Evan Buckley’s past had only surprised Eddie once. Buck as a person, well, his brand of well-meaning devotion-slash-idiocy caught Eddie off-guard no less than twice a week, be it calling Carla when a shift might run over or bringing over dinner right when Eddie realized he was too tired to cook. But his past? That was a one time only experience.
When he first met Buck, Eddie assumed the other man had no secrets. He was just so warm and open, even to someone he didn’t like all that much. But when, two weeks after meeting him, Buck had excused his running late by explaining he’d had to drop his sister off at the dispatch center, Eddie had been stunned. Buck seemed the type to be all about family, to have pictures in his locker and tell stories so much that the rest of the house seemed to know her too. Hell, it’d taken three days for him to settle into the role of “unofficial uncle” to Chris. But Buck had never mentioned having any siblings, let alone a sister who lived locally.
It was when he glanced at the rest of the 118 and realized that they were as shocked and confused by Buck having a sister as he was that the pieces slid into place. They’d known him for two years and had no clue about that? That’s not a “whoops”, that’s a conscious effort to conceal. Buck, for all he was open and friendly and always down for team hangs, never talked about his past unless directly relevant to the situation, and well. Eddie had been in the military. You only refuse to talk about the past if you have one. You only glibly hide your refusal to talk about your past if you have a hell of one. So, at that moment, watching Buck explain his hitherto-unmentioned sister was now living with him, Eddie decided that Buck’s past would never shock him again. And for a while, it didn’t.
Dropped out of college? Okay.
Went through SEAL trials? Sure.
Excelled in the SEAL trials? Of course.
Spoke Spanish? Obviously.
Tended bar in South America? Where else would he learn Spanish?
Used to make porn? Hey, if you got it, flaunt it.
No, for two years, there was nothing about Evan Buckley’s prior life experiences that could unnerve Eddie.
The Mafiya thing, though. That broke him.
In retrospect, the pieces were all there. Buck had explained to Chimney how he took four years of Russian in college and didn’t learn a word while Hen had him translate for a young woman after rescuing her from a fire. Maddie knew he’d gone on a school trip to Moscow just before dropping out. Bobby had heard him discussing organized prostitution with such authority he’d wondered if Buck was speaking from experience. And Athena noted his oldest tattoos had a Cyrillic bent.
And yet, no one was expecting what happened when they walked into the West Hollywood strip club. They made their way to the stage where two women lay awkwardly, hair tangled into the seams at the base of the pole. Hen and Chim climbed up to see if they could be cut free while Buck charmed a couple of the other girls into telling him what happened and Eddie stood back, noting the tension in the air.
From the ink on the “security personnel” and the wealthier clients, it was apparent that this place, like much of West Hollywood, was run by the Russian mob, hence the general sense of unease-- the girls were probably illegal and afraid of being deported, the clients of being arrested. The men in charge, though, seemed to have been in the US long enough to understand that the LAFD only cared about health and safety, not visas and immigration status. One of them, though, appeared to be paying Buck a disconcerting amount of attention.
Suddenly, he walked over to Buck, grabbing his shoulder and turning him a full one-eighty. Eddie tensed, ready to intervene if he tried to get physical. Which is what happened, from a certain point of view.
The other man looked at Buck, cried something that sounded like “mashina”, and pulled Buck into a tight hug. Buck hugged back with just as much enthusiasm, the two men quickly lapsing into Russian. The Russian turned around and waved over some of his buddies like he was a teenager saving seats at the pep rally. “Seryozha! Sasha! Dimka! Come! I want to introduce you to the Machine!”
At that last sentence, the entire strip club burst into excited whispers. The men looked intrigued, the women interested, and Buck had instantly become the center of it all. He waved off the gangsters headed over to him. “Igor, man, I’d love to catch up, but I need to help dismantle that stripper pole.”
Eddie turned to pick up the power screwdriver and joined Buck on the stage, the blond holding it in place while Eddie removed the bolts. One of the girls twisted as much as she could and looked up at Buck. It had to be a hell of a view, considering the space constraints meant she was between his legs. “Excuse me. Are you really the Machine?”
Buck chuckled absent-mindedly, his focus on making sure the pole didn’t fall and hit either of the ladies. “Uh, yeah. I am. Been a long time since anyone called me that, though.”
She stared, stars glimmering in her eyes. "So did you really steal a boat and then have a three-way on it?”
Eddie almost dropped the power tool on her head.
Things only got weirder when the crew had packed up to leave. Hen and Chim gave Yulia and Ekaterina a last once over while Bobby and Eddie packed up and Buck caught up with his old friend, agreeing to meet him for a drink after his shift ended tomorrow. It was distractingly normal, except for all the ribbing they universally yet unspeakingly were planning to give Buck, until one of the younger men came over with a bottle of vodka.
He held it out to Bobby, saying “This is a gift for the Machine. Please ensure he gets it.”
The bottle’s label was entirely in Russian, but the design and the heft spoke the international language of “this shit is hella expensive”. Bobby attempted to give it back. “Thanks, but we’re not allowed to accept alcohol. Department policy.”
The young man refused, not even touching the bottle to ensure he couldn’t take it back. “Is not a gift for firefighter. Is a gift to honor the Machine as a brother and to ensure he knows there is no ill will.”
At that moment, Buck out and snagged the bottle from Bobby. Upon reading the label, he gave a low, slow whistle. “I haven't had this since I was in Russia. Sweet. Thanks, man. Tell Igor thanks as well. ” He gave the kid a friendly clap on the shoulder before swinging a foot onto the truck.
The poor kid almost melted, the hero worship shining out of every pore. “Is no problem. Anything for the Machine.”
By some miracle, they managed to hold everything in until they returned to the station, Buck veering off to put the vodka in his locker. The rest of them gathered around the table, borderline choking on their laughter by the strange call.
Hen broke first. “Apparently, the Machine used to run pool scams with Igor.”
Chim sat next to her. “I heard the Machine helped rob a train his friends were on, and stole from his own bag to cover it.”
“Stole a yacht and then had a devil’s threesome on it.” was Eddie’s contribution.
Bobby sighed in amusement. “That backs what I heard about the Machine and four women in a suite at the Balrog Kominski.”
“It’s the Baltschug Kempinski, actually.” Buck broke in, a mixture of embarrassment and pride on his face. “And it was three women and a very pretty man named Petyr.”
The rest of the 118 stared at him in disbelief. “So that shit was all true? You’re the Machine?” Eddie asked, wanting to be as clear as possible. Buck nodded in confirmation.
“And you did all of that?” Hen queried.
“And all of them?” followed Chim.
Buck gave another succinct nod. Eddie gave a sharp exhale and looked over the beautiful blond man who was the dictionary definition of a himbo. “You do realize you joined the Russian mafiya?”
He was met with a groan and an eye roll as Buck dropped onto the couch. “It’s not like I did it on purpose!”
Without words, without even glancing at the other members of the 118, Eddie knew they were all doing the same calculations he was: how does one unintentionally join a criminal enterprise, and is that better or worse than doing so on purpose?
The silence reigned until Athena walked in, speaking in that loud but not shouting way that had to come with her sergeants bars. “Evan Buckley, you’re in the bratva? You’re friends with Igor Manserov, the biggest gun-runner in SoCal? And you never mentioned any of this?”
He groaned and threw his head back. “I didn’t really remember, and I didn’t do it on purpose!”
Athena glared as she loomed over him, her Serious Business face locked into place. “You joined the Russian mob by accident?”
Frantic nodding. “Yes!” he cried, the frustration at the repeated question bleeding through.
“How.” Athena ground out icily.
Buck sat up fully, waving the rest of the team over. “You know how in college, I took four years of Russian and never learned a word?”
Chim nodded. “The teacher gave you a C for enrolling because the class wasn’t popular and she needed to teach it for her masters.”
“Well, there was a class trip after Russian Four, and I went that summer. Except all I could say was ‘I’m the machine’ and ‘I fuck cats’, so when I stumbled into bar and knocked some drinks out of Igor’s hands, my options were limited. I picked ‘I’m the machine’, he laughed and brought me over to his friends. We drank all night and I woke up the next morning with a tattoo and some shady new buddies.” Buck explained, as if it was just some wacky adventure. “Spent most of the summer hanging with Igor and company, realized traditional education wasn’t for me, and dropped out. Spent a couple more months in Moscow before backpacking through eastern Europe, South Asia, and South America for three years, then I ended up firefighting in LA.”
The most ridiculous part of Buck’s story was that Eddie had no problem believing it. Anyone else tried to claim they accidentally joined the mob by making drinking buddies, and he’d call bullshit in a heartbeat? But Buck? Friendly, likable, could befriend an angry bear Buck? That made a disturbing amount of sense.
All except one detail. “Hold on.” asked Bobby as Buck began to stand up, no doubt getting ready to make dinner. “If you didn’t learn russian in school, how were you speaking it today?”
Buck threw him a disbelieving look. “Bobby, I spent six months surrounded by no one but native speakers. I learned by immersion and fire. And a shit-ton vodka. I swear, my Russian’s better drunk.”
Eddie hoped that after that, things would return to normal, but the specter of the Machine kept popping up in the strangest places. Delicious meals for the Machine started getting left at the station on a weekly basis. Tabs got paid at every bar they stopped at. On one memorable occasion, Yulia, the girl who’d asked about the threesome, stopped by Buck’s place on movie night with him and Chris, to “keep him company”.
“I appreciate the offer, but I already have company.” Buck desperately tried to deflect and keep them out of his place, aware that working girls were harder to remove than nosy in-laws.
“Well, don’t you want a little more?” Yulia simpered at him, until she caught a glimpse of Chris. Her demeanor changed in an instant, zipping her jacket up and cooing. “Oh, who’s that cutie? He’s adorable.” She gave a wave, friendly and sweet. “Is he your son?”
Eddie stood in front of Chris, backing Buck up at the door. “He’s mine. And like Buck said, we’ve got enough company.”
She smiled, a genuine grin as opposed to her predatory one earlier. “I get it. My daughter, Irina, is the same age. You just want to keep them around all the time because you know at any moment, they’ll decide that they can’t bear being seen with you in public.”
Buck laughed, his grin splitting his face in half. “God, I know. I have so many half-finished Lego sets, but I always end up getting another for a new project at first ask. No begging needed.”
Yulia met his gaze, commiseration clear. “Irina wants to be an architect. There are so many Legos lying around my house, I have to insist people put their shoes on before coming in.”
Buck looked back at Chris, then returned his gaze to Yulia. “I wonder if they’d be more encouraged to finish if they had a friend to do Legos with.”
The woman grinned wickedly, grabbing her phone to trade numbers. Eddie leaned into Buck, whispering “What are you doing?”
Buck input his number and Eddies, then hugged Yulia goodbye, promising to call her tomorrow for a playdate. “You get a parent friend, Chris gets a friend friend, and I don’t need to wear boots in my own apartment. Everybody wins.”
Three weeks later, Eddie brought Chris to a house in West Hollywood. Irene and Chris got along like a house on fire, and Yulia offered him a place in their floating playgroup. He’d accepted, as their times synched well with his schedule. Yulia had explained that scheduling difficulties was why she started the group. “When you don’t work a nine-to-five, it can be hard finding child activities. Other groups always annoyed when I had to miss because of work. Just completely oblivious to options other than office job and stay-at-home mom.”
Though it was slightly disconcerting to realize he had more in common with strippers than Shannon’s accounting buddies, he wasn’t surprised to see that the other parents were universally moms from Yulia’s club. The ladies greeted him with a bevy of friendly smiles, taking Buck’s homemade peanut butter cookies and placing them next to the other snacks. Yulia came up behind him and poured him a glass of wine, handing it over as she introduced him. “Damy, this is Eddie, Chris’s dad. And don’t get any ideas, he’s dating the Machine.”
The disappointed sighs were numerous, but Eddie barely noticed after choking on his drink. “I’m not dating Buck.”
Yulia looked at him in confusion. “You live together.”
“We have our own places.” Eddie explained.
“You’re raising a child together.” She went on.
“He’s a good friend.” He argued.
“Every time you’re in same room, you two look like you’re five second from fucking on nearest flat surface.” She said, dubious.
“No one else has noticed, including Buck!” he countered, too caught up in the moment to recognize what he was confessing to.
Yulia gazed at him, incredulity coloring her gaze. “You’re dumber than him, and he joined Bratva on accident.” Yulia turned back to her friends waving at him. “Apparently, I was wrong. Damy, this is Eddie, the man too stupid to date the Machine, who’s practically offering his ass up on a platter.”
By the time he left, Eddie had worked through several of the phases of “realizing your hopeless crush on your best friend is mutual”. He’d gotten through Denial, Re-evaluating Moments In Their Relationship, and Holy Shit, I’m Blind, and was ready to settle into Much Less Guilty Jerking Off as soon as Chris was in bed.
Of course, that plan was thwarted by Buck chilling on his couch and asking how the play group was. Chris babbled on about his new friends as Buck got him ready for bed, Eddie realized just how entwined in his life Buck already was. They lived together, albeit in separate houses, they co-parented, they made joint grocery runs. Buck was his boyfriend in every way except sex, and apparently, that could change with a word.
As Buck came back downstairs, grinning at Chris’s stories, Eddie was seized by the fear that if this moment slipped by, there’d never be another one. So he reached out, grabbed Buck by the back of the neck, and hauled him in for a kiss.
It was as if time froze. Buck’s lips gave way under his, opening up and melting into the kiss. Eddie pressed in, licking to the other man’s mouth, desperate for the taste of him, the essence of him, the Buck of him. Beneath his mouth, Buck laughed into the kiss, giving as good as he was getting. Possibly better, as while Eddie was content to keep his hand wrapped around Buck’s neck, keeping him in place, Buck stroked down his back before grabbing a firm handful of his ass.
Breaking the kiss due to the pesky need for air, Eddie’s eyes drilled into Buck’s, brown eyes meeting blue in an unshakable connection. “I love you.” he whispered, afraid that if he spoke too loud, the universe would take it away from him.
Buck, though, had no such fears. Instead, he gave that panty-melting gaze that drove women and Eddie wild. “I know you do. I’m the Machine.”