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The Space Between Sleep

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“And you’re absolutely sure?” Eddie checks.

It’s more to ease the weight of separation anxiety in his chest than because he actually thinks Christopher has changed his mind.

His kid’s already holding the handle of his wheeling suitcase, using it to help himself balance and standing next to the wheel arch of the truck. It’s bright out, warm despite the date placing them solidly in autumn, and the car is still sort of ticking under the hood from the engine’s recent use as it sits idle and gleaming on the curb. Christopher’s attention is directed up the herringbone paved driveway as Dylan from school’s mom comes out to meet them.

“I’m sure, Dad,” Christopher says. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Eddie half laughs as he swallows something that feels a lot like tears; salt at the back of his throat. He leans down to give Christopher a hug and makes himself let go before he can be accused of worrying too much, or causing Chris that particular brand of parent-only embarrassment. He hands him his crutches instead.

“Okay, okay. Have fun, be good, and Tasha has my number if you need anything, so you can call me no matter what, yeah?”

“Okay,” Christopher says agreeably. He smiles up, looking away from the drive for a moment as Tasha reaches them. “Love you, Dad.”

Eddie breathes out. “I love you, too, mijo .”

Christopher starts off up the drive and Tasha smiles warmly at him as she stops in front of him instead, reaching out to take the handle of the suitcase.

“It’s going to be fine, Eddie,” she says, patient and warm.

“Yeah, I know,” he replies. “He just...hasn’t really been away from home since…”

He says it before he’s even remembered that there’s plenty of nights he’s not been home, exactly. Eddie’s been working, and when Carla doesn’t stay with him, he’s been at Buck’s - on occasion overnight as well, depending on shifts. But somehow those don’t count.

This feels like the first time he’s been away since the wave, even if Eddie knows that logically, that’s ridiculous.

“He’ll be right back in no time,” Tasha says, still gentle and resolutely understanding. “Take a night off. Sleep early, go out, have fun. I’ve got this and I will call you if he needs you, but we have a whole evening planned. He’s gonna be great, Eddie.”

He finds himself eased by her steadfastness in spite of himself.

He says thank you, at a loss for much else.

She waves him off the drive with a smile and starts back to the house with the suitcase. Eddie looks up just once more to see Christopher clatter his way in the front door, and then he turns around to climb back into the car.

 

.

 

An easy quiet settles over them between topics as Eddie makes his way down the street. Buck’s the one to break it next, veering to avoid a wilted dandelion growing in the crack between two paving slabs. “He left to his sleepover okay then?”

Eddie shrugs, glancing sideways at Buck and blowing out a breath.

“Yeah. Like I wasn’t even there.”

Something of his lingering conflict must bleed through, because Buck nudges him softly, eyes molten and earnest.

“That’s good, though,” he says, only half like a question. “If he’s ready to be away it’s a step forward, right?”

“Yeah,” Eddie exhales again. “I hope so.”

Buck shrugs then, and there’s impishness curling in his voice. “Or, I mean...maybe he’s just not ready to have his dad embarrass him in front of his friends.”

Eddie snorts and reaches out to shove Buck just hard enough that he has to skip to dodge the edge of the curb. He bounces back onto it - a fluid recoil from the road that has him rejoining the sidewalk seamlessly - and he’s laughing and alight, head ducked forward.

“Hoped I had a few more years before I reached the embarrassing dad stage,” Eddie comments, even though that exact thought had occurred to him as he hugged Christopher goodbye. It would have been fine, only there’s a bit too much mournful sincerity in the thought for him to pass it off as the joke he’d intended.

Buck, at least, can see through it.

“You do,” he says easily. “That kid is so proud of you, Eddie. I don’t think it’s even on his radar that you could ever be embarrassing. He’s just excited to spend the night at a friend’s place. He probably feels grown up, you know? Maybe feels like it means he’s feeling better about it all, too.”

Eddie does know, and he gets it. It’s just sometimes harder to remind himself of those things when he’s gotten so used to worrying and second guessing. He’s ever more grateful for Buck; for the easy presence of him in his life, helping him keep his head together.

“Guess it’s kinda like when he started school again, huh?” Buck asks softly. “Him being gone? Suddenly you have all this time and no idea what to do with it.”

“Yeah,” Eddie admits. “Except I don’t even get him back in the evening. That part isn’t in the manual when you become a parent. Side effects - you forget who you were or what you did before them.”

Eddie doesn’t even want to think about what happens when Christopher turns eighteen.

Buck says nothing for a long moment.

It’s not the kind of thing that needed an answer, really. Eddie’s happy just wandering down the sidewalk from the store, Buck keeping pace at his shoulder and letting the quiet reel out like loose thread between them. The traffic rushes past, little pockets of sound flaring and fading in smooth oscillation as car radios pulse out of their open windows, slipping in and out of hearing range. The bags from the grocery store rustle between Eddie’s fingers and he and Buck peacefully knock shoulders as they round a corner and continue past a set of traffic lights.

Finally, Eddie’s house comes into sight up the street and Buck does another little skip, jolting like someone’s touched a taser to him. He pulls his hands from his jeans pockets.

“Alright, c’mon,” he taps Eddie’s chest with the back of his fingers and nods ahead. “Drop your stuff and pack a bag. Come stay at the loft.”

Eddie thinks it’s a wonder he doesn’t drop the bags where he stands.

“What?”

“Yeah,” Buck shrugs, undeterred. He’s smiling in that coaxing, disarming way that reduced Isabel Diaz of all people to mush. “I’ll make some pasta, we can watch something other than the Cartoon channel, you have free rein of that air mattress instead of the couch, you don’t end up wandering around your house all night wondering if Chris is asleep.”

“You think I’d just wander around until sunrise?”

Eddie asks it only because it’s the easiest thing for him to lock onto. They’ve reached the house and he jostles the bags to pull out his keys.

Buck laughs just over his shoulder. “I don’t know - maybe?” Then he sobers, shrugging with maybe a tiny touch of bashfulness. “No, look. I know you’ll be fine, but I also know that this is kind of bigger than just him going to school for a few hours. So. If you want. I’m saying that even if you want to pace and worry...you don’t have to do it at home alone.”

Eddie wonders if Buck knows that this sounds like a date.

(More than, maybe, since it’s been clearly implied it’s an all night kind of offer, even if the air bed is involved).

(It also sounds a lot like a best friend taking care of him; watching his back).

Eddie lets them inside, finding his way down the hall without turning on any of the lights. There’s still enough sunlight to make it easy, and yet somehow the house already feels empty, dark and too large. The shadows are cool and grey, crouched behind the furniture where the pale yellow spill from the windows can’t reach. The rooms are gaping like the tenderness of an open wound.

Eddie pushes the thought aside. It’s a sleepover. It’s going to be good for Christopher. Good for both of them, maybe.

Which brings him back to the point; the invite.

It should be nothing. Hell, he spent two days in a row at Buck’s just little over a week ago following the fire at the LAFD. He woke up to him cooking pancakes on the second day while Christopher snoozed on the inflatable bed as long as he could get away with. Waking up at Buck’s isn’t new or unfamiliar.

Doing it without Christopher is.

The rest of it somehow reshapes itself around his absence into something entirely different. Something a little terrifying, but also something that feels tightly like yearning, and entirely too much to walk away from.

“Does that mean you’ll let me pace in your apartment instead?” Eddie asks. He sets the grocery bags down in the kitchen and turns to lift his eyebrows at Buck, who followed him inside.

Buck smirks. “Got some un-worn floorboards with your name on them. I expect them scuffed by seven am.”

Eddie snorts. He shakes his head and bites his tongue between his teeth. Buck still looks unfazed, his weight rocked against the doorframe, thumbs hooked back over the front pockets of his jeans. Buck knows he looks good; he’s never been exactly shy, but his ease inside his own skin is also so practiced and natural that Eddie wonders if he does any of it on purpose or if it’s just autonomic.

“You’re sure?” Eddie asks.

He still wonders if he knows what this is but isn’t brave enough to ask it outright.

It’s more than that, though.

It’s not just the new shape of them without Christopher in the apartment. It’s everything Buck has been carrying with him, too; the lingering phobias and the bursts of insomnia, the nightmares that still persist. It’s all things that Eddie knows, things he’s seen for himself before, and Buck knows that, but they’re still things Buck hadn’t wanted him to worry about.

This is an invite that allows him to witness them again.

Maybe it’s a good thing - Eddie hopes that it is. Maybe the night in his kitchen with that wet dish towel broke open a dam and he’s stopped trying to hide those jagged, still injured parts of himself.

“Yeah,” Buck says, and he lifts a hand to rub at the back of his neck. “I just...I still have one alarm but I can turn that off so you don-”

“Hey, no,” Eddie interrupts him. “I’m good with being woken up. I’m used to it - might freak out more if nothing does shake me, you know? You need it still, and that’s okay. It’s helping, right? So don’t mess with it. It’s not worth it.”

Buck’s teeth worry into his lip but he shrugs and makes a half nod. “Sure, okay.” Then, apparently corralling himself, he looks up, two parts mischief, one part hopeful. “Is that a yes, then?”

Eddie rolls his eyes and gestures to the grocery bags.

“Make yourself useful and put the perishables in the fridge. Take anything you need for pasta or whatever. I’ll go pack a bag.”

Buck pushes himself off the doorframe, smiling and already pulling open the refrigerator door. Eddie slides around him and heads for his room without looking back.

 

.



Buck cooks a good pasta dish. Pasta Thursdays at the firehouse probably helped it stick, since Eddie knows that anything beyond breakfast is still a work in progress. Either way, it’s good food and they both eat enough to make them drowsy.

The evening soaks away from them.

The TV plays a handful of fire and fury style thrillers, the gentle rumble of the old boiler kicks in and the distant sound of traffic and pedestrians on the street outside blends together until they’re both near sleep. Eddie remembers how bad the couch is to sleep on sat up, though, so he forces himself up, stretching in the hopes of shaking off any other kinked necks, and makes his way to the airbed.

He crashes out on it and falls asleep listening to the creak of metal and the twang of springs overhead as Buck climbs the loft.

 

He’s expecting the alarm to wake him in the early hours.

He’s also expecting Buck to kill it inside of a minute so they can both go back to sleep. It’s a slow, lagging kind of realisation, like a computer several seconds behind, that it hasn’t happened.

Eddie feels his brain gradually shifting gears as the sound persists. That muffled, soupy feeling of sleep and timelessness starts to flex into real shapes and then he’s actually, really awake and wondering how long he’s been hearing it go. It could have been one minute, or it could have been fifteen.

It’s still blaring; an escalating beat. Buck doesn’t seem to have so much as twitched.

That’s when Eddie’s newly awake brain catches on and backtracks so rapidly he feels like he’s just fallen over even though he’s lying down.

Buck’s been doing much better, but he said himself he still gets stuck in his own head sometimes. He can control so much more when he’s awake, but the nightmares - those can still grab him and not let go. It’s all too easy to remember the night weeks ago, Buck on Eddie’s couch and the way his dreams hadn’t let him breathe or escape, intent on drowning him.

Eddie climbs off of the airbed and stumbles upright, navigating through the dark shapes to the stairs and then eases quietly up to the loft.

Buck’s alarm is shrill and angry, his phone a blazing beam of light on the bedside table, but he’s still asleep. It’s not a fitful one; he doesn’t look like he can’t breathe and he isn’t churning the blankets, distress etched into his face, but he’s not peaceful either. There’s rapid movement under his closed eyelids, his pulse thrumming unevenly in the base of his throat, breaths tight. Whatever it is, it’s deafening him to the world.

This is a choice that isn’t Eddie’s, but even by doing nothing, he’ll be making it. He can leave Buck asleep and hope he’ll resettle and rest, or he can wake him and hope this nightmare was something he wanted out of.

He’s been sleeping better. Eddie knows that, even if they don’t exactly sit and discuss the specifics. Buck may not be leaving everything behind, but slowly he’s making some kind of peace with it. Eddie wonders if - in some cruel twist of irony - the fire, and the frustration it raised actually let Buck forgive himself long enough to see he wasn’t still stuck on that pier.

There’s shadows of it around him and maybe there always will be, but he’s come a long way from it, too.

Eddie reaches out for the phone to kill the alarm and silence crashes down on them. There’s a snag of breath hissing between Buck’s teeth, a rapid flutter under his eyelids, and Eddie’s heart beats in his throat.

He already knew it, but this is enough to land the weight solidly like a rock in his stomach. It’s definitely a nightmare. Eddie’s seen enough of them to know. Then the choice is impulsive.

He’s wary about how close he gets; knows all too well how Buck can startle from sleep even when he’s not plagued like this. Eddie reaches out, stretching himself carefully across the shadowy expanse of the empty side of the bed, and squeezes his shoulder.

Buck doesn’t bolt awake.

He blinks. He’s almost unnaturally still, pulse misfiring chaotically in the juncture of his neck as the dream clears out of his mind. The panic holds out, his eyes fluttering in the dark. They widen, pupils constricting and there’s the jump of a strained cord underneath his jaw, but nothing else - not even his fingers twitching.

It’s not almost unnatural stillness - that’s exactly what it is.

Fuck.

“Hey, easy,” Eddie says quickly, keeping his voice low. He squeezes again with his hand, hoping it’s enough to ground him even though Buck’s eyes dart right past him, hitting the corners of the room, frantic. “Sleep paralysis. It’s normal, okay. Hang in there. You’re fine. You woke up too fast, just let your body catch up.”

Eddie doesn’t move, warm cotton flattened between his palm and the knotted deltoid muscle of Buck’s shoulder joint. It’s all he trusts himself to offer; some small gesture that says he’s there, that he’s what’s real and Buck isn’t doing this alone.

Buck swallows. The seconds tick by, draw out slow like sap from a tree and then his shoulder shifts under Eddie’s hand. His fingers spasm and curl around the bedsheets, and he inhales sharp and staggering.

Eddie lets him go, ignoring the tight sounds of choked breath that sit close to sobs in the shadows. Buck sits up, rubbing at his eyes with a hand before raking it back over his head. He’s not shaky, though, not gasping for air and the panic etched in his expression has gone, melted down into bone-weariness. Eddie hopes he did the right thing.

He lets his hand linger as long as he can get away with, bites down the impulse to move his fingers to the back of Buck’s neck and soothe patterns into his skin. He lets go when the sound of his breathing is back to normal.

“Pier?” he finally asks, softly, when Buck eventually flattens back against his pillows.

Buck sighs, “Yeah.”

The thing is, they’ve had this conversation.

They’ve had it more than once, all the forms of it there are. Eddie doesn’t have anything left to say to him that Buck doesn’t already know - not about this. It’s nothing that Buck wouldn’t already have told himself, either.

So Eddie doesn’t say anything.

He shoots a sideways glance at Buck, but Buck doesn’t seem in the least bit bothered by him; quiet and malleable against the pillows, eyes open and gaze drifting languidly across the ceiling. Eddie twists and lays himself back across the bed, choosing to say nothing when he feels Buck shift to give him room.

Minutes tick past.

The loft is airy and oddly timeless; like the glowing numbers on the clock don’t actually matter; like the early hours of the morning aren’t meant for them. The shadows are long, stretched thin between the bricks and metal framework, colourless against the grey wash of light from the crescent moon. Buck’s breathing is louder than the familiar sound of the boiler, only because Buck is closer.

“Your alarm is awful,” Eddie says.

Bucks exhale catches on a laugh that sounds warm and sleepy. “Well it didn’t work.”

There’s liquid weight in his bones and Eddie rolls his tongue. “I meant the sound, but yeah, that, too.”

There’s a rustle of movement to Eddie’s left, up near the top of the bed, and then a pillow hits him in the side of the head, air crushing out of it on impact. His brain goes pleasantly fuzzy under the playful assault, like it’s full of cotton candy. He grabs the pillow and stuffs it under the back of his neck instead, then goes back to gazing at the ceiling. Buck doesn’t ask for it back. He doesn’t say anything.

The angular path of weak moonlight through the windows shifts slowly across the exposed metal rafters. The numbers on the clock bleed green, out of focus in Eddie’s peripheral vision as they track languidly past two am. Eddie only realises he’s falling asleep when Buck’s voice jolts through his brain like sticking fingers in an electrical outlet.

“I wonder sometimes...what might have happened if I didn’t have you guys. After everything, I mean.”

It’s vague, and sleepy - not quite a fully formed thought - but Eddie knows him and he knows what fits between the words. He’s glad Buck’s come far enough, placed enough worth in himself, to acknowledge he does have them; him and Christopher. It’s not something he would have said back over the summer.

“Doesn’t matter,” Eddie shrugs wanly. His shoulders shift lethargically against the mattress. “You do have us.” 

“Best family I’ve ever had,” Buck murmurs.

Eddie closes his eyes to the ceiling and to the glowing clock as it drips over the nightstand, and he aches and wants and doesn’t remember falling asleep.

 

.

 

It’s light out when he wakes up.

Eddie sits up slowly but Buck doesn’t stir. They’re sprawled across the bed, Eddie still with his stolen pillow and Buck twisted at an angle to make more room for him. The blankets divide them up; Buck folded underneath them and Eddie laid over the top, but the loft is warm. He didn’t wake up because he was cold, or because he heard a noise, or even because his brain has just learned to anticipate. He just feels like he’s actually slept a full night.

He can only hope that the change of scenery for Christopher means he slept through as well.

(On that point; there’s the sudden, burning need to check his phone to see if Tasha left any messages during the night).

Eddie slowly lifts himself up to a sitting position, breathing through the warm ache of sleep in his spine. He glances over at Buck.

He’s still asleep, flat on his back, wrist draped over his sternum. His face is peaceful, eyes quiet under his eyelids, mouth a soft shape, and there’s no furrowed line through his birthmark.

Eddie knows consciously that Buck can sleep, and sleep well. The insomnia is intermittent, if disruptive, but he’s too functional for someone who doesn’t sleep at all. Seeing it is different, though. There’s something about being able to witness it; Buck actually getting rest, that’s soothing in some intangible way.

He wants to watch Buck sleep peacefully long, long after it stops being a rarity.

The recognition of it isn’t anything world-shifting - not like the second shoe dropping the day he’d seen Buck and Christopher in the store and realised he wanted far more than he’d thought, in a way that was already bigger than life. It’s not like that now; it’s just an almost lackadaisical certainty.

He wants it enough to ask for it.

Eddie doesn’t know when. Right now he still wants to leave the actual decision with Buck, but it’s that same inevitability from the day of the fire sitting in his bones like gravity. One of them will change something eventually. This limbo won’t last forever. There’s too much that they both want, just out of reach.

All too suddenly, that’s what’s scariest.



He was okay with having feelings for Buck. It didn’t feel like it was anything new to adjust to - just something that had always been there even when he didn’t recognise it. The feelings were easy to live with. They didn’t change anything on their own. Acting on them is what changes things.

The last person Eddie tried to build a relationship with had walked away from him.

Shannon had said a lot about being back and wanting to be a family again. She’d been frustrated and hurt that Eddie couldn’t trust her. He didn’t know how; was sure he wasn’t ready, but he’d relented. He’d tried. He let himself hope, allowed her space in their lives again...and she’d left.

Eddie realises, sitting there at the end of Buck’s bed and watching him sleep, that maybe that’s damage inflicted that never healed. It doesn’t feel like prodding at scar tissue. It feels like a fresh wound; tender and sharp.

He wasn’t enough for his wife; for someone who’d known him almost out of school. Shannon had been Christopher’s mother and still it wasn’t enough to make her stay; not even to make her try.

Why should he be enough now?

 

.

 

He leaves Buck to sleep, edging down the stairs to go find his phone while his brain spins.

Eddie knows it’s not true, is the thing. He spent months telling Buck that your mind plays tricks, and that trauma takes different shapes. He’s spent months telling Christopher that Shannon loved him, and that it wasn’t his fault she couldn’t stay, long before her life had been taken. Whatever else they disagreed on, Eddie knows that wasn’t a lie.

And then he remembers Bobby.

He remembers Bobby in his back yard, the week Christopher went back to school. Buck and Athena had been sat inside at the dining table just as Bobby said-

Don’t forget yourself, while you’re trying to help them.

 

Maybe he had.

(More likely, he’s now noticing, what Bobby actually meant went right over his head).

 

.

 

Eddie packs up the airbed and makes the coffee. Buck comes traipsing down the stairs, rubbing a hand through his hair and his eyes on his phone, just as the coffee finishes, like he’s been summoned.

“There,” he says, apropos of nothing, tossing down the phone in exchange for the steaming mug Eddie hands him. “Changed the alarm.”

Eddie vaguely remembers insulting it in the middle of the night.

“Yeah?” he asks, amused. “To what?”

He aches. Everything is a slow, constant ache, of things he wants and things he’s realised he’s a little afraid of, but Buck makes it quieter. He muffles it somehow.

Buck, unaware, says with an air of pleased mischief, “To farmyard animals.”

Eddie blinks. “Wait, seriously?”

Buck pulls a face over the cup. “Hey, I’ve tried everything but the firehouse siren at this point. If it works…”

 

Eddie’s almost disappointed as he grabs his bag and Buck runs him back home that he won’t be around to hear the new alarm, or verify how much better (or not) it turns out to be.

 

.

 

“Carla’s meeting me at Cedars,” Buck says when Eddie hops out of the passenger door onto the curb outside his house. “Last check up before it all goes cold turkey. Go enjoy the day with Christopher.” Buck gives him a look through the open window. “You haven’t had any panicked calls. He’s fine, Ed.”

For once, though, Eddie’s a little preoccupied and the usual tide of worry for his kid doesn’t rush at him.

“Yeah, probably,” he says anyway. He thumps the side of the car. “Text me how it goes, okay? Don’t make me get it from Carla.”

“That’s a breach of patient confidentiality,” Buck teases. Then, immediately, eyes soft and ever so blue, he says, “Yeah, I’ll let you know.”

 

Eddie watches him put the car back into gear and then pull away. He accelerates down the street between the snoozing rows of parked family sedans and hatchbacks, probably already turning up the radio. When Buck’s tail lights are out of sight, Eddie cuts across the lawn to his own car and jumps straight in, throwing his bag over into the back seat before firing up the engine.

 

.

 

Bobby opens the door after the first knock.

To his credit, he only looks surprised for an instant before his face smooths. He blinks and smiles, a faintly unfamiliar silhouette in his civilian clothes.

“Eddie. Hi,” he says lightly. “Is everything okay?”

Eddie feels kind of inexplicably like he wants to laugh.

“Uh. Yeah...I…”

The words just won’t come out and Eddie lets them hang. Bobby’s smile softens and he steps back, clearing the doorway and opening his arm. “Come on in.”

Eddie doesn’t step forwards.

He thinks there’s a reason he doesn’t. He isn’t sure whether it’s because he doesn’t want to, or whether he can’t make himself. Maybe it’s simpler. He has to pick up Christopher soon and if he goes inside, this will take longer than what he thinks he came here to say. It could be any of those things, or other, more shadowy reasons that don’t fully form in his head. His eyes catch on the tranquil shadows of the Nash-Grant house and suddenly the words are a leaden weight on his tongue. Opening his mouth to let them out is easier than going inside.

“I...I have PTSD, don’t I?”

Bobby blinks at him. It’s a slow, dawning kind of look, his shoulders sloping slowly as he breathes. The shape of him in the doorway is static, like something that glitched in a video game and got stuck in place while the world keeps going.

It takes a long moment for him to swallow and open his mouth. “What makes you think that?”

Eddie notes absently that Bobby hasn’t invited him in again. His voice is calm and his hesitation said more, but Eddie just goes along with it.

“I don’t know,” he says, on an exhale that’s nearly a laugh. There’s something almost spacey in his head and he doesn’t feel like he occupies the same mass in the world that he did before. It’s weird. “I’m not really… sure. Just… a bunch of things. I don’t-”

There’s a spark, a reminder, then a spiral of fuzzy memories that sting and turn cold at the back of his brain.

He swallows and says, “Shannon, I think. She wanted me to let her back in after everything and I...I found a way to do that. Then she left. I thought we- she- was trying and she just walked away all over again. I thought that was old stuff, you know? I thought it was buried and done and that because it- it isn’t her, that it isn’t the same. I didn’t think I’d be scared because-”

His throat closes up around the truth.

“Because it’s Buck and you do trust him,” Bobby fills in gently.

Eddie feels his lungs fold in. “Yeah,” he says, exhaling collapsed air.

“So that led you to PTSD?”

Bobby’s tone is still careful and unassuming, but Eddie calls his bluff.

“I think it led you there first,” he says, and Bobby’s eyes flicker away. “You knew - something, anyway - the day you spoke to me out back. You said you were worried...that I shouldn’t forget myself while I was trying to help them. This is what you meant.”

It’s not a question and Bobby’s shoulders drop a little more. “Sure you can’t come in?”

Eddie shakes his head.

If he stays out here, somehow it’s not quite as serious, doesn’t have the same kind of weight as it would if he said any of it sitting on Bobby’s couch.

Bobby nods at him, like maybe he gets it, or maybe he’s just letting it go. Maybe he just has enough of his own wounds to know better than pressing on this one. He says, “I’m not a doctor, Eddie. I don’t have a degree in psychology. Nothing I say to you is backed up by anything like that. But yeah… I wondered.

“You’ve been through a hell of a lot. Most of us have, and all those things looked different at the time. I’ve been there; on the fallout of something and not even able to see what it’s doing to you. I figured whatever you were dealing with, you probably wouldn’t think about it.

“I wasn’t sure until you talked to me in the car, the day yours broke down. And for the record, I still wouldn’t say I have the qualifications to call it PTSD, but… you being so sure Buck had to be in the right mind, not wanting to take any choices from him… I don’t know all about what you went through with Shannon but it made sense.”

Maybe that’s a relief.

Eddie isn’t wholly sure how to process it, but he thinks it has to be a good thing, that even outside of his head, Bobby could see the sense in it. He can’t do it again, not without being sure that being with him - with Christopher - is where Buck wants to be.

He had PTSD after his second tour. He knew that; he saw it enough in his army brothers to know, but it had faded into the background of his life over the years as he absorbed himself with raising Christopher and finding a new career and home for them. This time it hadn’t come with nightmares and flashbacks. This time, he’s starting to realise, it’s been more insidious.

He’s been waking up in the night for months, constantly worrying that he’s not getting things right, losing track of himself whenever he isn’t on the job or with Christopher. He’s reminded more than ever of the way Bobby had said gently months ago that trauma took all kinds of different shapes. The insomnia and the paranoia have been there, just not in a way he knew to look for.

That’s when something else hits; a tiny realisation that feels like a warmly glowing candle catching light deep in his chest. He’s been holding Buck and Christopher together this whole time and he hadn’t even noticed that they were holding him together, too.

Something inexplicably soothes inside him, like honey over raw nerves.

He realises he’s been quiet for a long, glacial moment when Bobby ducks his head, trying to catch his eyes and asks, “Hey… you okay?”

Eddie exhales slowly, not quite steady. He still feels like he doesn’t quite inhabit the same mass as he did before (like he left some of himself behind, in the ambulance with Shannon, on the pier with the wave, in Buck’s apartment with that stolen pillow). It feels different now, though; like he’s set aside a weight he didn’t ask to carry and not like he’s a kite with its strings cut.

“I… I don’t know. Yeah,” he decides on. “I think maybe I haven’t been - and I didn’t even really notice - but yeah. I’m okay. I will be.”

Bobby surveys him for a second, like he’s trying to pick out a lie. Eddie doesn’t think he’ll find one; he feels okay. More stable. There’s things he has to deal with, but knowing what to call them helps.

Bobby says instead, “You and Buck?” It’s a shift sideways on a topic that feels like the same one.

Eddie smiles before he can help it. “Yeah, we’re good.” 

That’s about all he can handle. Bobby is a father figure to most of them in the 118, and he’s there without fail for all of their ups and downs. He’s far more than just their boss or their captain, but that’s what he still is, and Eddie doesn’t want to say any more.

He peels backwards, out of the shade overhanging the doorway, and inhales deep when he’s standing in the splash of sunlight on the path again. The air smells like autumn; crisp and bold, renewal tempered by Californian skies. “Hey, thanks,” he says.

“See you tomorrow,” Bobby calls to him as he raises a hand in a wave from the shadow of the hall. There’s a smile on his face and he nods in a way that feels hopeful.

Eddie nods as he circles his car to the driver’s side door. “Bright and early, Cap!”

 

He rolls down the window as he drives away, lets the touch of chilled wind catch against his elbow, buffeted and roaring. 

 

.

 

Eddie gets the text an hour before he’s due to pick up Christopher.

Buck 11:04am
All good. Finish in 4 days

He wants more. He wants to know what the doctor said - the risks that there could be a relapse and what he needs to look out for if there’s a chance. The goal has always been to get Buck off them for good and back with the team, but the reality of it hits Eddie a bit like everything else today.

(Out of nowhere, things reshaping around the new information in a way he had no way of even contemplating before it became a factor).

He puts that aside.

Right now he just wants to know everything he can so he never has to watch Buck cough up blood ever again.

He doesn’t text back. He’s not even sure where to start but he knows he has no hope of covering everything he wants to say if he types it. He calls instead.

Buck picks up in an instant, sounding like he’s still halfway through finishing a conversation somewhere else.

“Eddie! Hey, I’m- yeah, thank you, have a great day - hey, sorry. I’m just leaving the hospital. What’s up?”

“You’re all clear?” Eddie asks, more to say something than because he didn’t believe it.

“Well, yeah,” Buck says, exhaling into the phone in something that’s almost a laugh. “It’s… there’s other stuff but- yeah.”

“Sounds like more than a yes,” Eddie points out. He’s not quite able to help it, even though an instant later he winces. “Sorry, not my-”

“No, no. Uh-it-” Buck clears his throat thickly. He sounds a little shifty, but based on the fact he’s slipped this much, Eddie figures it’s less about hedging the truth to him and more about whoever is around on his end to overhear. “I’m clear. I’m coming off them and they’re going to keep monitoring things for a few weeks - through the requalify test and then a bit once I’m back on active duty. Just to make sure, you know?”

Eddie rolls his tongue but still says, “Still sounds like a but coming.”

“Just that… if there’s any abnormalities or recurrences then… I might have to…-” he inhales deep, sharp and wounded. “I might have to go back on them. Better that than… dying, right?”

He tries to laugh it off. Eddie can practically picture the familiar way he seems to shrug.

“Then we work it out,” Eddie says.

“Work what out, Eddie? If I go back on them then my job-”

“Is still your job,” Eddie cuts him off. “You can still do it on blood thinners. You gotta be able to, if it comes to it. We - all of us - just have to be more careful. Bobby knows how hard you worked. He’s on your side. Didn’t Hen work with pharmaceuticals? She may know more about implications and what’s possible.”

There’s a slow pulse of silence on the other end of the phone, and then Buck says, sounding choked, “Have you been thinking about this?”

“Not really, no,” Eddie says truthfully. “I just know that only you can do your job, and I’m pretty much done doing mine without you. So whatever we gotta do to get you back there, we’ll do it - whether you have to be on meds or not.”

“Jesus, Eddie,” Buck breathes. “I- God-”

“But right now you’re clear,” Eddie reminds him, moving away from that and changing tack. This is all a hypothetical as long as the doctor keeps him clear. They may never have to worry about it.

“Yeah,” Buck says, a little shaky still, this time with lingering disbelief. “I’m clear. It’s crazy with how long it’s b- hey, yeah it’s Eddie. We all set?”

There’s a murmur in the background that travels down the phone indistinct and humming, and then Buck’s voice is back at the speaker again. “Sorry. Carla’s here. You want me to pass you over so she can give you all the patient confidentiality parts?”

Eddie laughs. “Nah, just say I said hi. You guys have a fun afternoon.”

“You got it,” Buck replies, and Eddie can hear the smile, can hear a new weightlessness in his voice that’s an old familiarity, something he hadn’t even noticed might be missing until he’s hearing it again now. “And hey, I’ll see you and Christopher in the morning.”

“Make sure you sleep properly first, okay?”

Eddie says it thoughtlessly, because he means it, but it makes him remember waking up askew on Buck’s bed, his stolen pillow under his head.

There’s a snatch of breath on the other end, then a laugh that has no air. Eddie thinks maybe he’s not the only one who remembers it.

Buck says, “I’ll let you know how the new alarm goes.”

 

.

 

Eddie goes to visit Shannon’s grave.

He arranges with Carla to stay with Christopher a little later than usual and then detours to the cemetery after his next shift finishes up at the firehouse. It’s a little dissonant, really. He’s not sure why, but he figured that it would be bleak, or raining, or at least moonlit and foggy - maybe a slightly lost raven hanging around. It just seemed like the kind of thing that happened when you went to visit a grave.

It’s nothing like that, though. It’s two in the afternoon on a Thursday and he’s in California. There’s palm trees arching breezily over the headstones, the slightly tangy taste of sea salt in the air, and it’s quiet but not morose or haunting. The sun is bright, the grass glows and there’s a small pond full of bulrushes and waterlilies that scatters light as koi fish and frogs swim under the surface. 

Eddie tracks his way to Shannon’s grave marker.

He came for a reason, and he thinks it was for some kind of closure; to say things he didn’t get to before. It’s not until he’s standing in front of it, though - a modest, arched piece of marbled stone, engraved with her name, dates and words that feel foreign in elegant script - that he realises he was wrong.

He doesn’t actually have anything he needs to say to her.

She isn’t here anyway, he thinks slightly wildly. 

Maybe letting go doesn’t have to be dramatic at all. He leaves without a word, gets back in the car and heads home to his son.

 

.

 

“Hey, Chris, you think we can talk for a minute, Buddy?”

Eddie watches as Christopher looks up from the scattered paper on the table and caps his felt pen (It’s orange, not blue, and Eddie knows, still, that its stupid to read successes in the colour of ink, but he counts this as one anyway).

“Sure, Dad,” he says, pushing the drawings away. “Is it a grown up talk?”

Eddie edges further into the living room and sits carefully down on the couch. “Yeah, it is.”

Christopher just nods patiently, head rocking to the side as he waits.

Eddie’s still not sure, despite deliberating over it for days, how to do this. The problem is it’s so entangled. He can’t only have this conversation with Christopher once something (anything) changes between him and Buck. That’s not something he can do - change his son’s life without talking to him about it. But there’s something that sits strangely in his gut to have this conversation like he’s just assuming things will go any particular way with Buck.

Whatever impulses or certainty he’s felt, and no matter how sure he is that one of them will say or do something soon, none of that is the same as consent.

He doesn’t want to assume. He refuses to take Buck for granted, but he can’t not talk to Christopher until it’s no longer hypothetical. It’s a hard ask which conversation has to happen first and he’s gone with this one.

He doesn’t know how to start it, but he’s not sure what words he might use to pull it out either, so in the end, he sucks in a breath, fingers pressed together between his knees and jumps in.

“What would you think if I maybe started to see someone?”

Christopher frowns. “Like how?”

“Like…” Eddie casts for some kind of comparison that will make sense to him.

He can’t use Shannon. Christopher would be too young to remember them from before, and what they had last year was nothing like what he means now. That was him sneaking around, hiding it, feeling wounded and soured by it, even though he thought it was what he was meant to do. It was two separate halves; the mockery of a relationship between him and Shannon, and her edging her way back into their son’s life.

He can’t use it as an example.

“Like… your friends’ parents,” Eddie says. “They have two, and they’re both around, but they spend time together, just the two of them while you and your friends play, or while you’re at school. Like that. So… sometimes it would be all three of us, but sometimes I’d see them while you were busy or doing other things.”

Christopher’s still frowning. He flicks his fingers at the nearest felt tip and dolefully watches it roll on the table.

“Would they stay here sometimes?”

Eddie nods cautiously. “Maybe, yes. Eventually.”

Christopher sinks further into his seat. The little furrow in his forehead etches into something sharp and petulant, something more visceral than confusion even as it seems to pain him.

“No,” he says.

Eddie blinks. “No you don’t want anyone to stay here or-”

“No, I don’t want you to see anyone. Not like those parents,” Christopher says. His voice cracks and he sounds close to tears. “I like it like it is now.”

“Okay, hey,” Eddie slips off the couch so he can lower himself to the floor in front of Christopher, who’s curled his shoulders into himself. His concern over the desolate shape of his son is just about enough to keep his mind grounded. “That’s why this is a grown up talk, okay? What is it you don’t like? We can talk about what you don’t want to change - is it because it’s too soon after your mom?”

Christopher lifts his eyes. “Mom didn’t stay,” he says flatly, with all the assurance of someone who never knew how messed around Eddie and Shannon had gotten. “I don’t want it to change. If you spend time with someone then Buck can’t stay. He won’t be around any more, not like he is now. Why can’t Buck just stay, if you want to spend time with someone?”

And that’s when Eddie realises - like an idiot - that he’s managed to go about this all wrong anyway. He isn’t sure if he’s relieved or not.

“Hey, Christopher, listen. Okay? You listening?”

Christopher takes a breath, eyes shining, and nods reluctantly.

“Nothing will change if you’re not ready for it to, but I am talking about Buck.”

Chris blinks, conflict washing across his face, like he wants to believe it but isn’t sure that he can.

“Really?” he asks with a small voice.

“Really,” Eddie says. “It will probably be just like it always has, but...he might be around even more.”

Christopher smiles an instant before his face twists suddenly, contemplating and prying. “Rory’s parents kiss,” he says. “Is that part of seeing someone?”

Eddie tries not to laugh. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“So… “ he prods at the felt pen again as he picks his words, but he looks kind of pleased. “You would kiss Buck?”

“Maybe, yeah.” He doesn’t want to ask if that’s okay - he won’t unless Christopher raises the topic. He’s processing enough already without adding sexuality spectrums to it. “I have to talk to him about it all first,” Eddie adds. “We both have to see if we want that as well, or if we want to just be friends. So right now nothing’s different and you don’t ask him any of this until I say so. But if we both want to then… one day… is it okay with you if it’s Buck who’s here more?”

Christopher shrugs, but there’s now a slow smile pulling at his face as he prods his pens into a neat line on the table. Then he nods.

“Yeah, that’s okay. He’ll still be my friend, though?”

“Of course he will,” Eddie says.

His heart is suddenly in his throat. Christopher being okay with it; this potential, probable, inevitable eventuality makes everything seem so much more immediate; so much more like stone certainty even as it seems several times more fragile and ready to shatter before he can grasp it.

“Will I have to see the kissing, though?” Christopher asks narrowly, his nose scrunching up a little in distaste.

Eddie laughs. Thankfully the topic of how he’ll one day maybe not mind some kissing is a good few years off, and the new weightlessness of having this conversation makes the amusement bubble up easily, like carbonated soda fizzing in his lungs.

“Sorry, mijo ,” he says. “You might have to see some of it.”

Christopher’s nose twists again and he squints behind his glasses, but then his little shoulders shrug and he says, “Okay.”

Then, just as Eddie stands up (kind of light-headed and shaken), he asks, “What’s the difference between seeing someone and having parents?”

Eddie freezes, an odd ache in his jaw like it wants to drop but it’s too frozen to comply. Christopher continues unaware, uncapping a pen between his hands and pulling his drawing closer. “If you’re seeing Buck and one day he might stay here with us and you start kissing does that mean he’s a parent?”

Eddie hesitates.

Christopher really has no foundation to understand this, given his own parents weren’t together for most of his life. Because of it, he’s learned to attribute meanings to the structures of family that differ from those of his friends. Eddie doesn’t want to weigh him down with all of the nuances right now; there’s too many things to consider, and Christopher’s ability to comprehend it is just one of them.

“Those parents have been together a long time,” Eddie says carefully. “They’re parents because they raised their kids - your friends. Seeing someone is...newer. Not everyone wants to have kids, but hanging out and dating someone is like learning if you want that with another person.”

Eddie tries not to think of all the ways Buck kind of has been a second parent for months. It’s not because the thought makes him feel like he relied too much on him, or because he’s in denial. It’s just that thinking about it makes it harder to explain the distinction to Chris.

How does he explain that Buck’s been more family than they realised for so long, but the ‘seeing’ part has yet to happen?

Thankfully, Christopher doesn’t press that any further.

He nods, humming, and starts colouring in again. He seems content and at ease, fingers clamped around the orange felt tip. “Okay,” he agrees simply. “What’s for dinner?”

 

.

 

There’s a quiet knock on Eddie’s bedroom door that night, just as he’s about to climb into bed, and he turns to open it instead.

Christopher was in bed at least two hours ago, and fast asleep not long after that, but he’s awake again now. The door creaks open and the warm light from Eddie’s bedside lamp spills through the gap, catching on Christopher’s sleep-mussed shape in the hall. He hasn’t brought his crutches but his glasses are on and there’s wrinkles in his pyjamas as he sways on the spot.

“What’s up, buddy?” Eddie asks him softly, opening the door wider and rubbing a hand over his head fondly.

Christopher yawns a little, trying to stifle it by rolling his jaw. When he’s done, he’s wearing a frown, worry flickering across his face, reflected behind his glasses. Eddie feels twitchy suddenly, but the question that comes out isn’t what he expected. (He isn’t sure what he did expect).

“You said some people don’t want kids,” Christopher says, so precise and serious for a kid his age. “If some people don’t want that then...what if Buck doesn’t want me?”

Eddie’s heart drops a beat and staggers behind his ribs, the thud of a lost pulse hammering through his blood in physical pain. He sucks in a breath, words tripping out. He’s doing this all wrong.

“He does, mijo . Buck loves you, Chris. I promise.” Eddie sighs slowly. “It’s more like we would have to learn if being together is what we want. It would be a different relationship for us.”

Christopher’s brow furrows more, his nose scrunching up and lifting his glasses. His eyes cast down at the floor. “You and mom tried that. Then she left.”

Eddie ducks in close to him, ruffling at his hair again and then pressing a kiss to the top of his head, arm looped over his small shoulders as he breathes him in. “Buck won’t leave,” Eddie murmurs to him, and he knows it’s the truth. “It was complicated with your mom, but this isn’t the same, okay? He’s not going to leave.”

Christopher takes a deep breath, and nods. When he draws back, his forehead has smoothed out and he looks tired again now the anxiety has been dealt with. He smiles wearily, mutters a goodnight around another yawn, and carefully makes his way back down the hall to his room.

Eddie watches him go, listens for the springs in his bed so he knows he’s back in okay, and then closes the door again. It’s only as he lays down in the dark that he realises there’s no left over pang of worry scraping away under his skin either. When he said Buck wouldn’t leave to Christopher he meant it, but it took saying it out loud to realise how deep the truth ran; that he actually, completely believes it.

That kind of trust is something new. It’s wholly Buck’s, not something he ever gave to anyone else.

It settles something inside him - something intangible, woven deep, buried under layers of sinew, scar tissue and bone. He shuts off the light, falls into the bed and sleeps right through the night without stirring once.

Eddie wakes up to the pale morning sun stretching indolently across the blankets, delicately warm, and doesn’t miss blinking awake in the shadows.