Trauma was a fickle thing.
It wasn’t an unknown fact by any means, but some of his more recent sessions with Doctor Copeland had been diving deeper into the period of time that Buck had always held at arm’s length, and now that those memories, those after-shocks he had spent so long trying to forget were floating back up to the surface like bubbles underwater, he wasn’t sure how much longer he could cope with it.
He had forgotten the panic that welled up in his chest like a balloon whenever he spoke about the tsunami, but recent sessions had brought it all back to him like he was re-living it again and again. The ocean receding from the edge of the pier, the burning water in his lungs, his aching throat as he screamed for Christopher, the fear that flowed through his veins and the panic that was rooted in his very marrow.
“I’m fine,” he had told her with all the conviction he could muster, shaking his head in dismissal. “It was a long time ago. I’m over it.”
Perhaps that uncertain, displeased look on her face meant more than he was putting thought into.
For the first few months, he’d had these nightmares about the tsunami, about the sight of the bottom of the ocean as the water drained, about the crushing weight of the water as he was tossed around like a rag-doll, the panic that he felt even in sleep as he searched the rubble and saved people from the tsunami, all the while searching for Christopher, and often waking up with his name on his lips. His sheets would be wet from sweat, and his heartbeat would be pounding in his ears until it sounded too much like rushing water. But, as he told Doctor Copeland with absolute honesty, they only lasted a month or so after the event, and he had much more important and terrible things going on.
He wasn’t sure how therapy worked. Not really, not when it came down to the nitty-gritty. He never would have thought that talking about it out loud with someone who actually wanted to hear what you had to say would make you relive it all over again, would bring back those bad memories that he had worked so hard to forget.
One moment, he was lying on a bunk during a slow nightshift, the scratchy fabric under his face and light streaming in from the kitchen where the rest of his team were laughing softly while they waited for a call, and the next moment he was drowning, being buffeted around by the torrent of water, his lungs burning and his flesh stinging from where the water bit at him.
The air was stripped from his lungs as he screamed Christopher’s name and he watched, hopelessly, as the bubbles rose to the surface and disappeared, carrying the last of his oxygen and his panic with them.
He thrashed and screamed and panicked, and he swam with all his might, but the torrential wave crashed through the pier and took him with it, dragging him, despite his efforts, further and further away from the blurry sight of the striped red and yellow shirt drifting desperately with the current.
It had been a very, very long time since he had felt a sort of panic like this. One that he could feel in every fibre in his being, one that made his lungs constrict and his vision to narrow and darken, one that had the only thought on his mind be Christopher's name that he chanted like a priest in prayer, but still, that did nothing for him as the boy was pulled further and further away from him.
He screamed for him again as fresh air licked his face for just a moment, and he could only hope that the water carried the sound away with it just as it had taken everything else.
He wasn’t sure what happened first- if he had caught sight of Christopher hanging on desperately to a post, calling from him as he clung to the unstable metal, or if he toppled out of the bunk in his flailing and landed so heavily on his back that it woke him from the nightmare he was trapped in.
For a long, startled second, he just laid there, breathing, trying in a futile attempt to get the air back into his lungs after so long of screaming and drowning. When the dark spots left his eyes, he slowly began to sit back up, grunting as he did so, just as the others bolted into the room with wild eyes and fear on their faces.
“Buck?” Bobby demanded as he and the rest of the team took in Buck sprawled on the floor, still in his uniform, the thin threadbare blankets wrapped around his legs and waist. “What happened?”
“Nothing happened,” Buck dismissed as he ran a tired hand down his face. That wasn’t really the nap he had been hoping for. He felt like he had run a marathon and then leapt right onto the firetruck for a long shift.
“It doesn’t look like 'nothing' to me,” Hen said, raising her eyebrows. She gestured vaguely at Buck, propping himself up with the side of the bed, legs still shakey like a new-born doe and breathing heavy. “You look terrible.”
Buck just shook his head in response as he turned his back to them and braced his elbows on the bed, resting his head in the cradle of his palms and tried to get his frantic breathing under control, pushing his mused hair out of his eyes. He took a deep, steadying breath before he ran a heavy hand down his face to try and wake himself up, pinching at his cheeks to get the blood flowing again.
The silence behind him was disconcerting but he tried to push their presence out of his mind, hoping that they would take the hint and return to the kitchen and whatever conversation they were having until he interrupted. He should have known better, and when Chimney rested a gentle hand on his shoulder, he couldn’t help but sigh in reluctant defeat. “You know you can tell us anything, right? We’re never going to hold anything against you or think of you any different if that’s what you’re worried about. We’re a family. We’re supposed to share these sorts of things.”
Realising a slow, calming breath, Buck pulled away from Chimney’s grasp and gingerly heaved himself onto the bunk, the sheets all twisted and ripped from their immaculate place. This was the last thing he wanted to talk about, especially with them, but when he peaked at their expressions through the gaps between his fingers, he knew that they weren’t going to let it go any time soon. “I’ve had a couple of sessions with Doctor Copeland lately where we’ve spoken a little about the tsunami,” he admitted haltingly. “I guess it’s brought up some things that I thought weren’t a problem anymore. It’s not a big deal.”
“Nightmares?” Bobby asked. Buck sighed. “It’s alright to have nightmares, Buck. We all have them. It comes with the job.”
“Guys, it’s fine,” Buck insisted. “It’s nothing.”
None of them looked very convinced, and Buck was honestly not in the mood to convince them. He was still numb in that way you felt after a nap, and the blood pounding in his ears still sounded too much like rushing water. Hen was the first to speak. “Look, Buck, you don’t have to be ashamed-”
“I’m not ashamed,” Buck interrupted quickly. “Guys, it was a nightmare. It was a one-time thing. It only happened because we’ve been talking about it for the first in ages. I haven’t had one of those for years. There’s really nothing to worry about.”
Eddie was watching him intently, and Buck forced himself to meet his eye. “You know, Christopher had nightmares for a long time after the tsunami. About drowning, and his mother, and you. You never told us that you had them too.”
“Well, it’s not like we were exactly talking at the time,” Buck sat up straighter, deciding pointedly not to continue that line of thought. Quickly, he added. “Look, I appreciate your concern, but I really am alright. I’d tell you if I wasn’t.”
The others were shifting uncomfortably now, and casting sideways glances at each other. Buck tried to ignore it. He wasn’t sure what else he could possibly say to calm their worry. “But your lessons with Doctor Copeland…” Bobby tried. “Are… helping?”
“Why are you even talking about the tsunami in the first place?” Chimney frowned.
“We weren’t talking about the tsunami specifically,” Buck protested. He wasn’t really comfortable with discussing such private, personal information, but he didn’t know how to change the topic without opening avenues for more questions, so he just tried not to get too annoyed. They were just concerned, he told himself, they were prying because they cared. “We were talking about a period of time in my life and traumatic experiences I've never mentioned to her before, and I realized those two things coincided with the tsunami and I never bothered to bring it up with her, so we’re spending a few sessions on talking about it. She says that if it was big enough for me not to mention it then it’s big enough to take the time to discuss. I don’t know. I’m not going to pretend to understand how shrinks work.”
“I don’t think she would be talking about it if it wasn’t bothering you, Buck,” Bobby said slowly.
“Well, it’s not bothering me,” Buck shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“What was the dream about, at least?” Chimney tried, rocking back on his heels. Buck thought that he was practising negotiating for when his kid was old enough to argue. “What had you screaming like a baby and falling out of bed?”
He said it to lighten the mood, but Buck didn’t find it very funny. “The tsunami,” he said simply, almost dumbly.
Eddie heaved a long-suffering sigh, one he'd heard many times before. “Buck-”
Before he could finish, Buck held up a finger and Eddie’s mouth clamped shut. “Wait for it,” he said, craning his neck and sitting straightener in anticipation.
For a moment, nobody moved. They exchanged confused glances and stared at Buck, sitting very still on the bunk with his finger in the air, almost vibrating with barely-contained energy. Eventually, after exchanging all the expressions and glances they could, it was Bobby who asked, “Uh, what exactly are we waiting for here, Buck?”
As if on cue, the siren wailed and Buck leapt from the bunk, full of the energy he seemed devoid of before. “The bell,” he grinned as he breezed past them, whooping. “Last one on the truck has to clean the locker room!”
They watched, stunned, as he shimmied into his turnovers with practised ease and leap into the truck without a backwards glance, and they had no choice but to follow after him before the truck left them behind.
It was an easy, routine call- an elevator stuck on the fourteenth floor of a corporate building, and it was over just as quickly as it was called in. The moment the engines returned to the station and they stripped from their suits, they retired to the bunks for some much-needed rest. Buck was snoring the moment his head hit the pillow and fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.
But somehow, despite how bone-dead-tired they were, there was a feeling of dread hanging over them that the team just couldn’t shake. They watched as Buck’s chest rose and fell beneath the covers, snoring softly as his eyes shifted beneath his lids. While everyone was getting ready to retire for the rest of their quiet shift, Hen sat on the bunk beside Buck’s and gently rested her hand on his shoulder. He didn’t stir, and she felt the steady rise and fall under her hand.
“Do you think he meant what he said?” Chimney asked as he watched her.
“Well, it was obviously something,” Hen said. “Considering he fell out of bed screaming and looked like he had been dragged through hell by his toenails.”
Chimney made a disgusted face. Eddie hid his laughter behind a very cartoony gag. “I mean, obviously he had some kind of nightmare, but do you think he meant it when he said it was nothing to worry about? Or do you think he really does get them all the time and just lied to us to shut us up?”
“Both are probably likey, Chim, but it’s not really any of our business,” Bobby said as he folded his jacket. “I don’t think he would appreciate us talking about him like this behind his back, either.”
“Tell you what, Christopher had crazy nightmares for a while after the tsunami. Woke up screaming most nights, scared the hell out of me. I had to take him a therapist to help him work through it,” Eddie said, ignoring the captain, as he walked around to join Hen on the other side of Buck’s bunk, and brushed the curls from his forehead. He forgot how young Buck was most of the time, but watching him sleeping so peacefully, his tousled hair covering his face, it really reminded him like a lightning strike. “I can’t help but wonder what Buck did to get through that period. As he said, it’s not like he had any of us around to help him. And if he’s mentioned something to Doctor Copeland that was serious enough for her to spend a few sessions dealing with it, it can’t be ‘nothing’ like he said, right?”
“I wonder how he dealt with it?” Chimney mused. “Maddy said that he really struggled those first few days, and we all saw him when we found him at the pier. She told me a little bit about the nightmares he was having at the time, but while they sounded bad, it was during the whole lawsuit thing and I didn’t let myself think about it too much.”
There was a troubled, stormy look on Bobby’s face when he shooed them away. “Don’t crowd him. If he wakes up with you guys surrounding him like a bunch of freaks, he’s not going to like it,” unsurprisingly, nobody moved away from Buck’s sleeping form on the bunk, and he sighed as he moved to join them. “Look, none of us was there that day, and nobody but he and Chris know what happened, or what they went through. I don’t know about any of you, but I think it’s a shock that he’s even talking about this with Doctor Copeland. You know he tends to keep vulnerabilities like this close to the chest.”
“That’s saying something,” Hen murmured. Under her hand, Buck’s muscles flexed in his sleep, and he let out a heavy breath through his nose. “I can’t believe that none of us bothered to check in after the tsunami. It was hard enough dealing with the clean-up. I couldn’t even imagine being in it.”
“I tried,” Eddie protested. “I brought Chris over almost as soon as the doctor cleared him because I just couldn’t stand thinking about him being all alone in his lonely apartment after it happened. But he never mentioned any of it to me. He was mostly worried about me trusting him with Chris after they got separated during the tsunami. But then the lawsuit happened…” he trailed off. There was no need to finish that statement.
Nobody spoke for a long moment. Hen brushed her fingers across Buck’s exposed neck, feeling the faint pulse jump against his skin. Chimney was adjusting the tangled sheets at his feet, lost in thought. Eddie watched Buck’s lax, sleeping face as he slumbered through a dream that he could only hope wasn’t a nightmare as he compared Chris’s first night after the tsunami, waking with a scream, to Buck’s most recent. Bobby stuck his hands in his pockets, staring at the back of Buck’s head with a fond yet worried expression, gnawing at his bottom lip.
“Does anyone else feel a little bad now that we’re all realizing that none of us has any idea of Buck’s mental state or how he was coping after the tsunami?” Chimney asked faintly as he watched Buck shift, entirely unaware of the commotion surrounding him.
Nobody replied, but nobody needed to. They all knew the answer.
It was Bobby’s sigh that shattered the tense silence that draped over them all like a suffocating blanket. “Alright, alright. I know that we all want to get to the bottom of this, but we’ve all had a long shift and we should all get some rest while we still can. And I meant what I said- if he wakes up and sees us, he’s going to freak out. So hit the bunks. That’s an order.”
Reluctantly, everyone wandered away and retired to their bunks, and they fell asleep to the rhythmic sounds of Buck’s even breathing and his whistling-snores as he slept.
Friday night rolled around, and they were all sequestered around Buck’s apartment after a long week of non-stop shifts as they prepared to bring in the weekend. Empty beer bottles were littered on the countertop and coffee table, taking up space beside take-out containers and brown paper bags with cartoon labels on them.
“I really appreciate Karen watching Christopher for me tonight, Hen,” Eddie said, not for the first time, as he glanced away from the TV playing quietly. “I would have asked Carla, but she’s visiting her parents, and I didn’t want to call her back on such short notice.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hen dismissed him as if they’d already had this conversation many times before. “I’m sure she’s loving the change of pace. Compared to our kids, your boy is an angel.”
“And thanks Buck for letting us crash in his apartment for the weekend hang-out,” Chimney said as he reached a foot out and kicked Buck at the other end of the couch. The others cheered sarcastically and Buck grinned, enjoying the attention, before he made a disgruntled expression. “What’s wrong?”
Buck shook his head, but he was eyeing the opposite wall. “Nothing’s wrong, but…” he trailed off, listening. “Can anyone hear anything?”
They paused. Bobby reached for the remote and muted the TV, adjusting his grip on his Sprite. They listened intently to any and every sound until they heard it- banging, shifting, squeaking and muffled voices from the other side of the wall, higher up. “Turn the volume up,” Buck groaned as he yanked his shoe off of his foot and chucked it at the wall. It bounced off and narrowly missed the TV. It landed harmlessly on the floor as Bobby hastily turned the volume up and the explosive sounds of the football game rattled the widows. He winced and turned it down a little.
Hen whirled around to face Buck as he sunk deeper into the couch and covered his face with his hands. “What the hell is that?”
“That,” Buck said bitterly, moving the words around in his mouth, trying to get a feel for them. He didn’t seem pleased. “Is Albert. And Veronica. In her loft.”
Chimney choked on his beer. Bobby and Hen exchanged a wide-eye glance and Eddie threw his head back in laughter. “You know, when I heard you complaining about their relationship at work, I honestly just thought that you were over-reacting. But now I can really see how that can be a problem.”
“I can’t believe him,” Chimney spluttered, eyes watering. “Why do they have to be so damn loud ?”
“That’s a question you’ll have to bring up with him,” Buck raised his hands. “He’s your brother. I try and stay out of it. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“Isn’t he your roommate…?” Bobby asked slowly.
“Occasionally,” Buck replied. “When it suits him. He spends time between us, but even he’s not here, it sounds like they’re having sex on my couch.”
Hen made a face and threw a pillow at him. He failed to catch it and let out a series of very dramatic groaning. “You’ve had too much to drink,” she told him fondly. “It’s making your thoughts bypass the filter between your brain and your mouth.”
“Come on, Hen,” Eddie said, just as fondly. “When has Buck ever really had a filter? He doesn’t need to be sober for that.”
“I’m right here, you know,” Buck complained. “I’m allowed to drink as much as I want in my own house. It’s you guys who have to watch yourself or get someone to pick you up.”
“Not everyone has the room for us all, Buck,” Bobby said mildly, sipping from his can of softdrink. “Unless you want four firefighters asleep on your floor, we need to be careful.”
Buck pointed a finger at him, eyes trained to the ceiling. “You’re the one making that rule. I’d be more than happy for you guys to crash here. It’s pretty much empty- it’s a big place for one person.”
“Two people,” Chimney pointed out.
“One and a half people.” Buck shot back.
“You know, Buck, if you really had that much problem with your apartment being empty all the time, you could search for a new roommate,” Bobby said. “Someone else to pay the rent, someone to share the chores, someone to come home to.”
Frowning, Buck shook his head “Finding the right roommate is like dating, right? You’ve got to find someone perfect, someone compatible. I don’t have the time or energy for that. I’m bad enough at dating as it is. That’s why Albert was so easy- I knew him. Well, I thought I did.”
Eddie looked at him considerably as he took a sip from his beer. “I really didn’t think you had a problem with living alone.”
“I don’t,” Buck protested. “But… you know,” he gestured wildly at nothing in particular. “Everyone has someone to go home to at the end of the day, whether it’s kids or partners or roommates or whatever. People go home and talk about their days and share a drink and stay up all night and have someone there when they go home. I don’t have that. I just come home to my empty apartment every day and sit here by myself waiting for something to happen.”
Bobby frowned again, glancing around the space. “Is that why you don’t have any decorations or personal items up in your apartment? It looks pretty much exactly as it did when you brought it.”
“Why personalise a place you don’t intend to spend much time in?” Buck shrugged like it was no big deal. The sound picked up from the other side of the wall again, and Buck began removing his other shoe. Bobby turned the volume up some more to drown it out before Buck could throw his second boot.
“That’s no way to live, Buck,” Hen said sympathetically.
Either Buck had too much to drink to really pay attention, or he just didn’t care that much. “Maddie called me sad and lonely. Doctor Copeland says that I’m afraid of being left behind and abandoned and that I’m desperate for contact and connections. My parents have always said that I was a weird, hard-to-like kid. So it really shouldn’t shock any of you that I’m here by myself. It doesn’t shock me.”
It was Eddie’s turn to choke on his drink, leaning forward as beer stung his eyes and dripped from his nose. Hen and Chimney were exchanging wide-eyed, open-mouthed glances, and Bobby shifted forward, trying to formulate some sort of brilliant retort, but the words never reached his lips. Buck looked perturbed but glanced between them as if witnessing a supernatural event, or a very involved game of charades. Amused, almost, but very confused.
“Buck,” Bobby tried, feeling very out of his depth. “You know that we’re not going to… to abandon you. Right?”
“Right...?” Buck frowned, eyes narrowing almost cartoonishly as if he had no idea what they were talking about. On some level, he probably didn’t. “It was just a diagnosis or whatever. She was talking about it as a hypothetical, not a definite, like me googling natural disasters and disabled athletes and stuff. Come on. It’s not a big deal.”
Nobody was convinced, but it was Chimney who harkened back to the same comment as to their previous conversation. “Did she say the same things about the recurring nightmares you’ve been having lately?”
“Ah-ha,” Buck pointed the end of his bottle at him, triumphantly. “You wouldn’t know that they’re recurring unless you’ve been in my apartment to watch me sleep, which I doubt.”
“Maddy could have given me the key,”
“Maddy doesn’t have a key,” Buck said idly. “I was only given one spare and I gave it to Eddie, and I’m too afraid of my landlord to ask her to cut another set. But yeah, Doctor Copeland mentioned something about repressed trauma and unresolved emotional tension and mental and emotional fatigue and a bunch of stuff I didn’t really understand. She uses technical words and terms and I usually have to google them afterwards, but we mostly just talk about the pier and the tsunami and Chris. No need for big, complicated psychology words.”
Hen was frowning. They were all frowning. “Those are some pretty sever word there, Buckaroo.”
But Buck didn’t seem too concerned. “I’m not worried about it. If I should be worried, she would tell me. And she hasn't told me, so I’m fine.”
Eddie leant forward in his seat, earnestly trying to catch Buck’s wandering gaze. “Those dreams you’ve been having,” he said abruptly. “The nightmares about the tsunami. They’re not about Chris, are they? Because for a long time, Chris had nightmares about you, and if what his doctors said about him is anything to go off, and you’re similar in any way, Buck, then maybe you should be worried.”
Grinning, Buck tapped the side of his nose. “That’s for me to know and you to find out. But I’d rather you didn’t. Find out, I mean. Because it’s private.”
Horrified, Bobby drained the last of his soft drink and cleared his throat. “Right,” he said, words thick. “I think I had better go, set a good example for you all. I'll just give Athena a ring to let her know what's happening. And I better see you bright and early for your shifts on Monday.”
Buck offered him a mock salute from his reclined position on the couch. Hen sent Chimney a harried look as Bobby pulled out his phone to call Athena. “Is Maddie still alright to take me home?”
“Yeah, she’s cool,” Chimney replied, not yet moving but looking like he wanted to. He nudged Eddie. “You need a lift? Maddie has plenty of room in her car.”
“No, actually,” Eddie was staring at Buck, watching him as he swirled the liquid around in his beer and watched the moving figures on the TV, the volume just loud enough to drown out the noises from the next room. “Hen, I know it’s a bother, but would you be able to watch Christopher for the night? I put a spare change of clothes in his bag just in case, and some money for food. He’s easy to get to sleep. Just tell him a story from one of our shifts and he’ll be out in no time. I’ll swing by and get him tomorrow morning.”
“Y-yeah, sure,” Hen blinked, surprised. “I’d be happy to. The kid can practically take care of himself. But what are you going to do?”
“I think I’m going to stay here with Buck tonight,” Eddie said confidently, suddenly horrified by the very idea of Buck spending one more night alone in his empty, lonely apartment with his sometimes- roommate next door and his therapist on speed-dial. “Have a little sleep-over of our own. What do you say, man?”
Buck tried very hard not to get overly excited, but he’d had a little much to drink, and it had been so long since any of the 118 had volunteered to spend time with him after hours, that he just couldn’t help the grin that stretched across his face. “The pull-out's all yours, buddy.”
Hen’s shoulders visibly relaxed. Chimney let out a long breath. Even Bobby looked relieved from where he was standing around the corner on the phone with Athena. Eddie was just glad that he could do this simple thing for Buck, but a little upset at himself that he hadn’t seen the issue or the solution so close together. But Buck was grinning, and Eddie knew that if he had any nightmares or anything during the night, he would be there to help him deal with it. And he wouldn’t have to be alone, at least for one night.
He stood from his chair and made his way behind Buck and slapped his hands down on his shoulders, squeezing hard. “Well, stick some pop-corn on and pick out a movie. It’s going to be a long night.”
Even if Eddie didn’t mean a word of it, it was all worth it, and much more, for Buck’s radiant smile and the unshed tears it brought to his eyes and the loose, hopeful way he reached for Eddie, and Eddie knew he would do it all over again without question. Hopefully, next time he would have Buck's favourite person with him, but just the two of them would work just as well.