“I’ll stay with Buck.”
Eddie paused at the door and looked back at Christopher, confused. “Buddy, Buck’s coming with us, right?” Athena and Bobby threw an early New Year party at their house since they all had to work on the actual day.
“Um, yeah? What do you mean you’re staying with me, Chris?” Buck knelt down to listen to whatever Christopher were going to explain.
“Harry said Athena and Bobby do not want you at the house because their house hates him so it’ll be a disaster and they’re not ready. So, don’t worry, kid. I’m staying with you.”
Buck blinked, processing what Christopher just told him while comfortingly touched his cheek, similar to how he did with his chin back at the pier. Buck held around the boy’s little wrist softly as each word weighted down inside his chest. “Thank you, Superman, but you should really go. I heard from Hen that Denny’s bringing his new game with him today. I’ll be okay.”
“Buck --” Eddie closed the door. “Come on, Harry must have misunderstood something. Bobby invited all of us.”
Buck waved casually. “I just realized it’s kind of too soon for me too, man. I mean, I choked blood on their porch then woke them up in the middle of the night to tell them I was suing Bobby. Kind of too dramatic to let go that soon. Just let it linger a bit longer.”
“Buck, come with us.”
“Nah. Don’t we have movie night after the party? How about you two go enjoy the party and I’ll go get the popcorn from supermarket and build a fort. Who can guess the flavor I choose right, decide the movie we’re going to watch. Sounds good, Chris?”
The mention of pillow fort, plus the way he made it sound like a game, distracted Chris beautifully. Eddie could only watch his best friend bumping fists with his son like they had the most marvelous plan for tonight, and that Buck’s other hand was not trembling.
Eddie lost to Buck’s stubbornness to be okay so he took Christopher to the party. He stuttered when Bobby asked him “Where’s Buck? I thought you three were coming together.”
“He…couldn’t make it tonight.”
“Harry told me you don’t want him to come here.” Christopher interjected truthfully. “And I told him because I can stay with him but he told us to come.”
“Wh -- what? Why would Harry -- Athena!” Bobby walked to find Athena immediately.
Eddie could only watch everything went from confusion and sputtering to Athena calling for her son’s name and the boy came running, asking “Why am I in trouble?”. Harry looked absolutely perplexed.
“You’re not. Did you tell Christopher we don’t want Buck to come today?”
“Your sentences and your voice have disagreement here, mom.”
Harry moved an inch closer to Bobby. “I did. I heard you two talked about not being prepared for Buck to come here and cough blood again because this house must hate him and you might kill him this time. I don’t want him to die, mom. Both of the ways you mentioned sound horrible.”
Athena looked up at the sky for two seconds. Eddie could not tell whether she was asking for the strength to get through next year from the lord, or asking why the big guy had to made them stupid. She then spoke calmly. “I was joking with Bobby, Harry. Buck did not have much of a good time at our house this year and I was joking to make the light of it for me because all those events pained me too.”
“Oh.” Both boys uttered. Eddie knelt down to kissed his son’s crown.
“But, please, Harry.” Bobby put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Next time you hear me or your mom say something about someone you know that makes you feel like things are not good, you can ask us.”
“Well, you talked about Buck a lot. I like him because he’s funny but you always talk about him like he’s annoying, so I thought you actually don’t like him but he’s your friends’ friend.”
“No, honey, no.” Athena shook her head. “We love him. He’s a family.” She pulled the phone out. “And I’m going to call him to get his ass here. Lord knows what’s going on in that kid’s head right now.”
But Buck did not pick up his phone. Athena tried two more times, all went straight to voice mail. Bobby called Buck instead and the youngest member of his team did not pick up either. “He must be sulking, let me try.” Eddie offered. However, Buck also did not answer his call. At some point Eddie wondered why he had not gotten Christopher a phone, Buck would have already developed a psychic ability to know when the kid wanted to call to never miss a call by now. “This is ridiculous. I’m gonna go get his ass here. You stay here, alright?” He told his son.
Christopher nodded and let Bobby took his hand. “Tell him I have his favorite dish waiting, Eddie.”
“Dishes.” Athena corrected.
Eddie smiled. He nodded and fished out the truck key. He pictured having to drag sad puppy-like Buck to Athena and Bobby so the three could talk and make sure they were all on the same page.
He did not expect to find his house locked, lights off, piles of pillows and blanket laid out ready for fort building, and Buck’s phone left on the sofa because his friend obviously grabbed Eddie’s remote then went out to buy popcorn. Normally, Eddie would have laughed but right now he just wanted to take Buck to the party as soon as possible. Things had been unusual since the lawsuit, his street fighting, Bobby’s health scare, then the party smoothed everything up in merry atmosphere. It was like leaves falling into their space on the ground, no one could expect which leaf on which spot but it always felt right, but there were too many leaves to see which piece went off, you could only sense of it internally.
When Bobby called, Eddie realized he had been standing inside his house waiting for Buck for like half an hour, which was absurd. Getting popcorn should not take this long. The nearest grocery store was not far away from his house, not far at all. Buck’s jeep was parked on the same spot when he arrived at Eddie’s house.
“He forgot his phone.” Eddie told Bobby on the phone. “But it’s weird that he’s not here. He should have already finished with his popcorn shopping. No, I know he’s going to choose caramel because it’s Christopher’s favorite.” The veteran left the house. He started to look around on the way to their usual store.
The cashier confirmed Buck came in to buy snacks. “I even asked him if he’s having a big plan. He bought those.” She nodded toward a shelf filled with…
“Fireworks?” Eddie frowned, taking one from the shelf to inspect it closer.
“What’s it, Eddie?” Bobby’s voice broke his silent thinking.
“He bought fireworks?”
“Maybe for Christopher?”
“No, he knows we don’t really like them.” Eddie looked back on the street. It was actually quite bright at this time of the evening reaching the night, with all the decorations and lights for New Year festive atmosphere. “I’ll call you back when I find him.”
Eddie stopped by this little Italian place Buck had some kind of become its regular because he loved to buy panino sandwiches whenever he stayed over night at Eddie’s and they went to work together in the morning. The staffs there saw Buck walked past. “He was jogging in that direction.” One of them point an opposite direction to where Eddie’s house was.
So he followed the trail. Fortunately it was not hard since Buck came here even a lot more after they made up from…everything and his best friend was tall. A lot of people noticed him. It was hard to miss Buck if you asked Eddie.
Yet he still could not find him as he stood at the front of abandoned viewing point next to an under renovation park. Not until a bright like sparked then shot up into the sky, followed by loud cheering. The firework was small, not so loud, like it went farther than what his eyes perceived. But the short lives of the light reflecting on Buck’s face brought everything so close, including Eddie.
He grabbed the younger man’s arm, feeling Buck’s surprise in his movement. “Eddie? What’re you doing here.”
A lot of fireworks shot up, brightening up the area around them and revealing a group of young children to Eddie. They could not be older than seven of eight except for one that seemed to be older than fifteen but Eddie doubted if he was older than eighteen.
“Shit, do you want to be somewhere else?” Buck moved closer, as if his body could block the noises.
“No, it’s alright. These are not that loud.” Eddie reassured him. “Who are these kids?”
“Tourists.” Buck grinned. “They’re staying with Mike, the oldest one, and his relatives near here and they came out to play fireworks but Mike’s little brother tripped over their water bucket and their fireworks got all soaked and the mood was really sour here when I walked past them, so I went to the store and got them set.”
“Of course you did.”
“Wait, and why’re you here. I told you to enjoy the party. Don’t worry.”
“Yeah, I think you took my remote instead of your phone.”
Buck did not believe him until he tried to pulled out his own phone and found only Eddie’s remote. “Damn, my mind must be too focus on the popcorn.”
“Come to the party.” Eddie cut to the point. “They’re waiting for you. Harry misunderstood. Bobby and Athena really want you there.”
A smile forced out as Buck tried to shrug off, both verbally and physically. “Next time then.”
“Because.” Buck gathered at the kids. “I should be here for a while. Firefighter, you know.”
“Buck, his family trusts that boy enough to not cause fire hazard with four children. I’m sure you can come with me.”
“But it’s beautiful.” Buck pointed up at the sky. The colors changed as the firework went off. The kids were having too much fun setting each fireworks from the ground or their hands to pay the two strangers mind.
Buck’s solemn smile let the light bath himself for each moment that fell after one another, and Eddie wanted to search the younger man’s mind.
“Just go to the party, Eddie.”
“Buck, you’re being ridiculous.”
“No, this is me sulking and sucking it up.”
Eddie stared. “Buck…”
“I’ll suck it up, and tomorrow, I’ll talk with Bobby, or Athena, or Both. I don’t know, but right now, I’m not there.”
The words whispered without those blue eyes on him, so Eddie complied.
He told Athena and Bobby Buck was sleeping. They knew he lied but said nothing for the sake of their friends at the party.
When he reached home, Buck prepared everything as promised, he was there just like he said. Christopher let his small frame fall on Buck’s lap. They watched movie, played pillow fight, ate the popcorn, then took Christopher to bed when the movie ended.
The two men came back out in the living room to tidy things up. Eddie yawned. He almost fell asleep by the sink if Buck did not said “So, see you tomorrow at work.”
“What? You aren’t staying?”
“I think I’ll just --”
“Sleep here.” Eddie put down the bowl. He went to push the door close and stopped there, facing Buck “Like you always do lately. Talk to me. That, we did not do it enough.”
He watched Buck leaned against the door and look anywhere but Eddie’s eyes. “What do you want me to say? I already told you it’ll be fine tomorrow. I only need sleep.”
“For what exactly? You could have just gone to the party with me tonight and see those two.”
“For another life lesson maybe, I don’t know!” For a second, Buck voice got louder, then it went even quieter than before. “Sometimes I get tired of all these lessons. I know you have to learn new things your whole life but I want a day where I can just learn something by myself instead of getting taught by everyone around me. Are they going to teach me a lesson on ‘never get too comfortable with people you have ruined their porch and sued them’?”
“Is this about the lawsuit?”
Buck opened his mouth to answer but only sucked in an air then close his lips tight before shaking his head. Eddie watched him slid down until he sat on the floor. “It started when I said I’d quit.”
“Well, in the end, you didn’t. I don’t understand what is this about.”
“I feel like I’m in a class all the time since then. A ‘Let-‘s-see-if-Buck-is-going-to-surpass-my-low-expectation’ class. Like I failed a test when I threw up blood, so he gave me another test, and instead of learning to know my place, I told Bobby I quit. I failed it so he did not want me back on the team. I failed another test in reading atmosphere, trying too much to get back or something, so you put Bosko on my spot to teach me I’m not wanted yet. That I should learn to back off. Then I failed another test in waiting to be called for, or being humble, I don’t know! And I filed the lawsuit. ”
“Buck, you did not fail.”
“Then what’s it?” Buck asked back desperately. “This is the only explanation I can come up with. You all are teaching me things, that’s why everything’s so confusing. You told me I did not fail Christopher but you did not even want to talk to me longer than necessary when I was a fire marshal. I kept finding excuses to show up at the station and everyone of you ran the other side. I mentioned to Bobby you were one man down, he shoved Bosko into my face. I failed at learning to move on, okay, I get it now. I should not get hurt and whine, I should get hurt and suck it up. Alright. I pushed too much, but with you and Christopher, I did not reach out enough. It’s god damn confusing.”
“No, no, Buck, it’s not like that.” Eddie dragged his own now sweaty hand down across his face then rest it on Buck’s knee. “Look, I was wrong too. In a lot of things, I was wrong. Remember Chimney calling me out at the store? He was right. And the crap I pulled on you about not being there? It was unfair. I didn’t want to bother you with the nightmares Chris was having because he didn’t even open up to me, but deep down, I was wishing you’d show up at my doorstep and miraculously make it all go away without making me feel inadequate. That was unrealistic.”
When he touched those clean face, no stubble, so much unlike Eddie’s, he felt the tears on this thumbs before really noticing them. The skin was hot, the same as his breath.
“And Bobby doesn’t want you to get hurt. He was afraid after seeing you hospitalized two times in such short period. I was too. I was a little pissed that you refused a light duty job to the point of quitting because it felt like you hated being safe.”
“I hate being useless.” Buck coughed. “I was no good at desk job. I was so afraid Chief was gonna realized that before I got permission to go back to the station.”
“You’re not useless. I told you, you have my back.”
“Anyone can have anyone’s back better than me. Bosko can have your back.”
“Buck, why Bosko?” Eddie could not help but felt like Buck was being too fixated on her. “She’s back with her station. She obviously didn’t replace you. I even think you two eventually have gotten along before she left. I heard her calling you Buckaroo.”
Buck tried to hide his face, Eddie would not let it.
“It’s not just her. It’s you too.” Buck murmured. Maybe this was how it felt like if they could talk under the water, or an ocean made of tears. “I used to be even worse of idiot before you came. Bobby and Athena knocked a lot of sense into me. The more they taught, the more I hate Buck 1.0, but at least I thought I could be better. Then you came and blended in with everyone right away, Bosko too. You two have no problems warming your ways up to the team. You two never act like idiots. It made me realize none of you need to be taught to be better, to keep up with good people on our team. When any of you has problem, you go learn new lesson on your own and come back even better than before while it’s like I have to be graded and judged if I pass someone’s criteria. It made me feel fucking… not enough. And I know then I should be grateful that Bobby continues teaching me lessons to be a better man, but…”
“You’re twenty-six.” Eddie blurted out. “Yes, you’re older than May, and many college kids. But you’re the youngest in this station and, hell, I think Bosko’s youngest friend is older than you.”
“I’m a grown man.” A mumble.
“And ninety-eight is still has more than enough room to be an idiot, let alone twenty-six years old of a grown man. What do you think about thirty-two?” Eddie argued without taking a beat. “I’m talking about how we have more experiences to hide our idiocy as we go. I’m used to going to new place, not just because of army, but because I moved a lot. Bosko might be new to our team, but that was not her first time joining a team. 118 is your first team. Your first experience to trust your life with strangers first, become their friend or family later. Of course you changed.”
He refused to stand the way Buck gripped his own short blond hair. Eddie uncurled Buck’s fingers. “Hey, everyone was an idiot. I just told you I was another idiot back then. Everyone still has their idiotic moments then and now. No one figures out shit, not Bobby. Not Athena. I told you to suck your hurt up, then went to street fighting and almost killed a man. I almost got myself fired, while you were kept from your job from a big injury that wasn’t your fault at all. You sleep in your own house when you sulk, I go punching people when I do. Who deserves that title more between you and me?”
Buck did not answer. Eddie did not expect him to.
“There’s no lesson today or any other day. Abuela used to tell me we share what we think we know all the time to hope that people we love will do better than ourselves. When you meet Bobby after this, he’s not going to teach or judge you for anything. He’s only going to apologize that what he and Athena said made Harry misunderstand and caused you to feel bad.”
A relief filled Eddie’s chest when Buck nodded.
“Come on, you should go wash up first. You’re really hot.” He pulled the younger man up. Buck swayed on his feet though. “Hey, you alright?” Eddie touched Buck’s forehead. “Buck, why’re you burning up?”
“You could have told me when that kid’s brother spilt the water, he spilt it on you.” was the first thing Eddie said to him when Buck woke up in a hospital.
“My clothes were already dry.” Buck coughed. He felt dizzy even when his head was on a pillow.
“Yes, by December night wind in L.A..” Eddie snarked but nothing too serious. He plopped on his elbow and caressed the warm skin above Buck’s birth mark.
“I picked him up from Carla’s and took him to school before coming back here.”
“I didn’t want to react like that.” Buck sighed into the pillow. He relishing in Eddie’s touch. “When Chris told me what Harry told him, I only thought ‘Alright, we back at this again. I’ll never make everything right anyway.’ but it’s really no big deal.”
“But the more you thought about it when you were alone…”
“The more tired of everything I felt, yeah.”
Eddie leaned down until his forehead could rest on Buck’s shoulder. “Let’s not let each other go.”
“For how long?”
“Until we’re sure we can catch up with each other wherever.” Eddie closed his eyes.
Buck would like that.
“Bobby and Athena are coming here though. Harry keeps asking them the chances of you dying from him relaying mean words to you, like Tinkerbell.”
“I’m pretty sure he means the mean clown with red balloon. He’s saying I’m a clown.”