Jee in his arms, and she was screaming her little head off. There were an array of small bags laying around, as well as a changing mat and a car seat, but no Chimney. Philip was sitting in an undersized chair, looking a little tired.

“Are you really a baby whisperer?” Eddie asked, sounding a little frustrated.

Wha??”

“Calley said something about that once, and then Hen corrected her and said you were really a full-on kid whisperer. But I’m wondering about the baby part. Are you actually good with babies?”

Buck closed his mouth with a sharp clack. “Uh, it’s something that started at the hospital I used to volunteer at pre-COVID. I’d go in and hold the babies in the NICU, and sometimes the younger kids in the burn unit, but after COVID…” Buck shrugged. “Our job is too high risk on the exposure front for them to clear me once they restarted the program.”

Eddie had stopped pacing and was staring. “At Children’s Hospital?”

“Yeah. How’d you…?”

“Chris has doctors there, and sometimes the nurses would talk about the baby whisperer who volunteered in the NICU. Ay Dios, take her.” Eddie practically thrust Jee at Buck.

Then Buck was holding his niece, and it’d been so long that Buck felt choked up. He’d only seen her a handful of times after she’d been born before Maddie started isolating under the pretext of “family bonding.”

“Hey, Jee,” he said softly, pressing a kiss to her head. “I know the world feels big and terrible right now, and you’re probably so confused, lord knows I’m confused, so how about we walk and be confused together.”

She’d already stopped screaming and was giving little gasping breaths and hiccups as she began to calm down. He held her up so they were face-to-face, with his hands splayed over her back.

“Hey there, sweet pea. You’ve changed so much.” A tear slid down his face and he ignored it. Jee was all that mattered. “Look at how big you’ve gotten. How are you? Are you all worn out from those scary emotions and in need of a rest, or are you eager to see some new things, huh? I promise you can stay safe in my arms no matter the answer.”

She giggled and patted his cheeks.

“Ah, laughter is the best answer, huh, sweet girl? Shall we play a little?”

She began to babble while continuing to pat his cheeks.

“I get it; you want to tell someone about your day. Okay, then.” He dropped down onto the soft play mat, laying flat on his back and letting her sprawl over his chest. Most of the babies he’d held, those capable of lying flat, really liked lying on his chest for whatever reason. “Tell me all about it, sweetheart.”

Her laughter filled the room as she rocked up on her knees, rocking back and forth on his chest as he carefully stabilized her.

~*~

Jee was asleep after her bottle, and Buck smoothly transferred her to Pepa’s arms, who went to the far side of the room to sit on a small sofa and hum softly to the little girl.

Buck joined Eddie and Philip, who had both been watching him attentively for the last forty minutes. “Someone want to tell me what’s going on? Where’s Chim?”

Philip pulled a piece of paper from his overcoat pocket and passed it to Buck.

After skimming it, Buck realized it was a temporary guardianship letter, granting Philip and Eddie the right to take care of Jee and transport her back to California to stay with the Lees. It specifically stated that the temporary letter didn’t negate any other guardianship agreements in place, presumably so that the Lees could properly care for Jee. It was even notarized.

Buck was glad Jee was going back home, but it stung that the guardianship letter named Eddie and Philip so specifically. He nodded and handed it back to Philip. “I’m glad you were able to talk him into letting Jee go home; it’s healthier for her.”

Philip tucked the paper away. “When Eddie apprised me of the situation, I called Elias Sauver; he’s both my attorney and a friend, so he was already planning to attend the service today—his on-staff notary was able to come on short notice as well. I asked him to have some documents ready in case Howard showed up. I have an additional letter that gives me some rights to help with Jee’s care when I arrive in LA since this travel document is a time bounded guardianship to not last more than three weeks.

“But, if you’ll please note, that travel document doesn’t negate any existing guardianship agreements, temporary or otherwise.” Philip gave Buck a pointed look. “And didn’t Madeline give you quite an expansive amount of paperwork, naming you a backup guardian, even ahead of the Lees, in the event something happened to her?”

Buck’s mouth fell open. “Yes…?” He swallowed heavily. “But can’t Chim negate that?”

Eddie made a so-so motion. “Considering the nature of the paperwork Maddie had drawn up, and that Chim signed it all, probably not without a lot more legal intervention than he wants to do right now. I honestly think he forgot, and we played into that when we got him to sign this.” Eddie took Buck’s hand. “I know it’s not fair that he’s fixated his resentment and bitterness on you, but it is what it is, and we decided not to keep challenging his issues with you because getting him to let go of Jee, to let her go home, seemed more important.”

Buck nodded slowly. “So, I can keep seeing her?”

“Yes,” Philip said firmly. “And I already spoke to the Lees. While they clearly love Howard and wish to support him, they don’t find his behavior reasonable at this time. He obviously needs some mental health intervention himself. They’ve agreed to work with you about Jee’s care, and wait to discuss the particulars with Howard when he returns home. We’ll work out the fine points after you get back to LA. Elias has already contacted a family law attorney in Los Angeles that will at least begin documenting the situation in case additional legal action is required.”

Buck rubbed the back of his neck. “This is getting so out of hand.”

“It got out of hand when he decided to have his child live in the back seat of a car,” Eddie said firmly. “We’ll take her home, and we’ll honor the father’s wish that the Lees be the primary caregivers, but everyone will also honor the mother’s wish that her brother have a part in the caretaking. The Lees accept this rationale, and so should you. Maddie’s wishes, made before she had the PPD, matter as much, if not more, than whatever Chim has going on right now. Everyone believes he’s compromised, so I’m trying to take that on board and make some allowances.”

“He’s probably suffering from PPD himself,” Buck murmured. “It can affect men.”

“Perhaps,” Philip agreed. “And we’ll work on documenting that and taking it into consideration. If Maddie needs help to be a good mother, perhaps he needs help to be a good father. But the task that’s before you now is to get this little girl home and then get on with your life.”

Buck felt like he was being managed and there was some undertone that he didn’t quite get, but he honestly wasn’t sure he cared. Jee was here, she was safe, and she was going back to where she was cared for in a more nurturing environment that supported her properly hitting her developmental milestones.

“How are we going to get her home?” Buck asked, worried. “We can’t take her on a plane. We were already worried about isolating after we get back to avoid exposing Chris, but Jee is too little to be masked, and she’d be at risk herself and then be a potential carrier for Chris, and—”

“We’re going to drive,” Eddie said gently. “A very long, slow drive with as little contact as possible with other human beings. You, me, and Jee. Pepa needs to get back to work, so she’s going to fly.”

“So do we,” Buck countered. “I know Bobby would give me the time off for a long drive, but what about you?”

“He’ll give us both the time off, Buck; it’ll be fine. It’s about a forty hour drive, and I figure we’ll do no more than four hours a day, broken up very carefully. One of us in the back seat with Jee to keep her more engaged. Probably you, Mr. Baby Whisperer.” Eddie nudged him with his shoulder. “That was amazing, by the way. I knew you were good with kids, but…damn.”

“Very impressive,” Philip agreed softly, smiling at Buck. “I’m sending you and Eddie off in my Mercedes. That also means that I’ll have a vehicle to drive when I arrive in Los Angeles in a few weeks.”

“So, you’re really coming to stay?”

“Yes. I think getting away from here is the best thing for me. I’m leaving Elias with a list of things I know I want done. Selling Margaret’s car and a few other things, but I’ll make a choice about the house at a later date. Pepa and you both advised me to let things settle a little before making extreme choices. I’m going to heed your advice.”

Buck just nodded, feeling overwhelmed. “So, we’re really taking Jee home in my Dad’s car, using a sneaky loophole in the guardianship paperwork because Chim forgot that I’m already a backup guardian for Jee?” Buck shook his head. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”

“No dream, cariño,” Eddie said softly. “Everything is going to work out okay. Your niece is going to be fine, and we’ll hold out every belief that Maddie will be as well.”

Buck squeezed Eddie’s hand, managing a smile. He looked to his father. “Thanks, Dad. I really appreciate you helping with this.”

“It’s truly the least I could do.” He reached out and squeezed Buck’s shoulder. “I’m going to go give one last goodbye to your mother while you all prepare Jee’s bags and load them in the car. Then we’ll remove ourselves from Aldridge’s funeral home, and pray we not soon see the inside of such an establishment again.”

Once his father had stepped out of the room, Buck let himself be pulled into Eddie’s embrace, holding on tightly.

“Thank you, Eddie.”

He felt like they’d all healed just a little now that Jee was back with them.

 

Chapter Ten

Eddie stood outside the door to the room he had formerly been staying in, which was now Jee’s room, and listened to Buck sing Jee to sleep. Buck had a surprisingly melodic voice, something Eddie had never heard before, nor would he have expected it for some reason.

Jee had been given Eddie’s room because the Buckley house had been out of guest rooms. Philip had been preparing to move himself back into the master bedroom, even though he clearly didn’t want to, so Eddie had volunteered his room, asking if he could sleep with Buck.

Buck had given him a soft smile and readily agreed. Eddie was becoming addicted to that soft, pleased, almost shy smile. The simpler solution would have been to set Jee’s travel crib up in the master, but Eddie wanted to be with Buck, so he’d rushed in with the doubling up option.

Jee was doing as well as could be expected considering her socialization and development had basically ground to a halt when Chimney had decided to take her on the road. It was even possible that her development was behind due to isolation with Maddie during the worst of the PPD.

Eddie was just glad they’d gotten her out of that cycle before too much more time had passed, otherwise there was no telling how much worse off things might be for the baby.

She didn’t seem to like being held for too long, but also didn’t like being left alone. It was a bit of a juggling act to keep her happy. She definitely did best with Buck, but Pepa suggested they reserve Buck for the worst meltdowns as well as feeding, baths, and bedtimes. Pepa had worked up a whole plan of Jee getting used to more time being held and then more and more time exploring and experiencing her world on her own.

After they’d left the funeral home, Philip and Pepa had stopped on the way back to the house, and Philip had purchased an over abundance of things to keep Jee comfortable and happy for the night or two they’d be in Pennsylvania with her. Pepa had rolled her eyes at Buck’s incredulous expression, and declared there was no reining in silly white men at times.

Everything in the room went quiet, yet it was a couple of minutes more before Buck emerged. He looked startled to find Eddie waiting for him as he pulled the door closed, baby monitor in hand. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Eddie reached out and took his hand. “I know it’s early yet for adults to go to bed, but I thought we could talk for a little bit…?”

“Sure.” He hesitated. “Didn’t Pepa want to talk about trip planning tonight?”

Eddie rolled his eyes. “By ‘talk’ she means that she will plan the trip and we’ll do what she says.”

Buck chuckled. “Fair.”

“I told her to just go forth and go crazy. She’s booking our hotels and stuff, favoring places that have minimal or no-contact check-in.”

“Let me go get her my credit card.”

“Your dad is pre-paying everything,” Eddie said dryly. “I’m not sure how they’re working everything out, but I’ve left them my phone because Pepa demanded it. I was also informed that his vehicle needs premium gasoline and he handed me a pre-paid Visa so we can buy gas and whatever else is needed along the way. He’s also paying for Pepa’s first class ticket back to LA, and she’ll be leaving tomorrow night.”

Buck looked like he wanted to protest, but Eddie held up a hand.

“Let me stop you. I started down that path, and I was informed that you’re his son, Jee is his granddaughter, and Pepa was an immeasurable help to him during the week after his wife’s death. So, if he wants to put his money to ensuring everyone’s comfort and care, that he’s going to do it, and we’re going to have to just shut up about it.”

Buck sighed. “You know they’re down there finding us high-end hotels, four hours apart, all the way across the country, right?”

“I figure they’re taking it as a challenge to see if they have to sink to the level of a Holiday Inn.”

Snorting a laugh, Buck shook his head. “Fine. I give in.” He glanced back at Jee’s room. “When do babies start sleeping through the night?”

“Some manage it around three months, but most by six months. Jee should be sleeping through the night, but she’s had a lot of upheaval and she’s probably anxious and unsettled, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she wakes up a few times.”

Buck nodded, biting his lip.

Eddie tugged at Buck’s hand. “Come on. Might as well take advantage of the quiet while she’s asleep and Pepa and Philip are plotting against us.” Buck let himself be pulled back to his own room and didn’t demur when Eddie prodded him over toward the bed.

They settled into the position they often wound up in on the sofa back at home: angled towards one another, one leg up. Before this new-found intimacy, there’d have been a small separation between their legs, but now they had their shins pressed together.

“Everything okay?” Buck asked immediately.

“Yeah, Buck, everything is fine. I just wanted to apologize for earlier. I never meant to make you doubt what’s going on with us—how much this all matters to me. I certainly never meant for you to think I’d ignore the boundaries you gave me, so I wanted to be really clear. Because it’s so important to you, and also because I’m beginning to see just how much it does matter, I promise to never push myself to do something I’m not comfortable with.”

Buck’s shoulders relaxed, and he smiled brilliantly. “Thanks, Eddie.”

Eddie hesitated. “I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had what I wanted matter so much to a partner before. Or maybe it did matter but we never talked about it so openly, so I didn’t know that it was important to them.”

“Talking is great, and sometimes there is no substitute, but I think you can tell when your desires and your pleasure matter to your partner. Clearly, it didn’t matter to Ana.”

“You can’t know that.”

“Oh, please. She should have been able to tell that you weren’t that into what was happening.”

“You’re saying you can just tell? You make it sound like it’s simple.”

“I guess it is simple if you’re paying attention to your partner. I’ll concede that sometimes signals can get crossed but, generally speaking, she should have been able to tell something was up.”

Eddie eyed him skeptically.

“Don’t hold her to a different standard than you’d hold yourself, Eds. Because I’m pretty sure that you’d notice if your partner were phoning it in.”

Eddie felt his face heat. “I wasn’t just…phoning it in. Dios, Buck, I made sure she had a good time.”

“I never said she didn’t, but clearly you didn’t. You weren’t into it, right?”

“No, not really.”

“She should have noticed,” Buck insisted.

“You sure it’s always that obvious?” Eddie was more than a little skeptical. There was a whole urban legend around women being able to fake orgasms.

Buck’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve had women try to fake it with me, but you can’t actually fake some stuff; all you can do is put out a lot of theatrics to distract from the lack of interest. The first time I caught a woman doing that with me, I was devastated, and I confronted the whole thing. We both wound up crying about it, but the talk was good.”

“Seriously?” Eddie didn’t think that sounded remotely good.

“Yeah. I mean, I was upset that she was having such a bad time that she had to fake it, and she was unprepared to be confronted about it, ya know, while naked in bed. When we both calmed down, she told me that she was into it and that she wanted it, but that medication was making it impossible for her to…cross the finish line, as it were. Out of sheer frustration, she’d decided to fake the O so I’d stop trying to get her there. It was the talk after that point that led to the epic cry fest.”

“I just have to ask how that wound up getting resolved.”

“Well, we talked with our clothes on, and she told me that she still liked to have sex, but orgasm wasn’t the end goal for her since it wasn’t even possible. So, we discussed what she specifically liked, and then we did that.”

Eddie just stared. “What did she want? I’m just blank here.”

Buck rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I mean, she really liked kissing and hands on her body, and her breasts were really sensitive—a lot of breast and nipple work was good for her. She could get to something almost like an orgasm from nipple play, but it took time and patience. She said most lovers weren’t willing to put the work in.” Buck shrugged. “We had a good few weeks together. I was only twenty-one, and she taught me a lot, honestly.”

“Why only together a few weeks?”

“I was doing short-term jobs as I moved around, and she knew I wasn’t staying long. And, uh, she was a lot older than me, and it was really clear our lives weren’t headed in the same direction.”

“How much older?”

“About twenty years, I think. Which, at barely over twenty, felt like a lot more.”

“I’m not sure why that surprises me… I guess people talk about Abby like she was the first older woman you dated or your first serious relationship.”

“Abby was the first relationship with someone where we were friends first. I liked that.”

Eddie reached out and took Buck’s hand. “Yeah, being friends is more important than the rest.” He cleared his throat. “Though, I liked the kissing stuff. A lot more than I thought I would; it surprised me.”

“I could tell you liked it.”

Eddie huffed in annoyance. “You probably knew exactly which kiss I liked the best, huh?”

“Maybe.”

He prodded Buck with his foot. “Tell me, then. Let’s hear your insight into how I work.”

Buck bit his lip, looking worried. He pulled away and got to his feet, pacing the short distance to the wall and leaning back against it, looking at Eddie with a pensive expression.

And, suddenly, Eddie got it. “Hey. It’s okay. It’s not a game, Buck, nor is it a test. I’m just curious what you got from me in all that.”

Buck nodded, watching Eddie closely. “I think you had a stronger physical reaction than you expected to the behind-the-ear kiss, but the neck kiss wasn’t far behind. I think you were moved by the hand and wrist kisses, but I think the kiss that stayed with you was the one from behind—the one where I kissed you on the shoulder.”

Eddie stared, feeling way too seen. “How did you know that?”

“I told you; I pay attention to my partners, Eddie. I especially pay attention to you.”

He wasn’t wrong. The shoulder kiss was the one that had been on repeat in Eddie’s head all day. “Why that kiss? You must have a guess as to why.”

“I think…” Buck hesitated. “I think it represents casual intimacy, the kind of thing that comes from being in a comfortable relationship. It’s the way a partner would greet you or hold you. It’s closeness. It’s what we already had, in a way. At a guess, from the things you’ve said, it’s what you most craved in your relationship with Shannon, but the tension made it difficult to have it as often as you desired it.”

“Buck…” Eddie took a shuddery breath. “I like how well you know me, but it’s also hard to be so transparent to someone.”

“I know it can be difficult to feel seen. I know you think this is one sided, but I don’t think you realize how much you see of me that no one else does.”

Eddie could concede that point. “Sex stuff is…difficult. I wasn’t raised to talk easily about it.”

“I wasn’t either, but…” Buck hesitated. “Sex was how I got affection for a long time. I handled my need for touch through sex, but I never wanted to be that guy. The guy who lied to get laid or the guy who only cared about who he went home with or having the trophy girl. The guy who fucked over his friends for a hookup. Or the guy who only cared about how much pleasure he got out of an encounter. So, I learned how to talk about it so I could get what I needed without feeling like I was turning into an asshole.” He stopped and shook his head. “The thing is, touch is more important to me than sex. And I think you already know that, right?”

Frowning, Eddie considered for a few seconds and realized that he did know that. “Yeah, I guess I did know that.”

“So, do you trust me when I say that I can handle getting myself off when the need arises, and that this level of touch we’re developing matters more? If we get to the sex, and you want it, that’s great, I’m all in, but what we already have is what I’ve wanted so desperately.”

“I hear you. And I believe you.” He gave a wry smile. “So, you’re saying we can have all of those kisses…even if it leads nowhere else?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll kiss your shoulder every day for the rest of our lives, Eddie Diaz. Because I love you and I know it’s special to you.” Buck tapped his heel against the wall, looking down almost bashfully. “I like it too—being able to touch you like that. It tells me that we’re finally an us.”

“I think we’ve always been an us. Since the moment you glared at me because you thought Bobby brought me in to replace you.”

Buck’s cheeks flushed and he slouched against the wall, looking like the wall was barely holding him up. “I did feel threatened by you, but then I met your kid, and, well, sorry, Eddie, but…” Buck trailed off and shrugged but grinned hugely.

“Yeah, I get it. For you and Chris, it was love at first query. You were his something from the moment you met—best friend, confidant, mentor.” Eddie hesitated. “Father.”

Buck jerked a little, eyes wide. “Eddie, I’m not—”

“You are,” Eddie said softly but implacably. “And it’s exactly what I want for him—and for you. For all of us, I guess. Family. Whatever unique shape that takes, it’s all I want.”

“Me too.”

“Good.” Eddie squared his shoulders and turned in his seat on the bed to face Buck more squarely. “Then, I’d like to try those other kisses, if you don’t mind.”

Buck blinked. “You want me to kiss you?”

“I want you to introduce a few of those kisses you left off.”

“Eddie…”

“You said—”

“I know what I said,” Buck interjected gently. “You can have whatever you want in that regard, but you’re going to have to kiss me.”

Eddie blinked. “Oh.” He rubbed his hands on his thighs. “It shouldn’t be harder to make the first move.”

“But it is.”

“Yeah.” But Eddie knew he wanted this—wanted to try deeper physical intimacy with Buck. He’d definitely felt arousal earlier when Buck had demonstrated kisses. Eddie wasn’t averse to the idea of sexual attraction to Buck—in fact, he wanted it. He just couldn’t manufacture something that wasn’t there, and sexual attraction had always been difficult for him.

Though he was starting to think everyone was right about him being demisexual. Because wasn’t it love that was always the truly hard part? If he thought about the times he’d known he’d been in love, sexual arousal seemed to come pretty easily afterward.

He got up from the bed and approached where Buck was leaning against the wall. He loved Buck, but putting expectations on this kiss terrified him, because as much as he had faith in Buck, he struggled with faith in himself.

Then he was just a few inches from his partner. He reached out and cupped Buck’s cheek. His mind was finally at peace, and nothing mattered but the man in front of him—the man who meant the world to Eddie.

He realized that Buck saw him so well, and he needed to show that Buck was seen too. “I love you,” he murmured. “I nearly messed us up because I was reacting to being afraid—afraid of so many things, not the least of which was fear of you leaving.”

Buck’s eyes widened.

“I know that’s probably the silliest of my fears because if there’s one thing you fear it’s being left behind. I won’t leave you behind again, and I wish that I could undo that moment where I asked her out to breakfast and nearly ruined us.” He pressed a finger to Buck’s lips to stop the response he could see coming. “Let me get this out. I see you, and I know you, Evan Buckley, and I want you to understand that you’re ours now—mine and Christopher’s. We’re not letting go.

“The door is open to you. So, when you’re ready, move in. Be with us every day and never leave. After you move in, I’m going to propose. Then, the minute I can get a ring inked on your finger, I’m going to present you with adoption paperwork for Christopher so he can be your son legally as well as all the ways that really matter—the ways he already is. The only reason I even want to wait on the adoption is because of how much easier it is from a legal perspective once we’re married.”

Buck’s eyes filled with tears. “Eddie…”

“I want you every day, Evan. I’m never going to get tired of you. I’m never going to ask you to leave. And when you’re inevitably frustrating me with your research spirals, well, that’s what our son is for. You two already enable the hell out of each other in your annoying habits. Then, when I’m moody and uncommunicative, you can throw Christopher at the problem with no remorse. Tit for tat makes the world go round.”

Buck gave a breathless laugh.

Eddie cradled Buck’s cheek, leaning a little closer. “May I kiss you, Evan?”

“Yes,” Buck whispered, and the yes sounded like it was an answer to so much more than a kiss.

Eddie sealed their mouths together, and everything seemed to go still and quiet in the space of a heartbeat. Buck’s lips parted as his hands settled on Eddie’s hips.

It was home.

Eddie slipped his tongue past Buck’s lips, tentative at first, but then it was like his world was on fire, and he barely remembered striking the match.

In a blink, he was clutching at Buck’s shoulders and pressing into him, trying to get closer, trying to get more.

There was moaning and panting, and Buck’s hands were strong, grounding him when he felt like he might fly apart. It was Eddie who broke the kiss that had become fevered because he needed more. He went after the long line of Buck’s throat, biting and sucking as he ground their hips together, shocked by the sudden intensity of his own arousal.

Feeling a hard cock pressed against him was strange and yet not, but he couldn’t find it in him to care about anything but getting more of these feelings. He wanted Buck like he’d never wanted anything in his life.

He had his hands up the back of Buck’s shirt and his lips on Buck’s collarbone—he felt out of control, and he didn’t even care. “Buck…” he murmured against the hot skin under his lips. “Dios, touch me. Please.”

The lightweight sweater he was wearing was suddenly yanked over his head and Buck’s big hands were sliding up his bare back, and Eddie shuddered, pressing his face into Buck’s heated throat.

“Your hands…” Eddie sucked at the skin right under his lips, feeling an answering tremor in Buck’s body. “Feel so fucking good.” He yanked at Buck’s shirt, wanting it gone, wanting skin-on-skin. “Get rid of it.”

Buck’s hands left him just long enough to get rid of the shirt, and then they were pressed chest-to-chest, and Buck ran hotter than Eddie did; his skin was a little smoother, his muscles were rock hard—the contrasts, the similarities, the familiar, the unfamiliar…it was all making Eddie a little crazy.

“Kiss me, dammit.”

“Eds…” A worried note had crept into Buck’s tone. Buck’s hands clenched into Eddie’s flesh.

“Yes, yes.” Eddie mouthed at Buck’s jaw. “I’ll stop you if it gets to be too much.”

“Yank on my hair or something.”

“But I think I might want to yank on your hair.”

Buck pulled back enough to meet Eddie’s gaze, his own eyes seemed a little unfocused. “Um, yeah. That’d be really hot, actually. Definitely pull my hair for fun. Just tell me if you want me to—”

“I will, Evan! Just kiss me. This was the last first kiss you’re ever going to have, buddy, because you’re mine now, so put your back into it.”

Laughing, Buck grinned hugely and leaned in, taking Eddie’s mouth in a bruising kiss, controlling it in a way he hadn’t even tried to earlier. His tongue plunged past Eddie’s lips, driving Eddie’s brain completely toward TILT.

Eddie loved it. He loved the feel of Buck’s hands and his body and how it made him feel so loved and safe and like he was everything. He kept trying to pull Buck closer, so Buck rotated them, shoving Eddie back into the wall, crowding into Eddie’s space. Eddie moaned at that and sucked at Buck’s tongue.

Buck slotted one muscular thigh between Eddie’s legs, pressing up, giving Eddie a little more friction, but he wasn’t getting too close. It was obviously up to Eddie to take if he wanted, so he did. He ground down on Buck’s thigh.

“Jesus, Eddie,” Back gasped as he broke away. “You’re driving me crazy here.”

“Good.” Eddie nipped at Buck’s jaw. “Quit holding back. I’ll tell you if I need you to slow down.”

Buck let his head fall back, breathing hard.

Eddie sucked at his Adam’s apple, since Buck was going to put it right in his face, as he rubbed his cock against Buck’s strong thigh.

Fuck!” Buck exclaimed.

A second later, Buck’s hands traveled to Eddie’s ass and squeezed.

Eddie’s brain nearly whited out. He’d never had such a firm, possessive touch on his ass before, and he was suddenly all in. Before he could really fully process the sensation that was like liquid sex, Buck’s hands drifted further down to the backs of Eddie’s thighs, then he was squeezing and lifting.

Eddie made a startled sound as he found himself picked up. He reflexively wrapped his legs around Buck’s waist.

“That’s it,” Buck murmured as he pressed Eddie back against the wall with a solid thump. “God, you’re hot.” Buck’s hand slid over Eddie’s ribs, thumb glancing over his nipple on the way to resting in the hollow of Eddie’s throat. “You okay?”

Eddie blinked in confusion, his brain barely able to process all the new experiences and sensations. He felt the hot, hard press of Buck’s covered cock right against his own. He undulated his hips a little, feeling the way they slid against one another.

Buck gave a guttural moan and pressed his face into Eddie’s shoulder. “Eds…”

“Come on, Buck.” Eddie clutched at Buck’s big, broad shoulders before letting one hand slide up to Buck’s hair. He carded his fingers through the gelled strands, loosening the blond curls. He fisted his hand and pulled.

Buck groaned and bit at Eddie’s throat as he began grinding against Eddie, and it was the best damn thing Eddie had ever felt.

The pace got even more frantic. Their skin became slick with sweat as they rutted against one another, but Eddie never worried about the precariousness of his position; he felt perfectly safe in Buck’s hands.

Kissing was Eddie’s favorite part, and he’d happily find every way to kiss Evan Buckley every day for the rest of his life. Then orgasm ripped through him, shocking him with its sudden intensity, and he yanked his mouth away and bit into the meat of Buck’s shoulder, muffling a shout.

Buck shuddered in the clutch of Eddie’s arms and legs, muscles quivering under Eddie’s touch. A beat later, Buck seemed to go sort of boneless, pressing Eddie even harder into the wall.

Eddie panted against Buck’s sweaty skin, trying to regain some sense of equilibrium. Thoughts rose up, but he felt too good to give them attention. He’d just had the best orgasm of his life, coming in his pants like a teenager.

Suddenly, the world shifted, and Eddie found himself feeling weightless as the grounding support of the wall was abruptly gone. Buck was carrying him.

Reflexively, he tightened his arms and legs, and Buck chuckled even as he lowered Eddie onto his back on the mattress. When Eddie held on firmly, Buck settled his weight over Eddie like a blanket.

“Just for a minute,” Buck murmured. “I’m too heavy.”

“You’re perfect.” Eddie continued mouthing idly at the long column of Buck’s throat. “That really wasn’t what I meant by put your back into it, but damn. Also, I’m feeling a little bitter,” he managed despite his blissed out state as he shifted his focus to worry at his new favorite spot right where Buck’s neck met his shoulder.

Buck shivered. “What are you bitter about?”

“I’m almost thirty-five. I shouldn’t just now be discovering that my top kink is being manhandled.”

Buck stilled briefly then began to laugh. “Seriously?”

“Oh yeah.” He nipped at Buck’s chin. “That was so fucking amazing.”

“I guess it’s a good thing for you that your boyfriend has to keep in shape to haul guys bigger than you out of burning buildings on the regular.”

“I’m a lucky, lucky man. Also, partner. You’re my partner—in all things. Hopefully someday, you’ll be my fiancé and then my husband. But you’ll always be my partner—my other half.”

Buck braced himself on his hands to stare down at Eddie. “You were serious about that?”

“You honestly think I’d…pre-propose to you as a joke?!”

“Not a joke, no.” Buck’s expression twisted to something vulnerable. “I dunno, Eds; people get tired—”

Eddie clapped a hand over Buck’s mouth. “No. I don’t want you verbalizing that crap anymore. I feel like that’s more about your parents than your romantic partners, but I can only speak with certainty for myself. You are everything I want; you were already everything I needed, and I’m so fucking grateful that you didn’t just give up and walk away when I decided to stick my head in the sand.”

“I love you,” Buck whispered. “So much that I’d have taken whatever I could get just to stay near you.”

“Oh, Buck.” He pulled Buck down into a tender kiss. “I want to design little tattoos and cover you in them so you remember every time you see them how much you mean to me.”

“I wouldn’t say no.” Buck’s expression was vulnerable. “I kind of like the idea.”

Eddie let his hand curl around Buck’s bicep. “I think a hummingbird on the background of a sky to start.”

Buck cocked his head to the side. “Why that?”

“Did Abuela ever tell you the story of why she calls you cielito?”

“No, I’ve asked her, but she evades and says she’ll tell me some day.”

Eddie relayed the tale of Isabel Diaz growing up in Mexico, staring at the sky and dreaming of all the possibilities the future held. How she saw possibility for Eddie and Chris in Buck.

Buck’s eyes were wet and his lower lip trembled. “Really?”

“She’s right, you know? You are all my possibilities. So, we’ll capture Abuela’s sky. And hummingbirds have a lot of meaning in Mexican culture, but one is that they carry good intentions.” He pulled Buck into another kiss, wondering how he could have ever thought he might not want this. It was like a switch had been flipped in his brain, and now it was on. “It can represent our beginning.”

“Okay.” Buck nuzzled against Eddie’s cheek. “I need a little time on the moving in front, I think. It’s been a lot lately, and I just want to give us space to breathe, but when you ask that other question…?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ll say yes.”

Eddie smiled.

“Want to get cleaned up?”

“Absolutely. This sticky pants thing is for the birds.”

“Right? Thank god that wall we were grinding against is an exterior wall. I wouldn’t want to face Pepa in the morning otherwise.”

Eddie made a face and let Buck pull him up off the bed.

~*~

Buck crowded into the frame with Eddie, grinning as the FaceTime call connected. Isabel and Christopher were both on the couch together.

Dad! Bucky!” Chris waved frantically. “I’ve missed you.”

Hola mis queridos,” Isabel said warmly.

Are you coming home soon?” Chris added immediately.

Let them speak, nene.” Isabel kissed Chris’ head.

“We are leaving today,” Buck replied. “But we’re driving.”

Chris’ eyes got huge. “You’re driving all the way from Pennsylvania?”

Isabel’s brow furrowed. “What has happened?”

“Everything’s good, I promise,” Buck assured, leaning into the supportive arm Eddie had around his waist. “We were going to need to isolate for at least five days on the other end anyway, now we’ve gotten no-contact days on the road instead. I know this drags our trip out, but we’re bringing back a guest.” He leaned over a bit and picked up Jee, pulling her into the camera line. “This is Jee-Yun, Christopher. She’s my niece. And I’m bringing her back home to stay with her grandparents.”

Jee giggled and collapsed against Buck’s chest.

Chris’ eyes widened again, and then he was grinning. “Hi, Jee-Yun. Will I get to meet her in person, Buck?”

“You bet. Anyway, Jee can’t really fly, so we have to drive back, and babies can’t tolerate very long in the car every day, so we have to go very slow. So it’s going to take about ten days. I know that’s a long time—”

It’s good,” Isabel interrupted. “You bring that darling baby home. I’m proud of you boys. We’ll be fine here. Have you talked to your captain yet?”

“Yes,” Eddie answered. “We explained the situation, and he’s giving us extra time off to get home. He’s very invested in seeing Jee better situated than she has been.”

I’m excited to meet the baby.” Chris was practically vibrating. “Is she going to stay with us?”

“Maybe sometimes,” Eddie hedged, and Buck got why. None of them were sure how any of this would shake out. “But you’ll definitely see her. Anyway, the car is packed, and we’re leaving soon. We won’t be going too far today. Abuela, you have our itinerary in your email.”

Buck and Eddie exchanged a look before Eddie added, “Chris, we have a favor to ask. We wanted to tell you what was going on, and normally I hate to ask you to keep secrets, but it’d be better if no one knows that you know that we’re bringing Jee back.”

Chris frowned. “I don’t understand…”

Buck had been the one to hedge about telling Chris, but he felt that being as honest as possible was the best course of action. “My sister is sick after having the baby, and she’s getting help out here on the East Coast. See, for reasons that are kind of foolish, Jee’s dad is upset with me. Maddie wanted me to take care of Jee if she and Chimney weren’t available, but Chim gave permission to Eddie and my dad, Philip, to bring the baby back home to her grandparents. But I also have the legal right according to Maddie to take care of Jee.”

Well, she’s Jee’s mommy, so she gets a say, right?”

“Yes, she does. But we don’t want to upset Chimney when he’s just trying to find and help Maddie, so we’re trying not to let people back home know that I’m going to help bring Jee back, otherwise Chim will be distracted.”

Chris sighed and stared at his hands. “This is about the funeral isn’t it? Denny told me he heard his moms fighting about Ms. Hen telling when the funeral was going to be, and she overheard that when I was talking to Denny.” Chris looked up, eyes teary. “I’m so sorry.”

“No,” Buck said firmly. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I never asked you to keep that secret, and I would never ask you to keep something secret on my behalf like that. I don’t want to put you in that position over my adult…shenanigans.”

Chris gave a watery laugh.

“But this is about getting Jee back home to her grandparents and her Uncle Albert where she can be better cared for until her parents can return after Maddie’s better, and I don’t want anyone’s silly fights to get in the way of bringing her home. So, we just decided to ask you to please pretend like you don’t know anything, and don’t talk to Denny about it. Hen is trying to be a good friend to Chim, and neither of you will be in a bad spot if you just say you haven’t heard anything.”

Chris nodded and looked at Isabel briefly. “She’s being a good friend to him, but it doesn’t seem like she was a very good friend to you.”

“Ah, kid. You’re way too old for your years,” Buck said sadly.

Just bring the baby home safely, Bucky. Abuelita and I will pretend like we don’t know anything.” Chris looked to Isabel. “It’ll be like one of the intrigues on your telenovelas.”

Isabel laughed. “We’ll plot something together, mi ángel.”

Chris looked back to the camera. “You and Dad are still together, right?”

Eddie curled a little tighter around Buck and Jee. “For the rest of our lives, mijo.”

You proposed?” Chris laughed. “That’s good. I really don’t want Buck wiggling out of this, Dad.”

“Hey! There was no wiggling. I was always—”

“There was some wiggling,” Eddie murmured softly in his ear.

Buck felt his face heat remembering last night and then the repeat first thing this morning. “Anyway. We’re about to leave. The car is loaded. We’ll send pictures as we go, and you can use it as fodder for planning a roadtrip vacation when that’s a higher priority than any of the other vacations you’ve been planning.”

Well, there’s a lot to see in the world, Bucky!” But Chris looked excited.

“Yes, there is.” Buck’s focus was on Eddie, and he wondered how he’d gotten so lucky.

Isabel cleared her throat. “Get on the road, and be safe.” She pressed a kiss to Christopher’s hair. “I’m proud of you both.”

“Thank you, Abuela,” Buck replied, stroking his hand over Jee’s back.

She smiled brilliantly at him.

When the call disconnected, Eddie pulled Buck and Jee close, kissing Buck’s forehead. Overnight, something had flipped in Eddie. Buck didn’t think it was about the sex—though that was amazing—it was more that Eddie felt settled in knowing the bounds of their relationship. Buck didn’t need that certainty, but Eddie seemed to. He was sure they’d have been okay regardless of how the sex stuff had turned out but, for someone like Eddie, the uncertainty was far worse than any possible outcomes.

Having the matter settled, in his own mind, gave him the freedom to look to the future in a way that showed Buck a new side to his partner. It showed an optimism and eagerness to experience life that Buck hadn’t encountered in Eddie before. He was also so incredibly loving.

Eddie being settled and happy was what really mattered to Buck.

~*~

Pepa pulled Buck down to kiss both of his cheeks. Jee was in his arms, so she kissed Jee too, getting a giggle for her efforts. “Be safe. We made a careful itinerary, but if you need to make an extra stop, don’t worry about tossing it out the window. I’ll be home before you even settle into your first hotel room, so I can help restructure things if necessary.” The SUV was loaded and all they had to do was get in and hit the road and the next phase of their journey would begin. It was a bit overloaded with all the extra stuff that had been purchased for Jee plus the stuff Buck would be taking home with him that he still hadn’t gone through. He wasn’t even sure when he’d be ready for those boxes his dad gave him.

Buck gave Pepa an extra firm hug. “Thank you, Pepa. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

“You will never have to find out. Family, Evan.” She patted his cheek. “For the rest of your life. Now, get into that pretentious SUV and get on the road. Philip and I will be leaving for the airport in an hour ourselves.”

Buck smiled and went to rescue Eddie from where it looked like Philip was trying to give him a huge wad of cash—no doubt for emergencies on the road. Buck handed Jee off to Eddie in the way they’d already learned made her laugh. She had to think the handoff was a game of some sort.

Eddie played along and gratefully disappeared with the baby.

Rather than fight it, Buck just accepted the folded stack of bills. “Thanks, Dad. I appreciate all your help in getting us back home.”

“You’re my son, she’s my granddaughter. It seems like the least I could do.” Philip hesitated. “I know this was difficult, but I have no words to express how much it meant to me that you were here. And not only you but that you brought with you the good people you’ve made a family with. All of you made this week…” He shook his head, looking sad. “Thank you, Evan, thank you so very much. I don’t deserve your consideration, but I’m grateful for it.”

“Dad…” Buck didn’t even know what to say to that.

“Pepa already booked my travel as well; I swear, she picked the longest route across the country as possible.”

“I think she fancies the train trip as a journey of self-discovery.”

“Eh. Maybe it will be.” Philip’s smile was barely there. “Elias will be dropping me at the train station in five days, and I’ll arrive in LA in about three weeks.”

“Wow. Lots of detours, eh?”

“There may even be a ball of twine on my itinerary.”

Buck laughed.

Right at that moment, he heard Jee begin to cry. He turned and found that Eddie had put her in the car seat, and she wasn’t having any of it. She’d clearly developed a bit of an issue with being in the seat.

“You’re a remarkable father, Evan, and I know I had little to do with that; it makes me doubly proud of you.”

Buck’s eyes widened.

He clapped Buck on the shoulder. “Go. Safe journeys; I await your updates on your progress.”

“Bye, Dad.”

“Goodbye, Son.”

Buck jogged over to the Mercedes GLS SUV in a sort of silvery champagne color—no doubt something his mother chose. He dropped a quick kiss on Eddie’s mouth then climbed into the back next to Jee.

“Hey there Jee-Jee. What’s all the fuss about?”

Her tears broke off with a startled hiccup and she stared at him.

“You didn’t think I was going to leave you alone back here, did you? No tears, munchkin; we won’t be in here too long. Our first stop is in ninety minutes. In the meantime, we’ve got juice and books.” He held up a book. “There’s apparently this bear, who talks and wears a coat for whatever reason—”

“And a hat,” Eddie supplied as he slid into the front seat and started the engine.

“And a hat,” Buck agreed. “And this bear, in his hat and his coat, has lots of adventures. I thought we could read about some of them while we set out on our own adventure. What do you say?” He waved one of the Paddington Bear books in her eyeline.

She laughed and reached for it.

“You’re gonna read to me? I very much accept. No one reads to me, and I think it’s an underrated experience.”

“You ready to go home?” Eddie questioned, flashing Buck a soft smile in the rearview mirror.

“Yeah, Eds. Let’s go home.” That suddenly had so much more meaning.

However they’d gotten here, whatever bumps there had been in the road, it was all worth it.

The End


Post Archive

Jilly James

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

44 Comments:

  1. That was heart wrenching and uplifting all over the place. Such a wonderful story.

  2. I am so pissed at Hen, and I’m sure going back to work isn’t going to be fun. That level of selfishness and willful ignorance is just appalling.

    Love the story, and it’s really nice to see a Buckley parent make an effort.

  3. Well. I loved it. And I cried a lot like I did the first time I read it. I forgive you. Mostly.

    It was a lovely way to end the 2022 bang 😉

  4. This was seriously awesome to read! I got completely sucked in, and even though I needed a break I couldn’t tear myself away; I kept telling myself ‘after the next section’, ‘after the next section’. And now, over two and a half hours later, I’m dying of thirst but it was worth it. Thank you for writing and sharing it.

  5. This is an absolute STUNNING FIC Jilly!!! I adore it and I want to hug it and I’m going to reread it!! UGH just amazing (this is Kochava from the discord btw)

  6. Great Story. Thank you for sharing

  7. that was amazing. I always love how much depth you put in all your characters. Also Isabel is a treasure. We know where Christopher gets it from.

  8. :::sniff::: So sweet and so sad and so happy and just so many feels! And I’m sure I’ll be reading it again before the weekend is over.

  9. Oh wow Jilly! This was heartbreaking but then also beautifully healing too. I loved every part of this fic with all the variants of family and communication that it shows. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  10. That was amazing! I’ve got to say, I totally identified with Pepa while she was talking to Eddie. I, too, was in my 40s before I figured out “what was wrong with me.” (hint: nothing!) I really enjoyed Buck’s knowledge and patience. So many feelings about Chim and Hen, and Maddie, too. I already want to read it again! Thanks for the superb ending to this year’s quantum bang! I appreciate the hard work you put into this story, and sharing it.

  11. This was amazing! I always appreciate your view on characters and how you approach them. I personally have Always had a spot for Queer-Platonic Buck and Eddie as it resonates in cannon for me, as a prelude to more or as is. I feel that you give voice to the intimacy and strength of both their friendship and their relationship. Thank you for giving of your time and energy.

  12. Damn, you made me cry at the beginning. It felt true to the events of canon and that strange dynamic with the two of them staying apart for so much of the show. I really appreciate you picking that point to explore in your fix-it! And I enjoyed the journey, thank you!

  13. Well that was a wonderful roller coaster of laughing and crying falling in love with these characters all over again. I adore abuela and Pepa so much. Just beautiful Jilly! Thanks for sharing!

  14. This was really lovely. I’m demi/ace myself, and I really really appreciated the way you explored that aspect of Eddie’s sexuality. It was nuanced and felt very real.

  15. Such a beautiful story with all the feels! Thank you, Jilly.

  16. This was lovely! I adore Isabella and Pepa and how supportive they are to their family including Buck.

  17. As always, just, wow.

  18. Lovely. Thank you for sharing, both the story and the art.

  19. Absolutely loved this, (even if the first part had me biting my fingernails as Buck & Eddie seemingly split apart). I had faith that it would all be ok, but didn’t see the reconciliation (beginnings at least) with Buck’s father coming at all. Think this is my first 911 read that includes a Buckley parent who is even approaching tolerable!

    I love the good communication in your 911 stories too. I feel like I’m learning a good deal about relationships and how to talk to people, while having a great time.

    Brilliant story, thanks so much!

  20. This was wonderful! Thank you for sharing it. The first half had me in tears like so many others. I loved how Buck and Eddie’s relationship developed. All of the relationships were beautifully portrayed. Isabel’s story about Buck’s nickname was a magnificent addition.

  21. Emotionally all over the place – this story bounced me from devastated to ecstatic to angry, and back again. I loved every second. As with so many of your stories, the only thing I could wish is that it was even longer – you create such amazing universes, and I’m always dying to know how your characters would continue to grow and change.
    Thank you so much for this! What an amazing reading experience! xxx

  22. ScarsLikeVelvet

    I never thought I might come to like Phillip Buckley but here I am, feeling like the character experienced growth in a lot of right ways.
    Buck losing his mom is hard in unexpected ways and his struggle in regards to Eddie is… I don’t think I have the right words.
    What I want to say is that I really enjoyed this story that took many unexpected twists and turns. Thank you for sharing ♥️

  23. Thank you! I loved this so very much. And the exploration of Eddie’s sexuality and his confusion was particularly lovely and insightful.

  24. Lovely awesome story. Thank you for sharing it with us

  25. Amazing story, and an epic bang to the end. Loved every second

  26. All your stuff is just so damn good. It’s 3am so that’s all my poor brain can produce. Thanks so much for another emotional, layered, enthralling read. I love how kind you are to characters I enjoy while calling them all on their bs.

  27. love Abuela and Pepa, they kick ass and take names. I’m glad Eddie realized he was destroying his relationship with Buck by thinking he knew what Buck wanted/needed. Buck all the feels for him. Chim, the only good thing he did was leave Jee with Eddie and Phillip. I glad Phillip was able to open up to see what damage he caused his children with his wife.

  28. Oh, wow. That was beautiful and so very lovely. This just tore me up. I adore how you wrote Eddie in this. His journey was a true joy sharing in his discovery. Thank you for mending so many pieces of Buck’s heart.
    Love Baby Whisperer Buck.
    Thank you

  29. This was beautiful and the relationships were perfectly human in a way that not enough people explore. They aren’t perfect, they’re works in progress, but they are working on them and that’s what’s important. I always love how you write Isabel and Pepa. They are awesome, badass women who want nothing more than to take care of their family and have everyone get along and the ones who don’t, they have no fucks to give. I was happy to see how Phillip knew their failings as parents and now that Margaret is gone, he’s not going to keep making the same mistakes. I sort of got the impression that he was just following Margaret’s lead with how they interacted with the kids after Daniel’s death and your take on it made a lot of sense to me. The “new” relationship with Buck and Eddie was so sweet and made sense for who they are and how they are working to being together forever. Chris is way too much of an adult for a ten-year-old, but seeing how happy he was with having both of his dads together and realize that they were together was awesome! Thanks so much for sharing your hard work. It was wonderful and I’m sure it will be yet another go-to on my re-read list.

  30. Wonderful story!

  31. This was beautiful. My heart ached for Buck through this. The ending made me tear up. Thank you for sharing your works <3

  32. This was such a lovely story. I laughed, I cried…I laughed until I cried, which you know already.

    I loved the relationships in this story, especially Buck’s with Isabel and Pepa. But they were all so very real and relatable, and true to who they are. It was just a wonderful read and I just loved it so damn much.

    And Ana Flores is forever going to be the “muffin woman” to me. (I am still not over that kitchen.)

    Thank you for a fantastic story.

  33. Thank you for an excellent ending to QB this year! This is one of the only fics I’ve read to attempt a sincere Buckley parent reconciliation, and I loved the way you showed everyone’s conflicting emotions. Pepa and Isabel were delightful and an excellent contrast to the firefam’s handling of the whole Chim situation. I enjoyed Buck and Eddie’s journey together. The way they loved and supported each other was beautiful.

  34. Sigh. That was just so satisfying.

    Thanks for a lovely offering and all the time and care that went into it.

  35. This is one of my favorite 911 stories ever. I loved Isabel and Pepa and how supportive they were of both Buck and Eddie. I liked how Buck and his dad started reparing their relationship and especially Eddie’s journey to realizing and aceepting an important part of who he is. Thanks for sharing.

  36. I find it very fitting that I finished reading this on Father’s Day given how much fatherhood is a theme of the story. I was surprised to find myself sympathizing with Phillip Buckley here, though I’m not sure that’s quite the right word. But it is easy to see how he became the man he did. It was even nicer to see him own his mistakes and actually show that he wanted to be a better person for his kids and grandkids. And Hen’s inability to be honest with herself about Chim and his behavior actually did have one really good outcome, it got Jee home so she isn’t being carted around the country spending god knows how long in a car seat or stroller with little stimulation and socialization.

    I really appreciated how you handled Eddie’s sexuality in this, and the conversations between him and Buck, as well as him and Pepa, really resonated with me. It was just really beautifully done.

    The whole story was a profound and intense read and I loved every minute of it. Thank you for sharing it with us. <3 <3 <3

  37. Thank you for this utterly lovely story. Pepa was what Phillip and Buck needed to be with them during their time. I could see everything spinning out in this and I love the way you wrote each character perfectly and I could see all of them in my head as the story spun out.

  38. Powerful work. Loved the characterizations.

    Well done.

  39. Well, that was one hell of a grand finale. You made me tear up more than once!

    I loved it, Chris is indeed a unicorn on a cupcake.

    • We all need an Abuela and Pepa in our corner. And I sort of cheered when I read what everybody else has said in comments.

      (I’m sleep deprived and well medicated…can you tell? 😇😱)

      I can’t even begin to articulate how much I loved the way Buck just accepted Eddie’s sexuality, and the way it manifests. I adore all your various Buck & Eddie’s, and your Christophers always live up to their sparkly unicorn best.

      Abuela and Pepa rocked my world.

      The fact that Buck puts Chris first to the point that he calls Eddie on his shit is so deeply attractive that I did a very genteel fist pump of geriatric fangirl glee at Eddie’s response. The way Eddie chooses to immediately model better behavior made me melt into a puddle.

      Buck the Baby Whisperer just killed me.

  40. I love this story so much—thank you!

  41. I enjoyed this so much, thank you for sharing! There were so many wonderful parts, but Dad!Buck is my number one love in the fandom and having it end with him being so sweet with Jee gave me some serious heart eyes. Thank you again!

  42. Absolutely gorgeous story, Jilly!

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