Title: Tread Lightly
Word Count: 4,903
Warnings/Spoilers: Canon-compliant up to 3x10, though it picks up from the end of 3x06 and then weaves 3x07-3x10 plotlines into other chapters. This fic explores various aspects of PTSD and depression, will feature anxiety/panic attacks, nightmares, near-death experiences, and instances of gun violence in later chapters. I'll do my best to update this section each chapter with chapter-specific warnings.
This chapter includes nightmares and an anxiety attack after a near-death experience.
Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with 911, Fox, or anything else related to that particular universe.
It wasn't until late that night, after he'd soothed Christopher's latest nightmare and resettled his aching and bruised body among his blankets and pillows, that Eddie let himself think about the look of pure surprise or wonder or happiness that had filled Buck's face when he'd insisted the other was forgiven for the lawsuit. His words had seemed so simple when he'd said them but Buck's reaction… The words had obviously meant a lot to him.
As he tried to silence all the noise inside his head so he could sleep for at least a few hours before his next shift, he couldn't help but wonder why Buck had needed to obtain his forgiveness so badly and why he was so filled with doubt and uncertainty. Surely Buck knew that their friendship could be repaired?
The look on Buck's face, the disbelief, would stop Eddie from falling asleep peacefully for weeks.
His heart hammered in his chest as he sat up so fast that his head spun. The sheets were tangled around his legs, trapping him from getting to his feet and pacing the floor, but after a frantic fight with the fabric he was up and moving and getting away from the bed that contained flashes of dreams which were all too real and rampaged through the barriers of his sleeping brain into the bits of his brain that were rapidly awakening.
He grasped at the wall, vaguely comforted by the solid and smooth surface which he had to trust wasn't shifting beneath his hand with another earthquake, and used it to steady himself until the swaying beneath his feet stopped, and the memories stopped flickering behind his eyes, and his heart stopped threatening to explode against his constricted lungs.
And when it all slowed, when he finally thought he had himself under some semblance of control, he was exhausted. So exhausted he wanted to crawl back into bed and go straight back to sleep. Except his fear of another nightmare, of another restless sleep, kept him from the rumpled nest of blankets and pillows.
When he glanced at the clock on his bedside table, it was approaching four in the morning. He could shower, go for a run until he couldn't think anymore, shower again, have breakfast, and then head to the station for his next shift.
Tired as he was, he knew more sleep wasn't an option. The thought of dying again wasn't an option. The thought of seeing Eddie's face, laced with anger and fear and disappointment, or Chris, broken and bloody and crumpled, or Bobby… He couldn't bear it. Eddie might've said he was part of the team again, might have forgiven him, but the fears still lurked everywhere.
With a sigh, and a rub of his hand over his face, Buck padded across the floor to the bathroom for his first shower of the day.
He flinched at the sound of the water as it cascaded from above, recoiling from the droplets that splattered over the floor and hit his feet. Tears filled his eyes as he peeled the sweat-soaked t-shirt and shorts from his skin, keeping the bandaging around his arm away from the water to avoid saturating the dressings.
When the water finally slipped over his flesh, when memories and nightmares and everything in between crashed over him for a second time in as many minutes, he tried to cling to the memory of Eddie's arms around him for the briefest of seconds before he'd grunted and pulled away. It was the only thing he had to try to keep the broken sobs of fear and frustration contained, but even that didn't work for very long when water continued to drag along his skin.
Hen fussed over him at the station, peeling away the dressings that the hospital had applied to check for any signs of infection and praising and admonishing him in the same breath for saving a life and risking his own.
"And what would you have done?" he said with a sheepish smile as her thumbs pressed a new bandage into place on his arm. "Left the guy in the windshield?"
"I'm not the one on blood thinners," she said with a shake of her head, though the quirk to her lips and glimmer in her eyes almost seemed fond. "You've given us enough scares lately. Why not let someone else do the hard work?"
Buck tried to keep his face neutral as she finished her work and began piling the old dressing and new packaging into a ball to throw in the trash. "How long have I fought to get back here to do the hard work?"
The look that crossed Hen's face made him feel a small pang of guilt.
"Besides, it looked worse at the time because of the thinners but the cuts aren't really that deep, are they? I'll be fine."
Hen pursed her lips and fixed him with a look that he thought she had learned from Athena. "We just want you to be okay, Buck. That means in one piece and without bandages or gauze or stitches holding you together."
He smiled, rolling his sleeve down to cover the worst of the dressings so that he didn't have to feel the eyes of everyone on him – or his injuries – all day. He was sick of feeling like a creature for everyone to gawk at, waiting for the next time he collapsed or did something stupid. He wanted to be healthy and okay again too. He wanted to be treated like a normal human being again, whatever that really meant.
"I am okay," he said with a false determination he barely felt because honestly his legs burned after the miles and miles he'd run this morning in an attempt to get away from all the memories and the nightmares and the fears that threatened to drown him just like the tsu-
The bells went off in the house and Hen cursed, tossing the rubbish and peeling off her blue gloves as they jogged for the truck. Bobby, Chimney and Eddie were descending from the kitchen area – Chimney still with a slice of toast dangling from between his teeth – and Buck tried not to feel too thrilled that he was finally getting to go on a call.
The only way he could describe it was like riding a bicycle, because he hadn't forgotten what to do or where to sit. There was a certain degree of automaticity that he felt on the job now but he'd forgotten how exhilarated and nervous he felt while sitting in the truck on the way to a job. Or maybe it had never been like this before, because he realised as they made a left turn that his hands felt clammy and he felt slightly dizzy.
"Hey." Eddie's knee nudged his bouncing one and he glanced up from staring at the floor, tracing patterns that weren't there in an attempt to focus his thoughts. "You good?"
Buck plastered on a smile. "Just hoping I haven't forgotten anything since the last time I went out."
Eddie stared at him and there was a crawling discomfort in Buck's belly because he still wasn't sure where they really stood after everything. Eddie claimed he was forgiven and trusted him with taking care of Christopher but there was a distance to Eddie's entire demeanour, something cold and distant in his eyes and the set of his lips, and Buck didn't know why. He didn't know how many more apologies he'd have to make before he truly felt like Eddie heard him. Saying he was forgiven didn't mean the same as being forgiven.
Bobby's voice cut through his musings, explaining the incident they were approaching. "-three stuck in an elevator in the lower basement-"
Buck tried to tune into the conversation taking place around him, processing the potential issues and dangers and making mental lists of what might be required on the call to ensure he hadn't forgotten anything after his extended time out of the team. Elevators could mean a front-on approach to crank the doors or descending through the shaft, depending on what was affecting the doors. The car could also be stuck between levels, meaning opening the doors was pointless. There could be a medical emergency. The car could fall further. Or it could rise suddenly. Or-
"-Hen and Chim, you stay in the lobby for the retrieved vic's. Buck and Eddie, I need you two on the elevator shaft, alright?"
He was still running through scenarios and risks and solutions when he felt a tap on his shoulder. His eyes snapped towards Hen's troubled look, feeling as though he'd been caught doing the wrong thing.
"Sure, Cap. Buck and I can do elevator recovery," Eddie said and Buck's eyes swivelled towards the other man, but Eddie's eyes were looking out the window so Buck returned his attention to running through the bank of possibilities in his head.
When they reached the site, he realised he should've paid more attention to the dispatch information and the assignments. They weren't the only truck at the scene because, when Buck climbed out and followed the eyes of the team to take in the towering building in downtown LA, he could see black smoke billowing from an upper level.
Bobby started pointing and Chim and Hen went in one direction while Buck fell into step with Eddie to go in the other. They gathered their rappelling gear from the truck's compartment in silence, fastening harnesses and draping ropes over shoulders as they moved towards the building. The shrill wail of the fire alarm was even more shattering inside the lobby as Buck followed Eddie weaving through the sea of people trying to flee the building. The sound was at such a high pitch that Buck would swear it was stabbing his eyes. He would've asked someone to turn it off if it wasn't a necessity during evac procedures.
Eddie strode towards the elevator marked with a 4 on the wall, Halligan at the ready and prising apart the doors with Buck on the other side.
"You good?" Eddie looked at him, eyebrow raised, as he slung the Halligan through his belt.
Buck nodded, peering into the elevator shaft and flashing his torch into the darkness. There was a substantial difference between their ground floor and the glint off the top of the elevator in the basement section below. "I've done this before," he said with a shrug, finding the anchor point within the shaft for his pair of ropes. "I'll get them out of the car, you get them strapped in for Chim and Hen to raise?"
As if on cue, Chim and Hen appeared with ropes attached to the pulley wheel along with an additional harness and a basket. Buck thought Eddie nodded at the suggestion of what to do once they had reached the elevator and together they worked on securing the next series of ropes in the shafts
"All set?" Chim asked and Buck nodded, giving one final tug against the harnesses and then doing the opposite of what any sane person would do – descending into the elevator shaft. He could hear the snick of Eddie's ropes moving through his harness as they abseiled towards the car. There was a small clang when Buck's feet hit the metal roof and he could hear some shrieking inside, which only intensified when Eddie's boots hit the roof.
Buck crouched by the hatch with his torch trained on the opening for Eddie's Halligan. Once Eddie peeled it away, Buck spied two older men and a younger woman cowering at the edges of the elevator.
"Hey folks," he said, flashing his best attempt at a comforting smile at the trio. "How about we get you out of here?"
"Oh, thank god," the woman said, hands clutching her phone against her chest.
"Harness is here," Eddie murmured as Buck slid through the hatch until his feet hit the floor. "Buck's in the car."
Buck unclipped his harness for Eddie to tie off in the shaft to avoid it tangling with the pulley above. He surveyed the three victims, noting no obvious signs of injury which was a relief. Elevators which fell suddenly were an easy way to end up with cracked heads and broken limbs.
"Okay then." He glanced up at the harness that Eddie lowered through the open hatch. "Who's first?"
The woman had been evac'd and the first man was on his way out when the second reached towards Buck, a hand rubbing at his chest and his brows pinching together in a way that made Buck's blood run cold.
"Son, I don't feel so good," he said, his cheeks pale.
Buck grabbed at his waist instinctively to keep him upright when he saw the man start to sag. "That's alright, Sir. We're going to get you out of here soon, remember?" Buck said, swallowing his nerves and gently lowering the man to sit on the floor. "Can you tell me your name?"
"W-William." Buck reached for William's wrist, holding his fingers on the pulsepoint while staring at his watch and counting, counting, counting. He could tell the heartbeat was irregular but it was impossible to tell if it was a heart attack or an anxiety issue after the man had been caged inside the elevator for so long.
He shifted his fingers to William's neck, the pulse stronger but still clearly erratic and gauging how clammy his skin was. "What other symptoms are you having, William?"
"My chest hurts," William said, rubbing against his sternum again. "Feeling dizzy as well."
He nodded, touching his hand to William's face in an attempt to keep the dark eyes of the other man on him. "Alright, William. We're going to get you out of here, okay?"
He waved a hand at wherever Eddie was above him, fingers at his radio. "Hey guys? Can we speed up the evac of our other male vic? Our remaining vic isn't doing so well down here."
"Going as fast as we can, Buck," Bobby's voice crackled back but Buck was watching the unfocused look in William's eyes and knew this was becoming more serious with every second that ticked by.
"Eddie, send down the basket and my rope. I'll rig him up so he can get extracted as soon as the pulley returns."
"Do you want me to-"
"Eddie." He looked up, keeping as calm as he possibly could at Eddie's face peering through the hatch because whatever was happening to William, he really didn't need the guy getting even more stressed than he already was about the medical episode he was suffering. "Basket and rope, please."
Eddie huffed but the basket clanked against the hatch as he lowered it to the floor.
"So, William, what brought you to this building today?" Buck said, because at least if William was talking Buck could gauge if he faded. His best hope was an anxiety-based issue, in which case casual conversation could provide some comfort.
"A m-meeting with m-my lawyer," William said while Buck loosened the guy's striped tie and the top couple of buttons of his pale blue shirt. "My daughter had a s-son. I needed to add him to m-my will."
"William adding to his will," he teased and William's lips twitched in a faint attempt at a smile. "Congrats on the grandson. Is he your first?"
"I h-have…have three…kids," William explained, eyelids fluttering, and Buck was already laying him flat by the time he heard Eddie's concerned shout above him asking for an update.
"Yeah?" Buck's hands move faster to strap William into the basket. For now, he kept William's hands by his sides rather than folded over his chest in case Buck had to start compressions. "What are their names, William?"
"J-Jenny… M…Mich-elle…" William's voice faded, his head lolling even as Buck grabbed at his face. The radio against his chest crackled with Eddie's urgent call to Bobby while Buck started running through new scenarios of how to get William out of here, fast.
"What are we looking at?"
"Probable heart attack, Cap," Eddie replied
Buck planted his fingers against William's throat, counting and comparing. The pulse was still there but it was weaker and slower than before. The fact that William was deteriorating made it clear this wasn't simply anxiety anymore. "We have to get him out," he said to Eddie. "Connect your line to the pulley when it comes back down and follow him up. It can handle the weight of both of you. I'll wait for-"
"Buck, I'm not going to just leave you-"
"Where am I gonna go?" he said, waving his free hand around the empty elevator. "You can pass on his info to Hen and Chim and be in the lobby when I get up."
He looked up and fixed Eddie with a stare for the first time in a couple of shifts. "You might be older but I have more experience. The extra set of hands will be needed up there if he flatlines, not here."
Eddie still seemed doubtful but when the rope fed through the hatch again, Buck clipped it on and checked his knots after he folded William's arms across his chest. "Are you sure about this?"
Buck rolled his eyes and squeezed his radio. "Good to go, Cap. You're towing the vic and Eddie. Have a defib handy in case he codes on the way up."
The rope shifted and William began to rise. He focused on manoeuvring the basket through the hatch and above him, he could hear the clatter of metal when Eddie's feet lifted from the roof of the elevator. There was an echo of talking in the shaft, some buzz over his radio that was inconsequential, and so all Buck could do was lean his head against the wall and wait with a sigh.
Maybe it was because he had his head tipped back, staring at the hatch while waiting for the rope, that he didn't notice the gathering problem at his feet for a couple of minutes. By the time he realised something was moving around him, the water had already crept past his ankle. When he looked down and saw the undulating ripples lapping at his shoes, all he could do was freeze.
He tried to swallow but it was impossible, the pinpricks of panic flaring behind his eyes and stifling the flow of oxygen into his lungs. If William had had a heart issue, then Buck knew this was an anxiety issue even if felt like he was having a heart attack with the pain that radiated through his chest.
He stared with dazed eyes as the water rapidly rose from his ankle to his knee and once he felt it reach the top of his boots, he could feel water trickling inside the rubber and soaking his feet. He flinched at the soaked socks, recoiling from the water even though there was nowhere to go and it just made a miniature wave that saturated higher up his pants.
Fumbling for the radio at his chest, he did his best to clear his throat and not sound as terrified as he felt. "Uh, guys? How we doing on that rope?"
"Vic coded. We're doing CPR. Hang tight, Buck," Cap radioed back and Buck- No no no. Buck didn't want to hang tight. Buck couldn't hang tight. William might be dying up there but Buck was going to drown down here and he wasn't sure how he didn't scream. Maybe it was simply because he was biting his lip so hard he thought he could taste blood.
"Can't, Cap," he said, wondering how hoarse his voice might sound over the radio. "Elevator's filling with water."
It was Eddie's startled voice that crackled over the radio this time. "The hell do you mean the elevator's filling with water?"
Buck's stomach churned when the water started inching up his thighs. The water wasn't wasting any time and he could only assume the basement had flooded and discovered a new place to encroach. He unclipped the radio from his belt and reattached it to his shoulder in an effort to protect the electronics from the water. "Would've thought that was self-explanatory, honestly."
"Now is not the time!" Eddie's voice echoed down the elevator shaft and if Buck hadn't been feeling like he couldn't get a proper breath into his lungs, he might've almost laughed. Or snorted. Or at least smiled.
But his clothes were getting wet and the water was getting higher and he could feel the current trying to drag him towards the doors of the elevator. He wondered if it was to do with the fire above, if maybe the sprinkler system was busted or a water tank had exploded. If the elevator doors opened, he knew he'd either be swept out or the elevator car would flood faster. For the first time all rescue, he was really hoping the elevator doors stayed shut.
He tried to focus on anything else when he heard the elevator groan under the weight of the water, tried to calculate the distance that remained between where the elevator was stuck and the actual floor. The higher the water got, the more the metal threatened to buckle and sink, the more his mind started to fracture under the weight of his dread. The movement of the water lapping at his body was too familiar after he'd waded through water in search of Chris, the sloshing sound of the water against the metal elevator walls reminding him of sitting on top of the truck.
It felt like all his muscles were locking together, clamping him to the spot, and his breathing was raggedly loud in his ears when it dawned on him that he'd lost Christopher. But- He tried blinking, hands groping until they found grey walls- This wasn't the tsunami, right? He hadn't been stuck in a box during the tsunami, had he? But where was Chris? Where'd he gone? Where-
"The rope should be almost there, Buck."
He startled so badly at the sudden sound that he lost his footing, sinking into the water that had only been at his waist but now soaked up his chest and splashed his face. The radio beeped angrily at his shoulder, likely a reminder that he shouldn't get it wet, but he could remember cars beeping and alarms wailing and terrified shouts of people caught in currents they weren't strong enough to swim against and he flailed, lacking anything to grip onto so that he could get his feet beneath him again when his boots had filled with water and were pulling him down and he could taste the water against his lips and it was bitter with salt and debris and he needed to find Chris, he needed to save Chris because if he didn't- if he couldn't find Chris- if he-
He wiped at his eyes, looking around for Bobby, no longer sure if his face was wet from the water or tears but the pressure against his chest was too familiar, the stick of water-logged clothes against his skin making him tremble, and he couldn't work out where Bobby's voice was coming from but maybe Bobby could help him find Chris and then Eddie wouldn't hate him and-
"Buck, you still there? Can you see the rope?"
There was a chill shivering down his spine and it was hard to focus, hard to concentrate, hard to even remember where he was or how he'd gotten back here again. It was all his nightmares come to life, it was every thought he'd ever had of drowning all over again brought into startling focus as he waved his hands around against the surges of water until he felt a cord in the middle of everything. Why was there a rope? He hadn't had a rope in the tsunami. He'd had the hose reel, stringing it across the flooded road in an attempt to catch people caught in the swells while he kept Christopher safe but then Christopher was gone and he needed to-
"Buck, can you-"
The words were cut off, a garbled mess as his radio slipped under the water when the floor slipped from beneath him. There was a worrying clanking above him, around him, too loud and too dull and too heavy and too much and he knew he was sobbing when some part of his brain remembered he was in the elevator, that there was a harness at his waist. His fingers moved blindly through water as he tried to keep his head up, tried to stay afloat even though he couldn't get his feet beneath him and his water-logged boots were heavy.
He pulled on the rope twice, as hard as he could, and his hands scrabbled for the opening of the hatch when he started moving towards it too quickly. His heart felt like it was going to explode in his chest, ripping him apart like the bomb that had almost destroyed his leg, and he folded his arms over his chest, water cascading off him and splattering against the roof of the elevator car as he lifted into the elevator shaft and tried to heave breaths past the knots in his throat.
Beneath him, there was another pained groan of metal and then a rather thunderous thud.
His ascent towards the light was slow, like his fight towards the surface of the water when the light seemed to keep changing direction. By the time he felt hands under his arms hauling him over the edge of the shaft and laying him on his side, fingers on his cheeks prising his lips apart and fingers peeling the weight of his soaked jacket from his shoulders and fingers running over his throat to feel his pulse, he wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to breathe calmly again.
"Buck? Hey. We got you, man."
"Buck, are you hurt?"
"Cap, I can't tell if-"
There was so much noise, so much touching, so much conflicting information and he couldn't process, couldn't see, couldn't focus, couldn't-
The world changed perspective again as he was yanked into a sitting position, arms folding around him. "C'mon, kid," Bobby murmured, a firm hand at the back of his neck holding his head up as he started to crumple. "You're out of there, Buck. Eddie, can you-"
Something warm and dry wrapped around his shoulders, followed by the sound of crinkling foil. His hands couldn't cooperate enough to hold it but there was a shoulder bumping into his, hands sealing the shock blanket against his stomach, and by the time it seeped into his awareness that it was all over, that it hadn't been the tsunami or a nightmare but just another call that went sideways, he felt embarrassed and ashamed and awkward at how badly he was trembling.
"S-Sorry," he mumbled, picking at the edge of the blanket before feeling the wet clothing against his skin and shuddering all over again. He needed a towel, and dry clothes, and a hairdryer, and a hoodie, and-
"It's okay to feel shaky after another close call," Bobby said, cradling his cheek and gazing into his eyes with undisguised concern. "Do we need to take you to the ER? Did you swallow any water?"
He shook his head, knowing there was no way he'd be dumb enough to swallow water this time after he'd avoided drowning last time. "I just need to change," he said, feeling almost desperate to be dry. His skin itched with discomfort every time a droplet trickled down his face.
"Alright." Bobby stared at him a moment longer before letting him go, and between Bobby and Eddie he was able to get to his feet. He tried to pretend like he didn't sag as much into his Captain as he did.
"Where are Chim and Hen?"
"Went with the 75th with William," Bobby explained, his arm tight around Buck's waist while leading him through the empty lobby. There were still hoses lining the floor, puddles of water darkening patches of carpet. His eyes scanned the arrangements, his weeks as a fire marshal already making his brain tick off probable issues with the criss-crossed spread of the hoses and ropes.
"He was holding on when we sent them with him." Bobby helped him into the truck and Eddie appeared a moment later at the other door, the ropes and reel and Buck's jacket in his hands.
Buck tried to dislodge his shoes to empty some of the water, a miniature waterfall pooling at the side of the truck that did little to ease Buck's anxiety. When he was done, he grasped at the jacket with shaking fingers, the material sodden and cold, and folded it into his chest simply because it was something to cling to as he fought the urge to cry.
"You okay?" Eddie said, stowing the equipment on a chair instead of returning the gear to the correct compartment. His fingers brushed against Buck's knees, his brown eyes reflecting some of Buck's terror.
Buck attempted a tired smile but he wondered if Eddie saw how fragile it really was. "How many lives have I used up now?"