“Anyone heard from Buck yet?” Bobby asked while trying to balance the full, and heavy, dishes he was moving over to the table. He sent Eddie a grateful nod when the younger man rushed over to take one of the three dishes off his hands.
“I haven’t heard from him in a couple of days,” Eddie admitted, as he shifted the hot dish away from his body, “I just figured he’s still focused on Maddie.” Bobby winced at the reminder that they’d nearly lost both Maddie and Chimney barely over a month ago. Both had been making amazing headway in their recovery, but their relationship had soured slightly. It also meant that most of them hadn’t seen Buck’s sister in over a week.
“That’s where my focus would be,” Bobby admitted leading Eddie over to the outdoor table where Athena was setting places with Chim’s help. Despite the situations that had forced him to Los Angeles, Bobby had grown to love the city and the ability to be outside year-round. It meant that he could grill and have family over without overwhelming the house.
The fire captain took a moment to take in the sight of his family around him. Hen and Karen were talking with Denny, Harry, and Christopher about something off in the corner. Based on the way Karen was pointing to her phone, and then the sky, it had something to do with the stars. Buck was the only one still missing, but he was certain the young man would walk through the door any minute.
“Dinner’s ready!” Athena called, drawing everyone to the table. She looked at Bobby with a soft smile, “He’ll be here. You know that boy wouldn’t miss your food. He lives on instant ramen and take-out if he’s not eating with this family.”
“We’re working on it,” Bobby defended with a smile, “He’s got a pretty decent grasp on breakfast, we just keep getting interrupted.” As if to accentuate his words, his phone rang from his back pocket. He smiled as his fiancée rolled her eyes and they moved towards the rest of the group.
“Speak of the devil,” he muttered when he saw Buck’s name on the caller ID, “Hey Buck, you on your way?” He was greeted with silence only broken by harsh breathing, “Buck? Everything okay?” He noticed the soft chatter that had been going around the table fade off as the rest of his crew turned their attention to the captain.
“Bobby, help.” The sob and sorrow in Buck’s voice had Bobby at the door with his keys in his hands before he even realized he was moving.
“Where are you?” He was only answered with more sobs as he got into the driver’s seat, ignoring the frantic and concerned calls from the others as they trailed after him. He fought to keep his voice calm as he took off in his LAFD Captain’s SUV with lights and sirens going, “Buck, I need to know where you are in order to help.” The sobs coming over the phone softened to sniffles.
“UCLA Medical Center,” he finally managed to get out.
“Okay Buck,” Bobby told him, “I’m on my way. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I...I…,” Buck was interrupted by a weak cry that Bobby could barely hear and couldn’t explain, “I’ve gotta go.”
“Buck don’t- damn it!” Bobby swore as he tossed his phone into the passenger seat and pressed harder on the gas pedal. The last fifteen minutes to the hospital were tense and Bobby skidded to a halt in front of the emergency room entrance.
“I need to know where Evan Buckley is,” Bobby nearly shouted out as soon as he hit the ER nurse’s station. The nurse jolted a little in surprise, but thankfully he started typing within seconds.
“Father,” Bobby found himself blurting without thinking, and his eyes went wide for a second before composing himself to try and maintain the half-truth. After a few minutes of searching the nurse frowned and looked up at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t have a record of anyone by that name in the ER or currently admitted.”
“He called me,” Bobby insisted setting his phone on the counter, pointing at it as if it would explain everything, “He told me he was here.”
“Could he be visiting anyone?”
“Maddie,” Bobby told him, “Maddie Buckley. She-” he stopped when his phone pinged again, this time with a text from Buck, “Where’s room 5401?”
“Fifth floor ICU,” The nurse told him. Bobby ran for the elevators, ignoring the nurse calling him back, “You need a visitor pass!”
The elevator seemed to take forever and Bobby had to resist the urge to keep slamming the button for the floor. Once it finally got there, Bobby immediately started searching for any kind of sign to tell him how to get to room 5401. He was so intent on his search, that he nearly missed the man he was there to see, sitting on one of the waiting room chairs. There was a woman next to him who seemed to be doing her best to comfort him.
“Buck?” Bobby moved towards his firefighter, scanning his eyes over the younger man’s body to search for any injuries, “You okay?” When Buck looked up, Bobby could see that his eyes were red from crying and the skin around them swollen.
“I don’t know,” Buck looked so lost that Bobby pulled him up into a firm hug. Bobby could feel him shuddering with every breath, so he turned his attention to the woman that had been sitting with Buck. She was dressed in a light blue blouse and gray slacks that complimented her warm brown skin that reminded him of May.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” He asked her from over Buck’s shoulder.
“Captain Nash I take it?” She smiled softly at him, moving forward and shaking his hand awkwardly when he held it out to her, “Noemi Chance. I’m a social worker with Child Protective Services.”
“Okay?” Bobby said slowly, now more confused than concerned, “As far as I know, Buck is significantly over eighteen.” He was aiming for levity and it earned him another small smile from the woman and even a slightly hysterical, chuckle from Buck.
“Why don’t we sit down.” With Noemi’s help, Bobby gets Buck back into a chair and crouches in front of him.
“I’m going to text Athena,” Bobby told him, “Everyone’s worried about you. Especially since I kind of bolted after you called.” That seemed to snap Buck a little out of his shock. He lifted his gaze to look at Bobby with a slight frown.
“It’s Thursday,” Buck whispered glancing down the hall for a second as if he was waiting for someone, “I missed family dinner. I’m sorry Bobby.”
“No Buck it’s okay,” Bobby said placing a hand on the other man’s knee, “I’m glad you called, and whatever is going on here is clearly serious. We’re here for you.”
“Thanks Bobby,” Buck said softly, picking at his fingers in an unusual show of anxiety still glancing down the hall periodically. The captain pulled out his phone and quickly sent Athena a text that simply said ‘UCLA Medical center. 5th floor’.
“Okay,” Bobby gave Noemi his full attention, “Can you get me caught up?”
“A week ago, my department was alerted to a possible child in a dangerous situation. Upon our arrival at the reported location, we found a nineteen-month-old male in a severely alarming state. The decision was made to remove the child immediately and contact LAPD with a possible criminal case,” Noemi told him, “He was brought here for evaluation and care.”
“What does that have to do with Buck?” Bobby asked, keeping his hand on Buck’s knee to remind the kid that he was still there.
“Mr. Buckley was contacted as the father on file,” She explained with a sympathetic look at the young man next to her. Bobby suddenly realized why Buck kept looking down the hall.
“He didn’t know,” Bobby told her, “He would have told us, and he would have been there for that kid from day one.”
“The mother confirmed that she never told Mr. Buckley about her pregnancy,” Noemi assured him, “or about the existence of his son. Because of that, he’s been offered temporary custody, which he’s accepted.”
“This is insane,” Bobby muttered, squeezing Buck’s knee and looking up at him with a smile, “Buck you’re a dad.”
“I am,” Buck’s smile was wobbly, bittersweet, “But they don’t know if he’s going to make it.” Bobby felt his heart drop, knowing the pain of losing a child all too well and knowing how much it would break the sensitive young man to lose the child he’d just found.
“Captain Nash,” Noemi drew that man’s attention back to her, “This is being investigated as a case of felony neglect. Based on some of the mother’s statements, this may have been intentional.”
“God,” Bobby whispered, ignoring the buzz from the phone at his hip, “Buck.”
“It’s my fault,” Buck sobbed, “she hated him because he looks like me.” It was devastating to see Bobby’s own history reflected back at him in the young firefighter blaming himself for the pain of his child. Only this time, he hadn’t caused any of it.
“None of this is your fault Mr. Buckley,” Noemi assured him before Bobby can even make a sound, “None of it, and I know this is incredibly hard, but your son needs you right now.” Buck sniffed and cleared his throat harshly, clearly trying to get himself under control.
“I’m okay,” Buck insisted wiping furiously at tears that are still running down his face.
“No, you’re not,” Bobby told him, “and that’s okay. I’m here, and the rest of our family will be here soon.” Bobby made sure to stress the word family, but he wasn’t sure if it was for Buck’s benefit, or for the social worker’s. Either way, it earned him a huff of a hollow laugh from the younger man, “I’m going to talk to Noemi for a second. You good while I do that?” He patted Buck’s knee when the younger man nodded and tilted his head towards the hall indicating for Noemi to follow him. Thankfully, she complied and they were able to talk out of earshot.
“How likely is it that Buck will get permanent custody?” Bobby asked quietly, not wanting to give Buck anything else to worry about, “Because if you give him custody, just to take it away later, it will break him.”
“If the child survives,” she reminded him gently, and Bobby was able to fight back his instinctive flinch, “Then Mr. Buckley has a better chance than anyone else. The maternal grandparents have shown no interest from what we can tell, it looks like they’ve never even met their grandson. Provided he can prove that he has the capability to emotionally and financially care for his son, I doubt any judge wouldn’t grant him custody. It’s clear he already has a solid support system.”
“He does,” Bobby assured her, “You said this happened a week ago, how long has Buck been here?” Noemi actually smiled at that.
“He was contacted three days ago, once we were able to confirm paternity,” she told him, “and he hasn’t left since. I’m actually hoping you can convince him to go home and at least shower.”
“Not likely,” Bobby chuckled, “But we’ll give it our best shot.”
“Thank you,” Noemi relaxed a little at the captain’s words and glanced back at where Buck was now pacing the waiting room floor, “Honestly, based on what I’ve seen so far, I think he’s exactly what that little boy needs.” Bobby really did smile at that and joined her in watching the worried father.
“That kid’s got the biggest heart I’ve been lucky enough to encounter,” Bobby told her, “He loves with his entire being and will do absolutely anything to protect the ones he considers family, even strangers. I don’t think anyone could have a better father.”
“That’s good to hear,” Noemi admitted, “We don’t always get happy endings in my line of work, so it’s nice to see one.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” The pair shared a glance loaded with memories of failures and losses that would never be forgotten, “Can I talk to the doctor in charge of…” Bobby stopped realizing that he didn’t even know the little boy’s name.
“I’ll get him paged,” Noemi assured him and disappeared down the hall. Bobby sighed, leaning against the wall as the enormity of the situation finally hit him. A quick glance at his phone told him that the rest of the team would be at the hospital within the next twenty to thirty minutes. Until then, it was up to him to do his best to comfort Buck.
“How’re you holding up?” He asked softly as he slid into the chair next to his youngest firefighter.
“My son could die and I’ve barely had any time with him,” Buck managed to sob out, “Oh god.” Bobby held the man as he broke, harsh sobs racking his frame and just offered his silent support. All he could do was let Buck cry it out after being strong for who knows how long.
“I’ve got you Buck,” Bobby whispered, “I’ve got you.”
Once Buck had cried himself out, and nearly to sleep, they sat there waiting for any word. It seemed like hours, though Bobby knew it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes before a nurse poked her head around the corner. She smiled sadly at the sight of the slumped over man and walked over to kneel in front of him.
“Mr. Buckley?” She said, touching his hand softly. Buck popped up, nearly falling out of his chair and managed to bring his focus to the older woman, “We’re ready for you.”
“Thank you,” Buck said, already moving down the hallway. He paused for a moment before he turned back to Bobby, “Do you want to meet him?” The question was shy and it made Bobby smile almost as big as when Athena agreed to marry him.
“I’d love to,” Bobby told him and walked over to clap a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “Lead the way.” They walked down the hall together until they reached the door to room 5401 and Bobby let Buck lead him in.
The room was surprisingly cheerful for a pediatric ICU, but it made sense, in a way. Hospitals could be frightening to adults let alone children who are often even more sensitive to things like that. It was a single room with a blue couch that fit perfectly in the window space and a chair on either side of the bed. It was clear that Buck had taken up residence in the recliner style chair on the right side of the bed, based on the blanket and pillow he quickly tossed aside.
“Hey monkey,” Buck said softly to the tiny body on the bed as he sat, “You feeling okay?” The small body on the bed was painfully skinny, and Bobby was positive he could accurately count all twelve sets of ribs if he wanted to. Bobby made a note to start looking into homemade baby food for when the little guy would finally get to head home. He couldn't fight off the emotions that welled up when he saw the sick baby’s eyes brighten just slightly from their dull sheen at the sight of Buck, and he let go of the stuffed rabbit that nearly matched him in size to reach for his father. Buck immediately gave him his right hand while the left was draped across the bony back. It was less than a minute later that the nurse entered holding a pile of blankets.
“Do you want to do it in the recliner?” She asked, “It’ll be more comfortable.” Buck nodded and, much to Bobby’s surprise, pulled off his shirt. It made sense a second later when, once Buck was seated, the nurse placed the baby directly onto Buck’s bare chest.
“Bobby,” Buck smiled more brightly than Bobby could ever remember as the nurse covered father and son with a soft blanket, “Meet Camden soon-to-be Buckley.” Bobby took a step forward and pressed a soft kiss to Camden’s head. His heart stuttered again when he realized that Camden had the same red birthmark above his left eye that his father did.
“Welcome to the family Camden,” he croaked, placing a hand on Buck’s shoulder, “I’m proud of you Buck.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Maddie shifted uncomfortably as she waited for the elevator, praying it would go faster. She hated the fact that she’d had to find out from Chimney that her brother was apparently in the hospital when he called to see if she was okay, and if she knew anything about Buck. She got that three years of silence, no matter the reason, made it difficult for Buck to immediately think of her in a crisis but she hoped that she could change that soon.
“Maddie!” Chimney’s voice had her spinning around and she was greeted by the sight of Athena, Hen, and Eddie just a few steps behind the man who nearly died for her, “Have you heard anything?” The other three looked as eager for information as Maddie felt, and she felt a twinge of sadness at the fact that she couldn’t give them any information they didn’t already have.
“No,” Maddie shook her head, trying not to burst into tears in front of the elevators, “His phone goes straight to voicemail.” Chimney clearly saw through her attempts to hide because he pulled her into his arms.
“Buck’s a fighter,” he assured her as he rubbed his hands up and down her back, “He’ll be fine.”
“He’s too stubborn to die anyway,” Eddie joked, but Maddie could see the uncertainty in his eyes and in the way he fidgeted, constantly checking the glowing numbers over the elevators.
“Bobby’s going to meet us in the waiting room,” Athena told them just as the up arrow next to the elevator went off, “He’ll fill us in.” They all piled in as soon as the doors opened, Maddie pressing the close door button frantically and letting out a small sigh of relief as they finally slid closed. The silence was only broken by the music piped through the metal box’s speakers and the ‘ping’ everything they passed a floor. Eventually, they reached the fifth floor and spilled out to see Bobby waiting for them.
“Is he okay?” Maddie blurted out the second her feet hit the linoleum, “Where is he?” Bobby put his hands up to calm her before setting them softly on her shoulders.
“He’s fine,” Bobby assured her, and then again to the people behind her, “He’s not hurt.”
“Then why is he here?” Eddie asked, speaking for the first time since they’d all arrived, “and why did you run out like he was dying.”
“Why don’t you sit down,” Bobby suggested, though the firm grip he had on her shoulders didn’t give her much of a choice. She complied, slowly while the rest of the team circled around them. Bobby sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, clearly not looking forward to revealing whatever news he had.
“Apparently,” he finally huffed, “One of the girls Buck slept with nearly two years ago got pregnant and didn’t tell him.”
“Buck’s got a kid?” Eddie nearly shouted before he caught himself, quieting sheepishly when the rest of the crew looked at him, “and he didn’t know?” Bobby shook his head, his face a grim mask.
“He didn’t know until CPS called him a few days ago.” Maddie couldn’t help but gasp, knowing that CPS involvement and a hospitalized child was never a good sign. Bobby nodded at her, “The social worker said it was a severe case of neglect.” She could hear Eddie swearing harshly in Spanish behind her and it sounded like Athena was calling someone at her precinct. Hen was muttering quietly with Chimney, most likely talking about what the baby might be facing based on the few medical terms Maddie was able to register.
“How bad is it?” Maddie asked quietly. Bobby shrugged helplessly and a look of defeat poured over his face. He sat down hard in one of the chairs.
“They don’t know if he’s going to make it,” Bobby admitted, and it looked like the words were physically painful for him to say. A quick glance at the rest of the team told her that they were all too engrossed in their conversations, or muttered swearing in Eddie’s case to hear what Bobby said.
“It’s a boy?” Maddie asked, her brain for some reason clinging to that fact rather than the idea that the toddler might not survive, “I have a nephew.” Bobby just nodded.
“Camden.” Maddie was barely able to hold back a sob at hearing her nephew’s name, “He’s ridiculously cute, but he’s so skinny and weak. God, it was hard to look at him and know that someone hurt him like that.”
“Captain Nash?” Everyone looked up to see a kind middle-aged man standing at the entrance of the hallway. The white coat clearly marked him as a doctor, and Maddie felt her estimation of him go up when she saw that his scrubs were covered in Winnie the Pooh characters and he had a stuffed animal attached to his stethoscope.
“That’s me,” Bobby said standing up to offer the doctor his hand, “Bobby Nash. This is Maddie Buckley, Evan’s sister. She’s the one you should talk to.”
“Hi,” the man said, holding a hand out to Maddie, “I’m Dr. Marks. I’ve been in charge of your nephew’s care since he was brought in, and your brother’s given me permission to talk about Camdon’s case with you both.”
“Maddie,” Maddie said shaking the offered hand and smiling tightly at the doctor, “How is he?”
“There was no evidence of physical abuse that we’ve seen, but it’s clear he’s been neglected for a significant amount of time,” Dr. Marks told her bluntly, “He’s massively dehydrated and malnourished. He’s been on IV fluids for the last week and we administered a nasogastric tube rather than risk trying to feed him orally. He’s been responding well so far, but our biggest concern right now is the various infections we’ve found. The diaper rash is slowly clearing up thanks to topical creams, and we’ve started broad-spectrum antibiotics for both that and pneumonia.”
“Holy crap,” Chim muttered, moving closer to Maddie to offer unspoken support, “Is he going to be okay.”
“To be honest it could go either way,” The doctor admitted with a sigh, causing everyone’s face to fall just a bit, “Children compensate amazingly well, so it can be difficult to tell sometimes. At this point, I would say he’s got a 50/50 chance, no more than 60/40. We’ll know more in a few days. Honestly, I think your brother’s helping him the most. He hasn’t left the floor since he got here.”
“Thank you,” Maddie muttered softly, praying to whatever higher power was listening that her brother wouldn’t lose his son after only knowing him for a few days. Dr. Marks nodded and turned away. Maddie lunged forward and managed to snag the sleeve of his coat, “Sorry, but can we see him.” The doctor smiled at her kindly and squeezed the hand that was still clutching his white coat.
“He’s in the middle of a feeding right now,” he told her, “but once they’re done, we can allow two people in at a time in addition to his father. I’ll have one of the nurses let you know when you can go in.” Maddie nodded and waited for the doctor to leave before she turned into Chimney’s chest. He immediately wrapped his arms around her and let her cry out her fear.
“I’ll take you,” Bobby said softly, setting a comforting hand on her back, “I’ll check in with Buck, then send someone else in.”
“Thank you,” Maddie said into Chimney’s chest, looking up at the older man.
“I just can’t believe Buck’s a dad,” Eddie blurted, and everyone burst out laughing at the shocked look on his face. He grinned sheepishly at everyone’s laughter, “He’ll be great at it.”
“He really will,” Maddie said, finally pulled her face away from Chimney’s shirt, “It’s all he’s ever wanted really. A family. It was basically just us growing up, so he made sure everyone knew he’d be a better parent than ours were.” She felt a gentle hand rest on her back and looked up to see the man her brother had come to see as his own father looking at her with affection in his eyes.
“I already talked to the social worker,” Bobby told her, “She thinks there’s a pretty good chance that Buck will get full custody once the case against the mother is closed.”
“Could she get custody back?” Maddie asked, “It happens sometimes with accidental neglect.”
“Not likely,” Athena’s voice kept Bobby from answering and drew everyone’s attention to her, “They couldn’t tell me much, but they’re building a felony case against the mother.”
“For those of us without a legal background,” Chim joked grimly, “That means?”
“That it was most likely intentional,” Athena told them, her face promising violence if she ever happened to run into the woman that harmed her oldest baby’s baby. Maddie noticed that Hen’s knees wobbled a little, and she settled herself back against the wall for support. The former nurse could only imagine the mother was unwillingly imagining what could have happened to her son Denny if her ex had kept custody, or regained it.
“That’s what the social worker said,” Bobby sighed and let himself collapse into one of the chairs, “How does someone do that to a kid? I don’t get it.”
“That’s because you’re a good man Cap,” Eddie looked a little sick himself, and was tapping his phone against his palm, “And not everyone is.”
“Thanks Eddie,” the captain said with a small smile. He nodded at the phone in the younger man’s hand that he hadn’t stopped tapping against his palm in the previous five minutes, “Call your son. We all know you want to.” There was a quiet round of laughter from the rest of the crew as Eddie smiled sheepishly and walked a little ways away to dial the familiar number.
“I’ll call Karen and let her know the kids might be there late,” Hen told them, wandering to the other end of the room, “Cause I’m not leaving until I get to meet my nephew.” Maddie couldn’t stop the giant smile that spread across her face even if she’d wanted to. It helped, knowing that her brother had such an amazing support system in place, even when she hadn’t been there for him.
“Family of Camden Buckley?” The nurse was clearly surprised at the speed with which the entire team spun around to look at him, “I can take two of you to the room.” Maddie was halfway across the room before she was aware that her feet had moved and she glanced back to see Bobby right behind her. Chim waved her forward when she glanced at him, Hen and Eddie were still on their respective phone calls, while Athena did something on her phone that Maddie could only assume was related to getting information on the case. Nodding once, she let the nurse lead her down the hall to meet the newest member of their extended family.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Buck was absolutely enamored with the little boy resting on his chest. The first time he’d held Camden, the toddler had clung to him as if he was afraid the little bit of comfort he’d tasted would be taken away at any minute and Buck couldn’t help but wonder how often it had already happened. He swore to himself that he would do everything in his power to keep his son from hurting again.
“I love you so much,” he whispered against the little hair that was left on the toddler’s head as he pressed a soft kiss. The doctors had told him the hair loss was a side effect of malnutrition, but that it should clear up as he got healthy again. Camden shifted slightly in his sleep, nearly knocking the blanket off with the motion and Buck was grateful when a familiar hand shifted it back in place.
“He’s so small,” Maddie said as she crouched next to the chair to get a better look at her sleeping nephew. Buck hadn’t realized just how relieved he was going to be to see his sister and he fought back tears as she nodded.
“The doctor said he’s had some delayed growth because he wasn’t being fed right,” Buck croaked quietly, “So he’s closer to the size of a one-year-old than he’s supposed to be.” It hurt to talk about what such a sweet baby had been forced to endure, but he wanted his family to know so they could help him heal.
“We’ll take care of him,” Bobby assured him from the doorway, “I’ve already got May looking up youtube videos on making baby food, and I’ll ask the doctor what special nutrition he’ll need.” The young father nodded his thanks, his throat tightening at the knowledge that his family will be there for his son just as he’d hoped.
“Thank you,” he whispered, prompting Bobby to walk over and squeeze his shoulder.
“You don’t have to thank us Buck. You’re part of our family, which means this little guy is our newest recruit,” Bobby assured him with a soft smile. He took a moment to brush a finger over Camden’s cheek, smiling at the sight of the baby sleeping so well. Maddie, like the nurse she was Buck thought, had already moved over to the whiteboard on the wall to see what the instructions were for the nurses and what medications her new nephew was on, “Who do you want to come in next?” Buck bit his lip, knowing exactly who he wanted to talk to and hoping his request wouldn’t offend any of his teammates.
“Could you send Eddie in?” Buck finally asked, “I have some single dad questions for him.” Bobby smiled brightly at him and chuckled, nodding before he gave Buck’s shorn hair and affectionate rub.
“You got it kid.” Buck watched his captain walked out, and marveled at how lucky he was to have been placed at the man’s firehouse. Bobby had become the surrogate father he’d always wanted and, hopefully, he’d be willing to act as Camden’s pseudo-grandfather. Holding Camden, Buck couldn’t imagine raising him the way he and Maddie had been raised. Their parents weren’t bad, per se, but they were distant, cold and Buck could recall searching the stands at games only to be disappointed when his parents were nowhere to be seen. It hurt to know that he hadn’t spoken to them in over six months, and he didn’t miss them.
“You’re thinking about mom and dad,” Maddie was looking at him with a familiar empathy in her eyes. The emotional absence of their parents had bothered her, but she had filled that void with friends while Buck, the more sensitive of the two, did everything he could to gain their attention.
“How do people do this?” Buck could feel the tears trailing down his face, “I know what mom and dad did was nothing compared to this, but they barely talked to us once we started going to school.” Maddie looked as broken as he felt, and she reached over to squeeze the hand that was settled on top of the blanket.
“I don’t know Evan,” she told him, “But that’s not what’s going to happen to him. He’s going to have an amazing, loving father and an entire fire crew that he’ll wrap around his little finger.”
“What if he-”
“No!” Maddie’s tone was firm in a way that made Buck smile again, “Don’t even think like that. Don’t go down that road. He needs your focus on him, not what if’s. We can deal with whatever happens as it comes.” Buck nodded and bent his head down to press another kiss to the top of his son’s head.
“I thought it was a prank,” Buck told her, earning a confused glance from his sister, “When they called me to tell me about him. I thought someone was messing with me, but they just kept talking. Even when they told me to come here I didn’t think it was real. Not until they brought me in here.” He ducked his head to hide the tears that were building up.
“Buck,” Maddie’s voice was soft, “It’s okay.”
“He was so small,” Buck gasped, his heart racing again as he relived the moment he saw his son for the first time, “And so skinny. I didn’t know what to do, I was so confused and then he looked at me.”
“And it clicked,” Maddie finished. Buck smiled at the fact that she still knew him so well.
“It really did,” Buck admitted, “I didn’t want to leave him and I didn’t even think to call any of you.”
“It’s okay Evan,” Maddie assured him quickly, carding her fingers through his short hair, “Every part of you was focused on him. None of us blame you for that. It would have been nice to avoid the heart attack when we thought you were in here, but that’s more on Bobby than you from what I hear.” Shifting the blame to the captain made the young father chuckle a bit, but he froze when the movement of his chest made the sleeping toddler squirm a little. A sigh of relief rushed out of him when the sick boy simply rubbed his face against his father’s bare chest and settled back to sleep.
“Okay, even I can admit that was cute,” Eddie’s voice from the doorway made Buck’s head snap up. His best friend was leaning against the doorjamb with a warm smile on his face, “Welcome to the single dad club.”
“You mean the hot single dad club,” Buck teased automatically, despite the fact that tears were building at the reminder that he had such an amazing gift in his arms. Eddie shrugged, dropping his hands to hook his thumbs into his pockets.
“Yeah, but I’m humble enough to not say it,” the teasing tone and look dropped from his face shortly after the words were out of his mouth, “How’re you doing.” Buck appreciated the candor and knew that Eddie could relate on some level to what he was dealing with.
“I’m tired,” he admitted, “But I can’t leave him. Not now.”
“You don’t have to,” Maddie assured him, nearly making the men jump. Buck had honestly forgotten she was in the room and decided to blame it on the fact that he hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep since he’d arrived at the hospital, “a shower would probably be good, but I’ll go grab you some clothes from your place at least.” Buck glared at her weakly for the tease and fought the urge to discretely sniff himself. He’d done his best to clean up in the bathrooms whenever the nurses had needed him out of Camden’s room, but even he knew it was tough to smell good when you wore the same clothes for nearly four days straight.
“Thanks,” he muttered, nodding at his jacket by the door when she held her hand out to indicate the need for keys.
“You should probably grab him some real food too,” Eddie told her, “I’m guessing he hasn’t eaten anything that wasn’t from a vending machine in a few days.” Buck opened his mouth to argue, when his stomach let out a loud growl at the mention of food. The sound was loud enough to jolt Camden awake and the little boy raised his head to blink at Buck with an adorable look of confusion before sleep took over again and he cuddled back into Buck’s warmth. Buck looked up at his sister and best friend, who both looked like they were struggling to hold back laughter, with a sheepish grin.
“Eddie might be right,” he admitted, though it pained him a little. Maddie just shook her head and walked over to press a kiss to first Camden’s, then Buck’s head.
“I’ll be back soon,” she assured him, “and I will get you to go home at some point.” Buck thought it was unlikely, but was smart enough to keep his mouth shut as she made her way out the door. Eddie moved further inside to make way for her, and eventually moved the other chair in the room next to him.
“You’re not going to be easy to convince to go home are you?” He finally asked after a minute of comfortable silence.
“Not in the least,” Buck agrees and the pair share a familiar smile before Eddie chuckled. The other firefighter shifted his head a little closer to his best friend, clearly trying to get a better look at the tiny boy that had stolen Buck’s heart.
“Dios,” Eddie muttered, “He looks just like you, poor thing.” Buck gave his best friend an unimpressed look to hide the pang that came with his words.
“She hated him because of it,” he admitted to the other father, ignoring the regretful look that flashed across his best friend’s face, “I don’t know much about the case, but the first social worker let it slip.”
“I know what you meant,” he assured Eddie, reaching out to pat his arm, “It’s just a shitty situation all around.”
“You can say that again brother,” Eddie conceded, they settled back into silence as any question Buck had for the only other single father he knew disappeared.
Camden woke with a whine that turned into weak cries that broke his father’s heart. Despite only knowing his son a few days, he already knew his different cries and the whiny tone he was currently letting out meant he needed a diaper change. He stood carefully so that he wouldn’t shift his son too much. He knew friction would irritate the diaper rash more.
“Can you hit the call button?” Buck asked, “The nurses are supposed to help me change him. I’m not great at it yet.”
“Sure,” He saw Eddie hit the button and saw him make his way to the door, “Hi, my friend needs help changing his son. Can you let someone know?”
“It may be a little while,” the nurse told him with an apologetic grimace, “We’re a little short-staffed tonight."
“Can you just bring the supplies? I can help him,” Eddie said, moving to stand beside him as he laid the toddler on the bed. Buck wasn’t sure what the nurse responded with after that, but Eddie made his way back to the bed, “I’m an expert from changing Chris, and that kid loved to try and stick his feet in his dirty diapers given the opportunity.”
“I can’t imagine that,” Buck laughed lightly as he peeled the wet diaper away, easing the cries a bit. He winced a little at how bright red the little boy’s skin was and saw Eddie do the same out of the corner of his eye, but it looked better than it had a few days earlier, “He’s such a good kid.”
“A terrible baby though,” Eddie admitted, “at least when it came to me changing his diaper. I swear he did it to get back at me for being gone. I didn’t realize he’d done it the first time until I was done and he’d left poop footprints all over my shirt. I think I took the hottest shower ever that day.” The nurse returned with a diaper, wipes and a bottle of prescription diaper rash cream.
“Thanks,” Buck said absently as he accepted the supplies without taking his eyes off his baby.
“You’re welcome,” Eddie told him, and Buck carefully followed every muttered instruction on changing a diaper, but was secretly pleased when he didn’t need nearly as much instruction as he had the first time. There was a soft knock at the door and the two men looked up to see Athena, Hen and Chim all standing in the doorway with soft smiles on their faces.
“I did not need to see Buck without his shirt on,” Hen teased making Buck jerk his head down at his chest and nearly squeaked when he realized he was standing in the hospital room bare-chested, “I really hope someone recorded the sound that just came out of your mouth, because that was priceless.”
“Skin to skin contact has been proven to help the healing process in infants,” Buck defended as he scooped his son back up, “and it helps the bonding process.”
“She’s just teasing you Buck,” Athena assured him making her way closer to his side. Buck smiled when he saw that Camden was looking at her curiously, taking a finger in his tiny fist when she held it out to him, “Well hello there handsome.” Camden didn’t take his head off of Buck’s chest and blinked sleepily up at her.
“Those eyes are going to be dangerous,” Hen said as she stepped up behind her friend, “Buck’s are bad enough, and I will fully deny I ever said that if you ever bring it up again.” Buck closed his mouth with a smile and redirected his attention to his son.
“Everyone,” he said, “Meet Camden. He’s nineteen months old and is the latest heartbreaker in the Buckley family.” Thankfully, everyone in the room didn’t mention the way his voice caught as he spoke and he truly hoped that his heartbreaking would only be in good ways.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Eddie couldn’t imagine what Buck had been forced to go through in just a few days, and he really tried not to. He and Shannon had never had to face possibly losing their son. There had been difficulties, procedures, and surgeries, but not once did a doctor tell them to prepare themselves for the possibility of their son dying beyond rare complications.
He watched as Athena, Hen, and Chimney cooed over the baby who looked both pleased at the attention and just a little overwhelmed. He had heard Buck’s voice hitch, and knew that his best friend was terrified that he was going to have to watch his son die. He didn’t say anything, just set his hand on Buck’s shoulder as a silent show of support.
“I think I still have some of Christopher’s old baby books somewhere,” he offered, earning a look from his best that wasn’t quite surprise, “If you’d want them.”
“That’d be great,” Buck said as his shoulders dropped a little, “I was getting close to singing to him, and the poor thing doesn’t deserve that.”
“No one deserves that,” Hen piped up from next to Buck, “and I have the video to prove it.” Buck groaned and dropped his head to look at the baby in his arms, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. The touch made the little one look up and Eddie saw Buck’s face split into a wide grin when their eyes met.
“Your Auntie Hen is being mean to me Monkey,” Eddie heard his best friend whisper, and he felt his heart melt a little more as the baby smiled up at the blond around his pacifier,“She’s not allowed to be your favorite, okay?” The former soldier bit his lip to keep from laughing at the offended look on Hen’s face.
“We all know I’m the favorite,” Eddie teased after a second of silence, “I-” He was cut off by the buzzing of his phone telling him someone had sent him a text, “I’ve got to go get Christopher.”
“Everything okay?” Hen asked, peering at his phone unashamedly, “Karen didn’t send me anything.”
“He’s fine,” Eddie assured her, “It wasn’t Karen. My abuela is getting ready to smack me with a spoon if I don’t get her ángel to her soon.” The rest of the crew laughed at that, knowing full well that Eddie was firmly wrapped around the finger of his son and grandmother.
“Better not make Abuela mad,” Buck told him with a teasing grin, “You can always visit later.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow with those books,” Eddie promised, “We’ve got to make sure Camden’s got quality material.” He winked at Buck, who just shook his head with a wry smile and headed back out to the elevators. On the way, he texted his abulea to assure her that he would be bringing Christopher over soon, and Karen to let her know he was on his way.
Even though it took nearly half an hour to get to Hen and Karen’s house, it seemed like it was just a few seconds. Eddie took a brief moment to be concerned that he had apparently driven completely on autopilot before he made his way to the door.
“Dad!” The familiar sound of his son calling him never failed to make him smile.
“Hey Superman,” Eddie groaned as he lifted the boy into his arms, “You ready to go see abuela?”
“Yeah!” The little boy’s excited shout made Eddie’s ear ring for a second, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world. He saw Karen watching them with a little bit of trepidation and, while he didn’t want to get into the whole story, he knew he needed to reassure her.
“Why don’t you get your stuff together?” Christopher took off towards the other kids as fast as his crutches allowed and Eddie moved to stand next to Karen, “everything’s fine, mostly.” He cringed a little at how weak his assurances were, clearly an opinion shared by Karen if the judgemental look she gave him was anything to go by.
“And what does mostly mean?” she asked, concern and amusement warring in her eyes. Eddie found himself blushing under her gaze and fought the urge to scuff his feet against the hardwood floor. Finally, he sighed and checked to make sure none of the kids were close enough to hear.
“Buck just found out he has a kid,” Eddie told her flatly, “they’re at the hospital because the baby’s not in great shape.” Karen gasped quietly and brought a hand to her mouth, glancing over at the kids. Eddie didn’t doubt that her mind went to her own son the way his had to Christopher.
“Oh my god,” Karen finally breathed, blinking back tears, “What-”
“Daddy!” Christopher called out, interrupting whatever Karen was about to say, “I’m ready.” Eddie turned to his son, forcing a smile on his face.
“Great buddy,” The former Texan turned his attention back to Karen as he herded his son to the door, “I’m sure Hen will fill you in when she gets home.” Karen nodded, surreptitiously wiping away the tears that had gathered in the corners of her eyes and dripped down her face.
“Drive safe,” she told him, following them to the door and closing it behind them.
“Alright buddy,” Eddie played up his groan as he lifted Christopher into their truck, “Time to go to abuela’s house. Did you have fun.” He asked the last question as he climbed into the driver’s seat and he was surprised to see Chris looking at him in concern.
“Is everyone okay Daddy?” His son asked in his soft voice, “Bobby left and everyone looked scared. Then we went to Aunt Karen’s house.” Eddie sighed, he had been hoping to not tell Chris about Camden until they knew for sure the toddler was going to be alright.
“Everyone’s okay buddy, I promise,” Eddie told him, “But Buck got some news that made him scared and he wanted Bobby.”
“Buck found out he has a baby,” Eddie told him, earning a delighted gasp from his son, “But the baby’s sick, so Buck is staying at the hospital with him.”
“Can we go see them?” Chris was bouncing excitedly in his seat as they drove and Eddie couldn’t help but smile at the unbridled enthusiasm, “Please? Please?”
“Okay Superman,” Eddie finally said, to the happy squeals of the nearly eight-year-old, “We’ll talk to abuela and maybe go to the hospital tonight.” Chris chattered away for the rest of the ride, clearly excited about his new “cousin” and didn’t stop until they were inside.
“Hola mi ángel, Edmundo,” Isabel greeted once they were firmly through the door.
“Abuela! I have a new cousin!” Eddie nearly groaned at the surprised look his grandmother sent Christopher’s way, then the raised eyebrow he got.
“Really?” Eddie had to fight not to roll his eyes at his grandmother’s dry tone, knowing it would only land him in more trouble. Instead, he sighed and opened his mouth to explain when Christopher beat him to it.
“My Buck has a baby!” He squealed excitedly, waving his arms around enough that the adults had to dodge the flailing limbs. Eddie nodded when Isabel looked at him in confused shock, “Daddy said we can go see them in the hospital!”
“Alright buddy,” Eddie told him, “Go put your stuff away first, and we’ll see if we can go.” Christopher toddled off towards the guestroom that had become his and Eddie yelped as the older woman slapped at his arm.
“What do you mean if?” She asked with a stern glare, “And who is in the hospital?”
“The baby, Camden, is. Physically, Buck’s fine,” Eddie assured her, knowing how much the woman had come to adore his best friend. He was pretty sure she already considered Buck her favorite grandson, “Camden’s mother neglected him and the doctors aren’t sure he’s going to make it. Buck hasn’t left the hospital since he found out.” Isabel looked at him for a minute, before crossing herself and muttering in Spanish as she made her way to the kitchen. Eddie knew better than to enter the kitchen when she was muttering under her breath, despite his curiosity. Based on the mouthwatering smell that had permeated the house, he guessed that she was packing up some of her famous tamales for Buck.
“That boy probably hasn’t eaten properly since getting to that hospital,” Isabel said as she emerged with a large Tupperware container, “Is there anything else he needs?”
“Do you have any of Christopher’s old baby books?” Eddie asked, taking the container when Isabel held it out to him and slipping it into one of her many reusable grocery bags, “I told Buck I’d bring him some to read to Camden.”
“I think they’re still in Christopher’s room,” Isabel told him before disappearing into said room. There was some quiet murmuring from the room, but Eddie couldn't make out what they were saying. Instead, he headed to the bathroom where he kept his spare toiletries for days when he was just too tired to make it home when Chris had spent the day with his bisabuela. There was an unopened stick of deodorant that he slipped into another bag, along with a spare shirt. He wasn’t sure what Maddie was going to get for him, or how quickly she was going to get back to the hospital, and he figured extra clothes could only be a good thing. By the time he was done, the other two were waiting for him with impatient looks.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he defended when he saw their matching looks, “Head for the truck.” They were mostly quiet during the drive, with Christopher filling Isabel in on the majority of his day until they pulled into the parking lot of UCLA medical center. They stopped at the reception area to actually get passes this time, before they were heading back up to the pediatric ICU.
“I brought some guests,” Eddie announced to Buck as he stuck his head through the door. Buck was alone for the first time since they’d all gotten the news, but he looked better than when they’d all first arrived. Having family with you could do that for a person. He turned his attention to Christopher when he saw that Caden was back on the bed, sleeping, “Remember buddy, indoor voices.” A bright smile spread across Buck’s face the second he saw Christopher rounding the corner with Isabel just behind.
“Buck! You’re a daddy!” Christopher whisper yelled as he made his way further into the room. Eddie saw Buck check on Camden quickly, before he scooped Christopher up into his arms for a big hug.
“I am buddy,” Buck told him with a smile, “You’re going to be his big cousin right?” Christopher nodded frantically, before his nose suddenly wrinkle.
“I love you Buck,” Chris said, “But you smell.” Eddie had to duck out into the hallway to keep his sudden laughter from waking Camden, especially when he heard the offended squawk from his best friend. Isabel had a smile on her face as well, but had better control over her laughter than Eddie did.
“I brought you a shirt,” Eddie told him when he finally got his laughter out of the way, “and some deodorant.”
“Thanks,” Buck said with a sheepish look on his face, “I’ll go do that now.” He set Chris down and took the bag Eddie held out to him. He paused at the doorway, his gaze stuck firmly on the bed taking up a decent chunk of the room.
“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Eddie promised him, “Go get cleaned up and when you come back, let Abuela feed you.” He glanced over at where Isabel had commandeered the bedside table and was setting up what looked like half of her normal tamale batch, at least fifteen, and he wasn’t sure how many she expected Buck to eat.
“Are you sure?” Buck asked making Eddie look at him in mock offense, “I know, I know. I’m just, new to this whole dad thing okay.”
“I get it,” Eddie assured him, clapping a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “But you still have to take care of yourself too. Let us help where we can.” Buck threw his arms around Eddie before he could really react and he instinctively hugged back.
“Thanks Eddie,” Buck whispered into his friend’s shoulder and Eddie squeezed just a bit tighter for a moment, before leaning away.
“Of course man,” Eddie told him honestly, “But you really do stink.” Eddie laughed quietly as Buck rolled his eyes and pushed him away, but the real victory came when Buck subtly sniffed his shirt. The former soldier had to bite back another bite of laughter as the other man grimaced at the smell and wandered away down the hallway.
“He’s so small,” Christopher whispered, drawing his father’s attention back to where he was standing next to the bed. His eyes were glued to the toddler in the bed, but he glanced at Eddie for a moment as if to make sure he’d been heard.
“You were that small once,” Eddie told him, drawing closer to crouch next to his son. Christopher looked at him like he wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not, “Swear.” He put a hand over his heart and was only mildly offended when the child looked to Isabel for confirmation.
“It’s true mijo,” she assured him, “Someday this pequeño will grow up big and strong like you.” Christopher seemed satisfied with her answer and turned his attention back to the baby. Who opened his eyes sleepily, making Christopher bite back a squeal.
“He’s got my Buck’s eyes Daddy,” the little boy whispered with a voice full of excitement. Eddie could see the familiar blue eyes widen a little at the sight of new and newish people. Camden lifted his head weakly, clearly looking for something and Eddie would bet anything that he hadn’t woken up without Buck beside him since the man had arrived at the hospital. When he didn’t see what he was looking for, Camden let out a little whimper and set his head back down on the bed. There was a slight sheen to his eyes from the tears that built up, and Eddie’s heart broke even if he knew Buck would be back in a few minutes. He was about to reach out for the little boy when Christopher beat him to the punch, letting the toddler grab his hand, “It’s okay. Your daddy’s going to be back really soon. I promise.”
True to form, Buck appeared as if he’d been summoned by Christopher’s words and immediately noticed everyone’s location. He was swooping into Camden’s eyeline in a split second with a bright smile on his face. One that was answered with one from Camden, who automatically reached out for his father.
“Hey Monkey,” Buck said as he pulled his little boy into his arms, “How’re you feeling?” Once he was settled into Buck’s arms, the nasogastric tube that was used to feed Camden was clear, reminding them all of what the little boy had gone through in his short life. Obviously emboldened by being in his father’s arms, Camden turned his attention to the new people in the room.
“Why do you call him monkey?” Chris asked, looking as curiously at the younger boy as Camden was looking at the older.
“Because he holds on like one,” Buck told him with a small smile, “Baby monkeys hold onto their mommy when they move, but he doesn’t have a mommy, so he holds onto me.”
“Because you’re his daddy!” Chris said excitedly, before his face fell into a mask of sadness, “and he doesn’t have a mommy like me.” Buck looked at Eddie frantically for a moment while Eddie felt his heart crack once again at the reminder that Shannon had left their little boy again even if it wasn’t her fault. He felt Isabel put a hand on his shoulder in silent support and was grateful that she understood that he was in pain even if she had never been the biggest fan of Shannon. He moved forward to comfort his son, however, Buck beat him to it.
“No buddy,” Buck said using his free hand to tug the little boy closer, “Your mom loved you so much. She may have made some mistakes, but she always wanted what was best for you. Camden’s mother didn’t love him and she hurt him.” Eddie saw Christopher frown and tilt his head up to stare at his Buck.
“She hurt him?”
“Yeah Buddy,” Buck confirmed, “But we’re not going to let her hurt him anymore, because he’s part of our family now.” He waved the little boy closer and used his free hand to lift Christopher into his lap. The eight-year-old immediately snuggled into the tall man’s chest across from where Camden did the same. The toddler seemed interested in Christopher and reached out to pat the older boy’s cheek, pulling a laugh from him. In turn, Camden laughed brightly and Eddie saw Buck’s eyes go wide.
“Yeah,” Buck voice was a little choked up as he pressed a quick kiss to the forehead of both boys, “He did buddy.” Christopher smiled up at him briefly before he reached over to put his hand on Camden’s back.
“I love him,” Chris told the room, and Eddie felt his eyes well up at how truly amazing his son was. He was pretty sure he wasn’t alone in the feeling based on the way his abuela sniffled and openly wiped her eyes free of the moisture there.
“Me too,” Buck said without taking his eyes off either of the boys in his lap, “Me too.”