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Title: Tread Lightly
Author: an_alternate_world
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."

"Copy."

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?"

"Buck?"

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."

"Buck-"

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."

"Copy that."

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-

"Buck?!"

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.

"Is he-?"

"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?"


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 3,756
Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter includes discussions of depression, suicidal ideation, and excessive alcohol consumption.


Once Buck had returned to the firehouse, he knew he should have a shower. Who knew what was inside the water that covered him? Yet the thought of voluntarily adding more water to his skin made him shudder, memories and nightmares blurring and tugging at the edge of his awareness and threatening to draw him deeper and deeper.

He gathered the spare uniform from his locker and headed for the showers, peeling soaked fabric from his shoulders and hips because more than anything he was just desperate to be dry. His shirt hit the floor with a thwap and he took the time to trace over his skin to check for any cuts or bruises, relieved when he couldn't find anything out of the ordinary although he'd have to ask Hen to replace the bandage around his arm again.

By the time he was changed into dry clothes, rubbing a towel against his hair as he emerged from the bathroom, he felt slightly less of a wreck. He went in search of coffee upstairs, the towel snug around his shoulders for a source of comfort in the absence of a hoodie.

"Buck!" Hen swept her arms around him as soon as he approached the kitchen, a hand pressing against his cheek so she could gaze into his eyes. "How are you?"

He shook her off him as politely as possible, adjusting the towel around his neck to catch any lingering drops from his hair and avoid the harmless dripping that made him shiver for reasons other than it tickling. "I'm fine. How's William?"

Her face slipped, the glint in her eyes fading, and he knew without her saying anything that it hadn't been a good outcome. He nodded at her wordlessly, turning towards the coffee and pouring himself a mug. He could feel Chim staring at him from the table and wondered if the guy had already texted his sister about what had happened in the elevator. If she didn't know, he probably owed her a call to let her know he'd cheated death again before she found out through someone at the 118.

"I'm okay," he said to Chim, hoping the words seemed believable enough, as he drifted to the couch and sank into the cushions. He was halfway through the mug, lost in musings about William, and questioning if he should have sent William before the first guy, and all the memories that rattled at the cages, when the alarms shattered the silence again. Part of him wondered if he even had to go, if he could just stay where he was until the end of shift, but some shifts were a non-stop barrage of problems and people in need and he knew he had to get up and keep going because that was his job. That was the job he'd fought to return to. Someone else needed him. He could fall apart later.

He abandoned his unfinished coffee near the sink as he moved through the molasses of time and space to descend the stairs and haul himself into the truck when all he really wanted to do was sleep until next week. He noted Bobby yelling for the ambulance to accompany them but everything seemed distant and less real. His jacket was still in the truck, slung over the back of his chair and damp. He tried to adjust it in such a way that he didn't have to feel the wet material anywhere near his skin while the engine rumbled to life. He stared out the window at the blur of the streets and cars and people outside, his thoughts still drifting to William, to the elevator, to the desperate feeling of being trapped as they raced to the next call.

The truck slowed and then stopped on a bridge. Buck glanced out the window to see the array of cars being held up by something ahead of them. It also meant that the truck was blocked, which rarely boded well.

"We get out here and walk," Bobby announced and Buck climbed out of the truck, blinking against the light reflecting off all the cars before he started following Chimney. "Buck!"

He turned. "Cap?"

"I told you to take an extra few minutes to put on your rappelling gear. We've got a potential jumper. I need you and Eddie on this."

Buck's eyes slid from Bobby's to Eddie over Bobby's shoulder, who was cinching ropes and carabiners around his waist for the second time that day. He could only hope that the person this year didn't have a gun or a dressing gown on with nothing beneath it. He couldn't handle either of those today.

He silently put on the required gear and walked half a dozen steps in front of Eddie, who seemed to deliberately lag behind.

"I don't want that!"

He flinched at the voice, high-pitched and female, but kept walking. He could see a few police officers nearby, chatting with Bobby who was probably getting the most up-to-date details. He waited, hearing the clank of Eddie's equipment stop behind him.

"Another crew have already set up below, so if she falls off then it will be fine. Ideally, we get her back up and then off to a psych hold for 72 hours," Bobby explained and Buck nodded, biting his lip and then trying his best to steel himself to another conversation that played far too close to his emotions after the call this morning.

He approached the overpass slowly until he could see sunlight dancing off blonde hair below. He looked towards Eddie, the unspoken question probably obvious in his expression.

"You did better at this than me last time," Eddie said quietly and, well… That was true but it didn't mean he had the confidence to be able to pull it off again. Not when he still felt wobbly from this morning. Not when his jacket was heavier than usual, the damp fabric brushing over exposed skin and making him want to burn the damn thing.

But this girl needed him and that's what the job required, so he leaned over the edge and guessed that the girl couldn't have been much older than May.

"Hi," he said, startling her into covering her chest and leaping back a couple of steps. Her eyes were wide, red with tears, and her bottom lip was quivering. "I'm Buck. What's your name?"

She stared at him and he passed his belay line towards Eddie, feeling Eddie's hands catch the rope and then secure it to his own harness. He wanted to climb down already but he didn't feel like freaking the girl out more.

"Can I join you?" he said and she continued staring at him, fresh tears streaking down her face. He glanced towards Eddie, who gave him a thumbs up. Inhaling deeply, he slid one leg over the railing.

"No! No, don't come here!" the girl cried, shrinking in on herself to crouch against the narrow floor. "I don't want- Please- I- I don't want anyone else getting hurt."

He tugged at the rope and shot her a smile. "I won't get hurt. This prevents me falling and getting hurt, and that right there?" He pointed at the giant yellow inflated mattress beneath them. "That's in case you slip so that you don't get hurt."

The girl shook her head, a sob bubbling past her lips, but Buck felt a whole lot better when his feet hit the platform. He gave a couple more tugs of the rope and Eddie let loose enough slack so that he could kneel beside her.

"So I still don't know your name," he said, looking out at the highway below, "but I'd really like to listen to you."

She sniffled and tugged at her hair. "N-No, you don't. You just wanna take me away."

"I mean, I'd like you to be safe," he agreed, gesturing towards the mattress. "And even with that there, I think we can do better. Do you want us to call someone? Your mom or dad?"

"They're d-dead."

Oh.

"They… They d-died in the tsunami."

Oh shit.

He curled his hands by his side, wondering if this day would ever stop stabbing him in the heart and the guts, and gradually lowered himself so he could sit on the platform, legs hanging off the edge. He felt a tug on his rope, a warning tug from Eddie, which he guessed was a nice acknowledgement that Eddie cared in some way even when everything between them lately felt raw and fragile.

"Were you in the tsunami too?" he said, leaning his head against the wall and gazing at her. Now that he had a closer look, he was starting to think she was very similar to May's age. His heart felt sore at the thought of May losing Athena, or Bobby, or Michael.

She nodded, a shuddering breath leaving her lungs. "We- We were in our c-car and…I w-was able to get out the back w-window but they…they drowned inside it b-because they couldn't g-get their d-doors open and I- I was stuck on top of the car for hours a-and it… It… I c-can't…"

"H-Hey, I get it." He shivered with his own memories of being stuck on top of the fire truck with Chris, of the guy in a car he'd promised to come back to after saving the woman clinging to a tree, only to discover he couldn't get the door open either with the pressure of the water still swirling against the car. It was only a few hours ago that he'd felt like he was in that same space again, terrified of drowning and feeling utterly helpless as he felt the rising water creep up his body. "I was there too. Right in the middle of it."

"You went in as a rescuer. That doesn't-"

"No," he said, a little sharp and drawing her surprised eyes towards him because as much as he didn't want to talk about the tsunami today, he wanted to think about the elevator even less. "I was on the pier. I saw the wave coming. I was there."

"Y-You- You survived the pier?"

He nodded, swallowing against the lump in his throat and struggling to remember how to breathe regularly when she looked at him like that. It hurt to remember. It hurt to voluntarily find himself back in that place again. If they had any other tsunami-style calls today, he was telling Bobby to go to hell and deal with it without him. This was too much on his first 'official' day returning to calls.

"Wow," she whispered, turning her attention back towards the highway below. "I- How do you- H-How do you cope with it?"

He didn't think admitting to the many times he drank himself to sleep was a smart idea, or how he'd taken out a lawsuit that nearly cost him all his friends, so he shrugged. "I'm not sure I am," he said, fiddling with his harness. "Some days are more difficult than others. Most nights are awful. Today has been rough," he said with a brittle smile that she tentatively returned. "But I- I'm just trying to keep going, as best as I can. To keep fighting."

He looked towards her again, at her tear-stained and flushed cheeks. There was a glimmer in her eyes that he recognised, the haunted survivor look that he had seen in Christopher's expression after Eddie had kept dropping him off for babysitting duties. He wished he could erase it. Time after time, he wished he could make it go away.

"I don't know h-how to keep going without them," she conceded, her voice wobbling. "I'm all a-alone now. I don't want to go to c-college anymore. I don't know h-how to live anymore."

He held out a hand to her and after a long moment where she seemed to struggle with knowing what to do, she threaded her fingers between his.

"I don't know how to keep going sometimes either," he said, squeezing her hand. "But there'll be something, okay? Maybe you don't see it just yet, but there'll be something."

She clung to his hand the entire time that Eddie helped haul him back up to the overpass, and then she wrapped her arms around his chest while he held her against him, running fingers through her hair and trying to find any words of wisdom that he thought might provide comfort. He could feel Eddie's eyes on him, and he knew the rest of the team had to be watching too, but he ignored it all because right now, this girl had his attention and this girl needed him and this girl was capable of expressing the grief that Buck hadn't even begun trying to process.

"Victoria," she whispered when she pulled away, rubbing at her face and meeting his eyes with an unsteady smile. "My name. I- I know I should probably thank you but I'm not feeling a lot of gratitude."

"You don't need to thank me." He lightly squeezed her shoulders, offering an unsteady smile of his own. "You just need to fight a little longer, okay?"

She nodded and he let Hen draw her towards the ambulance, watching Victoria go with a pounding heart and erratic breathing.

"Hey, nice save," Bobby said, clasping at and rubbing his shoulder. "You okay?"

He wasn't. He wasn't sure when he'd last been okay. After today, he wasn't sure if he'd ever be okay again. Every memory, every nightmare, was hitting him simultaneously and threatening to make his knees give out on him. The damp jacket wasn't helping. He needed to get rid of it.

But he tried to find a smile and nodded, fingers already loosening his harness. "I'm fine, Cap."

He missed the look exchanged between Bobby and Eddie behind him, and the way Eddie's mouth opened and closed a few times around words he couldn't speak. And Buck didn't think he'd even be able to reply if Eddie had spoken to him. Eddie might have claimed they were part of a team but Buck still felt so disconnected, so alienated from months of jokes that had developed in his absence which he no longer understood. It wasn't that the team were being cruel; they simply didn't realise he felt like he was on the outside of everything.

The return to the 118 was silent and he'd drifted to subsequent calls in a daze, following Bobby's orders and Eddie's lead because he didn't trust his own thoughts. He thought he could remember eating dinner but maybe that had been last shift? Had he spoken to anyone at the firehouse after the call with Victoria? He could dimly recall engaging in decision-making conversations on subsequent calls but what about the idle chit-chat to fill in time between the blaring alarms? He couldn't remember. And he knew that was his fault, that the lawsuit had forced him to put up walls that he hadn't yet been able to remove, and he knew that the calls with William and Victoria had pierced his layers, seeping under his skin and rattling at the cages of his soul. Talking to anyone else about irrelevant information after exposing the vulnerable parts of himself to a stranger had been impossible and the loss of William from something that should have been preventable stung.

But even now that he was back on the job properly, he didn't feel like he could talk to anyone with any real degree of freedom. It hadn't even dawned on him until he was greeted by the silence of his apartment that the same sort of silence greeted him when he clearly interrupted a conversation or how Eddie had been steadfastly ignoring him most of the shift when Buck had been dealing with small children demanding Halloween candy.

There was a pain in his chest that hadn't abated for the past few weeks but thinking about Eddie's dark eyes and the furious press of his lips at the grocery store seemed to flare the ache to life. It pulsed in his stomach and sent ripples of pain into his throat, down to his fingers, and made his toes curl in his socks. Eddie said he was forgiven, said he was part of the team, but was he really?

The only way he'd found to dull the pain, the thoughts, and the memories of the tsunami was a whole lot of alcohol. Surely he still had a bottle of vodka somewhere in his kitchen…

He curled onto his couch with the bottle, sipping silently and staring at the blank screen of the television in front of him. His phone buzzed periodically with messages from Maddie, asking how he was and if he'd eaten and whether he wanted company. He managed to deflect her gentle inquiries enough that she conceded to being available if he needed and then the phone fell mercilessly quiet, unlike the thoughts and memories that flickered behind his eyes.


The water lapped higher and higher, passing his shoulders and creeping up his neck. He tried tilting back his head, tried to keep his mouth higher than the water, but his nose brushed against the roof of the elevator and there were scant inches of space to breathe. The metal groaned and clanged threateningly and he scraped at whatever surface he could, searching for a way out, searching for anything that might save him, searching for-

He jerked awake just as the elevator gave way beneath him and he flinched at the shattering sound of glass. It took him several fuzzy seconds to realise the glass wasn't someone breaking in, or the tree outside piercing his kitchen window, but his own erratic movement hurling the vodka bottle towards the kitchen and scattering shards across the floor. An arc of liquid and splashed puddles were also necessary messes to clean up.

He stood, a ripple of pain skittering down his leg because he'd been curled and cramped for too long, and shuffled forward to avoid lifting his feet and stepping on a piece of glass. The last thing he really needed was to have to bandage his foot or ask Hen to come over and peel glass from his sole. He didn't need anyone asking questions about why he'd been drinking, or how the bottle had broken, or why he hadn't been in bed. He needed Bobby to believe he was okay and he needed everyone else to believe it too.

Even as careful as he tried to be, his fingers still caught a few too many sharp edges. Once he was mostly done with gathering the worst of the broken pieces, he was forced to hold onto a towel with his fists set against the top of his head and tried to ignore the trembling of his shoulders when he looked at the red streaks that stained his palms and reminded him of another time when he'd extended bloodied hands to strangers in desperate attempts to locate Christopher.

He wondered if it was too early to go running because he suspected he wasn't going to be able to find any extra sleep.


Buck had learned the easiest way around the cuts to his fingers had been to pull on t-shirts and sweaters but what he'd been afraid of in the downtime was the next shift and the battle that the buttons of his shirt would pose. He'd been one of the first to arrive simply because he knew it would take longer, because the bandaids around his fingers made everything about poking buttons through buttonholes more complicated. Sometimes his senses were dulled and sometimes the shiny plastic slipped over the bandaid and sometimes he pressed against a cut that was painful.

So he might have been one of the first to arrive but he was also the last to finish getting dressed.

"What's wrong with your hands?" Eddie asked as he re-entered the change room to dig out his LAFD fleece.

"Nothing?" Buck attempted but the lie sounded flimsy to him as he successfully poked the last button into place.

Tan, calloused hands grasped his and turned them palm up, exposing the litany of bandaids. "If you're calling this nothing, then-"

"I dropped a glass," Buck said, because at least that lie had been rehearsed for days and almost sounded believable, "and I was clumsy picking up the pieces."

Eddie stared at him with narrowed eyes, thumbs brushing over some of the pads of his fingers. It was laced with a sense of care Buck hadn't felt from Eddie in weeks, ever since the lawsuit, and his eyes dropped because maybe all his fears were painted across his cheeks and-

He frowned, fingers curling around Eddie's. "What happened to your hands?"

A couple of knuckles were split and there was some speckled bruising spreading towards Eddie's left sleeve. Eddie tried to pull away from him but Buck held on, his gaze lifting to assess the look in Eddie's eyes that he didn't recognise, didn't understand, and most definitely didn't like.

"I didn't strap properly before taking on the bag in the gym," Eddie said and it was too smooth, too calm, and such a blatant lie that it made Buck realise that Eddie couldn't possibly have forgiven him if they still weren't talking to each other about anything that actually mattered. They were both steeped in secrets and even though his skin had prickled at the contact, it didn't feel good to hold on to Eddie anymore. The person in front of him almost seemed like a stranger with the unfamiliar set of his jaw and the creased brow.

"Well, you'd better make sure you do it properly in the future," he said, letting his grip fall away so he could tuck in his shirt and fix the fold of his collar. "If you break your hands, lives will be lost, Eddie."

Eddie stared at him with something unreadable in his expression before they left the change room and moved upstairs for coffee and second breakfast. Buck wasn't sure if he was more curious about Eddie's distance and bruised hands or if Eddie had questions about his silence and questioning glances but they managed to participate in whatever conversation Hen, Chim and Bobby had going.

The sirens rang just before they were finished eating and Buck was almost grateful for the distraction of a suspected gas leak at one of the nearby malls.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 3,324
Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter refers to victim injuries in a rescue.


It had been a relatively slow shift by their standards, with a kid stuck in a vending machine and a woman locked inside her bathroom after her dogs had turned feral, which meant that Buck's restless night of sleep wasn't being tested with difficult decisions or calls that involved water. He'd managed to avoid cleaning the lunch dishes when the call about the woman had come through and when they'd gotten back, Hen had challenged him to a video game and Eddie and Chim had moved towards the dishes. The thought of putting his hands in the water, the mystery of what he might touch beneath the bubbles… It had haunted him most of the time he'd been hanging back and listening to Bobby and Athena discuss whether to get animal control to the call.

He'd been hanging back during a lot of the calls the past couple of shifts, the sliced pads of his fingers taking longer to heal than anticipated and creating sensory issues when he put on his gloves and couldn't feel properly through the multiple layers of padding. If he didn't wear the bandaids, he risked re-opening the wounds and the last thing he wanted was freaking everyone out with bloodied hands or gloves.

The bells clanged and he discarded the controller, falling into step with Hen as they descended the stairs and climbed into the truck. Bobby began running through the sit-rep, detailing that a car had crashed through a shop window and the driver was down from unknown causes. There were fears of a fire, of people trapped inside the shop or under the car, and Buck picked at the bandaids while he listened to the issuing of job roles and expectations.

He wanted to protest when Bobby said he was on fire monitoring and checking those who had escaped the shop. What was the use of going on a call when he couldn't actually help on the call? His hands might not be the most useful but surely he could do better than stand back and watch?

But he swiped his tongue across his lips, balled his hands, and fought the words down again. It wasn't the same as when he'd first started – and thankfully he hadn't had any close shaves that involved water or recalling the tsunami – but he felt like he had to keep proving himself again, that he needed to earn their trust that he could deliver results. And that was hard to do when avoiding injuries that might make him bleed everywhere, like injuring his hands.

He knew all that but it didn't make it any easier to watch Hen and Chimney run towards the driver or Eddie retrieve the jaws to prise the car apart or Bobby requesting another team of firefighters check the uprights beneath the shopfront to avoid it collapsing on top of Hen, Chim and Eddie.

"Can you help me?"

Buck turned to see a blonde girl with green eyes standing beside him. She looked younger than Chris, maybe about seven, with a nasty gash on her head which left trails of blood down her face and neck. His eyes flickered with memories of other children with blood on their faces and he shook it away so he didn't scare her.

"Hey, sweetie." He crouched and held out a hand, unsure whether he could coax her closer. "Were you in the shop?"

She nodded, big eyes looking close to tears as she stared at him. "My mommy and I were having m-milkshakes and then she pushed m-me out of my chair and- and-" A sob passed her lips as she inched towards him, letting Buck touch her arm and then leaning into the other that traced the cut on her head. "I don't know what h-happened. E-Everything just went b-bang."

"It's okay." He could tell the laceration on her head would need stitches, but it seemed like her hairline would cover the worst of the scar. "You're okay now, kiddo. We'll take care of you. Where's your mom?"

"I don't know." The girl's lower lip wobbled as her green eyes looked towards the shop. "I haven't been able to find her."

The air in Buck's lungs stuck as he stared at the tears which began to spill down her cheeks, mingling with the blood and making an even worse mess on her face. "Alright, alright. We'll find her. That's our jobs. What's your name? What's her name?"

"I'm L-Lucy," she said, folding her arms around Buck's neck and startling him into gripping her tighter. "My mommy is B-Beth."

"Okay, Lucy." He swept the girl into his arms like he had with Christopher after the tsunami, propping her on his hip as he reached for the radio at his shoulder. "Hey everyone, be advised. We've got an unaccompanied tender age survivor. Mother is called Beth, possibly still trapped in the building."

He saw Bobby look over his shoulder, nodding as he received the message and pointing Buck towards the waiting ambulances. Buck attempted to shield Lucy from seeing the crash site as he carried her, gathering information about what Beth was wearing, whether she knew of any medical conditions, how old she was. When they reached the paramedics, Lucy wouldn't stop clinging to him while her head was examined and a light was passed in front of her eyes.

"She'll need stitches. Probable Grade One concussion," the paramedic from the 105th said.

"Not without my m-mom," Lucy protested, fingers clenched into Buck's jacket. "I want my mommy."

"I know and we'll find her," he promised, touching fingertips to her bloodied cheek and wishing he could clear the blood away. "But your mom would want you to be taken care of too and right now, that's what we have to do. She'll want to know you're okay."

Lucy looked unconvinced but loosened her grip and then pouted. "Will you come too?"

He smiled at how much she reminded him of Christopher. "I need to stay here to do my job but I'll tell you what. I'll stop by the hospital to see you when you don't look like someone from a scary Halloween movie."

She managed a tiny smile at that and nodded, and the paramedic in the back of the van nodded at him as he climbed from the cab and returned to surveying the scene. At least two other trucks had arrived, setting up supports at the front of the shop, crawling amid the debris in search of other survivors and victims. He could see several people milling around at the police cordon with cuts and blood-stained clothes and dazed expressions but no one looked affected seriously enough to require immediate assistance, nor did anyone have a blue skirt and black top that matched the description Lucy had given him.

He could see Hen, Chimney and a couple of paramedics extracting the driver from the back window of the car onto a backboard. He looked old and even at this distance, Buck could see the blood that was smeared over his face and stained his clothing. Bobby was pointing at one of the supports, gesturing at the person who was cranking it into place.

And then there was a shout, and a scream, and a few other shouts and Buck was leaping into action to grab an extinguisher out of a panel off the nearest truck. The driver was wheeled away by jogging paramedics and other members of the LAFD were escaping the impending carnage but Buck was moving towards the spark, pulling the pin in the extinguisher and trying to determine where to aim it first. Where was Eddie? Was he inside the shop? He barely had time to cast his eyes around to look because he needed to get rid of the fire.

"Buck!"

"I got this, Cap!" he shouted, spraying the car as flames erupted beneath the chassis and started licking at the metal. He could hear other screams within the shop, people who had been trapped by the car now trapped by a new form of inescapable terror.

"Buck! Get back!"

"I'm-"

The car exploded in front of him, lifting him off his feet and throwing him onto his back. It knocked the air from his lungs, heat flashing against his face, and he could feel glass spray over him in jagged razor blades that bit into his flesh and tinkled onto the road around him. The extinguisher clattered from his grasp, rolling across the ground, and all he could do was stare dumbly. There was a high-pitched ringing in his ears and it was irritating. He blinked, lifting a heavy arm towards his head, and tried to understand why there was blue sky above his head. For a split second, he couldn't comprehend the abrupt change in perspective.

And then with a snap, awareness returned and he could feel the pain radiating across his shoulders and towards his tailbone. There was a dull ache in his skull which thudded in time with his heartbeat. There were pinpricks of pain all over his face that felt sharp and scratchy.

"Ow…" he muttered, blinking at the blue expanse above him and wondering why he was underwater and whether this was another dream or whether he was back in the water.

"Buck?" Hands grasped his burning shoulders and squeezed hard enough to focus his eyes on Bobby's face swimming in and out of focus above him. "Can you hear me?"

"Yeah, Cap," he mumbled, though everything seemed a bit hazy around the edges and he still had the ringing in his ears and a lot of confusion over where he was and how he'd gotten there. "Just a knock to the head, man. I'll be okay."

Bobby's eyes were wide but his lips were thin with fury. Buck put that down as a thing to deal with later. There was something strapped around his neck and Bobby's hands helped roll him onto his side as a backboard was slid beneath him. Weak protests immediately fell from his lips as he was carried to the make-shift triage area near a waiting fleet of ambulances.

"Someone check him out," he heard Bobby's voice order and Buck felt hands at his feet, loosening his boots and testing whether he could feel all his toes.

"Where's Beth?" he asked suddenly, not even fully cognizant of who Beth was but knowing she was important.

But Bobby had already gone, leaving him with unfamiliar medics who forced him through a series of tests to clear him of spinal damage, and then began the concussion tests, and then peeled his jacket from his shoulders to examine whether glass had pierced the fabric. When he sat up and tried to avoid wincing, another guy fussed with plucking shards of glass from his face and rinsing his eyes.

He avoided focusing on the pain by fixating on the shopfront. It was engulfed now, with firefighters zipping back and forth with hoses and extinguishers. Buck had no idea if Beth had been found in the chaos. He could only hope she had. He caught a glimpse of the back of Eddie's jacket and that was enough of a relief that he hadn't been inside when everything had exploded.

When the paramedics finally announced they were satisfied he didn't have any immediate damage, he sat through their detailed concerns about the risks of the blood thinners during the next twenty-four hours. Despite how much he wanted to help with the unfolding horror in front of him, they refused to let him leave the triage area until the 118 were done. Something about bleeding through his eyes or fingernails if he was left unsupervised.

Even so, sitting and watching the flames lick at the walls of the building while firefighters scurried back and forth was even worse than Bobby benching him for so long after the clot, and then the tsunami, and then the lawsuit.


Although Hen doubted he had a concussion, she still checked his responses every half hour for the rest of shift and ensured a steady stream of ice packs were applied to his shoulders to minimise the bruising. Bobby didn't seem mad, exactly, but he did seem wary of allowing Buck on any further calls. It was frustrating and Buck wanted to tear at tufts of hair, but if he were honest then he didn't really feel like he could concentrate anyway. Every time his attention drifted, he saw the image of Beth's crumpled and twisted body, the burned clothing that was attached to her skin, and then he'd blink and see Christopher being wrenched from his arms by a wave of water, or the searing pain of the truck crushing his leg, or-

He sucked in a breath, leaning his head against the wall outside the station and tried to think of something – anything – else. If someone saw a firefighter having a breakdown, it probably wouldn't add much credibility to their jobs or his desperation to prove to Bobby that he was okay, that he could do this job that he'd fought so hard to get back to and show Bobby he could do everything demanded of him.

"That was a tough one this morning," Chimney said, appearing around the corner and leaning against the wall next to him. "What are you going to do when you get off shift?"

Buck hadn't really thought about it, but he also hated how easily the others could shake things off after horrific calls and look towards the future again. Maybe it was because there had been so many horrors he'd had to see lately and he didn't feel like he could talk to anyone about how he felt. Lawsuit – and the bridges he'd burned because of it – aside, talking to Maddie risked her telling Chimney, which meant Bobby would quickly find out. Anyone else at the firehouse would do the same by tattling to Bobby if he exposed even the slightest trace of vulnerability. Sometimes that was why he missed Abby and Ali, because they were a step removed from the house and it was safer to talk to them. But now that he had no one-

"Buck?"

He'd been silent too long and Chimney's arched eyebrow made it clear that was unusual for him.

"Probably read a book or watch a movie," he shrugged, having no real intention to do either. "What about you?"

"Well I was thinking of taking Maddie to dinner and-"

Buck tuned out the rest but he nodded politely from time to time until Chimney was apparently done talking and wandered back into the house and left Buck in peace.

It wasn't long before the alarms went off again and the trucks pulled out of the 118 and all Buck could do was watch forlornly from his spot against the wall.

He spent the entire time that the trucks were out itching to leave. It was painful watching the seconds tick, pacing the rafters strung above the floor, until the trucks returned and the crew chatted about another call that left him on the outs.

When he was finally done, when he could finally flee, he shouldn't have been surprised to see Eddie and Bobby approaching him as he finished tying his shoelaces. He tried to slow the bouncing knee thing he had going, the anxiety to get home and break down almost overwhelming him. It had been cresting all day, this feeling of uselessness and failure and he wanted to pummel his pillows and then sink beneath them until he could sleep. It was probably a fruitless hope – when had he last slept well? – but he wanted it nonetheless.

But as Eddie and Bobby stood in front of him, he did his best to stitch together a front that showed he was okay and ready to leave.

"Hen thinks you need to be monitored overnight," Bobby began and Buck gritted his teeth to avoid letting loose the words he really wanted to say. "She's concerned you could still end up with a delayed concussion or suffer internal bleeding from that explosion this morning."

Buck stared at his Captain for a long moment, fingers twisting into the loose folds of his jeans. If Bobby noticed, he didn't say anything.

"I'll ask Maddie to look in on me," he said when it seemed as though Bobby was waiting on an easy acquiescence. Which Buck had no intention of providing.

"She wants you to go home with one of us. She's not even comfortable with you driving."

"That's really not-"

"This is not up for discussion or debate, Buckley," Bobby said, an edge of steel creeping into his voice. It was the sound of the Captain ordering him to do something, putting distance between their friendship to ensure Buck looked out for his wellbeing. He wasn't sure how it made him feel that he needed to be ordered to do something as simple as monitor for some bruising. "We thought we'd at least give you the chance to choose who-"

"I'm going home," he said, checking his watch and seeing it was a minute after his shift was meant to have finished. He got to his feet, lifting his bag over his shoulder and ignoring the flash of pain in his back when he did so. "I don't need a babysitter, but thanks."

"This isn't-"

"See you!" he called as he made a hasty departure from the locker room, nodding at a few of the other guys changing for the shift handover and blocking out Bobby's calls behind him because he wasn't wrong. He was a fully grown adult. He'd survived a tsunami when none of his team, his friends, his family, even knew he'd been missing or that Christopher had been lost somewhere among the water and the carnage. He didn't need a babysitter. He didn't need them to fuss around him now. He'd spent weeks on his own because of the lawsuit. He could handle a few bruises.

He was almost at his car, fumbling for his keys in a side-pocket of his bag, when a hand clamped around his wrist and forced him to turn around. He was shoved somewhat roughly against Hen's car, a soft whimper escaping him when the metal hit a spot that had to be bruised despite the icepacks.

He shut his mind to the ache and bit back a tired sigh. "Eddie-"

"Will you stop being such a stubborn asshole and allow us to make sure you don't almost die on us, again?" Eddie said, his eyes narrow and sparkling with anger as he crowded into Buck's space. His grip remained tight on Buck's wrist and though Buck could have wrenched Eddie's hand away, he didn't particularly feel like breaking his best friend's wrist by slamming him on the ground. He was too exhausted for that, anyway.

But Eddie's anger, his determination, the obvious fury that dripped off his words… It gradually sank into Buck's tired brain and beneath the layers of skin, deflating his annoyance because Eddie was just trying to care in his messy, broken sort of way.

He released a frustrated sigh that made him feel like he was a shrinking balloon without any sort of control over his own decisions.

"Fine," he conceded, shaking Eddie's hand off him and adjusting the strap of his gym bag on his shoulder. "I'll go back to your place while you collect Christopher from Abuela's?"

It sounded awfully domestic. Eddie didn't seem to pick up on the reasons behind Buck's uncomfortable shifting because some of the darkness in his expression cleared and he nodded, rolling his shoulders back. Buck would've sworn his eyes changed to be three shades lighter if anyone had asked.

"I'll see you at home."

And if that didn't cause weird jumping sensations in Buck's stomach while he watched Eddie walk back into the station to collect his gear, nothing would.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 4,876
Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter contains a nightmare and some references to scenes/images in the tsunami episodes.


Seeing Christopher was usually a balm to even the worst sort of horrors on the job, but Buck knew that Chris' bright grin and giggles didn't have the same impact on his smile or his anxiety. Every time he looked at Chris, he could see Lucy for a brief flash. He kept thinking about how the little girl had lost her mother and Buck hadn't even been able to go to the hospital and visit like he'd promised. By tomorrow, she'd probably be discharged and lost to the system.

He remembered Bobby's words to him, that he was meant to leave the victims at the door, but a kid like her… It reminded him of Christopher in the tsunami, and sometimes he looked at Chris and could see that giant wave coming towards them, breath stuttering in his lungs as raw terror enveloped him all over again. He could still recall how his first instinct had been to save Chris, to save Eddie's son, and to hell with his own safety or life because he didn't matter to anyone as much as Christopher mattered to Eddie.

And then when he'd lost Chris off the truck, when he'd been slammed and swirled around in the water and started wondering if he wasn't meant to just give up and die-

"Hey." Eddie's hand brushed against his shoulder as he returned to the living room with a bowl of popcorn, the click-clack of Chris' crutches in the corridor as he fetched a DVD offering a few moments to talk. The suddenness of the touch just about made Buck leap out of his skin and the furrow between Eddie's eyebrow confirmed his distance had been more obvious than he would have liked. "Where'd you go?"

"Nowhere special like Hawaii or Paris," he joked but Eddie was still frowning at him as he set the popcorn on the table and sat on the couch beside Buck, just enough distance between them that they weren't touching and yet he could still feel the warmth and life of Eddie's body and he wondered – not for the first time – why Eddie continued to let him come around, or look after Chris. Claims of 'trust' felt like such a fickle concept when Eddie's son had nearly died because of Buck.

"You've been through a lot the past few months-" Eddie started but Buck waved the words away, aware that Christopher was on the return trip judging by the sounds in the hall.

"Haven't we all? I'm fine. Honestly." He smiled, hoping it reached his eyes for the first time all day, but Eddie looked unconvinced and Buck decided he needed to obtain some space to derail the entire conversation before it gathered too much momentum. "I'm gonna use the toilet before we start so I don't interrupt it."

It was a lame excuse but Eddie let him go. Buck ruffled Chris' hair as he passed, making Chris giggle and protest with a "Buuuuuuck!" that usually made a smile cross his lips but now…

He shook his head, closing the door of the bathroom and pressing his head to the timber with a deep inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.

"Get it together, Buckley," he muttered to himself, pressing the heel of his hands into his eyes and trying to shake off the exhaustion that felt like it had been carved into his bones, or the jumble of emotions about Lucy and Beth that he couldn't dislodge from his heart, or the suffocating feeling of water seeping into his lungs and the panic of not knowing where Christopher was. This was the hardest part about being forced to hang out with someone from the house after an emotionally gruelling day: he had no opportunity to decompress. He'd rather just go to a bar until his eyes were crossed and he couldn't stand anymore, or look at the TV with a bottle of something strong in his hand in his apartment while silent tears rolled down his cheeks. Trying to keep up the pretence that he was okay was exhausting, and he was tired enough already after another shitty night of sleep because the nightmares had been terrible since getting stuck in that elevator.

But pretences were his entire thing right now so he flushed the toilet and washed his hands, splashed some cool water on his face and avoided looking at himself in the mirror. If he did, he tended to linger too long over the stranger that stared back. At some point during the lawsuit, he'd stopped knowing who he was. He'd never seen himself as someone that would sue the LAFD, or sue anyone that he considered family. Not when the job had been a lifeline when he'd needed it the most. He hadn't expected to screw his teammates over either, abandoning them when maybe they'd needed him too.

So that guy in the mirror…

He'd first noticed that it was something about his eyes. They weren't as blue anymore, like the water had stolen the colour along with his ability to sleep. And then the lavender had started seeping in beneath his eyes, contrasting with the pallid colour of his cheeks.

When he'd realised his skin no longer fit properly, he stopped looking at himself. He knew he wasn't the same person he was when he'd started at the 118 before he'd met Abby. She'd changed him, in ways he hadn't even been able to trace until now, when he was forced to evaluate if Buck 2.0 was someone he could be satisfied with or if he needed to shed that too. After the bombing, and the clot, and the tsunami, he felt like some sort of Buck 2.5 or 3.0, someone that looked like him but no longer functioned like him. A robot or something out of some Body Snatchers film. When he looked at himself in a mirror, he saw someone that logically his brain knew was him and yet emotionally, could've been some guy on the street with blond hair and pale blue eyes and a birthmark over his left eye that he'd never seen before.

Chris was curled under Eddie's arm in the middle of the couch by the time he returned to the living room, the menu for Inside Out glowing on the screen.

"What's this one about then?" he said as he settled on Chris' other side, squashing himself against the arm of the couch and letting Chris spread his feet into Buck's lap.

"Dealing with your feelings," Chris said with his goofy grin that ordinarily rivalled the sun's power on the darkest of days.

Buck made some sort of acknowledging hum, ignoring how he could feel Eddie's eyes on him, and absently started rubbing Chris' feet and ankles so that he had a way to disguise his trembling hands.


The movie was…enjoyable, he supposed, but it occurred to Buck while he was watching it that beneath all the bright colours and sassy dialogue that his emotions were just as out of whack as the kid in the film.

As a firefighter, he had spent a lot of time suppressing fear. It was a major hazard to the job if he started second-guessing his safety or decisions when facing a wall of flames, but since the tsunami, he knew it better than his own reflection. He couldn't even think about having a bath without breaking into a cold sweat and the thought of being near a pool or the ocean made him start to hyperventilate if he wasn't more vigilant when his thoughts started to drift. In the week after the tsunami, he'd struggled with actions as basic as showering or washing his hands. He'd nearly ripped his bathroom sink apart when he'd noticed a dripping sound in the dead of night because no amount of pillows over his head had managed to block it out.

And that didn't even take into account how he'd felt after the clot, or the truck, or his inability to cope with Ali breaking up with him, or the loneliness of rehab, or the desperation to reach out to Eddie because of Shannon's death but being too selfishly trapped in his own head to pick up the phone.

He could also recognise that, though he lacked the constant tears, he empathised with Sadness in the film. He could barely remember what true joy felt like, rubbing at his chest for the echoes of emotions that had abandoned him long ago. Without joy, with the oppressive sadness and fear taking control of him lately, he'd been searching for ways to make everything numb and yet simultaneously escape the void that surrounded him. Maybe that meant he made stupid decisions, like rushing rehab steps or sending Eddie with a vic before an elevator started to flood or running towards an exploding car, but he needed to operate as normal to everyone on the outside lest he tip them off about the emotional turmoil on the inside.

"What'd you think?" Chris asked, wiggling his toes in Buck's hands.

And, of course, he couldn't voice any of his true thoughts to Chris. Not when Eddie was at the other end of the couch, staring at him like he was transparent and everything he thought and felt was on display.

"It's a good way of presenting complex psychological things to kids," he quipped, tickling Chris' feet as the kid squealed and wriggled into a ball in his father's lap and then made pleas for pizza with big, pleading eyes that Eddie succumbed to without much of a fight.

While Eddie went to get a takeaway menu for some place a few blocks away that delivered the requested dinner, Chris reached out his leg and pushed it into Buck's thigh. "Buck? Why are you so sad?"

Buck blinked, tearing his attention from the rolling credits to the kid who had become an unexpectedly important part of his world in the last twelve months. Chris' eyes were large behind his glasses, his childlike curiosity turned on Buck. And for a moment, for a fleeting flash of a moment that stabbed through him and twisted his stomach and made his heart thump painfully, he remembered finding those red glasses but Christopher was gone. He could remember putting them around his neck and feeling like they were a millstone threatening to drag him beneath the surface of the water to his death. As much as they'd been a reminder to keep going like Chris had suggested, they had also been a heady reminder of how much of a failure he was when he'd lost Chris to the second surge.

For a moment, Buck looked at him and found it hard to breathe through the deluge of memories that saturated him to the core.

"I'm not…sad," he eventually said but Christopher shook his head, pushing his foot firmer and more insistently against Buck's thigh.

"Yes, you are. You're sad like Dad was after Mom died."

Buck felt his breath catch in his lungs as he stared at Chris in disbelief because this kid was seeing straight through all his defences that either all the adults in their lives were blind to or chose to ignore. Buck wasn't sure what was worse. He wasn't sure how he'd handle being let down by his family at the 118 again because they didn't really want him working with them anymore.

"I-" Buck paused and then held open his arms to Chris, who shuffled on the couch and then willingly fell into his lap. It felt comforting to hold Chris, to nuzzle his nose into his small shoulder and inhale his warmth and life. It helped remind some part of his brain that this boy was alive, reducing the size of the monsters that existed in his head after so many nightmares where Chris had never been found…or worse.

"You know how…how sometimes you might have a bad day at school and you don't want to talk to your dad about it?" he began, tracing a hand down Christopher's back.

Chris nodded, his hand fiddling with the shirt covering Buck's chest. "Yeah. Sometimes I feel like Sadness and Anger all mixed together but then I talk to Dad and we get ice cream and I feel like Joy comes back. D'you think you just need to talk to my Dad and have some ice cream?"

Buck felt his throat tighten at the way Chris was looking at him, eyes round with hope, and he wished he had the childlike optimism to solve his problems with something as simple as talking and eating ice cream. He remembered Eddie's words the morning of the tsunami, how Chris didn't allow anything to get him down, and Buck wished he was more like that. After the tsunami, he'd tried to follow Eddie's advice. He'd tried to avoid complaining about all the feelings gathering in his chest, all the thoughts that built in his head. After the lawsuit had hit, he'd been forced to hold them inside. And after the lawsuit was over, he didn't feel like anyone really cared to listen. But when a perceptive kid like Chris saw straight through all that and was pointing out that he was sad… Well.

"Yeah, I- Maybe," he conceded quietly, pressing a kiss among Christopher's curls.

Eddie wandered back into the living room with the menu, catching the way Chris was curled into Buck's lap and smiling that small, soft smile that Buck only ever saw him use when Chris wasn't looking and – though Buck wasn't sure – he didn't think Eddie wanted him seeing either.

After a spirited discussion about which pizzas they'd order – Christopher insisted on no mushrooms and Eddie declared pineapple on pizza was a travesty, while Buck thought both of them were ridiculous and that pizza should have everything possible on it – Chris then decided they should play Monopoly for the rest of the night.

And though Buck would probably have preferred to tune everything out and watch another movie, he wasn't going to deny Christopher anything.


"I was starting to think he'd never settle for bed because you're here," Eddie said as he returned to the living room with a bottle of beer in each hand, passing one to Buck as he flopped onto the couch.

"I did offer to leave, like…" Buck checked his watch. "Two hours ago."

"And risk you having a brain bleed while you were driving home? I'm not sure who would kill me first – Hen, Bobby or your sister."

Buck rolled his eyes and twisted the cap off the beer. "If I was going to deteriorate, I would've done so by now, don't you think?"

Eddie shrugged, picking at the label on his bottle with his thumbnail. "You think I'm willing to risk it if you're wrong?"

The quietness in Eddie's question caught Buck off-guard because there was an element of warm teasing and gentle care in Eddie's tone that he hadn't heard since before the lawsuit, since before the tsunami. Maybe even before the truck had crushed his leg.

"We risk our lives every day," he pointed out instead, looking for the diversion because it was easier than reading into what Eddie had said. Even though Buck tended to read into Eddie so much he could probably declare he had started his very own Eddie Diaz Library.

"Buck," Eddie sighed and there was so much there, so much caught in that singular word, that Buck looked away from Eddie and focused instead on a spot on the wall across the room. "That's not- Yes, we do, but- If something happened to you tonight because you were alone, when you were meant to be here and I could've done something-"

"Diaz, if you keep talking like that, people will think you care about me." He tried to make it light and teasing but his heart still did an odd little jumping thing that made Buck wonder if it was attached to marionette strings.

"You're important to Christopher. Of course I care about you."

And it was said so matter-of-fact, with an implied 'duh' at the end of it, that Buck hoped the sound Eddie hadn't audibly made covered for the sound of his heart cracking. Because that's what it boiled down to, didn't it? Buck was important to Chris but to Eddie… To Eddie, their friendship was still etched with so much fragility and a degree of distance that Buck could be in his presence and still feel alone.

It hadn't always been like this, he knew that in his bones, but the lawsuit had changed everything and Eddie… Eddie was the one who remained the most aloof in their interactions lately. Eddie might say he forgave Buck, and he said he trusted Buck with Christopher, and he said he had Buck's back, but there was something missing, some sort of certainty that had once been embedded within his words and actions, and no amount of errant touches to Buck's shoulder or verbal assurances had soothed the anxiety Buck felt. At the end of the day, he knew he'd lost Chris in the water and they'd both almost died. After that, he didn't feel worthy of anything resembling certainty in Eddie's convictions towards him. Eddie said a lot of kind things but Buck was okay with the fact that Eddie didn't truly mean them anymore. He'd never felt like he'd deserved them in the first place. Who trusted someone with his history around kids, anyway?

"I think I'd like to get some sleep now," he lied, knowing he resented sleep almost as much as it resented him, and he knew Eddie was surprised because they'd only been sitting together for less than ten minutes and there was a time they'd talk for hours after tough shifts, working their way through several bottles of beer each until the feelings no longer hurt and their heads were lolling with fatigue, but his skin crawled with discomfort at all the feelings and memories and thoughts he was trying to keep buried. Saying he wanted to sleep was the best way he knew to get Eddie to leave him alone. "It's been a long day and all that."

"Yeah." Eddie peeled a section of label off his bottle. "How are you handling it?"

"It's just another call, right?" He shrugged and settled his barely-touched bottle on the table, deciding to ferret out his toothbrush from his gym bag beside the couch just to reinforce his decision to pretend to sleep. "They don't always go our way. We both know that."

"And physically? Has your back bruised?"

Buck knew his shoulders were sore but he could ignore it, parcel it into a box and shove it alongside all the other things he didn't want to feel. "I haven't looked."

"Do you want me to-"

"There's nothing you could do even if it was bruised," he interrupted and he knew from Eddie's awkward silence that he'd probably spoken too harshly. Still, he'd already had Hen fuss over him enough today and knowing he only 'mattered' to Eddie because he was important to Chris made it difficult to remember how to filter the emotions out of his words that same way that Eddie did.

"Okay, well I- You know where my room is if you start feeling unwell during the night," Eddie said, rising from the couch and padding out of the room without a backwards glance. It made Buck feel emptier than usual, realising how much he was able to push away someone that he'd once considered his best friend and was now…something he didn't even know how to label with his head or his heart.

He brushed his teeth and swapped his jeans for sweatpants. He could sleep in his LAFD t-shirt but he still pulled the neck of his shirt aside, wincing at the blossom of colour across his shoulders that no doubt swirled down his back. Hopefully he hadn't hit his head so badly that he had some sort of bleed, but he hadn't had a headache or any sort of dizziness throughout the day that he could ascribe to anything beyond his regular anxiety so he supposed that boded well.

When he returned to the Diaz living room, there was a blanket and a couple of pillows settled on the couch but no sign of Eddie. Buck reminded himself it was a mundane action, one made out of necessity rather than because Eddie really cared. Still, he held the pillow and blankets to his nose and inhaled deeply, relishing the traces of Eddie's scent in the fabric that he hadn't really had in months because Eddie didn't really come near him anymore.

And even though he didn't want to sleep, even though closing his eyes was more unpleasant than thinking about a bath or the ocean, eventually his eyes fluttered closed because he was simply too exhausted to try to stay awake.


There was so much blood and he was drowning in it.

Everywhere he looked, his vision was surrounded by red. He couldn't tell what was up or what was down, but he knew he'd lost something important in the red that pushed and pulled his body like a ragdoll. There was a high-pitched tinny sound in his ear that almost sounded like a scream, but it was so distant that he couldn't tell which direction it came from.

His hand caught on something solid and when he peered through the murky redness, he realised it was a signpost. He blinked, struggling to hold his breath because he needed to find the surface of all the blood, and then it flashed through his head – Christopher! He'd lost Christopher. He had to find-

He opened his mouth to scream the boy's name but instead blood spilled into his lips, flooding his throat and lungs and making him choke and tear at his chest, trying to get it out because he needed to find Christopher but maybe it was too hard, maybe he wasn't worthy, maybe someone else would-

"Buck."

His eyes snapped open and he heaved a bunch of spluttering breaths, clutching at his throat and his chest as the blood-red vision clouded the edge of the room which wasn't his room and he was so disoriented that he couldn't tell where he was and-

"Hey. Hey. You're okay. Look at me, c'mon."

Fingers pressed into his shoulder and his eyes gradually travelled towards a face with rumpled hair and confused brown eyes and it took a moment or two before awareness seeped into his brain, before he realised he'd been having another nightmare and this – he hoped – was reality. Seeing Eddie made him remember falling asleep on Eddie's couch, which helped him recognise Eddie's living room, which led to recalling the reason he was at Eddie's in the first place.

"Buck?" Eddie's thumb moved, firm against his collarbone, and something about the way he spoke or was looking at Buck made him feel as though he might've been crouching by the couch for a while trying to wake him up.

"I-" His voice cracked and he swallowed, realising for the first time how badly his hands were trembling against his throat and chest. He blinked several times, trying to get rid of the sensation of drowning in blood out of his head even though his mouth tasted faintly coppery. Maybe he'd bitten his lip again. "I'm okay."

"Like hell you are," Eddie said, a line forming between his brows. "I know what a nightmare looks like. I've woken Christopher enough times. What happened?"

But Buck just shook his head, sitting up and ridding Eddie's hand off his shoulder, rubbing at his face and scratching through his hair and wishing he could be anywhere else than here and facing Eddie after a nightmare that had left him feeling rattled. "It's fine."

"No, it's really, really not. Do they happen often?"

When Buck didn't immediately respond, Eddie's breath whistled through his teeth and the weight of the couch shifted as Eddie sat behind him, a hand brushing over his shoulder that Buck immediately tried to shrug away.

"Buck-"

"Don't," he said, tangling his fingers into his hair and tugging sharply so that the pain could ground him in something more concrete than the racing thoughts and racing feelings and racing breaths and racing heartbeats that he couldn't seem to ever catch up with. "I don't need-"

"I took Chris to get evaluated when he kept having nightmares after the tsunami," Eddie interrupted, his voice steadier than Buck's jumbled thought process and failed attempts to string together coherent sentences. "And I know how I changed after I returned from being deployed. I know how difficult sleeping was and-"

"I don't need the lecture," Buck finally bit out, still struggling to get enough oxygen into his lungs to stop his heart leaping through his ribcage and splattering on the floor of Eddie's living room. Which would just expose more blood. Which nearly made his stomach revolt and heave whatever remained in it from dinner.

"This isn't a lecture." Eddie's hand was light but insistent against his back, fingertips curved around Buck's tender shoulder. "This is me saying it's okay to not be okay."

But Buck was okay. Truly. People had died in that tsunami. He would know. He'd seen them float past in a raft of tangled limbs while he grasped Christopher to his chest and tried to shield him from seeing the worst of it.

"Buck, you had three near-death experiences in only a handful of months," Eddie said and even though Buck didn't want to think about any of it, when it was said so bluntly… "When I realised what Christopher's nightmares were about, I told him it's okay to be sad. He's gone through his own trauma this year, and so have you."

Trauma? Buck wouldn't view it like that. Some unfortunate experiences close together which-

"You can talk about it, you know," Eddie continued and Buck shook his head, because he couldn't. Not to Eddie, who would just go and tell Bobby. Not to his sister, because Maddie would tell Chimney who would tell Bobby. Not to Hen, who would listen and care but still tell Bobby. He had no one. And he wasn't about to find a therapist again and screw a therapist again. He had to learn to manage himself because he couldn't afford for Bobby to bench him. Again.

"I don't need to talk about it," he said, getting to his feet and letting Eddie's hand slide off his body. His skin felt heated from the touch but he refused to pay attention to it. "There's nothing to talk about so I'd appreciate it if you'd just stop trying to involve yourself in things that aren't about you."

He grabbed his bag and decided leaving was his best – and only – option. He'd go home, or he'd go for a run, or he'd have a few drinks to quell the buzzing in his brain and the hurt in his heart. He just knew he couldn't be around Eddie anymore. He knew he couldn't unravel any of his feelings because he had spent too much time wrapping them up and shoving them away until they no longer hurt.

"Buck," Eddie hissed as he followed Buck down the corridor, where Buck collected his shoes from beside the door and his keys from the small side table. "You don't have to deal with this alone."

Buck dared to glance at Eddie as he opened the front door, all his defences raised and blocking out every messy feeling he wished he could carve out of his blackened heart. "I don't know why you're so hell-bent on thinking something is wrong."

"Then why are you leaving?"

It made Buck pause on the landing, gazing into the semi-darkness of the middle of the night. His heart twisted and his stomach churned but when his lawyer had told him he'd need to stop talking to anyone from the firehouse, he'd become good at shoving down all his feelings and the desperate need to talk to his best friend about everything that was haunting him.

Once he'd seen Eddie's furious eyes at the grocery store, once he knew that whatever trust Eddie had felt towards him in regards to Chris was gone, once he knew how exhausting he was to listen to, it had been easier to extinguish the urge to reach out. He'd buried his feelings for Eddie's friendship so far down that he just felt sad when he was around Eddie now, an overwhelming sense of miserable that was easier to deal with. Eddie might say he was 'forgiven' but he'd grown sick of having his heart wrenched all over his chest when Eddie tended to avoid making eye contact and rarely smiled at him after the lawsuit.

"Because there's no reason for me to stay," Buck said resolutely, descending the steps of Eddie's porch and getting into his truck. He knew Eddie was still standing in the doorway with his arms crossed when Buck pulled away from the curb but he didn't look at him.

He wasn't sure he'd keep it together if he did.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 3,490
Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter contains a rather vivid description of a panic attack.


He was hungover, and tired, and was determined to make himself as invisible as possible during his shift. It was deceptively easy to do when he couldn't remember the last time he'd been honest with anyone about how he felt. And if someone had offered him something better, something stronger or maybe a new job, he had a feeling he'd seriously consider it. It was a disturbing thought to have after he'd fought to get on the team, how thoroughly he'd jeopardised his friendships, and his family, and his career, to be a firefighter again.

If he were honest, he'd noticed the way the others looked at him sometimes in the truck on the way to calls, or when he poured himself a mug of coffee while stifling a yawn behind his hand, or when he entered or exited the house at the start or end of shifts. He knew they were all watching him but their silence was permission to keep his distance and he couldn't decide if he appreciated or resented that they were willing to let him drown.

Which was, perhaps, a poor choice of words given the circumstances that had led to his isolation.

The bells rang and he discarded his mug with a sigh, grasping his jacket and helmet as he jumped into the truck. He stared at the patterns on the floor of the truck to avoid the eyes of everyone else. After the nightmare he'd had at Eddie's house a few days ago, he'd struggled to get any sort of rest. Now that they were sharing a shift again, it was impossible to look at him.

He managed to block out some of the sound of the wailing siren with his headset and tuned out the voices in his ears by fixating on being somewhere far, far away. Maybe he could put in transfer papers and move to Utah, or Arizona, or somewhere else without water and without a team of people who he couldn't look at or speak to anymore.

But, he tried to tell himself, he was exhausted and hungover and irritable and prone to misreading everything. He was prone to rash decisions at the best of times and feeling like he was at his worst… Well. Terrible decisions were even easier to make.

When they arrived at a house with a pristine lawn and a frantically waving daughter, Buck hung back as she wailed at them to come quickly and then took off through the side entrance along a fence. Bobby gestured at them to follow and Buck jogged behind the rest, hearing a woman's screams and a man's desperate shouts.

"They're here, mom! They're here!" the daughter sobbed, arms around her waist as they rounded the corner and took in the sight.

A brunette woman was bobbing in her pool, her hand clenched in a man's – who had to be her husband – as she shrieked in terror. At irregular intervals, she was dragged under the water before he hauled her back to the surface again and then she made another hysterical sound amid a lot of spluttering and spitting of water.

"Please! The cords of the vacuum sweeper are stuck around her legs! We can't get her up!" the man yelled as his wife sank under the water again and Buck could tell she was growing tired because when she came up the next time, she wasn't really screaming anymore. Her free hand was mostly just splashing around, a garbled gurgle escaping her mouth.

Memories swirled behind his eyes and he felt dizzy as he looked at her and saw a different scenario entirely. Him in the elevator. Him caught in the currents of water. Him with wires wrapped around his legs.

"Chimney, turn off the power to the machine. Hen, grab resus gear from the truck because there will be water in her lungs and we'll need to treat her for drowning. Eddie, I- Eddie!"

Buck watched numbly as Eddie flung his jacket to the ground and tossed his helmet on top before diving into the pool, a dark blur of a rippling shape through the water as he moved towards the woman's wavering feet. Buck's feet were anchored to the ground, utterly immobile as he stared and blinked and blinked and stared and remembered waterlogged clothes and a small body pressed against him and a woman's shrill screams for help.

Whatever orders Bobby had just given were ignored in the face of Eddie's rash action but Hen still disappeared down the alley and Chimney was asking the daughter where the power was and Bobby was grasping onto the woman's flailing other hand to help the husband and providing assurance to both of them and Buck was just…frozen.

Even when he heard Chimney's shout that the power was out, even when he saw Eddie's face break the surface, lifting the woman onto his shoulder so that the husband and Bobby could pull her over the edge of the pool, even when he watched Hen clear the woman's airway and lay her on her side while checking her vitals, even when Chim recommended transporting her to hospital, Buck just…couldn't move. Everything was happening to someone else, someone far away, on another planet, in another timeline.

The woman's screaming might have stopped but he could still hear it, a ringing in his ears, a kaleidoscope of sound and colour of dozens of other people crying for assistance while water splashed against a solid surface. Yet he was also faintly aware of the silence that had descended now that the woman was out of the water and he knew there was another time when all the terrified screams around him had been silenced, when he'd been buffeted and tumbled by inescapable pressure that squeezed him on all sides.

Buck had never really considered how silent drowning could be until every sense was inundated by absolute nothingness, and water was pressing at the top of your throat, and you were fighting against inhaling because even though you needed the oxygen, you couldn't let the water in because if it got inside your lungs, you were gone. Gone like everyone else that couldn't hold their breath underwater for longer than thirty seconds. Gone like everyone else that had been so stricken with fear that the logical parts of their brain stopped functioning.

"Buck?"

And Buck was at the mercy of the water, letting it push and pull at him because he didn't have the strength to resist that sort of force. He lost every sense of direction when he was dragged up and down like a ragdoll. He swallowed mouthfuls of filthy water even as he struggled to keep it out of his lungs because his fingers had slipped from Christopher's and he had to find the kid. Panic made his brain spark like lightning and his fingers clenched around the nearest thing he could find.

At some point, he thought about buoying to the surface and clambering up a tree, or maybe a car, and he needed to look and search and shout even though his voice was hoarse with the water and the grit he'd swallowed but it wasn't enough. He still couldn't see Christopher. He'd dive into the water again, despite the whirlpools that were filled with unknown dangers. He'd twist his body around floating cars or trunks of trees or glass and debris that had been blown out of buildings which could so easily knock him out, or break another bone, or sheer off a limb. He could bleed out in the water, another victim among dozens, and he didn't know where Christopher was but he needed to find him.

He was numb to the pain from cuts and scrapes covered in putrid refuse, his face bloodied as he stumbled down road after road, torn clothes and gasping yells probably making him look like Frankenstein's monster.

"Diaz-"

His vision blurred dangerously out of focus and his knees shook too hard to hold him up any longer. He groped behind him until his fingers found the grooves of bricks and he sank into the solidity of the wall, sliding until he was curled into a ball because it was too hard to stay upright when he was swaying so badly, and his lungs were aching and his head was spinning and everywhere he looked he could see blue water and dead bodies, and there was this odd contradiction in the screaming of the pleas for help and the silence after they'd become gurgled and choked and then they were gone in the distance, and he couldn't save them all- he couldn't reach them all- he couldn't-

"Buck? Hey. Hey."

Some sort of sob stuck in his throat and there was a pain in his chest, and a pain behind his eyes, and everything in his chest burned and he couldn't breathe because if he breathed then water would get into his lungs and then he'd be dragged down, down into the depths, and he had to find Christopher, he couldn't fail Eddie, he had to-

"Buck."

Hands threaded through his hair, raising his unseeing eyes, and there were droplets of water running down his cheeks and tickling behind his ears and he needed to save Christopher from the water because Christopher wasn't a strong swimmer. Sometimes he struggled to coordinate his limbs going up or down stairs and Buck didn't know where the boy's crutches were in the carnage and he had to get a phone to call Maddie and let her know where he was but she was probably busy with all the other 911 calls so saving Christopher was his mission, his only mission, but he couldn't breathe and he needed to breathe but he-

"Snap out of it, Evan," a firm voice said, damp fingers on his cheeks shaking his head and pressing thumbs against the pulsepoint of his throat to tilt his head back, to open his airway, to give his lungs a chance to breathe. It felt a bit like being strangled, and it was unpleasant when he already felt like he was suffocating under the weight of the panic and the water swirling all around him, but the heat and the pressure also shocked his system into focusing on something else – like how weird it was to have his head tilted so far back in the middle of the ocean.

And gradually, gradually, painfully slowly, brown eyes shimmered into view in front of him to replace the blue of the ocean, and the yellow of Christopher's shirt, and the red of the blood staining his hands.

"Come on, Evan. The tsunami is over. Christopher is safe. Breathe with me, okay? Here. Give me your hand."

A shaking hand clasped around his limp wrist and his palm pressed into damp clothes.

"You feel me breathing? You feel my heart beating beneath your fingers? I want you to match it, alright? I need you to breathe with me, Evan. Come on."

When all the racing and thudding and fear that ricocheted through Buck's head finally started to abate, he realised it was Eddie kneeling in front of him and they were the only people he could see. He blinked rapidly, fingers unconsciously curling into the wet navy LAFD shirt Eddie was wearing. Some of the tightness in his chest loosened, his heart giving a final stuttered series of beats as he started to realise he'd…what? Had a panic attack? And a bunch of flashbacks? Or hallucinated? He wasn't even entirely sure what had just happened and even that realisation made him feel sick and anxious all over again because no one else was around but it meant they'd still had to have seen what happened. This was a whole lot worse than getting stuck in the elevator.

"Hey," Eddie murmured, a thumb smoothing up and over Buck's eyebrow and dragging over his birthmark, rubbing a gentle circle against Buck's temple. "You with me, Buckley?"

Buck swallowed, meeting Eddie's gaze and realising how very, very tired he felt. All his limbs felt like his bones had been injected with jelly and lead and if it wasn't for Eddie's hands cradling his jaw, he could imagine his head lolling straight off his shoulders and bouncing across the outdoor tiles. "I don't- I just-"

"It was the water, wasn't it?" Eddie said and Buck's gaze dropped to Eddie's soaked clothes, as much a confirmation as anything he could have said because even though Eddie was holding him up, even though Eddie was clearly okay and alive and hadn't drowned and – he presumed – they'd gotten the woman up and out and she was also okay, he'd gotten transported to a place that was so terrifying he thought it only existed in his nightmares. "Shit, Buck. Was it the tsunami or the elevator?"

"You don't…forget what it's like to be drowning," he whispered, eyes closing for a minute as images flickered like an old movie of the tsunami and the elevator and the desperate urge to survive even though you didn't know how it was possible. "You don't forget the sound of…of someone's desperate screams before it becomes that choked, gasping sound when they finally get sucked under and their splashes disappear beneath the surface and you can't see them anymore." Eddie's fingers twitched against his skin and Buck coughed, eyes snapping open, like he was trying to expel water from his lungs or the images from his brain. "Sorry, I-"

"Don't apologise. Just…stay present with me, okay?" Eddie said, low and soothing like Buck suspected he talked to Christopher after a nightmare. It was a tone of voice Buck had never really heard directed towards him by Eddie, or by anyone except, perhaps, Maddie when he was a whole lot younger. But Buck could also hear how Eddie's words were tinged with a small amount of shakiness, which was uncharacteristic for the level-headed firefighter and veteran army medic who had endured worse than Buck could even pretend to imagine and always seemed perfectly at ease. "You scared the shit out of me. I need to calm down myself."

Buck tried a rueful smile but he thought it probably came out more of a grimace as Eddie combed fingers through his hair, leaving damp trails against his scalp which snaked down his temples and dripped off his jaw.

"What happened to-"

"Hen and Chimney took the vic and the family to the hospital," Eddie explained as some of the sensation in Buck's fingers and toes gradually returned now that his blood was flowing somewhat more regularly through his heart. "Bobby's with the truck. He took the 118 offline while I stayed with you."

Buck felt his face heat with shame because the team had definitely seen him completely lose it and he had been fighting so damn hard to cover up everything that was going on, because he was a first responder and he had to switch off his feelings on a call and because they saw horrible shit so often and because Chim would call Maddie to tell her what happened and then she'd start fussing around him again and because he'd fought to get on this team so hard and now he'd just proven to Bobby exactly why he shouldn't have come back and-

Eddie's fingers firmed again his jaw, raising his eyes until they met warm brown, slightly creased around the edges with concern and care and the small, nervous smile that played on the edge of Eddie's lips. "We've all been worried about you, man, but I- I thought if we gave you the space to process, or the time to…to realise you weren't okay, then you'd eventually open up to us because we're your family and we care about you."

Eddie sighed, his gaze flicking over Buck's head and a small frown drew his eyebrows together. Eddie's indecision about his words was a better thing for Buck to focus on because Eddie's hands felt very intimate against his skin, a gesture that was entirely friendly and something they often did for rescues, but it made Buck starkly aware of how long it had been since he'd felt any sort of affection from another person that wasn't his sister.

"I should've pushed you about that nightmare," Eddie murmured, almost as if he were speaking to himself.

Buck shrugged. He had a feeling that even if he'd been directly challenged, even if someone like Bobby had called him out, he wasn't sure he'd admit to anything. In the dead of night, he meditated on the idea of screaming until he was noticed, pleading for help the way all those people had while he'd sheltered on the top of the fire truck with Christopher in his arms. But then it felt like it was increasingly apparent that no one truly cared, no one was realising he was sinking under the weight of all his emotions and the memories, and no one could possibly reach out to save him because they all had their own shit to deal with and they didn't need him adding to that. He was the baby of the team and they all had Big Adult Problems. They kept expecting him to just get over it and move on. And he couldn't.

He pushed away the thoughts and misgivings and began wondering if it would be rude to return to the firehouse and request a nap. He still felt an uncomfortable distance between him and reality, like he was watching it through fuzzy glass and everything Eddie said was happening to some other version of himselfHis temples still throbbed with the after-effects of his racing heart, his chest still hurt from all the spasming breaths he'd tried to suck in yet simultaneously block out because of the water he feared would drown his lungs.

And he wasn't an idiot. He knew enough about PTSD after reading online guides about ways to help Maddie cope after Doug's death and how to avoid any sudden actions that might make her flinch to recognise that seeing Eddie dive into the water, and watching the woman drown, and hearing her intermittent shrieks and gurgles for help, had unravelled the parts of his memories that he'd been struggling to shut out since the flooded elevator and avoid leaking past the dam of his defences when he closed his eyes at night.

"Evan." Eddie's finger tapped beneath his chin and his heavy lids opened – he didn't even remember closing his eyes – to find Eddie's eyes on him again, the small smile gone and replaced with downturned lips that clearly betrayed how worried he was. "D'you think you can get up and get back to the truck?"

It seemed like a simple enough suggestion which turned out to be harder than it sounded because as soon as he tried to get to his feet, the world spun in technicolour and his knees threatened to give out on him. He'd pushed Eddie's hand away when he'd first tried to stand but refused to admit his gratitude when Eddie's arm curled around his waist, holding him steady and upright, until the blurring sharpened into focus again and he tried not to screw up his face and start crying with how completely fraught all his emotions felt.

"Okay?"

He nodded, trying – and failing – to remind himself he was a confident and strong and stoic firefighter as he shuffled along the side of the house with Eddie keeping him standing. He saw Bobby sitting in the driver's seat of the truck, feet hanging out the open door and his head down as he fiddled with his phone in his lap. As soon as he caught movement, Bobby's attention snapped towards the house and within seconds, he was leaping from the cab of the truck and crossing the yard.

"Buck." Bobby's brows were drawn, his mouth unhappy, but his arms were extended towards him and for a moment, Buck felt himself freeze again because he could remember a similar expression when he'd felt something in his chest pop and tasted the metallic bite of blood surge up his throat. But Bobby stood there patiently, something so paternal in his body language, and it reminded Buck of when Bobby had rushed to the hospital waiting desk because he'd been called as the emergency contact after Buck had sliced his arm on the car windshield getting a guy out.

Something inside Buck cracked, some sort of hold against his feelings, and he stumbled out of Eddie's hold to collapse into the embrace of his Captain. Fingers snagged into the heavy fibres of the jacket and he clung to the older man as the tempestuous storm raged through his head.

"It's okay, son," Bobby murmured, arms strong and certain around Buck's torso and pressing against painful bruises that reminded him he was alive. "It's okay."

For a moment, Buck almost believed him.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 4,490
Warnings/Spoilers: No specific warnings for this chapter, although there is talk about difficult memories and PTSD-type symptoms and coping methods. If you've made it this far, it's the sort of talk that is desperately necessary.


After months of feeling alienated from the team, it didn't surprise him that now everyone wanted to talk with him and find out what happened and why he hadn't been talking and making suggestions about what he might need. Hen recommended therapy and Chimney invited him to a night at the bar (which Hen had admonished) and Bobby mentioned the LAFD's counselling service and Buck had politely listened to all of it without really hearing a thing. He had spent months keeping up a façade that had crumbled to pieces because of some woman drowning in her backyard pool and all the care and attention was, frankly, overwhelming.

By the time his shift was over, he was ready to crawl into bed, pull the blankets over his head, and refuse to emerge for a month.

He'd been home an hour, was nursing his second beer while staring at the darkened TV screen with a blanket wrapped around his trembling shoulders, when there was a knock at his door. He sighed, wishing Maddie had listened when she'd called and asked him a thousand questions that meant she had definitely spoken to Chimney – or at the very least, received a lot of very worried texts from Chimney – and so she knew something was wrong with her baby brother and needed to come over and mother him.

Except he wasn't a baby anymore and he hadn't needed a mother in years and it annoyed him that she felt the need to check on him despite his protests that he was fine and he was halfway through determining how to grump at her and make her leave as he opened the door when he stopped, hand clenching on the doorknob a little tighter than was strictly necessary when he froze on the spot.

"Can I come in?"

He stared at Eddie, dressed casually in jeans and a green flannel shirt. Buck absently wondered if it was as soft as it looked, before dismissing the errant thought as quickly as it had entered his head and rolling his eyes to step to one side.

Eddie entered, hands shoved in his pockets, and looked almost as awkward as Buck felt as the door clicked shut behind him. "I, uh- I managed to get Carla to look after Christopher tonight."

Buck's eyebrows rose towards his hairline.

One of Eddie's hands escaped his pockets to rub at the back of his neck, his eyes darting around Buck's general shape without really settling on anything. It was disconcerting to say the least because Eddie was usually the calm and collected one and Buck tended to be the one who floundered around with nerves and uncertainty.

"Look, I'm just going to say it, okay? You've been through some serious shit this past year, Buck, and that leaves marks on people. The earthquake, the tsunami, the crush injury and the embolism, tracking down your sister after she'd killed-"

"Why are you here?" he croaked, because he couldn't stand to think about Maddie covered in blood, and he couldn't stand to think about the panic he'd felt when he realised Doug had found her, and he couldn't stand to think about the blood that covered his skin which was his and not-his as he searched for Christopher after the second tsunami surge, and Eddie's wandering gaze finally seemed to settle on him and realise how shaken he was.

"I've been in wars," Eddie said, something fragile in his voice as he swallowed and the Adam's apple in his throat bobbed but he still held Buck's gaze steadily. "I've seen stuff that no one should ever see. And I know that…that losing Shannon, and then when I ran into you at the VA hospital and I realised I hadn't even thought about where you and Christopher were – I just assumed you'd both be safe because I couldn't allow myself to stop and think – and then when I saw Christopher and I swept him in my arms and I saw you collapse and I hadn't even considered how you were because I was so focused on losing my son and finding my son, I-"

Eddie paused, shaking his head and glancing at the ceiling briefly as he exhaled a slow breath and Buck wasn't sure he'd ever seen the other man so unhinged with all his words. When the breath was finally released, Eddie returned to looking at Buck.

"Buck, I know what it's like to shut yourself away and I- I'm here, you know? I'm here to listen and look out for you. I said I'd always have your back and I do. I always will. Because you look out for me, and you look out for Christopher, and that…that's something to stay for, isn't it?"

Buck blinked, trying to take in the way Eddie's thoughts seemed to zip between different situations and scenarios and fragments of conversations he barely remembered and yet knew had happened. Buck had long ago cut out the parts of his heart that felt anything until it stopped hurting to wake up, still breathing and still alone, every morning when he was practically banned from talking to his closest friends.

"I want to be able to help," Eddie said, inching half a step towards Buck and biting the corner of his lower lip. "I want to be there for you, the way you were there for my son. I know I've said thank you, about a million times until you're probably sick of hearing it, but I- I don't think I've ever apologised. After the suit and the fallout… I think- I was angry at you because I felt like I was losing you too, and Christopher and I have already come so close to losing you so many times this year after losing Shannon, but I- I don't think you understand how I owe my entire damn life to you, Buck. If I'd lost Christopher-"

"That's why I kept looking for him."

And dammit if Buck's voice didn't break in the middle of that sentence because he never would have been able to forgive himself if Christopher had died, or gotten lost among the water and the debris and never been found like so many other victims who were named and searched for and, ultimately, never recovered. He wouldn't have been able to live with himself. He would have gone to some other state and ensured he couldn't be identified and then died, because he deserved to be as unrecoverable as Christopher could have been. Sometimes it was already hard enough to live with the guilt that they'd been at the pier that day, that he'd lost Christopher for so many hours in such a terrifying situation. But if Christopher had died

"I know," Eddie whispered, eyes shiny with unshed tears as he inched closer. "I know, Buck. And if I could do anything that would take away all your pain, then I'd do it in every heartbeat I have left because that's how much what you did for me and for Christopher means to me. You know that, right?"

It took him a while to concede a small nod, the crushing feeling of rubber bands circling his chest making it harder to breathe than he was willing to admit as he struggled under the weight of all his guilt and shame and despair and devastation. Everything he'd seen that day, everything he'd heard… He'd just kept shoving it further and further down.

"When I got out of the water with that woman and heard Bobby shouting your name and I looked over and saw you sinking towards the floor with a hand to your chest, I thought you'd thrown another clot and it had hit your heart," Eddie admitted, and Buck marvelled at how steady Eddie could keep his voice because there was no way he could've reacted calmly.

He couldn't help but think about all the times Eddie might have delivered terrible news to family or friends in the wars, when he'd returned from deployment and had to face the relatives of those he'd lost on the battlefield. Eddie had a way of keeping all his difficult emotions under lock and key, rarely revealing how he felt, but he could tell Eddie's emotions were raw around the edges because there was a distance that kept flickering in his expression.

"I thought- All I could think as you fell to the ground was not again and I was terrified that this time…" Eddie finally shook his head and looked away, fixing his gaze on something on Buck's wall and blinking rapidly. The unsaid sentence hung heavy in the air and the implications were the loudest noise in the room.

"I'm okay," Buck mumbled but he knew it rang hollow after everything that had happened, because it could've been so easy for his blood to clot again and he could've hit the ground and been dead before any of his team could have done anything, and he knew Eddie saw straight through his bullshit front now too after his meltdown by the pool.

"I keep feeling terrified that I'm going to lose you and then I-" Eddie's voice fractured and he huffed a deep breath, and Buck started to see the emotions bleeding through the cage that Eddie trapped them in, the rims of his eyes reddening. "I don't know how I'd find the words to explain to Christopher that you're gone too. He lost his mom, Buck. I lost Shannon. But I- We can't lose you, too."

Buck stared at Eddie, confused and uncertain and in so many fragments that he feared everything he felt and everything he thought was fully exposed to Eddie. He didn't know where to begin picking himself up anymore so he went for the easiest response. "I'm still here."

"I know." Eddie met his eyes again, a solitary tear finally streaking down his cheek before he could wipe it away and his lips pressed together, one way and then the other, eyebrows scrunching in apparent annoyance that he'd let his guard down. "But tonight isn't about you trying to comfort me. Tonight is about me making sure you get some rest and reminding you that you aren't alone."

Buck opened his mouth to protest but Eddie silenced him with a look he'd almost certainly developed as a single parent with a ray of sunshine for a son who was still prone to the odd tantrum over bedtimes and toys.

"Please, Evan. Can I hug you?" Eddie asked and Buck wondered if he'd ever stop feeling so surprised by Eddie.

He nodded and Eddie moved quickly to wrap his arms around Buck's shoulders, like he was afraid Buck would change his mind and reject the embrace. For a moment, he stood with his arms awkwardly caught at his sides before it became clear Eddie wasn't after a short hug but wanted one that lingered, like when Bobby had held him upright by the side of the truck. Buck gradually returned the hug by settling his arms more comfortably around Eddie's waist, feeling the muscles of Eddie's back shift beneath his fingers when Buck tried to subtly adjust the arrangement of hands against the bruises, and feeling the way his fingers settled into the grooves of Eddie's ribcage.

"Is this okay?" Eddie murmured, head tilted to almost be resting on Buck's shoulder, and Buck tried not to shudder at the warm breath that tickled across his neck.

He nodded instead of answering, holding onto Eddie for God only knew how long until some of the anxiety and sadness and tension and panic and exhaustion that he always seemed to feel these days began to unspool from his shoulders. The haphazard breathing thing that always seemed to make him hitch half-breaths started to lessen when his erratic heartbeat evened out the longer Eddie held him. He also was incredibly alert to the ability to feel Eddie's heart thumping against his fingers.

By the time Eddie pulled away a few inches to survey his face, Buck felt more pliant and loose than he had in months and desperately didn't want to stop being in Eddie's embrace.

"You okay?" Eddie said and Buck nodded, content to stay wrapped in Eddie's arms the rest of the night if it meant all his tangled emotions faded away or morphed into something he could manage on his own again. "C'mon."

Eddie tugged him towards the couch, sitting on it and then insisting Buck lay his head on a pillow in Eddie's lap. His legs ended up dangling over the arm of the couch and it wasn't exactly comfortable but then Eddie started combing lazy fingers through his hair and Buck decided the comfort of his legs was the smallest possible issue when Eddie was doing that.

"You're just doing that so I'll start talking," he said with a small pout towards Eddie, who grinned almost wickedly.

"If the shoe fits," Eddie said with an innocent attempt at a shrug and Buck rolled his eyes, before Eddie's expression sobered. "You don't have to talk if you don't want to, though. I just thought… I figured it might relax you. It helps Christopher when he's feeling particularly stressed or upset."

Eddie wasn't wrong. It was incredibly relaxing to have Eddie's hand casually running through his hair and he was warm and gentle, his thigh beneath Buck's head firm with muscle but also soft. But Buck feared closing his eyes because he was still afraid of what he might see, even being sprawled in Eddie's lap and knowing he was safe in his apartment. He hesitated, his gaze wandering around the ceiling and the corners of the room and his chest cramping with fears he hadn't voiced aloud for months.

"I couldn't save him," he admitted, avoiding Eddie's eyes looking at him and chewing his bottom lip until the pain gave him something else to focus on. "In my dreams or when I- When something happens, like today, it all just comes rushing back and hits me like a truck or a tsunami. And I should know, because I've been hit by both."

The joke fell flat in terms of making Eddie laugh but it did defuse a little of the nervous tension between them when Eddie tugged at his hair lightly.

"But it- it's not just the tsunami," he continued, fingers balling against his stomach and picking at the fabric of his shirt just for something to do when he felt like he'd have more success peeling the skin from his body. "I'll wake up sometimes after a nightmare of the truck on me, unable to feel my leg, and it'll take me a few minutes of feeling it and running my fingers over the scars to be certain it didn't get amputated. Or I'll be choking on my own blood, or sea water. And I-"

He struggled to breathe around the pain cinching around his neck, knotting in his throat, and he struggled to keep his eyes open because if he closed them, he knew what he'd see now that he was talking about it. Eddie's nails scraped lightly at his scalp, grounding him for a moment from the thoughts tugging him towards the abyss.

"I- I've attended so many versions of my own funeral, Eddie, and I've died in so many ways every time I close my eyes the past few months that I can't- After how close it felt in the elevator, and then you just leapt into the water today, everything just- I couldn't- It all came back, more real than any of the nightmares."

"Evan," Eddie breathed, horrified recognition leaking into his tone.

Even though he didn't want to, Buck closed his eyes so he didn't have to look up and see whatever Eddie's face was doing. White flowers danced on the edge of his vision, and his team dressed in black clothes, and Maddie dabbing a handkerchief to her eyes. He'd dreamt it so many times that it was startling how real it felt, like an actual memory rather than something he'd just imagined in the dead of night.

"I didn't realise it was so bad, man," Eddie said, fingers light against Buck's temple. "I'm- Shit, I'm so sorry for not shoving you against a locker and getting all of this out of you sooner."

"I'm not sure it would have made any difference. I haven't wanted to talk about it," Buck said with a weak, wobbly sort of smile. He refused to entertain the idea of being shoved against a locker by Eddie and how he'd probably just taunt the other man into hitting him so that a broken rib made him feel something again. "I still don't, for what it's worth."

Eddie hummed, curling his fingers through Buck's hair and twisting some of it between his thumb and index finger. "You know those sorts of nightmares aren't normal, right? That the panic attack you had on the call today isn't normal?"

His muscles tensed, his eyes flashing open to catch Eddie staring at him and his eyes were filled with that care and concerned thing again which Buck instinctively felt like he needed to reject, because he had made so many mistakes and endangered Eddie's son and that had to count for something, right? "It's not like everyone needs to know what's going on, Eddie."

"No, but…" Eddie frowned, thumb smoothing over Buck's temple and around his birthmark in a series of steady circles. "Most of the crew already know something is up after seeing you go to pieces by the pool. We've known for a while you haven't been okay because you haven't been eating with us and haven't been talking around the station, but after the lawsuit… Bobby thought you might need the space, that you might feel overwhelmed and push us away even further if we kept pushing you and asking if you were okay, so he… He said we should only intervene if we suspected you were being self-destructive and just…give you some time to process…"

Eddie paused and Buck had the awful feeling that the fear and the anger and the hurt had flickered in his face for a fleeting second but Eddie had seen it anyway. He didn't know what had given him away, or maybe something had crept into his eyes, but sure enough, Eddie's eyebrow rose in a silent question that made Buck's intestines twist into a figure-eight around his stomach.

"I haven't- I mean- I- I've probably drunk too much on the off-shift days but it's- I have it under control," he said, and even if he'd wanted to sound convincing, he knew he hadn't. He wasn't good at lying when Eddie was gazing at him, fingers smoothing through his hair.

Eddie hummed again but there was more disbelief this time than the last. "Like you've got your fear of water under control?"

"That's not- That's- That's different," Buck protested but Eddie was staring at him with absolutely no amusement and Buck knew his lies were as transparent as glass now that Eddie was starting to put all his feelings under the microscope, unearthing all the secrets he'd been trying to bury. "The water nearly killed me, and Christopher," Buck pointed out and Eddie flinched, like it was something he hated thinking about as much as Buck. Maybe how close Eddie had come to losing Christopher kept him awake at night too. He remembered overhearing Eddie talking to Maddie at a dinner Bobby had after the tsunami, before the lawsuit, where he'd told her he felt so guilty because he hadn't even realised they were missing. Buck had tried to pretend he hadn't heard it. Once the lawsuit happened, it seemed irrelevant.

"That tsunami was just- Eddie, I saw so many dead bodies, so many people swept away that I couldn't save, and I was with Christopher… And that was- You will never understand it. You might wake Chris up from his nightmares and you might talk with Bosko about it but it's… I can't explain it to you in ways you'll understand, and honestly I'm glad you'll never understand it because it- It's not something else you should have to deal with on top of everything else you've gone through." Buck glanced up at Eddie, at the mournful shimmer in his eyes, and he was definitely glad Eddie couldn't truly understand. "So drinking a bit is a…a way to block it out for a while when I get home from a shift, and that can help me sleep without waking up wondering if I still have all my limbs attached or why I'm not drowning anymore."

"And how has the alcohol and blocking it out been working out for you?"

Buck grimaced at the accusatory tone, pulling himself from Eddie's lap even though he was fairly sure he'd stay there as long as he could if anyone actually asked. But Eddie's question rankled his nerves because he refused to feel more ashamed than he already did. He was just trying to survive. He was just trying to keep living another day, putting distance between him and the disaster that nearly cost him his life until it no longer hurt so much.

"I don't need an intervention staged by our recovering Captain, Eddie. I'm not an alcoholic."

"Good, because I wasn't suggesting one. Yet." Eddie's hand clasped his shoulder, tugging him back into paying attention with the pain that flared through his awareness. "What I am suggesting is you start realising how deeply flawed your logic is because drinking so you can sleep is self-destructive, Buck."

Eddie's thumb pushed against a coil of tension beneath his skin and Buck shut his eyes, struggling to suck in a breath through all the emotions that Eddie kept making him feel with his words and his touches alongside how tender his skin was with the bruises. He'd spent so long trying to make himself immune to how Eddie's presence made him feel and now it felt like he was drowning in it again, wanting to press closer and at the same time needing to cloak himself in space to restore the boundaries he'd erected between them.

"And when you realise your logic is a mess, then we need to help you get over your fear of water. Or we need to help you stay sober on your days off so you can think straight when you're on shift rather than turning up still hungover. If you realise there are problems in what you're doing or how you're feeling, we can – and will – set up systems to support you. You know that," Eddie insisted, the amount of confidence infused in his words leaving no opportunity for Buck to try to argue against it. "The whole 118 would have your back, just like I have since I joined the 118. We save perfect strangers every time our alarms go off so you'd damn well better believe we'd all pitch in to save one of our own when we've all been hearing the alarms going off about his wellbeing."

Buck hadn't realised how badly his hands had started shaking during Eddie's speech – did it count as a tirade when Eddie was so calm and so assured? – until Eddie's hand shifted from his shoulder and down his arm, fingers curling loosely around Buck's wrist as the older man shifted closer behind him and held him in a slack sort of half-embrace.

"Please, Evan. Let us help," Eddie murmured against his ear as he hooked his chin over Buck's shoulder and Buck would later pretend that it was the use of his first name which got through to him, and not the way he felt safe and protected by Eddie holding him like that.

He managed a small nod and allowed Eddie's arms to fold around him in a stronger bear hug. Eddie's tactility had never surprised or bothered him – Eddie had a young son, after all – but it did feel like a lot when Buck still felt undeserving of the compassion and warmth. And especially when Buck had been avoiding getting too close to anyone for months. Distantly, he'd started believing he was cursed.

"So what do we do now?" Buck eventually asked, because Eddie stayed silent for too long and being held like this was rapidly becoming awkward when he had deeply buried feelings he knew Eddie didn't.

Eddie shrugged, making Buck's whole body move with the action too. "You find a movie or a TV show we can watch. In about an hour, we'll order pizza that doesn't have pineapples but might have mushrooms because Christopher's not here or we can call that Japanese place you like. And when it's finally time to get some rest, hopefully you'll feel relaxed enough knowing that people care about you that it keeps the nightmares away. And if not, I'll be here on the couch and can wake you up."

"You- What?" Buck said, blinking rapidly and glancing over his shoulder at Eddie sitting pressed against him with an incredibly nonchalant expression on his face. Eddie was going to sleep over?

"I told you Christopher is with Carla. I'm not leaving you tonight. Not after the panic attack today, not after you've finally started talking and I'm not convinced you'd be okay if I left after stirring up all those emotions and memories." Eddie squeezed him. "Opening up is scary and facing all the thoughts is difficult. You think I'd leave you alone with all that and expect you to sleep peacefully?"

"I- I don't know," Buck struggled to formulate a coherent thought because Eddie was staying over. Eddie was staying over. And Eddie might've woken him from a nightmare before, but it still wasn't something Buck particularly wanted his friend to witness again. It wasn't something he wanted anyone to witness, frankly. Once was easy to dismiss as an irregular event. Two no longer reeked of being an anomaly. "I don't want you to feel like you have to be here."

"Being here for you would never be something I feel forced into," Eddie assured, tilting his head until it bumped into Buck's. "Let me take care of you, Buck. Even if you say no, I'm not leaving you without a fight and I have a kid. I guarantee any stubbornness you want to attempt, so has he – and he always loses and so will you."

Buck huffed a small laugh despite how every cell in his body seemed to pulse with negativity and disgust, unwilling to allow Eddie to see him when he felt so low and lost and yet equally desperate not to feel alone anymore. "I really can't argue with you?"

"Not a chance," Eddie declared and Buck sighed, still filled with misgivings but relaxing into Eddie's grip. He didn't really have the energy to argue anyway.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 4,370
Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter contains a brief mention of a nightmare, discussions about destructive behaviours, and a range of pretty negative thought patterns. There's also some Google Translate'd Spanish, so I apologise for that in advance too.


He curled his body against the oncoming wave, mentally preparing for the smashing force of the water in the fractions of a second before it hit. His spine bowed under the weight and the stunning energy expelled whatever panicked air he'd absorbed into his lungs and even as he fought against the water that tried to yank his limbs in every direction, even as he tried to keep track of where the light was so he could find the surface again, even as he tried to keep his fingers gripped around Christopher's-

He slammed into something harder than concrete and his last gasp of air bubbled past his lips, and water trickled down his throat, and when his breathing hitched, more water entered his lungs until he started to feel it burn, and it started to weigh him down, and it was soaking his clothes, and cascading into his boots, and then he wasn't sure what was up or down anymore. Maybe this was it. Maybe after all his near-misses recently, this was how he finally died.

And it was painful, but it was oddly peaceful too. There was a roaring silence in his ears, and every other sense dulled as he sank, and yet floated, but then everything became darker and darker and-

"Evan."

He struggled against the arms on his shoulders, pinning him to something soft and bouncy, and his heart restarted in a racing gallop and his scrambled thoughts collapsed in on each other and he choked on his breathing and a sob when he realised there wasn't any water around him and he could actually inhale air.

"You're safe, Buck. You're in your bed. You're not drowning." Rough hands curved under his shoulders, heaving him into a sitting position and temporarily disorienting him as he flailed and his fingers connected with an arm or a face or a chest. "Hey, hey. C'mon, Evan. It's me. It's Eddie. You're okay, querido. Breathe for me."

Perhaps, more than anything, it was the Spanish that scattered the remaining bits of fog which lingered around his awareness. "Eddie?" he gasped, hands fisting into a soft t-shirt and his breathing stuttering as strong arms surrounded him, as warmth pressed against his chest where moments ago there had been cold water smothering him.

"Yeah, it's me. Just breathe, Buck," Eddie murmured, a hand cradling his head as Buck folded into Eddie's grasp and held on until he stopped shaking, until his lungs stopped aching, but then his hysteria gave way to shame and guilt and hatred and he had to- "Hey, it's okay. You don't-"

Buck shook his head, pulling away and wrapping his arms around his waist as he stood on wobbly legs and stared out the darkened window. How many hours had he scraped together for sleep this time? How long had Eddie been trying to wake him? Why couldn't he just get drunk until he passed out and slept somewhat dreamlessly?

"Talk to me," Eddie pleaded and Buck dropped his head, looking at his feet even though he could only see the faintest of outlines from the light that glowed from somewhere downstairs that Eddie must have turned on. "Buck, you- I could hear you struggling but when I got up here, you weren't breathing and I-"

"I wasn't breathing?" he whispered, rubbing a hand across his chest and feeling the skipping heartbeats pounding against his sternum. No wonder it hurt.

"You were just…writhing around in the sheets and making these…these godawful noises but it wasn't- I wouldn't call it breathing, exactly."

Buck inhaled, realising just how raw his throat felt as if for the first time. He wondered how many other times he'd stopped breathing in the middle of a nightmare, how many other times he'd been alone and choking with no one to wake him from the terror than enveloped him.

"Evan?"

"I w-was drowning," he said, voice trembling and husky. "I was drowning, again, and then I… I stopped fighting. I- I didn't- I didn't want to f-fight anymore." He rubbed at his chest again, scratching the fabric over his skin and trying to get his lungs to inflate normally and regularly. "Have you ever…?"

"Dreamt about dying?" Eddie asked when Buck trailed away, unable to put his thoughts into words. Buck made a small noise of affirmation and, behind him, Eddie exhaled with a soft sort of whistle between his teeth. Buck had heard him make the same noise before, usually when he was faced with a particularly difficult decision to make when they were on a call and he was weighing pros and cons. "I- I have, yes. After getting back from my tours, I… Some of what I saw left scars on my psyche, I guess. It's…been a while, though. Time has helped."

Buck sucked in a nervous breath and bit at his bottom lip until he felt strips of skin peel away and he could taste the metallic tang of blood on his tongue. "I- I'm so…tired, Eddie."

"I understand," Eddie said, gentle and slow and filled with knowledge that made Buck's knees tremble. The bed creaked as Eddie shifted and light filled the room with the illumination of the lamp on his bedside table. "What do you need, Evan? What helps?"

"Besides alcohol?"

"Besides that."

Buck shrugged, hating that his drawn shoulders and attempts to make himself smaller were on display now that the light was on. He wished he could just cover himself in an invisibility cloak and blink out of existence. "I don't know. I- I usually drink or I go for a run."

"A run?"

"Until… Until I can't breathe anymore," he mumbled, thinking of all the times he'd run until he thought his heart was going to explode out of his mouth and his leg burned with a reminder that he probably shouldn't have been running that hard, that far, on such firm surfaces after the crush injury.

"Is that- You haven't been eating well lately, have you?"

Buck shrugged again, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. "I eat when I'm hungry, or I have to, but I- It hasn't exactly been a priority. I haven't really had much of an appetite so I… I haven't paid as much attention to it."

"Shit, Buck. Haven't you realised you've lost weight?"

Buck glanced over his shoulder, brows rising as he met Eddie's eyes. Eddie just gazed at him, mouth slightly agape in surprise or shock. Buck wasn't sure.

"You haven't realised," Eddie repeated flatly, but it no longer sounded like a question, and he shook his head slowly as he rolled off the bed and got to his feet. "Buck, have you spoken to anyone about any of this?"

He rolled his eyes, turning slowly on the spot and crossing his arms over his chest. "Of course not. Please stop with the dad mode, Eddie. I don't need you to parent me."

"Don't get defensive with me," Eddie admonished, even as Buck felt his defensiveness rise because he hated feeling like he was being treated like a child. He'd left home almost a decade ago for a reason. "You've been running yourself into the ground, literally and physically. I thought- No, I don't know what I thought. I'm sorry I- I didn't realise how much you were struggling, Buck. I've been so caught up in so many other things lately and I- I'm sorry."

And now it was Buck's turn to stare in confusion as Eddie inched towards him. "It's not your fault."

"You said there was no reason to stay," Eddie said, echoing a comment Buck had spoken out of anger, and fear, and spite, and Buck felt his heart twist in his chest because Eddie was straying too close to all the deepest, darkest thoughts he usually had when he woke up from a nightmare without anyone around and he couldn't deal with that right now. He couldn't let Eddie see through all the masks he kept wearing at the station. "Why don't you see that you have a family who loves you?"

"Maddie has Chimney," he whispered, folding his arms over his chest and refusing to meet Eddie's eyes when he saw the frown that flickered across Eddie's face.

"And Hen? Bobby?"

"Karen and Athena," he parroted like it was obvious, teeth digging into his lip when he saw Eddie take another step towards him.

"Christopher?"

"Has you."

"And who do I have?"

Buck opened his mouth to say Eddie had Christopher before realising that he didn't want to be insensitive after Eddie had talked about losing Shannon and being afraid of losing Buck. Eddie caught his hesitation and paused, giving him the chance to process and answer, but Buck didn't have an answer that made sense because Eddie was his best friend, and maybe he was Eddie's best friend, but it suddenly occurred to him that he didn't really know much about the rest of Eddie's friends. Did he have other people he saw regularly? Did he have army buddies he caught up with? It was crushing to realise he didn't know his best friend as well as he would have liked and he hated how it left him feeling ill.

When it became clear he wasn't going to answer, or maybe that he couldn't find an answer, Eddie spoke again.

"Even if all those people have someone significant in their lives, you're still part of the family at the 118." Eddie gazed at him, head tilted as he watched Buck closely and Buck tried to keep his expression neutral as he stared at a point on the wall. "And even if you don't feel like you're a part of the 118 right now, you're still a part of my family, Evan. You matter to Christopher and me."

Staring at a point on the wall was pretty freaking hard when those sorts of statements started being said. "Eddie…"

"You're my best friend," Eddie continued, resuming his slow steps towards Buck, "and I didn't see how much you were struggling. But I do now and I- I'm here and I really want to help. So how can I help? What do you need?"

Buck really wished he knew but he'd been suppressing so many feelings so thoroughly, ignoring how alone and lonely he felt, that now he just felt lost. It had been so clear in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami that everyone had someone else, except him. Everyone had been around after his leg was crushed, and there'd been barbecues that he'd hobbled around at while he was in rehab, but then he'd had the clot and everyone had fussed around him again but with more wariness, more trepidation, like they were afraid he'd collapse on them again. It began to irritate him, frustrating him that they needed to handle him with kid gloves, because he was desperate to prove he could get back to work but he kept being told no.

And then the tsunami happened and everyone had closed ranks within their familial systems and – inadvertently or deliberately – shut him out. They'd all found comfort in their loved ones, reassuring themselves that everyone they cared about was safe. Even Maddie hadn't really checked on him as much as he might have expected because she'd been focused on Chimney. He'd collapsed at the VA hospital into Hen and Bobby and Chim's arms but they'd attached to Karen and Athena and Maddie, respectively. The cut on his arm had needed stitches, and the blood thinners had made terrible bruises linger beneath his skin for weeks afterwards, but somehow it was like they thought he'd just…keep moving forward.

And even though Eddie had kept leaving Christopher with him, even though Eddie had said he trusted Buck and even though Eddie kept yanking the sheets off his body to stir him out of bed, it hadn't felt the same between them after the tsunami. Maybe that was because Buck felt so much guilt and hatred and doubt that he was responsible for Christopher when Eddie went to work. After all, Christopher had been in such danger because of him and how could Eddie keep trusting him after that?

And then he'd levelled a lawsuit at the LAFD, and at Bobby personally, and he'd been told to keep his distance from everyone, and every relationship he'd had in the 118 had splintered into shards that sliced through his palms and had left scars criss-crossing his soul. Eddie shouting at him that he'd needed to be bailed out of jail had been the worst sort of pain because he could tell he was being replaced by Bosko, that she had become Eddie's new best friend and Buck was just some…some sort of babysitter for Eddie when he couldn't ask his family or Carla for help.

Even now, even after all the apologies and all the attempts to be on his best behaviour so that he could prove his worth and value to the team, it still felt like there were cracks that were waiting to be exploited. Sometimes he could almost remember the platform of broken glass he was floating on after the tsunami, and it felt like he was on it again with everyone else circling him, waiting for him to slip and fall and cut himself and bleed out before they offered any sort of help.

"Evan?" Eddie said, barely concealing the apprehension in his tone.

"I don't deserve it," he mumbled, looking away and scrunching his eyes when the unbidden thought escaped his lips because he couldn't bear to look at Eddie after saying that. After everything he'd done, after everything he'd put the team through though, he knew it was true. "I don't- I hurt all of the 118 but I especially hurt you. I wasn't there for you when you needed your best friend."

"No, you weren't, but I've forgiven you for that."

Buck shook his head, his breath catching in his sore lungs. "Shannon died and I wasn't there for you either."

"Your leg got crushed. I wasn't exactly there for you the way I would've wanted to be."

"And then Christopher could have died because of me."

"But he also lived because of you," Eddie insisted, his voice unwavering even when Buck could feel parts of his walls crumbling because why couldn't Eddie understand how much hurt he felt? Why couldn't Eddie just accept it was his fault? "He has told me how his Buck saved him more times than I can remember. You couldn't have predicted a tsunami would hit Los Angeles, for crying out loud."

"No, but-" Buck could feel his heart thudding in his chest and the sick churning in his stomach as he pressed his lips together, fighting the words that had tattooed themselves across his tongue because apparently all his self-loathing was willing to be displayed at some godawful hour of the night or early morning when they should both be exhausted from the shift and sleeping it all off and not peeling away almost all of Buck's deepest fears and insecurities.

"What?"

"No."

"Buck." Hands pressed against his cheeks, fingers settling under the line of his jaw again and drawing his eyes open until he was staring at the shadows covering half of Eddie's face and the intense darkness swirling within his worried brown eyes made Buck's breath catch. "What aren't you telling me?"

He felt so powerless, even though he was taller than Eddie, even though he was a firefighter and could lift someone like Eddie over his shoulder and carry him down several flights of stairs, even though he was an adult – or meant to be an adult – who could take care of himself. He looked at Eddie, at the way Eddie's eyes kept searching his and the slight furrow of his brow as if he could somehow read the words that kept dancing across Buck's thoughts but they were reversed, or inverted, and he couldn't really decode-

"If the bombing or the truck had killed me, or if I'd thrown the clot at home when none of you were around and hadn't been able to start CPR, then- then Chris never would have been at the pier that day. He never would have been in such danger because I- I wouldn't have been alive to take him there," he spat out, the words so sour on his tongue as tears pricked his eyes because the furrow between Eddie's brows parted and there was this devastating moment of realisation when Buck almost thought he could hear Eddie's heart crack in his chest. Terror twined around his soul because maybe Eddie would realise just how awful he felt and he'd report it to Bobby, and then Bobby would force Buck onto the sidelines again because a Captain couldn't allow him to be running into dangerous situations feeling like this. "And not being there when you needed me was- It's unforgivable what I did, what I was putting you through, when you needed someone so I- I don't deserve you being here now because it- it would only be fair that I- You just- You shouldn't-"

"Please s-stop," Eddie whispered, folding his arms around Buck's shoulders and releasing a sob somewhere against his neck while his fingers twisted into Buck's shirt, pulling the fabric taut against his skin. "Please, queridoNo puedo escuchar más de esto. I can't hear more of this."

"But-"

"No." Eddie shook his head and clung to Buck and it was only then that he realised how much Eddie was trembling. Almost unwillingly, still feeling entirely undeserving, he wrapped his arms around Eddie's torso and held the other man against him. "I told you I couldn't imagine telling Christopher you were gone and I had to-" Eddie released a shuddering breath that tickled across his neck. "Seeing you trapped under the truck was like all the guys I'd seen get blown up in their Humvees and end up trapped and bleeding out because we were taking fire and couldn't get them evac'd. And then you… You were collapsing into Bobby's arms and I just remember shouting at Karen to get Christopher inside while Hen and Chim and I were pushing everyone aside so we could switch CPR rotations and when I glanced up, I could see Bobby holding Maddie back while Athena was calling 911."

It was a part of the whole clot ordeal that Buck had never wanted to ask about. Now that he knew, he wasn't sure he wanted the mental images it conjured.

"When I saw you collapse into their arms after the tsunami, or when you radioed that that elevator was filling with water, or when you collapsed again yesterday, I just kept thinking that I-" Eddie gripped him tighter, sniffling against his shoulder and flexing his fingers against Buck's back as he clearly worked to keep himself together. "Buck, my son might be my whole world now that I… I've had to manage without Shannon and the thought of her in our lives, but you are an integral part of my world and his. Our lives wouldn't be better if you weren't in it."

Buck wanted to believe every word Eddie spoke. He was desperate to soak all the words into his skin until they washed away all the darkness and filth and grit that seemed to have seeped into his soul after the tsunami and been compounded by the lawsuit, but…he'd built up so many walls to his feelings that it was hard to believe any of it anymore. It had become too easy in those weeks of aborted attempts at contact to convince himself that he didn't really matter to anyone at the firehouse, not like how they mattered to him. They all had lives and families outside of the job and Buck… What did he have outside of them?

"Christopher needs you, Buck," Eddie said, pulling away and staring at Buck with eyes filled with unshed tears. "I need you, Evan. Okay? You don't have to believe me right now but I can't imagine my life without you in it. And I'll keep saying it every day if I have to, until you finally get tired of hearing it because you do believe it."

Buck wondered just how patient Eddie could be given that Buck tended to be irrational in tenuous situations. He could easily imagine Eddie pinning him down and hitting him repeatedly while chanting that he mattered, in some sort of morbid and faintly hysterical display of care.

Eddie held his gaze with an expectant arch of his eyebrow until Buck finally relented and gave a small nod, which made Eddie break into a grin filled with such joy that it rivalled some of the warmest and brightest grins Buck had ever seen on Christopher's face and he had a realisation of exactly where Chris had inherited his smile from. He tried to ignore how his heart stuttered in his chest at the smile and attempted to focus on anything else instead, like how Eddie's arms had loosened around him and his fingers had hooked around some of Buck's to tug him towards the bed.

"What are you-"

"Do you want me to leave you and go back downstairs?" Eddie paused, his happiness and determination of only moments ago melting into uncertainty. "I can-"

"No, it- I'm just- I haven't…had anyone stay with me for a…a while," he said, barely able to meet Eddie's eyes because he'd certainly never had a guy stay with him in this bed and he knew that before the lawsuit and the tsunami, he'd had some sort of feeling that had felt like more than just friendship. Feelings he knew that he'd never speak about because they'd never be returned.

"Then you tell me what you want or need and I'll do it," Eddie promised and after another moment of hesitation, Buck nodded and slid onto his mattress beside Eddie.

It was awkward, both lying on their backs and staring at the ceiling. There was too much silence. Their bodies were coiled with too much tension. The bedside lamp was still on.

"Are you tired?" he asked when he felt as though he'd been there for an hour in awkward stillness when it was probably less than five minutes.

"Are you?"

"Yeah, but…I'm afraid of more nightmares," he said, knowing the edges of his awareness were always crowded with the oncoming sensation of dying.

"That makes sense." Eddie rolled over and extinguished the light, but there was still a dim glow from downstairs which meant Buck could see the faintest outline of Eddie's shape. "Have you worked out anything that helps with the anxiety about sleeping?"

"No," Buck muttered, tracing the lines of shadows across the ceiling. "Only drinking."

"Hardly the healthiest of options," Eddie sadi thoughtfully, and Buck could imagine the faint teasing smile at the edge of his mouth. "C'mere."

"What?"

"Roll towards me and I'll hold you."

"You-"

"-don't have to but it's fine, I'm offering. Come on." Eddie's hand tapped at his chest and with no small amount of discomfort, Buck rolled onto his side and tentatively arranged himself near Eddie until the other man started more forcefully adjusting his limbs and he had his head against Eddie's collarbone, his arm slung over Eddie's belly. Eddie's arm wrapped around his shoulders, the other cradling his head and slowly smoothing fingers through his hair.

And it was…more soothing than he could even try to explain.

"This okay?"

Buck felt woefully out of his depth when, at some point almost a year ago, he might've imagined this happening. And then Shannon had shown up and-

He nodded and shifted slightly until he'd found the comfortable grooves of Eddie's body to lay within, closing his eyes when the bridge of Eddie's nose settled against his forehead. He could feel the soft puffs of Eddie's inhales and exhales tickling over his skin. He could feel the rise and fall of Eddie's stomach against the inside of his arm. He could hear the regular beat of Eddie's heart against his ear. And the fingers in his hair were dragging at his tenuous control.

"Breathe with me until everything starts to feel loose and heavy," Eddie murmured, his blunt nails against Buck's scalp almost making him ache with how much he'd missed having someone just hold him. It wasn't even about sex sometimes. He just needed to be held. He just needed the intimacy of being touched and cared for, and he'd been denying any sort of comfort since Ali broke up with him, since the bombing. Maybe even a bit before that. "Nice and easy, Buck. You're safe here. I'll keep you safe."

And Buck, as he started breathing in and breathing out in an effort to maintain a slow and peaceful drift to sleep, found it wasn't long before he became less and less aware of Eddie's gentle, soothing voice that gradually led to a darkness that wasn't so terrifying.


Eddie insisted he said nothing to the rest of the crew but there was no denying that Bobby put a slightly larger portion of food on Buck's plate than usual at their next shift, or that Hen sat on the couch next to him when he curled up to watch TV in their brief moments of down-time between calls and threaded her fingers through his hair and asked how he was doing, or that Chim wouldn't take no for an answer when he invited himself to one of Buck's dinner-dates with Maddie. They all started to…care, or at least they showed it, again, in a way that seemed too contrived for them not to have been tipped off by Eddie, at least in some way.

Bobby quietly slipped him a card for a therapist and said that any future calls involving water would see Buck assigned to some sort of job that kept him away from the liquid terror that threatened to consume him.

He couldn't tell if he was grateful for the care or frustrated to be handled like some sort of delicate flower.

Mostly he just wished awful things would stop happening.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 3,029
Warnings/Spoilers: No specific warnings for this chapter.


"Buck's here!" Hen shrieked, and he heard various echoing greetings that he responded to with a nervous wave as he descended the stairs of Bobby and Athena's place.

"Hey guys," he said, extending a pumpkin pie towards Bobby that was totally homemade and definitely not store-bought. He'd even broken off little bits of the crust, and put the pie on a plate and covered it in plastic to make it seem terrible and so therefore completely believable that he'd contributed something, anything, to the meal.

Bobby took one look at it, pursed his lips, met Buck's eyes and absolutely knew it was something he hadn't made himself. Even so, Bobby thanked him and gave him a one-armed hug.

"Glad you came, kid," Bobby murmured against his ear and if Buck squeezed back a little tighter, held on a little longer, so that he could swallow away the tears… Well…

"Buck!"

He released Bobby to turn to his favourite kid in the world. "Hey, buddy," he said, lifting Christopher into a hug and squeezing the giggling kid against him, nuzzling into the wavering hand that patted his cheek and kissing the palm. "How are you?"

"I'm hungry," Chris said, making Bobby chuckle as he turned back to the kitchen with the pie.

Buck bounced Chris lightly on his hip. "You know you never leave these things hungry though, right? Bobby wouldn't let you be hungry."

"Yeah, I know but I gotta wait. Dad wouldn't even let me have a snack after lunch," Chris pouted.

The mention of Eddie made Buck cast his eyes around the room, finding Eddie watching them with a smile that he covered up with a mouthful of beer. "I'd offer to sneak you something from the kitchen but I don't want to get into trouble with your Dad," Buck said, shifting carefully through the various people milling around in search of the drinks table. "He can be pretty scary."

"Dad's not scary!" Christopher protested, arms winding tighter around Buck's neck as they moved in an effort to avoid being dropped. "Dad loves us too much to be scary to us."

The casual use of the 'l' word nearly made Buck drop the kid.

"Uh… Y-Yeah." He lowered Chris to the floor and reached for a bottle of beer to hide how his fingers trembled. "Do you want something, champ? A soda? Juice?"

"I'm okay," Chris said, bumping into his leg. "I'm happy you're here, though."

Buck felt as though his brain had short-circuited with Christopher's previous words. He ran his fingers absently through Chris' curls and shot him a smile. "I am too, kiddo."

Christopher's beaming smile outshone the sun as he wandered away, attaching himself to Denny and Harry playing video games in the corner while May routinely rolled her eyes and tried to point out a better way to earn a higher score to her brother, who apparently didn't want to listen to her.

"Glad you made it." Hen sidled up to him and bumped her hip into his as she reached for a fresh drink. "We were starting to think you didn't love us anymore."

And Buck really needed people to stop saying things like 'love' that poked at the sore spots on his heart.

"How could I ever stop loving you?" He wrapped a loose arm around her shoulders and twirled them to face the gathered group that were gathered in different comfy locations around Bobby and Athena's living room. "This madhouse is the only place I fit in."

She jabbed at his chest, a grin tugging at the edge of her lips. "Don't say that too loud. Athena might arrest you."

His eyes widened in mock horror and she laughed, shaking out of his arm to return to Karen's side like the other half of a magnet.

For a moment, he just sort of…surveyed the group and wondered when it had started to feel a little easier to be in their presence. Certainly after he'd unveiled the scarred bits of his soul to Eddie, but it was more than that. He'd been around to Bobby and Athena's plenty of times and felt like he was on the outside of everything. There were jokes that must have started at the station when he was in rehab which had been brought to the dinner, and he hadn't understood. There were comments between Maddie and Chim that exposed how much time they truly spent around each other, making him realise how his sister was growing away from him again. There were started questions and finished answers between Eddie and Hem that betrayed the number of playdates Chris and Denny had been having, which Buck couldn't begrudge but still left him feeling like he didn't belong.

But this time just felt…different.

"Hey." He blinked, managing something resembling a smile as Eddie's elbow brushed against his when the other man reached for a fresh drink. "You doing okay?"

He didn't have a perfect answer. He knew it wasn't that easy. He'd had another restless night and texted Eddie in the middle of it, needing to just reach out to someone to keep the darkness at bay. He wasn't surprised when he hadn't gotten an immediate response but he was grateful for the bleary-eyed photo of a smiling Christopher when his alarm had gone off that morning.

"I'll get there," he replied, letting Eddie draw him away from the drinks table and over to where Maddie, Chim and Athena were having a spirited discussion about the best holiday movies.

"Back me up here, Ev," Maddie said, looping her arm around his elbow. "It's absolutely Jingle All The Way."

"Please tell me you have better tastes in movies than your sister otherwise I'm judging your whole family," Athena said with a grin.

"I mean…" Buck looked between Maddie's hopeful grin and Athena's raised eyebrow and Chim's furious attempt to avoid laughing. "It definitely reminds me of the holidays, for better or worse."

"That is so not backing me up. Sibling privileges revoked!" Maddie announced and he pressed his lips together around a smile and sipped his beer. "Besides, Arnold in Kindergarten Cop? A classic for the ages!"


"So I think after everything that the house has gone through this year, I'm going to make a very cheesy declaration and request we say what we're thankful for," Bobby said, drawing a few muttered groans from various participants at the table who were summarily silenced with a filthy glare from Athena.

Hen went first, volunteering how grateful she was for Karen and their attempts at a baby and Denny for putting up with the mood swings of two mothers. It drew plenty of laughs, even as Denny ducked his head.

Karen retorted that she was grateful for Hen jabbing her in the ass with the hormone injections which led to a whoop from Athena. Denny looked like he wanted to melt under the table.

"I'm thankful for finding a really great guy," Maddie said, eyes glittering with tears or maybe just catching the reflection from the outside lights as she reached for Chim's hand beside her.

"I'm thankful she even sees me as a great guy," Chim joked, earning him a swat to the back of his head. Buck pretended to gag, which made Maddie raise her hand towards him, but Denny laughed.

"I'm thankful I get to eat soon," Chris said and Buck started laughing at the scandalised look on Eddie's face as his head swivelled to look at Christopher between them.

"That's the best you can come up with?" Eddie demanded and Chris shrugged, a small pout forming on his bottom lip, as he gestured towards the enormous amounts of food covering the table.

"I'm hungry."

Everyone else started laughing at that and Buck did his best to discretely wipe the tears from his eyes, even as Maddie nudged his foot beneath the table and sent a gentle smile his way.

"I'm grateful for having three parents this year," Harry said, somewhat shy as he glanced from Athena, to Michael, to Bobby. Athena gave a smile that was a bit wobbly around the edges as she reached a hand to her right for Bobby and left for Michael.

"I'm thankful to still have this hungry little caterpillar keeping me busy," Eddie said, scratching his fingers through Christopher's hair even as he looked over the top of his head at Buck with a very serious look that made the implications behind his words clear.

May said something about finalising her college essay topic, at last, and Denny mumbled something about his mothers and hoping for a new sibling, and Michael said he was thankful for Bobby bringing the light back to Athena's smile that led to a small 'aww' from her.

Buck was still mulling over Eddie's words, the warmth that had been within his tone and his eyes spilling into Buck's heart. As much as Eddie was thankful for Chris' life, he was thankful to Buck for saving it. Buck wondered if anyone else at the table had recognised the depth behind Eddie's words or if that was a secret only he had understood. He had to keep biting his lip when he thought about what it would be like to share secrets with Eddie in the company of everyone they knew.

"Buck?"

He zoned back in and realised everyone was staring at him with the weight of expectation that meant it had to be his turn and…he still didn't have anything.

He flushed, his face overheating as his eyes darted between Maddie and Eddie and Chris and Bobby.

"I… Uh…" Swallowing in an attempt to dislodge the nerves that crept into his throat, he managed a shaky sort of smile. "I'm thankful to…to be able to call you guys my family," he said, eyes lowering to his empty plate.

Maddie's ankle hooked around his beneath the table, her toes rubbing up the inside of his calf. He peered up at her and she had that soft little smile on her face again, the one she wore when he surprised her but made her inordinately pleased. She understood what it meant to have found the 118 as his – their – family. She understood how much having a family again meant to him.

He felt Christopher's head bump into his arm and he glanced down, meeting the kid's bright grin with one of his own. Chris was easily the light of his life and days, and he wasn't ashamed to admit that to anyone who asked.

"Thank you all for sharing," Bobby said and Buck raised his eyes to look towards the Captain, except then he met Eddie's eyes instead and he forgot what it was to breathe. The intensity behind Eddie's gaze, the slight sheen the sparkled under the fairy lights… He wasn't sure what it was that he'd said which made Eddie look at him like that but whatever it was, he needed to either figure it out to get the look more often or to never get it again so he could concentrate and avoid his face feeling overheated. "I- I wanted to say I'm thankful that you're all still here this year but I think that sounds too much like I'm copying Buck."

There were a few chuckles around the table and it broke whatever spell Eddie had cast over him, drawing a nervous smile to Buck's lips as he looked away and found the white ceramic plate in front of him very interesting.

"So I guess I'll just say I'm thankful we're all here, able to enjoy all this food that I'm sure Christopher is very keen to start-"

"Yep!"

"-so let's get into it."

Christopher cheered and everyone, even Buck, laughed at him.

Conversation settled around them all and Buck exchanged words with Maddie when she prodded him to participate, and passed plates back and forth with Eddie to ensure Chris got everything on offer, and felt lulled with a sort of peace that he hadn't felt since probably Christmas last year, before everything had gone to hell with Maddie and Doug, and Eddie and Shannon, and then his leg, and the clot, and the tsunami, and the-

"Buck?"

He blinked and looked down at Christopher hugging his legs, cupping his hand around the curly head of hair. Once the plates had been scraped and stacked for washing, everyone had started milling around and saying farewells and he'd gotten lost in his thoughts. Again.

"Yeah, bud?"

"You wanna come to the aquarium with Dad and me on Sunday?"

His breath caught in his lungs as he peered down at the kid, then looked across to where Eddie was chatting with Hen and Chim and laughing at something Chim had just said, head thrown back and the corner of his eyes creased with amusement. His heart did a jolt and he knew he was smiling too, which he really needed to get rid of before anyone else caught him staring. Like Eddie.

"Does your father know you're inviting me?" he said, crouching by Christopher and wrapping an arm around his back, tucking the kid into his side.

"He won't care," Chris said with a determined nod and tiny pout. "He likes you hanging out with us."

His heart skipped a beat. "Does he?"

"Yup. So you'll come?"

And when Chris asked like that… Who was he to say no?

Eddie wrapped him into a hug before he left that nearly made Buck never want to let go.

"I'm thankful we still have you, Evan," Eddie whispered into his ear, squeezing him tightly. "I'm grateful you're part of my family with Chris."

And Buck…really didn't know what to do with all the feelings that kept leaping around his chest and invaded his stomach.


It hadn't dawned on him, or Eddie, that going to the aquarium with Christopher might be a problem until after they'd paid and descended three steps. Chris was squealing in Eddie's arms as he swung between their arms, and then it hit Buck like a bolt of lightning that he was literally surrounded by water. The glass could crack and then the wave of water would hit him and there'd be shards of glass floating around him and he'd be consumed by the water and-

Eddie found him huddled against a wall several minutes later, grasping at his shirt and struggling to inhale while cursing himself for his stupidity not to think about the issue of water and being underneath it.

Eddie had promised to bring Chris some other time and then they'd gone to a park, watching Chris feed some ducks and make friends with kids on the play equipment like the disruption to his planned excursion wasn't a problem.

Eddie had refused to let him go home to his apartment that night and so they'd shared a bed for the second time in as many weeks, which was as comforting as the first time. Sleeping over regularly was impossible because someone had to look after Christopher, or they were on a shift, or they both needed some space after a tough shift, but Eddie had definitely been texting him more often and frequently called after tucking Christopher into bed, and they'd just talk about…anything, really, until Buck's eyes began to close and he'd drift into an uneasy sleep. It helped him get better rest than when he'd been alone and anxious about sleeping, but it wasn't as good as actually having Eddie's warmth surround him.

Maybe that was why he was so unprepared when he awoke with a start, clawing at sheets and pillows and fabric and whatever thing was holding his shoulders and stopping him from getting out of the bed and moving around to put space between him and the mattress. He could still taste salt in his throat, could still feel the force of the water buffeting him in different directions, could still feel his eyes burning and blood seeping down his cheek.

It took far too long before Eddie's voice started to filter into his awareness. There were fingers moving through his hair, a hand cradling the back of his neck, and some sort of soft Spanish song that might've been a lullaby when he began to comprehend it had just been another nightmare and he wasn't really back in the whirlpool of water. And then he was crumpling into tears, hands clenching into the fabric of Eddie's t-shirt as he sobbed apologies for losing Christopher and putting him in harm's way.

"Buck, you kept him safe," Eddie kept murmuring, keeping Buck somewhat awkwardly held in his lap. "You saved him, remember? You got him away from the pier and you brought him back to me."

"N-No. I lost him and the w-woman-"

"Took care of him while you searched the city," Eddie finished, patient and calm and steady and reassuring. "He's in bed and he'll be awake in the morning demanding waffles or scattering cereal over the table, just like always. He's safe, you're safe. Just breathe, Evan."

He cried until he was exhausted, even more exhausted than when he'd followed Eddie into the room and crawled into his arms to sleep. But, tired as he was, he still dragged himself out of the bed to see Christopher. In the small glow of the nightlight, Buck could see his tiny body beneath the blankets and he could hear his breathy, snuffling inhales and exhales.

"See?" Eddie whispered, arms curving around Buck's waist, hands settling across his stomach, chin hooking over his shoulder to peer into the room too. "He's okay. He's safe and alive and right here."

Buck wasn't sure how long he listened to Chris sleep but by the time he let Eddie lead him back to the bed, he felt calmer and was more willing to accept the comforting embrace as fingers trailed aimless patterns over his back.

Honestly, Buck really hated how many times he kept disintegrating in the middle of the night when he was around Eddie. It almost made him not want to have their little sleepovers just so he could hide what went on in his head better.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 5,815
Warnings/Spoilers: This chapter refers to alcohol abuse, descriptions of injuries as a result of violence, and includes a discussion about veteran suicide statistics.


When they weren't on-shift and Christopher was at school and Buck couldn't stand being idle because being idle meant he started thinking and once he started thinking – well, it was just better to not have the time to think – Eddie started turning up at his apartment. Ostensibly, it was to teach Buck how to cook more dishes because Bobby was the best chef in the house and Buck, by far, was the worst.

"It's because my parents never taught me," he protested, almost a week after the aborted attempt at visiting the aquarium. Eddie shook his head at Buck's miserable effort at peeling carrots upside-down and back-to-front and what did it even matter as long as the carrots were peeled?

"Yes, I do believe we established they were less than stellar considering how quickly you and Maddie both left after graduating high school," Eddie pointed out, reaching for a knife to dice the potatoes. "You don't really talk about them much, though."

Buck frowned, focusing on the carrots so his hand didn't slip and then he sliced his hand open because wouldn't that just be perfect. He might've stopped the blood thinners but that didn't mean he didn't still bleed a lot and he hardly needed his apartment to turn into something out of a horror movie. "What's there to say? Our mother was a ghost and our father was a monster. It's a wonder Maddie and I aren't werewolves or vampires."

"A menagerie of horror?"

Like everything Buck never wanted to talk about, he sought the deflection instead. "Hm. Not like that call to the Haunted House on Halloween. They needed to tone down the tomato sauce."

Eddie snorted, tossing the cubed potato into a pot and dousing them in water. "So your father-?"

Buck paused, lowering the peeler to the chopping board. It really would be too easy to injure himself talking about stuff like this. Stuff he kept even more buried than how he felt after the tsunami, stuff he kept even more buried than his feelings for Eddie. And it was buried for many reasons but one of the key reasons was Maddie. He didn't know what she'd told Chimney and he wasn't about to start talking now in ways which might affect her. And if Eddie was going to keep pushing, the Buck was going to say something he'd regret.

"Is there a point to all this dredging?" he said, his voice tight as he stared at the half-peeled carrots with a venom he hadn't expected.

Eddie must have realised he hadn't really been joking before because the pot settled against the counter a little too loud. "I- No, I just-"

"Then can we please talk about something else," Buck requested and it was clear from his tone it wasn't a question.

Eddie complied after a pause of undeniable awkwardness where Buck tried to breathe past the barrage of memories that even mentioning his father brought upon him. He switched to some new TV show he'd started watching that Christopher was enjoying, but there was an uncomfortable tension that lingered in Buck's shoulders long after Eddie had left to collect Christopher from school and he didn't answer Eddie's call that night when he saw the name flash across his phone.

The description of his father as a monster was, perhaps, harsh in hindsight. He wasn't like Doug, but he did use his words and those words were still seared into Buck's thoughts and his memories and his anxieties. The mention of his mother as a ghost was accurate enough, though. Buck was pretty sure he'd made national news after the truck incident and she hadn't gotten in touch to check on him. Neither of them had. He wasn't even sure if they knew Maddie had killed Doug, and the more he thought about them, and how absent they were from his life – by choice, by request, by demand? He wasn't even sure anymore – the louder the whispers in his head got. He could hear the gruff voice of his father's disappointment, the sneer in his tone, and Buck couldn't focus, couldn't think, couldn't breathe because he so carefully kept all those hidden away. He wanted to tear at his hair and scream because it wasn't meant to be like this when he was awake. It wasn't meant to be like this after he'd hung out with Eddie.

He ignored whatever meal Eddie had been teaching him to make and scavenged through his fridge instead, deciding a liquid dinner was the best way to silence the noise. Maybe that was why he belatedly realised he couldn't feel his fingers and his eyelashes kept tickling his skin every time he blinked. There were four beers on his coffee table – at least, he thought there were four, there might've been eight – and he'd lost count of how many tequila shots he had when he'd stopped using a shot glass after the second. But his attention kept wandering back to his eyelashes and how irritating they were and he almost considered pulling each one out, but that hurt and his head hurt and why was there all that knocking at the door? Wouldn't someone let his neighbour in?

"Evan, let me in."

Oh. Someone wanted him?

He stumbled to his feet and staggered to the front door, leaning heavily against the frame as he surveyed the small bundle of brunette annoyance that was his older sister.

"What the hell, Buck?" she said, poking at his chest while he blinked dumbly at her. "You're drunk?"

He shrugged, waving his latest bottle around and wondering which version of Maddie he was meant to be looking at when there were several drifting in and out of focus in front of him. "I'm getting there."

"Jesus," she muttered, swiping the beer bottle from his swaying hand and swallowing a mouthful. He almost complained about the loss but she glared at him so fiercely that he held off. Barely. "Time to get you to bed, then. Come on. You need to sleep this off."

"You're not my mom," he whined with a pout while she pushed him in the direction of his stairs – which seemed like a somewhat dangerous proposition, all things considered, when even walking in a straight line gave him fits of the giggles.

"No, I'm not. And you're not our father," she snapped and after all the memories he'd had funnelling through him for hours, spinning him into tighter and tighter circles, he couldn't help the flinch. Some of the expression in her face softened as she closed her free hand around his cheek. "Get your ass into bed and sleep this off, alright? I need you to be okay, Ev. I need my little brother to be okay."

He looked at her, tracing the miserable downturn of her lips and the curve of her eyebrows above sparkling eyes. "I'm okay, Mads."

The disbelief and doubt in her eyes were clear. "No, you're not, brother bear. Now get to bed."

If anyone ever wondered whether stubbornness was a Buck-thing or a Buckley-thing, they need only have had Buck and Maddie in the same room to realise it was undeniably genetic.

Buck allowed himself to be poked and prodded up the stairs to collapse into his bed, face first. Maddie's hands shifted him until he was on his side and she could shove a pillow under his head. Her fingers stroked through his hair for only a few minutes, helping to quell the flashes of harsh voices and angry words, before he started to feel consumed by the pull of sleep.

The following morning, he wished he had a cure for the hangover that pounded through his head.

Maddie's smug and satisfied grin over her mug of coffee hardly helped.


It was difficult to meet Eddie's eyes when Buck still had all the tangled thoughts and memories of his parents tugging at the edges of his alertness. It created an unsettling tension between them which didn't really affect their work – Buck still responded to calls and had a tendency to know what Eddie was going to request before he actually asked – but it certainly affected their off-shift hangouts because Buck became more conscious of what he said or when he brushed too close against topics he didn't want to discuss.

It could've been easy. Buck could've just spat out information about his family, explained that his mother was rarely around or that nothing had ever been good enough for his father, but he had to consider Maddie as well. He had to think about what she wanted shared, because he knew she'd copped a lot when she'd decided to run off with Doug.

Sometimes he just put his head in his hands and wondered why, of all the many men in Los Angeles, his sister had to date someone in his house.

One week slipped into two before Buck realised Eddie hadn't asked him anything – any questions, including how he'd slept or what he'd had for breakfast. Once Buck realised that small, relatively inconsequential detail, it just seemed to make everything more awkward because he knew it was his fault that he'd retreated into his own world of secret feelings and painful heartaches again.

He'd watched Eddie walk around the station a couple of shifts ago, physically present but with an emotional distance in his eyes and wondered how he was meant to fix that when he could barely find the words to say something casual between them. He'd even looked towards Bobby to determine if the Captain had realised Eddie seemed off or whether it was just Buck that was misreading everything, but Bobby hadn't met his eyes and didn't seem to be watching Eddie with a curious or puzzled frown so maybe it was just Buck's imagination.

He did know that the odd, lingering bruises he'd glimpsed near Eddie's wrists or across his knuckles last shift hadn't been his imagination though, and he'd overheard Chim ask about the bruise on Eddie's shoulder when they'd been changing and Eddie say something about getting hit by Christopher's crutches. It sounded strange, his voice working around words that made Buck doubt him, but what was he meant to say? What was he meant to do? He longed to reach out, to close his hands around Eddie's and plead with him to take more care when he was hitting the bag because those hands were needed on a call. He wanted to tell Eddie to be more careful when he played with his son so that he didn't wince when he strapped an oxygen tank to his shoulder and didn't press his lips together into a white line when he lifted a vic into the ambulance.

But admitting any of his observations by approaching Bobby meant revealing how closely he monitored Eddie and perhaps how well he knew his partner because of all their off-shift time together trying to smooth the many wrinkles and heal the many breaks created by the lawsuit, and a series of near-death experiences. No one would understand why it mattered to Buck so much why they weren't talking anymore. No one would understand why Eddie's presence in his life mattered so much. No one would understand why shutting down talk about his parents had created this latest rift between them. Mostly because Buck couldn't even answer of the questions he knew they'd have. He just knew something wasn't right in his gut, the same way that he reacted during some calls.

He also knew, as he nursed his second beer on his thigh, that he probably should discuss with Bobby about the fuzzy line between drinking recreationally and drinking to escape his own thoughts. He was loathe to admit to anyone that it was becoming a regular thing to have a few drinks each night and it wasn't as though he was routinely getting drunk, or that Maddie was showing up pissed off at him and throwing bottles in his recycling container, but…he still had the uncomfortable feeling that he was heading towards a line that he was no longer afraid of putting a foot over.

He twirled the therapist's card that Bobby had given him between his fingers, the phone number surely imprinted on his retinas for the rest of his life now. He hadn't had mustered up the guts to call though. He didn't want to open up to anyone about anything. After he'd Googled questionnaires for post-traumatic stress disorder to start self-diagnosing, much like with the sex addiction, he'd found one of the first questions had been identifying 'an event' or 'the event'. It had been…unnerving, for lack of a better word. He had to identify one event as though he hadn't gone through multiple events.

And…maybe that should have been sign that kicked him up the ass to call the therapist listed on the card but…he'd still procrastinated it. It was one thing to try and acknowledge that what he'd been through during the year was 'traumatic', that it had left its marks on him. It was another thing entirely to start talking about it.

There was a knock at the door and he sighed, flicking the card towards the coffee table. It skated through the air while he padded to and unlocked the door.

And blinked as he surveyed a very-defeated looking Eddie Diaz on his doorstep.

"Hello?"

"Hi." Eddie's eyes wandered past Buck's head, like they'd been doing for a fortnight. It was almost enough to slam the door in his face. "I, uh… I wondered if you wanted company."

Buck held up his bottle with an arched eyebrow. "Who needs company when you're already hanging out with your best friend."

It was a low blow, and Eddie's undisguised flinch confirmed it.

"So if that was all-"

"I nearly killed someone," Eddie said, his foot jamming inside the door. Except Buck was frozen in wide-eyed shock at the blunt confession and hadn't even considered moving. "I- Cap's given me a couple of shifts off to…sort myself out but I… I felt like I owed you an explanation."

Buck blinked several more times before standing aside and letting Eddie enter the apartment. It felt like a conversation that required another beer – or ten – so he sauntered to the kitchen and collected another two bottles, one of which he gave to Eddie. Eddie fiddled with the neck of the bottle as he fell into step behind Buck, who returned to the couch and folded one leg beneath him as he turned expectant eyes on Eddie.

"I've been…fighting," Eddie said, standing with more discomfort and tension than Buck could ever recall. "Letting off steam, you know? I've been feeling so…so angry and…so many things, I guess, and it just- It was helping."

Buck swallowed a mouthful of beer, conscious of the fact Eddie hadn't even popped the cap of his yet because he seemed more interested in fidgeting with it. Drinking at least gave Buck something to do with his hands and his mouth so he didn't say something stupid that would upset or enrage Eddie and make him shut down. Or worse: leave.

"But, uh… I got put on a fight card and it went too far and…I broke the guy's nose so badly some of the cartilage lodged in his brain," Eddie said in a rush, words blending together and taking Buck an extra few beats to process and separate and then process again.

"You what?" he eventually managed in something that sounded disturbingly like a squeak.

"I called 911. Lena's crew arrived and took him to the ER. And then she and her Captain got in touch with Bobby and he's…" Eddie shook his head, staring at some faraway point on the wall. "I suppose he's disappointed? It feels like so many of us in the house are barely holding it together but I've been trying so hard to stay in control and yet maybe everyone is just covering it up, you know? And I just- I've been an awful friend to you lately, I know that, and I'm sorry. Because I let my shit get in the way of being your friend and-"

"Have you gotten hurt?" Buck said, realising as he listened to Eddie that the last thing he wanted or needed was an apology or Eddie's guilt and shame pressing on his shoulders and dragging him under too. All he was understanding was that Eddie was about as okay as Buck.

Which was to say – Eddie was barely okay at all.

Good to know.

"Bruises and scrapes," Eddie shrugged, like it really didn't matter.

Only it did. Because suddenly the 'rough-housing' with Christopher comment from weeks, months, ago took on a whole new dimension, a whole new lie that Buck wanted to yell about because how many times had Eddie shown up at his place with bruises and scrapes beneath his Henley or his jacket, determined to comfort Buck when it was Eddie that was falling apart? How many times had Eddie crushed down how he was feeling while encouraging Buck to open up?

Hypocrite.

He wanted to yell about it but, instead, with his heart in his mouth, Buck swallowed his fury and hurt and anxiety as best as he could. "Show me."

"Buck-"

"Let me check you over."

"You think I can't do my own job?"

Buck fixed Eddie with a glare that allowed no argument. "Try me, Diaz. I dare you."

Eddie looked like he was trying to come up with an argument, any argument, that would get him out of the situation he'd walked into but Buck was absolutely not budging. With a sigh, Eddie relented by depositing his untouched beer on the coffee table near the white business card. Buck wondered if he should pass it onto Eddie. Rolling his eyes, lips squashing together, Eddie tugged the red flannel shirt over his head. Buck bit his lip hard enough to bleed so he didn't react to the rainbow blossoms of angry colours that decorated Eddie's torso but even so…

"Eddie, what the fuck?" he breathed, his beer clattering to the table as he stood to get a closer look.

Eddie twitched when Buck's feather-light fingers skimmed the darkest patches of red and purple and black on Eddie's ribcage and stomach, reminding Buck faintly of the bruises that had covered him after the tsunami. He could feel Eddie tense when he got close to the silver streaks of scars that were stark against the mottled colours, healed scars from battles long ago. He wished he had the balls to ask but he suspected Eddie would never tell him. These injuries were… God, how many fucking times had he come over and been injured?

"These look…really bad, Eddie," he murmured, thumb smoothing along the patchy bloom on Eddie's collarbone while deliberately ignoring the way Eddie was gazing at him and the shallow way his chest was heaving. This was just Buck checking out injuries, not itemising muscles and scars. "Are you sure you haven't broken a bone or damaged a lung or something?"

"I'd be in the hospital with a chest tube if I had a busted lung," Eddie pointed out but Buck hardly listened to the pathetic excuse, tracing bruises and identifying the oldest and the newest, and the various stages of healing for each. With a hand on Eddie's shoulder, Buck moved to examine his back, identifying scratches from too-sharp nails on his shoulder blades and more uneven circles of sickening colour. It was clear this fighting thing was seriously bad news. There were other old scars on his back too. When his fingers passed over them, he pretended he didn't notice how Eddie's shoulders trembled and his exhales turned shaky.

"You're going to stop now, right?" Buck mumbled, fingers dragging over a streak of a bruise snaking from the knob of Eddie's spine to the wings of his shoulder blades. He didn't even want to imagine how Eddie had gotten that one.

"Now that Cap knows, I don't think I have a choice."

"Oh, thanks."

"No, I just meant-" Eddie sighed, pulling away from Buck so he could tug his shirt on again. Buck pretended not to notice the flex in Eddie's muscles and the pained hiss that escaped his lips. And then he turned, meeting Buck's eyes properly for the first time in weeks. "Cap knows, so it'll be a whole thing with him that maybe he'll clue the others into, or maybe he won't. Either way, I won't be able to fight again. He'll keep tabs on me."

"Pity," Buck said with absolutely no pity in his voice because it was taking a lot of his own willpower not to hit Eddie himself for his stupidity. "Why didn't you just come and talk to me?"

"You've had your own stuff going on and I-"

"That doesn't mean I'm not here. I thought I was your friend."

"You are, I just-" Eddie frowned, eyes skipping over Buck's face. "You can't deny it's been different between us lately. And not all of that is on me."

Buck pressed his lips together so tightly to avoid exploding that it hurt. He was almost certainly scowling and he didn't care. Scooping up his bottle of beer, he almost hurled himself back onto the couch and glowered at the label until the words blurred behind his red-tinted vision.

"Buck?"

"You came here," Buck said, unable or unwilling to disguise his anger, and bitterness, and frustration, and hurt. "So if you've finished absolving yourself of your guilt or providing an explanation for what you do in your own time, then-"

"That's not what this is."

"Isn't it?" Buck retorted, his glare shifting to Eddie over the rim of his bottle. "You nearly kill a guy. You're getting beaten half to death. You get pissed at me for not talking about some nightmares but then you're doing that."

"I-" Eddie rubbed a hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I know it's not my finest moment but-"

"Did you ever stop to think about if you had broken a rib which pierced a lung and no one at your fight club knew how to deal with it?" Buck was glad he had a glass bottle because his fingers were curled so tightly he would have crushed a can until the metal cut through his hand. Even so, he wondered if it was possible to shatter the glass. "Did you ever stop to think about what would have happened if some guy broke your nose so badly that cartilage lodged in your brain?"

"I know I-"

"Did you ever stop to think about what would have happened to Christopher if something had happened to you?" he continued, and that finally seemed to have some sort of effect on Eddie because his whole face changed and his shoulders slumped. "I don't matter to anyone, Eddie. I don't have anyone dependent on me but you do. That kid needs you. He adores you. And if something had happened to you, what would have happened then?"

Eddie's gaze lowered to his feet. "It was good money."

"You were gambling with your life, and with Christopher's happiness, when he's been through enough torment this year." Buck shook his head, swallowing a few mouthfuls of beer and wishing he could swap it for tequila and get drunk faster to block out this entire conversation ever occurred. "I'm allowed to be angry about that."

"I know," Eddie agreed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and scratching the back of his neck. "I'm sorry, Buck. I know it was stupid."

"It really was."

Buck stared at Eddie for several more minutes before realising the anger that had burned within him came from a place of fear and worry that after everything Buck had been forced to go through, Eddie was actually voluntarily getting into situations that compromised his life. And Buck couldn't afford to lose Eddie. Whatever Eddie had gotten involved in, how badly he could have gotten hurt, was terrifying because it was something out of both of their controls and he could've lost Eddie and Buck hadn't even realised he was struggling. With a frustrated sigh, he patted the spot on the couch beside him.

"Come. Sit. Drink. Talk. In whatever order you wish."

Eddie peered at him. "You sure?"

"I'm not forgiving you that quickly," Buck acknowledged, quirking one eyebrow, "but you've put yourself through enough hell lately and I'm not going to add to that right now. So yes, sit. Don't drink and don't talk if you want but…you came here for a reason, Eddie."

"I- Yeah…" Eddie sat, the arch of his spine clearly still bowed with tension as he bounced his knee and folded his hands into his lap.

"Hey." Buck scooted closer, resting his temple against Eddie's shoulder. "You came here. What do you need?"

"I…don't know," Eddie admitted.

Buck carefully wrapped an arm around Eddie's back, knowing it was impossible to avoid all the bruises littering his skin. Even so, some of Eddie's stiff posture relaxed into the tentative embrace. "Why, Eddie?" Buck murmured, staring at his friend like he was a stranger.

"It's… I've just been so angry about so many things." Eddie reached for the abandoned bottle of beer and twisted the cap off, but he didn't have a drink – merely rolled the cap between his fingers. "I think Shannon's death was… It- It started with that. I feel like I failed her, and I failed Christopher, and we were making it work and then she died and-" Eddie's voice caught and he released a shaky breath. "She died after she asked for a divorce and I felt like I'd failed, again, because I could never make it work with her. And yet I kept trying for Christopher, for me, for her parents, for my parents, for her and it- It was never enough."

Buck tiptoed his fingers along Eddie's spine as he listened, mindful of any slight adjustments Eddie made for where there were patches of skin more tender than others and avoiding those spots when he traced his fingers on another path. He couldn't help noting just how lost Eddie sounded, how desperately sad, and Buck tried not to hate himself too much for being so utterly blind to how much pain Eddie had been in. Maybe he should have reached out more, reached out more insistently, after Shannon had died despite the crush injury.

"But she died and Christopher was… He found it difficult, I know he did," Eddie continued, his words wavering. "And then there were the bombings, and everything you were going through up to the tsunami, and then that lawsuit and I-"

"I really am sorry for that," Buck said quietly, realising just how much he'd added to Eddie's burdens in the wake of Shannon's death. He wanted to punch himself in the head. Repeatedly. No wonder Eddie had yelled at him in the grocery store. No wonder Eddie felt like Buck had let him down. No wonder Eddie thought he was exhausting. It was a wonder Eddie still talked to him at all.

"I know. I know and I've let it all go now, but at the time… At the time, it was all too much." Eddie glanced at him, a faraway sort of gleam in his eyes. "After your lawyer weaponised Shannon's death, something inside me started to unravel and I would feel so much rage and the last time I felt so furious all the time, towards everything and everyone around me, I was deployed and I had a clear series of targets to take out. I struggled with the re-integration but that was…"

Eddie shook his head, gaze drifting away from Buck's but not before Buck had glimpsed the increasing redness, the glitter of unshed tears. He pressed his arm a little more into Eddie's back to hold him close.

"You know that stat of twenty-two vets killing themselves every day? It- It doesn't surprise me, Buck. Some days just feel so dark and ugly inside and you don't know how to let it out." Eddie tilted his head slightly towards Buck, strands of tickling hair brushing against Buck's forehead. "But I didn't have targets this time so… I don't know. I honestly don't know if I wanted to take someone out or have someone take me out and I don't know which of those scares me more."

Buck rolled his lower lip between teeth and stared up at Eddie. Words failed him because Eddie's meandering explanation had pierced various wounds he thought had scabbed over on the path to healing but now leaked fresh pain. He couldn't imagine Eddie on deployment, geared up and heart guarded against everything he was doing in a warzone to save the lives of others yet still following orders in hostile territory, and he couldn't imagine Eddie returning home, shaken to the core with horrors rattling inside him that had earned him a Silver Star. He could imagine how those circumstances could cause strain on his marriage to Shannon when they were both already struggling with Christopher's diagnosis, and for the first time he almost thought he was glad Chris would have been too young to fully grasp what had happened between his parents when Eddie had been an army medic.

But an Eddie like this, who had seen so many awful things but then repressed so many feelings… Buck wasn't sure if anyone at the 118 had realised he wasn't really okay, even though Buck had known there were unexplained bruises and winces sometimes. And an Eddie like that, an Eddie who shut down and lied so competently, had to be a difficult person for Shannon to love and support if Eddie had also shut down and shut her out after returning from deployment.

And as for Eddie wondering aloud about being taken out… Buck wasn't sure how successfully he held back the horrified shudder at that thought. He couldn't imagine what that would do to Christopher, or the 118. And there was no way in hell he wanted to imagine what it would do to him.

"Did beating people up actually do anything for all these feelings?" he said eventually, fingers circling the knob of Eddie's spine where he knew the bruises that lingered were dark and almost certainly painful.

"Probably not," Eddie admitted, raising one shoulder in a shrug and lifting the bottle to his lips. He swallowed several mouthfuls and managed a rueful sort of smile. "But I didn't know what else to do, or where else to go. I have to keep it together for Christopher."

Buck ran his thumb over the short hairs at the nape of Eddie's neck, hiding a small smile when he tilted into it just like Chris often did. "You don't have to keep it together here, Eddie."

"Don't I?" Eddie shot him a wan look. "We both know you aren't okay."

Buck frowned and tried not to feel like the magnifying glass had just been swung over him again, like he was an ant that Eddie was trying to set alight with the sun.

"That's not what I meant. If you need to come here and yell or scream or throw something, then my door is open to you." Buck didn't feel like mentioning that yelling and screaming and throwing things might end with him locking himself inside the bathroom and calling Maddie because he'd start thinking of someone else who used to yell and scream and throw things when he got livid. Eddie didn't need to know that particular detail. "Or if you just need to come over and have a beer and watch some TV and smash some buttons on a controller with Christopher for a few hours, then we can do that too. It still beats almost killing a guy, or nearly getting killed yourself."

"True." Eddie shifted his arm so he could sling it around Buck's shoulders, hand settling over the curve of Buck's ribcage until he was tucked securely into Eddie's side. "I… I really am sorry I didn't tell you sooner, Buck. I…thought you'd be angrier, honestly."

"I am angry," Buck said, poking at a spot on Eddie's chest which was almost certainly bruised and relishing Eddie's hiss of pain because the idiot deserved at least some sort of punishment for his stupidity. "But you've listened to me plenty and I know being angry about what you've done won't solve either of our problems. And I know that some of it, at least in part, is because you didn't feel you could come here because I messed up."

"You're really blaming yourself for this?"

"Not entirely," Buck said, meeting Eddie's disbelieving expression. "You make your own mistakes, just like I make mine. I just wish I'd been there before so I could talk you out of it."

"But at least you're here now," Eddie pointed out, and Buck wasn't sure if Eddie was referring to their faltering friendship reconciliation, or because he'd opened the door, or because Buck continued to live despite Fate's best attempts to get rid of him these past few months.

The conversation drifted to other topics – things which were lighter and slightly more cheerful – and Buck was quietly content to keep his arms wrapped around Eddie and feeling Eddie's arm across his back. By the time Eddie admitted he needed to leave, Buck thought he stood with the confidence of a military man who had been trained to square his shoulders and raise his chin no matter the dire circumstances he was expected to face. While Buck somewhat admired Eddie for recovering his mental fortitude that quickly, he also feared just how much Eddie felt which still bubbled beneath the surface, unacknowledged but poised to erupt at a moment's notice.

As Buck crawled into bed, sheets tucked to his chin, he couldn't decide if forging forward with no regard for your health and wellbeing was admirable or incredibly dangerous. He knew he'd done the same thing, ignoring the pain in his leg before the clot, but Eddie had sought out something so dangerous, something potentially fatal, and he'd kept going. It terrified him, more than he was willing to admit, that Eddie could have so little regard for his own safety when usually it was Buck that was accused of being the reckless one.

He stared at the ceiling, thinking back through all the conversational topics they'd traded in the hours that he'd been curled around Eddie. He couldn't easily categorise his feelings towards Eddie, but he knew there were times when he'd looked up and met the brown eyes gazing steadily back at him and felt his heart skip a beat or three in his chest.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 5,051
Warnings/Spoilers: No specific warnings for this chapter.


Eddie returned to the shift rotation with something more guarded around the edges of his eyes and Buck became increasingly aware of how much he reached out to Eddie in an attempt to bridge it, with soft nudges under the table and brushes of their shoulders to try to stop Eddie caving in on himself with guilt and self-loathing. With Christmas around the corner, he hoped it would bring some much-needed cheer to everyone's eyes.

Which was maybe why he felt so furious when the shift schedule had been finalised and they discovered they were working Christmas Day. Buck was pretty sure he would rather have been anywhere else than the station, but the gloom that pervaded everyone seemed to be exacerbated by the news and Buck was determined to try to change that, if only for a little while.

He'd called Athena about his idea and she'd agreed, getting in touch with Karen to coordinate food. While Eddie was helping Bobby with lunch, Buck had broken into Eddie's phone to steal Isabel's number from his contacts and then negotiated with her about how to get Christopher to the 118 for the surprise. He'd told Maddie and she'd squealed about the plan but promised to keep it secret from Chim, and then he just had to trust that everyone outside of the station would show up at the right time.

If nothing else, working Christmas Day at least meant he wasn't sitting at home. Alone. Or enduring it with Maddie and Chimney.

It was the least he could do to ensure it was a good Christmas party.

He tried to commit the way Eddie and Christopher's faces lit up when they saw each other to memory, the bright grin on Eddie's face that Buck hadn't seen for weeks when he twirled Chris around. He tried to hold onto the way Chris pressed his cheek into Buck's shoulder after the kid had demanded a cuddle, small fingers bunching into his shirt.

"Thank you for making my Christmas magical, Buck," Chris murmured and Buck had pretended it didn't make his eyes burn as he kissed Christopher's forehead, squeezed him extra tight, and then let him wander away to hang out with Denny and a bunch of other kids that Karen had brought with her.

He tried to cling to the way Bobby hugged him before they'd eaten, listening to Bobby's gruff voice with the emotions he couldn't quite hide. "This is really great, kid. Thank you."

And Buck had smiled, soaking in Bobby's warmth and love and stowing it in a jar for later when something might make him think of his father's frustration that he hadn't done well enough on his report card, or hadn't done well enough in a sport team. He tried to etch the press of Bobby's hands into his back for the nights when he woke up in terror, afraid and alone again, the paternal affection that he'd never really known or understood until he'd arrived at the firehouse and come to see Bobby as someone he could think of as family, even though he didn't know what the term really meant.

When the shift was over and everyone paired off with their significant others to return home, Buck watched them all depart with a glowing sense of pride that the Christmas party had been a success and he'd brought some joy to the 118 after a year of so much heartache and misery and pain.

His pride had lasted until he entered the cold, empty apartment. The fuzziness in his belly faded, the warmth in his smile disappeared, the happiness traced into his eyes vanished. He surveyed the space and debated whether it could still be called a home when it felt so dead inside.

For a while, at least, Christopher was right: Christmas had been magical.

He tried to remember that later when he was curled up in his bed without anyone to wish him a Merry Christmas, without anyone to hold him, and tried to ignore the few tears that escaped into the fabric of the pillow.


The day after Christmas, Eddie texted him a series of photos of the Diaz family party with Christopher tangled in the embraces of various extended family members and either smiling the biggest grin or pulling the silliest faces.

At the bottom of all the photos were four simple words:

wish u were here

Buck stared at the fragment of a sentence almost the entire day. Even when he put his phone down to try to stop staring at it, he still found himself picking up the phone to look again in case he'd misread it or he'd missed part of the text. He couldn't help wondering what the hell the words were meant to mean, or what the hell he was meant to do with them, or if Eddie had any sort of awareness of how it made Buck feel.

Problem was, he wasn't even sure he could name how it made him feel.


"Hey, you coming over tonight?" Eddie asked as he slung his bag over his shoulder, the muscles in his arms straining against the weight and momentarily distracting Buck from sliding the two parts of his zip together so he could get his hoodie closed.

"Uh…" His fingers slipped again and he cursed, fixing his attention on the zipper until he managed to achieve success. Eddie was watching him with an amused grin that did nothing to alleviate the nervous flutter in his stomach that Eddie in his general vicinity, looking at him like that, with muscles swelling all over the place did to him. He'd stared at the four words of Eddie's texts for so long the last couple of days that he thought it might be the only thing he'd see for the rest of his life. "I…didn't really have plans?"

"So is that a yes?" Eddie said, eyebrows raised in either expectation or anticipation.

"If you're su-"

"We'll see you about seven then," Eddie said with a nod, pivoting and disappearing from the locker room before Buck could coordinate anything more coherent.


"Buck!" Christopher cried as he click-clacked down the hallway to be swept into a hug by Buck.

Buck propped the boy on his hip, bumping his fist against Christopher's. "How's my favourite man?" He tickled Christopher's chest, making the kid giggle and swat at his hand, while carrying him through the hallway and towards the sounds in the kitchen.

"I thought I was your favourite man?" Eddie teased, glancing over his shoulder and pointing at an unopened beer on the counter that was evidently meant for Buck. He felt like a shy smile flickered across his face at the gesture.

Christopher laughed. "Don't be silly, Dad. Buck loves me way more than you."

"Ouch, mijo," Eddie said, holding a hand to his heart and clutching at the counter which only made Christopher's laugh louder.

"I thought that was meant to be our little secret," Buck stage-whispered to Christopher, tickling his tummy and making Chris squirm against him. "We have to pretend we like your dad because he cooks better than me."

"You don't mess up that often anymore, Buck," Christopher said with a cheeky glint in his eyes that made Buck pout at him in mock horror.

"I knew it! My son only likes me for my food, and you-" Eddie pointed an accusatory spatula at Buck. "You just come here so you don't have to order take-out every night."

"Guilty," he shrugged, flashing a grin at Eddie as he pressed a kiss to Chris' cheek and lowered him to the floor. He swiped the bottle of beer from the counter and popped the cap, rolling it between his fingers as Chris leaned his head against Buck's hip. Buck couldn't resist running fingers through the soft blond curls while he stared at Eddie. "I guess I should see myself out then, if you're so hell-bent on making sure I don't get to eat here tonight."

"Aww, but you only just got here," Christopher whined. Buck and Eddie shared an amused look that they were also desperately trying to hide.

"Maybe Buck can stay for dinner this time and next time? Next time, I hit him over the head with the spatula to cook something for us."

"That sounds good, Dad," Christopher said with a satisfied nod, tapping his way out of the kitchen and into the living room where Buck saw him fall to sit among a pile of Legos.

"Hitting me with a spatula, huh?" he mused, losing the battle against letting his smile show. "You sure know how to make a guy feel welcome, man. Thanks."

Eddie snorted, poking at whatever rice dish he was making on the stove. "That's what you get for calling Christopher your favourite."

Buck felt his heart skip, eyebrows rising almost to his hairline. "Oh? Would you prefer I called you my favourite?"

"Nah," Eddie said, shaking his head and waving the spatula towards him, "because you aren't my favourite either. Christopher is, every day of the week."

Buck couldn't decide if he was meant to laugh or cry so he settled for sipping from the beer and leaning against one of the counters while he looked at the kitchen table which was already set for three. It struck him how utterly domestic it was to hang out with Eddie and Christopher like this. He could almost imagine sharing a life with someone again. Abby had helped him understand how to have a relationship with someone, how to develop meaningful connections, not just one-night stands. And he'd had Ali, and it had been brief but better than nothing.

And now… Now he missed having someone to talk to about anything and everything. It was true, Eddie would almost always answer his calls at any time of the day or night, but their dynamic was different to what he'd had with Abby. She had an older, gentler wisdom that had bordered on maternal at times, maybe because she'd become the parent to her mother, but with Eddie… With Eddie, it was something else he hadn't pinpointed yet. They joked and grinned so much and every time it made his heart jump.

"Hey." Eddie touched his cheek with the back of his knuckles, startling Buck out of his memories of Abby and Ali as he caught Eddie's drawn brows above his concerned eyes. "You okay?"

And, of course, Buck could never tell Eddie anything about all the weird feelings because it seemed likely to create a mess that would destroy their friendship once and for all, and Buck really wasn't sure how he'd cope if he lost Eddie's friendship. The strain during and after the lawsuit had been bad enough, but if Eddie ever realised he had some sort of feelings that weren't purely friendship

He shuddered at the thought of it, how quickly they'd fight over each other to put in transfer papers so one of them could get the hell out of the 118 and away from the other. If Eddie left, it would almost certainly cause friction because the others would want to know what had happened. If Buck left, he'd struggle to sever ties with them because of Maddie and Chim's relationship. Either way, the 118 family he had been so desperate to hold onto, the one he'd been so grateful for at Thanksgiving, would disintegrate and it would be all his fault, again, because he sometimes imagined wanting something more with Eddie. So he couldn't let Eddie realise he felt anything out of the ordinary. He couldn't afford to have incredibly awkward conversations with Bobby about it.

"Just a long day," he lied, and Eddie's eyes flickered between his again before he let his hand fall and turned back to the stove.

"I keep thinking there'll be a shift where things don't go totally to hell, but I'm starting to believe that's never going to happen," Eddie mused. Buck couldn't tell if Eddie was playing along with the lie or had believed it, but he appreciated the out to conceal how much he wanted to vomit his feelings all over Eddie's kitchen floor.

"We work in Los Angeles. People are crazy here."

Eddie looked unconvinced. "Yeah, but the stuff we see? You could write about it and put it on a TV show and no one would believe it happened in real life."

Buck nearly inhaled beer up his nose because he snorted, but the slight burn was a good distraction from noticing the slope of Eddie's shoulders beneath his shirt and the way his torso tapered towards his waist and how much Buck sort of really wanted to ask for a hug because the two victims they'd lost today had been rough on all of them when it was the middle shift between Christmas and New Year. It didn't help that he knew exactly how comfortable it was to curl into Eddie's arms and talk.

Eddie shifted the conversation to plans for the New Year party that was being held at Maddie's place and whether it was wise to take Chris when it would be a late night or if he should drop Chris off with his Abuela.

"You don't have to stay for midnight, you know," Buck said as Eddie moved around the kitchen, gathering a serving plate for the rice dish.

"But that's the whole point of it, isn't it? Stay for midnight, clink drinks, sing awful songs, kiss someone."

Buck could've dropped his bottle of beer at that last one but he was saved, perhaps, by Christopher's arms wrapping around his waist.

"What's up, champ?" he said, ruffling the boy's hair and using him as the perfect distraction from what Eddie had just said.

"I just missed you, Buck," Christopher admitted and Buck knew his heart probably expanded in his chest with warmth at the sweetness of the kid that had completely captured him a while ago.

"I saw you at Christmas," he teased, lifting Chris onto his seat as Eddie set the serving plate in the middle of the table. "Lucky for you, then, that you're my favourite dude because I missed you too." He sat beside Chris, brushing a light hand through the errant curls and couldn't help smiling at Christopher's beaming grin.

He was distracted briefly by Eddie's knees brushing against his beneath the table, catching the small smile tugging at one edge of Eddie's lips as he watched them. It was a challenge for Buck to keep his expression neutral but he wasn't convinced he was entirely successful at keeping the emotions off his face.

Christopher launched into summarising what he'd learned at school in the past month because he hadn't had a chance to tell Buck much at the firehouse Christmas party, and he talked about a new ice cream flavour he wanted to try but "Dad keeps saying no because it's winter and it's cold, like that somehow makes a difference" (Eddie had looked equal parts scandalised and sheepish), and he mentioned a park he wanted to go to because some kids at school had mentioned it had really awesome play equipment. Buck listened, as did Eddie, and they both added their own comments to the conversation when it seemed necessary to prompt Christopher to continue. And it was all so very normal, so very familial, that at times Buck almost forgot he was an invited guest. It was times like this, hanging out and eating and talking, that he realised just how easy it was to fit in with both Diaz boys and how welcoming they were with warmth and acceptance.

"Can you clean the dishes while I get him ready for bed?" Eddie asked when it was clear they were done eating and Chris was attempting to conceal yawns behind his hands. Buck felt like his stomach was almost certainly overloaded with the delicious chicken and rice dish that Eddie had made and was more than willing to call it a night and head home.

"Sure," he agreed and, despite Christopher protesting that it was early – when it definitely wasn't anymore after talking for so long – Eddie scooped him up and carried him towards the bathroom.

Buck hardly had an issue with clearing dishes and packaging the leftovers, but he started calculating how long he should stay before returning to his apartment. He hadn't slept since he got off shift and he knew he was emotionally and physically exhausted from the calls. He thought he was doing a good job keeping his 'I'm okay' face on because he was around Christopher. He knew Eddie had been very resolute in keeping his emotions together after he'd given up the fight club thing, but they hadn't talked about it in the past couple of weeks so Buck wasn't entirely sure how Eddie was doing. Sometimes, Buck wanted to insist that Eddie remove his shirt to ensure the bruises were fading– and, maybe, to check that there weren't any new bruises. Yet he usually felt that wasn't his place, because their friendship still had bumps and kinks which hadn't been totally straightened out yet.

He'd finished cleaning up before Eddie reappeared so he grabbed another beer from the fridge and settled on the couch, bouncing his good knee in an attempt to release some of the nervous tension from the day. He could still see the glassy green eyes of one of the victims and some fragment of her face reminded him of the outlines of a face of a woman in the tsunami and he shuddered, forcing his focus on the bottle of beer in his hand and pushing Lego pieces around with his toes.

"Can Buck read me a story?" he heard Christopher say as the bathroom door opened and light spilled into the hallway.

"You'll have to ask him that."

"Buck!"

"Christopher, I've taught you better than to yell."

Christopher giggled, his crutches clicking as he moved through the corridor. His eyes lit up when he saw Buck on the couch, expertly dodging Lego pieces by sweeping them aside with his crutches as he crossed the carpet and climbed into Buck's lap with absolutely no preamble or request if it was okay to invade Buck's space. When Buck nudged a kiss to his damp hair, he inhaled the scent of lavender and oranges. The pyjamas littered with dinosaurs were soft as he cradled Christopher against his chest.

"Hi," Christopher said, fixing Buck with a grin and bright eyes behind his glasses. "Dad said I had to ask you if you'd read me a story."

"Did he?"

He glanced from Chris to Eddie leaning against the wall of the entry, arms crossed over his chest and something that looked almost fond sparkling in his eyes. He looked so relaxed, and so utterly distracting in a damp tank-top, that Buck would almost venture as far to say Eddie Diaz looked happy. He doubted he'd deny either of the Diaz boys anything in the world if they asked him for it. Maybe he needed to rethink the idea that Chris was the only Diaz who had stolen his heart.

"I guess that's the least I can do after your Dad cooked dinner."

"Yay!" Chris cheered, wrapping his arms around Buck's neck. Buck carefully got to his feet, adjusting Chris' weight and shaking his head at Eddie's silent offer of assistance. He'd carried this kid as he ran to escape a tsunami. He'd carried him through flood waters to get on top of a fire truck. He could carry him the short distance to bed. He could carry him to or through anything. He was incredibly mindful of the danger of Legos underfoot, though.

"So what story are we reading, little man?" he said as he settled the kid on the bed, tugging blankets over Christopher's legs and propping his crutches against the bedside table within easy reach.

"Narnia!" Chris pointed at the fat tome of a book on his bedside table and Buck flipped to where the bookmark was, scanning the pages to familiarise himself with a story he probably hadn't read since he was a kid.

Chris wriggled under his arm so that his cheek was pressed to Buck's chest, mumbling along occasionally with the words Buck spoke aloud. From time to time, Buck attempted a pretty terrible English accent for some of the dialogue and when he realised Chris was no longer making breathy giggles but instead breathy snores, he tucked the bookmark inside the pages and gently set the book on the table. He combed his fingers through the damp curls, soothed by Chris' warmth and soft weight and life. He wondered whether Chris still had awful nightmares or if he'd developed a dislike of water like Buck. The thought of the beach still chilled him to the bone.

After ten minutes of letting Chris sleep against him, Buck carefully manoeuvred the boy so his head was against the pillows and then he slid from the bed. He shut off the light and eased the door to be slightly ajar, quietly padding down the hallway to where Eddie was sitting on the couch and fiddling with something on his phone.

"He's asleep," he whispered, gazing at the scattered Legos and thinking he didn't stand a chance of not stepping on them this time and shrieking with pain that woke Christopher up. It was a wonder he'd blindly navigated them before when he had Chris in his arms. "I… Uh… I should probably take off too. Get some sleep. Long day."

"You aren't staying?" Eddie said, extinguishing the light on his phone as he looked up with an unreadable expression on his face.

"I…hadn't been planning on it?" he said with a small frown, because Eddie had invited him over tonight but he hadn't expected it to be for the night. He probably would have brought a change of clothes if he had.

Eddie pressed his lips together, eyes darting away, and Buck struggled not to bite his own lip because everything about the change in his face and posture screamed that he wasn't okay. Once again, Buck had gotten caught in some wonderful fantasy of having a family and enjoying the warm press of Christopher sleeping against him in favour of ignoring the cold apartment and empty bed that he was meant to be returning to. And he hadn't paid enough attention to assessing how Eddie was after a pretty rough shift.

"Will you?" Eddie eventually said, barely more than a nervous whisper as his glimmering gaze drifted back to Buck.

Buck hesitated, wondering if it was the smartest idea when he knew he had a whole lot more mess going on in his head, but he couldn't leave Eddie when he was practically pleading with him to stay. Something was going on and it felt important to be there.

So he nodded and Eddie's whole face cleared of the tension he'd apparently been feeling and Buck finally felt like he'd done something right for a change.

"I'll find you some clothes," Eddie said, tracking a slow but pain-free path through the Legos and moving past Buck towards his bedroom.

Buck turned to follow, accepting the sweatpants and t-shirt that Eddie rummaged out of a drawer and then heading for the bathroom. He'd never admit to holding the clothes to his nose and inhaling deeply, soaking in the scent that he was beginning to know well, before realising that probably sounded far creepier than he'd intended. He changed quickly before returning to Eddie's room, placing his folded clothes by the door and sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Are you okay?" he asked as Eddie gathered his own sweatpants and shirt, something distant in his eyes as he drifted around the room setting off an alarm in Buck's internal warning system.

"Yeah." Eddie didn't meet Buck's look as he left the room and that was enough to confirm Buck's suspicions that he was barely holding it together, which was at least somewhat comforting when Buck also felt like he was fraying at the seams.

It was a restless few minutes as he waited for Eddie to change, brush his teeth, douse the remaining lights in the house. His leg bounced with anxiety as he heard Eddie's shuffling footsteps move through the corridor before he entered the room and closed the door behind him with the softest of clicks.

Eddie avoided his eyes as he turned off the light. The silence between them quickly turned uncomfortable after Eddie settled on the mattress and released a heavy sigh into the darkness. For an awkward and uncertain moment, Buck stayed still and wondered why the hell Eddie had wanted him to stay if he was going to be silent. But if he'd learned anything about the increasingly weird dynamic between them, Eddie always had a reason and he very rarely reached out for help so coming out and talking about anything was probably something he struggled with as much as Buck.

Buck eventually shifted so he was lying on his side facing Eddie, wriggling his legs beneath the blankets and staring into the darkness. He could tell Eddie was as stiff as a board beside him and he waited, unsure what it was that Eddie wanted or needed but figuring that giving Eddie the time to process was worthwhile. He'd already asked if Eddie was okay, and Eddie had already lied. And Eddie would know that Buck knew he'd lied.

"It was Shannon's birthday yesterday," Eddie murmured after a very long time of looking at the ceiling, his voice quaking over only five words.

Buck closed his eyes when he realised just how much Eddie fought to keep control of his emotions and thoughts around everyone at the house, the way he continued to fight for control over every part of his life even when things were probably spiralling. They'd had numerous calls that shift. They'd had the two fatalities. And Eddie hadn't given the slightest indication of the burden he was carrying throughout the shift.

Jesus.

Buck reached his hand through the darkness until he found Eddie's hand, grasping his palm and anchoring him to a point in the present because it was about the only thing Buck thought he could do.

"I'm sorry, Buck. I- I didn't mean to load this on you, I j-just-"

"Shhh." Buck rubbed his thumb against the knuckles of Eddie's hand. "You've been there for me so often. It's okay."

"I- I couldn't s-stand the thought of being a-alone tonight, you know?" Eddie's voice trembled and it was clear from the way the bed was also quivering that he was desperately trying to hold back sobs but that the tears had probably well and truly started in the long span of silence.

"C'mere," he whispered, tugging Eddie's hand until the other man rolled towards him, sinking into his chest as Buck folded his arm around shaking shoulders to hold him close. "I'm here, Eddie. I'm here. You aren't alone, okay? Let it out."

Eddie made a small sobbing noise, fingers curling into the shirt against Buck's chest. His whole body vibrated with the force of his sadness and Buck lowered his head to rest against the top of the brunette hair of the other man.

"I've got you, Eddie," he breathed, sliding his spare hand around the back of Eddie's neck to cradle his head, using his thumb to rub circles into the skin which Eddie so often did which helped soothe Buck's fears and pain. He could feel the way Eddie's tension gradually unravelled, the way he hid his hushed cries and whimpers and sniffles in Buck's chest. He focused on holding Eddie against him, rubbing his back or stroking his hair, until the shaking lessened and the pitiful noises of pain grew quieter. When Eddie's tension abated, when he was a heavy, boneless weight against Buck's torso, Buck felt like maybe he'd done okay at comforting Eddie.

He knew Eddie wasn't asleep, though. He knew how deep and slow and even Eddie's breathing was when he drifted to sleep, knew the way that his weight would settle more loosely against Buck if his muscles stopped being so coiled for an attack or a rejection.

"I'm s-sorry," Eddie said hoarsely, and Buck lessened his hold on Eddie's head so that his fingers could flit over his face, gathering the slick of tears against his thumb and adding gentle pressure to the curve of his jaw and behind his ear to raise his head from Buck's chest.

"It's okay," he insisted, even though his heart still ached because he wished he could take away Eddie's pain. He almost wished he could erase Shannon from Eddie's life completely, but that would mean vanishing Christopher and the boy was filled with too many bright smiles and giggles to take that away from the world. He wasn't sure Eddie would be who he was if he didn't have Christopher in his life. Buck knew he wouldn't be anyone resembling who he was if not for Christopher. "It's okay to hurt over this. I'm not going anywhere, man."

"I… Th-Thanks," Eddie mumbled, his grip turning slightly more clingy but Buck didn't mind. He tiptoed his fingers up and down the ladder of Eddie's spine and kept his breathing deliberately steady, and gradually, gradually, gradually, he felt Eddie's weight increase as he found a path to sleep.

Buck stayed awake for a while longer because even though he was strung out from the day, even though he was emotionally exhausted himself from the shift and then Eddie's breakdown, there was some sort peace he'd never really felt before except when he was holding Eddie in his arms. He tried to place if he'd ever felt it anywhere else. The best he could come up with was maybe after Maddie had had an awful breakup when she was in high school but even that wasn't really the same.

Whatever this feeling was that kept sticking in his chest and making him want to shield Eddie, he didn't want to think about what it meant too hard.

He was afraid of what the answer might be.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 5,544
Warnings/Spoilers: None in particular for this chapter.


"Happy New Year, Buckley!"

He attempted to match Chim's enthusiasm when the guy answered the door by offering a lopsided grin and a wave and dancing just out of reach of a hug when he saw the dangerous slosh of a drink moving towards him. It was clear Chimney was incredibly unsteady on his feet and he wondered when the guy had started getting into the alcohol.

"Happy New Year, Chimney. I hope I haven't missed too much?"

"Nah, man. Everyone's just chilling and drinking and having a good time." Chim stumbled a little, a hand fisting into Buck's shirt when he overbalanced. "If I don't make it to midnight, will you tell Maddie I'm sorry?"

Buck stared at the shorter man, blinked several times, and then shook his head. "How about this better idea where I take your drink now, ensure you have water the rest of the night, and then you and I don't have to deal with Maddie being furious at us both?"

Chim gazed at him with huge, misty eyes and the dopiest grin. It was rather concerning when it wasn't even seven o'clock. "You'd do that?"

"For you and my sister?" Buck tried not to feel like he was going to violently vomit into one of Maddie's pot plants at the thought of playing some sort of wing-man for his sister when he'd rather protect her from the potential of getting hurt by love for the rest of her life. "Nah, man. I'm doing this for me. Come on."

Buck would almost go so far as to say Chim fluttered his eyelashes in gratitude but that would be utterly ridiculous. He chalked it up to the significant inebriation. Plucking Chimney's beer from his hand, he guided him towards one of Maddie's arm chairs.

"Sit. Stay."

"Am I a dog?" Chim looked around, eyes sliding in and out of focus as he looked at Denny and Chris playing on the floor. "Hey guys, am I a dog?"

Buck rolled his eyes, unsure whether he should laugh or beat his head into a wall, and found Maddie in the kitchen. "Hello, sister dear," he greeted, sliding an arm around her shoulders and kissing the top of her head while she refilled several bowls of snacks.

"Brother bear," she replied with a smile, before stealing the bottle from his hand. "Is that Howie's?"

"Yeah, he seemed, uh…" Buck picked out several cashews from the bowl of mixed nuts, dodging her swatting hand because she would not convince him to eat the others and she never had. "I think the guy could do with some water, alright?"

She huffed, rolling her eyes and shoving the bowls of nuts and pretzels into his hands. "I told him he's a lightweight but does he listen to me? Of course he doesn't!"

Buck shook the bowl and made a delighted noise when he spied another cashew shift towards the surface, which was not at all what Maddie wanted to hear if the judgemental gleam in her eyes was anything to go by. "I'll…get him some water," he said hastily, juggling the bowls into one arm to dig out a glass from her cupboards and fill it.

He returned to find Chim with his head lolling on the chair, the grin on his face reminding Buck of people who got high. He pressed the glass into one of Chim's hands and then extended the bowls.

"Hey, thanks man." Chim started at the bowls, brow deeply furrowed and blinking slowly. "Are nuts safe for dogs?"

"I…think so?" he said, depositing both bowls in Chim's lap and then inching away so he could press light fingers against Christopher's shoulders as he crouched to greet the kid and Denny. "Hey, little dudes. How are we doing?"

"We're good," Denny said, sticking up both thumbs and flashing a big smile.

"Buck!" Chris held out his arms for a hug so wrapped his arms around Chris' waist while smaller arms secured around his shoulders. "Happy New Year, Buck."

"To you as well, champ." He kissed Christopher's cheek and Chris giggled and squirmed. "You want to make any predictions about next year?"

"No more tsunamis," Christopher said, very seriously. Buck released him with a small amount of trepidation and undoubtedly some very wide eyes. "You and my Dad don't need more things to worry about."

"Uh…" He blinked, glancing at Denny who was pursing his lips around a grin. "Well. It's sort of our job. To worry."

"Your job is to save people." With a small frown, Chris' eyes roamed the room before his face cleared into a smile. "And be happy."

Buck looked over his shoulder to follow Chris' gaze and saw Eddie watching them from near Maddie's staircase, eyes creased at the edges with the smile he was barely suppressing with the bottle against his mouth. It was one of those small, soft, fond smiles that Buck loved seeing Eddie wear. But so far, he'd only ever really seen it when they were hanging out in their own homes, not around other people. It still left him feeling light-headed.

"Y-Yeah? You think so?"

"Mhm. I know so," Chris said and Buck couldn't help but ruffle his hair even as the kid attempted to roll out of the way. Buck gave Denny's shoulders a quick squeeze as he stood and headed for Eddie.

"What is it with you always watching me?" he teased and Eddie laughed, some of the tension in his posture from a few days ago gone. It was a huge relief considering the rare occasions he'd seen Eddie truly cry, and Eddie's weird distance the following morning, like he'd felt guilty or ashamed that he'd broken down, had left Buck unsure what to do or say in the light of day. Chris had seemed oblivious to it all, buzzing around them with questions and hopes for the new year, so Buck had reined in his urge to speak and simply let Eddie have his silence.

"I'm watching my son and you just happen to keep getting in the way," Eddie retorted, gesturing at Chris who had resumed playing with Denny. "You say hi to him before me so often, I'm really starting to believe he is your favourite."

Buck grinned, bumping his shoulder into Eddie's. "You're important too."

"Oh gee. That sounded sincere," Eddie said, a dimple in his cheeks appearing as he evidently tried to avoid returning the grin. "Thanks so much, Buck. I'll be sure to get that inscribed on something to remind me on the rough call days. 'You're important too'. Real profound and touching."

"Asshole," Buck muttered, covering his desire to laugh with a light punch to Eddie's arm. Eddie stuck out his tongue as Buck dispersed back into the party in search of a drink, pointedly ignoring the way Eddie's laugh followed him through the room and settled around his shoulders like a fuzzy blanket.

He spent the evening drifting between different groups, his attention frequently returning to Chimney to ensure the guy was drinking water and consuming food to absorb all the alcohol so that maybe, hopefully, he'd be sober enough to remember he needed to kiss Maddie at midnight. Hen had approached to ask him about playdate venues for Denny and Chris at one point before Karen hushed her and said to worry about it some other time. At other times, Chris appeared and wrapped his arms around Buck's legs to hug him which was…actually incredibly comforting, and he soaked in the kid's presence before Chris wandered off to talk to someone else.

"I think we'll be taking off soon," Eddie announced when Buck was in the middle of reaching for another slice of pizza that Bobby had insisted was ordered to minimise some of the effects of all the drinking occurring around him. Buck sucked his lips between his teeth to avoid giving away how the thought of Eddie leaving made him feel as though his heart zig-zagged through his chest and instead focused on closing his fingers around the slice.

"But Daaaad!"

"You're falling asleep sitting against me, mijo," Eddie pointed out, nudging Chris with his knee to dislodge his sagging head from Eddie's thigh. Everyone had noticed Chris' slumped posture on the floor, his temple against Eddie's leg, but no one wanted to say anything because it was so cute. Maddie might've snapped a photo that Buck would request she send to him later.

"But it's New Year's Eve!"

"And your bedtime is usually eight-thirty, and it's already after nine. You watched the ball in New York drop. That's the important thing, buddy." Eddie combed his fingers through Christopher's curls and Buck didn't miss the way Chris' eyes fluttered closed again and he had the same sleepy little smile he often got when Buck read to him and was moments away from passing out completely.

"You'll be carrying him to the car soon," Buck said as he nibbled at the pointy end of his pizza slice.

Eddie's nose wrinkled and he checked the dregs of beer left in the bottom of his bottle. "Don't I know it. He'll be a menace to get up in the morning too."

Buck couldn't help himself when he watched Eddie raise the rim of the bottle to his lips. "Just tell him he has to listen to you because you're important."

It was clear Eddie nearly snorted the beer up his nose as he choked on the swallow, coughing and spluttering and drawing several murmurs of alarm from Maddie and Hen.

"You-" Eddie said through wheezing coughs, "-are a terrible friend."

Buck pretended to draw a halo above his head, tilting his head and fluttering his eyelashes at Eddie. He suspected Eddie would've hit his arm if he had better control over his body but he was still spasming around the coughs and attempting to curse him out without drawing the ire of Hen or Athena.

When Eddie did make moves to leave, Buck offered to carry Chris to the car. Peering at Christopher's angelic face which clearly showed he was out like a light, Eddie relented and gathered Chris' crutches under his arm. Once Buck had successfully navigated Maddie's uneven footpath, they fell into step. Buck deciding that all his attempts to avoid Christopher's Legos lately had been excellent training for manoeuvring Chris around anything.

"I don't know what I'll do without you now," he sing-songed, spying Eddie's truck several cars down the street. He strengthened his hold on Chris when he felt the kid shift slightly in his arms. "No one important is left. You're taking my favourite person away from me, Diaz. How will I cope?"

Eddie chuckled, shaking his head even though there was a smile painted across his lips that crinkled his eyes as well. "I feel so jaded, Buckley. You're not in it for me, you're only in it for my kid."

Buck decided that the way his heart gave a flutter at that particular sentence meant it was a traitor that deserved to be banished to the twenty-fourth level of hell. It wasn't fair that Eddie had no idea how he felt and would never return the feelings when he'd make teasing comments like that.

"Busted," Buck said when he realised he needed to say something but knowing there was nothing else he could say without putting his foot in his mouth. And chewing on it. Repeatedly. For the rest of the evening.

"You're the actual worst," Eddie retaliated, stalking towards him with outstretched fingers that were perfect for poking and tickling. Buck did a careful twirl away from Eddie's reach, dodging as best as he could but unable – or unwilling – to hide his smile at Eddie's huffed amusement behind him.

Between the two of them, they shifted Chris into his seat without disturbing him so much that he stirred awake and then it became…tremendously awkward, standing on a mostly quiet street in the shadows of two lights on New Year's Eve.

"So, uh…" Buck rubbed the back of his neck, glancing rapidly between the car, Eddie and the light above Maddie's porch in search of a way out of the situation or a way to cut all the tension that had descended like a swamp. "Drive safely? You know. Because people are out tonight. And might be crazy after drinking."

"Yeah." Eddie nodded, his own eyes darting a little wildly and screaming that he found the situation uncomfortable. Which did absolutely nothing for all the feelings Buck had zooming around him which were impossible to articulate or discuss or-

Buck hesitated, swallowed away the words, and pivoted on the ball of his foot to return to the party because putting distance between them seemed like the smartest thing even though he just wanted to wrap Eddie into his arms and not let go until midnight.

"Hey, Evan?"

He paused, lips pressing together as he looked back at Eddie. Who hadn't moved from his spot beside the truck. Who still looked like he wasn't sure what he was doing there on the side of the road.

"I hope this next year is better for you," Eddie said, his voice laden with uncertain but his eyes, at least, were steadier. "After everything that happened this year, I- You deserve to have a happier year."

Buck opened his mouth, closed it, blinked several times. "Thank you?" That wasn't meant to come out like a question. Why had it come out sounding like a question? Who said thank you to something like that? He'd hit himself in the head later.

"I just, um…" Eddie shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked from his heels to the balls of his feet, his gaze fixed on something over Buck's left shoulder. "After the other day and… Well, I mean everything you've done with Chris this year like saving him with the tsunami, or looking after him before and after that when I needed the help and you were off, which was totally taking advantage of free babysitting by the way and I shouldn't have imposed like that. And I know you were there as best as you could be after Shannon because of your leg and just- I-" Eddie's tongue darted out to wet his bottom lip and Buck wondered when it felt like his heart had swelled to be three times larger than it usually was. He felt like his ribs might crack open and expose just how much Eddie's thoughts were soaking and saturating his soul. "I just don't know what I'd do without your friendship, you know? And I- I just needed you to know I appreciate it."

Buck felt somewhat dazed as he stared at Eddie. It made him realise that, even after all their many conversations over the past few months, he wasn't sure Eddie had ever been so directly grateful with such obvious warmth and affection in his tone. He wished he could bottle how the words made him feel so that he could inhale it again on the bad days and the awful nights.

And it was so much to try to unpack and deal with and his brain just…couldn't. Saying something heartfelt in response was beyond him, because he'd end up regurgitating bodily organs and probably embarrassing himself. Eddie was his best friend and it was true, Buck had done a lot for Chris this year, but Eddie was still just his friend.

So he did what he always did when conversations got too close to poking at sore spots.

He deflected.

"That was a very long-winded way of saying I'm important to you too," he said, lips stretching into a crooked grin as he ducked his head to avoid the glare that Eddie threw his way.

Eddie flipped him off and grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "Ungrateful asshole," and turned towards his truck.

"Hey, Eddie?"

Eddie's eyes flicked over his shoulder, clearly guarded for another joke at his expense.

"Will you text me when you get home? So I know you're safe?"

It was Eddie's turn for his mouth to fall open slightly before snapping shut. "Sure," he conceded, gaze narrow on Buck's face like he was hoping to see straight through him or maybe that Buck would say more but…Buck couldn't put himself out there that way. Not yet. Not when he didn't understand what was really going on between them. "Have a good rest of your night."

Buck scrunched his nose when the thought of dealing with Chim reared its head. Maybe that thought was displayed clearly on his face because Eddie was laughing again as he climbed into the driver's seat. He stuck his hand out of the window and waved as he left and Buck, feeling idiotic standing there and watching Eddie drive away, waved back.

When he returned to the party, it all seemed to be exactly how he'd left it and yet it felt like there was a glowing piece of the puzzle missing, like Eddie and Christopher leaving meant that the sun had left the room and the colours seemed more washed out than usual and nothing was around to hold his attention.

"You okay, baby bro?" Maddie said, circling him at one point to sit on the arm of the chair while he nursed a beer and played with his phone. Eddie's text of 'we got home safe, happy new year b' was stencilled across his brain and making it difficult to concentrate on whatever Hen, Athena and Bobby were talking about.

"I'm good, Mads," he assured, reaching for her hand and squeezing it. She squeezed back and held on for a while, adding her own commentary to whatever Athena was saying which meant she knew what was happening even if Buck didn't and…as much as he sometimes loathed his sister getting together with his colleague for all the entanglements it caused, he was glad his sister genuinely fit in with the people that he considered his family too. After everything she'd been through with Doug, it was the least she deserved.

When midnight struck, and Buck observed all the various couples turn inwards and kiss, he felt the cold hollowness he so often associated with waking up after a nightmare alone seep from his chest and flit around the room. It sucked to be alone in a crowded room, realising the insidiousness of loneliness that could hit you out of nowhere and remind you that you had no one special. And Buck just missed that sometimes, but especially a time like now.

And then he caught Denny's eyes, who looked absolutely repulsed by all the kissing, and dissolved into laughter.


"Seatbelt?"

"Buck, you buckled me in!"

"Hey, maybe that's where my name comes from!" he said, peeking over his shoulder at Christopher in the backseat who rolled his eyes even though he wore the biggest grin. "Besides, you can never be too cautious, little man."

"Who are you callin' 'little'? I'm gonna be as tall as you by the end of the year," Chris retorted and Eddie's attempt to hide his snort with a cough failed miserably.

Buck cast his friend a withering glare and folded his arms over his chest with a pout, starting to wish he hadn't taught the kid so much sass during his time off over the summer. "You try to be nice…" he muttered, half to himself.

"Hey." Eddie's hand brushed his arm, drawing Buck's eyes towards him. "It's just his way of saying you're important."

And Buck… Buck was outraged at the wicked smirk that curled Eddie's lips and the crinkling at the edge of his eyes. "Hey, you don't get to-"

Eddie's trembling shoulders turned into full-blown laughs as he revved the ignition and backed out of his driveway. In the backseat, Chris was laughing too even though Buck wasn't entirely sure he understood the joke that Eddie was continuing from New Year's Eve. And even if Buck had wanted to continue scowling, just to be a brat, just to dig in his heels, the sound of Eddie's genuine laughter was… It was a really, really good thing to hear after the year he'd had and he couldn't help but smile at it too.

Chris chattered in the backseat about what he wanted to do at the park and how high he wanted to climb on the equipment – which meant Buck would watch him like a hawk in case he fell because he couldn't handle the thought of the kid getting hurt. Chris was so excited, so positive, that Buck started thinking about when he'd tried to find Chris' secret to remaining optimistic when they were on top of the fire truck in the middle of raging waters. It never ceased to amaze him that Chris functioned remarkably well in the aftermath of the tsunami, all things considered. He knew about the nightmares Chris, how he'd drawn Shannon drowning because he hadn't processed her death, but during the day? Chris seemed like he was okay, like any other normal kid, and Buck… Buck was not the same and he doubted if he ever could find the person he was before the water, and the bombing.

Eddie's fingers touched the back of his curled fist, drawing Buck's attention to his bouncing knee. He forced himself to release a breath and unwind his hand, offering Eddie a weak smile in response to the raised eyebrow.

"I'm okay," he quietly assured and though Eddie's eyebrows dipped into something disbelieving, he didn't push. Probably because Chris was still in the car, discussing the people on the streets or the shops or anything else that caught his eye.

It made Buck wonder if he'd ever been that sort of kid. He honestly couldn't remember talking much at home because he'd never felt like anything he said would be heard. He considered asking Maddie about her memories but he was afraid of her answer. She always had a different perspective to him, probably because of their age difference.

"This is awesome," Christopher marvelled as Eddie parked the car. Buck could hear the kid straining against his seatbelt to get a better look at the equipment. Buck had to admit, it did look fun.

There was a huge, multicoloured jungle gym in the centre. At random intervals spiralling away from it were circles indented in the ground, where Buck could see other kids springing into the air so he assumed they were some sort of mini trampoline. There were pairs of swings, and some sort of rope climbing thing with a series of knots that twisted in on itself, and a small flying fox stretching from one end of the playground to the other.

"You won't climb too high, alright?" Eddie said, voice firm, and Chris sighed.

"Fine."

Buck pressed his lips together to hide his smile as he and Eddie unclipped and then went to retrieve Chris. Once his crutches were in hand, the kid almost bounded away, waving at a few kids although Buck couldn't imagine he knew them. Chris just smiled that much that he seemed to make friends instantly.

"He's a good kid," he said, elbowing Eddie who was watching with the sort of look that suggested he wanted to chase his kid and set up mattresses beneath all the equipment to spare him if he fell. "Congratulations."

"Yeah, he's pretty awesome," Eddie agreed, a small smile spreading when he watched Chris tip his head back and laugh at something a boy similar to Chris' height said. "Should we get a seat where we can watch him?"

Buck was tempted to join Christopher on all the equipment, because there were so many things that looked fun. He suspected Eddie knew that, given the way he looked at Buck a moment after he asked, but sure. Sitting was okay too.

They found a bench and watched Chris for a while as tested the mini trampolines. He wobbled a lot, using his crutches on the higher ground to steady him. They watched him discard his crutches by the jungle gym and start climbing, laughing at something a girl said who reminded Buck of Lucy, the kid who'd lost her mother while having milkshakes.

"What happened in the car?" Eddie said, the question slicing through his reverie and drawing his eyes away from Chris. "The knee thing. You went really still but then your knee-"

"Just thinking," he said, shaking his head and looking back at Chris. "It's a new year, right? I'm leaving the past where it belongs."

"Buck-"

"It's better now, okay?" He could shower without feeling like he was going to shake out of his skin and he could almost handle damp clothes without wanting to throw up. Even the nightmares had lessened, though they weren't extinguished. He put that down to all the extra time he'd spent with Chris. By reassuring his conscious brain that the kid was alive, the subconscious part that fretted about his safety had been soothed. "Please, Eddie. Not today."

He could still feel Eddie's eyes on him, the uncertainty coming off him in waves. He knew how many questions Eddie would want to ask. "I'm always here for when it's not today, you know."

Buck felt like his breath got stuck halfway into his lungs at the care, the way Eddie continued to reach out, even when it was barely a week ago that he was going to pieces in Buck's arms. He managed a tight nod, needing to end the conversation before it got too deep while they sat on a bench at a kid's park in the middle of winter. "I know, man. And I appreciate it."

It was a strange sort of silence that descended over them. It was simultaneously comfortable, like they'd simply run out of pointless words to say to each other, with an underlying tension that suggested there were so many important things being left unsaid. It was the sort of silence that Buck hated, where he felt like there was an expectation to fill it with inane commentary, except with Eddie he was afraid that he'd say something, let something slip, that his friend would seize upon and start investigating a feeling or a thought he wasn't prepared to face just yet. So Buck stayed silent. He wondered if Eddie kept quiet for the same reason, or if Eddie was impervious to tension Buck felt.

He did, however, zone into paying more attention to his surroundings when he felt Eddie shiver and adjust his arms beside him. Buck glanced across, eyebrow quirking.

"Told you that you should've brought your jacket," he said, tracing over the flannel shirt that Eddie was wearing on top of one of his typical Henley's. He wouldn't be surprised if there was a tank top beneath it all, but Eddie's insistence that it wasn't a particularly cold day had been met with Buck's dubious stare.

"Yes, well. Didn't expect this to be quite so open and breezy, did I?" Eddie muttered, tucking his hands under his arms and exhaling a breath that curled with misty whiteness.

Buck rolled his eyes and slid his jacket from his shoulders to drape around Eddie's. "Take mine."

"I-" Eddie frowned at him, shaking his head and picking at the fabric. "I can't. It's cold. You'll get cold."

"I'm from Pennsylvania. This is practically summer," he joked and it was Eddie's turn to roll his eyes and fix him with a dubious stare. "Seriously, man. If I get cold, I'll just take it back and you can suffer with the knowledge that I told you so."

"La generosidad," Eddie hissed and Buck didn't need to be fluent in Spanish to guess at what that meant. He grinned, sticking his hands in his pockets as Eddie pushed his arms through the sleeves of Buck's jacket and folded his arms across his chest again. There was another few breaths of silence and then a murmured, "Thank you."

Buck waved it away, bumping his shoulder into Eddie's. "Any time, man." In an attempt to keep his blood flowing, he decided to join Christopher, at least for a little while, to push him on the swings or run beside him on the flying fox. He jogged over to the kid and Chris was all too happy to grasp at his hand and drag him to the mini trampolines, and the rope maze, and the jungle gym.

"You're warm," Chris hummed, snuggling into him even though Buck was meant to be lifting him so that Chris could hold onto the flying fox rope.

"Yeah?" He looked over at Eddie, intending to call out something about wanting his jacket back, but Eddie was looking at his phone rather than them and the moment lapsed as he returned his attention to Chris. "Lucky for you then, huh?"

"Yep." Chris wiggled towards the edge of the flying fox platform and then fixed Buck with a very uncertain look. "Hey, Buck?"

"Yeah, bud?"

"Can we get ice cream after this?"

Buck wouldn't have said it was freezing, not after growing up on the east coast, but it was cold. Too cold for ice cream? Perhaps. He'd already lost his jacket and he could only imagine Eddie balking at the idea of ice cream, but maybe Buck could buy him a hot chocolate instead and satisfy both Diaz boys. "We'll ask your dad when you're done playing, okay?"

"Okay. You ready?"

"Am ready? More like are you ready?"

Chris giggled, hips swinging as he clung to the rope. "Absolutely!"

He kept pace with Chris as the kid flew through the air, shrieking with bright laughter that stole its way deeper and deeper into Buck's heart. He didn't even realise how much he was laughing as he caught Christopher at the other end, swinging him in a circle before setting him on the ground. There was nothing he wouldn't do for this kid and at some point, he wondered if that would start to scare him.


"No, no, it's my treat," he said, batting away Eddie's hand and extending his card to the kid behind the counter.

"You really don't have to-"

"Look, Chris asked for ice cream and I passed on the message. That's like inviting you out for ice cream, right? And whoever does the inviting does the paying." Did that make this sound too much like a date? It totally made this sound too much like a date. His eyes felt very wide as he turned back to the kid to disrupt the conversation he was having with Eddie. He thanked her and shoved the ice cream cup and hot chocolate that Eddie had ordered firmly into his hands so that Eddie had a distraction from thinking this was a date. Because it wasn't a date. It had never been a date. It had been taking Chris to the park, because the aquarium was still a bad place to think about going, and getting some ice cream. But it wasn't a date.

They settled into a small booth in the corner of the shop with Chris tucked between them. Chris leaned into Buck's chest, shoving his spoon into the cup of ice cream and humming with satisfaction every time. It was adorable and Buck probably would have kissed his head if he hadn't been consuming sticky ice cream himself. He had a feeling getting ice cream sugars in Chris' curls was a bad idea.

"So, it turns out chocolate-banana ice cream is actually delicious," he said in an effort to make conversation. He shifted his shoulder to jostle Chris into paying attention. "How's your strawberry fudge sundae, little man?"

"So good," Chris said with a delighted grin as he attacked another curve of an ice cream scoop.

"I still think what you've got is too sweet," Eddie mused, sipping his hot chocolate as he eyed their desserts.

Chris and Buck both shook their heads.

"You can try some if you want." Buck held out a spoonful towards Eddie, who stared at the swirls of brown and yellow like it was a monstrosity with sixteen heads and fourteen of them breathed fire and two spat out poisoned darts.

"Or mine," Chris said, extending some of the pink and white ice cream with dollops of chocolate chips embedded in it.

"I'm good, mijo. Thank you for your kindness."

Eddie poked at his scoop of coconut like it was actually interesting. Buck supposed it was a step up from vanilla, but only just. He almost wanted to tease Eddie about lacking a sense of adventure or a sweet tooth but he couldn't find a line that didn't sound like it was laden with flirtatious innuendo and he already couldn't shake the thought that this felt like a date and it wasn't a date. So if he said something that made Eddie think he was flirting… God no.

"You two can have your sugar highs and I'll clean up the mess you make," Eddie said, which made Chris chuckle and Buck stick out his tongue. Eddie gave a slight shake of his head, but that dimple in his cheek was back as a small smile played at the edge of his lips and Buck felt like he needed to determine more ways to bring that part of Eddie out.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 3,049
Warnings/Spoilers: None in particular for this chapter.


It was exhausting to empty equipment out of the truck because they all knew that everything had to be packed back into it again later. Even though it was for a good cause, and deep down he was excited about it, he still wished they could have a supply of gear that didn't have to be unloaded just for the purposes of a fire safety demonstration at the station.

"Hey, you good?"

"Yeah, it's not that heavy." Buck flexed his arms to lift the jaws higher, winking at Eddie hovering nearby with empty hands. "I'm stronger than I look."

Eddie rolled his eyes, catching up with Buck settling the jaws down by placing one of the heavy saws beside it. "You need to watch your step around all these things when you can't see properly while carrying something. Wouldn't want you breaking your other leg tripping over all this."

Buck raised his hands, shoving Eddie's arm lightly. "I'll break yours if you aren't careful, Diaz."

Eddie raised his arms, loose fists in front of his face and a grin on his lips as he inched forward. "Bring it, Buckley."

"Idiot one and idiot two, please don't fight when the children have arrived," Hen sing-songed, appearing from around the side of the truck with a clipboard that she was writing something on. Perhaps tracking the inventory of items that had been removed to ensure everything was returned later. "Especially when one of those children belongs to Eddie."

Buck tried desperately to maintain a serious and dignified expression when he met Eddie's eyes.

"Who's one and who's two is the real question," Eddie muttered to him and Buck made a rather undignified snorting sound that left Eddie laughing.

"You're older. That makes you idiot one, right?" he teased before checking his shirt was tucked in and his collar was correct and brushing nothingness off his shoulders just for something to do.

He had a feeling Eddie would have made a joke him about looking nice for Christopher but Eddie was doing the exact same thing.

"Hi!" A bright, light voice pulled him out of his fussing. Bobby strode past him and Eddie to shake the teacher's hand. She was an older woman with blonde hair, wearing a lavender cardigan over a grey dress. "I'm Mrs Roberts. Thank you so much for doing this! The kids are so excited."

Behind her, at least two dozen kids stood in pairs. Towards the back, Buck could spy Christopher craning to see them. Beside him was another woman who was younger, with brunette hair and dark eyes that were sweeping over the station to take it all in.

"Not a problem at all, ma'am. We love teaching the kids about fire safety and reducing anxiety about calling 9-1-1." Bobby released her hand and turned towards the assembled kids. "Well? Don't just stand there, everyone! Find a seat so we can show you all the cool things!"

Buck noted the way Eddie shifted and glanced at him, spying the fidgeting hands at his sides like he longed to approach Chris and give him a hug when Chris waved at them. He pressed his lips together to avoid smiling and focused on the role he was meant to play in their presentation by demonstrating equipment and talking about his role in the team.

Even though he knew Chris's sole focus was on him and Eddie which made him want to stand taller, it was easy to slip into going through the motions after they'd done so many presentations to so many groups of kids, like Harry's school group last year. He held up the saw when required so that Eddie explained what they used it for, then they swapped roles so Eddie could hold up the jaws and Buck provided the explanation. Bobby periodically asked the kids questions and took turns choosing the volunteers from the flurries of hands that went into the air. Hen and Chim talked through some of the basic medical procedures for saving a life and explained the importance of calling 9-1-1 and listening to the operator's instructions. They showed some of the equipment they might use in life-saving circumstances, like the defibrillator, and why it was so important that a call was made as soon as someone didn't seem okay.

Once the main portion of the presentation was out of the way, it was time to divide the kids into exploring the trucks in a small group or providing a quick tour around the key areas of the station.

"Have fun," he muttered to Eddie, who was on truck exploration duty. It was usually the least exciting, but most demanding, job because you spent most of the time telling the kids not to push the buttons or twist the dials. Bobby had stuck Eddie on it for a while now because, as he explained it, Eddie had a way of 'keeping the kids in line' when he requested they just look at the control panel and climb into the truck. Even so, Eddie's nose wrinkled while Buck skipped away, finding his small tour group of restlessly excited youngsters accompanied by their teacher. When he glanced over at the truck, he saw the other brunette woman leading Chris toward the vehicle and Eddie holding out a hand to his son.

"So, who's ready to see all the parts of the firehouse?" he said, turning his attention back to the kids and flashing them a huge grin.

A chorus of high-pitched "Meeeeeeeeee!"'s greeted him and he gave two thumbs up, gesturing to the kids to follow him. He pointed out the bunk room and the locker room, explaining that sometimes they had to catch sleep whenever they could because a 24-hour shift was exhausting if they hadn't slept. The gym hardly needed an explanation but one kid with pigtails asked how often the equipment was used if they were out saving lives or sleeping so much. Her eyes went very large when Buck explained that there were some people who preferred to be in the gym instead of sleeping, and several kids tittered at the idea of no sleep.

He led them up the stairs and showed off the kitchen area and a young boy whooped at the gaming console attached to the television, which made Mrs Roberts remind him about keeping his reactions appropriate. Then he took an even smaller group of kids who weren't afraid of heights across some of the upper rafters that criss-crossed the firehouse, explaining how useful it was to be able to see the top the trucks after a call to check everything was safely cleaned and stowed.

With his first tour finished, he pointed towards the stairs and they followed Mrs Roberts so they could start climbing through the trucks.

"Mister Fireman?"

A small tugging on his shirt drew his attention downwards to the girl with pigtails. Her hands were covering her face but there was already blood leaking past her clamped fingers.

"Uh oh." He blinked several times, then cast his eyes around. Everyone else had already gone downstairs. "Uh- Alright. Come with me." He patted the back of her shoulder, steering her towards the kitchen where he grabbed the roll of paper towels. Tearing off several strips and dampening them with water, he crouched in front of her. "Let me have a look, sweetheart."

Eyes welling with tears, she lowered her blood-soaked hands to expose the smears of red over her cheeks, mouth and chin. "Is it really bad?" she whispered, bottom lip quivering.

"Nah, honey. I've seen worse," he said, offering her a gentle smile to try to comfort or calm her and holding up the paper towel. "Do you want me to do this?"

She nodded, a tear slipping down her cheeks.

He lightly dabbed at the blood near her temples that had to have been smeared by her fingers. "Does it happen often?" he said, deciding to run some light diagnostics while he cleaned. She wrapped her hands around his arms, her big blue eyes sad.

"Sometimes." She made a small shrugging motion. "It's more common in summer but it happens at school too for no real reason."

"That sucks, kiddo." He kept cleaning, occasionally pulling her jaw down slightly so that her head tilted forward and allowed any other blood to trickle free. "It's not much fun to be seeing your own blood, huh?"

Damp eyes blinked at him. "I- I can taste it in my throat and mouth too. It's yucky."

"I'll get you some water after this, okay?" He wiped carefully at her lips, then rid her jaw of the lines of red. "Almost good as new."

Her smile wavered. "Thank you, Mister Fireman."

"Buck," he said, offering her a smile that she tentatively returned. "You know Christopher? He's the son of my best friend, Eddie."

"You're friends with Chris and Mister Diaz?" Her eyes grew very wide, her lips parting in excitement. "Chris is so cool! He's always smiling and laughing and he draws the best pictures in class! I like him! He's really smart and funny!"

"That's great to hear. I think he's pretty awesome too." Blood gone, he gave a satisfied nod and threw the paper towels in the trash then filled a glass with some water. "C'mon. Everyone's probably wondering what happened to us and you've still got a truck to check out if you wanted."

She nodded, bouncing on the balls of her feet as she descended the stairs and joined her original group that was gathered by the truck near Eddie.

"Chim took the other- Wait. What the hell happened to you? Whose blood is that?"

Buck followed Eddie's panicked stare to his wrists and arms, which were covered in blood stains.

"Oh. Uh- The kid-" He looked around until he found her sitting in one of the chairs, sipping from the water and swinging her feet. Realising he had blood on his arms from her hands meant he hadn't thought about cleaning her hands because he'd gotten distracted talking about Chris and Eddie. "Nosebleed."

"Oh." Eddie still stared at him, lips pressing around words that maybe weren't appropriate for small ears to hear. "You, uh- You should probably clean that up. It'll freak the others out. It'll definitely scare Chris when he sees you."

Hearing that made it clear that he probably did look like something out of a zombie movie and the last thing he wanted to do was scare Chris. "Yeah, yeah. Okay. Are you cool with the kids?"

"Go," Eddie insisted with a wave and Buck jogged towards the bathroom to clean up.

When he got there, he could see why Eddie had stared at him in such fright. Somehow, there was also a child-sized handprint of blood on his face. He couldn't try to explain that one, he didn't remember the girl touching his face, but he scrubbed it off anyway and then noticed darker splotches on his shirt which could've been water or blood. Deciding not to take any chances, especially if they had a particularly messy call, he unbuttoned his shirt and went to retrieve a fresh one from his locker.

He was still buttoning it when he emerged and returned to the gathering of students hovering near Hen and Bobby and still asking a myriad of excited questions. The young brunette that had seemed to be accompanying Chris was now standing closer to Eddie and Eddie, Buck couldn't help noticing, looked relaxed with a faint smile on his face as he leaned against the truck.

"You know, the navy uniforms look good on you," she was saying as Buck approached them. Her voice was sweet but her eyes raked over Eddie with unmistakable interest and Buck had to fight the urge to laugh, vomit or bite her head off. Even at work, even in the station with Eddie's kid nearby, some woman was using the sort of pickup lines that Buck had usually heard at seedy bars in the early hours of the morning. "It really brings out your eyes."

"I think it's just so that you don't see all the bodily fluids we encounter," Eddie replied, clearly not giving her his full attention, but the woman seemed unperturbed by the gruesome image that Eddie was apparently trying to conjure.

"Black would be a good look too," she continued and Buck rolled his eyes and detoured, seeking Christopher sitting beside the girl with pigtails.

"Hey, champ. Did you have fun?" he said, crouching by Chris' seat.

"Buck!" Chris wrapped his arms around Buck's neck in a clumsy hug. "It was the best. Thank you."

"No problem, kiddo." Buck ran his fingers through Christopher's curls and then held him with one arm while he looked the girl over. Her hands were clean. He wondered if Eddie had helped or someone else in the station had intervened. "Your friend here had a bit of a nosebleed earlier. You think you can keep an eye on her til you get back to school in case she needs Mrs Roberts' help?"

"Why didn't you tell me, Amanda?" Chris demanded, sounding every bit like his exasperated father as Amanda tugged at one of her pigtails shyly.

"I didn't want you worrying," she said, eyes huge as her gaze shifted between Chris and Buck. "Mister Buck took care of it for me."

Chris shook his head even as he leaned into Buck. "Thank you for helping Amanda, Buck."

Buck fought his smile as he squeezed Chris. "Not a problem, bud. How are you feeling now, Amanda?"

She offered a nervous smile and held out the empty glass to him. "Better. Thank you for the water."

Collecting the glass, he gave one last squeeze to Chris before releasing him to sit next to Amanda again. "Helping is what I'm here to do." He gave a brief pat to the top of her head and then went upstairs to the kitchen to get rid of the glass. The last thing he needed to do was put the glass down and it broke because someone didn't know it was there, scattering shards far and wide and potentially damaging a truck tyre when they rolled out to a call.

Soon enough, the excursion of kids had disappeared back to the bus and the clean-up of the tools and equipment began. As far as Buck was concerned, it was the worst part about the whole exercise. Even more than being stuck on truck exploration duty and pleading with kids to leave the oh-so-tempting dials and buttons and switches alone.

On one of his trips back and forth, Buck passed Eddie whose eyes were distant and his brows were slightly furrowed.

"Hey, you alright?" he said when Eddie joined him by the side of the truck a minute later, a coil of rope around his arm.

"Yeah, just…" Eddie shook his head as if to dislodge whatever was stuck in his head, the frown deepening. "Just thinking, you know?"

"Yeah." Buck lifted the jaws back into their compartment, checked everything was tucked in securely, and then shut the door. "Don't hurt yourself with it though."

Eddie hummed as they returned for another load. "What would you do if you got someone's number?"

Buck almost tripped over his own feet when he immediately thought of the brunette that had been unashamedly flirting with Eddie. It was an odd question, completely out of the blue, but given the way she'd sidled up to him, complimented his uniform… There was absolutely no one else it could have been. His heart flared with something hot and painful that he refused to acknowledge for long. He balled his hands before moving to lift the next item, purely as a distraction from how he felt.

"Call it and see where it took me," he said with a shrug, needing to play it cool and like he was entirely unaffected because Eddie deserved to be happy, and Eddie deserved to move on if he felt like he was ready. Buck had already accepted that nothing could ever happen between them and who was he to be the gatekeeper for his best friend's happiness? "It's a new year, remember? Leaving last year behind?"

"Yeah, I guess," Eddie mumbled, surveying the remaining equipment scattered across the floor.

Buck wondered how much Eddie was thinking about Shannon, and how much Eddie might always think about Shannon, and how much Eddie might never be able to stop thinking about Shannon.

Every pulse of his heart left a new bruise against his ribcage that he wasn't sure he'd recover from.


It was impossible to ignore how frequently Eddie checked his phone during the next shift. It was something Buck hadn't seen him do since Shannon had re-entered his life a year ago and it made his skin crawl. He tried to focus on other things, anything else, but it was damn hard when Eddie seemed to be around so often with a slight smile on his face when he withdrew his phone to check it, tapping at the screen before pocketing it again.

Even on the calls they had to make, Eddie didn't seem entirely present and Buck knew Eddie was wondering if he had any fresh texts.

"That look will give you wrinkles early," Hen teased, elbowing him as she sat beside him on the couch.

"Have you ever wanted to hate someone?" he said, voice edged with more darkness than he would have liked. Her eyebrows rose, lips pursing, as he exhaled and tried to lessen some of the anger coursing through him.

"Depends. Who are we hating? And why?"

Buck shook his head, flipping through the magazine. "Nothing. Forget I said anything."

"Buck." Her hand touched the back of his arm, something softening in her eyes and her voice as she gazed at him. "Are you okay?"

He gritted his teeth and gave her the most forced smile he'd given anyone the last few months. "I'm fine, Hen."

She didn't look like she believed him for a second but she also didn't push.

He wasn't sure he would have coped if she had.

The loathsome feeling he was starting to suspect was jealousy was sickening. He should just be happy that Eddie was happy, right?


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 4,840
Warnings/Spoilers: None in particular for this chapter.


The colours of the television blurred in front of his eyes as he clicked through the channels, voices talking over voices and music chopping to other music. He should have gone to bed an hour ago but he was restless for no apparent reason and the thought of going to bed, the very idea of feeling like this and trying to close his eyes, was enough to make him shudder. Changing channels, staring at flashes of faces or fuzzy shapes, was at least a better distraction to the silence and his thoughts drifting to the tsunami.

There was a knock at his door, almost hesitant, and he frowned. Abandoning the remote and leaving the television on some random show, he opened the door and knew his frown hadn't abated when he saw Eddie shifting his weight from foot to foot.

"Hi?" he said, gaze sweeping over Eddie's jacket and jeans and scarf combination, his cheeks and eyes slightly red like he'd spent a lot of time outside in the winter wind or he'd been crying.

"Hi." Eddie's eyes wandered aimlessly, fingers twitching at his sides. "I, um… I was in the neighbourhood and I- I hope you don't mind that I'm, um…dropping by unannounced."

Buck's gaze narrowed. "It's…fine. Why were you over this way?"

"No reason," Eddie shrugged, but he still wouldn't meet Buck's stare and that said volumes more than his quiet words. "I was, uh… I just thought of you and… I mean, I didn't know if you'd still be awake but I thought I'd, um…stop by. If I could. If that's okay."

Buck hesitated for a moment before standing aside, motioning Eddie into his apartment because he really couldn't turn Eddie away when he looked seconds away from skittering away. "It's okay. I couldn't sleep anyway and was looking for something to watch on TV."

Eddie's fingers fiddled with the buttons of his jacket but he wasn't undoing them. It looked like he just needed something to play with and Buck felt the hairs at the back of his neck rise at this version of Eddie, the one who appeared to be unravelling at the seams but couldn't find the words to admit it.

"Come here," he murmured, fingers catching on Eddie's coat and tugging the other man towards him.

Eddie inched closer, allowing Buck to push buttons through button-holes and peel the jacket from his shoulders, exposing the navy button-down shirt underneath. He didn't comment on the small shudders rippling down Eddie's spine and evidently moving across his shoulders as he unwound the white scarf from his neck, hanging both articles of clothing on the coat stand by his door. He didn't comment on the thin ring of colour around Eddie's eyes which left him looking slightly unhinged. He didn't comment on the way Eddie's mouth seemed to twist around unspoken words, his throat tensing from time to time as if he was preparing to say something that then never eventuated.

He observed Eddie, weighing his options. "Do you want a drink?"

"No, I… I'm good."

Lost for what to do, Buck tilted his head towards his couch and Eddie gave a tentative nod, toeing off his shoes as Buck returned to his living room area. Buck settled against one end of the couch, patting the space in front of him when he saw Eddie's eyes darting around like they hadn't done this multiple times before. Eddie's lips pressed together but eventually he settled in the space between Buck's legs, stiff-backed with slight trembles still travelling through his frame.

Buck adjusted some of their limbs to find a more comfortable position, one arm curving against Eddie's back and the other running lightly through his hair. Curled together like this, he could feel the tension Eddie was holding in his body and the shallow inhalations that he couldn't possibly miss. He wondered what it was that had triggered such a reaction and where Eddie had come from and whether he planned on staying overnight when they had a shift tomorrow.

"You can tell me anything, you know," he murmured after at least ten minutes of silence had dragged out between them without a sound from Eddie. The jerky nod he received did little to soothe his concerns but he kept running his hand through Eddie's hair, fingers curling behind his ear and over his jaw or the back of his neck from time to time because Buck knew it helped comfort Christopher.

One show had seeped into another show before Buck felt any of the rigidity in Eddie's posture start to unspool, but he held in his words and his questions because he didn't want Eddie to clamp down again. He knew the sort of courage that it would have taken Eddie to show up in such a state and he knew how easily Eddie could turn up for work with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Buck wasn't willing to jeopardise Eddie starting to relax by poking around with intrusive questions.

"I wanted… I wanted to fight tonight," Eddie whispered, halfway through whatever colour and noise concoction was spilling light and sound into Buck's apartment. "I wanted to go to a fight and break something but I knew I couldn't because you know, and Bobby knows, and we have work tomorrow and I… I didn't know what else to…to do."

Buck brushed the softest of kisses against the top of Eddie's hair, clenching his eyes and fighting to regulate his breathing and heartbeat and thoughts to not betray how Eddie feeling like that and coming to see him made him feel. He increased the pressure of his arm around Eddie's quaking shoulders, as if that could somehow keep Eddie together better. "Then I'm glad you came here, man," he said, nosing at the top of Eddie's hair and listening to him release a shuddering exhale. "Is this okay?"

"Yeah, this is… It's good." Eddie gave a small nod, cautious fingers tangling into Buck's sweatshirt. He went quiet, another swirl of colour and light and muted sound before he spoke again. "Thank you, Evan."

"Any time," Buck assured, a promise he would keep up to and including the point where Eddie hated him, died, or started dating someone. He just hoped Eddie didn't feel the way his heart spasmed at those thoughts. He couldn't imagine losing Eddie from his life but he also knew friendships could disintegrate and he'd come close to ruining what he had built between them last year.

"Is Chris with Abuela?" he said, drifting his fingers over the swell of tense muscle he could feel in Eddie's arm and trailing them towards his wrist.

"Carla," Eddie mumbled, a sharp inhale sticking in his throat. "She- She picked him up from school."

He nodded even though he blinked at the confession, because Chris would've finished school hours ago. Had Eddie been feeling like this all day? He remembered what Eddie had said about being in Buck's neighbourhood. Had he been circling around, trying to work up the nerve to knock? It made him hurt just to think about it.

"Do you… Do you want to talk about why you wanted to fight?"

The silence settled again for a long time again, a heavy cloak that Buck was in no hurry to dislodge when he felt Eddie's shoulders tense again at the question. Eddie would, or wouldn't, talk in his own time. If he'd wanted to say no, he would have. If he really hadn't wanted to talk, he would've exploded and stormed out. Staying put meant he either wanted to talk or he was even more scrambled than Buck had suspected, but at least he stayed. He didn't see Buck's question as a threat or a demand and that seemed like a minor victory.

"You're coming to Christopher's party on the weekend, right?"

Buck startled slightly at the abrupt change in topic, the sudden question in the relative silence of his apartment. He rested his cheek against the top of Eddie's head, wrapping him into a loose hug. "Of course, man. Wouldn't miss it for the world."

"Okay." Eddie's hand uncurled and curled again, like he was trying to remind himself he had something to hold onto or maybe because he'd wanted to let go and then decided he couldn't. "Okay."

Eddie didn't end up offering an explanation. He stayed overnight but insisted he wanted to be on the couch on his own which was…weird but Buck allowed him the space. He was disappointed to find Eddie had left before Buck descended, but he was absurdly grateful that he'd repaired things with Eddie enough that the other man showed up to be held instead of being beaten up to the point of bruises and blood and broken bones.

The fact he didn't know what had left Eddie so on edge seemed a small price to pay for the continuing secrets and assurance of his safety.

When he checked his phone while nursing a coffee, the corners of his lips upturned at the simplicity of Eddie's message printed across his screen:

thank you

He traced his fingers over the message, bottom lip caught between his teeth, before he typed out a response:

call me if u need anything
any time

By the time he arrived at the 118 for his shift, Eddie was dressed and his eyes were clear and he was joking with Chim and Hen between calls like nothing had ever been wrong the night before. It hammered home that Eddie could've shown up to dozens of shifts and seemed like his regular self even when he'd been falling apart.

Buck tried to pretend he didn't feel cold inside at the thought.


He bounded up the stairs to Eddie's front door, the package wrapped in Superman paper tucked under his arm. He smiled at the small collection of multicoloured balloons strung to the doorknob of Eddie's house and could hear the buzz of noise inside the house of people talking above the low beat of some sort of music. He steeled himself against it, fully aware that Eddie's family was also inside which just made this whole party thing even more daunting than it would've been.

"Buckaroo!" Athena hollered when he passed the kitchen. He winced around a smile, retracing his steps to wave and ducking his head slightly when everyone from the 118 started calling greetings to him.

"I need to-" He pointed further down the corridor and Athena and Maddie made little shooing gestures, so he continued walking until he located Eddie hovering in the doorway of the living room and watching Chris play games with Denny and other kids his age who were probably from his school. "Hey, sorry I'm late," he said, brushing their shoulders together and trying to dispel some of the rigidity in Eddie's posture that screamed how much of an overprotective parent he was trying not to be.

"I'm not the one you need to apologise to," Eddie said, but there was no heat in his words when he offered Buck a small smile and nodded his head towards Chris. "He's been waiting for you all day."

"Better make up for my disappointment," Buck joked and Eddie snorted and elbowed him, nudging him towards Chris. Buck deposited the present on the dining table and crept towards the back of the couch to approach Chris, covering his eyes with one hand and making the kid squeal and protest his inability to see the game. "What's more important, the game or me?" he murmured into Chris' ear and the kid started laughing, tiny hands moving to swat at Buck's wrist.

"The game, Buck. Obviously," Chris said, tipping his head back when Buck removed his hand and smiling so wide Buck wondered if his cheeks hurt. It was impossible not to smile in return at the happiness in Christopher's expression.

"Well, in that case, I'll take back my birthday wishes and keep them for myself," he teased.

Chris held up his arms and Buck dragged him until his feet were on the cushions, keeping his hand on Chris' waist for steadiness when the kid wrapped his arms around Buck's shoulders for a hug. "But it's my birthday!" Chris protested, poking his fingers into Buck's shoulders.

"Oh, is it?" Buck glanced around in mock surprise, pretending to notice the assembled Diaz family members in one corner for the first time. Eddie's Abuela was smiling at them even as she listened to something Pepa was saying. "So that's why there are all these relatives of yours here and everyone said it was so important I get here."

Chris pulled back from the hug, patting his cheek and giving a small shake of his head even though he was still smiling. It was the sort of look Buck had seen on Eddie more times than he could count. "You're silly, Buck."

"I just like hearing you laugh," Buck said, smiling as he ran his fingers through Chris' hair to adjust some of the curls and then fixed the slant of the cute striped cardigan he was wearing. "Happy birthday, little man."

"Thank you!" Chris grinned at him, all teeth and scrunched eyes behind his glasses. "Now, can I go back to my game?"

Buck chuckled and helped spin Chris so he could plonk him back on the couch and resume the game he was clearly invested in. He wandered over to Eddie, who was still in the doorway but now biting his bottom lip in an attempt to hide the smile that had made the dimple reappear in his cheek.

"Don't take it personally. He doesn't get to play games here much."

Buck sniffed and tipped his head dramatically towards Chris. "I will so take it personally. So much for thinking I'm important."

Eddie's laugh trailed after him as he returned to the kitchen to those from the 118. He instinctively moved towards Maddie first, draping an arm around her shoulders. She tangled her fingers into his hand where it hung from her shoulders, squeezing it as he dropped a kiss to her head and squeezed back.

"Glad you made it. We were starting to think you got lost," Hen said and he stuck out his tongue at her.

"She's not wrong. You've probably been to this place more in the last month than we have in our entire time working with Eddie," Chim said and if they'd been at the station, or Maddie wasn't around, Buck probably would have flipped him off.

"Traffic was hell," he said with a shrug, smiling slightly when Maddie's arm slid around his back. "I'll make it up to Chris later."

"Sometimes I forget that kid is Eddie's, not yours," Chim said and Buck started imagining places to hide his body.

The conversation shifted away from prodding at his connections to Eddie and Christopher, thank God, but that didn't stop Hen and Chim from ribbing him for his familiarity with Eddie's kitchen when a Diaz relative appeared and started searching for something Buck could locate easily. When he grew tired of feeling like the two were setting him up for something he didn't want to understand, he motioned to Bobby across the room that he needed a word. Bobby followed him out of the house and they stepped outside onto the porch at the same time as a wind swirled down the street, making Buck pull his jacket tighter across his shoulders to block it out.

"Buck?"

"I-" He bit his lip, eyes darting inside the windows of the house to spy the assembled blood and found-families that loved Eddie and Chris. "Look, he'd hate me for saying anything but- Can we keep this between us?"

Bobby's eyebrows seemed unsure whether they should rise or dip into a frown. It was almost comical that way they jiggled on his face. Almost. "I don't want to agree to something if I'm not sure what I'm agreeing to…"

Bobby's deliberation was…fair, Buck supposed. He'd probably do the same thing.

"I just- I need to know someone else is looking out for Eddie," he said, his words blending as he spoke in a bit of a rush. He wasn't exactly thrilled to expose any part of how Eddie was coping right now but he'd had several restless nights after the shift where Eddie had seemed completely focused and okay even though the night before he'd been shaky and wanting to go to a fight. "With- With the fighting, you know?" He saw something flash through Bobby's eyes which made him hastily explain, "He's not. Fighting again, I mean. I know he's not. But I- I just worry? Still?"

He sounded like a bumbling fool and he wanted to smack himself in the head. Repeatedly. He'd been debating saying something and saying nothing to Bobby for days. Perhaps he should've gone with the 'nothing' option.

Bobby's eyebrows finally settled on lowering, the assessing and calculating look that Buck knew all too well from his rehab period drifting into his gaze. "Do you know something more than you're telling me, Buck?"

"No." It was a little too fast, and a little too sharp, and did nothing to sound anything less than a complete lie. Bobby's face conveyed as much. "No, I just- I- He's my partner, right? And we both know I'm the impulsive one that makes stupid decisions so I- I need you to- to be the level-headed one and take him and his responsibilities to Chris into account on a call just in case he's trying to be a hero or something."

Bobby stared at him, clearly expecting something more specific and Buck was determined not to give it to him. He couldn't betray Eddie like that. He didn't even know why Eddie had wanted to go to a fight but the memory of Eddie's words, that he'd either wanted to take someone out or be taken out, had haunted him for weeks. Knowing that Eddie's frame of mind could've been in that same space again, but he'd acted completely normal on the call, had scared him. So he needed Bobby to pay his partner some attention but he couldn't provide more details because he didn't have them. And his days of trying to work out whether to say something had now left him with this awkward and uncomfortable conversation.

"Okay." Bobby didn't look convinced, or satisfied, but he reached out a hand to clasp Buck's shoulder and squeezed gently anyway. "This was a smart thing to do, Buck."

He smiled, somewhat sheepish and somewhat terrified of Eddie ever finding out that he'd said anything to the Captain. He wouldn't put it past Bobby to confront Eddie in a way that made it clear he knew something which then led to Eddie confronting Buck and- He attempted to derail that train of thought before it sent him spiralling with panic. "Just trying to do right by the team, Cap."

Bobby still seemed to be analysing every reaction, every word, every look, but he let Buck's shoulder go and shooed him back into the house.

"Where'd you two go? Eddie wanted to do cake but he realised you'd vanished and decided to wait."

"Quick chat," Bobby said, circling his arm around Athena and kissing her head briefly. "I'll find him and tell him we're back and ready for the cake extravaganza."

Buck hoped Eddie just assumed he'd disappeared with Bobby for something entirely unrelated as he joined the crowd in the small dining area. Isabel was helping Chris into a seat at the head of the table while his friends clustered around him. Buck could hear Pepa rummaging in the kitchen and calling out in a stream of Spanish. Buck hung back in the doorway, observing the beaming smile on Christopher's face as conversation bustled around him. It still took his breath away, sometimes, how suddenly he could get smacked in the chest with a wave of emotion when he realised how close he'd come, how close they'd all come, to losing Christopher in the tsunami. Moments like this, watching Eddie's Abuela run her fingers through Chris' hair and Eddie calling a reply in Spanish were moments he tried to commit to memory for when he woke up and questioned why he'd fought to survive all the water.

"You really do love him, huh?"

His eyes snapped to the left where Michael had sidled up to him, a smirk on his face and an arched eyebrow highlighting the amused sparkle in his eyes.

Buck's heart thumped and twisted in his chest. "He's a great kid," Buck said, the words slightly mumbled, but Michael just rolled his eyes.

"Everyone else might be as blind as a dingbat around here but friends do not bat their eyelashes at one another the way you so often do," Michael said, pressing his lips together to stifle his grin when Buck felt his jaw drop in surprise and alarm and fear. Was he that obvious? Did the others know? Did Eddie suspect anything? "Take it from a certified gay, Buckley. I know what I'm seeing."

"I- You- I'm not-" And okay, yes, he knew there was something between them but he knew Eddie didn't feel it and - Jesus.

Michael's shoulders quivered with barely concealed laughter. "Well, if I wasn't certain about it before, I definitely am now. You're as red as a stoplight."

Buck scrunched his nose, lips pressed into a tight line, and resolutely snapped his attention towards where everyone had started to sing a very out of tune and unsynchronised version of Happy Birthday, with Eddie lowering large chocolate cake covered in nine candles in front of a clapping and delighted Christopher. When everyone was done cheering Buck turned to his left, ready to mount some sort of defence against Michael's accusations, but the man was gone.

With a huff, Buck tried to ignore how his whole body felt aflame with nerves.


"You didn't have to stay and help clean up, you know," Eddie said, for the fourth time, as Buck shoved leftover wrapping paper into a bag.

"And leave you with this?" He waved at the chaos that had erupted in Eddie's usually immaculate home. "What sort of friend do you take me for?"

"The one who usually makes the mess in my kitchen and leaves me to clean it up."

"Okay, first of all, rude." He threw the bag at Eddie's laughing head, watching paper spill from the opening as it moved in a perfect, rustling arc. "Second of all, everyone knows that whoever does the cooking doesn't have to do the cleaning."

"Oh, is that right?" Eddie said, throwing the bag back at him where it bounced off his ear and then fell into his arms. "In that case, my life just got a whole lot easier when I do 98% of the cooking around here."

"That was not-" He grunted, picking up another piece of paper that had escaped the bag, as Eddie started chuckling again. "You know, here I was thinking we did the cooking together which meant we had to share the cleaning duties."

"You'd burn my house down if I wasn't right beside you," Eddie pointed out which…was possibly true. But Buck wasn't willing to admit that.

"I'm a firefighter," he said, tipping his head back and squaring his shoulders to find the two inches of height he knew he had over Eddie. "I can avoid burning homes down with my cooking."

Eddie fixed him with a very critical look that was clearly designed to make Buck's confidence waver. "You sure?"

He tossed the bag on the floor with a scowl. "Alright, clean your own house, you absolute-"

Eddie dissolved into fresh laughter at his fake temper tantrum but Buck used it as an opportunity to find Chris in his room. The floor was piled with presents that the kid had been slowly putting away, adding new books to his shelves or placing ornaments on the little desk in one corner and pinning cards to his corkboard.

"Hi, Buck." Chris gave him a little wave and then shuffled over to him without his crutches, wrapping loose arms around his waist. "Thank you for coming today."

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he promised, running his fingers through Chris' hair. "Did you have a good time?"

"The best." Chris tugged free of him and then clambered onto his bed. "I didn't open your present yet, though."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I wanted to open it with just you."

He refused to concede he thought he might have been stabbed in the eye with emotion by a newly-minted nine-year-old.

"Alright." He sat next to Chris as the boy reached for the wrapped box resting on his pillow. "I, um… I hope you like it."

Chris smiled, fingers catching against the paper and tearing. "It's from you, Buck. Of course I'll love it."

It was so simple, so blissfully simple and warm, that Buck couldn't help but wrap his arm around Chris' body and pull the kid into his side as the discarded paper slid to the floor by Buck's feet. Christopher's fingers were less confident with the tab holding the box together so Buck helped with a small tug and then Chris was opening the box.

"Ooooh…" Chris withdrew the small bag with straps, the large yellow C emblazoned against the navy blue.

"It… It attaches to your crutches," Buck said, feeling suddenly awkward and nervous and shy around the kid. "So you can carry little things with you."

"Wow!" Chris squished into his side. "Thanks, Buck! This is awesome!"

"Yeah, but-" He hesitated, fingers curling at Christopher's sides. "Close your eyes and hold out your hands for me?"

Chris looked up at him, a puzzled frown above his pouting mouth before he did as requested. Buck reached for the bag, tugging it out of Chris' hands and opening the zip. He withdrew the figure inside and placed it in Christopher's waiting hands, tiny fingers curling instinctively around the plastic.

"Okay, open."

Chris looked down and made a soft little gasping noise that pulled at Buck's heart in ways he'd never be able to capture or explain if anyone asked. "Oh."

"It's, uh… It's a Marvel comics character. Her name is Silhouette and she's a superhero who uses crutches just like yours," he explained, pausing when Chris looked at him with eyes shimmering with tears. Had he made a mistake? Had he done the wrong thing? Was he not meant to find gifts that reminded Chris he had a disability? It was all so new to him. Had he- "She- She reminded me of you after you've been such a superhero this year and-"

"Buck, I love it," Christopher said with such heartbreaking sincerity that Buck thought he might end up crying. Chris reached his arms up and around Buck's neck, holding on so tight that Buck could feel the small dig of the action figure's crutch in his shoulder blade. It was painful, but not unbearable. "Thank you, Buck. This is awesome."

Buck was only too happy to wrap his arms around Chris in return, clinging to him and inhaling the soft scent of his soap and feeling his warmth. It helped settle all the insecurities and anxieties he'd had since ordering the special gift.

"I need to show Dad," Chris said abruptly, releasing Buck just as suddenly and sliding to his feet with the bag in one hand and the action figure in another. "Dad!"

"Mijo?"

"Look what Buck got me!"

Buck bit his lip as he followed Chris into the hallway, leaning against the doorframe of the kid's room as he watched Eddie crouch in front of Christopher to examine the bag.

"It attaches to my crutches and then this was inside," Chris explained, waving his hand with so much excitement that Eddie had to catch his wrist to hold it still and see what it was. When Eddie looked over Christopher's head to meet Buck's eyes, there was so much emotion in the hazel depths, so much gratitude and warmth and hope and something that Buck wanted to believe was love but would deny because Eddie couldn't possibly-

But there was still a clear storm of feelings in Eddie's eyes and he didn't know what to do with them so he gave a slightly wobbly sort of smile and looked away so he could keep himself composed.

"Did you thank Buck for these very cool presents, mijo?"

"Yeah. He's the best," Chris said with a nod, waving the action figure around again. "He said I'm a superhero just like her, Dad!"

There was a choked sort of laugh that fled Eddie's mouth as he touched a hand to his son's cheek, but his eyes were still fixed on Buck.

"Yeah, you are," Eddie murmured, and Buck – honest to God – had no idea if Eddie was talking to his son or to Buck.

He wasn't about to ask.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 6,029
Warnings/Spoilers: Some significant description of gun violence contributing to dissociation and PTSD triggers in this chapter. Please handle with care.


The feelings that had lain somewhat dormant, certainly unacknowledged, in relation to Eddie seemed to bloom into an out-of-control weed that threatened to knot around his throat and strangle him, or have thistles sharp enough to prick his hands and bleed out, every time he was around Eddie after Chris' party. How he felt was definitely not helped by his increasing awareness of just how tactile Eddie was in the aftermath of the party, mostly because Eddie seemed completely unaware of how Buck flushed with heat any time their hands brushed when swapping bowls or plates, or how he felt some sort of zap whenever Eddie's elbow bumped against his while they ate at the firehouse table, or how he longed for the moments when Eddie's knee would nudge against him as they swayed in the back of the truck on their way to a call and Eddie would flash him a grin that made his heart fall into his stomach.

He almost thought Eddie was doing it deliberately but the casual touches appeared to be no different to those that Eddie shared with Chim or Hen, so Buck chalked it up to Eddie being comfortably handsy in ways that made Buck want to crawl out of his own skin. It was awfully distracting and he was about ready to tug out his hair in frustration and curse Michael into the next century if it meant that the thoughts that kept swirling through his head would finally leave him alone. It didn't help that the way Eddie had looked at him while talking to Chris about his presents seemed to be burned into his retinas and it still had a way of taking his breath away sometimes when he stopped long enough to think about it.

In his latest attempt to avoid thinking about everything that drove him crazy about Eddie Diaz, he was playing Uno with Chim and Hen between calls. He had just put down his latest +4 and declared that the colour was blue when the sirens blared through the station, making them all startle. Buck cursed his luck, knowing Chim would probably claim he'd already taken the four cards and Buck had actually made the colour red by the time they returned. He'd have to try to remember that Chimney couldn't weasel out of it.

"To be continued," Chim sighed, folding his hand to the table while Buck took the stairs two at a time to get to the truck and pull on his hoodie, turnouts and helmet.

There was the typical flurry of movement around him as they dressed before Bobby called out sharply to Hen to bring the ambulance. She diverted to the other vehicle while the rest of them climbed in the rig, strapping on seatbelts. Chim ignited the truck's rumbling roar and Bobby flicked the switch for the sirens and then they were peeling out of the 118.

Eddie's knee brushed against his and Buck looked up with raised eyebrows. Eddie nodded his head towards Bobby in the front seat by way of explanation. When Buck craned his head around to try to get a look, he noticed how stiff Bobby was sitting and the tense look on his face.

"What have we got, Cap?" Chim said, turning to the right when Bobby made a motion at the intersection.

"Hostage situation," Bobby said, his voice tight and slightly strangled. "It's vague on the details as to whether it's a robbery gone bad or a domestic dispute. Dispatch said neighbours were reporting a lot of shouting and screaming."

Buck frowned, glancing back at Eddie who looked just as confused. "And we're going because…?"

"Because the cops requested medical support if this goes south," Bobby said and Buck…really didn't like the sound of that. There was a sense of hopelessness already in Bobby's voice that said a whole lot more than his scant words and he felt any good mood evaporate.

The remainder of the trip was made in silence and Buck became keenly aware of every turn, every bump, every little thing about the trip that sharpened into focus like it did when he worried a call was going to end badly. Ever since the bombing, he found it hard not to think about getting thrown when the truck swung around a corner. Ever since the bombing, he was afraid of worst case scenarios.

Eddie's hand brushed against his, his face almost certainly mirroring Buck's concern. Buck attempted a weak smile and forced his bouncing knee to steady so he stopped broadcasting how not-okay he was to someone that knew him too well.

Chim slowed the truck to a crawl and Buck looked outside, spying the line of police cars blocking the street. It was a safe-looking neighbourhood, with neat laws and white fences and pruned hedges and the occasional flag hanging from a pole above the porch. A robbery gone bad? He was putting money on a domestic dispute which just made him feel sicker when he thought about Maddie and Doug. It was hard to believe she'd finally escaped him almost a year ago. He barely concealed the shudder.

"Keep your eyes alert and be careful," Bobby ordered.

They nodded and descended slowly from the rig, staying close to the side of the truck when one of the police officers hovering at the back of his car gestured at them. Hen joined them a moment later with a medical kit slung over her shoulder.

"Deep breath," Eddie whispered to him and Buck tried to force several breaths deeper into his lungs. It didn't help calm his nerves when he saw Eddie's cheeks were pale, his eyes wide and sweeping across the house that all the assembled police were watching from defensive positions behind their vehicles, guns drawn and trained on the house.

"Sir, I'd really like it if you would leave the house with your hands up so we can resolve this."

Buck could feel the way they all froze, heads swivelling to see Bobby's head inch past the front of the truck to peer around the corner.

"Did you know?" he heard Hen mutter to Chim, who shrugged.

"We just get dispatched wherever we're called. The fact Athena's here? Coincidence or maybe a deliberate request."

Buck felt like his stomach was twisting in on itself.

"I'm not leaving!" a male voice shouted from the house, perhaps near the door or a window. "Not when all of you want to shoot me before I've even placed a foot on the front step!"

"Sir, we don't want to shoot-"

"You cops are all the same! Shooting anyone and everyone! I'm not stupid! You think I'm stupid?"

There was a sharp, too-loud bang and several high-pitched screams from inside the house. Buck flinched and covered his head. The police at their vehicles barely moved but he saw the way the one closest to them adjusted the grip on his gun, the way his jaw clencheda little more. There was a crackle over the radios to convey that this now included a person with a gun who was firing shots.

"I never said you were stupid but that was not-"

"I'm not coming out!" There were two more bangs, another set of screams, and increasingly restless shuffles from each of the police around them. "I'll kill them before I let you anywhere near me!"

"Sir-"

"I said no!"

Eddie shifted out of position beside him, keeping his body low to the ground and creeping towards Bobby. Buck watched in bewilderment and fear because it was these sorts of situations, the ones where he'd had to turn off his emotions, that had made it clear he didn't belong in the SEALs. Their desire for a robot meant he froze in situations where someone desperately needed help and even with all the training he'd endured, even now, he still couldn't shut off how he felt. But the way Eddie moved, carefully controlled with his jaw fixed and eyes blank, made it clear he'd been on the battlefield and knew what he was doing, that he was controlled and utterly aware of his surroundings. Watching Eddie talk to Bobby, the way Bobby shook his head but Eddie was clearly insistent on not taking no for an answer amid furious mutters and rapid hand gestures, meant it was clear to Buck's eyes when Bobby's refusals began to wilt, his shoulders slumping.

He made a small gesture and then Eddie was gone, diving around the front of the truck and out of sight.

Buck felt like his heart just about slid out of his chest and cracked on the asphalt beneath his feat.

"Cap!" Hen exclaimed, perhaps on behalf of Buck or Chim or all three of them, but Bobby looked at her in a way that betrayed he was just as concerned but trusting he'd made the right call.

"He knows what he's doing, Hen, in ways that we can't pretend to know."

There was a tinny whistle in Buck's ears which was intermittently drowned out by the loud whoosh of his heart in his ears. He supposed that sound, at least, should have been comforting because it meant his chest hadn't turned itself inside out to sit on the side of the road.

But he felt as though the whole street had inhaled and now was collectively holding its breath to stop, and wait, and listen.

"Sir, how about this? A show of faith. Send out one of your hostages and-"

"Send out my leverage?"

There was a laugh that was so broken it made Buck's blood run cold and he knew. He knew. This situation wasn't on the precipice of turning bad – it already was bad and it had spiralled out of control before they'd arrived. Maybe that's what Bobby hadn't wanted to say in the truck on the way over. But if Buck could tell from his aborted SEAL training that this was about to become a nightmare from the way the guy laughed, then every officer on the street who had experienced these calls before, and Athena, and perhaps even Eddie, knew that this situation was dire.

"I thought you said I wasn't stupid, lady?"

"If you don't give me something, I'm going to be forced to call S.W.A.T. Do you want that, Sir?"

There was a long silence, the street still holding its breath, still stopped and waiting and listening. In the distance, he could hear a rumbling sound which reminded him of thunder except the sky was a clear blue without the faintest wisp of a cloud.

His eyes widened when he saw a dark, hunched figure dart towards the house, dressed in a vest and a helmet. Even though it was impossible to tell under the tactical gear, Buck could see the navy sleeves of his LAFD shirt and he knew it was Eddie. He could tell when Chim and Hen saw him too from the way Hen reached out to grab at Buck's arm, perhaps sensing that he wanted to run after his best friend and partner and the absolute idiot that he was to drag him out of a dangerous zone that not even the police were daring to approach. Buck would probably shake him within an inch of his life later.

"Sir? I need something from you."

"You're not getting anything!" Another shot, another scream, another recoil from Buck as Hen's grip tightened. "You're not getting me and you're not getting them."

Buck caught a glimpse of a hand from the side of the house and something he couldn't see changed in the blink of an eye.

"Go, go, go," an officer shouted at the same time as a rapid series of shots, screams that were aborted, and Buck closed his eyes and lowered his head because he knew what had just happened without anyone needing to say a thing. It was the sort of conversations they'd had in training, how to tell when situations were going to turn against you and how to cope when they did, and it was those sorts of conversations he hadn't been able to handle with any degree of dignity over his emotions. The loss of victims wasn't something he could accept. So he'd quit.

There were heavy footsteps on the stairs to the porch, the thud of a door being thrown open, yells from officers to see hands, but there weren't shots. There didn't need to be. As loud as everything was, as chaotic as all the shouting, it was also eerily quiet.

Bobby's radio crackled at his shoulder, drawing Buck's attention off the ground beneath his feet. "Suspect down. We need medics!"

Bobby let them go and Buck saw Eddie almost fly around the side of the house and up the steps. Buck lagged behind Hen and Chim, knowing deep in his gut there wasn't any urgency to the call. It wasn't the first time he'd seen gunshot victims, and he knew it wouldn't be the last. Even so, stepping over the man in the foyer who clearly couldn't be saved made his stomach lurch.

Hen and Chim diverted to the left, dropping to the sides of two kids in the family room. Buck caught a glimpse of their faces and guessed they were barely teenagers. Two officers were doing CPR on the chests of the kids while Hen and Chim pressed fingers to pale, blood-spattered necks. Buck's attention drifted, casting his eyes around for Eddie. He saw feet from a room further down the corridor, one foot missing a pink slipper, and he headed in that direction because maybe no one had seen it yet and-

A police officer was leaning against the kitchen benchtop, gun already holstered on his hip. Eddie was sitting on the floor beside the officer, back against the wall, knees half-coiled to his chest, as he stared at the woman. She had brunette hair and a yellow shirt on, but her vacant eyes were on the ceiling, the bloom of congealed blood on her still chest conveying nothing could be done.

Buck hesitated, almost feeling like he should do something for the woman anyway, before his eyes met the police officer's. The guy shook his head and gestured towards Eddie.

"He already declared it," he said and Buck nodded, biting his lip as he moved around the woman and crouched in front of Eddie, deliberately blocking the sight.

"Eddie?" He tried to meet Eddie's gaze but they were unfocused and, when Buck really paused long enough to pay attention, he wasn't blinking. His heart skipped a whole lot of beats because he'd seen Eddie shaken and rattled but he didn't think he'd ever seen Eddie like this. "Hey."

Brown eyes looked at him but there was no recognition. Buck raised his hand, somewhat concerned that he'd make contact with Eddie and then end up pinned to the floor in some sort of choke-hold. It was clear that Eddie was somewhere else. Buck wasn't sure if it was because there was a chilling resemblance between the woman's appearance and the final outfit Shannon wore, or if Eddie had been transported even further back into something that happened in Afghanistan that he'd never talked about.

"Eddie? C'mon. Take my hand. It's Buck, yeah? You're in LA."

A shuddering breath escaped Eddie's lungs, like he hadn't exhaled in several minutes. He blinked, finally, but he still looked completely unaware of where he was. "I- I don't-"

"It's okay," he murmured, grazing Eddie's knee with his fingertips and watching the flickering within the depths of the hazel that had obviously seen too much, that had seen worlds of pain and couldn't process the latest infliction of agony without remembering something else entirely. "It's okay, Eddie. Just breathe for me."

He placed slightly more weight behind his hand on Eddie's knee and Eddie choked on a breath, a tear spilling down his cheeks.

"I've got you," Buck whispered, carefully securing his other hand behind Eddie's neck and scooting closer so he could rub circles around the knob of his spine. "C'mon, man. I've got you. I'm here."

Eddie reached out to him and gripped at his jacket, folding into Buck's chest. With a bit of assistance from the officer, Buck got them standing and then guided Eddie past the woman, and the man in the foyer, and out the front door, and down the steps to the street. He held Eddie against him while steering past anyone and everyone who got in his way. His eyes searched the crowd of officers for any potential danger because long-ago training had kicked in and his instincts and nerves were running high.

Bobby was standing with Athena near the truck, their heads bowed in conversation. As soon as Bobby saw them, he broke away with a question already forming on his lips. Buck shook his head, leading Eddie along the street until they were past the blockade of police cars and the truck and the ambulance. He noticed the S.W.A.T. truck, the guys milling around it with heavy guns strapped to their chest, and kept going until they were multiple houses down the street where a small crowd of people milled around curiously at a timber road block that had been set up to stop them. Perhaps they were trying to determine what had happened to their neighbours. Perhaps they shouldn't learn the awful details.

"Here," he said, ignoring the eyes on them as he positioned himself between the house and Eddie. "Sit here, alright?"

Eddie gave a jerky nod and Buck lowered them to the ground, keeping his arm around Eddie's shoulders and forcing his breathing to stay regular because if he went to pieces out of fear for Eddie's safety and wellbeing, then he stood no chance to bring Eddie out of this. Eddie continued to cling to his jacket, breath shaky and slightly misty between them in the cold January air, and Buck lowered his cheek to rest on top of the brunette hair, his gloved hand cradling Eddie's cheek.

From time to time, he peeked up at the house, watching as unmarked cars arrived and officers in plain clothes arrived. He watched as they drifted around, interviewing some of the officers on site and chatting with Athena before entering the house with notebooks and pens in hand. It was clear they were detectives and he could only imagine the investigation that was going to be launched now to determine what had happened, and what had gone wrong, and what could be done differently next time. He could only imagine how guilty Athena would have to feel that she hadn't been successful in negotiating the guy down.

He watched as Chim and Hen descended the stairs, blue gloves covered in blood, expressionless looks on both their faces as they shook their heads at Bobby. Bobby, who grasped both their shoulders and said something Buck couldn't hear, pointed them towards the truck.

He saw Hen's eyes drift past the truck and catch on them a moment before Chim's did, the small parting of her mouth as she made an inaudible exclamation, and then Buck turned his attention back to Eddie under his arm

"How are you doing?" he said, tracing his hand down Eddie's back and nudging at the top of his head with his nose.

"Don't worry about me," Eddie mumbled and though it was a relief to hear him construct a coherent sentence in response to Buck's question, Buck still could have hit him for the dismissive attitude Eddie held towards his emotions. "I'm fine."

"What do you mean you're 'fine'? You are not 'fine' and it's okay to not be 'fine'." Buck tapped his index finger under Eddie's chin to lift his head and meet his eyes. "And I will absolutely worry about you, Eddie Diaz, so don't even try to stop me from doing that."

A tired smile pulled at half of Eddie's lips, the distance in his hazel eyes gone as he looked at Buck with something sad, something a little broken, that made Buck want to wrap him in the tightest possible blanket and ensure he had a constant supply of hot chocolate available. "Come home with me tonight? I- I don't think-"

Buck's finger shifted from beneath his chin to press lightly against his lips. "You don't have to say anything more, okay? Of course I'd do that."

Eddie blinked at him, something slow and sluggish that still stirred a deep pit of worry in Buck's stomach because Eddie's insistence that he was fine and not to worry was so far from the truth. There was still something haunted in his facial expression, some lack of comprehension that chilled Buck far more than the temperature on the street.

"Thank you," Eddie said eventually and Buck squeezed him, just a little.

"You think you can get back to the truck so we can return to the station? Might be more comfortable to sit on the couch or have a rest in the bunkroom," he suggested, but Eddie shook his head.

"Not sleeping," he said, a slightly childish pout creeping onto his lips. "Just… Yes, station would be more comfortable but I'm not going to sleep."

"Okay." Buck ran a quick hand over Eddie's hair to fix where it had been mussed and fiddled with the edge of his collar. "We'll get you out of this vest and then back to the station."

Eddie seemed surprised when he looked down and saw that he was still in the vest and Buck decided it was better not to ask too many questions or press too hard, too quickly. Instead, he helped Eddie to his feet – pursing his lips to avoid commenting on the way Eddie still sagged into him – and together they returned to the truck. Buck helped with the Velcro straps of the vest and handed it off to one of the police officers chatting with Chim and Bobby.

"How's he doing?" Bobby said, gaze flicking over Buck's shoulder to where he'd left Eddie leaning against the truck, eyes closed and head tilted back as puffs of white breath swirled around his face.

"I think he needs to be wrapped in a blanket and given some hot chocolate back at the station," he replied with a shrug. "I don't think he should be on any other calls today."

"Noted." Bobby shook the officer's hand and then motioned to Chimney. "We good to go?"

"Ready when you are, Cap," Chim said with a vague attempt at a salute. "And you two?"

Buck looked at the house, at where swarms of officers seemed to be going in and out wearing blue slippers over their shoes. There were so many questions about this scene but he would be content never knowing the answers. "Definitely."


No one missed how quiet Eddie was during the return to the station, how stiffly he sat on the couch with a blank stare on the television. He drank the hot chocolate that Buck pressed into his hands and he seemed appreciative of the blanket draped around his shoulders because he kept tightening it across his shoulder, but mostly he just seemed empty.

"Are you sure he's going to be okay?" Chim said as they observed Eddie from the kitchen island while Bobby stirred the vegetables they'd chopped into a pan.

"No," Buck said honestly, leaning into Hen's arms that she'd wrapped around his shoulders after he'd sat on one of the stools, "but he knows I'm there for him. I'll keep an eye on him."

"You're a good egg, Buckaroo." She ruffled a hand through his hair and he smiled faintly. "Just don't ignore what you need."

"I won't." He would, though. He'd do anything for Eddie, at whatever cost to himself, to undo the damage of the call.

"Has Athena given you any update on what happened?" Chim said, switching the topic to something Buck didn't really care about. It didn't change what had happened.

"A robbery gone bad." Bobby cast a look over his shoulder at them, and then Eddie's huddled form on the couch. The truck has been deployed on two calls since the shooting. Both times, they'd left Eddie on the couch. Both times, Eddie's muscles seemed to be in the same locked position when they returned. "She's sorry she called for medical backup and got us."

"Why? She wishes someone else had to clean up that mess?" Hen sniped, the disbelief in her voice clear as she rested her chin atop Buck's head.

"No, but…" Bobby jabbed his wooden spoon towards Eddie, a fleck of oil flying off the end. "We all know some calls are harder than others. Getting called to that wouldn't be easy on anyone."

"Damn straight, but we know we have each other. Not many other houses are like ours, Bobby. You know that," Hen said and Bobby conceded a nod.

Buck untangled himself from Hen's arms draped around him to return to Eddie's side. He brushed their shoulders together, drawing Eddie's distant eyes towards him.

"Hey." He between the TV and Eddie's face, trying to determine if Eddie had any idea that he was watching a gardening show. "When was the last time you ate? Bobby's making dinner."

"I-" Eddie frowned, swallowed, gave a small shake of his head. "I'm not hungry."

"Okay." He settled his hand on Eddie's thigh, palm up, and waited patiently until Eddie's shoulders sagged a little and his fingers slipped between the gaps in Buck's. He couldn't tell if his heart was beating faster at the gesture or was calmed to something slower. His need to provide comfort, his ability to reach out and touch, his capacity to drag Eddie back from the brink… He was grateful for it and terrified by it. "Is Chris going to be at your place when we get there?"

Eddie shook his head. "I called Pepa when you guys were out and asked her to keep him tonight. I- I really want to see him and hold him until I can't breathe but I- I need to put myself together better first. I don't want to scare him."

Buck squeezed Eddie's hand, thumb tracing over his knuckles. "I'll drive us, okay? We can come back for my car in the morning or something."

"Okay," Eddie said, his voice barely a breath as he held onto Buck's hand like it was the only thing keeping him in the present. Maybe it was. Buck could still see the unfocused edge in Eddie's eyes and the way he couldn't seem to fix his attention on anything around him, like he was still lost in the memories of other times and other places.

When Bobby called them to dinner, he gave Eddie's hand another squeeze - and was only vaguely relieved when Eddie squeezed back - before he moved to the table alone.

"He's not joining us?" Bobby said, his concerned Dad Frown firmly in place above his eyes.

Buck pulled out his seat to sit opposite Hen, a disappointed and anxious tilt to his lips he knew he couldn't conceal. "I'll make sure he eats later." Buck wasn't sure exactly what he could convince Eddie to eat later when he sensed the other man wouldn't eat unless it was forced upon him but for the sake of ensuring he remained healthy and able to look after Christopher, Buck would do his best.


It was clear when they got inside Eddie's house that he really wasn't any more alert than he had been at the station. Eddie had gazed at him while Buck had peeled Eddie's jacket from his shoulders, crouched to untie his shoelaces and then guided his feet from them. Eddie's movements hadn't been exactly robotic getting through the front door but they were clumsy, lacking the precision he usually had. Helping him out of non-essential clothes had seemed...necessary.

"Do you want to sit on the couch? Or- Or if you'd rather go to your bed? There's enough room for both of us there." Buck wasn't unsurprised when Eddie gave a shrug to his suggestions. He hadn't been very decisive since the call either. "Alright. The bed, then. It's more comfy."

He grabbed at Eddie's hand, leading him through the silent hallway and darkened house until they reached Eddie's room. It was as tidy as ever when he flicked on the light and, for a brief moment, he realised he didn't have the usual nerves that filled him when they were in Eddie's room. Maybe it was because everything about Eddie was screaming that he wasn't okay. Maybe it was because this was something they'd done before. Maybe it was because he knew he could keep his feelings contained because Eddie was obviously a mess.

He crawled onto the side of the bed that he always seemed to end up on, extending his arms to Eddie. "Come here," he encouraged and Eddie slipped in beside him like a ghost, curling into Buck's arms to be the little spoon. The small trembles were back. "I'm here, alright? And nothing you could ever say would make me move."

Eddie's hands wound around his forearms, his grip loose. "Appreciate it," Eddie whispered and Buck nuzzled in against the back of his neck, lips brushing the back of his shoulder.

He wasn't sure how long the silence lasted, only that he was glad Eddie wasn't crying. The vacancy in his expression was painful and scary but listening to his sobs? It hurt Buck in an entirely different way to hear the last vestiges of Eddie's control unravel. It felt like he hadn't done enough to provide comfort and care to prevent Eddie disintegrating in front of him.

"Do you… D'you ever think we should just stop this?" Eddie mumbled out of nowhere and Buck frowned, tilting his head.

"Stop what?"

"This. It's… It's nice but… You'll meet someone else and then it'll be…weird. Right?"

There was a beat or ten of silence in which Buck could've said a whole lot of things. It was an opening to admit how he felt, or an opportunity to admit he'd already met someone, or a chance to say he didn't want to meet someone else. He could've even said that there wasn't anywhere else he'd rather be. But all of that freaked him out because it all meant so much, and he didn't think Eddie was in the frame of mind to hear something that heavy. He didn't want to admit his feelings on a day when Eddie was already overwhelmed. If Eddie freaked out and made him leave, he was afraid of what Eddie might do when he was left alone.

So he went for the safer option, the less terrifying one. Not because he was a coward, but because Eddie just couldn't find out like this.

"You met someone. You could be with her tonight." He hoped he didn't sound bitter or jealous to Eddie as he recalled the woman that had visited with the school group.

"Who? Oh. Tessa? No." Eddie shook his head, fingers squeezing against Buck's arms like he needed to remind himself they were still there. "We only went on the one date."

Buck's eyebrows almost disappeared into his hair. He'd assumed they'd gone out with all the phone checking but... "What? I thought-"

"Yeah, she was nice enough but…" Eddie raised one shoulder in a shrug, a soft chuckle falling past his lips. "She was clearly only attracted to the uniform. I want someone that sees me for me, you know?"

And Buck definitely did know the difference. Buck 1.0 knew all about how girls loved the uniform and the truck and Buck 2.0 spent a lot of time resisting it because he was being better to himself and to the people he allowed himself to develop an interest in. Still, he'd thought Eddie and Tessa had been more of a thing after all the phone checking and the smiling. But after Eddie had admitted to wanting to attend the fight, and after Michael's words at Christopher's party, Buck had been paying attention to different things which had obviously distracted him from knowing how Eddie and Tessa's fledgling relationship was developing. He was a terrible best friend.

"You'll find someone," he said eventually, ignoring the wrench of pain in his chest at the words.

"Yeah, I hope so," Eddie mumbled, thumb rubbing against Buck's arm. "What about you? It's been a while since Ali. Have you got anything going on that you've been really good at hiding from us?"

Buck felt like there was a lump in his throat that he couldn't dislodge. He wished he could just say-

"No," he said, wondering if his voice sounded hoarse to Eddie's ears too. He swallowed again. "No, nothing like that. I wouldn't be here if I did."

"Oh? So you'd just drop me because of some girl?"

He snorted at Eddie's indignant tone, nosing at the back of his neck and making Eddie squirm and complain about it tickling. "I wouldn't drop you. I'd just be more…circumspect about my priorities. You really think if I had someone, they wouldn't want to check I was okay after the shift we had?"

"Mmm… Point taken." Eddie tilted his head, ear brushing against Buck's forehead and the tiniest of smiles on his lips. "m'glad you're here though. It…helps."

Eddie really needed to stop saying things like that. It filled Buck with hope, like a balloon that wanted to soar through the clouds. At some point, Eddie would have to hear the impact it had on the rhythm of his heart.

"Yeah?"

"I…" Eddie paused, hands unfurling and circling Buck's to hold them against his chest. If the way Eddie's shoulders lowered was anything to go by, it helped. "I wouldn't want to be alone tonight. Not… Not after…that."

Buck scooted as close as he could, increasing the pressure of his arms. "Lucky for you, I'm not going anywhere."

Eddie hummed, relaxing a little more of his tension into Buck's hold. "Like I said, I appreciate it."


Chris unquestionably picked up on Eddie's subdued mood the following morning. Even as they ate breakfast together around the table and Chris told Buck about what had happened at school during the week, Eddie's eyes were dark and his smile was drawn and his cheeks were pale. When they were finished eating – or in Eddie's case, attempting to eat – Chris tangled his fingers into Eddie's and tugged him towards the couch.

Buck trailed a little distance behind after he'd cleaned away the dishes, watching as Christopher's smile dimmed a fraction when Eddie took a minute too long to arrange Chris in his lap before switching on morning cartoons. It was adorable, and sweet, and yet tinged with the despair that still sat heavily on Eddie's shoulders. Buck hadn't been able to completely erase it overnight. He had a feeling it might take a while.

"Hey Dad?" Chris mumbled, tapping his hand against Eddie's to draw shadowed hazel eyes towards him.

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

Buck could see the way Eddie's eyes reddened, the way his lips pressed together around the rush of tears, and tried to pretend he didn't notice how Eddie hid his face in Christopher's shoulder. He used the opportunity to sit in the armchair, folding his good leg towards him and fiddling with the fabric of his jeans.

"I love you too, mijo," Eddie's croaky voice said after some time, and Chris hummed with a satisfied smile on his face. His smaller hand folded itself inside Eddie's larger one.

There had been many times that Buck knew he loved Christopher and he would kill anyone who laid a wayward finger on him, but it was seeing the way Eddie reacted to Christopher's love, warmth and optimism - the same traits that had helped scab some of the scars in his heart and soul - that made him thank whatever deities existed that Chris had survived the tsunami. If anything could help Eddie heal, Buck knew it would be the shining light of his son.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 4,395
Warnings/Spoilers: There is some discussion about past depressive episodes.


January seeped into February and, with it, an afternoon where Carla needed to drop Christopher at the 118 after school for the final few hours of shift because Isabel and Pepa were busy.

"Dad!" Chris yelled as his crutches clattered across the station floor, spotting Eddie as he jogged down the stairs. Buck followed at a slightly more leisurely pace, knowing he'd never hear the end of it if he didn't greet the kid. Above him, Hen, Chim and Bobby hung over the railing and waved.

"Hey, mijo." Eddie crouched to wrap Chris in a tight cuddle, decorating his face with kisses as Chris broke into peals of laughter.

"You tickle!" Chris protested, bumping at Eddie with one of his crutches until Eddie released him. He grinned when he saw Buck leaning against the truck. "Buck!"

"Little man." He danced closer to run his fingers through blond curls as Chris wrapped an arm around one leg, head pressing against his stomach. "How was school?"

"Great," Chris said with a restlessly excited quiver. "This is more fun though!"

"Yeah?" Eddie eyes met Buck's. "You won't get up to too much trouble, alright?"

Buck's lips tugged into half a grin. "Is that a jab at me or at your kid?"

Eddie rolled his eyes and motioned towards where the other three were still watching them from the balcony above with expressions ranging from hope to amusement to frustration. "It's a guarantee that Bobby will make you wash trucks for a month if you blow something up with Chris here and I will find a way to make you regret every decision that led to the explosion."

Buck's eyebrows inched towards his hairline as Chris clattered away to climb the stairs. "Is that a threat or a promise?"

Eddie chuckled and shoved his shoulder lightly. "Both, you jerk."

Buck watched him chase after his kid before realising he'd neglected Carla. She was still standing by the entrance, a large grin across her face.

"Buckaroo!" she called as he hugged her in hello. "You and Eddie seem to be getting along well."

He stared at her, then glanced back at where Eddie had light fingers on Chris' back to help him up the stairs. "He's- We're just-"

Carla made a knowing "mhm" and a rumbly laugh filled her chest. "You look at him like you used to look at Abby."

"I-" He blinked rapidly, struggling to hold her gaze. "It's not like that, Carla."

She pursed her lips, eyes tracing over him and then up again to fix him to his spot on the floor. "Does he know that?"

Buck wasn't sure what she meant and she'd already left by the time his brain started to feel like her four word sentence hadn't completely scrambled every thought towards Eddie that he'd ever had.


In terms of calls, the final hours of the shift were blessedly quiet.

In terms of frivolity, fun and games… Well.

Chim and Hen had undoubtedly filmed Chris trying to teach Bobby how to floss and sent it to Maddie and Athena. Bobby, to his credit, tried his best while looking equally mortified and lost as he kept banging his fists into his thighs and wiggling his hips the wrong way. Buck wasn't sure if Bobby was doing it deliberately or he really was that uncoordinated but it hardly mattered because Chris thought it was hysterical. Every time Chris cracked up with laughter and started trying to explain again, Buck spied the grin on Eddie's face that crinkled all the way up to his eyes. Buck wasn't sure he'd seen him look so happy since… Well, he could barely even remember. Some of the horror of the shooting call seemed to have eased from his shoulders the more days that passed.

Chim unearthed a bag of marshmallows from the hot chocolate supplies. A very competitive game of chubby bunnies began with them all clustered around the kitchen table. Bobby refused to participate, but he did take photos. And those were probably sent to Maddie and Athena too. Chris started laughing too much while saying "Fwee chuvvy buvvies" and had to give up when one of the marshmallows leaked past his lips. Eddie fell out soon after at five, but Chim and Hen were battling Buck and doing a reasonably good job of it.

"Sevev chuvvy buvvies," Chim said, making Chris erupt into fresh giggles.

"I don't think that was clear enough," Eddie said, waving a hand in front of his throat like he was trying to cut it off. "Too many 'v's, not enough lips on those n's and b's, Chimney."

Chim looked positively outraged, his eyes bugging out almost as much as his cheeks. Hen dissolved into fits of laughter, six marshmallows escaping in a sloppy mess onto the table before she threw her head back and cackled loudly enough to wake the dead.

"Your face!" she squawked as she slapped the table and almost sobbed with glee. "Please tell me you got that, Cap?"

Bobby held out his phone first to her and then to Chim, who choked on his own laugh and sent a marshmallow flying across the room past Buck's shoulder.

Stuck with half a dozen marshmallows in his mouth, desperately fighting the urge to swallow, choke or laugh, he pointed towards his cheeks.

"Fine. Yes. Attempt another one, say it better than Chim, and you win," Bobby said with a roll of his eyes as he positioned his phone to capture Buck's crowning moment.

It was terribly off-putting to have five pairs of eyes on him, plus Bobby's phone, as he decided to squish two marshmallows past his lips just because he knew he could and to ensure he was absolutely an outright winner. He paused, inhaling slowly through his nose to adjust to how full his mouth was.

"Eigh… chu…mmy bummies," he said carefully, eyes roaming between the five of them for confirmation that he had done what he needed to do. Eddie was looking at him with wide, rapidly blinking eyes. The urge to ask why the hell Eddie was looking at him like that wasn't helping. Nor were his attempts to avoid laughing.

"Alright, close enough. Better than Chimney," Bobby conceded after a very long pause.

Chim attempted to mount a protest that he'd try again, that Buck hadn't enunciated the 't' clearly enough, but Buck was already poking his cheeks to get marshmallows under his teeth so that he could chew them. Bit by bit, he mashed and swallowed segments of marshmallow until his mouth was free again.

"So I'm victorious?" he said with hopeful eyebrows and pursed lips in Bobby's direction, much to Chim's chagrin and Hen's amusement and Christopher's laughs.

"This time," Chim hissed, swiping the marshmallow bag and returning the meagre contents to the cupboard for another shift.

Eddie was still staring. Buck arched an eyebrow at him.

"That was…" Eddie shook his head, dispelling whatever had captured his attention and frowning at Buck. "Absolutely disgusting. And a terrible example for my son. You should not be proud of that, Buckley."

"Oh?" He nudged Christopher beside him. "What d'you reckon, bud?"

"I think you looked ridiculous," Chris said, very seriously, and that sent Hen into a fresh wave of semi-hysterical laughter.


Buck stared at the entry to the store with a tinge of trepidation trickling down his spine. Even months later, even when things between him and Eddie were good, great even, he still looked at grocery stores and felt uncomfortable remembering the way Eddie had approached him, eyes narrowed and teeth gritted with such a horrible, hopeless fury pouring off him… Buck never wanted to see Eddie look at him like that again.

"I've got the kid, you've got the list?" he said, running his fingers through Christopher's curls at his hip even as the kid almost vibrated with the excitement of finding the closest piece of sugar, or chocolate, or cupcakes. And given it was Valentine's Day, there were a lot of sweet treats right at the front of the store.

Eddie eyed Christopher dubiously. "I'll try not to take too long. Remember-"

"Say no. I know, Eddie. I heard you," he teased, shooing Eddie away from him so that the other man could get the groceries he desperately needed to stock his empty house as well as obtain food for dinner which was why he'd called in reinforcements by way of Buck to conduct the shopping expedition.

As soon as Eddie was out of sight, Buck looked down at Chris. Chris was gazing up at him with wide, hopeful eyes and a smile as bright as a sunbeam on the coldest of mornings.

"How am I meant to say no to that?" he groaned, rubbing a hand over his face while Chris giggled.


"I feel used," Buck complained as he unloaded another bag of groceries from Eddie's truck.

"It's punishment," Eddie called over his shoulder as he unlocked his front door and ushered Chris inside, out of the cold. Buck pretended his heart didn't do a little uptick at the words. "You should've said no."

"I don't like you anymore," he said, waving a hand laden with bags at Eddie. He knew Eddie was right. Eddie had tried to tell him how good Chris was at getting what he wanted. And perhaps Buck should've said no to Chris but once those big eyes behind his glasses had turned on Buck? And once that dazzling, toothy smile was used? After all they'd been through?

Buck was a sucker for the kid, and he knew it. And Chris knew it. And if Eddie hadn't known it before, he definitely knew it now.

"I'm cancelling our friendship policy," he added as he ascended the stairs.

Eddie's eyes twinkled, fingers twirling around his house key. "You sound like you should be in elementary school with Chris. Should I make an enquiry for you to start on Monday?"

Buck scrunched his nose and pouted, deliberately bumping into Eddie's shoulder as he entered the house and followed the sound of Chris' clattering crutches. Eddie's laugh drifted through the hall from the front door.

"You're coming to school with me?" Chris said, eyes big behind his glasses.

"What? No, I-" He frowned, lifting the bags onto the counter and shook his head decisively at Chris. "Kid, I've already been to school. I'm not going back."

"Oh." Chris' lower lip jutted, but his eyes suggested mischief. "I guess that's understandable. You'd probably break our chairs."

"Break your-? Diaz, your kid just called me fat!"

Christopher broke into peals of giggles and Buck could hear Eddie's shuffling footsteps in the corridor, his barely-concealed snorts bouncing off the walls.

"I'm never going grocery shopping with either of you ever again," he threatened, crossing his arms as Eddie turned the corner and lifted the groceries onto the counter. Buck tried very, very hard not to focus on the way the fabric of Eddie's shirt pulled taut across his back and arms and instead looked to Chris like the kid had betrayed him in the worst possible ways.

"Aww, don't be like that." Eddie motioned towards Chris, who was covering his mouth but clearly still grinning behind his hands and did a little wiggle of unbridled joy. "No one can resist that."

It was true.

Buck didn't think he could resist either of them.

He also didn't think he could resist the way being around these two filled him with warmth and hope and happiness.


"So…" Eddie began once Christopher was tucked into bed, and the leftovers were stored in the fridge to take to their shift at the 118 tomorrow. He flopped onto the couch beside Buck, who had been idly flipping through stations in search of something to watch for a while and in the interests of procrastinating a return to his lonely apartment on Valentine's Day where he could dwell on his failed relationships with Abby and Ali and wonder who might be making them happy now.

"Hm?"

"You gonna tell me?"

He nearly dropped the remote at the tone Eddie used. "Tell- Tell you what?"

"About the tattoo?"

"Oh."

It had been all anyone at the 118 had talked about after they'd returned from the call at the laser tag place during the last shift. Chim kept pestering him, demanding to know if Maddie knew so he could satisfy his curiosity. Hen and Bobby were clearly intrigued, but kept a polite distance when Buck kept repeatedly shutting Chim's lines of inquiries down. And Eddie… Eddie had…seemed almost indifferent about it, somehow.

It hadn't even occurred to Buck that his arm would light up like a Christmas tree after he removed his jacket at the site. The blacklight made it harder to see what they were dealing with but Bobby had sent one of the kids that worked in the place to deal with it. And it was a simple enough call: a girl had run into a barrier in the minimal light and dislocated her shoulder after the laser tag vest had yanked around when she'd fallen. He'd worked beside Eddie and Hen but the ventilation in the place was poor and he'd felt overheated and constricted, so he'd removed his jacket without thinking. It was an easy enough way to deal with how he felt and then return to the task at hand of splinting the girl's shoulder for transport.

"Uh… Buck…? Why's your arm glowing, man?"

For a moment, Buck had startled and been freaked out by the question. What was wrong with him now? Was he radioactive? Was he feeling overheated because he was going to die?

And then he'd turned his arm over to see the glowing words on the outside of his right forearm and realised what Chim had been asking about. The words were invisible in the daylight but they lived beneath his flesh, a constant reminder and mantra. Under the blacklight, they had erupted to life for the team to see.

"Just another tattoo," he'd mumbled, pulling on his jacket despite the speckles of sweat on his brow and concealing it before anyone looked too closely and read the words and started asking even more questions than he already knew they'd have for him.

So perhaps it shouldn't surprise him that the first thing out of Eddie's mouth was to ask about the tattoo. Christopher was in bed, any interruptions were minimised. It was a safe place to share as they reclined on the couch.

"Like I said at the time, just another tattoo," he said, folding his arms over his stomach like somehow that would conceal a tattoo that wasn't even visible under the lights in Eddie's family room.

"Okay." The weight of Eddie's look sat on him for another minute, or it could've been another hour, before he turned his attention towards the TV. "I- I didn't mean to push and make you uncomfortable."

He pressed his lips together, the noise of the TV washing over them, the flicker of light and colour casting shadows across the room. It wasn't even that Eddie asking made him uncomfortable, per se. It was more that the tattoo had been there so long, virtually invisible, and something he could almost forget existed. Suddenly having everyone's attention on him again, when he'd spent the last few months working to prove he was getting better, was unnerving. And this tattoo… Even Maddie didn't know about this one. He'd never told anyone about this one.

"I got it on my twenty-first birthday," he said, his voice quiet but carrying over the reduced volume of the television so whatever was playing didn't disturb Christopher. "It was my first tattoo. A…a reminder, I guess. But it's been there so long, in a spot I can't see easily, with ink that's basically invisible, that I- I've almost forgotten it's there over the years."

He could tell Eddie was deliberately making his breathing shallower so that he didn't miss anything and it made Buck's skin crawl that Eddie was listening so closely. Because every time they were together, Buck became increasingly aware of the fragile thing between them that made his heart skip beats and his breathing shorten and his hands flex with the urge to reach out and touch. And he could. Sort of. Sometimes. Whenever he worked out how to have a tight leash around his emotions and feelings so that he didn't unravel how he felt for his best friend and lose everything that really mattered. Michael and Carla seeing straight through recently him had been unnerving enough.

"If it was a reminder, why…why'd you get it in ink that you can't see?" Eddie said and Buck's eyes slipped from the television to some of the scatterings of Legos on the floor in front of it.

"Because I didn't need or want everyone asking questions about it for the rest of my life," he said, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth as he fought against the urge to speak and the urge to flee like he so often did around Eddie lately.

"Sorry, I-"

"No, it's-" Buck sighed, running a hand through his hair before holding out his right arm to Eddie. It twisted his shoulder, almost painfully, but Eddie's fingers circled his wrist and his thumb traced over where the smear of words were even though he couldn't see them like someone handling valuable crystal. There was almost a sense of reverence in the touch and Buck shivered at how light Eddie's thumb was against his skin, how much just a simple touch could make the spark in his stomach catch into a full flame that threatened to make him shiver. "It's just…complicated."

"Yeah?" Eddie trailed his fingers down Buck's arms until their hands were intertwined, turning his shoulder back into a neutral and more comfortable position. Buck spent a long few minutes trying to ensure his hand stayed steady and his palm didn't start sweating and his heartbeat stayed regular. "You can tell me anything, you know."

A brief burst of laughter escaped him. He rolled his eyes, shooting Eddie a glare even as Eddie's cheeks dimpled around a smile and his eyes glittered in the light of the television.

"That's my line," he protested and Eddie's smile widened, one eyebrow arching in a silent challenge. A challenge of what, Buck wasn't sure. It was hard to think straight when Eddie was looking at him like that. It was hard to even remember how to breathe when Eddie was looking at him like that. The overarching thought he had when Eddie looked at him like that was to lean forward and kiss, and he knew that would be a disaster.

But then Eddie's grin slipped a little, something gentler and more serious shifting across his face. Buck panicked, wondering if he'd broadcast his feelings too openly and Eddie was closing himself off.

"I mean it though," Eddie said, his words mixed in with an emotion Buck couldn't decipher as he gently squeezed Buck's hand. "I can handle complicated."

And Buck…really wasn't sure he remembered what words were or how to use them.

He tore his gaze from Eddie's and fixed it on the television, completely ignorant to what was on. If a police officer had asked him for an alibi beyond "I was on the couch watching TV with Eddie Diaz last night, officer", he wouldn't have been able to state with any degree of certainty whether they were watching a scripted or reality show. He was completely oblivious as his heart thumped uncomfortably hard and slightly painful in his chest, mulling over the words and the ramifications and whether he should say something, whether Eddie was offering him the chance to confess how he felt.

It sank into his awareness at some point that Eddie's thumb was rubbing against his from time to time, which meant the butterflies that kept settling in Buck's stomach were being disrupted into soaring to swirl around his heart. At the back of his mind, he was acutely aware that it was Valentine's Day but this was… He and Eddie were just…

This was not

Right?

He didn't have the words for whatever they were doing.

And he didn't want to ask for clarification and torpedo the best thing in his life.

"It says 'fight forever'," he said suddenly, unbidden. The words filled the silence and he recoiled slightly into himself because he wanted to get up and put distance between them but Eddie was practically holding him in place with their hands folded together. "I- It finishes with a- a semi-colon."

He wasn't sure if Eddie would understand the reference but he heard Eddie's sharp intake of breath and closed his eyes when he felt the prickle of tears because it was clear that yes, Eddie did understand. And maybe Buck should have guessed Eddie would know it. He was a veteran, after all. He probably knew people, or certainly would've known people who knew people. He knew the statistic about veterans' deaths. He would know.

So perhaps he wasn't surprised when Eddie's grip tightened, like he expected – or knew – Buck would try to bolt. He felt the couch shift and couldn't disguise the flinch when a second hand cradled his cheek, tilting his head to where Eddie had to be staring at him.

"I'm…sorry," Eddie said, the words clearly strangled in his throat and unexpected.

Buck hadn't even made a conscious decision to open his eyes but then he was looking at Eddie again, eyes drifting between a face cast in an array of shadows and light and colour dancing off the television.

He blinked, confusion thrumming within his chest. "What?"

Eddie frowned, eyes dropping towards Buck's chest and moving back and forth before they lifted again. "I was- After the clot- And the tsunami-"

"Eddie, no, don't-"

"Let me say this," Eddie insisted, thumb brushing over his cheek and filling Buck's face with undeniable heat. He wondered if Eddie could feel it beneath his palm. It would be terribly embarrassing if he could. At least the lights were dim enough that maybe Eddie wouldn't realise he was red. "I was awful. I was… I told you to suck it up. To move on and get over it. And I- I let that voice get inside my head, the one from when I served, that…that refused to pay attention to how I was feeling after Shannon died, or how you might be feeling after everything and-"

"Eddie-"

"I'm sorry," Eddie said, adjusting the angle of his head to stare at him, through him, into the parts that Buck tried valiantly to hide from everyone, including Maddie. That Eddie could pierce him with such a knowing look, and simultaneously look so devastatingly apologetic, scared the absolute shit out of Buck. "It- It's not good enough to say 'if I'd known' because that's just an excuse but Buck-"

"I know, okay?" He squeezed Eddie's hand and wished he could short-circuit all the anxiety that was clearly buzzing through Eddie just to stop this whole thing. "I don't hold it against you."

"But-"

"Eddie." He placed his hand against Eddie's chest in an attempt to quell the panic, only realising how thoroughly tangled their arms were becoming a heartbeat too late when he felt Eddie's heart against his palm. "Stop. Okay? I didn't tell you so that you could freak out on me. You can't honestly make this into a thing about you."

Some of the wide-eyed fear in Eddie's eyes lessened and he tried to remember how to breathe when he could feel the stutter of Eddie's heart.

"I got it a long time ago, remember? Buck as a teenager was messy. Buck as an early twenty-something with no clear direction and no older sister to smack me over the back of the head from time to time was messier."

A wobbly sort of smile twitched his lips because he didn't want to talk about any of this. It was why he hadn't wanted to say anything to anyone at the 118 about what the tattoo said.

"I didn't want anyone seeing it then, and I didn't want anyone knowing it existed, so I got it in ink that you can't ordinarily see. And if Maddie knew-"

He hesitated, swallowing the ball of emotions that knotted in his throat because the thought of Maddie ever finding out just how dark he'd once felt scared the absolute hell out of him.

"I don't want to see the scared look in Maddie's eyes that you're giving me right now, okay? Because it marked a transition point in my life and I've had others since then that have led me to who I am now, to this moment right here. And I'm okay with who I am."

He offered a small smile, trying to seem reassuring because Eddie still looked petrified. "So just- Everything that happened last year- It's a part of me, everything that's ever happened have all created parts of me that aren't going away and some of them aren't as nice as others."

Eddie's eyes flickered like he wanted to ask another question but Buck couldn't let him. He couldn't expose the scars that were seared so deeply he just covered them over.

"Look, Eddie, it's a reminder to keep fighting, y'know? Like Chris said when we were sitting on the truck, I have to be like Dory and keep swimming."

There was a small, cracked sort of laugh that escaped Eddie before he could stop it and Buck rubbed his hand lightly against Eddie's chest. He didn't want to talk about how bodies of water were still a problem, or how some nights were still harder than others, or that he felt twinges in his leg that were phantom pains from months ago. He didn't want to mention how he twitched when someone raised their voice. Not now. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.

"So keep fighting?" Eddie said, the edge of his lips pressing together in rueful resignation that Buck had said as much as he was planning to and that was that.

He nodded, squeezing Eddie's hand and then curling his head to rest on Eddie's shoulder to stare at something on TV he thought might've been a movie. "Fight forever, Eddie."


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 6,257
Warnings/Spoilers: None in particular for this chapter.


"What's all this?" said Bobby in confused amazement as Buck unloaded various containers from a bag.

"Leftovers from dinner last night. We made too much," he admitted, flashing a grin at Eddie who rolled his eyes and shook his head. They'd debated making less but after Christopher had gotten involved in the question about what to make and said "everything" with his cheesy, hopeful grin, there'd ended up being a lot of food made with plenty eaten and plenty leftover. After numerous complaints of being overstuffed, they'd teamed up to make many, many containers of leftover food until Eddie's fridge couldn't take anymore and it had been clear they needed to offload some of the food to the 118. Eddie took several of the containers from the top of the stack Buck had made to start fitting them onto stocked shelves in the fridge.

"'We'? So now you're house-husbands as well as work-husbands and just casually hanging out on Valentine's Day?" Chimney said, peering at the containers with undisguised curiosity. Buck's cooking hadn't exactly been the best of the house when he'd arrived but all the time he'd spent cooking with Eddie the past few months seemed to be helping him burn less things.

"Aww, you almost sound jealous, Chim," Buck teased, slapping Chimney's hand away and tugging the containers closer to him to keep prying fingers from stealing bites.

"Jealous? Hell yeah. You think maybe I can convince Maddie to work dispatch from here?"

"It's a centralised system for a reason," Hen pointed out from the table, sipping her coffee while reading the newspaper.

"Yeah but I could find a way to make it work. Like what if-"

Buck tuned Chimney's inane thoughts out and handed another container towards Eddie without really looking, then turned his attention to folding the bags into a bundle to shove in his car later.

Except Eddie apparently wasn't paying much attention and failed to grasp the container from Buck's hand. It exploded in a scatter of food around their feet, startling everyone and making Buck leap into the air with a hand on his chest as he looked at Eddie.

Eddie, whose wide eyes looked spooked as he surveyed the damage. Eddie, whose wide eyes were slightly unfocused at the edges like Buck had seen after the call where the family were murdered by the would-be burglar.

"I'll get a broom," Hen said, drawing Buck's frown towards her as he started trying to work out what to say to Eddie. Before he could say anything though, the older man had left the kitchen area, skipping down the stairs two at a time before Buck could even react and ask where he was going.

"Typical. He makes the mess and then leaves others to clean it up," Chimney muttered as he pitched in to continue filling the fridge with the remaining containers.

"No, that's not-"

"I'll talk to him," Bobby said, nodding at Buck with an expression he didn't understand, like Buck was meant to grasp some deeper meaning that went flying over his head.

And then Bobby was jogging down the stairs after Eddie and Buck was left with a deep frown and no answers.

Hen had barely swept the food into a pile and Chimney had barely gotten it into the trash when the alarms rang and they all scurried to their assigned trucks. Even if Buck had wanted to ask Bobby what the look was about or nudge Eddie to find out why he was so quiet, he couldn't have because the rundown from dispatch made it sound like they were approaching the sort of call they all dreaded: a fire alarm had gone off in a multi-storey building downtown, with vague reports of smoke, and they needed to help evacuate the workers.

Chim's crackled groan over the microphone was an echo of the groan in Buck's soul. It was going to be a long shift.


Buck was ready to excise his muscles and bones by the time he was done with the shift he had started to affectionately think of as 'Armageddon'. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd gone up and down the stairs with equipment, or how many people he'd guided from various burning floors once the smoke had turned out to be actual flames, or how many victims he'd found on the twenty-fourth floor that he'd had to triage and help carry – at least as far as the stairwell – before handing off to other crews. He was utterly exhausted and the brief nap he'd managed at the house after the call hadn't even made a dent in his fatigue, which was obvious when it had taken several attempts to get his key in the ignition. He'd almost wondered if he should be driving but his apartment was only fifteen minutes away. And once he was home, he'd managed to make enough of an effort to remove his shoes and then he'd slumped onto the couch because the thought of climbing even more stairs to his bed was horrifying.

He awoke with a jolt like he'd been electrocuted, limbs flailing in fright before he realised he was on the couch and precariously balanced too close to the edge. He grew still, silently assessing the aching muscles before he stretched his arms and rolled his neck with a moan. Everything had painfully stiffened during his time on the couch he'd once thought of as comfortable but now that he was awake, he really should move to the bed. He glanced at his watch and calculated he'd been out for a few hours but his eyes still hurt and his-

There was another knock at the door and he frowned, slowly sitting up and kneading his fingers into his thighs to loosen and limber them. He supposed there must have been another knock earlier which had woken him because he couldn't recall any sort of nightmare. It meant whoever was waiting might have been trying to rouse him for a while. He rotated his ankles, the joints popping beneath his skin, before he stood. Everything ached – he'd swear even the nails on his toes hurt – and he could hear the swish of his dragging feet across the floor. He stifled a yawn behind his hand as he grasped at the door handle with the other.

"Eddie?"

Eddie's dimmed eyes and slumped shoulders reflected his exhaustion but his twisting hands and shuffling feet were obvious signs of discomfort and fretting that put Buck on edge. It was barely a month ago that Eddie had looked like this, resisting the urge to fight by showing up on Buck's doorstep. If the urge to fight continued to be so strong, Buck really needed to figure out a more permanent recommendation than cuddling on his couch.

"Hi- I- Um- Can I-?"

Buck stood aside and Eddie entered his apartment, but he paced back and forth like a restless animal and Buck closed the door slowly, trying to determine the best course of action. Eddie had seemed reasonably okay during the shift but the call had been massive, an all-hands-on-desk situation once the flames had started spreading, and he had to admit he'd done a poor job of checking whether his partner was functioning at optimum performance after the vanishing act at the start of the shift.

"Do you want a drink?" he said, because that seemed as good a place as any to break the ice.

"No, I-" Eddie shook his head, scratching at his hair, moving all over the place but with no discernible rhythm. For someone that liked control, it was unnerving for Buck to witness.

"Do you need to scream and rage and throw things?"

Eddie's eyebrows wriggled into an uneven frown before he stopped, visibly hesitating as his eyes flicked between Buck and away again.

"What?" said Buck, eyebrows rising in expectation as Eddie kept looking at him intermittently.

"Weren't you…bothered by being called work or house-husbands?" Eddie burst out and Buck could only blink rapidly for several seconds.

"No?"

Eddie's expression morphed into something even more confused. "Why?"

Buck's raised eyebrows gradually lowered back to something neutral, knowing he was missing something critical to the entire conversation. Maybe it was because he was so utterly exhausted that his thinking was more sluggish than usual. Maybe it was because Michael and Carla had pointed out his feelings and, though it terrified him, he'd accepted his role in Eddie's life and the lack of opportunity to progress further. "It's just…not something I really thought much about?" he said with a shrug.

"But you…you let Chim tease you like that and you- you responded and it- You're not even gay and I-"

"Whoa, why does anyone have to be gay?" Buck said, growing more and more confused.

"Because it- I mean- Usually you call a guy gay and he gets all pissed off about it," Eddie said, still looking wide-eyed and panicked. And Buck…sort of felt like he was looking through a broken piece of glass at something which he couldn't quite put his finger on because Eddie freaking out about this was…weird. So he played dumb because that usually gave him some sort of answer.

"Then I guess it's lucky for us I'm very secure in my sexuality?"

Eddie rolled his eyes, a small huff escaping his lips as he pivoted in the direction of the door. "Right. Great. Okay. Wonderful," he muttered under his breath as Buck grabbed at Eddie's arm, tugging him into stopping. If he ensured his grip was secure enough around Eddie's wrist so the other man couldn't just pull away and flee, then… Well…

"What the hell is galloping through that worry-wart head of yours, Eddie?" he said, gentling his tone when he realised Eddie seemed to be on the verge of hyperventilating and that… Honestly, that was usually Buck's thing when he woke up at night. It freaked him out more than he was willing to admit. "Come on. Talk to me?"

"I was- I'm-" Eddie couldn't meet his eyes as Buck inched closer, rubbing his thumb in slow circles against the racing pulse he could feel in Eddie's wrist. "I was Shannon's husband," he eventually said, and Buck tried not to frown too deeply because yes? He knew that already? Everyone in the 118 knew that already? "But I- We- I didn't know what that meant for her, or us. We married because she fell pregnant with Christopher. But then I was deployed and I- We weren't the same afterwards and-"

Buck grasped at Eddie's other shaking wrist, wondering what tricks he had to try to get Eddie to breathe slowly and calmly rather than the unsteady puffs that were passing his lips. If Eddie was made of nuts and bolts and metal, Buck could clearly envisage him rattling apart into pieces. "Okay…?"

"But then- Chim- And- We- I- I don't- I don't understand what-"

"Okay, okay." Buck tentatively pulled Eddie towards the couch, forcing him to sit and then wrapping an arm around his trembling shoulders. "So what Chimney said made you think about Shannon?" he prompted, searching for some sort of clarity, while Eddie's spine remained as straight and rigid as a steel beam.

"Y-Yeah, but I- I realised- What we do is- Is that- Should I have been like that with her?" Eddie said, in a small and lost sort of voice.

Buck could only blink and then he started lightly rubbing his fingertips into Eddie's shoulder. "I really don't know, man. I've never been married."

"No, it- I know that but- I mean-" Eddie propped his elbows on his knees and threaded his fingers through his hair, heaving a shuddering breath as he stared at the floor. "I never- We were never able to…to just…be there for each other. You and I- We- I never cooked with her like we do, and we'd sleep together but it-"

"I really don't need to hear about your sex life," Buck interrupted and Eddie huffed something that almost sounded like a laugh.

"I just mean- She and I- It was- It was different and- What Chimney said- It- I- It…twisted me up."

Buck rubbed his hand between Eddie's shoulder blades, searching for ways to get Eddie to calm down and breathe evenly although he felt like he was starting to make more sense of this situation. It hadn't even been a year since Shannon died, after all, so Buck couldn't deny that Eddie's wounds could still be fresh and raw. "If him teasing us like that made you uncomfortable, I'll tell him to stop, Eddie."

"But…why doesn't it make you uncomfortable?" Eddie asked, so quietly that Buck might've missed it if he hadn't been trying to catch every nuance in Eddie's behaviour, if he hadn't been trying to catalogue every word to ascertain what the bigger implications of the conversation were.

Buck shrugged. "Because teasing me is what Chim and Hen have done since I arrived at the house. He's also dating my sister, so I see him outside of the station regularly and I've gotten used to him making sly comments about my relationship status or lack of one. I also don't see being called someone's husband, or the implication that I'm gay, as a problem. I- What is it you want me to say here, Eddie?"

"I don't…know," Eddie mumbled, shaking his head and tugging at the ends of his hair.

"Look, if it freaks you out, if it reminds you of Shannon too much, then I'll tell him to stop. There are limits to any joke and I hate seeing you this upset over something he probably didn't even think through before he said it." Buck hesitated, biting his lip as he surveyed Eddie's defeated form. "Are you…you know…angry or upset because someone implied you were gay?"

"No," Eddie said, barely more than a whisper, while Buck kept slowly rubbing circles between his shoulder blades and made a mental note that some of the shallow breathing seemed to have abated. "I- I'm not homophobic, Buck."

"I wasn't saying you were. Just…" Buck sighed, eyes flicking to the ceiling as he tried to compose his thoughts without revealing the soft, vulnerable parts of his heart for Eddie to stab. "Like you said before, sometimes people get angry about it. I guess it doesn't bother me because it's a stupid issue for me to get angry about."

Eddie tilted his head slightly towards Buck. "What do you mean?"

Buck wavered for a moment, debating how much he should or shouldn't say. To hell with keeping this part of his life a secret. "I probably told Maddie before I was even a teenager that I thought her boyfriend was cute, but I almost certainly had a crush on one of her female friends too," he explained, able to still see the faint fuzzy outline of the guy Maddie had dated when she was around fifteen or sixteen if he thought about it long enough. To Buck's child mind, the guy had been tall and strong and made her smile a lot and that made him more acceptable than Doug, who had given him a bad vibe from the beginning. "Our parents were hardly supportive or receptive to any sort of official 'coming out' confession but she knew. She's always known."

Eddie stared at him like an additional thirty-four heads had just erupted from his shoulders. "You're not…straight?"

"If you're asking me if I only exclusively date or hook up with girls, then that would be a no," he said carefully, slowly, faintly afraid that Eddie was about to have a heart attack with how pale his cheeks were. "I don't advertise it around the house because I can only imagine how Chimney and Hen would start pestering me about being single."

Eddie's expression was unfathomable, although there were rapidly circulating thoughts clearly swirling in his eyes. "So you're…?"

"Into everyone and anyone," Buck shrugged, and then he became aware of how his hand was still rubbing Eddie's back. Was it awkward if he stopped now? Was it making Eddie uncomfortable? What if their friendship changed because he'd revealed that part of himself to Eddie? Or what if Eddie stopped coming over? Or no longer wanted to be held after awful days? Buck knew his feelings for Eddie were a complicated mess that he didn't know how to untangle but if he lost Eddie's friendship over this, he wasn't sure if he'd ever truly forgive himself.

"Oh." Eddie's eyes scanned his and Buck held the look, letting this particular vulnerability be seen and scanned and either accepted or rejected while Eddie made his assessment. "I…didn't know."

"Well, now you do. Just…please don't tell the others? I'm not ashamed of it, I just don't need the teasing."

"Yeah, that's…yeah," Eddie mumbled, breaking the eye contact to return his stare to the floor.

Buck decided his hand was a heavy, dead weight on Eddie's back and he'd somehow outworn his welcome in his own apartment. He pulled away, moving his sore limbs towards his kitchen under the guise of sorting out food, or something to keep his hands busy, or something to give Eddie space to process.

He glanced up from his fussing over vegetables from time to time to check where Eddie was, but the man remained on the couch with his head in hands and Buck felt lost. Eddie wasn't usually the one who talked the most between the pair of hem, especially when Christopher wasn't around and even more especially when it came to discussing feelings, but there was something about Eddie which seemed fractured and Buck couldn't tell what it was. He didn't know if he was meant to start cursing Chimney for the initial teasing or himself because of his reaction to the teasing. He wasn't sure what had triggered Eddie more, but it seemed obvious now why he'd frozen while they moved meals around and then fled. And Buck… He should've known how deeply Eddie's wounds ran about Shannon. He should've known that Eddie was still raw about the loss of his wife. Or did he view her as an ex-wife? Buck wasn't sure how Eddie viewed his previous relationship because Eddie rarely talked about it, or Shannon. He could almost believe he knew more about Shannon from Christopher, but even then that image was blotchy because the details were scant with Christopher's underdeveloped memo-

"Why do you always do that?"

Buck startled, barely holding onto the fork in his hand at the sudden proximity of Eddie being a whole lot closer to his kitchen area than he had been the last time Buck had looked at him. It probably hadn't helped he'd moved as silent as a ninja, either.

"Do what?" he said, placing the fork on the counter and turning to face Eddie.

Eddie stared at him with an intensity that made Buck want to look away or pull a blanket over his face. "Hide from your feelings."

He frowned. "I don-"

"You do. You hid the pain in your leg which nearly killed you with the clot. You still ignore your issues with water. You hide from being out with your colleagues because you're, what, not wanting to get teased?" Eddie shook his head, his brows furrowed. "Every time I think I start to understand you, I realise I'm not sure I know you at all."

Buck felt like his blood turned to ice. "If you think I've been lying-"

"No, I don't mean-" Eddie huffed, rubbing a hand over his face and smoothing away some of the frown. "I'm not- I don't care that you feel attracted to anyone, Buck. That's… That's not what I meant."

Buck remained unconvinced and was desperately trying not to cross his arms and start getting defensive. He knew from experience that if he got defensive, Eddie would probably turn into a firecracker and explode. Which would be incredibly problematic given everything beneath them already felt like it was built on eggshells and landmines.

"I- I meant that you open up and you talk about so many things sometimes, and you're so great with Christopher that I think I understand you, that I see the pure joy and contentment in your face you so rarely show any other time." Eddie paused, then took half a step towards him. "And then other times, it's like I have no idea who you are. You won't talk about your parents, you won't talk about what you're afraid of, or what you look forward to, or what you want to achieve, or who you like – your relationships with Abby and Ali notwithstanding."

Buck was starting to feel like Eddie was pinning him under a microscope again and he tried to avoid the restless shifting his feet wanted to do, like stepping backwards every time Eddie moved a step closer to him. What would Eddie say if he was hiding his feelings and fleeing?

"So that's why I asked about why you hide how you feel, because it feels like I don't know you."

Buck watched as Eddie inched closer and closer, and perhaps it was only the harsh dig of the kitchen counter against his back that kept his thoughts from unravelling completely. "Because there's safety in hiding your feelings," he said quietly, wanting to look at anything other than Eddie's intense stare but finding it impossible. It felt like a spell had been cast.

"Why?"

"Because…" He sighed and shrugged and waved his hand around aimlessly. "Because I've ruined friendships with people who are uncomfortable that I might end up liking them even though that's not how it works. Because my parents were a mess of a situation and Maddie and I have spent a lot of time piecing ourselves back together without their influence. Because dreams can be broken and it's easier to feel your own disappointment that you didn't live up to expectations than face the disappointment of failing everyone else's expectations. Because I'm a firefighter and I can't afford to be afraid when sometimes there are only seconds between life and death in our calls. What do you want from me, Eddie?" he said, a hint of desperation creeping into his voice.

"You're allowed to feel it though," Eddie murmured but Buck shook his head and looked at his toes to collect his thoughts, because he couldn't afford to feel afraid, or uncertain, or fear – because they could all lead to death – and he couldn't allow himself to feel too much happiness or satisfaction because that could all be taken away in a matter of heartbeats and rapidly moving water.

He could see Eddie from the corner of his eye still moving towards him. It was starting to make him feel like his brain was all twisted up. In a matter of half an hour, Eddie had found control over his emotions and managed to expose Buck's deepest insecurities. His heart stuttered in his chest when Eddie's index finger pressed beneath his chin to raise his head, unwilling to meet Eddie's eyes because surely his inner turmoil was displayed all over his face.

"You're allowed to have feelings with me, Evan," Eddie said, and Buck couldn't help but look at him, at the intensity in his eyes that made it clear Eddie didn't expect an argument.

Mounting an argument was a faraway thought, however, because Buck was fairly sure his lungs had forgotten how to expand and contract. He hesitated, feeling Eddie's finger curl against his jaw like he was trying to coax an answer from him.

"What about feelings for you?" he whispered and he could see when Eddie processed the adjustment in his words, and the range of thoughts that flashed across Eddie's face like a roulette wheel, but he didn't seem…surprised or shocked or horrified.

For a moment, Buck was conscious only of the sharp inhale that whistled faintly up his nose when Eddie kissed him, and then he noted how it felt like he'd been punched in the stomach with air, and then he realised he felt faintly dizzy but whether that was because of the kiss or because his lungs had stopped working, he couldn't tell.

And then somewhere amid all the internal flailing about, it started to filter in that Eddie was kissing him.

And then it became clear that his brain had stopped working for several moments.

Eddie's finger remained light against his skin to keep his head up, the kiss little more than a tentative brush of lips, and Buck had no idea what to expect, or what Eddie wanted, so for a moment he was frozen because he'd imagined this so many times and just kept crushing it so far down until it no longer hurt.

And then Eddie's finger shifted, replaced more completely by his hand cradling Buck's jaw, and the pressure against Buck's mouth increased and his brain stuttered to life again and he reacted. He was terrified of sending Eddie skittering away from him, terrified that Eddie was kissing him to confirm or deny something that would dissolve their friendship but…he couldn't stop himself when his hands pressed somewhere against Eddie's chest and waist to pull him closer, and Buck could feel the small trembles in Eddie's tense posture as they kissed in a way that was incredibly chaste and yet incredible charged and made his heart feel like it was leaping for the moon.

It was Eddie who pulled away, fingers tumbling from Buck's skin. Buck calculated they'd probably only pressed lips together for a handful of seconds and he was ready for Eddie to pull away, to express his disgust or his dismay, so when he finally cracked his eyes open to check how Eddie looked and whether he was panicking and looking for a way out, he was…pleasantly pleased to see that Eddie looked as utterly dazed as when they survived narrow escapes on dangerous calls.

"Should I- I don't know if I should have done that," Eddie admitted, eyes drifting between Buck's as he searched for something in his expression before his gaze slipped to his mouth with some sort of wide-eyed wonder.

"Why not?" Buck dragged his thumb against the cotton-covered groove of Eddie's waist, feeling the way the muscles tensed in a whole new light. "You're allowed to have feelings too."

"But I- I don't even know what those feelings are," Eddie said as his gaze fell somewhere towards Buck's chest, and Buck realised the amount of nerves and insecurities Eddie was allowing him to see. It was rare for Eddie to allow himself to be vulnerable, perhaps because he was always trying to be okay for Christopher, and it was then that Buck realised he already knew how he felt, he'd reconciled with that – and shoved it all down – months ago despite Michael and Carla's observations. Buck knew his sexuality and he'd made peace with it a long time ago, but…maybe Eddie didn't know all those answers yet. Maybe Eddie was still figuring himself out. And Buck couldn't decide if it gave him a whole lot of hope or a whole lot of fear because Eddie had the power now to break his heart worse than Abby and Ali combined, multiplied by a thousand.

And then it dawned on him that maybe Eddie hadn't been freaked out by being called Buck's husband because it was related to Shannon. Maybe he'd been freaked out for reasons that weren't related to Shannon at all.

"Start with the most obvious. Are they good feelings or bad feelings?" he said, fidgeting fingers tugging some of the creases from Eddie's shirt.

Eddie paused, lips working around thoughts he couldn't form into audible words for at least a minute. "I- I've never kissed a guy before," he eventually answered.

Buck nodded, because he wasn't sure he was surprised. He wouldn't have said Eddie was repressed but he did think Eddie had been staunchly straight for a long time. It was a huge part of why Buck had never said anything. "It's different to kissing girls, isn't it?"

"Yeah…" Eddie glanced up at him, something shy in his eyes. "That's not a bad thing though."

Now it was Buck's turn to struggle to form a coherent sentence. "Oh?" Well. That was lame. And awful. And was a clear demonstration of how Eddie could make his brain short-circuit. "You figured that out from one kiss?"

One side of Eddie's mouth pulled up in a wry smile. "When you've wondered about something for so long…"

"You- You've thought about-?"

Eddie leaned in to kiss him again and the hesitation was gone this time, confident hands under Buck's jaw and against his neck. Buck forgot what it was to think as his fingers curled against Eddie's shirt, pulling him closer until he felt the strength of Eddie's hips pinning him against the kitchen counter. It wasn't nearly so uncomfortable to lean against it when he had Eddie's mouth to distract him. One of Eddie's thumbs brushed against a sensitive spot on his neck, near that spot that had nearly made Buck dissolve when he'd heard Eddie still trusted him with Chris, and he shuddered around a small hitched breath. Eddie used it to lick at his bottom lip, losing any traces of nerves, and Buck fucking whimpered Eddie's name like he was a teenage boy having his first kiss all over again which was…really fucking mortifying, honestly.

"I like you," Eddie breathed against his lips in between soft kisses. When Buck managed to get his eyes open a fraction, he could see Eddie's eyes were still closed, like he was confessing all his secrets and afraid to see Buck's reaction. "I realised it months ago when you had the clot and I was- I was so scared of losing you, of being left alone again, and of Christopher losing you too."

Buck skimmed his lips against Eddie's and felt the other man's grip against his face falter. He tried not to smile. Working out what fried Eddie's brain could be fun.

"Trusting you with Christopher, seeing how you take care of him and keep him safe, made it even clearer. And then the tsunami happened and I realised how close I'd come to losing both of you when I hadn't even realised either of you had ever been in danger and I-" Eddie exhaled, the warmth of his breath tickling across Buck's skin as he continued to watch Eddie's creased brow as he worked through all his thoughts and feelings that had been simmering beneath the surface for months. "I didn't know how to cope with everything I was feeling because I'd been married to Shannon, and she hadn't even been gone that long. I- I've never really let myself think about a guy like this, not…not this seriously, and I'm an army vet. We- We don't share our feelings much, and I didn't think you'd feel the same and I just… I hated myself for feeling like that, like I was betraying Shannon and it was going to horrify you if you found out so I- I kept pushing it all down."

And it was so heartbreakingly similar to Buck's thought spirals during the past few months that he could've hit himself, or Eddie. Hopefully they were never that stupid again.

His hand wrapped around Eddie's arm, holding on tight enough that even another tsunami couldn't have ripped him away from this conversation taking place. What Eddie had said… It reminded him of other conversations, other times, other confessions. "Is that…why you started fighting?"

"It…was probably part of it, yeah," Eddie conceded, his eyes gradually opening and they were huge and clearly confused and a little lost as he looked at Buck. "It wasn't entirely about you. It was so many things, but I just had so much anger at myself, and Shannon, and the world, and it was… Getting beat up and feeling the pain of all the bruises was a good distraction from all of that."

Buck could understand the self-punishment thing that Eddie was describing. He'd had his own battles as a teenager, accepting who he was in a household that rejected him. He'd felt the self-loathing flare again after he'd realised what Maddie was going through, and he'd felt sick with it after Maddie had been kidnapped. He understood how searching for the pain was better than facing your feelings. He hadn't run miles every time he woke up from a nightmare for nothing. Especially when he still had the phone number of a therapist that Bobby had recommended

He kissed Eddie, soft and brief and fleeting, just because he could. Just because he wanted the reassurance and wanted to try to provide it. He realised that if this was going to turn into something important, if they were actually going to…to try to make this work between them, it was going to be really damn hard to keep his hands to himself at the house, or to not stare at Eddie too much thinking about how his lips tasted.

"And you wonder why I hide my feelings when you've been feeling all this," he teased and Eddie laughed, the tension in his shoulders melting away as he shot Buck an accusatory look.

"Maybe I wouldn't have felt all this if you didn't hide how you felt."

Buck hummed, tracing an abstract shape on Eddie's arm with his fingertip. "It's different for me though. You've never kissed a guy before and you're trying to come to terms with thinking about that, whereas I'm watching you with your wife and kid and figuring there's no chance for me because you're all straight and married."

Eddie's eyes fell from his, lips twisting with something like bitterness. "I'm sorry."

"No, don't be sorry, it's just…" Buck shrugged. "It's different, that's all. I didn't want to be jealous and I wasn't going to wreck your marriage once I realised that I felt something, but it wasn't like I could just come right out and say something. I wanted you to be happy, with Shannon or anyone else you might've ended up with, and I- I decided I'd be there for Christopher. I didn't want him to get hurt because of me, and he was so excited to have Shannon back so I knew I had to cover up how I felt because it was you who had everything to lose."

Eddie almost looked distraught. "Evan, you really need to stop making everything about you."

"Probably," Buck mused with a cynical sort of smile, because he'd attempted to make peace with all his feelings a long time ago. "Anyway. That's all in the past. What's more important to me now is finding out how you feel about kissing a guy or if your curiosity has been satisfied but you don't-"

He didn't even get to finish his sentence as Eddie kissed him again but it gave him an answer to the question. Eddie's hands slipped to his legs, lifting him onto the counter with ease and then pressing between his parted legs to clasp at his waist. Buck's hands started roaming, passing over Eddie's shoulders, neck, jaw, the back of his head. He felt like a teenager again because he would definitely classify this as 'making out', especially when Eddie's confidence in kissing started to make Buck forget his own name and Buck began scraping nails against Eddie's hair. By the time they stopped, Buck thought his blood was heated to the point of lava and he was completely breathless. Eddie was shuddering shaky exhales against his neck, head resting against Buck's shoulder and one hand pressed into Buck's skin.

"I- I don't know what to…um…do," Eddie said as Buck trailed his fingers down the back of Eddie's head to rub at knob of his spine.

"Do?"

"You know." Eddie made a crude gesture with his hand that made Buck snort. "Shut up! I've never been with another guy."

"So you said." Buck kissed Eddie's forehead to smooth away the divot between his eyebrows. "But if it's all the same to you, I'm okay with taking this slow."

Eddie peered up at him, the hesitancy and uncertainty clear. "Yeah?"

Buck rolled his eyes. "I don't need you freaking out on me again and deciding you need to go back to some fight club to get your sexual frustrations out of your system."

Eddie snorted. "I won't," he promised and Buck wrapped him into a hug which Eddie sank into, holding him like they had done so many times before. It was different this time, probably because he kept fighting the urge to tilt his head and nuzzle soft kisses against Eddie's neck. "Thank you."

Buck nosed at the spikes of budding hair on Eddie's jaw as he drew his fingers across the back of Eddie's shoulders. "What for?"

"Giving me the time to work myself out."

Buck smiled, finding Eddie's lips for a quick kiss which all but confirmed it was going to be impossible not to keep touching him at the firehouse. "You can take all the time that you need."

And if they spent the rest of the day lazily making out on the couch until Eddie had to leave to pick up Christopher from school which left Buck with a racing heart and the need for an icy shower… Well. Buck still preferred that use of recovery time after shift to merely sleeping.


~TBC~

Chapter Text

Word Count: 4,143
Warnings/Spoilers: Some vivid descriptions of a panic attack.


Buck really shouldn't have been so surprised at how well Eddie could hide that there was something going on between them when they were at the station.

He should've known that a guy who broke down after a shift because of Shannon or that a guy who was rattled and in search of a fight could then act completely normal the next day would be the same guy who could turn off that he'd spent a day kissing Buck.

The worst part about it was that the more Buck started observing Eddie from the corner of his eye or listening to the way he chatted with the others, the more he realised he never would have known Eddie was in the early stages of a relationship if it wasn't because he was the other person involved. It left him feeling uncomfortable because he knew he'd said he wanted to take it slow, and he knew Eddie was still getting his head around the whole 'kissing a guy' thing, but Eddie was clearly very capable of concealing his feelings and Buck needed to pay more attention to checking in with him more often.

At the other end of the 'worst' part was how difficult it was to keep his hands to himself when Eddie was nearby. Now that whatever the last barrier of uncertainty was between them had been removed, Buck struggled to not just reach out and touch simply because he could. Sometimes, when Eddie squished onto the couch beside him at the firehouse to show him a video of something Christopher had done, Buck had to remember he couldn't rest his head on Eddie's shoulder while watching. Or whenever their knees bumped together in the back of the truck on the way to calls, he had to ensure he didn't glance up and meet Eddie's eyes to share a secret smile that Hen or Chim might see and start hollering about.

The secret sneaking around reminded him, maybe too much, of the early days of his romance with Abby. He felt like he'd sent messages back and forth to her a lot while Hen and Chim teased him, or he'd darted away to take phone calls out of earshot. And now he was doing the same, only he was refusing to say anything to them because clearly Eddie wanted to keep everything quiet. It wasn't as though Buck was ashamed of his feelings or his sexuality but he knew he had to give Eddie the time to work through everything. That Eddie trying to work through it left Buck feeling cold and nauseous so much of the time… He'd just have to learn to deal with it.

"So what's got you smiling like a lovestruck teenager?" Hen said as she flopped onto the couch beside him.

He quickly pocketed his phone so she couldn't see any part of his message chain with Eddie. They'd been debating what to cook for dinner based on the vague suggestions Christopher had supplied Eddie with a few days ago. Texting in the station had been Buck's idea when they'd curled together after putting Christopher to bed a couple of weeks ago. It would look weird if they were suddenly talking more than usual or sitting too close more often. Everyone knew they were good friends but a significant change in their dynamic, which Buck knew he wouldn't be able to control all that well, would be flashing neon signs to Hen and Chim's nosiness. He'd figured that if they were in different parts of the house where no one could see both of them simultaneously, then no one would realise they were messaging each other. It was genius. Eddie could continue to disappear downstairs to the gym and Buck could stay upstairs reading a magazine or a book and every now and then they'd send texts back and forth.

Buck had been incredibly proud of his idea, not least of all because Eddie had kissed him after it.

"Ooh Buckaroo, you've got it bad," Hen cooed as she elbowed him with a huge grin and bright eyes behind her glasses. "Who's the lucky lady?"

And that…was probably the hardest thing about what he was developing with Eddie. He knew everyone had their own assumptions about his sexuality because of his past relationships and the very public trysts that he was not proud of anymore. He figured everyone thought he was straight and couldn't contain it and that might've been true at one point but now? Now he saw himself as someone who took the time and the patience to get to know someone. And he'd never been open about his sexuality in the station but he wasn't sure why they all just assumed that 'straight' was the default when Hen had Karen and Michael had come out.

"There's no lady," he said, lightly elbowing her back. He tried to take comfort from the fact he wasn't lying instead of feeling awful because it felt like he was concealing by omission. "Can't I just smile while looking at a video on my phone?"

Hen looked over her glasses at him, lips pursed together in grave seriousness. "Boy, you don't look at a video on your phone like that unless it's got naked people in it."

He knew his eyes grew large enough to pop out of his head because of the stunned flush that warmed his cheeks. Hen squawked with laughter and he heard Chim call out for an explanation where he'd where he'd been helping Bobby with the meal preparations in the kitchen.

"Hen!" he spluttered as she continued laughing, slapping her knee despite the tea that sloshed over the rim of her mug.

"Your face, oh my God," she said, a tear running down her cheek as Chim wandered over.

"His face? What did his face do?"

"I hate all of you," Buck muttered, tossing his magazine on the coffee table and escaping downstairs. Why couldn't they just stop interfering and stop asking and stop assuming and stop pressuring him to be in a relationship or find out if he was in one? Even as he descended the stairs, he could hear Hen telling Chim he had a 'new lady friend', which inevitably meant Chim would send a message to Maddie to find out, which would mean she started texting or calling him to pump for information, and then she might want to come over randomly sometime to see if someone was in his apartment, and maybe that would mean she showed up when Eddie was there without Christopher, and that was-

He retreated to the locker room because he could curl into a ball out of the sightline of anyone walking past and shoved his hands into his hair. This thing with Eddie wasn't meant to be so difficult, he was sure of it. No one pestered Eddie about his love life or if he'd found someone new. Maybe it was different being a widower, or maybe it was because he had Christopher, but the way Eddie behaved clearly hadn't tipped anyone off. And yet now, because of one goofy smile as he'd texted a series of emojis for food options, Hen had told Chim and Chim would tell Maddie and within half an hour, everyone in the house as well as his sister would start trying to get information out of him, information he couldn't give because Eddie didn't- Eddie wasn't ready- and maybe Buck was going to ruin everything before it really began- and he-

He could feel the panic wrapping constricting coils around his chest because he wanted to see Eddie and fold into his chest but he couldn't, he couldn't see Eddie and talk about any of this right now, and maybe Eddie wouldn't even have a reaction to Hen's suspicions, or maybe Eddie would still come to the realisation he didn't really like guys or want to be with him and so it ended, and then Buck lost his best friend and a kid that was his whole world, and it reminded him why he'd avoided this in the first place because then they couldn't both stay in the same firehouse, seeing each other every shift, because Buck would keep thinking about what they'd had and what he'd lost because of his own stupidity, so there'd be a change in shift rotations or transferring of houses, and he couldn't think about it but he couldn't not think about it, and-

"Hey." A familiar hand squeezed his shoulder, the weight and warmth of Bobby's body settling beside him. "Hey, kid. Come on." Bobby's arm draped over his shoulders, a hand pressing against his knee. "You know Hen just likes to tease, she didn't mean anything malicious by it."

But the problem wasn't that it was or wasn't malicious because yes, Hen just liked to tease, it was that everything he had with Eddie could crumble so easily because Buck was clearly invested and couldn't hide his emotions but Eddie was a steel trap at work, and Eddie and Chris were also tied to Carla and maybe she wouldn't want to talk to him anymore either, and how would the rest of the house look at him if they ever found out, and how would they look at Eddie if they ever found out, and suddenly everything seemed a lot more real, and a lot more alarming, and a lot scarier, and-

"Buck? Hey. I need you to slow your breathing, kiddo." Bobby's tone shifted from caring to his Captain's voice, lowering his pitch and measuring his pace. Buck had heard it so many times on calls with distressed families and he hated that it needed to be used for him because he was such a- "Buck, listen to me, okay? Just me. We're still at the house. We're still on duty. If we get a call, I can't leave you like this. So I need you to breathe in when I tell you and I need you to breathe out when I tell you, okay?"

But it was hard for Buck to concentrate on Bobby's words because he knew Bobby was right. If they got a call, Buck couldn't be left behind because he was meant to go on the call with the others, but he couldn't when he was like this and he couldn't if Hen was likely to badger him and he couldn't if Eddie stared out the window rather than meeting Buck's eyes and he couldn't if Chim teased him incessantly over the radio and he couldn't if-

"Buck. I need you to breathe in, alright? Breathe in for me, son."

But it was hard to breathe in when his lungs were so crushed by his curled position on the floor and when every thought he had was spinning out of his grasp, sparking a network of other hysterical thoughts that made a bigger network and all the thoughts were all-consuming and he couldn't focus on Bobby, or on breathing, or on anything because everything was splintering away from his awareness. He knew he was trembling, badly, because he could feel the pressure in Bobby's arm trying to keep him weighted down, trying to keep his shaking body still, but it was too much, it was all too much and he couldn't understand anything Bobby was saying anymore because it sounded all distant and muffled, like he was underwater, and maybe Buck was underwater again, and even though his eyes were scrunched shut and everything was black he could still remember the deep blue of the water that surrounded him and swept him away and buffeted him in so many directions and he could remember how desperate he had been to hold onto Christopher but he'd failed that too, he always failed, and now he was going to die because he couldn't breathe and-

"Buck? What the hell, Cap? What happened?"

"I don't know. Hen said something about him having a girlfriend and he took off and I thought- Well, I thought maybe it was like you and the husbands comment a couple of weeks ago and he thought about Abby or Ali so I went to find him, but he's getting worse. I'm not sure if he's aware I'm even here anymore but you helped him after that pool incident last year, right?"

"Yeah, I- I did, I- Okay. Just… Can you grab his coat and give us the room? Please?"

Buck wanted to whine when he felt the arm around his shoulders disappear because that weight had at least helped anchor him from disappearing completely into his memories and dreams and nightmares, but it wasn't long and then there were two arms surrounding him, rough and calloused hands clasped around his own.

"I've got you, Evan," Eddie murmured against his ear, the sound of his steady breathing replacing some of the all-encompassing silence and roar of being caught in the turbulent tsunami water and the thunderingly haphazard whoosh of his heartbeat. A few minutes later, there was more pressure against his legs, a weight which was carefully distributed to wrap around him almost as tightly as he was holding onto himself. "Thanks, Cap. I've got this."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, promise. He needs the space. He'll hate having an audience afterwards."

"Okay. I'll give you the room. Radio if you need me, alright?"

"Thanks, Cap." Eddie's lips pressed against the back of his neck, the point of his chin settling against Buck's shoulder. "I'm here, querido. It's just you and me." His fingers squeezed against Buck's, more pressure that Buck wanted and needed. "I have you, Evan. I know the panic attack is scary, even though I don't understand what triggered it, but I've got you and you're safe here with me, alright? Listen to me breathe, feel my chest expand against your back, picture a place in the desert which is far away from water. Whatever it takes, as long as it takes, I'm here."

The strength in Eddie's grip and the constant weight against Buck's back was…helpful. Admittedly, it took a while to start having any impact but he distantly supposed that was because he'd worked himself up so quickly and so badly that it took a while to bring him back to any sort of awareness. Eddie kept murmuring quiet and gentle words, mixing in Spanish sentences that Buck had no comprehension of but which helped him feel warmer when he felt like he was freezing. And at some point, Buck began to realise he was exhausted, leaning into Eddie's body rather than rigid with all the anxiety and terror.

"Hey," Eddie whispered, nosing at his hair when Buck managed to get his eyes open, his focus on the locker room spinning around him as he felt the disorientation of where he was and what had happened starting to settle in and making him feel awful, and ashamed, and disappointed, and frustrated. "There you are."

Buck adjusted his fingers slightly, allowing Eddie's to fit into the gaps. He couldn't hold on very tightly but Eddie made up for that. "That was…bad, wasn't it?" he said with a weak attempt at a smile.

Eddie sighed, pressing a kiss to his hair and rubbing a thumb over his knuckles. "Yeah, Buck, it was. I've been holding you for a little over twenty minutes and you were totally gone when I got here."

"Bobby?" he said, because there was something about his Captain's voice filtering into his hazy memory.

"Yeah, he was here. Came to find you and then radioed for me when you clearly weren't listening to him," Eddie confirmed with another kiss to the top of his head.

There was a cramp building in Buck's bad leg so he uncoiled his knees, wincing in pain at the stretch of muscles and…dislodging his fire coat that had been wrapped around him? He frowned at it, failing to recall how or why or when he'd gotten it. Had they come back from a call and he-

"That was me," Eddie explained, tucking their linked hands against Buck's stomach as some of the blood started to flow back into his aching legs. "I figured it'd be like a weighted blanket or wrapping an unhappy kid into a blanket burrito."

Buck nodded, leaning into Eddie and settling his head on the other man's shoulder as his eyes closed. He felt wiped out and washed out, an iron weight of fatigue making him want to go home and sleep even though he still had hours left of his shift. Eddie kissed his temple and Buck gave a gentle squeeze of Eddie's hands, which Eddie returned.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Eddie said after Buck took several slower, more purposeful breaths.

"Not here," Buck said, opening his eyes and jerking his head toward the firehouse. "They're all going to be talking enough."

"About your mysterious lady friend?" Eddie said, a small dimple appearing in his cheek as he suppressed a smile.

Buck rolled his eyes. "That's probably preferable to them thinking I'm going to go to pieces again."

"I'm not sure about that," Eddie mused, squeezing one of his hands. "This makes me worried beyond belief but a lady friend makes me jealous."

Buck's eyebrows rose, gaze flickering up to see Eddie's hazel. "Jealous?"

Eddie's eyes glanced around the locker room before he kissed Buck gently, taking his time to convey a whole lot of emotions that left Buck feeling dizzy for different reasons than the panic attack. "Yes, I will get jealous of some other woman."

Buck hummed, searching Eddie's expression. "I'll remember that."

"Brat," Eddie chided, dropping another couple of kisses to his mouth before loosening some of his grip. Buck would've stayed there forever if he could, but the floor of the locker room was hardly comfortable and he didn't know where the rest of his team was. He guessed he simply couldn't stay there forever.

Eddie gathered his coat and helped him to his feet, a steadying arm around his waist helping him not tip too far sideways when the world swirled in front of his eyes.

"No way you're going on any calls for the rest of shift," Eddie said, and maybe it was because Buck didn't have it in him to argue that Eddie realised just how exhausted he was. "Come on. We'll get you to the bunkroom and you can rest."

The downstairs area was deserted as Eddie led him to the small bunkroom, finding a cot mostly shaded from the light filtering into the windows and guiding him under the blankets. Eddie sat on the edge of the bed, stroking fingers through his hair as he fought against the fatigue because he really hated the thought of sleeping when he'd already had visions of drowning during the panic attack.

"Sleep, querido. Your body needs it."

And who was Buck to argue with that?

He was startled awake several times throughout the rest of the shift when the alarms blared, but no one came to get him. He heard the truck roar to life as it left, and he'd hear the faint rumbles when it returned. No one came to yell at him afterwards and demand to know why he was sleeping on the job. In his semi-lucid moments, Buck supposed he had Eddie to thank for that as he drifted somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness depending on what other noise was occurring throughout the house.

He still felt tired when a hand brushed against his shoulder, squeezing lightly and shaking off the tendrils of sleep that continued tugging him under. There wasn't any light outside the windows anymore and the blinds were mostly drawn against the light of the floor of the house, but he still knew it was Maddie who was sitting on the edge of his bed without looking at her. He'd know her perfume anywhere.

"Chim called you?" he said as she cradled his cheek, thumb dragging over the birthmark above his eyebrow like she used to when he was a kid and woke him up from a bad dream.

"In between a call, yeah. He didn't know much, just that Bobby had taken you out of commission for the day at Eddie's request." Maddie's nails scratched lightly at his scalp. "I saw Bobby as I came in. He said you'd slept most of the day but that you shouldn't be alone tonight. Do you want to come back to mine or do you want me to come over to yours?"

And Buck…really wanted to say neither, because he wanted to be with Eddie tonight, but how was he meant to explain that?

"Your place will probably have Chimney too," he pointed out and he could practically hear her eyes roll.

"He's not your enemy, Ev."

"I know that but I…I don't want my personal life plastered all around the house again," he said, opening his eyes to gaze at some of the shadows criss-crossing her face. "I'm not really in the mood for entertaining company either."

"Lucky for you, then, that I'm your big sister and don't need entertaining," she said and Buck knew there was no way out of her staying with him. There would be no argument he could make that she wouldn't counter.

The others were milling around the truck after he'd collected his gear from the locker room, and he wasn't sure he'd felt this nervous facing them since attempting to apologise for the lawsuit. On multiple occasions.

He hadn't even opened his mouth when Hen reached out and embraced him, her arms tight around his shoulders. "Whatever I said, I'm really sorry."

"It's okay," he assured, using his free arm to rub her back. "Please don't blame yourself, Hen."

She ruffled his hair as she pulled away and Buck found it difficult to meet any of their eyes, including Eddie's. "I- Uh… Maddie's going to stay with me tonight," he said as she linked her arm around his elbow and he tried to ignore the way Chim's face fell out of the corner of his eye. "Thanks for…covering for me today. You shouldn't have to be a man short."

"We just need you to be okay, kid," Bobby said with a nod, which Chim and Hen matched.

"Yeah, I…" He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing at Eddie for a brief second and realising that all of Eddie's shields were back up, that his expression betrayed nothing about his feelings, and Buck really wished he had that sort of control sometimes. He'd have to ask Eddie for tips. "I don't really know what happened but I… I'll take it easy and be back next shift."

Hen pulled him into another hug with another apology, and Bobby gave him a handshake and a one-armed hug. "You should make some calls," his Captain said for only him to hear, and Buck knew he meant the therapist's card that kept being flung around Buck's coffee table. It was hard to explain to Bobby why he was so against the idea of therapy after that woman he'd seen a couple of years ago.

Chim gave Maddie a hug and kissed her cheek, saying something about brunch or dinner tomorrow, but Buck tuned it out as he met Eddie's eyes and felt uncertain about what to do when they were standing among the team.

"Thanks for…earlier," he said lamely, and the small dimple returned in Eddie's cheek which was at least some flicker of an emotion within Eddie's soul.

"Come here, tonto," Eddie said, dragging him into a hug that Buck was all too willing to return seeing as he'd have Maddie with him tonight. "Text me when she leaves and I'll come over tomorrow, okay?" Eddie whispered into his ear and Buck nodded, pulling away before their hug lingered too long and everyone got weird about it.

"I'll drive you home," Maddie said, and it hadn't occurred to Buck that he was still so exhausted that driving might've been dangerous but as soon as she said it, he realised he was grateful he wouldn't have to concentrate.

"How will I get here next shift?" he said as he followed her out and eyed his parked truck in the lot.

"I'm sure one of your crew can give you a lift," she pointed out and Buck briefly wondered about whether he could start carpooling with Eddie or if that would really tip everyone off. "Or I can just tell Howie he needs to pick you up."

"Picked up by my big sister's boyfriend? What is this? Am I back in middle school?"

Maddie's laugh made him smile, even though all he was doing was calculating how many hours it would be before she left and he could text Eddie to come over and hold him.


~TBC~