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Kindness: What Connects Us

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Sopping clothes weigh him down heavily, the burn of saltwater in his eyes and lungs. It’s all worth it to see the people around him able to sit and catch their breath. To just exist outside of immediate danger. It’s not something to take lightly after battling the retreating rapids of a tsunami. 

 

“Is everyone ok? I’m a firefighter. If you’re injured, I can help.”

 

Maybe it is a little overkill but he checks even minor scrapes and bruises, smiling and nodding his head as several faint voices whisper their thanks to him. And Chris, oh, he has the biggest smile on his face as he waits for him. He’s probably gonna ask to be taught first aid the second he gets him home. 

 

... Home… Eddie.

 

“That was amazing, Bucky! You saved them all!” 

 

The small twist of his lip is all he can offer as he concentrates. One foot in front of the other, he navigates his way back to the boy. The very truck seems to vibrate with the water rushing past and his shoes are drenched with muck and sand. He’s nearly there when it happens. 

 

The truck lurches as something slams into it and Buck feels it like a physical push. There’s not even a moment to catch himself before he sees Chris rolling over the side. 

 

Still off balance, Buck slams his left heel onto the roof, heaving forward to catch the collar of that yellow shirt. And there’s no conscious decision making here. It’s all instinct, and he’s grateful for it. If he’d given his overzealous mind the chance to consider another way, he would have missed his shot. Instead, his arms hurl the boy into the hands of another survivor...

 

And his right foot misses the edge. 

 

The icy cold seizes his muscles, punching the air from his chest and he desperately claws for anything solid in the blurry dark. His ears popped when the water rushed in but now, above the roar, Christopher’s cries ring from every direction. 

 

He’s taking a breath before he’s even sure he’s broken the surface. His grasp is still spiraling, searching for something to steady him. There’s a moment when he thinks his finger brush a sturdy mass, and then the object is piercing into his stomach, his screams drowned out by the waves. 

 

He blacks out. He must have. It’s the only explanation for why it’s suddenly dusk, the flooded pier is far off in the distance, and his fingers are raw and red as they clutch the rough bark of the tree keeping him afloat. Debating whether to swim back to land is pointless. A particular roll of water shifts the branch impaling him and he’s losing consciousness once again. 

 

….

 

The sun has already set by the time Eddie has a chance to text Buck. His shift ended an hour ago but there’s no way he can just pack up and head home right now. Not at the rate survivors are coming into the field hospital. This is what he was trained for. It’s what he needs to do. And, thankfully, he knows his boys will understand. 

 

Barely half a word gets typed when another shuttle comes by, and Eddie pockets his phone to help any injured down. He’s surprised how mobile most of them are, if maybe mildly dehydrated. It’s a good surprise. They’re already stretched thin on supplies and medics. 

 

One more glance over the group and he decides to head back to more serious patients in the tents. But then a certain yellow shirt has him pausing. 

 

“Christopher...?” The woman carrying the child rubs circles into his back, her eyes tired. A slight turn and he can see the face dug into her shoulder, hear the soft cries muffled against her shirt. “ Christopher ?! Hey!” 

 

He can only imagine what he looks like as he charges through the crowd so he doesn't blame the woman for flinching away, hugging Chris a little tighter. Luckily, his son heard him. 

 

"Dad?" Chris aims those red, puffy eyes at him and Eddie breaks. "DAD!" 

 

The second Chris' arms wrap around his neck, his legs give and they crash to the ground, Eddie absorbing every sob into his shoulder. 

 

"Chris? Baby, what are you doing here? You were supposed to be at the movies with-" Everything stops. His lungs sit stiff in his chest, and he can no longer feel the beat of his own heart. Somehow, his eyes manage to meet the woman's once again and he finds her's full of tears. Everyone on the shuttle stands motionless, heads down and silent. "... Buck?" 

 

She shakes her head. "I'm so sorry." Breath. "He saved us. All of us." In. "But, then something hit the truck." Out. "And he fell ..."

 

In. 

 

His body trembles as he tries to keep an anchoring grip on his son.

 

Out. 

 

Chris’ small hiccups bounce against his ribs.

 

In. 

 

"Eddie." 

 

He blinks a few times, feeling more than hearing the jaggedness of his breath. His back straightens like it always does. Like it was trained to do. 

 

"Yes, Captain?" 

 

Something painful passes over Bobby's face, and he has to look away. He needs to focus. 

 

Hen and Chim kneel beside him, cautious in their movements. "Hey, buddy. Me and Hen are gonna check Chris over, make sure he's ok. We need you to let go, though, so we can get to him. Can you do that for us?" 

 

The searing tautness of his muscles startles him and he realizes just how hard he's squeezing. 

 

" Fuck. Sorry, Chris, I- Sorry..." 

 

"It's ok, Dad. I'm scared, too." 

 

Watching them take his son to a nearby cot is only so much of a distraction. With nothing in his arms, Eddie totters on the edge of a breakdown. 

 

"Eddie." Bobby kneels beside him. "I think you should take Christopher home. He needs you." 

 

Horror surges through his veins. "I-... I can’t leave without-." 

 

“I know. I know, Eddie. But, Chris-”

 

“No!” Every head swings to the child on the cot. “I’m fine! Dad, you have to stay here and find him! Please .” By the miracle that is his son, Eddie finds enough strength in his legs to get up and walk towards him. “Please, Dad. He’s lost because of me. The truck shook and I almost fell but Buck caught me and threw me to that lady. But then he fell. We couldn’t find him. He didn’t come up for air and-”

 

“Hey, hey, it’s ok.” Eddie stifles the panicked words with a hug. “Shh. Breath, baby. Just breath.”

 

It takes a moment to get his heart rate under control and the exhaustion seems to be setting in. “I lost him, Dad… We gotta find him.”

 

No one has the heart to make that promise. 

 

….

 

The steady bob of the ocean rocks him in his conscious limbo, half awake and half not. Not even the distant humming can make him open his eyes, nor the voices mixed in with it. 

 

“Turn the spotlight over there, I think I see something.” The beam is blinding, even behind his eyelids, and that alone drives his hand up to shield his face. “Oh my god, he’s alive. Hey! We’re coming, just hang in there!”

 

The humming turns out to be the engine of a boat and it slowly creeps behind him, both men yelling instructions back and forth. They’re calling to him with words of salvation when one of them curses loudly. 

 

“Wait, wait, wait!” The grip on his bicep drops and the loss of that warmth makes Buck want to cry. “Fuck, dude. Look. The branch.”

 

“Oh, shit… What do we do?” 

 

Most of their debate hardly registers in his mind as the lull of the ocean tries to pull him under. However, the sudden splash wakes him right up. 

 

“JESUS, it’s cold. Ok, man, it’s ok. I got you. Ben, shine the light down lower! It’s pitch black down here.” Buck blinks his vision into somewhat of a focus, watching this stranger clasp his way along the tree truck and towards him. “Hi. This might suck, but I’m gonna try to cut you free, ok? We don’t have a real saw so I’m gonna use this knife. It might take a while, so bare with me. And try not to move, we don’t want to dislodge the branch from your stomach. Also… I don’t want to accidentally stab you.” 

 

The man-- kid, really -- talks as he works, breathings deeply a few times as he powers through the cold. He introduces himself as Donavin and tries to ask Buck for his name, but he couldn’t even offer a gesture at this point, let alone speak. 

 

Donavin doesn’t seem to mind. He’s clearly nervous as he rambles on, Ben adding a comment every so often to ground him. They’re on summer break, just finished their first year of college as UCSB. He’s a biomedical major, Ben’s a chemist. They want to work together to save the world someday. 

 

When they saw what happened on the news, Ben stole his dad’s boat so they could go and look for bodies, and hopefully find some survivors. 

 

“I know how it sounds, but,” Donavin huffs, taking a second to rest, “I lost my dad a couple years ago. A storm hit his vessel and capsized the thing, so I-” A hard frown bends his lips, teeth grinding as he continues to cut. “I know how it feels to lose someone and never have a body to bury. To never have that physical proof that they’re really gone. So we came out here to bring as many people back to shore as we can before they sink. Their families deserve closure.” 

 

The stretch of his vocal chords feels like rubbing sandpaper, but he wants to say something. Anything. Before he gets his chance, he’s slipping backwards, the snap of the branch dropping him from it’s grasp. His head dips beneath the surface for just a second before someone’s catching him.

 

“Woah, woah. I gotcha. We gotcha.” 

 

Ben’s hand returns around his arm and he’s too relieved to fight his tired eyes, letting himself drift as the boys pull him to safety. 

 

….

 

Not a step goes by where he isn’t kicking up rubble and debris, his legs leaden and arms dead. Still, he raises his hands to his mouth and keeps moving. 

 

“BUUUCK!” There’s a harsh raspiness to the sound, his voice failing him after so many hours. “BUUUUUCK! WHERE ARE YOU? ANSWER ME, P-” A violent cough strips his throat and he has to stop to breathe. “ Please…

 

“Eddie.” No. “The sun’s coming up. It’s time to go.”

 

“I’m not leaving without him. BUUCCK! BUUUUUUCK!”

 

Eddie.”

 

“Chris is waiting for me to bring Buck home .”

 

“He’s waiting for someone to find him. It doesn’t have to be you.” Bobby reels in his frustration. “I’m leaving a name and description for the next crew-” No. “-along with a list of Buck’s medications so they know what to expect if they find him.”

 

“And what if they miss him? What if he’s right there and they walk right past him? What if he’s dying and the medic doesn’t have enough experience to save his life? I can do it, Bobby. I know I can!” 

 

“You have to trust that they’ll make the right call.”

 

“NO!” His eyes go wide and he knows he’s pushed too far. He has to say it. “This is my fault, ok? That’s why I can’t leave. I pulled Buck out of bed. I told him to get over himself. I pushed my own son onto him so he couldn’t refuse. This is on me!” The words tumble from his lips and he falls to the floor with them. “If I’d just left him alone to sulk like he asked me to, he wouldn’t be-”

 

The sob breaks from his throat without his permission and it hurts more than anything he’s screamed all night. Bobby wraps around him, holding him tight, and Eddie lets himself have this, even if he doesn’t deserve it. 

 

“Listen to me,” he says, and he sounds more like a father than a captain. “I’m going to drive you home to get some sleep, then in 10 hours I will personally be back to pick you up so we can go search again. We are not giving up on him, understand?”

 

He blows out a long, steadying breath. “Yes, Cap.”

 

…. 

 

Buck comes to with gasp, the searing pain on his stomach begging to be itched. It’s only until he tries to move that he registers the tubes sliding down in his arm. 

 

Where...? 

 

Christopher.

 

“Christopher?” His head swings too fast for any image to process. “Christopher?! Christopher, where are you? Chris-” A swarm of hands are around him, shouts and sirens booming as they push him back. “Get off- GET OFF ME! I need to find my kid! CHRIS! Chris, buddy, where are you? Chris !”

 

A sudden wave washes over him, carrying his energy away, and the people set him down without a fight. It’s hard to think past the fog in his head but he claws his way to consciousness, facing the man next to him. 

 

“-can call some local pediatric hospitals. What’s his full name?”

 

...What..?

 

“Chris… His name’s Christopher Diaz. Brown hair… Glasses… He was wearing a yellow long-sleeve with stripes… He has Cer-C-.. CP… Please , let me see him.”

 

There’s a genuine sorrow in those eyes. “I’m sorry. Like I said, you were admitted alone and no kids have been checked in since you arrived.” Oh, god. “It’s possible that he was taken to the children’s hospital over on-”

 

It happens fast. 

 

He barely processes the cold sweat breaking over his forehead when he leans over the side of his bed, emptying his stomach onto the floor. Alarms blare in his ear, the taste of metal on his tongue, but he doesn’t care. 

 

He needs to find Chris. 

 

….

 

The plate screeches across the table, digging a rut where it’s been passed back and forth for the last fifteen minutes. 

 

“You gotta eat something.” Scrape. 

 

“Not hungry.” Scrape. 

 

“Please?” Nothing. “I’ll let you-”

 

“I wanna help look for Buck.”

 

Hen and Bobby glance over from where they’re leaning against the counter, and Eddie takes a breath. 

 

“Chris, we talked about this… It’s been four days. Buck’s most likely been picked up already, so we just need to keep calling the hospitals until we find the one he’s at.”

 

“That doesn’t work! I heard you on the phone. They won’t tell you anything because we’re not related to him. The only person they’ll talk to is Maddie and that’s if they even pick up at all!” 

 

The blunt of his nails pierce into his palm and he tries his best to keep his face neutral.  

 

It’s true. HIPAA guidelines rule that only family members are allowed to receive information on a patient, including whether the person is even there or not. And poor Maddie… She’s been plugged to the wall since she found out, spending hours and hours on hold as the hospitals rangle through a thousand other calls from people trying to find their loved one. 

 

Legal names tend to have duplicates so if he falsely claimed to be family, they’d ask for his own name to confirm it was the correct patient. He’d be caught immediately. He did lie, once, saying he was Buck’s boyfriend. He begged them just to let him know if he was alive. But all they did was explain the rules and hang up to answer the next caller... That was a rough night. 

 

A warm hand glides along his shoulder, Hen taking the chair beside him. 

 

“Well, they might not be able to tell us if he’s there but if we give them enough information, they can ID him and then Buck can call us himself. So we have to keep trying, even if we have to call every hospital in LA.”

 

Chris looks on the verge of tears for the upteenth time and it still stabs Eddie’s heart like a knife. “Can I make missing posters? We can give them to the people at the hospital and see if anyone recognizes him.”

 

Huh. This kid. 

 

“That’s... a really great idea, mijo. Ok. We’ll stop by his place later today and pick out a photo.”

 

“There’s already a ton on your phone.” Eddie freezes. “Me and Buck like to sneak a bunch of pictures together when you’re not looking. We were waiting for you to notice, but you don’t check your photos that often.”

 

Clearly not. 

 

A shaky thumb brushes through picture after picture of Buck and Chris, shoulder to shoulder, making the silliest of faces with Eddie in the background, none the wiser. When his back is turned to wash the dishes. When he’s fallen asleep during movie nights. When he’s sipping his morning coffee and his eyes refuse to open. 

 

It’s them, together... Like a family...

 

Hen squeezes his leg under the table, slipping the phone out of his shuddering grip. “These look perfect, Chris. I’m just gonna send a couple to myself,” her finger drags over a large bulk, “and you can choose which one you want to use on the way to my place. We can make the poster on my laptop and then print them out at the store. Sound good?” He nods. “Ok. I’ll pick you up something to eat along the way. Bobby?”

 

“I got him.” 

 

That’s all she needs before she’s grabbing Eddie’s keys, her and his son out the door in a flash. 

 

The room stays silent as Bobby moves into the abandoned seat. With a soft smile, he slides through the photos on Eddie’s phone, occasionally sending another candidate for Chris to consider. 

 

And it all sorta just… spills out.

 

“We should have found him by now. He would have called… I don’t- I don’t know if I can keep lying to Chris. I can’t pretend everything’s alright when it’s not.” His chair flies back as he begins to pace. “I brought him home after physical therapy yesterday and the look on his face... He was devastated, Bobby. Buck and him always did exercises together after sessions, showing each other the different stretches they learned in therapy. But Buck wasn’t here. And it hurt him. He’s barely moved. He won’t talk to me. He won’t eat. I’ve tried to distract him and nothing works. I just keep failing him over and over and I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t fix it. I can’t fix this.”

 

“Eddie…”

 

Fuck, he wants to scream. Just scream until the void in his chest is filled with the sound and he can’t feel it anymore. 

 

“I don’t know what to do...” 

 

The man sighs. “ I don’t think this is something you can ‘fix’.” And, oh, he didn’t think he could feel more hollow. “I know you want to protect him. I know you want to shield him from the pain. But… That doesn’t seem to be how Chris wants to do things. He’s fighting, Eddie . He wants to help, and all your distractions are getting in the way of that. Think of it from his point of view. He’s doing everything in his power to find Buck, and you’re trying to stop him.”

 

I’m not-”

 

I know . I know. He’s a kid and you were right to keep him away from the fallout. You were right not to drag him through hours of digging out dead bodies. You’re a good father, even if he can’t fully understand it yet. But that’s how he sees it right now . It’s probably why he stopped talking to you; you keep shutting him down.” Bobby scoots forward, leveling their gaze. “This is an exhausting situation, both mentally and physically. And, right now, Chris is fighting at all fronts. So, if you want to help Chris, you’re gonna have to stop protecting and just jump in with him.”

 

His legs are trembling and he takes a seat before he falls. “And if we still don’t find him…?”

 

“Then at least you’ll know you tried.”

 

….

 

Morning light peeks under the blinds of the corner window and it’s a miserable sight. Dammit , Buck shuts his eyes. Another hospital room.

 

Focus

 

The pier… Holding Christopher on the bench. 

 

The wave. The siren. 

 

Water. 

 

A fire truck.

 

He grinds his teeth, squeezing his eyes tighter. 

 

The fire truck… Pushing Chris onto the roof! 

 

Grabbing the light to pull himself up.

 

Safe… Together...

 

Then what?

 

He throws the covers aside, a sharp stab of pain surging through his stomach as he tries to stand. It hurts tearing out the IV and it sucks that he knows to pull the pulse oximeter off last, because that’s when his monitor begins that long, drawn beep. 

 

A nurse rushes in immediately, examining the situation before relaxing. Oddly enough, he waves away the other nurses that come running, slowly walking over to mute the monitor. 

 

“I already know what you’re gonna ask,” he says just as Buck opens his mouth. “I’ll tell you, but only if you lie back down. Slouching like that is gonna tear your stitches and I don’t want to put you in another medically-induced coma.” Buck doesn’t even want to think about what that means. His head hits the pillow, eventually, and the man helps guide his legs back onto the mattress.

 

“Where’s Chris?”

 

At that, the nurse straightens, keeping their eyes locked with valor. “I don’t know.” His hand shoots out as Buck starts to sit up again. “I know he’s not in a hospital. I called every field/ pediatric/ general hospital AND clinic in LA county. No child matching the description you gave me was admitted after the time of the tsunami. That’s what the two of you got caught in, right? The tsunami?”

 

Several circuits in Buck’s brain short out at once. “I… gave you a description?”

 

The nurse -- Rick, his badge says -- pulls out a notepad and flips it a few pages back. “Full name: Christopher Diaz. Brown hair. Glasses. Diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Last seen wearing a yellow long-sleeve with stripes.” Something deflates in the man when he looks back to whatever face Buck is making. “I asked them to check the morgues as well, if that helps. No matches.”

 

Rick continues on but Buck can’t hear a thing past the thunderous roar of water in his ears.

 

“He’s still out there…” 

 

“What? No, no, wait! You’re not-” 

 

“He needs me! I gotta find him. I-”

 

Hold on! ” 

 

The moment his foot hits the ground, Buck knows something’s wrong. Rick manages to catch him just as his knees buckle and hauls him back onto the bed with a grunt. 

 

Listen to me ,” he pants, caging Buck with his arms. “The tsunami happened 9 days ago.” What? “You came in with a large puncture in your abdominal region, scrapes along your face and arms, mild dehydration, and a bad case of hypothermia. And you were on blood thinners! It took three days in the ICU for you to stabilize. Then, right when we decide to move you, you wake up and suffer a severe anxiety attack looking for your son. All that struggling reopened your wounds and we had to place you into a coma so your body had a chance to heal .” 

 

N-... No. This doesn’t make sense. 

 

“But I couldn’t have been here for 9 days. I-” Fuck… Fuck... “Who brought me here? Maybe they-”

 

Rick is already shaking his head. “I thought that, too. I asked around the ER for the story. Apparently, two civilians on a boat found you floating at sea. You were pretty sunburnt so you must have been out there for a while. And as sucky as being impaled by a tree is, it’s what kept you from drowning after you fell unconscious.” He exhales deeply. “But... They said you were alone.” 

 

No. No, no, no. There’s more to the story, he just needs to remember. 

 

Siren. Water. Firetruck. Safe.

 

“I couldn’t have been alone, I was with Chris. We were both safe on top of this firetruck.”

Siren. Water. Firetruck. Safe.

  “I had him. He was right here and then...”

Siren. Water. Firetruck...

“If I was in the water, then where is he?”

Water.

“Y- You don’t understand . He can’t swim well without his floaties.”

Siren. Water. Firetruck. Water.

“He’s small. And our clothes were too wet to dry his glasses. He couldn’t see.”

Wave. Siren. Water. Safe.

“I had him! I don’t know how I fell back in.”

Firetruck. Firetruck. Water. Wave.

“That doesn’t mean he was in water, too. Right? He could be fine.”

Water. Firetruck... Water.

“I would have protected him!”

Water. Fire truck. Water.

He’s just a kid!

 

Scream.

 

A piercing cry fills his head, Chris calling out from the depths of his memory. 

 

“Sir?” With a blink, Buck’s back in the hospital, swallowing down the taste of saltwater on his tongue. “Is there someone I can call?”

 

Oh.

 

Well.

 

Let’s do the math of that.

 

No one’s here and Rick just called him ‘Sir,’ so it’s likely they haven’t identified him yet. A tsunami did hit a chunk of the city. The system’s probably still overloaded with the other thousand people they’re trying to ID. And it’s not like he was going anywhere. 

 

Anyways. This means Bobby, his emergency contact, wasn’t notified. And that means everyone’s waiting for him to bring Chris home. That Eddie is waiting for his son , who’s… 

 

He can’t call Maddie. She’d immediately tell Chim and Chim would tell the others. They’d all swarm in here, demanding answers, wondering how the hell he could have taken Christopher to the pier when he told Eddie they’d go see a movie. They were supposed to be at the movies. 

 

Even if there was someone else to call, he couldn’t. He lost his phone and doesn’t know any other numbers. 

 

God, he hates his life. 

 

“No,” he whispers at last. “I want to leave.”

 

Sir-

 

“Buck. My name is Evan Buckley. You do not have my permission to call my emergency contact. I know leaving is against medical advice, I don’t care . I just… I want to go home.”

 

He can’t bother watching Rick chew his lip as he mulls over his thoughts. His mind is made up. 

 

“Ok. How about you stay for the rest of the day and I’ll have you discharged this evening?” The scowl on Buck’s face doesn’t faze him. “I need to monitor you for a little while longer to make sure you didn’t pop any of your internal stitches. Just a couple more hours, please. Otherwise, if something’s wrong, you’re gonna end up right back here and we’re both gonna be unhappy. Deal?”

 

It would give him time to savor the bond he has with the 118 before they disown him forever. “Fine.” 

 

….

 

Faint laughter tolls from the sitcom playing in the background, neither Diaz paying any attention to it. The laundry had finally piled up beyond what Eddie could ignore, so here they are, gingerly folding the warm fabric fresh out of the dryer. 

 

It’s been quite a week. 

 

Survivors were transferred all over the city when hospitals closer to the carnage began to fill. Therefore, every hospital within a probable driving radius from the pier was a candidate. Then, Bobby reminded him that search and rescue helicopters were also there, which made any LA hospital with a heliport a candidate. And there were at least a dozen.

 

In their minds, they knew some hospitals were more likely than others. Some weren’t likely at all. But still, no one could bring themselves to cross a single one off the list. If there was even the smallest chance Buck was there, they had to take it.

 

It took two full days and the work of everyone on the team to get Buck’s posters out there. They split up -- ‘Like in Scooby Doo,’ Chris had said -- and divided the list amongst teams. Truely, it was less dramatic than it sounds, especially with all the traffic, but it’s what they did to find their friend. 

 

Some nurses would talk to them, others didn’t say a word. Even if they wanted to help, a few claimed they just weren’t on shift at the time and wouldn’t know if he came in or not. No matter what, though, they all accepted the poster or let them pin it to the bulletin board near the entrance. Next to all the other ones. 

 

They didn’t learn anything new by the time they were done, but that night Chris ate his entire dinner, so Eddie considered it a win. He also took Bobby’s advice to heart. The next day, they had an honest conversation at the table and it ended with both of them crying their eyes out, but feeling a lot lighter. 

 

No more pretending. Whatever happens, they face it together. 

 

It’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds, but they’re taking it one day at a time. And the last few days… Well, with no response from any of the posters, Chris is gradually retreating back into himself. He’s barely said a word since Eddie got off work yesterday, and he spends more time pushing food around his plate than eating it. 

 

As much as it’s going to hurt, Eddie has to find a way for Chris to open up. Maybe he can schedule an extra appointment with his thera-

 

The small sniff drags him back to the present. Round teardrops splash onto the hoodie in Chris’ hands, desperate fingers clutching the sleeves for dear life. 

 

“This is Buck’s...” The words squeeze through a stifling sob. “We have to give it back to him. It’s his favorite.”

 

“Oh, Chris…” Eddie tugs the boy onto his lap, the hoodie snuggled between them. They stay like that for a long time with tear tracks shining down both their faces. “Hey,” he eventually says. “Let’s get out of the house for a bit. How about we go and drop Buck’s jacket off at his place? We can leave it on his bed so it’s nice and ready when he gets back. Then, maybe we can head to the park? It’s a nice day, today.”

 

The war in those eyes should never exist in someone so young. “But…”

 

“This isn’t a distraction.” Chris stares at him, tired and confused. “I’m not asking you to put on a show. I don’t expect you to smile and run around as loudly as you have before. However… I need you to know that you’re allowed to feel more than one thing at once. Remember what your therapist said about Mom when you were thinking about last Christmas? That it’s ok to feel happy and sad about the memory? People can feel a lot of things at the same time, and just because you’re not showing one doesn’t mean it’s not there or important.” This is making sense, right? Eddie sighs. “I know how much holding onto Buck means to you. Sometimes I think if I stop feeling so miserable about him not being here, that I'm betraying him. That I don't really love him." Whoops . Well, Chris is nodding along anyways. "But it's not true. I… I know I love him. I know I miss him. I have to remind myself I can be more than just one thing. So, Chris, I'd never ask you to stop thinking about him with a distraction like the park. What I'm trying to say is, ‘Let’s go think about him somewhere else.’ Like the park. And if you have a little fun while we're there, that's ok, too. Does that make sense?" 

 

There's a moment of consideration as Chris bites his lip. "Yeah. It makes sense." 

 

Oh, thank god. "Good. Now come on. We can leave all this here and finish it later." 

 

Abandoning the unfolded mess, they pack a bag with snacks and water, and Chris hugs Buck's hoodie to his chest the entire ride there.

 

It's obvious they’re both a little jarred walking into Buck's apartment. Neither of them have been here since Eddie dropped Chris off that morning... And the state of the place reminds them that neither has anyone else. 

 

Dust particles float in the afternoon sun, the air itself stale with nowhere to go. There are dishes on the rack, long since dried. The plants in the corner look a little yellow. Upstairs, the bed is probably unmade. 

 

"Dad." Chris drags his gaze away with the bump of his shoulder. "Can we stay here and clean, instead? You're always telling me how much you like coming home to a clean house." 

 

Eddie huffs. “That’s ‘cause I’m teaching you to pick up after yourself.”

 

“Please, Dad?”

 

It’d be a lie to say the thought of being here without Buck doesn’t make his heart ache. But, this is important to both of them. “You’re right. I think Buck will really appreciate it.”

 

For the first time since all of this started, Chris smiles, something genuine and small. They open the windows, sweep the floors, and wipe off every surface they can reach. The sun is just beginning to set by the time they’re pulling fresh sheets over Buck’s mattress. Chris spends some extra time fluffing the pillows, making sure they’re just right. 

 

With a final touch, they lay the folded hoodie at the foot of the bed and the two of them head downstairs feeling content. 

 

“Go ahead and take a break, I’m gonna get started on the kitchen. You did an awesome job today, buddy. This was perfect.”

 

He listens closely for the sound of the television as he puts the dishes away, exhaling when he hears it on. So what if he missed the ecstatic sounds of kids’ cartoons. They’ve watched some really good shows and it’ll be something for them to talk about on the way home. Something to smile at. 

 

This is progress.

 

…. 

 

“Mr. Buckley?” The palms of his hands peel from his face slowly, weary eyes meeting Rick’s. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

 

“No.” He clears his throat. “I’m ok, thank you. I’m just… Just thinking of a way to get home.”

 

“I can still call your emergency contact?”

 

“No, no. That- I’m fine. I’ll figure something out.”

 

Even he doesn’t believe that lie. With no phone, he can’t order an Uber. With no wallet, he can’t pay for a taxi or bus fare. Facing Bobby, or anyone , right now is out of the question. Could he walk? Where exactly was he, anyways?

 

He must look pretty stupid because Rick’s face is absolute pity, if not slightly amused. “Listen. Don’t tell anyone I did this because I could get in trouble, but I’m gonna call you a cab. I’ll pay, just promise me you’ll go straight home and not on a sudden cross-state road trip.”

 

“Wait. No, I couldn’t- ” 

 

“You can pay me back later if you really feel guilty about it, but it’s fine. Seriously. Natural disasters suck and, based off your medical records, you’ve kinda had a crappy year so far. Just consider me some good karma finally coming your way.”

 

Jesus, Buck wants to cry. “Thank you…”

 

“You’re welcome. Honestly, I’d prefer this to you trying to hitchhike or, worse, walk . Again, please take care of yourself these next few weeks. Get plenty of rest and take your meds. Don’t forget to refer to your diet pamphlet when preparing meals; give your stomach time to heal. And, lastly, it was nice to meet you, Buck, but I hope to never see you in a hospital again.”

 

Something close to a laugh slips through Buck’s lips. “Me, too. Thank you, Rick... For everything.” 

 

Rick rolls him all the way down to the exit and out the door, a yellow taxi waiting out front. The conversation the man starts with the driver is lost in the haze of Buck’s mind as he puts all his effort into getting into his seat. Moving has suddenly become super draining. He’s actually winded by the time he puts his seatbelt on. 

 

“Hey.” Rick leans against the back window, giving Buck a tight grin. “I hope you find your son.”

 

Yeah… So does he. 

 

At some point on the ride, he must have zoned out because the next thing he knows the taxi is pulling to a stop in front of his building. He can only imagine what he looks like, dazed on painkillers and wearing random clothes the hospital gave to him after they told him his were ‘damaged beyond repair.’ Whatever the reason, the driver comes around to help him out the door, making sure he’s well balanced before letting go. ‘Thank you,’ doesn’t seem nearly enough tonight, but Buck says it anyway.

 

It’s actually a little startling when his landlord catches him in the lobby, asking him to wait while she runs back to her office.

 

“Your sister called. She told me you got caught in that tsunami and might not be back for a while. She knew your rent was due and offered to pay it, but I told her I could just postpone it to the end of the month. I also figured you might have lost your keys in all the craziness, so here. I made you a new one, no charge.” 

 

He stares at it a second before snapping into action, taking it with a jerky nod. “I- I did. I needed this. Thank you.”

 

Her smile is warm and kind. “You’re welcome. It’s good to have you back.” 

 

He runs his fingers back and forth over the metal as the elevator whirs. The emotional whiplash of the last hour or so has jammed any and all thoughts in his brain. The painkillers certainly aren’t helping. Really, though, it’s no wonder he doesn’t register the light coming from under his doorway or the distant sound of his TV until after he’s stepping inside. 

 

...Buck?”

 

And just like that, every nerve in his body is on high alert, his skin buzzing and cold. “ Eddie… ” 

 

Fear isn’t anything new for him. He’s nearly died at least half a dozen times by now. He knows the true pain of his body breaking and bleeding and stitching itself back together. So, why does this feel so much worse? 

 

“Bucky?”

 

Oh.

 

At the first click of crutches to the floor, his back hits the door. Even sliding down to the floor, Buck can’t tear his eyes away from the little boy speeding towards him. 

 

“C- Chris-” 

 

Christopher tosses his crutches aside, taking the last few steps himself before falling into Buck’s arms. And Buck can’t say a thing past the wails spilling from his chest. 

 

Buck. Evan. Oh my god,” Eddie chokes as he dives to Buck’s side. “It’s ok now. We got you. We got you, Buck.” Soft lips press every word into his temple, his hair, his ear, and Buck wedges himself deeper into their embrace. “ Jesus, Buck, don’t you ever scare us like this again. We couldn’t find you .”

 

“I thought I lost you,” Chris sobs into his neck. “This was my fault! You fell in because of me! If I hadn’t been so close to the edge-”

 

“Christopher, baby, look at me.” Buck drags his thumb under those bright, teary eyes. “Whatever happened, I’m just so happy you’re alive. You have no idea how scared I was when I woke up and you weren’t with me. I didn’t know where you were or if you were safe.”

 

“Of course I was safe. You saved me.” 

 

“Hold on.” Eddie grasps the arm still clinging to Chris, turning over the bracelet hanging there. “How the hell did you end up in Long Beach?!” Oh, he missed that angry pinch to Eddie’s brow when he’s thinking. “The PCH was flooded. The 405 was at a stand still for hours. There’s no way an ambulance would have-”

 

“It wasn't- I wasn’t picked up by an ambulance... Some guys on a boat found me and took me to the hospital.” Buck blinks, swinging the band straight to his face. “Wait, I was in Long Beach?” Then, “Oh, damn. I owe Rick so much money…” 

 

“Dad! We have to tell everyone that Buck’s ok!” 

 

The residual fear in his veins spikes up at that, Eddie watching him with concern. 

 

“You’re right, mijo. We do… But, Buck looks pretty tired right now so we have to tell them to wait until the morning to visit. Here.” He takes his phone out and scrunches the three of them into frame. With a snap of the camera and a quick text to the group chat, it’s done. “Buddy, you still have a toothbrush and a pair of pajamas here, right? Why don’t you go get ready for bed and we’ll be up in a second.”

 

There’s no denying the sheer excitement in his voice. “We get to stay here with Buck?”

 

Buck doesn’t even wait for Eddie to reply. 

 

I, ” he says, squeezing Chris a little tighter, “might never let you go again. You’re both staying here tonight and you’re both sleeping with me in my bed. I refuse to lose one of you to the couch, we’ll make it work.” 

 

Christopher cheers loudly, taking the crutches his dad hands him. As soon as he rounds the corner for the stairs, Buck caves, struggling through a shaky breath.

 

“Easy,” Eddie soothes, scooting back to wrap an arm around his shoulder. “It’s ok. Take a deep breath, now. You’re safe.” 

 

He steadies his heart over a couple of beats, but the weight on his chest still aches. “Can-... Can you-...” Without another word, Eddie shifts them around so Buck sits between his legs and against his chest, head resting on his shoulder as their fingers tangle together. His lungs open up and he relaxes as the air hits deeper than before. “Thanks.” 

 

“Any time.” They stay like that for a while, listening to the faucet run in the upstairs bathroom. “So… Are-.. Are you ok? You’ve been in the hospital for 9 days…” 

 

Would it do any good to lie at this point? He exhales slowly, guiding Eddie’s hand under his shirt. There’s a slight stutter in his heartbeat as their fingers reach the rough surface of his bandages. 

 

“I’ll live.”

 

“You better.” Buck closes his eyes as Eddie hugs him tight. “We can’t lose you, Buck. I-... Do you understand?” Yes. He does. “Hey,” he whispers, gently massaging his scalp. “Come on, let’s get you to bed. We can talk more in the morning.”

 

Eddie. ” Ocean blues meet those dark amber eyes and Buck can see the awe in them. They wait with baited breath for Buck to find his words. And… “I don’t want stairs anymore. They suck.”

 

A deep laugh booms from Eddie’s mouth. “If you would stop getting injured, going up stairs wouldn’t be such a hassle. Think you’ll finally let me and Chris bundle you up in bubble wrap, now?”

 

Buck shakes his head with a grin. “Maybe.”

 

“Buck! Dad! I’m done changing!”

 

“Coming, superman!” His muscles clench as he braces himself to move. “Ok, let’s- Woah , hey!” He clutches Eddie’s shoulder as the man scoops him into his arms, lifting Buck off the ground. Before a single word can get out, he realizes just how close their faces are, dunking his burning cheeks out of sight. “You don’t have to-”

 

“Just let me take care of you. Please.”

 

And how could he deny him when he looks at him like that? “Thank you.” 

 

When they finally reach the top of the stairs, Buck notices the piece of clothing laying on the edge. “Hey, it’s my hoodie! And… Did you guys make my bed?” His head twists, glancing all around and down to the bottom floor. “Did you guys clean my whole apartment?”

 

“And watered your plants!” Chris beams. 

 

“We wanted everything to be nice when you got home.”

 

Oh, no. The tears are coming back.

 

“Bucky?”

 

Wow. “Sorry, sorry. A lot of emotions today. Um… Thank you. Both of you. Really, this- This is perfect.”

 

It takes a second to decide how this goes. Buck, because he’s injured, gets on the bed first -- extremely slow, of course. Once, his head hits the pillow, he spreads his arms wide, making grabby hands for his boys. Christopher crawls to his right side, burrowing his head under his chin. Eddie gets in last, plastering himself along his left side and stretching his arm across the both of them. 

 

Buck’s never fallen asleep more soundly. 

 

…. 

 

The morning is chaos.

 

It starts at the break of dawn with Maddie ripping Eddie out of bed to take his spot, sobbing against Buck’s chest as he whispers soothing promises. Chim, who drove her, is smiling ear to ear, waving from the corner and not even attempting to break the family moment. 

 

And when Buck finally moves to sit up, he quickly falls back down, feeling everything the painkillers were sparing him of. Chimney, the saint, offers to go pick up his prescription and Maddie is quick to instruct him on everything he needs. 

 

By the time he gets back, Hen, Bobby, and Athena are marching in right behind him. 

 

It’s not an immediate reunion. The paramedics fly into work mode, lying him flat on the bed and lifting his shirt to thoroughly examine, clean, and wrap his wound with fresh bandages. At least by the time it’s over, the pills are starting to kick in and he can hold Bobby and Athena as long as he wants. 

 

“It’s good to see you, son.”

 

“You had us scared half to death. But we’re glad you’re finally home.”

 

A dozen hands reach out and hover at even the slightest of movements but compared to the stark loneliness that was his hospital room yesterday, it’s a welcome change. Eddie helps him down the stairs and they gather at the kitchen island to talk. 

 

There’s a brief, silent agreement that he’ll withhold some of the details, what with a certain nine year old glued to his side. They try a few times to bribe him away, but it’s clear that nothing is going to separate Chris from his Bucky. And no one can blame him. 

 

There’s not a ton to tell. Chris fills in the blanks of what happened on the firetruck. How he fell. The water is mostly a blur, but he does tell them that a tree ‘held him up’ as he floated out to sea. He tells them about the faint memory of the men who saved him, how they were talking to him even though he doesn’t remember what they said. 

 

Everything until day nine at the hospital is censored. Yes, Buck does remember waking up that first time, knows why he was in the hospital for so long, but Chris doesn’t need to hear it. Then, he tells them about Rick. About the cab driver. About his landlord… About walking in to find Chris and Eddie. 

 

“I know I was unconscious for most of it, but… I really missed you guys.”

 

Chris hugs his arm a little harder, Maddie taking his other hand. “We missed you, too, little brother.”

 

“You’re something else, you know that?” Hen huffs. “You’re still recovering from getting hit with a bomb and an embolism. You get smacked by a tsunami while you got bolts in your leg and you’re on blood thinners. You protect Chris from all of it. And you still manage to save other people’s lives? It’s ridiculous.” 

 

Chim nudges her, something incredulous on his face. “At least we know he’s in the right field of work. You can’t fake instinct like that.”

 

“I-... I just did what anyone would do in that situation.” 

 

“I don’t know about that,” Bobby chuckles, “but I do know that once you’re healed up, the department will be happy to accept that level of dedication back to the force.” 

 

The air rushes from his lungs in a gasp. “I can come back to work…?” 

 

After you’ve been cleared. Yes. I’ll be expecting a doctor’s word of approval, along with Hen and Chim’s confirmation. Shouldn’t be too long so long as you rest and don’t get into any more trouble.” 

 

“Absolutely! Thank you . I-”

 

Bobby holds his hand up, shaking his head. “Don’t thank me. You’ve more than proven you earned this... We are so proud of you, Buck.”

 

Last night, with Chris snoring against his neck and Eddie pressing their foreheads together under the moonlight? That was perfect. And now, with his family flocking around him to crush him in the biggest group hug? That’s perfect, too. 

 

How lucky is he?

 

….

 

Rick !” 

 

The man is just stepping out of the hospital when he turns their way, joy overcoming the shock on his face. It’s barely been a week, but it still makes Buck smile to see the man again. 

 

“Mr. Buckley!” Buck shakes his offered hand, watching him take in the sight of the little boy next to him. “Is this…?”

 

“Yes, it is. Christopher, I’d like you to meet Nurse Rick. He’s the one who took care of me while I was staying here and he even helped try to find you when I couldn’t.” He has his fingers in Chris’ hair and the boy shakes his hand. “And Rick, this is Eddie, Chris’ dad.” 

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both. I’m sorry I don’t have more time to talk... I only have 30 minutes for my lunch break and-”

 

Buck waves his hands with a smile. “It’s ok, we know. I just wanted to stop by to let you know I’m doing fine and that I found Chris. Oh,” an envelope plucks out of his back pocket, “and pay you back for the taxi. Seriously, everything you did… I can never thank you enough.”

 

“Chris, you wanna give him your gift?” Eddie nudges, revealing the box behind his back. 

 

He moves carefully to take them from his dad, handing them over to Rick slowly. “I made you cookies! We didn’t know what kind you liked so we made chocolate chip, peanut butter, and snickerdoodle. Thank you for saving my Buck!” 

 

It’s truly a vision seeing Rick melt at those words. “This is so thoughtful! Thank you. I know a couple of nurses who are gonna be very happy to see these when I get back. If there’s any left,” he winks and Chris giggles softly. “I want you to know Mr. Buckley was thinking about you the entire time he was here. I could tell how much he loves you, and I’m happy to know you’re all together again.”

 

“Me too,” Chris grins. 

 

“Well, I should probably head back in. Thank you, again, for the cookies. And Buck,” Rick calls as they begin to walk away. “You better be resting! The last thing your son needs is for you to end up in the hospital again.” 

 

“I am! Thank you, bye!” A small chuckle passes his lips as he continues to walk, and he immediately bumps into Eddie. “Woah, sorry, Eds. I- Hey, is something wrong?”

 

Eddie is like a statue, gazing off towards the hospital doors where Rick disappeared. “Uh,” he chokes, blinking rapidly. “I’m fine, it’s just…”

 

Buck studies his face for a moment before it clicks. “ Oh. ” This actually kinda hurts. “I’m-... I’m sorry. I should have corrected him. Chris isn’t my son, and I didn’t mean to offend you as his actual p-”

 

Eddie presses his mouth to his, gently cupping the curve of Buck’s cheeks in his palms. And he holds him there for the briefest of eternities, baring his soul for anyone to see. 

 

When Buck finally breaks away to breathe, he doesn’t move far, sealing his hands onto Eddie’s hips. “I wondered if you were ever going to do that…”

 

“For a while there, I thought I’d lost my chance.” 

 

Their eyes draw each other in again, but then-

 

“You guys are gross.” Both men dunk their heads with a smile, glancing over to the little boy covering his eyes. “At least drive me home before you start making out.”

 

“Sorry, Superman,” Buck laughs and he takes Eddie’s hand in his. “Let’s go home.” They’re halfway to the car when he leans over, dropping his head on Eddie’s shoulder. “You know this isn’t the first time someone’s called Chris my son. If I had known that that’s what it took for you to finally kiss me, we could have been dating a long time ago.”

 

All Eddie can do is laugh, planting a firm kiss on Buck’s cheek.

 

…. 

 

Buck has spent a lot of time trying to remember the people who saved him that night. At least once a day, his mind trails over what happened, never finding more than the blurry fragments he’s always had. That’s why it’s so shocking when, as he helps the mall elf dangling from 30ft of christmas lights, the name just slips right out of his mouth. 

 

“Donavin…” 

 

Eddie and the elf follow his gaze to the crowd, clearly confused, but Buck can’t be bothered to explain himself right now. “Chim, take over for me. I’ll be right back!”

 

“What? Wait, where are you going?” 

 

Ignoring the calls of his team, he scrambles past the people and into a nearby store. There in the back, chatting over two different pairs of shoes, is Donavin. And Ben! Ben. That was his name. 

 

“Excuse me!” He’s drawing more than a few stares with his uniform, but it works as people open a direct path for him to walk through. “Donavin and Ben!”

 

The boys look up, confusion maring their faces before Ben grabs Donavin with a gasp. 

 

“Oh my god . Dude, it’s-”

 

“OH! You’re the guy we saved with our boat!” They’re both hitting each other for a while, clearly overwhelmed with the situation. “Uh,” he says once they both drop their hands. “Sorry, it took us a second to recognize you without all the,” his hand motions around his face, “scratches and stuff. How are you? Was everything ok after…?”

 

“I’m great. I’m ok. All healed from that branch.” Wow, he needs to remind himself to breathe. “I actually couldn’t remember either of you until now. I saw Donavin and it just sorta hit me. Then, I saw Ben and, yeah, I feel fantastic right now. I thought I’d never get to thank you for what you did.”

 

“Oh, it was nothing, really,” Donavin shakes his head.

 

“Yeah, man. We were more than happy to help.” Ben seems to take in his uniform at last. “Oh shit. You’re a firefighter? That’s so cool! We saved a firefighter, dude.”

 

Buck can’t help but chuckle at that. “I am. And what you two did is a big deal. Just to prove it to you, there’s some people I’d like you to meet. Do you have a sec?”

 

They both turn to each other with a shrug, and agree. 

 

By the time Buck leads them back to the Christmas tree, the team is packing up, the mall elf happy to be back on the ground. 

 

“Buck,” Bobby calls, looking between him and the young men behind him. “What happened? You can’t just run off like that.”

 

“Sorry, Cap, I can explain. Hen, Chim, Eddie. Can you guys come here real quick?” The atmosphere is thick with questions no one wants to ask, and Buck can only smile as he glances over their curious expressions. “Donavin. Ben. I’d like you to meet the 118, my family who I love more than anything in the world. You guys, I’d like you to meet Donavin and Ben. Two future scientists who will one day save the world. They were everyday college kids who saw something horrible on the news and decided to do something to help. Ben, here, stole his father’s boat and together they searched the ocean for victims of a natural disaster… And they found me.” 

 

For a moment, nothing really happens. 

 

Then, at imperceivable speeds, the boys are cocooned in the arms of his friends, mixed words of praise and gratitude washing over them.  Their eyes even look a little watery by the end of it, though the 118 is far worse, faces covered in tears.

 

“Thank you,” Eddie whispers, taking both their hands. “Thank you for giving my son his dad back.”

 

“If there’s anything we could do to repay you-” Bobby tries but the men simply shake their heads. 

 

Buck lets them take a moment to process as the team heads back to the truck, thinking long and hard about how to word this.

 

“Listen. I meet a lot of people in bad situations in my line of duty. The ones we save… I understand how you can brush the credit off like it was nothing. It feels natural, helping them. Of course I would do it. They don’t need to thank me. But…” He glances back towards the truck, seeing Eddie wave before stepping in. “Your actions spread farther than just the one person. The 118, my son, their families… All of them are connected to me. And you spared them a lot of grief just by doing this one thing. More than my life, that is something I can never repay you for. So, I just hope you know, as humble as it is to try and wave it off, you guys made a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives. And I hope you keep that idea at the front of your mind when you start your careers.”

 

“We will,” Ben nods, Donavin agreeing. 

 

“Oh, one thing,” he says before Buck can leave. “What’s your name?”

 

“Evan Buckley. ‘Buck’, really.” He shakes their hands, his smile splitting his face. “It was so nice to meet you.”