Author: Keira Marcos
Challenge: Undercover (Trope Bingo 2020), Big Moxie 2022 – Canon Divergence
Relationship: Evan Buckley/Eddie Diaz, background canon pairings
Genre: First Time, Canon Divergence, Romance
Warnings: Canon-Level Angst, Canon-Level Violence, Explicit Sex, Explicit Language
Word Count: 58,690
Author’s Note: My thanks to Jilly James for her support and feedback during the creation of this story. There’s a brief crossover with the show Numb3rs as I borrowed a single character.
Summary: Buck agrees to sue the department as part of a sting operation involving Chase Mackey. Things go pear-shaped when Mackey figures it out, and Buck takes the brunt of it. The fallout changes his relationships with everyone.
Casting available on the main story page.
* * * *
Buck let his head rest on the steering wheel of the Jeep and took a deep breath to calm himself. The deposition phase of the lawsuit had been the biggest hit so far, and he didn’t know if there was any coming back from it. One of the reasons why the chief’s office and the LAPD had agreed that Buck was the ideal person to expose Chase Mackey and the informant he had in the city government was because he actually had a very good case.
His phone started to vibrate gently on the passenger seat, so he picked it up. Chris’ face filled the screen. That had been the one sticking point in the whole plan. He couldn’t imagine giving up contact with Christopher. Once the ball started rolling on the whole thing, he’d thought that he’d have to beg through back channels to keep access. It hadn’t happened. What had happened was that Christopher got his own phone.
He answered the Facetime call. “Hey, Superman.”
“Hey, Bucky, Daddy said you probably needed someone to talk to,” Chris said. “I was going to call you later and tell you about my project on dinosaurs. I want to go dig up some fossils and visit the La Brea Tar pits. Can you take me? Daddy said it would be okay. He said Carla would bring me over to the loft. Maybe I could spend the weekend.”
“I’d love that Superman,” Buck said, but he knew he couldn’t allow it. While he’d been assured that his situation wasn’t dangerous, he couldn’t take risks with Christopher’s safety. “When’s your assignment due?”
“Next week,” Christopher said cheerfully.
“Ah, unfortunately, we won’t have time to go together. I’m going to San Francisco on Friday, and I’ll be gone for a week.”
Chris frowned at him. “What’s in San Francisco?”
A job interview for a job he had no intention of taking, but it was part of the cover.
“I can’t talk about it,” Buck said and winced when Chris huffed.
“If you get a job in San Francisco, Bucky, I’m gonna be really sad! That’s too far away!”
“I’d never want to make you sad,” Buck said. Christopher made a face but nodded. “How’d your book presentation go? Did Susan like it?”
Chris blushed. “It was fine.”
Buck laughed. “I’d hope so considering how much work you put in—reading her favorite book.” He relaxed back against the seat and cleared his throat. “How’s everything going over there?”
“I miss you bunches, and Daddy does, too, but he doesn’t say anything. He’s really sad, Bucky. I know you had to do what was best for you, but this whole thing sucks so much. I asked Captain Nash to stop being mean to you. I think it hurt his feelings, but I don’t care.”
Buck winced. “Captain Nash just wants to make the best choices for everyone, and sometimes that means that we disagree.”
“Well, it’s not fair. You worked so hard, and you did such a great job during the tsunami. You saved me and a whole bunch of other people. If you were too sick to work, then you wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
And that was the central argument in the lawsuit, at least at the foundation. Mackey had also attacked what he called Bobby Nash’s inappropriate emotional attachment to Buck. It had gotten ugly in the deposition despite the fact that Buck had tried several times to rein the attorney in. Mackey clearly had a problem with the city, and he was using every single bit of leverage he could to his advantage.
“It’ll work out,” Buck promised, and Chris sent him a skeptical look.
“As long as that doesn’t mean you’re going to live in San Francisco!”
He wanted to put that subject to rest, but he couldn’t promise anything. Buck knew when he’d agreed to the semi-fake lawsuit that he might have to make some drastic changes afterward. Far more drastic than he’d planned. Because originally, he’d decided to ask to be transferred out of the 118, and HR had been in the midst of doing that with the union’s support when the chief had stepped in with the LAPD’s request. He didn’t know if there was any coming back from the whole deposition thing. He’d known that Mackey had done a very detailed discovery process with the LAFD and that he’d hired a private detective.
Some of the information he’d had could’ve only come from an inside source. Everyone had erroneously assumed that it had come from Buck. But he’d made it clear to Mackey that he hadn’t wanted to involve anyone else in the lawsuit because he figured his case could stand on its own. The lawyer hadn’t agreed, and the two detectives leading the case had requested that Buck play along to further their case and find out who was leaking information to Mackey. He hoped it worked.
“I will do everything I can to stay close to you, Chris,” Buck said quietly. “I can’t imagine my life without you in it, okay?”
“Okay.” Chris took a deep breath. “So, if you can’t come with me to the tar pits—can we at least watch Walking with Dinosaurs together?”
“I’ll order you a copy on Amazon,” Buck promised. “And we’ll do a watch party.”
Chris grinned happily, and Buck relaxed a little at the sight. It was amazing how one kid’s happiness could make his world seem right.
The glass of the driver’s side window shattered. A glancing blow of what looked like a baseball bat sent him reeling, and he dropped the phone.
“Daddy! Daddy! Come quick! Something’s wrong with Bucky!”
Buck scrambled for the phone as the door was wrenched open. “Eddie! I’m at home! I’m at home!”
Two men hauled him out of the Jeep and slammed him against the side. His vision darkened even as he struggled to stand.
“You stupid bastard!” One of the men hissed. “Did you think you’d get away with it?”
Buck pushed against the Jeep, staggered to his feet, and took two blows with a baseball bat before one of them kicked his leg out from underneath him. He went down, agony snaking up his leg viciously. He welcomed unconsciousness.
* * * *
“My name is Eddie Diaz, and I need to see Evan Buckley,” Eddie said as he pulled out his wallet. “I’m his next-of-kin and hold his medical POA.”
The nurse inclined her head toward a pair of men across the waiting room. “LAPD is restricting access to Mr. Buckley at this time.”
“The LAPD doesn’t have the authority to prevent me from seeing him,” Eddie said. “He’s surely not under arrest for being the victim of an assault.”
“No, I agree, but they’re adamant that we do not allow anyone in.”
“Mr. Diaz, you know that Mr. Buckley isn’t allowed any contact with you or anyone else with the 118 due to his lawsuit against the city.”
Eddie turned and focused on the two men who’d crossed the room to stand entirely too close to him. “I have to see him in order to make medical decisions for him.”
“That can’t be helped at present,” the detective said. “You’ll have to leave, or we’ll be forced to detain you.”
“Detain me,” Eddie repeated and pulled out his cellphone. He thumbed through the contacts and held up a hand when one of the men started to speak. He tucked it against his ear and waited for a connection. “Athena, there are two men claiming to be detectives, who have failed to provide identification, in the waiting room threatening to arrest me if I don’t leave. Apparently, I’m not allowed to act as Buck’s next-of-kin due to that stupid, fucking lawsuit.”
“Tell them if they arrest you that you, too, will have grounds for a stupid, fucking lawsuit,” Athena hissed. “I’m on my way, and so are both chiefs.”
“Both, there’s…it’s…we’re just all on our way, okay?”
Eddie ended the call and tucked his phone away. “The Chief of Police and the Chief of the Fire Department are both on their way down here, apparently. Sergeant Grant told me to tell you that if you arrest me that I’ll have grounds for a lawsuit, too. So, please go ahead. I really could use the money for my kid’s college fund.” He turned to the nurse. “Unless my friend is under arrest or has suddenly come down with Ebola, I can’t think of a single reason why I shouldn’t be allowed access to him. Do you have any official documentation to back up their so-called authority? He’s entitled to have someone on hand due to his injuries to advocate for him. I already know he suffered a severe concussion.”
“You’re going to endanger months of work,” one of the detectives hissed.
Eddie turned to him with a glare. “What?”
“Nothing,” the other said and pulled his partner firmly away. “Let’s just wait for the chief to get here. We’ll have to figure out how to spin this asshole’s interference.”
Eddie resolved to interfere as much as he possibly could. He turned to the nurse. “I’d like to establish an authorized visitors list. Since my friend was the victim of a violent crime, I feel like we need to make considered choices on this subject. Sergeant Athena Grant is a family friend. She should be the only contact he has with the LAPD at this point.” He ignored the muttering behind him. “Also, if we could have hospital security informed of his precarious circumstances, I would be grateful.”
The nurse’s mouth quirked gently, and she nodded. “Of course, Mr. Diaz, you are certainly within your rights.”
Shortly, he was being guided through the emergency room, and a doctor met him in front of one of the few actual rooms. All of the curtained-off areas appeared to be occupied as well. He figured that Buck would be admitted, and he resolved to have his admittance marked private. He didn’t think it would keep the two assholes in the waiting room at bay completely, but he was willing to make them work hard to get any sort of access going forward.
“Mr. Diaz, thank you for coming. I’m Dr. Marcus Owens.” He held out a hand. “You might not remember me….”
“I do,” Eddie said. “You’re the vascular surgeon who handled part of Buck’s surgeries last year.” He exhaled. “Did his leg get reinjured?”
“At his request, I was informed he was here, and there had been in a violent assault, so I’m consulting. We’ve ordered x-rays and an MRI due to extensive bruising on the leg,” Owens explained. “There is also some swelling—he did tell me that one of his assailants kicked his leg more than once with the apparent intent of causing more damage to his injury. He has a concussion. Mr. Buckley is in and out of consciousness. When he’s awake—he’s aware of his circumstances and has no cognitive deficits that we can determine. Having you here will help us see if there is anything significantly wrong on that level.”
Eddie nodded and, after a few moments, allowed himself to be prodded into the room. He hadn’t seen Buck in weeks until the depositions had taken place. From the way he’d reacted during that process, Eddie knew that Buck hadn’t authorized or agreed with all of what the lawyer had been doing. Chimney and Hen were furious—mostly because Bobby was essentially heartbroken over the whole thing. Mackey had made it seem like Buck couldn’t stand any of them now and that Bobby was to blame.
He eased down in the chair beside the hospital bed and looked over Buck’s bruised face. He had a black eye and a dark bruise on his left temple. “Any injury to the eye?”
“No, just a bit of swelling. We’ll be icing it again shortly,” the nurse said.
Buck opened his eyes. “Eddie.” He wet his lips and took in a ragged breath. “Chris…is Chris okay?”
Eddie slid a hand through the railing of the bed and curled his fingers carefully around Buck’s. “Chris is fine, I promise. Carla’s with him.”
“Must’ve scared him.” Buck swallowed hard. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, you didn’t do anything wrong,” Eddie said and glanced toward the doctor. “You were attacked—none of this is your fault, Buck.”
“It’s…fake.” He wet his lips. “Fake lawsuit. The LAPD is investigating Mackey. I went undercover—someone found out. My fault. Must’ve fucked up.”
Eddie swallowed a huge and instant amount of fury. He didn’t know if Athena knew, but surely she wouldn’t have agreed that Buck, of all people, should go undercover for the LAPD. Buck was so damned earnest and honest that Eddie didn’t think he could lie successfully if his life depended on it.
“It’s okay. Everything will be fine,” Eddie said. “Just stay calm, okay? You don’t want your blood pressure to go up. It’ll just make the headache worse. Trust me on that.”
“I always trust you,” Buck muttered, and his eyelids slid shut. “Love you.”
Eddie blinked in surprise and took a deep breath before focusing on the doctor. “Who’s handling his primary care?”
“Dr. Belinda Corsair, she’s on break at the moment,” Dr. Owen explained. “Why?”
“He needs an MRI for the head injury and a full blood workup if that hasn’t happened already. Do we know if they injected him with anything?”
The doctor and nurse exchanged a look, then they both nudged Eddie out of the way to start looking.
Eddie didn’t know if Buck really loved him, but what he did know was that he wouldn’t have blurted those emotions out in front of strangers unless he was compromised. Buck tended to tuck his heart away in a deep, highly defendable place when he was vulnerable in any single way.
* * * *
When he re-entered the waiting room, the two unnamed detectives were gone. He’d also, apparently, missed the Chief of Police, which was just as well. Hen, Chim, and Bobby were seated and waiting. Eddie walked across the room and focused on Phil Evans, the recently promoted Chief of the LAFD.
“They tried to rebreak his leg,” he said flatly. “He has a concussion, and he’s headed for an MRI to see if he has brain damage. They’re also doing a drug panel because they found an injection site on the back of his neck. So, I really hope that whatever information the LAPD and the city got regarding Chase Mackey was worth it.”
“It wasn’t,” Evans returned. “We were told that he wouldn’t be in any danger whatsoever, and I took the LAPD’s word for it. Mackey got suspicious of Buckley during the deposition because he kept trying to derail the process to protect you. So, he checked Buckley’s phone records, which were part of the discovery process, and found your son’s cellphone and the daily calls. He erroneously believed that you and Buckley had been in contact throughout the course of the lawsuit. He notified the two cops he had on his payroll, and they attacked him. They’re already in custody and have rolled over on Mackey in the hopes of a lighter sentence. Unfortunately, they’ll probably get it since the case against Mackey is a pretty big one for Major Crimes.
“We never should’ve agreed to the contact with your kid, but Buckley refused to participate at all if we couldn’t guarantee that you’d at least be asked. I hoped you’d say no.”
“I don’t make a habit of hurting my own kid on purpose. Buck is practically his second parent, sir,” Eddie snapped and walked away before he got himself fired. He slouched down in a chair beside Hen and turned his head to avoid looking at anyone else.
“Why was Buck asked to do this?” Bobby asked.
“Because he had grounds, and Mackey was aware of him. He’d already tried to talk to Buckley about his injury involving the bombing,” Evans said. “You were slowly but surely ruining Buckley’s career with your coddling, Nash, and it was getting a lot of notice. He has a high profile in the department because of that viral crap, the bombing, and the tsunami. He went to HR for a resolution, and they hit the ground running to avoid political fallout. The press would’ve eaten you alive for sidelining a goddamned hero because of your own emotional issues if it had gotten out.”
He held up a hand when Bobby started to speak. “I’m just telling you exactly what was being said. Buckley kept you from getting fired, Nash. He went to bat for you while you were making it damned near impossible for him to even pay his bills. He wiped out his savings and was preparing to sell his home. Thanks to your interference, he was only being scheduled for twenty hours a week on light duty, which is a third of the salary he’d make on the job as a firefighter. He’d already requalified, with distinction, and had gotten an all-clear from medical, so he wasn’t getting any sort of disability, either.
“Once HR and the union reviewed his medicals, certifications, and performance eval regarding the tsunami—it was recommended that I send you to therapy at the very least and transfer him to the firehouse of his choice in the city to avoid a lawsuit.” He paused. “At most, they wanted you off the job. Frankly, they still want you off the job. You’ve won yourself no favors in this mess. Evan Buckley was the only advocate you had in that room. So, I hope you’ll remember that going forward.”
Eddie stayed where he was as the chief left and almost stood to leave when Maddie Buckley rushed in. He really didn’t think he could deal with her right now. She’d been awful during the conversation they’d all had after the depositions. He knew she was hurt to have been lumped in with the rest of them regarding no contact, but she’d also gotten completely furious over how Chim had been treated in the meeting with Mackey. Frankly, Chim had gotten off light compared to the rest of them.
It hadn’t been pleasant for him, but Eddie had seen Buck’s distress and known it for what it was. Maybe it helped that he’d been listening to Chris chat with Buck for weeks and heard the loneliness that his best friend couldn’t keep completely out of his voice.
Eddie picked up the bag of Buck’s things, checked inside, and found his cell phone. He wondered how Buck had ended up with it. Athena hadn’t told them much about the scene, and he hadn’t had the time to get the details. It had half a battery, so he’d have to find a charger for it when Buck was admitted.
“Do you have his password?”
He looked up and found Maddie staring at Buck’s phone. He did, but he wasn’t going to admit to it. Eddie shook his head. “He changes it all the time. Why?”
“I left him a pretty…ugly voice mail,” Maddie admitted. “I was so angry about all the stuff he’d told Mackey, and I said some terrible things…he’s going to be really upset when he hears it.”
Eddie made a face. “You realize that even if the lawsuit had been real that every single thing that Mackey knew and discussed in that meeting was discoverable, and it spoke to the exact justifiable circumstances that would’ve allowed Buck to actually sue Bobby and the department, right? Plus, Mackey surely had a private detective investigate every single one of us. None of this shit would’ve happened at all if Bobby had checked himself and his own issues.” He stood and shoved Buck’s phone in his pocket next to his own.
“You’re not mad that all of your dirty laundry got aired?” Chim asked.
“I should’ve been in therapy months ago for my dirty laundry,” Eddie said. “I already suffer PTSD from serving in the Army, and I spent weeks resenting the hell out of you for Shannon’s death, Chim. It wasn’t rational, and I knew it, but I still did it. I came precariously close to doing something immensely stupid a couple of weeks ago because I can’t seem to control my temper. The only thing that prevented it was a fucking reminder on my phone that it was Buck’s birthday. I went home and found that he’d spent his evening reading a book with Christopher over Facetime. They both fell asleep in the midst of it.” He checked his watch. “You should all go home—I’ll text with updates.”
“No, I want to see my brother,” Maddie said. “The nurse wouldn’t give me in any details. She said I had to ask you.”
“Considering how rough shit got today before this happened, I made the decision to exclude everyone but Athena from visiting at this time,” Eddie said warily. “He’s in pain, emotionally overwhelmed, and suffering a head injury. He doesn’t need the stress of seeing any of you. I’ll tell him you were here. Here’s hoping he hasn’t already listened to the voice mail you left.”
Tears welled in her eyes, and she turned toward Chim, who outright glared at Eddie.
Hen stood and walked with him to the door even as Bobby sat down without saying a word. He took note of Athena’s entry through the front doors of the emergency room and wondered what sort of news she was bringing.
“If you’re going to argue—”
“I’m not,” Hen interjected. “Stress is the last thing he needs with a concussion. If any of them were thinking of anyone but themselves at the moment, they’d agree. Today was a horrible fucking day, and it ended with attempted murder.” She glanced toward Athena. “I don’t think any of them have realized that yet, either. Athena and I will get them squared away and sent home. Do I need to stop by your house to get anything? I can bring you a bag?”
“I’ve got a bag in my truck,” Eddie said. “And Carla is with Chris. I’ll let her know that you can come get him if need be?”
“Of course,” Hen assured. “Karen’s at home waiting on news, and Denny will be worried as well. He overheard me responding to the news…I had a bit of a freak-out. Having someone with him his own age might be helpful for Chris. We’ll chat with Carla—maybe the boys can have a sleepover as a distraction.”
Hen nodded, gave his arm a squeeze, and left. Eddie walked over to where Athena was standing and took a deep breath.
“He’s upstairs getting an MRI, and he’ll be moved to a room after that. They found an injection site, so the attackers gave him something. He’ll be kept overnight, at least, for observation. Then I thought, if he was willing, I’d bring him home with me. I’ve had his registration made private so no one can call and get any information on him.”
“Ketamine,” Athena said. “I’ve already reported that to his doctor. We found the syringe on the scene, and one of them admitted to giving him the drug. Not enough to kill him because they had plans…well, that doesn’t matter.”
“Let’s not tell him about those plans until much later. I don’t know how much he can take right now.”
Athena nodded. “The chief wanted to put a couple of uniformed officers on his room until we’re certain that the situation with Mackey doesn’t have more players, but I told him it would be a bad idea considering two cops nearly killed him. They certainly would have if his neighbor hadn’t come out to get something out of her car and saw them trying to drag Buck into another vehicle. She screamed for help and, fortunately, several people came running. I told her that was rare. She replied that she screamed fire because that always gets attention.”
“She’s not wrong,” Eddie said roughly. “Fire brings out the best and worst in people. I’m going to stay with him until he’s released. I don’t want his room number reported to anyone, Athena. I don’t think it’s safe.”
“I agree, and I won’t be writing it down or discussing it with anyone I don’t trust completely. I won’t give it to anyone at the 118. He doesn’t need that pressure.” She glanced toward the waiting area where her husband sat. “Today’s been a big hit for Bobby. I tried to tell him that he was making the wrong call with Buck—from the start. I wish I’d known what was really happening, but I guess I understand why I wasn’t in the loop.”
“If they’d asked you…you could’ve told them that Buck’s too inherently good to do what they asked of him and a terrible liar,” Eddie said roughly. “Obviously, that’s not a complaint. The thing is that this would’ve been much more successful if we’d all been in the know. If we’d all been in on it, that deposition wouldn’t have messed Buck up so much that he made Mackey suspicious.”
“I agree, and I told the chief that. Buck can’t stand to see the people he cares about hurt,” Athena said. “And he’s very protective of you.”
Eddie flushed. He exhaled and looked away from her. “I’m going to get my bag and go up to the room. He should be done with the MRI soon. Hopefully, they were able to keep him basically unconscious for that. It would be a nightmare otherwise.”
* * * *
He put his bag down in a corner near the window away from the bed in case they needed to move Buck quickly and sat down. Buck was asleep, and the skin that wasn’t bruised beyond the telling of it was pale. Eddie shared a glance with Athena, who’d stopped by the bed. Her hands were curled around the top of the railing, knuckles so tight it looked painful.
“It honestly looks worse than it is,” Eddie said. “At least his leg wasn’t reinjured.”
She nodded. “Call me if you need anything, and I’ll make it happen.”
“Hen’s going to help me manage Chris’ care,” Eddie said. “If you could keep the rest of them at bay, I’d appreciate it. He doesn’t deserve to be ambushed and forced to accept whatever emotions they want to throw at him for good or bad. I wish he’d never agreed to help the LAPD with their case, but in the end, Buck was just doing the right thing.”
“Agreed,” Athena said and took a deep breath. “Maybe we should arrange for you to take him out of town for a while. Michael has a house in Big Sur right on the beach. I think he was going to take it off the renter’s market for a while to do some cosmetic work on it. It might be empty. I’ll check with him.” She pulled out her phone. “The chief already told the detectives working the Mackey case to leave Buck alone. If they need him to answer any questions—they’ll come through me.”
Eddie would’ve turned down the favor for himself, but he knew that Buck loved the beach. Even the tsunami hadn’t ruined that for him. Christopher had experienced a few issues, but he’d insisted on resuming his swimming and surfing lessons since he believed that both had helped save his life. Eddie couldn’t discount it.
“A beachfront condo would be a step up from our current circumstances,” Eddie said wryly. “Though his sister probably wouldn’t thank me for taking him out of town.”
“Well, his sister hasn’t really been all that supportive of him in all of this,” Athena said. “She’s partially to blame for Bobby’s opinions regarding Buck’s recovery. Maddie thinks he was reckless with rehab and should’ve taken his time requalifying. She’s been venting to Chimney for months about it, and he’s been talking to Bobby.”
“Right,” Eddie said with a sigh. “That’s going to be a bitter pill to swallow.”
“I’ll text you with the details regarding Michael’s house,” Athena said. “If it’s empty—he won’t have a problem with you using it.”
* * * *
Eddie took a sip of coffee and stared at his phone. Hen had set up a group text so that he could send information to everyone easily, and he appreciated that. He could tell they knew he wasn’t being as forthcoming as some of them would like on purpose, but Buck wasn’t in a good place to tell him how explicit he was allowed to be regarding his medical details. The MRI results had been good, showing no sign of brain injury, so he’d told them that. Maddie had asked for the room number twice, but he’d ignored it.
Thankfully, no one had tried to call him, but he had put his phone on silent, just in case. The last message in the group was Hen confirming that Christopher had agreed to spend the night at her house with Denny. She’d also sent a video, privately, of Chris telling him goodnight and that he didn’t need to worry about him. His son’s little serious face telling him he was okay and to focus on Buck had almost made him cry.
Eddie: He’s waking up and responding to checks when the nurses come in. Sleeping easily, otherwise. The leg is fine—just bruised—no further damage or fractures. Ketamine dosage was minimal—not enough to fully knock him out at his size. I’m told it’ll wear off entirely within the next hour.
Bobby: Tell him that we’re thinking about him, please.
Eddie sent his agreement, though he wasn’t sure he meant it. He didn’t want to stress Buck out any more than necessary, so what everyone else wanted was going to take a back seat. He’d unlocked Buck’s phone and noted that Maddie’s voice mail had been played. He’d been really tempted to listen to it but hadn’t. Currently, the phone was sitting on the tray table charging. He figured that Buck would forgive his sister far too quickly, and knowing the contents of the message would just make him resent her more, which wouldn’t really be fair to anyone in the long run.
Eddie looked and found Buck staring at him. “Hey.” He tucked his phone away and went to the bed. “Did you need something?”
“Shouldn’t you be home with Chris?” Buck asked and wet his lips. “Water?”
Eddie picked up the large mug of water the nurse had brought in and arranged the straw so Buck could use it. “My son told me to stay with you. He’s gotten real bossy lately.”
“Runs in the family,” Buck muttered but then focused on drinking. “Leg hurts. Did they rebreak it?”
“Just a lot of bruising and swelling,” Eddie assured. “No further trauma to the injury either.” He watched Buck’s shoulders relax. “The concussion is the worst of it, so you got off lucky considering.” He sat down and set the mug aside. “Everyone was here, but I sent them home.”
Buck made a face and averted his gaze. “Are they still pissed at me?”
“They’re worried about you,” Eddie said. “You nearly got murdered.” He huffed a little when Buck shrugged. “Take this seriously, Buck. Those two cops were going to kill you. They’ve already confessed to it.” He picked up Buck’s hand. “I don’t have to ask you what you were thinking.”
“Mackey was a problem, and he was ruining people’s lives because he has a grudge against the city,” Buck said. “I was just trying…to do the right thing. I fucked it up, though.”
“You were put in a position that no one prepared you for,” Eddie said. “And those two detectives working the case didn’t give a shit about you.”
“Yeah, I figured that out a week or so ago,” Buck admitted. “I was considering withdrawing, but Chief Evans was really happy that I’d agreed to help the LAPD. He said it was good that we were working together to do the right thing. I guess he’s mad at me.”
“No, he’s not mad at you. He’s pretty furious at the LAPD, though, since they promised him that you’d be safe. Except, there’s no way that was true when two of their own were working as informants for Mackey. I don’t know if they suspected it or not. Athena says that’s all been turned over to Internal Affairs, which means that part of the investigation isn’t available to her. For obvious reasons.” He cleared his throat. “Maddie asked me to unlock your phone, so she could delete the voice mail she left you.”
Buck grimaced and averted his gaze. “I…I get that she’s upset and hurt. But, god, Eddie, she ignored me for years, and I forgave her without any sort of real discussion. I know she was trying to protect me from Doug, but it still happened. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be hurt by that because he beat her.”
“Your sister went through a lot,” Eddie said. “And I’m not in any single way dismissing her trauma, but you’re allowed to be angry with her for how she treated you then and now.”
“I know they’ll all act like it was fine—what happened with the fake lawsuit and all of that crap that Mackey dug up. They’ll forgive me for the undercover operation, and not a single one of them will address the fact that Bobby’s issues was ruining my career. I wasn’t going to sue, despite having a very good case. I went to HR to ask for a transfer.”
“Without me?” Eddie questioned.
Buck blinked in surprise. “I…” He averted his gaze. “Well, you have Bosko, right? She’s filled the gap.”
“She has not filled the fucking gap,” Eddie snapped, and Buck flinched away from him. “Shit.” He tightened his hold on Buck’s hand. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m just a little…” Buck huffed. “I’m a little off my game. I know you’d never hurt me.” He looked down at their hands. “Did you know that I almost joined the SEALs?”
“I heard something about it, but no details,” Eddie said. “Had I known you at the time, I would’ve tried to talk you out of it. You’re too tender-hearted for that kind of life.”
Buck smiled briefly. “Yeah, well, you’re not wrong. I realized I couldn’t hurt someone on purpose. I’m a big guy. Sometimes I can be intimidating without even trying, but I’ve never been prone to fighting and have only ever been in one fight before today. Granted, I had no hope of fighting the two of them off since they ambushed me and hit me in the head with a baseball bat.” He winced. “I’m really fucking sorry that Chris saw any of it, Eddie.”
“He didn’t see much of anything and couldn’t tell me what was happening—just that you were yelling that you were at home, and he heard glass breaking,” Eddie assured. “He also told me you were in your Jeep, so I had enough information to call dispatch.” He rubbed his thumb over the top of Buck’s hand. “You scared the hell out of me, you know? I’ve been listening to your phone calls with Chris because I couldn’t help myself. I’ve missed you so much. Today, I didn’t listen because the shift yesterday was long, stupid, hard, and not having you with me is rubbing me raw, Buck. Then the stupid deposition happened. I can do this job without you, but I don’t want to.”
He looked up and found Buck staring at him.
Buck smiled a little. “Did you catch some feelings, Eds?”
Eddie flushed. “Shut up. I’ve been worried sick about you, and you’re being you.”
“I wasn’t in a good headspace when I found out what Bobby was doing,” Buck admitted. “It only got worse when I realized Maddie was at least partially to blame for what Bobby thought. Anyways, I was in a bad place that was making me an emotional hot mess, and you didn’t need that while dealing with Shannon’s death and Chris’ trauma over it. I was just giving you room, then it turned into something else entirely when the LAPD asked me to go undercover.”
Eddie took a deep breath. “I know why you did it and also why you didn’t ask anyone what they thought. They put you in an awful position and essentially stripped you of your entire support network while you’re still recovering, at least emotionally, from the bombing and the tsunami. Frankly, I think HR should take a long look at this and ask Chief Evans some really hard questions.” He squeezed Buck’s hand when the other man sent him a look of alarm. “That’s not your problem to manage. Tell me why you were giving me room?”
“You gotta know I want you,” Buck said and shot him a look.
Eddie felt his face heat, and he swallowed hard. “I’m not sure want is enough to risk our friendship.”
“I’ve never wanted like this before,” Buck confessed.
“You told me loved me earlier,” Eddie blurted out. “I had them do an MRI to make sure you didn’t have brain damage, but it turns out you were given a relatively mild dose of ketamine so they could control you.”
Buck laughed, then groaned. “Wow.” He touched his head with his free hand and took a deep breath. “Well, yeah. Of course, I love you. You and Chris are basically the center of my whole damn universe. Not talking to you all of these weeks has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Eddie.”
“Thank you for finding a way to keep in touch with Chris. It would’ve broken his heart to lose you even for a few weeks,” Eddie murmured.
“Well, I’d never do that. I would’ve backed out completely if you hadn’t agreed to give Chris the phone that I bought him. I think both chiefs got a little frustrated with me. One of the detectives told me I was being ridiculous because Chris isn’t my kid.” Buck took a deep breath. “I told him to go fuck himself, so that meeting ended quickly.” He frowned. “Maybe if I’d been nicer, they’d have been watching my back more.”
“No, not against their own,” Eddie said. “It was going to get ugly for you no matter what happened. I’m sorry you were hurt, but I’m glad this is over for you. The doctor said they would release you in the morning, barring any sort of complication. Michael Grant offered up his beach house. I thought we could pick up Chris and go spend a week there. I’ve already asked for vacation time, and Bobby said he’d approve it. It’s in Big Sur, right on the beach. Chris has been doing well with his surfing lessons, so I think he’d be okay.”
“You want to take me out of town without talking to the others.” He glanced at his cellphone, which Eddie had charged but not turned on. “I can’t say how’d they would react.”
“It’s not about them, Buck. You need some peace and quiet to recover. Their feelings aren’t your problem, and frankly, they wouldn’t be even if the lawsuit had been real,” Eddie said roughly. “The chief told Bobby, point blank, that his actions were ruining your career and that you were having problems paying your bills. Why didn’t you come to me?”
“You were dealing with a lot,” Buck shrugged. “I thought I could handle it without dipping into my retirement funds. I’ve put the loft on the market. I need the financial cushion. I mean, I’ve been back on full-time hours since I agreed to the lawsuit. And I have a pending transfer to the 56.” He cleared his throat. “Yeah, let’s go to Big Sur and hang out in Michael’s beach house. Can you go pack me a bag now, so I don’t have to risk going to my apartment? Maddie might set up camp if she’s off work.”
He didn’t want to leave Buck alone but figured that he should pack for himself and Chris at the same time.
“I’ll be fine for a few hours, Eddie,” Buck said.
“Only Athena knows what room you’re in, and she isn’t going to tell any of them,” Eddie admitted reluctantly. “I think she’s pretty pissed.”
“I don’t know how to navigate all of this crap.” Buck shifted on his side, turning to face him completely. “Don’t forget to pack my Switch—Chris will want to play Animal Crossing.”
Eddie barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “I hate that stupid game.”
“It’s a good thing we don’t need your ass,” Buck muttered. “We’re owning that shit without you.”
Eddie laughed and leaned on the railing a bit. “I love you, too, you know.”
“Because I’m pretty?” Buck questioned and grinned.
“Yeah, certainly,” Eddie agreed and shook his head. “Even with a black eye. It’s ridiculous.” He stood, picked up Buck’s phone, and turned it on. “You don’t have to pick up for anyone, Buck.”
“I know,” he said and grimaced. “Just you for now.” He snuggled down in his blanket. “And Athena.”
Eddie adjusted the blankets and leaned down to kiss Buck’s forehead. Buck lifted his head slightly and in a clear demand for a far more intimate kiss. Eddie gently brushed his mouth over his friend’s and took a deep breath as he lifted away. Despite the circumstances, it was hard not to lean in for another, deeper kiss.
“Let’s try to keep hospital beds out of the rest of our firsts, okay?”
Buck laughed a little, then grimaced. “Shit.”
“Head hurting more?”
“Just the same but laughing didn’t help my ribs. They’re not broken?”
“Just bruised,” Eddie said. “They were mostly looking to subdue you for transport. They also needed to get you in their damn car quick since they tried to kidnap you in a public parking garage.” He wet his lips and checked his watch. “I’ll be back in two hours. Call me if you need me and call the nurse if someone comes in here. I mean it, Evan. You don’t have to endure a single minute of anyone’s bullshit.”
“I won’t,” Buck said. “I’m just not…I know my limits, Eddie, and I’ve reached them. I’m not sure I can come back to the 118.” He looked at his phone. “It didn’t take much at all for them to turn on me, and I guess I should’ve always known that Chim and Hen would take Bobby’s side.”
“Hen’s at least contrite,” Eddie said. “Chim’s too wrapped up in your sister to see your side in any of this. Love does that, I suppose. I was an asshole to Chief Evans before I could help myself, but he seemed to overlook it. There’s a group text where I’ve been giving updates on your condition. You’re part of it, so…you can send them a text if you want telling them all to fuck off or whatever.”
Buck sighed. “Probably whatever. I love those assholes, you know.”
Eddie had to force himself to leave the room. There was a man sitting in a chair beside the door. “Hmmm…who are you?”
“Doing the sarge a favor, off the books,” the man said. “Thomas Deacon, LAPD retired.” He stood and offered Eddie his hand. “She said she would text you.”
Eddie shook his hand. “Thank you…I need to run a few errands….” He pulled out his phone, and there was a text from Athena that he’d missed because it wasn’t in the group chat, and he hadn’t been paying attention to anything else. “Yeah, I see. It’s been a day.”
“I heard,” Thomas said. “And watching over Athena’s boy for a few hours is no hardship. I’ll be here when you get back.”
“Thank you. Leaving him alone after…what happened is hard.” Eddie took a deep breath. “Doing the right thing shouldn’t suck this much.”
Buck fiddled with his phone briefly before he started to go through his texts. He skipped the group conversation because he wasn’t ready for all of their concern in a concentrated place. Fundamentally, he knew that his team cared about him, but it hadn’t been a full day since he’d seen practically every single one of them look at him like he was the scum of the Earth. Eddie had appeared to be the only one who saw how upset he was with Mackey at the deposition.
Moreover, Mackey’s questions had revealed just how unfair Bobby had been treating Buck. The discrimination was clear, and he had no idea what he’d ever done to deserve the deep lack of trust that was evident in the older man’s actions. He’d worked his ass off to get back into shape to do the job, and Buck knew he was in the best shape of his life as a result. He’d have certainly never survived the tsunami if he wasn’t.
There was a video from Hen labeled Christopher, so Buck downloaded it and hit play.
“Hey, Bucky! Daddy says you’re okay, and you won’t have to stay long in the hospital! I’m glad because they suck. You have to come see me as soon as you can so I can hug you and make you feel better! Denny and I are playing Animal Crossing—I’m showing him all the tricks you showed me. Love you!”
Buck swallowed hard and blinked back tears. He was glad Chris seemed no worse for wear for what he’d at least heard, if not saw. He sent her a text thanking her for the video and wondered if Eddie had gotten one and what was in it. Maybe Eddie would show it to him when he came back.
Hen: No problem, Buckaroo. I hope you’re feeling better.
Buck: I hurt all over, but I haven’t thrown up since I got my own room. I’m gonna take that for a win.
He shifted to the group thread read through everyone’s questions and Eddie’s responses. It was clear, at least to him, that Eddie wasn’t happy with any of them. Buck wondered what else had happened that he wasn’t aware of. He noted with some relief that Bosko hadn’t been included in the group chat. He didn’t know her and really didn’t want her involved in any sort of conversation about him. Maybe that wasn’t fair since she’d had Eddie’s back for weeks, and he should be grateful for that. Mostly he was just really fucking jealous since she’d spent more time with his best friend than he had in months.
Buck: I’m sorry for the way Mackey spoke to all of you and the hurt that was caused during the depositions. It wasn’t what I wanted, and I tried to tone him down multiple times. At the start I tried to keep most of you out of it entirely, but I was instructed to give Mackey free rein in the hopes of exposing all of his connections. I suppose that worked.
He hit send and took a deep breath as he considered what else to say.
Buck: Originally I had no intention of suing despite the fact that I had the grounds. I’d asked HR to transfer me to a new station and the chief got involved and then the LAPD got involved because they were watching Mackey and knew he’d contacted me several times. I wish now that I’d just insisted on the transfer and let the LAPD figure out another way to stop Mackey’s bullshit.
Several bubbles started at once, telling him that he was about to get bombarded with responses.
Buck: I don’t want to have a discussion about this right now. I just need to tell you how I feel and since I almost got murdered today—you’re all going to give me this. Else I’ll just turn my phone off completely.
The bubbles stopped practically at the same time.
Buck: These last few weeks have been difficult and I’ve seen parts of all of you that I wish I’d never seen. None of us are perfect but the amount of disdain and fury I had to endure yesterday after that meeting was heartbreaking. I know you were all upset far too upset to SEE me. I think that’s been a problem for a while…most of you can’t see me for who and what I am. Sometimes I feel invisible unless someone is irritated with me. That’s probably a leftover Phillip and Margaret’s A+ parenting. They only paid attention to me when I was physically injured and never much cared at all if I was hurting in any other way.
Buck: Despite the fact that the lawsuit was fake most of what Mackey said was accurate. Bobby discriminated against me for personal reasons that had zero to do with my physical or mental abilities to function on the job. Three different doctors cleared me for duty and I broke records recertifying. I am frankly in the best physical condition of my life. And I worked my ass off so I wouldn’t be a liability to any you in the field. I’d never put a single one of you at risk. I thought you knew that. I thought Bobby understood that.
Buck: I worked the tsunami without equipment or support. I saved a dozen people from the water and when I finally got to the VA hospital I’d gathered over thirty survivors to take that walk with me. I carried Christopher for miles straight to Eddie with a seven-inch open wound on my arm while on blood thinners. This is not me bragging—this is me telling you that I did my damn job that day while being denied my damn job because Bobby feels guilty about the bombing and apparently doesn’t trust me to know myself. He doesn’t have a single right to doubt my abilities.
He bit down on his lip as he considered what else he wanted to say.
Buck: The work we do requires trust and faith in each other. Since Bobby doesn’t trust me, I’m not sure I can stay at the 118. I’d never want to put any of you in harms way. I’ve a pending transfer to the 56 and I think maybe it would be best if I took it. I haven’t decided yet but it seems like the best choice I can make for all of us. This whole situation has revealed some issues on our team that need to be addressed. I just don’t think I can be a part of that process and maybe it wouldn’t be healthy for me to be. Not to be rude but every single damn one of you need therapy.
Buck: The thing is that if the lawsuit had been real it would’ve been justified. All of you were so wrapped up in your own issues yesterday that I don’t think most of you acknowledged the fact that Bobby’s discrimination against me would’ve destroyed my career. A career I worked my ass off for. In my place, none of you would’ve taken this shit lying down. So I guess I wonder why you all thought I should?
Buck: I love all of you. I mean that. But I need space so I can make the right decision for myself. I’m going to go back to sleep. Don’t harass Eddie for my room number or for anything else for that matter. He doesn’t deserve it. He’s really only the person I’ve known in over a decade I could trust with my back.
* * * *
Maddie Buckley was sitting on Buck’s couch when Eddie entered the loft. She was staring at her phone, and tears were streaming down her face. He wasn’t surprised, considering the texts that Buck had unloaded on the group chat. He’d read them all in the parking garage after he’d parked. She looked up, and her mouth trembled.
“You must think I’m a horrible person.”
“I think…” Eddie trailed off. “That you love your brother and that you mentally shifted into a parental role as a child because your parents checked out for reasons I don’t know, and Buck doesn’t understand. I also think that you go to extremes to protect the ones you love, which is why you basically iced Buck out of your life when you were married. It was the only way you could see to protect him from your husband. But, maybe also there was a part of you that saw Buck as a threat to the status quo your life was balanced on. He was a variable you couldn’t control and incidentally a variable that Doug Kendall hated.
“Now, you’re in love again, and in your mind, Buck created a situation that hurt your man. So, you lashed out, to protect that love, which is soft and sweet when you had nothing of the kind before.” He paused when her breath hitched. “It’s probably not the first time you thought that Buck was ruining something for you. Especially since you practically had to raise him. Maybe it’s time you acknowledge all of that and work on treating your brother as an adult. He knows that you were at least partially to blame for what Bobby was doing.”
“I never…” She trailed off and took a deep breath when he frowned at her.
“Please don’t lie to me, Maddie. You’ve been hammering on that topic with Chim for months, knowing damn well he’d take it straight to Bobby. You couldn’t make Buck slow down, personally, so you tried to do it through his boss. Well, the end result is that you’ve damaged the trust that Bobby had in Buck, and it’s broken his heart. Bobby was a father figure to Buck before you came along.”
“We have parents!” Maddie exclaimed. “They live in Pennsylvania, and Evan hasn’t given them the time of day in years! They’re nice people, Eddie. They don’t deserve that. Dad doesn’t deserve to be replaced.”
“Would you say that your brother is a good person?” Eddie questioned. “Generous, thoughtful, honest, loving?”
“Yes, all of that,” Maddie murmured. “Nurturing, giving…one of the best people I know.”
“Then how can you know all of that about your brother and not wonder what your parents did to him to make him walk away from them without a backward glance?” Eddie demanded, and her mouth dropped open in shock. “Buck just loves people—no matter their faults or mistakes. Christ, Maddie, what did your parents do to him?”
“I don’t…know.” Fresh tears trailed down her face, and Eddie pushed aside his guilt for his part in her being upset.
“He told me that he didn’t think he was allowed to be hurt that you ignored him for years because your husband beat you.”
“That’s not.…” Maddie closed her eyes briefly. “I would never say something so cruel and toxic. He has a right to his feelings, and they’re valid! I did ignore him. I had what I thought were good reasons, but I did it. I felt like a coward each time I would hide away one of his postcards. I didn’t go a week without thinking about calling him. Once, I almost bought a prepaid phone so I could at least text Evan without Doug finding out, but I worried that he’d find it and think I was cheating. He’d have never let me explain or wouldn’t have cared at all that I was just calling Buck.
“I wasn’t allowed secrets or thoughts of my own. I was only allowed to work because of appearances. He monitored every single penny I made and had notifications on all of my cards so he’d get a text whenever I spent any money. He actively sought other ways to control me even where there didn’t seem to be an aspect of my life beyond his purview.”
Eddie swallowed hard. “It must have been very difficult. I think Buck would…benefit from having a long discussion about all of that. He needs your perspective, and you need to listen to his. You also need to work on seeing him as an adult.” He cleared his throat. “I should get his stuff together and get back to the hospital.”
Maddie looked at her phone. “He was really blunt with every one. Normally he just…lets things go and acts like it doesn’t matter even when it clearly does.”
“Something else your parents taught him?”
Maddie frowned but then nodded. “Probably. I think the biggest mistake of my life was leaving him alone in that house with them. And I don’t know how to fix that.”
“Maybe you could start by working on acknowledging that good people would’ve come here after Buck was pinned under that fire truck,” Eddie said. “Or after the tsunami.” He cleared his throat. “Hell, my parents came here after the bombing, and I wasn’t the one nearly maimed for life. They visited Buck in the hospital, and I had to practically drag my mother out of the place so he could get some rest. Given time and the room to do so, she’ll micromanage the hell out of anyone she can get her hands on.”
Maddie took a deep breath but didn’t say anything.
“You owe yourself and Buck some honesty on the subject of your parents,” Eddie said. “And trust me, I know it hurts. Acknowledging that on a very basic level that both of my parents are assholes was hard. It’s practically unheard of, honestly, in a Mexican family.”
She nodded. “Yeah, okay. He’ll come home tomorrow? I want to see him.”
Eddie almost lied, but if he got his way, Maddie Buckley was going to be his family one day. He didn’t want to tarnish their relationship further. “No, I’m going to take him out of town for a week. He needs a break, and he also needs to be somewhere safe for a while in case Mackey had other accomplices that might act out in fear of discovery.”
She paled. “I hadn’t…thought of that.”
“You probably shouldn’t be here,” Eddie said roughly. “There’s no security, and none of his locks are all that robust and wouldn’t stand up against a home invasion. He depends on his size as a deterrent. It’s normally enough. Honestly, there aren’t many people who’d take him on based on his appearance unless they had backup or were drunk. They have no way of knowing he’s just a giant ball of fluff. You don’t have that option since you clearly are a little ball of fluff.”
She laughed a little, then frowned. “You weren’t…upset with him. When we were at Bobby’s house talking about the deposition and what happened. It was obvious that you weren’t angry with him. Why?”
“Because it was clear that he was really upset by what Mackey did. I thought at one point he was going to cry, Maddie.” Eddie huffed. “I’ve never seen him like that, and I was the one that pulled out from underneath that ladder truck. But, also, I realized that he wasn’t wrong to have filed that lawsuit. Sure, it turned out to be fake. Every single time Mackey asked a question, he revealed another layer of fucked up working against Buck.”
“I just wanted him to be safe,” Maddie whispered. “He had a blood clot and that embolism. I thought he was going to die, right there, Eddie. Can’t you see that? He overdid it in rehab and—”
“Enough of that,” Eddie cut in. “Buck did exactly what he was told to do by his doctors and physical therapists. He followed their instructions to the letter for his home exercises. Blood clots are most likely to happen with leg and knee surgeries. You and I both know that. But you know who didn’t know that? Buck. He had no damn clue at all. Because somehow, in his discharge instructions, it never came up. He should’ve come home with an IPC device to do compression work on his leg when he was resting, but he wasn’t prescribed one. It was never suggested by anyone until after he threw a blood clot.”
Her mouth was hanging open. “How did that get missed?”
Eddie started to let it slide but found he couldn’t. “You tell me. You’re the one that brought him home from the hospital.”
Her eyes widened in shock, and she stood. “Oh.”
“It’s just you’ve been angry with me for months, and I couldn’t figure out why….” She took a deep breath. “You and Christopher are so important to Buck, so it’s had me worried sick that you’re mad at me.”
“I don’t blame you for not noticing an overworked nurse not giving Buck proper discharge instructions,” Eddie said. “It got a little infuriating to be around you a few months ago because you were determined to treat Buck like a child no matter how demoralizing and frustrating that was for him. He doesn’t allow himself to argue with you or express any sort of anger in your direction because of your past. Buck’s always careful about venting his temper because of his size, but with you, he just clams up entirely because he doesn’t want to ever make you afraid of him. The end result is that he just lets you say and do what you want when he’d put any other person in their place. And I am mad about that because you just never noticed.”
“That’s not true,” Maddie exclaimed. “I know my brother! He would tell me…” She trailed off when Eddie shook his head.
“You barely know your brother, Maddie. And I don’t mean to hurt you with this, I swear it. A lot of time passed between the two of you, and Buck grew up. He’s not a wild-hearted boy anymore. He’s a man, and being a firefighter isn’t a job for him. It’s a calling. It probably doesn’t feel great to be told that, and I’m sorry for it.” Eddie took a deep breath when she averted her gaze. “But I’ve spent more time with your brother since you came back into his life than you have. Part of that is work, but even when we aren’t working, he tends to gravitate in my direction. He almost spent Thanksgiving alone last year because you went with Chim to the Lee’s, and he didn’t want to intrude on Bobby and Athena despite getting invited five different times.
“I deployed Christopher because I know how to pick my weapons and got him to come to dinner with us at my abuela’s.”
Maddie smiled briefly. “Honestly, the best weapon. I didn’t know that. When I mentioned that Chim had invited me to meet his surrogate family here in LA, Buck just said it was great and changed the subject.” She winced. “Oh.”
“That’s what he does now, huh? He changes the subject when you hit a sore spot. When he was little, he’d just blurt out what was wrong and expect me to fix it.” She wet her lips. “I guess Evan was right—every single one of us needs therapy.”
“I’ve been using an online service because it seemed like it would be easier,” Eddie confessed. “It has been. I can text or Facetime depending on my mood. It’s covered by insurance, and the co-pay is doable. I’ve got a lot of work to do because of the combat-related PTSD and my parents. I’ve put Chris in therapy, too. He goes to see someone who specializes in trauma in children and sometimes does video sessions as needed.”
“Starting online might be easier,” Maddie reflected.
“I’ll text you the URL,” Eddie murmured and checked his watch. “And I’m not angry with you, Maddie. But I am disappointed that you didn’t have Buck’s back in all of this. He deserves better from you.”
“From all of us,” Maddie said. “Except you—you clearly had his back even when we couldn’t talk to him. I had no idea he had daily calls with Christopher. Would it be weird to thank you for that? It would’ve hurt him so much to lose your son in all of this.”
“Chris loves Buck like a…father,” Eddie said. “I meant what I said to the chief. I’ve been co-parenting my kid for a while. I should go. The longer he’s alone, the more worked up he’ll get about that text rant he sent.”
By the time he packed a bag for Buck and located the Switch and all of the accessories that might be needed, Maddie was gone. It was a relief because he’d reached his limit on that conversation. He did take the time to send Chim a text berating him for not keeping better track of his girlfriend in what he considered to be a still dangerous situation. And reminded the man that the LAPD hadn’t confirmed that all of Mackey’s associates had been identified. He’d gotten a single ‘omg’ from Chim in response.
Then, because he was a product of his raising, Eddie sent the URL for the therapy website to the group chat. He got a series of frownie emojis in response from Chim and a question mark from Bobby. Hen sent an eggplant. Maddie responded with a thank you and a heart-eyed smilie, which made him laugh. He figured it would irritate Chim, so that was a win. He started to tuck his phone in his pocket when he got another text. It was a laughing emoji from Buck.
* * * *
A baseball bat to the face led to some seriously awful bruising, Buck mused as he stared at himself in the mirror. He’d gotten up to take a piss without calling the nurse, so he hoped he could get back in bed before anyone was the wiser. Especially since all he had was a hospital gown on. He wondered if he could get some sort of boxers. He remembered getting some disposable shorts when he’d spent so much time in the hospital for his leg.
“It’s not that I mind seeing your fantastic ass,” Eddie said dryly. “But are you seriously standing here in the bathroom staring at yourself?”
He looked over his shoulder and found Eddie standing just short of the doorway—not visible in the mirror. “I was just thinking about how bad the bruising is. I wouldn’t want to upset Chris.”
Buck wrapped a hand around his IV pole and left the bathroom. He was grateful that Eddie stayed close but also didn’t grab him to try to direct him like a child. He hated that shit. He got back into bed and huffed a little when Eddie put up the railing so he couldn’t get out again without assistance.
“I wasn’t trying to be,” Eddie said easily. “You know you shouldn’t have been up. You’re a fall risk right now due to your concussion. Chris won’t be more upset. He’s so relieved that you’re basically okay that a couple of bruises aren’t going to make things worse.” He sat down. “Your sister was at your apartment. I sent her home because I didn’t think it was safe for her to stay there. So, yeah, she totally planned to ambush you.”
“She smilie faced you after you sent them a therapy URL,” Buck said. “Did you guys argue?”
“I…don’t think so. We had a hard conversation, and I said some things she needed to hear. She cried a little.” The last part felt like he was getting ahead of being tattled on.
“She’s a crier,” Buck said. “Happy or sad, Maddie’s gonna cry.”
Eddie nodded and sat down. “I’ve got all of our stuff together and packed in the truck. Your Jeep was impounded for evidence. Athena said she’d have it taken to a shop for repairs on the LAPD’s dime as soon as it’s released. Then it will be delivered back to your parking spot.”
Buck frowned but then nodded. “Yeah, that sounds great. Chris sent me a video. Did you get a video?”
“I got a bossy video,” Eddie assured and pulled out his phone. He passed it over.
Buck hit play and stared intently.
“Hey, Daddy! Aunt Hen said she’d record me saying goodnight! Isn’t that awesome? Anyways, Denny and I are gonna play Animal Crossing for an hour before dinner, then we’re going to watch a movie. He said I can pick since I’m a guest. But don’t worry—I’ll pick one he likes, too. Please take care of my Buck and bring him home straight away! Aunt Karen is going to grill out—she’s doing hamburgers and corn on the cob and asparagus. Don’t eat junk food while you’re at the hospital ‘cause it’ll make Buck sad. I’m okay so don’t worry about me. Just concentrate on my Buck. Love you!”
Buck handed him the phone and took a deep breath. “Separating from the 118 would eventually take all of them out of Chris’ life. Our schedule could be different; the bonds we have would fade due to time and distance. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“Ultimately, Chris would want us both to be happy. Friendships that matter would survive a job change, and you know it. I know you’re in a difficult place right now, and you’re feeling like the whole world came crashing down on you. That’s…violence does that, Buck. It’ll break you in ways that have nothing to do with physical damage. I think you know that already.”
Buck focused on Eddie and found his eyes dark, serious. “Does it break you? Did it?”
“You mean when I was in the Army?” Eddie questioned, then cleared his throat. “Violence destroys and remakes everyone in some fashion or another. I killed for the first time when I was nineteen—I was just up going to the damn bathroom when an insurgent snuck into the camp. He’d already killed two men on guard. I have no idea what his goal was, but he came at me, and I killed him. I was covered in his blood, hands shaking—full of shock, relief, and elation.
“Then I threw up, repeatedly. I was too horrified with myself to even be embarrassed. The others in my unit were good to me—helped me get straightened out and cleaned up before I had to report for a debriefing. I was praised by my CO and given my first commendation. He told me I’d done a good job, and I should be proud of the fact that I’d protected others with my decisive action against the enemy.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Buck admitted and felt useless for it. “It’s why I’ve never asked you much about your service. First, because you were shot in combat and I figured it was a hard topic, and second because you never bring it up.”
“I’m not ashamed of my service,” Eddie said. “But I can’t take pride in it either. Politics and greed put me in a place where I was forced to kill others to live. I lost friends and eventually destroyed a part of myself that I can’t even touch without it hurting. It left a hole in me, and that Silver Star my father is so proud of didn’t fill it up. Nothing will ever fill it up.”
Buck shifted closer. “When I first woke up, after the attack, I was in the emergency room. I heard the doctors talking about x-rays and checking for internal bleeding. When one of them realized I was awake—she asked me how I felt, and all I could think was that I felt hollow. I just said nothing and shook my head at her. Nothing has ever felt like that before, and all I could think was about the moment when I realized those two men were planning to kill me. I could barely keep my eyes open, and I had no hope of fighting them off. They certainly knew what they were doing.”
“Honestly, Buck, going for a blow to the head is the best way to get the upper hand. You can’t fight back if you’re unconscious.”
“I don’t feel safe,” Buck admitted and flushed. “And that makes me feel weak, and it’s been years since I’ve felt like this—vulnerable, helpless. I didn’t even feel like this when that fucking ladder truck was pinning me to the pavement. Mostly, because it hurt so damn much that I didn’t have room to feel anything.” He cleared his throat and averted his gaze as Eddie slid a hand through the railing and laced their fingers together in a loose hold. “Chris has school.”
“He hasn’t missed any days this year,” Eddie said. “I’ll speak with the principal about it, and it will be fine.”
Buck frowned at that. “Are you sure? He said his teacher doesn’t like to give make-up assignments.”
“She’ll have to suck it up,” Eddie muttered. “I think maybe I should request a different teacher anyway; I don’t think Chris likes her very much. He’s not outright said it, but he doesn’t gush about her like he used to.”
“Then we should move him to a different classroom,” Buck said easily and flushed. “I mean, you should move him.”
“We sounded great,” Eddie murmured and squeezed his hand a little. “I like ‘we’ a lot.”
“Yeah,” Eddie murmured. “It’s been a long time since I’ve really been a part of a ‘we’, but I can work with it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever really been part of a ‘we’,” Buck admitted. “I’ve had some serious relationships. Or at least, relationships that I took seriously. Looking back, all of those situations feel flimsy and inconsistent. But we’ve been solid and real since I got my head out of my ass.”
“You weren’t that bad, just a bit of a challenge. Of course, it would’ve been more fun if you’d just crawled into my lap like you clearly wanted to.”
Buck huffed. “Shut up.” He wet his lips and took a deep breath. “But also, yeah, I totally want to take a ride.” He touched his face. “Maybe I could have some more ice?”
“I think so,” Eddie agreed. “I’ll go ask the nurse for a pack.”
* * * *
“How is he?”
“Tired, hurt, vulnerable,” Eddie said and glanced toward his truck, where Buck was practically asleep in the passenger seat. “Exhausted. There’s no resting in the hospital. I think he’s only awake because he wants to see Chris.”
Hen nodded. “Would it be okay if I went out and…just…” she trailed off and took a deep breath. “I won’t mention the lawsuit stuff.”
Eddie didn’t know how Buck would respond to that. Moreover, he certainly didn’t have the right to say who he spoke with. “You can try, but he’s…pretty messed up about the attack, so if he doesn’t want to speak with you…please honor that and don’t get pissed off.”
“Promise,” Hen said and slid past Eddie on the porch, and headed for the truck.
Karen watched her wife go and leaned on the doorframe. “She’s been a hot mess herself since the deposition. It brought home some…truth that she’d been avoiding addressing, and I told her she needed to hear it. Buck was right, you know, none of you would’ve taken that shit lying down and, yet, they expected him to. They just…expected him to accept Bobby’s ill-informed judgment. I asked her if Bobby holding him back would’ve ruined his career, and she finally admitted it would’ve.”
“It got hard to see his side,” Eddie admitted. “We all got cut out of his life like we didn’t matter because he couldn’t speak with any of us. It was hard and worse, in some ways, because Chris spoke with him every single day. I was shut out of a part of my life that I’d come to depend on and frankly look forward to.”
“You’re in love with him.”
“Yeah,” Eddie admitted and flushed when her mouth dropped open. “Did you just win a bet?”
She grinned. “A private one with Hen, yeah, but the betting pool at the station is about getting together versus the whole confessing your love thing. They mean well, I suppose. It’s more about matchmaking. They’ve been throwing you two together since the grenade. More than once, Chimney has suggested locking you both in a closet until you came out.”
“I came out as bisexual when I at fifteen,” Eddie said wryly. “My parents were startled, to say the least, because I refused to be told it was a terrible thing and insisted they get educated pretty damn quick. It wasn’t smooth sailing, and they have some dumb ideas about it all. But I gave up trying to make them see me years ago. Of course, it took me a lot longer to figure out that bisexual really didn’t cover my emotional and sexual landscape. I also stopped going to church which sent my father briefly over the edge.”
“He went and asked his priest about homosexuals,” Eddie said. “The priest in question was awful.” He focused on Buck and Hen. She was leaning on the door, arms crossed on the open window. Buck was laughing a little at something she said. “He told my father I would burn in hell, that I wasn’t welcome in his church, and he practically accused my parents of abuse.”
“Abuse?” Karen questioned with a frown.
“Yeah, he apparently believed that gay people came out of abusive homes. You know, like serial killers.”
Karen snorted. “Shit. Sorry.”
“No, I mean, my father was appalled, and they switched churches, which was a big thing for him since he’d attended that church for decades. They got married in it. All of their children were baptized in it. That church was like a home, and that priest ruined it for him. But he did come home and tell me he’d never force me to go to church and that God loves me. He said God wouldn’t have made me as I am if it was wrong.”
“Very progressive for a Catholic,” Karen said.
“Yeah, sure, but he’d still prefer a marry a woman of my mother’s choice.” Eddie shrugged when Karen made a face. “I think that’s just so he doesn’t have to listen to her bitch and moan about me not doing exactly what she wants.”
The thud of crutches on hardwood floors caught his attention, and he looked past her to see Chris coming. Denny was carrying his backpack, which was notable as Chris rarely allowed anyone to carry anything for him that he felt he should handle himself. His son yawned widely as they approached.
“Long night, mijo?” Eddie questioned in amusement.
“We had stuff to talk about,” Denny said earnestly. “And he helped me set up my Animal Crossing island.”
Eddie laughed and took the backpack. “Did you add Buck as a friend?”
“I did,” Denny said and yawned. “And Harry because his dad bought it for him last night when we were Facetiming him about playing, and he didn’t have the game, yet, for his Switch.” He rubbed his head. “I need a nap. Thanks for letting Chris stay over. Can I go give Buck a hug?”
“I think he would love that,” Eddie admitted, and Denny trotted right out of the house. He focused on Chris, who looked more asleep than awake. “You wanna hitch a ride to the truck.”
Chris nodded. “Sounds like a good idea.” He offered Eddie his crutches. “Also, can we stop at McDonald’s for lunch?”
“Only if Buck agrees—he’s in pain and is only taking Tylenol, so he’s already a little nauseous.” He picked Chris up. “What did you have for breakfast?”
“French toast, bacon, eggs, and a bowl of fruit,” Chris reported and laid his head on Eddie’s shoulder.
“You made out like a bandit, mijo,” Eddie said with a laugh. “I had to suffer with snacks from a vending machine.” He focused on Karen. “The next time I try to feed him cereal for breakfast, he’s gonna remind me of this.”
Karen laughed and shrugged. “I don’t want to overwhelm Buck by going out there, too, but please tell him I’m glad he’s okay and that I’m thinking about him.”
“Yeah, of course,” Eddie murmured. “Thanks for this. It was a relief to know my son was in such good hands, and it made it easier to focus on Buck.”
“You’re welcome,” Karen said warmly. “I know things were rough yesterday—in more than one way. Situations like this are stressful, and things get said that shouldn’t ever be said.”
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed. “But he’ll forgive them all because he loves them despite their faults. I just don’t think…he believes the same can be said in reverse.”
“Well, that’s something I can work on,” Karen said with a frown. “I’m going to call Athena.”
Eddie laughed and shifted Chris, who’d fallen asleep. “Good luck with that.”
Between traffic and a stop for lunch, the trip was seven hours, but it had turned pretty scenic once they were out of the LA metro area. Chris and Buck slept through most of it, and Eddie hadn’t minded that at all. It was peaceful, relaxing and it felt like family in a way he hadn’t had since Shannon left. The house was on the modest side for the area, which was still ridiculous, and it sat just off a beautiful stretch of beach.
Eddie retrieved the keys from the digital lockbox as Buck eased out of the truck and helped Christopher down.
“I don’t even want to know how much he charges for this,” Buck muttered as he looked around.
“Probably upwards of three thousand a night considering the size of the house, the private beach, and the hot tub.”
“Hot tub?” Buck questioned. “God, I’d love that.”
“He said he had it cleaned and set up for you,” Eddie admitted. “Figured you’d need it.”
“I love Michael Grant,” Buck said as Eddie opened the door. “Don’t worry, it’s chaste.”
“It’d better be,” Eddie muttered, and Buck laughed.
“He’s cute, though,” Buck said thoughtfully. “Good job, amazing kids, and a great ex-wife. That’s the stuff of dreams, really.”
“Keep talking, Buckley,” Eddie warned, and Buck laughed.
“I’m an amazing kid, too,” Chris interjected with a pointed look.
Buck grinned and snatched Chris up in a hug. It had to hurt like hell, but his friend didn’t let on. “You are the best kid, Superman. Let’s check this place out, yeah? You can claim your territory for the week.”
Eddie followed along, put Chris’ bag in the room he chose, and took their things to the master bedroom. It was kind of presumptuous, so he started to turn around and go ask Buck where he wanted his stuff put when Buck came into the room, took off his shoes, and crawled onto the bed without a word.
“You want to ice your leg?”
“I need to work with it, and yeah, ice it,” Buck muttered into the pillow. “When I wake up.”
“I don’t know what the kitchen has.”
“I asked Athena to pass along a grocery list. I told her she should submit an expense report to the LAPD for all of it—the groceries and the rent on this place—when this is all over. They fucking owe me,” Buck said as he curled both arms around his pillow and turned slightly so he could see Eddie. “I think Chris needs to talk to you.” He took a deep breath. “He probably has questions he doesn’t want to ask in front of me.”
“Right.” Eddie considered that. “I’m sure it’s nothing bad.”
“Nah, it’s not bad,” Buck said. “He’s probably just worried and doesn’t want to upset me. That kid is three times the good man we are combined already, you know?”
“I do know,” Eddie agreed and smiled. “I’ll get him settled.”
“You leave my groceries alone,” Buck ordered. “If you’re hungry, make a sandwich.”
“I can cook.”
“I can cook better.”
That was true. Eddie greatly preferred Buck’s cooking to his own, so he decided that they’d definitely have a sandwich if Chris was hungry. They’d stopped at a roadside dinner along the way, and Chris had been thrilled with it. Fortunately, the food had been good and not all that greasy.
Chris had crawled up into the full bed in the room he’d chosen and was sitting with his Switch. A charging cable was attached.
“Hey.” Eddie sat down on the bed, and Chris looked up. “Something wrong?”
“Is Buck okay?”
“He’s got bruises.” Chris bit down on his lip.
“Yeah, but they’re not bad,” Eddie said. “There was fight—but since we called for help, he was saved from the bad guys. You helped me do that. I’m really proud of how well you handled the situation.”
Chris nodded and stared at his Switch. The screen was dark. “Is the lawsuit over with?”
“Yeah, that situation has gone away,” Eddie murmured and watched his son’s shoulders relax. “Why?”
“Bucky said he was going to take a trip to San Francisco. He didn’t say why, but I think it was for a job interview. If he moves there, can we go, too?” He slid his fingers under his glasses and rubbed at his eye. “I just would miss him a lot, Daddy.”
“Between you and me, mijo, Evan Buckley is pretty much never going anywhere without at least one of us ever again,” Eddie said wryly, and Chris laughed. “He clearly can’t be trusted to adult. Look what happened when we left him unsupervised.”
“We should put some ice on his face to help with the bruising,” Chris said. “You like his pretty face.”
Eddie flushed. “Put a lid on it, mijo.”
Chris laughed. “I got eyes. I see stuff.” He took a deep breath. “My teacher asked me if Buck was your boyfriend.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow. It was kind of a weird and intrusive question to be asked of his kid. He was definitely going to move him to a new class. “What did you say?”
“I said yes,” Chris shrugged. “And she stopped being extra nice to me. She’s not mean, but for a while, the other kids were calling me the teacher’s pet, and I didn’t like that. I think it upset her because she asked me if I was sure. So, I told her I was looking forward to Buck being my other dad.” His cheeks flushed dark red. “I know it’s wrong to lie, but Ms. Desmond was too nice to me, Daddy. I know that sounds weird.”
“No, it makes perfect sense,” Eddie said mildly though he was pissed off by the implications. “I’ll take care of it. And the next time someone makes you uncomfortable, even for a weird reason, just tell me, okay?”
“I would like it if Buck could be part of our family forever,” Chris said. “‘He fits, and everything is better when he’s around. He makes you happy, and you were so sad when he was gone. I know it hurt you.”
“It hurt him, too,” Eddie said softly. “He didn’t do it for a mean purpose, you know. He had good reasons.”
“Oh, I know. You’re allowed to fight for yourself, Daddy. Sometimes, you have to fight for yourself because no one else will. I think that’s where Buck was—what he was thinking and feeling. He felt like no one was going to help him, so he had to make people pay attention to him. I think that’s very fair.”
“It is,” Eddie said and blinked back unexpected tears. “Do you ever feel like no one will fight for you?”
“No, I’ve got you and Bucky,” Chris said. “I’m safe and sound.”
“Of course you are,” Eddie said and kissed his son’s forehead. “Hungry?”
“Nah.” Chris made a face and shook his head in mock horror.
“I was just going to make sandwiches.”
Chris grinned. “I know you can cook, Daddy. It’s just fun riling you up. We’d have starved by now if you were the big mess I pretend you are. I was hoping that Buck would make us some fried rice and that beef stir fry he does for dinner, though.”
“We might have to go to the grocery store for that. I don’t know what ingredients we have here,” Eddie said. “That won’t be a problem—I saw one not far from the turnoff to the driveway. But he might not feel up to it, so if he says no or suggests something less complicated…go with it, okay?”
“Did your teacher ask you any other questions?”
“She asked about mom, but I told her I wasn’t ready to talk about that.” Chris shrugged like it didn’t matter when it certainly did. “She said she was sorry that mom died. Then she said that I should be open to getting a new mother. Ms. Desmond didn’t like my response.”
“What did you say?” Eddie asked curiously.
“I said I didn’t need a new mom because I have Buck,” Chris shrugged. “That’s when she asked if Buck was your boyfriend, and I lied.”
“Well, it’s not so much a lie now,” Eddie said and grinned when Chris shot him a skeptical look. “What?”
“You asked him to be boyfriends while he was in the hospital? Gah, Daddy, and you say Buck’s bad at adulting. You didn’t even buy him dinner or get him flowers. You’re terrible at this. No wonder you don’t go on dates.” Chris shook his head. “I bet mom’s up in heaven just giving you that look she always gave people when they acted silly.”
“She probably is,” Eddie agreed, and Chris laughed. “And I deserve it. I’ll be sure to get some flowers.”
“He likes snapdragons the best. Buck said he wants to plant snapdragons and sunflowers if he ever gets a house with a yard.” Chris yawned. “I think I’ll nap while my Switch charges. Can you wake me for dinner?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“I like this big bed. I want one like it for my next one.” Chris crawled under the covers and burrowed into the pillows.
It was just a full size, but it would take up a lot of space in Chris’ already small room. “We’ll see what we can do, mijo.”
Chris handed him his glasses. “Awesome. I saw one that had a bunk bed at Ikea. A big bed like this on the bottom and a bunk on top. It would be great for sleepovers.”
“It would,” Eddie agreed.
He normally put Denny or Harry on an air mattress, and Chris often migrated to it in the middle of the night so they could talk and pretend to sleep. It worked out, but a bunk bed situation would be great for the kids. Eddie adjusted the covers then left his son to nap.
In the kitchen, he checked the fridge and found pretty much everything Buck used to make the stir fry Chris wanted. It shouldn’t have surprised him as it was Chris’ favorite meal. There was also an entire chicken. He stared at the package for a moment, then moved on. He honestly only ever bought cooked chickens from the deli and didn’t see the appeal of baking his own. Though, Buck did make a nice one that he’d learned from Bobby.
He checked the freezer for the ice packs they’d requested and put the ones they’d used on the trip inside. Whatever service Michael used to prepare the place for occupation was top-notch. Considering how much money he could potentially make on the house, Eddie figured it was worth it. He walked out onto the deck, uncovered the hot tub, and checked it out. It looked clean and felt ready when he swished his fingers through it. He figured both Buck and Chris would find it beneficial after the long car ride. After flipping the cover back on, he walked across the deck and slouched down in a lounge chair that gave him a gorgeous view of the ocean.
He was alone for about five minutes before Buck meandered out onto the deck and crawled into the lounger with him. Eddie adjusted a little and threw an arm around Buck when the other man snuggled up close.
“Like a motherfucker,” Buck muttered. “I took some more Tylenol. Hen was nice when she came out to talk to me.”
“I think…they’re all adjusting to the fact that the lawsuit would’ve been justified had it been real,” Eddie murmured. “It brought home some hard and ugly truths that none of us really wanted to deal with. And that’s the thing, Bobby pushes you constantly to deal with your shit and lets the rest of us sort ourselves out.”
“He treats me like a child,” Buck muttered.
“He treats you like his child,” Eddie said and held tight when Buck flinched away. “I mean it, and honestly, Buck so does he. He loves you as if you were his own son. And I know you understand that because you love Chris like he’s yours.”
“My father never had time for me,” Buck said. “My parents often acted like I didn’t exist unless I’d hurt myself. Sometimes, they’d go days without actually speaking to me. After Maddie left home, my mother would serve my meals in the kitchen, then they’d eat privately in the dining room later in the evening. I wasn’t allowed to go in there. I felt like a guest in my own home. It was awful.”
“Did they ever hit you?” Eddie questioned and immediately regretted it. He’d been thinking about it for a while, but he’d picked the most awful timing.
“No, they never bothered with me at all. I think they were surprised when I graduated high school. Maddie was the only family I had at the ceremony. They just didn’t care about me at all. Maybe that’s why it was so easy to accept Bobby’s paternal attention.” He huffed. “But I’m not sure it’s healthy because it’s fostered this deep distrust that I don’t understand and don’t deserve.”
“That has nothing to do with you,” Eddie said.
“What do you mean?”
“Maddie’s…” Eddie sighed. “She loves you in a pretty dysfunctional way.”
“Yeah, more of our parents A+ parenting at play,” Buck muttered. “They fucked her up, too, just in a different way.”
“Certainly,” Eddie agreed. “But, Maddie’s spent most of her life protecting you from something—your parents, her husband, and now…well, the biggest danger in your life is your job. She’s been talking to Chimney non-stop about your rehab and the blood clots and everything in between. She doesn’t want you to go back to firefighting but can’t bring herself to say it directly to your face.”
“And Chimney took that shit right to Bobby,” Buck said bitterly. “Right. I knew Bobby was listening to Maddie’s concerns, but not that it was that bad.” He huffed. “I don’t…get it. I survived a natural disaster and did the job in the midst of it. What else do I have to do to prove to them that I’m ready? Or, I was. Now I’ll have to go through medical and psych review again, and that’s…just the fucking limit, Eds.”
“Frankly, the opinions of your doctors should’ve been enough,” Eddie said. “And you know it.”
“What do I do?”
“What do you want to do?” Eddie questioned. “Did you want to go to San Francisco?”
“Chris told you about that?” Buck sighed. “I had an interview scheduled. I called and left a voice mail to cancel it last night while I was waiting for you to come back to the hospital. It was just part of the cover—Mackey suggested I start looking outside of LA for work in case the lawsuit didn’t go my way. The chief had to arrange the interview personally because they refused me outright once they found out I was suing the city of Los Angeles and the LAFD. I can see how it would’ve ruined my career—it was like I was in a no-win situation. How is that fair?”
“It’s not fair or right,” Eddie admitted. “You had the right to fight for yourself, Buck. Even if the lawsuit was fake, the content of it still matters, and letting any of them dismiss it would be awful.”
“Have you dismissed it?”
“No, I’ve been in therapy for several weeks—since the day after your birthday because I realized I was going down a road that would…well. Bosko took me to a street fight.”
“A what?” Buck demanded and sat up out of his arms. “Did you fucking participate in an illegal street fight?”
“No. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. There was this asshole—he was being an ableist bag of dicks, and I almost hit him. But I got this notification on my phone that it was your birthday. I’d set up the reminder so I’d remember to say something. I know you hate your birthday, but it seems wrong to say nothing. I…just got in my truck and went home. I found Chris asleep on the phone with you—you were snoring, too.”
Buck sighed as Eddie pulled him back down against him. “I’m not sure who fell asleep first.”
“It…was hard,” Eddie admitted. “Hearing you in my house, but knowing you weren’t there and wondering if I’d ever get my best friend back. So, I was at work, and Bosko asked me what was wrong, and I told her about almost hitting that asshole in the parking lot. We talked around it a bit, and she asked me if I did MMA because she’d seen me sparring. I admitted that I did, and she invited me out to see something interesting. It turned out to be a street-fighting ring. I watched a few matches. I admit it was exciting, and I was very tempted to join in.”
“What stopped you?”
“The third match I watched got ugly, and one of the women broke her arm,” Eddie said roughly. “Or I should say her opponent broke her arm, and I realized that no matter how thrilling it was—I couldn’t take those kinds of risks with my health. I need to be able to work to provide for Chris. Taking an off-the-job injury would mean no pay, and…it wasn’t worth the risk. I told Bosko I wasn’t interested but that I wouldn’t report it.”
“You know you should report it,” Buck murmured. “She has no business street fighting, Eddie. What if she takes an injury, hides it, and tries to work? She could get someone killed. Maybe there’s some way to break up the whole thing without pointing the finger at you. Think about it and maybe chat with Athena. Maybe it could be said that Mackey had you followed….”
“That might come back on you, though,” Eddie said. “And some of those guys looked damn near professional. I wouldn’t want you anywhere near any of it.”
“I’m not a fragile flower.”
Eddie laughed. “Chris berated me for asking you to be my boyfriend without flowers and dinner.”
“I don’t think you actually asked me to be anything with you,” Buck said in amusement. “And I do like flowers.”
“Snapdragons and sunflowers. I’ve been informed,” Eddie admitted. “I thought we could discuss the relationship part of things later—when you’re in a better headspace.”
“Before everything went to hell, I was the one waiting on you to get into a better headspace,” Buck admitted.
“What do you mean?”
“I was going to tell you how I felt and ask if there was potential for you. But I found out you were still married,” Buck said and took a deep breath. “That was a little hard to take, honestly, because you’d been pulling me into your life. We even took Chris to see Santa together, but you were intent on giving Shannon a second chance. I know that was more for Chris than yourself, but it got hard to be around you outside of work.
“Then, she died, and it was awful for you both. I knew I couldn’t intrude on that, Eddie, so I pushed my feelings for you down deep and fell into a relationship with Ali that I knew would never go anywhere. I just kept waiting, then the whole undercover thing happened, and I wondered if there would ever be the right time.”
“It was never going to work between Shannon and me,” Eddie said, and Buck relaxed against him. “I wasn’t in love with her anymore, and she realized it. She asked for a divorce, and I agreed. I did go all in on getting her back because I thought it would make Chris happy. In retrospect, trusting her so quickly would’ve been a mistake. She’d already walked away from him once. I realize that was more about me than Chris, but she still ghosted her own kid for two years.”
“I don’t get that part at all,” Buck admitted. “In her place, I’d have taken him with me and fought like hell to keep him.”
“I don’t think motherhood met her expectations,” Eddie murmured against Buck’s hair; he felt like shit for even saying it. “Or maybe she just couldn’t handle the caregiving burden.”
“She really should’ve admitted that long before she got so worn down that she ran away,” Buck said. “But I guess sometimes we don’t know our own breaking point until we’re getting sucker-punched with it.”
“I do have an issue sort of related to Shannon, and we’re definitely changing his teacher,” Eddie said. “She asked him about Shannon, told him he should be prepared to get a new mother someday, and asked him if you were my boyfriend. He said yes.”
Buck sat up and turned to stare at him. “So, she wants you.”
Eddie frowned at that thought. “I barely know her. Just saw her the once on the first day of the school.”
“She’s seen you, certainly, in the pick-up line or whatever,” Buck pointed out. “It would be enough—combined with what she probably knows about you. Gorgeous, decorated war vet, firefighter, widowed father, etc. Chris is proud of you and has probably told her more than he even realizes about his life, you, and your history.”
“When I called to discuss Chris not being there for the week, the principal was surprised when I said that I was concerned he wouldn’t be allowed to do make-up assignments. She said she’d take care of it. I should’ve gone ahead and talked to her about Chris being moved to a different classroom, but I was in a hurry, so I just ended the call when I reached the hospital parking lot.”
“Send an email. It’ll give you time to consider the issues, and it’ll be easier to control the emotional content in writing. It’s weird that this woman is asking your eight-year-old personal questions about you. And I don’t like how she singled him out and made the other kids resent him.”
“That teacher’s pet thing?”
“Yeah, that never actually goes well at all—not even in elementary school. She also shouldn’t be playing favorites in the classroom, to begin with. But I think it’s pretty clear she was treating him differently, so he’d like her more, and that would give her an in with you.”
Eddie found that infuriating, but he also would admit to having a weakness for people who loved and accepted his son. He’d encountered many who saw nothing but work and burden when they looked at Christopher, and those people were the worst. His parents were on the cusp of that group—they saw his son’s disability as a problem that only they could manage.
“My parents keep asking me to move back to El Paso.”
“Ugh, there’s nothing fun to do in El Paso. I’ve been there. I mean, I know you lived there, but it would be really hard to keep Chris stimulated and interested in the sciences and stuff in El Paso. We’d have to travel pretty far often to go anywhere interesting. Plus, living that close to your parents would be a nightmare. They’d never leave us alone.”
It was heartening that ‘we’ was all over that argument. Eddie smiled against Buck’s hair then pressed a kiss there. “I’d never move back for any reason. We were both miserable there, but my mother doesn’t care about that. She doesn’t care how happy Christopher is, how much he’s grown and changed since coming here. In fact, his growing independence pisses her off in the extreme. I think she’d have him be dependent on someone else the rest of his life.”
“That’s not…” Buck sighed. “Well, probably, dependent on her specifically, but that’s ridiculous. She has to be near sixty, right?”
“Mom is fifty-eight, and Pop is sixty-three. Neither of them could handle his physical care if that’s your concern. They don’t believe that, and I wouldn’t let them try to teach them a lesson. Chris doesn’t deserve that kind of stress just so I can prove a point.”
“Are you worried about them suing you for custody?”
“No, Abuela told my father she’d disown him if he sued me for custody of my own child. My mother doesn’t work and hasn’t since she married, so she has no money of her own—they have a very old school relationship in that regard. At the end of the day, she isn’t going to make Pop choose between her and his mother. There’s always been a fine line on that subject, and I think she blew her wad on the move back to El Paso to be near her family.”
“Ugh, never, ever use that phrase in reference to your mother again,” Buck ordered and huffed when Eddie laughed.
“Chris wants stir fry for dinner, but if you don’t feel up to it, he’ll be okay with whatever.”
“I ordered ingredients for it,” Buck admitted. “He asked me weeks ago to cook it for him the next time we saw each other. I hope they bought the right cut of beef.”
“It looked like the same thing you bring over,” Eddie said and ran a hand down Buck’s back. “How’s your head?”
“A little better,” Buck murmured. “Great view.”
“Yeah, it is,” Eddie agreed. “How about you spend some time in the hot tub?”
“It’s too warm right now,” Buck muttered. “Maybe tonight when the sun goes down.”
“Then let’s ice that pretty face of yours,” Eddie said and grinned when Buck groaned. “And the leg, too. I put the packs we brought in the freezer, and the service bought the ones we requested.”
* * * *
“I’m going to ask the school to move to you a new classroom, mijo.” Eddie watched Christopher consider that. “I know you’ve made friends in your current classroom….”
Chris shrugged. “I’m better friends with Lanie, and she’s in Mr. Monroe’s class. I’d like to be in his class, I think. And not go to Ms. Flores’ next year because she’s friends with Ms. Desmond.” He took a deep breath. “But I wouldn’t want to get Ms. Desmond in trouble.”
“Don’t worry about that part—that’s adult stuff,” Buck said as he slid a plate into place in front of Chris, gently steaming with fried rice and stir fry. “Go easy on the soy sauce, Superman, the shopper got regular instead of low sodium.”
“Mr. Monroe’s class might be full,” Eddie warned. “Which would leave Mrs. Royce, right?”
“She’s nice,” Chris said. “Sometimes we go over to her classroom for storytime, and she does voices and stuff when she reads.”
“Has Ms. Flores said anything to you to make you uncomfortable?” Eddie questioned as he tried to picture the woman. He remembered her to be pretty and friendly, but it was a vague memory at best.
“No.” Chris shrugged and tipped the soy sauce so carefully as he dotted his rice with it that Eddie barely refrained from laughing. “But she and Ms. Desmond stand together and talk during recess. Maybe she’d get mad at me if Ms. Desmond gets into trouble. Or maybe she’d start asking me questions or treating me differently because of Ms. Desmond.”
“Do you want to change schools?” Eddie questioned.
“I really like the school,” Chris said. “It’s much better than the public school, and Carla worked hard to get me into it. I feel weird even complaining about a teacher being too nice to me.”
“There were a couple of other options, mijo. I picked that one because of the STEM options, but there are other choices that could be just as good.” Eddie glanced toward Buck as he didn’t know how to address the other issue without getting visibly irritated. He also, genuinely, didn’t have a frame of reference.
Buck cleared his throat. “So, sometimes when a person is too nice to you, it feels bad. It feels like they want something you can’t give, or they’re building up these expectations about how you feel about them. Then you feel guilty that you don’t feel a certain way. Maybe you even get worried they’ll ask you to do something, and you won’t want to do it. It’s okay to be uncomfortable with that kind of attention, and you’re allowed to set a boundary. It may appear to be a positive sort of attention, but if it makes you feel bad, then it’s negative no matter their intentions.”
“Ms. Desmond hasn’t asked me for anything,” Chris said.
“Except she asked personal information about your dad that was none of her business,” Buck said gently. “She asked about your mom, and that was none of her business as well. She talked about your dad remarrying, and that is certainly not her place. And your response was to lie to her.”
Chris blushed. “I know it’s wrong.”
“Of course you do,” Buck said. “You did it out of self-defense, Chris, because she was making you uncomfortable. Sometimes we say or do things when we’re put under pressure because we aren’t prepared for what is happening. Those responses aren’t always good or healthy. They’re not always honest, either. I’ve been known to lie even to myself when put in a difficult position.”
“Can we see if Principal Summers will move me?” Chris asked. “I like the school, and it’s close to Carla if I need her during the day.” He stabbed a piece of broccoli. “What did you lie to yourself about, Buck?”
Buck winced, and Eddie watched him try to come up with a kid-friendly answer to that question. His obvious struggle was amusing as hell.
“Once, when I was about thirteen, I was utterly convinced I could drive because I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto.” Buck paused for effect. “As it turned out, I was very wrong. I couldn’t even back the car out of the garage. My parents were livid.”
Chris giggled. “Buck. Did you get hurt?”
“Nah, but I put a big ole dent in the garage door.” He paused. “And my mother’s BMW.”
“Is that why I can’t play Grand Theft Auto until I’m thirty, Daddy?” Chris questioned.
“It’s one of the many reasons why you can’t play Grand Theft Auto until you’re thirty,” Eddie said dryly and shot Buck a look. “And also, why Buck can’t play it now.”
Buck grinned and took a long drink from his water bottle. “Now, I don’t need a video game to encourage me to do dumb things.”
“Oh, I know.”
* * * *
“Tell me about the first guy you were with.”
Eddie shifted on his side, stared for a few moments in silence, and took a deep breath. “It’s not…a pretty story.”
“Yeah, I thought it might not be,” Buck admitted. “You’ve never mentioned him, so I figured it wasn’t a good story. Your parents?”
“His,” Eddie said. “My parents weren’t happy about the relationship, but they grudgingly accepted me for what I am because I made it clear that I wasn’t going to tolerate any of their bullshit on the subject. Anyways, we were sixteen, foolishly in love in the only way you can be at that age, and his name was Joseph. His parents were horrified to find out about us, made him break up with me, and sent him to live with his uncle in Austin. His uncle was a homophobic bastard who treated Joey like shit for months until…things got so bad, and he ran away. I got a few letters over the years, and his parents searched for him. They even begged me to help them, but I couldn’t stand the sight of them.
“My pop eventually told them to leave me alone, and he blamed them for destroying their son. I think Joey running away stuck with my parents over the years because they’ve never pushed so hard that I cut them off. The last time I heard from him—he was working a ranch with his husband in Northern California. I don’t think he’s spoken to his parents since they sent him to his uncle to get the gay beaten out of him.” Eddie took a deep breath. “He was their only child, and they have three grandchildren they’ll never meet.”
“Did you ever think about going after him?” Buck questioned.
“No…I felt like a coward for it, but I didn’t think I could handle the uncertainty in his life at the time. Granted, he never gave me a chance to follow him. I didn’t know where he was for years. When he finally did tell me, I was married to Shannon, Chris was two-years-old, and I was in the Army. I called the number he provided, and we had a long talk. I asked him if he wanted me to tell his parents he was okay. He said his parents didn’t love him—they just loved the person they wanted him to be, and they wouldn’t care.” He took a deep breath. “But I was already a father, Buck, so I did go over to their house and tell them that Joe was alive. I didn’t give them any details despite the fact that his mother cried, and his father begged. In the end, I told them I couldn’t betray him the way they had. I told them that his uncle had beat him up several times and nearly killed him the night he ran away.”
He took a deep breath. “I told them that I loved their son and that I would’ve never hurt him. I also told them that neither of us would ever forgive them for what they destroyed because it was such a sweet, innocent thing that was hurting nothing and no one. They’d taken my best friend away from me, and he was alone for years because he was too afraid to trust anyone with his heart because of them.”
Buck blew out a surprised breath. “Geez, Eddie. It would’ve been kinder to never tell them anything.”
“I know,” Eddie said. “But they deserved to know he was alive, and they deserved to know that he’d never reach out to them of his own accord. He’d even changed his name, Buck.” He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. “I dated a lot after Joe, fucked around with guys and girls, and finally met Shannon. We were casual at the start, then she got pregnant, and my parents insisted that I marry her, so I did. In retrospect, I don’t think either one of us wanted to get married. But we did it, and you know the results of that.”
“Well, Chris is one hell of a silver lining,” Buck said quietly. “He’s the best part of your whole deal, Eds.”
“Agreed,” Eddie said. “What about you?”
“My first was a girl. I never really allowed myself to actually date a person in high school. I just didn’t trust anyone on that level, so I fucked around a lot. I can’t even give you an accurate number which some people would say I should be ashamed of, but I’m not. The first guy was my parent’s next-door neighbor. Maddie came home for my eighteenth birthday, and my parents threw a party for appearance’s sake. They invited a bunch of people, some of my friends, some of Maddie’s friends, and the neighbors. It was a big, ridiculous event. I hated every single minute of it, but I just endured it as much as I could.
“Anyways, the next day, one of the neighbors was having issues with his lawnmower, and my dad voluntold me to go over and offer to help. Phillip was always ready to act like a good neighbor by making me work. I go over there, and Ben was grateful for the assist in putting a new belt on his lawnmower. He invited me in for a bottle of water.”
“How old was this asshole?” Eddie demanded.
Buck laughed. “I was legal.”
“Dude. You were barely legal.”
“He was in his twenties. He’d inherited his grandparent’s house. Anyways, he was nice, and I was in a mood because of my dad’s bullshit.” Buck wet his lips, and Eddie took a deep breath. “He told me I was beautiful and asked me if he could suck my dick.”
“And you let him?”
“Yeah, of course, I let him. Then he took me into his bedroom, and I fucked him. Honestly, it was probably the best sex I’d ever had at the time. I went back a few more times before I left home that summer, and shortly before I basically ran from my parents, I let him fuck me. He was really great about it—careful and kind. He touched me like I was amazing and precious.”
“I’m glad it was good,” Eddie said and meant it. He’d have hated for it to have been a traumatic experience. “But he was too old for you.”
“Yeah, sure. He was certainly in his late twenties, but it wasn’t like either of us did anything wrong. And I wasn’t a virgin or anything. He didn’t take advantage of me, Eds. I certainly wouldn’t sleep with an eighteen-year-old at my age.” Buck poked him gently when he huffed a little. “I wouldn’t.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” Eddie said. “You tend to date older, as a rule, right? Maybe he was the start of a trend.”
Buck rolled his eyes. “Shut up.”
“Ali was in her thirties.”
“Abby Clark was in her late forties.”
“Catty much?” Buck questioned with a laugh. “You’re thirty-three. I guess I do like ‘em older and more mature.”
Eddie frowned at him. “Did you love her?”
“Abby?” Buck questioned.
“Yeah, of course. Everyone told me she broke your heart. That’s why I didn’t get really irritated with you over your behavior that first day. I didn’t get details until later, but Chim told me to cut you some slack because you were going through some shit because of an ex. Later, I got the whole story, and frankly, Buck, I don’t get it. You were apparently all in on her, and she just…I don’t know how she walked away from you. I know I couldn’t.”
“She didn’t break my heart,” Buck said after a few moments, and that felt true, which was startling. He wondered when he’d started seeing his failure of a relationship with Abby as little more than a bump in the road. “Getting ghosted by someone I trusted really hurt a lot, actually. She just threw me away like I didn’t matter, and that was like getting kicked in the chest when I finally accepted it. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I sort of fell into a relationship so quickly with Ali when I knew it really wouldn’t work. She was so focused on her career and the life she wanted to make for herself that she really hadn’t bothered to figure out how a partner would fit into that. That relationship was never going to last because she wasn’t sure about having kids.”
“And you do.”
“You know I do,” Buck said. “I started saving up for a surrogate a couple of years ago, Eddie.” He flushed when Eddie’s eyes went wide with shock. “Of course, I had to dip into that fund to pay the bills, which hurt. I exhausted my regular savings account first. But my baby fund was honestly the biggest hit because I felt like the whole mess was taking a really important thing away from me.”
“Adoption is always an option,” Eddie pointed out.
“I know, but I wanted a guarantee,” Buck said. “I wanted a choice that wasn’t dependent on a romantic partner or a legal process that a judge could say no to. I’ve got back pay coming. The chief’s office told me that they’d pay a full-time salary for all the weeks that Bobby kept me off the job—as part of my real compensation.”
“Compensation.” Eddie raised an eyebrow. “What else?”
“The potential to transfer without discussion and the chief sent me an email letting me know there would be a private settlement regarding the whole thing with the undercover operation and the LAPD nearly getting me murdered. You can read it if you want.” He motioned toward the side table where he’d left his phone.
“Later. Will that interfere with your ability to come back to work?”
“No,” Buck said. “No one will know about it unless I tell them. They don’t want me to sue the LAPD. Chief Evans sort of wants me to, if I’m honest. But he’s pissy and wants to stick it to them for not playing it safe like they said they would.”
“They did nearly get you murdered by other cops,” Eddie said roughly. “So, they should definitely supplement our baby fund.”
“Our baby?” Buck questioned.
“Well,” Eddie said and flushed. “I mean, yeah. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?”
Buck reached out and cupped Eddie’s face. “Yeah, it sounds great. Come here.”
Eddie shifted closer. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Just a little sore—they didn’t get a chance to do much,” Buck murmured. “I was so worried that we’d never have this moment, you know.”
“I thought that maybe after the lawsuit…that you’d go away,” Eddie admitted. “I was in a pretty ugly place, actually, and close to going completely off the rails.”
“What stopped you?” Buck asked curiously.
“In a way? You.”
“I don’t…understand,” Buck admitted. “We haven’t talked in weeks until yesterday.”
“You encouraged Chris to ask for therapy,” Eddie said. “He…said that you told him that he was okay to ask for help and that you said a therapist would help him deal with his emotions and grief.” He swallowed hard. “And he asked me if I needed help, and I…couldn’t lie to him, Buck. I admitted that I did need help, but I wasn’t sure I could do therapy with my schedule or if I was ready for that at all. I got a referral from our general practitioner for him, and I agreed to start with an online service. But I’m checking in with my doctor as well.”
“I’m glad he listened,” Buck said. “Because I didn’t think he would, and also I was worried that you might not agree with it because it was my suggestion. You were mad as hell at me for a while, Eddie.”
“It was hard to stay mad when it was so clear that you were lonely and miserable,” Eddie said roughly. “At least clear to me.”
“I tried to put up a good front for Chris,” Buck admitted. “He didn’t deserve the stress. I hate that he even heard the attack, Eddie. I’m worried it will set him back and make things worse.”
“Frankly, you’re alive, and that’s enough for him, Buck,” Eddie said. “I can’t say it wasn’t a hard moment, but he feels like he saved you, and that makes a difference. A big difference.”
He cupped the back of Eddie’s head and pulled him down. “Kiss me.”
The heat of Eddie’s mouth on his was everything he wanted. Buck relaxed on the mattress and let his fingers rub intently along the nape of Eddie’s neck as the kiss deepened.
Eddie jerked free and rolled easily from the bed. “Sorry, babe.”
“Never apologize for that,” Buck muttered as he slid off the bed and followed Eddie out of the room.
By the time he made it to the room Chris was in, Eddie was sitting on the edge of the bed holding Chris. The boy was crying softly, breath hitching gently as he cried. Buck hated to see it but couldn’t make himself walk away. He wasn’t sure if he was welcome; his place with Chris and Eddie felt different and kind of awkward now.
“I’m a mess,” Chris complained.
“It’s okay,” Eddie murmured. “We’re all a mess. Buck’s twice the mess we are combined.”
Buck huffed even as Chris laughed.
Chris let his head rest on Eddie’s shoulder and focused on Buck. “Does your head still hurt?”
“It’s better,” Buck said. “I’ll be fine, kiddo.”
“Will the bad guys come back?”
“The bad guys were arrested,” Eddie said.
Buck was relieved that Chris didn’t know about things like bail because there was every single reason to believe that both of his attackers would be bailed out of jail relatively soon since they were cops. He didn’t know a lot about what was going on or what the investigation had revealed. Part of him didn’t want to know because then he’d have something specific to worry about. Also, he figured there was going to come a point when the case against Mackey wouldn’t be worth the sacrifices he was forced to make.
* * * *
Eddie eased into bed, only mildly disappointed that Buck was asleep. He knew the man needed it, but things had been getting sexy before Chris’ nightmare. Buck shifted in his sleep, and Eddie relaxed on the mattress as Buck’s arm settled across his stomach. He hadn’t slept beside another person since Shannon had left him in El Paso. It was a comfort he hadn’t realized he missed. He and Shannon hadn’t spent many nights in the same bed because of his service in the Army.
“Go to sleep.”
Eddie moved a little closer, and Buck curled up against him. “Sorry I woke you.”
“I wasn’t really asleep—just sort of dozing.” Buck took a deep breath against Eddie’s shoulder. “I’m sorry that Mackey kept pushing you about Shannon’s death. It was awful.”
“I barely took any time off to deal with her death,” Eddie said. “And I should’ve had Chris in grief counseling as soon as it happened. And…the VA suggested therapy after I was discharged, and I couldn’t make myself do it. I told everyone, including myself, that I was fine when it was very from the truth. If my parents had ever realize how vulnerable I am mentally, they would use it against me to take Chris.”
“Is that a problem still?”
“I can’t say it’s not,” Eddie said roughly. “Because I’m honestly furious a lot of the damn time, and it’s not directed in any particular direction. I see how close I came to going off the rails. If I took up street fighting, and my parents found out about it—they’d have stopped at nothing to take my son from me, and I don’t know that my abuela would’ve disagreed in those circumstances.”
“We need to set something up legally to prevent them from getting custody,” Buck said tiredly. “If you’re that worried about them declaring you unfit and suing—who would get him if something happened to you on the job?”
“They would…Jesus.” Eddie took a deep breath and shuddered. “I’m getting a lawyer as soon as we get back to LA.” He let his hand settle on Buck’s arm. “Will you…would you take him if I died?”
“Yes, of course, I would. They’d fight me like hell, though.” Buck took a deep breath. “But let’s not talk about you dying, okay?”
“They wouldn’t fight as hard as you would,” Eddie said. “And I know you’d give him everything he needs to live the life he deserves. They’d destroy his independence, and they wouldn’t care about the damage caused because…well, they don’t care how badly they’ve fucked up their own children.”
“We’ll take all the legal steps we need to,” Buck said after a few moments of silence. “Protecting Chris is what matters most. He doesn’t deserve to be forced to be your mother’s do-over child.”
“Agreed,” Eddie said and started wondering how long it would take him to convince Buck to marry him and adopt his kid.
“If you ask me to marry you without a ring, I’m going to ruin your whole entire life,” Buck muttered, and Eddie laughed, startled and pleased by how easily Buck could read him even in the fucking dark.
Buck’s body went lax against his own, settling into an easy sleep far easier than Eddie had expected possible. He knew the kind of pain that could come from a physical fight, and since Buck had refused a pain prescription when he was discharged, he had to be hurting. He took a deep breath against Buck’s hair and let himself drift off to sleep.
Buck frowned as his phone vibrated where it was on the nightstand. There were only a few numbers in his contact list that had a vibration attached to them when he had it set to do not disturb. It was at least thirty minutes before his alarm was set to go off because he’d promised Chris French toast.
He picked it up and saw that he had a new text message. Part of him really didn’t want to read anything anyone had to say, but that felt immature and irresponsible. He opened up his texts and found a message from Hen outside of the group text, which had been silent since he’d been discharged.
Hen: I think most everyone would like to pretend that the whole thing with Mackey didn’t even happen. You’d have been right to sue the department and Bobby. You did absolutely nothing to deserve what was being done to you. I am ashamed of myself for not having your back. I know damn well that you would’ve supported the hell out of me. Trust is very important for the work we do, and I hope that you will give me a chance to regain your trust. I think we all overlooked the impact of the bombing, and your injury came to represent the entirety of it. I told you yesterday that I love you and I really mean it. You’re a brother to me, Buck. Please believe that.
“Hen sent me a text,” Buck murmured and put the phone aside. “She apologized for not supporting me.”
“Except…” Buck sighed and rolled onto this side as he pulled the blanket up over his shoulder. He focused on Eddie’s face. “You know, most of the time, I feel required to forgive people for their mistakes. I don’t think that’s a healthy place to be, and the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve let people in my life get away with a lot to keep them.”
“Me included?” Eddie questioned.
“Well, you did invade my life with your adorable kid and basically ruin me for other people without even buying me dinner first,” Buck said and huffed when Eddie laughed. “Or getting me off.”
“You want me to get you off?” Eddie questioned and moved into his space easily.
“I’m just saying that normally I have a standard when it comes to life-ruining relationships, and you haven’t even tried to meet it,” Buck said in amusement as Eddie leaned into his space and let one hand settle on his stomach.
The sound of crutches thumping on the floorboards caught their attention, and Eddie dropped on his back with a sigh. There was a very soft knock on the door.
“We’re awake, Superman,” Buck called out. “You can come in.”
Chris opened the door and entered. He hooked his crutches on the footboard and crawled up onto the mattress beside Buck. “Do you feel better, Bucky?”
“I do,” Buck said. “I’m definitely getting in the hot tub today, and maybe I’ll even take a swim.”
Chris nodded. “Swimming would be good.” He glanced toward Eddie. “As long as Daddy doesn’t freak out about us being in the water, again.”
Eddie groaned. “It was one time, mijo.”
Buck laughed, and Chris slumped against his chest in amusement. It hurt his ribs a little, but he just cupped the back of the boy’s head as he giggled. He glanced toward Eddie and found him leaning on one hand, watching them with an incredibly fond expression. It made his stomach tighten a little. He’d never had anyone look at him like that before, and the realization was so startling that it hurt.
* * * *
Buck relaxed on the lounger and watched Eddie at the grill. They were having hamburgers for dinner, and Eddie prided himself on being able to barbeque. Apparently, he did have some small bit of Texan pride when it came to such things. Christopher was taking a nap, having been thoroughly exhausted by playing in the ocean and on the beach. He stared at his phone because he felt like he owed Hen a text, and there were several more individual ones waiting that he hadn’t read. He wondered who he should blame for the campaign of reassurance and shot Eddie a look.
“I don’t need my feelings patted, you know.”
“If I’m going to pat anything, it’ll be your ass,” Eddie said and grinned when Buck laughed. “Is this about Hen’s message?”
“I’ve got ones from Chim and Bobby, but I haven’t read them.”
“Are you going to?”
Buck shrugged. “It was a terrible situation, you know? But they turned on me like a pack of wolves, and I did nothing to deserve it, Eddie. Hell, there came a point when it felt like Bobby was blaming me for the whole thing—like I’d taken some dumb risk on the job and gotten myself maimed for life.” He flicked a hand in frustration. “You know, instead of being the victim of a revenge-hungry asshole who wanted to murder Bobby for doing someone else’s job.”
“Someone else’s job?” Eddie questioned.
“Hell, Eddie, Bobby had no business investigating that fire that led to that kid’s father getting arrested for arson and going to jail. He’s not and never has been in arson investigation. He should’ve passed his suspicions onto the right person. Not only did he fail to do that—he went with Athena to watch the arrest. He overstepped and put a spotlight on himself, so when that kid went off the rails, Bobby was on his hit list.” Buck sighed. “I’m not blaming him, but Bobby has been wearing blinders for months and acting like I’m the goddamned problem when he was the one that didn’t stay in his own fucking lane.”
“I didn’t know about all of that,” Eddie admitted.
“He told me about the whole thing—the original fire and how it all went down when he was driving me to rehab one day. I told him that I didn’t blame him, and I don’t. I mean, even at my worst after the bombing, I only blamed that asshole who bombed the ladder. I just don’t like being treated like I’m the problem, and that’s what happened after the blood clots and the embolism.”
Eddie made a face and focused on the grill. “Did you take your shot today?”
“Yeah, I did it in the bathroom. I didn’t want Chris to see me taking it,” Buck admitted.
“Chris understands medication, Buck,” Eddie said with a look.
“Yeah, but I don’t want him to worry about it. Plus, the last thing we need is for him to mention to someone that he saw me using a needle even if I can prove it’s just a blood thinner.” Buck sighed and shifted on the lounger. “He’d also ask a bunch of questions, and while I love how curious and eager he is to learn, I’d rather never discuss any of that with anyone ever.”
“I get it,” Eddie said. “Sometimes talking something to death is as bad as the original event. I get that therapy can be helpful, but discussing trauma with just anyone starts to feel like….” He trailed off with a frown.
“Torture porn,” Buck supplied and lifted an eyebrow when Eddie sent him a shocked look. “Seriously. It’s like people love to hear about that kind of stuff, and it’s weird. I had more than one person approach me during physical therapy to talk about the bombing. Mostly other patients, but I had to demand that one therapist be removed from my treatment team because he would not shut up about the bombing. He was fucking fascinated, and I felt like I was sort of exhibit in a museum to him.”
“Sucks,” Eddie murmured. “I get that sometimes from people if they know I served. They want to hear all about war, but they don’t care about the scars left behind. My own father wanted a detailed accounting of how I earned that Silver Star but was visibly uncomfortable when I discussed the recovery from getting shot three times. He acted like I was weak for how long it took for my recovery.”
“I wouldn’t be kind about that shit,” Buck muttered. “As he ever even broken a fucking bone?”
“I think…no.” Eddie frowned as he turned the ribs. “There was a car accident when I was ten. I think Pop hit his head. Sophia’s shoulder got dislocated. I was in the front seat and got a face full of airbag. I had a low-grade concussion—don’t remember the number.” He blew out a long breath. “Dad had been drinking.”
“He was driving?”
“Yeah,” Eddie admitted and frowned. “He made Mom tell the police that she was driving because he already had one DUI. She was barely under the legal limit, so she didn’t get in trouble. But Dad spent a whole week afterward bitching and complaining—saying she’d gotten away with the whole thing because she’s white. Personally, looking back on it, I think the cops wanted to arrest them both.”
“Wait, your mom was in the car, but you were in the front seat?” Buck questioned.
“Yeah, Sophia felt sick, so Mom had gotten in the back seat to coddle her. I was irritated because I hated riding in the front seat. Pop is a terrible driver, and he would take any opportunity to lecture me. I was a captive audience in that passenger seat. As it turned out, Sophia had food poisoning. She started throwing up in the ambulance, and it caused a big panic.” He cleared his throat. “So, no, I don’t think my father has ever taken any sort of significant injury. He had his gallbladder removed about five years ago—which was his first and only surgery.”
“Does he still drink like that?”
“No, he’s been in AA for ten years and is proud to speak of his sobriety,” Eddie said. “I thought mom was the same. I didn’t find out differently until I was discharged. She kept it moderate when she had Chris, but otherwise, she can drink a whole bottle of wine a day.”
“I hope you have proof of that because there’s no way a judge would give them unsupervised visitation with that kind of shit going on,” Buck said.
“Pop isn’t going to cross his own mother,” Eddie murmured. “I think they both resent the fact that Abuela has come down on my side because my parents genuinely believe I’m a terrible father and that she’d agree with them. As long as she doesn’t, I think they’ll just keep it to a campaign of complaints and ugly ass behavior.”
“You’re a great dad,” Buck said. “Chris is thriving and growing up to be an amazing person. Your parents are extremely selfish. It’s clear what they want is more important than what’s best for Chris.”
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed and looked up as the French doors opened.
Buck shifted on the lounger as Chris put his crutches aside to join him. “Hey, kiddo.” Chris sprawled across his chest and huffed a little. “Bad dream?”
“I don’t know,” Chris said and curled his fingers into Buck’s T-shirt. “I woke up sad.”
“Well, that’s not great,” Buck said quietly and shared a look with Eddie, who looked worried and upset. “You know, when I wake up sad, I think about something really great that happened to me.”
“Like what?” Chris asked.
“Well, a few years ago, I had a long, terrible day at work. I was working with this new guy, and I honestly wasn’t sure I was gonna like him. I mean, he’d been with the station for a couple of weeks, but he really hadn’t let any of us get to know him.” He grinned when Eddie huffed a little. “He was kind of reserved and quiet—I thought I liked to be around people who were extroverted, so he was putting me off, honestly. Anyways, we worked our butts off all day, and it was exhausting. After we left the scene and came back to the station, we got to go home. We ended up leaving together because the parking lot at the station was a complete mess of cars.
“I took him to pick up his son from school, and I met my very best friend,” Buck said and smiled against Chris’ hair as the boy caught on. “Which was honestly the most amazing day of my whole life.”
“It’s one of my favorite days, too, Bucky,” Chris said. “My most amazing day was when Daddy came home from the Army. He was hurt, but he was home, and he said he wouldn’t go away again. I love that day.”
Buck focused on Eddie and found the man near tears. “Hey, Eds, what’s your most amazing day?”
“August 3, 2011,” Eddie said quietly, and Chris lifted his head to look at him.
“That’s my birthday,” Chris said with a grin.
“You changed my whole life, mijo, and it was amazing. No other day even comes close.” Eddie focused on the grill. “Though, the day I met your best friend was a very good day. Of course, he was a total punk, but I overlooked it because he’s pretty.”
“I was a total punk,” Buck agreed with a grin.
Chris focused on Buck’s face. “You’re sad.”
“Just thinking through stuff, Superman,” Buck said gently. “It’ll be fine.”
“What kind of stuff? Maybe I can help.”
“I….” Buck cleared his throat because he thought the topic was far too adult for Christopher, and he didn’t want the kid to think badly of anyone at the 118. “Something happened that hurt my feelings, and now the people involved are apologizing.”
“Apologies are good,” Chris said. “But do they mean them? ‘Cause sometimes Ms. Desmond makes us apologize if we do something wrong whether we mean it or not.”
“Well, no one is making them apologize,” Buck admitted. “I guess that’s an important distinction. I think they’re apologizing because they’re afraid I won’t talk to them anymore, though.”
“So that just means that they would miss you a whole lot.” Chris propped his head on the arm he had sprawled across Buck’s chest. “They want to still be friends with you.”
“Yeah, I think they do. But is that enough?”
“I dunno, but what can it hurt to try? Grandma always says I should forgive and forget, but the forgetting part is hard. I don’t think I should have to forget the things that people do that I don’t like.”
“No, I don’t think you should either,” Buck murmured. “Forgetting just makes it easier for someone to return to their…bad behavior.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Chris said. “Forgiveness is hard, too.”
“Very hard,” Buck agreed. “How do you do it?”
“Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend to forgive, which I know is a lie, but….” Chris frowned and looked out toward the ocean.
“The world is hard enough, Bucky. Sometimes it’s just easier to pretend to forgive people when they make dumb mistakes that hurt my feelings because I don’t want to make things harder for myself.”
Buck blinked back tears and pressed a quick kiss to the top of Chris’ head. A glance toward Eddie found his friend ashen-faced. He winced, and Eddie just shook his head.
“My whole body gets in my way,” Chris continued. “It’s not fair when other people try to get in my way, too. Does that make sense?”
“It makes all the sense in the world,” Buck said hoarsely.
“Do you want to forgive the people who hurt you?” Chris questioned.
“Yeah, I think I do.”
Chris nodded. “Then that’s fine—they just gotta know they can’t ever do it again. You have put them on notice, Bucky.” He flicked the hand. “Make ‘em walk the line—like that song you played for me.”
“You played Johnny Cash for my kid?” Eddie interjected.
Buck shrugged and grinned. “Walk the Line came on the radio, but we only got to hear part of it. So, I put together a playlist of the best songs on Spotify, and we listened to them. I curated carefully.”
“I’m not old enough to listen to songs about drugs and prison,” Christopher announced. “Buck said so.”
Eddie laughed. “It’s a good thing Buck’s around to keep us in line, mijo.”
* * * *
Buck really didn’t know to respond to any of the messages. He hadn’t read the ones from Chimney or Bobby, mostly because he just wasn’t ready for the emotional load of their guilt and his own remorse. Hen’s was nice—heartfelt. Buck knew her to be a generous and thoughtful person who normally made very good, emotionally intelligent decisions. Everyone took a fall now and again, and Hen’s tended to be pretty big. He also thought that out of everyone that Hen learned the most from her mistakes.
Eddie joined him on the bed, and Buck turned toward him.
“He breaks my heart and makes me want to pick a fight with the whole damn world,” Buck said. “And I’ve never thrown a punch outside of training exercises in my life.”
“What training?” Eddie questioned.
Buck set aside his phone and cleared his throat. “I told you about trying out for the SEALs. I did two years enlisted in the Navy, then spent six years as an Individual Ready Reservist. The last year I actively served, I was in training to be a SEAL.”
“Why haven’t we discussed this in detail before?” Eddie questioned with a frown. “I’ve heard it mentioned in passing in the station, but honestly, Chim made it seem like it was just some whim for you.”
“Well, you clearly don’t like discussing your service,” Buck pointed out. “I spent a year on a ship then moved into assessment to become a SEAL. So, it wasn’t like it was for you. I made it all the way to Land Warfare Training before I realized that I couldn’t be what I needed to be to serve. I couldn’t…turn it off.” He tapped his chest. “I thought I could. I tried so hard to do it. Part of me thought that getting there would make my life simpler. Learning to compartmentalize and set aside my own emotions would’ve made things easier. It was awful to realize I couldn’t. When my two years ended, I was put in the individual reserves at my request. My commitment ended last year.”
“Why did you think you could?” Eddie questioned. “One of the first things I noticed is how empathetic you are.”
“Not that I was a punk?” Buck questioned with a laugh.
“Nah, I could tell you were just worried about being replaced. It was clear to me that you had no direct competition on the team until I came along. You know Bobby hired me to be your partner, right? He thought you needed someone on the team to work with on a regular basis.”
“Well, I can’t fault his choice now, but it would’ve been nice if he’d told me even half of that. He treats me like a child sometimes, and maybe I sort of earned that early on, but I’ve grown a lot since I stupidly stole a firetruck to get laid,” Buck said. “And it wasn’t even like I took an engine that would be used. It was off the roster for maintenance.”
Eddie snorted. “Shut up.”
“And I know it was a fuck up, but I rarely fuck up the same way twice. Plus, that whole thing put a real ugly layer on top of the slut-shaming thing at the station. Chim is especially cruel sometimes, and I feel like I have to take it without complaint because it got me temporarily fired.”
“I think Chim is profoundly insecure,” Eddie said after a few moments. “And it shows up in some pretty ugly ways that he doesn’t seem to be aware of.”
“Or maybe he just expects to get away with his bad behavior because Bobby never calls him out,” Buck pointed out dryly. “Ever.”
“Maybe. I’d like to think better of him, and he’s certainly more settled and less morose now that he’s with your sister.”
“Yeah, though I’m not sure how I feel about my sister being his ego booster,” Buck muttered. “Though I’m pretty sure he’s her emotional support animal, so maybe it works out.”
Eddie snorted. “Shut up.”
“I’m just saying that when I was talking about people needing therapy—they were both really high on that fucking list,” Buck said and huffed when Eddie laughed. “And for all of Bobby’s experience with confronting his own issues and demons, he’s been extremely shortsighted about this whole thing. Is that all guilt?”
“Maybe,” Eddie said. “Or maybe it’s grief, too. He cares about you a lot—sees a son in you. He’s already buried two children, Buck, and I can’t say what that would do to a man. I can’t fathom it. I never even want to try to imagine it.”
“I…” Buck frowned. “I liked his care. Maybe I shouldn’t have accepted it, but positive paternal attention is practically a myth in my life.”
“Well, you’re both allowed to find comfort in each other as long as it doesn’t interfere with the job, and it currently is,” Eddie pointed out. “He’s also allowed his own emotions and worries, but he’s letting all of that cloud his judgment. I know your sister found the father/son vibe offensive. She told me that you had parents, and your father didn’t deserve to be replaced.”
“My sperm donor hasn’t spoken to me since I was nineteen, Eddie,” Buck said. “And I haven’t spoken to my mother since I was twenty. She has my number but doesn’t call. The last time I tried to call, it went straight to voicemail. I took it for what it was and never called again. She left me a demanding and frankly ugly voice mail after Maddie was kidnapped, where she essentially blamed me for not protecting my sister. She said I was a failure as a brother. It was really fucking ugly, actually. I blocked both of my parents’ phone numbers after that.”
“The healthy choice would be to establish boundaries with everyone,” Eddie said. “And enforce them. I’m not an exception to that.”
Buck considered that. “What sort of boundaries do you think we need?”
“I don’t know,” Eddie said. “But I don’t want to push you into something you’re not ready for, and you’ve been through a lot.”
“So have you.”
Eddie shrugged, and Buck frowned.
“Seriously, Eddie, you’ve been through a lot, and I know you’re in therapy. I’m really glad you’ve taken that step, but please don’t minimize what’s happening with you because….” He trailed off and waved a hand.
“You almost got murdered twice,” Eddie supplied. “In the scheme of things, it makes my stuff seem pretty manageable, to be honest. Shannon’s death took a lot out of me, and I haven’t handled it well. I especially haven’t handled Chris’ grief well. My parents made her death more difficult than it had to be, so I’m dealing with that, too. My mother actually used her funeral as an opportunity to lobby for my return to El Paso. I’ve never come closer to cursing my mother out more in my life.”
“I’m sorry she made things more difficult,” Buck said. “It seems like…family should be a source of comfort in hard moments.”
“It’s never been my experience,” Eddie confessed. “Most especially not with my parents. They’ve outright weaponized every terrible moment of my life to their own benefit no matter how much hurt it caused.”
“Come here,” Buck murmured and tugged a little on the strings of Eddie’s lounge pants. “We can make out like a couple of teenagers.”
“Or I could lock the door, and we can take off all our clothes and have sex like grown-ups,” Eddie said and grinned when Buck’s mouth dropped open. “Unless you’re not ready for that kind of thing.”
“I just didn’t figure you’d be,” Buck admitted as he sat up and tugged off his T-shirt. Then he started pushing down his shorts. “Why aren’t you already locking the door?”
Eddie rolled out of bed and went to lock the door. He came back, shedding his clothes, then slipped back onto the bed but resisted being pulled on top of Buck. “You’re not up for that,” he said.
Buck huffed. “I’m fine.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Eddie murmured and cupped Buck’s hip as he turned on his side to face him. “Let’s just see what we can accomplish without putting any undue stress on your ribs or leg.”
“Yeah, okay,” Buck said as Eddie moved closer still and pressed a leg between his thighs. “I want you so much.”
Eddie wrapped a hand around Buck’s cock and hummed under his breath. “It’s been a while since I’ve been with a man. I feel like I’m starving.”
“Do you want to fuck me?” Buck questioned and groaned low as Eddie stroked his dick with a firm grip.
“I want you to fuck me,” Eddie said in amusement, and Buck figured he didn’t keep the shock off his face because his friend laughed. “What? You thought I was an exclusive top?”
“Yes, actually, I totally did,” Buck admitted. “I don’t think I could handle being on actual top for that, but you could take a ride—use the headboard to brace yourself to keep the weight off my ribs.” He spread as legs as Eddie stroked his cock and pushed the covers down with one foot. “We need lube and a condom.”
“You sure?” Eddie questioned as he released Buck’s dick and reached over him to open the top drawer of the nightstand.
“Yeah, of course. You want my cock—you can have it.” Buck wet his lips as Eddie slid astride his hips and flicked open the lube. Buck took the lube and slicked up his own fingers. “I’m pretty thick—I should take care of the prep.” He wet his lips. “I know what I need to make it work.”
Eddie huffed out a little laugh but braced his hands on either side of Buck’s head and took a deep breath as Buck settled his dry hand on a hip. “If anyone else said that to me, I’d think it was a line.”
Buck flushed. “Yes, well, you wouldn’t be the first. But I made my name firehose on dating apps as a head’s up.” He grinned when Eddie laughed again.
He brushed his slick fingers against the rim of Eddie’s hole, pressed in just a little when his friend’s breath caught. Eddie rocked into the penetration and breathed heavily against Buck’s mouth.
“Feel good?” Buck questioned as he slid one finger in. “Do you like it slow? Or do you like to get a thorough pounding?”
“Both,” Eddie admitted breathlessly and threw one hand out to grab the headboard. “So, you’re gonna fuck my ass like you own it as soon as you’ve recovered.”
“I love to work,” Buck murmured and scraped his teeth against Eddie’s jaw. “I want to make you come.” He added a second finger and started to move them easily in and out of Eddie’s hole. “You use a dildo?”
“Not often,” Eddie admitted. “Once or twice a month—when I’m home alone and don’t have to worry about someone showing up at my house. A few weeks before the whole lawsuit thing, you almost walked in on me fucking myself.”
“Jesus,” Buck muttered.
“I jerked off thinking about you just…coming in and pulling that dildo out so you could fuck me instead…a lot.”
“I’d have really enjoyed finding you that way,” Buck murmured. “That’s a fantasy in the making…watching you work a dildo in your ass would be fantastic. I don’t know how long I’d last, though.”
“We’ll keep it on tap for the future,” Eddie promised as he started to rock on Buck’s fingers.
Buck grinned at him. “Do you like to top at all? I mean, I have no preference. I just love to get off.” Eddie flushed. Buck watched emotions play over his lover’s face, and he settled his free hand on Eddie’s hip. “Hey, whatever answer you give is fine.”
“I…” Eddie took a deep breath and averted his gaze.
“All I ever want is your honesty when it comes to this, Eds,” Buck said quietly. “And whatever you need is absolutely okay.”
“I enjoy anal sex a lot. Having my ass full is probably my biggest turn-on, but I can top with no issues. It doesn’t freak me out or make me uncomfortable.”
Buck hummed. “We could plug this sweet hole of yours, and you could fuck me at the same time.” He grinned when Eddie’s eyes went wide. “You don’t have any plugs?”
“No, I’ve…I always figured I’d be tempted to wear one outside the bedroom if I had one.”
“You could,” Buck assured. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” He added a third finger, and Eddie groaned softly. “What do you think about cock warming?”
Eddie huffed. “Jesus Christ, Buck, stop talking before I come all over you.”
Buck sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and took a deep breath. His eyelids fluttered shut briefly when Eddie opened the condom and rolled it onto his dick. Despite his best intentions, he flexed his hips upward as Eddie slicked up the condom.
“Be still,” Eddie murmured. “I’m doing the work, remember?”
Buck nodded and pulled his fingers from Eddie’s ass, and relaxed on the mattress as much as he could. “Give me a ride, then.”
Eddie hooked both hands around the top of the headboard, and Buck spread his legs a bit as he positioned his own cock. He groaned lowly as Eddie took him to the hilt with one fluid movement of his body. Eddie started to move almost immediately, working himself on Buck’s cock with such ease that it almost sent him right over the edge immediately.
“What…Jesus….” Buck clutched one of Eddie’s thighs. “How are you so good at this?”
Eddie laughed. “We can talk about my whore phase later, Buck.”
Buck grinned and stroked Eddie’s thighs gently. “You’re beautiful. I love this—watching you take what you want.”
Eddie’s cheeks darkened, and he bit down on his bottom lip. “You’re what I want—all I want like this. I’ll never get enough.”
Buck hummed under his breath, grabbed the lube to slick up his hand, then wrapped it around Eddie’s cock. “A few months from now, we’re going to carve out a little time for ourselves, and I’m going to fuck you all goddamned day. Every single time I get hard, I’m going to slide my cock into your ass.”
Eddie groaned and arched into Buck’s hand. “Yeah, first chance we get.”
Buck stayed still as he could, letting Eddie do the work, and tried to keep himself from coming too soon. The sweet roll of Eddie’s hips as he clenched down repeatedly on Buck’s dick was getting harder and harder to maintain through, so he tightened his grip on Eddie’s cock and rubbed his thumb over the head, the tip of his finger pulling just a little on his lover’s foreskin.
“Oh, fuck.” Eddie shuddered and came all over Buck’s hand.
“I really love you,” Buck blurted out and flushed at the grin that earned him. Eddie clenched down on him, and he couldn’t help but come with a shocked groan. “You’re…going to be a real problem for me.”
“You’ve got no idea, babe.”
Buck shifted his leg just a little as Eddie put an ice pack on it. He hated to be cold. One of the best parts about LA was that he didn’t have to deal with the nasty kind of weather they’d had in Hershey. A blanket dropped into his lap before he could complain about how much he hated the ice pack.
Eddie shook his head and sighed when Chris cuddled up on the sofa next to Buck with the remote. “California called to you like a siren, right?”
Buck grinned. “I wouldn’t live anywhere cold for free, Eds. I don’t even think humans were meant to live in those kinds of temperatures.”
“If we were…we’d have fur,” Christopher said in agreement. “Maybe even like a double coat.” He patted his face. “I’d be cute with fur.”
“Absolutely,” Buck agreed. “I bet you’d have brown fur with gold highlights.”
“You’d be all blond,” Chris said. “Daddy would still think that you’re pretty, no worries.”
Eddie huffed and left them on the couch. “You are a terrible wingman, mijo.”
“I’m the best wingman!” Christopher exclaimed. “Right, Buck?”
“Of course,” Buck grinned at Eddie, who paused in the doorway leading into the kitchen. “Best one I ever had.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow at him and went into the kitchen. Buck was a little stuffed because he adored French toast, and he’d certainly made too much of it. Chris groaned and rubbed his belly a little before he grabbed a pillow and made himself comfortable against Buck.
“Eat too much?”
“You know I did,” Chris muttered and turned on the TV. He quickly browsed to Netflix and made a face. “We don’t have our playlist.”
“This isn’t my account,” Buck said in amusement. “Let’s watch something we’ve seen a bunch of times.”
“No need to get stressed out by a surprise,” Chris agreed and promptly browsed to a documentary about penguins.
Twenty-five minutes into the program, Eddie returned and pulled the ice pack off. Buck frowned at his leg, still more furious than he wanted to speak to about the new bruises and the old damage. He’d worked so hard, and those two greedy assholes tried to take it away from him to protect their own criminal activity. Buck hated the whole situation and more so for the fact that his phone still had unread messages on it.
Eddie sat down on the coffee table in front of Buck and pulled the leg onto his thigh.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking for issues,” Eddie said. “Any numbness in your toes?”
Buck wiggled them. “Nah.”
“Pain worse or better than before?”
“Better than yesterday but not as good as before the….” He trailed off and glanced toward Chris, who wasn’t pretending to watch the TV at all. “Event.”
“Assault,” Christopher corrected huffily. “Don’t treat me like a baby, Bucky.”
“I’m not,” Buck protested and hugged the boy close. “It was a hard day that got worse, and honestly, I’d have denied that was possible just short of the driver’s side glass breaking.”
“It doesn’t seem fair, right?” Chris cleared his throat. “Life is hard, and when other people make it worse for you…it’s hard to see how anything is fair. And maybe, sometimes, you think it shouldn’t be fair for anyone else either.”
“Yeah,” Buck said in agreement and looked toward Eddie was gently prodding the bruising with a frown in place. “But I decided a long time ago to try every single day to approach my life from a hopeful place.”
“A hopeful place,” Chris repeated and sighed dramatically. “You’re such a Pollyanna, Buck. It’s awful.”
Eddie started laughing as Buck turned to stare at Chris in shock.
“How do you even know about Pollyanna?” Buck demanded. “Did you watch it without me?”
“It’s one of Abuelita’s favorite Disney movies,” Chris said. “I’ve watched a bunch of those old movies. I really like The Parent Trap. I wish I had a partner in crime like Susan and Sharon did. You two would already be married.”
Buck blushed and shared a look with Eddie, who was grinning. Father and son had apparently gotten on the same page somewhere along the line. “It seems like you do have a partner in crime, Superman.”
Chris laughed and focused on the TV. “I wouldn’t say no to a little sister, though.” He paused. “Or brother. I’m not picky.”
* * * * *
Buck had settled down on a blanket while Christopher was cajoling Eddie into the ocean. It was weird, really, that out of the three of them that Eddie was the one that no longer trusted the water. He’d confessed a week before the lawsuit that the ocean had nearly taken the heart of him away, and Eddie didn’t know if he could forgive such a thing. Buck couldn’t let fear of the water take hold in his own mind, and he refused the same for Christopher. He needed to know that he could count on himself in the water, and making sure that Christopher continued to rise above that experience with such strength and determination was a great relief.
He looked down at his phone and decided to apply that philosophy to his own life and circumstances. Forgiveness came far too easy for him, and he knew it was deeply rooted in the fact that his parents didn’t love him and never had. He picked Chim first for many reasons, but mostly because the asshole was attached to his sister, so he was going to have to tolerate him in his life one way or another. He wasn’t ever going to allow some guy to separate him from Maddie again.
Chim: So listen—I was completely out of line and I have no excuse. You were right to say that I wouldn’t have taken your circumstances laying down. Though I can’t say I’d have come back from that injury with the same kind of strength and determination that you did. During the tsunami, you more than proved yourself ready to return to work and I should’ve cornered Bobby on the subject.
Chim: I know why I didn’t—because I’m overly invested in keeping your sister happy. Maybe it’s because she was miserable before or maybe it’s because I’ve never, ever had a woman in my life who loves me like she does. That kind of love is hard to give up and it’s even harder to risk. I think you understand that better than most. Maddie likes to say your parents are good people who are bad parents. I just think they’re miserable fucking jackholes and they don’t deserve either of you.
Chim: You’re right. I need therapy. I’ve probably needed therapy for fucking decades but I’ve been throwing myself at one thing after another to avoid the death of my mother the abandonment of my father and finally to never, ever speak of the death of a man who was a brother to me. I see a lot of Kevin in you and I resented it from the start, which wasn’t cool and it makes me a bastard. I spent the last day or so telling Maddie the whole straight up truth about myself and I can’t say she’s impressed. Fortunately she loves me enough to demand I take my ass to therapy.
Chim: I’m really fucking sorry, Buck. Also, I think this will be something that precious few people in my life will appreciate as much as you do but I sent Tatiana an apology for all the ridiculous lies I told her. And she responded by saying she always knew I was lying and that she hoped I’d just figure out how to be myself with her. I never did which meant she couldn’t begin to invest herself in me. I can’t say I regret that relationship ending because Maddie’s everything to me, but I realize now that if anyone was a womanizer it was me not you.
Buck stared for a long moment, then dropped his phone face down on his stomach as he focused on Eddie and Chris. They were snorkeling just off the shore, adding to Chris’ shell collection, surely. They’d found the equipment in an equipment locker on the deck. Buck had taken it all inside, dumped it in the tub, and gave it a thorough wash since he didn’t know who’d put their faces in that stuff last. His own equipment was on the blanket beside him. Buck exhaled sharply and frowned as he considered how to respond to the fact that Chim, of all people, had considered him a womanizer.
Buck enjoyed sex, loved the feel another’s skin against his own, and while he’d never bothered to keep track of the actual number of people he’d slept with, he knew it was a lot compared to others. Probably as much as ten times the number that Chim would probably proudly offer up like it was a contest of some sort. He probably shouldn’t stumble too hard over an accusation Chim had never actually verbalized in his direction. Buck also knew that Chim wasn’t the only person to think it over the years.
He picked up the phone, glanced back over the messages Chim had sent again, and sighed.
Buck: I’ve never lied to a sex partner in my life so I have to admit that aspect of your history was off-putting in the extreme. I figure Maddie told you that I told her about your habit of intimate fraud. I can even sort of center on the time period when she told you because you got extra salty with the slut shaming at work. It’ll probably piss you off but I’ve never taken that shit seriously. I enjoy sex and I’ll fuck whenever I have the time and a semi-private location to accomplish it. Some people can’t handle that kind of thing maybe it’s generational. That’s not a dig at your age specifically but we don’t have the same mindset on relationships and sex. Bobby is honestly even worse and you’d know.
Buck: You were an asshole but then you always are when you’re forced to deal with the consequences of your own actions. You don’t like to be called out and always think the absolute worst of anyone who dares have anything negative to say about you or your behavior. You’re better now. I figure Maddie has a lot to do with that because she has that effect on most people in her life. I always want to be the very best version of myself for her. I see that in you as well.
Buck: The problem with wanting to make Maddie happy is that there have been times when taking a step back to really look at the situation didn’t even cross my mind. I’ve done things, allowed things, and ignored things I shouldn’t have just to make Maddie feel safe. You do it too. You’re also quick to do or say whatever you need to do to make her comfortable. I hope that comes up in therapy because Jesus Christ Chim you used your friendship with Bobby to fill his head with Maddie’s bullshit and it almost ruined my fucking career.
Buck: Forgiveness is easy because I meant what I said. I love you guys and I see a family in you even if sometimes I don’t think you see the same thing. So I do forgive you for your asshole behavior and your ugly thoughts and your weakness in the face of my sister’s tears. But I won’t ever forget it because that would be toxic as fuck. Make sure Maddie actually goes to therapy. Phillip and Margaret’s A+ parenting came with some really ugly opinions about therapy and she’s had that shit crammed into her head for decades.
Chim: I’ll go make sure she signed up as soon I stop looking like a cry baby. Also, fuck you because I do see a brother in you. I’d like to make that a legal situation someday but your sister isn’t on the marriage train right now.
Buck: Let her pick out her own ring. She hated what that sorry motherfucker bought her. Maddie likes to have experiences more than she does surprises.
He closed out the thread and focused on the single message that Hen had sent. The small conversation the two of them had when they’d picked up Christopher had been nice, focused on his health versus anything else. One of the best things about Hen was her ability to compartmentalize, and he envied her that more often than not. She easily had the most emotional intelligence of anyone on the team. Eddie had mentioned how she’d helped manage everyone else after the attack, and Buck appreciated her having Eddie’s back against the rest of the team. He hit reply and stared for a few moments while he considered what to say.
Buck: I know how difficult it must be to make a choice regarding who needs your support Hen. We all have our internal loyalties that go beyond the team. Equality in such a situation is impossible and you weren’t in a position to really choose a side. There really shouldn’t have been a side but I know you’re aware of that. Trauma creates bonds but it can also cause fissures to develop in the strongest of relationships. I get that for some people at the 118 that the bombing became about my injury because mine was the worst. That was a disservice to the whole shift. That shit happened to all of us and none of us walked away whole. I wasn’t the only one injured. I am the only one who wasn’t allowed to come back to work.
Buck: One of the easiest parts of this whole thing was that I knew you were there with the others keeping them on an even keel. I knew I could trust you to keep our little work family together and you did. I won’t fault you for your own hurts that you suffered during the whole thing because that’s not cool. Out of everyone else I know for certain that you’re prepared to work with me to get back what we lost and that means everything.
Buck: Also check on Chim. Apparently I made him cry. He’s probably huddled in the bathroom of their apartment hiding his dumb face so Maddie doesn’t see.
He waited a few seconds because all of his messages had been marked read pretty much immediately. A text came through quick.
Hen: I adore the shit out of you. I want you to know you can depend on me. I want to know for certain that I can be a person that people around me can trust with anything. I believe that having you in my life is part of that process. Speaking of, I’ll go rescue Chim from his fragile masculinity. Thank you so much for your future patience.
Buck knew he wasn’t ready to read whatever Bobby had sent, so he put his phone aside picked up the snorkeling equipment so he could rescue Eddie from Chris’ OCD-level commitment to shell procurement.
* * * *
Eddie closed the door of the room Christopher had chosen for his own and walked down the hall to the room he was sharing with Buck. They’d had a very good day despite the apparent emotional bloodletting his lover had been engaged in with his phone. Eddie hadn’t read any of the messages Buck had gotten because it hadn’t been offered. He really wanted to know what they had to say but also figured that he’d probably reveal more than he should if any of them weren’t being completely honest about their own feelings.
Buck was sprawled on the bed, sheet only up to this waist. He had his phone in hand.
Eddie pulled the door shut and locked it, which made Buck look up from his phone. “Something wrong?”
Buck shrugged. “A few messages from Cosmo about the attack. I’m surprised that none of them knew about the lawsuit. Apparently, it’s gotten around that I went undercover for the LAPD. Cosmo said I was a dumbass for agreeing and that being a pretty white boy clearly wasn’t enough to keep me safe from a bunch of corrupt ass cops.”
“Ah, well, Bobby got a list of who was going to be a part of the deposition process and laid down the law about any discussion outside of the group. That decision came from the chief, and I have to admit I didn’t get it at the time. Now it makes sense, and also, Fuentes is right about the white thing.”
Buck huffed. “I’ve never assumed I was safe because I’m white, Eddie. I recognize my own privilege due to the color of my skin. I also know that being bisexual could get me beaten to death. I lost a friend to a gay bashing a month after I arrived in LA. In fact, he was the whole reason I came here, to begin with. He kept inviting me to come party with him and his friends.”
Eddie dropped down on the bed as he considered that. “A friend or a lover?”
“Well, we fucked,” Buck allowed. “His name was Liam, and he really enjoyed sex and people and dancing. He was a good person who went home with the wrong guy.”
“He got picked up and murdered?” Eddie asked.
“Well, no, he got picked up, apparently had a great time based on the texts I received, then he was beaten to death by the older brothers of the guy that picked him up. They also nearly killed their own brother,” Buck said. “Liam died on the scene. The little brother spent three months in the hospital.”
“Did they at least go to jail?” Eddie asked warily.
“Second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder, and various hate crime charges as appropriate,” Buck murmured. “They were three-strike violent felony offenders, so they’re never getting out. And their little brother, his name is Damon, he’s confined to a wheelchair.” He took a deep breath. “Their mother blamed him for his brothers going to jail, so…yeah. The last I heard, he’d moved to Seattle.”
“How do you define a lover?” Eddie questioned.
“Well, I’ve had a lot of sex partners and precious few lovers,” Buck admitted and flushed when Eddie raised an eyebrow. “There is a difference, which I think might be a little difficult for you to fully comprehend because you’re demisexual. You’ve probably rarely had sex with someone you didn’t care about on some level.”
Eddie flushed and took a deep breath. “How the fuck…did you know that? I always say bisexual.”
“Well, because…it just seemed like the right word…am I wrong?” Buck asked with a frown. “It’s just you always include a lot of emotional context when it comes to sex.”
“No, you’re not wrong.” Eddie made a face at him. “And what emotional context?”
“I bet your whore phase was with a group of close, very intimate friends,” Buck said. “Shannon was part of that group, right? Did you do a paternity test before or after Chris was born?”
Eddie blushed furiously. “I can’t stand you right now.”
Buck laughed. “You love the complete fuck out of me. I know.”
“Before,” Eddie muttered. “She insisted because she wanted to be sure. She thought I was the one because we had a condom slip off, and that was the only accident she’d ever had on that front. Regardless, we confirmed as soon as it was safe to do so and got married a few months before he was born because my parents were being hell beasts to her.” He paused. “They never stopped being awful actually, and I’m a real dick for allowing it to continue.” He cleared his throat. “And yeah, I need an emotional connection to really enjoy sex. Physically, I have no problems getting an erection or getting off without the emotional component, but it’s not all that satisfying on any level. It doesn’t even have to be romantic love. Prior to you, the best sexual experience I had was with….”
Buck grinned. “The best friend before me?”
“Yeah.” Eddie exhaled sharply. “But it wasn’t ever romantic for either of us. I just trusted him a lot, and I loved him, of course, but only as a friend. Maybe that part is more important to me than the rest—the trust. Because there came a point when I still loved Shannon but trusting her with my body became difficult. I barely allowed her to help me at all when I came home after being discharged. When we tried again, I think I used sex to regain the intimacy that was missing from before. It didn’t work.”
Buck set aside his phone and settled down on the bed. He turned on his side, and Eddie found himself mirroring the position. “I used to think that me getting to return to the 118 was my best-case scenario.”
“It was certainly mine,” Eddie said. “Then the lawsuit came down on us like a hammer, and I was…furious, then only slightly less furious when the chief showed up at my house and asked if I was willing to get my kid a cell phone so you could call him within the rules of the lawsuit.”
“They were never going to allow you to be an exception,” Buck said. “So, I made being able to contact Chris my hill to die on. I’m sorry that you were hurt by that.”
“I was mad.”
“You were hurt,” Buck corrected, and Eddie tried to leave the bed. Buck’s hand clamped down on his wrist.
Eddie huffed as Buck pulled him across the mattress and held him tight. “Don’t tell me what I was feeling.”
“Somewhere along the line, Eddie, someone told you that you were only ever allowed to be angry. I figure it was your dad because you’ve told me enough to make it clear that the man’s practically drowning in toxic masculinity.”
“Yeah,” Eddie admitted. “But my mother is worse. She has clearly defined gender roles in her mind, and I think, in the end, that’s the root of her desire to take Chris from me. In her mind, no man is capable of raising a child as well as a woman.”
“I can’t stand her,” Buck admitted roughly. “Sorry.”
“I don’t like her, either.” Eddie relaxed on Buck’s chest. “I’m trying to decide if you manhandling me is a turn-on or not.”
“Not only is it turning you on, but you’re also probably already starting to wonder if I can hold you up against a wall and fuck you at the same time,” Buck murmured and pressed a kiss against his jaw. “The answer is yes, I totally can.”
Eddie huffed because he hadn’t been thinking about it, and now his brain was helpfully supplying one scenario after another. “I weigh 152 pounds.”
“I’ve accomplished that position with two different women and one man who weighed more,” Buck bragged and laughed when Eddie shuddered against him. “I’m gonna need a little time to recover, then I can prove it.” He pressed a soft kiss against Eddie’s mouth. “And it’s okay to be hurt what happened, Eddie. In your place, I’d have been…gutted.”
Eddie said nothing as Buck shifted them around on the bed, and he let his chin rest on Buck’s chest. He cleared his throat. “I can take a hit, Buck. But if you break my son’s heart, I’d never forgive you.”
“Same,” Buck admitted. “I mean, that’s probably the only deal breaker I can see between us. He has to come first on that front.” He cleared his throat. “And so would any other kid we brought into our family.”
“How much do you have in the baby fund?”
“It takes about fifty thousand for the surrogacy process, and I’d want to provide healthcare,” Buck murmured. “Between savings and investments, I had seventy-five.”
“Seventy-five thousand?” Eddie questioned. “Seriously? The chief said you wiped out your savings.”
“Yeah, my personal account,” Buck murmured. “I have a living trust as well. I inherited money from my maternal grandmother, and I moved all of that into a living trust shortly after I gained access to it. I was worried that my parents might try to take it because they had access to the original trust fund. A few weeks after I moved it, I received the last phone call I ever got from my mother berating me for taking her mother’s money. I just hung up on her. Then we didn’t speak again for a year or so then never…after that.”
“I’m trying to decide which one of us has the worst mother,” Eddie murmured.
“Well, mine’s worst. At least your mother loves you,” Buck said simply, and Eddie’s stomach tightened in horror. “Mine can’t stand the air I breathe.”
“It’s fine. I’ve come to terms with it, and they have nothing left to hurt me with,” Buck said simply. “Maddie still tries, and I can’t help that, but I want nothing to do with them.”
“So, how much did this situation cost you?” Eddie asked.
“Around thirty thousand, give or take,” Buck admitted reluctantly. “HOA, co-pays, utilities, car insurance…it adds up, and I didn’t have any sort of reasonable income after I was cleared for duty. The mortgage on the loft alone is 3,200 a month, and I haven’t had regular income in a while. Disability and workman’s comp really didn’t come close to covering my bills. I refused to touch the living trust since that’s my real retirement plan.”
“But you’re selling the loft. Are you at least upright in that loan?”
“Yeah, I’ll make a profit, but it won’t be as much as it could’ve been because the market isn’t fantastic. Regardless, I could probably swing half a down payment on something bigger for us at some point without digging into my retirement funds.”
Eddie nodded and watched Buck glance toward his phone. “Did you want to talk about Bobby?”
Buck groaned and tried to shove him off. Eddie responded by rolling on top of him and straddling his hips.
“Unlike you, Eds, I don’t like to be manhandled,” Buck said primly as Eddie grabbed his wrists and held him down.
“I’d believe that if you weren’t getting hard,” Eddie said in amusement. “Listen, Bobby’s the lynchpin in this whole conversation about you coming back to the 118. If you can’t trust him enough to return to the field, then you need to acknowledge it, and we need to start thinking about what we want going forward. The chief is going to make room for you wherever you want to go because he feels guilty as hell for encouraging you to work with the LAPD.”
Buck relaxed under him and frowned. “It’s not about how much I trust him, Eds. It’s about how much he doesn’t trust me. It’s about how he takes every other person’s word regarding their ability to work but never has with me. I made some dumb-ass decisions when I was transferred into the 118, and I dealt with the consequences at the time. But it seems like Bobby thinks I should have to face those consequences repeatedly.”
“The ladder truck bombing wasn’t about you,” Eddie said. “The whole thing was Bobby’s consequences, but you took the hit.”
Buck frowned at him but nodded. “Yeah.”
“And he’s drowning in guilt, which is his go-to response to trauma, as awful as that is to know and say,” Eddie continued. “Moreover, he’ll never stop grieving the children he lost.”
“I’m not his child,” Buck said. “Not really, and I’ve tried to be careful with it.”
“Well, he wasn’t careful with it at all,” Eddie retorted and slid off Buck to sit on the bed. “Because that night—he didn’t confront and physically overpower a suicide bomber for one of his firefighters. He did that for his son. I’m not saying he would’ve stayed back and let that asshole pull the trigger for anyone else, but I think he’d have probably made a different, more rational decision that wouldn’t have risked his own life. He tends to play it safe in the field, and that’s what makes him a good captain.”
Buck left the bed then and took a deep breath. “Well, that’s worse, isn’t it? It makes Mackey’s behavior and his insinuations absolutely fucking awful. Moreover, if he can’t be impartial with me in the field…would it endanger the rest of the fucking team?”
Eddie shrugged despite Buck’s growing irritation. “It isn’t like he just suddenly developed those feelings, Buck. One of the first things I heard about you was to be careful how I treated you because you were practically the captain’s adopted son. And I heard that shit more than once…the first time it came from Hen, and the third time, it was Fuentes.”
“Nah, Chim caught me checking out your ass, and he warned me off because some heifer had just broken your heart,” Eddie admitted and laughed when Buck huffed dramatically. “He didn’t call her a heifer, but clearly, she is a heifer if she ghosted you from Europe. You’re amazing, and she’s a fool.”
“Well, Chim thinks I’m a whore,” Buck muttered and threw himself back on the bed. “And apparently, he thought I was a womanizer, too.”
“That’s the last thing you are,” Eddie said. “He really needs to learn the definition of that word. Fucking a lot of women doesn’t equal fucking over a lot of women. He’s the one that has to lie to get laid.”
Buck laughed a little. “Yeah, you know I used to sort of rub that whole casual sex thing in his face because he was so rigid and weird about it. Like he clearly wanted to have my kind of lifestyle, but also he deeply disapproved of my behavior.”
“Does he lie to your sister?” Eddie questioned.
“I told her about his issues when she was still claiming they were just friends,” Buck said and shrugged. “She still took a ride on it, so I guess she figured she could manage him. She’s not wrong. Chim is so emotionally needy that practically any woman could mold him into exactly the kind of man she wants.”
“So Chim’s an undercover people pleaser?” Eddie questioned skeptically.
“Nah, but he’ll twist himself up like a pretzel to get his dick wet,” Buck said and shrugged when Eddie’s mouth dropped open. “What? It’s true.”
“He’s with your sister,” Eddie said.
“On any given day, Eddie, my sister can and does run circles around Howard Han. I’m not saying they have a completely healthy relationship but honestly, Eds, who does?”
Eddie frowned at him. “We should fuck now before your previously hidden pessimism turns me off completely.”
Buck pulled his shirt off. “There’s nothing about me that’s a turn-off.”
Eddie found he really couldn’t argue that as Buck lifted his hips and shimmed out of the shorts he was wearing. He crawled right back on top of his friend and groaned when Buck cupped his ass with one hand and used the other to pull him down into a hard kiss.
“Your ribs,” he said against Buck’s mouth.
“They’re barely even sore, and I’m not all that tired anymore,” Buck muttered and rolled them over.
He snagged the waistband of Eddie’s sweat pants, and Eddie lifted his hips eagerly. He pulled off his own T-shirt and spread his legs as Buck muscled up between his thighs.
“We don’t need to slow down your recovery,” Eddie protested weakly.
“Then I’ll just have to take my time and go really slow,” Buck said and grinned when Eddie took a deep breath. “You’ll like that, me grinding my cock into your hole slow and deep.”
“I always figured you were going to be like this,” Eddie muttered, and he knew it didn’t sound like any sort of complaint. “Get the lube.”
Buck grabbed the supplies, then proceeded to work Eddie’s asshole open with his fingers like he had all damn night. Each slow thrust of fingers into his body pushed him slowly into the kind of vision blurring arousal that by the time Buck slid on top of him, Eddie was momentarily speechless. He arched under Buck and pressed his mouth against his lover’s shoulder to muffle the sound he made as he was filled completely.
“Yeah,” Buck murmured. “I love being inside you, Eds. You’re so perfect.”
Eddie wrapped his legs around Buck’s waist and rocked into each slow thrust. It was amazing, and really, he’d always just known that Buck was going to be the best sex he’d ever have in his whole damn life. It felt more intense to be pressed into the mattress with Buck’s big, capable body moving and working above him. Eddie rarely allowed anyone on top of him, no matter how much he trusted them, so Buck’s assumption he could just put Eddie on his back and fuck his brains out was kind of shocking.
“God, Buck, you’re…” Eddie’s breath hitched as Buck purposefully ground his cock against his prostate. He was really glad that he wasn’t stupidly sensitive, or he’d have come all over himself long before he wanted. “More, please. More.”
“I can do this as long as you need,” Buck promised against his cheek. “Anytime you want me—I’m yours.”
Always, Eddie thought but pushed back the response as he didn’t want to ask for too much at once. The desire to bind Evan Buckley to him wasn’t a new thing, maybe it wouldn’t even surprise Buck, but Eddie figured that running a race to the altar wasn’t the best choice he could make with a man who expected to be left behind by everyone.
“Kiss me,” Eddie demanded roughly as he cupped the back of Buck’s head.
Buck’s mouth was gentle on his, a soft brushing of lips and the sweet slip of a tongue against his own. It had actually been fucking ages since he’d received such a sweet kiss. He relaxed into it, let one hand trail down Buck’s broad back, and Buck groaned softly against his mouth as the slow grind of their bodies together took on a hot, tight edge.
“I love you,” Eddie whispered as Buck lifted his head. “Evan.” He stroked fingers down the side of Buck’s face. “I love you.” He watched Buck’s eyes darken with tears then pulled him down into another kiss.
Buck rolled his hips and started to press in harder. “Come on,” he whispered fiercely against Eddie’s mouth. “You’re so close.”
He was, Eddie thought wildly. He was so fucking close. He came between one breath and the next, hands clenching on Buck’s back as his soft groan of shock was lost in another deep kiss. The quick shuddery snap of Buck’s hips against his ass told him that his partner followed him right over the edge. They lingered in the kiss for several long, tender moments, then Buck pulled carefully from his body and rolled onto his back beside him.
“Jesus.” Buck took a deep breath. “Marry me.”
They both turned to stare at each other in the same moment. Eddie grinned as Buck’s cheeks darkened with a blush. “No take-backs.” He left the bed. “And I’m going to take the high road and forgive you for not having a ring.”
Buck laughed. “Well, that was my stipulation, not yours.”
Eddie just shrugged and walked into the ensuite. He braced himself on the sink and stared at his reflection. He was only alone for a few seconds before Buck brushed past him to dispose of the condom.
“Do you stare at yourself a lot?” Buck questioned. “I don’t blame you, but you totally judged me for doing it in the hospital.”
“Your ass was in the wind for anyone to see,” Eddie pointed out. “What if a nurse came in?”
“Well, I have nothing to be ashamed of,” Buck said and nudged him gently out of the way so he could wash his hands.
Eddie leaned against him, unable to resist the warm, solid presence of his lover. He was actually startled that he’d managed to ever do it. “I meant it.”
“I did, too,” Buck admitted. “I just didn’t mean to blurt it out like that. I haven’t even had time to plot against you with Chris.”
Eddie grinned. “Well, you can still do that. He would love it.”